Sometimes the most fruitful hermeneutic act is the one where an existing text is re-read in light of recent events. I don’t have a lot to offer in this post, other than a few quotations. I don’t need to offer a lot more, apart from a few quotations! What I have on offer is an appropriation, or a re-appropriation, a re-reading if you will, of a few sentences from Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident- An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Re-reading them in light of the recent Boston bombings, and the complete craziness that ensued in one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the world.
Michael Cohen asks in his Guardian article: “Why does America lose its head over ‘terror’ but ignore its daily gun deaths?” The author correctly points out how letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major American city, amounts to bowing to outsized irrational fears.
So how do we get about in articulating what “terrorism” means as a word and the connotations it carries with it? I think we could try to answer this question through some of Catherine Malabou’s phrases.
The key question is: When do we replace an “inherent social anomaly” with the phenomenon of “terrorism”?
In the book we are referring to the issue is not terrorism but the notion of plasticity in the way it incorporates and explains away phenomena of accidental mutation or anomalies. Malabou tries to re-conceive the notion of plasticity, as it has been traditionally understood scientifically and paradigmatically employed in neurophysiology in order to explain change and the forms that occur after a change has taken place (along with the corresponding behavioral manifestations).
In this context, plasticity is understood in a positive way: it incorporates events of mutation in a formal structure of organic necessity. Destruction, in this sense, does not contradict plasticity but is a moment of it. As Malabou writes:
[T]hese organic evacuations are absolutely necessary for the realization of living form, which ultimately appears, in all its density, at the cost of their disappearance. Again, this type of destruction in no way contradicts positive plasticity: it is its condition. It serves the neatness and power of realized form. (p. 5).
Malabou gives a wonderful biological example in order to illustrate how positive plasticity is understood: the phenomenon of apoptosis. A very good example of apoptosis is when, in the process of the organic formation of the hand of a fetus, the fingers are actually formed through the (programmed) perishing of cells; the act of destruction in this case is an act of apoptosis that separates tissue and forms the fingers.
Apoptosis is still an example of plasticity. But destruction that is not plasticity is what Malabou calls terrorism. Thus, Malabou juxtaposes apoptosis with terrorism:
Terrorism versus apoptosis. As I said, in these instances no one calls it plasticity any more. Even if the destructive and disorganizing explosive power is present virtually in each of us, ready to manifest itself, to take body or self-actualize at any moment, it has never received a name in any field whatsoever. (p. 5).
Malabou’s concern is to manage to re-conceive plasticity in a way that it could be said of instances where destruction is irreparable, discontinuous, unpredictable even:
Approached but avoided, glimpsed often enough in fantasy literature but never connected to reality, neglected by psychoanalysis, ignored by philosophy, nameless in neurology, the phenomenon of pathological plasticity, a plasticity that does not repair, a plasticity without recompense or scar, one that cuts the thread of life in two or more segments that no longer meet, nevertheless has its own phenomenology that demands articulation. (p. 6).
The central concern of Malabou’s book is not the concern of this post here though, and we shall not pursue it any further. What is of interest to us here is the conception of terrorism as the opposite of destruction that still occurs in the name of plasticity, such as the case of apoptosis. During the last few days, we’ve seen the parents and friends of the young, indeed so young, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, parade through the American media and express their disbelief in what happened and in the acts attributed to Dzhokhar. His parents do not believe it; they think it’s a plot, they purport their son has been framed. Of course, Dzhokhar is still only a suspect, as these lines are being written, do not put words in my mouth. What is the issue here is the disbelief and the unpredictability of such destructive behavior, as it is attributed to Dzhokhar. How is it possible that Dzhokhar would end up like that? ask his friends and family. Effectively, they are asking: how is it possible that Dzhokhar ended up being a terrorist? In effect, these very questions betray the understanding of this particular destructive behavior as one that stands in opposition to our current understanding of plasticity. Catherine Malabou writes:
The change may equally well emerge from apparently anodyne events, which ultimately prove to be veritable traumas inflecting the course of a life, producing the metamorphosis of someone about whom one says: I would never have guessed they would “end up like that.” (p. 6).