Rebellious Brains, Fugitive Bodies; Resistance in Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do with Our Brain? and Erin Manning’s Me Lo Dijo un Pajarito

Text of Presentation:

Rebellious Brains, Fugitive Bodies; 

Resistance in Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do with Our Brain? and Erin Manning’s Me Lo Dijo un Pajarito

January 31, 2018

This paper considers two readings, Catherine Malabou’s “What Should We Do with Our Brain?” and Erin Manning’s “Me Lo Dijo un Pajarito.” This paper investigates the ways in which black studies and neurodiversity complicate and problematize the individualist notions of resistance and resilience.

Each of these texts begins with a question, and I think it is worthwhile to linger for a moment on each. For Malabou, the eponymous question is, of course, What should we do with our brain? Though the subject is a collective we, the singularity of the object, brain, suggests that this is an individual question as much as it is universally put forth. Additionally, the question assumes a certain subject: one who assumes some level of personal control and responsibility of the work of their brain.

Manning, on the other hand, asks the question, “What kind of body does our society need?” For Manning, this is an epistemological question. Manning is primarily concerned with the knowledge that is produced from bodies. Manning writes, “To ask what kind of body our society needs is to take the operations of power seriously and to inquire, each time anew, how this body, how this neurodiversity, shifts the field of experience, shifts the terms of power/knowledge” (7). By locating her inquiry of knowledge inside the body as opposed to the brain, Manning makes room for alternative forms of knowing and being outside western knowledge production. Simultaneously, sociality is implied in the formulation. What kind of body does our society need? acknowledges our interconnectedness. Our bodies move with each other.

As these two questions suggest, the authors represent very different approaches. Malabou is ultimately concerned with resistance—what she sees as the explosive potential of the brain toward the ultimate goal of refusal and freedom. Manning, on the other hand, influenced by black studies and neurodiversity, is concerned with bodying. Though bodying includes an implicit refusal of western category of human, bodying is not formulated according to individualist values of resistance, agency or rebellion.

And so we have resistance on the one hand and bodying on the other and I think it’s worthwhile to consider these at least partially in tension with each other.

I think it may be helpful to begin with a brief summary of Malabou’s argument because it is somewhat capacious. So this text as I understood it is primarily theorizing a refusal of the new structure of capitalist power. Malabou characterizes the modern power structure as a decentralized system of control. But we should not confuse this relaxation of hierarchies with liberation. If anything, Malabou observes, we are more than ever constrained by this new “relaxed” market which demands relentless mobility, adoptability, and flexibility. So here, you can consider the gig economy or contractual employment or the many forms of biopolitics as examples of the decentralized movement of power and the regime of flexibility which arguably leaves citizens more alienated and vulnerable than ever.

And this new flexible regime is bolstered by neuroscience, which is primarily concerned with maximizing the potentials of the human brain. Malabou criticizes, I think quite persuasively, contemporary neuroscience which “has revolutionized nothingfor us if it is true that our new brains serve only to displace ourselves better, work better, feel better, obey better” (68). And so this is the site of Malabou’s intervention. Malabou rejects the science of productivity and instead asks neuroscience to do something else. Namely, to replace global-capitalist imperative of flexibility with a new call for explosion, resistance and resilience.

Explosions are very important for Malabou, and they become a central analogy for her in the second half of the book.  Malabou observes the chemical reactions which  produce voluntary movements in the body. These voluntary movements are results of mini-explosions of glycogen as the brain sends neural signals to muscles. Malabou uses this example of neural communication as a metaphor (at least I think it is a metaphor…) for creative or energetic explosions which Malabou insists are essential for the creation of the self. It’s important to note that explosions for Malabou are not purely destructive, but they are rather energetic discharges and creative bursts (74). These explosions, these moments of bursting, represent some sort of non-compliance with the global demands of flexible capitalism. And this is where Malabou places the thrust of her call to political action.  In the conclusion, Malabou advocates for explosion, “Not to replicate the caricature of the world: this is what we should do with our brain. To refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify” (78).

So here is where I’d like to briefly turn to Manning to consider how black studies and neurodiversity can build upon and complicate Malabou’s inquiry. Like Malabou, Manning is concerned with creating alternatives to the current structure of power. But while Malabou places her intervention squarely within the individualist, willful rejection of neural flexibility, Manning is invested in the bodies who exist outside language, normativity, and cure.

Manning posits that the very existence of autistic and black bodies offer a refusal of capitalism. This refusal is not a willful rejection but rather an existence apart-from or more-than. As Manning observes, autistic bodies “not only defy social order but fail to acknowledge social order’s very existence” (20). And here black life and black embodiment is particularly generative. In black studies, refusal is not a matter of “coming into consciousness” but rather the reality of survival. Alexander Weheliye writes, “Black life…can never be included in the Western world order, especially the category of Man.” The very fact of black survival is an inherent refusal of a society structured around antiblackness and premature black death. Coming into consciousness is not a necessary precursor for revolution: these bodies portend world-making by their very existence.

Unlike the imperialist figure of the saved Romanian infant who concerns Malabou, Manning takes for her subject a non-verbal autistic girl. Of this girl Manning writes, “she won’t be aligned, she won’t be colonized. Not because she is a rebel, but precisely because she operates in another mode, in the mode of the more-than that listens to undercommon ways of cawing” (6). And I’d like to close on this “mode of the more-than.” Had Malabou been a bit more inclusive in her search, she would have discovered that a rich tradition of resisting brains are already here. Indeed, have always been here. What Should We Do with Our Brain? is a narrow question which excludes neuro-divergent existences in its presupposition of cognitive control and neural uniformity. A more generative inquiry would consider the fugitive brains, bodies and flesh which are already here.

A few questions for class discussion.

  • Alexander Weheliye is quoted in the Manning text. In his book, Habeas Viscus, Weheliye asks “Why are formation of the oppressed deemed liberatory only if they resist hegemony and/or exhibit the full agency of the oppressed? What deformations of freedom become possible in the absence of resistance and agency?” (2). And I want to consider this question in relation the Manning and the Malabou texts. How can we imagine and celebrate the refusals, the freedoms and the world-making that occurs apart from traditional performances of resistance or activism or rebellion? I thought of that slide we looked at on the first day of the ADA protest and the very public display of resistance which is marked and canonized in liberal tradition. How can we recognize and celebrate other forms of freedom and refusal that are less visible, less legible, perhaps not agent at all?
  • I’d like to consider Malabou’s concept of resilience. Malabou observes “the formation of each identity is a kind of resilience” (77). However, her example of Romanian orphans relied on a logic of sickness and cure. How to imagine a definition of resilience that does not assign its subjects along an axis of normative success?