A mobile, and therefore precarious, gathering

From the start, the ground on which I learned to walk presented itself and withdrew, gave itself and eluded me. Like an animal, I had to adapt to a milieu that was both familiar and unknown; I soon had to learn to tame the mobility and self-negation of meaning, which cause it to take off the very moment it lands.
— Catherine Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 2003 1 

Day 1

I see a crowd, a gathering of gatherings, brought on by their own organising or collectivising. Like a union that moves forward by putting propositions to a vote and mobilising in the direction indicated by the majority, causes temporarily unify them. Each motion must be considered and run through the consciousness of the group – never governed or directed by the will of leaders. If there are any coordinators, they are trusted servants of the will of the group, guided by the emerging ethics of the mass – ethics that work in their favour, but balanced against the common good so much as is possible or sensible (sensible in the sense that it is possible to be perceived, not necessarily pertaining to common-sense).

Is this gathering an attempt to diagrammatically represent, or plot, or estimate, a motor scheme or drivers of our times (plural, layered, descent lines and lines of flight crossing)? I see a crowd, but more particularly, I see crowd forms.

Fire, piles of things, grids and meshes, patterns made up of repeated units, smoke, grapes. Ruins connote the aftermath of a crowd’s riot. A chorus of sirens that follow, highlight, validate a riot. Sand, deserts, seas, starry galaxies – they connote things that are larger than our ability to stop them engulfing us. Witches rain down plagues of insects, storms of dust, clone things. When things are stretched (bent, taut, lunging, drooping) they show they have been subjected to force that brings them close to their limits – beyond which there is a break, a tear, a schism. A chain. A fleet. Viruses or bacteria, cells splitting. A snowstorm. Reproducible, regenerating, adapting, mutable code. The whirring of a machine. The mining of bitcoin. A shitstorm. Pixellation. A choir, a rash, insects teeming. A single organism is made up of a myriad of cells, synapses firing, neurotransmitters finding receptors in a tiny group-sex situation. Anything that has learned to self-organise. Without permission.

A crowd becomes a crowd only when it ignites. Until then it’s a group of people with the potential to pass into uncontrollability. 2  A crowd involves itself with the destruction and creation of form producing new matter from its elements (time, situation, participants, energy, spirit) alchemically, experimentally. The crowd forms issued by Judy Darragh in Competitive Plastics resemble her long practice of assembling masses of material and making their monster walk; and of doing so from a long-term grounding in forming and being part of collectives, both formal and informal, explicit and anonymous. Certainly, she has a facility for collectivising, both socially and aesthetically, and for passing this methodological flame to those seeking to rebalance power and visibility. For it is by engaging in such persistent dissensus that communities of practice live, grow, and produce emancipation. And difference.

Her work is citational in spirit, as it registers the effect the practices of others have had on her and her work, and it understands the explosive possibility of the crowd form. She is referred to as a singular artist, but in the practice, I see many traces of the things and knowledges in the world she draws on, and that this multiplicity is something celebrated in the work, rather than more directly digested and unstated. She also sees the possibilities of plastic, in both material and word, in the broadest sense – sculpture is a plastic art, and plasticity is a way of considering how flesh, minds, matter and subjectivity change through time.

The plasticity which I will refer to here, and apply to the experience of this (can I say?) wild body of work, is a condition of being. Plasticity as a way of seeing recognises that all form, identity, experience is malleable, flexible, explosive. Sculpture and bomb, it gives form and annihilates at once. No binary either/or, but a complex machine or assemblage that produces new life, the old behind it like a wake.

This plasticity has always been there in nature, it just took us until relatively recently to be able to perceive it scientifically in, for example, neurology’s study of the malleability and trans-differentiating potential of brains. But plasticity has always been there in our culture too, and it is in art where this possibility, this explosive metamorphosis of material, idea and self, has been most consciously present and nurtured. Or so I believe (and thank you to Jan Bryant for putting this idea in my path, and for putting it this way).

‘Competitive plastics’ as a phrase reminds me, at the outset, that we are looking at this work through the frame of capital – a regime under which everything is financialised, and entities are pitted against each other in the pursuit of profit, and the means (or moving horizon) of survival. And under which are all subject to semio-inflation, hampering the ability to comprehend or communicate a sense of what is happening, let alone establish knowledge or meaning. This disorientation makes sad-feeling distance between us as we struggle to pay the attention to each other that we need to cultivate anything, particularly aesthetic experience.

Later that night

Any dusk has the air of apocalypse, especially when the smoke in the sky distorts the sun, making it sick and orange and indistinct through its particle veil. Two summers ago bushfires made the permanent snow in the alpine spine of Te Waipounamu’s Kā Tiritiri-o-te-Moana smutty, sooty like the marks left by a candle flame on surfaces in a building with the power disconnected or off the grid. The mountains had, and will probably have again, the atmosphere of the set of a spectacular but hollow action film, which we may watch to see the results of how we remain – excel as – an invasive species in a cold chamber with rumbling sound design simulating the core of the earth.

In the surface of a chunk of composite recycled foam found on the side of the road by Western Springs in Tāmaki Makaurau, the highlights become diamonds. We have registered the jolts of the petrochemical worlds; and if we follow Marshall McLuhan from the position of now, Darragh says, anything we make comes from an understanding of our bodies. The softness of foam is intuitively the spongy soft intercellular regions of our bodies that cushion the cells’ pockets of etheric atmosphere. Questions emanate from the foam. Where does our aura come from? What haze is this?

An unforeseen finding from a drone study of whale pods gave pause to women of a certain age to wonder what is expected of us. Humans and a handful of whale species are the only mammals that stop being able to have children approximately half-way through their lives. It was observed that child-whales were less likely to die if there was a maternal grandmother present to look after it while its parents went looking for food. There you go – a theory of why we developed menopause as a species trait to safeguard the survival of juveniles, and the pushing through of our descent lines.

We speak with our grown sons about plasticity, and they offer us the particulars of bots they have recently been following in threads. One AI generates estimated images of what people might see after a stroke, a serious neural disturbance causing significant visual distortions. The artist’s rendition of this bot’s work mimics its aesthetics with blurry photography of amassed studio materials. Another AI receives prompts from users (like ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’, or whatever) and scrapes the internet for relevant visuals and makes a pixel-by-pixel composite image of the subject. The results are deformed and horrific in the line they walk between non-specificity and a sort-of-specificity. The indistinct-ness is awful, like a monstrous smell one cannot yet identify.

I see cigarette packets, a lot of them, and found like the mushroom proliferations of some massive mycelium. I am reminded of a friend, and an exchange I witnessed between this older woman and a service-station attendant in which cigarettes were being purchased. Horrific bodily disaster photographs had just been added to their packets’ large and brightly highlighted health warnings. So jaded a smoker were they that they had started to smoke Evergreen menthol rolling tobacco with brown liquorice papers, but today they were purchasing sharp Holiday 25s as they were flush. The attendant was instructed to read the warnings off the packets until they came to one that was acceptable, or tolerable. Give me the one about the babies, my friend said, and the exchange was made. And soon that present too was up in smoke.

The tinfoil – it reminds me of the project of a child left alone with common materials that involved making tinfoil pellets and using them to fill a plastic water bottle. (Pump – its name referring to where water used to be gathered, or the device with which we pillage aquifers?) I still have this as a trophy of naïve or innate intentional sculptural facility, of transformation and malleability, and time well spent. And of foil used to protect the paranoid, or gifted, from rays of all kinds, or invasive surveillance forces. Etheric privacy and safety from corrosive atmospheres.

Day 2

“A mobile, and therefore precarious, gathering” was taken from Catherine Malabou’s 2005 book Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, one that Darragh and I read more closely in 2021. Both admiring the way Malabou works out of the present in an uncharted way, we were curious about the potential application of her concept of plasticity to a body of work that salvages and transforms common plastic objects from the material world and redeploys them in art where their fractal aesthetic life intensifies and shimmers.

This phrase is from a passage where Malabou is considering how the constant emergence of new forms (one regenerating from the other, and in turn being replaced by the next) makes any form “a mobile, and therefore precarious, gathering”. She explains that she wants “to show that plasticity configures traces and erases them to form them, without however rigidifying them”. 3  I see much of Malabou’s thinking on plasticity in the form and method of Darragh’s work. This means it is not an inane leap from plastic to plasticity, from one word to another, without a connecting fibreoptic thread of sensibility. The gathering of work that is Competitive Plastics models a plasticity of being that is carried in the articulation of the work, and in the action of the artist on the material and in a community of makers.

That this body of work has been reconfigured in two different galleries (first at Objectspace in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and now at CoCA Toi Moroki in Ōtautahi Christchurch) helps to gently remind us that work is best digested over time; its effects unfolding, transforming with us, more sensible with reiteration or re-phrasing. We were interested in plasticity as a philosophical concept in relation to plastic-the-material as an extension of its proposition. Notionally, it folds in the effusive shitcore-dazzle materiality that is the most self-evident opening in the work, but it gives an alternative reading-path that also encloses a futuristic feminism – implications for feminism – in its unexpected hollows.

“Women will be my subject. Women will not have been my subject.” With this, Malabou diagrammatically commenced her lecture ‘Post-Gender Theory and the Feminine’ in 2014. 4  To her the stakes are serious: it has come to pass that we realise that women cannot be a topic, as a woman is not a subject. Deprived of an essence in both patriarchy and deconstructive theory, woman is apparently formed by what negates her, and violence and theatre alone confers her being. Not satisfied either with the anti-essentialism of gender theory, she seeks a new way of considering being to imagine what kind of feminine essence is now think-able. She insists that we fight for this, for “we cannot avoid questioning the complicity between a domestic and social violence that refuses to give women a place and a theoretical violence that refuses to give women an essence”. 5 

Taking the word plasticity from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, where it was floated out briefly, lightly, more ignored than explored, she attempts to recuperate, recover or (better still) grow a greater significance for it. 6  By applying recent discoveries in neuroscience, she puts forward a modelling of plasticity as a way through, grounded in the practice of finding and re-using, re-valuing material, asking, venturing:

One of the principal meanings of plasticity is the ability to recuperate… Was this kind of return, this plastic surgery, this ‘lifting,’ compatible with a new way of thinking? 7 

This middle ground was to provide a way past not just biological determinism, but also the idea (to escape the former horror) that gender must be performable only as simulacrum. If it is not biological, or only a socio-psychological phenomenon, she offers that essence must be ontologically different (spiritual, even?): all of these things, more – mobile, fugitive, on the run; definitely indeterminate. Anything else, she argues, registers as deleting violence on top of the labour and physical violence meted out to a woman in patriarchal space. Kept a minor, she is not a full or (to borrow a term from Judith Butler writing on non-violence) grievable subject: “This minimal concept – woman’s overexposure to dual exploitation – is the remainder, burning and plastic, with which we must work.” 8 

This leaves woman with a negative essence, which we can choose to understand as a radical possibility: that this supposed emptiness is re-framed as a transforming essence; that “essence is the plasticity of being”. 9  In other words, out of the thorny problem of the subject-hood of women, Malabou offers the concept of plasticity as a way for women to overcome the cultural bind that would delete her, and her own determination to find it: “Still, I believe that the word ‘woman’ has a meaning outside the heterosexual matrix.” 10  We can establish a viable subject-hood by adopting a different conception of essence, based on an acceptance of being as plastic. “Form is plastic.” 11  She calls out in hope: “Let us imagine the possibility that, in the name woman, there is an empty but resistant essence, an essence that is resistant precisely because it is emptied, a stamp of impossibility.” 12 

Day 3

Her philosophical observations of neuroplasticity – where “plasticity refers to this spontaneous reorganization of fragments” – are applied to yield a marvellous new image of being as a state of perpetual metamorphosis: “plasticity characterizes a regime of systematic self-organisation that is based on the ability of an organism to integrate the modifications that it experiences and to modify them in return”. 13  If the essence of being is plasticity, what was has been effectively destroyed by what comes – this is regeneration as salamanders and stem cells know it: de- and trans-differentiation of matter. 14  Cells perform different functions, and without scars form new limbs, bodies, essences with the “systemic unity and the explosion of the system”. 15  What is then, in anything (or anyone) considered plastic, is fertile, containing the seeds of their just-forming future. This emergent form (or practice) embodies its own descent lines and futures – it contains traces of its history and is “unfolding in at least two different temporalities”. 16 

These actions – the drawing of plastic (material) into an aesthetic and multiplying fiction, and taking a word and building for it a world of possibility for considering form, women and being – are like the way a witch might cast a circle around something (a pair of souls, or a collective) to see what union, magical accident–miracle, or summoned increase might come to pass. In this manner, for essences and how we imagine and live them, “we must find a way of creating a trans-philosophical space, one in which women are allowed to transform their impossibility of being into a specific power”. 17  A feminist futurist is therefore in all of us, and with it the possibility of a feminine philosophy that still contains “the memory of living”. 18 

How funny is our expectation of peace when living is a constant disturbance. And ideally so.

Day 4

To use a hackneyed phrase (which is still beautiful) from the culture of recovery, Malabou is modelling living in the solution, not the problem (which requires a working grasp of anonymity and anarchy). Our essence as women is fugitive, and with it emerges our own territory:

We must go off on our own, move on, break with, clear new spaces, become possible, in other words give us power. Power can do nothing against the possible. 19 

I don’t know about you, but I find that last sentence very exciting. It makes me think of this philosopher going to the desert and accessing her inner nomad to burn off the old reality and older self. It makes me think of art – and the relentless new formations it generates and offers – as acting out this dedication to no fixed self, and to its regenerating plastic form.

In Malabou’s books there is still the trace of the young woman stubbornly insisting on participating in the development of ontology as philosopher; Malabou did so despite being told that it was probably going to be too difficult for her as woman to do this ‘hard’ philosophy. And in addition, she reports, “I had to stop behaving ‘like a literature person,’ like a woman, I had to stop telling stories, I had to be no one in particular, I had to erase my ‘I,’ my gender, my character, my history, my story.” 20  (And I am so pleased she did not.)

To her, ‘woman philosopher’ is as inane a term as woman artist, because with the appended adjective it is made clear that the discipline proper has no place for her – and it was duly (and dull-ly) suggested that she work in gender studies or some sort of applied philosophy. 21  She believed, however, that thinking through being as plastic (in ontology) requires the marrying of metaphysical philosophy, feminism and neuroscience to find productive ground:

[a] major advantage of the concept of plasticity … derives from the fact that this concept can signify both the achievement of presence and its deflagration, its emergence and its explosion. It is therefore able to situate itself perfectly in the in-between of metaphysics and its other, playing to perfection the part of a concept that is some sort of mediator or smuggler. 22 

Jan Bryant recently pointed out that ontology is all about breaking things down to the most crucial things, but plasticity (in Malabou’s ontological thought) is not doing that. She is not doing that. It is breaking things (essence, substance) up. There is the urge to fix something, but hers is an ontology that un-fixes. This is the process the artist is also engaged in – matter and substance are unhinged, transformed spatially and semantically, to make new life; unfolding aesthetic events and encounters.

Malabou wants us to fearlessly accept the “explosive side to plasticity” as a way of dissolving an impasse in our thinking: “Plasticity thus appeared to me from the outset as a structure of transformation and destruction of presence and the present.” 23  To think in this way involves grasping that subjective transformation involves “a tearing away from the self, a throwing of the self that produces, rather than assumes, identity”. 24  This understanding permits a non-rigid sense of subject-hood, mobile and changing, but retaining its history and future – everyone and all difference is included; no one, whatever their story, is diminished by biological determinism or the violence of subjective negation.

When she offers plasticity as the motor scheme of our epoch, she describes how, as a useful frame for thinking, it “gathers and develops the meanings and tendencies that impregnate the culture at a given moment as floating images, which constitute, both vaguely and definitely, a material ‘atmosphere’”. 25  Which, today, among this gathering of stilled unfolding sculptural presents, each having birthed and digested the next, is the project the artist is engaged in – long-term and with an erudite material and collective feminism.

Here, being is modelled with form that neither forgets the formless, nor sees the hollow as empty – when it may very well be filled with an essential etheric substance (not a physical or fixed ontological substance, in any case, if it could be called substance 26 ) which, like spiritual stem cells, produces difference – and heals with its own new fingers. Complicit with and resistant to problematic materiality at once, the artist sets out to make a material atmosphere from the ghostly traces of meaning and tendency. Before it gets too dark to see.

  1. Catherine Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction (La Plasticité au soir de l’écriture: Dialectique, destruction, deconstruction, 2005), trans. Carolyn Shread, Columbia University Press, New York and Chichester, 2010, p. 8.
  2. See Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1984.
  3. Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, p. 61_._
  4. Catherine Malabou, ‘Post-Gender Theory and the Feminine,’ lecture to the 7th Subversive Festival, ‘Power and Freedom in the Time of Control’, Zagreb, Croatia, 12 May 2014.
  5. Catherine Malabou, Changing Difference (Changer de différence, 2009), trans. Carolyn Shread, Polity, Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA, 2011, p. 96.
  6. In a text co-written as a call and response between Judith Butler and Malabou, where they do not agree, but stay in relationship and dialogue to explore their positions, Malabou writes that “When Hegel, in the Preface to the Phenomenology, says that the subject is plastic, he means that it is both capable of shaping itself (of bestowing form on itself) and of receiving the very shape that it gives to itself as if it came from outside”. (‘You Be My Body for Me: Body, Shape and Plasticity in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit’, in Stephen Houlgate and Michael Baur (eds), A Companion to Hegel, Blackwell, London, 2011, pp. 611–640.
  7. Malabou, Changing Difference, p. 69.
  8. Ibid., p. 94
  9. Malabou, ‘Post-Gender Theory and the Feminine’.
  10. Malabou, Changing Difference., p. 135.
  11. Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, p. 1.
  12. Malabou, Changing Difference, p. 99.
  13. Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, pp. 7 and 61.
  14. Malabou, Changing Difference, p. 75.
  15. Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, p. 6. (On the phoenix, spider and salamander as figures of renewal, recovery/transformation and trans-differentiation, see Changing Difference, pp. 67–89.)
  16. Ibid.
  17. Malabou, Changing Difference, p. 111.
  18. Ibid., p. 82.
  19. Ibid., p. 140.
  20. Ibid., p. 115.
  21. Ibid., p. 100.
  22. Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, p. 8.
  23. Ibid., p. 9.
  24. Ibid., p. 25.
  25. Ibid., p. 13.
  26. Can substance be plastic too? Malabou thinks not: “there are no grounds for a concept of essence, conceived of as substance, be it ontological or natural. Transformability is at work from the start, it trumps all determination. Everything starts with metamorphosis.” (Changing Difference, p. 139.)