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  • Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy by Catherine Malabou
  • Adrian Johnston
Catherine Malabou
Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy Translated by Carolyn Shread Cambridge: Polity, 2011. 180pp.
ISBN 978-0-745-65109-7

For approximately two decades now, Catherine Malabou, working both broadly and deeply, has been steadily elaborating a unique contemporary variant of dialectical materialism. These efforts already are visible in an initial guise in her doctoral thesis on Hegelian philosophy (published in book form as The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic [1996]), a highly innovative text reinterpreting Hegel’s corpus in light of the theme of “plasticity” Malabou carefully tracks therein. This new perspective on Hegel not only involves the formulation of the Hegelian-Malabouian notion of the plastic as a dialectical-speculative convergence of opposites combining the fixed and firm (as the capacity to acquire form) with the fluid and fluctuating (as the capacity to lose form)—the closing pages of The Future of Hegel foreshadow Malabou’s soon-to-follow further endeavors through gesturing at connections between plasticity à la Hegel and neuroplasticity as per recent life-scientific discoveries regarding the human central nervous system.

Since her work on Hegel from the mid-1990s, Malabou quite productively has employed the conceptual thematic of plasticity as a guiding thread in her efforts to assemble a new materialist framework bringing together resources drawn primarily from various currents in continental philosophy (Hegelianism, [End Page 235] Marxism, existential phenomenology, deconstructionism, and feminist theory, among other orientations) and several branches of biology (particularly the neurosciences, [epi]genetics, and evolutionary theory). Such books of hers as What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2004), The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (2007), Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction (2005), The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2009), and Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (2013) share in common the extended project of nonreductively linking subjectivity proper with a material ground (as its brain and body understood biologically) shot through with myriad intra-material conflicts and more-than-material mediations. Through lucidly making explicit dramatic changes in the image of (human) nature transpiring within the natural sciences—Malabou artfully uncovers a number of ways in which these sciences, at least apropos the biology of human beings, have come to exhibit spontaneous dialectical materialist sensibilities—she directly undermines a series of assumptions about the sciences generally (and the life sciences especially) dear to many of the figures and movements of European philosophy centrally informing her own philosophical training. One of the bigger battles she is fighting (via a number of more or less immanent critical maneuvers) is one against a science-phobic anti-naturalism entwined with the post-Kantian continental tradition from its inception at the end of the eighteenth century.

In this vein, a pursuit central to 2009’s Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy is Malabou’s reassessment of French and French-inspired feminisms through the lenses of her quasi-naturalist (yet nonreductive) biomaterialism. In particular, Malabou speaks therein of developing in this way a “post-deconstructive feminism” (93, 102, 106–109, 118–119). Also in Changing Difference (and elsewhere), she relatedly critiques, in addition to Derridean thought, other loci of inspiration relied upon by continental feminists, including Heideggerian/post-Heideggerian phenomenology and Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis.

In fact, within Changing Difference, the road to Malabou’s post- deconstructive feminism runs through her problematizations of Heidegger’s and Derrida’s philosophies especially (Levinas likewise receives sustained attention). Apropos Heidegger, Malabou zeroes in on his versions of the distinction between Being and beings, arguing for the need to “plasticize” (i.e., dialecticize in [post-]Hegelian manners) Heideggerian ontological difference. Refashioned along the lines of Malabouian dialectical plasticity, the ontological, no longer strictly partitioned from the ontic, would be the restless movement of the plastic as the perpetual kinetics of beings’ acquisitions and losses of forms (akin to Hegelian negativity). Moreover, for Malabou, this properly dialectical gesture of rendering Being immanent to beings, as an instance of Aufhebung, enjoys the virtues of deneutralizing Heideggerian [End Page 236] Being without simply annulling or canceling...


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