[-empyre-] Before the Law / control and cutting, stripped naked

Johannes Birringer Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk
Mon Oct 29 00:59:31 EST 2012

Following Simon's very interesting reference to Malabou, I tried to get some information about her book, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (Fordham University Press, 2012),
and it seems very pertinent to the discussion we have had here, also to the brief excursion I suggested to Kafka's Wound and the traumatic scene earlier in the week, and to the questions about pain (self-experienced, other-experienced).
I found this:

Malabou first marshals scientific evidence demonstrating that the brain has self-regulating circuits involved with emotion. Freud argued that because the brain cannot self-regulate, there must be some "extra-neuronal" system to help it deal with trauma. But scientists such as Joseph LeDoux and Antonio D'Amasio have shown that the limbic system, a series of interconnected brain areas that engage in emotional processing, can self-regulate its activity in ways that might have surprised Freud. Damage to this system impairs patients' ability to feel emotion and make decisions tempered with emotional insight. Malabou points out that all trauma—whether it includes a direct injury to these brain areas or not—results in dysfunction of the limbic system. Patients display "coolness," disaffection, and indifference. She uses this observation to argue for "an emergent, globalized psychic pathology that is identical in all cases and all contexts." In other words, people traumatized by political violence all around the world share the symptoms of limbic system dysfunction. According to Malabou, our new understanding of the brain both renders Freud's idea of "sexuality" as the cause of psychological dysfunction unnecessary and blurs the boundaries between politics and biology.

In order to shift traumatic etiology from "sexuality" to "cerebrality," Malabou turns to the traumas inflicted by war. At the start of the 20th century, "war neuroses" manifested in symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, tics, and paralysis were considered "neurotic" responses to psychological stress. Modern medicine, however, has come to understand war wounds such as PTSD and traumatic brain injuries as originating from the traumatic event itself, not from an individual's particular psyche. For Malabou, the association of psychological problems and physical wounds demonstrates "the impossibility of confusing traumatic factors and psychoneurotic factors." This conclusion is meant to be applicable to all "wounds" of "traumatic accident," including diseases that senselessly attack the mind, such as Alzheimers.

The second crucial term elucidated in this book is "destructive plasticity"—the creation of a new identity through destruction of the old one. It is almost as hard to pin down as "cerebrality." How can we say that a person's identity is totally erased by trauma? In anticipation this very question, Malabou reaches for wounds on the farthest end of the severity spectrum. Here, she quotes Crocq:

If we ask patients about their experiences of these changes of personality, we observe that this is no metaphor. The patients find themselves equally changed; they no longer recognize themselves as they were before. And this is not simply due to the fact that they are sad about having undergone a difficult event; it is, more profoundly, on the level of their entire way of living, that they come to realize that a new being is within them, a being whom they do not recognize.

The idea is that the dysfunction that follows trauma cannot arise from meaning buried in that old, obliterated self. The old onion of the psyche, with its layers upon layers of meaning, is simply not there to peel apart in analysis; rather, it has been replaced by a new self, which requires a different clinical approach. Malabou seeks to redefine not only traumatic etiology but also to radically revise our understanding of the injured subject.

Although the project of uniting psychoanalysis and neuroscience under a single conceptual banner is promising and perhaps even necessary in light of what we now know about the brain, Malabou's new framework raises more questions than it answers. For instance, while patients with brain injuries often talk about an "old me" and a "new me," they generally experience some sort of continuity between the two. Childhood memories may remain unaltered, and if those memories belong to the "old me," what does it mean that the "new me" still lays claim to them? And how might "destructive plasticity" help us understand what happens in cases where the traumatic event is more subtle? Is identity destroyed and a new one created in cases of concussion, also known as minor traumatic brain injury? And what about damage that occurs over time, as in Alzheimer's? When can we say the old self is gone and a new one present? It seems one might argue for a difference in degree, not kind.

While modern neuroscience has shown that a group of neurons firing in a particular pattern can also be described as a certain feeling, is still far from articulating the relationship between the brain and the subjective experience of the mind. Within the discipline, this falls into the category of what is known as a levels problem. Scientists can describe, in great detail, what happens on a number of different levels—the molecular, the neuronal, the behavioral, etc.—but they often can't connect the activity on one level to the activity on another.

* from a review by Meehan Crist  (http://www.bookforum.com/review/10287)

This notion of an "emergent, globalized psychic pathology"  is quite upsetting, is it not?

J Birringer

More information about the empyre mailing list