Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: The Absent Presence of Lacan

My question is where is Lacan amongst the many faces Malabou lists in §2? Why is he not listed with the other “transformational masks”? Admittedly, this question is not entirely fair. For, while Lacan is not cited in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, or The Future of Hegel, I believe that Les nouveaux blessés (a book I have not read) is where she devotes herself to the question of psychoanalysis. And, furthermore, I imagine her forthcoming book with Adrian Johnston will assess directly what possible intersections there are to be found between Lacanian thought and recent neurobiological research. That said, in reading Malabou’s interpretation of the end of history, the last moment of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, as an opening, I could not help but draw certain parallels with Žižek’s Lacanian reading of Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge as “the “All” itself which is non-All, inconsistent, marked by an irreducible contingency” (Parallax View, 79).

But beyond the possible explanatory strengths of the Lacanian schema for understanding Hegel, in §9 and §10 Malabou is dealing explicitly with the imaginary! Indeed, with Lacan on my mind, I was puzzled by Malabou’s claim that Levinas was the only philosopher to appreciate the philosophical significance of the fantastic (32). I doubt this is a simple oversight and I am genuinely curious as to what reasons might be given for his absence here. Nevertheless, I think that Lacan might be particularly useful to read in conjunction with Malabou’s critique of Levinas’s attempt to escape form.

Let us start with what Levinas is concerned with, the supposed totalizing nature of form and its ethical consequences. Say, for the sake of discussing a concrete example, we were to take as the political paradigm of this totalization the cultural imperialism that accompanies colonialism. In the colonizer’s efforts to assimilate the colonized to the customs of the metropole, the task turns to producing a replica of the metropole through the enforcement of its laws and customs in order to abolish significant cultural differences. The goal here is the elimination of dissent through the creation of mimic-men and mimic-women, colonized subjects willing to adopt the form of the colonizer. But in order to negate the colonized’s alterity, the colonizer must present an image of himself to hold up as a standard. But, when adopted, there is always something off, something unsettling, about this presented image. Contra Levinas then, the image produced by this “totalizing” form actually subverts its totalization with a fantastic uncanniness. But this subversion is not through some transcendent fleeing of form, but through its very articulation. As Mladen Dolar writes, this image itself “provokes a hesitation and an uncertainty and the familiar breaks down” (“I Shall Be With You on Your Wedding Night,” October, Vol. 58). This is the antagonistic sense in which we can understand Lacan’s description of mimicry:

The effect of mimicry is camouflage, in the strictly technical sense. It is not a question of harmonizing with the background but, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled – exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare. (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, “The Line and Light,” 99)

In a tense scene in Pontecorvo’s film Battle of Algiers we see three women, soldiers of the FLN, step into French clothing, the very image of assimilation presented by their colonizers. These mimic-women are then able to move through the crowd and into the Casbah with their bombs while everyone else is searched. It is this that unsettles the colonizer’s dream of a static totality: the attempt to assimilate everything actually produces the very disruption of this totalization. With any scheme’s production of its image, Malabou writes, “it sees itself and can therefore miss (itself)” (33). The image is inassimilable to immobility. Here we can recall Lacan’s similar claim that “what I look at is never what I wish to see” (“The Line and Light,” 103). In fact, isn’t this the exact process that Lacan describes in his discussion of the mirror stage in Écrits as the identification with and disavowal of one’s own image? Does his description of the jubilance and frustration of seeing one’s heterogeneous double not describe a similar transformation of form?

13 thoughts on “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: The Absent Presence of Lacan

  1. I think you are spot on right about the relevance of colonial mimicry as a resistance from within a seemingly totalizing regime.

    While you point to the puzzling absence of Lacan, I would like to reiterate the connection between Malabou’s approach and that of Gillian Rose. I bring her up only because I’ve been reading through all her books recently. Her book on Hegel (Hegel Contra Sociology) is very close to Malabou, and places Hegel’s discussion of limits and boundaries squarely at the center of her reading of Hegel as searching for an immanentist critique of form. Rose also offers a critique of Levinas and his radical diremption of ethics from form in The Broken Middle. While Rose does use the term “plasticity of authorship” to characterize the style of writing that offers a sort of mimetic immanent critique of form, I would not want to suggest that Malabou is drawing from Rose or even that she has read her. I think Rose deserves a wider readership, and people who like Malabou will like Rose (start with the Hegel book).

  2. I also like the postcolonial reference — my teaching has led me to want to expand my reach in postcolonial theory, and this post feeds my growing conviction that doing so would actually be organic to my existing interests.

  3. Bruce, I definitely want to read some Rose soon. Hegel Contra Sociology has been on my shopping list for awhile now. In fact, your description of it as an account of how Hegel “searching for an immanentist critique of form” makes me think it will line up very well with the research I’m currently doing. I appreciate the recommendation.

    Adam, thanks. I was worried the reference to colonialism might be too out of nowhere because, to my knowledge, Levinas doesn’t discuss mimicry in this manner. But colonialism seems to be the example of violating the other’s alterity par excellence and something entirely consistent with his ethical concerns that ultimately lead to his dismissal of form in toto. And I think both Malabou and Lacan show us why it needn’t be reason for a transcendent turn. I just thought it might be useful to think of them together.

  4. Great question and application, Ryan. I think that Malabou assimilates Lacan largely to her critique of Freud in Les nouveaux blessés, that is, on the side of sexualité, with its internal teleology. Sexualité never gets beyond the pleasure principle, which always encounters the Real in terms of lack, and this is what structures the trace. From Freud to Lacan, sexualité strives to efface the trace, but never succeeds in this endeavor (233).

    Malabou contrasts sexualité with cerebralité, a thought of an event inside your body that happens or strikes (wounds)your psyche as a totally external event, a pure accident or trauma, like brain wounds or Alzheimers. So on my reading, Malabou does treat Lacan in Les nouveaux blessés, but she does not see his work as fundamentally altering what is problematic about Freudian psychoanalysis.

  5. Bruce, thanks for reminding us again to read Rose. I agree she deserves a wider readership. My friend from grad school, Martin Kavka, discussed her work and I kept telling myself I should read it but still haven’t gotten around to it.

  6. Adam, true that. Robert Young and Diana Fuss also use Lacan in a similar manner. I claim no originality in coupling Lacan together with postcolonial theory on the topic of mimicry. But what Bhabha and these others don’t do (no fault of their own, it just isn’t their project) is extend this analysis beyond the political to the metaphysical and to the question of form. This is what I was trying to do by positioning Lacan against Levinas in relation to Malabou’s project. In fact, wherever Bhabha mentions Levinas in his work it is always very positive because he doesn’t focus on the problems that mimicry would pose for Levinas nor the insufficiency of Levinas’s messianism as a means of resistance to colonialism.

  7. Clayton, thanks! This is very helpful and gives me even more reason to read Les nouveaux blessés. This summary of her argument gives me a lot more to think through and introduces some new concepts into the discussion. Perhaps this would deflate my concern (something I’m quite willing to accept). I’d like to be able say something about this argument and association of Freud with Lacan on the topic of the trace, but I’ll hold off until I actually read it!

  8. Les nouveaux blessés is more about Freud, but there’s a chapter on Freud and Lacan (chapter 7) which includes a section on Lacan and the Thing. But from what I recall, I wouldn’t say that that section is some definitive encounter/dealing with Lacan so in that sense you comment about the lack of Lacan is still valid.

    This discussion is really interesting, I’m following with much excitement – will you guys put it all into one nice PDF later for general consumption? it would be nice to read it all in one sitting.

  9. Sorry, I should probably read through all the comments carefully before opining, but then this would be like work. So, what Clayton said but with a minor disagreement – if by “treating” we mean “mentioning” then yes she does treat Lacan in Les nouveaux blessés, but I sense that Ryan was looking for a more comprehensive engagement and I don’t think there’s one there, unless I’m horribly forgetting and should go back and reread the book (again, close resemblance to actual work means I probably won’t).

  10. Ryan: While I would not want to draw you back against the flow of your argument that moves from politics (colonialism and its resistance through mimicry) to metaphysics, I am wondering whether in fact there might be historical reasons for making the connection, in relation to Levinas at least. My colleague here at Illinois, Michael Rothberg, has just published a very interesting book about the way that anti-colonialist discourse has been shaped by and helped to shape discourse around the Holocaust in the decade of the 1960s. His case studies include various French writers (Charlotte Delbo, for instance). I am wondering whether Levinas had much to say about Algeria. I am wondering whether the insistence on the transcendence of the ethical is not perhaps connected with a transcendentalizing of the Holocaust, or call it a refusal to see how the Holocaust might be put into productive relation (ethically, politically) with anti-colonialism. The more that the political is identified with “the camps” and the Holocaust is read as the condemnation of all politics aside from “messianic” politics, the more you get a rejection of immantist critique. (I was not actually aware of it when I started this comment, but the point I am making is exactly what Gillian Rose says about Levinas and Derrida in The Broken Middle and Mourning Becomes the Law.)

  11. Bruce,
    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I’ve been swamped with work lately and didn’t get a chance to read this carefully until now. I would agree that Levinas’s insistence on the transcendence of the ethical does not give us much of an emancipatory political resource with respect to understanding colonialism next to genocide. I haven’t read Rose, but what you write about reading the Holocaust as paradigmatic of all politics (if that is what Levinas is doing) also resonates with Zizek’s claim that all of the 3 main philosophico-political positions today (communitarianism, liberalism, postmodernism) disavow (materialist) politics for some pre-political/transcendent ethics. Levinas might fill in for Lyotard in the last of these three, the postmodern “dispersionists,” in rejecting politics as necessarily totalitarian. There might be some problems with Zizek’s categorization of today’s political philosophy scene, but I do think that Levinas offers emancipatory politics very little. Although I would not want to claim that Levinas is entirely responsible for the political positions of Levinasians, I don’t know if it is all that surprising that the Institute for Levinasian Studies should be co-founded by Nouveaux Philosophes Bernard-Henri Lévy, Benny Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut or that his ‘Ethics and Infinity’ was a collection of interviews with fellow ‘new philosopher’ Philippe Nemo. There might be an argument to be made about Levinas as the watershed moment for these ex-Maoist post-68ers, opening up to what Badiou called the “road to renegacy.” I am unaware of whether Levinas himself had anything to say about Algeria but would be interested in what Rothberg has to say about this matter.

Comments are closed.