We are so excited to share the Narrating Plasticity project film with you!
We made a film about the Narrating Plasticity project with filmmaker Sam Plommer and which premiered at the Narrating Plasticity exhibition launch at the King’s College London anatomy museum on 2nd February 2018!
So many thanks to everyone involved, and hope you enjoy it! Feel free to get in touch with your reactions and comments!
Cups, Trauma, and Heraclitus: Recalling my very first visit to meet the ceramicist Amanda Doidge at her workshop in Walthamstow
I first emailed the ceramicist Amanda Doidge to see if she would be interested in collaborating on the Narrating Plasticity project on a beautiful summer’s day in 2016. I had been fascinated by her dark, destructive ceramics and her interest in arts and science collaboration. I clicked send and went back out into my garden in Wolverhampton to listen to Girls Aloud in the sun, not expecting to be contacted for a week or two.
Just ten minutes later Amanda called, asking if I would like to visit her in her studio in Walthamstow to discuss the project. I was very excited.
Two weeks later and I was on the tube to Walthamstow Central. Amanda showed me straight to her studio where her art work was being displayed as part of the E17 Art Trail.
Amanda told me that she was interested in series because she wanted to bring her ceramics to life somehow. Series of cups told a story. Amanda told me she liked how a series could either be a multitude of different cups, or display the same cup at different moments in its transformation.
To put the ceramics in series introduces the element of time into the ceramics.
In Kill or Cure, the cup appears to deform over a period of time, falling back under the weight of its handle. Each cup had been fired with an increasing amount of lithium in it, with the higher doses causing higher levels of deformation.
Amanda and I discussed what it meant to take one cup out of the series and look at it in isolation: it doesn’t even look like a cup, you are seeing it out of context, you do not know what has happened to it to produce that form.
In this way, seeing a cup in isolation is like meeting someone for the first time, be that on the street, or in a clinical setting when a doctor is trying to determine the history of a patient, or the development of a problem: you do not know what has preceded that form, or where that form will go next.
[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.
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?
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!
The words “plastic” and “plasticity” come from the Greek plassein meaning “to mould”.
At its most fundamental, then, plasticity as a material characteristic names a certain malleability: plastic things can be moulded, plastic things take form.
Today, of course, the meanings and the forms of plasticity have proliferated, the concept of plasticity itself becoming plastic, mutating and taking different forms across various different contexts.
It might be more fitting to talk of plasticities in the plural; this project, Narrating Plasticity, seeks to open dialogues between these different plasticities, questioning the origins and futures of the concept(s).
We talk of the plastic arts – the three-dimensional creations of artists manipulating material into their desired forms.
In the neurosciences, and more and more in popular science knowledge, plasticity, or more precisely neuroplasticity, has come to name the ability of the brain to change and restructure its own synaptic form over the course of a lifetime, transforming to reflect the impact of personal experience or reorganise and regenerate following trauma or injury.
The world in which we live is also, of course, increasingly populated by plastic materiality and logics. Our furniture is plastic. Our toys are plastic. Our clothes are plastic. Our money is plastic. We are 3D printing our bridges. We are changing our bodies with plastic surgery. The mean girls of Mean Girls are “the Plastics”.
“Plastic arts” refers primarily to art forms that result from the manipulation of plastic materials into any given form. These art forms might include sculpture, pottery, ceramics, etc.
Less commonly, “plastic arts” can refer the visual arts more broadly (painting, photography, film, etc.) in order to distinguish these art forms from the written arts, such as poetry or music.
The question of the specificity of plastic art forms as distinct from written works has been a central debate in art theory and history.
Famously, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing argues in his work Laocoön: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) that plastic art and poetry can capture the same narratives, events, or ideas, but in very different ways.
Lessing looks at two different artistic interpretations of the Greek mythological tale of the Trojan priest Laocoön being murdered by giant sea serpents alongside his sons as punishment for having angered the gods. Lessing compares Virgil’s account of Laocoön’s death in The Aeneid (70BC – 19BC) to the sculpture of the Laocoön (200 – 20BC, currently on display at the Vatican Museum).
Lessing argues that whilst the sculpture represents the narrative event in space, the poetry represents the narrative in time. He also argues that whilst the poetry is able to convey the true horror of the situation, the sculpture “[strives] to attain the greatest beauty under the given conditions of bodily pain.”
Modern art continues to celebrate plastic form in new and innovative ways, from the violent horrors of Hans Bellmer to Marcel Duchamp’s (in)famous work “Fountain” (1917).
The explosion of plastic materials, or simply “plastics”, as we know them today from the 1930s onwards – low cost, synthetic, moldable polymers – also of course massively influenced and continue to influence the plastic arts as a material capable of reproduction on an industrial scale.
In neurobiology, plasticity or neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to adjust and transform throughout life, dynamically changing synaptic form in response to experience or injury.
Before the 1970s, it had typically been thought that the structures and connections of the adult brain remained fixed and static. However, since then studies in the mutability and adaptability of the human brain have proliferated.
Since then, studies have shown how the brain can recover following strokes or other pathologies and injuries, “healthy” parts of the brain taking over from damaged parts, reconfiguring and redistributing cerebral tasks across new or transformed connections.
It should be noted that even in the field of neuroscience, the term “neuroplasticity” has many different, and sometimes even antithetical, applications.
In their book Towards a Theory of Neuroplasticity (2001), Christopher Shaw and Jill McEachern argue:
“Given the central importance of neuroplasticity, an outsider would be forgiven for assuming that it was well defined and that a basic and universal framework served to direct current and future hypotheses and experimentation. Sadly, however, this is not the case. While many neuroscientists use the word neuroplasticity as an umbrella term it means different things to different researchers in different subfields …”
Does neuroplasticity refer only to cerebral “form” uniquely as configured by changes in synaptic connections, or can we take neuroplasticity more literally, referring to the “squidgy” quality of the brain, capable to take new forms when the skull changes shape, for instance, or when a foreign object or tumour appears in the brain? How do we measure neuroplasticity?: do we watch rates of new neurons being made – neurogenesis – or are there other measurements?
These are all questions we will be exploring in this project.
The contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou is becoming known as one of the most important voices in current continental thought.
Malabou’s central philosophical concern is plasticity, which she develops across her interdisciplinary interests in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, although Malabou’s plasticity also enjoys detours through anthropology, art theory, literary criticism, gender and queer studies, and many other domains.
For Malabou, plasticity names the ability of something to give form and take form. Malabou argues that scientific discoveries, particularly in neuroscience, show that biology and thus life itself is plastic, and that we should take these discoveries as a cue to think about the mutability of many of the structures we previously assumed to be fixed.
Philosophy is now revealed be plastic, mutable and open to change. Science is plastic. Gender and sexuality are plastic. Economy is plastic. History is plastic.
Crucially, however, for Malabou plasticity does not equal an unlimited capacity for metamorphosis. Plasticity is not elasticity. Plasticity is not fluidity. Plasticity is not adaptability. Plasticity is not polymorphism.
For instances, Malabou criticizes certain neuroscientific conceptions of plasticity for confusing plasticity with endless adaptability.
For Malabou, the confusing plasticity with adaptability – the brain can heal after anything, can adapt to any task – shows neuroscience to have fallen prey to capitalist ideologies which attempt to use the brain as the metaphor for the perfect worker.
In relation to victims of cerebral trauma or injury, Malabou argues that neuroplasticity might also be conceived in destructive terms; a person might become irrevocably transfigured or changed following trauma, “destructive plasticity” having taken the place of “healthy plasticity”, creating new forms out of the annihilation of old ones.