Bakker on Malabou on Life

Scott Bakker has written a fascinating and extremely timely interrogation of a recent article by Catherine Malabou on the implications of recent biology for biopolitics in Critical Enquiry “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance” Malabou’s piece castigates biopolitical theorists such as Foucault and Agamben for infusing their accounts of embodiment and life with symbolic and vitalistic conceptions whose relationship to biology is inadequately theorised. In response she argues that recent biological work on epigenetics and stem cell therapies supports a decentered, textualist account of biological systems. Or as Malabou puts it: “The living being does not simply perform a program. If the structure of the living being is an intersection between a given and a construction, it becomes difficult to establish a strict border between natural necessity and self-invention.”
Otherwise put, biological mechanisms don’t have determinate functions, but are functionally indeterminate, like Derrida’s iterable marks. This, for Malabou, seems to offer hope for an insurgent biopolitics that will provide a new way of questioning the unity of the political subject:


And how might the return of these possibilities offer a power of resistance? The resistance of biology to biopolitics? It would take the development of a new materialism to answer these questions, a new materialism asserting the coincidence of the symbolic and the biological. There is but one life, one life only.

Biological potentials reveal unprecedented modes of transformation: reprograming genomes without modifying the genetic program; replacing all or part of the body without a transplant or prosthesis; a conception of the self as a source of reproduction. These operations achieve a veritable deconstruction of program, family, and identity that threatens to fracture the presumed unity of the political subject, to reveal the impregnable nature of its “biological life” due to its plurality. The articulation of political discourse on bodies is always partial, for it cannot absorb everything that the structure of the living being is able to burst open by showing the possibilities of a reversal in the order of generations, a complexification in the notion of heritage, a calling into question of filiation, a new relation to death and the irreversibility of time, through which emerges a new experience of finitude.

As Scott argues, it is not clear where Malabou is going with the closing oracle: “There is but one life, one life only.” The call for a new materialism here does suggest a dialectically uneasy cocktail of anti-reductionism and its contrary. It’s as if the question of life and embodiment is being framed only to be pre-emptively closed by deferring to a future theory that no one has a clue about. That said, there seems to be a useful point of exposure to the outer dark of posthuman possibility space here.
Even if one can make a case for a kind of Derridean textual ontology of life, that doesn’t buy us continuity. It buys us something like a condition of possibility claim – i.e. living things have the structure of the iterable mark in virtue of the functional indeterminacy of their component mechanisms. But even if some functional indeterminacy is a condition for contentfulness (As Dennett argues in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) it isn’t the same. And it doesn’t tell us whether or not amping up functional indeterminacy won’t lead us to the lip of the semantic apocalypse, which is why the transcendental model is misleading and why Malabou’s closing remarks are so in need of their own deconstruction.

12 thoughts on “Bakker on Malabou on Life

  1. More and more I’m returning to Adrian Johnston’s fusion of the biological sciences as opposed to Badiou’s Platonism or matheme, in that Johnston proposes ‘weak nature’ – this realm of the conflictual and unresolvable where life is that thing that exists in the interstices, nooks, crannies, cracks between the strata of matter; agitated and agitating, without recourse, and most fleeting guest in a universe without any maker, demiurge, god, powers other than the accidental things that seem to surmount the darkness between. So maybe as organic beings were attempting only to invent the possibility of a more permanent form within this voidic existence. To be honest I think that’s what were doing anyway, that the path beyond humanity is actually the path to humanity not some line of flight away: but what we’ve secretly been seeking all along, a total metamorphosis into strangeness.

  2. In that sense we need our driveness (i.e., Freud’s and Lacan’s death-drive, or Zizek’s pure jouissance- surplus joy) to keep us disturbed, moving, inventing, surpassing, happening. Without our restless urge to be elsewhere, to be other we would surely turn into the absolute automatons some see as our nightmare. Instead it’s the opposite, our secret wish is to enter into this universe on a more permanent basis, to envision it not as the gnostics did as evil, but as a realm of possibility where the impossible can happen.

  3. So that in an about face, capitalism is not the enemy, it’s those who put limits on capitalism: the banker, regulators, politicians, liberals, etc. who bind it and force it into return crisis that continue the gambit of failure and depression. We need a vision without return, a global happening that invests in the machinic destiny of our kind, moving toward the grand adventures in space awaiting not organic necessity, but the machinic energy of a new form. It’s coming and no one can stop it. Bet on it.

  4. The future belongs to Elon Musk and young entrepreneurs like him who are bucking the outmoded system of constraint and stupidity of the old bourgeoisie bankers, etc.. We need to support such men and their initiatives rather than the dying and decaying capital worlds of the old order. To me that’s the future.

  5. Hi Stephen, I really need to shake a leg responding to posts. I need to replicate as some partial me’s to keep track with mediated exo-self.

    Anway, what you say about Johnston is interesting. I don’t know his work other than through (usually critical) glosses from others, such as Scott (Everybody seems better read than me these days).

    So am I right in thinking that Johnston sees the functional indeterminacy that I mention with regard to Derrida and Dennett as something ontologically basic? It is because we have no determinate functions, no natural purposes that subjectivity is always ontologically split. Not because the phenomenal subject is divided from its noumenal self, but because there is no extra-human source of meaning of determinacy in nature. In consequence our existence is out of kilter, aberrant in respect of the fragile meaning we invest in it? Or something like that.

    But if that’s right, then isn’t any attempt to achieve permanence and transparency doomed in advance by nature’ inherent counter-finality? A machinic chasis might or might not be more permanent, but it won’t be any less afflicted by the death drive in these terms. I think my little discussion of hyperplasticity in H+ mag and PHL goes somewhat in this direction

    Only there is no more pathos in this scenario, no more caesura. That’s what you get when this realisation is filtered through a modernist coffee grinder – the tragic consciousness of Marker’s La Jetee or the porno-temporality of the Atrocity Exhibition. But the limit, we’re no longer even talking about our kind of subjectivity. Posthuman aesthetics can only gesture at this with a negative manifestation of the thing (the weird) or by assisting, like Musk at al., in its production.

  6. “So am I right in thinking that Johnston sees the functional indeterminacy that I mention with regard to Derrida and Dennett as something ontologically basic? It is because we have no determinate functions, no natural purposes that subjectivity is always ontologically split. Not because the phenomenal subject is divided from its noumenal self, but because there is no extra-human source of meaning of determinacy in nature. In consequence our existence is out of kilter, aberrant in respect of the fragile meaning we invest in it? Or something like that…”

    Yep, for Johnston ‘nature’ *really is* ‘fissured’ and ‘cracked’ and so on, as marbled with the supernatural as Belgian veal is with fat. At least the normativists have a nifty way of deflating their supernaturalism. (If the word ‘supernatural’ seems too loaded, I suppose you could substitute ‘zones where the laws of physics do not apply.’)

    I’m getting tired waiting for his next book. Karma, probably, 😉

  7. I suppose a lot hinges on what kind of indeterminacy we’re talking about here. Identifying semantic indeterminacy requires a semantic description of the world in place – even a reductionist one. Ditto, functional indeterminacy. As you say, the normativists at least bite that bullet.

    But, from your gloss, Scott, and from perusing Johnston’s piece on absentialism and privative causes in the latest issue of Speculations , he seems to have something more radical in mind.

  8. Thanks for that link. Great read. What Johnston is after is what Deacon is after, some way of conjuring our most heuristic handles on the world into ontological existence. The difference is that Johnston thinks he can do it a priori, whereas Deacon takes the far more credible route (Incomplete Nature is a fantastic book) of remaining as close to the science as he can. They both understand that neglect has an important role to play, but they fall into the very trap neglect sets for them in their attempts to characterize it. In the absence of any difference we assume identity, so when they reflect on the ‘abstential’ or the ‘ententional’ they see it as something sufficient, a Munchausen efficacy.

    The science is actually catching up to this quickly, I think. Cimpian and Saloman’s BBS piece last year on the inherence heuristic pretty much describes exactly what I’ve been getting at all this time. What Johnston and Deacon are doing is systematically misdiagnosing what we know (simply given the complexity of the systems involved) to be heuristic cognitive modes as intrinsically obscure components of the physical universe. At some point in the very near future, the kinds of claims they’re making will be viewed as obvious candidates for magical thinking, I think.

    All our attempts to intuit our nature come ass backward, as they have to. Johnston and Deacon are what you get when you forget to append that biophysical fact to your inquiry. Heart attacks kill because that’s an efficient way to cognize and communicate what happened. It’s a far cheaper solution than rewriting physics from armchairs anyway! Just some butt ugly consequences.

  9. Johnston wants to bring in the life sciences that Lacan, Badiou, Althusser, etc. leave out… Badiou is an update on Plato, yet for him Ideas exist without Idealism: metaphysic not semantic, no exterior realm of Ideas/Forms Outside, rather from the moment of the Big Bang Ideas came packaged within immanent to the very structure of things: mathematics = ontology… his materialism still comes out of Democritus but without the atomism… rather than the plural many, his is the inconsistent multiplicity (read Canto/Cohen, set theoretic, etc.). Johnston on the other hand sees ‘weak nature’ glued with the mental/intentional, etc. Badiou wants to write off the intentional as a bad scenario, Johnston wants to keep some form of it in his materialism of Life. That’s why both Badiou and Zizek were against Deleuze: the Bergsonian in him…

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