Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing
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Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing

Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction

Catherine Malabou, Carolyn Shread

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eBook - ePub

Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing

Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction

Catherine Malabou, Carolyn Shread

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A former student and collaborator of Jacques Derrida, Catherine Malabou has generated worldwide acclaim for her progressive rethinking of postmodern, Derridean critique. Building on her notion of plasticity, a term she originally borrowed from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and adapted to a reading of Hegel's own work, Malabou transforms our understanding of the political and the religious, revealing the malleable nature of these concepts and their openness to positive reinvention.

In French to describe something as plastic is to recognize both its flexibility and its explosiveness-its capacity not only to receive and give form but to annihilate it as well. After defining plasticity in terms of its active embodiments, Malabou applies the notion to the work of Hegel, Heidegger, Levinas, Levi-Strauss, Freud, and Derrida, recasting their writing as a process of change (rather than mediation) between dialectic and deconstruction. Malabou contrasts plasticity against the graphic element of Derrida's work and the notion of trace in Derrida and Levinas, arguing that plasticity refers to sculptural forms that accommodate or express a trace. She then expands this analysis to the realms of politics and religion, claiming, against Derrida, that "the event" of justice and democracy is not fixed but susceptible to human action.

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Variations I
FOR JACQUES DERRIDA
INTRODUCTORY
This book is a portrait. It paints the portrait of the concept of plasticity. To be more precise, it outlines the shape of a history, the form of a movement during which the concept of plasticity gradually asserted itself as the style of an era.
From Hegel to Heidegger and then from Heidegger to Derrida, a grand formal adventure unfolded, a revisiting of form that now prohibits us from confusing form purely and simply with presence, for form has secretly transformed itself. Today form reveals its true colors: form is plastic.
By exhibiting this new arrival, in one sense I tell the tale of my own intellectual life, meeting the call of the new “Variations” collection at Editions Léo Scheer to trace a path, to measure a formative metamorphosis.
The shared history of that which appears with the “end of writing” is thus viewed here from the perspective of the individual history of a philosopher who, by retracing the interactions of dialectic, “destruction,” and deconstruction, sheds light on her books and the routes she took.1 The analysis fans open within the context of an overarching stride in which the global problem of the end of writing and a personal moment of mourning coincide. It recounts a change of era alongside an intimate metamorphosis: this is the conjunction that endows the concept of dusk with its particular hue and density.
I. LET US CONSIDER A STRANGE OBJECT
As we enter the penumbra, I invite you to consider this, my conceptual portrait, as a transformational mask.
Born of a dawn difficult to place, far from France, on the North American West Coast, in China, Siberia, New Zealand, perhaps too in India and Persia, an unusual artistic trend left traces in the form of masks, all of which share striking structural similarities despite the incommensurable distances between the countries, continents, and peoples who are their guardians. These masks are plural, composed of multiple faces—masks of masks, if you like. As Lévi-Strauss explains, “they opened suddenly like two shutters to reveal a second face, and sometimes a third one behind the second, each one imbued with mystery and austerity.”2 These composite creations are known as transformational masks.
Transformational masks never reveal the face they mask. They are ill suited to the human face and never marry the model, nor are they designed to hide it. They simply open and close onto other masks, without effecting the metamorphosis of someone or something. Their being lies essentially in the hinge that divides them in half, which is why they are sometimes called “articulated masks.” Lévi-Strauss admired their “dithyrambic gift for synthesis,”3 their ability to hold together heterogeneous elements. By showing the transformational relations that structure any face (opening and closing onto other faces) rather than disguising a face, the masks reveal the secret connection between formal unity and articulation, between the completeness of form and the possibility of its dislocation.
Entering the evening dusk, I ask that you read these pages—the story of the past they tell, the future they portend—the same way that the shutters on these masks fold out, discovering behind each panel a consistent question, a question whose consistency itself is dislocating, for it is the question of the differentiated structure of all form and hence the formal or figural unity of all difference and articulation.
In his ethnographic research, patient consideration of the enigma of transformational masks led Lévi-Strauss to the discovery that the articulation of two sides of a face, or between faces, is in fact a dividing line between two different ways of representing a single face. The articulation of the face thus refers to another invisible articulation, the articulation between what Lévi-Strauss calls the plastic and the graphic components of the mask.
The two articulated sections usually constitute two bracketed profiles of a single face. This aesthetic process is referred to as “split representation.”4 The forehead is divided into two lobes, the mouth is formed by its two opposing halves, the body appears to have been split from behind, top to bottom, and the two halves turn back onto the same plane. This dissociation is explained by the fact that the object is conceived and represented in terms of a double aspect. Lévi-Strauss explains that the mask manifests a union of “plastic and graphic components. These two elements are not independent; they have an ambivalent relationship, which is simultaneously one of opposition and one which is functional.”5 The plastic component of the mask designates everything that refers to the face and body to its referent; the graphic component offers ornament or decoration (painting or tattoo) on the same face or body. These two modes of representation symbolize the doubling of actor and part, individual and social character. Interestingly, when “graphic” and “plastic” are articulated in this way, they no longer amount to autonomous entities and are instead able to exchange their respective modes of signification. The masks undergo transformation precisely because “the modes of expression of the one [plastic] always transform those of the other [graphic], and vice versa.”6 Masks thus reveal the interchangeability or conversion relation between plastic and graphic, image and sign, body and inscription.
To enter this twilight, I ask that you read my books as forming a single, continuous attempt to situate the symbolic rupture between the plastic and the graphic component of thought for each face of the philosophical works or problems under consideration. Essentially, I seek to connect the question of the differential structure of form and, inversely, the formal structure of difference to the enigmatic relation between figure and writing. I am trying to understand, with all the consistency I can muster, the transformational relations between figure and writing and the reason why the dialogue between form and writing presents itself as a structure.
One face opens onto another; one articulation gives way to the next. This movement may continue infinitely. The secret, primitive connection that bonds transformation and substitution, metamorphosis and replacement, contrast and functional relation marks the impossibility for figure or form to be self-identical, to coincide purely and simply with itself. Likewise, in return, this connection marks the impossibility for this non-self-coincidence or rupture to manifest in any other way than as a figure, to give itself in any other way than as a becoming of form. My work is an attempt to unfold all the layers of this syncopated connection.
II. MY FACES
My own “transformational mask” is built of the two side-by-side profiles of Hegel and Heidegger—that is its initial aspect, the one most immediately visible. Upon opening, it reveals another face formed by two more profiles side by side: Hegel and Freud. A third face, hidden beneath the second, brings together the profiles of Heidegger and Lévi-Strauss, and a fourth confronts Hegel with Derrida. Finally, one last face-off occurs between philosophy and the neurosciences. This single and quintuple object, this many-leafed structure, is the image of my life and psyche; both are essentially split, diffracted, divided, but at the same time, they remain mysteriously and firmly articulated.
The reference to Lévi-Strauss not only expresses my work’s profound debt, explicit and implicit, to structuralism; it also allows me to summon a primitive origin, one far removed from philosophy, bringing me back to a childhood fascination with anything that splits, hides itself, appears, or disappears, without ever breaking, simply by changing shape; it evokes my love for twinning, scissiparity, mutability. In the end, this enduring fascination has produced a multifaceted philosophical personality. This variegation begins with a very clear and simple articulation, one that has been definitive for me: the articulation of two sides or two logical faces, which, as I soon came to understand, correspond to two types of negation. These two negations—discovered through my own disobedience?—have always pulled me in two directions at once, and it is they that constitute my paradoxical identity.
As we enter the falling dusk, I ask that you consider my mask as an object composed of several aspects soldered down the middle by a difference, or even an opposition, between two types of negativity, that is, two further types of difference or opposition. The path of my thought sits at the intersection of two logics of negation—this fork is its indisputable point of departure. According to one side, negation forms its own solution by doubling itself: dialectical negativity. According to the other, negation differentiates itself and displaces itself without resolving anything through doubling, so that it traces its distancing in terms of the spacing of a pure dislocation: deconstructive negativity.
From the start, the confrontational meeting of these two logics, these two types of negativity, constituted the troubled space of my philosophical abode, constantly shored up, constantly shaken up, by the affronts with which each “no” continues to assail the other.
I have said, and I repeat again, that we are not yet done with Hegel. I smile at the thought of all those who once thought, and who still believe, that they can jump on the bandwagon of a supposedly postmetaphysical anti-Hegelianism. Clearly the dialectic has not disappeared. Rather, the fact is that dialectic, destruction, and deconstruction circulate continuously, moving in and out of one another, continuing to transform each other today just as they always have. Furthermore, and this is precisely what justifies its multiple faces, my thought is driven by precisely this type of exchange and convertibility. Indeed, it is not always Hegel, for example, who assumes the dialectical position abreast my mask. Nor is it always Derrida who defends the differential position. Yes, Derrida did reproach Hegel for “denouncing the being-outside-of-itself of the logos,”7 for having developed a concept of the negative that is but a prelude to the gathering and closure of the self in presence, without gap or difference. But there are also occasions when Derrida defends, or even reclaims, an “unreserved Hegelianism” in counterpoint to Lévi-Strauss’s enthusiasm for full origin. So too Heidegger might offer an unrestricted affirmation of “the entirety of the structure” of existence, its resolutely infrangible nature that resists dislocation in counterpoint to the conception of structure as pure “assembly” or pure “differentiation” specific to linguists or anthropologists.8 From time to time, Freud counters a dialectical conception of mourning with the terrible infinity of hysteria. Last, there are times when the research of neurobiologists reinforces a particular metaphysics of presence at the very moment that they believe they are doing nothing but describing nomadic neuronal assemblies or synaptic sequences without intention.
The actors and their parts thus substitute for one another, move around, are exchanged and in this way present what I consider the decisive question, namely the issue of determining whether the space of confrontation between the two negativities is dialectical or purely a matter of juxtaposition. In other words, is the line of contest between the two concepts of negation—dialectical and differential—driven by a systematic tendency, a tendency to gather conflict into a form, or does the crack of the gap threaten the formation of form itself? Returning to the description of the mask proposed by Lévi-Strauss, here again we see clearly an agonism between form and its dislocation, between systematic unity and the explosion of the system.
This conflict or breach of unity can also be expressed in terms of a battle or tension between temporal differentiation and the purely synchronic aspect of the instances confronted. For the two sides of the mask, the two conceptions of negation competing for primacy are in fact differentiated and plural themselves. It is not just a matter of two sides but rather a sharing of sides on both sides. There are two forms of dislocation in each half: splitting to the power of two. In each half we find temporal differentiation at work. This is the topic at the heart of two of my books, The Future of Hegel and Le Change Heidegger. In The Future of Hegel, I write: “Time, as deployed in this philosophy, is neither a univocal nor a fixed concept. In fact, Hegel works (in) on two ‘times’ at once.”9 In Le Change Heidegger, I suggested that “reading Heidegger always amounts to… having one’s sight constantly blurred by two changes.… Always before, always after—such is the rhythm that marks time during our visit with Heidegger.”10
Any thinking of negativity, dialectical or not, always unfolds in at least two temporalities. On either side, therefore, there are not just two but several faces of time confronting one another. From The Future of Hegel to Le Change Heidegger, I constantly had to take the middle ground between different conceptions of temporality and even different temporal ecstasies or the epochs within a single epoch. I had to come to understand the following enigma: why do such differences, such scissions, such periodic diversities, far from entirely dislocating thought, instead form the unity of our time? Why doesn’t this frangibility, this divisibility of time and different types of “no” lead to some type of logical and historical schizophrenia—or “schizology”?11 I have now come to see that the concept of plasticity is well suited to describing a certain arrangement of being that I accepted from the start without, however, understanding it. Plasticity refers to the spontaneous organization of fragments. As we shall see, today the nervous system presents the clearest, most striking model of this type of organization. As a concept, plasticity is also endowed with a “dithyrambic gift for synthesis,”12 enabling me to perceive the form of fragmentation and find my spot in the movement.
To explain this strange positioning and to further justify my recourse to the analogy of transformational masks, let me add that I experienced these temporal differences through a disconcerting synchrony, as if both types of negativity presented themselves together, in the unity of a type of face. From the outset, the history of philosophy appeared to me less as a single history than a cleavage between two histories, two c...

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