Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Brain that Would Not Die: Between Caricature and Creation

In Multitude Hardt and Negri write that “Each [historical] period is characterized by one or several forms that structure the various elements of social reality and thought.” They argue that the contemporary form is the network: everything from technology, to society, to the environment, to the brain itself is envisioned as a network. Networking is our word for friendships and machines alike. Hardt and Negri’s thesis, a thesis that I am tempted to sum up with the formulation “every mode of production imagines the world in its own image,” even though they are making an argument that is derived more from Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari than Marx, raises interesting questions. It is easy to see this in retrospect, to see the persistence of mechanistic modes of thinking in the seventeenth century, and a general problematic of thermodynamics of heat and pressure in the nineteenth century. (What is class struggle but the engine that drives history?) What remains to be seen, however, is what this means for us in the present? What do we do with a concept, or an image of thought, that would seem to be part of this general social structure. What do we do with these forms of thought? Do we dismiss them as the ideological residue of the existing social order?

This question is one of the central questions of Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brain? At the outset the central concern of this book is to bridge a gap between continental philosophy and neuroscience, but this is ultimately secondary to Malabou’s interest in the dominant image of the brain in neuroscience. “Plasticity” is the concept underlying each of these problems. Plasticity, the capacity to both give and receive from, to be formed and formative, is the link between Malabou’s earlier work on Hegel and the current work on neuroscience. Recent developments in neuroscience suggest that the brain is less hardwired than constantly rewiring itself: as new memories are formed, new pathways and connections are formed. We form our brain, our neural connections, as it forms us.

“Plasticity, between determinism and freedom, designates all the types of transformation deployed between the closed meaning of plasticity (the definitive character of form) and its open meaning (the malleability of form). It does this to such a degree that cerebral systems today appear as self-sculpted structures that, without being elastic or polymorphic, still tolerate constant self-reworking, differences in destiny, and the fashioning of a single identity.”

It is this idea of plasticity, of a brain that is less a sovereign instance of command than a decentered network of connections, that brings us back to the specific image that Hardt and Negri cite, as well as the general problem of the image of thought. As Malabou argues, the modern decentralized and plastic brain is in many respects the image of contemporary capitalism, which is governed less by central command, the central nervous system, than by the imperatives of flexibility, decentralization, and connection. The image of the contemporary brain is the image of the neoliberal world.

One could use this to dismiss these discoveries, to see them as another instance of neoliberalism making the world in its own image. One could view the plasticity of the brain like evolutionary psychology, which makes the neoliberal subject, homo economicus as entrepreneur of himself, the image of subjectivity itself: we are all investors in our genetic material, seeking the best return on our investment. This is not Malabou’s conclusion. She seeks to draw a line of demarcation between science and the spontaneous ideology of the scientists, to use Althusser’s terms, or between the caricature and the possibility that it conceals, her terms. As Malabou writes, “Not to replicate the caricature of the world: this is what we should do with our brain.” The line of demarcation between the caricature and possibility hinges on the distinction between flexibility and plasticity. Flexibility is a management watchword that stresses the ultimate ability for employees to constantly be remolded and shaped according to the demands of the labor market. As such it only captures half of what it as stake in plasticity, which is both a being molded and activity molding. Flexibility is plasticity refigured as passivity. In some sense flexibility is less than half, it is not just the active component that flexibility overlooks, but also the fact that the reshaping and being reshaped is not a smooth process. We are constantly transforming ourselves and being transformed, but this does not take place without tension and crisis. As Malabou writes, “Paradoxially, if we were flexible, in other words, if we didn’t explode at each transition, if we didn’t destroy ourselves a bit we could not live. Identity resists its own occurrence to the very extent that it forms it.”

What is intriguing is that Malabou offers an interesting case study in how to think through the image and the caricature of the world. It almost goes without saying that any image that we have of the world, whether it is produced by science, technology, or politics, is going to be something of a caricature. It will be a product of the dominant institutions (plasticity itself will demand it) but it will not be just that (plasticity once again). The trick is drawing the line of demarcation, of extracting creativity from the caricature.