This is the sixth 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 6 considers the figure of the human that emerges in Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence and his ‘Facing Gaia’ lectures. Like the other thinkers discussed, Latour neither repeats nor discards previous notions of humanity but translates them in a gesture that can be traced all the way back to his doctoral work on the theologian of demythologisation Rudolf Bultmann. In his attempts to elaborate a figure of the human that follows neither the structure nor the emancipation narrative of modernity, Latour (like Serres) develops a multi-modal approach. The human is an amalgam of multiple modes of existence, and cannot be isolated within, or adequately narrated in, any single one. This dispersal mitigates the danger of Serres’s singular Great Story acting as a host narrative of humanity. In addition, Latour avoids the problems inherent in a host capacity approach by distributing both capacities and substance across human and nonhuman actors in unatomisable collectivities. Whereas the host capacity and host substance approaches seek to understand the human by looking within, Latour insists that the human only becomes comprehensible when we look outside and around. His 2013 Gifford Lectures both develop and challenge themes from the Modes of Existence project, reasserting the centrality of the human now in the new form of the ‘Earthbound’, a non-modern anthropos defined in terms of its limits and its multiple attachments to its world.
This is the fifth 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.
With Michel Serres’s universal humanism (Chapter 5) the argument returns to the question of host capacities in order, finally, to go beyond it. Rather than Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s determinate capacity for thought and rather than Malabou’s meta-capacity of plasticity, Serres seeks to elaborate a figure of the human that accommodates both determinate qualities (like Badiou and Meillassoux) and de-differentiation (like Malabou). This is judged to be the most adequate way of dealing with capacities encountered thus far, because it marries singularity and determinacy with genericity and plurality, yielding neither an undifferentiated and abstract notion of humanity nor a diversity of individuals with nothing in common. The second half of the chapter explores how Serres develops further the continuity between epigenetics and hermeneutics which Malabou begins to elaborate in Avant demain. Humanity is best understood, for Serres, as part of the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe, a story not only about but also told by the natural world in a way that emphasises the continuity between ‘human’ language and ‘nonhuman’ processes. This insistence upon continuity between the human and the nonhuman also positions Serres very differently to Badiou, Meillassoux and Malabou (in her early work), who all continue to assume that humanity inhabits a meaningless and indifferent universe, and continue to maintain that to think otherwise is anthropocentric. The combination of Serres’s Great Story and his introduction of the two figures of multi-coloured Harlequin and all-white Pierrot gives him a multi-modal account of humanity (capacities plus narrative), and this makes the figure of the human that emerges from his work richer, as well as more situated in its landscape and its history, than in the accounts considered in previous chapters. There is, however, a danger that Serres’s Great Story becomes a ‘host story’ for his account of the human, forcing all humans into a single narrative mould in the same way that a host capacity or a host substance routes all discourse about the human through one single characteristic or quality. It is in order to resist this tendency that we turn in the final chapter to Bruno Latour.
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.
This is the second 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 2 continues exploring the contemporary permutations of the host capacity account of humanity with a close reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s transformation of the human. The place of the human in Meillassoux’s thought is complex. On the one hand, he maintains a strong and consistent rhetoric of anti-anthropocentrism, and his fundamental philosophical project can be summarised as an attempt to break free from what he sees as the anthropocentric straitjacket of Kantian and post- Kantian ‘correlationist’ thought. On the other hand, however, Meillassoux evinces (especially in his work subsequent to After Finitude and nowhere more strikingly than in ‘The Divine Inexistence’) a very high view of the human indeed, not hesitating to call his philosophy a ‘humanism’ and asserting the value of the human as ultimate.
I seek to show, in the first half of the chapter, that Meillassoux’s humanism is less humanist than he thinks and, in the second part, that his attempt to disengage from anthropocentrism is more anthropocentric than he thinks.
As in the case of Badiou, it is Meillassoux’s insistence on tethering the value of humanity to its capacity for thought that lies at the root of many of the problems of his anthropology. This leads me to move beyond the host capacity approach as I turn, in Chapter 3, to the thought of Catherine Malabou.
Over the coming days I will be posting brief summaries of the argument of French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour, chapter by chapter. Here is the main argument of Chapter 1, on Badiou.
This first chapter probes the limits of Badiou’s “formalised inhumanism”. It argues that it is wrong to characterise the figure of the human that emerges in Badiou’s thought as radically new, and traces its similarities with other figures which Badiou rejects. For both Badiou and his antagonists, the human is irreducibly composite: it cannot be what it is without a constitutive relation to an instance of inhumanity or non-humanity outside itself. Badiou’s split anthropology of the “human animal” and the “immortal” faces one major structural and ethical problem, which arises from the way in which he seeks to understand the relation between the animal and immortal: he makes fidelity to a truth, and therefore humanity in its full sense, contingent upon an individual’s possession of what he calls “the one and only uniquely human capacity” (Métapolitique111/ Metapolitics 97-8), namely the capacity for affirmative thought. Such thought functions for Badiou as a “host capacity”, a boundary marker or a gatekeeper of the uniqueness of humanity among animal, organic and non-organic entities. Despite exploring several creative ways to overcome the problems caused by Badiou’s “host capacity” account of humanity, I conclude that it remains a thorn in the flesh of his claim that “several times in its brief existence, every human animal is granted the chance to incorporate itself into the subjective present of a truth” (Logiques des mondes 536 n11/Logics of Worlds 514 n11).