Malabou, Catherine 2012 The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, reviewed by José Luis Romanillos
Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Fordham University Press, New York, 2012, xix +250 pages, £19.99 paper. ISBN: 978-0-8232-3968-9 (http://fordhampress.com/index.php/the-new-wounded-paperback.html)
What impact do recent findings in empirical brain sciences have upon psychoanalysis? How can we address trauma (whether organic, ecological or sociopolitical) as both a corrosive and formative force of new post-traumatic conditions? How to conceptualise therapy for individuals who have acquired radically new neuronal configurations such that it is difficult to name, touch or reach the ‘self’ requiring therapeutic care? What remains, or persists, in psychoanalysis in the face of neurological research? Is a neuropsychoanalysis possible? These are some of the principal questions that structure Catherine Malabou’s powerful and important work, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage.
Originally published in 2007 and translated into English by Steven Miller in 2012, The New Wounded represents Malabou’s most sustained philosophical interrogation of neuroscience and extends her series of interventions into the new materialisms of contemporary continental philosophy. Preceded in 2004 by What Should We Do with Our Brain? (trans. 2008) (1), and followed in 2009 by Ontology of the Accident (trans. 2012), The New Wounded offers a profound and often moving account of the kinds of suffering and mental trauma produced by senseless accidents, lesions and catastrophes. How to think and respond to these wounds in relation to what we understand as the brain’s plasticity – its capacity to receive, and to give, form?
In her first book devoted to the plasticity of the brain Malabou (2008) outlined three modalities of plasticity revealed by contemporary neurology. The first, developmental plasticity, refers to the growth and arborisation of neuronal connections in the human brain from embryo to maturity – the reception of form through genetic-developmental processes. The second, modulational plasticity, refers to the modifications of neuronal connections whereby the brain gives itself form through the experiences of the individual and their interactions with the environment. On account of this inherent creativity in neuronal connections and synaptic efficacies Malabou stresses that it is precisely because the form of the brain is not ‘ready made that we must ask what we should do with it, what we should do with this plasticity that makes us’ (2008, page 7). The third neurological aspect of plasticity refers to the reparative work that the brain conducts on itself either through on-going neuronal ‘renewal’ or through the brain’s ability to compensate for, and even ‘heal’, neuronal lesions. In this final example of plasticity we are exposed to the notion that – just as our neuronal plasticity makes us – it can also profoundly un-make or un-work the self.
In Brain?, Malabou develops these accounts of brain plasticity through the philosophical concept of ‘explosive plasticity’. Signalled by the word plastique, Malabou considers this plasticity as an explosive creativity through which the brain can escape all impositions of form in the composition of its freedom: ‘energetic discharges, creative bursts that progressively transform nature into freedom’ (page 74). However, in The New Wounded the author reflects on another, darker, side of this explosive plasticity – a negative or destructive plasticity that leads to irreparable deformations of the self (page 17). These are mental wounds that place people beyond return or repair; negativities that resist any sublation or dialectical synthesis. The notion of the ‘new wounded’ refers to those who have suffered brain lesions, and destructive or degenerative brain disease (such as Alzheimer’s), but also sociopolitical trauma. In each instance neuronal damage results in indifference and affective withdrawal from the world. Insofar as these individuals ‘survive’ the destruction of their selves, Malabou considers their new forms in terms of a ‘composition’ of a destructive plasticity. The therapeutic issue here is to be found in the emergence of new modes of suffering that become manifest affectively ‘in the form of indifference to suffering’ (page xii). For Malabou, this possibility of a suffering that does not know itself, in which the individual is radically separated from their past ‘self’, occupies a paradigmatic space of contemporary psychopathology.
Crucially, the figure of the new wounded – revealed and visualised by contemporary empirical brains sciences – also represents a ‘theoretical trauma’ (page 156) for a previously normative, inherited framework for thinking about trauma and the self: psychoanalysis. In particular, because the new wounded corresponds to the ‘birth of a new, unrecognizable person’ (page 48), the traditional therapeutic methods of psychoanalysis (e.g. investigating the psychic past of the individual, excavating repressed memories) are put into question.
The book is structured in three parts, the first, ‘The Neurological Subordination of Sexuality’, unfolds as a sustained questioning of psychoanalysis from the perspective of neurological events. In this part, the fundamental structures of psychoanalysis – the concepts of a psychic architecture, the notion of psychic and libidinal ‘energy’, the notion of the timeless and imperishable elements of the unconscious – are all called into question through careful readings of Freud in the light of neurological findings. However, psychoanalytic concepts are not on that account simply dismissed in the light of new empirical findings. Indeed, in the second part, ‘The Neutralization of Cerebrality’, Malabou re-affirms the value of psychoanalysis in being able to ‘grasp the aetiological complexity that actually underlies psychic disturbances’ (page 105), because it actively avoids the monism of the neuronal brain. Further, Malabou outlines how some of the central findings of neurological research in fact present a picture of the brain that uncannily echoes psychoanalytic perspectives. An example is the way in which the neuronal brain oscillates between being hailed as a privileged ‘erotic zone’ (page 106) and its tendency towards inertia under the effect of wounds, lesions and trauma (as potentially ‘brain-dead’). For Malabou, in these moments, we find a strange repetition of the tensions between Eros and Thanatos that appear in the later writings of Freud.
Some of the most powerful sections of The New Wounded are to be found in the third part, ‘On the beyond of the pleasure principle – that it exists’, where Malabou extends these resonances between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. For example, she reveals how both neuroscience and psychoanalysis present an image of what could be called a goldilocks brain. In neurology, the ‘healthy’ brain is said to have a ‘just-right’ balance between quick firing neuronal-synaptic circuits and those more resistant to change, whilst in psychoanalysis the ‘normal’ mind is said to be one in which libidinal attachments are neither too fixated, nor excessively fluid (pages 173-181).
However, it is with the phenomenological appearance of the new wounded that the two different aetiological regimes and therapeutic practices are explicitly made to face each other. As intimated, this ‘confrontation’ (page xvi) between two discourses, or what Malabou calls ‘regimes of event’, unfolds as a problematising tension, rather than as an either/or. This is because Malabou does not intend to ‘liquidate’ psychoanalysis nor ‘weigh down the results of neuropathology with a cumbersome theoretical apparatus’ (page xix), but to offer a ‘sustained dialogue between the two disciplines…to think the new faces of suffering’ (ibid.; cf. page 122). In describing these two disciplines, Malabou discriminates between their respective ‘regimes’ of mental events: cerebrality and sexuality.
One of the most important sites of difference between these two regimes is to be found in their respective relation to the sense or reason of traumatic mental events. For Freudian psychoanalysis, trauma gathers its sense from the way in which it is mapped onto the libidinal historical-economy of the self. For Freud, traumatic wounds cannot be organically traced to the neuronal substrate of the brain, but are conceived as always already saturated by the hermeneutic significance of the psychic history of the individual. In contradistinction, the wound, traumatic rupture or sudden lesion that cause direct and measurable brain damage in each case for Malabou ‘manifest the same absence of sense’ (page 9). Rather than positing an a priori circle of hermeneutic sense in the regime of ‘sexuality’, ‘Cerebrality is thus the causality of a neutral and destructive accident – without reason’ (ibid.).
Another important distinction rests on who suffers when one speaks of the traumas of the new wounded. In psychoanalysis, the traumatic wound pierces and affects an ego that, whilst it undergoes ‘alterations’ and ‘modifications’, is nonetheless posited as a more or less stable entity, one that is accessible and retrievable through therapeutic discourse. For Freud, psychic life has an indestructible character (page 18) through which all events and traces persist and maintain themselves – even if under the modality of repression. At the same time, the neuronal wound actually ‘gives rise to a new person’ (page 15), one that is irreparably severed from its psychic life-history because the necessary substrate of that history – its neuronal configurations and potentialities – has itself been subject to radical deformation. By thus seriously affecting the processes of cerebral auto-affection (the way in which the brain homeostatically regulates itself through both emotional and cognitive processes), Malabou notes that ‘the patient’s personality is transformed to such a degree that it might never regain its lost form’ (page 47). In the third and final part of the book Malabou unravels the implications of this negativity in a sustained and original interrogation of the Freudian ‘death-drive’. As Malabou stresses, what is important in this analysis is that in reflecting on this knowledge we recognise a new kind of vulnerability that demands to be taken into account in responding to contemporary psychopathologies. This is a kind of immanent vulnerability to the accident, to the material event that can disrupt our conscious continuity – an exposure to a ‘destructive plasticity beyond all horizon of redemption’ (page 212).
In positing the notion of trauma as a shock and wound that operates at a cerebral level, Malabou is able to think through all forms of trauma, whether organic psychological, ecological or sociopolitical. As she puts it, if all shocks impact upon neuronal organization, then ‘the border that separates organic trauma and sociopolitical trauma [becomes] increasingly porous’ (page 11). In this way, Malabou encourages us to draw upon the new aetiological regime of cerebrality in our understandings of trauma (whether organic, sexual, psychological or otherwise), and, in so doing, go beyond the privileging of cases of material, direct neuronal lesions found in neuroscientific research. At several stages in the text Malabou briefly sketches the possibility of a neuropsychoanalysis, citing the work of Mark Solms. It should be noted, however, that this trajectory is only tentatively posited in The New Wounded, and will perhaps be explored, for example, in her forthcoming publication with Adrian Johnston, Self and Emotional Life: Merging Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience.
As noted, throughout The New Wounded, Malabou places the two regimes of cerebrality and sexuality into constant dialogue, whilst maintaining their irreducibility. This can be understood as a development from Malabou’s Brain? in which she posits ‘the neuronal’ and ‘the mental’ operating together and alongside each other in a kind of chiasmatic embrace: ‘the neuronal and the mental resist each other and themselves, and it is because of this that they can be linked to one another, precisely because … they do not speak the same language.’ (2008, page 72). In short Malabou affirms a passage of translation or negation between the neuronal and the mental, rather than a transparent continuity between them. Marking this difference, Malabou stresses a ‘gap’ or rupture of a creative-explosive plasticity constitutive of a freedom beyond all reductivism and geneticism: ‘the violence of a gap that interrupts all continuity’ (page 73). What is noticeable is that this affirmation of a gap is at odds with other neurophilosophical works that consistently seek to destroy any sense of a dual causal regime in the brain and to promote a materialist continuity across all elements of the mind.
However, in The New Wounded one can detect a deepening of Malabou’s articulation not just of a new materialism (see here: James 2012, pages 83-109), but of elements of the materialism proper to the neurosciences. For example, whist Malabou is careful to distinguish her engagement with neuroscience from any vulgar reductionism, she also affirms: ‘I do not see any danger…in the advances of the naturalist philosophy of mind. I consider it incontestable, from now on, that the structures and operations of the brain, far from being the glimmerless organic support of our light, are the only reason for processes of cognition and thought; and that there is absolutely no justification for separating mind and brain’ (page xiii). What is interesting is that other neurophilosophers, such as Thomas Metzinger, do consider the kinds of radical materialism promoted through neuroscience to harbour dangerous possibilities and worry about the way in which neuroscientists ‘often underestimate the radical nature of their positions’ (Metzinger 2010, page 130).
In reflecting on Malabou’s engagement with neuroscience more broadly it should be noted that the neuroscience drawn upon tends to revolve around the work on the ‘emotional brain’. For example, Malabou often turns to the writings of the eminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio for clear explications of neurological findings and paradigmatic case studies such as that of Phineas Gage. Damasio’s writings demonstrate the importance of the emotional brain for all manner of cognitive abilities (recognition, decision making, choice, reasoning) and provide a framework for understanding how any trauma, shock, stress or wound impacts the affective brain. Interestingly, Damasio’s reflection on the work of Spinoza, for whom affect and thought are immanently and univocally expressed, also provides an important intellectual site of connection between contemporary brain sciences and continental philosophy (the French title of Damasio’s Looking For Spinoza, for example, translates to ‘Spinoza was right’). However, given this comparatively selective engagement with neurological research, it would be interesting to see Malabou extend her engagement with neuroscience and neurophilosophy to other arenas: for example, to the neuroscientific work on self-modellingas elaborated by Thomas Metzinger, or to some of the normative questions raised by the deterministic-scientistic materialisms of Patricia and Paul Churchland. At the same time of course, it is precisely because of the dominance of analytic-scientific engagements within neurophilosophy, and its tendency to privilege a unidirectional mapping of the neuronal correlate of everything under the sun, that makes Malabou’s interrogation of neuroscience in the light of wider genealogies of mental-evental regimes (psychoanalysis), philosophical thought (Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida), and politics (neo-liberalism, geopolitics), so necessary.
José Luis Romanillos, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, United Kingdom
(1) Hereafter referred to as Brain? All undated references refer to The New Wounded.
James, I, 2012 The New French Philosophy (Cambridge, Polity Press)
Malabou, C, 2008 What Should We Do with Our Brain? (trans. S Rand) (New York, Fordham University Press)
Malabou, C, 2012 Ontology of the Accident (trans. C Shread) (Cambridge, Polity Press)
Metzinger, T, 2010 The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (New York, Basic Books)