Neuronal Politics: A Review of Malabou

Catherine Malabou in Blue

Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What should we do with our brain? Trans

by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.

Original: Malabou, Catherine. 2004. Que faire de notre cerveau? Paris: Bayard.

The Rise of the New Ontologists

Recently, political theory has moved away from epistemology and toward ontology; in effect, swapping the obsessions of post-structuralism (the limits of knowledge and language) with a renewed emphasis on the ground of being as such. If the post-structuralists reduced everything to discourse, the “new ontologists” (as they are coming to be called) reduce everything to an issue of existence. In so doing, they privilege things over concepts, or, we might say, supplant idealism with materialism. Yet the new ontologists also double down on postmodernist anti-humanism by displacing the human as the center of political theory. In effect, they describe being in new ways in order to suggest the possibilities of reading agency into the non-human world.

Another key feature of this movement is also a change in the perceived status of science. While Foucault and Adorno were often read as fundamentally critical of instrumental reason and the claims of scientific neutrality, the new ontologists cloak their writing in the language of scientific jargon and seem to more broadly grant scientific claims.

I wrote “seem” above because one of my main criticisms of new ontologists such as Jane Bennett and William Connolly is that science and scientific terminology seem to function merely as metaphors. For example, in Connolly’s The World of Becoming, complexity theory and systems analysis are evoked at every turn. Yet, as is quickly apparent, this is nothing but a metaphorical screen, covering for some lightweight insights that largely confirm the presuppositions of literary theory. In effect, science only seems to be useful to new ontologists when it reinforces positions that the humanities already take as givens. Bennett too has much to say about networks (assemblages), material vitalism, and the political agency of bacteria (Bennett, Vibrant Matter). But she totally ignores actual network theory and only martials a few scraps of biological science that fit within her larger political framework. In both cases, their politics seem to be in place first and only then do they go in quest of an ontology that could retroactively be used to justify it. What is even sadder is that for all their ontological creativity, the new ontologists seem to return to the conventional Green politics of the 1990s. Indeed, as much I agree with their political conclusions, they hardly seem revolutionary. In one striking passage of The World of Becoming, for example, Connolly takes us through page after page of complexity theory only to tell us that we need to eat local and buy a Prius (Connolly, 91).

So while I share many of the stated goals of the new ontologists (pro-science, post-humanism, network theory) and even some of their politics, I typically find their arguments fuzzyheaded and profoundly unsatisfying.[i]

Catherine Malabou: What should we do with our brain?

What Should we do with our brain. Malabou

Although trained in France, Catherine Malabou is often spoken of in the same breath as Bennett and Connolly. It is true that she shares the movement’s main ticks: a commitment to an ontologically grounded politics, an emphasis on new materialism, and an embrace of the language of scientism. So when we agreed to read her in our theory group, I sighed and resigned myself to disappointment. MalabouWhat should we do with our brain? was therefore a pleasant surprise. I’m not saying it is the best thing since the Internet, but I found it hitting some of the right notes.

The book does, however, have one nearly deadly flaw (for my taste) in that it makes the most sense if you already know where Malabou is going. Unless you happen to be very familiar with her collective oeuvre, the book is basically written backwards. So to make its argument clearer I am going to depart from the order that Malabou provides in presenting her argument.

I think the best way into Malabou’s work for readers of this blog is the back cover blurb provided by Žižek:

As a rule, neuroscientists avoid three things like a vampire avoids garlic: Any links to European metaphysics, political engagement, and reflection upon the social conditions which gave rise to their science. Catherine Malabou does exactly this: she provides a Hegelian reading of neurosciences…

I agree with Žižek both in his criticism of the self-imposed limits of contemporary neuroscience and in spotting the Hegelian core of Malabou’s project. While she doesn’t set the work up as such, the Hegelian themes are easy to read when you realize that Malabou’s dissertation, written under the guidance of Jacques Derrida, was about Hegel. So what does a Hegelian reading of neurosciences look like?

First and foremost, it pays to keep in mind the central preoccupation of political Hegelianism—that the socio-political order would/should correspond to the structure of Mind/Spirit(Geist). For Right Hegelians this often meant that the Prussian state (or something like it) had nearly come to fully embody reason and freedom or the ultimate fulfillment of the self-understanding of the absolute. Restated, they argued that Mind had already come to know itself in the nation-state, which at that time was sufficiently complex/rational to accord with the function of mind. In say 1840, we had already nearly arrived at the ideal political state.

For Left Hegelians, however, the ideal state had yet to appear. All existing states did not yet accord with Mind. Left Hegelians argued that the political world needed a revolution to actualize the absolute Idea. Put simply, politics needed to be able to embody complexity/diversity (unity of identity and difference) in a way that was impossible in the political order as it then existed. In other words, the state did not reflect the potential of the human mind but it should be made to do so. The key to Malabou’s project is to see it in Left Hegelian terms (despite the fact that references to Hegel don’t occur until late in the work, 80-81). One must also substitute “brain” (or at one point “neurons”) for Mind. So the problem of a contemporary Left Hegelianism becomes: given what the brain sciences now know about the structure of the human mind, how should society or the political order be reshaped to reflect these insights? Put differently, what might a neuroscience-informed politics look like?

The End of the Sovereign Brain

To answer this question Malabou works primarily to figure out what politics are already implied by contemporary neuroscience. First she notes that a shift has already happened. Older states legitimated the centralization of power in part by describing the sovereign as the head, mind or brain of the society (32). But contemporary neuroscience has abandoned the idea that there is a single “controller” producing a set of sovereign decisions. There is not a little man in the brain, nor a single unitary sovereign/decider (to use Schmidtian language). Instead, as Malabou observes, the central organization imagined by neuroscience is one of decentered and distributed processing. (34-6)

This means that the older metaphor of absolutely sovereignty can be replaced as well, because we now know that decisions don’t have to be issued by a central authority. Instead we can imagine a neuronal politics modeled on the relation of these distributed processes in which choice happens across multiple junctures. This might look like a contemporary modern democracy except for the fact that today the function of a citizen is precisely to delegate sovereignty to a leader or leaders. In this sense, contemporary politics replicates the structure of a central state, merely one with interchangeable heads (to keep the metaphor going). Thus, Malabou wants to rethink the full possibility of be an individual enmeshed in the collective apparatus we call the state and to ask: What might a neuronal citizen be like?

Malabou argues that neuroscience provides us with two latent possibilitiesflexibility and plasticity. Given that she has basically made a career out of the term “plasticity,” you can guess which one she’ll support. We’ll return to her politics of “plasticity” in a moment, but first I want to describe what she thinks a politics of flexibility might entail and why that is a problem.

Flexible Politics: or Malabou Versus the New Ontologists

As Malabou observes, neuroscientists have increasingly come to describe the human brain as fundamentally “flexible” and capable of restructuring itself in response to trauma. In effect, our brain is a reconfigurable “network” that can compensate for damage to one area by shifting resources to another.

But this is not all. Relying in particular on the work of Boltanski and Chiapello, Malabou shows that contemporary neuroscience and management speak have eerie resonances.[ii] As Boltanski and Chiapello argue, the Post-Fordist restructuring of capitalism has already displaced the central manager or controller. Modern corporations make decisions in flexible teams that can be reconfigured at will. Processing is distributed and rooted in a kind of basic “adaptability.” Moreover, as they argue “the manager is clearly the network man. His principal quality is his mobility, his ability to displace himself.” (44) This is a product of contemporary “lean” or mobile manufacturing, which they suggest functions in terms of “networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in the form of teams or projects.’ In such companies, one pays attention only to ‘the number, form, and orientation of connections.”(41)

It turns out that the network is the primary model of neuroscience and Euro-American popular culture alike (think The Social Network and the idea of networking). Our brains are described as networks by neuroscientists in the very moment that the network has taken over as the root metaphor of business. Restated: not only are we enmeshed in the metaphor of the social network, but all the values of the network—flexibility, the ability to reorganize, and distributed hierarchies—are also the values of our current form of capitalism. Further, contemporary fluid capitalism:

“implicitly and explicitly-refers to neuronal functioning as it pretends [according to Boltanski and Chiapello] ‘to replace essentialist ontologies with open spaces without borders, centers, or fixed points, where entities are constituted by the relations they enter into and alter in line with the flows, transfers, exchanges, permutations, and displacements that are the relevant events in this space.’ ”

Although Malabou does not mention them by name, this capitalist image of flows and transfers and exchanges is essentially the same world of vibrant assemblages and complex flows that is advocated by the New Ontologists (like Bennett and Connolly and even Latour). Although I don’t have time to flesh out the argument in depth here, it would appear that the New Ontologists are inadvertently evoking a shift that has already happened in the economic base, such that their attempted emancipation from Neo-liberalism fails to escape capitalism’s current formulations. The network, in this account, is the heart of a capitalist neuronal ideology.

Malabou is primarily interested in addressing the role of the citizen in this version of contemporary capitalist and neuronal politics. What she sees she doesn’t like. She observes that today wherever employability is equated with adaptability, what managers are really praising is a kind of docility and obedience. (53) In effect, we are being asked to act as if we are essence-less such that we can be recruited into the service of different configurations of the system. Restated, we are asked to invest in our ultimate flexibility such that we can be periodically displaced to benefit the capitalism system in which we are entangled. But as Malabou argues, this idea of docile-flexibility is bad for us, depriving us of our basic agency and reducing us to merely cogs in the machine (or we might say neuroglia in the brain). To put it in even more contemporary terms, we might say that we run the risk of merely becoming nodes in the network of capitalism and therefore at the mercy of its shifts and flows. As I’ll argue, the de-humanization called for by the New Ontologists seems to have already happened, and its name is alienation. [iii]

For Malabou, a government modeled on complete flexibility would therefore be simultaneously alienating and disempowering. But what are the other options?

Plastic Politics

Malabou’s main answer to this is via a return to the metaphor of “plasticity” that she sees as underlying contemporary neuroscience. As she observes:

“Brain plasticity operates, as we shall see, on three levels: (1) the modeling of neuronal connections (developmental plasticity of the embryo and the child); (2) the modification of neuronal connections (the plasticity of synaptic modulation throughout life); and (3) the capacity for repair (post-lesional plasticity). ‘Plasticity in the nervous system means an alternation in structure or function brought about by development, experience, or injury.” (5)

This means that on a fundamental level—our brains are far from static objects but are constantly engaged in the business of transforming themselves either through growth, through increasing their efficiency/learning, or through recuperating from damage. The main quality of the brain is its plasticity. But what is the difference between plasticity and flexibility?  Malabou takes us to etymology:

“From the Greek, plassein, to mold—the word plasticity has two basic senses: it means at once the capacity to receive form [think clay]…and the capacity to give form [think plastic surgery]…. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiverof form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model.” (5-6)

This means two things. First, the brain is engaged in a constant self-fashioning as an object that both receives and gives form; and second that the brain is not docile but is a site of resistance. We’ll get to resistance in a moment, but first let’s dwell on neuronal plasticity, which turns out to be an amazingly useful concept in Malabou’s hands. Primarily, as she observes, this means that “Humans make their own brain, but they do not know that they make it.”(1) In effect neuronal materialism does not imply a fixed or stable human nature, at least in so far as we are always able to change ourselves on a basic level. This means that instead of abrogating responsibility to our brain (my brain made me do it) we have to take ownership of our brain as both us and our most fundamental work in progress. The central feature of a new politics therefore is to take this plasticity seriously. We need to build a political order that both echoes the way our brains work and gives shape to brains that function as they should.

                                                            The Brain As/In history

What is more, the plasticity of the brain is more than a metaphor and as such it means something that most neuroscientists are hesitant to acknowledge–“It’s not just that the brain has a history…but that it is a history.”(1). The past gives shape to the brain on a literal level. There is a tendency to view the brain as without history, but it is shaped by experience. Thus, while some neuroscientists might claim to be able to find the Republican center of the brain, this means not that Republicans have an inborn set of neuronal dispositions, but that their history and habits of thought have become instantiated in the material through which they have formulated their cognition.[iv] Culture too is not operating only at the level of discourse, but imposes specific features on the brain. Neuroscience therefore cannot afford to ignore individual history and experience. The plasticity of the brain seemingly subverts the tired dualisms between body and mind, nature and culture.

The Power of Plastique

If this plasticity of form provides one aspect of Malabou’s meaning of the term, the Anglophone members of my critical theory group were the least impressed by this second reading of plastic as disobedience. It works better in French as plastique evokes not only the arts plastiques but also “destruction” as plastiquer means “to explode.” We have this later meaning in English but only just in the expression “plastic explosives.” Accordingly Malabou sees in plasticity not docility, but a limited elasticity that can erupt if pushed to far. As she argues:

“To refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion. To cancel the fluxes, to lower our self-controlling guard, to accept exploding from time to time…”(78-9)

In this we see in the beginning of her neuronal politics what she will call a “Biological Alter-globalism.” This is a politics of both elasticity and explosive resistance. It embraces “lower[ing] our self-controlling guard, to accept exploding from time to time”.(79) However, Malabou spends very little time describing the details of this politics.[v] So her political program comes out as maddeningly vague and on this level the work is disappointing. Indeed if anything this is its main fault.

Nevertheless, Malabou’s main point of emphasis is to bring us into a new relationship to ourselves as creatures with brains that are in the process of both taking form and resisting form.

“All current identity maintains itself only at the cost of a struggle against its autodestruction: it is in this sense that identity is dialectical in nature…One is formed only by virtue of a resistance to form itself…” (71)

The plastic brain is not just a metaphor. Because our brain both is us and is constantly being fashioned by us, unless we acknowledge the self-fashioning process: “we are still foreign to ourselves…”(3) Our brains are both our being and our responsibility. The plasticity of the brain exists at that paradoxical point between determinism and freewill, between reason and freedom. In this account, we cannot excuse an ignorance of the brain, nor can we imagine that we are purely psychological/spiritual entities. Politics too cannot afford to ignore the realities of its impact on the brain and its origins in the brain. We need, therefore, to both allow our brains to give us shape and to resist the shape they are in. Thus, while her politics are less fully articulated in this work, her call to arms is compelling. As Malabou argues, the care of our brain is a matter of fundamental ethical concern and we should all ask ourselves: “what should we do with our brain?”

What should we do with our brain?


Thanks to discussions with Christian Thorne and the Williams Critical Theory Group.

[i] In part I disagree with the new ontologists so stridently because I think any rapprochement between science and humanities would mean actually engaging with science instead of merely using it as a metaphor.

[ii] Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2005. The New Spirit Of Capitalism. London: Verso.

[iii] As it is rooted in a modern Left Hegelian position, we can see how Malabou’s new materialism is very different from that of the other New Ontologists. Indeed, instead of rejecting discourse in favor of materiality, praising the intellectual closure of the hard sciences, or merely calling for a fuzzy victory of the world of objects, her materialism is Hegelian or perhaps Heideggerian as she argues “A reasonable materialism, in my view, would posit that the natural contradicts itself and that thought is the fruit of this contradiction.” (82)

[iv] If you think I’m joking, for examples of pop neuroscience work of this sort see:

[v] I believe she leaves her positive political program for Les Nouveaux Blessés 2007, which I haven’t yet read.

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