A plastic world?
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.
In 1964, anatomist Marian Diamond published a study on the changes that occur in a rat’s brain in response to its environment. This is widely argued to be some of the first scientific evidence of neuroplasticity.
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.
A study conducted on London taxi drivers showed the section of the brain associated with spatial memory in the hippocampus to be greatly more developed than controls.
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.