We have always been plastic: Catherine Malabou with Gregory of Nyssa and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Catherine Malabou Nyssa Pico

With much coffee and the huge kindness and indulgence of my wife I have just finished the first complete draft of my book on figures of the human in contemporary French thought. The project formerly known as The Human Remains has evolved into the argument that one of the most comprehensive and productive ways to understand the rich diversity of contemporary French thought and to draw links between very different philosophers[1] is to approach the field as a series of attempts to transform the human being in a way no longer determined (either positively or negatively) by the death of God and the end of man.

As part of the collateral damage ensuing from having taken a machete to the draft in order to bring it within the word limit, I have a number of sections that didn’t make it past the group stage (the scars of England’s cricket world cup exit run deep and its metaphor spreads wide) that are now gathering dust on the cutting room floor. Here are some thoughts that were amputated from the final section of chapter 3 (which accounts for the extract starting rather abruptly and referring back to my analysis of Malabou’s Hegel)…



AD          Avant demain

ADH       L’Avenir de Hegel

FOH       The Future of Hegel


Catherine Malabou is not offering us a new and innovative figure of humanity but as a plastic transformation of one of the oldest Western figures of the human. The idea that the distinctive human trait is the possibility for self-transformation has a long tradition in the West, commonly accepted to begin with Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa’s (c 335 – c 395) On The Making of Humanity. The way in which Malabou rescues Hegel’s God from the reading according to which divine kenosis is a moment of lack and passivity provides us with a blueprint for re-reading this tradition which understands the human as uniquely indeterminate and open to possibilities not, as is customary, as an apophatic or mystical denial of any determinate human nature but as a series of accounts of the plastic human. In this section I will seek to sketch two examples of this rereading of the tradition necessitated by plasticity, from Gregory’s On The Making of Humanity itself, and from the Florentine Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s (1463-1494) Oration on the Dignity of Man. I beg the reader’s indulgence: I treat these two texts briefly and without any pretence of according them the detailed study which they merit. My aim is a very modest one: to indicate how we might begin to think of Malabou’s plastic humanity as itself a plastic transformation of traditional anthropologies that predate Hegel.

In the same way that, as Malabou notes, kenosis has most often been interpreted as a moment of passivity and negativity (ADH 130/FOH 91), Gregory’s On the Making of Humanity is most frequently read today as offering an apophatic anthropology, read indeed as “the classic formulation of a mystical or negative anthropology grounded in a mystical and negative theology”.[2] This reading places at the centre of Gregory’s anthropology the assertion in On the Making of Humanity that it is indeterminacy and incomprehensibility that render humanity, uniquely among all the animals, in imago dei:

God […] says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The image is properly an image so long as it fails in none of those attributes which we perceive in the archetype; but where it falls from its resemblance to the prototype it ceases in that respect to be an image; therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the Divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype.[3]

The conventional reading goes on to argue that, liberated from the possession of any determinate nature or substance, the mystical Gregory figures the human being as sculptor of himself: “the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will”.[4] This, at least, is the Gregory of the apophatic tradition, including the Gregory of Jean-Luc Marion. But, as we saw when we looked carefully at Malabou’s reading of the figuring of kenosis as divine passivity, this is only half the story. As well as his insistence upon the soul’s self-government, Gregory also argues that “[n]ature, the all-contriving, takes from its kindred matter the part that comes from the man, and moulds her statue within herself”.[5] Is humanity, then, formed or self-forming? The answer is: yes. In On the Origin of Man Gregory argues for the distinction in Genesis 1:26[6] between the “image of God”, which is given to humanity, and the “likeness of God”, which humanity must construct for itself: “But it is proper that one part is given you, while the other has been left incomplete: this is so that you might complete it yourself and might be worthy of the reward which comes from God”.[7] This is neither apophatic nor kataphatic; the term which most adequately describes it is “plastic”, according to Malabou’s understanding of plasticity as a simultaneous giving and receiving of form. Furthermore, even the self-governing capacity of humans is still received as part of the image of God. It is impossible, in a close reading of On the Making of Humanity, to dissociate the giving and receiving of form. What Gregory presents is a picture not of an apophatic but of a plastic humanity.

A similarly one-sidedness can be discerned in modern readings of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In the Oration Pico insists that humanity has “no archetype” and is a “creature of indeterminate image”: [8]

We have given you, Adam, no fixed seat or form of your own, no talent particular to you alone. This we have done so that whatever seat, whatever form, whatever talent you may judge desirable, the same may you have and possess according to your desire and judgment. Once defined, the nature of all other beings is constrained within the laws We have prescribed for them. But you, constrained by no limits, may determine your nature for yourself, according to your own free will, in whose hands We have placed you.[9]

The Creator addresses humanity as the “shaper of yourself”,[10] having in its possession “every sort of seed and all sprouts of every kind of life”.[11] Ernst Cassirer is typical of a dominant strain of interpretation which considers Pico as first and foremost a “champion of human dignity and freedom” for whom “man possesses his perfection only as he achieves it for himself independently and on the basis of a free decision”.[12] Giorgio Agamben ploughs a similar furrow when he characterises Pico’s Oration as offering a “definition of man by his lack of a face”, claiming that the text’s “central thesis” is that man “can have neither archetype nor proper place”.[13]

What these and similar interpretations tend to occlude is that Pico’s human is a creature as well as a creator. The “seeds pregnant with all possibilities” are bestowed upon humanity by the Father, and the context of the phrase eulogising humanity as the shaper of its own being is: “We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer”.[14] Pico’s human is the created creator, the shaped shaper, the one who receives its own form from God (it is made a “free and extraordinary shaper”) and gives itself its own form (it freely and proudly fashions itself). The “lack of face” to which Agamben refers is itself a form which humanity receives; the human has no archetype, to be sure, but it is equally true that its lack of an archetype is itself a gift from God, just as much as other determinate endowments such as the horse’s speed or the lion’s strength. The one-sided reading of Pico as the champion of utter and unconditioned freedom must be corrected by a closer reading of his text: Pico’s humanity is not Promethean but plastic.

These sketches of plasticity in Gregory and Pico and no more than indications of the contours that a plastic rereading of the apophatic tradition would take. The conclusion towards which they gesture (but that would need a much longer development) is that Malabou’s plastic human is not a new, ex nihilo anthropology that destroys or renders obsolete the tradition that precedes it, but a materialist plastic transformation of that tradition which is both recognisable in its oldest representatives and also faithful to Malabou’s own plastic transformation of Hegelian plasticity.

[1] I deal explicitly with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, but the schema of interpretation I elaborate in the book is intended to be expandable to other contemporary thinkers.

[2] Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 126.

[3] Philip Schaff (ed.), NPNF2-08. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetic and Moral Treatises, Philosophical Works, Apologetic Works, Oratorical Works, Letters, vol. 8, Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers: Series 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2015) 90.

[4] Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 80.

[5] Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 144.

[6] ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”’ (Genesis 1:26, English Standard Version).

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Origin of Man, in Andrew Louth (ed.), Genesis 1-11, Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001) 33.

[8] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio and Massimo Riva (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 117.

[9] della Mirandola, Oration 117.

[10] della Mirandola, Oration 117.

[11] della Mirandola, Oration 121.

[12] Cassirer, Ernst. “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study in the History of Renaissance Ideas.” In Journal of the History of Ideas 3:3 (June 1942): 319-346, 323. I was helped in my reading of Pico by April Capili’s unpublished article “Hidden Keynote in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Understanding of Human Dignity and Freedom”, available at academia.edu

[13] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) 29.

[14] della Mirandola, Oration 117; CW’s emphasis. As Capili points out, this argument is also made by Paul Miller in Pico della Mirandola on the Dignity of Man; On Being and the One, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis et al. (Indianapolis, MN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998) xv.

Interview with Mathew Abbott about his forthcoming book, The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology


In a few months Crosscurrents will be publishing Mathew Abbott’s The Figure of This World, an important new book on Agamben and political ontology. I took the opportunity to put some questions to Mathew about his intentions for the book and how it develops current debates.

CW: Let’s start with where this book sits in the landscape of critical work on Agamben. You write “My intention is not to produce a systematic overview or detached scholarly appraisal of Agamben’s thought; nor is it to give an exhaustive account of his influences […]. It is to provide a defence and development of his philosophy.” From whom or from what does his philosophy need defending, and in what way should it be developed?

MA: I think some serious misunderstandings have marked the reception of Agamben’s philosophy. This is partly due to the provocative nature of Homo Sacer, which is certainly his most influential book: its claims about the camp, the exception, bare life, and the paradoxes of sovereignty are so striking – and, it would appear, hyperbolic – that many scholars have failed to analyse them with the care they deserve. It is also due to the fact that, at least until recently, Agamben has been taciturn regarding his method. More recent scholarship on his philosophy has worked to rectify these problems by situating the Homo Sacer project in the wider trajectory of his thought, linking it to his earlier work on aesthetics, language, and potentiality. In this way, the claims of this project are grounded in a philosophical system. This has been very helpful, but fundamental questions remain about the precise status of those claims. Agamben is still regularly attacked for his extreme pessimism, and for paying insufficient attention to historical specificity. These are criticisms from which I work to defend him in my book.

That said, many pages do not mention Agamben. This is because I take defence and development to be coextensive: as I work to defend Agamben, I am of necessity also developing his thought. Departing from the letter of his texts is a way of staying true to them. This is in keeping with a point about philosophy that Agamben himself makes, which is that the genuinely philosophical element in any work is its capacity for being developed. Clarifying the philosophical element in Agamben means more than simply giving an account of what he has said in his books. It means taking this thinking further. That is the methodological commitment at work in The Figure of This World.

At the heart of your argument is the claim that we should understand Agamben as giving us not a political philosophy or political theology, but a political ontology. What is the difference, and why does it matter?

On the traditional account, the difference between political theology and political philosophy is the difference between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, atheism and faith. I take political ontology to upset the traditional account. This is not because political ontology is theistic; it sides with the political philosopher here. At the same time, however, it sides with the political theologian in committing to the claim that the political cannot be thought without a certain exigency. Yet this exigency consists not in divine revelation but rather in the fact that human beings are beings for which being is at issue.

Agamben’s thought is not a political theology; nor is it a critical theory; it does not work in a sociological register; it is not even a political philosophy in anything like the usual sense. If we understand Agamben as engaging in political ontology, on the other hand, we will be able to get a much clearer sense of what it is he is doing, and how.

Why are we mistaken in attributing political pessimism to Agamben?

Part of what makes Agamben’s work compelling to me is that it is geared from the outset toward thinking the possibility of transformation. Crucial to the way Agamben thinks is a sense of contingency: even (and perhaps especially) when the phenomena in question appear to be fated or destined, the necessary result of some overarching yet hidden logic, they are being invoked because of how they can help us think the potentials hidden within the darkness of the present. If understood ontically, his claim that, for instance, the camp is the nomos of the modern will appear to be indicative of a truly extreme political nihilism; if understood ontologically, however, it becomes much more interesting. It may seem paradoxical, but it is precisely the ontological nature of Agamben’s discourse that opens it to the possibility of radical change. Because it is not a critical theory, the primary value of this thinking does not lie in its capacity to help us understand and critique the present; Agamben’s archaeologies and genealogies of modernity are always first and foremost strategic engagements with – and challenges to – the present.

Badiou is of course critical of any position that identifies politics with ontology: with what is rather than with the possibility of radical change. By identifying the political so strongly with an ontology is there not a danger that the possibility for radical political change and invention is blunted, as Badiou fears?

I disagree with Badiou on this. Generally I dispute the idea that ontology is necessarily about grounding or justifying, or that thinking the political as an ontological problem means reifying the present state of things; as I have indicated already, political ontology as I want to define it departs from a claim about the radical contingency of ontic political structures. This project – as with Heidegger’s – is not about the nature of being as such but the question of it.

My disagreement with Badiou is also more specific, and relates to this attempt at introducing a fundamental distinction between ordinary existence in the state of the situation and the exceptional existence of a subject acting in fidelity to the event. In making this distinction, Badiou ends up an unwitting proponent of the sovereign logic Agamben has identified: his is an explicitly decisionistic ethic of the event that, as he states almost as explicitly, turns on a separation between the biological substrate of human life and the immortal existence of the subject. His haughty disregard for everyday existence and everyday experience – which can appear for him as nothing more than the sphere of base interest – is more than mere prejudice: it stems from a commitment that is constitutive of his philosophy. This makes it effectively impossible for Badiou to properly think what I believe is one of the key political problems of our time: how to respond politically to the banalisation of life, the expropriation of the common, and the destruction of experience characteristic of the society of the spectacle.

Against all of this, I am interested in those moments in which distinguishing the ordinary from the exceptional becomes difficult or even impossible. I want to think the ordinary as a potential political achievement. Agamben’s thought can help us here. In its positive moment, political ontology turns on the possibility of a revolution of everyday life.

We are familiar with Heidegger’s contention that metaphysics misses the fact of being and concerns itself only with beings, but you argue that politics, as well as metaphysics, commits this error. What does it mean for politics to forget being?

It means forgetting the common. More exactly, it forces us into an assumption about community – that it must be constituted on the basis of a certain shared condition or set of conditions of belonging – that makes it impossible for us to properly think being in common as such. Part of the task of political ontology is to work to make such thinking possible.  

In a chapter entitled ‘The myth of the earth’ you argue for the political importance, for Heidegger, of poetry and art. To some this might sound like a watering down of immediate political imperatives and, to speak in caricatures, might be taken as a typical Heideggerean or even “continental” move, dissolving crisp political imperatives in a solution of endless complexity, detour and obfuscation. How does the treatment of poetry and art in this chapter contribute to the book’s overall political concerns?

First of all, I do not think it is particularly controversial to assert that art has political importance. The question is what one makes of the political aspects of art, and how centrally to political problems one locates them. Now Heidegger situates art very closely to political problems. My argument with Heidegger in the book is not necessarily with the claim that art is essential for thinking the political, but with the particular, reactionary way in which he tried to politically mobilise poetic experience.

Specifically I reject Heidegger’s attempts at turning to poetry in order to find a means of grounding the destiny of a historical people. Instead, I am interested in how the poetic experience with language should force us to confront our living without destiny, the fact that there is nothing we must do or be. The only possible vocation for us now, as Agamben argues, is in the revocation of vocation; any idea of a national vocation has to be resolutely foreclosed. I turn to poetry for something else: for a sense of what a life lived in the zone of indistinction between the ordinary and the exceptional might be like. That is the link I want to make between art and politics.

Partly in dialogue with Walter Benjamin you identify and elaborate an ‘atheist redemption’ at work in political ontology, but you insist that it does not remain residually dependent on theism because it does not participate in the a/theism binary. Could you talk a little more about what redemption means in this context, and how it resists falling back into a structural a/theism. Redemption from what, and unto what?

I would prefer to say that it does not participate in the secular/religious binary. Above all, political ontology is concerned with the possibility of a proper owning up to the ungrounding force of the ontological question. I believe this makes it basically atheist (though of course there are certain concepts of the divine that could sit quite comfortably with that). At the same time, I certainly do want to refuse the idiotic Dawkins-esque atheism that sees religious belief as another, less rational version of scientific explanation. As I argue in the book, science is just as incapable of resolving the question of being: knowing exactly how the universe came to be does not mean knowing the reason for the fact that it did. I say political ontology is atheist because it turns on the possibility of properly acknowledging that there is no reason for being, that nothing could ever provide a satisfactory explanation for it.

The Benjaminian concept of redemption I use is related to this. It is a profane concept of redemption concerned with the possibility of collective happiness. This happiness is linked in an originary way with precisely this sense of contingency: with the fact that what occurs – what haps – does so for no reason. The redemption in question is redemption from what Benjamin calls mythical violence, but which we could also call destiny. It redeems us to ordinary existence itself: the world in its gratuity.  

In the same way that capitalism can be seen to play an ambiguous role in Marx’s thought, being a necessary staging post in his historical dialectic, capital emerges in the final chapter of your book as something of the hero of the piece, providing the possibility of resolving the problems in the picture-concept of the world critiqued in Heidegger’s ‘The Age of the World-Picture’. Could you sketch this positive contribution of capital?

I’m a bit uncomfortable with the word ‘hero’ here, but in a way you are right: my claim is that capital has created certain of the conditions for its own undoing, and a resolution of the aporias of representation that characterise modernity and the society of the spectacle. As you indicate, a properly ambivalent attitude toward capital is clear in Marx too – and the issues surrounding this arguably led to a number of grave misunderstandings in 20th Century orthodox Marxism. I think it’s a mistake to read Marx – or myself, for that matter – as ‘necessitarian’ regarding capital: I certainly don’t think there are necessary stages of human development, nor that we are destined to eventually replace capitalism with communism, or whatever. My claim – and, I believe, Marx’s claim – is rather that capitalism creates certain of the conditions for its own undoing. The difference between my argument and that of Marx, of course, is that I see the potential for undoing here as involving not only capital but western metaphysics too. In the book I try to remain agnostic about the precise differences between those two things, and whether they have different origins. There is much more to say about this, and more than I get around to saying in the book. It’s a question I will return to as part of a new project. 

As a means of clarifying this, however, I would turn to a point made by Badiou in his Manifesto for Philosophy, where he argues that the one virtue of capital is ontological: it dissolves our sense of an essential place for humanity in the universe, any concept of a natural order or hierarchy. We should acknowledge this with gritted teeth, of course, for this process of dissolution and destitution was (and is) extremely brutal. My argument, however, is that this process has created certain of the conditions needed for a new thought of the common, and a proper owning up to the question of being. Of course, my claim about contingency means there can be no guarantees here. I only said that capital has created certain of the conditions of its own undoing.

The first sentence of the introduction reads: “Things are. Philosophy is constitutively ill equipped to own up to this fact, which is both banal and singularly inexplicable.”   It sounds like an introduction to a book on Object Orientated Ontology. Later on you do deal at length with Heidegger’s understanding of the object and refer briefly to Graham Harman’s reading of Heidegger. How would you situate your own reading in relation to the OOO of Harman and others?

I agree with Harman that it is worth trying to extract a form of realism from Heidegger, and that realism in philosophy is a worthy goal more generally. Mine is not an object-oriented ontology in his sense of the term, however. This isn’t the place for me to list my problems with Harman’s project, but the most relevant one is his disconnection of ontology from politics and ethics. Instead, Harman aestheticises ontology. By its nature, this can be highly entertaining and even beautiful, but it lacks the kind of engagement with the good that I take to be a crucial part of any true philosophy. Of course, Harman has his reasons for doing this. They pertain to his apparent belief that we must abandon anthropocentrism at all costs. But I am not convinced by this response to the problem of humanism: as Heidegger once argued in relation to Sartre’s existentialism (incidentally in a debate on this very issue), the reversal of a metaphysical position remains a metaphysical position. There are better and more interesting ways of dealing with the problem than simply abandoning the human altogether. Indeed in trying this Harman ends up propounding a kind of empty exoticism; as a result OOO is not a true philosophy but a kind of philosophical tourism. So while I share certain positions with Harman, and while his reading of Heidegger has influenced my own, I end up in a very different place.  

We can see Jean-Luc Nancy’s imprint running through your argument, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. You say the fact that ‘things are’ makes a claim on us that ‘bears on our being in common, as we share exposure to it’. In the final chapter you insist on the importance of our common singularity in the face of the fact of the world, and you refer early on to Nancy as ‘the other major contemporary philosopher working in the political ontological field I am working to clarify’. Given the way that Nancy seems to return at key moments in the book’s argument, to what extent would you say you are offering a Nancean reading of Agamben?

That is a perceptive question. Jean-Luc Nancy has been an important influence on my thinking ever since I studied him as an undergraduate. It is also clear enough to me that he has been an important influence on Agamben, even if the Italian philosopher only acknowledges this on certain occasions. As I indicate in the book, much of what I say about political ontology could also apply to Nancy. As for whether my reading of Agamben is Nancean – I would say that it is, but only to the extent that Agamben himself is Nancean!

Of course, working out to what extent he is would require some serious work. I outline some of the similarities in the book. Here I will say that the differences between them seem to me to be ones of method, and also politics. On the one hand, I believe Agamben has a somewhat more polemical reading of Heidegger, which leads him to emphasise nihilism, negativity, and the violence of modernity more strongly than Nancy. On the other, there is the role of Benjamin in Agamben’s thinking, and his quasi-Marxist inheritance more generally – something that makes his philosophy more explicitly revolutionary. These two factors can explain why Agamben’s thinking possesses an urgency that Nancy’s sometimes appears to lack. But, I would add, this really is just an appearance: these are questions of emphasis. I think both philosophers should be crucial for anyone trying to think nihilism, community, and the relation between politics and ontology.