Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Afterword

Of the Impossibility of Fleeing – Plasticity

The “Afterword” begins with a question that has already captured some interest in our discussions (perhaps especially with regard to Derrida and Levinas): How is one to imagine a “way out” when there is no exteriority?  In order to display the impasses involved in this situation, Malabou resorts to prose that is almost Adornian: “Something that is so constituted as to make fleeing impossible while also making it necessary to flee this impossibility” (65); or, “It is not a question of how to escape closure but rather of how to escape within closure itself.” (65)  Again, the Levinasian approach is set forth as a foil, since Malabou wants to distinguish the kind of escape proper to plasticity from Levinas’ manner of escape, which hinges on a desire for somewhere and something else.  For Malabou, there can be an escape without the other, a way out without exteriority, because of the character of plasticity.  Plastic can both give and receive form, it can belong to the setting-in of form as well as the explosive undoing of form.  What this means, then, is that transformation and metamorphosis are possible within plasticity—or perhaps it is better to say that whatever takes on form, whatever destroys form, whatever takes leave of form, is always already plastic.  Malabou proceeds to note that such plasticity is central to the mobility of the system in Hegel, and then to demonstrate, at greater length, why plasticity is also in agreement with Heidegger’s thought.  The key idea here is that every instance of transcendence in Being and Time is brought forth by means of modification.  There is never any question of Dasein going beyond itself, for its very essence lies in its own modification.  Even authenticity “is only a modified, transformed grasp of existence.  There is no change of ground.  The ‘way out’ is achieved by an upheaval within daily existence itself.” (70)

§ 1. Plasticity and Hospitality

Of course, a certain Levinasian objection remains, centered around the suspicion that plasticity reduces alterity to sameness, that it fails to become adequate to the alterity within it.  Malabou, having marked this point, proceeds to distinguish globalization and cosmopolitanism.  The former is an “economic determination,” (72) it is “the closed form of the world.” (71)  In order to think the possibility of modification and transformation, it is necessary to turn to the latter, which focuses on the impossibility of simple identity, and which does so by noting the differential doubling of the subject as host and hostage.  Of course, this difference is conditioned by the visitor, i.e the other person, which is what leaves a mark, i.e. the trace.  Malabou observes that for Levinas (and Derrida as well), the trace would be “a counter to plasticity,” (73) and one that is required insofar as the logic of hospitality exceeds that of plasticity.  Plasticity is tied to form—not to the maintenance of a specific form, of course, but nonetheless to the emergence and explosion of form—whereas hospitality names the separation between form and trace.  What hospitality thus tries to think—the relation of dissociation and gathering that emerges between form and trace—lies outside of plasticity.  This, in any case, is one path—against which Malabou poses another, namely one along which it is said “that deconstruction would have found, in plasticity, its most faithful expression, the conceptual hôte—both host and guest—most worthy of the concept of hospitality.” (74)  This could be said because plastic may be the “the substitutable material par excellence,” (74) the material that is host as well as guest, and that is therefore the simultaneous dissociation and gathering that Levinas and Derrida wished to think from the vantage of a trace exterior to form.  Having said this, however, Malabou turns back to the philosophical suspicion against plastic, now expressed as follows: “plastic’s ability to become anything at all may reduce anything to nothing by dissolving all differences.” (74)  Hospitality, then, understood in terms of the trace’s exteriority to form, “necessarily and resolutely involves a principle of antiplastic protection,” (74) a principle that likewise protects against the globalizing capture of the world.

§ 2. Plasticity and the “Messianic”

It is along these lines that Malabou casts Derrida’s own resistance to plasticity.  She notes how his account of the messianic likewise functions as a refusal of plasticity, for the character of the event conceived by the messianic—the (non)arrival of the other, the opening of the future—is such that it “would remain forever irreducible to form.” (75)

§ 3. Plasticity and Materiality

Malabou then asks, reflexively, why she does not accept such critiques of plasticity.  “Why then, do I constantly affirm the impossibility of any transcendence, of any ‘disappearance in appearance,’ of any messianicity?” (76) Her response is that hospitality harbors an essential affinity with hypercapitalism—for Marx, the “assertion of inconvertibility” (77) was central to fetishism, and the same sort of inconvertibility is central to the nonplastic trace.  Plasticity, because it asserts that there is nothing outside of convertibility, is able to distinguish itself from—and potentially resist—capitalism.  It is, furthermore, truly materialist, for it “implies the vision of a malleable real.” (77)  This is to say that the real, and the future of the real, belongs to the decision of humanity, rather than to the exteriority of the trace.  Hence materialism requires that ontological difference be thought in terms of mutability.  There must be a shift from the grammatology of the trace to the neurology of the mutable real (i.e. the brain’s plasticity, and our ability to decide what we should do with it).

§ 4. Within the Closure

Malabou, in order to illustrate our ability to make this plastic-materialist decision on ourselves, turns to Freud’s interpretation of Michelangelo’s Moses.  The fact that Michelangelo sculpts Moses not as giving in to anger but rather as restraining a palpable anger makes Moses into an ethical exemplar.  The refusal to give in to inclination shows the capacity of humans to decide on themselves.  This sculpture also connects to the impossibility of fleeing to an outside, as Moses’ anger was intensified by the fact that he could not bring himself to leave the Hebrews, which is to say that he also faced the impossibility of fleeing.

§ 5. Plasticity and Autobiography

Existence is plastic, and so an individual’s life is plastic.  “A lifetime,” Malabou comments, “always proceeds within the boundaries of a double excess: an excess of reification and an excess of fluidification.” (81)  Accordingly, the writing of this text in the first person belongs not to the identitarian tendencies of narcissism but rather to the desire to show mutability within an individual life.  “The impossibility of fleeing means first of all the impossibility of fleeing oneself.” (81)

2 thoughts on “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Afterword

  1. I wonder if we could explicate further the claim made on page 58 that “plasticity forms where DNA no longer writes.” Can we conclude that plasticity is necessarily related to a messaging system that replicates itself? Is this replication cum plasticity comparable to Derrida’s iterability cum differance? I suppose that plasticity does something to replication that differance does not do to iterability. Plasticity is not the condition of possibility of replication. But if plasticity requires replicable materiality to begin to do its work, is it however logically prior to replicability? Since replicability is a type of form-making (manufacturing it in a new iteration), is plasticity not also a species of form-making, not itself simply form-making? Or is the logically prior plasticity divided into two species of form-making, one like that of the replicating DNA and another like that which re-forms it? If every DNA writing were altered by plasiticity, would we still have paramecia around? Don’t we require something like what Bergson was thinking about when he talked about the two ways that elan vital divide, into instinct and intelligence? Malabou sets plasticity and writing in opposition, but is that opposition itself not a manifestation of a single forming force that cannot manifest itself except as a struggle between plasticity and writing? And will this struggle turn out to be productive of time itself, as the struggle between the pull of the future and the pull of the past, as it is in Bergson? Has Malabou offered an account of the arche-plasticity that divides into immanent plasiticity and writing? Does she need to?

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