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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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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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