POLITICS OF PLASTICITY - ABSTRACTS

 

Arianne Conty: The Nature of No Nature: Psycho-Biologic Individuation in Gilbert Simondon and Catherine Malabou

Just as Darwinian evolutionary theory has shown us that homo sapiens is not a substance separate from the rest of life, and that understanding human nature involves studying a pre-human past, so Freudian psychoanalysis has shown us that to understand the adult psyche requires tracing a psychic evolution back to the unremembered past of our childhood, a past that constitutes the present without belonging to it. Such a biological and psychic history have been developed within disciplinary norms that keep then separated, one in the field of biology, the other in that of psychology, and such a disciplinary separation has meant that the theory of evolution has yet to transform the humanities and social sciences, just as the theory of psychoanalysis remains cloistered within the humanities with no immediate application in the sciences. This paper will set out to show that studying our psychic and biological past together in order to develop a psycho-biologic theory of human identity is necessary today, and that it is the task of philosophy to provide it and to bridge the disciplinary divisions of modernity with a unified theory of life. French philosophers Gilbert Simondon and Catherine Malabou have both attempted to provide such a unified theory, and this paper will compare their philosophies in order to show how important studying a pre-individual past is to the conception of a trans-individual future. It is the ontological status of this trans- that can provide us not only with a justification for mutual aid, but for a critique of individual autonomy as a social pathology.

 

Flavio D’Abramo: The Neoliberal Turn of Epigenetics

The vision we have of living beings is deeply influenced by science that in turn translates in a specific conception of relationality. In this talk I will analyze one of the most controversial and lasting topics of science: the manner in which organisms develop, evolve and interact with themselves and the environment, broadly conceived. During the centuries, this controversy has taken different shapes: from the epigenesis/preformation schism, through the Lamarckism vs. Neo-Darwinism dichotomy, till the battle between scientists who sustain genetic determinism contra scholars holding a nature/culture codetermination. Here I focus specifically on epigenetics as contention during the cold war. Particularly, I show how within the “Towards a Theoretical Biology” conferences organized by Conrad H. Waddington, epigenetics was integrated within a specific metaphysical program that replaced its previous framework. While epigenetics’ inception was rooted in a dialectal, Marxist framework – i.e. a processual and transdisciplinary philosophy able to enquiry, dynamically and across generations, the plastic relationship between organisms and environments – the new program was instead based on a specific kind of objectivity. The neoliberal turn of epigenetics was indeed realized through a disciplinary hierarchy – e.g. quantum physics and cybernetics first – where the focus was put on a specific kind of social order, competition across individuals and the detachment of individuals from their social and material conditions.

 

Elmo Feiten: Max Stirner’s Embodied Egoism: From Self-Empowerment to Neuro-Anarchism

The reception of Max Stirner’s thought is notoriously fraught with misreadings, both by critics and supporters. Despite being named one of the ‘seven sages of anarchism,’ his thought is rejected as petty bourgeois individualism even by many anarchists. And though his critique of Feuerbach was instrumental in the genesis of historical materialism and its critique of ideology, Marx emphatically rejected Stirner’s work. In contrast, I propose that reading Stirner through the lens of embodiment and neurophilosophy enables us to assert our agency against the material reality of ideology. The link between Stirner’s radical critique of ideology and the brain can be traced back to the earliest reactions to his only book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844). Feuerbach tried to shut down Stirner’s assertion of self-ownership and self-determination by appealing to two central regulatory ideals: gender as the truth of the self, and the brain as the truth of the self. Feuerbach asked: “Can you sever masculinity from what is called mind? Isn’t your brain, the most sacred and elevated organ of your body, definitively masculine?”. Stirner gladly rejected these truths in favor of a continuous, active work of self-positing and self-dissolution. I outline how Stirner’s anti-essentialist insurrection can be combined with different conceptual resources from the ‘corporeal turn’ in cognitive science and developed into a praxis of self-empowerment which makes use of plasticity in order to rebel against the materiality of ideology in the brain. Varela’s reception of Merleau-Ponty under the label of neurophenomenology is radicalized and turned from a method of knowledge into a method of resistance. The mission statement for this project, which might be called Neuro-Anarchism, is adapted from Marx: The scientists have only interpreted the brain in various ways; the point is to change it.

 

Uri Gordon: Darkness Falls: Mutual Aid against Fascism and Climate Chaos

In this presentation I critically revisit my essay "Dark Tidings: Anarchist Politics in the Age of Collapse" (2008), offering a revised account of the social processes anticipated in that essay and using the concept of mutual aid to refresh the resultant discussion of transformative anarchist strategies. Two main points of revision stand out. The first is that capital, rather than making its central strategy to co-opt progressive and environmental agendas, has entered a phase of full-blown reaction – expressed in national chauvinism, misogyny and climate denial – spearheaded by new configurations of fascism. Second, the expectation that a peak in fossil fuel extraction would begin to undermine global flows of capital has proven premature since fracking, offshore drilling and a resurgent nuclear industry allowing for continued growth in throughput. Concomitantly, formerly "nightmare" scenarios of runaway climate change are more likely than ever to transpire.
The paper argues, however, that reactionary celebration of sexism, violence and competition can helpfully serve to accentuate the grassroots alternatives offered by social movements' strategies, based as they are on mutual aid and solidarity. Emphasizing the role of these features in initiatives for community self-defense and local eco-transition, I present them in terms of a more productive polarity with the far right than that offered by liberal-democratic discourses of multiculturalism and sustainable development. I close by presenting an international research project on contemporary anti-fascism and the questions it derives from the assessment above.

 

Iwona Janicka: Solidarity with Singularity and Anarchist Collectives

In order to understand contemporary radical left-wing movements, familiar concepts such as revolution, equality, emancipation, domination or democracy have often been employed. However, these terms do not fully account for the diversity of left-wing initiatives and are perhaps limiting rather than enabling in our understanding of them. In this paper, I wish to propose two concepts that account for contemporary anarchism in practice: solidarity with singularity and mimetic contagion. As a point of departure, I take Uri Gordon’s book Anarchy Alive! and suggest a philosophical framework for Gordon’s contemporary anarchism in practice. I argue that through combining specific aspects of such thinkers as G. W. F. Hegel, Judith Butler, René Girard and Peter Sloterdijk, it is possible to come up with a theoretical structure to understand contemporary anarchist cooperatives. Furthermore, Girard’s theory of mimesis provides us with a supplementary framework that helps us understand the importance of daily practices that are key for anarchist forms of social transformation. Rather than a one-off revolution, anarchist co-operatives are committed to continuous day-to-day practices that aim to recreate the world in the present as it should look like after the revolution. Owing to insights from Butler, Girard and Sloterdijk it is possible to suggest a philosophical framework that accounts for contemporary anarchist cooperatives and allows us to understand their vision of a constant social transformation.
References:
Gordon. U (2007) Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.

 

Petr Kouba: From Negative Plasticity to Solidarity, Equality and Cooperation

In The Civil War in France, Marx notices that during the French Commune prostitution, thievery, and homicide disappeared from the streets of Paris, even though the police and state control have completely collapsed. More precisely, it was the fall of state apparatus that arguably made possible eradication of all crime during the days of Commune. In my paper, I would like to inquire into conditions of such a spontaneous self-improvement of society. With the help of concepts Catherine Malabou coins in The New Wounded and Ontology of the Accident, I intend to demonstrate that solidarity, equality and mutual aid in society are not possible without a step from the destructive plasticity to the constructive plasticity. While the destructive plasticity is typical for all forms of collective traumas, the constructive plasticity appears in the moments, when society heals its wounds and becomes able to go through new events of social life. To avoid a mere theorizing, my paper shall be focused on the example of Roma asylum migration that took place in Europe between 1997 and 2004. Using the language of David Graeber´s Fragments of an Anachist Anthropology, I would like to emphasize an anarchist character of Roma asylum migration and describe spontaneous changes that occurred during this political event. What seems to be essential with respect to Roma communities is that their economic activities also problematize the modern concept of labor. By their very existence they point us to the direction where Deleuze and Guattari oppose free activity to labor and war-machines to state apparatus. Yet, seeing the non-violent character of Roma asylum migration, I dare to express some reservations concerning the deleuzoguattarian terminology. Therefore, I would like to return in the end to Catherine Malabou´s concepts of accident, event, and metamorphosis that seem to be quite appropriate for grasping unexpected changes and transformations of society. They also allow us to comprehend what makes possible or prevents solidarity, equality and mutual aid in society.

 

Catherine Malabou: Mutual Aid beoynd Discursivity

The biological theory of mutual aid affirms that natural selection, understood as a competition between living beings and species, is not the only evolutionary law. There exists also a natural trend toward solidarity and cooperation among them. The idea that there might be a structural link between the social and the biological meanings of mutual aid is a central idea of anarchism, as made manifest in Russian anarchist geographer Pyotr Kropotkin's 1902 book, On Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution. The idea of a natural origin for mutual aid, self-management and cooperation has since been totally dismissed by an opposing point of view, that of a natural selfishness, defended by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1989 book The Selfish Gene. Today, there seems to be a new emergence of the anarchist concept of mutual aid, as developed, for example, by the Israeli political thinker Uri Gordon in his book Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, London, Pluto Press, 2007. Is there a continuity between the old and new anarchist visions of mutual help? Where is current biology in this debate? These are the questions that my presentation wishes to raise.

 

Mechthild Nagel: What to do with the Dangerous Few? Empathy Deficit Reconsidered

“All other time is peace.” This is Hobbes’s simple description of peaceful times, which completely lacks the kind of details that he uses, by contrast, in his gory narrative of war and vengeance games.
Leviathan is a crime story and a conjuring trick: the gory details of the nasty, brutish life of humans in the state of nature serve the purpose to show that there is no empathy between humans and only an authoritarian male figurehead can prevent mayhem and bloodshed.
My talk will counter Hobbes’ theory of human nature with narratives of empathy and solidarity. How do we foster empathy institutionally, while upholding the idea that justice is impartial, objective and treats like cases alike? How do we foster empathy at a personal level, encouraging wrong doers to choose freely a path of coexistence that is restorative, rather than utterly destructive? What kind of solidarity work is necessary in order to get to restorative justice? Is a capacity for empathy needed for attunement to solidarity and mutual aid?
In this paper, I anchor possible interventions for solidarity work not with sympathetic victims but with the so-called worst-of-the worst prisoners. Two illustrations, exemplifying Hawai’ian Ho’oponopono ethics and South African Ubuntu ethics, will give insights on addressing institutional and interpersonal empathy deficits and why this matters to victims and victims’ families.
Finally, a ludic Ubuntu perspective introduces possibilities for harm prevention (and intervention) in the playful setting of kindergarten (and elementary school). Philosophical dialogue with children shows that children are already able to solve conflicts and develop practices of mutual aid. To that end, I will offer lessons from my service-learning project, Sophia’s Garden.
(Peace is not a throwaway word but it takes serious play to attune to it.)

 

Vít Pokorný: Eco-mutuality and Environmental Solidarity

Kropotkin in the part of his essay regarding the mutual aid among animals argues that "Rousseau had committed the error of excluding the beak-and-claw fight from his thoughts; and Huxley committed the opposite error in seeing Nature as nothing but a field of slaughter..." and concludes that "neither Rousseau's optimism nor Huxley's pessimism can be accepted as an impartial interpretation of nature."
In this paper, I won't be looking for an impartial interpretation though, since it is for us human animals, who are engaged with other beings and things in the mutual toil of existence, inaccessible. Nevertheless, the distinction between Rousseau and Huxley points to the crucial ambivalence of the concept of mutuality.
That is, even a contemporary society that would be organized on the principles of autonomy, voluntary association, mutual aid, self-organization, solidarity, or direct democracy, has to face two problems: globality of men-made civilization and its relation to non-human world. Even the most just and free society is in the end destructive, when it concentrates only on humans, and excludes landscape and other living beings. Exclusive human solidarity is still specieist, it survives at the expense of massive enslavement, killing and destructive transformation of natural resources.
Thus, we should ask, as D. Haraway does in her book When species meet, what are the boundaries of solidarity. Does it include all living beings, or all matter, things and events? Should we be solidary with hurricanes and volcanos, should we help them flourish, or should we subdue and control them. Should we be solidary with viruses and bacterias that eat us or should we eliminate them once and for all? The main question is whether the exclusive human solidarity can ensure our survival as species? And is the survival of contemporary human civilization necessary and desirable? Or, do we need to evolve in the way that we merge with other species and things into new kind of collectives?

 

Ole Martin Sandberg: Selfish Genes, Evil Nature: The Christian Echoes in Neo-Atheism

Richard Dawkins has become the firebrand of contemporary atheism but before The God Delusion he was primarily known for his book The Selfish Gene, a work that has deep echoes of Christian thought. Here he argues that we “can expect little help from biological nature” if we want to build a cooperative society. He insists that “man” is unique in the ability to suppress our natural selfish instincts in favor of morals. In this paper I argue that this is both bad atheism and bad evolutionary theory. Dawkins proposes that a certain species is able to transcend the evolutionary process and become something radically different, which runs against the Darwinian principle of gradual change. As Kropotkin argued in Ethics against Thomas Huxley, whose interpretation was virtually identical to that of Dawkins, if this unique ability does not come from nature it must lie outside of it: Both Huxley and Dawkins divides the world into a natural realm, that is ruthless and amoral, and a uniquely human one where ethics is possible by suppressing the former. This is reminiscent of classical Christian doctrines where salvation is found in the denial of bodily desires and transcendence of nature itself. Kropotkin died before Ethics was finished; the final chapters were meant to include his views on Nietzsche. Although they disagreed on much, I believe he would agree with Nietzsche’s rejection of such “anti-natural morality” which “turns against the instincts of life” (Twilight of the Idols): It is a poor foundation for an ethics that allows humans to blossom as Kropotkin wanted. Kropotkin saw the human capacity for ethics rooted in the reciprocal altruism – mutual aid – found everywhere in the animal kingdom: Solidarity and altruism are parts of the “instincts of life” and can be cultivated in a society that allows them to flourish.

 

Rasmus Sandnes-Haukedal: Agency and Individualism

In The Future of Hegel, Malabou ties plasticity to ‘Absolute Knowledge’, which is the knowledge of the necessity of contingency, stating that it is futile to try to decide their ontological priority. ‘Absolute Knowledge’ marks ‘the openness to the event’, the eventual dissolution of any individual ‘I’ of experience. It reveals how the composite perspectives of the dialectics cannot be disentangled, that “[…] each determinate moment brings the other into view through a new angle” (Malabou 2005, p. 166), and consequently that the individual perspective is always already bound up with other perspectives. In later works, she criticizes the use of ‘plasticity’ within neuroscience, arguing that it neglects the moulding capacities of destruction and displays a bias towards endless flexibility. According to Malabou, the brain is not a control center. Its constant interaction with the environment makes any categorical division between the neuronal and the social untenable. In this paper, I will try to bring these encounters together, asking: does the concept of ‘Absolute Knowledge’ offer a grasp on Malabou’s delocalized view of agency? Is she proposing a distributed sense of agency, in line with what is called 4E (embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive mind)?
I will extend this into a critique of selfishness, by showing how Malabou’s concept of plasticity may undermine the premise of selfishness, i.e. the individual competitor acting to further his/her own gains. A ‘selfish gene’ cannot be selfish if it does not have permanent boundaries – if it is constitutively entangled with other processes. This is shown by Donna Haraway and Scott Gilbert, who emphasize the symbiotic interrelations between organisms and ecosystems, and argue that far from being competitive, much of evolution is about cooperation. Organisms constantly integrate external and internal networks; thus, relationships are the smallest possible ‘patterns for analysis’, not individuals.

 

Mauro Senatore: How To Live Together: Symbiosis Is Not Enough

In the lecture “Avowing—The Impossible: ‘Returns,’ Repentance, and Reconciliation. How to Live Together” (given at the 1998 meeting of French-speaking Jewish intellectuals), Jacques Derrida argues for the insufficiency of the biological and juridico-political concept of symbiosis to teach us how to live together. If, on the one hand, this concept takes living together as a structural condition for life in general, on the other hand, it falls back into a metaphysical account of the living. Symbiosis, as Derrida explains, constitutes another figure of ipseity to the extent that it stands for “the sovereign and reappropriating gathering of self in the simultaneity of an assemblage or assembly, being together, or ‘living together.’” Derrida measures symbiosis against another concept of living together, that is, living together as the relationship to (or the accord with) the other that the living self necessarily carries with/within itself and that thus prevents it from closing upon itself. In my paper, I propose putting to the test Derrida’s dissociation of living together and symbiosis by exploring the implications that it has on the conception of sociality. To this end, I sketch a comparative analysis of (a) the key features of the concept of social relation as Derrida elaborates it across his work, from Given Time I: Counterfeit Money (1991) to Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (2003), and (b) the concept of animal and human sociability that undergirds Pyotr Alexeevich Kropotkin’s biological and political writings. My aim is to highlight the point of departure of Derrida’s social relation from Kropotkin’s understanding of sociability as a law of life.

 

Swain Daniel Rosenhaft: Mutual Aid as Prefigurative Politics?

This paper will consider mutual aid in relation to another prominent concept in contemporary anarchist and anti-capitalist thinking, prefigurative politics. Prefigurative politics describes the idea that action in the present can and should prefigure the future goals of a movement, and thus expresses a particular kind of relationship between present and future action (Franks 2006, Gordon 2008). Mutual aid appears as a particularly appropriate candidate for 'prefigurative' activity, since it is described variously as a 'normal', everyday element of human behavior, an explicit political strategy for the present, and an element of a desired future society. However, the concept of prefigurative politics itself is subject to many different interpretations, and the precise relationship between present and future action is often poorly or unclearly defined (Gordon 2017, Swain 2017). The paper will thus consider the question of precisely how mutual aid might be seen as prefigurative by discussing it in relation to different approaches to prefiguration (from Swain 2017): First, ends-guided prefiguration, which seeks to match to ends, second ends-effacing prefiguration, which posits an identity or indistinguishability between means, and a 'proleptic' approach, in which present action involves a kind of 'acting out' of future possibilities. Considering these concepts together will help to shed light on the most appropriate uses of both of them in contemporary politics.
References:
Franks, B (2006) Rebel Alliances: The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms. Oakland, CA: AK Press
Gordon, U (2008) Anarchy Alive: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.
Gordon, U (2017) “Prefigurative Politics between Ethical Practice and Absent Promise”, Political Studies, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0032321717722363
Swain, D (2017) “Not Not but Not yet: Present and Future in Prefigurative Politics”, Political Studies, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0032321717741233

 

Zona Zaric: Compassion and Solidarity

Starting from Adam Smith’s insights in The Theory of Moral Sentiments on the inherent sensibility of people to the “fortunes of others”, and building on Martha C. Nussbaum’s work on emotions (Nussbaum, 2001), this research aims to show how compassion - the faculty to imaginatively dwell, experience and feel with others - can serve as a foundation for a universalistic understanding of civil and political society tending towards the normative frontier of human solidarity. This presents serious difficulties inasmuch as compassion is often loosely (mis)understood as coterminous with pity, empathy, mercy or charity, a blending of meanings that obscures its distinctiveness as a concept, and its power as a building block for the political-philosophical aim of living the good life, with and for others, under just institutions (Ricoeur, 1990). Compassion, etymologically derived from the Hebrew rahamin (the trembling womb of a birthing mother), and the Latin com passio (to suffer or experience with) flows from the human condition in its dual dimension, as a social condition (human beings are social beings inextricably bound to the fate of others), and an existential condition (we are all individually confronted, if to different degrees, to suffering, and universally to death). Compassion thus opens a pathway to breaking out of the Hobbesian assumption of competitive and clashing self-interests, and moving towards a collective project of living with and for others, learning how to deal with, and overcome, division and the negation of a shared humanity that flows from the construction of otherness and essentialized identities. Compassion is thus prior to morals and ethics, for which it forms the foundation. It constitutes the inner core of moral motivation and gives the impulse to selfless action, to the movement towards others that properly defines solidarity. There is a need today to rigorously found the argument that the care of “distant” human beings is paramount, taking compassion out of its individual context and expanding it to a broader social context. Compassion is a proper concern of the public realm, of politics, and it can be mobilized to found a common project (in contrast to a minimalist ethics of tolerance, which may make social life tolerable but does not make it good).