Inventing Freedoms

Camilla Wills

But we were always told at school, when tackling a sum, to ‘show your workings’. Even if you didn’t get the answer right, we were told, you might get the odd mark for honest effort.’ – Hilary Mantel ‘Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir’

Maybe certain autobiographical texts, memoirs and auto fictions can be read as the revelation of neurological mechanisms and the synaptic self. The architecture, shape and volume of sentences disclose something of the interpretive tissues and convolutes of the brain as an organ. An organ (and a literary genre) that I think is able to resist the rules and carry out a material self-formation against the norm, and against the grain. Through reading such texts what I feel is total organ renewal! – rather than a simple re adjustment of the social furniture. That temporary sense that you are no longer just yourself, you are also other people and the deepest memories are not simply your own.

Catherine Malabou has developed the term ‘plasticity’, as a term to free the brain from the fatalism of biological regulation and passivity. The brain is a system that sculpts itself from education, environment and political pressures because the shape of synaptic patterns depends on the form and bent of information passing through the brain.The brain is at the core of our subjectivity.

 A synapse between two neurons is a void, a cleft – it is not a substance or a pre-given structure. Much like the present and contemporary life, it is a gap that must be invented and filled, both absent and plastic at the same time. This could mean that every moment contains the radical (and traumatic) promise of fiction and psychic self-invention against various patriarchies. So, What have I not written on this page that could possibly be here? And if it is possible to take locality and immediacy as the field of political struggle, life being invented in the present, from moment to moment, then subjectivity must be trusted as the perfect agency to make something out of nothing. There can be adventures in places where it seems against all odds.

Malabou deliberately addresses the difference between the words ‘plasticity’ and ‘flexibility’. To be flexible is to receive a form or impression, to be able to fold oneself, to take the fold, not to give it. To be docile and not to explode. ‘Plasticity’ on the other hand is to be supple but not endlessly flexible and liberal, to have the resource to invent or erase an impression, the freedom to resist regulation, to intervene and of course tobreak. The brain is an organ of explosions, addictions, quakes and flashes. Within disorder and breakdown there is the convincing possibility to re-form and to transform, to set off a different level of neural networks. In such patterns will be an awakening, something awakens in the reader that goes beyond their life to things dreamt or long forgotten.

Italicised sentences from
Chris Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia, Semiotext(e), New York:2000
Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, Fordham University Press, New York:2008
Catherine Malabou, LARB Podcast, 2012
Lynne Tillman, Frieze talks, 2012