Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

philosophy with catherine malabou

portraits by OLIVIER ZAHM

investigating the plasticity of the brain,
the first french philosopher
to tackle neuroscience
looks at the inner machinery of the brain
as the organ of thought

OLIVIER ZAHM — I was very surprised to learn that as a philosopher, you work on the brain. We generally see it as being science on one side — including neuroscience — and on the other, the philosophical world. What was your initial interest in the brain?
CATHERINE MALABOU — I have two answers to this question. First, I entered the neural world through the concept of plasticity — a philosophical concept that I discovered through Hegel, who talks about the role of plasticity in designating a system that transforms itself from the inside. I then discovered later that the brain is considered “plastic,” exactly for this same reason.

OLIVIER ZAHM — As a scientific concept?
CATHERINE MALABOU — As both a philosophical and a scientific concept. The first person who created this concept of plasticity was Goethe. In the German language, you had a term for plastic, die plastische, but none for plasticity, which was coined by Goethe as Plastizität, before Hegel took it back. Initially it wasn’t scientific; it designated this ability to transform oneself from within, under the influence of education or experience. In the way you can integrate modifications that can come from outside, but that modify the inside — keeping the same structure but, at the same time, transforming it. So, philosophy and neuroscience for me have a lot in common, to the extent that it was philosophy that led me to neurology.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s a German concept that expres­ses internal modifications?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, initially. No two identical brains exist in the world, and this is due to their plasticity. All brains have the same general structure, of course, but the way in which the neural connections are configured is different for each person. It’s like coral that moves and changes in the sea of the body. There are no two identical brains on the planet. Until very recently, people thought that the brain was a rigid organ — the same for everyone. The brain is plastic, and it will remain plastic and continue to transform itself until we die.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Until now, the perception was that the brain declines as we get older.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, but that’s not true. There is a neural genesis until the end. It’s true that certain functions deteriorate. For example, if you’re illiterate and you want to learn how to read at 60, it will be very difficult — much more difficult than for a young child. Certain functions get impaired, lose their plasticity, but others don’t.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the concept of plasticity connected neuroscience and philosophy.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, and what was surprising was that no philosopher had ever talked about the brain seriously. They often had very mystical, spiritual takes on the brain. What makes it all the more surprising is that philosophy is about thinking, conceptualizing, and the brain is the organ of thought. It’s linked with fundamental questions: where does thinking take place? How can we explain creation? Or the emergence of concepts?

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the main question.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, so if you look at philosophers, they will have very mystical kinds of explanations. You know, “Oh, it comes from contemplation,” from the “activity of spirit.” And never, “It comes from something very organic — it comes from the inner machinery of the brain.”

DONATIEN GRAU — You’ve followed a whole learning process.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, I’ve done a lot of research, especially since there have been many discoveries in neuroscience. Jean-Pierre Changeux, one of the major French neuroscientists, talks about a revolution. He calls it the “neurological revolution,” which happened around the 1980s: the shift from the brain being considered as a rigid organ to it being seen as this plastic organ that can be transformed, differing from one person to another. So, it was a revolution, really. It moved away from a model that was focused on a divide between stimulus and reflex. Henri Bergson’s metaphor for describing the brain is “the telephone switchboard.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you, the metaphysical and the spiritual come from a lack of understanding of this organ?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Maybe less from a lack of understanding than from contempt. The refusal to consider that the highest activity in the human — which is thinking — can come from organic matter.

DONATIEN GRAU — And when you take this issue seriously, you start rethinking a number of categories that are connected to a lot of people’s lives…
CATHERINE MALABOU — That’s because many people understood the importance of the brain before the philosophers. People working in industry, in entertainment, in TV, in politics understood perfectly well that we could influence people’s brains through advertising. That’s one of the premises of contemporary fashion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Love, relationships…
CATHERINE MALABOU — Exactly! People in your universe understood it much more quickly than the philosophers: they understood that you could act on people’s brains.

DONATIEN GRAU — And politics.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Of course, politically.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you mean manipulation?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Seduction?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Of course. And addiction. We now know that addiction comes from the brain: addiction is a neural mechanism. You can create new addictions in people; philosophers never understood that, even if philosophy itself is just another addiction.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And trauma, also, on the negative side.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Absolutely. The brain, here also, has been totally excluded from psychoanalysis. Freud was a neurologist to begin with, and he turned his back on that field. He changed his mind and said: “No, the psyche has nothing to do with the brain. These are two different spheres. The unconscious has to do with language, symbolic systems in general, but outside of the brain.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — And now we’re starting to realize that much more comes from there?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Everything comes from there. The discovery of PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — played a central role. When the veterans returned from Vietnam, scientists started to study their brains — for technical imagery, lesions, and so on — and deduced that, clearly, the psyche and the brain were one and the same.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the pieces are all coming together — the organic and the symbolic.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, at least that’s my position. Psychoanalysts today will be, like, “Oh, no, no, no, no.” They’re totally against the concept. And certain neurologists don’t want to hear about the psyche.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because they see it as pure fiction?

OLIVIER ZAHM — What are some of the recent discoveries around plasticity?
CATHERINE MALABOU — The main discovery, but it was already a long time ago, is that the neural tissue is discontinuous. Neurons are connected by synapses, but synapses are anatomically organized around a void. Two neurons are connected by a synapse, but at the heart of the synapse there’s a cleft, and through the cleft passes a liquid that is the neurotransmitter. Like dopamine — that’s the most famous example.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, drugs activate this.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Exactly. For example, if you play the piano every day, more and more, the neural connections used when you play the piano will grow in size because the quantity of neurotransmitters will increase and increase, so you’ll experience more and more pleasure. On the contrary, if you’re not a musician, all the neural connections implied in the playing of music will decrease.

CATHERINE MALABOU — “Depres­sed,” they say. The two main plastic processes are long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD).

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s a fluidity in the neural circuits.
CATHERINE MALABOU — For example, medicines like Prozac are meant to re-­fluidify, to add dopamine to neurotransmission.

DONATIEN GRAU — What I can gather from this is that you’re building a concept of plasticity that is both philosophical and neurological. Can you tell us more?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Well, I was always fascinated by the notion of systems. I’m that kind of philosopher, a systematic one. Many philosophers hate this notion of systems — Gilles Deleuze, for example. On the contrary, I’ve always been fascinated by a totality in which everything is connected, like networks…

OLIVIER ZAHM — But a system can be dynamic.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Of course, like the brain. For me, a true system is always dynamic. That’s why I worked on Hegel and am so interested in him. The link between philosophy and neurology, and this notion of systematic unity, was criticized and dismantled by the poststructuralist philosophers like Deleuze or Jacques Derrida. They said something like: “The system is an old thing. Now we have to conceptualize deterritorialization [Deleuze & Guattari, 1980] and ’différence’ [Derrida, 1963].”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you been able to take some distance from what they taught you?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes. First by writing my thesis on Hegel, with Derrida — which was already a conflict. And then by working on the brain.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You seem to give almost a scientific or organic foundation to ideas, to philosophy. Would you agree?
CATHERINE MALABOU — No, no, I wouldn’t say that. Because to give an organic foundation to philosophy, to put it crudely, is very dangerous. It’s reductionism, or sociobiology, which are very dangerous positions. I would say that, of course, thinking has an organic basis, but that we have to be critical of it. We have to build a critical neurobiology.

DONATIEN GRAU — In a way, reductionism is about simplifying, and your position concerns exactly the opposite.
CATHERINE MALABOU — The reductionist argument is that the brain is nonsubjective. We don’t feel it. There’s no way we can mirror it. For example, I can feel my heart — I can touch my right hand with my left, but the brain remains beyond my contact. Critical neurology would precisely have to create a way to reflect upon the brain. It reminds me of this dialogue between Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur, with Ricœur saying: “Why are you interested in the brain? I can say ’my hand,’ I can say ’my heart,’ I can say ’my face,’ but I cannot say ’my brain.’” In his opinion, there is no possible subjectification of the brain — I can’t feel it, it’s mute, it’s dead. And I don’t think that’s true.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that meditation is a way for us to connect with the brain?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Most people tend to think something like that. There exists a school of cognitive psychology and phenomenology that works with the Dalai Lama — and Buddhism in general — and they say that meditation is the way to access this kind of reflexivity. For me, it’s a bit too religious and mystical.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But still, even in a very basic way, by doing a simple meditation exercise we can connect with the sensitivity, or this organ.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Personally, I’ve never practiced meditation, so I wouldn’t know. I do believe that you can feel your brain, however, because it’s what tells you what the limit is. The brain is an internal monitor, a threshold of resistance.

DONATIEN GRAU — Are you saying that is the voice of the brain?
CATHERINE MALABOU — I would say so.

DONATIEN GRAU — So, you’re pretty mystical yourself.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, it’s true.
DONATIEN GRAU — This idea is also a way of revisiting the history of philosophy, because you say, “It’s not the spirit because it’s more biological than the machine or the spirit.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — This has consequences in conceiving subjectivity. Is brain plasticity a growth possibility for everyone? Can the self be more plastic itself? And more open to self-transformation or the possibility of evolution, adaptation?
CATHERINE MALABOU — These issues have been a great subject of discussion in queer theory. Judith Butler, for example, speaks about the plasticity of gender. It’s not systematic, but she sometimes uses this word in Bodies That Matter [1993]. She also uses “fluidity” to express that gender binarism — for men and women — is not the rule and that we can travel or transition from one gender to the other.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is a very important example because, working on this issue, we realized that the new state of mind today is very much about this situation. That suddenly a new generation of girls and boys realize that they can be none or both.
CATHERINE MALABOU — I noticed that in fashion, there are a lot of designers who say, “gender-fluid.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — In that sense, fashion is quite progressive today.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, absolutely.

DONATIEN GRAU — I’m interested in the way you relate fluidity to plasticity. Do you think they’re synonymous? Or do you see a difference between the two?
CATHERINE MALABOU — They are synonymous up to a certain extent. They’re synonymous if we define plasticity only as a capacity for transformation. In plasticity, however, there’s something more than just change, which is resistance to deformation. The physics of materials makes a clear distinction between flexibility and plasticity. A flexible material can be bent in all directions. A plastic material, once deformed, cannot go back to its initial form. It means that in plasticity you have the idea of a resistance, which is not contained in fluidity.

DONATIEN GRAU — If you think of gender plasticity, instead of gender fluidity, in a way it’s taking a very, very different point of view.
CATHERINE MALABOU — It can be compatible to a certain extent: if you remember what Butler says, that there is a kind of performativity of gender, which consists in adopting a shape, you will notice that there is indeed a certain kind of fixation of the form that cannot come back to its initial state.

DONATIEN GRAU — Within the notion of fluidity, there’s a possibility of self-loss, which isn’t there in plasticity because there’s still something that is plasticized, so to speak — as opposed to something that just changes and changes and changes and changes.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes. Also, the main difference with fluidity is that plasticity is also destructive, which concerns another side of my work that deals with trauma.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean by destructive?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Plastic is also a bomb, as you know. Nitroglycerin is a very dangerous explosive material, of putty-like consistency, that can cause huge deflagrations. In plasticity, there is a potential for destruction, self-explosion, trauma, which is not implied by fluidity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is fluidity too homogeneous?
CATHERINE MALABOU — Fluidity is a nice concept, but it lacks some kind of dialectical counterpart.

DONATIEN GRAU — Fluidity is a form of utopia, while plasticity is more rooted in reality, and the risks and challenges of transformation.
CATHERINE MALABOU — That’s why I use plasticity, and not fluidity or flexibility. I sometimes say fluidity because it helps people to understand. Plasticity is a true concept because it has contradictory meanings: like creativity and destruction, fluidity and fixation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe this leads us to return to the gender revolution we’re witnessing today… As a philosopher, you seem to totally embrace this situation.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, but I wouldn’t reduce it to queer or gender only. This is the most visible part of it today — everybody’s talking about it. But plasticity has a much wider field of action, which coincides in fact with the political field. We have to fashion our subjectivity — which is something that [Michel] Foucault said very early on. When people asked him, “What are you working on?”, he replied, “I am working on myself and my own transformation.” He said, “My only object is my own transformation.” All his later work is completely autobiographical, to an extent. For me, the issue of gender fluidity, etc, is the visible side of the iceberg. But
I think people should be more aware — this is my point of view — of the fact that they can transform themselves at many levels, and that they should not always wait for the state or political hierarchies to tell them what to do. This is why I’m working on anarchy. I think anarchy is plasticity in politics. When there’s no centralized power, and there is no control, then you have to control yourself. You have to create the basis for the community. You have to create it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — From nothing.
CATHERINE MALABOU — From nothing, absolutely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Anarchy — which I understand as a distance, or a critique, or a refusal of any sort of central power — is maybe the answer to the growing power of artificial intelligence that manipulates people. Because we have to be honest: we’re increasingly controlled by machines. Just taking a taxi, or using the GPS — so much information comes to us through a machine, which informs our brain.
CATHERINE MALABOU — Yes, but that’s also ambiguous. The way in which we function with these machines is totally horizontal. So, it’s a kind of anarchic mode of organization. For example, all the parallel organizations, like Uber or Airbnb, have no central control. So, it’s very ambiguous. There is anarchism, in the positive sense of the term, in technology today.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No central control, but at the end, technical control.
CATHERINE MALABOU — One of the most urgent political issues of our time is: can we act on this technical control through horizontal structures? I was reading Jeremy Rifkin, who says that we’re in fact living in a state of anarchy today. Because the state cannot do anything. I was listening to something about “Libra” — you know, this new cryptocurrency proposed by Facebook. President Macron said: “Oh, we won’t use it. It will be forbidden.” Why? Because they don’t have control over it. This horizontality is in many aspects of our lives today. We have anarchic modes of living, but people don’t even know it. They’re pure consumers. They don’t realize that they have the power in their hands.

DONATIEN GRAU — Let’s speak about freedom. It’s at the core of everything you write.
CATHERINE MALABOU — This was the beginning of my work on anarchy. The philosophers from the 1980s did not trust the concept of freedom, thus breaking with the big Kantian definition of freedom as absolute autonomy and categorical imperative. If you look at what Emmanuel Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault say about freedom, you’ll notice that they’re very cautious about it. Freedom never comes first for them — it’s always secondary. After responsibility, difference, or power.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In a period of liberation of desire, or sexual revolution, you’re saying that they were not on the side of freedom.
CATHERINE MALABOU — I know it’s paradoxical, yet true. And very interesting. I collected a lot of quotes. Jean-Luc Nancy, in L’Experience de la Liberté [The Experience of Freedom], makes incredible statements. He said — and I’m quoting loosely — “I’m going to talk about the experience of freedom. But by freedom, I don’t mean libertaire, as in ’I do what I want,’ I mean something much more serious.” In fact, when you read what he calls “more serious,” it has nothing to do with freedom, as it appears as a form of constraint. The anarchists say, “We want absolute freedom.” And this is what the philosophers cannot tolerate. Anarchists say, “We don’t want a little piece of freedom, we don’t want this or that freedom, we want absolute freedom.” People say, “They are pure utopians…” Freedom, however, cannot be cut into pieces or measured. You cannot want just a bit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Which could also be a refusal of defining what freedom is. Any kind of definition of freedom puts it into a category. Or a system, even though you like systems. It’s funny — you started out saying you’re on the side of systems, and now you’re on the side of anarchy.
CATHERINE MALABOU — System and freedom are not antagonistic. It’s dialectics. Freedom cannot be the total absence of form. It is always freedom within the form, thus also the capacity for creation of new forms.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re a true Hegelian, at the end of the day.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s very courageous on your part, because from Nietzsche to Deleuze, Hegel has been seen as the source of all our problems.
CATHERINE MALABOU — I know. But as the thinker of plasticity, he has to be forgiven.




[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

Table of contents

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