Catherine Malabou, Anne Carson, and the Plasticity of Inheritance

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Abstract (in English): 

Catherine Malabou has pursued her philosophy of plasticity across a number of recent works, published over several decades. In books such as The Future of Hegel, The New Wounded, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, Before Tomorrow, and Morphing Intelligence, she has explored the intimate connections between brain plasticity and temporality as pertaining to key figures in the modern philosophical tradition: Hegel, Kant, Freud, Bergson, Derrida, and others.

One might think of her corpus as composed of a series of adventurous and bold philosophical retracings, where motifs such as doublings, short circuits, metamorphoses, and wormholes through time feature prominently. She is a preeminent contemporary philosopher, but her work importantly interfaces with neuroscience, cognitive sciences, and the history of artificial intelligence too. Likewise, as I wish to argue in my conference presentation, her work has important implications for literary studies. I want to discuss implications and possible styles of practical application by bringing Malabou together with the contemporary poet Anne Carson.

Broadly speaking, Malabou’s work deals with the fraught history of genetic versus epigenetic views on the origins of human subjectivity and intelligence. Without getting into details at this point, let us think of genetic versus epigenetic as terms affilitated with programmability and plasticity, terms which are best thought of, in Malabou’s diverse investigations, as being dialectically related to one another.

We can discover through the figure of what Malabou calls, following Kant, transcendental epigenesis, ”a new dimension of time…another logic of foundation” (Before Tomorrow 19). This logic, wherein origins become mutable—where genesis is always already epigenesis—is, I believe, at the heart of Anne Carson’s philosophically inspired literary production. Carson is best known for her innovative negotiations with Classical literature. In her temporal, discursive, and generic traversals of what she calls in Autobiography of Red the “difficult interval” of literary history between the ancient Greeks and the Modernists—“after Homer and before Gertrude Stein” (!) (3)—Carson has produced a remarkable, and uniquely strange, body of work. It fuses together recapitulation with invention, repetition with exploration, in a perpetual effort to grasp the very conditions of mental spontaneity, and therefore to speak of things that cannot be clearly identified or articulated, though her style is strongly marked by the effort.

“A poet,” Carson writes in Economy of the Unlost, “is someone who saves and is saved by the dead” (74). To me this seems like a definitive watchword not only for Carson, but for Malabou also. If Malabou can help us read Carson, Carson helps us read Malabou because her work underscores the extent to which Malabou’s philosophy of plasticity, even in its most materialist dimensions, i,e., as pertaining to brain architecture, is ultimately about what it means to be creatures who inherit: biological organisms shaped and reshaped by cultural transmission.

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Cecilie Klingenberg