Biological Plasticity and Performative Possibility
Recent developments in neuroscience carry revolutionary implications for our understanding of subjectivity, confirming and nuancing postmodern theories of being as a continuous process of becoming, the self as always-already in flux. In Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Catherine Malabou theorizes the promise of biological plasticity: “It is striking to note that neuronal plasticity—in other words, the ability of synapses to modify their effectiveness as a result of experience—is a part of genetic indetermination. We can therefore make the claim that plasticity forms where DNA no longer writes.” By paying attention to our own biological plasticity, we can begin to become aware of the multiple bodily instincts influencing us at any time, and to dispense with the false sense of a unified consciousness or will. De-hierarchized, “the organism” becomes the total unity of body (including brain). De-unified, the organism becomes a multiplicitous system of autonomously functioning entities (second brain in the gut, self-reprogramming cells, etc.). As Malabou writes, “the concept of plasticity is well suited to describing a certain arrangement of being…Plasticity refers to the spontaneous organization of fragments. As we shall see, today the nervous system presents the clearest, most striking model of this type of organization.” I argue that embodied performance practices – particularly “autobiological” performances – produce a heightened awareness of biological plasticity, to potentially transformative ends.
A few years ago I participated in an intensive interdisciplinary performance workshop, Autobiology: Biology and Biography in Live Performance, with Helen Paris and Leslie Hill of the California-based performance company Curious. Paris and Hill are in the process of developing what they call an “autobiology methodology,” which involves scaling back higher-order cognitive processes in order to progressively tap into the experience of one’s own biology: primal animal instincts and bodily desires, intuition, and deeply held memories and affects. Throughout the four-month workshop we devised performances using autobiographical and biological material, and practiced techniques for generating text, movement, sound, and visual imagery with a focus on the senses. We actively privileged “the body” over “the brain” – though we also continually critiqued that binary, exploring how “the brain” is part of “the body,” there are multiple “brains” within the body, and the body’s borders are permeable and in flux. My experiences in the workshop showed me that, through attempting to de-privilege higher-order brain processes (via meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices), it is possible to begin to experience the subtexts and subtleties of what one’s body is “saying” and become cognitively aware of biological processes.
Combining methods of autoethnography, phenomenology, and political philosophy, I read my experience of Paris and Hill’s Autobiology Methodology through Malabou’s philosophy of biological plasticity and my framework of biological performativity. With a spontaneous performative production of physiological sensations and emotional states, cognition-based narrative story is supplanted by physiological expression as narrative – the body telling its story through action, existence as performance. The question remains, of course, as to whether a direct (unmediated, non-metaphoric, non-symbolic) awareness of biological process and performance of plasticity is possible. There is the problem of authentically accessing conscious experience of one’s own biological plasticity: if the body is speaking, can we hear it? A performance of biological plasticity made conscious – gesturing toward unmediated, bare experience – is perhaps impossible, yet this does not mean that the drive to do so should be abandoned. If it is possible, it is potentially through performative creation: a “consciousness” of biological plasticity has to be performed, because it doesn’t exist in itself, but only through the process-oriented enactment of its own (temporary, fleeting, shifting, transformable) existence.
Katie Schaag is an artist and scholar who works with text, audio, video, performance, and installation. Her work investigates identity, performativity, artifice, plasticity, power dynamics, and queering genders. She has performed in Montreal, Quebec, at Stanford University’s Performance Studies International Conference, and at the Chazen Museum of Art (Madison, WI), and she recently concluded a four-month performance project with Spatula & Barcode’s Café Allongé at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Wisconsin Triennial. Her work has been exhibited at Co-Prosperity Sphere (Chicago, IL), Little Berlin (Philadelphia, PA), Commonwealth Gallery (Madison, WI), i^3 Hypermedia (Chicago), Madison Public Library, and University of Tennessee Downtown Gallery in Knoxville. Her work has been published by Ugly Ducking Presse (Brooklyn, NY) and Requited Journal (Chicago, IL), and her short play Sea-Socket Root-Extrication was recently staged at Hemsley Theatre in Madison, WI. She is also part of a collaborative art-making team, SALYER + SCHAAG. She is currently working on a PhD in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and researching performativity, plasticity, and intersections of scholarly inquiry and creative practice. She recently co-founded a regional branch of the international research network Performance Philosophy and received a grant for a Performance Philosophy interim event. She also co-organizes an A.W. Mellon Workshop, “Art and Scholarship, in Theory and Practice,” at UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities, and has co-convened experimental roundtables at PSi and M/MLA. Her work is influenced by a vast network of affinities within theatre, poetry, performance art, film, music, dance, and social practice. Her signature style is multi-sensory (textures, scents, tastes, sounds), multi-media, text-based, immersive, and participatory. Fantasy, play, mystery, melancholia, juxtaposition, and fluidity are key aspects of her work. http://katrinaschaag.wordpress.com/