The brain matters. Says the opening line from Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics. On the face of it, the human brain matters inasmuch as it is the body’s central information processing organ; the CEO that presides over many of our executive bodily functions. But the brain matters beyond the ways in which it has biologically evolved and currently processes information. The brain also matters in social thought, as neuroscientific research has historically informed widespread perceptions of certain bodies and persons at the social and institutional level. Moreover, the brain is embodied, and bodies accrue social and political meanings beyond what they represent at the level of scientific interest. Pitts-Taylor takes this interplay between science and culture as her starting point, and she investigates the entanglement of brains and bodies with cultures and ideologies (1).
The project of Pitts-Taylor’s book can be broadly situated at the crossroads of feminist theory, neuroscience, philosophy of biology, social epistemology, and queer and disability theory. In the introduction, she limns the broad historical architecture of this varied, interdisciplinary locale. For much of 20th century thought, the brain and the mind had been separately conceptualized as objects of philosophical and scientific inquiry. The brain belonged to the body, for the most part, while the mind was conceived as an epiphenomenal happening of its own. Toward the end of the century, however, such conceptual distinctions began to seriously weaken, as the boundaries between philosophy, cognitive science, and neuroscience started to erode. Soon, the brain and the mind coalesced into a biological whole, and a new conception of the mind as both embodied and deeply social came into prominence among some researchers in the neurobiological sciences. At this juncture, the mind/brain, with its deeply social profile and underpinnings, was no longer regarded as biologically fixed. Instead, the brain was now understood as “the product of embodied experience,” as “the foundation for (and reflected in) social structures,” and as “subject to intervention and transformation” (5).
The Brain’s Body follows in this lineage of naturalistic questioning into, among other things, the mindedness of the body, the bio-materiality of cognition, and the situatedness of cognizing bodies in material cultures. In the spirit of critical rebelliousness, however, Pitts-Taylor’s book turns this lineage on itself, animating its critique and commentary by calling the cultural situatedness of this tradition itself into question. If the brain, qua the object of study, is plastic and can be socially influenced, should we not, qua theorists of the embodied brain, also heed and problematize the ways that such influences configure into our theorizing about the brain and the body? Pitts-Taylor thinks that we should! But this means that our theorizing about the brain is itself deeply plastic and impressionable, and thus open to the influence of social and ideological structures. Pitts-Taylor’s book, in a nutshell, is concerned with this concentric interplay of brains, bodies, and power structures. In a view that the book persuasively argues for, this interdependence is not merely symbolic, but also extends into the ways in which material structures are configured, including the literal structure of the brain. As such, and as the subtitle of the work suggests, “the book is concerned with the corporeal politics of the brain and the neurobiological body,”(5) wherein the interplay of discourse and ideology manifests not merely through symbolisms and at the level of representations, but also in the corporeality of the world around us.
Along these lines, Chapter 1 offers a discussion of the phenomenon of plasticity. The concept of neural plasticity, which refers to the ability of our brains to change and be changed, captures an exciting reprieve from the orthodoxy of neurodeterminism and biological reductionism. But, with the advancement of various forms of biotechnology, plasticity research also now holds potential for different modes of biogovernance and pharmaceutical intervention into contemporary life.1 As such, plasticity is a condition that has to be reckoned with, especially at this late stage of capitalism, where any possibility for modification and transformation is often concomitantly also regarded as a possibility for commercial control. For Pitts-Taylor, confronting such possibilities brings two questions to the fore.
First, is it possible to extract the neural essence of plasticity from its representations in everyday and scientific discourse? For flat-footed social constructionists, this is an impossible task, since the world is nothing but a concatenation of representational acts, and such acts are ideologically inflected through and through.2 As such, searching for true objectivity, somewhere out there in the really real world, is fundamentally misguided since ‘objectivity’ is merely a conceptual device that we employ in the service of making sense of our chaotic experiences. This is unconvincing for Pitts-Taylor, and rightly so, because such accounts neglect an important question about how meanings are materialized into matter, or “how they literally modify brains and body-subjects, and, conversely, how they are touched by what they represent” (20). It is undeniably true that our concepts have meaning insofar as we attribute meanings to them. But we are also materially embedded beings, and concept use takes place on this material terrain, populated with things, people, relationships, etc. In other words, our concepts draw on this materiality and in turn shape it. As theorists of the mind and the world, we therefore have to be alert to this interplay and interaction, and the progressive and oppressive possibilities that it entails.
Second, what is the relationship between plasticity and agency? In what sense, asks Pitts-Taylor, is the plastic brain a work, and to whose agency does this work belong? Popular science tells us that the potential of plasticity truly belongs to us; that we are masters of our own neural domain, as it were.3 But as culturally situated agents, many of our actions bear the imprint of cultural influences. The plastic brain is thus no exception to such forms of cultural inscription. But given that cultures are repositories of social and political meanings, this means that the plastic brain is susceptible to the influence of meanings generated by way of social hierarchies and political inequalities. Consequently, the plastic brain can be regarded as a site of both individual and social agency. Such forms of agency are coconstitutively performed in the world, in social practices of relating to others, making use of various tools, interacting with institutions, developing an identity, and so on. The plastic brain, in other words, does not singly represent either the inscriptions of culture or the imprint of nature. Rather, the biosocial plastic brain represents both, as a “configuration of matter and meaning that achieves itself in entanglement with the world” (35).
Chapter 2 pushes this analysis further, and explores the ways in which variegated and discrepant materialities, as they are experienced in and through our different bodies, produce and result in discrepant ways of embodied perceiving and cognizing. The mind is inextricable from the physical body, as has been suggested by embodied theorists of cognition.4 Along similar lines, feminist epistemologists tell us that the body-subject is the vantage point of knowledge, wherein the situated character of knowledge gives rise to differentiated, intersecting, multiple, and even conflicting epistemic truths. Conjoined with such claims is the further claim from disability studies that not only do different bodies afford access to different truths, but that “environments and social investments affect how well bodies and worlds come together” (53). As such, there is no universal direction of fit between embodied minds and the world, for bodies and embodied subjects come in a variety of shapes, colours, abilities, genders, and orientations. Much of the discussion of Chapter 2 is an attempt at impressing this point on embodied cognition theories, some of whose interlocutors theorize the relationship between brain, body, and world as fundamental to cognition, but also simultaneously understate the importance of bodily differences to embodied cognizing.
Chapter 3 examines and appraises the most dominant model of mirror neurons, according to which mirroring is embodied simulation and serves as the universal basis for empathy and intersubjectivity. In her discussion, Pitts-Taylor calls into question the basic assumptions of this model, especially the commonplace presumption that we are naturally empathic beings and that sociality arises out of our inborn ability to empathize with conspecifics.5 It is in the service of justifying such assumptions that mind reading theories are often proposed and defended. As Pitts-Taylor argues, however, such accounts often understate the role that difference and conflict play in our social interactions. In the absence of a discussion of such complexities, the account that we ultimately get from mind reading theories is a “caricature of sociality,” (83) which in everyday life is often experienced through clashes of perspective, differences of judgment, and non-coordinated action. Take racialization, for example, and the consistently mistaken (and deadly) association between Blackness and criminality among police officers in the United States. What goes wrong with our natural ability to understand the actions of another when, at a traffic stop, a police officer mistakes a wallet for a gun, as a Black man reaches into his pocket to produce ID and is subsequently shot and killed by an officer of law? As Pitts-Taylor asks, can mainstream theories of mind make sense of such an injustice, whose proportions are undoubtedly systemic and institutional, but that arises out of conflicts that are fundamental to how differently situated agents experience the world?6
In Chapter 4, Pitts-Taylor finishes by offering a critique of the standard heteronormative articulations of kinship in the neurobiological sciences. Kinship is a highly contested phenomenon, and how we make sense of this phenomenon will inform almost every aspect of our social lives. Accordingly, the discussion of this chapter draws on many of the themes from earlier in the book. To orient this discussion, Pitts-Taylor contrasts two construals of kinship. On the social constructivist account, culture dictates the rules for kinship, not biology, and thus kinship can be variously rescripted to enable alternative modes of relatedness. Conversely, on the genetic account, kinship evolves out of sexually dimorphic biologies in the service of reproductive imperatives. The biogenetic account is blatantly reductionist and heteronormative; the social constructivists are thereby justified in their criticism of the conclusions that this model’s assumptions invariably terminate in. That said, an understanding of kinship, in Pitts-Taylor’s view, has to also address “the body’s capacities for generating intercorporeal bonds,” wherein affective bonds are not merely rooted in cultural discourse but are also felt, embodied, and biological (98). To motivate such an account, Pitts-Taylor turns toward queer articulations of affective attachment. Such forms of attachment, as queer theorists have claimed, demonstrate the reality of felt, material bonds that cannot be incorporated into the traditional heteronormative script, thereby calling into question the supposed universalism of traditional reproductive narratives. More importantly, however, what such forms of queer kinship attest to are the actionable possibilities for queering nature, as only partially highlighted in the embodiment of queer affect.
In short, what such possibilities attest to is the fact that nature is not fixed and immutable. To the contrary, nature is constantly changing and deeply susceptible to alterations of various sort, and how we make sense of its ability to configure and reconfigure itself matters. Such forms of understanding matter not because of their symbolic and representational significance, but in the very literal sense of the term, insofar as meanings are materialized, and, correlatively, insofar as matter can only be represented through meaningful constructs. In this way, matter and meaning are much more intimately bound up than either constructivists or reductionists have hitherto acknowledged.
Disagreements can abound about the role of culture and biology in the development of the human subject, especially in the context of understanding the interplay of brain, body, and the world. Pitts-Taylor’s book is an attempt to reckon with some of these disagreements, but also to draw attention to and warn against a common tendency among theorists to generalize from privileged standpoints. The zeal with which philosophers and scientists often search for the ideal and the normative, in Pitts-Taylor’s analysis, brings forth ‘onto-epistemological’ problems that theorists of the brain have to confront. At the epistemic level, when science and philosophy ignore experiential heterogeneity, they stymie their own ambitions, since the study of such differences holds intriguing potentials for a richer understanding of the relationship between brain, body, and the world. More importantly, however, real people are harmed when the multiplicity of experience is erased in the name of universal ideals; people whose existences, relationships, and identities will never seem to merit interest, unless they begin to interfere with the normative, in which case they become problems in need of management. As such problems begin to garner intellectual interest, however, they become objects of institutional analysis and understanding; aberrations and anomalies to make scientific sense of; topics of social and political debate; fiscal issues that raise questions about private and public spending; perturbations in the status quo, and so on. Thus, spring into existence whole methodologies, tools, policies, programmes, and institutions for the study of differences, which have now been repackaged as issues, and for which we need solutions before we can reassert the authority of our normative visions. But why not recognize these differences for what they are? Why not acknowledge that they matter, at both the level of everyday experience and in abstract theorizing about persons and their minds? Why not recognize that persons essentially develop out of such differences, instead of proposing theories that understate the essentiality of different ways of being?
Personhood, a notion whose meaning I work out in (Shafiei, forthcoming), is fundamentally social and socialized. None of us are born persons; rather we acquire this status through participating in various forms of social communication, exchange, cohabitation, and connection.7 Furthermore, I maintain that persons constitute and are constituted through cultures. At their core, cultures are material repositories of different social meanings, and they comprise everything from institutions, norms, values, and interpretive frameworks to social media, fads, advertisements, cuisine, etc. In my view, it is only through our interactions with cultures, cultural techné, and the ideologies embedded therein that we become persons, which is a social designation that tracks and refers to our various social entitlements, commitments, statuses, and so on. However, social statuses and entitlements are differentially attributed among different persons. As I see it, this is because social meanings differently attach to different aspects of our material identities, including our bodies. These differences, however, should never be erased, or at least should not be erased in the name of universal ideals. The social meanings that attach to such differences, on the other hand, can be contested and challenged, but that is because these differences are sites of social contestation, confrontation, debate, and development. In other words, it is on the fault lines of these differences where persons acquire a sense of identity, where cultures arise and evolve, and where we organize toward various ends. In short, these differences are key to how we identify as social beings, whose practices are worldly and culturally embedded. That is to say, these differences are fundamental to who we are as persons and how we self-identify. In her book, Pitts-Taylor doesn’t quite make this strong claim, and perhaps we can identify this as a philosophical limitation of her account. Nonetheless, her analysis hits an important target in raising suspicions about the emphasis that, in scientific and philosophical theorizing, is often placed on the undifferentiated and the normative. If our social theories do not attend to the fundamental differences that are constitutive of personhood, and thereby of cultures, they will seem flat and uninformative as theories of social life and experience.
In The Brain’s Body, Pitts-Taylor addresses the limitations of current conceptions of the social brain when it comes to accounting for such fundamental differences; specifically the different ways in which brains and bodies are materialized in different cultures, through different abilities, in accordance with contrasting ways of life, and under the influence of different social and ideological forces. As Pitts-Taylor points out, ‘brain knowledge’ shapes what we think brains are, but brain knowledge informs practices that literally shape our brains, bodies, and the world around us.8 As such, attending to the ways in which ‘difference’ is conceptualized in scientific and philosophical discussions of the brain is a way of intervening into what matters and what does not, and not just at the level of scientific representation, but at the level of actual material influence and development. Pitts-Taylor’s analysis offers some extremely useful tools for carrying out such acts of intervention meaningfully, and perhaps even efficaciously, especially given the historical moment that we presently occupy. For those of us whose theoretical interests are enmeshed in broader projects of social and political justice, this work is an essential read. For others, this work contains some intriguing claims about the relationship between science and politics, and what can happen when the tools of the scientist are responsibly employed. All in all, this work constitutes an important contribution to ongoing conversations in the neurobiological sciences, philosophy of mind, feminist theory, social epistemology, queer theory, disability studies, and other interrelated areas of inquiry.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” In Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, 270-82. JHU Press, 1990.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, 1993.
Crockett, Molly. Beware Neuro-Bunk. TED Presentation (2012). https://www.ted.com/talks/molly_crockett_beware_neuro_bunk?language=en
Dayan, Colin. The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Diamond, Adele, and Kathleen Lee. “Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4-12 Years Old.” Science 333, no. 6045 (2011): 959-64.
Huebner, Bryce. “The Interdependence and Emptiness of Whiteness.” In Buddhism and Whiteness, edited by George Yancy and Emily Mcrae. Lexington Books, forthcoming.
Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. “The Neurocultures Manifesto.” Social Text/Periscope (2012). https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/neurocultures-manifesto/.
Shafiei, Keyvan. Behind Enemy Lines: The Harms of Hyper Incarceration. Doctoral Dissertation. Georgetown University, in prep.
Schwartz, Jeffrey, and Sharon Begley. The Mind and the Brain: Neural Plasticity and the Power of Mental Force. HarperCollins, 2002.
Spaulding, Shannon. “Do I See What I see? How Social Differences Influence Mindreading.” Synthese 195, issue 9 (2018): 4009-4030.
1 In recent years, for instance, there has been an uptick in spending on programmes targeted at improving executive function development among children ages 4-12 years old. See especially the work of Adele Diamond and colleagues on the nature and aims of such programmes.
2 Judith Butler, for instance, is one prominent proponent of such a view. See Butler (Butler, 1990) and (Butler, 1993) for a discussion of her performativity theory of embodied agency. In recent years, this view has been criticized by some scholars, such as Karan Barad (Barad, 2007), for treating the material body as for the most part passive. In the context of such critique, Barad proposes a view called agential realism, according to which matter, including biological matter, is an active participant in the processes of its own materialization.
3 The work of Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley (Schwartz and Begley, 2002), on the possibility of self-directed neuroplasticity, stands out here. A quick Google search, however, reveals many other recent publications on the possibility of rewiring your brain, some of whose authors also sometimes promise the possibility of a better life as a result. In other words, the research on plasticity has in some contexts alloyed itself with the self-help industry. For a critique of this proliferating body of scholarship, see the work of Molly Crocket on neuro-bunk.
4 It should be noted, of course, that the embodied cognition programme is still relatively new in the cognitive sciences, and the full implications of the challenge that such views present to cognitivism is a matter of much dispute. See Wilson (Wilson, 2002) and Spaulding (Spaulding, 2012) for an overview of the different approaches to the embodiment debate.
5 It is worth mentioning that in recent years the hype around mirror neurons has abated, and the consensus has now shifted on what kinds of neurons they really are and whether they have a specific evolutionary function when it comes to imitation and understanding. See, among others, Cecilia Heyes’s recent work on the development and function of mirror neurons.
6 Along these lines, Shannon Spaulding has recently (Spaulding, 2018) argued that such theories should be able to make sense of the ubiquity of deep everyday disagreements in social interactions. See also Huebner (Huebner, forthcoming) on the ways in which difference-perception informs our practices of racial categorization, which in turn inform our normative appraisals of social status, which then feed back into the perception of salient and non-salient differences.
7 In my work, specifically, I explore the ways in which persons are institutionally made and unmade, especially in the culture of the criminal justice system in the United States, and through institutions like mass incarceration. See also Colin Dayan (Dayan, 2017) for a discussion of very similar themes.
8 See also Pitts-Taylor (Pitts-Taylor, 2012a) on this point.