Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: Whither Theology

I hope Clayton doesn’t mind, but I decided to delay responding to the question he posed after Tuesday’s summary. He asked:

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?

It seems to me that if there is to be a place for theology in the kind of materialism to which Malabou is commited, it cannot simply be a matter of relocating theology from its traditional confessional context(s) into alternative, secular settings. The easy target here is the stereotypical Popular Culture & Religion crowd, rushing to write the definitive Big Lebowski & Theology book, or perhaps The Gospel According to South Park. These, however, are not the target of my seemingly facile observation.

Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: Whither Theology”

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])

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

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). Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: The Absent Presence of Lacan”

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. Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing §§9-10″

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: URA Fever

So, I’ve come down with a rather nasty flu in the midst of preparing for the upcoming Laruelle events at Warwick and Nottingham. I haven’t been able to give much thought to the Malabou book besides my initial impressions which are likely not so interesting. As it has so far played out in the comments, especially between Adam, Bruce, and Clayton, there has been a real excitement over Malabou’s work. While her What Should We With Our Brains? did very much excite me I think I’m not as enthusiastic about this work because my own interests do not lie so heavily with Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida. In some ways it strikes me as an oblique way to investigate the problem of change as she has to excavate the idea from the forms of the negative that seem to dominate dialectic, destruction, and deconstruction. So, in my slightly feverish state, my only real question is how the concept of plasticity is determined, if at all, by the negative? Would it take a different shape if she were working more closely with Spinoza, Bergson, and Deleuze? That is, what tests can the affirmative present to plasticity?

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing §§5-8

§5. Dusk and Epoch
In this section Malabou considers the meaning of dusk. Going through the multiple meanings it may take in an investigation of plasticity from the positive where it “might seem to suggest that plasticity is the dialectical sublation of writing as a motor schema” to the more negative signaling of the “onset of insomnia, the melancholic state into which the psyche of someone cannot mourn the lost object descends” (15). Dusks populate philosophy almost as a transformational mask that “reveals nothing, says no more, and does nothing but point to the silent enigma of its profiles” (17). Yet, though Malabou recognizes that these discourses on the dusk will remain like a shadow, she nevertheless holds out the hypothesis that plasticity may bring about a different meaning of dusk. Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing §§5-8″

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?

In this response post, I’d like to address two points: first, the relationship of Malabou’s work to Derrida’s, and second, a potential theological connection with the notion of plasticity. I hope that I can be forgiven for being self-referential in the first part and that it will serve something like the purpose that leads Malabou herself to be autobiographical in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing.


My engagement with philosophy has been dominated by two thinkers: Derrida and Zizek. I came to Derrida first, in a Christian atmosphere that strongly emphasized the “transcendent” and quasi-religious element in his thought — the absolute alterity of the Other, the resistence of the “trace” to being taken up into any determinate form, etc. When I began to study Zizek’s work, I found that he gave voice to a lot of my own skepticism about what one might call the “postmodern pieties” that surrounded Derrida’s work in my own setting (and, as it turns out, elsewhere as well).

I found Zizek’s own critiques of Derrida to be rather simplistic and unfair, seemingly motivated more by a young intellectual’s desire to clear out his own space than by an even-handed assessment of Derrida’s philosophy, but I sensed an overall challenge to Derrida that rang true: in essense, I took him to be asking, What can we do with Derrida? From a certain perspective, Derrida’s project seems to be entirely negative, characterized by extreme caution over words and by a need to express one’s own position only indirectly by means of a strange kind of commentary — but what positive task corresponds to this critical moment?

Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Response: What should we do with our Derrida?”

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing–“Introductory,” §§1-4

I’d like to begin by thanking Clayton for providing a kind of personal supplement to his excellent forword to Malabou’s book. This will be the first of our standard “summary” posts, but this time we will each be adding more of a “response” as well, once people have had a couple days to look over the summaries.

Introductory: Malabou begins by claiming that this book “paints the portrait of the concept of plasticity,” but it also provides an intellectual portrait of her own engagement with that concept and how it has shaped her own trajectory. At stake here is “a revisiting of form that now prohibits us from confusing form purely and simply with presence, for form has secretly transformed itself” (1), a confusion that she will later attribute to Derrida and Levinas.

§1. Let Us Consider a Strange Object: Here she introduces a metaphor that will subtly recur throughout the book, namely “transformational masks” as described by Levi-Strauss. Occuring in different cultures widely separated in time and space, these masks “are plural, composed of multiple faces–masks of masks, if you like.” (Here is an example from the Bering Sea Eskimos.) Continue reading Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing–“Introductory,” §§1-4″

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.

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing Book Event: Announcement

Just as a kind of heads-up, we will begin our reading of Catherine Malabou’s Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction next week.  Clayton Crockett will get things started with an introductory post on Monday, Feb. 15.  The schedule from that point onward is below. We look forward to everybody participating.

February 16, 18 — Adam Kotsko (pp. 1-15)
February 23, 25 — Anthony Paul Smith (pp. 15-30)
March 2, 5 — Ryan Krahn (pp. 30-44)
March 9, 11 — Brad Johnson (pp. 44-62)
March 16, 18 — Dan Barber (pp. 71-82)