Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher who teaches at the Université de Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense. She will be giving a talk in Los Angeles at MOCA on November 9, 2010. She is a co-author with Jacques Derrida of Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida. This is just a brief note about her recent book, What Should We Do with Our Brain? (Fordham, 2008), an English translation by Sebastian Rand of Que faire de notre cerveau? (Bayard, 2004).
As a rule, neuroscientists avoid two things like a vampire avoids garlic: Any links to European metaphysics, political engagement, and reflection upon the social conditions which gave rise to their science. – Slavoj Zizek (Back-cover endorsement for Malabou, 2008)
I was trained as a theoretical linguist. In the first few years of grad school, I happily worked through the various dimensions of language (social, cultural, historical, computational, phonological, syntactic, logical form). Eventually, I “specialized” at one level of analysis (syntax) and wrote a dissertation that read like the phone book to everyone else but me. Err, that’s not a tired cliché, but the exact words of my chair, a brilliant semantician.
This academically enforced tunnel vision, particularly the disconnect between levels of analysis and with the public at large (see e.g., the “culture of poverty” debate summary by Dan Lende) is a condition that Catherine Malabou addresses from a philosophical perspective. In What Should We Do with Our Brain? she focuses on brain plasticity, one of the most important neuroscientific concepts of the 21st century.
Her argument is that we should be aware/critical of “neuronal ideology,” in which brain plasticity implies non-agentive “flexibility. ” Rather, we should be conscious of brain “plasticity” in the full sense of the word, i.e., take charge of the malleability of our own brains, particularly our capacity to resist the status quo (as well as, I think, the delimiting and dehumanizing neuro-identities associated with mental disorders).
I am convinced with Zizek that we’re living in some kind of closed organizational structure, and that society is the main closed structure. But at the same time, this structure is plastic. So it means that inside of it we have all kinds of possibilities to wiggle and escape from the rigidity of the structure. (Vahanian [Malabou interview], 2008, p. 10)
For Malabou, the “genius” of the concept of plasticity is that there are at least two meanings at play; (1) the capacity to receive and to give form; and (2) the noun plastique, i.e., an explosive substance, implying the capacity “to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create” (p. 5), and presumably create anew.