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Catherine Malabou - Biography

Catherine Malabou, Ph.D., is an important contemporary French philosopher. Catherine Malabou was born in 1959 and is a former student at the École normal supérieure (ENS) of Fontenay-Saint-Cloud in Lyon, France. ENS schools are regarded as some of the most prestigious French schools for humanities studies. Before that Catherine Malabou was educated in Paris at the renown Sorbonne University.

Catherine Malabou passed her agrégation in philosophy (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to Ph.D. study). Catherine Malabou wrote her dissertation on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) under the direction of the critical French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), completing it on December 15 1994. The thesis was published in 1996 under the title “L’Avenir de Hegel, plasticité, temporalité, dialectique” and was prefaced by Derrida with a text entitled “Le temps des adieux: Heidegger (lu par) Hegel (lu par) Malabou” (“A time for farewells: Heidegger (read by) Hegel (read by) Malabou”). Catherine Malabou’s doctoral dissertation was eventually published in both Japanese and English (2005, “The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic”).

Catherine Malabou has taught at Nanterre University in Paris. She also taught in the United States where she was for two years at the University of California at Berkeley, and where she now regularly teaches in Buffalo as well as at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Today Catherine Malabou is a full-time professor at the Centre for Modern European Philosophy of Kingston in the United Kingdom. Catherine Malabou is also a Professor at the European Graduate School (EGS) where she teaches an intensive summer seminar.

Catherine Malabou’s work is on the one hand in classic continental philosophy, and on the other neuroscience and neuro-psychoanalysis. She is a specialist of contemporary French and German philosophy. Catherine Malabou’s work has especially focused on the critical thought of Hegel and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Catherine Malabou’s contribution is with the concept of “plastic ontology”, which situates itself in the opening of the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. Catherine Malabou also manages a philosophy book series for the French publisher “Éditions Léo Scheer”.

1999 marked the publication of the co-authored “Voyager avec Jacques Derrida - La Contre-allée”, published in English in 2004 not long before the death of Derrida himself, and under the title “Counterpath”. Here Malabou and Derrida explore the various meanings of a “journey”, pointing out that they have all always presupposed as its condition of possibility an unwavering solidarity, if not even a synonymy between two terms: to derive and to arrive. Indeed the logic of such solidarity presupposes that everything that happens drifts. This axiom controls the essential relationship between journey on the one hand and destination, event and truth, on the other.

In 2004 Catherine Malabou wrote “Que faire de notre cerveau?”, published in English in 2008 as “What Should We Do with Our Brain?”. She begins her inquiry by pointing out that the brain has always been the organ most subjected to political metaphors. She suggests that this is the case probably because it is the biological structure that is most seen as being in charge. Yet recent findings concerning it, particularly those demonstrating its plasticity, have fundamentally challenged its function of leader. The question Catherine Malabou explores here has to do with the brain having stopped being a metaphor of a rigid and centralized power. She wonders whether it necessarily follows that the present description that we actually make today of the brain is devoid of ulterior political motives. Catherine Malabou points out that it is indeed troubling that the same words, such as “flexibility”, are today commonly used in economic life. This leads her to ask whether the very description of our brain today is not in fact the image of the capitalist world in which we live? She continues her line of questioning by asking if that description does not also describe another form of power that is not centralized but which still remains in charge in a sort of command post where absolute adaptability and flexibility is demanded with the result of rejecting people without mobility, and deemed too rigid. Catherine Malabou remarks that we should thus not be fooled by how we speak of our brain.

In 2005 Catherine Malabou published “La Plasticité au soir de l’écriture : Dialectique, destruction, déconstruction” (published in English in 2009 as “Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction”). The book is a kind of manifesto that is particularly helpful in trying to understand one of the guiding movements of French philosophy in the past fifty years. In this intellectual autobiography, Catherine Malabou goes over the legacy of deconstruction, starting with the fundamental ground of Derrida’s thought: writing. Through having this thought confront those of Hegel and Heidegger, she shows how the concept of plasticity is today tending to replace the graph and the trace. The dialogue between the graphic and the plastic that she facilitates ends up extending to different disciplines and uncovers, from anthropology to neurobiology, crucial theoretical issues.

Catherine Malabou has expanded her research to modern philosophy in the United States where she now spends several months a year. Catherine Malabou has also worked on the theme of feminism and politics, with for example one of her more recent works entitled “Changer de différence” (2009) and published in English in 2011 as “Changing differences”. In this book she first submits philosophical analysis to the rigor of proof. She wants to make sure we do not misunderstand and forget what philosophy tends to want to drop or reduce as effects, or as its outside, or even its below. Catherine Malabou argues and shows that philosophy can no longer be a neutral and transparent arbitration. She wants to intervene in a practical and critical work to in fact do philosophical work in which so-called effects refuse to be dominated as second-class products.

More recently, Catherine Malabou published with the eminent American critical thinker Judith Butler (1956-) a book in French entitled “Sois mon corps” (2010), not yet published in English but which can translate as “Be My Body”. The two thinkers give us a contemporary reading of domination and servitude in Hegel. They ask about who has not ever dreamed or feared, desired or dreaded to delegate one’s body? That is to say, asking or ordering someone else: be my body, carry it in my place, feed it, cultivate it, shape it. According to Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou such request and order are those which the master gives the slave in Hegel’s “The Phenomenology of Spirit” (1807). In this way, the dialectic of domination and servitude must be understood as a scene of delegation and denial of the body. But they also want to ask two opposite and yet inextricable questions: do we ever manage to completely detach oneself from one’s body? And on the contrary, are we ever completely attached to it? From Hegel to Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Jacques Derrida and Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968), these issues are tackled in all their modalities.

Catherine Malabou is a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she conducts an Intensive Summer Workshop.