Malabou's Life Resistance

Catherine Malabou is one of the most interesting thinkers working today. She has a broad facility with Western philosophy, writing on Kant, Hegel, Derrida, the themes of temporality, plasticity, difference, technology, and many other things. And at the same time she has published extensively on neuroscience and issues surrounding the mind and brain. A few years ago I wrote a short piece on Malabou, focusing on the moral implications of plasticity, her signature concept. Last year a new essay of hers was published in English under the title “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance.” With great flair she outlines the broad sweep of philosophical bias against life. The opening paragraph is stunning:

“That a resistance to what is known today as biopower -- the control, regulation, exploitation, and instrumentalization of the living being -- might emerge from possibilities written into the structure of the living being itself, not from the philosophical concepts that tower over it; that there might be a biological resistance to the biopolitical; that the bio- might be viewed as a complex and contradictory authority, opposed to itself and referring to both the ideological vehicle of modern sovereignty and to that which holds it in check: this, apparently, has never been thought.”

Never been thought, she says. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but her point is a fair one: don't let philosophy condescend toward technology or biology; allow materiality to be philosophical on its own terms; conceive of resistance from “the living being itself...the bio-,” not from “the philosophical concepts that tower over it” (429).

Malabou is most interested in the fundamental distinction between symbol and life. Both the symbol and the symbolic have long had an important role to play in fields like semiotics and psychoanalysis, not to mention philosophy as a whole. The symbol is a concrescence of meaning. The realm of the symbolic is the realm of language, the realm of abstraction, the realm of linguistic universality. The symbol aggregates and focuses meaning, abstracting it away from particularities in favor of a more unified, formal point of focus. “Bio-” on the other hand, the realm of material life, is often characterized in terms of its lived particularity, in terms of an irreducible material condition.

We might give a name to this dynamic, this distinction between symbol and life. It might simply be called philosophy in general, or more specifically the philosophical bias. The philosophical bias is the bias in which the realm of mind is superior to the realm of body, or as Malabou puts it here, the symbolic superior to that of life.

Catherine Malabou

The early Derrida is instructive on this point, particularly his exploration of that most complex Greek term logos. In a day-to-day sense, logos means “speech.” It's what a speaker gives in oration. More generally logos refers to the particular way in which something happens. In this way logos also means “ratio,” and likewise indicates rationality and reason in general. The English term “logic” stems from logos because logic indicates the way in which something happens (that is, following an appropriate rationale). And while all of these definitions may seem disparate, what unifies the various means of logos is the notion that there is a right, proper, or reasonable way -- a right, proper way in which things happen. A logic indicates a happening. Thus a speech is logos because to speak, and to speak sensibly, means to speak in a way that is reasonable, well-ordered, and proper. It means to be logical, to follow the logic of grammar, meaning, context, etc. Thus there is a fundamental connection between logic/logos and ratio/rationality.

What is ratio? What is rationality? Ratio designates a relation between two discrete things, two things that have already been designated relatable in a genetic sense. Compare this to another old Greek concept, analogos. Analogos means proportion. From it we get words like analogy, analog, and analogicity. Logos means ratio, but analogos means proportion -- but what is the difference between a ratio and a proportion? I've wondered this myself, given that the difference is not entirely obvious. But I've come to understand proportion as a comparative relation between particulars, that is, between things that aren't already co-genetic. The ana- prefix in analogos is difficult to gloss. In some ways it serves as an intensifier. Or we could understand ana- to mean “on,” “again,” or “throughout.” The analogy is, in a sense, a relation on or throughout a logical ratio. We might say that the analogy repeats the logical ratio again. Still, proportion or analogicity concerns non-genetic particulars. If logos is a way of thinking with the universal, analogos is a way of thinking without the universal. And if logos is a way of thinking via genetic substrates, analogos is a way of thinking without genetic commonality. (I say “genetic” here, not “generic,” which is something else entirely.)

At this point it will not be too difficult to insert two new terms into the discussion, the digital and analog. The digital requires an alphabetical, atomic, or genetic foundation, while the analogical deals with non-genetic particulars. For this reason at the very least we can see why the digital has always had a special relationship with the symbolic, while the analogical typically finds itself on the side of life or lived materiality. (There's reasons to dispute this arrangement, of course, I'm merely acknowledging that the arrangement exists.)

Let's restate this now according to the philosophical bias that Malabou describes. The philosophical bias is a claim about a number of related things including mind, symbol, ratio, reason, language, abstraction, digitality, the genetic, the atomic, the alphabetical, and so on. The bias -- the diagonal -- is found in the fact that philosophy tends to privilege these things over their many material/lived counterparts (body, life, etc.).

At the same time, we might reverse this philosophical vector and consider the opposing force, the anti-philosophical bias. If philosophy instructs us to, as it were, enter the symbolic, enact the logos, participate in the realm of ratio or reason, then the anti-philosophical bias instructs us to "deconstruct” the very terms of the philosophical bias. Malabou has all of this in mind in this essay as she navigates the complicated relationship between the symbolic and the living. And I will note that Malabou's other work, particularly those texts focusing on plasticity, aims to preserve both mind and body, both mind and brain. Both should be considered equally, if not equally "philosophical" then equally specific and not the mere receptacle for bias.

I will mentioned in passing that there is a mathematical story to be told here as well. For we know that there is something called the rational numbers. Rational numbers numbers are numbers expressible via a relation between two discrete things, specifically between two integers. Thus rational numbers are an example of a ratio, and they express the logic described previously. Rational numbers also illustrate the fundamentally digital condition of discrete arithmetic. What I mean is that the digital (along with the symbolic, the logical, the linguistic, etc.) requires a technology of discontinuousness. There must be an elemental mechanism through which genetic or atomic elements are made alphabetical, are produced as a universal code or universal substratum. By contrast, the mathematics of analogicity works quite differently. The mathematics of analogicity requires a foundational technology of continuity, if not always in letter then certainly in spirit. Thus the heart and soul of analogical mathematics lies in geometry. Analogicity requires a geometrical continuum of some kind. (And we know that continuity is one of the single most difficult topics in the history of philosophy. Very few thinkers have adequately addressed the question of continuity. Even the most accomplished of all the analogical philosophers, Deleuze, had to conceive of analogicity in terms of ubiquitous difference. The reason why is no mystery: the philosophical bias prejudices philosophy in favor of the digital and against the analogical.) In sum, the philosophical bias is a bias against analogicity, but it's also in Malabou's terms an “antibiological bias” (431). Philosophy indicates the “primacy of symbolic life over biological life” (431, empahsis removed).

Among the many details discussed in her essay, I was particularly interested by the discussion of cloning. The gathering of stem cells and the cloning of organisms has been a point of contention in the culture wars surrounding modern science and medicine. Here however Malabou wishes to focus on a different aspect. For her, stem cells provide a way to think about both differentiation and undifferentiated life. Is the "reversibility of cellular differentiation" possible (437)? Can we go back to “a time before difference” (437)? It's a provocative query -- and not commonly heard on this side of the Atlantic. The stakes are clear, as Malabou has also indicated in her recent volume on feminist theory, Changing Difference: difference itself must be understood as plastic. (Among other things in Changing Difference, Malabou notably pushes back against the work of Paul B. Preciado and what she calls the anti-essentialism of “queer multitudes” [94]. At the same time she revisits the problems of the philosophical bias, writing that “Philosophy is woman's tomb. It grants her no place, no space whatsoever” [100].) Here in the sections on cloning, Malabou is trying to locate how difference operates in both philosophical and biological contexts. Reading the essay I was reminded of the way in which Quentin Meillassoux characterizes historical time in his book After Finitude. Early in that text Meillassoux introduces the concepts of the “ancestral” and the “arche-fossil.” I always found this part of the argument dissatisfying, particularly of the way in which Meillassoux superimposes correlationism into an historical era (with a beginning and an end), as if to suggest that the historical advent of modern humans entails the historical advent of phenomenology, and thus to go back “before” humanity entails the absence of correlation itself. That's not how history works. Still Meillassoux's argument is strangely compelling, and I suspect its ultimate value lies in how it introduces into philosophy the very real problem of human extinction. Meillassoux makes extinction part of the discussion of historical time, whether it be the absence of the human through human extinction or a condition before humanity emerged on planet Earth -- that is to say before human consciousness emerged. I wonder therefore if Malabou is making a subtle reference to Meillassoux when she tries to describe a condition not after difference, but before difference, an arche-difference or perhaps an indifference to difference. (And we know that Malabou is actively contemplating and writing on Meillassoux, as illustrated in her major new book Before Tomorrow as well as in some of her recent lectures available online. I can only hope that Malabou will also turn her attention soon to two other compatriots whom she has successfully avoided thus far, Alain Badiou and François Laruelle. Her perspective on these two would be invaluable.*)

But what to make of Malabou's magisterial if not hyperbolic opening paragraph, the one I already quoted at the top? This has never been thought. I'm reminded of a key thinker who has addressed this very question. There is indeed a philosopher, a French one no less, who has written his peroration to life resistance. That person is of course Gilles Deleuze, and the text in question appears on those glorious and mysterious pages 92 and 93 of his book on Foucault. In those brief paragraphs, Deleuze first speaks of Foucault's concept of bio-power, admitting that life “emerges as the new object of power” (92). And then, like a musician repeating a theme, Deleuze states three times in succession the following single idea: “When power in this way takes life as its aim or object, then resistance to power already puts itself on the side of life, and turns life against power”; “Life becomes resistance to power when power takes life as its object”; and finally “When power becomes bio-power resistance becomes the power of life a vital power” (92).

Malabou is not a Deleuzian of course, far from it. Deleuze's great enemy is Hegel after all, and we know that Hegel is one of Malabou's primary philosophical influences. The enemy of your friend, and all of that. Still I wonder if Malabou's new essay indicates a subtle acquiescence, a slight shift toward Deleuze, even if such a shift remains unacknowledged by her. Is Malabou a Deleuzean now without realizing it? Can we expect a new turn by Malabou in the future, a fully Deleuzean turn? She vocalized a call. And the one thinker already answering her plea is that very anti-Hegelian she so strictly resists, the one who professed many years ago of “one life only,” the one who has spoken of the unity of biological and political resistance, the one who so thoroughly refuses the philosophical bias against life: no other than Gilles Deleuze.


* The following tidbit reveals Malabou's dim opinion of Badiou: "The philosophical use of mathematics today is very strange, and deserves to be deconstructed. Badiou, of course, is the great guru of this 'mathematization' of the real. We know what is hidden behind this: Totalitarian thinking. And of course Badiou hates biology…"