Post-Traumatic Plasticity: Digression I


UPDATE: Short video of Malabou can be found here.

The second chapter of Part One of Les nouveaux blessésLes célébro-lésés: du roman neurologique au théâtre de l’absence – deals with some examples of cerebral damages and their general effects (the prevailing one being that of “indifference” and “cold detachment”) and how neurological scientific style itself is a strange co-conspirator in this perpetuation of coldness and detachment in a way it deals with these cases stylistically.  However, Malabou brings up her favorite notion of “plasticity” in order to engage a topic she has already addressed in Que faire de notre cerveau? which leads me to my first digression – what is this plasticity as applied to the discussion of the brain?

In Que faire de notre cerveau? Malabou poses the major philosophical and scientific problem – we have gathered so much data about the various activities of the brain, yet we still have no idea of what it all means for our understanding of our “self” – neuronal person does not yet have self-knowledge. And despite the fact that the concept (or, at the very least, the word) of “plasticity” is thrown around the neurosciences, writes Malabou, we still discuss the matters of the brain in terms of the concept of “rigidity” of fixed brain processes, including all the imagery of control, organization, agents, computers and so on. This very choice of metaphors, Malabou argues, tells us plenty about the general unwillingness to postulate a kind of plastic view of the brain that would present it not in terms of static fixtures but dynamic and plastic activities (events) of constant change: 

The word “plasticity” has two fundamental meanings: it designates the capacity to receive form (clay, for example, is considered “plastic”) and the capacity to give form (say in the arts or plastic surgery).  To speak of plasticity of the brain is to consider the brain as something that is at the same time formable and forming. Cerebral plasticity operates then on three levels: 1) the establishment of the neuronal connections (plasticity of development in an embryo or a baby); 2) the modification of the neuronal connections (plasticity of modulation of synaptic effects that takes places throughout one’s life); 3) the capacity to repair [the neuronal connections] (post-traumatic plasticity). [Que faire, 16] 

It is this third kind of plasticity that Malabou discusses in Les nouveaux blessés, but not as a kind of restorative plasticity – damage is encountered as a displacement and is then returned to its original configuration (repaired), but as a post-traumatic plasticity that “is not a plasticity of reconstitution but of formation of a new identity developed vis-a-vis the loss.” [94]  In this sense of dealing with the loss, Malabou warns, plasticity also designates the capacity to annihilate the form that it receives or creates – “plastic explosives” share the idea of annihilation with “plasticity” as Malabou understands it. Still, for Malabou, this creative-destructive plasticity is what allows us to form any sort of personal identity, have a personal awareness of our existence. Malabou’s setting of the stage to answer the question – What Should We Do With Our Brain? – is framed with a number of issues related to the notion of plasticity which, she points out, finds itself somewhere between genetic necessity and chaotic unpredictability of experience (and thus all the possible synaptic changes in the brain). 

If it is really that simple, asks Malabou, that is, we are what we make of ourselves, taken the plastic brain, how is it possible that, despite the amount of information in both expert and popular literature, we really know very little about what it implies? If our brains really are capable of changing themselves with such ease (genetic necessity only determines the “general cerebral architecture” as Changeux puts it), then why is this message so difficult to spread or implement (say, in education or politics)? This particular book will go in the direction of analysis of plasticity and its power to naturalize consciousness and sense/meaning that will be considered similar to the “new spirit of capitalism” as presented in the book that is presently available in English as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2005) – but that is a digression… But here’s a review of it from New Left Review.

5 thoughts on “Post-Traumatic Plasticity: Digression I

  1. Not to toot my own horn, but since I posted it and you’re on the topic I might as well call attention to a paper I wrote a while ago that does some interdisciplinary synthesis of various thinkings about self and identity. Although I address post-traumatic plasticity only briefly, it’s in the context of a general discussion of self and identity as situated and fluid evolving constructs. Also have some stuff to say about why we’re inclined to think more concretely about self and identity.

    The rhetorical device you report Malabou using of a general failure to blahblahblah about how self and identity work is virtually tropic – it seems impossible for the hundreds of people writing on this subject to start from anything but scratch. Everybody’s the first to discover how complicated self and identity are. I’d wonder why this field in particular attracts that kind of artificial ignorance, except I know from my analysis that this is precisely how the fictitious unities of self and identity do their work.

    Check it out, Mikhail, it’s a quick read and ‘fits’ what you’re thinking about.

    By the way, just because the brain is plastic doesn’t mean it’s easy to change it. Our will to change is only one stimulus in a complicated field of habits and influences.

  2. Carl, thank for the paper – I’ll definitely take a look this afternoon. Malabou seems to be introducing the topic to a kind of crowd that, I think, would need this “start from the scratch” approach – partly because both books I’ve mentioned deal with something other than the basic introduction of the complexities of the brain etc – I’m simply not there yet as I’m only in the introductory sections (and since I’m mainly ignorant of the issues myself, it’s taking me a while to get to “the point”), partly because a certain type of a “continential philosopher” would be averse to discussing science in such detail, you know what I mean? God forbid you’d sound like one of those “analytical” philosophy of mind types with their science. So Malabou is basically saying something very simple: Look, this is what neuroscience tells us, but despite all the data, it still needs a kind of analysis that can be done by both scientists and philosophers – their conclusions about plasticity will be one matter (she talks about a “notion of flexibility” for example as a kind of scientistic covering-over of the “concept of plasticity” but again she wrote a book on plasticity in Hegel so I think that where she’s coming from), “ours” conclusions will be another matter – everyone’s happy…

  3. Yeah, that sounds good and valuable. I got to feeling that what I was saying was so obvious for some people, and yet so inherently unconvincing to those committed to a different view, that it wasn’t worth belaboring the point to either group. Ran out of steam, as usual, on the question of audience. Since she’s figured hers out it’s worth doing.

    I just really wish her first name was Stacey.

  4. Pingback: Reading Malabou « Perverse Egalitarianism

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