Plasticity at Cromford Mills: Arkwright’s Brain, Water, Cotton and Fire via Malabou & Hegel

Here are my slides for the PlastiCities conference on Tuesday (3 June). This Occursus / University of Sheffield event seeks to explore the concept of ‘plasticity’ thus:

“Scientific discourses on neuroplasticity abound with metaphors both of (neuronal) landscapes and (cortical) ‘real estate’. This cutting-edge symposium brings together speakers from across the disciplines to explore the ways in which recent advances in the understanding of neuroplasticity might be used to construct new models for negotiating urban landscapes and temporalities. Our discussions will include a consideration of how brain trauma and cerebral re-organisation can yield new understanding and insight regarding the complexity and resilience of the damaged topographies that punctuate the post-industrial, post-colonial and post-traumatic cityscape. Thinking through the sculptural dynamic of cerebral morphology will also open up a debate concerning the ways in which critical methodologies from the arts might find their place in the sculpting of new forms of stability within the contemporary built environment, participating in the ‘real life’ making of cities, at both grass roots and policy level.”

The event will feature speakers from neuroscience, psychology, art, archaeology, geography, French studies and built environment. Here’s a link to the programme:

http://occursus.org/2014/05/21/plasticities-a-free-symposium-3-june/

This truly cross-disciplinary selection of speakers will outline the rise of plasticity as a concept in neuroscience, its take-up in the recent work of philosophers like Catherine Malabou, and then seek to explore whether (and if so how) plasticity can be applied to landscape – thus moving from metaphors of cortical real estate to real estate itself.

My presentation will introduce this shift of focus – and will seek to operationalise Malabou (and Hegel who has a potent influence on both Malabou and plasticity in philosophy) via a case study which will take the concepts for a walk, and consider them at a specific place and set of circumstances. In doing so I’m seeking to implement Chris Van Dyke’s call (in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space last year) for empirical deployment of plasticity in landscape studies. Van Dyke will also be speaking at the event via Skype.

The site I will be examining is Cromford Mills, Sir Richard Arkwright’s first textile factory, established in 1771 near Matlock, Derbyshire. I will draw upon a rich vein of industrial archaeology and economic history scholarship (both enthusiast and academic) and analyse it through the frame of Malabou’s four plasticities (developmental, modulational, reparative and destructive), looking at  change and stasis across the site’s 250 year span, thereby considering plasticity’s dual character – the partial persistence of form and the potentiality of certain degrees of change. Think of the resistance and affordance of ‘memory-foam’ mattresses and you get the idea.

My current presentation is very much an interim report upon a work in progress – there is more to be done on thinking through plasticities at Cromford, and perhaps thereafter widening the focus to later era mills. I’m also working on a parallel analysis of Cromford using David Delaney’s ‘nomosphere’ theory, to look at the ways in which law can be found materialised and manifested within the social and spatial circumstances of this site. More on that at RGS 2014 in August.

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My presentation for the PlastiCities conference seeks to trace not just the stasis and change of the Cromford site – but also to draw out the link to ‘self-development’ and neuronal ‘freedom’ (the focus of Malabou’s work) by intertwining an analysis of Sir Richard Arkwright’s ‘self-made’ status, and the way in which his success was lauded by the mid Victorian liberals, specifically Samuel Smiles in his book, Self Help (1859). This is potentially contentious, as Malabou frames neuronal plasticity as a chance to consider what else the self-aware human mind could choose to be (in resistance to neo-liberalism), yet the ghost of Hegel oddly replicates a neo-liberal focus on ‘plastic individuals’ and their achievements (or potentialities), for example where she writes of plasticity in Hegelian terms as  “a process where the universal and the particular mutually inform one another, and their joint outcome is that particularity called the ‘exemplary individual’.”(Malabou, C. (2004) The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, Routledge: London: 16)

Arkwright is an exemplar of self-making, and in my case study I’m interested in what his self-making made at Cromford, of how he acted on matter and landscape, and how landscape and matter acted back on him. That’s plasticity.

(I’ve also written an earlier blog post about my first visit to Cromford, its here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/cromford-mill-surveying-the-ruins-of-the-worlds-first-factory/

 

Image source: Cromford Mill at http://www.nationalmillsweekend.co.uk/pages_water/cromford.htm; and many Cromford Mill images in the slide presentation originated by The Arkwright Society / Cromford Mills:http://cromfordmills.org.uk/

 

 

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