Masterclass Catherine Malabou: What To Do With Our Brain?

Masterclass | In October (28-29), NICA hosts a masterclass and lecture with Catherine Malabou, organized by Adam Chambers, Thijs Witty, Gianluca Turricchia, and Baylee Brits. The masterclass is open to graduate students and interested staff, and is designed as an intensive workshop to question, extend, and experiment with Malabou’s important theory of plasticity. In addition to the workshop, there will also be a lecture by Professor Malabou, followed by a response from Professor Patricia Pisters from the University of Amsterdam. Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher who is currently professor at the Université Paris-X Nanterre and the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) at London’s Kingston University.

“The world is not the calm prolonging of the biological. The mental is not the wise appendix of the neuronal. And the brain is not the natural ideal of a globalised economic, political, social organization.” (What Should We Do With Our Brain, 8).

Our brain is plastic and we don’t know it

Catherine Malabou is best known for her development of the concept of plasticity. Plasticity, which Malabou identifies as the “motif” of contemporary neurobiology, is the capacity of the brain to change itself; it is the biological ability of the brain to give, receive and explode form. To paraphrase Malabou, existence impresses itself upon our synapses, it literally leaves its material mark on the wet matter that is our brain. Yet – to expand the book’s question – what can we do with this particular knowledge and how can we relate to the science that generated this concept? Certainly a new insight on how the brain functions would ultimately help in curing the ailments and diseases that disturb this delicate balance, but what if plasticity reshuffles our notion of the brain’s “proper functioning”, and we – as Malabou insists – do not know it? By questioning assumptions already undermined by neurobiology’s latest discoveries, Malabou’s work advocates a consciousness of the plasticity of the brain, that is: a political redefinition of our being with others in this world. In other words, her work invites the reader to re-think the very idea of boundaries separating “nature” from “culture”: how biological alter-globalism and neuronal liberation can sparkle a new turn towards the sciences and materialism.

How is the concept of plasticity relevant to cultural analysis?

Neuroscience is a group of related disciplines that study the anatomy, physiology and functioning of the central nervous system. Cultural Analysis is a practice that dedicates itself to the interdisciplinary study of culture, encompassing works of art and literature, cinema and new media, popular culture, and social belief and value systems. An emphasis is placed on textual, visual and historical details and the social, political and aesthetic movements that underpin them. What can these two practices of enquiry tell each other? The assumption of center and power are crucial for both the study of culture and the brain: they operate at the same intersections between inner and outer, power and distribution, identity and difference. The plasticity of the brain is the “real image” of the world, because plasticity is the form of our world. Malabou’s suggestion is thus that both ourselves and our cultures are constituted by the formative capacity of plasticity. To what extent can this concept enable us to express new insights into the formation of culture, both material and conceptual?

The NICA Masterclass will be an opportunity to experiment and reflect on the malleability of plasticity for use in the interdisciplinary practice of cultural analysis. If plasticity is formative of culture, does an awareness of it transfigure the conceptual or methodological apparatus available to analysis of culture? To what extent has neuronal plasticity already permeated or informed practices of cultural analysis? Should cultural analyses take heed of the plastic nature of the brain? Has the awareness of the performativity of language for instance not already prepared the trajectory? Does the omnipresence of the brain in popular culture have any significance in this respect?


Left to right: Gianluca Turricchio, Patricia Pisters, Thijs Witty, Catherine Malabou, Adam Chambers



The Masterclass takes place on October 28, from 13:00 to 17:00 hrs. in the Bungehuis (Spuistraat 210), room 101, in Amsterdam. Please register (please note: only fifteen places available) by emailing Adam Chambers at We ask participants to prepare in advance questions that relate to one (or more) of the four themes of the workshop (see full programme), and to have a familiarity with key texts by Malabou. Required reading for participation: What Should We Do With Our Brain? Suggested readings: Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing and The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality, Dialectics. Also, with your registration, please include one of your questions (this will help us organize the themes of the workshop) in addition to a short motivation (250 words or less) describing your research interests and reasons for attending. The public lecture takes place on October 29, starting at 16:00, in the Doelenzaal of the UvA Universiteitsbibliotheek. No registration necessary.

Malabou: What should we do with our brain? full Program




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