Friday, 28 October 2011

Plastic Materialities

A Workshop with Catherine Malabou

Supported by the National Science Foundation, USA, and

University of London, Queen Mary

All events held at Goodenough College,

Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1N 2AB
Friday 4 November

Small Common Room, Goodenough College

9:45 Coffee/tea

10:00 Introduction

10: 15 PANEL 1—Chair, Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller
Insects, War, Life
Renisa Mawani, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia
In this paper, I consider how contemporary terrains of war and intensifying regimes of global violence have been mobilized and have gained traction through the deployment of nonhuman animals, most notably insects. Drawing from recent approaches in the “new materialisms” and from the work of vitalists, including Henri Bergson, I argue that prevailing conceptions of “life” and the “living” in debates over the biopolitical that remain tightly tethered to human life must be expanded to encompass nonhuman life forms. An interspecies approach to life is critical, I argue, not only to grasp how current tactics of war have evolved and expanded, but also as a way of generating new possibilities for political praxis. I conclude the paper with a discussion of plasticity as refusal and creativity

The Crumpled Handkerchief
Jane Bennett, Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University with
Bill Connolly, Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University
Today a significant minority of political theorists, philosophers, anthropologists, and historiographers affirm a cosmology of "becoming." Drawing variously upon Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari, Serres, and others, they define the cosmos as an interacting set of temporal systems punctuated by an ontological ruckus. This cosmos goes through periods of creative flow or generative process. Such references sometimes give short shrift to the tendency of specific things and relations to congeal, persist and even perdure against disruptive pressures, particularly when political life is discussed. In this essay, we acknowledge the uncanny fact that individuated entities emerge, collaborate, and manage to withstand the hustle and flow of a world of becoming. How do shapes manage to distinguish themselves from the onto-field? What initiates congealing into objects? Once a congealing occurs, what kinds of pressures help to destabilize it? The goal is to attend both to the fragile, contingent quality of any process of self-ordering and to the strange systematicity proper to a mobile and protean world. We use Serres's figures of ontological" noise" and "crumpled" time and Deleuze's notion of the "powers of the false" to 1) reflect critically upon the tendency to privilege process over product within ontologies of becoming and 2) begin to refine our understanding of the complex oscillations between becoming and persistence. At the end of the essay, we draw out some implications of these notions for the practice of historical analysis.

12:15 Tea and Coffee

12: 30 PANEL 2—Chair, Silvana Carotenuto
Zones of Justice: A Philo-Poetic Engagement
Michael J. Shapiro, Professor of Political Science, University of Hawai‘i
In this essay I stage an encounter (a “philo-poesis”) between philosophical and literary enactments of the concept of plasticity, which I apply to a reading of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone (2010). After explicating three approaches to plasticity, those of Catherine Malabou, M. M. Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin, I offer a political reading of the novel, focusing on what I refer to as a “justice dispositif,” which surrounds the experience of the novel’s protagonist, a French Croatian, Francis Servain Mirković, who had enlisted to fight in the ethnic purification-driven Croatian independence war and had reformed. As the novel opens, he has collected an archive of the atrocities in the Mediterranean zone and is bringing them to Rome to sell to the Vatican archives. In addition to mapping the justice dispositif that frames the trajectory of Mirković’s experiences, I suggest a politics of archives that would allow them, in Jacques Derrida’s terms, to “open out [to the] future,” i.e., to be rendered as “plastic” and thus be unsealed and open to ongoing critical commentary.

2: 30 PANEL 3—Chair, Fred Moten
Plasticity and the Cerebral Unconscious: New Wounds, New Violences, New Politics
Catherine Kellogg, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton
My interest in in this paper lies in tying Catherine Malabou’s later work on the neuronal, plastic subject to her first book, The Future of Hegel. Specifically, I ask how the contemporary mode subjective anticipation she suggests might form ‘us’ articulates with the new violence she describes in her book, The New Wounded. In the Hegel book, she says that in the current moment we live under the shadow of the contradictions of “saturation and vacancy”, in which there is no event that is not a world event (saturation) and yet we are left with the sense that it seems there is “nothing left to do” (vacancy). Indicating that this unity of saturation and vacancy gives rise to a new perspective wherein life itself can no longer be thought in terms of an opposition between the natural and the artificial, but rather in terms of an automatism circulating in each and every life, that may be at once “self-engendering and self-destructive,” she says that we are invited into “the serenity and peril of the Sunday of life” (193). In her new book, Les Nouveaux blesses, she comes back to this saturation and vacancy on new terrain. Naming as the ‘new wounded’ those who have lived through the violent effects of war, earthquakes, tsunamis or sexual and/or domestic trauma on the one hand, and those who have had their personhood destroyed by brain traumas such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, on the other, she suggests that we have entered a new age of violence in which, “la politique tire sa resource du renoncement au sens politique de la violence”. This may well be the view from a new opening, but it raises a number of important questions: What is new about this age of violence; what distinguishes it from previous ones? What is the political sense of violence? Is it, as Schmitt tells us, the laws of war that organized the national state system of the Jus Europeaum? If so, is the renunciation of the political sense of violence, new wars, or wars without end? Is the renunciation of violence, then, the very serenity in the peril of our long Sunday?

Plasticity, Juridical Malleability, and the Steady-State of Liberal Legalism
Bradley Bryan, Assistant Professor, University of Victoria, B.C.
The notion of plasticity harbors within it many notions of becoming, of emancipation and erasure, and of freedom as free-form, and these it harbors because of the metaphysical commitments of Hegel. It also thereby harbors nihilism. Rather than rehearse the way Hegelian notions of alterity belong to nihilism, as has been done very well by others, this paper looks at the requirements of what can be called “liberal legalism” – a style of governance peculiar to western democracies that focuses on procedural fairness, articulates claims of identity in terms of rights, and ushers the political into the legal. The paper contends that liberal legalism embraces one particular mode of plasticity, and the mode of plasticity that it embraces is – surprise surprise – nihilistic.

4:45 PANEL 3—Chair, Denise Ferreira da Silva
Title and abstract TBA
Silvana Carotenuto, Professora, Letteraturea Inglese Contemporanea. Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”

5:45 Break for the day

Saturday 5 November
Small Common Room
10:00am PANEL 4—Chair, Renisa Mawani
Deconstructing Property: plasticity and practices of ownership
Brenna Bhandar, Lecturer, Queen Mary School of Law, University of London
In Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, Catherine Malabou refers to the transformational masks described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques as a material metaphor for the recombinant nature of thought itself. “[R]ather than disguising a face, the masks reveal the secret connection between formal unity and articulation, between the completeness of form and the possibility of its dislocation.” (pp2-3)Malabou engages this material metaphor in order to illustrate the force and dynamic of circulation that animates the plastic nature of thought. Thought exhibits an inherent mobility. Forms (of bodies, of thought) are open (and vulnerable) to collapse, to contamination, to explosion. As a concept and force that renders porous the boundaries between forms of thought and being, plasticity presents an immensely powerful way of thinking about forms of knowledge and ways of being that are not so much intimately connected to one another as continually in a mobile process of remaking and co-constitution. From here, I want to move from focusing on thought (as a form, such as dialectics) to the question of knowledge, attending to the question of power under a different valence; perhaps one that is not primarily biological or neurological. My aim is to situate the specific question of legal forms of knowledge (and in this case, forms of knowlege that produce the juridical concepts of property and ownership) squarely in a political-philosophical frame. I consider various forms of knowledge that produce property ownership, in the laboratory of the colonial settler society. I enquire into the pathways of circulation that ownership, as a juridical relation, as an economic force, as a sense, as affect, inhabits. How does ownership, comprised of different forms of knowledge (political, economic, anthropological), different ways of being, and practices of control, use, appropriation and dispossession, and movement, exhibit a plastic quality? I conclude the paper with considering how, insofar as plasticity has the capacity to explode form, there may also lie in the recombinant nature of ownership, the capacity to reconfigure practices of ownership altogether. What if private property relations were bent out of shape, beyond recognition? What might the deconstruction of property ownership look like?

Plasticity and Metamorphosis as Critical Indigenous Theory
Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller, Professor of Political Science, University of Hawai‘i
Persisting stories and practices of animal/human metamorphosis and kinship between human and non-human others have ambivalently positioned indigenous peoples as beyond the law and conscriptable for many aspects of neocolonial authority. This paper argues that the metamorphic human/animal relationship, by transforming ideas of temporal priority and altering subordinating meanings of genealogy, can plastically expand indigenous political potentials within neocolonial cosmopolitanism. It therefore seeks to explore plasticity’s political value as a motor scheme across divergent ontological economies.

12:00 Tea and Coffee

12:15 PANEL 5—Chair, Brenna Bhandar
Title and abstract TBA
Fred Moten, Professor, Department of English, Duke University

1:15 Lunch (not served)

2:45 PANEL 6—Chair, Michael J. Shapiro
Dialectics, Real Abstraction and the Limits of Plasticity
Alberto Toscano, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of London, Goldsmiths
In Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, Malabou proposes that we think plasticity as the ‘hermeneutic motor scheme’ of our epoch, thereby responding to the paradigmatic challenge of the neurobiological sciences, and accordingly altering our understanding of change in the registers of dialectics, destruction and deconstruction. In this presentation, I want to argue that, in spite of its attention to ‘ontological economy’, this proposal doesn’t adequately confront the challenge posed by the real (non-mental, non-philosophical) abstractions of capitalism to any attempt at an emendation of philosophical practice, as well as to any periodisation of philosophy into epochs. I will argue that what crucially separates dialectical thinking from the production of world-views is its attentiveness to the manner in which such real, social abstractions – inflexible where one would wish them to be plastic, violently metamorphic where collective life rests on certain rigidities – radically constrain the operations of philosophy.

For the Thing; notes towards an ethics of attention
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Professor in Ethics, School of Business and Management, University of London, Queen Mary
“What about nearness? How can we come to know its nature? Nearness, it seems, cannot be encountered directly. We succeed in reaching it rather by attending to what is near. Near to us are what we usually call things. But what is a thing? Man has so far given no more thought to the thing as a thing than he has to nearness” – Perhaps Heidegger’s questions already point the way, announce the path. Whenever the thing is contemplated spatiality dominates the vocabulary; though the referent remains the same as usual, the human, the interior/temporal entity. For there is no mistake here, Heidegger’s ‘us’ does not encompasses anything that has not been comprehended in the name “Man.” My plan in this paper is very simple. I work through a few spatial/exterior signifiers, usually used in descriptions and accounts of the thing as I towards an engagement with the human (the other name of “Man”) that explores attention as the privileged marker of a relationship. Facilitating this task is a reflection on Catherine Malabou’s appropriation of two other signifiers of spatiality/exteriority, namely “form” and “writing,” which I read in light of racial knowledge’s appropriation of the body. That is, I consider her writing of the body with plasticity in light of the writing of body in fixity in 18th and 19th century knowledge projects that have apprehended the forms of the body to produce a catalog of human difference. Reading from the “nearness” that suggests the presence of the thing, through form, writing, and finally the body – in its plasticity (Malabou) and as fixity (racial knowledge) –, I trace a path back to Kant’s Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View where I find how his articulation of attention already suggests that the thing, though not fully accessible to human knowledge, might host (as a promise and a challenge) a kind of relationship and with it a kind of knowing (and the exteriority the terms represent) that foreclose the very nearness (and distance) it (thing) can be deployed to signify. Though the argument outlines in these notes requires that I reference philosophical, social scientific, and theoretical formulations, in throughout the text science fiction, science, and fiction help me to introduce the questions/questionings which, I think, better expose the path towards an ethics of attention, the one along which it may be possible to release/retrieve the thing from the human obsession with it-self, and along with it its investment in self-determination and the whole ethical programme it sustains.

4:45 Tea and Coffee

5:00- 7.00 Roundtable: Catherine Malabou’s response

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