So I was riding in a taxi with Slavoj Zizek and Creston Davis in Philadelphia at the 2005 AAR when Zizek told me I should read Catherine Malabou’s book on Hegel, The Future of Hegel. I’d heard of Malabou before, since she wrote Counter-Path with Derrida, but it’s just not possible to read every book Derrida has published, and I had not read it. By the way, this meeting in Philadelphia was also the seed that became the Insurrections book series with Columbia University Press, particularly when Jeff Robbins contacted Wendy Lochner at Columbia about the project, since Columbia was reviewing the book he edited with Caputo and Vattimo, After the Death of God, which became the first book in the series.
When I returned to Arkansas I got a copy of The Future of Hegel through interlibrary loan and read it and it was truly amazing. I was blown away, both by the reading of Hegel that made Derrida take back much of his criticisms, and more specifically by the notion of plasticity, which was Malabou’s signature idea even though she took the concept from the Phenomenology of Spirit where it is a characteristic of subjective spirit. Fast forward to summer 2006, and Creston had talked me into co-editing a book of essays on Hegel for Insurrections, that would include chapters by Zizek, Negri, Mark Taylor, Caputo, William Desmond, Edith Wyschogrod (she was truly a saint and I’m still mourning her death) and others, and I thought Malabou would be the best person in the world to contribute to it. So I emailed her out of the blue and asked her, which I thought was incredibly presumptuous, and in English too! But she agreed to contribute an essay to the book, and also suggested we translate one of her books. Fordham was already working on What Should we do with our Brain?, so I read La plasticité au soir de l’écriture and again, was blown away by the clarity and forcefulness of her thought, as well as its manifesto-like quality.
What I came to appreciate was how her profound and complex reading of form in terms of plasticity challenged Derridean and Levinasian notions of the trace, and this affects the discussion surrounding the return of the religious and what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the “deconstruction of Christianity.” I have been and still am influenced and impressed by the weak messianic force that Derrida draws from Walter Benjamin and deploys in ethical and political contexts. It was with considerable fear and trembling that I developed a critique, relying upon Malabou’s philosophy. And I don’t simply reject or dismiss this idea of a weak messianic force, but I do understand it differently. In any case, as Malabou herself writes about deconstruction, it’s not a question of rejecting or surpassing deconstruction, but seeing how writing expands into a sort of generative plasticity. I was able to see how plasticity is a much more subtle and supple question of form, especially considering its three aspects: the ability to give form; the capacity to receive form; and finally, and most intriguingly, the power to annihilate form, which is an auto-destructive force. So plasticity helps me see force as immanent to form, which also seems close to Deleuze, as opposed to transcendent to it, as some of the religious and theological appropriations of Derrida and Levinas appeared to be doing, although again this question of transcendence is very slippery and it’s easy to overstate or caricature. There are a lot of critiques of Derrida out there that are very stupid, although I don’t think Malabou’s is one of them.
So then I went back and read Que faire de notre Cerveau?, and saw how Malabou deals with neuroplasticity, and then read her book on Freud, Les nouveaux blessés: De Freud à la neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains, which engages critically with Freud from the perspective of the neurosciences. The one book I have not read is Le change Heidegger, which focuses on the idea of metamorphosis in Heidegger. What I like about Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing is how it reflects back upon her relationship with Hegel, Heidegger and Derrida, interspersed with insights into structuralism, neurosciences, and her critique of Levinas. Subsequent to Les nouveaux blessés, Malabou has published Ontologie de l’accident, Changer de différence: Le féminine et la question philosophique, and a book co-authored with Judith Butler, Sois mon corps, has just been published, which consists of a reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.
What I tried to do with the Foreword was to first give a kind of overview and context within which to understand Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing specifically in terms of her work in general, after which I developed some of my own application/interpretation of Malabou’s thought by applying it to Nancy’s idea of the deconstruction of Christianity in Dis-Enclosure. On the one hand, Malabou’s work makes the idea of the deconstruction of Christianity problematic, insofar as it sees deconstruction as the end of Christianity, and there are philosophical and political reasons to want to distance oneself from Nancy’s claim that the heart of the West is a Christian heart. On the other hand, Nancy’s brief explication of the term déclosion (translated as dis-enclosure) has resonances with Malabou’s idea of plasticity. I develop this reading more fully in the last chapter of my book on Radical Political Theology, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.
I think that Malabou’s ideas have many resonances and are important for many areas of thought. In terms of Continental philosophy of religion and radical theology, I think that her sharp rejection of messianism is provocative and important for thinking about the relationship between deconstruction and religion. I do not reject it quite so sharply, but I see how plasticity offers important resources to reconfigure some of these discussions and debates more in terms of form and less in terms of a pure force devoid of form, although ultimately I do not see form and force as opposition or dualistic, which again plasticity allows us to see. We have to be careful not to view things as a simple progression or supercession from writing to plasticity, but plasticity opens up a space to seriously think about the brain. Finally, although Malabou is a student of Derrida, her work is studded with insights of Deleuze, and plasticity helps draw out some of the implications of Deleuze’s discussions of the brain, most powerfully in Cinema 2. So for me at least plasticity is this incredibly rich notion with which to think, and Malabou has given us these incisive and brilliant readings of important philosophical thinkers, and I think she deserves to be considered one of the major contemporary philosophers in the world today.