13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Labors of the Living Brain: Mobilizing Plasticity towards Ancestral Pasts and Mutual Aid Futures

By Catherine Malabou

Catherine Malabou’s writing has been a key inspiration for the upcoming edition of the Gwangju Biennale, in which we set out to explore artistic and scientific approaches that examine the entire spectrum of intelligence, organic and inorganic, emanating from spirit beings, Indigenous knowledge worlds, shamanistic cosmologies, and nonhuman cognition, as well as from the interplay between the so-called machine brain and algorithmic regimes governing the world.

Defne Ayas / Natasha Ginwala: Your work has tackled the notions of intelligence and plasticity for more than two decades, drawing from Hegel and Freud, as well as from the cognitive and neuro-sciences. You mobilize plasticity to challenge the idea of an “elastic” subject and to consider how an organism relates, or refuses to adapt, to its environment. Could we begin by talking about how you engage brain plasticity to refute early comparisons between the brain and computer as “thinking machines”?

Catherine Malabou: Firstly, I never really gave up the Hegelian perspective, because for me plasticity remains a dialectical notion. For a long time I thought that organic plasticity and technological plasticity were opposed, this is why I thought that the idea of a cybernetic brain was not accurate. Then as my research went on, I discovered that there wasn’t in fact such a defined difference. This is where Hegel was again very useful, because he holds that “difference” begins as a difference, then becomes a contradiction, and then disappears as a contradiction. This is exactly what happened in my work when I discovered that the difference between natural and technological plasticity had moved toward a contradiction and then had disappeared as such. What makes intelligence difficult to conceptualize today is this absence of difference between natural and technological plasticity. The most recent research in cybernetics reveals that the next computers and algorithms will function synaptically, that is, via the same model as the brain, with the capacity to modulate their intensity, to regulate the energy they use, and so on. It becomes harder and harder to draw a line, a straight frontier, between the organic and the cybernetic. The problem today is that we have to deal with what seems to be a dialectical identity; it is not that there are no differences at all, the problem is locating these differences. What are the main differences today between human intelligence and cybernetic intelligence, between the human brain or the natural brain and the technological brain? It can’t be a rigid opposition, as it used to be, but there must be an identified series of differences. Most often, people do not ask the right questions, because they think that any comparison between the human and the technological cannot be made, that we have to refuse this identity. In this, they are just developing reactive positions that are not helpful. The task today is to re-elaborate the right mode of dialogue between the organic and the cybernetic, which is very difficult, but it is what we have to do.

Watercolour drawing showing extreme congestion of the brain and its membranes. From a girl, aged 16 years, who after delirium and vomiting, became comatose and died in that condition. No structural disease of the brain or its vessels was discovered. Photo by Wellcome Collection https://wellcomecollection.org/works/m2dsdtef

DA/NG: Could you elaborate on the neurological definition of plasticity—the spectrum between its creative and destructive nature? And perhaps also on the discrepancy between cognitive networks and emotion, reason and affect?

CM: In my tradition, which is Continental philosophy, the brain had never been an object of philosophical elaboration. In philosophy, both historical and contemporary forms like deconstruction or philosophies of difference, the source for human creativity was a series of, not exactly faculties, but spaces, which could be named “spirit”, “mind”, “critical power”, “judgment”, or “memory” in Bergson. But the brain had been very seldom thematized, maybe for the first time by Aristotle, who said that it was the principle of life in living beings, and then later on by Descartes and a little by Bergson, but only insofar as the brain was an instrument whose function was to transmit information, and never to interpret it. On its own, it didn’t have any capacity for representation or thinking, and no emotion at all. If the brain had an enemy, it was emotion. This was the background against which I started to discover the brain in the light of recent neurological research, according to which the brain not only appears as the basis for all intellectual processes, but also for emotional reactions. The discovery of what Antonio Damasio calls the “emotional brain,” was a total revolution for me: the idea that all affects are brain-induced phenomena. Perhaps this wasn’t easy to accept, but that all of our affects—joy, sadness, anxiety, etc.—are a mix of neurotransmitters, dopamine, serotonin… Now it is not possible to try to describe or consider an emotion without referring to these chemical or neural processes. 

Why was this so important for me? Because in neurology, and also in everyday life—I mention my grandmother in my book The New Wounded—we started discovering that some people had lost their emotions. The problem of emotions became central, I would say, around thirty years ago, with the study of all these neural diseases, where we saw that some people had become, as Damasio says, cool, seemingly without emotions. This meant that emotions could be lost, could disappear. But this had not been considered in the philosophical tradition. When Heidegger said we are attuned to our world through emotions, he never imagined that these emotions could disappear. Even indifference in philosophy, for example in Descartes, is analyzed as an emotion. So the idea that emotions can disappear, can be destroyed, is how I first came to think of destructive plasticity, that there was this kind of destructive power in the brain. This is what brought me into this new neurological realm. 

Most of the time, people say, “we cannot compare the living brain to the cybernetic one, because a computer is unable to feel.” Emotions are supposedly the proof that there’s a difference between a human brain and a cybernetic brain. Yet if you read the foundational texts by cyberneticians, like [Norbert] Wiener, they say that their dream is to build a cybernetic system that is able to become depressed, to lose its functions. We discover that the goal of cybernetics has always been not only to produce efficient machines, but also to produce machines that break down and function as if they had lost their intelligence. Wiener says that when building our machines, we should read contemporary psychology, because what we want to do is create a comparable kind of breakdown, a comparable depression, in machines as in humans. Here again, destructive plasticity might also be a cybernetic capacity.

DA/NG: How ought we interpret cerebral structures operating within global capitalism, particularly with disembodied or remote working? You investigate the conditions under which the brain performs its labor, and in Avanessian and Hennig’s analysis of your work, “our living brain becomes the object of a historical-materialist labor ethics.” In the era of collective intelligence, what is to be said about the labor of the brain?

CM: If we go back to this identity of the organic brain and the cybernetic brain, I would say that the most striking form of brain labor is dealing with the computer as a mirror. I think this is what is asked from us today, by demanding capitalistic forms of labor—to find a way to deal with the mirroring of yourself in the machine. For example, right now when I’m speaking to you via video chat, whom am I speaking to? Am I speaking to you, or am I speaking to the machine, or am I speaking to myself through you, and through the machine? We are having to develop a new concept of alterity. To what extent is the machine an Other? Even if the body, the rest of the body, is also involved in video conferences, remote teaching, and so on, it is clear that the organ that is most at work is the brain. This has been heightened since the beginning of the pandemic, because in these kinds of online exchanges, we are working essentially with our brains; the body is still while the brain does everything. People have long talked about cognitive capitalism, that the brain has been the center of cognitive accumulation for almost fifty years, but the situation is evolving. Now it is not only a question of cognitive accumulation, but of redesigning the whole world through this new mirroring process of having to deal with sameness and otherness at the same time. Currently, we are not producing commodities, we are producing new relationships, and I would say that this is the most significant aspect of brain labor today. 

DA/NG: The world is a production of our brain, and our brain certainly has the capacity to create a wonder-inducing world for us, yet at the same time brains are a production in their own right, involving us in continued participation to reach truths and a consciousness of social history.  We love this quote from your work: “The brain is a work, and we do not know it. We are its subjects—authors and products at once—and we do not know it. ‘Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it,’ says Marx, intending thereby to awaken a consciousness of historicity. In a certain way, such words apply precisely to our context and object: ‘Humans make their own brain, but they do not know that they make it.’”  

CM: The brain and the world mirror themselves through reciprocal processes of adaptation and creation. There is a movement of going outside of one’s self, and of assimilating all the modifications internally. Marx speaks in terms of consciousness, and the problem is that the brain is not conscious of itself. Consciousness of the brain is impossible. I was fully aware of the fact that when I wrote the book What Should We Do with Our Brain?, it was kind of a lost cause, because you can write pages and pages, and people won’t ever become conscious of their brains because the brain escapes consciousness. This is another type of dialectical problem: How is it possible to produce something that could be a form of brain consciousness? There have been many discussions recently about the Anthropocene, about the ecological crisis, around the question: How can we explain that even if the ecological crisis is produced by humanity, even if this crisis is massive, visible, obvious—the virus is one example of this—how come some people can still negate it, saying, “No, no, it’s fine, there’s no ecological crisis”? This problem, which is exploited by politicians, is crucial; that it is very difficult to produce the consciousness of something that happens below the threshold of consciousness. Humanity has become a geological force able to transform nature. But how are we able to produce a consciousness of that if we are a geological force? How is it possible to produce a consciousness of the brain if the brain is an unconscious structure? This can only be a political question. Marx had exactly the same problem; when he talked about consciousness he knew perfectly well that class struggle could not be immediately conscious, because otherwise it would have been fought against earlier. The problem of Marxism, and more generally the problem of politics today, is how to produce a political discourse that is able to compensate for this lack of consciousness.

Summed slices z-projection of actin filaments in mouse cortical neurons grown in vitro for 2.5 days. Image was taken on a zeiss 780 confocal microscope then deconvoluted using an experimental point spread function. From Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SUM_110913_Cort_Neurons_2.5d_in_vitro_488_Phalloidin_no_perm_4_cmle-2.png

DA/NG: You draw not only upon neuroscientific studies but also on the role of poetry and literature. How does your approach sit in relation to the history of ideas, in the cognitive revolution of the theory of consciousness?

CM: In a certain sense I can’t answer your question. Because this is my singularity, and this is something I cannot explain. The only thing I can say is that for a long time, poetics, as you call it, has been separated from the sciences. Heidegger says that only poetry can save us, not science, because science is the end of humanity. So after Heidegger there was a movement in philosophy that privileged literature, for example Deleuze, Derrida, they bring literature into philosophy as a way to oppose scientific knowledge. This was something that I needed to break with. I think that poetry, literature, or more generally creativity, cannot be cut off from science. Because if we do that, then we won’t be able to understand what is at stake with regard to recent neurological research, biological discoveries, cybernetics… We need to break with the dilemma between literature and science, of creativity and science. I take this approach because I want to break, yes, to destroy, the rigid frontier between art and science. When Foucault talks about biopower, he says that biology is only reactive science, biology produces normativity, political oppression, and so on. This is not true. The hard sciences do not produce exploitation or subordination, they can have an emancipatory power that has to be affirmed. And I think it has to be affirmed with art.

DA/NG: And how do you sense further pathways into the sciences that transcend the inquiries rooted in Western modernity, between the neuronal and the political? As such, harness your critical theory and deep-tissue work in the humanities with advances in molecular, cellular, and neurobiology? 

CM: I discovered this sentence by Foucault: “My only object in philosophy is my own transformation.” Because people would say, “Oh, Foucault, one day you’re working on that, the following day you’re working on something else, so what is the unity of your work?” And Foucault says, “the object of my work is my own transformation.” I was so struck by that, because I’m very interested in metamorphosis, and plastic developments of any kind. Maybe to do philosophy is simply to monitor your own transformation, to see how thinking develops, and to be both author and witness of this development. Hegel was also central, Hegel who says every time you feel an opposition, every time you think there’s a contradiction somewhere, every time you feel threatened by change, attacked by change, try to look at it the other way around, try to say, “OK, this seems like a threat, an obstacle, what can I do?” There are two options: either you react and resist and become resentful—for example when I discovered neurology in the beginning I said, “Ah no! I hate that!”—or you try to become more fluid in yourself in order to accept the change and, as you said, monitor it. My way of doing philosophy is also a way to overcome my resistances.

DA/NG: You have taken an interest in the legacies of anarchism, especially Peter Kropotkin. Can you tell us more about the “remembrance of the ancestral biological past”? About the expanding field of epigenetics and the art of imagining new forms and understandings of intelligence today? What are our possibilities and limits?  

CM: If classical anarchism has been abandoned it’s because it was considered too naturalistic, because it’s true that it is based upon a biological vision of the social. Anarchism has been seen as dangerous socio-biology, as in, we are all determined by the biological. In fact, I think we should reread Kropotkin et al, because this is not all that they have to say. They never actually said: “We are socio-biologically determined.” What they say is, if we look at elementary forms of life, starting from insects, or even molecules, if we look at the evolution from these molecules to animals and humans, what do we notice? We notice that, yes, Darwin was right, there’s a struggle for life. But there’s also a trend toward mutualism and cooperation. When evolution gave way to the emergence of the human, these forms of mutual aid were transformed, they became politically invested, and this is what produced different political organizations, cities, and social groups. This mutualism has been fragmented, and politically re-elaborated, but it has not disappeared. This is how, according to them, anarchy is possible. The trend toward cooperation and solidarity is not inscribed in our genes exactly, it is not something genetic, rather it is something epigenetic. But they didn’t have this term at the time, so people thought they were saying it is simply genetic. Now we can say that mutual aid is epigenetically inscribed in the memory—let’s say biological memory—of our species. This means that there’s a trend toward mutual aid and collaboration, but this trend is not determined, it is not a genetic trend, it’s open to all forms of transformation.

My current work-in-progress is a book on philosophy and anarchy, motivated by my preexisting reflection on the identity between the way our brain functions and the way computers function. It seems to me that the main similarity is the horizontality of their processes. In What Should We Do with Our Brain?, I was already thinking about the fact that the brain’s energy is decentralized, and everything works on a model of mutual aid, that is, all regions collaborate in what is called in neurology “the global workspace.” Contemporary cybernetics also seem to offer new possibilities for horizontal collaboration and decentralized platforms, which resonates for me with the anarchistic motives of mutual aid, collaboration, the absence of a central power… So I started to become interested in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and I discovered that many mutual-aid networks were using cryptocurrencies to finance their projects. It appeared to me that this similarity of horizontal functioning between the brain and cybernetic processes could offer possibilities, opportunities, for a totally different world, in which power, finance, and money could function horizontally, according to the model of mutual aid networks. But we are at the beginning of a new capitalistic struggle. At the moment, capitalism is struggling between two forms: one of centralized power—for example China is developing a national cryptocurrency—trying to capture all of these processes; and one of a multiplication of these processes, for example with corporations like Uber, Airbnb, etc. Capitalism is struggling within itself with these anarchistic modes of organization. This is a chance for radical thinking to build a counter-model with these platforms and horizontal modes of operation against the capitalist model. Some Indigenous cultures in Latin America are using cryptocurrencies to fight against the hegemony of the dollar, or in Afghanistan, they are being used to give an identity to women without documentation. These currencies can be an emancipatory tool, but there are also other examples, to try to build a different world. 

T. Kajiwara, Photographic portrait of Emma Goldman, ca. 1911, Library of Congress, from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emma_Goldman_seated.jpg

DA/NG: This goes well with dialogue you envision between human and cybernetic intelligence for more democratic futures. Can we also relate it to your new body of work around a critique of domination and power, about our hidden, dormant, and invisible tyrannies? You recently referred to Emma Goldman’s hearts of mothers and grandmothers, who consider these tyrants as “active exponents of women’s participation.”

CM: What is the main difference between the Marxist approach to power and the anarchistic approach? To me, the main term is domination. Marxism is about labor exploitation, economic exploitation. Anarchism is about domination. Anarchists don’t negate social and economic exploitation, but they relate economic exploitation to governance, and they want to understand how some people accept another person’s power. What does it mean to be dominated by someone else? Where does it start? There is this strong critique of governance in anarchism, but government, as Emma Goldman shows, starts in our domestic life; there are the big tyrants, as well as the tyrants at home: the husbands, fathers, mothers, even the children sometimes. In fact, anarchism began as an independent movement by studying all forms of domination, even those almost imperceptible ones, as well with mutual aid as an inquiry into domination. Mutual aid is a way to fight domination.

DA/NG: In our work in Gwangju, we have been exploring how artists work beyond the notions of illegal/legal, outsider/insider, female/male, while also taking up with them the conditions of plasticity and present relations with algorithmic capitalism. From the traumatic history of the Gwangju Uprising to the ongoing peoples’ movements and alliance building, we are collaboratively exploring ancestral knowledge and Indigenous cosmologies that avow planetary life-systems. Drawing from your work on post-traumatic subjectivity, can you expand on how neuronal plasticity impacts sociopolitical as well as emotional networks of solidarity?

CM: I read about the Gwangju Uprising before our interview, and discovered the importance it had in the history of South Korea. Yesterday I was teaching a class where we’re reading Structural Anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, who says that trauma is always double. On one level it is personal, my history, your individual history, what Freud called the traumatic. On another level, trauma is culture: we are initially traumatized, even if we don’t immediately know this, surrounded by the culture we come from. When I’m traumatized on a personal level, my cultural background emerges in remembrance of this second trauma. I’m never traumatized out of nowhere, or only from my personal history; this is where Levi-Strauss reproaches Freud, saying, “for you Freud, trauma is only my little history,” whereas Levi-Strauss says, “no, your culture is also a trauma.” Our culture is not only something reassuring, it is not only something that is our identity, our language, our home. Our culture is also our enemy. Whatever culture, whether French, Korean, or whichever. Maybe we could build on this to try to bring these two traumatic instances together, to show that politics will always try to exploit this double traumatic position, keeping us prisoners to this human fragility. Maybe we can work to make fluid these double traumatic imprints. We should not forget that trauma necessarily has a collective dimension. And I think I will write something on that next.


Catherine Malabou is professor of philosophy at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London, and of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. Her many books include Morphing Intelligence (2019), What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2008), Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing (2009), and Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2016).