Tokom njezinog boravka u Zagrebu u svibnju 2014. (Subversive Festival) u Booksi smo razgovarali s Catherine Malabou o nekim aspektima njenog filozofskog djela – poglavito o značaju književnosti u njenim spisima.
Ovdje također možete pogledati njeno predavanje “Epigenesis and the Plasticity of Life” – održano u MaMi 2011. godine na simpoziju “Ostaviti život za sobom”.
__ razgovarao: Ante Jerić
__ snimao: Petar Milat
MaMa: We regard your work as a long, rigorous and consistent attempt to reconsider the concept of change. How do you place yourself within the tradition from which you have inherited problems about this notion? What was it that gave rise to your thought and so helped to expand the vocabulary of contemporary philosophy with the battery of new concepts?
Catherine Malabou: I would relate that to my personal history as a student. I first studied in a little town in the centre of France where I discovered Hegel, and Sartre, and all these people. I was raised in a rather Marxist, dialectical direction and when I came to Paris to study, I gradually discovered new people like Derrida. It was a shock for me to discover what I thought to be the leading model of change, that is historical, dialectical change (you have this moment with its form which comes with contradictions, then explodes and gives way to another moment) was being abandoned. For me it was absolutely striking to discover that there was quite a new discourse on change at the time, both by Derrida and Foucault. Derrida was saying that différance was a totally different conception of change which did not proceed from a change of form, but from leaps and displacements without a central motor. In Foucault there was the critique of structuralism and continuity. So for me, the encounter between these two traditions was very important. I think what I tried to do afterwards was to produce a kind of synthesis of both – to come back to the notion of form which transforms itself. That’s why I borrow the notion of plasticity from Hegel. At the same time, I’m trying to integrate within that model the problem of trace and difference. So, this is where I work, at the crossing between the two traditions.
MaMa: Let us shift focus from the problem of change in philosophy to change as it is depicted in literature. While reading your work, one cannot fail to notice various ways in which you not only use literary examples to illustrate your arguments, but also provide new interpretations, new ways of reading of the canonical works. The first example, when thinking about the way you approach literature, is your notion of destructive plasticity which is instantiated in one of your books as a novel philosophical reconsideration of the old age. What we find fascinating is your distinction between progressive and instantaneous as the two different, but intertwined types of aging which you frame using the juxtapositions of passages from the works of Proust and Duras.
Malabou: This perfectly illustrates what I was saying before. You mentioned two concepts of change; a progressive one through ageing and at the same time this sudden transformation which happens, for example, in Duras, in her book The Lover. So ageing, and changing in general, would take part in both a gradual process and the sudden event. Here you find exactly what I said about history a moment ago: a gradual transformation, on the one hand, and on the other a sudden explosion, discontinuity, which is nondialectial per se. So this is what I found in some literary texts as you’ve just said. Particulary, in Proust, who very brightly put together these two moves, like aging being built as an explosion and as a progressive transformation, and of course Duras. The difficulty in approaching these texts is to know whether they are just illustrations of a concept, or if they produce something on their own. Do they bring something to philosophy that philosophy wouldn’t have seen. That’s the essential question between philosophy and literature which opens itself precisely with Foucault and Derrida, and also Deleuze: is literature producing its own concepts, non-philosophical concepts but concepts all the same, or does it just illustrate some philosophical concepts? I think it produces its own concepts.
MaMa: You define the new wounded as the people in a state of shock who have seen their neural organization permanently changed by trauma, as the people who consequently suffer, in particular, from an emotional deficit, indifference and coldness. You consider Kafka’s The Metamorphoses as the most successful, beautiful and relevant attempt to approach trauma.
Malabou: Following what I was just saying: if literature produces something on its own, like a non-philosophical concept which is interesting philosophically speaking, for me one of the major concepts I found in literature, and which I was not able to find in philosophy, was that of indifference. All the texts I’m writing about – Duras, Proust, Kafka, Michaux, Beckett – all these authors have something in common. First of all, the possibility of absolute detachment, understood as the end of love, as the end of all affective attachments, and consequently also the possibility of a total indifference. And I haven’t found this in philosophy ever. Philosophy, including deconstruction, is always confident in the possibility of wondering, of admiration as the first philosophical affect. Deconstruction hasn’t really challenged notions like curiosity, openness to the world, etc. For example, even if Derrida criticizes auto-affection as a concept, he still believes in this kind of immediate attachment to the world which is the opening of philosophy. For example, in his text Admiration of Nelson Mandela, where he quotes Descartes on admiration, he never challenges the fact that in the beginning what opens us to the world is admiration, touching, certain kind of affect, even if it is deconstructed. What literature helped me to challenge was precisely this. For example, in Proust, it is very clear that when he starts writing, at the end of Recherche, this moment coincides with a disaffection; the dispossession of all capacity to love. He writes something like this: “This is the end of love. I’m over now with that kind of investment. Now writing will become my investment.” But he tells it in the form of indifference, which is very interesting. And Duras, at some point, in that book we were talking about, The Lover, she says, because she suffers so much from her mother’s preference for her brother: “Now I don’t love them anymore. Now I’m over with this pain. And I’m indifferent to it.” It has the profound relationship with her ageing. She becomes who she is, i.e. this great writer, at the moment in which she transforms herself and, at least this is what she says, stops being affected by that. And of course, in The Metamorphoses, I think there’s also something like a major indifference, which I believe Gregor’s becoming an insect symbolizes. For me, what happens is…he is becoming indifferent. So, the new wounded, to go back to your question, has something to do with that. People suffering from strokes show the same symptoms of indifference and detachment. And if I turned to literature on that point, it is because of that. That is what I’m looking for in literature.
MaMa: Yes – your interpretation of The Metamorphoses ends with a provocation: “Imagine Gregor perfectly indifferent to his transformation, unconcerned by it. Now that’s a completely different story!” These lines resonate immediately with the way you tackled the problem of narrativity of trauma before. The cases of patients who suffer from cerebral lesions, you claimed, confront us with the question how to do justice to the rupture of narrativity that characterizes each of these cases. A possible answer to the problem of paying due to the destructive power of plasticity lies in Beckett’s theatre. One can find in his plays, and you are not the only one of holding this opinion, the suitable form for staging the neurological case histories.
Malabou: What is so interesting about neurology is the current insistence on the emotional brain, its importance in all of our rational, cognitive activities. It is very well-known now that is impossible to reason, it is impossible to make a choice, it is impossible to solve a mathematical problem, it is impossible to have any kind of reasoning without affects. So, the emotional brain is what provides me with sufficient engagement with what I’m doing. For example, if I choose coffee or water, something has to help me choose one thing over the other. And this is the part played by the emotional brain. It is impossible, as Damasio puts it, to reason in cold blood. So, people suffering from an impairment of their emotional brain are not able to make rational choices and that’s why they are crazy. People like serious killers. For them there’s no difference between this or that. So, the emotional brain is something which has been discovered as being central in our economy. And precisely this also refers to what I was saying a moment ago: when the emotional brain is impaired in a certain way, when the frontal lobe is impaired, then it produces this indifference we are talking about. Thus we have people, as I said, who are not really concerned about anything, for whom doing this or that is absolutely indifferent. For example, when Damasio tries to play cards with these patients, he explains to them “If you do that move, you will earn the money” and they answer “Why should I”. They are not interested in winning the game. And this for me is of the highest importance because it relates to the indifference I was talking about a moment ago, which I found in literature – Beckett in particular, of course. In neurology they are very interested in Beckett. For example, Damasio refers to him by saying Beckett invented the theatre of indifference. What philosophy has not explored is the possibility of becoming totally disaffected, totally unconcerned with one own’s life, decisions, etc.
MaMa: We have been talking for some time now about literature which you use to elucidate different aspects of plasticity that informs your philosophical project. Still, we have barely touched the way in which you conceive the literature itself. Unlike your great predecessors working in tradition of continental philosophy, it seems you do not hold the opinion that literature should be regarded as a promise of the opening of the Outside (by this we mean especially outside of science). In order to frame relationship between literature and science, or literature and the Outside, you have coined the formula “neuroliterature = literature minus itself.” Can you elaborate on this notion?
Malabou: This formula could be misinterpreted, like, “ooh…she despising literature”. This is not the case at all. I am very much invested in it, and it is very important to me as I’ve just tried to explain. Let’s go back to what I was saying about Derrida and Foucault a moment ago. Precisely to criticize the Hegelian model of history, of transformation, etc, by fostering a certain relationship to literature, showing that something was going on in the literature which was countering the Hegelian dialectical philosophy of history, they in a way played literature against the movement of meaning, the movement of transformation, political achievement through dialectics. And they insisted on some texts, like Kafka’s, like Blanchot’s, which showed non-accomplishments, let’s say; which showed that there were some possible moves in existence which didn’t lead to any kind of accomplishment. This was the case, for example, in Blanchot’s novels. And this is when Foucault wrote that brilliant text The Thought from Outside, designating literature as a kind of counter-philosophy, the outside of philosophy. What was going on in the literary texts was not so much meaning, or dialectical transformation, but the very language playing with itself, with no accomplishment, no meaning, the pure Outside, the ungraspable which can never be internalized; an Outside which can never become an inside of anything, which cannot be assimilated to the concept of philosophy. And in this Outside, paradoxically, appeared the possibility of freedom, of an emancipation; a political kind of promise, a promise totally different from the one philosophy was announcing, totally different from, for example, dialectics. In this play between literature as the Outside and philosophy as metaphysics, as something in a way over, the question of science remained dubious. Where was science in this confrontation between philosophy and literature? I am being very sketchy here, but I think we can say that for many philosophers from the end of the 20th century, after Heidegger, it was clear that science belonged to metaphysics and could not, by any means, be part of the Outside. By any means science could not constitute, as literature was doing according to them, an outside of philosophy. It was clearly on the side of episteme, epistemology, normative discourse, control. Everything that Foucault says about biology, for example, everything that Derrida says about geometry in Origin of Geometry makes clear that for them, after Heidegger’s terrible statement “Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht”, science as a whole was rejected as an accomplishment of a certain rational, controlling kind of discourse. So that’s why in so many texts does the late Derrida turn to literature as a way to escape this controlling kind of discourse. This appeared to me as being highly challengeable and not possible any longer, because so many things are happening in the scientific realm at the moment, especially in neurobiology. Neurobiology is the opening of that space which is so close to the space which Foucault characterized as the Outside. Neurobiology is opening that space which looks so much like Blanchot’s texts. So, for sure, there is something which has to be fluidified and reconsidered in the relationship between philosophy, literature and the sciences. We cannot remain in that economy where science is rejected and we have just philosophy and literature like that. In The Thought from Outside Foucault says “The outside is revolutionary. This is where political meaning of our time lies.” Now that’s over. Nobody really sees literature as this promise of revolution. We have to reconfigure the borders between literature, philosophy and science.
MaMa: We are curious to know where your future work may be headed.
Malabou: My future work is apparently very different form everything we were talking about so far, but in fact it is totally related to it. It is still about indifference. My future work is the re-reading of Kant after a certain number of objections which have been made against him through the 20th century. Most recently the one by Quentin Meillassoux, in his book After Finitude. Meillassoux says, to put it very briefly, that we have to abandon the transcendental. What Kant has proposed was a vision of philosophy in which the world entirely depends on our approach to it, that without the transcendental – these series of structures, categories, concepts and judgments – the world would remain unknowable and not rational. And Meillassoux says, on the contrary, that we have to think of the reality of the world outside this transcendental set of rules. Because the world – and this is the common point, I think, between what he does and what I do – is indifferent to our grasp. Kant himself, and this is a very provocative part of Meillassoux’s book, was never able to really found the necessity of the transcendental. If we look at Kant closely, we discover that what he calls the necessity of the transcendental is in fact perfectly contingent. That what appears in the First Critique as the deduction of categories is in fact not at all a deduction, but an affirmation. We have to believe in the transcendental! But Kant is not able to really prove, to deduce the necessity of the transcendental. So, Meillassoux is arguing that the transcendental is perfectly contingent and that should be normal because the world is absolutely contingent. Indifference and contingency are one and the same. The world is absolutely indifferent to itself and in that sense it is absolutely contingent. It cannot obey any kind of necessity. Very strangely, this contingency of the world for Meillassoux is revealed by what at the same time is the most rational expression of all sciences, which is mathematics. We have this vision of mathematics as the science of necessity. But that is not at all true. What Meillassoux shows is that mathematics in fact is a discourse on the contingency of the world because it has proved the impossibility to totalize the possibilities. It is even more open than the game of dice. So, Kant would be twice challengeable; firstly about the necessity of the transcendental and secondly about mathematics as the science of necessity. So, Meillassoux has this double critique of necessity through the transcendental and through mathematics.
Contingency and indifference are one and the same thing. This is also what I’m looking for. I think this question is very important. We really have to think of a non-attachment of the subject to the world and of the world to the subject. This is what indifference means. We have to re-elaborate a question of rationality as indifference, i.e. as something which exceeds the discourse on existence, finitude and, you know, everything that Heidegger describes in Being and Time. The horizon of rationality cannot be that of finitude any longer if we understand the structure of existence by finitude. We have to think of reality outside of that as a way to pay justice to the real which has an existence outside of us. We don’t have to be so self-centered any more! This is a very important claim in Meillassoux. But at the same time, I’m challenging two things in his work: 1) His vision of the transcendental: I think what he does not see is that the transcendental itself is plastic. That’s why perhaps what he is doing, without knowing it, is the expression of the new vision of the transcendental. So, in my new book, I’m trying to see if that which Kant calls the transcendental can move, change, and adapt itself to new situations. 2) His privilege conferred to mathematics is in itself a contradiction. If indifference is what we have to look for, then we shouldn’t privilege anything. So, if mathematics is a privileged way to indifference, then that is a contradiction.