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The Irony of Plasticity

I have always been in favour of plastic Christmas trees over real, fresh ones. My parents bought one when my sister and I were really small – I don’t remember not having it – and we are still using it 30-odd years later. That means we contribute a bit less to climate change than those who opt for a fresh tree every year and we save money by being able to reuse the same tree (although, technically, fresh Christmas trees tend to be of the evergreen variety so could be reused if cared for). As the short film, Gloop, points out below, plastic is a fantastic material because it can be formed into any shape and, once shaped, resist deformation. French philosopher Catherine Malabou adopts the metaphor of plasticity to describe the dialectic or relationship between different entities.

Byproduct of oil production notwithstanding, plastic’s adaptability has led to somewhat of an environmental revolution in that products could be made without extracting finite natural resources. However, in an economy driven by capital, the resistability of plastic has had the unfortunate, unenvironmental effect of plastic mountains on land and sea. Furthermore, in the long term, it does break down, with smaller pieces ending up as part of the food chain. The irony is that this contradiction in plasticity fits with Malabou’s description of an underlying relationship between entities that influence each other who also resist the influence.

Protests, plastic bullets and plasticity

As I write, there is a possibility that we won’t get through today without London police using plastic bullets on students and protesters. But, of course, being someone pretty immersed in the works of Hegel and Catherine Malabou, I just had to give some thought to the plasticity of those bullets.

By way of a disclaimer, I would like state that I am wholly anti-weapons of any kind, particularly in the hands of people in authority and as instruments of fear, power and security. So plastic bullets and baton rounds are no more justifiable than guns and metal bullets. (When I tweeted on the subject of this post, I found myself in a hole.)

In Hegelian thought, plasticity is the character of the dialectic. Something is plastic if, on the one hand, it gives form (shapes) and, on the other hand, receives form (is shaped). But it also points to the contradiction between resistance and change. One the one hand, something is plastic if it can be moulded (receive form) but, having been moulded, it resists deformation.

Plastic bullets have obviously been shaped, that is unfolded from a universal concept of plastic into something determinant (bullet-shaped). But what is it that they shape? Their purpose, apparently, is to disperse crowds (i.e. protests), or at least, to influence their direction in which the crowd is going (i.e. away from the bullets, police and protected areas). But the protest is arguably more plastic than the bullet. It can be unfolded out of the universal crowd into a determinant group of people and, in response to environmental factors, it can change form, disperse and come together and still be a protest. Indeed, it is has been observed in previous protests that ordinary members of the universal crowd can get caught up in someway with the protest and police have not always been able to distinguish between the two.

But plastic bullets are plastic because their whole raison d’etre is that they resist deformation. Indeed, it is the basis for the fear of pain that they engender. Unfortunately, it is this apparent plasticity that also gives them the capacity to do more than just hurt, which is why there is a concern. They have been known to kill and maim.

There is also a certain plasticity in their function. When they are in the baton round, they are plastic bullets, at least potentially. After they are fired, they become actual bullets. But once they have either hit or missed their target, it is no longer a bullet. Its purpose loses form and dissolves into the universal detritus (waste). But their capacity to resist deformation means that they can be recovered by the police and reused by the bullets either at different protesters or at a different protest. So plastic bullets are, in a sense, reusable and recyclable.

I have to be honest, as a researcher in environmental law, it’s nice to see the police taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. But at what cost? Recycling in general is important for the environment and there is a certain plasticity to it – the continuous formation and deformation and formation. But just as recycling feeds into a culture of consumption, surely plastic bullets, despite claims of responsible use, will make it easier for the police to be more casual in their deployment, knowing that one plastic bullet can be used many more times than a metal bullet. How many times are the police looking to use it? It’s difficult to conceive of British authorities going the way of the Syrians but I don’t really want to finish the sentence.

 

Culture of one

I am thinking a lot about the meaning of culture at the moment. Currently, I am writing a paper for a conference on the cultural legitimacy of internationl climate change laws and policies. At the same time, as an Asian person who was born and has always lived in the UK, I am continually balancing and negotiating the so-called intricacies of Asian and ‘Western’ culture. The problem is that where the line blurs for me – and no doubt for my contempories – is not quite the same place where it may blur for people of my parents’ generation. And even then, generational identity is not always clear cut.

Culture is something that has amassed over time. From my observations of the way the word ‘culture’ is used, it seems to be a euphemism or PR spin for ‘tradition’. Something is not considered to be in keeping with the culture, if it goes against the traditional way of doing things. In The Future of Hegel, the French philosopher, Catherine Malabou, says that culture is formed out of the power of habit (Malabou, p68), which is essentially the repetition of a certain activity. What habit ends up creating is a “virtual being” that mediates the opposition between the universal and the particular and reduces the distances between them (Malabou, p71). One could argue therefore that culture or tradition is this virtual being, this imaginary concept, that people try and hold on to for fear of losing it.

But habits can be changed, which means that culture, is not a fixed concept. This raises the question of whether a culture can ever really come to an end or die. What may start of as potential separation between universal and particular will result in a new direction (a new form of the culture) as the present particular becomes more universal and a new particular or universal emerges. “What in the beginning was merely an accidental fact…is changed through continual repetition of the same gestures, through practice, achieving the integrity of a form.” (Malabou, p73-4)

This doesn’t mean that the old form of the culture cannot be continued. But it does mean that the potential for particularity suggests that a culture can be or is of one person. If culture is about the things that we do over and over again, then if we do something different, not in keeping with the culture, there is the potential to change the culture or form an individual culture of one. Or a culture can be a unifying virtual being for all the different habits. In other words, there is only one culture; it just has an infinite number of strands.

Sources

Malabou, Catherine (2005). The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporal and Dialectic. (Translated by Lisabeth During). Routledge, London & New York.

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