Graduate seminar: Life Itself

Engl 226/F&M 252 | UC Santa Barbara | Fall 2009

Archive for November, 2009


Posted by vashkor on November 30, 2009

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What Should We Do with Our Brain? –Catherine Malabou

Posted by kks on November 30, 2009


While the “flexible” model of the brain underscores docility, imitation, and repetition, the “plastic” model affords the power to create, style, and even explode, as the destruction of past forms (rather than the re-packaging of these forms) is central to the plastic brain. Plasticity, a dialectical struggle between re-formation/equilibrium and the destruction of past forms/creation, is key to our very existence, our ability to not only adapt to the world but to create it—it is “situated between two extremes: on one side the taking on of form (sculpture, molding, fashioning of plastic material); on the other, the annihilation of form (plastique, detonation)” (70).

-To what extent does capitalism work off of a “flexible” model or a “plastic” model? Or, to what extent is capitalism relatively fixed, expecting us to be flexible, and to what extent does it destroy itself as well as us in order to create?

– What might this have to do with social models of disciplinarity (Foucault) alongside those of control (Deleuze)?

– If neo-liberal capitalism does already work off of the plastic model, what does a becoming conscious of our own brain plasticity engender? Or, how might “resistance within this very order” be possible (54)?

– In what ways is Malabou working off of the critical landscape ecology regarding Being/Becoming, or Verticality/Horizontality, or Transcendence/Immanence?

– How does this study on de-centralization coincide with others that challenge the brain as the privileged seat of reason (such as Taussig’s The Nervous System) or challenge the so-called inside/outside binary (such as Merleau-Ponty or Bergson)?

– Malabou makes many analogies between the brain and the political, economic, and cultural world at large, pointing out that the vision of the brain as a centralized machine (like a central telephone exchange, the Soviet model) is outdated and that the new model operates more alongside a democratic, open, and networked exchange: “There is thus no need, in a certain sense, to be acquainted with the results of current discoveries in the neurosciences in order to have an immediate, daily experience of the neuronal form of political and social functioning, a form that today deeply coincides with the current face of capitalism” (10). But to what extent does this new analogy fail to see itself as a product of its current milieu? Malabou decries the “fruitlessness of the well-known technological metaphors” of the brain, but to what extent does her argument challenge this (33)?

The Neuronal/The Mental

In her third chapter Malabou strives to link the concept of the “proto-self,” the organic, primordial base that maintains coherence via nonconscious (not unconscious) organizations and representations, and the “self,” or core consciousness (59). Malabou maintains that there is a continuity between this biological proto-self and the self, yet she strongly resists that this notion is in anyway deterministic. For while the self emerges from the proto-self, the conscious self also modifies the “primitive or primordial representational function that is the work of the proto-self” (59). Primary, organic representations lead to increasingly complex and increasingly stable conscious representations “we” control.

– Malabou maintains a continuity between the neuronal and the mental, but to what degree are these spheres commensurate? Zizek calls the scientific parallax “the irreducible gap between the phenomenal experience of reality and its scientific account/explanation” (Parallax View, 10). Does this book help to bridge this gap? (Zizek does not seem interested in doing this, but formulating the gap as such.) (Zizek on the parallax of neurobiology: “the realization that, when we look behind the face into the skull, we find nothing; ‘there’s no one at home’ there, just piles of gray matter—it if difficult to tarry with this gap between meaning and pure Real” [7].) Malabou does not want to “affirm the existence of an assumed incommensurability between one domain and the other,” but is this ever possible (69)?

– Our author seems to take Bergson to task on several occasions, namely because of his assertions that the brain operates as a central organizing structure and that the brain does not self-represent itself (59). But to what extent is Bergson’s thinking crucial to Malabou’s–such as his opposition to the clear distinction between representation and matter?

– Malabou seems to parallel the gap between neuronal and the mental to the gap between the biological and the cultural (56). What about the gap between the biological and phenomenological? What of all her, and her sources’, allusions to the mind as cinematic?

Precariousness and Anxiety (or, Melancholia for the Lost 9 to 5)

Malabou argues that the flexible model of the brain parallels the flexible model of political and economic citizenship under global capitalism, in which “anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear” (46). Rather than destroy and create, we are expected to bend and adapt, especially in our working lives. Our reliance on contingent labor and the precariousness of our futures produce anxiety, the effect (and affect) of social uprootedness, of being disconnected from stable symbolic networks.

– Work now mostly entails “temporarily activated networks” lacking permanency and security. In what ways does this create anxiety? How does anxiety correspond to the need to constantly maintain initiative? Of having to be your own personal entrepreneur? (Let the comparisons to academia fly….)

– Despite the rhetoric of decentralization, of the “relaxing of hierarchies,” and of the mobilization of networks that self-organize, how much does business (at the micro and macro levels) demand hierarchies, discipline of bodies, etc.?

– In what ways do corporate attitudes on flexibility coincide with corporate views of “multiculturalism”?

– The new knowledge of the brain has done little for us, as most “treatments” and medicines only serve to make us more flexible within our milieu, rather than helping alter the milieu without. Quoting Ehrenberg: “The individual today is neither sick nor healed. He is enrolled in multiple maintenance programs” (68). How does this perhaps coincide with Foucault’s ideas in The Care of the Self?

Resistance and Potentiality

– If Malabou’s book is successful at awakening a consciousness of the brain, its historicity, its plasticity, and the emergence of the self from the proto-self, what next? How is this similar/different from Marx’s understanding of the awakening of class consciousness and the transformative effects of this awareness? For instance, Lukacs believed that a becoming-conscious of class relations would substantively transform the working class into the proletariat. Moreover, what is the link between the individual brain and the social collective?

– Central to Malabou’s thinking is the idea that plasticity does not equate to complete freedom, as even though we must understand that the brain’s decentralization helps us to move from a “soviet” to a “liberal” model, and we must work against an ideology of neuronal foundationalism (predeterminedness), the brain is also somewhat “closed.” Although we now see the brain as decentralized–and no mental activity can be reduced to one specific region of the brain–different cerebral regions are still seen as “centers” of activity. Inasmuch as brain plasticity is a “sculpting of a determinate form,” what limitations do we encounter when we make the leap from the neuronal to the social and political (19)? Or, more positively, what limitations does this book allow us to challenge?

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Thoughting Death

Posted by dianapozo on November 23, 2009

Circulation of Frames and possibilities “of/in” Apprehending

“What we are able to apprehend is surely facilitated by forms of recognition, but it would be a mistake to say that we are utterly limited by existing norms of recognition when we apprehend a life” (Butler 5)

“…the frames that, in effect, decide which lives will be recognizable as lives and which will not, must circulate in order to establish their hegemony” (Butler 12)

Referring to the pictures taken by soldiers at Abu Ghraib, Sontag writes that “words…are easier to cover up in our age of digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination…pictures will continue to ‘assault’ us” (5).

  1. If “apprehension” can be understood as way of potentially transgressing the limits set by “norms of recognition”, does Butler’s notion of “apprehension” relate to Casarino’s notion of “surplus common”?
  2. For Butler, apprehending precariousness entails obligations (13-14) towards others, which is different from “relations of love or even of care” (14). Is this a justifiable claim? How can we position this argument with respect to Casarino’s notion of “friendship” and Milburn’s imagining of the “openness to the other inside” as “love”?
  3. What affect does endless self-reproducibility support? If frames serve to establish “hegemonies,” what sorts of hierarchies and hegemonies are created? What does “life itself” mean when to “live is to be photographed…[the] grin is a grin for the camera”? (Sontag, 3) What is life when life is “circulation”?

Biopower <-> Necropower

“The most original feature of this terror formation (colony and apartheid regime) is its concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege” (Mbembe 22)

“…biopower is insufficient to account for contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death…necropolitics and necropower…account for the various ways in which in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in interest of maximizing destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living-dead” (Mbembe 39-40).

  1. Foucauldian biopolitics/biopower is crucial for Mbembe and he seems to be testing the applicability of the same to various oppressive regimes like colonialism, slavery and Nazism. However, he seems to suggest that late modern regimes cannot be explained through the lens of biopower, which brings us to three interrelated questions.
  • What according to him has fundamentally changed as we have moved to late modernity?
  • What does necropolitics offer that biopolitics does not?
  • Is the shift just a scale change and in that case can we think of biopolitics as encompassing (being a super-set of) necropolitics?

Horror and Precarious Necropolitics?

“Horror…is not the extreme form of fear that we call ‘terror’… Horror explodes the imaginary” (Asad 68)

“No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken—with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives” (Sontag 2).  Highly Disturbing Photos from Abu Ghraib

“Lives are by definition precarious….this is a feature of all life and there is no thinking of life that is not precarious…precarity designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death…” (Butler 25).

“In other cases, in which physical amputation replaces immediate death, (their) function is to keep before the eyes of the victim – and of the people around him or her  – the morbid spectacle of severing” (Mbembe 35)

  1. For Asad, Butler, and Sontag, what role does “horror” play in determining which lives are valued and which are not? Or, in Butler’s terms, in determining which lives are “grievable”?
  2. Considering Butler’s concept of frames, what breaks from confinement when bodies are severed from precariousness and how might “precariousness” interrupt Mbembe’s conceptualization of “Necropolitics”?
  3. For Mbembe, “[under] conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred” (Mbembe 40). Is affect (love, terror, and horror) also blurred? (Does necropolitics imply the loss of “horror”?)

Moralizing and/or Analyzing

“Etienne’s suggestion that the suicide fighter wishes to die because she lacks political imagination is not only implausible, …it also rests on the assumption…that politics and violence are mutually exclusive” (Asad 52).

“…suicide bomber belongs in an important sense to a modern western tradition of armed conflict for the defense of a free political community. To save the nation (or to found its state) in confronting a dangerous enemy, it maybe necessary to act without being bound by ordinary moral constraints”  (Asad 63).

“The uniqueness of suicide bombing resides…not in its essence but in its contingent circumstances” (Asad 84)

  1. Asad eschews moralizing and embraces analyzing in his approach towards understanding suicide bombing and terrorism. Emphasizing the intricate connection between violence and politics, Asad throughout stresses that suicide bombing is a political act and has political implications. One can however argue that even though war may be “pursuit of politics by other means,” morality and politics are also very much intertwined. One might as well ask –
  • What role does morality/ethics play in the political action of terrorism?
  • Does this morality have a visceral affective dimension or is it just discursively framed appealing to truth and reason of democratic institutions?
  • From Asad’s reading of “suicide bombing”, can we even remotely construe it to fall within a certain “culture of resistance” involving transgression?
  • How do truth and reason fare in embodied power relations? Stanford Prison Experiment (Phillip Zimbardo). What is the place of “morality” in a posthuman, necropolitcal world?

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Alan Watts Talks Vitalism

Posted by kellykawar on November 20, 2009

Limits of Language, 1:

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An artist of interest:

Posted by Allison Schifani on November 19, 2009

Stephen Wilson is a new media artist based in San Francisco whose work seems quite relevant to our course material. You may particularly wish to take a look at his Introspection and Body Surfing projects:

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Graham Harman on ‘speculative psychology’ (post-vitalism?)

Posted by rraley on November 18, 2009

— from Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (2009)

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A conference on the University and the commons

Posted by vashkor on November 18, 2009

“Beneath the University, the Commons”
A conference at the University of Minnesota

April 8-11, 2010

// Antioch 05.08 // Rome 10.08 // Athens 12.08 // New York City 12.08
// Helsinki 03.09 // Zagreb 05.09 // Heidelberg 06.09 // London 06.09
//Santa Cruz 09.09// … //

Seemingly discrete struggles over the conditions of university life
have erupted around the world within the past year. These struggles
share certain commonalities: outrage over precarious and exploitative
conditions, the occupation of university spaces, and goals of
reclaiming education from state and corporate interests. It is
becoming increasingly apparent that recent struggles over the
university are not merely discrete events. They express a wider
collective desire for direct control over the means of production and
forms of life; a desire to create relationships of learning,
collaboration, and innovation beyond the university’s attempts to
quantify and discipline them.

Although the modern university has served the interests of the state
and capital since its inception, the past thirty years have witnessed
tightened ties with corporate, financial, and geopolitical interests.
The subsumption of higher education under capital-driven business
models has intensified the expropriation of the products of
cooperative labor. With the proliferation of student-consumer and
scholar-manager subjectivities, we increasingly find ourselves
uncomfortably and often unwittingly occupying the role of active
participants in these trends. As the global struggles over the past
year have illustrated, however, opposition to these mechanisms of
capture is mounting, as are creative strategies for alternatives and
exodus. Struggles against the corporate university are linking up
across borders; the slogan of the International Student Movement, “One
World – One Struggle : Education is Not for Sale,” and the slogan of
the Anomalous Wave, “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis,” appear in actions
across Europe, the Americas, and South Asia.

“Beneath the University, the Commons” builds on the work accomplished
by activists, organizers, artists, and academics at the “Re-thinking”
and “Re-working” the University Conferences of 2008 and 2009
(, while expanding the scope of our discussions
and bringing together more international scholars in order to address
an increasingly volatile global situation. Our goal is to aggregate
and accelerate our knowledge of university conditions and our
collective acts of resistance to them, including alternative forms of
engaging with each other and with the world. To this end, the 2010
conference will draw together a diverse set of people committed to
exploring how we can understand, create, and experiment with the
commons beneath the university. Our questions include but are not
limited to:

//How do we enact and sustain occupations of the university in the
exceptional times and spaces of the everyday?

//How do we generate an international “undercommons,” maintaining
subversive positions as actors within, rather than of, the spaces of
the university?

//How can unionization projects and occupation struggles learn from
and collaborate with one another?

//How do we negotiate the line between stability and revolutionary

//How do we open up sustainable and livable spaces for radical
research, education, and scholarship without being subsumed by the
publish-or-perish disciplinary apparatus?

//How can we collaboratively map and share research, information,
tactics, and cultures?

//In recognition that our conditions are a part of a larger set of
global occupations and injustices, how do we link with social
movements outside of and across the university?

This four-day event will consist of two days of conference sessions
bracketed by two days of workshops, writing collaborations, skill
shares, and plenty of time for sustained conversations among
participants. We are accepting proposals both for formal papers and
for non-conventional forms of participation.

— If you would like to present a paper, please submit an abstract and
a CV or brief biographical statement.

— If you would like to participate in another way (by leading a
workshop, facilitating a roundtable, presenting media, etc), please
submit a brief (1-2 pages) description of the proposed activity and
include what kind of resources we would need to provide, along with a
CV or brief biographical statement.

All proposals should be addressed to, and
must be received by January 1, 2010.

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UC system-wide strike:

Posted by Allison Schifani on November 17, 2009

For additional information on the strike (which begins November 18th) please see this link:

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Friday seminar as planned

Posted by rraley on November 17, 2009

Great news — we will meet on Friday from 12-2 as planned. Reading is the “Nano/splatter” section of Colin Milburn’s book, Nanovision: Engineering the Future.

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Deleuze on immanence

Posted by vashkor on November 16, 2009

This short piece may be helpful:

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