Poetry, Plasticity, Philosophical Activism
By David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, at Stanford University.
This last term was evoked by the legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs during her recent speaking tour. She simultaneously called for “philosophical activists” and the need to reimagine work and the value system that we use to determine what work is worth. Here, I want to connect Bogg’s comments to Catherine Malabou’s critique of neuroscience and to link both to the Occupy movement.
The formula, “99 percent,” seems at once incredibly rhetorical and real. We are used to hyperbole; we are less used to an absurdly lop-sided figure that is actually matched by a reality. Poetic figuration meets statistical validity.
Many of our society’s inequalities have been rationalized away in statistics. We have statistics for differences by income; in home ownership; and access to employment, health care and education. But behind these statistics are lives and values. Indeed, as Gladstone once remarked, even budgets are not so much matters of arithmetic as records of a society’s values. For me, one of the most poignant representations of unequal access to education is found in Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools,” written in 1991.(i) Here is an example Kozol uses to introduce his motive for writing the book, incorporating the voices of the children themselves to bridge the distance among labels and statistics and lives and values:
In Boston, the press referred to areas like these as “death zones” – a specific reference to the rate of infant death in ghetto neighborhoods – but the feeling of the “death zone” often seemed to permeate the schools themselves … I often wondered why we would agree to let our children go to a school in places where no politician, school board president, or business CEO would dream of working. Children seemed to wrestle with these kinds of questions too. Some of their observations were, indeed, so trenchant that a teacher sometimes would step back and raise her eyebrows and then nod to me across the children’s heads, as if to say, “Well, there it is! They know what’s going on around them, don’t they?”[ii]
The simple, horrible label placed upon the statistic (“death zone”) seems to name a plain fact and embed it in inevitability, without opening and, indeed, compelling a questioning of the sources behind that fact and that fate. The ability of some to simply avoid both that place and that fact is not granted to the children, and it is their position there that leads them to view that label quite differently.
Some things, unfortunately, do not change. Twenty years later, The Atlantic ran a story entitled, “Occupy Kindergarten: The Rich-Poor Divide Starts with Kindergarten.”(iii) In those twenty years, the acceleration of economic inequality has intensified the disparities and despair so vividly captured in the voices found in Kozol’s book. The experience of occupying a “death zone” is today felt more broadly than ever and in myriad manifestations. The specificity of infant mortality rates are now being linked to larger-scale structures and connected as well to other inequalities. These are represented and debated in the kinds of thinking that the Occupy movement has forced into the global public consciousness. A new way of thinking about the world and our place in it, all of our places in it, is required to match this new historical situation.
Here, I cite and agree with the answer Catherine Malabou provides to the question posed in the title of her book, “What Should We Do with Our Brain?”(iv) The answer should in part be “not to replicate the caricature of the world.” (p. 78) In her penetrating analysis of recent neuroscience discourse, Malabou draws the uncanny parallel between the image of the brain set forth in neuroscience and that suggested by neoliberalism – both the brain and contemporary capitalist formations are described as having decentralized decision-making centers and networks that form, decompose and reform around specific tasks. Malabou insists on seeing capital as generating and regenerating a particular “caricature” of the world, a portrait of ideological reductions and efficiencies that relegitimize capital’s workings.
Malabou takes plasticity as “the work proper to the brain that engages with history and individual experience. What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity. The plasticity of the CNS, nervous plasticity, neuronal plasticity, synaptic plasticity – we run into this word in every neurology department of every medical school and of every hospital, in the name of every neuroscientific team…. In fact, plasticity is the dominant concept of the neurosciences.”(4) And yet, in our own everyday worlds and in our senses of who and what we are, “our brain is plastic and we do not know it.”(4) What we know instead is a caricature of the term “plastic” as a mechanical function whose outcome is repetitious and predictable.
In Malabou’s reading of the term, however, “plasticity contradicts rigidity. It is its exact antonym. In ordinary speech, it designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve. According to its etymology – from the Greek passein, to mold – the word plasticity has two basic senses: it means at once the capacity to receive form (clay is called “plastic,” for example) and the capacity to give form (as in the plastic arts or in plastic surgery).” (p. 5) Contrast this to the substitution of “flexibility” under neoliberalism: “The difference between the two [plastic and flexibility] terms appears insignificant. Nevertheless, flexibility is the ideological avatar of plasticity – at once its mask, its diversion and its confiscation. We are entirely ignorant of plasticity but not at all of flexibility.” (p. 12)
We are not ignorant of flexibility because it has become a naturalized part of our world and a highly valued one as well. Flexible production, flexible accumulation. Flexibility also means survival; it is a false sort of evolutionary ideology, masking efficiency as more than mere survival. In a passage worth quoting at length, Malabou writes,
We have understood that to survive today means to be connected to a network, to be capable of modulating one’s efficacy. We know very well that every loss of suppleness means rejection, pure and simple. Is the difference really all that great between the picture we have of an unemployed person about to be kicked off the dole and the picture we have of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s? We know already that individuals construct their lives as works, that it is each individual’s responsibility to know what he should do with himself, and that for this he ought not to be rigid. There is thus no need, in a certain sense, to be acquainted with the results of current discoveries in the neurosciences in order to have an immediate, daily experience of the neuronal form of political and social functioning, a form that today deeply coincides with the current face of capitalism. [p. 10]
In short, “neuronal functioning and social functioning determine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them.” (p. 9) Against this appropriation and distortion of the power of plasticity, the hijacking of our brains, no less, Malabou reminds us of another, entirely disruptive sense of plastic: “We should not forget that plastique, from which we get the words plastiquage and plastiquer, is an explosive substance made of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose, capable of causing violent explosions … The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to the model.” (pp. 5, 6)
So, do we have any concrete examples of “disobedience,” of positive political “plasticity” to match up with the ideas Malabou espouses?
In the remarkable work she has done in her 96-year-old life, activist Boggs has always addressed the specific strategies of resistance and reimagination necessitated by the historical moment. In her most recent book, co-authored with Scott Kurashige, aptly titled “The Next American Revolution,” Boggs not only puts forward several ideas that connect well with those just cited from Malabou’s book, but also supplies several concrete examples of how such “plastic” creativity has been applied in Detroit.(v) Indeed, at the panel that Boggs, Kurashige, Jeff Chang and I did at Stanford in March, Boggs stressed the importance of “philosophical activism” and “re-imagination.”(vi) (Boggs herself, who received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and has been astonishingly engaged as an activist at both the global, but most especially local, scales, is nothing if not also philosophical.)
One of her main concerns, shared with Malabou, is the very redefinition of how we employ our human energies. Harking back to early Marx, Boggs wants us to reconsider human work – how can we manifest, make use of, our fundamental humanity, our ability to act in the world? In today’s world, devastated by a global financial meltdown, the unmasking of the inner contradictions of capitalism on a massive scale, Boggs asks, “Where will we get the imagination, the courage and the determination to reconceptualize the meaning and purpose of Work in a society that is becoming increasingly jobless?” (p. 30) This demands that we not only ask, “what should we do with our bodies?” but also, like Malabou, Boggs asks us to think, “what should we do with our brain?” Plasticity here means working in and on the world.
Part of her answer involves precisely art: “Art can help us to envision the new cultural images we need to grow our souls. As the labor movement was developing in the pre-World War Two years, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath transformed the way that Americans viewed themselves in relationship to faceless bankers and heartless landowners. In the 1970s and 1980s artist Judy Chicago’s exhibits, the Dinner Party and Birth Project, reimagined the vagina, transforming it from a private space and site of oppression into a public space of beauty and spiritual as well as physical creation and liberation. In this period, we need artists to create new images that will liberate us from our preoccupation with constantly expanding production and consumption and open up space in our hearts and minds to imagine and create another America that will be viewed by the world as a beacon rather than as a danger.” (p. 36) Consider especially two elements from the above passage – Steinbeck’s novel changed people’s view of their relationship to the forces of capitalism – in Althusserian terms, it changed their ideological sense of the world and their place in it; and Chicago’s art transformed both the private/public sense of the female body and its empowerment, its manners of signifying and interpretation. Note how both these notions go to the issue of mentalities and corporealities, art and politics, land and space.
Critically, Boggs attaches such boundary crossings and poetic reimaginings to the issue of power: “The movement promoted a consciousness that finds joy in crossing boundaries, is naturalistic instead of supernatural and strives for empowerment rather than power and control.” (p. 41) By this she means that, rather than focus on top-down political mechanics, the idea of the new American revolution is to focus on the grassroots and, most elemental, to our brains and bodies. Empowerment for Boggs counts on us being able to reimagine our capacities to act in the world along with others, to re-enfranchise ourselves by taking an active role in redefining work and value. She provides several concrete examples of these ideals being put into practice. Here is one: “Our City of Hope campaign involves rebuilding, redefining, respiriting Detroit from the ground up: growing food on abandoned lots, reinventing education to include children and community building, creating cooperatives to produce local goods for local needs, developing Peace Zones to transform our relationships with one another in our homes and on our streets.” (p. 74) She connects such local efforts to others globally:
All over the world, local groups are struggling, as we are in Detroit, to keep our communities, our environment and our humanity from being destroyed by corporate localization. In his book, “Blessed Unrest,” environmentalist Paul Hawken estimates that there may be more than one million of these self-healing civic groups across every country in the world. Most of them are small and barely visible; together they are creating the largest movement the world has ever known.
This movement has no central leadership and is not bound together by any ism. Its very diverse and widely scattered individuals are connected mainly by the Internet and other information technologies. But they are joined at the heart by their commitment to achieving social justice, establishing new forms of more democratic governance and creating new ways of living at the local level that will reconnect us with the earth and with one another. Above all, they are linked by their indomitable faith in our ability to create the world anew. [p. 41]
In this, as in her talk at Stanford, she spoke of the connections among her longstanding efforts in Detroit and Occupy Oakland, Arab Spring, and other movements. The basic, common denominator is the commitment to what she calls “creating the world anew,” a phrase that, I have argued, is echoed in Malabou’s insistence on not replicating the caricature of the world presented by capitalism. Boggs talks about the International Center for Urban Ecology and its idea of an Architecture of Resistance: “an architecture of resistance works at the roots of cities, it works with the varied and viable strands of existing communities. It views cities as an ecosystem rather than a machine. It returns the maintenance and advancement of democracy to where it began: the city.” (p. 124) (vii) In the place of the system of values and representation offered and imposed by capitalism, we have instead an ecosystem that recognizes and re-establishes alternate modes of living and living with others.
Both Boggs and Malabou urge us to rethink the essential concept of human work and of the creation of one’s imprint on the world in all sorts of scales. To think of work outside of the received truths of neoliberalism and to also think of a different notion of humanity and of what connects us.
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and professor of comparative literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University. He has written three scholarly books and edited three academic volumes on issues relating to cultural studies, ethnic studies and literary theory. His recent books are: The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Duke UP, 2012), and a coedited volume, Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture(Duke UP, 2011). He is part of the Public Intellectual Project at Truthout, and blogs for Salon, The Nation and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @palumboliu.
i. New York: Harper Perennial ed, 1992. Originally published New York: Crown, 1991.
ii. Kozol, 5.
iii. By Jordan Weissmann.
iv. Catherine Malabou, “What Should We Do with Our Brain?” (New York: Fordham, 2008). Foreword by Marc Jennerod. Translated by Sebastian Rand from the French “Que faire de notre cerveau?” (Paris: Bayard, 2004).
v. Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century” (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2011).
vi. Reference to Stanford iTunes link.
vii. For more on ICUB, see Kyong Park., ed., “Urban Ecology, Detroit and Beyond” (Hong Kong: Map Book, 2005.