Monthly Archives: July 2015

Exclusive Company

Recently I wrote about Catherine Malabou’s research into brain plasticity and the devastating effects of traumatic experiences on a victim’s sense of self. Now we turn to Malabou’s 2008 book What Should We Do with Our Brain? and the relationship between the neuroscientific concept of flexible brain structures and the emphasis placed today on flexibility in the workplace.

Scientists in the first half of the twentieth century assumed the human brain functions in a top-down manner. Specific areas in the brain work on specific tasks and pass information to other parts of the brain, which operates like a central command center.

After World War Two, armed with more advanced research tools, scientists began viewing the brain as flexible. It turns out there isn’t a direct, top-down route for information-processing. Now it appears the brain “functions according to different, extremely complex, interpenetrating levels of regulation” (Malabou 43).

According to Malabou, Big Business employed this concept as justification for its corporate structure. Rather than taking direct orders from the Manager, employees today work in teams on projects spread across different departments. Workers must be self-starters, trained for a variety of tasks, and fluent in multiple interdepartmental “languages.” Malabou calls the collection of these skills employability:

“Employability” is synonymous with flexibility. We recall that flexibility, a management watchword since the seventies, means above all the possibility of instantly adapting productive apparatus and labor to the evolution of demand. It thus becomes, in a single stroke, a necessary quality of both managers and employees. (46)

But not everyone measures up: “In effect, anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear” (46).

Depressed people, for example, maintain rigid thought patterns. Many don’t fit neatly into the box they’re supposed to think out of. When they don’t live up to the demands of workplace flexibility, the depressed get excluded. And when they’re shut out or made to feel incompetent, they withdraw further. The chronically depressed fail to make a life for themselves, and they fail to make a living: “Thus a depressive is a sick person who cannot stand this conception of a ‘careerist’ whose very existence is conceived as a business or a series of projects” (49).

Those on the outside of the flexibility model are dangerous. They must be contained at once: “How could we not think that depressive or disaffiliated individuals represent threats of turbulence, of breaks in transmission in the fluidity of the network?” (51).

I’ve know for many years that a career in corporate America is not for me. Does this make me dangerous? Searching for meaning beyond the confines of a cubicle won’t be easy, but I’ll get by. Wealth isn’t measured solely in dollars and cents.

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Ghost In The Machine

Baudrillard:

“God, who was once present, but also absent, from all things, now circulates in the arterial network of computers.”

Amazon:

“Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.”

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A Radical Metamorphosis Of Identity

In her groundbreaking 2012 book The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Catherine Malabou assumes different roles. She’s part psychoanalyst, part neurobiologist, part philosopher.

Malabou writes extensively about the plastic nature of the human brain. By “plastic” Malabou means the brain’s capacity to develop itself as we use it—as we create ourselves and live out our individual histories. Genes set the tone but humans are not genetically predetermined; plasticity ensures that we can actively change how our brains work, which in turn affects who we are, and how we see ourselves.

This is all well and good, but in The New Wounded Malabou alerts us to the brain’s capacity for destructive plasticity. Here the threat of the accident appears.

The accident is a material event. It emerges out of nowhere. Its effects are devastating. An obvious example is a blow to the head that causes brain lesions, but a host of tragic events can activate destructive plasticity.

Malabou cites “the globalized form of trauma,” such as those occurring “in the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, sexual abuse, and all types of oppression or slavery” (213). These events are often understood in the context of posttraumatic stress disorder, but Malabou goes beyond PTSD.

What happens after the accident is frightening in itself. The brains of the new wounded undergo dramatic changes—to the point where many victims become someone else entirely. They are no longer themselves; a shattered, post-accident self takes hold.

All of us are susceptible to this terrifying reality. As Malabou describes it:

The destructive event that—whether it is of biological or sociopolitical origin—causes irreversible transformations of the emotional brain, and thus of a radical metamorphosis of identity, emerges as a constant existential possibility that threatens each of us at every moment. (213)

Malabou is no pessimist, however. She aims to develop therapeutic models that venture beyond psychoanalysis or neurobiology, into political and philosophical realms: “Our inquiry revolves around the identification of evil. Defining the characteristics of today’s traumas—characteristics that turn out to be geopolitical—is indeed the prolegomenon [starting point] to any therapeutic enterprise” (213).

In dealing with a new wounded patient’s “deserted, emotionally disaffected, indifferent psyche,” the therapist must “become subject to the other’s suffering, especially when this other is unable to feel anything” (214).

Malabou, in arguing for the power of compassion, speaks not just to therapists but all mankind. She transcends psychoanalysis, neurobiology and even philosophy. For a thinker concerned with material events, Malabou reveals a spiritual calling: she’s interested in building a foundation for the soul.

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Cosmic Insignificance

Nietzsche on the nature of reflection:

When we try to examine the mirror in itself we discover nothing but things upon it. If we want to grasp the things we finally get hold of nothing but the mirror. This, in the most general terms, is the history of knowledge.

I could use the bulk of this post to conduct a close reading of the above quote, to pick apart its internal logic, illustrate its underlying tensions. But today I’ll concern myself not with what Nietzsche says, but instead what my choosing of this passage says about me.

Essentially I want to know why I’m drawn to philosophy in the first place and how this interest relates to my depression and anxiety.

Does a depressed way of thinking lead me to agree with Nietzsche that attempting to know something is futile? This sounds simple enough. My misery loves the company of Nietzsche’s pessimistic worldview.

In addition, does my anxiety recognize itself in Nietzsche’s thoughts on the impossibility of knowledge? Do I suffer from metaphysical hypochondria—the constant fear that reality isn’t real, that I have no self, that the world is an illusion? The vertigo of knowing that nothing can be known for sure? Makes sense. Afraid I’ll float away, I ground myself in doubt.

But the psyche is an ocean and so far we’ve only touched the surface. I argue that choosing this quote reflects a deep-seated existential angst that manifested itself long before any symptoms of my illness appeared.

I suffer from depression and anxiety because my entire being is engaged in an existential crisis, and has so since birth. My illness is both an expression of and response to this crisis. When I’m depressed I feel nothing because I am, at my core, Nothing. When I’m anxious I worry this Void will consume me.

Some people lift weights, get high or go to the shooting range as a means of coping with their cosmic insignificance.

I go to the library, where great minds thrive. And there I find Nietzsche. And there I find joy.

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Filed under Life, Philosophy

Professional Help

I’ve heard that some people use their careers in the mental health field as an extension of their own therapy. It’s not always a conscious act and it doesn’t mean they’re neglectful of their clients’ needs. One counselor told me his psychological training alerted him to troubles in his marriage. It got him to therapy, which made him a better husband and therapist.

Lately I wonder if part of me goes to therapy to satisfy my interest in psychology. Or maybe I’m interested in psychology because I want to know what I’m talking about during my sessions. As a perfectionist, I want to be “the perfect client.” My perfectionism being, of course, one of the main reasons I’m in therapy.

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Filed under Life, Philosophy

Rules Of The Load

Depending on the way it is used and its particular features . . . the motorcar may equally well be invested either with the meaning of power or with the meaning of refuge: it may be a projectile or a dwelling-place. But basically, like all functional mechanical objects, it is experienced—and by everyone, men, women and children—as a phallus, an object of manipulation, care, and fascination. The car is a projection both phallic and narcissistic, a force transfixed by its own image.

–Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, translated by James Benedict (74)

Google wasn’t around during the Sexual Revolution, but in the spirit of experimenting, engineers today want to turn us on to the Google Self-Driving Car. Baudrillard focused on the act of driving, on the manipulation of the car’s features. This car handles itself. We’re just along for the ride.

Don’t ask me how I know this but there are people who can achieve what’s called a touchless orgasm. They retreat deep into fantasy and climax without any physical contact.

The self-driving car mirrors the touchless orgasm. It gets you there without your having a hand in the matter. It sounds sexy—you no longer worry about steering wheels, turn signals or brake pedals. But in choosing luxury you sacrifice power.

With self-driving cars there’s nothing left to play with but yourself.

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