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Book Review

Ontology of the Accident

A mini book review of Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012 translated by Carolyn Shread)

French philosophy has such a certain… je ne sais quoi about it. Sometimes I find the deconstruction-flavored denigrating tone to be a very pleasant literary experience, with specters of cigarette smoke and cafĂ©-au-lait swirling in my mind. While at other moments the self-referential language games are merely annoying. The cascade of nihilistic hot-takes can really sear my nostrels as lyrical metaphors get stretched to a bitingly acidic thinness.

Catherine Malabou is a real remedy for expectations of the latter! In this short collection of essays she bridges an academic gap between Neuroscience and Ontology via a surprisingly fun tour of writings by Spinoza, Deleuze, Proust, and Kafka. Malabou is expanding and elaborating her already rich speculations on Plasticity. It is a brave and honest exploration of the inverse to the commonly celebrated aspects of neuroplasticity; the violent moral shadow of Plasticity. Destructive Platicity.

I especially enjoyed Malabou’s connecting some subtle points on Freud’s incomplete views about ageing mind with Marguerite Duras stylistic use of “asyndeton”, a literary device in which conjunctions are deliberately omitted from a series of related clauses to the effect of eliminating the sense of causal flow in a sentence. These kinds of poetic high-wire acts are best savored between long-stares out of a rainy-day windows.

Depending on one’s patience for intransitive language (the cornerstone of post-structuralist French philosophy?) this little book is well worth a read for its real bounty of interesting, meaningful, and challenging insights. The English translation by Carolyn Shread is a delight.

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Book Review

Meeting the Universe Halfway

A mini book review of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007)

I found this book because of a shared pet peeve, that of hucksters misusing the concepts of quantum physics to promote Self-Help Books like “The Secret”. Karen Barad’s massive book does not spare any detail. Her exhaustive tome dives deep down into her decades-long study of Neils Bohr’s philosophy of science.

Thinking through Bohr’s misunderstood theory of “complementary” against Heisenberg’s theory of “uncertainty”, Barad grounds her theory of Agential Realism. Matter matters, but for real here. She uses a beautiful metaphor of the refraction of light (as opposed to mere reflection) to poetically frame her insights. Combined with her fervent commitment to “intra-agency” as a more accurate model for embodied reality, all of these big ideas serve as impressive tent-poles to this sprawling and generous work.

It can be overly repetitive in sections due to its unflinching commitment to clarity via scientific language, but perhaps with good reason. To err on this side make sense here – rather than slipping into the sloppier ease of Pop Science styling which this book is in large part a polemic against.

Committed readers are treated to a final section that is a wild tour of the intra-entangled mind of a species of brittle star (Ophiuroidea, similar to starfish). This is the feminist physics you’ve been looking for. Taking the profound implications of quantum reality seriously is still making my head spin a bit, but hey, that’s ontology for ya!