A while back now (in 2002), Thomas Söderqvist had pondered, in a very welcome special issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences (on historiography, that is), the unusual (and one infers for historians always suspicious) preponderance of (auto)biographical writings in a field that is perhaps all too sloppily labelled: the history of the neurosciences. Somewhat unfortunately, this rare attempt at soul-searching doesn’t seem to have inspired altogether too much in terms of follow-ups, although the neurosciences, a label hardly in use still thirty years ago (as is certainly no secret) would appear to carve out a distressingly diverse array of historical lineages indeed.
Or do they? In fact, as regards - let’s call it - the historical imagination (something quite beyond and beneath all the biographies, and the more academic historiography alike), there seems to prevail a definite tendency to envisioning this thing called neuroscience as essentially a brain-representing, imaging-technology mediated science of the brain and mind. Or we might say, the image of neuroscience would seem to be exhausted, pretty much, by something coming appropriately enough with the qualifier ‘cognitive’ (neuroscience) or perhaps, in its less edifying dimensions, by visions of a neuropharmacological u/dystopia (and here one already seems to enter terrains traditionally filed under the history of psychiatry). This said, it’s being only slightly cynical to believe that the spectres of ‘presentism’ in the field are most effectively expelled by the rather sketchy historical understanding (some mostly biographical writings apart) that we still have of the things that happened in matters of neuroscience in the last four or five decades or so – by a lot of criteria, neuroscience’s formative period. To the best of my knowledge, no historian of neuroscience has, for instance, seriously engaged the much-belaboured (among STS circles) post-ca.-1980-transformations of the university landscape, when, should we believe the hype, the nature of the scientific enterprise began to tilt quite dramatically away from the cozy economics of cold-war era science, and towards an age of neoliberal science management, academia commercialized and research assessment exercises (by a lot of criteria, the definite period of neuroscience’s spectacular expansions - food-for-thought for anyone enchanted by the charting of intellectual continuities rather than the material situatedness of knowledge production).
Anyhow, since Söderqvist’s intervention above, the situation, no doubt, has considerably changed. Very fortunately indeed, a growing number of book-length studies by professional historians of science have begun to map the sciences of the nervous system in the twentieth century from very different vantage points than the biographical one. What is noteworthy, however, is that these historians (meaning, for all practical purposes, historians of the cultural kind) have rarely, or never, ventured much beyond the WWII period. And that - not too unlike, we should say, many of those histories of the less academic, Galen-to-fMRI variety (easily dismissed but finding a more widespread readership, one assumes) - they tend to come with a strong focus on the central nervous system - representing/imaging/constructing the brain and mind.
Like so many stories, this is not merely a national (i.e. Dutch) one, however. Active during a period of crucial transformations as regards neurology as a medical specialty and self-styled international community (as readers of this blog will know), Rademaker’s main interlocutors included no lesser figures than the neurologists Fulton, Denny-Brown, Dusser de Barenne, Ranson, and Walshe. More intriguingly, behind such technical detail and biographical trivia, lurks another, and more significant story - and perhaps, moral. Perhaps best labelled an experimental reflexologist, Rademaker’s work was, very plastically and emphatically, all about motion, balance, and control. At home in both the clinic and the laboratory, movement he saw, it sounds intriguing enough, as a ‘series of postures’. Rademaker’s formative scientific period were the six years between 1916-1922 which Rademaker spent as a young surgeon in Dutch Indonesia on horse racing tracks - as an ‘advisor’ in the business of horse racing; he went on to create, by way of the ‘cine-film’, a veritable ‘laboratoire des images’.
Though the deeper significance of all this and similar such irritations to the neuroscientific imagination is nowhere explicated, the relative insignificance of the brain (and mind) in all this body-mediated imaging of the nervous system (and to Rademaker’s experimental life, at any rate) transpires plainly enough; as does, as far as the historicity of 'neurocultures' is concerned, the far less cerebral, expressly neuromuscular cultural climate of the time. The material, palpable presence of bodies in this particular story (and we could easily generate similar ones) was profoundly significant, constituting and defining, very much so, what the nervous system was (this being a somewhat virtual entity, after all). Or this, I would argue, is how to productively read this rather strange biography.
(The book in question is: Leon A. H. Hogenhuis, Cognition And Recognition: On The Origin Of Movement: Rademaker (1887-1957), Brill Academic Publishers (2008))