Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: §§11-Epilogue

§11. The Ontological Economy, or Absolute Convertibility

Malabou has in view here what she calls “an essentially material plasticity” (45). Which is to say, the essential/ontological exchangeability of Being and being, and of trace and form. Contra Levinas & Derrida, for whom the trace necessarily (& respectively) transcends and eludes form, Malabou insists that there is no “exceeding of form that does not assume the plasticity of form” (46). Importantly, and I think a point that can all too easily get lost, this is fundamentally not a rejection of alterity, but rather a transformation of alterity. That is, it is a recognition of a transcendence that is transcendent only inasmuch as it transforms (and thus, as a result, not really transcendence at all). In this, she argues that alterity cannot only be thought (as though in a thought experiment) without the appeal to transcendence, it in fact can only be thought by way of an excess of form that is also absolutely convertible with form. (“[E]ither form can cross the line (of metaphysics) or it cannot. But if form cannot cross the line, there there is no alterity for metaphysics. In a sense, there is no alterity at all. [50])

Where there is no convertibility of alterity and form, i.e., in the “exceeding of metaphysics” sought by Levinas & Derrida, there is no metamorphosis; there is, rather, merely the “philosophical impoverishment of movement that causes it to reduce itself to only the rectilinear trajectory, cutting it off from its understanding of alteration, formation or deformation, genesis and decline. In short, from its relation to life.” (49) Indeed, by its own logic, such a philosophy would miss the very fundamental change that is supposed to issue from the exceeding of metaphysics — this philosophy could never think, let alone know when it happens, any such “exceeding” without a “metamorphic negotiation” (i.e., via form). The result is precisely the opposite: it will inevitably succumb to the impotent inertia that awaits it in the Doldrums.

§12. A New Reading Method

As an alternative to this philosophical impotence, Malabou calls for a new “plastic reading” that occurs in the wake of deconstruction. Such a reading is distinguished from all manner of structuralism in that its structure “should be understood as a result, an a posteriori structure, a residue of history” (51). By this, she means the reading structure should not be considered a kind of template or starting point that one imposes, but is rather a consideration of what is left after “the concepts of order and organization have themselves been deconstructed. In other words, the structure of philosophy is metamorphosized metaphysics.” (51) In effect, then, the goal is not to generate yet another “deconstructive reading” — on the contrary, it recognizes fully that deconstruction has already taken place. The question now is: what form is left in the text now? This, Malabou writes, “is a question of showing how a text lives its deconstruction.” (52) The key, as such, is to reveal a form that is both “other than metaphysics” & “other than deconstruction” (52), that is, “of an other other thought, launching itself beyond its own deconstruction.” (53)

In highlighting the degree to which “plasticity” has itself changed, Malabou provides brief comments to the effect that it now eclipses its traditional relegation to the field of aesthetics, or, more importantly, to a certain type of aesthetics that imposes an ideology of antiform (e.g., the supposed ethical illegitimacy of representations of the Shoah). The figure & the form, she insists, citing Lyotard, are “part and parcel of the depth of language” that confers and shapes (a non-interiorized) visibility & meaning (55-56) — rather than an interiorized signification where meaning waits to be found, escapes capture, or simply cannot be expressed. Hence the importance of what Malabou calls a “deaesthetize[d] form” that is open to rearrangement, issuing not only in all manner of artistic creativity, but also a way of reading that is beholden neither to its traditional metaphysical or deconstructed forms.

§13. On Plasticity as a Motor Scheme

Inasmuch as plasticity refers both to “a new mode of being of form” and “a new grasp of this mode of being,” it is a new, and increasingly dominant, exegetical and heuristic scheme. (57) Malabou substantiates this by pointing to the “new metamorphic occurrences” that are emerging throughout contemporary society, for example in the form of social and economic organization, as well on the level of gender and sexual identity. “From the start I have said the privileged regime of change today is teh continuous implosion of form, through which it recasts and reforms itself continually.” (57)

Writing, Malabou insists, is no longer up to the task of accessing these new organizations or configurations, due to its ontological insistence on the “pure linguistic image, the image of the gap or difference” (57-58), which she illustrates using the linguistic-graphic language of genetic coding and/or programming. As she explored in her book What Should We Do with Our Brain?, Malabou points, rather, to recent neuroscience as an alternative “paradigmatic figure of organization” (59).

The ‘plasticity of the brain’ refers to the capacity of synapses to modify their transmission effectiveness. Synapses are not in fact frozen; to this degree, they are not mere transmitters of nerve information but, in a certain sense, they have the power to form or reform information. This type of plasticity makes it possible to forward the hypothesis of neuronal circuits that are able to self-organize, that is, to modify their connections during the activity required by perception or learning.

The resulting metaphor thus focuses on the imagery of “assemblies, forms or neuronal populations” — and thus on the “linkages” and “relationships” that form between synaptic fissures and that allow organizational form, thought & action to occur as a result of experience, not strictly through genetic code or programming. Or as Malabou concludes, “We can therefore make the claim that plasticity forms where DNA no longer writes.” (60)


From a philosophical perspective, plasticity thus refers to the “process of temporization at work in the heart of subjectivity” (see, Hegel), “absolute ontological exchangeability” (see, Heidegger); and from the scientific perspective, plasticity illustrates a model of (“always metamorphosable”) adaptive self-organization “based on the ability of an organism to integrate the modifications that it experiences and to modify them in return” (61). In this way, Malabou identifies a possibility of engaging deconstruction in a “new materialism.”

2 thoughts on “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: §§11-Epilogue

  1. So if Malabou is right, and one wants to affirm plasticity and engage in a new materialism, then does that preclude theology? Or is there at least the possibility of a theological materialism along these lines that forecloses (or does not revert to conceptions of) trace and transcendence?

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