Plasticity Everywhere

We live in the age of plasticity.

The most obvious form is psychological. Plasticity is driving a lot of neuroscience right now, as well as the cognitive-behavioral emphasis on habit formation. Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2012) codified this trend for a wider audience, but the real hero here is Wendy Wood: her work on consumer habits undergirds Duhigg’s book and she keeps plugging away (side note: the Sept. 2015 Annual Review of Psychology includes one of her more recent articles on this topic, “Psychology of Habit”). The therapeutic correlate to all this, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), works precisely because it harnesses the brain’s inherent plasticity.

Neuroscience and psychology are obvious domains, but the term “plasticity” is invading other disciplines.

In an Oct 2014 Issue of Nature, Kevin Laland and his colleagues presented a modified version of evolution, termed “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES). EES re-works standard evolution theory (SET) by incorporating the emphasis on ecological adaptation that has been the focus of more recent evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”) (162). Laland argues that SET is too “geno-centric,” whereas EES does justice to the ability of individuals to “respond to their environment by changing their form–a phenomenon called plasticity.” The effects of plasticity can have long-term effects, eventually selecting for “genetic variants” that “cement” the adaptive behavior (163). That is, genetic mutation can in many cases be traced back to the ingenious behavior of individuals rather than vice versa.

And now there are hints that even novelists are making use of plasticity. This week I read Richard Power’s 2014 novel, Orfeo, which follows the rise and fall of Peter Els, a musician-turned-biohacker. The novel is about art, taste, and the relationship of those terms to natural life. What’s so remarkable about Orfeo is that, in the process of figuring these relationships out, Powers offers a kind of aesthetic of plasticity.

To do this, Powers frames discussions of art in terms of habit. For example, the musician Els discovers “late in life … that the time to concentrate yourself was right before sunrise.” He hammers out a “routine” that induces peak creativity–a discovery that, he laments, could have worked wonders on his earlier, more puerile version of himself.

It’s when he performs this routine one morning that he comes across another physical specimen, a young woman who runs “like an anatomy lecture” and is “preternaturally desirable”–a kind of reconstructed nymph. As a musician, Els immediately focuses on the fact that her earbuds play an important role in this morning ritual. And so, as she runs circles around the ageing musician, he tries to figure out her taste in music. Consumerism, daily routine, and art become intertwined.

This jogging scene allows Powers to explore the impact of individual behavior on modern taste. Els decides that the woman’s routine is built around breaking away from the rhythms of nature (here represented by sounds from the surrounding trees & a particularly insistent bird) to remain within a contented bubble–her playlist. It’s here, in this protective coating, that she can perfect her own body. In terms of plasticity, this suggests two things. First, Els’s refined taste is normalized by Nature, whereas consumer-driven, appetitive taste is purely self-referential. Second, inferior, self-referential taste drives the process of habit formation in everyday consumers. The problem, according to Els the musician, is that the female runner has crafted a self (through an exercise regimen) that remains insensitive to the rhythms of the world.

This consumerist bubble offers a foil to the EES/SET debate in Nature. Whereas the EES theorists claim plasticity pays homage to the relationship between individuals and their habits within local ecologies, Orfeo shows that, for modern humans, plasticity breaks the individual away from locality. Becoming more plastic means becoming more impenetrable.

However, the great irony that emerges later on in Orfeo is that, in an attempt to awake consumers out of their appetitive and consumer-obsessed misery, Els attempts to subtly improve their routine by nudging them. Nudging is the artist’s attempt to bring the individual back into a relationship with their natural ecology. The first form of nudging is by music. Sitting in a coffee house, Els scans the oblivious, ear-phoned teenagers who nonetheless remain susceptible to the “spell of something” cast by a piece of sophisticated classical music playing in the background. The second, more obvious form of nudging is by using a form of genetic manipulation (I assume CRISPR, but Powers doesn’t say) to insert a musical composition into the DNA of living bacteria. Els’s aim is to both bring the art to life but–as a necessary consequence–propagate it through pathogenic colonization. The ceaseless reproductive cycle of the bacteria works as an analog to the musical composition seeping through the coffee house speakers. In both cases the art penetrates consumers, who remain unaware.

What seems ironic about Els’s search for aesthetic purity is that he begins with the belief that real taste adheres to the rhythms of life, but when communicating that taste to others the artist must somehow violate their self-constructed spheres. 21st-Century aesthetics becomes a matter of hacking the self-hackers. 


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