Review article by Richard Iveson (forthcoming in Reviews in Cultural Theory as “Figuring Those Who Have Already Been Dead: Destructive Plasticity and the Form of Absence”)
Introduction: thinking plasticity
For nearly twenty years, French philosopher Catherine Malabou has been exploring the unpredictable terrain of metamorphosis, through which she has evolved the important concept of plasticity (plasticité) understood as the hermeneutic motor scheme of our “new age.” By this, she means that plasticity is a singular scheme or motive that opens the door to the current epoch by enabling the interpretation of phenomena and major events as they arise. In this way, argues Malabou, plasticity has displaced the previous motor scheme of writing (écriture).
In contrast to elasticity as the capacity to return to an original form, plasticity denotes the production of form in its positive and negative aspects. Plasticity, in other words, refers positively to both the donation and the reception of form and, negatively, to the formative destruction of form. It is this latter aspect, an aspect consistently shied away from by both scientific and philosophical discourse, which forms the subject of her latest book, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage.
A formidable close reader, Malabou is thus in one sense continuing along a clearly delineated philosophical trajectory with what is an important new reading of Freud. At the same time, however, The New Wounded, originally published in 2007, demands to be considered as utterly discontinuous with her earlier works. As she acknowledges in her “Preamble,” her work bears a distinct break marked by her “incursion into the domain of neuroscience” (xii). This rupture can be located precisely between the “before” of The Heidegger Change, and the “after” of What Should We Do with Our Brain?, both of which originally appeared in 2004.
As regards the “post-neuronal” texts, Malabou’s aim is twofold: first, to free neuroscientific discourse from its unwitting production of conservative criteria that ultimately serve to regulate social functioning; and second, to produce a consciousness of the brain that emphasizes the mutual speculative relation of brain and world, and in so doing place “scientific discovery at the service of an emancipatory political understanding” (Brain, 53). Such an understanding, she argues, is urgently required if we are to respond adequately to what she maintains is a “new age of political violence” (New Wounded, 156).
Here, Malabou attempts to further this understanding by placing the “profiles” of psychoanalysis and neuroscience side by side, a long-overdue articulation that reveals a surprising specularity between the two, seemingly incommensurable discourses.1 According to Malabou, moreover, if psychoanalysis is to move forward, it must be forced to come to terms with what she calls the new wounded (in contrast no doubt to its “old,” hysterically wounded). Exemplified by the victims of catastrophic brain lesions, the new wounded are those subjects who, transformed completely by trauma and oblivious to affect, find themselves utterly indifferent to everything around them. In short, contemporary psychoanalysis must risk a – potentially destructive – encounter with a new wound and thus a new form: that of the embodiment of the death drive itself.
Coming together: cerebrality and sexuality
At the root of the conflict between psychoanalysis and neurology, Malabou locates a struggle for etiological dominance. As is well known, Freudian psychoanalysis is characterized by the etiological regime of sexuality, referring not to the narrow set of genital practices, but rather to a law that functions to regulate the form of causality specific to psychoanalysis. To elucidate how this apparatus works, and hence establish “the causal value of sexuality within the domain of mental illness,” thus becomes fundamental to the constitution of psychoanalysis as a scientific discipline (New Wounded, 2). Sexuality, in short, determines “the sense of the event within psychic life” (2).
By contrast, Malabou identifies a radically different causality at work in contemporary neurology, for which she coins the neologism cerebrality. Mirroring the psychoanalytic relation between sex and sexuality, here the brain refers to the narrow set of cerebral functions, whereas cerebrality designates “the causal value of the damage inflicted upon these functions – that is, upon their capacity to determine the course of psychic life” (2). As such, cerebrality “implies the elucidation of the specific historicity whereby the cerebral event coincides with the psychic event” (2). In this way, a cerebral etiology of psychic disturbances becomes possible, one which, according to Malabou, will inevitably supplant sexual eventality in the psychopathology to come.
As we shall see in more detail in the next section, developments in neurology have demonstrated that cerebral activity goes well beyond the merely cognitive, encompassing “the affective, sensory, and erotic fabric without which neither cognition nor consciousness would exist” (4)…
Review continued at Iveson – Destructive Plasticity and the Living Dead