Scholars in Residence

Spring 2011: Catherine Malabou

Catherine Malabou returned to UW-Madison to continue the conversation generated by her exciting 2010 Humanities Without Boundaries Lecture, “Is Plasticity a New Name for Freedom?” Working at the intersections of philosophy and neuroscience, Malabou takes up Hegel’s concept of “plasticity” – a term that suggests both openness and resistance – to forge connections between dialectics and deconstruction. Her work transforms continental philosophy as it reconceives the meaning of the political and the religious and rethinks the relationship between the brain and the world.

Endorsing Malabou’s bold interdisciplinarity, Slavoj Zizek writes, “As a rule, neuroscientists avoid two things like a vampire avoids garlic: Any links to European metaphysics, political engagement, and reflection upon the social conditions which gave rise to their science.”

Malabou teaches philosophy in Paris and Comparative Literature at the University at Buffalo. Her recent publications include What Should We Do With Our Brain? (Fordham, 2009) and Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing (Columbia, 2009) in English, and Changer le difference, le feminine et la question philosophique (Galilée, 2009) in French.


Plasticity, Epigenesis, & Life, English 960
Catherine Malabou
T, 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM
R, 9:10 AM to 11:30 AM
432 East Campus Mall (University Club), Room 313

(Two‐credit course beginning 2/14/‐4/10/2011) Working at the intersection of critical theory, literature and philosophy of science, we will examine in this seminar the concepts of bio-power and biopolitics first developed by Michel Foucault in The Will to Know: The History of Sexuality I, then revisited and radicalized by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. We will take what is still the unusual step of confronting these concepts with contemporary biological definitions of the living being.

“By [biopower],” Foucault states, “I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species.”

The definition of life or bios presupposed by this conception of biopower seems immediately adaptable to the modern form of sovereignty and its powers of “discipline” and normalization—as if biology would be incapable of proposing a concept of life able to resist biopolitics. For Foucault and thus critical theory more generally, biology would seem merely to reflect politics and thus be a discourse completely lacking in autonomy. Agamben even goes so far as to argue that there is no assurance of a clear boundary between biology and biologism, and that the camp is for that reason the paradigmatic form of modern biopolitics.

Positioning ourselves against these analyses, we will assert that contemporary biology offers, through its notions of epigenesis and plasticity, a conception of life as that which is susceptible to transform itself, improvise upon its program, and resist norms by creating its own. We will show that it might only be possible to resist biopower through biology itself. Reading Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild, as well as Krakauer’s Into the Wild, will help us to form this new concept of life.