Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing—Introduction

So I was riding in a taxi with Slavoj Zizek and Creston Davis in Philadelphia at the 2005 AAR when Zizek told me I should read Catherine Malabou’s book on Hegel, The Future of Hegel. I’d heard of Malabou before, since she wrote Counter-Path with Derrida, but it’s just not possible to read every book Derrida has published, and I had not read it. By the way, this meeting in Philadelphia was also the seed that became the Insurrections book series with Columbia University Press, particularly when Jeff Robbins contacted Wendy Lochner at Columbia about the project, since Columbia was reviewing the book he edited with Caputo and Vattimo, After the Death of God, which became the first book in the series.

When I returned to Arkansas I got a copy of The Future of Hegel through interlibrary loan and read it and it was truly amazing. I was blown away, both by the reading of Hegel that made Derrida take back much of his criticisms, and more specifically by the notion of plasticity, which was Malabou’s signature idea even though she took the concept from the Phenomenology of Spirit where it is a characteristic of subjective spirit.  Fast forward to summer 2006, and Creston had talked me into co-editing a book of essays on Hegel for Insurrections, that would include chapters by Zizek, Negri, Mark Taylor, Caputo, William Desmond, Edith Wyschogrod (she was truly a saint and I’m still mourning her death) and others, and I thought Malabou would be the best person in the world to contribute to it. So I emailed her out of the blue and asked her, which I thought was incredibly presumptuous, and in English too! But she agreed to contribute an essay to the book, and also suggested we translate one of her books. Fordham was already working on What Should we do with our Brain?, so I read La plasticité au soir de l’écriture and again, was blown away by the clarity and forcefulness of her thought, as well as its manifesto-like quality.

What I came to appreciate was how her profound and complex reading of form in terms of plasticity challenged Derridean and Levinasian notions of the trace, and this affects the discussion surrounding the return of the religious and what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the “deconstruction of Christianity.” I have been and still am influenced and impressed by the weak messianic force that Derrida draws from Walter Benjamin and deploys in ethical and political contexts. It was with considerable fear and trembling that I developed a critique, relying upon Malabou’s philosophy. And I don’t simply reject or dismiss this idea of a weak messianic force, but I do understand it differently.  In any case, as Malabou herself writes about deconstruction, it’s not a question of rejecting or surpassing deconstruction, but seeing how writing expands into a sort of generative plasticity. I was able to see how plasticity is a much more subtle and supple question of form, especially considering its three aspects: the ability to give form; the capacity to receive form; and finally, and most intriguingly, the power to annihilate form, which is an auto-destructive force. So plasticity helps me see force as immanent to form, which also seems close to Deleuze, as opposed to transcendent to it, as some of the religious and theological appropriations of Derrida and Levinas appeared to be doing, although again this question of transcendence is very slippery and it’s easy to overstate or caricature. There are a lot of critiques of Derrida out there that are very stupid, although I don’t think Malabou’s is one of them.

So then I went back and read Que faire de notre Cerveau?, and saw how Malabou deals with neuroplasticity, and then read her book on Freud, Les nouveaux blessés: De Freud à la neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains, which engages critically with Freud from the perspective of the neurosciences. The one book I have not read is Le change Heidegger, which focuses on the idea of metamorphosis in Heidegger. What I like about Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing is how it reflects back upon her relationship with Hegel, Heidegger and Derrida, interspersed with insights into structuralism, neurosciences, and her critique of Levinas. Subsequent to Les nouveaux blessés, Malabou has published Ontologie de l’accident, Changer de différence: Le féminine et la question philosophique, and a book co-authored with Judith Butler, Sois mon corps, has just been published, which consists of a reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

What I tried to do with the Foreword was to first give a kind of overview and context within which to understand Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing specifically in terms of her work in general, after which I developed some of my own application/interpretation of Malabou’s thought by applying it to Nancy’s idea of the deconstruction of Christianity in Dis-Enclosure. On the one hand, Malabou’s work makes the idea of the deconstruction of Christianity problematic, insofar as it sees deconstruction as the end of Christianity, and there are philosophical and political reasons to want to distance oneself from Nancy’s claim that the heart of the West is a Christian heart.  On the other hand, Nancy’s brief explication of the term déclosion (translated as dis-enclosure) has resonances with Malabou’s idea of plasticity. I develop this reading more fully in the last chapter of my book on Radical Political Theology, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

I think that Malabou’s ideas have many resonances and are important for many areas of thought. In terms of Continental philosophy of religion and radical theology, I think that her sharp rejection of messianism is provocative and important for thinking about the relationship between deconstruction and religion. I do not reject it quite so sharply, but I see how plasticity offers important resources to reconfigure some of these discussions and debates more in terms of form and less in terms of a pure force devoid of form, although ultimately I do not see form and force as opposition or dualistic, which again plasticity allows us to see. We have to be careful not to view things as a simple progression or supercession from writing to plasticity, but plasticity opens up a space to seriously think about the brain. Finally, although Malabou is a student of Derrida, her work is studded with insights of Deleuze, and plasticity helps draw out some of the implications of Deleuze’s discussions of the brain, most powerfully in Cinema 2. So for me at least plasticity is this incredibly rich notion with which to think, and Malabou has given us these incisive and brilliant readings of important philosophical thinkers, and I think she deserves to be considered one of the major contemporary philosophers in the world today.

27 thoughts on “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing—Introduction

  1. Thanks for the introduction — I think it’s very appropriate, given that the book has so many elements of an “intellectual autobiography,” that you followed suit. I had a very similar experience when I read The Future of Hegel, and though I’ve only read What should we do with our brain? and of course the current book we’re discussing, I have been very impressed with the notion of plasticity and, now that I think about it, I have become somewhat more skeptical of Nancy as well (though for different reasons).

  2. I think one should think about writing some kind of “non-intellectual autobiography” describing mundane non-intellectual tasks like making coffee and taking taxis with obscure and absolutely uninteresting people.

    Someone with academic connections needs to put some pressure on Fordham to finally get that The New Wounded book going, it’s been taking forever!

  3. It’s a little self-indulgent, I know, but I figured I could get away with it in a blog post. In any case, I couldn’t resist the first sentence, mainly because it “sparked” my interest in Malabou and the process that led to this translation.

    I think Fordham wanted to wait a bit in order to see how well What Should We Do with our Brain? would do in terms of sales.

  4. Fordham needs to move on this one, I think, it’s been sitting there for a long time. Malabou’s becoming a household name and I’m sure someone else would want to do it instead.

    I was kidding of course and mainly envious since I never take taxis to begin with. Just walking for me or train.

  5. I agree someone should jump on it.

    What’s even more serendipitous is that it wasn’t planned in any way, it just happened, like an event. I had a friend drop me off in downtown Philly, and I was walking along the street when I ran into Creston, he’s the first person I saw at the conference. Creston was on his way to meet and pick up Slavoj, who was doing a couple panels at AAR, so he invited me along. I’m sure Malabou’s book would’ve been translated at some point, but not now and in this series if it hadn’t been for that chance meeting.

  6. Surely either Fordham or Stanford will want to do her Heidegger book, right? After I read about her more recent work, I was in mourning for my lack of easy access to foreign-language texts (which I formerly had at the U Chicago library).

  7. Do you think it’s all economy related? I didn’t think these books ever sold enough copies to cover the costs. I think it’s just a slow editor or the sheer novelty of Malabou’s work so reviewers are all confused and can’t make a solid recommendation or something. People should start an online petition or some such activist gesture.

  8. You know what’d be great? An academic publisher that specialized in just reissuing foreign books so that they’d be affordable in the US.

    Sorry that this conversation is going a little far afield, Clayton.

  9. Clayton, I enjoyed the introduction. Can you say a bit more about messianism in the context of plasticity though? It seems to me that the messianic is not completely escaped form, but it subsumed into the plastic. Would you say that is accurate?

  10. Good question Anthony, and I’m still thinking this through. That’s a good way of putting it, and as force could be thought in relation to what Malabou calls destructive plasticity, the ability of plasticity to annihilate form. Again, Malabou herself strongly rejects messianism, whereas I’m a bit more ambivalent, wanting to sort of nuance or redescribe this weak force, or what Negri calls potentia, or what Agamben calls impotentiality in a way that links it back up to form in an immanent manner.

  11. No I don’t think that’s right, I think that plasticity has both a virtuality and an actuality, but I’m not sure how that Deleuzian distinction would map onto her three aspects of plasticity (ability to give form, capacity to receive form, power to annihilate form). The first two are active/passive, which I don’t think conforms to actual/virtual. That implies that virtuality would correspond mostly with the third aspect of plasticity, which is a destructive force, but it is embedded within and part of form itself, which is auto-destructive.

    For Malabou it’s more a rejection of messianism per se, than a rejection of any kind of virtuality, but I think it is a rejection of virtuality insofar as virtuality would appear outside of or over against form.

  12. Hi everyone,

    I just stumbled across your post and blog, Clayton, and I’d love to talk with you sometime about Catherine’s work; I also draw from it in order to rethink questions of religion (and to attempt a new theory of it, in fact)… a long story, of course (I reread Deleuze along “plastic” lines, twisting the concept in my own direction at the same time).

    I’m nearing the finish line of a translation of Le Change Heidegger myself, and reading the above conversation play out made me wonder why one of you doesn’t just translate one of her other (now many) books? Forget the publishers for now (it took some time to find one for Le Change), as they’ll come along.

  13. Hi Peter, thanks for your post. Of course, it’s not my blog, but Adam’s (and also Brad’s and Anthony’s). I’d be happy to talk to you and hear more about your understanding of religion via Malabou and Deleuze. You can email me at

    That’s great about Le change Heidegger–who is publishing it? I can cheerlead but my French isn’t nearly good enough to translate anything, so you’ll have to talk to Adam or Anthony about that.

  14. I’d love to get a French translation under my belt eventually, since it’s my primary foreign language competency. Based on past experience, though, I am not willing to undertake a translation without first having a contract — especially not with a book-length text. It’s just too much work for me to take on without getting any acknowledgment from the big Other, at least at this point in my life.

  15. (By “under my belt,” I mean “published” — I already translated a short text of Derrida for my masters thesis. And in addition to acknowledgment’s inherent ego-boost, being the official translator allows you to shape the reception of a work that you are pretty invested in by the time you’ve gone to the trouble of translating it.)

  16. I agree… I think some letters to these presses would be useful here, and sorry for stumbling into the discussion without figuring out who’s blog this was to begin with.

    SUNY is publishing Le Change…

    To tell you the truth, I don’t think a lot of American university presses are able to recognize new theoretical and philosophical currents, and this has, from my point of view, a great deal to do with the delays in Catherine’s work getting translated.

  17. Great that SUNY’s publishing Le change Heidegger–when does it come out?

    I think that economics does play a role, especially in light of the recession. It’s harder to do edited volumes, and it’s harder to do longer books, and it’s harder to justify translations, since they have to pay for them. American presses lose money of course, but they are under tons of pressure to lose less money.

    This is one area where a book series with academic editor can be significant, say Caputo at Fordham or De Vries at Stanford, because they can identify and push for stuff they think merits attention. Plus our editor at Columbia said it’s easier to do something within a series than stand-alone. But then you have to worry about fit, and there’s only so many books you can do per year, etc. And we still bump up against those financial pressures.

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