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[Spoiler] This is a story about how a Tinder date ended in brain surgery.
In September 2015 I began my PhD in the French department at King’s College London, researching how contemporary French philosophy engages with current theoretical neuroscience.
Despite this interest in philosophical conceptions of the brain, I had never really thought about my own brain. I never thought I would ever get to see my own brain, or that I would ever come face to face with the questions of neural vulnerability and transformation that I was reading about in theoretical texts.
From Tinder to Neurology
On Thursday 10th December 2015, just months after starting my PhD, I was beaten up in a homophobic attack. I had been on a date with a guy at a pub in Holborn. His name was Shaun, and we had laughed and drunk too much and talked about whether animals drink the milk of other animals or not. Shaun had performed a song about this. At the end of the date, we had a snog outside the pub just next to The Lion King. A group of men had walked past, shouted abuse at us, and then punched me in the head. Hakuna matata.
Unconscious, I was taken St Thomas’ hospital, with my date bundled into the back of the ambulance with me. I remember being asked what year it was, how old I was, what my name was, and struggling to answer any of these questions.
At the hospital I had a CT scan and a doctor came to speak to me.
“So, the scan shows that you have some concussion and a bit of bleeding on the brain… that’s to be expected. But — and, err, nothing to panic about just yet — we found that you have a pre-existing brain tumour…”
My tumour, it seemed, had nothing to do with the attack, and was sandwiched right in between the third ventricle of my brain and the forth ventricle, meaning that fluid could not flow out of my brain normally and my brain was swelling up like an GMO melon. This is a condition called hydrocephalus, which means water-head.
Following a long week of extra tests, watching Loose Women in the day room, and wondering around in one of those hospital robes where your bare bottom shows at the back, I underwent brain surgery to relieve my water-head of all its excesses.
Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy
I remember entering the surgical theatre, seeing all the instruments laid out for me like the implements of torture in the final scene in Braveheart, and the anaesthetist tapping the table as if to say “hop on, now, there’s a good boy!”
The operation was an Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy. Here is a video of one on Youtube as seen from the camera at the end of the endoscope; the inside of the ventricles look like underwater caverns explored by a diver. Whilst the consultant hadn’t been too worried about my tumour itself – it looked “pretty friendly”, thank God, and he was happy to leave it where it was – the extra fluid did have to be redirected. The surgery was to make a small hole at the bottom of the third ventricle in my brain, allowing the fluid to escape another way. The operation was describable only in plumbing terms, it seemed. All about blockages, cisterns, squirts, and bypasses.
The operation was a success, and I woke up to find my extremely composed and endlessly handsome neurosurgeon by my bedside. He was happy.
Then they gave me an injection of morphine and I felt it race round my body’s contour – round my head, up my left arm, down my left leg, over to the other leg, and back up, like you might ice the outside of a gingerbread man at Christmas. Then I was wheeled back to the ward where my friends and family took photos of me with my bottom hanging out of my robes, and watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding on DVD.
Neuro-vulnerability and Plastic Stories
My own encounter with my brain taught me a lot about both neuro-vulnerability and neuro-resilience: the brain is at once impossibly fragile and impossibly hardy.
I had been extremely lucky in that what had happened to my brain – both before and after surgery – had not incurred any perceptible changes in my cognitive or motor function. Many of the patients on my ward, however, were suffering from brain injuries or pathologies that that radically changed their mental function, some unable to tell where they were, speak, or recognize family members.
Whilst plasticity refers to a resilience (the ability of the brain to transform and persist and survive), this very transformability is also its most intimate vulnerability: the neural self is always on the verge of transforming into something else, something unrecognisable, as the result of the most banal of material occurrences.
These people’s ability to put themselves into narrative – to communicate a cohesive, linear phenomenology of identity, trauma, and transformation – was, thus, radically hindered: an incapacity for narrative that had direct impact on their ability to negotiate agency with regards to decisions of care and treatment when met with a clinical team that only has the resources to engage with one type of (non-plastic) narrative.
In this project, “Narrating Plasticity”, the neuroscientists collaborated with Amanda to determine how much the conception of plasticity differed as it passed between the plastic arts and the plastic neurosciences; over months of workshops, making pots, looking down microscopes, talking, it emerged there are – and indeed must be – many forms of narrative necessary for communicating different forms of plastic change and transformation.
Imagine the ethical and clinical potentialities and innovations within hospital and therapeutic spaces and many others that might come from plastic narratives. It is my contention that in order to connect with our plastic bodies in plastic times – in order to offer these plastic bodies new forms of therapy, new forms of experience, new forms of community and help or mutual-aid – we must recognise all plastic forms and transformation as forms of life, precisely in innovating new forms with which to put plasticity into narrative.
Plastic narratives are already all around us, often in the most unlikely places. For how my brain surgery got me into B movies, and how I came to find neuro-exploitation cinema therapeutic, see my article for The Still Point journal here.
“The exploding glazes are exciting,” Amanda tells me. “But they won’t do. We want our apoptosis controlled!”
What is a narrative? What kind of stories can be put into narrative? What kinds of narratives do plastic things create – a sculpture, a frieze, or the plastic brain – when they are no longer bound to linear time?
Following my brain surgery and my week long stay in the King’s College Hospital neurology ward, I began to wonder how people transformed following brain injury or surgery might be able to narrate and communicate their transformations to clinical teams and loved ones.
As we discussed previously, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to transform and change form throughout its lifetime, modulating neural subjectivity in response to life events and traumas; however, as the philosopher Catherine Malabou argues, plasticity is not a merely positive capacity for adaptation but also a dark creativity in which the brain can take the plastic form of a trauma it encounters, thus rendering someone unrecogniseable.
If (neuro-)plastic transformations had occurred in these people’s brains and lives, and these plastic changes defied the usual chronologies or logics of normative narrative structures, then their narratives would also have to be plastic.
What is a plastic narrative?
For inspiration as to what a “plastic narrative” might be, I turn again to the philosopher Catherine Malabou’s work Ontology of the Accident (2009).
In this book, Malabou argues that we must not only narrate “good” or “positive” plasticity, but indeed “destructive plasticity”. In other words, instances of neural trauma or pathology should not be seen as glitches or interruptions in “healthy” plasticity, but as valid plastic creations in their own right. Indeed, Malabou seems to argue, the powerful negativity of destructive plasticity seems to be central to the logic of all plastic creation and formation. A blown apart sculpture is still a sculpture, and a traumatised brain is still a brain.
Malabou suggests that, until now, cultural production and neuroscientific endeavour alike have been preoccupied with “good” plasticity, and therefore do not yet seem to have tools or forms necessary for communicating destructive plasticity.
Metamorphoses in literature, for instance, predominantly portrays transformation as a positive and helpful occurrence. Malabou reads Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a series of transformations which help the subject who is transforming. Daphne, for instance, turns into a tree in order to outrun Phoebus, and remains very much Daphne despite having taken the form of a tree. Likewise, in Kafka’s famous Die Verwandlung in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a beetle, Gregor is still able to think and feel like Gregor despite his bodily metamorphosis. For this reason, Malabou argues, these are not true plastic narratives as they are unable to articulate the truly destructive potentiality of plastic transformation.
A plastic narrative, then, needs to be able to communicate transformation whilst retaining the radically of the temporal and formal disruptions and destructions at their core.
Amanda Doidge introduces me to her first experiment with “destructive plasticity” or “destructive creation” in the form of a series of Petri dishes made with mutant glazes!
The following explosive, exploded, destructive and destroyed Petri dishes are the results of Amanda’s initial meditations on “destructive plasticity” for the project.
Amanda sends me a cooly dramatic email just before she went away on holiday: “Hi Ben, these are some glaze tests of crawling and crazing glazes. A lot of them exploded in the kiln as they cooled down. I am going away tomorrow. Amanda.”
The results are fantastic: cracked, greenish, pulled apart Petri dishes, some of which bubble and churn like creme brûlées or curdled milk, and others which crack into harsh geometrities and matrices like a the mudcrack floor of a desert.
When Amanda had explained to me the idea of the self-destructing Petri dishes, she told me that the glaze would be the detonator. Looking through a recipe book of glaze mixes, and pointing to a shelf full of labeled chemicals and elements in jars (Aluminum, flint, LiCO3, Magnesium Carbonate, etc…), Amanda had told me her aim was to “do everything wrong” in preparing the glaze mixtures.
Amanda had got the idea for the Petri dishes from a visit to the neuroscience laboratory at the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute when we met Dr Sandrine Thuret’s team for the first time. Amanda had become interested in the successions of the simple, clinical forms in series used for looking at stem cells. Creating explosive Petri dishes in the kiln would be a way of thinking the tension between the clinical inertia and prophylaxis of the Petri dishes, and the dynamic, destructive-creative potential of the stem cells.
Amanda prepared her Petri dishes for the kiln like little bombs. Whilst the kiln is usually the step in the ceramic produce in which form is solidified, ossified, and confirmed, Amanda’s Petri dishes explore the kiln as the site at which form is destroyed, pulled apart, and a form is created out of the destruction of form.
Amanda and I have been reading the philosopher Catherine Malabou‘s theories of of “destructive plasticity” together, looking in particular at her works What to do with What To Do With Our Brain? (2004), Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2009), and The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (2009).
In these works, Malabou looks at people’s brains who have been irrevocably transformed through injury or neuropathology, her personality and selfhood becoming suddenly completely different from the person they had been before the event. Malabou argues that these transformation are not the opposite of form, they are not interruptions in plasticity, but they are themselves a form of plasticity: a form is always created when an old form is destroyed, a form of destruction.
I am not sure how much Malabou’s “destructive plasticity” is playing a part in Amanda’s thinking of the Petri dishes at this moment, or whether Amanda’s own “destructive plasticity” is something altogether different and divergent. I am excited to see where this will lead!
Ceramicist Amanda Doidge creates series of ceramics, introducing small differences between each individual item, adding evolution and temporality in her plastic (de)formations.
How does plastic art represent or produce an event, a happening, or a transformation?
Can the plastic arts – such as sculpture, pottery and ceramics – transform and express transformation even after their forms have been ossified or fixed, for example after being fired in the kiln?
Does plasticity and plastic transformation have a temporality, or a history? What kind of narrative or story does plastic transformation produce?
Does plastic transformation happy in time or space? Or both? Or neither?
The work of ceramicist Amanda Doidge comprises fascinating and surprising engagements with these questions.
Amanda Doidge: Ceramics, temporality, event
Describing her recent creations in experimental ceramics on her website, Amanda says:
“I am fascinated by how life has evolved from rock. How can we tell the precise stage when it becomes life and is no longer ‘just’ chemistry? I have been looking into the elements that make up clay and glaze materials, that are also found in humans and have a biological role. Some, like Lithium, are used as medicines.
This piece kill or cure is made of bone china, all the elements of which are found in humans: Silica, Alumina, Potassium, Sodium, Calcium and Phosphorous. I have included in the clay increasing amounts of Lithium. In ceramics, Lithium is normally used in the glaze. It lowers the melting point of silica. In medicine Lithium has to be given at a dose specific to the patient, and patients have to be very closely monitored. Too small a dose and it doesn’t work, too much and it can cause everything from paralysis to death. The difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose. In kill or cure, the gradual increases of the ‘dose’ illustrate the story of where the tipping point is. If you do not see the whole series but see the final cup in isolation it is almost unrecognisable as a cup.
The series of cups below is also made of bone china. I have made a mould and carved into it – repeatedly carving into the plaster mould and recasting the clay until gradually the cup disappears, consumed by the rock. Displayed the other way around, it seems as though a cup is emerging from the rock. I was inspired by a story about Michelangelo, who was asked by a small boy why he was chipping away at a piece of marble: his answer was ‘because there is an angel inside.’”
Change and transformation in series: A linear progression?
Upon meeting Amanda, I knew that her way of working and thinking plastic transformation and deformation through ceramics would be perfect for the “Narrating Plasticity” project.
Amanda’s way of producing bone china cups in series, with minute differences and transformations between the cups, struck me as a way of putting temporality in ceramics.
When you encounter Amanda’s cups side by side in series, they read left to right or right to left, mobilising the temporality and kenesis of a progression or a change, even though each individual cup in itself might seen static or ossified in its form.
Amanda stresses that all the cups were fired together. In the Kill or Cure? series, the level of deformation of each individual cup depends entirely on the dose of lithium mixed into the bone china.
All the cups went into the kiln at the same time and were exposed to the same heat for the same duration, each cup deforming and flopping back in concordance with the dose of lithium within it. Amanda notes that whilst the cups have all deformed to different degrees, they all seem to flop in the same way, falling back on the weight of the cup’s handle. This unifying logic of deformation creates the feeling that the cups are all different moments in the same narrative arc of deformation.
One way of reading this series of cups, then, it seems, is as a linear progression of transformation or deformations, either from left to right or right to left. The beautiful, recognisable form of the perfect cup gradually melts along the series into the smudged up puddle of bone china, or conversely, the smudged up puddle of bone china evolves into the recognisable form of the perfect cup. Read like this, transformation is linear, developmental, evolutionary. Each cup gains its identity from the narrative of the series, identity evolves as a clear arc or progression.
However, this is not the only way of reading the series.
Taking the form out of the series
The cup pictured below is Amanda’s favourite cup in the series.
When we have finished looking at the cups in series, Amanda picks one of the cups out and places it on a different table in isolation.
“Look at it,” she says. “You probably wouldn’t know it was a cup.”
Taken out of context, the cup loses its narrative arc, its logic or history of transformation. It is rid of its linear, helpful temporality.
We don’t know quite where the cup’s deformations are coming from, or where they are going. We don’t know what the cup was “before”. Has its function as a cup changed? Is it still a receptacle? Is it still a form?
Is there still temporality even though this temporality has been taken out of its linear progression? Is there a narrative of this transformed or evacuated temporality?
Talking through the initial brief of the “Narrating Plasticity” project with Amanda, the image of the transformed cup in isolation seemed particularly resonant. We talked about the neuro-ward, and how clinical teams will encounter a patient completely out of context. This patient will sometimes have undergone changes to their brain that will have rendered them very different to the person they were “before”, and yet taken out of context, the story of that change is very difficult to communicate, or indeed becomes itself fragmented, or is erased entirely.
Over the course of this project, from the transforming cups in the series onwards, we hope to think about ways of communicating and narrating plastic transformation where recourse to linear temporality and developmental narrative arcs are no longer possible.