Graduate seminar: Life Itself

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

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out that the vision of the brain as a centralized machine (like a central telephone exchange, the Soviet model) is outdated and that the new model operates more alongside a democratic, open, and networked exchange: “There is thus no need, in a certain sense, to be acquainted with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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