Research Overview

I wrote my dissertation on continental conceptions of transformation. I became interested in ‘transformation’ after studying Foucault. Foucault has an interesting story to tell about the relationship between power and subjectivity, or between discourses, norms, and disciplinary practices (power) and the self. He suggests that power is actually constitutive of subjectivity. The subject is supposed to have an investment in, or an attachment to, the forms of power that help make it what it is. To sustain itself as it is, it must sustain its relation to these forms of power, or, in other words, must subject itself to these—Foucault’s framework suggests that power produces a subject who self-subjugates. In this way, it generates a puzzle related to the possibility of resisting power: How is resistance even possible? If even the self’s desires have been instituted by power, what would motivate resistance? What would resistance look like? Self-transformation is one possible response to the last question: to evade the power which has produced and continues to produce its identity, the subject must become other than it is. Using a Nietzschean vocabulary, we could say that it must ‘overcome’ itself, or practice a form of self-death, though without literally eliminating itself. I became especially interested in instances when life’s viability seems to require forms of self-dissolution. Radical self-change seems like one way the subject might extract itself or be extracted from a number of the vicious circles it is possible to be caught in: major addictions, crippling ‘ways of being,’ etc. When can transformation save you? What are the limits of its ability to ‘save’? With questions like these in mind, I undertook a study of the French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s work. Malabou makes a multi-faceted conception of transformation—‘plasticity’—central to her work. I explored the relationship between Malabou’s thinking on the subject of plasticity and 

Derridean, psychoanalytic, and Foucaultian frameworks for thinking about change, arguing that ‘plasticity’ does not do justice to all of the forms of emancipatory change Malabou attempts to do justice to in advancing the concept. I showed how 'plasticity' might do the work Malabou signals as its special preserve if it is supplemented with resources derived from deconstruction, which Malabou distances herself from.

I was originally drawn to Malabou’s work because of a long-standing interest I’ve had in the ontology of mental disorder, and of depression in particular. I’m particularly interested in how discourse shapes the experience of depression, producing historically-specific forms of depressed subjectivity (some use the language of ‘human kinds’ to articulate similar preoccupations). I believed I could place Malabou’s work in communication with contemporary discourse on depression in a subversive way. In a world in which understandings of depression can be linked to beliefs about biological essentialism, work which draws attention to the ways in which even the most obstinate biological realities can be changed, like Malabou’s philosophy does, is valuable. I quickly discovered that her thinking required a critique of its own and moved my dissertation in that direction, but I will be pursuing the original impetus of my foray into Malabou in the coming years.

 

My newest project involves examining the ways in which contemporary discourse on depression, in shaping depressed experience, serves the end of social regulation and neutralizes our ability to resist the dimensions of our context which warrant resistance. Some contemporary depression discourse encourages people to orient themselves towards depression uncritically and apolitically. Depressed people who are precariously employed, for instance, may be encouraged to view their depression as a brain pathology unrelated to the social context in which the brain exists, even though other sources of depression are conspicuous. ‘Recovery’ from depression is often sketched as conformity to gender norms – women are able to tend to their families again and men are able to pursue their extra-domestic ambitions – and work norms like ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiency.’ The new work involves integrating recent feminist affect theory (work by Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, Sara Ahmed, and others) with thinking on biopower found in and emerging from work by Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. Thought on the subject of biopower can help us appreciate how, in orienting us towards affect in particular ways, power can compromise the empowering function affect theorists assign to collectively experienced affect. The project is also an exploration of how depressed experience might be converted into a means of resisting regulation and other forms of power. Foucault was concerned with how it was possible to cultivate forms of sexuality which exceeded the scripted and normalized forms of sexuality which were possible at the time he was writing. I am translating Foucault’s preoccupation with possibilities for sexual being into a preoccupation with possibilities for depressed being: How is it possible to cultivate forms of depression which exceed the scripts for depression which biopower exploits to regulate us? The forms of political resistance affect theorists suggest can be rooted in collectively experienced affect might in fact need to be anchored in experimental (unscripted) forms of affect. It makes sense to focus on Deleuze in the context of this project because of his preoccupation with dissolving organizations (subjects and other structures) to produce new affects.

I have more general research interests in continental conceptions of power, violence, and resistance, and in themes related to disciplinarity and normalization (of the self, of the body, of affect, and of art). I consider myself a feminist thinker and take this to imply a commitment to reflecting on and acting (as I discourse, as I teach, as I learn, and as I live) with an awareness of various axes of marginality (gender, race, and class, among others). 

Academic Publications

I am currently working on a piece on the relationship between Jacques Derrida and Catherine Malabou's discourses. I argue that although Malabou does not succeed in breaking with deconstruction, she does supplement it in vital ways. 

I am also working on an article in which I show why we should understand Malabou's 'plasticity' as constituted in part by discourse (and hence as an element of power in Foucault's sense of the word). I argue against alternative ways of construing plasticity (alternatives connected to realist and Lacanian frameworks). 

In press: “Insubordinate Plasticity: Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou.” Hypatia. 20 pages.

Accepted: (with Cressida J. Heyes and Jaclyn Rohel), “Thinking through the Body: Yoga, Philosophy, and Physical Education.” Teaching Philosophy, September 2009.

*Author posting.

Conference Presentations

“Reconfiguring Plasticity: Foucaultian Feminism and the Death Drive”
PhiloSOPHIA: Society for Continental Feminism 14th Annual Meeting (2020)

“Explosive Plasticity, Insubordination, Deconstruction”

Canadian Philosophical Association (2018)

“Insubordinate Plasticity: Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou”

Society of Women in Philosophy—Ireland (2018)

"Violence as Resistance: Autoimmunity and Anorexia"

Duquesne's Women in Philosophy Conference (2017)

“Moving beyond Aesthetic-Normalization through Willed-Listening”

Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference (2012)

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