From A Conversation with Catherine Malabou, an interview conducted by Noëlle Vahanian at Malabou’s home in July 2007.
On Plasticity via the material-psychic distinction, and subjectivity:
Noëlle Vahanian: Please describe your latest work on Freud?
Catherine Malabou: The French title of my latest work is Les nouveaux blessés. I think it would need a little bit of translation. Perhaps “the new injuries,” or “new wounds” (rather than “the new wounded” or the Newly Wounded?). So let’s call it The New Wounds. It’s about the kind of injuries or wounds or brain damage that psychoanalysis never took into account. It’s a reflection on brain lesion or pathology (Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease) but also on trauma in general (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, all kinds of what I call “social-political” traumas). To what extent neurology today helps us to enlarge the Freudian conception of the trauma and of the psychic suffering: such is the issue. It seems that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud fails to define what might exceed the pleasure principle, what this “beyond” may exactly mean. Neurological traumas go beyond this principle, and discover something that has nothing to do with pleasure, but with every kind of serious trauma. This book is a reflection on those wounds that love and hatred or internal conflict simply cannot explain.
NV: So, the wounds of trauma are material wounds rather than merely psychic?
CM: If we are able to admit that the difference between “material” and “psychic” is very thin and even perhaps non-existing, if we agree on the absurdity of regarding the brain and the psyche as too [sic] separate and distinct instances, then we will have moved forward a great deal…
We know today that every kind of serious shock–it may be a wound on the battlefield, a shell shock, but it also can be domestic trauma or moral abuse without any physical injury–we know that every kind of serious trauma causes destruction in what is now called the ‘emotional brain,’ which is located in the frontal cortex. This material destruction obviously and undoubtedly implies psychic alterations or modifications. It’s the end of the frontier, the borderline between psychic diseases as such and neurological diseases1.
NV: Say it again in other words maybe. What then constitutes the self? Is there a true singular identity or subjectivity? Or, is the self always a public phenomenon?
CM: Of course the general process of self-information is common to everybody, so in this sense it is a universal structure. But, if we take for granted that at the same time the way your brain builds itself it departs from this structure, on the ground of this structure, then auto-affection, the way we keep ourselves informed about ourselves, is always individual. It’s impossible to draw a line between universal and singular here, you know. There is a common structure, but at the same time the way it takes place in you and the way it takes place in me is not the same. The self is clearly not a substance.
NV: Can you say something about the relationship of the individual to the public realm?
CM: The most recent and current research in neurobiology reveals a new kind of brain organization that may work as a model to understand all kinds of organization today: society, for example. On this point, I’m very close to what Žizek tries to think when he says that he’s looking for a new materialism, which implies this concept of society as a whole, as a closed totality without any kind of transcendence. That is also something he develops in The Parallax View in particular.
I don’t believe in transcendence at all. I don’t believe in something like the absolute Other, or in any kind of transcendence or openness to the other. So in this sense, as a Hegelian, I am quite convinced with Žizek that we’re living in some kind of closed organizational structure, and that society is the main closed structure. But at the same time, this structure is plastic. So it means that inside of it, we have all kinds of possibilities to wiggle and escape from the rigidity of the structure. What happens in the brain is the paradigm to figure out what happens in society as such. We are living in a neuronic social organization. And I’m not the only one to say it. The neuronic has become the paradigm to think what the social is, to think society and social relationships. So it is clearly a closed organization; if by closed we understand without transcendence, without any exit to the absolute Other. But, at the same time, this closed structure is not contrary to freedom or any kind of personal achievements or resistance. So I think that in such a structure, all individuals have their part to play2.