The Catapulted Brain

Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brain? appears a bit alien due to its friendly treatment of neurosciences – yet this is an oddness that is becoming more and more common. Philosophically, Malabou’s book presents itself as somewhat of an enigma – particularly in regards to its alliances – shifting from Deleuze to Hegel to pseudo-Marxist harpings on the the changing face of capital.

Many of Malabou’s general arguments are welcome such as when she deplores the comparison of the brain to a machine something which Badiou, for instance, is guilty of in his attempt to save the concept or manifest image of man. Also, Malabou’s question of how do we separate the spirit of capitalism from our brain is another interesting one thereby taking a purely ideological discussion to one of the very structure of thought as thought biologically or thought as unthought or as natural. The question of nature, while not directly addressed by Malabou, arises when the brain is thought as both an original imprint and as the point of departure for various trajectories that is, as both the product and the producer – the dominant coupling in Ian Hamilton Grant’s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.

Via Schelling, Grant provides a brief retort to neuronal elimitivism – “if ideation is electrochemistry, electrochemistry grounds, rather than undermines, all ideation” (p. 188). The problem as Brassier points out in the appendix to Collapse II however, is whether the object (the brain) can grasp reality, or think beyond it, without either resorting to a Kantian transcendentalism or to a neural efficacy which assumes a direct relation between thought and world (p. 319). In a similar vein, Malabou takes issue with Damasio’s psychological Darwinian view that only the best neural patterns are kept for future generations.

Where there might be further congruence between Malabou and Brassier is thinking about the issue not in terms of truth or falsity but in terms but in terms of limitation – that is in terms of degrees (of reality for Brassier in relation to realism) and in terms of flexibility (in terms of the neuronal for Malabou).  The question of the ‘retardation’ of matter, central to Grant’s reading of Schelling arises here as well.  In Malabou’s text, the difference between flexibility (as merely accepting form) and plasticity as giving form, again raises the question of producer and product – the question of the brain’s (and the subject’s) momentum.  Accepting plasticity over flexibility means knowing what the brain can do and not merely what it can withstand (p. 13).

The question becomes whether plasticity is only ever biological – if the openness of ideation is closed in terms of how much the neuronal can bend – that the contours of the imprint can be changed by the outside world but by only so much.  This, taken backwards, as how the world corresponds to the seeing of the world, seems to be dominant issue for Brassier.

Connecting to points made in Nick’s most recent post, Malabou’s note that one cannot discern the difference between the neuronal and the mental, leaves space for the humanist trophies of agency, self, will et cetera. But, at the same time, thought, as some form of consciousness, appears as only a kind of epoxy for the network.  It is interesting that Brassier seems to stick to the term structure in relation to ideation and does not use network in relation to Grant and the neuronal – it may be that he is attempting to avoid a Deleuzian tone which, taken up by Malabou, is used to codify the being of the brain as imagistic.  Brain as screen, in relation to both affect and emotion, may have some resonances with Levi’s recent post on Spinoza.

The problem, it seems, comes down to the synthetic relations of science (the problem of a non-humanist epistemology as Brassier discusses) and the undoing of transcedental synthesis via Laruelle and perhaps via Schelling in the form a transcendental materialism – the velocity of matter which cannot be simply ignored or slowed via thought.  The problematic becomes of deciding or finding the point at which the material leaves matter behind.

3 thoughts on “The Catapulted Brain

  1. I’m taken back, inevitably, to Coleridge and Hartley – to Hartley’s associationism and Coleridge’s conception of imagination as an “esemplastic” power capable of shaping – and not merely being shaped by – mental experience. Obviously the science involved is far in advance of anything either Coleridge or Hartley was able to know; but in other respects I’m not sure that the co-ordinates of the debate have really shifted all that much…

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