Monthly Archives: January 2011


“Plasticity” as Catherine Malabou defines it is the capacity not only to give and to receive form, but also to destroy it. In her book Les nouveaux blessés, Malabou explores plasticity’s destructive potential. Situating herself between Freud and neurology, she explores the ways in which certain traumata can negate a previously existing identity, so that an entirely different person comes into being. A subject survives, but it is no longer the same subject; its history—its childhood–has become irretrievable. As Malabou argues, psychoanalysis is unable to understand these subjects. Parkinson or Alzheimer patients are included among the subjects that she discusses in her book.

In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark talks about Alzheimer patients as well. Through one of his colleagues, Clark comes across the puzzling case of Alzheimer patients who are able to live alone successfully even though “they really should not have been able to do so”: “On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally.” What kept them together? Clark suggests that it was their home environments, which “were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive propos, tools, and aids.” This example comes to back up Clark’s earlier claim about “narrative selves,” which he characterizes as “biotechnological hybrids.” In the case of the Alzheimer patients, the scaffolding of all kinds of memory aids enabled the patients to keep their minds together.

But Clark then raises a fascinating question. What if we were to imagine, he asks, “a world in which normal human brains are somewhat Alzheimic”? Don’t we all keep our selves together through biotechnologies? Wouldn’t we all fall apart if, overnight, all of these biotechnologies would be taken away? From this perspective, the self is not some kind of solid core that defines us, but a “soft self”: “a rough-and-tumble, control-sharing coalition of processes—some neural, some bodily, some technological—and an ongoing drive to tell a story, to paint a picture in which ‘I’ am the central player.” The type of wounds that Malabou theorizes would destroy, however, even this soft sense of self.

What if we were to imagine a painting with no central player? A painting that would remove, not just the central player in the painting but also the painter her- or himself as the central player? A painting that would not frame, as paintings do, but simply see? A painting without a self, not even a soft self? A posthuman painting? Painting resists, in my opinion, this final leap–even if the frame is off, as in some of Edgar Degas’ ballet paintings, the trace of the paint on the canvas prevents the viewer from ever entirely leaving the self behind. (Only fully mechanized representation can achieve this.)

References: Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Image: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen, The Bridge, 2009, oil on canvas, 105x184cm.



In his book Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark recalls an experiment designed by V.S. Ramachandran, professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. Here is Clark’s description of the experiment: “Sitting at your desk, place your left hand underneath the desktop. Get a volunteer to tap the desktop with her right hand while using the left to (in synchrony) tap your hidden hand.” “[M]any subjects will feel as if the ‘being tapped sensation’ is located on the desk surface—as if the desktop were a real, sensitive part of their body.” “Now have the volunteer hit the desktop with a hammer. Your galvanic skin response [GSR] jumps as if your own hand had been threatened!” When Clark returns to GSR later on in his book, he includes Ramachandran’s remark that “perhaps it’s not all that silly to ask whether you identify with your car. Just punch it to see whether your GSR changes.”

There is a powerful idea here that Clark already evoked in the introduction to his book, when he describes his experience of the loss of his laptop as “a minor stroke.” With the loss of the technological object, it appears a part of himself has gone lost, to the extent that he is incapable of functioning normally. Even though we might not have a single piece of technology within our body, the fact that we operate as mind-body-technological scaffolding assemblages turns us into cyborgs. It is these typically human, supportive environments that justify Clark’s claim that we are natural-born cyborgs.

What happens when we consider this type of thought next to D.W. Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object? A transitional object is an object that, although it is not a part of the infant’s body, is not fully recognized as belonging to external reality. To grow up means to let go of such objects, and to recognize the border between the body and what lies outside of it. But isn’t the car in the example from Ramachandran that Clark cites—do you identify with your car? Does your GSR change when you punch your car?—a kind of transitional object? And aren’t our lives in the increasingly technological world characterized by the breakdown of the separation between the body and what lies outside of it—in other words, by the creation of transitional objects? If losing our laptop can be compared to suffering a minor stroke, as Clark suggests, this means that the laptop has become a part of our body… What does this mean for Winnicott’s theory today?

Does to grow up still mean to let go of transitional objects? Or, if to live in today’s technological world means to live with more and more transitional objects, might it perhaps mean to learn to engage with such objects in a different way?

References: Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Image: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen, Tower, 2007, oil on canvas, 94x155cm.


Think big. Think dark. And think forward. Those are the imperatives of Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought. In Ecology Without Nature, Morton had already argued that our ideas of nature did not serve ecology particularly well. In The Ecological Thought, his call to leave those ideas behind receives a more concrete articulation: big, dark, forward. Big: so big that the bigness can no longer be contained by thought. The ecological thought is about this excess, and about caring for what’s not there. Dark: a darkness that unworks the domestication of the stranger. Although Morton doesn’t say so, one could argue that it’s about turning the entire world into Twin Peaks. It is no coincidence that special agent Cooper, by way of explaining his investigative techniques, first lectures to the local sheriff and deputies about Tibet; Morton argues in his book that Tibetans, because they cultivate a relation to infinite space, are particularly attuned to the ecological thought that he practices. (It is probably also no coincidence that Morton’s book, when abbreviated, turns into E.T.) Finally, the ecological thought thinks into the future—much further than any of us can conceive. This is because it is the thought of the hyperobject: of objects like the styrofoam cup, which will outlast us all.

Morton is the David Lynch of ecological thinking. One night, Lynch, who started out as a painter, thought he saw something move in one of his canvases—that’s how his career as a filmmaker started. It was this uncanny experience that made him want to make his paintings move, and turn towards film. For Morton, art is open to these experiences. It is in art that some unspeakable elsewhere—the “getting lost in the library stacks” that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak talks about in a recent interview about aesthetic education—happens. The particular form of what Morton calls dark ecology is film noir. But there are also other artworks that live up to the challenge.

Morton’s argument raises the stakes for nature painting, in the way that Willem Weissman’s work does (see the entries titled “B-sides and rarities” and “Inhuman”). It is in the painting of clutter that our ideas of nature are left behind, and that the ecological thought can begin to happen. As Slavoj Zizek states in The Examined Life, it is among trash that we should start feeling at home. We should unwork the ideology that makes thrash disappear. Dan Davis accomplishes this in a different way in Aloe Vera, a painting that operates (1) within the “without” of nature–the plant it represents has disappeared into a whiteout, only its contours remain; and (2) within the darkness of the environment that surrounds it. As the name of Davis’ plant illustrates, it is here that the “truth” (evoked by the adjective “vera”) of the painting’s aesthetic ecology lies.

References: Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard UP, 2007); Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge [MA]: Harvard UP, 2010); Cathy Caruth, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Aesthetic Education and Globalization.” PMLA 125.4 (2010). Image: Dan Davis, Aloe Vera, oil on canvas, 2010.