Beautiful Monsters: On Destructive Plasticity
Catherine Malabou claims that both neuroscience and psychoanalysis fail to take destructive plasticity into account, but they do it, just in different ways. Freud has no middle term between the plasticity of gaining form and elasticity as the erasure of all form; therefore, he failed to take into account the possibility of the formation of new identity through the work of destructive power. As for neurobiology, although it deals with transformations of identity resulting from brain lesions or traumatic events, it merely observes such transformation and fails to theorize it. Within the framework of both neurology and neurobiology, the formation of identity through destruction is simply invoked as a morbid eventuality. Neurobiology has never developed destructive plasticity as a self sufficient concept: it recognizes the phenomenon, but not the law.
Neurobiology employs the concept of neuronal plasticity that refers to the positive and constructive sense of the malleable character of synaptic connections. But there is no concept that characterizes the process whereby these connections are pruned or inhibited. A generally accepted scientific definition of plasticity captures only one side of it: a positive coherent formation. The other side, that is, formation through destruction, is simply excluded. Within the framework of neuroscience, which employs such concept of plasticity, pathological metamorphosis is seen as always endowed with a coefficient of reconstruction and healing. The destructive significance of plasticity remains in the shadows, or, at least, it is always oriented toward its redemption. So, destructive plasticity, which is plasticity without remedy, is excluded from this perspective.
Once it comes to destructive plasticity, neurologists and neurobiologists either hasten to discuss a cure and remission, or hastily return to “good” compensatory plasticity. Once the theme of destructive plasticity is evoked — this goes without saying — it has to be supplemented by the discussion of cure. Such a trend is a manifestation of a more general tendency of neurology, neurobiology and psychoanalysis to normalize.
They determine what is normal and healthy, justifying their existence by promising to regain health or normality. However, from Foucault, we know that the concepts of illness and health are socially constructed. The difference between the normal processes and the processes that are considered abnormal is, to a great extent, culturally variable and historically changeable.
Mini Copernican Turn
As an example of victims of destructive plasticity, Malabou suggests not only patients with brain lesions, victims of various cerebral lesions or attacks, including degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but also those who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder. For Malabou, although destructive plasticity has creative powers, its work is evil — it creates monsters. I agree with Malabou’s thoughts on destructive plasticity, though I would like to expand this concept further so that it will not just supplement a concept of positive plasticity, but will start to be seen as even more significant in comparison to it.
I suggest to begin with mini Copernican turn. As it is known, the person who inspired, so to say, some of Malabou’s books was her grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In the preamble to The New Wounded, Malabou states: “In the first place, this book is a belated reaction to the ordeal of depersonalization to which my grandmother was subjected as Alzheimer’s disease operated upon her” (Malabou C. The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012, p. XI). Although Malabou reflects on those who suffer from destructive plasticity, that is to say, on those who are traumatized without remedy, like her grandmother, aren’t Malabou’s thoughts a result of her own unhealable trauma of experience with her grandmother?
Later in the preamble to The New Wounded she continues: “this was a stranger who didn’t recognize me, who didn’t recognize herself because she had undoubtedly never met her before. Behind the familiar halo of hair, the tone of voice, the blue of her eyes: the absolutely incontestable presence of someone else. This other person, however, was strangely absent. My grandmother no longer cared about anything anymore; she was indifferent, detached, cool. In the end, she spent whole days creasing and uncreasing a corner of her blanket” (Ibid., p. XI-XII). Isn’t it obvious that those thoughts are a result of an author’s own pain that changed her dramatically? More than this, she is not the only one who was changed, since the readers of her books can actually feel this pain and it inevitably changes them, too.
My more general point here is that we shouldn’t so readily distinguish between the victims of destructive plasticity, whose personality is formed as a result of work of destructions, and those who we consider normal and healthy.
In this context, what I want to suggest is to expand the concept of destructive plasticity in such a way that it will be possible to reconnect it to the concept of childhood. This claim is somehow controversial since Malabou frequently points out that destructive plasticity is opposite to the plasticity of a child, which is seen exclusively as a positive.
This issue hinges essentially on what definition one employs for the word “child”. It is true that according to the prevalent philosophical interpretation, the concept of child is identified with a positive formation: it symbolises inner healing powers that have to be restored through therapy. According to such interpretation, in fact, to be healed is to become a child.
I don’t like this concept of a child. Fortunately, philosophy offers alternative interpretations of childhood, such as Lyotard’s vision of childhood as a primordial susceptibility. According to him, childhood persists into adulthood and it remains there as a defenselessness and vulnerability. Thus, childhood persists as a constitutive of adulthood, precisely as a state where the adult turns out to be “without defense”.
The inner child in Lyotard’s philosophy is also radically different from the concept of the inner child as it occurs in pop psychology. The latter encourages adults to heal their inner child, whereas the inner child in the philosophy of Lyotard is, in principle, unhealable; moreover, she is the opposite of any healing and therapy — she is the traumaticity itself, which must persist for any form of affirmative becoming to occur.
My thinking about the concept of child comes from my own incurable experience. While Malabou reflects on her grandmother, my material for reflection is my daughter. She was diagnosed with an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She is much better now and her behavior is not pathological anymore. At the moment she can be described by the word “troublemaker”, but some years ago she was an indescribable disaster with her endless tantrums that closely resembled suicide extended in time. She was literally destroying the world around her, including herself. The most terrifying thing was my inability to help the most precious human being I have. I was doomed to see that the life that I had given her was unbearable for her.
Such a tendency to destruction and self-destruction is not exclusive to my daughter, but it is also obvious in other children. According to Foucault, philosophy is about doubting the obvious. What can be more obvious than the fact that little children cry a lot? It was not obvious to me when I gave birth to my daughter. Not so much because I am a philosopher; I just didn’t have any experience with children. I didn’t know if it was in the order of things that she cried so much; I perceived her as a grown-up person. If one saw a grown-up person who cried like that, they would think that something terrible had happened to her, maybe even so terrible that she would prefer to die than to live with this experience. Clearly, my child was not a representation of positive plasticity, she rather represented a process of self-destruction.
It is also important to take into account that human experience is subjective, thus there is no such thing as a good experience per se (one might wrongly consider weddings or the birth of a child as a part of this category) or a traumatizing experience per se (one might wrongly consider the death of a close person to be such a kind of experience). I have a friend whose most traumatic experience was his wedding, and I’m more than sure he is not the only one. For example, the day my grandmother died, my 5 year old daughter saw me crying and asked me what happened. I told her that I just lost a very important person. She still didn’t get it and asked me: “Why are you crying then? It is she who is dead, not you.” Later on the same day, my daughter’s balloon popped (she is obsessed with balloons) and that was the moment when the intensity of her suffering began to coincide with mine.
Stress and Trauma
The process of learning and psychological formation of the child and subsequent formation that occurs throughout life are not usually seen as causing traumatization’, although I think that the ancient Greeks were right in considering that to learn is to suffer. It is widely agreed, though, that the condition of stress is very important for the process of learning. Stress is a reaction to new circumstances (including exposure to new information) which initiates adaptation (including the assimilation of new knowledge).
The distinction between stress and traumatization is quite conditional. Since Freud, psychic traumatization is understood by the analogy of physical traumatization, that is, with the occurrence of a foreign body that can’t be fully integrated into the organism and become assimilated by it. At the level of mind, a foreign body is represented by an experience that can not be fully integrated into the overall scope of experience. The conditionality of the distinction between stress and traumatization is due to the fact that any new experience and exposure to new information, by definition, cannot be totally identical to the already existing scope of experience, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to call it new.
As mentioned previously, posttraumatic stress disorder is indicated by Malabou to be among the examples of the work of destructive plasticity. Indeed, posttraumatic stress disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the authority on mental illness diagnoses) and it is recognized as a mental illness. Posttraumatic stress disorder is defined as a response to a stressful event when an individual re-experiences a traumatic event along with a state of heightened physiological arousal and the avoidance of stimuli associated with the event.
Not all individuals experience posttraumatic stress disorder as a reaction to potentially stressful events: A much more common response to such events is a condition called posttraumatic stress. In contrast to posttraumatic stress disorder, posttraumatic stress is not a mental illness. On the contrary, it is recognized as a common, normal, and adaptive response to experiencing a potentially traumatic event.
The claim that posttraumatic stress disorder is a mental illness and that posttraumatic stress is a normal reaction can be misleading as it suggests that they are a completely different phenomena. In fact, this is not true. The key symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder are similar to posttraumatic stress symptoms, they just differ in intensity and duration. According to generally accepted criteria of posttraumatic stress disorder, it is diagnosed when “symptoms last more than one month”.
The line between mental disorder and non-disorder is unclear, shifting and extremely relative. Regarding the given example of the differences between posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic stress disorder, the uncertainty of this line is especially perceptible the closer you get to midnight between the thirty-first and thirty-second day of you experiencing the symptoms of posttraumatic stress, when just one more moment and you will be a part of the world of the mentally disordered. The uncertainty of the line between mental disorder and non-disorder also implies the uncertainty of division into those who suffer from the work of destructive plasticity and those who escaped this fate.
My general claim is that it is appropriate to think about every adult as, to a certain extent (or even to a large extent), an unhealable traumatized child, that is, as of a result of the work of destructive plasticity. It is certainly a mistake to see those who are mentally disordered as radically different from those who are considered normal. I believe that those should not be perceived as two opposites. Humanity is rather a collection of diverse abnormalities — deviations of the norm that doesn’t exist. In some way, we are all traumatized and unhealable, that is to say, we are all beautiful monsters.