Although Catherine Malabou’s thinking has led her to a wide variety of subjects that includes Hegel, Heidegger, deconstruction, neuroplasticity, epigenesis, Freud, Spinoza, Foucault, Kant, and the Anthropocene, there has been one constant theme that has been the focus of these works: the notion of change. The focus of her engagement with change has been the plastic qualities of change and transformation. If her earlier work can be said to centre around the creative aspects of plasticity, more recent works, such as The New Wounded (2012) and The Ontology of the Accident (2012), concentrate on its destructive aspects, such as the way in which subjectivity is exposed to the destructive plasticity of neural “damage,” whether through physical accidents that directly damage the brain or through conditions such as dementia.
Change is not the first theme that comes to mind when many readers encounter Malabou because Malabou was initially received as a thinker closely associated with the work of Jacques Derrida. Not only was Derrida her supervisor at the Écoles Normales Supérieure, he also collaborated with Malabou on her first works translated into English.Counterpaths (2004) was co-written with Derrida and investigated the notion of place in his work while The Future of Hegel (2004) was published with a lengthy preface by Derrida. This is an association which has greatly influenced the reception of Malabou’s philosophy as a critical engagement with Derrida’s notion of messianic time: the future as the unknowable and undeconstructable alterity of what is to come.
At first glance, the connection between the work of Catherine Malabou and political theology may seem difficult to grasp. What could a materialist philosopher, known for her work on neuroplasticity, have to say about the relationship between politics and theology? It is perhaps not to her major works that one must turn, but to a journal essay that introduces her as belonging to a group of thinkers responsible for a “continental shift” within Political Theology.
Creston Davies lists Catherine Malabou alongside Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou as one of a number of continental philosophers whose work has begun to engage critically with issues connected to political theology. His own explanation for this shift is that after a crisis of faith in the aims and ideals of Marxist-led critique, a search for a new way of relating to meaning and time has led towards an engagement with what are commonly thought of as “theological” concepts.
In Clayton Crockett and Catherine Malabou’s collaborative article in the same journal issue, they explore the nature of the relationship of her work with deconstruction. This relationship is depicted against a backdrop of a particular development in the critique of the metaphysics of presence. Just as there is a certain strand of self-critique within theology itself that leads to negative theology as its ultimate conclusion, there is also a strand within critical philosophy, a strand that seems particularly prominent within deconstruction, that leads towards the thought that presence is always to-come, always delayed, or present only through absence in the form of a trace.
Crockett and Malabou describe how, rather than seeing themselves as part of this development, they are trying to find a way outside of it. Particularly problematic for them is the notion of messianism in Derrida and Agamben and the effect it has on our understanding of time. Messianism is a notion that is too rooted in an understanding of time as a series of nows (the Aristotelian notion of time critiqued by Heidegger) and also leads to an understanding of finitude measured against infinitude, against the infinite being of God-to-come. Such a notion prevents a radical understanding of time, one that is not measured against its coming to an end in the infinite, but rather one that comes to understand time as change. Yet, if on one hand Derrida seems trapped within the metaphysics of presence that he is trying to critique, he also seems to offer a way out of it with his notion of time as spacing, a notion that can be transferred into an understanding of time as plastic and materialist (neuronal and cerebral in Malabou’s case). It seems that Malabou keeps alive the hope that it would be possible to separate deconstruction from the theological destructio that comes to us through Luther and Heidegger (26).
Plasticity is the concept for which Malabou is best known; it is the focus of her work on Hegel, Freud and neuroscience. Crockett and Malabou tell us, “Plasticity concerns form, but it stretches our ordinary understanding of what form is and means” (24). They describe plasticity as meaning the capacity to receive form passively, the power to give form actively, and the power to receive form (25). For Crockett and Malabou, “The plasticity of concepts is the condition of possibility for their deconstruction, and not the other way around” (27). What Malabou and Crockett propose is a theology freed from Christ (or Christ radically transformed, perhaps “exploded”), a plastic theology and a plastic philosophy. Theology would survive in its production of immaterial concepts, “a machine for making Gods”(32), and that machine would be the brain.
With these remarks, we are still very much focused on the relationship between theology and philosophy rather than on political theology itself. Where all of this can help us in coming to understand the potential in Malabou’s thought for political theology is in the notion of form. To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her thought demands change from her readers if they are to follow her upon that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.
An engagement between the thought of Catherine Malabou and political theology is painful in the sense that Christian thinking is so dominant in the tradition of continental philosophy that we find it almost impossible to think the theological without Christ, without Paul, and without the Christian God. Such an engagement is also joyful because it provokes us towards new thoughts, thoughts that take us beyond the stumbling block of belief and non-belief.
What does a plastic political theology look like? How does it differ from a Christian-based political theology? Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a good Hegelian, Malabou demonstrates in The Future of Hegel (2005) that this difference is a false one, and that plasticity was already present within Christian thought itself. In that work, Malabou restages the movement of divine spirit in Hegel — from nature religion (animism), to figural religion (God as a person, personified in Christ), to God’s form of presence as Holy Spirit — as a plastic process. Malabou focuses on the moment of kenosis, the death of God in the figure of Christ which is the death of God as representation or figure. It is precisely kenosis that describes the plasticity of spirit, the way it must cease to be what it is in order to become what it can be (that spirit already was in the form of self-othering). It must give up being in order to become becoming (to become the self-othering that it already was).
Hegel’s notion of kenosis suggests a lack in God, a part of God that is always-already other. This notion also requires that one deals with the difficult subject of the death of God the son, his loss of human form. The movement of change in divine plasticity is the death of “God” in terms of God having a particular form, but it is not the total annihilation of God’s being; God still has a content. Materialism is not the end of God, but the change of God. God becomes the divine plasticity that is its own becoming. What God “is” to us, as a representation or idea, is not what God “is” in himself. It is precisely the non-critical “is” of human understanding that God would have to shake off if God is to be what God is. God as a figure of representation dies to the understanding in order that we can develop a new understanding of God, one that can overcome the difference between spirit and matter. It is in this sense that being becomes becoming, God becomes the movement of the concept; as divine plasticity, God never loses what God “is” since God’s “being” is change.
For Malabou, not only does this process describe the form of time, it also describes the form of subjectivity. Hegel’s Vorstellung, the process of representation, is God’s active giving of God’s self in which God is both shaping and shaped. It is also subjectivity’s consciousness as it gives itself forms and receives forms in representation. Hegel’s Aufhebung, that which is lost in the form that changes (hence both overcome and raised) is the way “sublation cancels and preserves, but it only preserves or constitutes a future by means of cancelling or destroying the present, a present moment it generates by means of giving itself a sense of a linear succession” (26).
Hegel represents a way in which we can both engage with the Christian legacy and transform it, the Aufhebung of Christianity. This same Aufhebung describes the movement of the subject and the movement of time. In light of this, what would need to change in political theology? What is the painful loss that it must overcome if it is to embrace its transformation? We have already indicated above that the first step would be an attempt to find a theology that is not tied to messianism. In the realm of politics, the painful loss would be expressed as a need to find a politics that is not based upon ends. It would be the search for the common good without a model, without a kingdom, and without an end. Malabou has explored this in recent talks and interviews where she reflects upon anarchism, a subject that she discusses further in a forthcoming book. She anticipates examining the resistance to political anarchism by philosophers who attempt to think without grounds and foundations, and engaging with Kropotkin’s idea of mutual aid. This would mean that if theology must untie itself from Christianity, then politics would have to untie itself from the notion of government and governmentality. Malabou states, “Anarchy implies the autonomous formation of social organisations, free from centralisation and hierarchies. It is the most plastic form of politics.”
In earlier work, such as the essay “Will Sovereignty Ever Be Deconstructed?”, Malabou charges that other philosophers, including Foucault, Derrida, and Agamben, have failed to “cut off the King’s head” of sovereignty (35) precisely because they attempt to define that which resists sovereignty, leaving sovereignty still intact.
For Foucault, it is bodies that can upset the paradigm of sovereignty. For Agamben, it is bare life. For Derrida, it is animality. In each case, the philosopher maintains a split between the symbolic power of a sovereign and the biological life that it acts upon. Referring to Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies (1957), Malabou writes, “It is then striking to notice that the critique or deconstruction of sovereignty is structured as the very entity it tends to critique or deconstruct. By distinguishing two lives and two bodies, contemporary philosophers reaffirm the theory of sovereignty, that is, the split between the symbolic and the biological” (39). The very fact that the terms of politics and theology are interchangeable, that one can be unveiled within the other, such as in Carl Schmitt’s famous statement, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (2005: 36), means that we are dealing with what Lévi-Strauss calls “floating signifiers,” concepts with shifting definition. The attempt to remove oneself from the paradigm of the sovereign will itself always be based upon a sovereign decision; it will be the transformation of a floating signifier into a rigid form (42). Transformation into a floating signifier is precisely the change that God undergoes in The Future of Hegel (2005). This is what enables us to find God in the political in the form of spirit, a floating signifier preserved is a plastic form.
A plastic political theology means an attempt to think beyond a logic of disenchantment whereby one attempts to come to a sovereign decision about what ”politics” and “theology” should mean, and what the form of their relationship should be. Contra Schmitt, for Malabou the theological is not the genetic code that dictates all the possible secular political forms it can take. What occurs is instead closer to that which Malabou calls epigenesis: the political and the theological share an “originary intrication.” Theology and politics contain within themselves the plasticity of form that opens them to anarchic transformation. By critiquing the sovereign decisions that politics should be governmental and not anarchic, and that theology should be Christian and not otherwise, the necessary conditions for the birth of a plastic political theology come into being.
Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel – Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. New York: Routledge, 2005.
One of the first works by Malabou to be published in English, and the basis of much of the discussion about the relationship between her work and Derrida’s due to his lengthy preface. Malabou discusses Hegel’s anthropology and his early theological writings. The book contains dense and important analyses of habit, time, logic and religion and is a key work for understanding Malabou’s philosophy of plasticity.
Catherine Malabou, The Heidegger Change – On the Fantastic in Philosophy. New York: SUNY Press, 2011.
An important work on Heidegger that examines his notion of change and how it effects our understanding of the place of Ereignis in his work. By examining the presence of words for change in Heidegger’s philosophy (Wandel, Wandlung, Verwandlung), Malabou arrives at an understanding of Ereignis as metamorphosis, being as transformation. A vital work for understanding how being is to be understood as becoming in her ontological perspective.
Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
This work serves as an excellent introduction to Malabou’s philosophical perspective on the plasticity of brains. It is here that Malabou explores the philosophical and political consequences for cerebral subjectivity and offers a critique of contemporary capitalism. Its reflections on bodily and psychic metamorphosis are further explored in later works such The New Wounded (2012) and Ontology of the Accident (2012).
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