Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity
by Catherine Malabou
Reviewed by John David Ebert
Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher whose recent text Ontology of the Accident was published in France in 2009 and translated into English by Polity Press in 2012. It is short, under one hundred pages, and very readable.
The central concept of the text, “destructive plasticity,” is coined by Malabou to refer to the event of a sudden traumatic rupture in one’s life in which a second, alternate self, that is wholly other to the preceding personality, comes into being with certain structural characteristics that demarcate it as a distinct personality from the previous one. It is an idea that she contrasts with “creative plasticity,” since “plasticity” as it is used in the various sciences always has positive connotations of flexibility, learning, the growing of new neuronal connections, etc. As we age, we lose this very plasticity as we become more and more resistant to change and the mind becomes less and less labile and capable of learning new things. The state of those afflicted by an event of “destructive plasticity,” however, does not involve learning or the ability to grow at all, but represents rather a complete shutting down of the personality into disaffection and emotional coldness.
Destructive plasticity refers to the irruption of a sudden catastrophic trauma or event into one’s life which bifurcates the self with the mark of a lesion: a car accident, let’s say, or a divorce, or an event that is too emotionally difficult to successfully integrate into the personality and which calls forth the creation of a second, colder personality which exists in lieu of the possibility of escaping the trauma, like Daphne when she flees from Apollo but can no longer flee and so transforms into a tree. Her interior self remains, but the exterior shell has undergone transformation, just as befell Gregor Samsa one fine morning when he awoke to find himself transformed, inscrutably, into a man-sized insect.
The concept, at first glance, seems to be a useful one. However, Malabou makes the mistake of narrowing its focus when she gives as illustrative examples the case of brain-injured patients who evince a certain emotional apathy and indifference, both to their new, ruptured selves and to others around them. Such patients, when (and if) they return to “normal” lives with their spouses, no longer seem to respond in emotionally satisfying ways to the needs of their husbands or wives, whereas the earlier personality might have been responsive and empathetic. There is a certain coldness and indifference about this new personality that has resulted from the bifurcation of “destructive plasticity.”
All well and good, but the reader begins to scratch his head when he wonders how such emotionally cold and indifferent victims of brain trauma would also apply to those who create new identities after a divorce or some other such trauma, such as job loss, which the book’s introduction implied that the concept was designed to cover. Porn stars, for instance, do indeed seem to undergo the creation of new personalities when they leave the business and become too old (at 27 or 28) to continue starring in such films, and there is a marked coldness and lack of empathy for their previous sex-addicted selves, but it seems difficult to draw a parallel to the creation of such a new personality with the kinds of pathological examples that Malabou gives when describing those injured by brain traumas.
Furthermore, Malabou proceeds to unleash a whole group of examples of destructive plasticity which become more and more puzzling as the narrative proceeds. For example, she insists that her model could be used to understand ageing, which is typically seen as a slow and gradual process of loss of plasticity, loss of genital cathexes and a compensatory withdrawal into pre-genital narcissism, in which the elderly person’s loss of libidinal plasticity is compensated for by a withdrawal into selfishness and self-preoccupation as ties to family members fade. The withdrawal of an elderly person, however, into coldness and indifference to others around them (and this is hardly the case for EVERY elderly person) hardly seems isomorphic to the kinds of severely pathological emotional withdrawal and disaffection of those injured by brain traumas. After all, doesn’t “destructive plasticity” by definition refer to abnormal and pathological states, or at least, to the creation of new identities that are “wholly other” when contrasted with previous identities? Ageing in general is hardly pathological and would even seem to be the definition of normality. There is a confusion in this book between the the very categories of “universal” and “particular” that mars the narrative with a certain aleatory randomness.
The structural features that result from the creation of the type of identity that emerges in the process of destructive plasticity would seem to have characteristics that make it apply to rather specific and narrow cases and NOT, as the introduction to the book had implied, to the more general cases of people creating new identities after divorces or job loss or car accidents. Such features, as Malabou defines them, include an emotionally cold and vacant personality that is disconnected from all erotic assemblages and sign regimes, existing in the cold void of being-there without actual BEING or conscious awareness of the pathological state that one now finds oneself inhabiting. Well and good, but such a state, Malabou insists is “meaningless” and belongs to a consciousness that is totally disconnected from all systems of meaning whatsoever. Once again, this hardly seems applicable to the creation of new identities that result from such standard life events as divorce, job loss, loss of a loved one, etc. The identities of such post-traumatic selves do not seem to inhabit a meaningless sphere of disconnection and disaffection from everyone else around them. Such people find new meaning in their lives all the time, and indeed the finding of such new meanings, as in the case of AA meetings and so forth, would seem to form the very ontological basis upon which the construction of a new self rests. Such new selves are simply new identities with new characteristics that demarcate them from previous identities, but they can hardly be said to exist in a meaningless vacuum of indifference toward others like the brain-traumatized patients she exemplifies in her model. Alzheimer’s patients, maybe. Widows and divorcees? Hardly.
So I think Malabou makes a huge mistake here when she invents what at first appears to be such a useful concept and then proceeds to narrow the concept to apply both to particular and pathological instances such as people with brain injuries, and, at the same time, to such universal and common experiences as ageing. The concept would seem to be, to say the least, extremely muddled and confused.
It is also very French. Malabou’s disaffected self that exists in a state of meaningless being, cold and remote from connection with all other humans, would seem to be shaped by classic French nihilism. Her post-traumatic self is that of a self that is characterized by bleakness, coldness and absolute icy remoteness. While I’m not disputing the existence of such identities, to try and generalize them to include the post-traumatic subjectivities of the divorced and the broken-hearted would seem not to work at all.
The concept, in other words, more or less deconstructs itself and the reader is left at the end feeling cheated by a po-mo nihilism that fails to deliver on the promise set up in the book’s introduction.
To quote the words of the character Ballard at the end of David Cronenberg’s Crash: “Maybe next time.”