Dossier | Plasticity and Fragility

  • Matthew Barney, The Deportment of the Host, 2006. Photo: © Matthew Barney, courtesy Gladstone Gallery

Plasticity and Fragility
By Patrick Poulin

It is no coincidence that Walter Benjamin, angelic witness to late modernity, discusses the properties of glass in a text on experience. (1) This well-known essay is a meditation on the disarray and disillusionment that followed the World War I. According to Benjamin, people came back from war “poorer in communicable experience,”not so much because of the violence and the extent of the conflict, but because of a significant, qualitative leap in technological deployment at the time. Indeed, the early twentieth century saw the invention or large-scale deployment of the aeroplane, plastics (bakelite), radio, the phone, the automobile, the portable camera, chemical weapons (chlorine gas, mustard gas), the instrumentalization of mass media, and so on and so forth. It is as if the violence of World War I marked a technological break that transformed the world and the possibility of having communicable experiences within it, ushering in a century characterized by speed and dematerialization—effectively summed up in the phrase “roaring twenties.” Benjamin’s word for the era is barbarism, by which one is forced “to start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way; to begin with little and build up further.” (2) This barbarism is a constant construction from nothing, a contingent power that presents a singular rapport with fragility: resilient, gathering strength from destitution, this power only becomes fragile as it hardens.

Yet, with this barbarism or this poverty, Benjamin associates glass, a modern material if ever there was one—and one that leaves no trace. Glass is indefinitely in the present, a tabula rasa for sight or experience that prefigures McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message,” just as it prefigures real time and its networked monitors (a time we call, by extension, “live”). Glass connects as it vanishes; it unites by separating. As such, it also has to do with incommunicability, for it communicates through transparency, leading one to believe that communication is natural and immediate. As rigid as it may be, glass promotes “flow,” indifferent to the manifestations of meaning traversing it. Paradoxically, its incommunicable transparency renders it highly effective. Glass holds nothing, it lets information through while separating, prevents immediate physical contact while serving as an interface. Glass is hard and destructible, however, and one can’t easily understand how its fragility might represent that of our contemporaneity. We may nonetheless think of glass as the ancestor of plastic, and imagine glass and plastic not through the prism of the history of techniques and materials, but through a history of their usage and of what they reveal of contemporary political and spiritual life.

Peter Sloterdijk picks up on the Benjaminesque intuition of a break in history when, in a publication in which he presents the “atmospheric” dimension of the contemporary world,(3) he marks the start of the twentieth century as April 22, 1915—the first use of gas as a military weapon. For Sloterdijk, the moment represents a leap by which modernity ceases to be defined by the individual subject to become part of an atmospheric, environmental, and literally global dimension that becomes the driving force of industrialized societies. That which is said to be real also changes, along with the nature of fragility, which Sloterdijk defines as follows: “The fragile must be conceived as the locus and mode of that which is most real. One must show that the phenomenon that does not recur is of a higher-level than the serial.” (4) (Incidentally, this question is directly related to what motivates a large part of the work of Vanessa Beecroft, who, in an industrial configuration in the guise of a fashion show, stages series of human life figures to create a kind of commotion where the spectacle cancels out the individual trait. Beecroft’s performances exist somewhere between the concentration camp and the red carpet.)

That which doesn’t recur is also the most real (in the sphere of life and movement) and, for Sloterdijk, by a relationship of ontological necessity, greater environmental systems are more fragile and real than individual subjects. Individuals are part of a world that places them in a position of co-fragility: their own singularity is directly related to the reality and fragility of a unique world. That which is hard is all the more destructible, like identity, that “obvious prosthesis in an uncertain milieu,” (5) or like glass. Also, one must envisage other ways of experiencing fragility or singularity, “the most real.”

Sloterdijk speaks of our era in the following terms: “Where one deplored losses of form, one finds gains in mobility.” (6) How do we reconcile modern glass with our “atmospheric” era, innervated by ethereal processes? One must conceive a different material—plastic, “the material of all forms.” (7)

Plastic can take any form, and as such, is the material of our “era,” the medial and mediatized material, anonymous, and superficially smooth. In fact, one must add texture to change its ornamental quality, and in quite the same way as CGI (8) special effects, of which the best are those that incorporate phoney accidents, fudging the hyperrealism of digital rendering. By incorporating textures, plastic masks a generic quality.

Plastic is characterized by transitivity, impersonality, and functionality, to which we add a veneer of artificial singularity (false fragility or realism). These qualities bring it closer not only to computing but also to certain nondescript spaces, or non-spaces. (9) Plastic can certainly be hardened, rendering it destructible, but such vulnerability is particular to a set of usages and forms. For the prevailing impression is that plastic eliminates fragility (with some justification, plastic was associated with the idea of eternity in the 1920s). Contrary to glass, plastic is flexible, and its fragility is only accidental. Moreover, its generic perfection lends it a perceived quality of hygienic immunity, once and for all invalidating the dialectic of self and other, since the generic is particular to no one—no “self”; hence the need for individually sold prosthetic identities. Yet the generic is xenophobically hostile to the otherness of a “natural” singularity. It favours both endless sanitary checks and extensive surveillance of everything that might transgress limits defined by an empty power—empty monetary code, empty communications code, empty digital code—, a power that falsely presents itself as necessary and universal, even cosmopolitan. And plastic, as general material, partakes in such governance through empty code.

One must give artist Matthew Barney credit for highlighting plastic’s capacity for renewing or transcending forms, as plastic presages a semiotic materialism, a power capable of generating meaning from any material, far removed from dualisms of matter/form or form/content: in this work, form is material. Barney, to his credit, leeches from the empty code of communication to make it an aesthetic object in its own right, and the materials he uses are precisely those that participate in such code. He thus replaces honey, wax, and gold (whether that of alchemy or of Joseph Beuys) with concrete, plastic, and steel, weaving a gigantic and empty semiotic web, where he routinely draws from civilizational capitalism, biographical devices, and Christianity as from a semiotic oilfield. In Barney’s work, plastic is on equal footing with signs and icons, taking on a spiritual dimension, while signs take on a material one. This matrix of gestures allows Barney to transcend commonplace notions about plastic as material (polymers) to reveal its “spirit,” that is, its cultural and civilizational import. This aesthetic gesture remains ambiguous, however: on the one hand, Barney is simply making an enormous contribution to the world of art and to the empty code of communication; on the other, he is revealing its spirit and machinery, without irony or cynicism.

Now, how do we conceive fragility with respect to plastic? Plastic would seem to herald a world too supple to be vulnerable, relegating vulnerability and singularity to a zone beyond its purview. So? In fact, one could distinguish between two kinds of fragility: one that depends on empty code and finds strength in it, and another that resides outside the field delimited by walls or law.

If fragility is the locus and mode of that which is the most real, that is, the most singular, the most ephemeral, that which evades capture through recording, then one must admit that plastic announces a world that knows no fragility. Or rather, that only knows fragility within its empty code, following unshakable rules and laws. Such is the measure, I think, that one must apply to the aesthetic value of contemporary works and practices with respect to fragility: on the one hand, fragility with a safety harness; on the other, fragility that risks everything for nought, a monstrous singularity, erratic though lively.

One must therefore distinguish two plasticities. On the one hand is a plasticity that partakes in empty code and whose total-communication resembles the incommunicability of modern experience, epitomized in glass, or polymers. This plasticity favours flow and circulation, but within the limits of an empty code (which assigns a number to every position). It’s a kind of protective, transparent film, which unites as long as it divides or confines: a world of telecommunications.

This plasticity executes a program (no matter which), and it is in this sense that one can think of it in terms of “performance.” This plasticity’s fragility and reality principle are limited, since they are subordinate to an empty code that one must preserve at all cost—even if it means temporarily suspending the application of Law (even the Constitution).

On the other hand is a plasticity that does not partake of an empty code since it is a singular though impersonal power, able to determine its forms, but without referring itself or the latter to an empty digital code. This dark (or free) plasticity, I call plasmaticity. It is the world next door, without codes. It is real in intensity (and not in quantity) and is thus of a singular fragility.

Besides, a world in which plasticity eliminates fragility, singularity, and the most real, is a world that increasingly resembles a game. The transition from a work society to a game society was recently announced and the underlying ideas presented in several publications on cognitive or immaterial capitalism, or on the economy of experience, the “experiential” economy. (10) In this computerized world of immaterial capitalism, work mixes homogeneously with leisure, which naturally affects the singular life of individuals, as it does the tenor of cultural production. McKenzie Wark for his part uses the expression gamespace to designate our contemporary world, associating it with a “military-entertainment complex”: “Ever get the feeling you’re playing some vast and useless game whose goal you don’t know and whose rules you can’t remember? . . . Welcome to gamespace. It’s everywhere, this atopian arena, this speculative sport. . . . You can go anywhere you want in gamespace but you can never leave it.” (11)

That which is fragile and singular cannot recur without being different: “it” eschews digitization and binary code precisely because it is impossible to process. Gamespace also manages a plasticity that eliminates fragility, with a penchant for neutralization (against intensity), comfort (against cruelty), and security. It’s highly paradoxical, for one rediscovers the barbaric power of glass, a magic that always starts from zero, but with the one of a code that allows complete flexibility. By eliminating fragility, it is the intense singularity and cruelty of life that is eliminated, leaving in place a synthetic real that only tolerates performances, in another words, anything, as long as it can be referred to an empty code (money and profitability, communications, the world of art or spectacle).

It is on this field that artists have already begun to fight, often without knowing it, in what appears to be a truly immaterial civil war. Not surprising that it is so “cool” to be an artist or a rock star, to have a creative temperament, to confuse individuality and singularity. For it’s most often a question of producing works that enter the world of art like so many sterile fireflies (measured in moneyed or media capital, whether by stockbrokers or patrons). The real strength of singular forms resides in a fragility that is a plasmatic power, a capacity for reality and shared intensity: this power is transformative, unquantifiable, and can take any form. It is a “barbarism” incapable of performance and it transcends the scope of an art vouched for by peers, since it is anyone’s.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

1. Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty” [Erfahrung und Armut], trans. Rodney Livingston, in ed. Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 2 1927-1934 (Cambridge London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 731-736. Conceptually, this text is a companion to his less famous “Little History of Photography,” (trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, 507-530) as well as to the spectacularly well-known “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” On the “angelic” nature of Benjamin’s thought, see “On the Concept of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, in ed. Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 4 1938-1940(Cambridge London: Harvard University Press, 2003), 389-400.
2. Benjamin, 732. Incidentally, the concept partly overlaps with what Freud called Unheimliche, the “uncanny,” as early as 1906. The prevalence of the fantastical and of spiritualism at the end of the nineteenth century has often been associated with technological discoveries of the time, particularly photography.
3. Peter Sloterdijk, Sphères III: Écumes, sphérologie plurielle (Paris: Hachette Littératures, 2005).
4. Sloterdijk, 34.
5. Sloterdijk, 174.
6. Sloterdijk, 20.
7. As the Du Pont corporation claimed at the beginning of the twentieth century in a slogan that was appropriated and propagated by Bakelite in the 1920s.
8. Computer-Generated Imagery.
9. Indeed, computer science rests above all on an empty code that can take any form, regardless of interfaces and content; in fact, one must give it a form artificially. Non-spaces function in a similar fashion, particularly commercial non-spaces. They aim for transitivity (that is, profitability), but they must be attractive as servicing areas. One notes this contradiction in restaurants, where clients must be at ease, but not linger, the flow of clients adequately, even perfectly consistent, and the non-space both impersonal and inviting.
10. See Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2000); Yann Moulier Boutang, Le Capitalisme cognitif (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2007).
11. McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1. Wark borrows the complex, military-entertainment concept from Brenda Laurel (see section 79).

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