Rhetoric Thesis Award 2020 Recipient Seán McGovern


Jun 16, 2020

The Rhetoric Department proudly names Seán McGovern recipient of its 2020 Thesis Award. Seán’s Honor’s Thesis, “The Invisible Wound: Toward a Neuropathology of Everyday Life,” is an exceptional work of  scholarship. It was supervised by Prof. David Bates. Seán is graduating in 2020 with a double major in Rhetoric and Molecular & Cell Biology, and is a member of the Berkeley Chamber Orchestra and the Nu Jazz collective. 


The Invisible Wound: Toward a Neuropathology of Everyday Life

Abstract: In her 2007 text The New Wounded, Catherine Malabou identifies the limitations of a classical psychoanalytic conception of trauma which results from the assumption that the structure of the psyche is necessarily imperishable. Juxtaposing the development of Sigmund Freud’s theories of the etiological relation between the accident and pathology with neurological insights into the vulnerability of the psyche to pure destruction, Malabou suggests that a new, neuropsychoanalytic notion of trauma must be capable of accounting for events which produce identities without precedent, through the destruction of the psychic apparatus itself. If this is the case, she argues, we would not only need to rethink the character of destruction handled by psychoanalysis, but correspondingly, its notion of causality. These considerations lead Malabou to posit an alternative theory of the event which grants the brain itself a causal relation to psychic life. The current essay will attempt to advance further along the path taken up in The New Wounded by analyzing several interconnected elements of Malabou’s project which are either left undeveloped or must be further scrutinized. This argument has three parts: First, I will argue that the notion of cerebral trauma which Malabou develops should not entail the criteria of trauma assumed by 20th century psychiatric discourse; cerebral etiology must be capable of recognizing less visible forms of wounds not captured by clinical terms of trauma. Relatedly, if cerebral etiology is found to be capable of accomplishing this task, Malabou’s category of ‘the new wounded’ must expand to include a wider array of cerebral illnesses; it is here suggested that the case of depression should be studied as an instance of disruption of the brain’s affective economy which could shed light on the relation between sexual and cerebral etiologies, as well as that between positive and negative plasticity. An analysis of the evolution of Freud’s writings on melancholia suggests a model for the most incremental forms of cerebral wounds as well as the nuanced relationship between the somatic and the psychical, which could inspire future work in neuropsychopathology. Lastly, the essay concludes by suggesting that the previous two pieces of this argument make the link which Malabou draws between a general theory of trauma and a globalized pathology more tenable by refining our understanding of the relationship between the biological and the social.