Issue 2/2013 - Unruhe der Form

The living room: Hospitality and plasticity

Catherine Malabou

„Plasticity“, in its nominal form, is etymologically linked to two older words, the substantive „plastic“, and the adjective „plastic“. All three words are derived from the Greek „plassein“ which means „to model“ or „to mould. “ „Plastic“, as an adjective, has two meanings. On the one hand, it means „to be susceptible to changes of form“ or „to be malleable. “ Clay, by virtue of its capacity to receive form, would be „plastic“. On the other hand, „plastic“ also means „having the power to bestow form“. In the expressions „plastic surgery“ or „the plastic arts“ which include the sculptural and ceramic arts, „plastic“ refers to the capacity to assign form. The term „plasticity“ describes the nature of that which is plastic, capable both of receiving and of giving form.
We have certainly not yet exhausted plasticity’s range of meanings, which continues to evolve with and in language. Think, for example, of all the various forms of „plastic“ in our world, for example plastic wood, plastic money (hence the expression „to pay with plastic“), plastic paint and plastic explosives [le plastic], the dangerous plastic putty-like material that can be shaped by hand. The very meaning of plasticity itself appears to be plastic, mapped somewhere between two extremes. On one hand, plasticity describes the crystallization of form (as is suggested both by the substantive uses of the term and by the expression „plastic arts“). On the other hand, plasticity appears diametrically opposed to form, describing the very annihilation of concrete form (suggested by the unstable and destructive character of „plastic explosives“).
I will here try to make use of the concept of plasticity to elaborate on the concept of cosmopolitanism, and propose a critical articulation of the three terms „cosmopolitanism, “ „globalisation, “ and „nationalism“, as well as the question which follows of place and of the fitting-out of space. I will then confront plasticity with what Lévinas and Derrida, in particular, have thought out by way of the problem of hospitality.

The concept of hospitality immediately makes the difference between cosmopolitanism and globalisation resonate. Cosmopolitanism, defined by Kant as the possibility for man to become a citizen of the world, implies an ethics of the unconditional welcome of the other. Unlike a structure such as this of being open to otherness, globalisation would signify on the contrary the rule of the same, and the becoming identical of the world. In a sense, and according to a paradox that is only apparent, both globalisation and nationalism in this way refer to the logic of an identitarian hegemony, the imposition of an identical model or an identical idiom. We will leave to one side the very important question of the differences in the comprehension of the word „cosmopolitanism“ on the part of Kant, Lévinas and Derrida, so as to content ourselves with laying stress on the equivalence between universal hospitality and the resistance to the rule of the identical. Unlike globalisation, cosmopolitanism would refer to the logic of an impossible identitarian hegemony, the impossible closing in on the self, or in other words, the logic of a hospitable self-other relation.
To speak of hospitality implies that we conceptualise „ (the) dwelling“ [l’habitation]. If, in the work of the philosophers, it is difficult to find reflections and remarks on design strictly speaking, they do allude to the problems of fitting-out space and the organisation of the house. In this way, we deduce from Lévinas’s work a series of reflections on the layout [disposition] of rooms [pièces] and the arrangement of things, on the notion of „interior,” on furniture, comments about so many subjects that I will list them under the label „living room“ [living room], the life-space. To the ethical and political concept of hospitality corresponds quite naturally a cosmopolitical form of the living room, a hospitable arrangement of everyday objects, a lay-out which should be confused neither with the global standardisation of design nor with the domestic household space of the little woman, considered as a microcosm of nationalist space.
So, in a sense, if the question of cosmopolitanism as the two-fold resistance to globalisation, on the one hand, and to parochialism, on the other hand, is already set out and dealt with via the concept of hospitality, and if, at the same time, this very same concept helps us to think the living room as the concrete site of this resistance, we’re done with our subject.
However, I would like to show that something resists this treatment of resistance, and that something resists not hospitality as such but its structure such as it is defined by contemporary philosophers. The structure in question holds together the „transcendental“ principle, if you like, of hospitality and its „empirical“ implementation as the fitting-out of the home or the arrangement of the living room.
As I will point out, the resistance to resistance, one that concerns both parts of this structure, is motivated by the question of plasticity. In order to introduce this theme, I must first of all emphasise the way in which the philosophers characterise, to be more precise, the impossible closing in on the self of cosmopolitanism.
For Lévinas, as we know, it is the whole of subjectivity itself which is defined as, and by means of, the welcome of the other. The other is originally more present to me than my own self and this is why hospitality highlights above all else the ontological reality of an otherness older than identity, a reality which prevents any closure [cloture] of the identity in question on its own self. Derrida says in Adieu to Emmanuel Lévinas (1999): „The subject is a host (hôte) “ (p. 55) which means also that the subject is a „hostage“ (hôte) (p. 55): the subject comes after the other, answering to the other, answering for the other. Derrida goes on: „the host [hôte] is a hostage insofar as he is a subject put into question, obsessed (and thus besieged), persecuted, in the very place where he takes place [dans le lieu meme où il a lieu], where, as emigrant, exile, stranger, a guest [hôte] from the beginning, he finds himself elected to or taken up by a residence [élu à domicile] before himself electing or taking one up [élire domicile] “ (p. 56). Playing with the double meaning of the French word „hôte” which can signify both host and guest, Derrida says once more that „we must be reminded of this implacable law of hospitality: the hôte who receives (the host), the one who welcomes the invited or received hôte (the guest), the welcoming hôte who considers himself the owner of the place [propriétaire des lieux], is in truth a hôte received in his own home“ (p. 41).
If cosmopolitanism cannot merge with globalisation, it is because far from originating in a substantial self-sufficiency, cosmopolitanism on the contrary responds in its organisation to a visit, the very first visit of the other person. Cosmopolitanism receives a visit, and it is precisely the transcendental memory of this first visit which destines it to be a non-finite opening. For Levinas and Derrida alike, this mark carries the name „trace“. Cosmopolitanism responds in its structure to the ethical injunction of the past as the fact of the other’s passage [passage], that is, as the „trace“.
Well, I would like to insist on this point precisely: it is clear that hospitality, which also engages a design of the trace, is thought by Lévinas and Derrida alike as a „counter“ to plasticity. Both in its concept and in its concrete implementation, hospitality, as Levinas understands it, is not plastic. That is, hospitality in no way obeys form’s work, where we understand by that the receiving and the giving of form or its annihilation. Both in its appearance and its destruction alike, form always appears to shut out otherness. Form, is always the form of the same, the sign of a refusal to welcome. On principle, a form would not be hospitable; it would remain of the order of self-identity even when it explodes: terrorism is always identitarian.
It is a question of precisely defining hospitality as that which is held outside the form and formless opposition, what Derrida clearly defines as the effect of the threshold [effet de seuil]. The threshold has always been overstepped, surmounted by the Other whose immemorial passivity cannot take shape, cannot be put together in an image. The threshold is the mark of the household’s non-plasticity, a foreword which introduces the book without summing it all up.

Corresponding to the effect of the threshold is its material organisation. In the house, it is the living room as a whole, the entire space of life, that is to be conceptualised as a threshold, a place [lieu] of passage or of transit, where each object, each room [pièce], appears as the trace of another room or of another object. In Lévinas’s work, the two constitutive axes of the structure of hospitality, transcendental and empirical, both obey a principle of substitution. If it is true that the subject is always both host and hostage, this means that this truth applies to every other, that the other is capable, by right, of taking the place of every possible other [est toujours substituable, en droit, à n’importe quel autre]. „A defecting or defeat of the ego’s identity […],“ says Levinas. „It is a substitution for another, one in the place of [à la place de] another“ (Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, p. 15). To this principle of substitution corresponds the concrete layout of the living room, a layout which reflects the capacity to replace and to be replaced [cette substituabilité] in the arrangement of furniture and other objects. In the household space, economic substitution corresponds to ethical substitution: the host and the furniture [meubles] alike have in common the capacity to be exchanged; the fact of not having any essential value. The French word „meuble“ not only signifies „furniture“ but also „movable“, that which lets itself be taken away, swept away, moved. Household furnishings or movables [les meubles] set up a concrete principle of convertibility, they are exchanged, bought, resold or repaired.
The life-space is thus structured by a double dynamic of substitution, ethical and material, which operates in such a way that nothing remains in its place [à sa place] and that everything is held [se tient] always on the threshold of its disappearance. The two convertibilities, ethical and material, are not antithetical. They do not contradict each other because they are in fact based on the same law: the inconvertibility of the trace into form.
At first sight, we don’t notice the commonalities between ethical substitution and economic substitution or exchange. Even so, Lévinas insists on their complicity, which is the impossibility of settling into a form. „Beneath form, “ says Lévinas, „things conceal themselves“ (Totality and Infinity, p. 192). Just as the Other’s face [visage] is reducible neither to its countenance or expression [figure] nor to its figural mode of presentation [figure], the essence of things is irreducible to their plastic appearance. Objects also resist in their own way the formal rule of the identical. It seems to me – it is a question that I’m directing to the specialists – that this rejection of form in the name of the trace has reigned supreme over the art of the second half of the 20th century, over painting, architecture and design in particular. If I had to try to find an illustration of this principle, I would choose, under the form of horror and of caricature (and also so we can have a laugh) the film The Shining. For me, this film stages the war between the inclination towards hegemonic domination (the father who always writes the same thing) and the resistance of the completely other (the son who has the „shining“, that is, who hears someone else). It is striking to see how every single spatial lay-out in which the war between paranoia and schizophrenia unfolds is made up of effects of the threshold, never effects of forms: rooms, corridors, labyrinths, traces in the snow. Is it not the case that the contemporary scene or place of hospitality is basically always a hotel?
The Shining is perhaps the extreme staging of what we could call the „graphic aesthetic“ which has given rise to so much artistic activity. Crossings and passages, journeys and displacements [déplacements], lines and markings, erasures, formal undoings; always dismissed by the figurative reaction. We need to draw attention to the fact that the vocabulary of difference, with an „e“ or with an a“, always privileges the dynamic of graphic marks and spacing on the one hand, over the dynamic of transformation, metamorphosis, or formal configuration, on the other. Deconstruction signifies, first and foremost, the deconstruction of form.
One could however say that deconstruction would have found, in plastic at least, its most faithful expression, the material „hôte“ – both host and guest – most worthy of the concept of hospitality. For is not plastic the substitutable material par excellence? Can it not take the place of every thing, can it not deconstruct every idea of authenticity, is it not always engaged in the process of its own disappearance? Is it not always beyond or short of its very own form because it can change?
But no, we must draw attention to this fact, the plastic has never appealed to the philosophers. Roland Barthes alone has devoted to it a short chapter of Mythologies. Plastic, according to him, embodies „the very idea of […] infinite transformation. “ Possessing endless possibilities, with a protean ability to assume any imaginable shape, plastic’s „proliferating forms of matter“ triggers perpetual amazement. Barthes warns, however, that plastic’s ability to become anything at all may reduce anything to nothing by dissolving all differences. He concludes that, with the advent of plastic as a universal solvent, „the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized“. I think that Barthes’s worry regarding plastic’s ability to dissolve differences can be widened to hospitality in general. Because plastic never presents itself without form, plastic is always thought as a factor of identification, standardisation, globalisation, and never as a possible welcome of the other.
We see moreover how, with Kubrick still, plastic design is the bearer of death. In Clockwork Orange, the murder weapon is most often a plastic object [un objet en plastic], whether we’re thinking of the white plastic walking stick with its hidden dagger or the sculptured penis.
We must conclude, then, that hospitality necessarily and resolutely involves a principle of anti-plastic protection, which allows it to keep otherness beyond the reach of form. Form would run the risk of destroying transcendence by integrating it into a synthetic whole.
But what does „beyond the reach“ mean? What is it that must remain intact? Lévinas speaks of the alterity’s inviolable, still virginal, character. He underlines „the absolute surplus of the other with respect to the same“ (Totality and Infinity, 97) it’s „inexhausible“ [inépuisable] energy. Well, it is in relation to this question of the inexhaustible, of the intact, and of virginity that I would like to pose the problem of the resistance to resistance, and that I would like to call into question the inconvertibility of the trace into form.
To affirm the existence of something that remains inconvertible, whatever this may be, is to affirm that this very something does not enter into the game of substitution, remaining outside of the circle, holding itself separate from the economy. The inconvertible responds to the logic that Derrida calls „an-economy“. Consequently, basing substitution, as the law of hospitality, on something that remains inconvertible thus, on a non-substitutable entity, is an untenable paradox which in my view undermines, from within, the very concept of hospitality itself.
In effect, if the trace is considered to be absolutely inconvertible, utterly resistant to the play of exchanges, to circulation, to the economy of presence, then it becomes substantial. It is no longer a trace, but a substance. If the trace does not play into the hands of its own conversion, that is, if, in a certain sense, it resists its own effacement, if it is not plastic, then it is no longer precisely a trace. I do not support the idea of the inconvertibility of the trace.

There is nothing inconvertible.
The assertion of inconvertibility lies, for Marx, at the heart of fetishism. On the face of it, the fetish always occurs outside the operation of exchange, outside the market. From then on, when otherness is fetishized by its resistance to plasticity, when hospitality continues to be thought as the „counter“ to plasticity or, in other words, against form, it is no longer possible to distinguish cosmopolitanism rigorously from hyper-capitalism.

Thinking out the relation between cosmopolitanism and place thus requires thinking out another sort of relation between hospitality, on the one hand, and form and convertibility, on the other, a relation within which nothing escapes transformation, or the operation of exchange. We need, in the wake of deconstruction, to bring the trace up to date. In a manner that would prevent the trace’s non-deconstructed sanctification, we need to think out more carefully the relation between the trace and form, and more specifically, the nature of the trace’s necessary convertibility into form.
It is not a question of denying the inexhaustible and limitless character of alterity. Any form of resistance supposes the limitless, which originates from somewhere else, the exotic energy of a surplus of force. It is a question quite simply of pointing out that the economy of the inexhaustible, far from opposing plasticity’s sphere of activity, in fact defines it.
Form’s three-fold game – the giving, the receiving, and the annihilation of form – does not in effect refer to three separate operations which would describe, first of all, the imposition of form onto a material, secondly, the manner in which this material is then determined by the imprint, thirdly and finally, the unjustifiable and incomprehensible act of terrorism which completely annihilates form. In actual fact, it is a question of one single movement which combines formation and destruction, and this movement is precisely that of the regeneration of the inexhaustible or the limitless. In biology, plasticity refers to the capacity possessed by some living beings, for example, the salamander, of regenerating their amputated body parts. The Australian lizard Eastern Blue-tongues, when threatened, may discard their tail. The tail stump rapidly heals and a regenerated tail grows back after a while. Plasticity designates the capacity to regenerate form itself. Today, we know that these regenerative capacities exist in all organisms by virtue of stem cells. Regeneration, the emergence of form – the form of a new limb, of a new organism, or of a new cell – coincides with the erasure of the trace: the trace of the wound, the trace of the former cellular state. This movement of regeneration combines both formation and destruction, the birth of a new form and the decline of another.
There is a park in Japan, the Yoro park, that has been designed by the artists Arakawa and Madeline Gins. This park is referred to as „the site of reversible destiny“. It is a space made up of (what the artists call) “landing sites“. Each site is structured by two slopes; one goes towards the past, the other towards the future. Visitors are thus free to interpret the structure in the light of their own experiences. Onlookers can turn their destinies around, by returning to their infancy, or by advancing in age, or by doing both together, regenerating themselves, as it were. In their book, Architectural Body, the artists tell us that the park presents itself as „an open challenge to our species to reinvent itself. “ It is a question of implementing an architectonic of regeneration by means of different types of forms and furnishings, forms and furnishings that would function much like architecture’s stem cells.
To bring this paper to a conclusion, let’s return to the double principle of hospitality marked out in Lévinas, a transcendental principle and an empirical blueprint for the fitting-out of the living room. A layout for plastic hospitality would take up once again the articulation of the two planes of substitution, the first ethical, the second material, but the layout would base itself on, and not against, the convertibility of the trace into form. The resistance to capitalism never consists in affirming the existence of something that remains inconvertible . On the contrary, we agreed with Marx: everything is substitutable, everything is replaceable.
The resistance consists rather in attempting to distinguish, in convertibility, two processes which are outwardly very similar: plasticity and flexibility. Flexibility, however, refers only to the movement of the receiving of form, and merges with pure and simple adaptability. Plasticity, by virtue of its capacity to give form, refers to an adaptability which obeys its own norms, a suppleness which at the same time resists docility. To be flexible is to receive form, to allow the imprint, to be able to be bent without breaking. Flexibility means giving in and not giving; it means being docile, not exploding. Flexibility lacks, in effect, the very means for the giving of form; it lacks the power of creating, of inventing and thus also of erasing an imprint. Flexibility is plasticity but without its genius.

And so, we will no longer oppose trace and form. We will oppose plasticity on the one hand, with plasticity’s ideological avatar, its embodied misadventure, on the other, while admitting that we will never be able to know for sure whether being hospitable means being plastic or merely being adaptable or flexible. But, after all, why not attempt to give form to this hesitation?