Here is the link.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.
If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.
This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.
Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.
See here for chapter summaries of the book.
This is the fourth in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.
Chapter 4 turns to the question of human identity over time in Malabou. After setting out the stakes of her recent work on epigenesis in Avant demain I point out some shortcomings of her previous accounts of identity over time, particularly in relation to the famous case of Phineas Gage and her experience of her own grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Malabou’s account of epigenesis provides us with a powerful way to re-read this earlier work. Although she moves away from a host capacity account of the human she is – at least in her work prior to Avant demain – trapped in a paradigm which forces her to regard cerebral matter as the ‘host substance’ of human identity and personhood: just as rational thought acted as a gatekeeper of humanity for Badiou and Meillassoux, personal memory as it is encoded in the individual’s brain is the gatekeeper of personhood and identity for Malabou. However, in her recent work she elaborates what she calls an ‘epigenesis of the real’ (AD 261) according to which epigenesis and hermeneutics are extensions of each other, breaking down the division between nature and culture. I draw out the implications of this exciting recent move, using Paul Ricœur’s account of narrative identity as a sounding board for what I call Malabou’s eco-synaptic selfhood: a self understood neither wholly in internal (cerebral) nor utterly in external (narrative) terms.
This is the third in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.
The transition from Badiou and Meillassoux to Malabou leads us away from a host capacity and to a host substance, namely the human brain. Chapter 3 argues that Malabou manages to avoid a host capacity account of the human by laying out, in her reading of Hegel, a notion of plasticity not as a uniquely human trait but as the possible transformation of all traits. This position harbours an irreducible ambiguity, however, between an escape from the host capacities approach and its hyperbolisation, and according to this latter reading what Malabou offers us is nothing more than a host meta-capacity. Nevertheless, her notion of plasticity does allow her to develop a figure of the human that is universal, material, monist and immanent to itself. In the second half of Chapter 3 I explore Malabou’s determination to initiate a new plastic encounter between philosophy and neuroscience, eschewing both the ‘cognitivist’ position of neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and the ‘Continental’ resistance to neuroscience of Paul Ricœur, in order to elaborate what she calls her own ‘neuronal materialism’ (Que faire de notre cerveau? 162/What Should We Do with Our Brain? 69) in terms of ‘destructive plasticity’. In an attempt to develop this neuronal materialism in a way that avoids plasticity becoming one more defunct metaphor of the human, I offer a reading of Malabou’s self not as a metaphor but as a movement or tension of metaphoricity.
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 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”. 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.
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”. 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”. 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 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”. 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”: 
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.
The Creator addresses humanity as the “shaper of yourself”, having in its possession “every sort of seed and all sprouts of every kind of life”. 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”. 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”.
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”. 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.
 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.
 Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 126.
 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.
 Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 80.
 Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 144.
 ‘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).
 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.
 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.
 della Mirandola, Oration 117.
 della Mirandola, Oration 117.
 della Mirandola, Oration 121.
 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
 Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) 29.
 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.
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.
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.
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!
On 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.
The 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.
I am currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Human Remains: French Philosophy in the Image of God. The first part of the book looks at the ways in which the imago dei motif is explicitly taken up in contemporary French thought. The second, longer part takes debates from the philosophical reception of the imago dei motif and uses them to provide a fresh comparative reading of contemporary French philosophical anthropology in its humanist, post-humanist, neuroscientific and ecological guises. Chapters discuss Catherine Malabou, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Serres. The book’s thesis is that the human persists in contemporary thought, however radically altered its trace might be from traditional philosophical understandings. In order to argue that point it shows how reading contemporary thought through the lens of the imago dei motif helps us see how very different accounts of the human can be made to talk to and critique one another.