It would be a mistake to restrict bodies to the domain of the animal or living. Rocks are bodies, neutrinos are bodies, cats are bodies, corporations are bodies, planets are bodies. Bodies, as it were, come in a variety of forms, some of which are organic, some of which are social, some of which are inorganic. Moreover, bodies can be entangled with one another in a variety of ways. Bodies are what object-oriented ontologists refer to as “objects”, “things”, or “substances”. In his extraordinary forthcoming book, Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology, Tom Sparrow, while focusing on the human body, treats plasticity as the fundamental ontological determination of what makes a body a body. As Sparrow writes,
A body whose integrity is plastic is definable by its thresholds. This means… that its identity is constantly shifting and constituted by an indefinite and fragile disposition. This disposition will display typical effects or the potential for these effects will be virtually present, harbored in the body and actualizable under certain conditions. Shifts in identity or the compromising of bodily integrity can be induced by a breakdown in the body’s own maintenance or by pressures exerted by 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, neighborhood, or soccer team) and working together to reciprocally determine each individual body’s identity.
In the language of my variant of object-oriented ontology, onticology, these “indefinite and fragile dispositions” are what I call the “virtual proper being of an object”, the actualization that an object undergoes is what I call “local manifestations”, and these collectives of bodies or external forces interacting with the body are what I call “regimes of attraction”. If local manifestation is local, then this is because the properties or qualities a body comes to embody at a particular point in time are a function of the relation that body entertains to other bodies as well as processes going on within the body. For example, when a cool gust of wind passes across my body or my beloved playfully and teasingly caresses me, my skin prickles and gets goose bumps. My prickled skin is a local manifestation of its virtual proper being– those powers or dispositions to act in particular ways –while the cool air or teasing caress of my beloved are the regime of attraction in which this quality is actualized.
Sparrow thus emphasizes the essential elasticity of bodies or objects. As Sparrow writes, bodies are
…akin to the mechanics of elasticity. Elasticity can be understood on the model of the 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. Accordingly, it is not open to permanent deformation. Permanent deformation means breakage and the elimination of the precise disposition which constitutes the rubber band’s elasticity.
Better than even the analogy of the rubber band is the literal example of the stress ball that I discussed in a post on my beloved blue mug in March.
The stress ball does not have a form, but is rather formable. In this instance the regime of attraction belonging to stress ball in this instance is the hand that squeezes it. The local manifestations are the shapes that the stress ball comes to embody or actualize as a result of being squeezed, as well as the colors that it manifests in being squeezed. The virtual proper being that populates the ball consists of the open-ended dispositions, powers, or potentialities that delimit a range of transformations that the ball can undergo. It is virtual field, not any fixed or actualized form that the ball actually embodies, that defines the ball’s substantiality or being as an object.
Consequently, Sparrow will write that “[p]lasticity contrasts and designed to replace both malleability and substantiality. It is, at bottom, neither stability nor instability, but metastability” (my italics). The term “metastability”, drawn from Simondon and Deleuze, is a portmanteau combining “metamorphosis” and “stability”. It therefore refers to a style belonging to a series of transformations; a differential unity that inheres in these transformations. Here I would only quibble with Sparrow on his rejection of the term “substantiality”. The problem lies not with the concept of substantiality itself, but rather with how the concept of substantiality has been been conceptualized. All too often, both critics and defenders of the concept of substance have conceived it normatively as a fixed or idealized form that constitutes the “true being” of the substance. In the case of the stress ball, for example, the substantiality of the ball would be its round shape when it is not acted upon by anything else. Any deviation from this shape would be conceived as a deformation of its true form or substantiality. Yet the substantiality of an object or a body is not any of the actualized forms it happens to embody in its local manifestations, but is rather its dispositions, its powers, its virtual proper being, that defines a field of variations. Its substantiality is its metastability.
The metastability of a body or its virtual proper being is not fixed once and for all. Rather, the virtual proper being of objects is open ended. Indeed, this is a crucial aspect of the plasticity of objects. Plasticity denotes not simply the ability of objects to produce different local manifestations, but also the ability of objects to acquire new dispositions. Clearly there will be matters of degree here. It seems that rocks are much less able to acquire new dispositions than cats, dogs, corporations, or human beings. The degree to which different types of bodies can acquire new dispositions is an empirical question that cannot be answered a priori. It could be that only certain classes of entities are able to acquire new dispositions, while others are entirely fixed in their dispositions such that they only possess the first type of plasticity. We do not know in advance. In the case of human bodies, many animal bodies, ecosystems, and social entities like groups, institutions, cities, nations, and corporations, however, there is the ability to develop new dispositions capable of generating local manifestations that were not previously available to the entity. If I work out daily, I develop new powers of lifting and acting in the world. If I bounce daily on a trampoline or rebounder, the nature of my balance and poise changes. Through my activity of thinking, my very power of thought is transformed, such that my thought is not simply a local manifestation that originates in me, but is also a transformative power that makes me think, perceive, and feel differently than I was capable of doing before. Likewise, I am able to lose dispositions and powers as a result of neglect as well as the formation of new dispositions. In American History X, Ed Norton’s character’s encounter with the black man in prison as well as the hypocritical white supremacists in prison both generate new dispositions within him, while also leading to the disappearance of other dispositions within him. He no longer has the same affects when encountering people from other races, nor the same thought process, in the wake of this encounter. There are thus instances where metastability can itself be metastable. The degree and extent of this metastability of metastibility is a matter of debate. Yet we can conclude, with Spinoza, as Sparrow does, that “we do not know what a body can do.”
The relationship between metastable fields or virtual proper being, local manifestation, and regimes of attraction is also not hylomorphic in character. In other words, it is not a relation in which the regime of attraction merely imposes a fixed form on a body from the outside as in the case of a cookie cutter imposing form on a bit of dough. As Sparrow notes, Foucault, in his discussion of “docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish, sometimes speak as if the human body is a passive and formless medium that assemblages of power then impose form upon, transforming the undisciplined body into a clockwork soldier. While assemblages of power or networks of micropower certainly dream of this sort of hylomorphic model of formation, they are nonetheless doomed to failure. Other bodies in regimes of attraction, in exerting their force or influence on a body, must always navigate the structure and dispositions of the body they seek to form, such that they are never fully successful in imposing form on another body. This is what Freud taught us with respect to repression: repression is always accompanied by the return of the repressed. Repression strives to completely eradicate and silence a particular thought or desire, yet that thought and desire always returns in disguised form. The repressing agency passes through the medium of what it attempts to repress, and the repressed returns in a new form.
The thought of plasticity is deeply ecological in character. Many seem to have the mistaken view that ecology is the study of nature, the study of another realm outside of culture and society. Here, the story runs, we can set ecology aside if we wish to study culture and society. Yet this is a profound misunderstanding of what ecology is. In the first place, as Timothy Morton has argued, there is no Nature with a capital “N”. There is no world of “Nature” that exists over there and which is to be contrasted with the world of Culture with a capital “C”. No, there is just being, just the wilderness, where occasionally we come across human formations in much the same way we might happen across a beaver dam in the forest.
On the other hand, the characterization of ecology as the study of Nature fails to get at the determining feature of what constitutes the ecological. The ecological is not the study of Nature, but rather the study of bodies in relations with other bodies. If Pamela Joseph’s Sex Machines After Duchamp’s The Bride (2008) (right above) is profoundly ecological in inspiration, then this is because it depicts sexuality in its relational dimension, capturing the entanglements of human bodies, social codes, technologies, media images, etc. The ecological resides not in the natural but in the relational. Thus, the proper contrast for ecological thought is not cultural thought, but non-relational thought that fixates on the being of entities in isolation from other entities. By contrast, one thinks ecologically when she explores the plasticity of bodies, their local manifestations, as a function of the relations these bodies enter into.
Ecology is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of object-oriented ontology. OOO has become notorious for having the audacity to claim that objects or bodies are independent of their relations. Lurking in the background here is the charge that because OOO defends the non-relationality of bodies it is conservative, whereas those positions that defend the relationality of bodies are leftist. In my view, however, this muddles the whole issue. The point is not whether bodies are related or not related, but rather whether relations are internal or external. Can bodies break with their existing relations, or are they necessarily constituted by their relations. In this context, Harman, in a recent email discussion with me, pointed out that, in fact, if we reflect on the French Revolution, it was the relationists (the Burkeans) that fell on the conservative side of the spectrum, treating the social as an organic relational whole, while the leftists (the Jacobins) were non-relationists, holding that it is possible to break with existing social relations so as to form new relations.
The whole discussion boils down to whether one is an internalist or an externalist where relations are concerned. OOO does not deny relations. Indeed, I would argue that OOO– or, at least, my onticology –strives to formulate an ontology where it becomes possible to determine what difference relations make. Yet if relations are to make a difference, this can only be on the condition that they are external, that bodies can break with existing relations and enter into new relations, generating new local manifestations. Where relations are treated as internal such investigation makes no sense because entities are already their relations. What externalism draws attention to is the plasticity of objects as they pass in and out of relations. It thereby draws our attention to those regimes of attraction that stagnate and domesticate the volcanic metastable powers within our objects, calling us to map these regimes and devise paths of escape and transformation.