On Aesthetic Plasticity

Tom Sparrow, ‘On Aesthetic Plasticity’, pp. 177-218, in:

Sparrow, T., Malabou, C., 2015. Plastic bodies: rebuilding sensation after phenomenology. Open Humanities Press, London.


The argument so far has followed two general, intertwined trajectories: one critical, the other constructive. The critical thread has argued that the two visions of embodiment offered by Merleau-Ponty and Levinas are inadequate for thinking how our bodies actually interact with the material world. The constructive thread has assembled evidence which suggests that both phenomenologists were cognizant of the function that sensation plays in the constitution of experience and identity.


Instead of reversibility and susceptibility, my view features the plasticity of the body and argues that the dynamism of plasticity is more true to the aesthetic dimension of existence and the transactional nature of intercorporeal encounters.

Methodologically speaking, there is more than one way to defend the body’s plasticity. Because the notion of plasticity is tacitly at work in poststructuralist philosophers like Foucault and Deleuze, and increasingly visible in the work of embodied cognition theorists, a wholesale assault on the phenomenological body could be launched from a number of non-phenomenological camps. An antagonism of this sort could be construed as a clash between modern and postmodern views of the body.

Such a neat division, however, does not do justice to the degree of overlap which obtains between phenomenological and non-phenomenological accounts of embodiment. This is why I have chosen for my defense of plasticity to synthesize the insights of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas with a number of non-phenomenologists, from Spinoza, James, and Dewey to Mark Johnson, Manuel DeLanda, and Catherine Malabou.

What does it mean for a body to be plastic and why is it necessary to conceive the body in this way?


I first ran across the term in a text closer to my home discipline, that is, while reading the philosophical psychology of William James, who writes in The Principles of Psychology that plasticity broadly “means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once. Each relatively stable phase of equilibrium in such a structure is marked by what we may call a new set of habits.”

Plasticity in James’s sense not only provides a useful means of imagining the dynamics of brain and body, it also offers a way to think the dynamic structural integrity of the embodied subject.

Plasticity helps us work through many of the questions that arise when we identify the subject with the body. In the end the plastic body gives us a fully immanent version of subjectivity without compelling us to grant the body an indeterminate fluidity that would make it difficult to explain how stability emerges and is maintained.

There are empirical and practical reasons for favoring plasticity over reversibility or susceptibility as the defining feature of the body. First, the body disintegrates, decays, and dies. Its relation to other bodies—and sometimes to itself, as in the case of autoimmune disorders—is often violent, as I have argued.


Considered from a different angle the body is indeed a resilient thing. It resists disintegration by nourishing itself, defends itself from assault, and deftly assembles resources which help it postpone death. It fashions clothes and designs shelters, devises means of repairing itself when wounded, and takes measures to prevent further wounding. It gathers these resources from its environment and from others; it is enabled by otherness just as much as it can be disabled by it.

But given the extraordinary nature of tragedy, the threat of violence cannot be the ground upon which the body is defined as a body. It is much more than a passivity: it preserves itself and pushes itself to become more powerful; it adapts and evolves, yes, but it also destroys and imposes form. These are Nietzsche’s lessons.


That the body is threatened by violence and prone to disintegration, but at // the same time enabled by what resists its efforts and movement, leads us necessarily to consider the ethics and politics of plasticity.


A body whose integrity is plastic is definable by its thresholds. This means, as we saw with Merleau-Ponty’s notion of style, that its identity is constantly shifting and constituted by an indefinite and fragile disposition.

Shifts in identity or the compromising of bodily integrity will be induced by a breakdown in the body’s own maintenance or by pressures exerted on its constitution by an external force. In both cases what gets compromised is an alliance maintained between a collective of bodies functioning together as a singular body (a friendship, political demonstration, or soccer team) and conspiring together to reciprocally determine each individual body’s identity.

Such a view of identity obliges us to imagine the substance of identity as fleeting and dependent rather than enduring and self-sufficient. Individuals enjoy only a transitory autonomy, a limited immunity from degeneration.

Spinoza employs the term ratio to describe the dynamic alliance that composes corporeal identities. He speaks of identity thresholds as ratios of motion and rest, speed and slowness.

The body is not merely a figure or style, but a system of relations governed by a specific principle of relating, or ratio. Following on his heels Deleuze and Guattari elaborate the Spinozan conception of bodily identity with concepts like assemblage, machine, multiplicity, and body without organs.


These concepts provide an understanding of bodily identity that makes no appeal to an immutable organic (biological, physiological, neuronal) structure; they leave the body fully open to deformation and reconstitution, and therefore to the aleatory // and to alterity. Spinoza begins to build the plastic body, while Deleuze and Guattari draw out its complexity.


[Discussion of Spinoza]

The capacity of the body to create a singular effect, or what we can call the body’s power, is always variable and vulnerable to disintegration because this power only subsists as long as the collective of bodies working together to create a singular effect maintain their particular ratio of motion and rest.

The form is not what determines the body ultimately, it is the kinetics of the body’s composition that constitutes its individuality. “The important thing,” Deleuze tells us, is to see individuality “as a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles.” This is what Deleuze calls Spinoza’s “kinetic proposition.” Let’s call it the ecological account of bodies.


Deleuze’s question also pinpoints another ontological claim advanced by Spinoza: bodies just are their capacity to affect and be affected. Deleuze writes, “a body affects other bodies, or is affected by other bodies; it is this capacity for affecting and being affected that also defines a body in its individuality.”

This new method prefers a genetic or evolutionary conception of form to the ancient hylomorphism. It regards the genesis of form as initiated by contact between heterogeneous material elements, which results in multiplicities that endogenously give rise to singular bodies.

It is crucial that this formulation acknowledges the priority of circumstance over teleology in the determination of structure, and locates its genesis in the materials and energies that compose an aesthetic event.


The point here is that the maintenance of corporeal identity is not only a matter of intersubjective/intercorporeal relations. Identity is also dependent on environmental conditions and the nourishment they provide (or fail to provide)—the ambivalence of the environment is recognized as fundamental to corporeal power and action.

One of the advantages of working with the Spinozan definition of bodies endorsed by Deleuze is that it frees us from entrenched binaries like artificial/natural, animate/inanimate, organic/inorganic, sentient/insentient. For Spinoza and Deleuze all bodies belong to the same ontological

plane and can be evaluated in terms that do not force us to distinguish between, say, the human and nonhuman or living and nonliving.

As a consequence of undoing old binaries we are free to imagine new composite bodies and, therefore, new possibilities for collective experience and bodily identity. Hybridity and community become the norm.

[Ref Grosz]

The model of embodiment described by Grosz regards the body, in Deleuze and Guattari’s language, as a “machinic assemblage.” This concept is democratic insofar as it counts a wide range of phenomena as bodies and refrains from privileging one kind of body or relation over another.There

is nothing special about a naturally occurring body; human bodies are not elevated above their vegetal counterparts.


Corporeal difference is a matter of degrees of complexity; what matters most is the effects and affects produced by the body, irrespective of its compositional heritage.The concept of assemblage has far-reaching consequences for ecological thinking.

There is an assemblage theory of bodies available in the literature on embodied/enactive cognition.Take the work of Andy Clark. In Being

There Clark develops the concept of “scaffolding” in order to demonstrate that our minds are not locked in our heads, but extended throughout the interobjective environment.

Scaffolding serves as the network within which individuals work out solutions to problems, but from what we have said so far, it would be misleading to regard it as “external” to the body.


[Ref Bennett’s ‘Distributive Agency’]

Agency is here equivalent to efficacy. Any efficacious thing qualifies as an agent, which means that any thing whatsoever that makes a difference in the world possesses agency, even if that thing cannot be cited as the source of its agency. Since every thing makes some difference, however small, every thing bears the mark of agency.

This radically democratic theory of bodies disintegrates the plausibility of classical liberal autonomy and disperses responsibility across the entire field of being.

Assemblages are essentially multiplicities whose identity is determined by the unified effects they produce. Their identity is in their plurality. If bodies are assemblages, then they are less like fixed structures and more like heterogeneous events that derive their consistency/integrity from a certain threshold for change.

Following my unorthodox reading of Levinas in the last chapter I would insist that this process occurs at the level of sensibility. An intensity is a bodily event—a passion, affection, sensation—directly related to the “capacity to enter into relations of movement and rest,” as Massumi puts it.


Assemblages are dynamic unities, immanently organized and constructed ad hoc—haecceities.

Deleuze and Guattari conscript the medieval concept of haecceity because it allows them to think identity and individuation in terms of events, intensities, and becoming.

A haecceity, in short, is a specific “accidental form.” That is, it is a historically emergent and singular form. It contrasts clearly with the notion of substance, substantial form, person, subject, thing, and so forth, each of which is held to be self-contained and in some sense necessary unto itself.

Even though the body can attempt to escape its organic constitution, it is never completely devoid of organization or, at least, a minimal set of habits. The body without organs remains an ideal.


Equally important to the Deleuzean/Guattarian development of the composite body, or assemblage, is its machinic feature. In Anti-Oedipus a machine is defined as what introduces interruptions into otherwise continuous flows of material (hyle): a machine is “a system of interruptions or breaks.”

The orifices of our bodies are machines because they interrupt the flow of air (mouth) and the flow of sound (ear) and the flow of feces (anus). The sensory apparatus of our bodies can be seen as a complex machine insofar as the senses function as a multifaceted device for cutting up the manifold of sensory material flowing through the body.


Machines engage in transactions that assemble “disparate elements.”

This means that they carve into and interface with material from diverse ontological domains.

There is a certain technique or artisanship to the machinic process, one which the body already possesses insofar as it effortlessly hooks into environments that produce natural, artificial, physical, linguistic, imaginary, and abstract effects.

Although they recognize the machinic potential of the body, it seems to me that both Levinas and Merleau-Ponty refuse to endorse the view that the body is nothing more than a complex machine.


If it is at least plausible to claim that the modern account of embodiment is marked by the view that there is a substantial core or immutable structure to the body, whereas the postmodern account is characterized by a desire to see the body vanish into an anonymous field of desire, pleasure, and flux, then the concept of plasticity belongs to neither historical period.

Given this historical partition it would seem that Merleau-Ponty belongs in neither the modern nor postmodern camp, for he downplays bodily anonymity just as much as he contests the modernist’s substance ontology. Regardless, he does not deliver us a plastic body.

The dynamic of his reversible body is more akin to the mechanics of elasticity. Elasticity can be understood by considering a rubber band.The rubber band is flexible and deformable, but in the absence of resistance or external force it tends toward a specific formal state.

Similarly for Merleau-Ponty’s lived body: its structure tends toward a certain coherence that is prescribed by the lived body type.

Merleau-Ponty’s view of embodiment is accomplished only by quarantining the objective body and suspending the question of how its physiology and materiality interfere with, as well as support, the lived body’s phenomenological world of perception. As I have been arguing, what threatens to undo or undermine the body’s elasticity is the sensory field’s immediate contact with the body’s sensorium, along with the material composition of the body more generally.

This is not to say that Merleau-Ponty lacks any notion of plasticity. On the contrary, both style and habit (perhaps the body schema, too?) display a marked plasticity. My point is that his text runs the risk of pathologizing plasticity and normalizing elasticity, and this in the interest of drawing a distinction—fundamental in his view—between the lived body and the objective body.

Plasticity contrasts, and is designed to replace, both infinite malleability and immutable substantiality. It is, at bottom, neither stability nor instability, but metastability.

Remarking on current brain research, Catherine Malabou writes that “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). Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, “formable,” and formative at the same time.”


This conception of plasticity is not meant to suggest that the brain is merely flexible, for as Malabou goes on to show, the brain is at once prone to historical deformations and capable to effecting historical deformations.

Plasticity describes the simultaneous determinacy and indeterminacy of morphogenesis. In other words, it names the potential of the body to have its initial determination transformed indefinitely.

The constitution of the individual is determined by how the body’s mechanisms are transformed by the experiences it enacts or suffers.


Our brains are machines, but machines that repair themselves and reprogram themselves according to information they receive from their surroundings. The identities they achieve strike a balance between passivity and activity, infinite possibility and finite determination.

A similar line of thinking is pursued in Foucault’s work on history and embodiment. He chooses “docility” to describe the body invested with power and disciplinary techniques, but the manner in which he thinks docility resonates with the concept of plasticity.

The docile bodies populating Discipline and Punish seem, on the one hand, merely pliable, or “flexible” in Malabou’s sense.They are made to take on a pre-programmed form, rendered automatic or mechanical (territorialized) by the machinations of state power or biopower.

Foucault writes of how:“the soldier has become something that can be made; out of formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit.”

But this is only half the story.The body would not take on this apparent automatism were it not for its capacity to take on any number of historically determined forms.When Foucault says that the body has to be broken down and rearranged, he is acknowledging that disciplinary techniques must grapple with corporeal determinations that offer resistance and harbor their own power.

Oksala has pointed out, against Butler and others, that it is the body as formed which offers its own resistances to reformation.

In Foucault’s words, “Discipline increases the forces of the body … and diminishes these same forces…. In short, it dissociates power from the body” and transforms the body into an “aptitude” or “capacity.”


Recalling James’s definition of plasticity, the disciplined body is given a structure // strong enough to resist power, but weak enough to yield to a sufficiently technical and more intense power.


The event-like structure of the body is given further expression in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” where Foucault explicitly rejects the view that the body is an ahistorical, physiologically-determined entity: “The body is molded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances.” Put negatively, its history is “without constants.” Formulated positively: the body is plastic.

This does not mean that the body is reducible to a series of oppressive events, or that the forms it assumes do not constitute real dispositions or determinate capacities for action. It means that any particular disposition is contingent and susceptible to change, whereas dispositional plasticity is structurally basic to embodiment.

Malabou’s investigation of plasticity implicitly follows, in the philosophical tradition, the naturalistic insights of James and Dewey.

[Ref Bernard Andrieu]


Recall that for Merleau-Ponty habits are like the body’s original prostheses. The idea that habit is first nature is in fact a point found in James, although the American is not Merleau-Ponty’s source. Habits offer a metastability to the body without fixing it absolutely. They render the body automatic to a degree, but this automatism is never complete. There is some room left for freedom, but what this freedom entails is left for discussion in the following chapter. The body is not born with a set of specific habits, but almost immediately adopts habits which endow it with a specific integrity and allow it to negotiate its situations with relative ease.

Habits belong among the historical a priori which condition perception and action; they arrange and rearrange the body schema, while leaving the body open to receive new habits.

Habits are not just passively received, however: they are projected out into the environment as actions whose repetition wears down the environment in specific ways. Conversely, repetition wears upon the actor.

As Casey writes, the “power of orientation” (Merleau-Ponty) we call our habitus is correlated to the kinaesthetic situation we call our habitat.

Now, I think a general conception of habit is essential for understanding corporeal plasticity. In fact, we might say that habit is emblematic of plasticity, but it is not sufficient to keep our discussion of habit at the level of perception, without serious consideration of its material aspect. Otherwise, habit becomes a structure of the body that deals with material conditions, while remaining immaterial itself.


The influence of the body’s sensory life carves pathways into its nervous system, predisposing it to particular patterns of behavior which correspond to these pathways. We now know that these pathways are the locus of the body schema, which Clark describes as “a suite of neural settings that implicitly (and non-consciously) define a body in terms of its capabilities for action….”

The plasticity of the neural network is what enables the body schema to change over time as it genuinely incorporates, and not merely uses, the instruments that “dilate” (Merleau-Ponty’s term) the body-subject’s world.

Habits, then, exhibit internal/physiological and external/environmental aspects. Neither of these can be reduced when considering the identity of the body.

On the one hand, the neural pathways recorded in the material of the body physically determine the range of actions and passions the body is capable of at any given time.

On the other hand, the range of behaviors the body exhibits at a specified point in its life determine its style and make it recognizable as the individual it is.The variability of this style—which may result from self-reflection or environmental changes, for instance— introduces a degree of indeterminacy that can effect an alteration of the body’s habit set.

Allowing for the reality of creativity, we must not overestimate the power of the will to alter the body’s habits.When the will is set against the force of habit as the agent of rehabituation—and this is even more the case when habit is localized in the brain—one runs the risk of reinforcing the dualism of master mind and servant body. Carlisle leans in this direction by suggesting “awareness” as the remedy for undesirable habits.


Habits economize our actions by locking us into certain behavioral patterns, while also releasing our attention to explore new modes of action. James’s description of habitual circuits of behavior is as mechanical as it is phenomenological.

The key difference between the mechanical and phenomenological accounts of a circuit of behavior rests with the latter’s insistence on the intentionality motivating the circuit and the former’s insistence on sensation as the motor of action.

There is no reason why we cannot regard habits as motivated by intentional aims but proceeding mechanically, however. To do so we must admit a certain autonomy— that is, a degree of unconscious activity—to the sensations propelling the mechanism.


James’s account of habitual circuits leads us to see that our corporeal identities, insofar as they are comprised of sets of habits, are made up of

a series of responses correlated with a series of sensations. In other words, our body’s integrity is partially determined by the sensory circuits to which it responds.

These rituals and routines find themselves recorded in the musculature of our bodies and driven by the mundane sensations of everyday life.These circuits coalesce into a system that subtracts from the abundance of incoming sensations and outgoing efforts required to sustain life.

As Massumi shows, the “habitual autopilot” of our daily navigation is linked to the body’s proprioception, and is predominantly a non-cognitive orienting.

Our body’s attitude, individuality, orientation—in short, its very animation—emerges from its habitual economy. Everything hangs on whether the impetus of this economy is intentional, non- intentional, or a combination of both.

To better capture the complexity and diversity of our identities, the notion of circuit can be generalized and applied to all aspects of our existence.We can speak of political and moral circuits, for example, which might include the patterns of thought, action, and speech typical of a particular political ideology or moral framework. These circuits, as plastic structures, display a relative stability.

An analysis of any social circuit would have to include consideration of its sensory and affective content, for these are what regulate individuals and keeps them attached to the circuit, even when their attachments result from a diminished or indifferent concern for the circuit’s value. It is arguable that, although we are quasi-automatically attached to our habits, we remain attached to them only insofar as they retain a degree of importance for us.


[…] our affective responses keep us locked into a circuit of behavior or induce us to switch to another circuit. Affects are a currency traded in the habitual economy.

In contrast with the phenomenological notion of an existential “field” we can think of the totality of the circuits which orient our individual lives as defining our territory, while considering each individual habit as a milieu.

These terms work in tandem and derive from the work of Deleuze and Guattari. A territory is roughly demarcated and abides by a specific set of laws; it is a stratified and policed assemblage. Habits are stratifications of the body, while its automatic aspects are symptomatic of its “territorialized” or “coded” disposition.

As DeLanda explains, territorialization is a process which increases the internal homogeneity of an assemblage. It can be accomplished through exclusion, profiling, segregation, regulation, and so forth. Coding is a second reinforcement of homogenization and can be witnessed in our genes and in our language.

A milieu, by contrast, is defined by its instability and liminality: a milieu occurs between two clearly defined spaces, like a border or threshold, and maintains only a relative or fleeting stability.While dependent on the homogeneity of its environment, a habit is like a milieu in that it is susceptible to deformation or deterritorialization. Habits maintain their integrity by virtue of the stability of environmental conditions, but they are not fully determined by them.


Territories gain strength when the qualities of a milieu, or its rhythm, are forced to express the marks/coordinates of the territory, when the nomos of the body politic is embodied in the ethos of those bodies which constitute it. This is a performative act, the signature of the territory.

Despite the fixity of territory, bodies and spaces display characteristics which oppose and undo territorial codes. Improvisation, for instance. Improvisation, or any chance encounter, is made possible by the “cracks” in territories which Deleuze and Guattari call milieus.


The difficult conceptuality of Deleuze and Guattari can be substituted, at the risk of oversimplification, with the naturalistic presentation given in Dewey’s work on habit. Following James, Dewey defines habit as a process that is, in a word, plastic.

Plasticity, then, signifies neither pure novelty nor pure docility, neither activity nor passivity: “the most precious part of plasticity consists in ability to form habits” which are (1) flexible and (2) able to modify sedimented customs and institutions, which for Dewey are just embodied habits.


Our habits are as diverse as the environments to which they respond. Environments take on the dispositions we impart to them, while habits are symptomatic of how environments have compelled us to adapt.

Much of this sounds like Merleau-Ponty, and we might have to concede that some aspects of the lived body bear the mark of plasticity. Especially with regard to habit, style, and postural schema, there are traces of plasticity in Merleau-Ponty’s body-subject.

The growth and disintegration of the body in its materiality is not a focus of his study, however, and unless we want to institute a new dualism of objective and subjective corporeality, the structure of the lived body must be seen as fundamentally material, and therefore liable to generation and degeneration.


Dewey locates the subject’s plasticity below the level of disposition and habit, thus assigning it a transcendental aspect. But this aspect is nothing more than the volatility of organic processes. It is not that biology is prior to culture, but that corporeal structures are emergent, resilient, and pliable.

In other words, the condition of possibility for habit acquisition is experimentation, or the indeterminate determinacy of a socially embedded impulse and instinct.

Growth comes with the acquisition of habits, which enable independence and maturity.

Independence comes with increased control of the body, which includes integration and cultivation of the environment, as well as orientation within it. And it is only when our habits become mechanized routines, when we get locked into circuits of behavior or when our bodies become territorialized, that our plasticity is paralyzed.

As the power to efficiently and effortlessly think and act decreases, the exigency of adaptation and habituation—“the effortless custody of automatism”— increases.

Dewey explicitly links the habituation of the subject to its qualitative surroundings—the aesthetics of the environment. Our growth depends on the sensations our bodies exchange with others like and unlike our own. Like Levinas, Dewey holds that we live from our sensations. We are organisms whose habits serve to increase “susceptibility, sensitiveness, responsiveness.”