Notes for Catherine Malabou What Should We Do with Our Brain?
Key concepts: apoptosis, developmental plasticity, exhausted identity, flexibility, modulational plasticity, neuronal ideology, neuronal self, plastic synapses, plasticity, reparative plasticity, wired brain.
Related theorists: Henri Bergson, Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, Boris Cyrulnik, Antonio Damasio, Gilles Deleuze, Daniel Dennett, Alain Ehrenberg, N. Katherine Hayles, Holding Hebb, Marc Jeannerod, Peter Kramer, Joseph LeDoux.
(xi) The brain has always been described by means of technological metaphors: as an apparatus relaying excitation with the precision of a mirror reflecting light, as a hydraulic pump driving animal spirits into the muscles, as a central telephone exchange connecting or cutting off communication; in the digital age, as a computer running its programs. These metaphors, as Catherine Malabou remarks, proceed from a centralizing concept of the brain seen as a machine that works from the top down, that orders movement, controls behavior, and brings about a unity of mind, consciousness, and man.
Jeannerod: decentralized control and event over law distinguish brain plasticity concept over traditional metaphors of a fixed, centralized, wired machine in a theory already self-reflexive of its relation to views of social organization.
(xii) Brain plasticity shatters this concept. The machine learns,
differentiates itself, reconstructs itself. Briefly put, it
privileges the event over the law. Omnipresent plasticity changes our
view of the brain and its functioning. But Malabou goes further,
seeking to show that the transition from a wired brain to a plastic
brain is really the transition from a “brain-machine” to a
“brain-world.” According to her, this change in perspective would
affect not merely the model of cerebral functioning but also the
concept we forge of ourselves and our social organization. . . .
Might we have a “neo-liberal” brain that would impose its model
on our socioeconomic organization? Or, inversely, might the global
economy's upheaval generate a conceptual change what would affect, by
contagion, our view of the way the brain functions?
(xii-xiii) But this analogy has limits: in the brain, delocalization is not total, or, rather, localization is not fortuitous. It depends upon a connective organization emplaced at the embryonic phase. . . . Malabou rightly draws a parallel between illness of social connection, such as depression, and neurodegenerative illnesses, such as Alzheimer's dementia.
Jeannerod: new view leads to change to social and environmental comportment moreso than brain change itself, although likely room for synaptogenesis as Hayles claims.
(xiv) What changes is the organization of society, the outcome of organizational forces and macroscopic interactions over which the brain has little influence. Thus the problem is, rather, that of understanding how an individual brain can respond to the challenges of its social environment.
Jeannerod: plasticity is mechanism for adapting, different from flexibility for submitting, so message may be to learn to say no to new capitalistic world order, already hinting opening for floss adoption and critical programming.
(xiv) We clearly have no consciousness of the plastic mechanisms forming our personality and guaranteeing its continuity. Yet by trying to become conscious of them we may, Malabou proposes, acquire a new freedom, that of imposing our own organization on the world rather than submitting to the influences of a milieu. Plasticity, in effect, is not flexibility. Let us not forget that plasticity is a mechanism for adapting, while flexibility is a mechanism for submitting. Adapting is not submitting, and, in this sense, plasticity ought not to serve as an alibi for submitting to the new world order being dreamed up by capitalism.
Plasticity and Flexibility—For a Consciousness of the Brain
(1) In a certain way, such words apply precisely to our context and object: “Humans make their own brain, but they do not know they make it.”
Following Marx, brain is a history humans make if we do not know we make it.
(1) The structural bound here is so deep that in a certain sense it defines an identity. It's not just that the brain has a history—which is sometimes confused with that of its constitution as an object of the sciences—but that is is a history.
Neuronal man still has no consciousness; discoveries have not been communicated or unified.
(2-3) But this communication, this opening to the public at large,
this sharing of enthusiasm, never took place. . . . neuronal man
still has no consciousness.
(3) The problem is that we do not see the link that unifies all these phenomena, names, and situations, which are here purposefully listed completely at random and appear to have nothing in common with one another.
Constitutive history of the brain is its plasticity.
(4) The work proper to the brain that engages with history and individual experience has a name: plasticity. What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity.
Instead we believe in rigidity of genetically determined brain cast in metaphors of command and control.
Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it. We are completely
ignorant of this dynamic, this organization, and this structure. We
continue to believe in the [quoting Changeaux Neuronal
“'rigidity' of an entirely genetically determined brain,” about
which it is obviously completely in vain to ask: What
should we do with this?
. . We don't understand this organization, which gives rise to so
many unsettling metaphors in the register of command and government:
a controller that sends orders down from on high, a central telephone
exchange, a computer . . . all of this cybernetic frigidity, which
only serves to alienate us from consciousness, itself the only sign
of life and liberty in a domain of implacable organic necessity,
where movement and grace see to be reduced to mere reflex.
(5) Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, “formable,” and formative at the same time.
(5) But it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create.
Synaptic efficacy tied to individual experience (Jeannerod).
Synaptic efficacy grows or declines under the impact of strictly
individual experience. . . . Marc Jeannerod
“If a synapse belongs to a circuit in frequent use, it tends to
grow in volume, its permeability increases, and its efficacy
increases. Inversely, a little-used synapse tends to become less
efficacious. The theory of synaptic efficacy thus allows us to
explain the gradual molding of a brain under the influence of
(7) It is precisely because—contrary to what we normally think—the brain is not already made that we must ask what we should do with it, what we should do with this plasticity that makes us, precisely in the sense of a work: sculpture, modeling, architecture.
(8) Brain plasticity constitutes a possible margin of improvisation with regard to genetic necessity. . . . If neuronal function is an event or should bring about events, this is so precisely because it is itself able to create events, to eventualize the program and thus, in a certain sense, to deprogram it.
Naturalization effect of mutually interdeterminative neuronal and social functioning make indistinguishable (Boltanski and Chiapello).
(9) As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello note in their remarkable work The New Spirit of Capitalism, neuronal functioning and social functioning interdetermine each other and mutually give each other form (here again the power of plasticity), to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them.
Daily experience of neuronal form of political and social functioning in flexible forms of capitalism.
(10) We are entirely ignorant of brain plasticity. Yet we are not at all ignorant of a certain kind of organization of labor—part-time jobs, temporary contracts, the demand for absolute mobility and adaptability, the demand for creativity. . . . Is the difference really all the great between the picture we have of an unemployed person about to be kicked off the dole and the picture we have of someone suffering from Alzheimer's? . . . There is thus no need, in a certain sense, to be acquainted with the results of current discoveries in the neurosciences in order to have an immediate, daily experience of the neuronal form of political and social functioning, a form that today deeply coincides with the current face of capitalism.
Need to critique neuronal ideology, although philosophers ignorant or uninterested in cognitive sciences miss the ideological stakes; seems a place for critical programming studies to enter given obvious naturalization effect between neuronal and computational functioning.
(11) To implicate consciousness, to ask what we should do with our brains, means, starting from these clarifications, to attempt to develop a critique of what we will call neuronal ideology. . . . Philosophers, excepting “cognitive scientists,” are not sufficiently interested in the problem, mostly misunderstand the cognitive sciences, and, in the end, are simply ignorant of the results of recent research on the brain. So they miss the ideological stakes as well.
True sense of plasticity hidden, substituted with flexibility, which receives but does not give form.
should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and
simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism? We
will formulate the following thesis: today, the true sense of
plasticity is hidden, and we tend constantly to substitute for it its
mistaken cognate, flexibility.
. . . To be docile, to not explode. Indeed, what flexibility lacks is
the resource of giving form, the power to create, to invent or even
to erase an impression, the power to style. Flexibility is plasticity
minus its genius.
(13) That said, securing a true plasticity of the brain means insisting on knowing what it can do and not simply what it can tolerate.
Shadowy history of plasticity as concept, whereas flexibility is vague: critical epistemological exercise studying plasticity enlightening in itself; can this be claimed for critical programming as well?
(13-14) Flexibility is a vague notion, without tradition, without history, while plasticity is a concept, which is to say: a form of quite precise meanings that bring together and structure particular cases. . . . The study of neuronal plasticity and cerebral functioning, and the reading of important texts by cognitive scientists dedicated to this functioning, have been much more than an enrichment for me: they have been a true test as well as a confirmation, a renewal, and a concretization of the philosophical meaning of plasticity. The critical epistemological exercise carried out in this book thus presents itself as an enterprise of rectification and sharpening of the usage of this concept.
Plasticity's Fields of Action
Between Determinism and Freedom
Restrained signification in developmental plasticity dependent on genetic determinism.
(15-16) We will see that this somewhat “closed” or restrained signification is essentially at work in the develpomental plasticity of neuronal connections tied to the genetic determinism that presides over the constitution of every brain.
(16) This involves not an infinite modifiability—we have not yet come back around to polymorphism—but a possibility of displacing or transforming the mark or the imprint, of changing determination in some way.
Stem cell multipotent/pluripotent versus totipotent plasticity implies graduated plasticity: developmental, modulational, reparative.
(16) This capacity to differentiate and transdifferentiate themselves
is called precisely, stem-cell plasticity.
(16) Thus, with plasticity we are dealing with a concept that is not contradictory but graduated.
The Three Plasticities
Developmental Plasticity: The Formation of Neuronal Connections
Developmental plasticity during which brain forms itself creating spider web arborizations accompanied by neuronal death to solidify the connections.
(18) These “spider's webs,”
neuronal connections also called “arborizations,” are constituted
progressively over the course of an individual's development. We use
the term plasticity
to characterize this neuronal genesis. The brain, in effect, forms
(19) In the course of the process of establishing connections, the scultpor's chisel is the phenomenon called “apoptosis” or “cell death.” . . . In the human brain, neuronal death begins at the end of gestation and continues after birth, for at least the first six months of life. It continues in adults at a much slower pace.
In the world development directly influences formation of neuronal connections, a great complication for disembodied AI projects.
(20) A great deal of the development of the human brain is accomplished in the open air, in contact with the stimuli of the world, which directly influence both the development and the volume of connections.
(21) Indeed, we see that cerebral morphogenesis results not in the establishment of a rigid and definitively stable structure but rather in the formation of what we might call a template. This is then refined (sculpted) during development and, in a subtler but always powerful way, throughout life. The nervous activity of pre-established circuits thus takes over from apoptotic sculping. Henceforth the environment of the brain qua organ (the modeling of connections) and its external environment (synaptic modulation by influence of the surroundings) play the role of morphogenic factors.
Modulational Plasticity: The Brain and Its History
Creativity in primitive nervous systems expressing modulational plasticity over lifetime; Hebb plastic synapses.
In effect, there is a sort of neuronal creativity that depends on
nothing but the individual's experience, his life, and his
interactions with the surroundings. This “creativity” is not
reserved solely for the human brain but is already at work in the
most rudimentary nervous system.
(22) According to [Holding] Hebb, we must postulate the existence of “plastic synapses” capable of adapting their transmission efficacy. . . . The synapse is the privileged locus where nerve activity can leave a trace that can displace itself, modify itself, and transform itself through repetition of a past function.
(23) Neurons somehow remember stimulation. Everything happens as if there were no stabilization of memories except on the condition of a potential destabilization of the general landscape of memory.
Reparative Plasticity: The Brain and Its Regeneration
Neuronal renewal and secondary neurogenesis constitute reparative plasticity.
(25) Two distinct processes fall under the heading of reparative
plasticity: neuronal renewal, or secondary neurogenesis, and the
brain's capacity to compensate for losses caused by lesions.
(26) A recent study of the neocortex in primates has produced evidence of new neurons in three regions of the associative cortex: the prefrontal region, the inferior temporal region, and the posterior parietal region.
Unsettle concept of stability, brain as machine.
The production of new neurons therefore does not simply serve to
replace cells that have died; it participates in modulational
plasticity and, in doing so, opens the concept of plasticity slightly
more, just far enough to unsettle the concept of stability.
(27) [quoting “The Curious Partition of New Neurons”] “Adult neurogenesis, being the final mechanism of plasticity and one strongly controlled by a subject's personal experience and environmental interactions, very likely constitutes an additional mechanism of individuation—with the major difference that it is operational throughout life.”
(27) The idea of cellular renewal, repair, and resourcefulness as auxiliaries of synaptic plasticity brings to light the power of healing—treatment, scarring, compensation, regeneration, and the capacity of the brain to build natural prostheses.
Are We Free to Be High Performing?
Must open to historical dimension of notion of brain as program, for which software studies helps remove assumption of fixed identity of programs.
It is urgent that we affirm against these representations, which no
longer represent anything at all, that our brain is in part
we do with it.
Individual experience opens up, in the program itself, a dimension
usually taken to be the very antithesis of the notion of a program:
the historical dimension.
(30) The question that inevitably poses itself is thus: How can we know how to respond in a plastic manner to the plasticity of the brain? . . . Which culture is the culture of neuronal liberation? Which world? Which society?
Does brain plasticity model allow contemplation of recognition, non-domination and liberty or biological justification of efficient, adaptable, flexible social organizations?
(31) Does brain plasticity, taken as a model, allow us to think a multiplicity of interactions in which the participants exercise transformative effects on one another through the demands of recognition, of non-domination, and of liberty? Or must we claim, on the contrary, that, between determinism and polyvalence, brain plasticity constitutes the biological justification of a type of economic, political, and social organization in which all that matters is the result of action as such: efficacy, adaptability—unfailing flexibility?
The Central Power in Crisis
(32) The is today an exact correlation between descriptions of brain functioning and the political understanding of commanding.
Centralization in question; correlation between brain function and political understanding of hierarchical command and control.
(33) In the same way that neuronal connections are supple and do not obey a centralized or even truly hierarchized system, political and economic power displays an organizational suppleness in which the center also appears to have disappeared.
End of the “Machine Brain”
The Central Telephone Exchange and the Computer
Bergson central telephone exchange brain theory.
(33) In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson develops a famous analogy between the brain and a central telephone exchange. For Bergson, the role of the brain is limited to that of centralizing information.
Inadequacy of programming analogy of cybernetic metaphor based on sequence of symbols; Jeannerod preferring multidimensional map which could also represent software structures.
(34-35) The cybernetic metaphor has also had its day. . . . Very simply, the analogy between the cybernetic domain and the cerebral domain rests on the idea that thinking amounts to calculating, and calculating to programming. . . . As Jeannerod says: “the activity of the nervous system can be better represented as the outline of a multidimensional map than as a sequence of symbols.” The representation of the center collapses into the network.
Deleuze acentered crossing voids between neurons implying fragmentary organization of ensemble of micro-powers more than central committee.
who is one of the rare philosophers to have taken an interest in
neuroscientific research since the 1980s, goes so far as to talk of
the brain as an “acentered system,” “the effect of a break with
the classical image” that has been formed of it. . . . Nervous
information must cross voids, and something aleatory thus introduces
itself between the emission and the reception of a message,
constituting the field of action of plasticity.
(36) The “discovery of a probabilistic or semifortuitous cerebral space, 'an uncertain system',” according to Deleuze, implies the idea of a multiple, fragmentary organization, an ensemble of micro-powers more than the form of a central committee.
(37) I would simply like to analyze the ideological cliché attached to the functioning of brains as much as to that of machines, the cliché of a centered and centralizing program that leaves no room for plasticity and entertains no relation with alterity.
Dennett casts plasticity as eventlike dimension of mechanical with multiple supple levels of command, not just number-crunchers, rather than rejecting comparison between brain and computer.
(37) In effect, [Daniel] Dennett
presents the computer as itself a
plastic organization, with multiple and supple levels of
(38) It is not important here to determine whether such a machine exists, but simply to insist that this conception says out loud that we live deep inside, more precisely, that “computers are not 'number-crunching machines',” something we experience daily, and that plasticity perhaps designates nothing but the eventlike dimension of the mechanical.
The Adequation of Brain and World
Cinematographic function of brain configuring the world; plasticity of time inscribed in brain, to which we are initially blind because it is our time and our world.
(39) We find here the poetical and
aesthetic force that is the fundamental, organizing attribute of
plasticity: its power to configure the world. Here again, Deleuze has
perfectly analyzed this power by seeing in it the cinematographic
function par excellence.
(39) The plasticity of time is inscribed in the brain. And we do not see it because it is a question of our time. We do not see it because it is a question of our world. . . . We are perhaps always and necessarily blind, at first, to our own cinema.
Brain adequation to modern world of Kitchin and Dodge code objects is what critical programming may explore.
(40) “The brain is adequate to the modern world,” says Deleuze. Perhaps precisely this adequation both blinds us to and explains and justifies the effects of the naturalization of the political and social effects of the description of neuronal functioning, on the other. . . . The screen that separates us from our brain is an ideological screen.
Neuronal Man and the Spirit of Capitalism
Transition between neuroscientific and management discourse epitomized by Boltanski and Chiapello arguing current capitalism of networks, teams and projects explode bureaucratic prison of centralized authority; compare to Spinuzzi on networks.
The questioning of centrality, principal transition point between the
neuronal and the political, is also the principle transition point
between neuroscientific discourse and the discourse of management,
between the functioning of the brain and the functioning of a
(41) In the nineties, say Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, “creativity, reactivity, and flexibility are the new watchwords,” and “the bureaucratic prison explodes.” Or again, “the hierarchical principle is demolished and organizations become flexible, innovative, and highly proficient.” For this new organization, the network is the master term: current capitalism obeys the principle of mobile or “lean production” companies, “working as networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in the form of teams or projects.”
(42) Like neuronal cohesion, contemporary corporate economic and social organization is not of a central or centralizing type but rests on a plurality of mobile and atomistic centers, deployed according to a connectionist model.
Organizational suppleness of networks linked to flexibility, idealized in integrator facilitator manager.
There is no longer a center but rather discrete assemblies of neurons
forming mobile and momentary centers on each occasion. Organizational
suppleness now goes hand in hand with authority and decision.
(43) It is obviously with reference to this type of functioning that today's management literature preaches work in [quoting Boltanski and Chiapello] “flexible, neural” teams, and can claim that the manager “is not [or is no longer] a (hierarchical) boss, but an integrator, a facilitator, and inspiration, a unifier of energies, an enhancer of life, meaning, and autonomy.” . . . He transmits, distributes, and modifies connections by potentiating or depressing them according to circumstances and needs, without being identifiable with or assigned to a fixed post.
(44) The same region can contribute to the realization of different functions. . . . The primary qualities of assemblies of neurons are their mobility and their mutlifunctionality.
Delocatization and polyvalence are qualities of neurons also expected of individuals in working world.
(45) But aren't these qualities also those expected today of the individual in the working world? Shouldn't we become polyvalent, accepting the law of delocalization by making ourselves available, showing ourselves to be without attachment, ready to break old ties, to create new ones? . . . Today the emphasis is clearly put on polyvalence more than on craft, on the multiplication of encounters and potentially reactivizable temporary connections, on belonging to diverse groups. . . . One must always be leaving in order to survive, that is to say, in a certain sense, in order to remain.
Employability associated with adaptability and flexibility.
Whoever says “employability” clearly says adaptability.
“Employability” is a neo-management concept that indicates “the
capacity to respond to a world in motion” by a supple use of
abilities, which supposes we do not focus on one and only one skill,
just as a cortical region does not participate in one and only one
(46) “Employability” is synonymous with flexibility. . . . Very often, the brain is analyzed as personal capital, constituted by a sum of abilities that each must “invest optimally,” like an “ability to treat one's own person in the manner of a text that can be translated into different languages.”
Social “Disaffiliation” and Nervous Depression: The New Forms of Exclusion
Striking coincidence between psychiatric and political discourse emphasizing disaffiliation.
(47) The coincidence between current psychiatric discourse,
characterized by a clear tendency toward the “biologization” of
psychical or mental disturbance, and the political discourse of
exclusion, which presents the disaffiliation as individuals “with
broken connections,” is striking.
(48-49) It is therefore not a question of pitting the nobility of “classical” psychoanalysis against the baseness of psychiatry, but of seeing how a certain conception of flexibility—paradoxically driven by the scientific analysis of neuronal plasticity—models suffering and allows the identification of psychical illness and social illness.
Conflation of psychical and social illness; sick person cannot stand conception of existence as series of business projects.
(49) Today these two types of disturbance tend to be conflated. One must see clearly that, for all intents and purposes, [quoting Alain Ehrenberg] “the workplace is the antechamber of nervous depression.” . . . Thus a depressive is a sick person who cannot stand this conception of a “careerist” whose very existence is conceived as a business or series of projects.
New fragility and vulnerability from being forced to always choose and decide everything, replacing neurosis with fatigue of being oneself; need to maintain cohesion of community and avoid being cut off suggests revisiting discussion of pharmakos in Dissemination.
(50-51) [quoting Ehrenberg] “These institutional transformations give the impression that everyone, including the most fragile, must take up the task of choosing everything and deciding everything.” Such a situation surely creates a certain vulnerability, a new precariousness, a new fragility. The difficulty in experiencing a conflict voids the psyche and in effect replaces neurosis with “the fatigue of being oneself.” . . . This lack of ties and this risk of being cut off appear as threats that one must contain or ward off at any cost to maintain the cohesion of the community.
Prozac as drug for aligning self with requirements of high-tech capitalism (Kramer).
(51-52) In his book Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer develops a critical reflection on the type of “self” that “today's high-tech capitalism” endorses as it condition of possibility: “Confidence, flexibility, quickness, and energy . . . are at a premium.” . . . Medications should give back the appetite for mobility, the capacity to rid oneself of rigidity and of fixity in one's identity.
Cannot distinguish neuroscientific studies and management literature; example of inflexible, socially handicapped Alzheimer patient as nemesis of connectionist society.
(52) Thus it is no longer possible to distinguish rigorously on an ideological level between “popularly” accessible neuroscientific studies and the literature of management—including medical management. . . . An Alzheimer's patient is the nemesis of connectionist society, the counter-model of flexibility. . . . In fact, it is no longer possible to distinguish rigorously on an ideological level between those suffering a neurodegneerative disorder and those with major social handicaps.
Problem is unconsciousness of politics of representation.
(52-53) It is not the identity of cerebral organization and
socioeconomic organization that poses a problem, but rather the
unconsciousness of this identity. . . . At bottom, neuronal man has
not known how to speak of himself. It is time to free his
(53) Indeed, without this freeing, neuroscientific discourse will have the sole consequence—beyond medical advances—of unwittingly producing criteria, models, and categories for regulating social functioning and increasing daily the legitimation of the demand for flexibility as a global norm.
Neuronal functioning resembles emancipatory democracy, but an extremely normalizing vision privileging docility and obedience to flexibility; tie to Lessig regulation by code and hypotheses of critical programming for freeing speech of neuronal man.
(53-54) One the one hand, neuronal functioning as it is described today quite closely resembles a democracy. . . . (By contrast, the models of the central telephone exchange and the computer continue to evoke the old Soviet system or Brave New World.) In one sense, progress in the neurosciences has made possible the political emancipation of the brain. On the other hand, the scientific description of brain plasticity produces, while taking its inspiration from, an extremely normalizing vision of democracy, in that it accords an overly central role to the absence of center, a too rigid prominence to flexibility, that is to say, to docility and obedience. . . . Can the description of brain plasticity escape the insidious command of the New World Order? Can it introduce something like a resistance within this very order? Can plastic brains measure the limits of their flexibility?
“You Are Your Synapses”
Accepting neuronal man and self but questioning continuity as having discontinuous development and function, thus complex continuity.
(55-56) The current state of
research and observation allows cognitive scientists to conclude that
thought, knowledge, desires, and affects all proceed on a neuronal,
that is to say, biological, basis, and that the mental images
constituting the life of the mind are indeed formed in the brain. . .
. In the most general way, it constitutes a new approach to the
subject by affirming the existence of a “neuronal self.”
It is the weakest because the certainty of the continuity between the
neuronal and the mental can obviously never be a strictly scientific
postulate. It necessarily constitutes a philosophical or
epistemological position and such positions are not always clearly
articulated. I will therefore attempt to question the presuppositions
attached to this continuity, not to contest it in itself but to show
that its development and function are precisely discontinuous—that
it is, in other words, a question of a complex continuity.
(56-57) We shall thereby be able to grasp the distinction between what is truly liberating in this new definition of self and what within it remains a subjugating power. This “weighing in the balance” will require a critical confrontation between flexibility and plasticity.
The “Synaptic Self” or “Proto-Self”
Damasio and LeDoux prominent neurobiologists affirming consciousness is owner of movie-in-the-brain emerging within the movie.
(57) Prominent neurobiologists such as Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux now clearly affirm this point: consciousness is nothing other than “how the owner of the movie-in-the-brain emerges within the movie,” and, as a result, we need to grasp “the essence of a person in the brain.” To examine this essence, we will follow the demonstrative order adopted by LeDoux in his book Synaptic Self.
Self as synthesis of plastic processes.
(58) Thus an awareness of synaptic plasticity leads scientists to advance the thesis of a neuronal personality. The “self” is a synthesis of all the plastic processes at work in the brain; this permits us to hold together and unify the cartography of networks already mentioned.
Damasio proto-self as organic representation of the organism itself that maintains coherence.
(59) The proto-self is thus primarily a form of organic representation of the organism itself that maintains its coherence. . . . Without it there is no possible survival and no consciousness. Indeed, the nonconsicous processes at work in the proto-self are the very conditions of consciousness.
Multiple levels including auto-representation of the brain, forming prototypical form of symbolic activity.
(59-60) Here is the most interesting and most subtle point of the
analysis: through modification of the primitive or primordial
representational function that is the work of the proto-self. Indeed,
one must suppose that the “proto-self” presents itself as “a
coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of
the organism, moment by moment, at multiple levels of the brain.”
Thus there actually is, contrary to Bergson's claim, a
self-representation of the brain, an auto-representation of cerebral
structure that coincides with the auto-representation of the
organism. This internal power of representation inherent in neuronal
activity constitutes the prototypical form of symbolic activity.
(60) From one end of the chain to the other, Damasio explains, one must assume that the brain somehow recounts its own becoming, that it elaborates it in the form of an “account.”
Mental patterns are translation of neuronal patterns developed as re-representation of nonconscious proto-self in process of being modified.
(61) From the “proto-self” to “conscience” there thus develops an extensive “re-representation of the nonconscious proto-self in the process of being modified.” This process corresponds to the translation of neuronal patterns into mental patterns.
“Lost in Translation:” From the Neuronal to the Mental
Translation from neuronal to mental remains obscure, whether biologically programmed, result of individual experience and history, or both, perhaps due to imbrication of neuroscience with computational methods of translation.
(62) Despite the apparent assurance and certitude that govern the
discourse of the “adherence” of the mental to the neuronal, the
process of the “translation” of the givens from one domain to the
other remains obscure.
(64) We do not truly know what originally makes these transitions possible: Are they biologically programmed? Are they the fruit of experience or of the individual history? Are they the result of both?
(64) What remains mysterious (and we cannot be satisfied here by evoking “the wisdom of nature”) is therefore the deep structure of transformation, the transition from a universal self, not yet particularized, to the singular self, to that which I am, that which we are.
Default to Darwinism, selection toward efficiency, by not interpreting, raising political, economic, social questions again.
(65) According to the “logic” of these “Darwinian” positions, only those neuronal configurations capable of survival, thus those capable of being the “best,” the highest “performing,” would be converted into images. Only the most “useful” synaptic connections would be modulated or reinforced. There would be at the very heart of the self a selection oriented toward efficiency.
Darwinism seems to privilege flexibility; must the primoridial self bend to biological and cultural barrage, adaptive selection forming personality?
(65-66) Must we assume an original flexibility that, by adaptive selection, forms personality? Must we postulate the suppleness of a primordial self that can (or even ought to) bend to the working of the simultaneously biological and cultural barrage to which it is subjected.
If only letting selection have its way, what new horizons can open up?
(66) In setting these points aside in order to discuss only the results, neurobiologists and cognitive scientists contribute to confirming the diffuse and highly paradoxical feeling that the brain is the locus of an absence of change and that we cannot in reality do anything about it, do anything with it, other than letting selection have its way. . . . What new horizons do the new brains, the new theoreticians of the brain, open up?
Exhausted identity means fascinating neuronal discoveries remain a dead letter; neuronal liberation has not liberated us when only foci are long-term potentiation and depression.
(66-67) We could say in the same way that today we live the “coexistence of a modern brain and an exhausted identity.” . . . It must be acknowledged that neuronal liberation has not liberated us. Long-term potentiation and depression cannot be the first and last words on the plasticity of a self, in other words, on its modification of experience.
Is all we can be is chronically healthy, enrolled in multiple maintenance programs with no further goals?
(68) The synthesis of the neuronal and the psychical thus fails to live up to its task: we are neither freer, nor smarter, nor happier. “The individual today,” says Ehrenberg, “is neither sick nor healed. He is enrolled in multiple maintenance programs.” Do we want to continue to be “chronically healthy” in this way?
We want resistance to flexibility and ideological norm modeling neuronal process to legitimate certain social and political functions.
(68) Resistance is what we want. Resistance to flexibility, to this ideological norm advanced consciously or otherwise by a reductionist discourse that models and naturalizes the neuronal process in order to legitimate a certain social and political functioning.
Neuronal materialism should elaborate transition of intermediate plasticity between proto-self and conscious self; else dodge question of freedom.
(69) An intermediate plasticity of some kind, situated between the plasticity of the “proto-self” and that of the conscious self. . . . the position of neuronal materialism, which I adopt absolutely, should elaborate a central idea, or theory, of the transition.
Need metapsychology to go beyond description and propose model for interaction and dynamics of three plasticities that does implicates question of freedom and interpretation in place of Darwinian default.
(69-70) If we do not think through this transformation or this plasticity, we dodge the most important question, which is that of freedom. . . . But we cannot settle for a neutral description of the three types of plasticity discussed in the first chapter; we must also propose a model of their interaction and the joint dynamics of their genesis: how modulation links up with modeling, how reparation changes its meaning with experience, and how these interactions construct a free personality or singularity. But in order to understand such a construction, we must leave the domain of pure description and agree to elaborate a theoretical petition, once again necessarily meta-nuerobiological, as Freud wrote, feeling the need to go behind or beyond, a metapsychology.
and Annihilation of Form
(70-71) At the core of the constant circulation between the neuronal, the economic, the social, and the political that characterizes Western culture today, the individual ought to occupy the midpoint between the taking on of form and the annihilation of form—between the possibility of occupying a territory and accepting the rules of deterritorialization, between the configuration of a network and its ephemeral, effaceable character. . . . Today everyone lives multiple lives, at the same time and successively.
(71) All current identity maintains itself only at the cost of a struggle against its autodestruction: it is in this sense that identity is dialectical in nature.
Tension, search for equilibrium for Western individuals occupying midpoint between taking on form and annihilation of from, territorialization and deterritorialization; transformation possible because every form contains its contradiction, sounding like Hegelian dialectics.
(71) The plasticity of the self, which supposes that it simultaneously receives and gives itself its own form, implies a necessary split and the search for an equilibrium between the preservation of constancy (or, basically, the autobiological self) and the exposure of this constancy to accidents, to the outside, to otherness in general (identity, in order to endure, ought paradoxically to alter itself or accidentalize itself). What results is a tension born of the resistance that constancy and creation mutually oppose to each other. It is thus that every form carries within itself its own contradiction. And precisely this resistance makes transformation possible.
Life and Explosion: Homeostasis and Self-Generation
Neuronal and mental resist each other because they do not speak the same language; formative effect of explosions, ruptures, gaps.
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
do not speak the same language.
(73) This formative effect of explosions and this formative action of the explosive correspond to the transformation of one motor regime into another, of one device into another, a transformation necessitating a rupture, the violence of a gap that interrupts all continuity.
Not a terrorist constitution of identity despite explosive meanings of plasticity; rather, creative ability of cerebral structures transitioning homeostasis to self-generation in response to outside events.
(74) Despite the explosive resonance of the meanings of plasticity,
this vision of things obviously does not correspond to a terrorist
conception of the constitution of identity.
(74-75) But every event coming from outside necessarily comes to affect homeostasis and calls upon “another level of cerebral structure,” charged with transforming maintenance into a creative ability. . . . But this transition from “homeostasis” to “self-generation” is not made without rupture or gap.
(75) From this perspective, if the brain is really “always caught up in the act of representing to itself its own change,” one might suppose, at the very core of the undeniable complicity that ties the cerebral to the psychical and the mental, a series of leaps or gaps.
Case studies of problem children reveal development of processes of resilience, self-generated homeostasis, plasticity beyond mere flexibility and conciliatory passivity.
In studying the cases of certain “problem children”--children
held back, mistreated, sick—[Boris] Cyrulnik
that some of them developed processes of resilience, possibilities
for a becoming
the basis of the effacement
of every future,
for a transformation of the trace or mark, and for a historical
transdifferentiation. It is as if, in order to return to themselves
after the destructive trials they had suffered, these children had to
create their own constancy, to self-generate their homeostasis.
(76) The two energies ceaselessly collide within a resilient person. If these individuals were simply “flexible”--that is to say, if the two energies did not collide with one another—they would be not resilient but conciliatory, that is to say, passive.
Reasoned resilience versus conciliation, being more than scrappers and prodigal elders: creating resistance to neuronal ideology; compare to Feenberg democratic rationalization.
(77) We are right to assert that the formation of each identity is a kind of resilience, in other words, a kind of contradictory construction, a synthesis of memory and forgetting, of constitution and effacement of forms. . . . But we have no use for harmony and maturity if they only serve to make us “scrappers” or “prodigal elders.” Creating resistance to neuronal ideology is what our brain wants, and what we want for it.
Conclusion: Toward a Biological Alter-globalism
Dialectic of identity pressing so as not to replicate caricature of world of global capitalism with our brains, offering only spectacle of simultaneity of terrorism and rigidity.
(78) The problem of a dialectic of identity—between fashioning and destruction—poses itself all the more pointedly as global capitalism, currently the only known type of globalization, offers us the untenable spectacle of a simultaneity of terrorism (daily detonations—in Israel, Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan . . .) and of fixity and rigidity (for example, American hegemony and its violent rigorism). . . . Not to replicate the caricature of the world: this is what we should do with our brain.
Remember some explosions are not terrorist, and may be permitted from time to time, such as rage; visualize possibility of saying no to flexibility and obedience; defend biological alter-globalism.
(79) To cancel the fluxes, to lower our self-controlling guard, to
accept exploding from time to time: this is what we should do with
our brain. It is time to remember that some explosions are not in
fact terrorist—explosions of rage, for example. . . . To ask: “What
should we do with our brain?” is above all to visualize the
possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and
mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility,
blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of
knowing how to bow their heads with a smile.
(80) To produce a consciousness of the brain thus demands that we defend a biological alter-globalism.
Alter-globalism calls for dialectical thinking like Hegel, who made plasticity a concept and promoted conflictual and contradictory relations between nature and mind; how does Hayles extend this recommendation in How We Think?
(80-81) This biological alter-globalism
is clearly dialectical, as I have said. It demands that we renew the
dialogue, in one way or another, with thinkers like Hegel, who is the
first philosopher to have made the work plasticity
a concept, and who developed a theory of the relations between nature
and mind that is conflictual and contradictory in its essence.
(81) The world is not the calm prolonging of the biological. The mental is not the wise appendix of the neuronal. And the brain is not the natural ideal of globalized economic, political, and social organization; it is the locus of an organic tension that is the basis of our history and our critical activity.
Escape reductionist/antireductionist theoretical trap by critiquing plasticity so we can do something with it: what Hayles does by working in role of technological nonconscious in contemporary dialectic of technogenesis and synaptogenesis; recall dual critique of Kittler and Hansen in EL.
Example of Changeaux and Ricouer dialogue; need to rethink cerebral plasticity philosophically or we cannot do anything with it.
(81-82) The elaboration of dialectical
thinking about the brain also allows us to escape the strict
alternative between reductionism and antireductionism, the
theoretical trap within which philosophy too often confines itself. .
. . The dialogue between Changeaux and Ricoeur in What Makes Us
a good example of this pair of alternatives. . . . One pertinent way
of envisaging the “mind-body problem” consists in taking into
account the dialectical tension that at once binds and opposes
naturalness and intentionality, and in taking an interest in them as
inhabiting the living core of a complex reality. Plasticity,
rethought philosophically, could be the name of this entre-deux.
(82) Indeed, so long as we do not grasp the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of the knowledge of cerebral plasticity available today, we cannot do anything with it.
Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do with Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.