Sunday, November 10, 2013

Animation/Reanimation: New Starts in Eternal Recurrence: Residency at Berkeley (March/April 2014)

Professor Malabou will be in residence March 31 - April 28, 2014 and will offer a 4-week graduate seminar on "Animation/Reanimation: New Starts in Eternal Recurrence." Her Una's lecture will offer a contemporary reading of Plato’s Myth of Er (The Republic, Book X).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

LGS Summer School on Derrida's Glas

This years LGS Summer School program on Derrida's Glas will feature:

Étienne Balibar (Columbia University and Kingston University)

Andrew Benjamin (Monash University and Kingston University)

Geoffrey Bennington (Emory University)

Tina Chanter (Kingston University)

Mairéad Hanrahan (University College London)

Catherine Malabou (Kingston University)

See more at:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Plasticity, in Retrospect: Changing the Future of the Humanities": diacritics review by Tyler Williams


Tyler Williams

a Review of SELECTED works by catherine malabou

What Should We Do with Our Brain?
New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
“The Future of the Humanities .”
theory@buffalo, no. 14 (2010): 8–16.
Ontology of the Accident: An Ess ay on Destructive Plasticity.
Malden, MA: Polity, 2012.

DIACRITICS Volume 41.1 (2013) 6–27 ©2013 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

Tyler Williams is a PhD candidate in the
Department of Comparative Literature
at the State University of New York
at Buffalo. His research focuses on
contemporary Continental philosophy;
critical and literary theory; and the constitution
of time, memory, and identity
in the modern novel. He is currently
finishing a dissertation entitled, “Politics
of Dust: ‘Faulkner’ and the Legacy of

Immanuel Kant’s famous 1784 dictum, “we at present [do not] live in an enlightened age
. . . but we do live in an age of enlightenment,” affirms that the ideals espoused by the
Enlightenment tradition need constant reaffirmation and transformation befitting the
political climates in which philosophy finds itself.1 Enlightenment, Kant says, is not a finished
product but a matter of process, change, and adaptability to context. The Enlightenment’s
raising of humankind from its state of “self-incurred immaturity” asserts itself
as a tradition founded upon the malleability of discursive borders, limits, and frontiers.2
Institutions birthed from the Enlightenment’s revolution (humanism and the humanities,
constitutional democracy, the university, etc.) honor a certain notion of flexibility
and promote the universalism of humanist ideals as formable and malleable to reason in
the face of rigid discursive dogmatisms that must be resisted. The humanities, and the
universities that institutionally house them and in which they thrive, according to this
tradition, work as form’s resistance to rigidity.
Indebted as it is to the Enlightenment tradition, the legacy of the humanities has historically
maintained itself as the discourse devoted to the study of frontiers and limits. A
tendency to regard the humanities as an exemplary discourse, as unique among others
(insofar as its very project concerns the frontiers, limits, and borders of discursivity as
such), survives today and permeates discussions regarding the future of the humanities.
Both Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault argue that the primary task of philosophy,
and of the humanities in general, bears the responsibility of “critique” as expressed
in the Kantian project. For Derrida, the “university without condition” must be a place
(although, he adds, this place “does not, in fact, exist”) where its founding Enlightenment
ideals are preserved, where Kantian “critique” has a future, and where rigid dogmatisms
of disciplinarity find “critical resistance,” which is to say, “deconstruction.”3 Foucault
agrees when he writes that the Enlightenment’s “philosophical ethos may be characterized
as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move
beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism (critique)
indeed consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits.”4 The humanities are endowed
with the task of “critical resistance,” of “analyzing and reflecting upon limits,” because
the humanities are not themselves circumscribed by dogmatically legislated boundaries.
Instead, the humanities infinitely resist the determination of a demarcated “inside” or
“outside” because the very questioning of borderlines and the power that enforces them
comprises the most critical task of the humanities. No task other than the critique of and
resistance to frontiers/limits; and this taskless task makes the humanities both an infinite
series of frontiers and limits and a discourse on frontiers and limits.
The open formation of the frontier for Derrida marks a decidedly democratic condition
for the humanities. Not surprisingly, therefore, Derrida frequently recognizes the
shared genealogy of democracy and the humanities (as well as the university, a haven for
critique unperturbed by the dogmatisms of the day) dating back to their double instantiation—
as institutions—in the Enlightenment.5 Without a definitively legislated inside
or outside, which is to say, without predetermined and fixed content proper to it, the
humanities’ democratic structure of critique makes their frontiers uniquely malleable
and flexible. However, Catherine Malabou argues that the humanities have conceptually
posited themselves since the Enlightenment according to a model that is today most
keenly articulated by the sciences: plasticity. The humanities have always posited their
frontiers as plastic, she says, but did not know it. With the humanities still ignorant of the
plasticity they name for themselves, and with the sciences developing increased interest
and research in neural and cellular plasticity, Malabou argues that today the “most accurate
concept of the frontier [qua plastic] is currently being elaborated and articulated
by science.”6 Scientific developments in plasticity have begun, according to Malabou,
to threaten territory typically reserved exclusively for the humanities. Therefore, lest
they wilt under the “threat” of becoming “useless and unproductive,” the humanities are
compelled to “dialogue” with the sciences “in order for them [the humanities] to avoid
being swallowed, or eaten alive, by science without even being aware of it.”7
Malabou’s work argues for a redrawing of the discursive frontiers between the humanities
and the sciences in light of the “new elaboration of the concept of frontiers and
of limits” articulated by biological discourses on plasticity. “The future of any discourse
or of any discursive practice, be it philosophical, literary, or scientific, is linked with the
plasticity of its limits and frontiers.” For Malabou, the relevancy and the future survival
of the humanities depend on their plastic
ability “to receive new forms from the outside”
and also “bestow new forms to other
discourses.” By positing relation at the
heart of discursive survival, a discourse’s
plasticity requires that its frontiers and
limits be adaptable from within while also
requiring the same of external discourses.8
Without such an adaptable relation, there
would be no future because there would be no possibility of change. The future of the
humanities as a future of plasticity, according to Malabou, is already woven into the humanities—
and into disciplinarity as such—from the start.
Rooted in the Greek plassein (“to mold” and “to model”), plasticity indicates malleability,
suppleness, and being “susceptible to changes of form.”9 Plasticity consequently
serves as the “exact antonym” of “rigidity”10 insofar as it includes both “the aptitude to
receive form” and “the ability to give form.”11 However, thinking plasticity only as the
infinite reception or bestowal of form risks equating it with elasticity. In fact, Malabou
suggests that plasticity’s most decisive characteristic derives from its resistance to elasticity.
While elastic matter returns (or can return) “to its initial form after undergoing a
deformation,” plastic matter does not.12 In addition to harnessing a double sense of active
and passive formation (giving and receiving form), Malabou insists on a third definition
of plasticity that sharply distinguishes it from the sheer flexibility of elasticity: the impossibility
of return—which is to say, the possibility of resistance. Plasticity productively
concretizes a resilient shape, the future change of which does not elastically return but
rather violently explodes.13
Plasticity productively concretizes a
resilient shape, the future change of which
does not elastically return but rather
violently explodes.

Unlike elasticity’s polymorphism, plasticity is also “diametrically opposed to form,”
which means that plasticity paradoxically includes within its creativity “the destruction
and the very annihilation of all form.”14 Malabou thus regards plasticity as both conceptually
and empirically founded upon the following paradox: it doubly stands for form’s
formation and form’s destruction, a creativity that produces through negation. The formal
contradiction woven by plasticity’s etymology is most radically expressed in the example
of plastic explosives, a reference Malabou frequently makes.15 Molded from nitroglycerine
and nitrocellulose into a “dangerous plastic material of putty-like consistency,”
the plastic nature of the plastic bomb makes it both formally malleable and annihilative
of form at the same time.16
From the perspective of plasticity’s capacity for explosion, which is the same as its
capacity for reception and formation, Malabou’s critique of the future of the humanities
concerns both a revitalization of the humanities’ discourse on frontiers and limits for
the twenty-first century and a plastic reformation of the humanities’ relation to their
own tradition. Not only does Malabou’s emphasis on the plasticity of frontiers and limits
threaten the security of the humanities in the face of emerging trends of scientific
research, which insist on the reformation of the frontier between the humanities and
the sciences; it also suggests that the plasticity unwittingly inscribed at the heart of the
Enlightenment tradition risks explosion, deformation—a destructive threat to tradition
without which, oxymoronically, tradition could never be instantiated as such. The earliest
possibility of critique already assumes a certain explosive dynamic of frontiers and
limits, and the future of the humanities must be thought by way of plasticity’s constitutive
capacity for explosion.
At stake across Malabou’s growing oeuvre (nine books of which are currently available
in English) is a radical reformation of those discourses rooted in the Enlightenment
tradition, a reformation Malabou initiates by awakening within those discourses the
scientific implications of the plasticity they have historically posited at their frontiers
without knowing it. The concept of plasticity is itself plastic; it “is the same as its way of
being.”17 Whether it be the mutation of feminism in Changing Difference, the difficulty
brain trauma poses to psychoanalysis in The New Wounded, the role epigenetics plays
in resisting neoliberal ideology in What Should We Do with Our Brain?, or the peculiar
proximity between literature and neuroscience in the recently published essay “Neuroliterature,”
the varied focuses of Malabou’s engagements (the variation of which could
also be called “plastic”) all coalesce around her abiding conviction that the stabilization
of any discipline occurs only in the face of a fundamental capacity for change. Plasticity
names both the stabilization and the destruction of this identity at the discursive level of
the concept and at the material level of scientific empiricism.
Although she contends that Derrida and Foucault recognize the plasticity of the humanities,
Malabou adds that they nonetheless rigidify the plasticity of the frontiers and
limits of the humanities with a determinism that silently underwrites the tradition in
which they take part: “right from the start the plasticity of this frontier is undermined
by the fixity and determination of the spaces it is supposed to limit in a supple and
malleable way.”18 Science has no suppleness for Derrida and Foucault, Malabou claims,
because for them science works only as the mechanical execution of a calculated program
invested solely in “normalization, regulation, and control.” By contradistinction,
Foucault and Derrida posit the humanities as supple, critical, and infinitely transgressive.
Such an affirmation, though, ultimately “rigidifies the meaning of the outside, and
consequently of the inside as well.”19 Not only does such a gesture perform the very normalization
maligned by Derrida and Foucault in the sciences, it also, by ossifying the
sciences as an inert discourse at the frontier of the humanities, ultimately encases and
stunts the free movement of the humanities themselves. According to this model, the
humanities would be as regulating, normalizing, and controlling as the sciences they
purportedly oppose. Consequently, despite the fact that Derrida ascribes a “crossing of
disciplinary borders” as the condition for the newness of the “new humanities,” the domains
within this humanities-to-come remain entirely within the current inside of the
humanities (law, literature, politics, philosophy, psychoanalysis) and, thus, continue to
normalize and domesticate the interiority of the humanities as such.20
In Malabou’s eyes, the oppositional status through which Derrida and Foucault regard
the sciences fails to thematize accurately the plasticity of the limit. For her, the philosophical
problem regarding the future of the humanities resides at the limit between
the sciences and the humanities. Rethinking this frontier as plastic allows the future of
the humanities to be thought with the sciences without reducing the difference between
them. Thinking the frontier as plastic accounts for (and makes possible) the distinction
between the sciences and the humanities, but in such a way that the two discourses do
not fall into a metaphysics of closed interiority and dictatorially controlled borders. A
plastic frontier would be one that recognizes the rigidity of the limit concurrent with its
supple capacity for change. As a result, Malabou’s insistence on the plasticity of frontiers
and limits should not be equated with assimilation, which would indeed nullify the difference
between the humanities and the sciences and consequently erase the very question
of the future of the humanities. While discursive challenges to the Enlightenment’s
critical tradition have demanded that the humanities begin today to “think with the sciences,”
it remains necessary that a thinking with the sciences not amount to an absorption
into the sciences. Contrary to critics who argue that Malabou advocates precisely
such an absorption, the with in the phrase “thinking with the sciences” necessitates for
Malabou a division from the sciences in order to relate to them.
An interdisciplinary relation between the humanities and the sciences can only be
thought according to the radical disciplinarity that divides discourses. The forefront
of Malabou’s entire project concerns this dilemma: “How then can a genuine dialogue
take place [between the humanities and the sciences], one that would both respect the
autonomy of each field and redraw its limits and frontiers?”21 If the Enlightenment tradition
has safeguarded its disciplines by rigidly distinguishing them from the sciences,
Malabou’s central question concerns how the plasticity of these frontiers can be thought
without reducing their constitutive differences. What change happens when the sciences
are no longer thought according to regulative models of normalization and control but
instead become supple and malleable in the traditional image of the humanities? That
is, what happens when plasticity explodes the division between the mechanical sciences
and the critical humanities, when the sciences begin to demonstrate the plastic capacity
for explosion from within the program itself?
In what may initially appear to be a counter-position to Malabou’s insistence on plasticity’s
redrawing of disciplinary frontiers, Rodolphe Gasché suggests that today “the
individual disciplines are not individual enough” and a “fuller, or more ample, division between
them is necessary.”22 Gasché argues this point in order to suggest that the sharper
the divisions between disciplines, the more one can put “to question their limits and
to bring them into a relation with one another, a relation that is worthy of the name.”23
Gasché insists on the necessity of division in order for any interrogation of discursive
frontiers to be possible:
Even where the limits of conceptual thought become a question, or precisely at the very
moment such a question regarding the creative freedom from conceptual thought becomes
an issue, “the discipline of academic unfreedom,” as Adorno calls the rules that govern the
disciplines, becomes all the more important. Without this academic unfreedom, freedom is
a sham. Or rather, the aim of questioning the disciplinarity of the disciplines is not to free
oneself from all constraints and to establish an unmediated relation to what is, or a license
that everything goes, a point that both Adorno and Derrida have in common. Anyway, no
interrogation of the limitation of a discipline, and the limits within which it has enclosed itself,
is possible without painstakingly observing the distinctions on which it is based.24
According to what Gasché calls the “law of difference,” disciplines derive their disciplinarity
from their relation to others. The “freedom” of any discipline to question itself
and its relation to others works within the “unfree” boundaries of each discipline’s
most minimally distinguished disciplinarity. Consequently, the boundlessness (or seeming
boundlessness) of a discipline like philosophy comes only from within the strictures
of its own defined discipline. Interdisciplinarity is possible only as it is radically disciplined;
philosophy’s thinking with the sciences requires that philosophy and the sciences
relate to each other only through their constitutive differences. Gasché does not
argue that disciplines are incommensurate with one another. Rather, each discipline’s
openness to the other necessitates the divisibility, difference, and distinction that at once
constitutes each discipline and makes the relation of disciplinary frontiers possible.25
Gasché shows that philosophy’s distinction, its disciplinarity, derives from a minimal
condition of relation that is not philosophy’s “own” but rather a “threshold that communicates
between entities, or domains, that are all in the position of others among each
other.”26 He develops this notion of disciplinary contamination from Derrida, who notes
that within this logic of hospitality, the threshold distinguishing the home from the outside
remains always a site of transgression.27 The identity of the home (of the humanities,
for example) is constituted by its exposure to the intrusion of the foreigner (science),
and this intrusion is made possible by the fact that the home is always already exposed
to the foreigner’s entry and that mastery over one’s home can be thought only from the
perspective of the foreigner who threatens that mastery.28 And yet, despite their inevitable
contamination and exposure to the other, these distinctions must be rigorously upheld
in order for there to be any relation, or hospitality, at all. As a result, the autonomy
of the humanities could never be respected because the metaphysics of self-sufficiency
within the notion of autonomy (the sovereign immunity to the exteriority of the other
by being closed in within the borders of itself ) comprises the annihilation of the humanities
and of disciplinarity in general. Autonomy can be thought only according to the
ruptures that invade and ruin autonomy; and this ruination names the very possibility
of the humanities. For Gasché, if it is as necessary to redraw the boundaries between
the humanities and the sciences as Malabou says it is, this redrawing can happen only
through ever-deeper lines that mark the disciplinarity of individual disciplines, dividing
and distinguishing them but also putting them in relation. While these lines may be plastic
according to Malabou, Gasché warns that they cannot be shallow.
It must be noted that Malabou does not reduce the difference between the sciences
and the humanities by insisting on a new thinking of the plasticity of frontiers.
By claiming that science allows the humanities to think the necessity of a doubly plastic
and rigid frontier, Malabou shows
that the limits of the humanities and the
sciences are intimately shaped by developments
within the boundaries of
each respective field. Malabou therefore
shares Gasché’s insistence on difference
as a condition for disciplinary relation;
but she adds that discursive mutations
within a discipline’s deeply drawn divisions
necessarily impact the frontier of
those other disciplines it borders. If the
humanities are constituted by their difference from the sciences—differences that are as
sharply and deeply drawn as Gasché argues—Malabou’s call to think with the sciences
simply shows that scientific discourses provide new avenues to think these differences
within respectively circumscribed fields. What changes at the frontier of one discipline
necessarily changes the frontiers of those discourses it borders. The distinction between
frontiers is thus preserved, but in a new way: “to be able to change difference while respecting
the difference of change.”29 To translate Malabou into Gasché’s parlance, it is
not that plasticity makes disciplinary unfreedom free; rather, the freedom at work within
the rigid unfreedom of a disciplinary programmatic ultimately transforms the boundaries
of that unfreedom from within.
Malabou and Gasché agree on the impossibility of any discipline’s closed relation to
itself and on the necessity that any discipline remain open to and constituted by its exposure
to others. However, for Malabou, the philosophical tradition that, since Kant,
has equated the task of the humanities with the democratization of their disciplinarity
and argued for the necessity of a discipline’s openness to its others has also rigidly pro-
tected those frontiers, the fortification of which undermines the very suppleness of the
frontier.30 For this reason Malabou argues in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing that the
hospitality Gasché privileges as an emblem of disciplinary relation proves an insufficient
model for thinking the plasticity of the frontier. In Derrida’s formulation of the threshold,
the site of confrontation between host and guest (both of whom are ambiguously
subsumed under the same French signifier: hôte), no formation takes place, both the host
and the guest are rigidly dissociated and plasticity is foreclosed.31 For Malabou, the task
remains to think the frontier in such a way that accounts for its plasticity without abandoning
the difference that marks the threshold of disciplinarity. One has to think rigidity
and flexibility together in a democratization faithful to the Enlightenment instantiation
of the humanities’ critical project.
The problem for Malabou, however, is that the humanities have not yet been able
to articulate adequately the inextricability of rigidity and flexibility. Each attempt, as
she says of Derrida and Foucault, immobilizes discursive boundaries in a manner antithetical
to the humanities’ plasticity. Malabou’s famed turn toward neurobiology is less a
heretical provocation than an indication that neuroplasticity currently demonstrates
more adroitly than the humanities both the empirical and the discursive means by
which a rigidly closed program harnesses within it the critically explosive capacity for
destruction and transformation. Furthermore, in her most ambitious books like What
Should We Do with Our Brain? and Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, Malabou argues
that the scientific advancements in neuroplasticity are structurally instrumental to a
future thinking of humanism’s critical and democratic resistance to institutional dogma.
In short, the disciplinary question regarding the limit between the sciences and
the humanities for Malabou is realized in the scientific work on cellular plasticity,
which, in turn, also expresses the means by which a rethinking of critique’s political
resistance must take place.
For Malabou, as for Georges Canguilhem, the plasticity of the brain opposes “the
mechanical theory of the organism,” which imposes rigidity upon life’s dynamism by
seeking to “explain the structure and function of the organism on the basis of the structure
and function of an already-constituted machine.”32 Such a mechanical view of the
organism has dominated the history of science as biological “dogma” but has today become
recognized as a “narrow and insufficient point of view.”33 This persistent dogma
analogizes the brain to a mechanical homeostatic hub equipped with “a series of fixed,
indeed genetically programmed, entities, without any suppleness, without any improvisational
ability”34 that commands the body schema and its motor systems according to
what Žižek calls “blind biological processes.”35 Within the rigidity of genetic mechanics,
plasticity asserts itself as a strictly a-mechanical operation of the brain. Plasticity
(for Malabou “the dominant concept of the neurosciences”36) therefore names a tension
between the genetic machine and its explosive counterpart. The plastic freedom of the
brain—its transformative, reparative, improvisational, and non-deterministic openness
to being formed by experience—must be thought alongside, or in relation to, the rigid
“unfreedom” it exceeds. Plasticity explodes the centralization of the machine metaphor
through a radically democratic model of networked, delocalized power. “The epigenetic,”
Malabou writes, “is not a dogma and should never become one.”37
To explain the relationship between plasticity and the genetically mechanical system
it explodes from within, neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux argues that the variability
of the human brain can only be marked within a certain genetic horizon, what he
calls a “genetic envelope.”38 For example, the determinism of neurogenesis provides a
human fetus with “a jungle of . . . 100 billion nerve cells” after nine months of gestation,
but what the brain does with these billions of genetically determined nerve cells defies
predetermination or programmed expectation.39 The brain organizes these cells into
neural connections through its perceptive and experiential interaction with the world,
losing some while allowing others to grow. The plastic formation of neural organization
includes the deformation of unused connections: a productively negative process of variation
and selection, of establishing strong connections strengthened by use and allowing
weaker ones to be reorganized across ever-mutable internal neural borders.40 “In short,”
Changeux tells Paul Ricoeur,
the brain cannot be viewed as a strictly genetic machine; it incorporates, within a defined
genetic envelope peculiar to the species, a series of nested “epigenetic” imprints that are
established by variation and selection. Another way of stating this hypothesis is to say that
evolutionary (epigenetic) competition inside the brain takes over from the biological (genetic)
evolution of species and creates, as a consequence, organic links with the physical,
social, and cultural environment.41
Changeux’s basic point is that the plasticity of the brain operates within the genetic
envelope and, improvising an opening of the envelope with increasing variation, explodes
the machine-metaphor. While certain functions and compositions of the brain
are “mechanically” programmed, the brain’s plasticity exceeds the closed structure of
programmatic mechanization. Malabou takes Changeux’s description of the brain’s ability
to respond to and be shaped by outside stimuli to argue that the plastic brain must
be thought as delocalized rather than as a nucleic “control center.”42 Because “synaptic
efficacy grows or declines under the impact of strictly individual experience” that
“progressively erase[s]” any semblance of an “original model or standard,” plasticity’s
“delocalization of cerebral activities” both biologically and ideologically (which is to say,
politically) resists the power that enforces a hierarchized concept of the brain.43 Arguing
that “any vision of the brain is necessarily political,” Malabou claims that colloquial
commitments to thinking the brain as a centralized control-machine expose a governmentality
of the brain ideologically situated according to specific notions of hierarchized
power.44 Put otherwise, Malabou recognizes a correlation between the enforcement of
rigid frontiers within the mechanical vision of the brain and the determination of science
as a regulative program of normalization thoroughly antithetical to the humanities’
freedom. Although the brain certainly constitutes a “central” position within the human
nervous system, neurobiology has shown that the plasticity of the brain resists ideologies
of centralization through decentralized processes of individuation. The brain and its
diverse functions operate not from the delegation of a single panoptical source but from
a dispersed communalism that undermines the traditional normalization of biological,
political, and discursive frontiers: “Opposed to the rigidity, the fixity, the anonymity of
the control center,” writes Malabou, “is the model of suppleness that implies a certain
margin of improvisation, of creation, of the aleatory. . . . The representation of the center
collapses into the network.”45
As much as plasticity resists encasement within an immutable structure of rigid
mechanization by exposing its radical transformability, it equally resists the “nihilism”
of ceaseless change.46 Returning to her distinction between plasticity and elasticity,
Malabou notes that plasticity’s resistance to power politically includes a resistance to the
flexibility demanded by neoliberal capitalist society. Malabou’s politicization of neurobiology
is largely influenced by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s book, The New Spirit
of Capitalism, which argues that “new management” strategies of contemporary capitalism
have followed neurobiological discourses away from the centralized brain-machine
to endorse the adaptability and flexibility of both its workforce and its management in
order to delocalize top-down bureaucracy and replace it with networks of flexible teams
within a company. Capitalism’s neoliberal efficacy, according to Boltanski and Chiapello,
and likewise according to Malabou, derives from its delocalization of power into flexible
networks that, qua flexible, have no rigidly determined role exclusive or proper to them.
Such a model is not unlike how neural efficacy derives from its openness to formation,
how different zones of the brain can be co-opted for various uses, and how the oncerigid
borders of these zones improvisationally mutate in response to environmental developments
from outside.
However, Malabou notes that treating brain plasticity as employable capital reduces
the plastic functioning of the brain to elasticity. To be “employable” in today’s job market
means to be pliable, elastic, flexible, adaptable—and therefore passive and conciliatory.
But as Malabou frequently points out, plasticity also resists elasticity and threatens it
with explosion. If the “new spirit” of capitalism expresses itself in conjunction with the
plasticity of the brain, as Boltanski and Chiapello suggest, then Malabou shows that capitalism’s
structure must include its own explosive resistance, its critique, from within.
And no effective power from outside could dogmatically impinge upon plasticity’s right
to resistance; its right, as it were, to put everything into question, to “unconditional resistance,”
to civil disobedience, to say everything or anything critically and with impunity.47
From within the flexible networks of neoliberal capitalism, plasticity—as something that
gives, receives, and explodes form—includes the following political defensive: the ability
“not to replicate the caricature of the world” and to say “no” to an “afflicting economic,
political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing
obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their
heads with a smile.”48 Malabou sees plasticity as an inherently excessive dynamic that
overflows legislated boundaries, dogmas, and demarcations that seek to encase it within
an anticipatable definition or regulative law. At the same time, it also sternly opposes
conciliatory assimilation. Plasticity’s resistance and flexibility therefore work together
to disobey (or exceed) the authority of a legislated program by insisting on the individuality
of difference (of identities and unique brains; as well as the individuality of
disciplines, as Gasché notes above) and on the difference of individuality (the ability to
be reshaped, mutable, contingent, and explosive).
Hence Malabou’s titular question: if the brain’s synaptic plasticity actively “sculpts”
itself unique to each individual’s experiences and in response to outside stimuli, and
if this sculpting power bears political consequences, then what should we do with our
brain? As Daniel Smith notes, Malabou’s question returns her analysis of plasticity to its
Kantian legacy. The “condition” of Kant’s critical question proposed in the Second Critique
(what should we do?), Smith claims, has indeed changed greatly since Kant’s time.
While Kant urgently sought to identify “freedom” within the determinism of a Newtonian
and Galilean universe, science has today issued the need to flip Kant’s project by
suggesting that “we live in a world that seems to have been re-injected, as it were, with
certain degrees of freedom.”49 By inverting the Kantian paradigm, Malabou suggests that
the time has come for critique to reinvent itself. The time has come, in other words, to
stop seeking a priori human freedom within a deterministically mathematized universe
and instead start questioning the foundation of limits and frontiers instituted in the face
of the indeterminacy of the universe and its biological organisms. Smith explains,
physics has become nondeterministic; genetics emphasizes the role of chance in biological
mutations; capitalism, for all its repressive recodings, is also, in Deleuze’s parlance, a vast
enterprise of decoding (in neo-liberal language, it is the “freedom to choose”); and neuroscience
itself emphasizes the fundamental “plasticity” or freedom of the synaptic connectivity
of the brain. Put schematically, one might say that the question of freedom has been inverted
since Kant. The question is no longer, How can we consider ourselves to be free in a deterministic
world?, but rather, Why are we not free in a world in which science itself seems to
see indeterminacy, stochastic processes, chance, and randomness at the most basic levels of
physical, chemical, biological, and neurological events?50
If the brain operates in an auto-mutable synthesis of world and biology, and if this
auto-mutation not only invalidates the mechanical associations with the brain but also addresses
a certain vitality of individualism and practical responsibility (“our brain is in part
essentially what we do with it”51), then the brain opens itself as the very site of freedom
from within the program itself. The inversion of Kantian freedom at the heart of Malabou’s
interest in the future of the humanities does not dismiss Kantian critique but instead, by
remaining indebted to the plastic model of the critical tradition, asks it to reinvent itself
in response to emerging neuro-political contexts, asks it to do exactly what critique has
always claimed to do since the Enlightenment: to transform itself, to redraw its frontiers
and limits, to be plastic, adaptable, democratic, and resistant to “self-incurred immaturity.”
Of course, the injunction that the humanities reinvent themselves coincides, for
Malabou, with the fact that the concept “human,” on which the universalization of “the
humanities” was founded centuries ago, has itself been reinvented today by the sciences.52
Malabou argues for a movement away from classically Cartesian treatments of the human
ego as a self-contained entity separated from the world (despite the fact that it also
works as a synthesis of the noumenal and the phenomenal), and toward a necessary connectivity
between the phenomenal and the neural. The assertion of the self is no longer
the cogito ergo sum, but rather the “brain that changes itself,” which, Malabou says, “is
exactly what ‘I’ am.”53 Malabou defends the “human subject” as divided, different from
itself; and she adds that this difference must be thought as being different even from the
frontiers that mark difference because those very frontiers, sharp as they may be, are already
plastic and therefore open to a future indeterminable mutation. In short, the plasticity
of these frontiers indicates that the inside/outside paradigm of the Cartesian ego
no longer holds. The self for Malabou is nothing other than the plastic frontier between
the inside and the outside, which ruins the “normalized” stability of this frontier as Foucault
envisions it on a discursive level. For Malabou, the brain serves as the image of a
new frontier of difference, a “cerebrality” that names both the constitution of the affective
psyche and its exposure to an “inassimilable” wounding.54 The brain’s synaptic connectivity
does not divide inside/outside, does not differentiate the neural subject from
the world, but also does not homogenize or assimilate this difference. Difference is the
condition of plasticity insofar as a brain considered entirely “itself” could not be plastic,
could not change or respond or transform in the future. Plasticity preserves difference as
a necessary condition, but threatens any structure of its normalization with explosion.55
Plasticity’s critical resistance to capitalist power and its radically democratic decentralization
of governing hierarchy concerns, quite literally, the realization of the transcendental.
Although Malabou does not phrase it in these terms, it is clear that for her
there could be no transition from the “biological to the cultural” or from the “strictly
natural base of the mind to its historical—and thus also, necessarily, its political and
social—dimension” without positing a material realization of the transcendental.56 The
infinity of critique’s tasklessness and the transgression of borders, thresholds, and limits,
according to Malabou, has been imminently realized in the (plastic) materiality of the
brain. For the brain to become a real model of socio-political, cultural, and historical
discourses—and not just a metaphor for them—and additionally to expose the plastic element
of critique latent in those discourses, Malabou must ultimately cast suspicion upon
the rigidified border between the empirical and the transcendental.
What interests me in this remarkable phenomenon is that this self-transformation of the
brain, the modifiability of its circuitry and organization renders forever improbable the limit
between the transcendental and the empirical. Neuroplasticity is an empirical fact. . . . Biology
deals with materiality and raw facts. At the same time, however, because the very
meaning of our biological being is indeterminate and consequently free, we can also say that
the brain is made of a transcendental material and that as such, it is perfectible, meaningful,
auto-organized, and open to the future. Because the organization of the brain is affected by
experience—a process that must be exercised, a process with which it is necessary to experiment—
we ourselves are constantly being rewired and reorganized.57
Malabou does not do away with the transcendental; nor does she argue for its dissolution.
She claims that the frontier between the empirical and the transcendental has been
“deconstructed” within the materiality of the brain. Deconstruction, for Malabou, no
longer has to be contained within Derrida’s structure of the promise because, following
a linearly epochal model of scientific enlightenment, Malabou sees deconstruction’s insistence
on the transgression of borders and its untamable right to critique at work in the
brain’s immanence.58 The empirical body (of the brain) materializes the transcendental
critique historically reserved for the humanities. In what she concedes may be her own
“dialectical stubbornness,” Malabou argues that transcendental structures of “pure dissymmetry,”
like otherness, alterity, différance, the limit, etc., take shape and form—which
is to say that these transcendental dissymmetries work empirically (and are inseparable
from this empiricism)—in the flexibility and explosion of the organism’s plasticity.59 Plasticity
does not conceptually replace deconstruction; it clearly inherits deconstruction’s
legacy of difference. Malabou maintains that plasticity is deconstruction’s form; plasticity
preserves and conserves the difference of alterity and the unanticipatable coming of
the future, but according to a materialism that explodes the limit between the empirical
and the transcendental.
If the transcendental can only be thought today via the transformation of its material
body, and if this transformation is indeed “unavoidable,” then Malabou suggests that
there can be no securely determined frontier between the inside and outside. Science
has begun to show that the self is nothing but the neural mutability of this frontier, the
collapse of an “irruptive transcendence,” or “pure event,” or “messianism.” Because the
transcendental has been transformed “into a plastic material” by the sciences, which
threatens the humanities’ traditional abode, Malabou argues that one need not wait messianically
for the “new humanities” Derrida calls for because the future of the humanities
has already begun to take shape within the sciences.60
Nevertheless, the assurance of plasticity can only be thought retrospectively, in response
to, or at least inseparably from, a minimal structure of the promise. While Malabou
posits a becoming-empirical of the transcendental as the primary facet of plasticity’s
materialism, a becoming-transcendental of the empirical comprises an equally
constitutive dynamic without which plasticity would be unable to recognize its “own”
transformation, the duration of change, or the effect of its explosion. Plasticity’s unpredictability,
the time that transformation takes, the accidents it risks, exposes plasticity
to an uncertainty that cannot be separated
from its promise. Even the most radically
destructive of plasticity’s explosive capabilities
could not be exempted from this
quasi-transcendental structure. In Ontology
of the Accident Malabou theorizes
a phenomenology of “the power of ontological
and existential explosive plasticity,”
which has been “neglected by
psychoanalysis, ignored by philosophy, [and] nameless in neurology” because it attempts
to account for the complete “evacuation” of a subjectivity transformed by a “surprised”
event of destruction.61 But even in this extreme case—of a break that does not
coincide with the positively reparative sense of plasticity but instead marks the abrupt
discontinuity between a pre- and post-traumatic subject—it is clear that the recognition
of this transformation as plastic requires a relation to the promise of plasticity as a quasitranscendental
concept. The new post-traumatic subject, differentiated entirely from an
old, pre-traumatic self, is recognizably “new” only in relation to the old. The hermeneutics
of this transformation (of a destruction that will have already happened) only makes
sense as plastic insofar as the past-promise of plasticity’s destruction is “remembered”
in the future. Plasticity, therefore, may never conceptually coincide with the real it imminently
realizes; in a gesture of retrospection, it will only ever be able to respond to or
answer for the plasticity that, it promises, will have already happened.
Plasticity’s empiricism must thus retain a becoming-transcendental in order for it
to be conceptualized in the first place. While Malabou argues that this becomingtranscendental
would also be a plastic transformation unto itself,62 one can further assert
that the “ultra-transcendental” structure of the promise that plasticity’s materialism is
supposed to ruin cannot be ruined without also ruining the possibility of thinking plasticity.
63 “Plasticity” will always be thought after plasticity, that is, according to a conceptual
delay that divides plasticity from itself and makes it dependent on the promise
of its explosion. The disciplinary relation between the sciences and the humanities at
the heart of Malabou’s work makes the necessity of this delay clear: the humanities, divided
disciplinarily from the sciences, can only ever recognize plasticity retrospectively,
which is to say, never “with” the sciences in the concurrence of a discovery but in response
to a promise. The “epochality” of Malabou’s call for the humanities to redraw
their discursive frontiers and limits vis-à-vis the sciences is already, first, a response to
discoveries already made within scientific discourses and, second, the recognition of a
promise issued by the Enlightenment’s critical (i.e., plastic) resistance to dogmatisms of
“self-incurred immaturity.” It is precisely because of this delay that both the division and
relation between the humanities and the sciences are necessary and unavoidable; but it
is also because of this delay that any thinking with the sciences unavoidably submits itself,
as a promise, to the realm of the “possible,” to which Malabou relegates literature.64
It is no mere coincidence that, after announcing the neurological problems of destructive
plasticity, the major course of Ontology of the Accident comprises sustained readings
of Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Marguerite Duras, Thomas Mann, Maurice Blanchot, and
Ovid. While an analysis of the “literary” dimension of Malabou’s work would require
more attention than offered here, one can ultimately discern a literary facet endemic to
plasticity’s explosive force. This literary facet would comprise the promise of plasticity’s
transformation as well as the promise that has sustained the Enlightenment’s tradition
up to the epochal moment in which, today, it can come to realize, retrospectively,
that it has been plastic all along. While Malabou asserts that “plasticity will only last the
time of its forms” and cannot therefore be subsumed under “an empty, transcendental
instance,”65 the promise of plasticity’s future, which is also a memory of its prior transformations,
nonetheless relies on a quasi-transcendental structure that conditions the
future of the humanities as being inseparable from a thinking with the sciences.

1 Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?,” 21.
2 Ibid., 17; translation modified.
3 Derrida, “The University Without Condition,”
4 Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” 45.
5 See Derrida, “The University Without Condition.”
For Derrida, the irresponsible tasklessness of the
humanities should not be read as an idealism that ever
fully “exists” in itself. Instead, the “freedom” of the
humanities in each instant of its actualization is also
limited by the contexts of its institution. That is why
Derrida argues that an actual university “without condition”
could never “in fact, exist.” The humanities are
never just this excessively democratic capacity for critique;
they are also always institutionally and juridically
contextualized within a phenomenal horizon, which,
from the start, divides the “work” of the humanities
from within. In other words, the transgressively critical
task of the humanities would never be perceptible
without the rigidity of a horizon to transgress.
6 Malabou. “The Future of the Humanities,” 8.
7 Ibid., 9. It is not entirely clear in Malabou’s text
what this “swallowing” would entail. On the surface, it
suggests that unless the humanities become aware of
their discourse’s own plastic construct, they risk being
surpassed by the sciences as a dominant discourse on
the thinking of frontiers and limits. But such a surpassing
hardly constitutes being “swallowed” or “eaten
alive.” Evoking incorporation, assimilation, and, obviously,
ingestion, these terms suggest that the humanities
themselves risk becoming scientific (without being
aware of it) unless they reconstitute their frontiers for
a new age in which scientific plasticity has become
a prominent “motor scheme.” Certainly, Malabou is
more interested in the necessity of the humanities’
reconstitution than she is in the characterization of
the threat they face, but her essay remains vague on
the latter point. If the humanities do not reconstitute
themselves, what is the actual “threat” to the humanities?
What is the connection between the humanities’
potential irrelevancy (being surpassed by) and their
being “swallowed” by (being incorporated into) the
sciences? And by what measure—according to what
program—would the relevancy of the humanities be
decided vis-à-vis the sciences?
8 Ibid., 8.
9 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 67.
10 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 5.
11 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing,
12 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 15.
13 For all its mutability, plasticity preserves itself
and stands steadfast as a resistance to the “nihilism”
of ceaseless flexibility. The structural resistance
to dynamism at the heart of Malabou’s conception
of plasticity’s dynamic features exposes Alexander
Galloway’s mischaracterization of her work. Galloway
assimilates plasticity with elasticity when he considers
plasticity a “voracious monster” of infinite variation
and ceaseless production and thereby overlooks the
critical resistance that makes plasticity as equally
inert as it is adaptable (“Catherine Malabou, or The
Commerce in Being,” 15). Galloway even goes so far
as to ascribe to plasticity the status of a proto-nihilism,
a position premised upon this misunderstanding of
plasticity’s dual dynamics. Plasticity could only be
nihilism or nihilistic if its capacity for change allowed it
to change ceaselessly—a feature Malabou consistently
attributes to elasticity alone.
14 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 67.
15 Malabou, The Future of Hegel, 9; What Should
We Do with Our Brain?, 5; The New Wounded, 17;
Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 67; Ontology of the
Accident, 5. The specific example of the plastic bomb
does not appear directly in Ontology of the Accident,
but Malabou does refer to this necessarily destructive
component of plasticity in this book as “terrorist” (5).
16 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 67.
In his review of What Should We Do with Our Brain?,
Pete Mandik writes that he finds this connection
between plasticity and plastic explosives “hard to swallow”
because, as he claims, “not even the ‘plastic’ in
‘plastic explosive’ means ‘explosive.’ It’s the ‘explosive’
in ‘plastic explosive’ that means ‘explosive.’” Mandik
wants to argue that the annihilative function of form
inscribed into the concept of plasticity is not as radically
annihilative as Malabou suggests because the
“explosive” nature of plastic explosives has nothing
to do with their being plastic except as a metaphor.
However, as Carolyn Shread succinctly points out, “A
closer reading of Malabou’s translated text, a more
attentive awareness to its status as a translation, would
have revealed [to Mandik] the close association in
French between plastique (plastic) and plastiquer (to
explode), with nothing but an r between the concept
and its explosive connotations” (“The Horror of Translation,”
17 Malabou, The Future of Hegel, 186.
18 Malabou, “The Future of the Humanities,” 10.
19 Ibid.
20 Derrida, “The University Without Condition,”
230. Derrida has elsewhere argued that domestication—
the circumscription and recognition of identifiable
limits—already begins the process of normalization.
Without calling attention to this point, Malabou
suggests that the repeated inclusion of the “old
humanities” within the “new humanities” begins again
the process of domesticating the humanities within a
secure tradition, which, in turn, operates according to
the same normalizing impulses typically prejudiced
against the sciences. (See Derrida, Points, 386.)
21 Malabou, “The Future of the Humanities,” 9.
22 Gasché, “One More Division,” 34.
23 Ibid., 35.
24 Ibid. On the necessity of difference as a minimal
condition for relation, see Gasché’s earlier text,
Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation,
especially pp. 4–12, for a concise elaboration of the
25 Gasché, “One More Division,” 37. Similar to
Gasché, Samuel Weber notes that the “intellectual
division of labor” across the modern university system
has, for “at least three centuries,” since the Enlightenment,
made possible the university’s ideal “of comprehensive,
total knowledge, by increasingly distancing
the different divisions and disciplines from one another.”
Gasché’s double insistence on the relation and
the difference of disciplines is in accord with Weber
who calls the demarcations made in the humanities
the “ambivalence of demarcation”: the humanities are
posited as an inclusive discipline, but this inclusivity is
distinguished against the sciences, which makes the
demarcations “proper” to the humanities inclusive only
by way of their exclusivity. (See Weber, Institution and
Interpretation, 240, 138.)
26 Gasché, Of Minimal Things, 11. The journal
Labyrinthe published a 2007 issue La fin des disciplines?,
which largely takes up institutional relations
within the humanities under the ubiquitous title, “interdisciplinarity.”
See in particular Laurent Dubreuil’s
essay, “Défauts de savoirs,” which engages in part with
the collaborative differences at work within the hard
sciences versus those of the humanities.
27 Derrida, Of Hospitality, 75.
28 Ibid., 5, 61, 125–27. In his essay “L’Intrus,”
Jean-Luc Nancy argues that the intruder (l’intrus)
must be thought as a stranger who enters one’s home
by surprise. The connection between the stranger’s
surprise and his/her strangeness is necessary insofar
as a stranger who “already has the right to enter and
remain” loses any semblance of strangeness and
therefore ceases to be a surprising intruder. Because
intrusion always surprises, a preemptive protection
against intrusion is fundamentally impossible.
29 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 79.
30 Malabou, “The Future of the Humanities,” 10.
31 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 73.
32 Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life, 75–76.
33 Ibid., 75.
34 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 4.
35 Žižek, The Parallax View, 214.
36 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 4.
37 Malabou, “Darwin and the Social Destiny of
Natural Selection,” 156.
38 Changeux, Neuronal Man, 212.
39 Schwartz and Begley, The Mind and the
Brain, 112.
40 On the social implications of plastic selectivity,
see Malabou, “Darwin and the Social Destiny of Natural
Selection.” Plasticity’s balance between production
and negation is addressed throughout Malabou’s
work, but perhaps most prominently in What Should
We Do with Our Brain? and Ontology of the Accident.
In the former, Malabou addresses plasticity as a
dynamic that uses negativity as a productive process
of formation while in the latter Malabou entertains the
possibility of a “purely” negative plasticity that would
have no productive or reparative outcome proper to
it. Such a “destructive plasticity” also serves as the
foundation for Malabou’s interest in brain damage in
The New Wounded.
41 Changeux and Ricoeur, What Makes Us
Think?, 6.
42 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 33.
43 Ibid., 6, 44.
44 Ibid., 52. See also The New Wounded, xvi.
45 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 35.
46 On accusations of nihilism within Malabou’s
formulation of plasticity, see note 13 above.
47 Each of these “rights” are also outlined in
Derrida’s comments on the unconditionality of the
“university” as a site of critique in “The University
Without Condition” (204–8).
48 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?,
78, 79; emphasis added.
49 Smith, “What Should We Do with Our Brain?: A
Review Essay,” 23–24.
50 Ibid., 24.
51 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 30.
52 Ten years before Malabou’s call to redraw the
frontier between the humanities and the sciences,
Weber argued (also in an essay titled “The Future of
the Humanities”) that the future of the humanities has
found itself threatened in the midst of economic crisis.
Is there a future left for the humanities, Weber asks,
in a world “progressively dominated by an economic
logic of profit and loss”? The human has been traditionally
thought according to “productive labor,” as
self-producing and self-realizing, but today’s economy
sees a rapid division between “productive labor”
and the “accumulation of wealth” to such a degree
that “those who have to ‘work for a living’ have seen
themselves increasingly marginalized in large parts of
the world.” If to be human no longer means to be selfrealizing
according to productive labor, Weber asks,
what is the future of the humanities? Weber’s analysis
makes an important argument that his essay does
not explicitly take up but that should nevertheless be
commented upon: namely, that outside (i.e., scientific)
discourses like economics dramatically shape the
manner in which the humanities think their own disciplinarity.
Economic crisis provokes a transformation of
the human, which in turn demands that the future of
the humanities be rethought as a discipline (Weber,
Institution and Interpretation, 236).
53 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 82.
54 “Cerebrality” is a term Malabou coins as a
substitute for Freud’s “sexuality.” While Freud regards
sexuality as a causality of sexual behavior, Malabou
designates cerebrality as the governing of psychic life
by the brain’s cerebral functions. This is the reason
Malabou is so interested in brain damage: if the
psyche is now subordinate to cerebrality, then any
wound inflicted upon the brain, and any subsequent
transformations this trauma provokes in the victim’s
emotional life, poses serious “hermeneutic” problems
to the discourse of psychoanalysis. This hermeneutic
problem, for Malabou, derives from the fact that
the event of the brain damage always comes from
outside and, entering the “inside” only upon the event
of its wounding, is never internalized by the psyche it
wounds. It remains “constitutively inassimilable” and
“without reason” because “the psyche cannot stage
this knowledge for itself” (The New Wounded, 5, 9).
55 On the relationship between preservation, conservation,
and the “memory” of difference inscribed
in plasticity, see Malabou and Williams, “How Are You
Yourself?,” 15.
56 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
Brain?, 56.
57 Malabou, “The Future of the Humanities,” 15.
58 Malabou and Williams, “How Are You Yourself?,”
59 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 40.
60 Malabou, “The Future of the Humanities,” 14.
61 Malabou, Ontology of the Accident, 5, 6, 30.
62 Malabou, Changing Difference, 65. Earlier in
the chapter “Grammatology and Plasticity,” Malabou
makes this same argument about Derrida’s generalization
of “writing” from its exoteric sense of notation
to its esoteric sense of the trace. She argues that the
possibility of transforming the exoteric into a generalized
esoteric concept already assumes a certain
plasticity of the concept.
63 Derrida describes différance as an “ultratranscendental”
structure in order to account for its
“originary” sense without sacrificing it to the idealism
of a Kantian idea (Of Grammatology, 61).
64 In a recent interview, Malabou claims, “The
future of the deconstructed real is an issue, not deconstruction
of presence. What Derrida calls literature
does not necessarily coincide, as you know, with
‘literary texts,’ but corresponds to the structure of the
promise, as opposed to that of program. Literature
is the realm of the possible, a possible that won’t and
doesn’t need to become actual” (Malabou and Williams,
“How Are You Yourself?,” 17).
65 Malabou, Changing Difference, 66, 65.

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Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliott. New
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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Emotional Life in a Neurobiological Age: On Wonder (Video)

From the recent Cornell School of Criticism andTheory:

In the light of the most recent neurobiological research on the emotional brain, Catherine Malabou, professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University (UK), proposes to replace Deleuze's statement about Spinoza,"inspiring sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power," with "inspiring indifference has become necessary for the exercise of power." Have coolness and unconcern replaced wonder?
The July 16, 2013 lecture, "Emotional Life in a Neurobiological Age: On Wonder," was sponsored by the School of Criticism & Theory.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Monique Rooney on Malabou, Melodrama, Rousseau and Plasticity

From Australian Humanities Review 54 (May 2013)

*Thanks to Monique for allowing us to post the text here*

Voir Venir: The Future of Melodrama?


What do I feel at the touch of this curtain? Holy fear trembles through my limbs. I believe I am touching the holiness of some divinity! Fool! It is stone; your own work. And what are the gods worshipped in our temple? Are they anything but matter?
J. J. Rousseau, Pygmalion, a Poem from the French (1779)1
The word melodrama is a compound of two Greek derivations: melos (music) and drama (deed, action, play). Melodrama is a mode, rather than a discrete genre, combining elemental mediums of sound and sight that, aimed at engendering thrill in the broad-based audience to which it has historically appealed, has been described as the primal dramatic form stirring base desires (Booth 38). Defined thus, melodrama might seem to describe all drama; some have argued that its form reaches back beyond Shakespeare to Ovid and Euripides (see, for example, Booth; Kaleva; Michelini). Nevertheless, Rousseau’s Pygmalion: Un Scène Lyrique (written circa 1763 and first produced in 1770) is routinely named the first melodrama. Rousseau’s one-act stage adaptation was just one of several experiments in, or reforms of, more traditional musical and theatrical compositions in mid-late eighteenth-century England and Europe. Rousseau not only composed his own melodrama but attempted to define the nature of his own and others’ innovative compositions. Melodrama could be differentiated from opera, in Rousseau’s view, through the way it combined elements of music and drama so that each of its parts—each part of its melos and drama—was given equal expressive weight. A rising or falling melody may follow on from or immediately precede a heartfelt declamation, a tragic mood-change or a prosaically complex lyric or spoken piece of dialogue. Melodrama is thus continuous with the more culturally established and revered form of opera.
Since the late eighteenth century, the word ‘melodramatic’ has become a term of abuse. While there is a dominant thread of critical scholarship about melodrama in recent decades that attests to its cultural power and influence as a pervasive modern mode, melodrama tends to be associated in this critical work with the primal or basic rather than elevated or transcendent forms of human consciousness. In Peter Brooks’s influential argument, melodrama not only belongs to modernity, it is its pre-eminent ‘imaginative’ mode (Brooks; see also Booth) as melodrama’s emergence marks, and gives expression to, a radical epistemological shift in how the world is viewed and experienced (Brooks 3). This argument has been taken further: in more recent scholarship, melodrama is considered to be both modernity’s dominant aesthetic form and pre-eminent mediator of modern subjectivities and affective states (see Anker; Buckley; Gledhill; Williams; Zarzosa). In such accounts, melodrama is not only representative, it is also formative of the pervasive idea that we live in a ‘post-sacred’ world. For Brooks, it is the French Revolution that marks melodrama’s occulted recognition of divine absence, the dawning realization that there is nothing beyond human consciousness and cultural production. His study, which begins with the theatre of the post-revolutionary stage, takes account neither of Rousseau’s scène lyrique nor of how Rousseau’s interest in melodrama might crisscross with his philosophical essays about language and being. Rousseau’s Pygmalion is a melodrama that conveys, before the revolutionary event that organises Brooks’ account, both a sensory interplay of music, dialogue and action as well as skeptical ideas about cultural production as self-determining and (melancholically) self-perpetuating. Both these aspects of Rousseau’s melodrama are communicated when his artist declaims ‘I believe I am touching the holiness of some divinity! Fool! It is stone; your own work’.
This essay understands melodrama as a mode of self-dramatisation that becomes both a popular and critical model for ideas about the capacity of language to account for presence or being and for attendant explorations of freedom, self-determination and the possibility of transcendence. Melodrama thus not only represents everyday existence, it also shapes how other lives are imagined and lived. As Lauren Berlant has shown in her study of the Hollywood women’s film, melodrama dramatically models and organizes life and is especially important for thinking about how life is felt and affectively enacted. 2 My interest in Rousseau’s Pygmalion is in the way in which it brings together the affective with the philosophical, the ‘heart’ with the ‘head’. Rousseau’s melodrama is named after the story of Pygmalion, from Ovid’sMetamorphoses, in which a sculptor falls in love with his own creation, the statue Galatea. In Ovid’s myth, Pygmalion’s motive for sculpting a statue is as a defiance of the propoetides—the hardened or painted ladies who the goddess Venus had turned into public prostitutes as punishment for their refusal of her divinity. When Pygmalion falls in love with his own creation, his ideal of the female form and one who seems to him more alive than the hardened prostitutes he spurns, he appeals to Venus to help him bring his statue to life. Rousseau’s version of this myth dramatizes the erotic push and pull between the artist and his creation through pantomime,  music and expressive gesture. It combines these highly affective and sensory registers with Rousseau’s prose-poem through which Pygmalion’s sophistry, his philosophical appeal to Galatea (and to Venus) unfolds. Pygmalion is at once a drama of self-actualisation through which primal drives and sexual differences are acted out, a poetic meditation on the nature of being and the possibility of transcendence, and a philosophical argument about the relationship between aesthetics, romance and the sacred.3
In tracing melodrama as a mode that emerges at the intersection of the theatrical and the philosophical, my reading necessarily risks reprising a dominant historical narrative whereby post-enlightenment ideas and aesthetics coming out of England and parts of Europe, in the late eighteenth-century, in turn influenced developments in popular and intellectual culture in North America and elsewhere. The following account does not, for instance, explore melodrama’s role and asynchronic formation in cultural contexts such as India, Japan and China.4 My reading does, however, aim to renegotiate the terms of dominant discourses and understandings that have, perhaps melodramatically, become a model or touchstone for present-day readings. Critical scholarship reveals that it is not immune to melodrama’s melancholic affects, recycled stereotypes, illusory moral frameworks and fantastical wish-fulfillment. Despite this, the overwhelming critical tendency has been to emphasise pathos and false promise over melodrama’s other constitutive elements.
From its emergence on the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stage, elements of which can be seen (as Peter Brooks argues) in the Victorian novel, melodrama moves not only into early cinema and classic and later Hollywood but also into the (sometimes melodramatic) responses of critics and intellectuals who have responded to popular cinema and television’s cultural effects. In its itinerary through stage, screen and now digital media, melodrama’s surprising adaptability suggests that elements of unpredictability and uncertainty are carried in its very form. As a  popular mode that has combined sensational characterizations and exaggerated emotion with often highly complex and involved storylines, characterizations and dialogue, melodrama relies not only on affective modes such as pathos but also elements of often violent and dangerous action, thrills and surprises. These defining characteristics of melodrama, I suggest, incorporate thematic as well as temporal uncertainty, that which cannot be predicted, into its very structure.
Melodrama has often been described as a mode that is preeminently about pathos as it registers impossible melancholic longings for a fantasy escape, a utopian dream world (see Bentley; Booth; Grimstead), for life as it ‘should’ be rather than as it is (Booth; Gledhill) and even for an alternative past; in other words, melodrama is said to articulate a ‘what if’ or an ‘if only’ (Elsaesser; Neale; Mulvey). The latter is the subjunctive or conditional tense of melodrama, expressed by countless melodramatic characters who long for a past that might have delivered a more satisfying moment than that which is being lived. Critical emphasis on this affective aspect of melodrama’s aesthetic and rhetorical structure sees it as a mode complicit in perpetuating a restless, endlessly dissatisfied mode of being, one that is attached to impossible wish-fulfillments and inevitably thwarted desires. In such readings, pathos is melodrama’s dominant affect as its subjects are bereft, without divine guidance, and unable to make proper ethical judgments. Critics have emphasized how, in this disenchanted situation, the characters of melodrama tend to seek escape from, rather than face, the alienating effects of modernity. This depiction of melodrama as a vehicle for false consciousness is identified in the popular melodramas of the revolutionary stage in which innocent waifs, suffering at the hands of manipulative villains, were destined to be rescued by a gallant hero (Brooks; Buckley). In the apparent absence of the sacred and of faith, melodrama is presented, by Brooks and others, as justifying personal suffering, as its prime narrative arc sees virtue (often associated with victimhood) always rewarded and vice punished.
Arguments about melodrama as dialectic of suffering and moral certainty, pathos and action, are not confined to its role in the aesthetic domain.5 Melodramatic scripts also animate everyday responses to suffering, trauma and loss. As Elisabeth Anker has persuasively argued, mainstream media and government responses to the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, fuelled the idea that victims, their families and communities, and the state itself, were innocents exposed and vulnerable to perpetrators of absolute evil. At its height, this rhetoric was widespread and expunged the possibility of ethical ambiguity, helping to justify the state’s aggressive retaliation for the attacks (Anker, ‘Villains’). Arguments such as Anker’s are invaluable for the way they demonstrate the often occluded relationship between politics and the cyclical theatrics of the media-sphere and other populist narrative engines. Yet, I wonder if one effect of such an approach feeds the critical tendency to simplify melodrama and, in particular, to overemphasise the role of melodramatic pathos and to overlook the surprising elements and unpredictable effects, doubts or uncertainties that are also an intrinsic part of its mode.
As the various parts of melodrama (music, action, expression, dialogue) often function in a supplementary relation to one another, in that the parts do not entirely unify to create an absolute synthesis of meaning, melodrama’s form can be said to be (non) dialectical. That is, melodrama’s melos and drama are elements that are complementary but also to some extent irreducible to one another. By drawing attention to the presence of the asymmetric—that is to combinations of music, action, dialogue and emotions that do not necessarily produce a totalizing meaning or resolution—I am suggesting here that, alongside its predictability, melodrama might have more contradictory affective, ethical and political effects. This reading of melodrama as an interplay of differential elements is important for thinking about the role of melodrama to formations of the historical, modern subject and for considering the relation between aesthetics and the possibility of ethical and practical judgment in a world apparently devoid of enchantment, of divine or absolute models. In relation to arguments about melodrama as either ineffectively nostalgic, or as only capable of perpetuating melancholic dissatisfaction with the present, it also provides an approach that accounts for melodramatic preoccupations with the future, as well as the past and present, of the modern subject. Paul de Man’s reading of Rousseau as an allegory or figuration of the (negated) self, as well as Catherine Malabou’s work on ‘plasticity’, prove useful to my argument. These frameworks enable a re-thinking of melodrama as a mode that is both formative of, but also receptive to, new and unforseeable ideas and events that play a role in the constitution of modern subjectivity.
Pygmalion: Un Scène Lyrique,Rousseau’s, lyrical adaptation of the Ovidian myth, contained his stage directions as well his directions for the pantomime that accompanied the music (composed by Horace Coignet) and spoken lyric. While Rousseau named Pygmalion scène lyrique, he used the term melodrama in reference to Gluck’s Alceste (1767). He also outlined the (melodramatic) principles of his and other composers’ musical and theatrical experimentations when he defined the existence of a new form in which the ‘spoken phase’ of the drama ‘is announced and prepared by [the] musical phase’ (‘Letter’; see also Kaleva; Preston). Goethe praised Rousseau’s scène lyrique, and it is now often cited as the first known melodrama (Anker ‘Left’; Booth; Buckley; Holmstrom; Kaleva; Smith; Steele). Less common is a consideration of this innovative production as inextricably linked to Rousseau’s philosophy, which in turn influences later work, including deconstruction. Rousseau plays a central role in Of Grammatology, in which Derrida’s theory of supplementarity is based on an extended analysis (it runs to almost 200 pages) of Rousseau’s Essay on The Origin of Language, which Treats of Melody and Musical Imitation. Indeed, Derrida draws attention to the latter, full title, of the essay and of the importance of music and melody to Rousseau’s career and philosophy when he conjectures that Rousseau’s composition of the Essay,which was published posthumously in1781 in a treatise on music, took place over many years and informed the thinking taking shape during this time (Of Grammatology 171). While Derrida draws connections between the argument of Rousseau’s Essay and his sentimental novel, Emile, there is no mention of Pygmalion in Of Grammatology. In his analysis of Pygmalion, however, Paul de Man reads Rousseau’s implicit exploration of the relationship between language and being. For de Man—and in a reading that is informed by Derrida’s argument about supplementarity—Pygmalion is a play that from the point of view of absolute ‘truth and falsehood’ is one in which the self is not so much a ‘privileged metaphor’ as a figure that demonstrates selfhood through reference to a pliable work of art that is also ‘radically other’ (187).
Catherine Malabou, whose dissertation on plasticity in Hegel was supervised by Derrida, also cites the influence of deconstruction when she emphasizes the role of the surprising and the accidental to what she argues is essentially a ‘plastic’ conception of the historical subject. Malabou’s notion of plasticity refers both to that which can be moulded (clay, plaster) and to he or she who moulds (a sculptor or a plastic surgeon). Plasticity, in Malabou’s terms, gives a name to being as a self-sculpting that takes place through a mutually constitutive play between self and language. The Hegelian ‘substance-subject’ is, for Malabou, one that schematizes itself into being as the development of an autonomous self in the absence of divine presence or absolute knowledge, a self-sculpting which takes place through habitual self-cultivation but also through receptiveness to elements of accident or surprise. Plasticity thus names the elements of both give and take in (Hegelian) subject formation. Important to Malabou’s concept of plasticity is the notion of voir venir, which literally translates as ‘to see (what is) coming’ but also means, in the French vernacular, wait and see. Voir venir thus carries a double meaning. It implies both to know what is likely to happen (based on what has happened already) and also to not know what might be coming.
Writing before Malabou, de Man’s reading of Rousseau’s Pygmalion also theorises a state of being that vacillates between give and take. In de Man’s reading, Rousseau’s artist encounters himself via his sculpture, Galatea, as a figure, a metaphor, rather than a substance or an essence. Pygmalion’s depiction of Galatea as divine art-object and beloved self-creation amounts, however, to more than a representation of the artist’s narcissism. Galatea represents both more and less than a figural externalization of Pygmalion’s primal being through the event of her happening, her coming-to-life, through which elements of surprise or accident are incorporated. Pygmalion is thus, for de Man, an allegory of a form of self-production that is open-ended, or future-oriented, rather than (deterministically or fatalistically) closed. The apotheosis of this structure is the moment when Galatea comes to life but, in doing so, she does not extinguish the fear or the desire that, throughout the play, is expressed by the artist who created her. Nor does her animation bring a satisfactory closure: the ending of the play acts out not a bringing together of opposites, but an infinite deferral of reversals and substitutions in which artist and statue, lyric and drama, fail to be reconciled to one another:
Galathea (touches herself and says): Moi. Pygmailion (transported): Moi!” (1:1230). The supplementary exclamation mark records the imbalance acted out in the final exchanges. Galathea setting herself apart from the material stone (‘Galathea takes a few steps and touches a marble stone: It is no longer I’) is clear to the point of redundancy, but her statement after touching Pygmalion is as ambiguous as Alkmene’s famous Ach! at the end of Kleist’s play Amphitryon: ‘Galathea goes in his direction and looks at him. He rises precipitously, stretches out his arms toward her and looks at her ecstatically. She touches him with one of her hands: he trembles, takes her hand, presses it against his heart, then covers it with kisses. Galathea (with a sigh): Ah encore Moi’. The tone is hardly one of ecstatic union, rather of resigned tolerance towards an overassiduous admirer. (de Man 185)
For de Man, Galatea’s melancholic ‘encore Moi’, or ‘me again’, does not (as the reader or spectator might expect) represent the statue’s capitulation to the artist’s seductions. This final sentence is less a conclusion than ‘one more vacillation in a sequence of reversals, none of which have the power to close off the text’ (186). Crucial to De Man’s reading therefore is the idea that, in Pygmalion, the self is recognized to be a figure, or form. This recognition does not correlate, however, to the idea that the artist has total possession of his creation and, by extension, that we (modern subjects) are completely in control of the language that gives us form. Rather, for de Man, Rousseau’s Pygmalion is about the art work as the artist’s encounter with a quasi-divine presence, an aura (in Walter Benjamin’s sense); in this literal object of desire, the artist confronts multiple failures – the failure of desire, failure of the attempt to possess his aesthetic creation and failure to control his self-representation. For de Man, Pygmalion is an allegory in which the artist encounters the ‘knowledge that he is the agent of his own production as radically other’ as ‘the surprises of self-reading’ are found to be ‘inexhaustible’ (de Man 179).
My reading, via de Man, of Rousseau’s Pygmalion is that it exemplifies Derridean supplementarity and that it draws attention to the plasticity of melodrama. It would seem therefore to argue for Rousseau’s pre-Romantic text as one that is foundational to melodramatic ideas, aesthetics and affects. This is however partly misleading since, as a philosopher famously associated with an eighteenth-century ‘culture of sentiment’, Rousseau has historically represented that valuing of a refined, cultivated, sensibility that differed in both style and substance to the more popular and sensational pantomimes and dumbshows that were beginning to be performed in the cities and towns of England and France. By the last decades of the eighteenth century, playwrights and theatre directors—evading official sanctions on theatrical dialogue—created plays that expressed desires and struggles of common people and that communicated libertarian ideals, including possibilities for resistance to authority. In this context, melodrama communicated revolutionary ideals and fervour, not always through complex dialogue or elevated lyric, but often through mime, pantomime, spectacle and sensational, even risky and violent, action. Compared to the sentimental exemplarity of Rousseau’s Pygmalion, the melodramas performed in late eighteenth-century popular theatres were more likely to be populated by stock characters (villain, hero, heroine, fool), to feature Manichean opposites and extreme moral polarities and characterized by often breathtaking action.
Yet there are continuities between Rousseau’s cultivated sentimental play and the more popular eighteenth-century stage when, as Jacky Bratton argues, ‘in its Romantic first flowering, the epitome of goodness was often made so innocent as to be incapable of verbal expression: a child, a mute character, a wild man, or indeed a dog or a horse. The Rousseauvian appeal to the language of the heart, rejecting the potential deceptiveness of words, was effectively embodied on the melodramatic stage, where all the resources of music, spectacle and pantomime action, could spell out the message that here was innocence, threatened but for ever true to itself’ (‘Romantic’ 119). In his study of early nineteenth-century American theatre culture, David Grimstead also notes the way in which melodrama favoured a hero who learned from his heart and from nature: ‘emotional sensibility was the real criterion for virtue’ and moral truth (11). This is cognate with Peter Brooks’s reading of popular stage melodrama as a spectacle of witnessing and redemption in which innocence (often in the shape of a young woman) learns to recognize itself through encounter with the presence of villainy (which exemplifies knowledge itself). While they often took a more sensational form, the melodramas of post-revolutionary France and England do have overlaps with Rousseau’s composition, particularly in their characterization of a mute innocent who, like a latter day Galatea, becomes a recurrent melodramatic character. This mute woman who is transformed through her encounter with knowledge, figures the adaptability of melodrama itself. Whether as a stony sculpture that comes to life, or as an art-object that metamorphoses once in public circulation, the melodramatic form both transforms and is susceptible to being transformed. Melodrama is a plastic mode, a vehicle through which artist and art-object, self and other, shape one another. It not only performatively names and brings the self into being, it also contains elements that negate the absolute self-determinacy or agency of new forms of selfhood.
Importantly, writers of the new popular form of post-revolutionary melodrama drew on previous fiction as well as on the dramatic, often sensational environments and situations, in which their audiences were living. Revolutionary French dramatist Guilbert de Pixerecourt is widely credited as the pioneer of stage melodramas that appealed to a broad-based audience. Among Pixerecourt’s first plays were Victor, Or The Child of the Forest (1798)and Coelina, Child of Mystery(1803)—the latter, which played for over a year, is the story of a poor orphan who, driven from her home, is robbed by a villainous uncle and pestered by lecherous men. However, while Pixerecourt wrote for a largely illiterate public (see Kavela), it is possible to see how he and other melodramatists did not so much break with the past as merely re-form what had been done previously (see Buckley). Pixerecourt and other theatre writers and directors wrote new productions and recycled older forms and adaptations that appealed to a growing populace that, living in a sensational environment, were themselves hungry for entertainment and distraction. The unpredictable events and situations affecting this populace in turn had an effect on Pixerecourt’s dramas, which brought together elements of the old and new as Pixerecourt responded to the revolutionary, democratic energies of the moment and to the rise of a new social consciousness animating his public.
The domestic or sentimental story of the abandoned waif was only one of many, often complex, story forms: these included prison escapades, crime thrillers, nautical adventures and other genres.6 Audience numbers for sensational entertainment rapidly grew in number, eventually overtaking attendances for sentimental comedies and operas, which had been catering to a more restricted, polite audience. Melodramatic stories also crossed national boundaries and geographical distances, and imitations and adaptations of earlier forms proliferated through both print-media and travelling shows. From its earliest incarnations, melodrama was a highly transportable, adaptive mode. Thomas Holcroft translated Pixerecourt’s play Coelinainto English (without acknowledgement) where it was performed in England as ‘A Tale of Mystery’. A common charge against melodrama—that it is formulaic and artificial or inauthentic (in the sense of un-original)—may derive from the way in which, in its earliest incarnations, melodramatic productions freely borrowed from other sources, including gothic novels. Pixerecourt’s Coelina, for example, was taken from a romance of the same title by gothic writer, Ducray-Duminil. Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis’s long-running melodrama, The Castle Spectre (1797), is another example of the immense popularity of a form that also quickly spread across geographical boundaries. Originally opening in Drury Lane, London, The Castle Spectre(1797) the next year opened in a theatre in New York (1798). It was just one of a flood of imports that crossed from Germany and France to England and North America. Melodramas not only adapted plots from more ancient sources (such as Greek and Roman tragedies and medieval romances); theatrical adaptations were, from early on, adapted from theatre into prose-poems and novels.
While melodrama’s heyday is said to have been the final decades of the eighteenth century (Booth), Jacky Bratton’s important work on nineteenth-century theatre and music halls demonstrates its enduring popular appeal amidst theatrical sanctions and licensing acts that restricted where and how melodrama could be performed. As Bratton shows, the 1843 Theatre Licensing Act decreed that any performance containing narrative, whether expressed in dialogue, song or dance, was now supposed to be the preserve of the theatres (not music halls) (165). While this engendered a cultural divide between theatres aimed at more cultivated audiences and those catering to more sensational taste, it was a schism that was not absolute, as many people were part of both audiences. Nevertheless, this institution of an official divide helped to shaped the style of entertainment presented in music halls and other establishments which, catering to mass audiences, emphasised dramatic spectacle and sensational action over elevated dialogue.
In Peter Brooks’s argument, melodramatic techniques and themes, derived from theatre history, cross from stage to (literary) novel and animate the late nineteenth century novels of Balzac and Henry James. Particularly important, for Brooks, is how a preoccupation with theatrical gesture gets transferred to the novel and becomes a signifier of emotional excess in late Victorian fiction. In the context of the emergence, by the late nineteenth century, of a mass market and industrial-machine culture, Brooks identifies plenitude that, often expressed via the non-verbal, registers anxiety about the possibility that such excess is also a lack, as if a plenitude of meaning is unable to be extracted from the ubiquitous, machine-made surfaces of Victorian culture. In Brooks’ account, and like the sculpture that comes to life in Pygmalion, the melodramatic work of art functions like a fetish object; melodrama invests meaning in the ‘surface reality’ of things, as if that surface holds some secret promise that it also refuses. This meaning exists amidst and between a plethora of spectacular signs and non-verbal expressions that promise but also thwart stable interpretation. As Brooks writes, melodrama’s pleasure is in the process of naming this imminent but also unreachable, significatory presence. He refers to desire in melodrama as a force ‘[that] cries aloud its language in identification with full states of being’ (41). It’s worth noting here that both de Man and Brooks were influenced, in their remarkably similar formulations about melodramatic metaphor as both excess and lack, by Jacques Derrida’s reading of the supplement, in Of Grammatology, a book (as noted earlier) in which Rousseau’s Essay about language as an absent presence is  crucially featured. To return to Brooks, his argument is that it is theatrical gesture that finds its way into the late nineteenth-century novel in the form of metaphor or, more especially, in the form of catachresis—a forced metaphor that, often in the shape of neologism, creatively names that which lacks a proper name (73).
Such naming practices can be seen in Victorian melodramas, in the fiction of Balzac and Dickens, and in theatrical productions of the time. For example, Dion Boucicout’s immensely popular production The Poor of New York is set in New York in the immediate aftermath of the 1857 financial panic. In this melodrama, the likes of Captain Bloodgood, a corrupt banker, attempts to swindle money from the virtuous Lucy Fairweather. This kind of melodramatic naming (abounding in Dickens’s novels)—which forges a link between the literal and the figural, function and form, in characterization—continues today in contemporary soap opera and ‘quality’ television. In the American soap opera, The Young and the Restless, the lead character, originally an orphan, re-named himself Victor Newman and, in doing so, augments his victorious new identity and his rise to fame and fortune. Similarly, Don Draper is the name of the lead character in AMC’s long-running melodrama, Mad Men (2007 – present). A fraud who has fabricated a new identity for himself by stealing another’s, Draper’s name (referring to a dealer in cloths and textiles) catachrestically refers to his role as ad-man or creative who both (re)creates and conceals (drapes) advertising copy to sell the latest consumer commodity.
Others have argued that melodrama, in crossing from theatre to novel to early cinema and now television, has combined its spectacular and sensational elements with aspects of other modes or genres, such as realism and naturalism (see Gledhill; Parchesky; Postlewait; Williams). There are however important distinctions between melodrama and these other modes. In naturalism, as Raymond Williams argues, environment has a determining effect on character action, creating a play of cause and effect between environment and character (‘The Case’). In theatrical melodrama, by contrast, environment tends to get evoked pictorially and, in later cinema melodrama, environment is often rendered as surface ornamentation or as a backdrop that adds to the melodramatic sensation. I’m thinking about the thrill audiences experienced as they watched the slave, Eliza (in theatrical renditions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous race melodramaUncle Tom’s Cabin) cross a treacherously icy river and escape to her freedom. Or when, in D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East,the hero rescues Lillian Gish, playing a lowly servant, from falling to her perilSensational natural landscapes, in these instances, add a dynamic visual element to staged or screened drama.
Raymond Williams makes connections but emphasizes differences between late-nineteenth-century naturalism and melodrama (‘The Case’).7 And, while there is no entry for ‘melodrama’ in Raymond Williams’ Keywords, he does provide a gloss on the keyword ‘dramatic’—‘the sense of an action or situation having qualities of spectacle and surprise comparable to those of written or acted drama’ (94). Connections are also drawn between understandings of the ‘dramatic’ and the ‘theatrical’ and modern conceptions of personhood. While the word ‘role’ refers to a character in a play, it also describes the position ‘taken up in social action or organisation’ (Keywords 94). And in his keyword entry for ‘personality’, which Williams sees as essentially linked to ‘dramatic’, he notes that the word ‘person’ dates back to the thirteenth century and was first understood as ‘a mask used by a player’ (95). This intertwining of modern conceptions of subjectivity with the theatrical—through which Williams seems to propose a conception of the modern self as one that is based in stage history—is further qualified when he associates the rise of the individualised or personalised with understandings of dramatic and fictionalised character:
But a personality or a character, once an outward sign, has been decisively internalized, yet internalized as a possession, and therefore as something that can be displayed or interpreted. (95)
Here, modern personality is associated with the internalisation of a fictional persona, observed on stage or screen. Williams’ linking of stage and screen culture with notions of ‘possessive individualism’ is thus consonant with Michel Foucault’s theorisation of the modern subject as one who comes into being through biopolitical regimes of power. For Foucault, individuality is an effect of the subject’s recognition of self through state-sanctioned systems of discipline and regulation—a recognition which in turn consolidates his or her position in a power structure.
Such theorisations of modern personhood are also a feature of formulations of the melodramatic imagination as a structuring condition for the rise of bourgeois or liberal-humanist agency. Yet, as discussed earlier, the way in which melodramatic characters are represented not according to specific or unique attributes but as named generalities or types (ie, the Lucy Fairweathers or Victor Newmans of Victorian stage and contemporary soap opera are named according to their function) pose a challenge to associations of the form with the seemingly autonomous, self-possessed, liberal-bourgeois subject. Further, melodrama’s re-enactments, its perennial re-stagings of primal dramas, can also be understood as a form of resistance to the temporal calculations and regulations of modernity, to clock time, and to the reduction of the body to statistical accountability. The theatricalisation of the self, that takes place in melodrama, can be thought of as a way of asserting a self that is not entirely reducible to the machinic. The tensions and contradictions and uneven patterns at work in melodrama also trouble formulations of the self as simply the product of a state-regulated system. This scholarship focused on what is lost via (melodramatic) reproduction is cognate with the way scholarship about American film melodrama has overwhelmingly focused on the role of pathos in sentimental genres even though, as Ben Singer has shown in his detailed work on early cinema, surprises, thrills and accidents played an essential role in a vast array of melodramatic genres in which melancholy was not so prominent.8
Nevertheless, through cinematic close-up and other camera techniques, the expressive face became a primary (art- object) for conveying pathos. The close-up, it can be argued, also amplified the plastic nature of the cinematic art-object and can reveal elements of its (non) dialectical logic. In D. W. Griffith’s melodrama of repressed desire, Broken Blossoms (1919), set mainly in turn-of-the-century London, Lillian Gish plays an illegitimate fifteen-year-old girl, Lucy—an innocent who is sadistically dominated and beaten by her father, Battling Burrows. That the villain is a tyrannical father suggests that this family setting is an oedipal scene of moral retribution and judgment. Lucy, described as ‘this child with tear-aged face’, is the subject of many of the film’s close-ups and the primary vector for its pathosCompleting the oedipal triangle is a third character, the Yellow Man, an effete Englishman turned Buddhist who has travelled to London from China and whose status as ambiguous ‘racial’ other complicates the Cockney family drama: it is the ‘Yellow Man’ who offers Lucy refuge from domestic abuse and abandonment. However, in the midst of its bleak picture of the London underclass, the film offers what Robert Lang refers to as ‘a sense of resurrection’ or redemption. It does this primarily through close-ups on Gish that turn the human face into a cinematic work of art that, in Paul de Man’s terms, evokes a divine presence that also negates deterministic formulations of selfhood.
In a similar mode to de Man, Roland Barthes writes—in terms expressing religious intensity and drawing on metaphors of plasticity—about the power of the cinematic close-up as a ‘face object’ that evokes not particularized or personalized beauty but a ‘Platonic Idea of the human creature’ (56). In his essay, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Barthes writes that ‘Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still [sic] plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh’. Barthes continues ‘it is not a painted surface, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of its colour, not by its lineaments’ … and … in ‘spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and friable, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’ (Mythologies 56). Barthes’ description of audiences ‘lost in the philtre’ that is Garbo’s cinematic face-object is similar to de Man’s reading of Pygmalion; in each case, the art-object brings together the general with the particular, evoking an artistic desire to see self-resemblance in a production that is also radically other.
Fig 1: Broken Blossoms 1
Figure 1: Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) gifts Lucy (Lillian Gish) a doll in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919).
Broken Blossoms’ focus on Gish’s emotive face, including during scenes of extreme violence, also conjures a kind of plasticity. Before she is beaten to death by her father, Lucy finds refuge with Cheng Huan (‘The Yellow Man’) who gifts her a doll [Figure 1] and these scenes are some of the most extraordinary in the film—not only for the way in which they toy with an alternative to the Anglo-familial unit but also because Gish’s childlike adoration of her doll seems to mirror the cinematic gaze focused on her [Figure 2]. The image of Gish staring at her doll, like Barthes’ Garbo and de Man’s Galatea, also has elements of the Freudian uncanny. As with Hoffman’s Olympia (a lifelike doll), as is referred to in Freud, Gish’s animated yet doll-like face looks searchingly into the face of the doll that she holds as the screen becomes an infinitely receding mirror of refracted, beguiling gazes.
Fig 2: Broken Blossoms 2
Figure 2: Lucy (Lillian Gish) in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919).
It seems significant that, in the case of Broken Blossoms, the oscillation between self as subject and self as object is thematised in a familial scene – Lucy’s adoration of her doll conjures, in particular, the absent mother of the drama. Such a primal subject/object relation is interestingly reversed in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama, Imitation of Life, in which a teenage girl, Susie (played by a doll-like Sandra Dee) expresses frustration at her self-absorbed mother (Lana Turner) and her ambitious drive to be a great actor, crying out ‘Oh Mother stop acting’ [Figure 3]. In relation to melodramatic plasticity, it’s interesting that Lana Turner represents, for German émigré director Douglas Sirk, a hardening of the cinematic image as commodity form. While he worked within the Hollywood system, Sirk was highly critical of what he saw as its peddling of ‘cheap imitation’ (Halliday 148). Sirk’s highly ironic mid-twentieth century films are commonly read as critiques of the Hollywood product and, more generally, of consumer capitalism and its alienating affects. Yet his films also bring ironic distantiation together with classic melodramatic techniques in ways that explicitly crisscross the philosophical with the affective.
Fig 3: Imitation of Life 1
Fig 3: Imitation of Life 2
Figure 3: Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and Susie (Sandra Dee) in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959).
Sirk’s films can also be thought of as critiquing the aspirational subject, an exemplary figure in American cinematic melodrama. This is a character who desires movement from a cultural margin to the centre of public life. Through its perpetual re-plotting of an aspirational trajectory, melodrama is justifiably critiqued for continually re-staging the (false) promise of consumer capitalism—the illusion that it is possible to achieve the good life, for all to achieve fame and fortune and/or that such an achievement is desirable. As Lauren Berlant has so eloquently shown, the 1930s and 40s Hollywood woman’s film exemplifies just such images of suffering, self-pity, thwarted longing as shared affects that mediate what Berlant refers to as ‘intimate public’, a readership or audience that experiences generalised pain as personal pain (The Female Complaint). Jean Mitry similarly describes melodrama as the bourgeois drama par excellence. This is not to say, as Mitry writes, ‘that the bourgeoisie takes a special pleasure from melodrama, but that melodrama would appear to be an avatar of bourgeois morality and ideology’ (quoted in Lang 132; see also Parchesky). This view of melodrama is of a conservative mode that, affirming class difference but not class struggle, tends to perpetuate the status quo. However such a view perhaps downplays the contradictions and tensions at work in melodrama, including its deliberate, generic focus on the typical over the individuated, and its interest in temporal revolutions, including perpetual returns to primal dramas that have historically appealed to the culturally marginalised or subordinated. This latter view speaks to the work of a generation of feminist film scholars, including Laura Mulvey, Mary-Anne Doane, Linda Williams and others, whose analyses of 1930s and 40s Hollywood cinema explored what it meant for women to be depicted as pathologised or neurotic subjects on screen, the effect of polarised divisions between home and work for which women often bore the burden, and the gendering of spectatorship.
There is no question that many of these 30s and 40s melodramas, with their romances and happy endings, affirm a particular status quo and consolidate women’s role within that. Yet some of the best family melodramas of 1930s and 40s explored the contradictions and tensions of the capitalist dream that melodrama would otherwise seemed to uphold. King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937) endorses the generalised appeal of the ‘good life’ but does so through a story that enacts some of the contradictions also present in de Man’s reading of Pygmalion and through its exploration of the rewards as well as the costs to a woman of identifying with the dream of a better life offered via the silver screen. In doing so, in other words, it critiques aspirational subjectivity via representation of a woman who initially desires but ultimately rejects cultural capital and the acquisition of social distinction offered through marriage. In King Vidor’s film, Barbara Stanwyck plays Stella, a working class girl who, desiring escape from her poor home life, declares to her soon-to-be-husband : ‘I don’t want to be like me ... I want to be like the people in the movie’. However, while marrying Stephen Dallas and becoming mother of his child brings improvement to Stella’s material circumstances, the contradictions in this melodrama arise from Stella’s ultimate rejection of the signs of bourgeois materialism she had initially pursued.
What Stella eventually casts aside is the desire to ‘be’ that which she had identified with on screen—a desire which had augmented a marriage that improves her material circumstances. When she finds that her husband is ashamed of her vulgar ways and lower class friends, Stella separates from him, symbolically rejecting a patriarchal law with its expectations of her gendered and class based aspirations. Stanley Cavell includes Stella Dallas in a class of films he calls the ‘melodrama of the unknown woman’, which he sees as being in tension with another group of films he calls the ‘(re)marriage comedy’ genre. Unlike the woman of the ‘(re)marriage comedy’ who learns to see herself through a man’s eyes, the unknown woman genre (of whom Stella is an exemplary character) learns ‘the futility of appealing to the taste of those who have no taste for her’ (203). Stella’s recognition of her own desires, her own sense of self, take place at the cost of her own lack of intelligibility. Her self-willed negation of (a socially validated) self is part and parcel of her unknownness.
The unknown woman, in Cavell’s reading of melodrama, exists both inside and outside a masculinist, social system and it is the exploration of her desires and her demand that she be recognised as separate within a conformist domain that is so important. This is thematised when Stella expresses a wish to her departing daughter: I want to see you in my mind’s eye’. While ‘in my mind’s eye’ implies an internal Stella whose love for her daughter is central to her identity, the statement also refers back to Stella’s earlier wish to be like the people in the movies. In a Galatea-like move, Stella recognizes that she was formed through those machine-made images and decides to separate herself from them. Like Gish’s Lucy’s gaze at that doll and Galatea’s melancholic ‘Encore Moi’, Stella Dallas recognizes her part within an infinite play of substitutions and reversals. In doing so, she resists her complete incorporation into the system that originally defined her.
However, for Thomas Elsaesser and others, Stella Dallas exemplifies not the ‘unknown’ of feminine self-definition but rather the pathos and the thwarted wish-fulfillment of melodrama. This is the structure that is said to be based on an ‘if only’ or a ‘what if’ of hopeful possibility that can only be thwarted. Such a subjunctive or conditional (melodramatic) grammar has also been conjured in evocations of the modern or postmodern condition. A grammatical ‘what if’ is, for example, a feature of Jean Baudrillard’s theorisation of the reign of the simulacra in late capitalism—the consumer image that has become dissociated from its original referent and, in doing so, has become the real, a simulation that refers only to, or masks, another simulation. Significant also is that, in Simulations, Baudrillard draws attention to a melodramatic simulation that takes the form of reality television. I’m referring here to Baudrillard’s description of the ‘Loud Family’, who allowed cameras into their home and their daily lives be televised for public consumption. Baudrillard writes:
This family was in any case already somewhat hyperreal by its very selection: a typical, California-housed, 3-garage, 5-children, well-to-do professional upper middle class ideal American family with an ornamental housewife. In a way it is this statistical perfection which dooms it to death. This ideal heroine of the American way of life is chosen, as in sacrificial rites, to be glorified and to die under the fiery glare of the studio lights, a modern fatum. (51)
In Baudrillard’s thrilling, melodramatic prose, the Loud family in ‘delivering themselves into the hands of television’ performed ‘a sacrificial rite’ as they became a ‘spectacle offered to 20 million viewers’ and ‘the liturgical drama of a mass society’. As a result of the eventual disintegration of the Loud family unit—the various members went their separate ways after the filming—Baudrillard asks ‘What would have happened if TV had not been there’ (my emphasis). Baudrillard’s use of would reflects the conditional grammar that critics have identified as structuring the thwarted longing and pathos of melodrama. But is not Baudrillard’s question, a kind of death sentence, itself melodramatic? What was the future of that ‘ornamental housewife’? Rather than being certain that she met a sad fate, might not her unknown destiny, in Cavell’s terms, spark an excess of doubt rather than certainty about her destiny?
Half a century or so after those Hollywood melodramas, and thirty years after Baudrillard’s Simulations was first published, we find ourselves in a situation in which screens are more ubiquitous than ever. Digital screens, big and small, mediate and continue to melodramatise our everyday lives. In a recent interview, the American filmmaker Harmony Korine was asked about what it meant to direct films in a digital age. Korine intriguingly described this—his and our—contemporary moment as ‘post-articulate’.9 Although he did not use the word, I wondered whether melodrama was what was being spoken of here. This is the era of social networking (Facebook et al) when everyday participants not only create avatars that screen and dramatise their own faces/bodies, they also curate their own melodramatic narratives through the combining and/or assembling of images, music and other media. The ways in which such uses of sounds and images, in digital space, work to supplement the communicative power of the ‘written’ word brings my argument full circle, that is back to Derrida and his re-reading of Rousseau’s privileging of the spoken over the written, melody over harmony, accent over articulation. Melodrama is an important keyword, the consideration of which has enabled exploration of how an aesthetics of dramatic spectacle and sensation is coterminous with, and constitutive of, philosophies about being and/in language. From the aesthetics of theatre to that of new, digital formats, and from post-enlightenment metaphysics to post-structuralism and deconstruction, melodrama metamorphoses but also seems to return to itself. This shifting, changing form continues to adapt and, in returning to old form, to undo the possibility of (total) adaptation to change. In response to new situations, new technologies, new happenings, will melodrama continue to re(form) itself in surprising, unpredictable ways? The future of melodrama? In the absence of absolute knowledge about what did happen, we should wait and see.

Monique Rooney teaches US literature and film in the English Program, School of Cultural Inquiry, The Australian National University. She has published on melodrama in Australian and US cultural contexts and is currently writing a book about melodrama in contemporary film and television.

Notes1 This quote is from a printed edition that was copied from a live version of Rousseau’s scène lyriquePygmalion, a poem. From the French of J. J. Rousseau. London: J. Kearby, 1779.
2 Since first encountering her work while writing my PhD on Imitation of Life and other passing-for-white melodramas, my work has been strongly influenced by Lauren Berlant’s reading of the intersections of the affective life and public culture as it is modeled in Hollywood women’s film. My argument here is similarly engaged with Berlant’s work but departs from her contention in her most recent book, Cruel Optimism, that we are in a ‘post-melodramatic’ moment.
3 See also Zarzosa who writes, via post-enlightenment philosophy, about melodrama as devotional aesthetics. Anker’s essay ‘Left Melodrama’ about the melodramatic rhetoric of a certain strand of hard leftist criticism, is also relevant here.
4 See, for example, the important anthology Melodrama and Asian Cinema in which Dissanayake notes that suffering and pathos play an important role as part of processes of modernization but that the place and significance of these melodramatic elements are considerably different(4). See also Nathaniel Dorsky’s melodramatic reading of Yasujiro Ozu’sThe Only Son (1936) in Devotional Cinema.
5 See Linda Williams, for whom melodrama is a ‘dialectic of pathos and action’.
6 See Gillian Russell, ‘Reality Effects: War, Theatre and Re-enactment Around 1800’, forthcoming.
7 See also Mark Seltzer on the relation between melodrama and naturalism in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893).
8 See also Higgins and Ross on contemporary action films, sensation and melodrama.
9 Harmony Korine, ‘Spring Breakers and the Place Beyond the Pines’. ABC Radio National. 9 May 2013. Accessed 30 May 2013.
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