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Resisting deconstruction.

Catharine Malabou, Changing Difference, Carolyn Shread (trans), Cambridge, Polity Press, 2011, 180 pp; 14.99[pounds sterling] paperback

Catherine Malabou's Changing Difference is a deeply personal work. The rawness of her intent is found peppered through this intellectually complex and suggestive text. At times it strikes the reader as a kind of defensiveness, for example: 'And at this point in the argument don't tell me that I hide behind the "authority" of Hegel or Heidegger too often. I've worked hard in my own way to make their lives impossible too' (p137). At others, a strange kind of intimacy: '(And, dear sisters, I tell you now in confidence that even today I enjoy the satisfaction and secret joy of having "become just as strong as them" during this time and of having very soon lost all fear of anyone in philosophy)' (p 114). These rather unexpected moments offer respite from the complicated arguments that she is putting forward, but in the end can be seen as essential to them. As readers we are prepared for an intimate address. There is nothing hidden in her declaration that she starts from her 'own personal situation', and if the reader is a woman, Malabou's address feels particularly personal. Malabou notes in her introduction that, 'first and foremost, I write for the women I love, the ones I do not know and who suffer mistreatment. I write, too, for the women I know, the ones who, in their very way of being, carry with them something like an unlived memory of the others, a fragility that does not try to hide. I write for these women, who, for this reason, are my friends' (p4). It is all too rare in academic work of this calibre to find such a heartening and earnest address.

I highlight this personal nature of Malabou's work because it is at the foundation of her politics, is perhaps even the ethical core of her project, and because it is crucial to understanding the movement of thinking that takes place in Changing Difference. Malabou is drawing a road map of sorts which she hopes other women can follow, a set of interventions, a model of resistance against the deconstruction of the feminine and, against, or at least a way out of, the intellectual work of Deconstruction itself. Readers who have come across Malabou before will know that she is a former student of Derrida's and indeed he is a powerful presence in her body of work, both explicitly (for example, he wrote the introduction to her first book The Future of Hegel (2004), which was based on her doctoral thesis, completed under his supervision; and co-authored Counterpath: Travelling with Derrida (2004) and so on) and implicitly, as most intellectual mentors might, haunting work of their students. Yet Changing Difference seems finally to be a distinct breaking away from the intimacy of this particular relationship and Malabou does not hold back from expressing how charged this particular bid for intellectual freedom might be, or what kind of grief it might cause, or come to. The work, in part, charts the difficulty of stepping out of the shadows and the realities of violence--theoretical political, and physical--to which women are subjected on a daily basis. We must here take the meaning of deconstruction as it has become bound to Derrida's thinking and to a concept of 'writing', alongside a political and physical deconstruction of women the world over (although what this means on the level of the particular, rather than the universal, is never specified.) Malabou asks that we walk the line between these arenas so that we can 'displace the concept of writing' (p3) as the site of importance, and presumably so that Malabou herself can explain the freedom from the legacy of Derridean deconstruction that she is able to achieve, and simultaneously so we can begin to form a new set of responses to the violence done against women.

At stake in this project is Malabou's attempt to find a way out of the impasse of modern feminism, out of what she characterizes as the two types of feminism at work today. The first is one that circles around the question of sexual difference and which thus analyses notions of power and domination. The second type of feminism she locates as arising out of American gender studies and queer theory, which 'challenges the binary division of the "genders"' (p1). Malabou contends that the question of sexual difference has never been considered as an ontological question and she wishes to put into conversation queer theory, deconstruction, and these two strands of feminism. Yet, as the text unfolds we find that Malabou sees traps set down in all existing avenues of exploration: 'Philosophy is woman's tomb' (p100); deconstruction does not 'offer women any freedom to create' (p118); and feminism, alongside deconstruction, has misunderstood and, wrongly, distanced itself from the idea of essence, depriving woman of any state of being except one defined by a kind of negation, a 'hollowing out' (front matter). In place of essence as substance, either ontological or natural, then, Malabou wants to conceptualize essence as the 'originary movement', as 'transformability' (p136-37) as woman's possibility, and more than that, a kind of resistance, 'an essence that is resistant because empty' (front matter). Hers is a process of 'un-marrying, de-coupling, divorcing' herself 'a little from philosophy' (p141) and of moving away from the confines of deconstruction towards this new possibility.

To this end, Changing Difference is organized as a set of four essays, the first three of which work with one another and towards the fourth, but not in any systematic manner. In her first essay, 'The meaning of the "feminine"', Malabou interrogates the concept of the 'feminine' as it relates to the category of 'woman' while acknowledging that the idea of the feminine cannot necessarily be confined to woman. Here she engages with Butler, Heidegger, Levinas, Irigaray, Jean-Luc Nancy and Derrida in some philosophical gymnastics about the ontology of sexual difference. She credits Irigaray with being 'one of the only people to think explicitly together ontology and gender differences' (p10) and poses the question 'What is feminism if it involves eradicating its origin, woman?' (p36). Malabou cautions against turning femininity into a fetish, purely a site of fragility, but she is also suspicious about modes of caution that warn us against the reductions, the essentializing, of woman. Underlying the twists in her thinking, there is a move Malabou begins to make here to try and find or perhaps rescue a kind of essence for woman that is not a simple biological reduction but is ontological.

'Grammatology and Plasticity', the second essay, finds Malabou tarrying with Derrida and his project as set forth in On Grammatology and elsewhere, and it is here that we see the strength of the burgeoning bid for freedom that Malabou let us know about in the introduction. She explores the concept of difference as arising out of Derrida's notion of writing and finds there is a dead end in the concept of writing and specifically of the trace, or at least enough of a dead end that we have a choice if there is to be any kind of philosophical creativity. We must either 'recognize that deconstruction is dead and repeat that this is the case, or we accept the new change in modification, in other words a change of difference. If the second option carries the day, then philosophical invention consists in refusing to repeat or pastiche a gesture that can no longer produce difference' (p66). As Malabou notes, this is a move that Derrida himself saw in Margins of Philosophy, and in so noting, Malabou is rejecting Derrida but seemingly with his permission.

Arguably, the biggest theoretical tool in Malabou's arsenal is the concept of 'plasticity', a concept that she has consistently harnessed in her work, from The Future of Hegel to What Should We do with our Brains (2008) and elsewhere. In Changing Difference the working through of the concept of neuronal plasticity, particularly in 'Grammatology and Plasticity' and the third of the four essays, 'The phoenix, the spider, and the salamander', is Malabou's route out of the Derridean trap of writing and deconstruction. For Malabou, 'we no longer live in the epoch of writing' (p57) and her appeal to neurobiology comes in order to explore the concept of the 'graphic trace'. If writing refers, according to Malabou's reading of Derrida, to 'coincidence between the production and opening of difference' (p50), then we must attend to her push to move beyond 'writing' as the scene of production into a world of plasticity. This means that, as her title indicates, there is a shift, a change, in the idea of 'difference'.

Readers of What Should we do with our Brains will be prepared for this shift into the language of synaptic plasticity as Malabou draws it out of neurobiology. I find her arguments entirely compelling and the concept of plasticity to be vital to the way in which we can think, metaphorically and very literally about our brains, our selves, our sense of agency and of the potential for freedom that plasticity offers. Malabou explains: 'As we know, plasticity refers to a dual ability to receive form (clay is plastic) and give form (as in the plastic arts or plastic surgery). The deconstruction of concepts must therefore now be apprehended as a change of form, a metamorphosis' (p63). What is most inspiring about the concept of plasticity is the manner in which it has shifted how we look at ourselves; it is the way in to seeing our brains as constant works in progress, not a fixed entity that our lived experience simply inscribes and sets. Therefore, as Malabou discusses, our brains are not simply to be 'read', the 'neurobiologist is not, or is no longer, a grammatologist' (p62). If following Malabou we take plasticity seriously, then we must also re-consider the meaning of writing. The task is no longer 'the tracing of the trace' and instead we should be concerned with the 'formation of form' (p63). Malabou takes us through a thrilling reading of a passage in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit where he states '"the wounds of spirit heal and leave no scars behind"' (p73) in order to give us a model of the 'process of recovery, healing, return, the re-knitting of the skin after the wound, in other words, the plasticity that appears as the very movement of the absolute' (p73). She reads this alongside differance, which also leaves no scar. The 'text always reconstitutes itself' after the violence of reading and interpretation, while the traces remain. Yet, much as she engages with Hegel here, she is attempting to move away from him, just as she is attempting to move away from Derrida, to think about plasticity as 'the resistance of differance to its graphic reduction' which really means something that is not written (p87). What this all means for her project regarding feminism comes to fruition in the fourth and final essay.

In 'Woman's possibility, philosophy's impossibility', Malabou is at her most personal and passionate about the deadlock that previous forms of thinking have left the category of woman in. There is no conceding here on the 'fight for women's liberation' and what Malabou wants to know is 'what remains of the feminine after its deconstruction'. What remains is 'woman's overexposure to dual exploitation', in society and at home (p93). It is this very real violence that is coupled with the violence taken by deconstruction and queer theory that has emptied woman of her essence, has not allowed her to define herself 'except through the violence done to her' (p98) and here Malabou turns to her own experience as a 'woman philosopher' in order to explore the repercussions of this hollowing out.

Changing Difference has much in common with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. The two texts share an impulse to 'think back through the mothers' to try and locate a kind of history to which modern women can turn to find bolstering inspiration for their own endeavours, literary in the case of Woolf and philosophical in that of Malabou. For Woolf, there is the question of writing both without being completely bound to the idea of 'woman' and Malabou, in her turn, is asking, 'What is the life of a woman philosopher?' (p99). She argues that the term itself is inane and that women do not do '"women's" philosophical work' (p102). Yet herein lies one of the central problems that Malabou diagnoses. They do not do 'women's work' because the only option open to them is to become brilliant mimics of male philosophers. Recall above her confession to her 'sisters' that she fought to become 'just as strong as' the male philosophers. She further admits that with Derrida as a supervisor she was 'doomed to mimic a double mastery', the first that of the classical philosopher and second 'the mastery of a feminine or feminist Derrida' which caused her to suffer from 'the violence of this double mimicry' (pp107-108). Here, her kind of divorce from deconstruction comes to fruition. I will not spoil the fullness of her confessions and story here, because these are some of the most powerful sections of her text to be experienced by the reader. Much in the same way that Woolf offered the power of the androgynous mind (although this, too, is not without its critics) as a way out of the impasse of being a woman writer and as a way of carving out a presence for herself and those that would follow, Malabou offers to women philosophers 'the beginning of a new fire; the prelude to new forms' (p93) a kind of map of resistance, to a life of mimicry, to a presence as a hollowing out.

A criticism that can be, and most likely will be, launched at Malabou is that her engagement with other feminist philosophers and theorists is predominantly limited to a handful of end notes (and the absence of Kristeva in all but one note is a bit puzzling). Fair recognition is given to de Beauvoir, Butler and Irigaray, but if this were a text with a different form, there would be space for an engagement with contemporary thinkers like Elizabeth Grosz or indeed any of the women found in the volume of essays Feminist Interpretations of Jacques Derrida (1997). However, I think it is important to keep in mind that Malabou seeks recognition for a kind of feminine space that very well may be impossible, but one that lies beyond the dispute of 'is there or is there not an "essence" of woman'. Clearly, the range of works on the topic of essentialism is vast and as generous readers we must first take on board that Malabou's own intervention has no claims to a system or allegiance to the body of existing work as such. We then must assume that Malabou's engagement with this debate is more implicitly than explicitly traced and part of this loops back to her claims that the idea of putting into question sexual difference and the shift from one feminism to the other has never been considered from a philosophical point of view, that gender has never been taken back to its ontological source. So, although there will be criticism that she has not engaged with the wider debates here, she shores her own argument up against this by setting forth these new parameters, by attempting to redraw the boundaries. There may be readers who are frustrated by this approach but I would argue that Malabou's attempts to separate herself from all existing routes of engagement, as she writes 'to "do without"', to leave behind the masculine, the feminine, and all the other models' needs to be given space and time to breath. She asks that we take on board that 'A time comes when we know that philosophy has nothing more to offer, that it cannot welcome the fugitive essence of women, that gender studies or deconstruction cannot do so either' (p140). For Malabou this means it is time for a new way of thinking.

DOI: 10.3898/NEwE77.REY06.2012
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Title Annotation:Changing Difference
Author:Macdonald, Molly
Publication:New Formations
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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