On the Plasticity of the Brain in Contemporary Psychopolitics: Some Malabouan Critical Views | Han-yu Cory Huang

by Critical Asia

by Han-yu Cory Huang, Dec. 2023】

Phineas Gage’s miraculous survival in the accident of explosion on August 13th 1848 stands for a primal scene of neuroscience. The iron bar that cuts through Gage’s face and skull does not claim his life but turns him into a new person, a stranger to himself, his family and friends. In his Descartes’ Error,Antonio Damasio, as one major source of influence for Catherine Malabou’s work, looks into Gage’s brain damage in detail, and so does Malabou. As Damasio describes, “Gage’s body may be alive and well, but there is a new spirit animating it” (7). Gage’s metamorphosis pertains to swearing, epilepsy, irresponsibility, inability to make plans for the future and so on, making his “new” self completely dissociated with his previous self. His brain damage manifests that memory cannot be located in any single sector of the brain but is saved and functions in a distributive manner. As Malabou argues, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, the prefrontal cortex and so on work together in the cerebral network, but they

remain different in their specificity. Therefore, they can also be dissociated and function independently from each other. Brain diseases show the extreme consequences of such dissociations. Injuries to the hippocampus area, for example, leave the patient unable to process new declarative memories, even if they can still remember information and events that occurred prior to the wound or surgery. (Plasticity 287)

Seen as a whole, Malabou’s intervention in neuroscience as well as epigenetics does not stand as a branch or variation of philosophy of biology; it poses fundamental questioning on the malleability of regimes of forms.

By drawing on its Greek etymological origin “plassein,” Malabou conceptualizes plasticity as both form-receiving and form-giving power (What Should We Do with Our Brain? 5)。[1] This conception entails that forms can be both exogenous and endogenous. In Malabou’s neuroscientific terms, the activities of neurons and synapses make possible the plasticity of the brain and its development, modulation and reparation. Under the condition of genetic determinism, neurons can still enact a variety in triggering events. It is equally legitimate to argue that neuronal activities themselves are events; they event-alize, loosen or deactivate genetic programming (WSWDOB 8). The brain viewed from the perspective of plasticity is not only a form-receiver and giver but also a rebel against given forms (WSWDOB 6). Such understanding brings to bear on a new notion of the self that is a conglomerate of different kinds of neuronal plasticity and has the potential to “change’s one’s destiny, to inflect one’s trajectory, to navigate differently, to reform one’s form” (WSWDOB 17). The self modeled on neuronal plasticity distinguishes itself from any essentialist notion of the self and behaviorism; the self and its behaviors have the potential to deviate from genetic coding and species evolution (James 8).

Malabou’s theory of plasticity is actually formulated through her long-term dialogues with thinkers such as Spinoza, Hegel, Freud, Heidegger and Derrida. For example, Malabou sees Spinoza as a pioneer of neurobiology in Western philosophy, who stresses the significance of emotions to cerebral life and the inseparability of consciousness and emotions. According to Malabou’s elaboration, Spinoza’s “contatus” embodies the self-preserving tendency of living beings, while the verisimilitude of affects manifests life in its different intensities. The body from a Spinozean and Malabouan perspective is in constant motion and may transform into different bodies.

Malabou’s intervention in psychoanalysis goes deeper than in other systems of thought. For Malabou, life under Freudian-psychoanalytic formulation is characterized with indestructibility and, accordingly, plasticity. The traces of the psyche and life in their primordial stages are susceptible to revision, transformation and modulation but will not be completely eradicated (OA 43). Plasticity also manifests itself in the energy of the libido, which keeps detouring and switching from on to another object (OA 45). On the other hand, the psychoanalytic cure works on the basis of the plasticity of desire; its effectiveness depends on the analysand’s self-evolution as is premised on diverting desire from previous cathected objects and pursuing other objects and satisfaction, instead of remained imprisoned and fixed in a painful and paralyzing configuration (OA 45). However, Malabou’s neuroscientific intervention in psychoanalysis does not merely excavate the ideas of plasticity hidden in the latter; it aims to redemarcate the nervous and the psychical and to reconceptualize traumas so as to integrate the systems of psychoanalytic and neuroscientific knowledge. The psychical mechanism of negation, for example, affirms the repressed content and its absence, while destructive plasticity does not concern repression. The affective coldness suffered by the patients of brain damage does not work as their escape strategies; nor does it correspond to any deeper strata of negativity (OA 79). As Malabou elaborates, “Negative possibility does not proceed either from rejecting or spitting out. Since the accident is in no way interiorized by the victim, it remains foreign to the fate of the psyche and is not integrated into the history of the individual” (OA 81).

Each kind of brain damage or lesion leads to certain change of perceptive and cognitive faculties as both are interconnected and damage to one will have effects on the other. Psychical life from Malabou’s neuroscientific perspective does not end with brain damage; what the patient has gone through cannot be explained away as regression of personality. Changes are destructive in the sense of creation of some new unidentifiable identity, which Malabou names as “theater of absence” and “identity without precedents” (NW 47, 55-56). Malabou’s “new wound” can be classified as “agnosia and anosognosia,” which often appear in Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or such mental disorders as schizophrenia, autism and Tourette’s Syndrome on which psychoanalysis does not work well. The new wounded suffers loss of cognitive function; he cannot properly receive sensory information from bodies through their nervous systems. Such a phenomenon leads to “a strange emotional indifference” (NW 52). With his impoverished and disaffected emotional life, he often confronts difficulties making decision and cannot see anything worth his efforts: he remains trapped in a kind of indifferent or nihilistic condition. In Malabou’s own words, “The theater of absence is the privileged expression of affective impoverishment and destructive metamorphosis. Its rhetoric comprises figures of interruption, pauses, caesuras—the black spaces that emerge when the network of connections is shredded or when the circulation of energy is paralyzed” (55). This has nothing to do with rebirth or redemption but manifests absence of life or disaffection toward life and death (NW 60).

The new wound disrupts the connection between the emotional and the nervous system or between the psyche and the brain. “Becoming a new person,” as Alzheimer’s disease is not only a neurodegenerative disorder, means a psychic attack in the sense that “it impinges upon the identity of the subject and overturns his affective economy” (NW xiii). No one knows this new person, who has overwritten the patient’s previous self and obstructed the entry of the past into the present. He embodies a form out of an accident: in Malabou’s own words, “an absolute other, someone who will never be reconciled with themselves again, someone who will be this form of us without redemption or atonement . . . [t]he Wholly Other . . . a stranger to the Other” (OA 2-3). Viewed from this perspective, destructive plasticity is a form of no transcendence or escape, as well as “lack of exteriority” (OA 14), a radical break between the subject and the self, and an indifferent response to one’s own metamorphosis.

“Becoming a new wounded person” as discussed above pertains to victims of various forms of violence on a much broader social scale. The break between the cognitive, nervous and emotional systems entails that mental or intellectual faculties cannot properly interpret emotional states. Is the break in question caused by the disruption of synaptic connections or the explosion of nervous energy or neurochemical elements? Though this question is open to debate, we can confidently claim that the patients of brain damage no longer perceive and make sense of the fundamental transformation of their personalities (Bollmer 308-09). From Malabou’s critical perspective, Western philosophy as a whole, not even deconstruction and psychoanalysis, has never posed profound challenge to the status of writing, trace or inscription as a dominant conceptual tool or metaphor. However, Malabou does not reduce memory to images and signs in her neuroscientific discourse on the new wound. Memory thus conceptualized leaves no traces in neuronal connections; in Malabou’s own words, “Neuronal memory processing . . . resists hermeneutics. Plasticity renders the trace illegible because there is no trace” (Plasticity 293).

In some serious cases of brain damage, the patients’ language can be damaged to the degree of aphasia; this will definitely engender a tough obstacle to psychoanalytic cure. Whether their emotional or psychical disorders can be cured and how they perceive and meaningfully respond to the curing process remain undecidable. Apathy, disaffection or, in clinical terms, “alexithymia” may appear in the cases of abnormal personality which, at least on the surface, show conformity to social regulations and, therefore, fundamentally unsettle the distinction between normal and abnormal. The idea of plasticity may not apply to all these cases.

In addition to the gap between emotion and interpretation as discussed above, Malabou’s idea of the new wound may contribute to a rethinking of clinical treatment, “the post-traumatic subject” and trauma studies. Controversies can be anticipated, since both negative plasticity and the new wounded appear to be incompatible with the idea of cure or curability. But a closer reading of Malabou’s texts will point to the possibility that the new wounded herald some universal truths about traumatic, ontological conditions. As Malabou indicates in Self and Emotional Life, existing is a constant force that keeps differing from itself; the difference lies in the amplification and weakening of this force and the changing of its objects. It is from this aspect that affect can be regarded as “every kind of modification produced by the feeling of a difference” (5). And the primordial form of emotional modification or difference as such is the subject’s own difference or deviation from itself (6). As demonstrated in the case of the new wounded, the subject is exactly characterized by the self-deviation in question or the movement from autoaffection; affect vibrates without the (new wounded) subject, which is impervious to external stimulations. The subject is the new wound, a kind of hetero-heteroaffection, neither autoaffected nor heteroaffected. From a more philosophically fundamental perspective, the post-traumatic, new wounded subject has witnessed its own de-subjectification or loss of human conditions: the is the subject at its purest, undead or, in Lacanian terms, between two deaths.

As Malabou describes at the beginning of Self, Emotional Life, which she coauthors with Adrian Johnston, contemporary neurobiology is redemarcating emotional life; it no longer sees the brain as an emotionless organ in charge of cognitive functions but as the nucleus of libidinal economy. Such a new horizon concerns a changing relation between the cognitive and the emotional and breaks a new common ground between science (neurobiology) and humanities (i.e. philosophy and psychoanalysis) giving a new form to affect. The dialogue or confrontation between neurobiology, philosophy and psychoanalysis as Malabou anticipates meaningfully addresses disaffection and hetero-heteroaffection; this dialogue amounts to restructuring of contemporary systems of knowledge and, more specifically, a rethinking of trauma, suffering and violence in contemporary capitalist social and political contexts, a task hinged on the question: “what should we do with our brain?”

Malabou’s neuroscientific intervention in psychoanalysis opens up the dialogue in question mainly through the perspective of negative plasticity and sees the brain as “the source of formations and deformations of identity” (NW xv) and brain damage as a form of suffering. Malabou envisions two objectives: on the one hand, psychoanalysis responds to the psychical violence and damage which become more and more generalized and disruptive; on the other hand, psychopathology reestablishes its philosophical foundations so as to overcome the long-standing opposition between medicine and psychoanalysis and make neuropsychoanalysis possible. She cautions against “an overly hasty and premature insistence upon therapy, remission, and cure [which] leads to an effacement of the clinical and philosophical problem posed by destructive plasticity” (NW 167).

Placing focus on indifference or disaffection, Malabou’s restructuring project of contemporary épistémè actively responds to the prevailing physical and psychical damage, violence and suffering in contemporary neoliberal psychopolitics. As “the monstrosity of our time” (NW 168), disaffection exceeds the territories of neurosis and psychosis. Malabou’s “plasticity without remedy” departs from the pleasure principle and cure, which prevent psychoanalysis from responding to and helping to alleviate contemporary suffering and disaffection. Psychical mechanism acknowledged by negativity plasticity concerns indifference as compulsion to repeat, which has nothing to do with the entanglement of love and hate and is neither sadist nor masochistic. More intriguingly, as Malabou elaborates, “destructive plasticity is precisely what renders the psyche indifferent to its own compulsion” (NW 198). Nowadays, “making suffer” puts on a semblance of neutrality and senselessness “of a blow without author and without history, of mechanical violence, and of the absence of interiority” (NW 200), coming down to the banality of evil, or evil “becoming insensate of evil” (NW 200) that is closer to us more than ever.

Negative plasticity is not so much the accidental interruption of positive or constructive plasticity as “a true cerebral possibility” which can deviate from positive plasticity anytime (NW 200). “Plasticity without remedy” surpasses the relief or redemption of constructive plasticity and works as the prelude to our understanding of suffering. A true understanding of why people are suffering should be given the priority to treatment or healing (NW 212). Anyone at any moment may be susceptible to any form of violence and damage and become another person dissociated from the previous self and unable to feel his own suffering (NW 213). Negative plasticity understood this way radicalizes the deconstruction of subjectivity and manifests the inherent destructive forces in identity-formation. Indifference or disaffection does not only constitute the destiny of the patients of brain damage and schizophrenia as well as that of serial killers; it works as the ontological principle of Being, as the latter is always at the verge of self-abandonment and escape (OA 37).

The feeling brain is also a social brain, so our understanding of Malabou’s negative plasticity should not be limited to personal psychopathological conditions. Negative plasticity is no fetishistic attachment or addiction to damage, but concerns how the post-traumatic subject survives various kinds of brain damage or neuronal violence. Malabou’s question “what should we do with our brain?” also challenges us to bring neuronal plasticity to social, political and economic contexts; this is an urgent task to a time of information overload and, hence, pervasive burnout and exhaustion as well as all kinds of neuronal manipulation, violence and damage. Malabou confronts us with our continuous neglect of our own plasticity and belief that our brain is nothing but a hopeless machine (WSWDOB 9). In contrast to the rigid model of the control center, the plasticity of the brain is capable of multiple interactions, improvisation, creativity and contingency(WSWDOB 35). A model of the neuronal self can even come into being through the appearing and disappearing of the form, or through the vacillation between constancy and accidents. The neuronal self emerges out of the individual local activities of the different sectors of the nervous system; those activities send out signals that influence or determine perceptions. Such a model attests to the non-predetermined functioning of emotions and the significance of experiences to neuronal connections. Those connections maintain high degree of plasticity, indicating that the brain is by no means a fixed and self-enclosed organ but remains open to the influences of affect from all sides.

The plasticity of the neuronal self makes possible the redefinition of “events,” “suffering” and “damage.” The damage to the brain, as a matter of fact, pertains to the self and subjectivity as a whole. The self can only be understood from such a negative perspective, rather than in any complete or holistic way. At the same time, we also need to be aware that plasticity, the neuronal self and any neuronal form of society and politics do not guarantee freedom, since they are all susceptible to the manipulation of the capitalist system, which already coopts decentralized, multiple connections: hence, neuronal ideology. As Malabou explicitly claims, a critique of neuronal ideology entails an understanding of the brain as free, plastic but “everywhere in chains” (WSWDOB 11). Accordingly, Malabou draws a significant distinction between “plasticity” and “flexibility”: “flexibility is the ideological avatar of plasticity—at once its mask, its diversion, and its confiscation. . . . Indeed, what flexibility lacks is the resource of giving form, the power to create, to invent or even to erase an impression, the power to style. Flexibility is plasticity minus its genius” (WSWDOB 12). Malabou also cautions against the growing popularity of the literature of management (including medical management) and its blurred distinction with neuroscientific studies (WSWDOB 52). For Malabou, contemporary neuroscientific studies, to a great extent, has realized the political liberation of the brain, but, at the same time, the scientific description of the brain produces a normalizing form of democracy, “in that it accords an overly central role to the absence of center, a too rigid predominance to flexibility, that is to say, to docility and obedience” (WSWDOB 53).

As depression, ADHD, burnout, chronic fatigue syndromes and many other psychosomatic symptoms are becoming more and more pervasive and, accordingly, signal lack of real connections or inability to create new connections, the nervous system will be inhibited more than ever and the self, psychical and emotion states will be made more fragile and exhausted. “What should we do with our brain” so that such a tendency can be deaccelerated or even prevented? This definitely will be a psychopolitical question no less urgent that what we want to do with AI or ChatGPT.

Han-yu Cory Huang, Professor, Department of English, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan


[1] Hereafter cited as WSWDOB. Other abbreviations of book titles by Malabou include NW (The New Wounded), OA (Ontology of the Accident) and SEL (Self and Emotional Life).


Bollmer, Grant David. “Pathologies of Affect: The ‘New Wounded’ and the Politics of Ontology.” Cultural Studies 28.2 (2014): 298-326.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. London: Vintage, 2006.

James, Ian. The Technique of Thought: Nancy, Laruelle, Malabou, and Stiegler after Naturalism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2019.

Malabou, Catherine. The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage. Trans. Steven Miller. New York: Fordham UP, 2012.

—. Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Trans. Carolyn Shread. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.

—. Plasticity: The Forms of Explosion. Ed. Tyler M. Williams. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2022.

—. Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality. Trans. Carolyn Shread. Cambridge: Polity, 2016.

—. What Should We Do with Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

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