Abstract

“On Epigenesis” consists of a series of interrelated short articles examining the philosophical concept of epigenesis, with a particular focus on Catherine Malabou's development of it in contemporary thought.

Alexander Miller introduces the topic of epigenesis and considers its significance as a new paradigm. He also presents the reader with an overview of Malabou's work on the topic: Drawing from recent advances in the life sciences as well as the Western philosophical tradition, he claims, Malabou has proposed “an epigenetic paradigm for rationality” for the 21st century.

Catherine Malabou explains that when, in 2001, the scientific journal Nature published virtually the entire sequence of three billion bases that make up the human genome, people were surprised: Only five percent of the sequence turned out to actually be genes. Assembled in bunches and clusters, they are separated by vast expanses of so-called gene deserts made up of DNA characterized as “junk” or “repetitive,” which is to say, non-coding. The sequencing of the genome did not offer the revelations that people had expected, marking the end of the “everything is genetic” creed and announcing the rise of the “epigenetic paradigm.” The present article analyzes the implications of this new paradigm in biology, philosophy, and hermeneutics.

Emily Apter situates Catherine Malabou's theory of epigenesis within a broader disciplinary context of Continental philosophy, the cognitive turn, and what a brain does or “is” as an object of aesthetic representation.

Peter Szendy argues that even if they are not the central focus of her philosophical work, media and medial metaphors play a key role in Catherine Malabou's understanding of epigenetics. Indeed, her views on the epigenetic paradigm shift could lead to a rethinking of mediality. A medium, according to such an epigenetic approach, would be neither simply a storage space nor a carrier: It would be what happens along with the events (whether they involve works or data) that it hosts or transports.

Emanuela Bianchi asks whether the epigenesis of “pure reason” can in any sense be “pure,” since epigenesis necessarily involves empirical processes. Foregrounding the topological involvement of the developing organism in its environment in both biological and psychoanalytic registers, she suggests a way forward can be found in thinking of the genesis of reason as both empirical and rational.

Alexander R. Galloway traces an etymological path from “epigenetic” back to the Greek verb “gignomai,” meaning “to be born” or “to become.” But what is becoming? And why is becoming better than (mere) being? One answer is that becoming helps one to escape the confines of identity and rote determination. But what happens when the epigenetic paradigm becomes dominant, when contingency, evolution, and becoming prevail over essence, stasis, and determinism?

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Author notes

∗ The texts that follow are based on those presented at “Epigenesis: A New Paradigm?,” a critical roundtable focused on Catherine Malabou's work on epigenesis held at New York University on March 2, 2020.