13 December 2009

Bring on the Neurosceptics!

Raymond Tallis has a brilliant essay in The New Humanist examining neuroscience overreach.
In summary, such are the limitations of our understanding of the brain, attempting to apply the findings of neuroscience to social policy would be premature, even if this were not wrong in principle. But it is wrong in principle. The fabric of the human world, of the public space that is the arena of our lives, is woven out of explicit shared attention that has been infinitely elaborated in a way that has little to do with what goes on in the darkness of the individual skull, though you require a brain in working order in order to be part of it. If you come across a new discipline with the prefix “neuro” and it is not to do with the nervous system itself, switch on your bullshit detector. If it has society in its sights, reach for your gun. Bring on the neurosceptics.

Of course, we need to move beyond ranting and focus specifically on understanding how this discourse became possible. We also need to understand why neuroscience, and why now? Increasingly, an ethnographic approach appears one of the more effective ways of analyzing these questions. On another great discourse, orientalism, the cultural theorist and humanist Edward Said wrote:
Culture, of course, is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West.
Such a structural approach foregrounds some important observations: The industrial West has become more of an idea of production than a reality. The industrial West construes knowledge as power, and thereby sets knowledge at the center of its understanding of production (hence phrases like "knowledge economy"). At the same time, the neurosciences emerged as a discourse specifically when personal identity and self-hood became socially-constructed objects. Thus, the utopian theme of transcending our neurolimitations mapped on to a cultural understanding of personhood ever malleable. In other words, it was a profoundly consumerist discourse. One that set out the alleged social object of knowledge, the brain, and placed it (alongside the genes) as something to be designed or as our own working project. As the knowledge-power economy has proved incapable of supporting its own discourse, we have constantly turned to search for a secular truth about the source of human failings, hence fields like neuroeconomics and neuroethics came into being. We have become, in consequence, homo sacer. These are the framing challenges for future historical work.

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