Malabou, Continentalism, and New Age Philosophy

by rsbakker

Perhaps it’s an ex-smoker thing, the fact that I was a continentalist myself for so many years. Either way, I generally find continental philosophical forays into scientific environs little more than exercises in conceptual vanity (see “Reactionary Atheism: Hagglund, Derrida, and Nooconservatism“, “Zizek, Hollywood, and the Disenchantment of Continental Philosophy,” or “Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis“). This is particularly true of Catherine Malabou, who, as far as I can tell, is primarily concerned with cherry-picking those findings that metaphorically resonate with certain canonical continental philosophical themes. For me, her accounts merely demonstrate the deepening conceptual poverty of the continental tradition, a poverty dressed up in increasingly hollow declarations of priority. This is true of “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance,” but with a crucial twist.

In this piece, she takes continentalism (or ‘philosophy,’ as she humbly terms it) as her target, charging it with a pervasive conceptual prejudice. She wants to show how recent developments in epigenetics and cloning reveal what she terms the “antibiological bias of philosophy.” This bias is old news, of course (especially in these quarters), but Malabou’s acknowledgement is heartening nonetheless, at least to those, such as myself, who think the continental penchant for conceptual experimentation is precisely what contemporary cognitive science requires.

“Contemporary philosophy,” she claims, “bears the marks of a primacy of symbolic life over biological life that has not been criticized, nor deconstructed.” Her predicate is certainly true—continentalism is wholly invested in theoretical primacy of intentionality—but her subsequent modifier simply exemplifies the way we humans are generally incapable of hearing criticisms outside our own. After all, it’s the quasi-religious insistence on the priority of the intentional, the idea that armchair speculation on the nature of the intentional trumps empirical findings in this or that way, that has rendered continentalism a laughing-stock in the sciences.

But outgroup criticisms are rarely heard. Whatever ‘othering the other’ consists in, it clearly involves not only their deracination, but their derationalization, the denial of any real critical insight. This is arguably what makes the standard continental shibboleths of ‘scientism,’ ‘positivism,’ and the like so rhetorically effective. By identifying an interlocutor as an outgroup competitor, you assure your confederates will be incapable of engaging him or her rationally. Continentalists generally hear ideology instead of cogent criticism. The only reason Malabou can claim that the ‘primacy of the symbolic over the biological’ has been ‘neither criticized nor deconstructed’ is simply that so very few within her ingroup have been able to hear the outgroup chorus, as thunderous as it has been.

But Malabou is a party member, and to her credit, she has done anything but avert her eyes from the scientifically mediated revolution sweeping the ground from beneath all our feet. One cannot dwell in foreign climes without suffering some kind of transformation of perspective. And at long last she has found her way to the crucial question, the one which threatens to overthrow her own discursive institution, the problem of what she terms the “unquestioned splitting of the concept of life.”

She takes care, however, to serve up the problem with various appeals to continental vanity—to hide the poison in some candy, you might say.

It must be said, the biologists are of little help with this problem. Not one has deemed it necessary to respond to the philosophers or to efface the assimilation of biology to biologism. It seems inconceivable that they do not know Foucault, that they have never encountered the word biopolitical. Fixated on the two poles of ethics and evolutionism, they do not think through the way in which the science of the living being could—and from this point on should—unsettle the equation between biological determination and political normalization. The ethical shield with which biological discourse is surrounded today does not suffice to define the space of a theoretical disobedience to accusations of complicity among the science of the living being, capitalism, and the technological manipulation of life.

I can remember finding ignorances like these ‘inconceiveable,’ thinking that if only scientists would ‘open their eyes’ (read so and so) they would ‘see’ (their conceptually derivative nature). But why should any biologist read Foucault, or any other continentalist for that matter? What distinguishes continental claims to the priority of their nebulous domain over the claims of say, astrology, particularly when the dialectical strategies deployed are identical? Consider what Manly P. Hall has to say in The Story of Astrology:

Materialism in the present century has perverted the application of knowledge from its legitimate ends, thus permitting so noble a science as astronomy to become a purely abstract and comparatively useless instrument which can contribute little more than tables of meaningless figures to a world bankrupt in spiritual, philosophical, and ethical values. The problem as to whether space is a straight or a curved extension may intrigue a small number of highly specialized minds, but the moral relationship between man and space and the place of the human soul in the harmony of the spheres is vastly more important to a world afflicted with every evil that the flesh is heir to. 8, Hall, Manly P. The Story of Astrology: The Belief in the Stars as a Factor in Human Progress. Cosimo, Inc., 2005.

Sound familiar? If you’ve read any amount of continental philosophy it should. One can dress up the relation between the domains differently, but the shape remains the same. Where astronomy is merely ontic or ideological or technical or what have you, astrology ministers to the intentional realities of lived life. The continentalist would cry foul, of course, but the question isn’t so much one of what they actually believe as one of how they appear. Insofar as they place various, chronically underdetermined speculative assertions before the institutional apparatuses of science, they sound like astrologers. Their claims of conceptual priority, not surprisingly, are met with incredulity and ridicule.

The fact that biologists neglect Foucault is no more inconceivable than the fact that astronomers neglect Hall. In science, credibility is earned. Everybody but everybody thinks they’ve won the Magical Belief Lottery. The world abounds with fatuous, theoretical claims. Some claims enable endless dispute (and, for a lucky few, tenure), while others enable things like smartphones, designer babies, and the detonation of thermonuclear weapons. Since there’s no counting the former, the scientific obsession with the latter is all but inevitable. Speculation is cheap. Asserting the primacy of the symbolic over the natural on speculative grounds is precisely the reason why scientists find continentalism so bizarre.

Akin to astrology.

Now historically, at least, continentalists have consistently externalized the problem, blaming their lack of outgroup credibility on speculative goats like the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ ‘identity thinking,’ or some other combination of ideology and ontology. Malabou, to her credit, wants ‘philosophy’ to partially own the problem, to see the parsing of the living into symbolic and biological as something that must itself be argued. She offers her quasi-deconstructive observations on recent developments in epigenetics and cloning as a demonstration of that need, as examples of the ways the new science is blurring the boundaries between the intentional and the natural, the symbolic and the biological, and therefore outrunning philosophical critiques that rely upon their clear distinction.

This blurring is important because Malabou, like most all continentalists, fears for the future of the political. Reverse engineering biology amounts to placing biology within the purview of engineering, of rendering all nature plastic to human whim, human scruple, human desire. ‘Philosophy’ may come first, but (for reasons continentalists are careful to never clarify) only science seems capable of doing any heavy lifting with their theories. One need only trudge the outskirts of the vast swamp of neuroethics, for instance, to get a sense of the myriad conundrums that await us on the horizon.

And this leads Malabou to her penultimate statement, the one which I sincerely hope ignites soul-searching and debate within continental philosophy, lest the grand old institution become indistinguishable from astrology altogether.

And how might the return of these possibilities offer a power of resistance? The resistance of biology to biopolitics? It would take the development of a new materialism to answer these questions, a new materialism asserting the coincidence of the symbolic and the biological. There is but one life, one life only.

I entirely agree, but I find myself wondering what Malabou actually means by ‘new materialism.’ If she means, for instance, that the symbolic must be reduced to the natural, then she is referring to nothing less than the long-standing holy grail of contemporary cognitive science. Until we can understand the symbolic in terms continuous with our understanding of the natural world, it’s doomed to remain a perpetually underdetermined speculative domain—which is to say, one void of theoretical knowledge.

But as her various references to the paradoxical ‘gap’ between the symbolic and the biological suggest, she takes the irreducibility of the symbolic as axiomatic. The new materialism she’s advocating is one that unifies the symbolic and the biological, while somehow respecting the irreducibility of the symbolic. She wants a kind of ‘type-B materialism,’ one that asserts the ontological continuity of the symbolic and the biological, while acknowledging their epistemic disparity or conceptual distinction. David Chalmers, who coined the term, characterizes the problem faced by such materialisms as follows:

I was attracted to type-B materialism for many years myself, until I came to the conclusion that it simply cannot work. The basic reason for this is simple. Physical theories are ultimately specified in terms of structure and dynamics: they are cast in terms of basic physical structures, and principles specifying how these structures change over time. Structure and dynamics at a low level can combine in all sort of interesting ways to explain the structure and function of high-level systems; but still, structure and function only ever adds up to more structure and function. In most domains, this is quite enough, as we have seen, as structure and function are all that need to be explained. But when it comes to consciousness, something other than structure and function needs to be accounted for. To get there, an explanation needs a further ingredient. “Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness.”

Substitute ‘symbolic’ for ‘consciousness’ in this passage, and Malabou’s challenge becomes clear: science, even in the cases of epigenetics and cloning, deals with structure and dynamics—mechanisms. As it stands we lack any consensus commanding way of explaining the symbolic in mechanistic terms. So long as the symbolic remains ‘irreducible,’ or mechanistically inexplicable, assertions of ontological continuity amount to no more than that, bald assertions. Short some plausible account of that epistemic difference in ontologically continuous terms, type-B materialisms amount to little more than wishing upon traditional stars.

It’s here where we can see Malabou’s institutional vanity most clearly. Her readings of epigenetics and cloning focus on the apparently symbolic features of the new biology—on the ways in which organisms resemble texts. “The living being does not simply perform a program,” she writes. “If the structure of the living being is an intersection between a given and a construction, it becomes difficult to establish a strict border between natural necessity and self-invention.”

Now the first, most obvious criticisms of her reading is that she is the proverbial woman with the hammer, pouring through the science, seeing symbolic nails at every turn. Are epigenetics and cloning intrinsically symbolic? Do they constitute a bona fide example of a science beyond structure and dynamics?

Certainly not. Science can reverse engineer our genetic nature precisely because our genetic nature is a feat of evolutionary engineering. This kind of theoretical cognition is so politically explosive precisely because it is mechanical, as opposed to ‘symbolic.’ Researchers now know how some of these little machines work, and as result they can manipulate conditions in ways that illuminate the function of other little machines. And the more they learn, the more mechanical interventions they can make, the more plastic (to crib one of Malabou’s favourite terms) human nature becomes. The reason these researchers hold so much of our political future in their hands is precisely because their domain (unlike Malabou’s) is mechanical.

For them, Malabou’s reading of their fields would be obviously metaphoric. Malabou’s assumption that she is seeing the truth of epigenetics and cloning, that they have to be textual in some way rather than lending themselves to certain textual (deconstructive) metaphors, would strike them as comically presumptuous. The blurring that she declares ontological, they would see as epistemic. To them, she’s just another humanities scholar scrounging for symbolic ammunition, for confirmation of her institution’s importance in a time of crisis. Malabou, like Manly P. Hall, can rationalize this dismissal in any number of ways–this goes without saying. Her problem, like Hall’s, is that only her confederates will agree with her. She has no real way of prosecuting her theoretical case across ingroup boundaries, and so no way of recouping any kind of transgroup cognitive legitimacy–no way of reversing the slow drift of ‘philosophy’ to the New Age section of the bookstore.

The fact is Malabou begins by presuming the answer to the very question she claims to be tackling: What is the nature of the symbolic? To acknowledge that continental philosophy is a speculative enterprise is to acknowledge that continental philosophy has solved nothing. The nature of the symbolic, accordingly, remains an eminently open question (not to mention an increasingly empirical one). The ‘irreducibility’ of the symbolic order is no more axiomatic than the existence of God.

If the symbolic were, say, ecological, the product of evolved capacities, then we can safely presume that the symbolic is heuristic, part of some regime for solving problems on the cheap. If this were the case, then Malabou is doing nothing more than identifying the way different patterns in epigenetics and cloning readily cue a specialized form of symbolic cognition. The fact that symbolic cognition is cued does not mean that epigenetics and cloning are ‘intrinsically symbolic,’ only that they readily cue symbolic cognition. Given the vast amounts of information neglected by symbolic cognition, we can presume its parochialism, its dependence on countless ecological invariants, namely, the causal structure of the systems involved. Given that causal information is the very thing symbolic cognition has adapted to neglect, we can presume that its application to nature would prove problematic. This raises the likelihood that Malabou is simply anthropomorphizing epigenetics and cloning in an institutionally gratifying way.

So is the symbolic heuristic? It certainly appears to be. At every turn, cognition makes due with ‘black boxes,’ relying on differentially reliable cues to leverage solutions. We need ways to think outcomes without antecedents, to cognize consequences absent any causal factors, simply because the complexities of our environments (be they natural, social, or recursive) radically outrun our capacity to intuit. The bald fact is that the machinery of things is simply too complicated to cognize on the evolutionary cheap. Luckily, nature requires nothing as extravagant as mechanical knowledge of environmental systems to solve those systems in various, reproductively decisive ways. You don’t need to know the mechanical details of your environments to engineer them. So long as those details remain relatively fixed, you can predict/explain/manipulate them via those correlated systematicities you can access.

We genuinely need things like symbolic cognition, regimes of ecologically specific tools, for the same reason we need scientific enterprises like biology: because the machinery of most everything is either too obscure or too complex. The information we access provides us cues, and since we neglect all information pertaining to what those cues relate us to, we’re convinced that cues are all that is the case. And since causal cognition cannot duplicate the cognitive shorthand of the heuristics involved, they appear to comprise an autonomous order, to be something supernatural, or to use the prophylactic jargon of intentionalism, ‘irreducible.’ And since the complexities of biology render these heuristic systems indispensable to the understanding of biology, they appear to be necessary, to be ‘conditions of possibility’ of any cognition whatsoever. We are natural in such a way that we cannot cognize ourselves as natural, and so cognize ourselves otherwise. Since this cognitive incapacity extends to our second-order attempts to cognize our cognizing, we double down, metacognize this ‘otherwise’ in otherwise terms. Far from any fractionate assembly of specialized heuristic tools, symbolic cognition seems to stand not simply outside, but prior the natural order.

Thus the insoluble conundrums and interminable disputations of Malabou’s ‘philosophy.’

Heuristics and metacognitive neglect provide a way to conceive symbolic cognition in wholly natural terms. Blind Brain Theory, in other words, is precisely the ‘new materialism’ that Malabou seeks. The problem is that it seems to answer Malabou’s question regarding political in the negative, to suggest that even the concept of ‘resistance’ belongs to a bygone and benighted age. To understand the coincidence of the symbolic and biological, the intentional and the natural, one must understand the biology of philosophical reflection, and the way we were evolutionarily doomed to think ourselves something quite distinct from what we in fact are (see “Alien Philosophy,” part one and two). One must turn away from the old ways, the old ideas, and dare to look hard at the prospect of a post-intentional future. The horrific prospect.

Odds are we were wrong folks. The assumption that science, the great killer of traditional cognitive traditions, will make an exception for us, somehow redeem our traditional understanding of ourselves is becoming increasingly tendentious. We simply do not have the luxury of taking our cherished, traditional conceits for granted—at least not anymore. The longer continental philosophy pretends to be somehow immune, or even worse, to somehow come first, the more it will come to resemble those traditional discourses that, like astrology, refuse to relinquish their ancient faith in abject speculation.