AMANDA: It's an honor to be welcoming Catherine Malabou to SCT and fitting that she should be speaking to us during the penultimate week of a session in which so many of the questions have led us to consider how contemporary theory might better understand and, in some cases, reconceive the relation between the sciences and the humanities. Professor Malabou is currently professor at the Center for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University. Her areas of specialization include modern European philosophy, social and political philosophy, gender theory, psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and biology.
She studied at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des hautes etudes, completing a dissertation under the direction of Jacques Derrida, with whom she has also collaborated. She's been a visiting professor at numerous universities in the US, including the New School, Berkeley, and Buffalo, where she's been visiting regularly in recent years. She's also on the faculty of the European Graduate School.
Her works have been widely influential and have been translated not only into English, but also into Japanese, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. It's fair to say that Catherine Malabou is one of the most important voices in contemporary theory and philosophy writing today and represents, from one perspective, a significant transformative enactment of continental theory and, from another, a continuing of the tradition of the constant evolution of thinking that we saw in a figure like Derrida. She's the author already of 12 books, nine of which have been translated into English.
Catherine Malabou has, over many years and through a series of evolving philosophical explorations, developed her signature theoretical concept, plasticity, which she draws from a reading of Hegel initially and which is then expanded and reshaped through a number of readings in continental philosophy. As well as increasingly explored in dialogue with recent developments in neuroscience, as is evident in her short and powerful book, What Shall We Do With Our Brain, as well as the more recent The New Wounded, From Neurosis to Brain Damage.
Plasticity, for Malabou, is a complex and supple concept and designates a three-fold capacity, the ability to receive form, the ability to give form, and the ability to destroy form. In its innovative engagement with recent scientific thinking, her work avoids the simple deference to or application of scientific models of the type which Michael Berube critiqued in his talk yesterday in the section on cognitive and evolutionary approaches to literature.
Instead, Catherine's work takes seriously and seeks to mine the frames of understanding in the avenues for thought and for transformative action opened up in newer models of brain activity and response, in particular, the focus on development and repair. At the same time, Catherine Malabou believes that contemporary neuroscience remains incoherently governed by a mechanistic model that the newer findings belie. And so she engages in an internal critique of this body of work on behalf of a plasticity conceived ontologically, while also finding genuine insight in neuroscientific findings for a needed shift in our thinking about consciousness and the brain.
Secondly, and of extreme interest, is her attempt to contrast plasticity to the forms of flexibility valorized and demanded by post-Fordist capitalism so as to imagine adequate and effective responses to what looks like an ever-adaptable capitalism. In this sense, Catherine's work is addressing from a different angle questions raised by Julia Lupton's talk on design thinking as both a feature of post-Fordist capitalism and a possible response or alternative to it, depending on the context. There are also clear resonances with Jane Bennett's work on new materialism as well as Bill Connolly's on capitalism and neuroscience, who I think is exploring some of the same terrain and with a similarly highly alert open-mindedness.
Catherine Malabou's work has commanded broad international attention for several reasons. She engages in serious philosophical engagement with modern and contemporary philosophy, attempting at one and the same time to elaborate a new conceptual framework and to assess and explore the history of philosophy more generally. This is particularly evident in her book Plasticity At the Dusk of Writing, Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, an intellectual autobiography as well as a powerful philosophical argument exploring the legacy of deconstruction.
It's evident in work I have not had the time to discuss her contributions to feminism and her critique of psychoanalysis in The New Wounded from the perspective of neuroscience and an alternative understanding of trauma. Throughout all of her writing, it should also be noted, Catherine Malabou's prose is unaffected and engaging, yet depth and complexity is never sacrificed. There is a directness to her writing and intellectual candor that is quite extraordinary and at once inviting and challenging. Her work consistently breaks down and reframes what appear to be rigid, paradigmatic boundaries, both of method and of theory. Please join me in welcoming her to SCT.
CATHERINE MALABOU: OK, after such an introduction, you can only be disappointed. So how [INAUDIBLE] you must expect this talk after what Amanda said. And I hope this won't be too shallow. Thank you so much for inviting me here. It's a great honor for me, of course, to be with you and to-- I'm very-- I'm expecting to lead these mini seminars tomorrow and on Tuesday-- Thursday. So thank you so much.
So when I was thinking about what could be, might be the topic of this talk, I thought that perhaps I would try to explore a specific aspect of current neurobiological research and its link with the humanities, which, as Amanda just reminded, is the space where I situate my work today. A kind of critical approach to neurobiology. And I decided to explore an aspect of the political and social impact of current neuroscientific research.
To what extent does this research both bring to light and explore new modalities of power as well as new determinations of the subject of power? These questions will lead me to focus on specific affects, and I will explain why my questions imply a reflection on emotions and affects, and a specific affect, that of wonder.
I intend here to analyze the passage from what Spinoza in Ethics Book III calls sad passions or sorrowful affects, depending on translations. To the absence of passions or affects, which, according to current neurobiology, seems to characterize contemporary subjectivity. To what extent is the emotional brain involved in political subjectivation? And what are the consequences of the impairment of emotions, traumatic disaffection, and of the loss of wonder on empowerment, political conscience, and feeling of the self? What is the difference between sadness and indifference or loss of all emotions?
Let me start with a quote from Deleuze when Deleuze was teaching one of his seminars on Spinoza, this very Book III of Ethics, whose title is "Concerning the Origin and Nature of Affects." Deleuze writes-- I'm sorry to be a little bit long, but it situates very well the problem.
"When I pass from the idea of Pierre to the idea of Paul, I say that my power of acting is increased. When I pass from the idea of Paul to the idea of Pierre, I say that my power of acting is diminished. Which comes down to saying that, when I see Pierre, I am affected with sadness. When I see Paul, I'm affected with joy. And on this mellow decline of continuous variation constituted by the affect, Spinoza will assign two poles, joy, sadness, which for him will be the fundamental passions.
"Sadness will be any passion whatsoever which involves a diminution of my power of acting. And joy will be any passion involving an increase in my power of acting. This conception will allow Spinoza to become aware, for example, of acquired fundamental, moral, and political problem, which will be his way of posing the political problem to himself. How does it happen that people who have power, in whatever domain, need to affect us in a sad way?
"Inspiring sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power. And Spinoza says in the theological political treatise that this is a profound point of connection between the despot and the priest. They both need the sadness of their subjects. Here, you understand well that he does not take sadness in a vague sense. He takes sadness in the rigorous sense he knew to give it. Sadness is the affect insofar as it involves the diminution of my power of acting."
So this is the link between the power of acting and affects, on the one hand, and then the link between political power and the play on this interweaving of affects that will be the main point of my talk. So Deleuze says, "In sparing such passions is necessary for the exercise of power," I propose to modify this statement and transform it into inspiring indifference is necessary for the exercise of power, which, as I intend to demonstrate, appears to be more faithful to the current state of power in our globalized political situation.
So what do I mean by indifference? Indifference here is precisely not to be understood as a version of sorrow or as a version of sadness or dismay. It is not even a mood. And it doesn't share any common features with boredom, psychic exhaustion, or despondency. Nor here, indifference must be taken as indifference to indifference. It is not an affect, but results, on the contrary, from the loss of all affects. Literally, it is a disaffection, which appears once again as a loss of the capacity to wonder, as a loss of the capacity to be concerned, to be touched, to be moved.
A sad or sorrowful passion, even if extreme, is still a passion. It weakens me, it diminishes my power of acting, but it does not profoundly impair my capacity to be affected. A sorrowful passion may always be reverted. It is susceptible to change. It may always be transformed into a joyful one. And Spinoza teaches us how to undertake such a transformation.
Here, on the contrary, indifference to indifference, understood as the destruction of all affects, has no contrary and is not reversible. It has no opposite. It is not the diminishing of my power of acting, but proceeds from the destruction of the capacity to be emotionally moved. A situation with the famous neurobiologist Antonio Damasio names, after Truman Capote, the possibility of acting in cold blood. So this possibility is what appears, thanks to neurobiology today, as the new figure of the emotional subject.
So let me explain what wonder is, what I mean by that. It is the English translation of the Latin admiratio, as it is manifest in Descartes' Passions and in Spinoza's Ethics. Admiratio may not be understood as the modern word "admiration," but rather more generally as the capacity to be surprised. The Latin admiratio comes from mirari, which means "to be astonished."
According to the dictionary, "wonder" as a noun characterizes first a feeling of surprise and admiration caused by something beautiful, unexpected, or unfamiliar. For both Descartes and Spinoza, but we'll see that it is the case for the whole philosophical continental tradition. Wonder is the primary affect. It is what attunes the subject both to the world and to itself. It is an affective opening, which at the same time marks the origin of all affects.
According to Descartes, wonder is the first of the six primitive passions. In the Passions of the Soul, we find exposed and presented first wonder and then joy, sorrow, love, hatred, and desire. Descartes gives the following definition of wonder.
"When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we suppose it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished at it. Since all this may happen before we know whether or not the object is beneficial to us, I regard wonder as the first of all passions. It has no opposite, for the object before us has no characteristics that surprise us. We are not moved by it. And we consider it without passion."
OK, so here it's very clear that, for Descartes, wonder is the primary passion without no contrary, no opposite, and it comes before all judgment. It is the affect which puts me on my way to judge, on my way to think.
So wonder alters the subject's intimacy and at the same time reveals this very intimacy. Without the capacity to be surprised by objects, the subject wouldn't be able-- wouldn't be capable of self-feeling. It is the reflective power of wonder that it determines the mind's relationship to an object, the surprising object. But also to itself. Wonder opens the soul to [INAUDIBLE] in the very form of auto-affection. And Descartes, his treatise is very clear, is the passions of the soul, that we may understand as the passions of the soul for itself.
So we may consider, and this will be addressed in the seminar as well. Wonder may therefore be considered the very structure of auto-affection. The subject touches itself as if it were a surprising object, or a surprising other, to itself. And then it isn't very easy to understand why wonder is defined as the philosophical affect as such.
In Metaphysics I, Aristotle states that philosophy proceeds from wonder. I quote from Aristotle. "For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize." So wonder is the philosophical affect as such because it is the origin of meaning, as it is emotionally felt as and through self-feeling as the feeling as if I was another to myself.
Current neurobiological research on the emotional brain contradicts Descartes' conclusion. Yes, wonder does have an opposite, which is indifference. And yes, it is possible to see the ability to wonder at something be totally destroyed.
So we have to admit that certain subjects cease to feel, cease to be auto-affected and, at the same time, simultaneously cease to be open to the world. The possibility of disaffection, of being cut off, severed from one's own affect and consequently also from oneself. This possibility is, of course, what is revealed through the study of severe brain damage.
After a certain violence, serious lesions, or shot of traumas, the emotional brain, which is for its most part situated in the prefrontal lobe, the emotional brain is destroyed, which implies a total destruction of the possibility to feel. But what is interesting in this analysis is not only the pathological phenomena. It's also what Damasio says, that, in fact, these conditions reveal something which is virtually present in each of us.
The loss of wonder, the capacity that all our emotional brain can be destroyed, does not only concern Alzheimer or frontal lobe patients. Damasio shows that the study of cerebral diseases involving disconnections in the brain's emotional sites reveals a situation which is present in each of us.
One of Damasio's most interesting points concerns the similarity between brain and social traumas. Homeless people, severely depressed subjects, serial killers, people suffering from PTSD, victims of rapes, abuse, and we might evoke many others, often present the same type of behavior, cool, unconcern, what Oliver Sacks calls absent without leave. Even if the lesions are not the same, even if there are sometimes no lesions properly, these individuals manifest the same disaffection. And this capacity to be untouched by wonder is becoming the new affect, the new type of affected, nonaffected subject.
Are we then experiencing today the end of wonder? It would then imply that the philosophical definition of the subject would be totally different from what it used to be since Aristotle. What is a subject who does not wonder, who does not open itself to the world and, consequently, also to itself? To what extent can we consider that this indifference to indifference is the mode of being which political power tries to induce and provoke in each of us today? Despite all the operant ethical discourses on care, support, or generosity.
To what extent does power foster this kind of emotional absence or loss hidden behind discourses on solidarity, et cetera, et cetera? And again, what is the difference between what Spinoza calls a sad passion, depression, a sorrow, a sadness, and this indifference?
Let me remind some essential aspects of Spinoza's theory of affects. As you know, affects for Spinoza induce-- what is an affect? What is it to be affected by something? What is it to feel an emotion?
For Spinoza, affects induce modifications of what he calls conatus, a term used in Propositions 6, 7, and 8 of Ethics Part III. Conatus, which is another name for what he calls the power of existing. To be alive, to exist means to have some power. Life, according to Spinoza, is defined in terms of power that is of potentiality.
Let me quote his famous definition of the conatus. "Each thing," which implies also animals, everything which is alive, plants, et cetera. "Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being." Another quote. "The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing."
So to be, to have an essence, for Spinoza, means to want to be here and to persevere in its being, OK? This is a striving and affirmation of one's self. I am here, and I want to stay, and I want to get more and more powerful. And affect is what modulates this power.
So if we re-read Deleuzes's sentence, it means that joy is what will increase this power. Every time I feel joy, I feel more powerful, which means, for Spinoza, I have a more intense feeling of life, of existence. I feel, in a way, more open. Rather than sadness diminishes this power. I feel more weak. I feel more flexible, more docile, more obedient. And that's why power has an interest in maintaining this sadness in me.
What defines the nature of human beings is the complexity of their bodies and therefore the complexity of their relations to other external bodies for Spinoza. This power, my power of acting, is never alone. It meets, it encounters all the powers of acting, yours. So the relations between my conatus and yours can have two basic forms, either active or passive. Either I determine myself in relation to this external body or they determine me.
So, in fact, joy is always a moment when I in a way determine my own power. And sadness is always a moment when the other's power is influencing me. The more I determine myself, the more joyful I get. The more I'm determined by external causes, the sadder I become.
The individual power of activity, then, or conatus, thus appears to, as Deleuze says very well, as a musical instrument played by affect. And Heidegger, in Being and Time, will have the same definition of affect in the musical sense, stimmen, which comes from stimme, which is the voice, attunement in music.
So in a way, my life is played like a musical instrument by affect. And without these affects, if I lose this affect, it means that, in a way, I lose my own power of existing. And for Spinoza, which is very interesting also, is that what increases or diminishes the power of the body to act also increases or diminishes the power of the mind to think.
As he says, "The order and connection of things is identical to the order and connections of ideas. And the second is that the mind contains what the body experiences. And the more complex a body is, the more sophisticated these experiences are. It is with respect to this increase and decrease of the power to act that we can understand the two fundamental affects, joy and sadness. Joy is the affect by which the mind passes to a greater perfection and sadness to a lesser one."
So the increasing, for example, of my power of acting has an intellectual translation. I think better. As Spinoza says, I'm in a state of greater perfection when I'm joyful.
That's why in his book Looking for Spinoza, Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Damasio presents Spinoza as a proto neurobiologist. And here we can go back to that in the discussion. You have a very kind of war front. Continental philosophers will say, well, what Spinoza is describing has nothing to do with neurobiology. It's pure philosophy, pure theory. And I will try to explain why.
Rather than on the other hand, neurobiology has said, no, no. Spinoza is the first neurobiologist because he establishes this perfect coincidence between the body and the mind. What happens in the body happens also in the mind. What takes place at the level of bodily affects also takes place at the level of ideas.
This coincidence between the body and the mind are interpreted by neurobiologists as neural maps. It's interesting to see how today the correspondence between a bodily state and an intellectual state is defined in terms of a map. This is a mapping that our brain establishes in us between our ideas, let's say, to use Spinoza's vocabulary, and our bodily states. The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, Spinoza says.
And Damasio comments on that and says, "Spinoza is not really saying that mind springs fully formed from substance on equal footing with the body. He's assuming a mechanism whereby the equal footing can be realized. The mechanism has a strategy. Events in the body are represented as ideas in the mind. There are representational correspondences, and they go in one direction, from body to mind. The notion of correspondence conjures up correspondence and even mapping."
So we rely on Spinoza to affirm that the body and the mind are one and the same, that the power of acting of the body and the power of thinking of the mind are one and the same. But he will contradict Spinoza on the question of the two extreme affects of the conatus that is joy and sorrow. Damasio adds a third term, which is indifference.
What Spinoza doesn't seem to admit, that is the loss of all affects, the moment when the conatus would be, in a way, unplayed or untouched, neurobiologists will add this new modality to the classical ones. So there are some cases in which the maps can be interrupted or destroyed, which is something new.
So in order to understand, again, what can happen in these cases where the maps are destroyed, we have to ask ourselves what the difference is between sad passions and indifference. What are sad passions, sorrowful passions? Spinoza lists them in The Ethics. It's hate, aversion, mockery, fear, despair, pity, indignation, envy, humility, repentance, objection, shame, regret, anger, vengeance, cruelty. And we could add so much more like depression, resentment, et cetera, et cetera.
Again, these sad passions represent the lowest point of our power. And those of you who know Nietzsche know that Nietzsche also very much dwells on this resentful passion that's being what's-- well, the very incarnation of our weakness. So when we feel these emotions, we are totally at the mercy of feelings that come from outside and incapable of stopping them.
And again, political power is interesting in fostering such feelings in us. Because these feelings create a form of enslavement to the extent that sorrow destroys the possibility to act. But again, sad passions, even if they are very sad and very-- even if they imply a significant diminishing of my power of acting, never, never destroy the capacity to be touched as such. That's why, again, for Spinoza, it is always possible to transform. But if I am depressed, if I'm bored, if I'm-- I don't know, if I feel jealous, if I feel envy, I always have the possibility to convert these sad passions into joyful ones.
The conatus is never-- when the conatus is destroyed, for Spinoza, it means death. But it's not this kind of death within life that neurobiologists are describing. The neural maps can only be destroyed in death, but not in life. It means that there always remains the possibility of what I would call a symbolic projection of oneself, the possibility for reimagining of oneself, which allows the conversion of sorrow into joy.
I mean, for me, this is the major philosophical lesson of all that, that at some point, even in the proto neurobiology of Spinoza, the symbolic can always, in a way, substitute for the biological. Which means that, when I'm very depressed, when I have all these bodily signs of depression, sadness as well, I have always the possibility-- and this is also what psychoanalysis teaches us-- I always have the possibility to symbolically project myself as a joyful person.
Like, come on. Who are you? You cannot be this depressed. Wretch. You can always mobilize your pride, your symbolic image, your imago, as [? LeConte ?] would say.
This is precisely what is of no use in the cases I was mentioning. There is, for example, this symbolic reshaping, regenerating of oneself is impossible in the case of severe cerebral lesions. That's why the neurobiological approach to affects comes to different conclusions from that of philosophy. Neurobiology, contrarily to what many people think, does not reduce the symbolic dimension of affects or the symbolic dimension of thinking or of theoretical possibilities.
Neurobiology is not always reductionist. It's not the problem. Would they affirm, which is a very difficult thing which I'm trying to understand. Because it's very difficult. It's because-- they affirm that there is nothing like a nonorganic body. You know, for example, what Deleuze calls the body without organs. As if we had two bodies, in a way. A biological one and a symbolic one.
A body without organs from which-- well, as if we were able to go from one to the other. This does not exist. We only have a biological body. And the biological is not-- you cannot transgress it symbolically.
The neural maps are and remain neural. And there's no way in which a bodily inscription can transcend its bodily, that is, its biological, essence. So when my emotional capacity is impaired, there's no way in which I can project myself symbolically as, be yourself again. Because this image does not exist.
Again, it is not a reductionism. Damasio and others-- I quote always Damasio but, of course, I could extend what I'm saying to other neurobiologists. He says, we are made of threefold instances, like, mind, brain, and body relationship. We're the three. And it doesn't mean, when he says we are only made of neural maps, this doesn't mean that he negates again the symbolic, per se.
It means that, when one of these instances is destroyed, there's no way in which we can reconstitute the lacking part symbolically. For me, it is extremely important because it marks the limits of psychoanalysis, of philosophy, of many fields. So I don't have an answer, but I would like to insist on this problem as being what is at stake, one of the biggest stakes of current-- well, what we can do between philosophy and neurobiology today.
A gash, a cut, in neural networks never gives way to a separation between the organic and the nonorganic body. No symbolic mapping can compensate the whole. Narcissism, for example, is of no use.
The subject, well, the power of acting is not diminished. It is just destroyed. And again, this does not produce sorrow, but indifference. All the cases analyzed by Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, if you reread all these cases, you'll see people who just don't care. They're not sad. They're just, well, just unconcerned.
When the original unity between the biological and the symbolic is impaired or destroyed, the subject becomes unable to confer any meaning to anything. That is why it is incapable of making a decision. The situation, which in most cases, at least at the moment, cannot be cured. The feeling of basic emotions, as well as social emotions like embarrassment, shame, guilt, contempt, indignation, sympathy, compassion, et cetera, et cetera, becomes impossible. When the biological is impaired, the symbolic is equally savaged. So again, this is a great challenge for psychoanalysis, for example.
This discrepancy between-- when the emotional brain is impaired, sometimes the capacity of reasoning remains intact. And this creates very strange personalities who are able to reason, to think, but who don't feel anything. Let me just quote a case, that of Elliot, which is analyzed by Damasio in Descartes' Error.
Elliot is a living patient who had damage to the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. His intelligence, Damasio says, seems intact. He passes all of the tests used to assess neurological damage. And he appears quite normal, except for unusual calm in the face of his misfortune.
However, he is completely incapable of making wise decisions. In business and in his personal life, he handles affairs disastrously. Obviously, pure reason, which is quite present in Elliot, is not sufficient for decision making. Deprived of affect, the subject cannot act. His or her power of acting is here not only diminished but destroyed. The subject does not make any decision because he or she just does not care, does not see the value of acting, of choosing, of preferring, and of judging.
Descartes says, we might summarize Elliot's predicaments as to know, but not to feel. And while the characteristics are lack of concern, neutrality, absence of emotions, blank facial expression, et cetera, et cetera.
Again, these pathological cases are interesting because they are, in fact, just magnifying glasses which may be used to look at normal subjects. Otherwise, they wouldn't be so interesting. And I think that if Alzheimer, for example, has become a real scarecrow in our societies, it's because we feel moral as-- well, we feel that it might be portraits of who we all are.
The possibility for the emotional brain to be destroyed and then separated from the cognitive networks is present in every individual. The virtuality of this fracture, this secret crackup between reason and affect, would then determine the contemporary psyche. This is my thesis.
The neural subject, which emerges in the 21st century, is a potentially disaffected individual, a nonaffected subject, precisely deprived of all capacity to wonder. Neurobiology shows that every psychic blow, a depression, a personal crisis, a sentimental or professional failure, have consequences on the equilibrium of the emotional brain and acts like a snip of scissors in the frontal lobe neural networks.
As I said to start with, inspiring indifference has become necessary for the exercise of power. It is not so much a matter of diminishing the subject's conatus or power of acting. Rather, that making the subject unconcerned by this very power itself. I am here, and yet I don't care about my own power.
This would be the characteristic of the contemporary subject. This absence of empathy, which also manifests itself as an indifference to politics. Damasio compared these cases to the characters of Beckett's plays. He quotes, he says, we are all potentially like Winnie from Happy Days, who is, according to him, the incarnation of wakefulness without affect. Winnie asks, if you remember well, "What would I do? What could I do all day long? I mean, between the bell for waking and the bell for sleep, simply gaze before me with compressed lips."
And this expression of indifference, like, what can I do with my own power? would then be, again, the characteristic of the contemporary subject. Like, we would be unaffected by our own sensations.
Current neurobiology is then bringing to light a new way of elaborating the neural psyche's exposure to power, political power, as well as its own power of acting. According to me, a new libidinal economy with the [INAUDIBLE] libidinal economy is then emerging. This, perhaps, explains why political events today [INAUDIBLE] their social and symbolic dimension to appear as mere blows or shocks, themselves without meaning, themselves indifferent. Blows which would act as lesions, cutting the individuals from their affective subjectivity.
Political violence currently wears the mask of meaningless accidents, pure nonsymbolic attacks against the symbolic, which gradually provoke the disappearance of the capacity to wonder. Today, the catastrophic event is itself void of sense. And traumatic experience is first and always an experience of the absence of sense, which Naomi Klein describes very well in her book Shock Doctrine.
It is striking to note that today's victims of sociopolitical traumas present the same profile as victims of natural catastrophes or grave accidents. We have entered a new age of political violence in which politics is defined by the renunciation of any hope of endowing violence with a political sense. So political violence itself becomes indifferent. Wears the mask of indifference.
Traumatic events are traumatizing because they tend to neutralize their intentions, such that they assume the unmotivated character of chance, uninterpretable event in different events. As if the enemy today was hermeneutics. This is why it falls to neuropsychoanalysis, philosophy, social sciences. As Amanda just reminded a moment ago, it belongs to us to reflect on that problem to produce the sense of this war on sense.
This effacement of sense, this indifference to sense, this new state of unconcern of both our bodies and minds, constitutes the new face of the social bearing witness to an emergent globalized psychic pathology that is identical in all cases and contexts. In every case, indifference, wherever in the world, indifference, emotional detachment, profound passivity, as Damasio says, figure among the symptoms attached to the state of post-traumatic stress.
Affective bareness is the trait that all these states have in common, loss of curiosity, loss of motivation, loss of concentration. This entrusts in friends and relatives withdrawn behavior. So what must be discussed today is precisely the heterogeneous mixture of nature and politics at work in all types of violence. This mixture where politics is annulled as such so that it assumes the face of nature, like the indifferent accident, and where nature disappears beneath the mask of politics.
The globalized heterogeneous mixture of nature and politics is brought to light by the worldwide uniformity of neuropsychological relations-- reactions, sorry. It's very interesting to see that the profile of this loss of emotions is absolutely universal in all countries, in all situations. You will have the same characteristics after a severe trauma, be it natural or political or social or cerebral. The reactions will always be the same.
Taking the brain and brain mapping into account then reveals a sense of the psychic events that depends upon its absence of sense. And again, this is a serious challenge to psychoanalysis. This is to say that neuropathology today reopens the great question of the relation between biology and the social. The objective neurological impact of trauma makes it possible to sketch a new worldwide topology of psychic illness that, pertaining neither to neurosis or psychosis, allows the disaffected faces of the victims to appear at the border between nature and community.
Sometimes neurobiologists even compare these indifferent people to stones, which is interesting. When we look at these stones, it is impossible to forget what unites them and effaces the distinction between lesional trauma, sociopolitical trauma, and trauma caused by natural cataclysms. The differences among the sources of such wounds tend, in fact, to become blurred on the level of affects.
It is notable that neurobiologists never present cases of brain lesions without placing them in a social context. Moreover, they invite us to treat such cases themselves as political cases. In the opening pages of his book The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio meditates on the figure of an old man walking through the streets of Stockholm. "From a window," I quote, "he watches a frail old man make his way toward a ferry boat that is about to depart. Time is short. But his gait is slow. His steps break at the ankle from arthritic pain. His hair is white. His coat is worn. His whole body seemingly saying, is this it? Am I in the right place? Where to next?"
The vision of this old man immediately awakens a memory. 30 years ago a man sat across from me in a strange, entirely circular, gray-painted examining room. The afternoon sun was shining on us through a skylight as we talked quietly. Suddenly, the man stopped in mid-sentence, and his face lost animation. His mouth froze, still open. And his eyes became vacantly fixed on some point on the wall behind me.
For a few seconds, he remained motionless. I spoke his name, but there was no reply. I got up and called him again. He stopped. He looked at me. And some expression returned to his face. He looked perplexed. I called him again, and he said, what?
For a brief period which seemed like ages, this man suffered from an impairment of consciousness. Neurologically speaking, he had an absence seizure followed by an absence automatism, two among the many manifestations of epilepsy, a condition caused by brain dysfunction.
So what is interesting in this example is the comparison between this disoriented old man and this epileptic patient who suffered from automatism of absence. And how can we not be struck by the obvious similarity between the general behavior of a social outcast and the person with a brain lesion? How could we avoid drawing a connection between neuropathological disaffection and social disaffiliation?
Traumatized subjects, disconnected from their affects, present symptoms analogous to those that accompany brain disorders, even though they are not related to any lesion. It now appears-- and I'm coming to my conclusion-- it now appears that the impact of social war is just as forceful as a brain lesion and no less violent than being struck by a bullet or an iron bar. Even if such blows do not always occur as sudden events but tend to be more continuous or harassing, their sense, like that of a brain lesion, remains dissimulated between an absence of sense, again, social conflict without dialectic, as anonymous as a natural catastrophe. An absence that reveals the very coolness of the political and the social today.
But the touching of the wound today has generated an ability to feel touching. An ability to be touched effectively, which is the sign that one has been touched, that is, wounded. The absence of suffering appears as the most extreme form of suffering. Alzheimer is an example of that. We think that these people don't feel anything. But of course, they suffer extremely.
So to come back to philosophy in my conclusion. I think that's, again, the task of the philosopher today is not as Deleuze used to say, to study how we are building a nonorganic body out of our biological body. How this BWO, as he calls it, deterritorize-- [FRENCH] itself. I never-- this one is--
This way of constructing a new identity out of the biological one. There's no way that our body can escape its own nature. I think what we have to do, instead of always trying to see how the symbolic is the winner of the game, to elaborate, on the contrary, a new theory of the neural [INAUDIBLE] of the biological and the symbolic, which does not amount to the affirmation of their pure and simple identity.
What we have to do is to maintain the difference between the biological and the symbolic and yet to establish no hierarchy between them. Because every time the biological is impaired, the symbolic is impaired at the same time. So the neural geography of affect must be studied in order to allow us to articulate a way of resisting any attempt at producing disaffection, disaffiliation, or unconcern.
And this, the new political resistance, has to be aware of this neurobiological data. We cannot do as if all that did not exist. We have to take neurobiology into account, even if we are not scientists or neurobiologists. Because again, this is my contention. What scientists describe today touches the very heart of the contemporary political subjectivity.
I don't know if you remember that, for Freud, which appears particularly in his text Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, for Freud the unconscious is indestructible. He says in this text, Thoughts for the Times of War and Death, "the primitive mind is in the fullest meaning of the word imperishable." I'll quote a little bit more.
"What are called mental diseases inevitably produces an impression in the layman that intellectual and mental life have been destroyed. In reality, the destruction only applies to later acquisitions and developments. The essence of mental disease lies in the return to earlier states of effective life and functioning."
So for Freud, very clearly, psychic disease are regressions to an infantile state, or what he calls the primitive mind. But the primitive mind itself is indestructible. This is precisely where neurobiology marks its difference. No, the primitive mind is not indestructible. It is destructible. And again, it means that no symbolic operation will be able to cope with this destruction.
So in conclusion, I would like-- this time it will be [INAUDIBLE]. I would like to come back to the definition of wonder as the very structure of auto-affection. Descartes and Spinoza explain that the passions of the soul form a special kind of perception. I quote Descartes. "The perception. We refer only to the soul and whose effects we feel as being in the soul itself."
Spinoza, for his part, declares, I quote again, "When the mind regards its own self and its power of activity, it feels pleasure. And the more so, the more distinctly it imagines itself and its power of activity." This description of self-pleasure seems explicit. We have to understand that the soul essentially wonders at and about itself and feels pleasure at its own contemplation.
And at the same time, as we saw, wonder is also the affect of the other as such. The pleasure that the soul takes in itself is also the pleasure that the soul takes to the presence of the other. So what, when this double capacity, to feel pleasure at oneself and pleasure at the other, is impaired?
Again, there's the whole continental tradition, starting from Aristotle and up to Heidegger, who provides a very interesting description of wonder in Being and Time and in basic concepts of philosophy, a whole tradition, the whole tradition of continental philosophy. And we'll see in the seminar, that is the same thing with Deleuze and Derrida. The most-- well, it feels for the 20th century, the whole continental tradition affirms, even in different terms, that this double dimension of wonder, self-feeling, and opening to the other, is indestructible.
And in a way, this is also what Freud says when he says the primitive mind is imperishable. Because it means that you can always open yourself up to your own memories and become involved again in existence, et cetera. So this is what neurobiology today challenges. This whole tradition of this security, this trust in wonder, that the whole centuries of philosophy, many centuries of philosophy, has always shared.
What if contrarily to what philosophers say the unconcern or absence or indifference were total, irreversible, and incurable? Isn't it the very specific issue that the brain is currently asking to the mind and the symbolic to the biological? Thank you very much for your attention.
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In the light of the most recent neurobiological research on the emotional brain, Catherine Malabou, professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University (UK), proposes to replace Deleuze's statement about Spinoza,"inspiring sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power," with "inspiring indifference has become necessary for the exercise of power." Have coolness and unconcern replaced wonder?
The July 16, 2013 lecture, "Emotional Life in a Neurobiological Age: On Wonder," was sponsored by the School of Criticism & Theory.