Levi’s got a great response up to some concepts I’m using in my own work. He draws some parallels to his own branch of OOO, and shows me a thing or two about how to expand my own thinking. Check his post out here.
Steven Shaviro has a thorough post up on George Molnar’s book, Powers. This is great to see, as I think Molnar’s concept of powers, or Mumford’s account of dispositions, has something to offer the SR debates. I’ve drawn on Mumford in my own work, as I’ve found it a nice way to talk about plastic identities. Some brief remarks are here.
Molnars ontology, as Shaviro notes, relies on the notion that things/objects possess properties (‘powers), such as solubility or fragility, that are not reducible to their physical makeup. They harbor, then, ‘dormative powers’ that are perhaps most recognizable by folks working in medieval philosophy. While a fan of Molnar’s book, it seems that Harman remains suspicious of the idea that objects bear any kind of vis dormativa, as he says in some recent comments in response to I.H. Grant. Shaviro points out the Harman/Molnar parallel:
The parallels with speculative realism go further; Molnar insists, as much as Graham Harman does, that a thing, or an object, is not just a bundle of properties or characteristics, but exists in its own right apart from and in addition to these. (Although Molnar, unlike Harman, endorses the basic scientistic move of reducing objects to their ultimate subatomic constituents, he doesn’t make the claim that this somehow renders objects of the sort that we can see and touch illusory).
But Shaviro goes on to point out that whereas Harman endorses what he calls a ‘vicarious’ causation, Molnar asserts the directness of causality. He also clears up a question I had in an earlier post about whether or not powers are virtual or actual, in the Deleuzean sense. Shaviro claims that powers for Molnar are actual in all instances, even when they are not being exercised:
The insistence on actual causality, and on actual relations (causality being one form of relation), makes for a significant difference between Molnar and Harman. Contra Harman, Molnar rejects any sort of “occasionalism”; he insists that causality is direct — and not merely “vicarious.” Like Harman and against Deleuze, Molnar claims that powers, even when they are not being exercised, are entirely actual qualities of things — they cannot be regarded as “virtual” or “potential.” They fully exist even when they are not manifested in particular events, as a result of particular relational encounters. But against Harman, Molnar insists that relations are as primary an ontological category as things or objects are.
I wonder if this does not mean that powers are virtual when dormant, rather than actual? If I have understood him, Deleuze wants to say that the virtual is real although not actual; it is more than mere potential, but less than actuality. In which case an unbroken vase is virtually fragile (possesses the real power of fragility) but its fragility is not actualized.
Shaviro goes on to draw some helpful connections with Spinoza and others. Check them out.
I’ve recently been thinking about a claim Malabou makes in her brain book. She says that plasticity entails explosiveness, as when we think of C-4 plastic explosives or similar material. The analogy is to the vitality of life, the creative way it bursts forth and strives beyond itself, its form. Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo, “I am no man, I am dynamite!” Life aims beyond preservation, natural kinds, sedimented forms. Such is will to power.
But is it plasticity that is explosive, or is it life? If life is plasticity, then it seems possible. I prefer to think of plasticity dispositionally, as a state of material rather than as the impulse of vital matter. Material objects take on form, hold form, succumb to and resist influence. It does not seem that they seek to explode their own form; or rather, they cannot do this on their own. Nietzsche would seem to agree: the will to power is not self-explosive unless it is hindered in its release, turned against itself. This, however, is a perversion of life–what gives birth to things like consciousness, conscience, moral reflection.
Perhaps we then have at least two versions of plasticity. Plasticity conceived as a disposition of matter, on the one hand, and plasticity conceived as the dual nature of vitality, of life, on the other. In the latter case plasticity is something like the impulse of life, which is at once a striving to preserve and a striving to surpass. In Spinoza, this latter would be the desire to unite with other bodies in friendship and create a more powerful composite body, along with the desire for self-preservation/desire to persevere in existence (conatus). Or, taking the first understanding of plasticity, it would be equivalent to the ratio of motion and rest, quickness and slowness that constitutes the integrity/identity of any composite body. Plasticity is in Spinoza, in one of these forms. I tend to think it’s ratio, rather than conatus.
I’m reading Rousseau’s Emile for the first time. In Book I he discusses the physical constitution of the child and makes myriad recommendations for safeguarding the nature of this constitution. As Dewey will do a couple centuries later, he gives a significant place to habit in education. But he also acknowledges what we might call the pre-habitual plasticity of the child’s constitution: ‘Before the body’s habit is acquired, one can give it the habit one wants to give it without danger. But when it has once gained its consistency, every alteration becomes perilous for it. A child will bear changes that a man would not bear; the fibers of the former, soft and flexible, take without effort the turn that they are given; those of the man, more hardened, change only with violence the turn they have received’ (Bloom trans., 47).
Dewey, it seems to me, is thinking of impulse in the same terms that Rousseau is conceiving the child’s constitution. Beyond this, Rousseau is quite fascinating to read for all of the advice he gives about child-rearing, ranging in theme from air quality to the diet of the child’s nurse (which should be, we learn, a vegetarian one).
Education is about growth. Meaning what? The movement is from immaturity to maturity in thinking, analytical skill, problem management, intellectual ability, and so forth. But education is not about the fulfillment of an intellectual destiny, at least not for Dewey. Immaturity certainly has negative connotations, implying as it does the absence of maturity and all of the ideological and cultural significance wrapped up in that term. Dewey interprets immaturity in a positive sense, as a capacity or power. Just as Merleau-Ponty will argue that the indeterminate is not a negative state, but a positive phenomenon, Dewey argues that immaturity harbors its own internal force. He affirms the productive logic of the immature. This is in Democracy and Education, chapter 4, and it ties into my earlier post about what a child can do.
‘Taken absolutely, instead of comparatively, immaturity designates a positive force or ability–the power to grow’. Immaturity has two primary components, dependence and plasticity, both of which are powers. Note that plasticity is not interpreted here as flexibility or malleability. The child is decidedly neither a parasite nor a repository. He or she is a producer, the product is the force of thought. We can speak of their growth as a form of metabolization of knowledge and skill, which is acquired from the educational environment and converted into intellectual energy. This is not mere coping or consumption. (Following Foucault, we could conceive the disciplined body as a site of growth.)
Dewey defines the plasticity of the child as something like ‘pliable elasticity’, suggesting that it is like how ‘some persons take on the color of their surroundings while retaining their own bent’. ‘But’, he adds, ‘it is something deeper than this’. Deeper: plasticity is more substantial than indeterminate adaptability. It denotes a real property of the child’s constitution; it is an ontological structure, as we can discern from the following passage: ‘[Plasticity] is essentially the ability to learn from experience; the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions. Without it, the acquisition of habits is impossible’. Dewey is here echoing the ‘Habit’ chapter of James’s Principles, wherein James speaks about the plasticity of the brain. Habits are like the fundamental mechanism of the body. Dewey seems to want to stress again the reality of the body’s plasticity, so as to account for how it is possible for body’s to take on the mechanism of habit.
This interpretation of the body is decidedly nonreductive because it takes instinct and the responsiveness proper to instinct as essentially learned action. Reactions and instincts are all habitual and result from trial and error. This means that experimentation, especially at an early age, is crucial to the growth of the child. The child’s plasticity enables them to develop a wide range of instincts and responses: their childhood is a powerful, explosive laboratory. The possibility of variations in the instinctual armature is immense, which means that the basis for and results of evolution (taken in a broad sense) are powerfully indeterminate. This indeterminacy is influenced and acted upon by the social network in which the child is physically situated. Aristotle, in the Ethics, recognized that this social milieu has a grand impact on the ‘original’ disposition of the child, and that beyond a certain threshold of moral development the child’s character becomes almost irremediably set. Dewey and James follow up with material base of this capacity for dispositional metamorphosis, and it is quite interesting to consider the ontological status of both this material base (plasticity) and dispositionality itself.
To close, Dewey notes that habits become methods. A method is like a generalized habit, applicable to a range of similar situations. What is key for the child is that he or she acquires the habit of learning. The child ‘learns to learn’. The educational evolution of the child will depend upon the reach and intensity of their time in the laboratory of learning, that is, in immaturity and dependence. Which is simply to say that the power of the child is directly proportional to the diversity of their experimental milieu. This does not imply a rejection of discipline, but rather the importance of a disciplined method.
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.