Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing §§9-10

§9. The Fantastic and Philosophy in Hegel

Malabou opens this section up with a question: How might we conceive of formal schemes, which were earlier defended as moving, transforming, and changing, apart from static categorization? The answer is to understand the image as a scheme. As she stated in the previous section, “There can be no metamorphosis…without a new visibility of these metamorphoses” (30), no change without its presented image; and, likewise, nothing is presented without being changed. Presence cannot be understood apart from its image-generating movement, its imagination, its modification. Thus, we can speak of an imagination that produces metaphysical presence. But, Heidegger claims, in the move that allows the scheme to continue to imagine itself, to give itself to itself (i.e., ontological self-containment), we have the end of metaphysics and the inauguration of ultrametaphysical thought.

But ultrametaphysical thought is not without its own image (i.e., it does not escape all formal presentation). Malabou already identified this constitutive image, this motor scheme of Heideggerian thought, as the triad of change: W,W,V (§8). Malabou offers a corrective to Heidegger’s conception of schematism as self-containment: “Neither visible nor invisible…schemes of thought are truly imaginary and are in fact fantastic.”(32) In order to explain what she means by the philosophical fantastic, how it disrupts the interpretation of the idea of the motor scheme as nothing but ontological narcissism, she turns to its two main theorists: Hegel and Levinas.

The Hegelian Fantastic

The Hegelian ‘end of history’ is imaginary. That is, the final dialectical sublation, the culminating Aufhebung of Absolute Spirit, isn’t itself some absolute suppression that would reduce everything to sameness. Rather, the moment of Absolute Knowledge is actually a transformation, a liberation from Aufhebung, not the repudiation of all transformation. And it is this sublation of sublation that inaugurates a metamorphosis, a “productive imagination” (33). In other words, Hegel’s dialectical teleology should be understood as the moment of the Self’s production of the image of itself in order to see itself. And precisely because the Self sees itself (as an image), it misses itself. Contra Heidegger’s interpretation and the standard caricature of Absolute Knowledge as a pure fulfillment without excess, Malabou reads the end of history, Spirit’s self-schematization, alongside its production of its own image, a monstrous, fantastic doppelganger. This specular image is porous, “capable of welcoming whatever arrives, including, perhaps, the other of history” (34). With the production of this fantastic image, the self-tranformed fulfillment of history (presence at its all-encompassing height) actually opens to non-historic events (the dusk of presence). The same metamorphosis carries over into the intersection between Hegel and Heidegger and their shared confrontation between the history of philosophy and the possibility of nonphilosophical thought that will open to new schematic forms.

Where Hegel and Heidegger meet is also where they depart. But because the very “object” of philosophy, according to Malabou, is the entre-deux of its form and its dislocation, these two faces of philosophy, suture and rupture, remain the faces of philosophy. “Everything has become a transformational mask… between metaphysics and ultrametaphysics,” between these two versions of presence, and plasticity, as the only concept through which we can conceive of both masks, must be interpreted as the fundamental ontological ground of their possibility. Rather than a mere characteristic of being, plasticity is being and its annihilation. With this, Malabou has an answer the question often posed to Hegel: “What nondialectic concept precedes the already dialectical starting-point of the dialectic system?” Plasticity.

§10. The Fantastic and Philosophy: Levinas

Turning to Levinas, we are presented a portrait of the fantastic as the dissociative difference between ontological existence and ontic existents. As Levinas’s work portrays it, being denotes a horrific background against which all beings are conceived, inflecting everything with its terrible spectral presence. And, according to Levinas, the very fact that this il y a would persist, unaffected, if it was purified of all existents, but nevertheless continues to haunt these same existents with its dark apparitions, has a hallucinatory, fantastic effect (39). The only escape from such horror suggested by Levinas is a turn to transcendence, a breaking free of existence, an absolution of the fantastic. In Le Change Heidegger Malabou employed Heidegger’s defense of an alterity without an outside in order to reject Levinas’s argument for the pure heterogeneity of an ‘otherwise-than-being.’ For Malabou, Levinas’s messianism is guilty of denying the articulation of alterity (for without articulation, how might we even speak of such at all!) and overlooking that which allows the passage from being to otherwise-than-being in the first place. Instead, he simply insists on the tout autre, as if such an insistence could completely liberate alterity of its transformative genesis and of all of its possible subsequent presentations.

Here it seems to me that Malabou is in the company of Hegel, with his analysis of the limit whose outside edges are always determined by what lies inside (Science of Logic, 134-35), and Ricoeur, with his concern that in Levinas there is “no middle ground, no between, [that] is secured to lessen the utter dissymmetry between the Same and the Other” (Oneself as Another, 338). But perhaps Derrida is actually the closest to Malabou on this point of disagreement with Levinas and with her own alternative definition of the fantastic as “the paradoxical unity…of continuous transformation and sudden interruption…the emergence of form and its annihilation” (43). After all, despite Derrida’s own messianic tendencies (given that one accepts Caputo’s reading over Hägglund’s, which we need not do), it was he who wrote the following:

There is a mediation which does not bar the passage to the other, or to the ‘wholly other’ [tout autre], on the contrary. The rapport to the wholly other as such is a rapport. The relation to the wholly other is a relation… To enter into a relation with the other, interruption must be possible: the relation [rapport] must be a relation of interruption. And interruption here does not interrupt the relation to the other, it opens the relation to the other. (Altérités, 82).

Malabou concludes that change cannot equal escaping form but is rather a modification under the fantastic direction of an image. Insisting that “there is no outside, nor is there any immobility” (44), Malabou rejects Levinas’s false choice between self-contained, totalizing ipseity and some transcendent alterity without form or transformation, and answers the question with which she opened §9. Instead of repudiating form as static or paralyzing, she points to the already changing forms of being when understood as ontological plasticity.

6 thoughts on “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing §§9-10

  1. I found this to be a really interesting section, in large part due to the engagement with Levinas. I’ve honestly gotten pretty tired of Levinas over the years, and I found Malabou’s critique to be satisfying — much moreso than Zizek’s, for instance.

  2. I think the encounter with Levinas is decisive, and the exclusion of Levinas is what allows Malabou to construct the series Hegel-Heidegger-Derrida and ground (fond) it in plasticity.

    So the refusal of transcendence manifested as trace enables a recovery of dialectic, metamorphosis and writing figured as plasticity.

    It’s also a struggle for the soul of Derrida, as Adam indicated with his provocative post “What Should we do with our Derrida?” especially as the later Derrida is seen as more profoundly Levinasian. Or, as Ryan provocatively suggests, is there an “infinite qualitative difference” between Derrida and Levinas at this decisive point?

  3. It does seem like the question of Levinas’s relationship to Derrida is where we’re going to be able to decide whether Derrida is finally a thinker of immanence or of transcendence — obviously Malabou is going for the former, and as you say, it’s the rejection of Levinas that allows her to do that.

  4. I should just say that I never feel like I have a strong enough grasp on Levinas to confidently assert whether the readings and interpretations of his philosophy are fair or correct. I have read Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being and Of God who Comes to Mind, but I feel like my interpretation of his thought is more an impression than a solid or systematic understanding.

  5. I’ll admit that I am in the same position. I’m always reacting much more to what people are saying about Levinas than to Levinas himself — but at the same time, I wonder how much concentrated study I could justify in the hopes that I would come up with something significantly different.

  6. Hagglund wants to shear apart Derrida-Levinas in his essay The Necessity of Discernment. And the case hinges on transcendence, immanence and violence.

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