Addiction and the Neuralized Imagination


We take addiction for granted, as we do the hundreds of little facts each of us knows about it. But until the late nineteenth century addiction existed in such different versions from ours’ that we would hardly recognize the concept today. Until the early nineteenth century, addiction was configured as compulsion: especially the behaviour of acting out bad habits.

Compulsion too is a category we think we understand today, even in its popularized versions. But before approximately 1860 it was a confused category, the only agreement among those philosophizing about it that the nervous system was fundamental to its  operations. Compulsion had been neuralized in the late eighteenth century – the reason it was then such an intriguing behavior to scientists, doctors, and writers. However, before its neuralization around 1780, compulsion was a black hole of human behavior, often  thought to be occasionally lorded over by supernatural interference. Once neuralized it lost some of its mystery, as for the large number of  ‘eaters’ (as compulsives were then called) compelled to chew tobacco, imbibe narcotics, and drink barrels of alcohol. Thomas De Quincey’s Opium Eater (1821) is a good example.

By the late eighteenth century some philosophers and scientists recognized that imagination, or the imagination, played a major role in compulsive behavior. The obviously compulsive addict both recognized and then remembered the blissful ecstasy experienced while under the effect of the substance. Memory and imagination were central to the process – without this recall the body would not remember its transformed state under the influence of the drug. Memory had been neuralized before imagination was; or, at least they were neuralized concomitantly. Without such neuralization the addiction diagnosis could never have have become what it was in the run-up to Freud and psychoanalysis.

Do early modern neurocultures have any impact today?


Victorian scholars, ever proud to claim their man Darwin as the centrepiece of evolution, continue to comment how many topics of pressing current concern Darwin and Darwinism anticipated.  Social and cultural transformation, the evolution of natural forms, the extinction of mankind, amidst others. No other century seems to have boasted such a prescient harbinger for the future who continued to be culturally germane. Not Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Not even nineteenth-century Karl Marx.

Yet contenders exist, even if we allow ourselves to be overshadowed by Darwin. Today’s far-flung neuroscience wars over consciousness and cognition, mind and body, memory and recall, sympathy and empathy, could not have occurred without Descartes’ dualism setting all sorts of processes in motion – biological, philosophical,  scientific – and further enabling them to feed into the mind-body debates of subsequent centuries.

Thomas Willis’ revolutionary brain theory of the late seventeenth century is another. But Willis did not enact his imaginative leap alone; his theories were applied, and then further developed by different types of Enlightenment mechanists and vitalists, scientists and doctors. The formation of nervous man was a collective effort. Novelists and poets also anticipated some of the positions. So fully over one hundred and fifty years that by the early nineteenth century it was apparent a new paradigm of human beings as fundamentally nervous creatures had crystallized.

Why is this worthy of comparison with Darwin, evolution and human extinction? The nervous paradigm is the forerunner of irritability, depression, and stress – states of being that often feed into terminal illness, and for which the contemporary pharmaceutical industry prescribes as lucratively as for other serious medical conditions. Statistically, the (combined) profit from medications for all types of stress  equals that of other major life-threatening conditions. And medical prescriptions for stress-related ailments have more than doubled each and every year since 2005.

Without the early modern nervous paradigm, increasingly stressed-out mankind would be no more conceptually intelligible than extinct mankind envisioned without evolution.

Science among Brazilian Intellectuals


I am based in the very centre of sprawling, skyscraper, stimulating Sao Paolo and have now visited a few of the intellectuals’ salons. These exist amongst the mostly Brazilian intelligentsia who are urbane and Europhilic, looking to Paris, Berlin, Rome, but less to New York or London. The salonistes are exquisitely educated and multilingual – the creme de la creme of their educated society. But they are also politicized, and you cannot be an intellectual here without declared political position, mostly to the left side of centre.

I notice more than anything how the arts and sciences have historically been split here: the artistic camp entrenched on the political left, scientists for the most part on the right. And the two groups have little common ground and rarely assemble. I have yet to find one prominent Brazilian scientist in the salons, a very different arrangement than exists in most Western countries where the two cultures have developed in tandem for three generations, at least since Snow and Leavis blasted their differences. As someone who has straddled the two cultures, I feel something of an outsider in the salons, especially whenever trying to defend the sciences among the salonistes. We shall see … perhaps the scientists will surprise me with a different view of the arts than the one I imagine they hold.

The universities, unlike ours, are in no crisis. The fiscal crunch of America and Europe has bypassed rich Brazil, and the mood within the universities glows with dreams of ever-more expansion and links with other countries. What a contrast to our demoralized, depressed, cutback quarters.

First Impressions of a Visiting Professor in Sao Paolo, Brazil


‘ve just arrived as the FAPESP Visiting Professor in the State of Sao Paolo, FAPESP being Brazil’s largest academic and scientific funding agency, and my remit is to lecture in all the state’s universities and meet its representatives. So I’m looking for clues. Clues everywhere, clues to anything. I can already gather how shockingly uneven the income distribution is among rich and poor, and I know that Brazil does not rank comparatively well in this category.

But all else on first impression adds up well, especially the extreme respect for the human being, personal resilience even among beggars, and a broadly based national vitality. Human rights in this place appears to be in a very much better state than in other BRIC countries. The Brazilians are immensely proud of their country, even of their Portuguese language, and already buoyed by the prospect of the forthcoming Olympics, which cannot be said for many rich Western nations.

My interest in neurocultures will necessarily be submerged for a few weeks. But who knows … perhaps surprises will be forthcoming here.

Another Interdisciplinary Conference about the Nerves


This one is called ‘The Stimulated Body and the Arts: The Nervous System and Nervousness in the History of Aesthetics’, and is occurring  this week in Durham England, where the raw wind is blowing hard over the famous cathedral.  It assembles a broad swath of historians, especially of science and medicine, and musicologists interested in the role the nerves played in the development of their fields. The topics range across diverse fields; no area of culture or creativity seems to have escaped nervous infiltration. The names being discussed include the great and the obscure, especially in science and medicine, art and music, literature and theatre. How did we overlook the nerves in Western civilization for so long, or imagine they were some backwater for crafty experimenters in musty laboratories? The conference program is available.

The conference organizer is James Kennaway, an historian of medicine who is also a professional musicologist and who demonstrates that interdisciplinarity succeeds brilliantly among those knowledgeable of several fields. Kennaway has convened some of the best minds in his own two disciplines, as well as in art history, literary history, and cultural history. I was dazzled by the talks about ‘Russian nerves’ between the 1905 Uprising and 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and, then, during Stalinism; and kept wondering what the current analogues are in the political revolutions occurring today in  North Africa and the Middle East. As these events unfold do we have any sense of the temperature of nervous tension – personal and collective – in Tunis, Benghazi, Cairo? Of their so-called temperature in the diaries being started, the novels drafted?

The future of nerves includes its historical past (still largely unretrieved) as well as unpredictable evolutionary unfolding. For over two centuries thinkers, notably doctors and writers, have commented about ‘diseases of civilization’ and ‘stresses of modern life’. The categories are old: late Georgians and early Victorians thought they were being jolted to death by some nerve-producing agent, and their art and music enforced the view that ‘nervous painting’ or ‘nervous music’ (think opera from Verdi to Wagner) could make you sick. How much more can evolving nerves endure? Or are they, like the brain, endlessly flexible and capable of expanding to any degree of nervous excitement before snapping?

Neurosociety Conference Unhistoricized


I’m in Oxford at the Said Business School Conference on ‘Neurosociety’ where daily sessions are taking place  on neurobiology, neuroconsciousness, neuroeconomics, neuroimaging, neuromarketing, neuroeverything documenting our multiple neurofutures. One plenary address by a distinguished philosopher is titled: ‘Who do you think you are? Managing personhood in a neurobiological age’. But when someone asks him a question about loneliness and friendship in the Age of Facebook he has no reply. The prospect of all these neurofutures is daunting, but neurosociety as a pondered category only intermittently appears. The networks of Facebook: where are you for all your massive social implication?

The approach disappoints in at least three ways. First, because the collective conference illusion is that these topics are well-understood today – hence ‘scientific’ – but they are not. Second, because the alternatives never get mentioned – the many anti-neurofutures we might  potentially have. Third, but not last, in their lack of historicization. The question how did we arrive at this point never arises – and it almost appears impertinent to ask it. Historians know that by 1800, as I mentioned in my last posting, a type of microcosmic neurosociety had begun to develop in Edinburgh, capital of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose tentacles stretched widely on the European Continent. But the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have dropped off the map in this Conference. Cutting-edge technology demands that everything must be instant – so mention 1999 here, and you may as well be speaking of Herodotus.

The message I am taking home is that neurosociety is a metonymy for the collective of virtual personhood, and that the neurofutures awaiting us amount to ever-more virtual realism run amok. To say that virtual technology has replaced personhood is an understatement. ‘Managing personhood’ now amounts, almost entirely, to managing virtual personhood.

Neurocriticism historicized


By 1800 a type of microcosmic neurosociety had historically developed in Edinburgh, capital of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose tentacles stretched far into Britain and even more widely on the European Continent. Yet we have little sense of its forward  development and transformation in the next two centuries apart from narrow disciplinary currents: neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropsychiatry, psychoanalysis, etc. The cultural contexts have been left out, especially society and social ramifications. Boldly we plunge into Facebook’s networks without recognizing that even now we are being asked to manage our public and private identities in this most radically neurobiological of eras.

During our generation we have become so accustomed to neuro-social commentary that we overlook neurosociety’s  trajectory from the 1800s forward. We marvel at the medical applications of the neurosciences in our era – especially neuroimaging – and the imaginative flights of new subdisciplines such as neuroeconomics and (turning to literature) the neuronovel. But the cultural history of these developments remains terra incognita. How can we confront adequate neurofutures built on ethical neurotechnologies if we have no neurohistories apart from the all too recent narrow cyborgian ones?

Neuromaniacs/neurophobes historicized


My growing list of neuromanias exceeds activities and conditions: neuromythology, neuroeconomics, neurocapitalism – and extends to literary genres. Neuromimesis, neuronovels, neuromemoirs were to be expected. Mind has been replaced by brain in these genres, especially in novels. The characters in these fictional works suffer from biochemical disturbances in the brain rather than more generalized socioeconomic or psychological alienation. Psychological disturbance is replaced by anatomico-physiological anomalies, or pathologies, capable of remedy only through pharmacological intervention. If you want a list of recent neuronovels, see Marco Roth’s excellent coverage, with accompanying titles, in his magazine N+1 (September 2009).

The development is neither good nor bad but predictable in late capitalism and has been developing for a long time. Writings by neurologically compromised authors, or those vivifying neurologically defective characters, is comparatively recent. Even a few generations ago, relatively few could get their work published, and the reading public (with a few exceptions) did not want to know. All this has changed now as part of the democratized view empathically allowing everyone to have a voice. The neuronovel, like neuromimesis and neuromythology, was destined to be born. Why shouldn’t our literature vivify neurological disorders and spell-binding syndromes? Here-here for Enduring Love, The Echomaker, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Neuromanias old and new


Recently in the TLS (27 August 2010) I reviewed a fascinating new book by Jan Goldstein entitled Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy. This is not our “ecstasy” but the religio-sexual transport that often accompanied the transport des sens of hysterics like Nanette Leroux, whose microhistory in the 1820s the book recounts. Nanette’s doctors viewed her transport as compression in the patient’s sensory organs, squeezing the electrical fluid to other parts of the body. Specifically, forcing the electrical fluid to invade another body part rarely endowed with such elevated sensory capacities.

Contemporary neurophysiology no longer depends on these concepts – electrical fluid, compression of the nerves, organic squeeze. But it follows remarkably similar neurophysiological models invoking notions of the bodily movement of electrical impulse. My wonderment is not that models within the history of the sciences are in constant flux, but that the continuities endure. Generalizing outward to our current impasse over neuromania and neurophobia – those who see all in terms of brain and nerves rather than mind and spirit – the point is that the deadlock is older than we think. Our predicament has deep roots in the past.

Intuition and Sensory Infallibility


I keep wondering about our cutting-edge research into physiological sensation and the  language we use to understand it. The Romantics, especially Goethe, lived inside the ferment of knowledge about the epistemological profile of sensations. They wondered whether sensations were anything other  than the signs of objects outside ourselves, in the way written characters signified  objects and words designated things. But as Romantic physiology desperately attempted to save sensory infallibility, Romantic physics continued its onslaught  on it. No wonder that physics and physiology were then so often at war, especially in Germany.

Both groups – physicists and physiologists – struggled with the mechanisms of the natural world’s revelations. How, they asked, did nature reveal itself? To the reason, sight, or intuition: the three main contenders? Natural philosophers mounted a strong case for direct entry to the intuition, which philosophers Goethe and Schelling supported; and Hegel strengthened their case for intuition when claiming that poets, most of all, responded to such revelations as the result of heightened intuitions. The poet’s contribution, he thought, was vital to the further amplification of the scientist’s understanding. Hegel looked benignly on the famous pronouncement of Coleridge and Wordsworth about ‘the remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist …’