PLASTICITY, IN RETROSPECT: CHANGING THE FUTURE OF THE
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
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
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
11 Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing,
12 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
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.
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
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
35 Žižek, The Parallax View, 214.
36 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
37 Malabou, “Darwin and the Social Destiny of
Natural Selection,” 156.
38 Changeux, Neuronal Man, 212.
39 Schwartz and Begley, The Mind and the
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
42 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
43 Ibid., 6, 44.
44 Ibid., 52. See also The New Wounded, xvi.
45 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
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
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
56 Malabou, What Should We Do with Our
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).
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