Ruins of Identity: Irretrievable Damage.

So finishing up Part One of Malabou’s Les Nouveaux blessés – the remaining chapters of this part (3 and 4) deal primarily with an issue that was already set up through the discussion of what constitutes cerebral (and, by extention, psychic) identity – in these chapters we will see the first elements of what constitutes the primary goal of the study that could be roughly presented as following: what does cerebral trauma tell us about the human identity? how does psychoanalysis (and philosophy in general) deal with the new information given to us by neurosciences regarding the physical processes that define who we are? These issues of identity, of course, are not approached naively and without preparation. Carl Dyke posted a link to his essay on the issues that, I think, gives a great summary of the main problems (with philosophy and neuroscience constituting only a part of the big picture) – you can read it here (PDF).

Chapter 3: L’identité sans précédent (Identity without precedent)

This chapter deals with a small but significant confrontation between Freudian idea of plasticity and what Malabou labels “another plasticity” – the basic difference being that while Freud’s understanding of the plastic psyche allows for such terms as “regression” (a return to a previous state), Malabou points out that there exists another type of plastic psychic activity that allows the “person” to create an identity on the ruins of the past identity as in cases of severe cerebral damage. Such person does not return to the previous state, yet is able to maintain some sort of more or less coherent identity.  The fascinating question here is, of course, where does this another identity come from? Who is this “new person”? 

Freud’s idea of plasticity can be exemplified by dreams – Malabou cites Freud (strangely enough, the same passage twice just several pages apart) suggesting that the best example of our psychic plasticity is given to us every night when all kinds of confusing and extravagant combinations of experiences appear to us in our dreams.  Malabou’s “another plasticity,” on the other hand, is exemplified by cases of severe Alzheimer’s – it is not a regression but “retrogenesis” (term from Barry Reisberg), both in terms of the actual neurodegenerative processes of “returning to infancy” and in terms of general degeneration of the psychic activity (“childish but not a child”).  This impossibility to return back to the pre-damaged state, Malabou seems to say, should make us pause and ask questions about the “previous state” – how does one maintain this self that, after a cerebral damage, is not only gone forever, but is paradoxically able to put its very ruins to use in creating a new identity? This seems to be the theme of the whole first part then – what does damaged psyche tell us about the workings of the “normal” psyche? This question, it seems to me, is also that of psychoanalysis, but in this case it is raised with an important neuroscientific corrective in mind.

The change of paradigm here, writes Malabou, is the change from Freudian model to the new plastic model that claims that “in the cerebral economy there is no permanent form that is able to transform itself without breaking… The pathological changes of cerebral connections are the changes of form but precisely without a return to the preceding form.” [117]  This is where the concept of “cerebrality” is useful: “La cérébralité, régime événementiel de l’accident, caractérise précisément le mode de production de ces changements sans mémoire – caractéristiques de l’autoaffection interrompue.” [118]  This new paradigm, Malabou hopes, will produce a new etiological principle. 

Chapter 4: Objection de la psychanalyse: peut-il y avoir destruction sans pulsion de destruction? (Psychoanalytic objection: Can there be destruction without the drive to destruction?)

This chapter addresses some of the possible objections from psychoanalysis – primarily the objection that it is not possible to assume that psychic life could be destroyed singularly by the exterior events like brain damage, how is it possible to think destruction without any reference to a specific drive? Malabou thus claims that it is necessary to contrast at this point in the book Freud’s theory of the “death drive” and the new hypothesis of the plastic formation through destruction. [124]

If “another plasticity” is able to create a new identity ex nihilo, on the ruins of the old pre-traumatic identity, the question then is how does such creation take place? The very basic issue here could be a question like this: if we accept the cerebral autoaffection and its workings as described correctly in terms of cerebral unconscious, then how can we say that this new (post-traumatic) identity that is a result of the plastic transformation was not there all along secretly operating on some level of ordinary processes of cerebrality? In other words, to propose the existence of “another plasticity” that is different from Freud’s understanding of plastic changes that never touch the psychic core of the person, one must show that this plasticity and its ability to create a new identity that is not simply a regression to some sort of indestructible secret core that resists trauma and maintains some sort of the trace of the old “normal” identity.  Another form of this objection refers us to Freud’s “death drive” – what if the cold and indifferent post-traumatic identity that is a result of this new creation of plasticity is not really a new creation but simply a state that only confirms the fragility of the brain, only confirms the tendency to destroy – the state of post-traumatic detachment is not caused by the trauma but is a result of tendency to self-destruct already at work that trauma simply sets off? 

The confrontation between Freud’s “death drive” and Malabou’s discussion of cerebrality is thus inevitable. This is a difficult section of the book and I think I’ll leave it at this for today as I would like to read it again before I move along to Part Two.

1 thought on “Ruins of Identity: Irretrievable Damage.

  1. Pingback: Reading Catherine Malabou « Perverse Egalitarianism

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