comments 7
affect / capitalism / creativity / machine

Catherine Malabou has created a meticulous and profound new concept of the brain. Malabou analyses the functions which neuroscience has discovered, conducting a contemporary synthesis of neuroplasticity, crystallizing a new concept which acts as a curious new abstract machine with many parts. She names this concept plasticity after the plastic multiplicity of the brain; and one component of this concept expresses the brain’s power to learn and to heal, and even to reconfigure itself. Another component is transdifferentiation, or the power of life to remake and refold itself: the capability of certain (pluripotent, totipotent) cellular organisms to unfold into some or many other kinds of cells.

Wiring an interface between creative neurological differentiation and social transformation, Malabou’s plasticity combines these components into a revolutionary multiplicity escaping towards neuronal liberation, and contesting the sovereignty of capitalism over neural life. Thus plasticity acquires its sharpest contours in Malabou’s deployment of it in a critique of dominant computational images of thought which underlie techno-capitalism. This part of the work seems to resonate with Châtelet’s somewhat more bleak criticism of contemporary humanity, wherein human beings are superfluous neurocattle, atomized livestock tossed whatever scraps of cognitive make-work are left over after automation and simulation have eaten the world.

Plasticity as a concept is perhaps uncannily conscious of itself, and implicitly denounces the rival claims to “friendship with the concept” of the neurocapitalist marketing specialist, as well as that of the computer scientist, both of whose machines have been taken too long to be concept-fabricatorsacting as images of simulated thought.

Plasticity is therefore an explosive concept, even a dangerous one, since the deformation goes as far you as like; and Malabou emphasizes that plasticity is also destruction. In What Should We Do with Our Brain? we find an insistent and critical differentiation between:

a. the brain as creative multiplicity (transdifferentiation, creative plasticity, neuronal liberation)
b. the brain as computer, reifying-mutating a capitalized image of Thought (neuronal man, plastique)

The plasticity of the brain contests the computational image of thought for its strangle-hold on the sense of humanity. The task of neuronal liberation is also the creation of open affective-conceptual assemblages, and the construction of free life-affirming neuro-modalities; it invents or discovers another music, a mutant universe.

How to explore new ways of feeling, in order to condition different ways of thinking, to permit alien modes of existence? How to evaluate new conceptual personae in turn, in terms of plasticity? Neuronal liberation: lived plasticity, or immanent creation of neuronal life. Here begins neurosophy, in cognitive intensities, vibrations, luminosities…

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. What’s interesting is that the origins of this notion reside in William James who discovered it in the work of Jerzy Konorski, the Polish neurophysiologist (1903-1973). Konorski asked how pre-existing connections between neurons in the brain could be changed by conditioning. He suggested an idea similar to Hebb in which coincidental activation in time causes the potential connections to be transformed into actual excitatory connections. Inhibitory connections arise when the excitation of one input coincides in time with a decease in its associated connection.[2] He described the process: “The plastic changes would be related to the formation and multiplication of new synaptic junctions between the axon terminals of one nerve cell and the soma (i.e. the body and the dendrites) of the other”. (

    Of course the idea that the brain and its functions are not fixed throughout adulthood was proposed in 1890 by William James in The Principles of Psychology, though the idea was largely neglected. And, until around the 1970s, neuroscientists believed that brain’s structure and function was essentially fixed throughout adulthood.

    What’s interesting is that Malabou seems to have come by the term from philosophy of Hegel early on and then when coming into contact with the neurosciences saw the connection. I’ve wondered if the connection between these notions in the 19th Century and our newer sciences have some bearing? In the sense that if James and the early work of Kornoski were overlooked, was this due to the current state of thought in the sciences at the time not able to think it due to what Focault would term the lack of “discursive networks” prepared for it? Or something else? And, the same for later neuroscientists, was it due to the discursive networks enabling such thought that led to new neuroscientific findings, or would these have occurred anyway?

  2. Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Malabou’s concept of the brain’s plasticity is a necessary contribution to a neurosophy worthy of the name. Joseph Weissman sets the stakes outside the cynical “gee-whiz” rodomontades of the blind brain slogan-mongers. New ways of feeling, different images of thought, alien modes of existence: this is the pursuit and deepening of pluralism, as opposed to its dogmatic denial.

  3. bronac ferran says

    I think you are very much over-stating originality of Malabou’s use of this term… she will be aware that many others have used it for more than a decade, inc Warren Neidich

    Also see his Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism conferences.

  4. bronac ferran says

    Here’s a text – first delivered in 2005 at Neuroaesthetics conference in Goldsmiths, London:

    By way of balance it may also be worth taking a look at Hannah Proctor and Michael Runyan’s text called Changing Our Minds: A Journey to the Centre of the Brain which has some critique of Malabou’s position on agency published in Metamute, 4 February 2014

    • Thanks for these sources — it would definitely be constructive to try to articulate a bit more closely the relationship between Malabou’s “own” concept of plasticity (her reconstitution of it at infinite speed in her writing-thinking-becoming) to the neuroscientific context she’s working with/through, and maybe also to Hegel’s notion of plasticity as S.C. points out above.

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