One of the most important concepts in the neurosciences these days is plasticity. James was speaking of brain plasticity in his discussion of habit at the end of the nineteenth century and in the last several decades plasticity has really caught on. No longer is the brain being conceived as a preprogrammed CPU; it has been opened to history. The term “plasticity” names the capacity of the brain to be molded by history, to be informed and shaped by corporeal experience, and to likewise give form to history through corporeal activity. The plasticity of the central nervous system is particularly liable to change while still developing, but its capacity for change remains throughout the span of a life–which means that each individual’s capacity to learn, adapt, and act is singularized insofar as his or her history is unique.
I’m not a neuroscientist, nor do I make a thorough effort to keep up on the discipline. The concept of plasticity, however, I find to be quite useful for thinking philosophically about the body. And I have no problem transplanting the concept of plasticity from the sciences into philosophy, allowing it to ‘deviate under the force’ (Massumi) of the new theoretical context, which for me is the philosophy and phenomenology of embodiment. Catherine Malabou makes plasticity central to her own thinking about Hegelian dialectics; she thematizes the concept and draws some intriguing, if underdeveloped, political conclusions in her book What Should We Do with Our Brain? After James’s Principles, this is a good text to start with if you want to philosophize about plasticity. Malabou does a nice job of unfolding the meaning of plasticity, and suggesting its applications beyond the neurosciences.
The upshot of conceiving bodies as plastic is that it erases the immutable core of bodily identity. It opens the capacity of the body to unforeseen and unforeseeable connections and encounters, putting the body in touch with its corporeal milieu without predetermining the possibilities of its embeddedness. This is a better way–in part, because it’s nonreductive–of thinking about the body’s relation to the world than, for instance, Merleau-Ponty’s. Where for Merleau-Ponty there is a certain ‘reversibility’ which obtains between bodies, plasticity regards intercorporeity as a matter of commerce or exchange. Body one is put under pressure and formed by body two; body two is then acted upon, perhaps but not necessarily, and formed by body one. The exchange is not reciprocal, nor is is necessarily symmetrical. Indeed, if we are to believe Nietzsche when he says that every encounter between bodies involves one stronger and one weaker body (see Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy on this), then there is no such thing as a symmetrical (and therefore truly reversible) encounter. In short, plasticity allows us to heed James’s insight that every little experience undergone by the body alters the body irremediably, and thereby creates a new body with new abilities and new powers. No elasticity, no recuperation.
I’ve always been fond of Xavier Bichat’s definition of life from Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort: ‘Life is the collection of functions that resist death’. This simple definition contains echoes of Spinozan conatus, and it can be modified to yield a general theory of life as maintenance. Life is the maintenance which resists decay. This is of course true at the level of the organism, which does whatever it needs to in order to avoid malnourishment, fatigue, vulnerability, and whatever else will lead to its demise. The same thing can be seen at the level of social movements, trends, and events in general. By contrast, there are events that persist without maintenance–happenings. These must be accounted for without appeal to their maintenance. In the latter case the aleatory is opposed to the maintained. The aleatory event dies a death without resisting; it dissipates on its own terms, which means that it has nothing to do with life as Bichat understands it. The maintained event, on the other hand, assumes a certain conservatism that may or may not become a burden to itself. Here, life becomes an obstacle to life, as Nietzsche discerned.
None of you have heard me say anything about this before, but I’d like to write a short book about maintenance. By putting my thoughts down here and getting feedback from readers, I think I can make some headway in this direction and produce a book which is richer than any one I could produce in isolation.
Maintenance is an undertheorized element of the everyday. It’s pervasiveness calls for exploration. Right away its ethical and aesthetic valence are apparent, hence it’s philosophical potential. The ethical feature ties in closely with the notion of cultivation (of habit, character, virtue, self). The obvious points of reference here are Aristotle, Hellenistic philosophy, and Foucault. Perhaps Eastern philosophy would also be helpful, but it’s not something I know much about. On the aesthetic side, we can cite the countless ways in which we rely on one form of maintenance or another to ‘keep up appearances’. Our websites, lawns, cars, faces, wardrobes, and communications require constant maintenance to save them from disintegration and decay. But the interesting point is that we so often judge the beautiful according to how well it is maintained, not for its intrinsic nature or composition. Yet, we often also find beautiful what is tastefully unkempt or neglected. This helps explain the common attraction to dishevelment, and why we find it unattractive when dishevelment is obviously cultivated–the affectation is easy to spot and unbecoming.
On this view, beauty would have to be judged according to a set of principles which value its autonomy, simplicity, and capacity to endure aging. The meticulously manicured lawn would then fall at the ‘ugly’ end of the spectrum.
Massumi on the virtue of not knowing where you’re headed:
‘If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing happens in the meantime. You have to be willing to surprise yourself writing things you didn’t think you thought. Letting examples burgeon requires using inattention as a writing tool. You have to let yourself get so caught up in the flow of your writing that it ceases at moments to be recognizable to you as your own. This means you have to be prepared for failure. For with inattention comes risk: of silliness or even outbreaks of stupidity’.
This passage from Brian Massumi‘s Parables for the Virtual says a bit about why we do and do not continue to pursue academics, and what it means to apply an affirmative methodology:
‘If you don’t enjoy concepts and writing and don’t feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming it, celebrating its potential, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly–well, just hang it up’.
Reading Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun, a passage on taste prompted the idea that taste has a peculiar aspect to it that vision does not: taste lacks adumbrations or profiles. Of course, it has depth and complexity. Just think about the way a sommelier will describe the flavor of a specific wine: he or she will identify the qualitative identity or style of the wine. When you taste a mouthful of wine, you taste the whole of the wine. In fact, when you and another person taste the same wine, you are both tasting the entirety of the wine. It is not the same physical bit of liquid that you taste; the liquid that touches you rather than another person gives you a different profile of the liquid as such, which must be divided and shared. The taste, however, cannot be divided: it is shared, but paradoxically shared at once in its entirety.
Vision cannot apprehend the object in its entirety in a glance. Merleau-Ponty tells us that we perceive things, not profiles of things. Our body knows that when it sees the front of a cup, the back of the cup is there too; the cup can be picked up. But of course we do not see the back of the cup, we apperceive it. The existence of the back of the cup can be confirmed by turning it around or circumnavigating the object. That is, we can build up the complete cup through the series of profiles it presents to vision. Moreover, two persons cannot see the same profile simultaneously. Taste, by contrast, cannot be built up from its profiles and can be experienced by a multiplicity of persons simultaneously. The fact that when we speak about seeing ‘the whole cup’ through one of its profiles we are equivocating with the term ‘seeing’ sheds light on the the way in which we literally taste the whole wine when it is in the mouth. Apperception is absent in taste.
All of the talk of profiles and adumbrations in phenomenology seems to pertain mostly, if not exclusively, to the visual realm (although touch seems to be adumbrated as well, but also to present phenomenal aspects absent from vision). Or rather, profiles pertain only to the formal aspects of objects, not their quality. The qualitative life of objects cannot be incorporated in the framework of adumbrated objects, but it nevertheless pertains to those objects. Perhaps what has been said about taste here is true of the sensation of color, too.
Reading moral philosophy these days, I remain fascinated and perplexed–perhaps more so than with any other branch of philosophy–by the fact of ethics. That ethics exists. Now, I’m a complete skeptic about the possibility of resolving ethical disputes once and for all. To put it baldly, there is a deep, and maybe inescapable, truth about relativism. Apart from the problems with defending the coherence of his or her position, it seems inevitable that the relativist will be met with a curious revelation about themselves. This is revealed through outrage or amazement at the actions of another person, culture, etc. It is often the case that these kinds of responses are generated not by their dissonance with the relativist’s moral principles (the relativist is, after all, a relativist), but with the passionate attachments that we cultivate or maintain. Outrage is almost always emotional; rarely is it cool, cognitive righteous indignation. Amazement at the practices of an other involve a certain exoticism of the other, and that such an exoticism arises in the moral context says something about how the relativist remains caught up–despite themselves–in an an affective network which orients their lives and defines their ‘ethical stance’. It’s not so much that the foreigner’s actions are impossible to comprehend, but that the presence or absence of specific affects make them unintelligible or repulsive, and, when the act is sufficiently alien to us, condemnable. Criticism of relativism seems to be misdirected when it aims straight for the logical inconsistency of the position, which misses the real meaty part of ethical commitment: passionate attachments and the limitations they impose on the understanding.
For some time now I’ve been writing a dissertation in phenomenology which deals particularly with Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. Not only is the phenomenologist’s argumentative mode one which adduces its evidence, rather than deducing or inducing, it tends to forgo the pursuit of arguments as we typically find them in classical philosophical texts. This is less true about Levinas than Merleau-Ponty. Perhaps we can call phenomenology a kind of ‘adduction’. Now that the new semester is upon us, I’ve been preparing to teach ethics, and have chosen some standard texts–Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche. And I’ve been delighted to sit down and trudge though good old-fashioned argumentation. In fact, I can say that I’ve acquired a bit of a thirst for analytic philosophy, partly due to an allergic reaction to the limitations of phenomenological method. The irony here is that I was initially attracted to phenomenology as an undergraduate because of what I perceived to be the limitations imposed on thinking, or rather experience, by the analytics.