11 December 2012

Oh, it’s so mainstream now.

You’re unlikely to have missed Alissa Quart’s op-ed piece ‘Neuroscience– Under Attack’ the other week in the New York Times. Indeed it has caused, or so it appears, some considerable stir in and beyond the tiny (one assumes) sub-universe of the social-media-sphere peddling in ‘neuro-doubt’; appreciations in the more visible online formats – including Psychology Today, The New Yorker, or NPR - were quick to celebrate the news that, apparently, ‘neuro-criticism’ now must have ‘hit the mainstream’. The ‘backlash has begun!’

The impression, of course, that the era of untrammeled neuro-fandom is somewhat beyond its peak is probably quite correct - whether or not the New York Times is in fact a good indicator of things becoming ‘mainstream’ (given the flurry of reposts etc in the case at hand, it might be a better indicator of the intellectual universe traversed by the more neuro-minded people); and whether or not things becoming ‘mainstream’ is necessarily a good thing (as a cultural snob might doubt). At any rate, perusing what Quart’s recent intervention seems to have precipitated in terms of ‘backlash’ is, on the whole, somewhat disheartening: almost invariably commentators chose to pick up on the term ‘brain porn’ only, (mis)interpreting the piece as merely condemning as a bad and risible Thingpop neuroscience, coarsened for mass audiences’ and more broadly, the ‘popular press’ and ‘simplified pop’ produced by sensation-mongering and, well, ignorant and unscientific science writers. The Real Neuroscientists here, busy unearthing their unsettling Truths about Human Nature; the public mob there, incapable of understanding and thus poised to distort.

It’s a reassuring and conveniently naive construction, of course - if one that would seem to fall short of everything one might be able to learn about the presumably more intricate mechanisms of knowledge production, neoliberal and otherwise (but especially neoliberal). It’s thinking, one might paraphrase it, as ‘sloppy’ as Naomi Wolf’s. Incapable, it seems, of entertaining even a slightly more complex narrative than there being some problem with the merchants of ‘brain porn’ – which, it’s worth pointing out, include some Big university presses (rather than, as tends to be intimidated, a lot of shoddy ‘science writers’) - much of the recent and rather blinkered ‘backlash’ indeed more properly is labelled damage-control (of course, ‘if we want to understand our minds, from which all of human nature springs, we must come to grips with the brain’s biology’). Quart’s piece admittedly didn’t help it by prominently featuring, and slightly misrepresenting, a Neuron survey from earlier this year as concluding that, apropos those regular-distortions-by-the-media, ‘logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.’ The latter proposition was due to McCabe and Castel’s much belaboured ‘Seeing is believing’ (2008); said Neuron authors – without a hint of doubt that indeed neuroscience has ‘profound social and policy implications’ - for their part simply assumed that ‘brain research is now a powerful rhetorical tool’ (plausibly enough), while venturing, for instance, (in a more content-oriented mode of analysis) that a ‘particularly noticeable feature’ in all those popular ‘assimilations’ of neuroscience was ‘the focus on brain optimization’ (something unlikely the fault, one assumes, simply of either short-hand: the ‘media’ or ‘neuroscience’).

Either way, and rather tellingly, the story of popular distortions featured quite prominently in the Quart-aftermath, still further incensed by yet another recent study on the ‘seductive allure’ of fMRI - albeit one geared towards questioning the inherent seductiveness of such visual devices (i.e., ‘The seductive allure of the ‘seductive allure’’). The very prominence of such a somewhat scholastic debate in a putative ‘backlash’ might make it seem trivial enough - and, to be sure, not particularly rising above the popular, common sense (An image is worth a thousand words) or what’s been intuitively grasped, somehow, by every Jesuit counter-reformer and propaganda ministry (Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae etc). More to the point: though largely immaterial, it might tell you just how mainstream the putative ‘mainstream’ really is: Framing things as matters of ‘distortion’ or some psychology of ‘persuasion’ first, and then reducing them to a clever experimental design, would seem to be a strategy squarely in line with the very naturalistic, biologizing tendencies the enemies of ‘brain porn addiction’ allegedly take issue with (the pathology-infused wording itself is revealing in this connection). It certainly would seem to tell you very little indeed about ‘brain porn’; and even less about the cultural and intellectual climate within which it thrives. 

But then again, perhaps small wonder: that ‘larger cultural tendency’ which Quart also gestured at, one ‘in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience’, barely has been registered by any kind of ‘mainstream’, let alone pondered in ways worthy of the name ‘critique’; it certainly didn’t figure much in the ‘backlash’ of late, and neither did those ‘humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines’, as Quart put it. That, of course, might not be a topic of potential mainstream interest; but even for that to become productive, a little more will be required than some ‘pop-neuroscience’ witch-hunt.

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