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)…

 

Abbreviations

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.

Bookending the crisis of modernity: Latour is finishing what Nietzsche mistakenly started

Nietzsche Latour

I’m currently writing the final chapter of The Human Remains, addressing Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project and work on Gaia in relation to Serres, Malabou, Meillassoux and Badiou’s accounts of the human. It’s all hands to the pump and there is little time to expatiate on this blog, but I couldn’t resist quickly drawing attention to one striking Neitzschean resonance in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. One passage in NM struck me as reading inescapably like a “translation” (to use that pregnant Latourian term) of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, and handily enough this resonance provides a convenient vignette of something larger at stake in Latour’s thought: Nietzsche and Latour stand as bookends to the crisis of modernity. Here are the two passages side by side, Nietzsche first…

Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?[1]

Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and Formica?  Haven’t  we  felt  sorry  enough  for  the  consumer  who  leaves  the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?![2]

Nietzsche and the other preachers of the death of God are, according to the Latour of Facing Gaia, cosy “Epicurean tourists” who offer us a meal of disenchantment and meaninglessness, the taste of which is extinguished for Latour by stronger foods, namely Gaia and the anthropocene:

But it is only now, when geostory unfolds, that we realize how cosy it was to preach the ‘death of God,’ to frighten ourselves with the ‘absurdity’ of life, and to delight in the happy task of critique and deconstruction: those who used to enjoy those games remained like epicurean tourists comfortably seated on the shore, safely protected by the ultimate certainty that Nature at least will always be there, offering them a totally indifferent but also a solid, eternal ground. ‘Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.’ This time: ‘Shipwreck with spectators!’[3]

Latour is finishing what Nietzsche (mistakenly) started, using some of the German’s own stylistic tools to get the job done.

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)  115.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, 110.

A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.

 

Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.

 

Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Deep Sustainability: Narrative, Religion and Ethics

narrative ecologyDrafting the latter chapters of The Human Remains has given me occasion to think in a sustained way about the possibilities and limits of narrative identity, including how the notion can be employed beyond humanity. In addition to revisiting Paul Ricœur’s work on narrative identity I have been grappling with the way in which Michel Serres extends the capacity for the production of narrative to the non-human world, as well as thinking through how Ricœur’s and Serres’s accounts of narrative might complement and challenge each other.

After some very stimulating conversations with my colleague Kate Rigby about narrative and ecology, I am delighted that we are embarking on a joint research project entitled ‘Deep Sustainability: Narrative, Religion and Ethics’, the aim of which is to develop a new approach to sustainability by integrating theories of narrative identity with ecological and religious thought.

Here is part of the rationale for the project:

The growth of environmental literary and cultural studies (‘ecocriticism’) since the 1990s has certainly been ‘dizzying’,[1] but it is also attracting a chorus of disapproval from some quarters. Faced with the indictment that an ‘ongoing failure to move towards sustainability calls into question the focus of current research and policy’,[2] one vision of its future, provided by its critics, gives a deflationary account of its potential to be truly cross-disciplinary and to generate new insights and approaches to questions of sustainability: ‘if ecocritics cannot articulate just how things stand between humanity and the natural world and the humanities and the natural sciences, then they can at least gain greater clarity about the limitations of ecocriticism itself, along with those of environmental literature, culture, and politics.’’[3] There is, however, an assumption behind this deflationary critique, namely that ecocriticism cannot convincingly articulate the relation between humanity and the natural world, or between the humanities and the natural sciences.

We want to oppose this defeatist story with a new interdisciplinary theoretical approach to ecology called “deep sustainability”, building on recent philosophical work on communication in the non-human world and environmental ethics (including Ricœur and Serres inter alia).

The project seeks to answer the following question: “How can a new approach to sustainability, informed by contemporary philosophical and religious perspectives, transform the field of ecocriticism and provide a new model for public engagement with ecological questions?”

 

 

[1] Dana Phillips, ‘Ecocriticism’s Hard Problems (Its Ironies, Too)’, American Literary History 25:2 (2013) 455.

[2] Fischer, Joern et al., ‘Mind the Sustainability Gap,’ Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22:12 (2007) 621.

[3] Phillips, ‘Ecocriticism’s Hard Problems’ 457.

Catherine Malabou and Synaptic Personhood

Catherine MalabouOn the first of April (yes, really) I’ll be giving a paper at the Deakin University Philosophy seminar series entitled ‘Catherine Malabou and Synaptic Personhood’. The paper argues that the way Malabou seeks to understand the relation between brain and mind as an instance of explosive plasticity, cutting across the dichotomy of reductionism and anti-reductionism, risks running aground on the rocks of her engagement with Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio. The paper isn’t complete yet but my working hypothesis, of which I am increasingly convinced, is that Malabou does, despite her best efforts and despite protestations to the contrary, slip into a sophisticated form of homunculism.

Synaptic SelfThe paper comes out of the book project The Human Remains, in which I discuss Malabou’s account of selfhood and personhood in her reading of Damasio and LeDoux, and also in her experience of nursing her grandmother through Alzheimer’s and her understanding of the case of Phineas Gage. In the book, the discussion is set in the broader context of different understandings of the imago dei; for the Deakin paper I think I’ll set it in the context of gun ownership laws in the U.S.A. (there is a link).

The title is a wager. Joseph LeDoux evokes the ‘synaptic self’ but I am going to argue that there is a slippage between selfhood, personhood and subjectivity in Malabou’s reading of LeDoux and Damasio.