On Accidents (Part One): Malabou, Plasticity, and Breaking Bad

Since my graduation in May, I’ve been spending time with authors I wish I had read while working on my dissertation, which, to put it painfully briefly, studies “the accident” in Anglo-American modernist literature. Though I’ve certainly researched other literatures and other problems over the past five years, it is this idea of “the accident,” understood as a powerful and parochial chance event, that continues to follow me with uncanny resilience, forming random linkages between books on my post-dissertation reading list.

Book Cover

For instance, there is Catherine Malabou and her long essay The Ontology of the Accident (which was not available in translation until July 2012). A few weeks ago, I began reading Malabou’s text while taking the RIPTA bus from Newport to Providence and finished it on my return trip. Two things stand out for me:

[1] In its notion of “destructive plasticity” (which Malabou develops at length elsewhere), this provocative little book captures the sense of transformative potentiality immanent to everyday life that my dissertation struggles to bring to the surface in Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, and Gilles Deleuze. Malabou begins her first section,

In the usual order of things, lives run their course like rivers. The changes and metamorphoses of a life due to vagaries and difficulties, or simply the natural unfolding of circumstance, appear as the marks and wrinkles of a continuous, almost logical, process of fulfillment that leads ultimately to death. In time, one eventually becomes who one is; one becomes only who one is […] This gradual existential and biological incline, which can only ever transform the subject into itself, does not, however, obviate the powers of plasticity of this same identity that houses itself beneath an apparently smooth surface like a reserve of dynamite hidden under the peachy skin of being for death. As a result of serious trauma, or sometimes for no reason at all, the path splits and a new, unprecedented persona comes to live with the former person, and eventually takes up all the room. […] An unrecognizable persona whose present comes from no past, whose future harbors nothing to come, an absolute existential improvisation. A form born of the accident, born by accident, a kind of accident. […] A new being comes into the world for a second time, out of a deep cut that opens in a biography. […] We must all recognize that we might, one day, become someone else, an absolute other, someone who will never be reconciled with themselves again, someone who will be this form of us without redemption or atonement, without last wishes, this damned form, outside of time. These modes of being without genealogy have nothing to do with the wholly other found in the mystical ethics of the twentieth century. The Wholly Other I’m talking about remains always and forever a stranger to the Other. […] The suddenly deviant, deviating form of [] lives [that jump their riverbed] is explosive plasticity. (1-3)

I find these sentences, taken from the opening pages of Malabou’s text, incredibly sexy. They express a vulnerability to radical, non-intentional alteration that structures so many great narratives (and not only those of canonical modernism). I think too of AMC’s Breaking Bad, a show that begins with a vital rift — a diagnosis of lung cancer — and that occasions “a new, unprecedented persona,” Heisenberg, who “comes to live with” Walter White, “eventually tak[ing] up all the room” in his identity. Of course, Walt’s lung cancer, though terminal, pales somewhat in comparison to the examples that Malabou references — Alzheimer’s disease, severe brain injuries, the unpredictable traumas of war, as well as “natural or political catastrophes” that affect thousands or millions — and yet the fraught temporality of Walt’s transformation (simultaneously slow and immediate) brings to the surface the unsettling consequence of this ontology of the accident.

The Heisenberg Stare

Malabou’s ontology challenges me to accept that at some point, at a time I will never be able to foresee, an accident — geological, political, environmental, biological, or otherwise — might befall me too. What makes me moi-même, in other words, is my sheer plasticity, that is, the radical capacity of the components that make me up to become re-shaped — without my consent and without my foreknowledge — into another, unrecognizable, and yet fully extant moi-même. In regard to Walter White and his uncanny double Heisenberg, the overwhelming question is not, “Could I too become Heisenberg? Do I have it in me to break bad?” but, rather, “What will have happened to rearrange the components that compose me into something akin to Heisenberg? What kind of violence or rift might enact some unimaginable change to which I am always already susceptible?” Of course, whatever accident may befall and recompose me might not break me “bad.” But it will break me.

[2a] This application of Malabou to Breaking Bad is certainly crude. Yet its very crudeness gives me reason to doubt and to turn against Malabou’s attempt — as elegant as it is — to secure at long last that which continues to slip from the grasp of so many 20th-and 21st-century theorists: namely, the event of absolute rupture between the present and the past.

Why does Breaking Bad make me doubt Malabou? It compels an unsettling suspicion regarding an accidentality, like Malabou’s, that relies solely on extremely violent departures. This suspicion of mine initially strikes me as very stupid, since any effort to conceptualize something as severe as a complete break between the is and the was should understandably turn to extreme situations. After all, Malabou is conceptualizing “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” (6). In the spirit of giving a concrete example, Malabou quotes Antoni Casas Ros’s description of the effects of a car accident that left him visibly disfigured, “I am a blurred photograph, one that might remind you of a face” (12). She continues,

I have witnessed these types of transformation, even if they did not deform faces, even if they resulted less directly from recognizable accidents. Even if they were less spectacular, less brutal, they still had the power to start an end, to displace the meaning of a life. The couple unable to recover from an infidelity. The well-off woman whose son suddenly and inexplicably abandoned his family for a squat in the North of France. The colleague who upped and left for Texas believing he would be happy there. And in Central France, where I lived for years, all those people who at the age of 50 lost their jobs in the economic crisis of the mid-1980s. Teachers in underprivileged areas. People with Alzheimer’s disease. In all these cases what was striking was that once the metamorphosis took place, however explicable its causes (unemployment, relational difficulties, illness), its effects were absolutely unexpected, and it became incomprehensible, displacing its cause, breaking all etiological links. All of a sudden these people became strangers to themselves because they could not flee. It was not, or not just, that they were broken, wracked with sorrow or misfortune; it was the fact that they became new people, others, re-engendered, belonging to a different species. Exactly as if they had had an accident […] Again, the radical metamorphosis I am trying to think here is well and truly the fabrication of a new person, a novel form of life, without anything in common with a preceding form […] What destructive plasticity invites us to consider is the suffering caused by an absence of suffering, in the emergence of a new form of being, a stranger to the one before. Pain that manifests as indifference to pain, impassivity, forgetting, the loss of symbolic reference points. (12-13, 17-18)

I admire the rhetorical turn from destruction to “fabrication” — these traumatic accidents, in other words, do not merely break but also build something or someone — and yet something conceptually discomfiting begins to happen here. Are these examples extreme enough, truly and ontologically violent enough to meet the descriptive criteria of Malabou’s analysis? It seems to me that in order to maintain the consistency of her argument that she must hyperbolize the phenomena she lists (even if they are already quite eventful, major, and/or extreme).

Returning to Breaking Bad, I think of Walt’s lung cancer again and how his diagnosis certainly occasions a becoming-“broken” or -“wracked with sorrow or misfortune.” He does, at least in a sense, become “a stranger to the one” — to the life — “before” him. Indeed, I recall Walt’s traumatic horror when he realizes he will have to kill or be killed by “Krazy 8” early in Season 1 and then compare this horror to the intensity of his later exchanges with Skyler:

And yet, despite Heisenberg’s ever-intensifying act of “forgetting” Walter White, with whom he must exist for four seasons, despite “the suffering” of a difficult cancer that occasions a radical “absence of suffering” at the death of so many people (major and minor characters alike) in the show’s later seasons, the emergent Heisenberg does not bring about a complete “loss of symbolic reference points.” It is clear to me that the most disturbing thing about the vital, accidental rift with which Breaking Bad begins — a diagnosis that occasions a becoming-criminal — is not that Heisenberg comes out of nowhere or that he constitutes the rupture of a “different species.” Rather, what is most disturbing about Heisenberg’s indifference, for instance, to the shooting of a young boy in Season Five is that this indifference is continuous and contiguous with mild-mannered Walter White. He may be an accidental metamorphosis “without redemption or atonement,” but Heisenberg is not an ontologically altered creature. The presence of Heisenberg might come “from no past,” but he nevertheless enters into an assembly with a past that is not its own. Whether or not Heisenberg likes it, he remains attached to Walt’s family and Walt’s history: to his wife, his son, his daughter, his in-laws, his occupation, his ticks, his insecurities, etc., etc. And these persistent links do not hold back his transformation. Rather, they intensify the urgency of it all the more.

It might be said that my conceptual doubts about Malabou’s ontology, as learned in the example of Breaking Bad, are unfounded. Perhaps Walter White is not “extreme” enough to fit her analysis. And yet…

[2b] … this concession leads me to a second difficulty with Malabou’s speculative ontology. I can put it briefly: accidents — no matter how severe or exceptional — do not simply happen to me. Even if one considers Alzheimer’s disease, which my grandmother is currently battling, this accident of neurophysiology does not simply concern the one who battles it. Its reach exceeds my grandmother’s brain and touches those with whom her life is interwoven: my grandfather, my mother, my aunts, my uncles, her friends, as well as a whole history of clinical research. In short, the symbolic reference points of her life remain in the very network that, though irrevocably altered, continues to support her and her life. Moreover, it is the very remainder of these references points and their continuity and contiguity with the neurological deterioration of my grandmother’s brain, it is the fact that, even though she can no longer perceive or love me as her grandson, I am still her grandson, it is these continuities that make the accident all the more plastic, all the more destructive, all the more painful, all the more explosive and expansive.

Put another way: Malabou’s conceptual criteria of a complete “loss of symbolic reference points” requires that she delimit her analysis of the accident to the individual psyche or life. In this sense, what she proffers is not so much an ontology or an epistemology or a phenomenology. Rather, it is a reductive psychology. Many of her examples no doubt concern more than one individual. Indeed, some concern entire populations (as the quotations above show)! And yet in order to sustain her analysis, she must quickly retreat into a restrictive subjectivist framework.

Later in her project, distinguishing Gilles Deleuze’s references to old age and illness from her own approaches to these experiences, Malabou writes:

Is the term “elasticity” appropriate in [these] instance[s]? An “elastic” material is characterized by its ability to return to its initial form without changing. But the change described [in the examples of old age and serious illness] is irreversible, a return to the initial form is impossible. The word we need is “plasticity,” which refers precisely to this power of modification of the identity in proportions that exceed the simple detour or hiccup […] For Spinoza there is therefore a tendency for the finite mode to de-subjectivize. In the work of this thinker who, I repeat, is viewed as the enemy of freedom, there is in fact a recognition of an ontological plasticity that is both positive — the plasticity of the affects — and negative — the absolute modification of the mode, the production of another existence unrelated to the previous existence. (36-37)

But, again, in what sense is this “production of another existence unrelated to the previous existence”? Only if, by “existence,” Malabou means a strictly bordered subject with no ties to other subjects, a river without tributaries, intersections, or outlets to greater or lesser bodies of water. I find these sentences and their sentiments, contra Malabou’s opening pages, remarkably unsexy. The accidents that have radically altered the fictional Walter White, my biological grandmother, or the late great poet Jack Gilbert (who recently passed away) might very well constitute a rupture of de-subjectivization from their experiential perspectives. Yet these ruptures do not break the relation that these bodies have had to other bodies: to families, to friends, to histories, and even to further potentialities and relations.

Perhaps it is unfair to critique Malabou in this way, but I think it’s worthwhile challenging claims like these:

The instantaneity of ageing would be that sudden event, linked to the permanent disappearance of our childhood and thus to the impossiblity of taking refuge in the past, the impossibility of regression […] When subjects suffering from senile dementia start […] mentioning moments in their past, who can say whether they are doing so because a liberation of the repressed dictates […] or if they are saying something entirely other in a total breach with the person they once were, thereby constituting some sort of artificial story, an imposture? […] We never know the reason for this wandering, which is its own context, detached from everything, riding on the sea, alone. […] The subject finds herself at the end, as if emerging from her accidents, from her own destruction, which has no meaning and comes out of nowhere. […] After all, if we look at the face of elderly people with brain injuries, there is nothing scary or spectacular about them; there’s no thundering, shimmering metamorphosis like in the myths. No, they are exactly the same as before, just with added indifference. That’s what we look like, what we become in the memory of people who do not miss us, those who do not care. In everyone’s memory, and no one’s memory. […] Destructive plasticity deploys its work starting from the exhaustion of possibilities, when all virtuality has left long ago, when the child in the adult is erased, when cohesion is destroyed, family spirit vanished, friendship lost, links dissipated in the ever more intense cold of a barren life. (48, 49, 61, 63, 72, 90-91)

But enough quoting. Now for a few questions.

Is there not a radical social component to these passages that Malabou’s ontology, in directly expressing, nevertheless explicitly denies? Is there not something naïve about this denial? Isn’t it necessary to include a “sociology” in an ontology of the accident? And do we have to assume that an ontology of the accident should take as its point of departure the individual? Or that it should concern itself only with extreme injuries, subtractive experiences, or major biographical events? What of the minor? What of accidents we do not perceive, not because of shifts in desire, neurology, or sensibility but because we simply do not notice them? Though a new life may not emerge from such accidents, do we not remain corporeally, causally, or indirectly attached to them nonetheless? How might accidentality suggest a radical vulnerability to objects, to others, to cultures, or to an outside? And how might this vulnerability affect how one thinks politics, ethics, and aesthetics? How might it challenge how we live and how we love? And because we are vulnerable, always already prone to accidents — both major and minor and mundane — might we learn to live otherwise?

Malabou’s work would reject such questions (especially the future-minded ones), for they introduce into her claustrophic ontology a component of radical and excessive relationality that her concept “destructive plasticity” purports but fails to overcome.

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