Catherine Malabou and the Concept of Plasticity

catherine-malabouCatherine Malabou is one of France’s leading philosophers, currently visiting professor at the University of Kingston’s Center for Research in Modern European Philosophy. A seminar entitled Plasticity and Form indicates the guiding thread of her research: the concept of plasticity and the possibility of a plastic ontology. Plasticity denotes both the capacity to “take form (as in the plasticity of clay) and to give form (as in the plastic arts and plastic surgery)”. [1] Originally, Catherine Malabou introduced this concept through an analysis of Hegel’s work on which she wrote her thesis, under the supervision of Jacques Derrida. She defended her thesis in 1994 and published it two years later under the title The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. Derrida’s preface to the book is entitled “The time for farewells: Heidegger (read by) Hegel (read by) Malabou.” Her second book, Counterpath, published in 1999, is co-written with Derrida. Malabou passed the French Agrégation in philosophy and began teaching at the University of Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Today, in addition to her position at Kingston, Malabou is heavily sought after in the US where she frequently resides as visiting professor, whether at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Buffalo or the New School for Social Research. She is also part of the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she teaches an annual summer seminar.

Specialist of contemporary French and German philosophy, Malabou’s research shows a particular preoccupation with Hegel and Heidegger but also towards Levinas and Lévi-Strauss. Jacques Derrida’s influence is clearly present in her writings although her evolution marks a profound break with this early influence. It is her encounter with neuroscience that will fundamentally distinguish her research and confirm her differences with a deconstruction focalized on the written text. In What Should We Do with Our Brains?, published in 2004, Catherine Malabou opens an intriguing path. For the first time, a philosopher from the Continental as opposed to the Analytical tradition takes a keen interest in and studies the issues raised by the discovery of cerebral plasticity. Using the latest advances of neuroscience, she adopts a critical position and explores the philosophical possibilities of brain consciousness, of a new plastic subject and of its relation to capitalism.

Catherine Malabou’s approach still has much in common with deconstruction in its willingness to address sensitive philosophical topics, such as that of renewing a dialog between traditional philosophy and the hard sciences. She writes that the time has come to replace the paradigm of writing as developed in Grammatology with the new paradigm of plasticity. As she explains in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, the concept of plasticity, whose scope and stakes are firmly inscribed in those of our era, has overtaken the schemas of text and the trace. Plasticity “takes over” and “becomes the resistance of difference to its textual reduction.”[2] In The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Malabou expands her reflection to cerebral pathologies, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. She hosts a dialog between philosophy, psychoanalysis and contemporary neurology, offering to demonstrate how cerebral organization presides over a libidinal economy in current psychopathologies.[3] She also proposes a new theory of trauma and defends the hypothesis of destructive plasticity. In her latest book, Self and Emotional Life, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience, written with Adrian Johnston, Malabou continues her exquisite crossing of disciplines, this time in order to explore the concept of wonder.

In addition, her particular interest in the relation between form, materiality and meaning leads Catherine Malabou to propose a “new materialism.”[4] During a conference at the Royal College of Art (London) in February 2013 entitled “An Eye at the Edge of Discourse,” Malabou drew a parallel between an artistic performance – “The artist is present” by Marina Abramovic – and what a philosophical performance would be. Crossing and interweaving the notion of plasticity, an idea or discourse, and material reality such as neuronal connections: Is this not a way of staging philosophy or of displacing its limit – that of discursive reasoning? The notion of plasticity simultaneously belongs to theoretical discourse and to stark material reality. As Malabou argues, graphic images are giving way to plastic ones in a large variety of ways. Another one of these ways corresponds to her experience of being a “woman philosopher,” in which the stage is set for different kind of performance.[5]

In 2010, Malabou co-authored a book with Judith Butler entitled Sois mon corps (You Be My Body for Me). The two philosophers undertake an interactive cross reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, in particular the implication of the body in the master/slave dialectic. This dialog between a French and an American philosopher puts into play their respective concepts of “plasticity” and “performativity.” Their immediate common ground seems to be the recognition that the most important aspect of thinking is not so much the concept as its modality, or the contours of the encounter. We are delighted at the prospect of seeing these philosophers of plasticity and performance once again join each other on the stage during this conference.

By proposing the concept of plasticity as a new philosophical and scientific paradigm, Malabou shows us that the ancient models – of writing and the trace in philosophy and of the genetic code in science – are no longer pertinent to thinking the modification or interruption of the system with which we are currently faced. A philosophy of the trace allowed us to develop reflections on repetition and difference (cf. Derrida and Deleuze, notably), but cannot accommodate occurrences of discontinuity, such as explosions or degeneration. As for science, the genetic code turned out to be inadequate as well in explaining the effects of the environment or experience on the modifications and expressions of the epigenome. In both instances, a new model of plasticity, flexible and modifiable yet resistant, provides a way to think the loss of the trace and the instability of discourse in favor of acts. Undergoing a shift from the graphic to the temporal, this new paradigm (which is itself dynamic and thus plastic) resonates in multiple different ways with the transformation of philosophical discourse into performance. Ranging from genomes to technology,[6] from economic flexibility to brain plasticity all the way to the performing arts, Malabou’s inquiries launch us on a voyage through the crossroads of ideas to the edge of frontiers.

Bibliography (publications in English):

  • Malabou, Catherine and Adrian Johnston. Auto-affection and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Neurobiology. Columbia University Press: Forthcoming. ISBN: 0231158300.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Steven Miller (Translator). The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage. Fordham University Press: 2012. ISBN: 0823239675.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Judith Butler. “You Be My Body for Me: Body, Shape, and Plasticity in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.” In Stephen Houlgate and Michael Baur, Eds. A Companion to Hegel. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Blackwell: 2011.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Carolyn Shread (Translator). Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy. Polity: 2011. ISBN: 0745651089.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Peter Skafish (Translator). The Heideegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy.SUNY Press: 2011. ISBN: 1438439555.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Carolyn Shread (Translator). Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction. Columbia University Press: 2009. ISBN: 0231145241.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « Plasticity and Elasticity in Freud’s ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’. » in: Parallax. Vol. 15:2, 2009, p. 41–52.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Sebastian Rand (Translator). What Should We Do with Our Brains? Fordham University Press: 2008. ISBN: 0823229521.
  • Malabou, Catherine. “A Conversation with Catherine Malabou. » Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. Vol. 9, 2008, p. 1–13. Full text available.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « The End of Writing? Grammatology and Plasticity, » The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms. Vol. 12, 2007, p. 431–441.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « An Eye at the Edge of Discourse. » Communication Theory. Vol. 17, 2007, p. 16–25.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « Another Possibility. » Research in Phenomenology. Vol. 36, 2006, p. 115–129.
  • Malabou, Catherine. The Form of an ‘I’. In in John D. Caputo (Editor) and Michael J. Scanlon (Editor). Augustine and Postmodernism: Confessions and Circumfessions. Indiana University Press: 2005. ISBN: 0253345073.
  • Malabou, Catherine, Jacques Derrida, and David Wills (Translator). Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida. Stanford University Press: 2004. ISBN: 0804740402.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Lisabeth During (Translator). The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. Routledge: 2004. ISBN: 0415287200.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « History and the Process of Mourning in Hegel and Freud. » Radical Philosophy. Vol. 106, 2001, p. 15–20.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « Plastic Readings of Hegel. » Bulletin of the Hegel Society of Great Britain. Vol. 41-42, 2000, p. 132–141.
  • Malabou, Catherine. « The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality, Dialectic. » Hypatia. Vol. 15, 2000, p. 196-220.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves? In Paul Patton (Editor). Deleuze: A Critical Reader. Wiley-Blackwell: 1997.  ISBN: 1557865647.

Bibliography (publications in French):

  • Malabou, Catherine and Judith Butler. Sois mon corps: Une lecture contemporaine de la domination et de la servitude chez Hegel. Bayard: 2010. ISBN: 2227481447. Full-text PDF available online.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Xavier Emmanuelli. La grande exclusion: L’urgence sociale, symptôme et thérapeutique.Bayard: 2009. ISBN: 2227479159.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Changer de différence: Le féminin et la question philosophique. Editions Galilée: 2009. ISBN: 2718608021.
  • Malabou, Catherine. La chambre du milieu: De Hegel aux neurosciences. Hermann: 2009. ISBN: 2705667792.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Ontologie de l’accident: Essai sur la plasticité destructrice. Léo Scheer: 2009. ISBN: 2756101605.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Les nouveaux blessés: De Freud à la neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains. Bayard: 2007. ISBN: 2227474750.
  • Malabou, Catherine. La plasticité au soir de l’écriture: Dialectique, destruction, déconstruction. Léo Scheer: 2005. ISBN: 2915280630.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Que faire de notre cerveau? Bayard: 2004. ISBN: 2227473053.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Le change Heidegger: du fantastique en philosophie. Léo Scheer: 2004. ISBN: 2915280193.
  • Malabou, Catherine. Plasticité. Léo Scheer: 2000. ISBN: 2914172060.
  • Malabou, Catherine and Jacques Derrida. La Contre-allée. Quinzaine littéraire: 1999. ISBN: 2910491080.
  • Malabou, Catherine (Translator) and David Mills. Prothèse 1, Hamilton, 1970 – Berchtesgaden, 1929. Galilée: 1997. ISBN: 2718604883.
  • Malabou, Catherine. L’Avenir de Hegel. Plasticité, temporalité, dialectique. J. Vrin: 1996. ISBN: 2711612848.

[Written by: Maïté Marciano and Anna Street – Translation: Anna Street]


[1] Catherine Malabou, Changer de différence, Le féminin et la question philosophique, ( Galilée :2009) ,p.75.

[2] Catherine Malabou, Changer de différence, Le féminin et la question philosophique. p. 102.

[3] Catherine Malabou, Les nouveaux blessés, de Freud à la neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains. p. 20.

[4] Catherine Malabou, Que Faire de Notre Cerveau. (Bayard: 2011) p.16.

[5] See Catherine Malabou, Changer de différence, Le féminin et la question philosophique.

[6] “You can’t really draw a line between the mechanical and the messianic. This is also what is very interesting in the brain, and in the computer: somebody like Daniel Dennett now shows that a computer may be said to be plastic” Malabou, Catherine. « A Conversation with Catherine Malabou. » In JCRT. 9.1, 2008.


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A propos de l'auteur : Anna Street

Anna Street est doctorante en cotutelle à l’Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne et à l’Université du Kent à Canterbury. Sa thèse étudie le rapport des développements philosophiques au théâtre européen de l’après-guerre, en examinant comment l’effondrement des idéologies a transformé non seulement les scènes de théâtre, mais aussi l’écriture de la philosophie. Membre de VALE et du Labo LAPS, elle est fondatrice du groupe Tragedy and Comedy: Genres of Dramatic Thought au sein de Performance Philosophy,