Roland Barthes, Plastic, and Wheatley Fly Boxes

A Wheatley fly box, a Thebault silk fly line, a classic Sigg bottle, and a Pendleton blanket. None of them are plastic. All of them will serve their purpose for a century or more.

A Wheatley fly box, a Thebault silk fly line, a classic Sigg bottle, and a Pendleton blanket. None of them are plastic. All of them will serve their purpose for a century or more.

The influential French thinker Roland Barthes examined what he considered as the ideologies connected to numerous materials in his 1957 text, Mythologies.  The text, translated to English in 1972, served as an important stepping stone in the development of what we now know as postmodern philosophy, which emerged in the 1970’s.   Among other things, Postmodernism contested the “Western” cultural narrative of scientific “progress,” which, among many other things, suggests that humans might move away from a reliance upon natural materials, as they achieve greater ability to manipulate more artifactual materials. Postmodernism has lost much of its influence, in part because it became an odd sort of narrative of progress itself. And the narrative of scientific progress still dominates much of the world. In regards to how this latter persistent narrative still shapes our view of material, just think about the excitement displayed over the development of 3D printing.

In one of the essays included in Mythologies, Barthes wrote critically about the highly artifactual material–what he called an “imitation material”–plastic:

In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata.  It is a ‘shaped’ substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy, curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature.  But what best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at once hollow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones.

I am not a postmodernist.  I am not a post-anything.  But, like Barthes and later philosophers, I am concerned about the dominant narrative of “progress.”  And, simply put, I’m not a fan of plastic.  I should note for flyfishing readers that I am also not one of those elitists who maligns graphite rods by mislabeling them as “plastic.” Clearly, graphite rods do not fit into Barthes’ descriptions of plastic.  I like graphite, glass, and bamboo rods, so long as all of them are things have been crafted or worked with care, rather than simply molded or “shaped.”

Why am I then rambling on about such things, you may ask.  It is because I was recently thinking about how much I enjoy things that are crafted to last–to take hard knocks but to still function for many, many years. Plastic lasts, of course.  But it also breaks, deteriorates, and otherwise ages in ways that make it no longer useful.  What prompted me to think about all of this was my putting some flies into a Wheatley fly box.  These boxes have been made for well over a hundred years, and many of the earliest examples are still perfectly functional.  Dented and scuffed, yes.  But irreparably broken? No.

Part of the narrative of progress seems to involve a movement toward greater convenience and disposability. For many of the same reasons that Roland Barthes criticized the world around him, I reject that narrative.


11 Responses to “Roland Barthes, Plastic, and Wheatley Fly Boxes”

  1. rivertoprambles Says:

    I cast from the same non-postmodernist canoe… Can’t afford a good silk fly line, but I like old tackle made by human hands.


    • Kenov Says:

      Actually, I can’t afford one either. In fact I do a lot of bargain shopping before I buy a “plastic” line. The silk line was a gift from a generous friend, who received it as a gift from Thebault. Price is sometimes an issue when you’re looking for quality these days. A future post….


  2. Kurt Becker Says:

    John Ruskin(1819-1900):
    “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”
    …so far I try to live this maxime…


  3. Kurt Becker Says:

    “…tell me why does it so often look as if many fishing guys were fighting against nature – a lot of “weapons” of utmost hightec around their bodies- some 10 backup rods and reels waiting in their car, dozends of lines, 1000 flies, and beating the water like crazy and shooting complicated casts as far out as they can – I am afraid their line covers more fish than their fly and leader- in Scotland I watched 80 y.o. ghillies walking in half shoes along the bank, wearing Tweed jackets and Knickerbockers, fishing with 100 y.o.17″ Greenheart rods by playing them like violins, and they caught fish before I did and played them well with reels of their own age…if you really want to preserve nature: ” go low tec” K.Becker: “About the Joy of basic Life”


  4. Kenov Says:

    I agree, Kurt. I think that the technological excess distracts from the experience of the environment in which one fishes. This is shame, not only because the angler misses out on a whole other dimension of fishing, but also because he or she may understand that the larger environment affects the fish’s behavior. Simple is good.


  5. Kurt Becker Says:

    thank you Ken…
    my first experiance with a bought fishing pole was when I was ten, and my mother bought me a – very simple – tenkara! japanese made 3 piece rod, made from plain 8 ft bamboo. Imagine that was in 1959! and no one here including myself had any idea about tenkara. Thus I made my first steps on a new-found level of consciousness concerning approaching fish…and because of this decent tackle being so fragile and simple, I had to be very careful not to destroy it and to have any fishing success at all. Well, when trying to come close to the game I was after, it was inevitable to come close to other elements of nature as well. Crawling on my knees and robbing forward to the bank there were grasshoppers, butterflies, bugs, lizzards and other small creatures close to my body – and as I think nowadays, close to my -literally spoken- heart. And now when I am out there to fish along a bank some part of my heart is right under my soles, trying to watch out for these creatures not to harm them. Perhaps we should go barefoot and without waders when we are after our game, like predators do it… a bit like Mount Everest by fair means…as I sometimes wonder, if we really are there, where we want and pretend to be, when being hidden in waders and goretex garments…


  6. Kenov Says:

    I agree. Comfortable clothing I don’t mind, but I like to keep things to a minimum otherwise. I find myself moving further and further in this direction. A big part of it for me is so that I can really be mobile, rather than just stand in a spot.


  7. David MacIver Says:

    I fish a 3 weight 6’5 Scott Bamboo rod with a Hardy Featherweight reel. I also have a 7″ Scott Fiber Glass 3 weight which I fish with a Galvan , these I use on the High mountain streams in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. I use only Wheatley fly boxes and I wear cotton clothing. The only plastic element is my line, leader and tippet.I fish Solitude and AK Best flies which I get on the internet. I’m not being interested in hogs, but rather native wild trout, such as cut-throats I rarely fish a bigger fly than a 16 and can carry a trip’s worth in one flybox. I’m one of those nuts who’s not interested in catching trout; I’m interested in catching them on a dry fly when they rise.


    • Kenov Says:

      I hear you. I much prefer dries, and I’ll almost always take a native, wild trout over the alternatives. And the Scott F703 is a gem, for sure (I haven’t tried a Scott bamboo rod, though they have sure used some talented makers).


  8. David MacIver Says:

    Mine is one of the last made by Bernard Ramanauskas.


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