Monthly Archives: June 2010

Waiting (harold)

“What difference is there between apostle and prophet?” Giorgio Agamben raises this question in his book titled The Time that Remains. Whereas the prophet is turned towards the future, and projects the arrival of the messiah as something that is to come, the apostle speaks from the time of that arrival, when the prophecy has become fulfilled. In the apostle, past and future are contracted into the now, a now that through this contraction turns into a highly plastic—in the sense of explosive—potentiality: a time loaded with energy. In this time, anything can happen. It is a time of infinite possibility. This also means, however, that in this time, anything can happen: plastic time is a time of infinite vulnerability. Indeed, we are talking here about a potentiality so radical that it leaves nothing whole of any actuality, and instead forces one to begin anew, deprived from a childhood, as an entirely different person. The messianic time of the apostle is thus also the time of what Catherine Malabou calls “les nouveaux blessés”: those who because of a brain lesion are turned into another person.

It is this type of wound, Malabou argues, that truly constitutes a trauma, one that would exceed the realm of sexuality and the psychic energy of the libido, and would instead belong in the realm of cerebrality, which escapes hermeneutics. There is no sexual conflict to which the patient and the analyst can return in their pursuit of a cure, no anterior childhood state in which one can take refuge; all of that is gone. What remains is a new person who was born out of the nothing of the wound. It is with this for now final installment of Malabou’s research into the brain that the third characteristic of her concept of plasticity, its explosiveness, receives its full treatment: suddenly, the potentially utopian discourse of What Should We Do With Our Brain? or Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing flips over into its dark side, into emergency’s emergency.

This might actually reveal something about the discourse on time from which I was pilfering earlier on: if Agamben advocates a certain suspension of the law in his discussion of messianic time as the past and future’s contraction into the now of radical potentiality, it is essential to see this suspension in relation to his discussion of the camp, a state of exception in which the law is also suspended. In The Time that Remains, Agamben aims to show through a series of quick points that they are different—but their proximity remains, at least for this reader, uncomfortable, and it is not always clear how the problem in Agamben’s writings does not operate as its own solution.

References: Agamben, Giorgio. The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Trans. Patricia Dailey. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005; Malabou, Catherine. Les nouveaux blessés: De Freud à la neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains. Paris: Bayard, 2007. Image: Dan Davis, Waiting (Harold), Oil on canvas, 125 cm x 153 cm, 2003.



“The brain is a work, and we do not know it”. Catherine Malabou uses as the Leitmotiv for her book on the brain a line that she adapts from Karl Marx’ The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it” (as the sentence is quoted and translated in the opening paragraph of Malabou’s book). Although the sentence functions as a powerful motif in the book, it is important to remember that Marx’ line was actually different: “Humans make their own history”, he writes, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past [Die Menschen machen ihre eigene Geschichte, aber sie machen sie nicht aus freien Stücken, nicht unter selbstgewählten, sondern unter unmittelbar vorgefundenen, gegebenen und überlieferten Umständen]”. Whereas Marx was interested in both human agency and human beings’ passive exposure to history, Malabou appears to leave out that passive exposure, focusing instead on human beings’ lack of knowledge about their agency when it comes to the brain. In both Marx’ line and in the line from Malabou, one uncovers typical Enlightenment concerns: in Marx, the tension between Enlightenment as a type of agency and as a historical period to which one is passively exposed (one finds this in both Immanuel Kant and Michel Foucault’s essays on the Enlightenment as well); in Malabou, the appropriation of Kant’s imperative “Aude sapere!” (“Have the courage to use your own reason!”).

Malabou’s key point, however, namely that the brain is plastic, that it is an organ that is constantly wrapped up in processes of production, is powerful and increases one’s responsibility with respect to what one sees, hears, smells, feels, and so forth. All of these impulses shape the brain, and as a consequence what we think of as “ourselves”, whether we know it or not. They set off a synaptic firework under our skull that is, as Malabou insists, a work: one to which human beings are in part passively exposed, but one in which they also (and here she appears to reverse the emphasis in the line from Marx) actively participate. What we see, hear, smell, feel, and so forth begins to matter after reading Malabou’s book like never before. Thus, the brain migrates from the realm of genetic determination into a realm in which anything is possible, putting all the more emphasis on the question that Malabou chooses as her title: what should we do with our brain? It is here that other recently published books about the brain, such as William Connolly’s Neuropolitics, come into play, as explorations of techniques not just of thinking, but of living—as biotechnics. It is here that Malabou’s notion of the brain’s plasticity—its capacity to receive, give, and explode form; what Malabou also calls the brain’s organic art, its bioart—is most powerful.

References: Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham UP, 2008; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. [Trans.] New York: International Publishers, 1998. Image: Dan Davis, Sons and Daughters, Oil on canvas, 135 x 154cm, 2006-2009.

Screenshot from Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964):



In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes has a chapter on liberty in which he notes that the greatest liberty of subjects exists there where the law is silent. One can read this as Hobbes’ honest confession that the law ultimately cannot cover every aspect of life: the sovereign is all-powerful, but “in cases where the sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the subject has the liberty to do, or forbear, according to his own discretion”. Although Hobbes in Leviathan presents a theory of absolute, indivisible sovereignty, he nevertheless also acknowledges a strange kind of limit to that power—areas of life for which this power might not have written a rule, in which this power does not speak, and the subject is therefore at liberty to determine her or his own actions.

Traditionally, John Locke is presented as the political theorist who saved humanity from the pitfalls of Hobbesian sovereign power. In response to the power that Hobbes theorized, Locke called for a separation of powers into legislative, executive, and federative power. As long as there is no common power to which the people can turn in the case of a conflict between the people and the prince, humanity is still living in the state of war that Hobbes so powerfully evoked in his Leviathan. Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty does not live up to its promise: rather than liberating humanity from that state, it merely perpetuates it under the conditions of absolute sovereignty.

What risks to be forgotten, however, is that Locke does not leave Hobbesian sovereignty behind. Recognizing, as Hobbes does, that the law might not foresee everything that might conceivable happen in life, Locke reserves for the executive power the privilege of what he calls the “prerogative”, namely “the power to act to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it”. Silently quoting Hobbes, Locke writes that the executive would thus act in those realms “where the law was silent”, thus saturating the very place where according to Hobbes the greatest freedom of the subject exists with power. Whereas Hobbes still leaves a possibility of liberty next to the absolute power of the sovereign, here that possibility is done away with, and power comes to speak even where the law is silent.

It is no wonder then that Michel Foucault in his lectures on biopolitics can refer to Locke as a figure of governmentality’s saturation of life with power. “Locke does not produce a theory of the state”, he writes; “he produces a theory of government”. As Foucault explains in the same book, this is the moment when “economy”—under the name of “property”, in Locke—becomes the truth of politics. From this perspective, Locke did not save us from Hobbes, but was merely a step in the progressive intensification of power.

References: Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998; Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Newton Abbot: Dover, 2002; Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979. Ed. Arnold I. Davidson. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2008. Image: Martijn Hendriks, Untitled (The Birds Without the Birds), 2007-ongoing.