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Sebastian Rand “Organism, normativity, plasticity”

Rand, Sebastian 2011. Organism, normativity, plasticity: Canguilhem, Kant, Malabou. Continental Philosophy Review, 44(4): 341-357.

[…] the organism itself is the only available authority for the establishment of its biological norm. The pathological is not to be thought of as logically posterior to the physiological, but as that through which the physiological (as normal function) first announces itself; the normal only becomes distinct from the pathological when the functioning or activity of the organism orients itself toward leaving a current devalued state and achieving a valued different state. The name for an organic functioning or activity that is not normal, and that has normalcy as its goal (even if this goal is not achieved), is ‘‘pathology.’ (344)

It is the disease, as reaction, that first establishes the very normality or normative activity of the healthy state from which it is the departure. In this sense, ‘‘disease is not merely the disappearance of a physiological order but the appearance of a new vital order,’’ the establishment of a new norm. (344)

Canguilhem does notclaim that there is some original healthy state the re-achievement of which, or the return to which, is the true stable goal of the organism’s activity. The aim of the activity of the living is not the restitution of an original state, but ‘‘repairs which are really physiological innovations.’’ It is in this sense that ‘‘there is no disorder, there is the substitution for an expected or loved order of another order which either makes no difference or from which one suffers.’’ (345)

[…] subordinate variety of normativity can also look like a potential basis for a reduction of all organic normativity to norm-following normativity alone. On such a reductive approach, the alleged norm-establishing capacity of an organism is really just an ability to change themeansit employs to achieve an endnot itself selected by the organism; the various norms the organism is capable of establishing would thus all be subordinate technical tools for conforming to some ultimately authoritative norm established for the organism from the start. (345)

In claiming that there is an ‘‘original normative character of life’’ and that ‘‘life is a normative activity,’’ Canguilhem is claiming that the norm-guided and norm-establishing activity of the organism indeed aims at a supreme, fixed good: the preservation and expansion of the organism’s normestablishing capacity as such. (346)

On the one hand, norm-following can only count as such if the organism must act to keep itself in conformity with the norm; but it only needs to do so if it is violating it. Similarly, norm-establishing occurs precisely in reaction to the failure of the organism to maintain the already-established norm. Thus both normfollowing and norm-establishing are activities in response to violations of given conditions. (348)

[…] it is not just one or another norm that is subject to violation, but the animal’s norm-establishing itself that can be tested. Thus, whatever positive character we might have been inclined to attribute to norm-establishing normativity is now wholly eliminated by Canguilhem, in favor of a conception of normativity on which the condition of possibility for organic normativity in general is the possibility of failure. (349)

[…] the ‘‘finality’’ of the norm—its unifying function in relation to the organism and organism’s activity—is not a ‘‘real ontological finality’’ that would replace the ‘ought’ of the norm with an ‘is’ and convert Canguilhem’s position into a traditional teleological metaphysics; it is rather only ‘‘a possible, operative finality.’’ It is thus a normativity that can serve its organism-constituting function only by being removed from natural existence. And in fact, this removal of normativity from the natural realm—in the midst of an effort to demonstrate precisely an ‘‘original normative character of life’’—is not just (and perhaps only metaphorically) spatial, but temporal as well. (350)

Ontologically speaking, the norm that is violated does not exist at all, on Canguilhem’s view, and so certainly does not preexist its violation; at best it is only retroactively established by the organism itself as having-been-in-force just when it is violated, that is, when the organism establishes a new norm in its place. In other words, Canguilhem’s recourse to a conception of the norm or rule as essentially non-real, non-actual, non-present allows him to claim that the norm violatedwill have beenin effect just in case another, different norm is established later. Thus, the norm-establishing activity of the organism establishes both which norm was violated and which norm is in force now; such temporally non-natural ordering can be attributed to the autonomy of the organism only to the extent that it is itself essentially constituted by a relation to the non-natural. (350)

[…] organic autonomy seems to involve a temporal ordering unlike anything in nature. Thus, Canguilhem grounds his account of natural life and normativity ‘‘in the fullest sense’’ in the organism’s essential relation to what is non-existent, that which is beyond nature, that which cannot be confronted as an objectwithinthat experience, that which cannot be observed. The natural organism is essentially normative if and only if the normative is essentially non-natural. And while he may in this way have accomplished Kant’s first goal—to show that the life sciences have so far depended on values and norms they themselves tried to exclude from their ken—he has taken the rest of the Kantian path as well—in agreeing that norms as such cannot be found within nature—and so does not present a genuine alternative to its transcendental picture. (351)

[Malabou] understands ‘plasticity’ as designating a threefold capacity: the ability to receive form (as in the plasticity of clay), the ability to give form (as in the plasticity of the plastic arts), and the ability to destroy form (as in the French verb ‘plastiquer,’ meaning ‘to blow up’). (351)

[…] while Canguilhem’s organism is capable of receiving content (that is, natural changes in its bodily state and the environment), it is not capable of receiving a new form—it is defined as that which manifests itself as extra-natural norm-establishing form in the face of any and all received natural content. Conceived of as ‘‘plastic,’’ by contrast, the organism not only gives form to a content, but can give itself form and receive form in a way that changes what it is: it subjects itself as normestablishing to the possibility of transformation of its normativity, at its own hands or at the hands of something outside it. Thus, plastic normativity goes beyond Canguilhem’s organic normativity (and beyond his Kantian antecedents) by insisting on the capacity to have its own form destroyed. (355)

Put ontologically, Malabou has used destructive plasticity, the exposure of the organism to constancy-changing or form-changing accident, to bring organic normativity back within the realm of nature. Rather than seeing this exposure to destruction or deformation or transformation as a threat to the biological autonomy of the organism, as Canguilhem does, Malabou integrates this possibility into the concept of being as such. (355)

To be open to genuine change in form, and thus to destruction, is not to display a lack of autonomy and constancy, but rather to display one’s plasticity. Something like this is what Canguilhem was after: a conception of the organism as having its very being in its alterability. But he saw this alterability as ultimately a self-transformability, rather than a susceptibility to an outside influence or force, and thus conceived of it as a sovereignty of extra-natural form over natural content. (355)

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