UPDATE: Short video of Malabou can be found here.
The second chapter of Part One of Les nouveaux blessés – Les 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.”  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.