Plasticity and the living dead: Malabou reading Freud

The following, incorporating extracts from a longer article to be published later in the year, offers an introduction to Catherine Malabou’s important notion of plasticité, which in many respects offers a welcome alternative to the more reactionary aspects of Bernard Stiegler’s work.

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 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 The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage.

Here, Malabou places the “profiles” of psychoanalysis and neuroscience side by side, a long-overdue articulation that reveals a surprising specularity between the two, seemingly incommensurable discourses. 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.

What neuroscience shows psychoanalysis is that, while the cerebral subject always risks being utterly destroyed, psychic life can, even then, survive the damage inflicted upon the brain. By recognizing this, writes Malabou, contemporary psychopathology breaks absolutely with psychoanalytic practice, insofar as the personality changes that result from brain damage cannot be interpreted as a regression to an earlier stage of an organism’s being – an interpretation fundamental to psychoanalysis. Indeed, the very notion of regression depends upon the indestructibility of unconscious traces, that is to say, that earlier stages of development persist and are subject to return or revival at any time, a return which defines mental illness. Neurology, by contrast, recognizes that severe brain trauma has the potential to bring into being “a new, unrecognizable person,” that is, “a new identity with loss as its premise” (48). An identity, in short, without a past, without childhood. Given this, psychoanalytic forms of treatment are clearly without relevance.

The welcome that arrives as a farewell

In what is a provocative and highly original move, Malabou posits the existence of a neuronal death drive that both mirrors – and goes beyond – the Freudian death drive. She begins, however, with an important proviso: if we are to think the work of a destructive, “postlesional” plasticity, it is also necessary to postulate the existence of an internal process of destruction that “responds to the traumatic stimulus and welcomes it, in a sense, facilitating its work of annihilation” (New Wounded, 70). The possibility of an external accident that arrives to destroy the self, in other words, requires an internal process that prepares for – welcomes – its own farewell. As such, argues Malabou, there must be a link between cerebral auto-affection understood as constituting “a continuous annunciation of finitude,” and the traumatic, intrusive event that destroys this same continuity, thus killing psychic identity (71). This, she continues, is the neuronal drive toward death, albeit a death that precedes death.

To clarify the distinction between the neuronal and the Freudian death drives, Malabou turns to the question of reflexivity. According to Freud, the opening of the psyche “to the horizon of its own relation to itself” begins with the anticipation of death (130). Hence, writes Malabou, the anticipation of death necessarily “pertains to the structure of anticipation that every form of anxiety – internal or external – has in common. By the same token, it is the apparatus of psychic openness to all types of events and accidents” (130). As such, the event for Freud arrives to affect a structure of anticipation founded upon “the originary possibility of leaving oneself behind” (130). This structure, moreover, is the very form of the unconscious. With this, we reach a crucial point in Malabou’s reading of Freud, insofar as, for the latter, trauma is therefore caused by “remembered or future separation; it is the cause of separation that sees itself coming” (132). Ultimately, what this means is that the anticipation of separation, that is, the structure of the effacement of the subject – the unconscious, in other words – “is the indestructible substrate of destruction,” with the result that “[n]ever, for Freud, does separation separate from itself” (132). Put simply, the anticipatory structure of the psyche cannot be destroyed by the trauma it anticipates. Hence, for psychoanalysis the formation of a new identity can never be presented as a discontinuous process. For Freud, the cut is never absolute prior to death.

For contemporary neurology, however, the anticipation of death – which is the process of cerebral auto-affection itself – is not insulated from danger, but rather always risks being overwhelmed. As Malabou puts it, “the neurological horizon of the anticipation of destruction is destructible” (133). For neurology, there is always, and for every one of us, the possibility, the risk, of being deprived of the possibility of seeing or feeling ourselves die (133). The absolute cut, complete separation from itself, remains always a possibility.

Daphne fleeing Gregor

Given that the traumatic event cannot, according to neurology, be the cause of a separation that sees itself coming, the psychic past cannot therefore function as a resource for the present. Rather, in contrast to psychoanalysis, the pathological force and destructive plasticity of such an event necessarily “creates another history, a past that does not exist” (New Wounded, 151).

This distinction is hugely important, insofar as the “specificity of the traumatic event thus inheres in its metamorphic power. The traumatic event, in a certain sense, invents its subject. … a new subject enters the scene in order to assume this past that never took place” (152). With this, we reach the crux of Malabou’s entire argument: “Separation can no longer be anticipated but it does occur, precisely, in metamorphosis” (152, my emphasis). Indeed, it is the “radical rupture,” more even than disaffection, which defines the new wounded. However, while we indeed owe to neurology our understanding of this rupture that leaves in the place of identity only the form of its absence, Malabou argues that neurological discourse nonetheless joins with psychoanalysis in fleeing its – barely glimpsed – theoretical implications. Both neuroscience and psychoanalysis, in other words, and in different ways, recoil from the idea of destructive plasticity.

To think destructive plasticity, however, is to contend with a radical form of metamorphosis: that of a biological metamorphosis born of the wound. Indeed, it concerns the very transformation of metamorphosis itself. By far the clearest illustration of this can be found in Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident (2009) wherein she argues that, in the traditional conception of metamorphosis “transformation intervenes in place of flight” (Ontology, 10), as exemplified by the mythical tale of Daphne who, being chased by Phoebus and unable to outrun him, instead transforms herself into a tree. The impossibility of flight that lends itself to such a transformation, however, is by no means the same as a metamorphosis forged by destructive plasticity. However paradoxical it may seem, writes Malabou,

the being-tree nonetheless conserves, preserves, and saves the being-woman. Transformation is a form of redemption, a strange salvation, but salvation all the same. By contrast, the flight identity forged by destructive plasticity flees itself first and foremost; it knows no salvation or redemption and is there for no one, especially not for the self. It has no body of bark, no armor, no branches. In retaining the same skin, it is forever unrecognizable (12).

The metamorphosis born of the wound, in other words, is a transformation both without change and at once utterly unprecedented. Put simply, when no possibility of transcendence, flight or escape remains, destructive plasticity constitutes a form of alterity “where the other is absolutely lacking. … The only other that exists in this circumstance is being other to the self” (11).

How might we imagine such an impossible figure? Malabou’s answer is superb: recall the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself inexplicably transformed into a large and ungainly beetle. However, rather than accompanying Gregor into the nightmare of having his human essence captured within an alien form, let us imagine instead “a Gregor perfectly indifferent to his transformation, unconcerned by it. Now that’s an entirely different story!” (18). Such, then, would be a new figure of metamorphosis and an entirely new form of life: indifferent to anxiety and mourning neither loss nor lack.

A beyond of the pleasure principle

In the last instance, Malabou’s critique of psychoanalysis comes down to its inability to think this new form of life, an inability that is a direct result of its “failure to admit the existence of a beyond of the pleasure principle” (New Wounded, 189). Indeed, she argues, Freud’s selection of sadism and masochism as “representatives” of the death drive serves only to demonstrate this failure, it being a simple matter to show that neither escape the love-hate dyad, and thus the “intrigue of pleasure” (191). This failure, continues Malabou, is inevitable because inherent in the Freudian death drive is the incapacity to form forms. Freud, in short, lacks the necessary conception of destructive plasticity. With nowhere to go but to the safety of positive plasticity, Freud thus “softens” the problem of the death drive and, as a result, is unable to extricate it from the life drives.

The specific form of the psyche produced by the presence of death or pain becomes available to us, argues Malabou, only with the idea of destructive plasticity, as only the latter makes possible the embodying of the death drive. By this, Malabou means those “living figures of death” who “purely and simply inhabit a space beyond the pleasure principle” (198). Such, then, are psyches beyond love and hate, utterly deserted by pleasure: the new wounded.

All around us today, such forms or figures of trauma, argues Malabou, constitute a “worldwide psychopathology” that forces a rearticulation of psychoanalysis even as it consolidates its thinking of the death drive. In place of a sexual etiology, disclosed instead is a “traumatized subject who has gone beyond the pleasure principle” and in fact bears “sacrificial witness” to the deconstruction of subjectivity in the very form of her psyche (206). As such, Malabou asks, “Isn’t it time that philosophy discover the cerebral psyche as its subject?” (206).

In The New Wounded, psychoanalysis as a discipline is offered a stark ultimatum: metamorphosis, or death. This is, however, a work of critique in its most rigorous sense: Malabou is by no means championing the demise of psychoanalysis, but seeks instead to recall the reader to the introjective openness of its original incarnation. In so doing, she explores two, interrelated questions: First, what, exactly, would a new psychoanalysis look like? And second, upon what ground might one begin to elaborate an emancipatory politics capable of responding to our new era of violence?

Central here is the vulnerability to psychic rupture, understood as both an existential possibility and a condition of being-alive. More specifically, the two questions engage critically with the core Freudian concepts of regression and transference. First of all, if it is to even begin to account for contemporary psychic suffering, psychoanalysis must, despite the risks to itself, actively address the “new signification” of traumatic violence by recognizing its link to destructive plasticity. As we know, however, insofar as the new wounded live on in the form of absence, the notion of regression is no longer germane, and this in turn means both that “the force of trauma, whether political or lesional, never derives from lifting repression,” and that “illness does not in itself constitute a form of truth with respect to the ancient history of the subject” (New Wounded, 214). Psychoanalysis, as a result, finds itself tasked with its own transformation.

Similarly, the notion of transference too cannot survive the encounter with neurology: existing in a beyond of the pleasure principle, and thus beyond any feelings of love or hate, the affective indifference of the new wounded leaves them constitutionally incapable of transference. Hence, the role of the analyst too is correspondingly transformed, he or she now having to somehow “‘become the subject of the other’s suffering’ without thereby entering into transference” (215). Moreover, the stakes of such a “nontransferential” relation, one which demands the metamorphosis of both analysis and analyst, far exceed the disciplinary confines of psychoanalysis and neurology. Instead – and this is Malabou’s “wager” – such a relation would open the door to the possibility of a response, at once responsive and responsible, not only to the “worldwide psychopathology” that marks our contemporary era, but also to the senseless violence, be it “biological” or “social,” that manufactures it. This, argues Malabou, is both the future and the promise of neuropsychoanalysis.


About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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