“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):