“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.