In this response post, I’d like to address two points: first, the relationship of Malabou’s work to Derrida’s, and second, a potential theological connection with the notion of plasticity. I hope that I can be forgiven for being self-referential in the first part and that it will serve something like the purpose that leads Malabou herself to be autobiographical in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing.
My engagement with philosophy has been dominated by two thinkers: Derrida and Zizek. I came to Derrida first, in a Christian atmosphere that strongly emphasized the “transcendent” and quasi-religious element in his thought — the absolute alterity of the Other, the resistence of the “trace” to being taken up into any determinate form, etc. When I began to study Zizek’s work, I found that he gave voice to a lot of my own skepticism about what one might call the “postmodern pieties” that surrounded Derrida’s work in my own setting (and, as it turns out, elsewhere as well).
I found Zizek’s own critiques of Derrida to be rather simplistic and unfair, seemingly motivated more by a young intellectual’s desire to clear out his own space than by an even-handed assessment of Derrida’s philosophy, but I sensed an overall challenge to Derrida that rang true: in essense, I took him to be asking, What can we do with Derrida? From a certain perspective, Derrida’s project seems to be entirely negative, characterized by extreme caution over words and by a need to express one’s own position only indirectly by means of a strange kind of commentary — but what positive task corresponds to this critical moment?
When I began to study the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, I thought I may have found my answer, particularly in The Experience of Freedom and Being Singular Plural. In fact, I have strongly considered writing a book to that effect, claiming precisely that Nancy is the “positive” version of Derrida, even going so far as to describe that as my “research agenda” for purposes of applying to various fellowships. I’m becoming increasingly convinced, however, that my focus on Nancy has been one-sided and that any such project would have to include Malabou as well — though I still find Nancy’s concept of being-with and his daring analysis of freedom to be hugely productive, neither has the power and elegance of plasticity.
Of course, that very elegance reduces the need for exposition, and Malabou is obviously a young thinker who has plenty of time to develop the concept of plasticity (or develop beyond it) herself. Perhaps better than producing any kind of commentary on plasticity would be to set it loose within theological discourse, furthering a goal I share with Clayton, namely, the development of a materialist theology.
I believe that a commentary on Augustine’s Confessions centered on the concept of plasticity would be enormously productive. In terms of the formation of Augustine as a plastic subject, the connections may be obvious — perhaps less obvious would be Augustine’s interpretation of the terms “heaven and earth” (from Genesis 1:1) in Book XII. Though he believes that people are not incorrect when they assume it summarizes the entire act of creation, he thinks there is a deeper meaning that renders the terms “heaven and earth” non-redundant.
On the one hand, he suggests that “heaven” actually refers to the “heaven of heavens,” the eternal abode of spiritual beings who live in uninterrupted fellowship with God. Though created, the “heaven of heavens” participates in God’s eternal nature by its unchangingness (aside from the change of having come into existence out of nothing in the first place). In terms of plasticity, we might say that the “heaven of heavens” is pure form.
On the other hand, he claims that the “earth” refers not to any particular entity, but rather to a kind of “formless matter” that serves as the logical presupposition of God’s creation of the rest of the world. It comes into existence at God’s command, as the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo requires, but it nonetheless serves as a kind of raw material — God doesn’t need pre-existing matter to create the world, but he does need to create changeability itself. In terms of plasticity, this would obviously be pure receptivity to form.
Where should we look for the explosive element of plasticity? One possibility is the concept of evil, which gives Augustine such trouble throughout his intellectual journey. In contrast to formless matter, evil is pure negativity — in the proper sense, evil doesn’t “exist” at all. It is incapable of completely destroying God’s creation, but it can distort or change it. If we view evil as a constituent part of plastic existence, then the considerable body of literature investigating the concept of evil in the Christian tradition could become available in a new way, in the sense of being productive of thought.
I wonder, though, if we could take the risk of identifying God with the explosive element — a kind of originary explosion that simultaneously produces matter as passively receptive to form and keeps any form, even the quasi-eternal “heaven of heavens,” from being truly eternal and unchanging (since the “heaven of heavens” has, after all, undergone the greatest change of all: that from non-existence to existence). Instead of thinking God as purely transcendent to the world, as the pure negation of the world insofar as God is everything the world is not, we might then dare to fold God over onto evil as the negativity within this world, of which we can no longer conceive any “outside.”
(I have developed this reading of Augustine differently in a forthcoming article in a special issue of La revue internationale de philosophie on Zizek, where I combine it with a reading of Pseudo-Dionysius.)