Book review: ‘Neuroscience and Critique: Exploring the Limits of the Neurological Turn.’

Neuroscience and Critique appears in an established genre – but it has significant virtues of its own. Central among these is the sheer breadth of its scholarship: this is a properly interdisciplinary collection, featuring not only philosophers with interests in critical theory and/or psychoanalysis, but also a geographer, an anthropologist and STS scholar, a neuroscientist, and a psychologist, among others. What holds this disparate collection of interests together is a commitment to not only some kind of critical engagement with neuroscience – but also a shared attention to what, precisely, critique can do, even to what critique might be, as it gets more widely entangled in neuro-sciences and neuro-cultures.

Jan De Vos and Ed Pluth (Eds.), Neuroscience and Critique: Exploring the Limits of the Neurological Turn

New York and London, Routledge, 2016, 236 pages, hardback £95.00, paperback £31.99, ISBN: 978-1138887350

What is it about neuroscience? Ever since a group of disparate life sciences – partly propelled by ‘the decade of the brain’ in the 1990s 1 – congealed into what we today call ‘neuroscience,’ scholars from the humanities and social sciences have been committed, sometimes intensely committed, to a more-or-less sharp critique of this science, and the unspooling of its socio-political effects 2 3 4. Indeed, in recent years, neuroscience has not only been the object of critical scrutiny, but has become something of a whet-stone on which critique sharpens itself – a sort of funhouse mirror for critical social scientists to figure out what it is, exactly, they stand for. What explains this cultural role of neuroscience in the academy? Is it a fear that, in its powerfully reductive hold over human subjectivity (so it seems, anyway), neuroscience will ultimately stake a claim to all social, cultural, and human insight – an ‘expectation,’ as Jan De Vos and Ed Puth put it in their introduction to Neuroscience and Critique, ‘that the neurosciences will explain it all?’ (p.2).

Neuroscience and Critique appears in an established genre – but it has significant virtues of its own. Central among these is the sheer breadth of its scholarship: this is a properly interdisciplinary collection, featuring not only philosophers with interests in critical theory and/or psychoanalysis, but also a geographer, an anthropologist and STS scholar, a neuroscientist, and a psychologist, among others. What holds this disparate collection of interests together is a commitment to not only some kind of critical engagement with neuroscience – but also a shared attention to what, precisely, critique can do, even to what critique might be, as it gets more widely entangled in neuro-sciences and neuro-cultures. At the heart of the book, then, is a deeply committed reflexive attention to what it is we do when we think critically about neuroscience. The conjunction ‘and’ in the book’s title is crucial: at stake here are not only the ‘conditions of possibility’ for neuroscience, but also for critique itself (p.4). As I will discuss below, I think there is an uneven distribution of sophistication in the consideration of these two poles; nonetheless, readers looking for careful work on the stakes of critique today, especially as it approaches the natural sciences, will find much to think with in this volume.

The book is in three sections. The first, ‘Which Critique?’, perhaps the most overtly philosophical of the three, is also where we get the most explicit examination of the conditions of critique itself. It asks, as Jan De Vos puts it in his own contribution: ‘what are the limits of a deconstruction of neuroscience?’ (p.24). In De Vos’s account, one cannot simply do ideology-critique of neuroscience today, given the claim that neuroscience itself now makes on critical thought (‘targeting our false consciousness, laying bare the illusions involved in love, altruism, rationality…’ [p.23]). As De Vos shows, however, neuroscientific empirics remain haunted by psychological and humanistic concepts – they are inhabited, he argues, by a folk-psychological human subject, coterminous with the birth of the modern sciences, and which might itself yet be the object of critical scholarship (p.25, 39). A more overt defence of critique is offered by Nima Bassiri – who, against the fashion of the times is unconvinced that critique has to be associated with ‘negativity, undue skepticism [and] excessive suspicion’ (p.41). Bassiri proposes instead a different kind of critical question, one not mounted on this suspicious imperative, viz. (I paraphrase): what is it about contemporary selfhood that legitimizes brain science as its singular technology? This is a good question, and Bassiri approaches it through an historical epistemology of forensics – uncovering a need, especially in the nineteenth century, and amid concerns over disorders of simulation and malingering, to decide whether we are or are not our selves, in the grip of such experiences (p.55).

The second section (I am only here selectively surveying some essays from each), ‘Some Critiques’ is the most empirical part of the volume, and this, not coincidentally, is where it is strongest. Geographer Jessica Pykett, for example, analyses ‘the political significance of the influence of psychological and neuroscientific approaches in economic theory’ (p.82) – situating her account in the work of ‘discerning the precise models of the human subject selected by policy makers’ (p.88). That labour of discernment leaves Pykett well placed to propose, against the turn to ‘non-representational’ theories in geography, that ‘the widely presaged undoing of the human subject within human geography may… be premature’ (p.96). In the volume’s most compelling chapter, Cynthia Kraus, of the interdisciplinary ‘Neurogenderings’ research network, argues against self-consciously ‘critical’ programmes that are too often wrapped up in attempts to assuage conflict. Kraus argues, instead, for ‘dissensus,’ or the ‘study of social conflicts inherent to processes of knowledge and world making’ (p.104). As she points out: ‘people come to speak the language of the brain, not only because it has a prominent truth-discourse… they do it to come to terms with conflicting life situations’ (p.105). And it is not only by focusing on, but indeed exacerbating such conflict, says Kraus, that scholars interpellated by neuroculture might pose ‘the conditions under which interdisciplinarity… could be valued as a theoretical and practical solution’ (p.112).

The final section, ‘Critical Praxes,’ consists of papers by three scholars working within the neurosciences in relatively heterodox ways. I found these interesting in themselves, but (at least in the case of the latter two) struggled to relate them to the broader themes of the book. In this section is an argument for ‘embodied simulation’ from the neuroscientist, Vittorio Gallese (famous for his role in the discovery of mirror neurons) –  a proposal, in brief, that what is at stake in intersubjectivity is not only a kind of mind-reading, but actually the incorporation of others’ mental states (p.193). And there is a related discussion of empathy from the neuropsychoanalyst, Mark Solms – for whom empathy is not only a perception of others’ states, but a mode in which a subject ‘projects itself…into the object’ (p.205). For Solms, this projecting-into is always an affective move: whatever the desires of scientific psychology, ‘feelings come first’ in the work of encountering and (ultimately) tolerating the world (p.218).

There is some variability across the chapters, but I found much to stimulate and provoke in this volume. And if there is, for my taste, sometimes too much of the rhetoric of continental philosophy and critical theory here, still Neuroscience and Critique made me think hard (harder than I am used to) about the potent range of practices that we might arrange under the sign of ‘critique,’ as well as the very different inheritances and stakes of those practices. Those – like me – accustomed to being casually dismissive of the critical impulse, especially as it relates to neuroscience, have much to gain from these essays, even where there is disagreement.  Nonetheless, in the spirit of the book itself, and as a contribution to the important conversation that I think it wishes to provoke (and it should), let me here make two critical interventions of my own. They centre on the two poles of the book’s title: ‘neuroscience’ and ‘critique.’

One thing that was often unclear to me, as I read the book, was what different authors actually intended by ‘neuroscience’– who it was they were actually addressing in the guise of this figure. For example, authors in the volume (albeit not all of them) sometimes invoke ‘neuroscience’ or ‘the neurosciences,’ as if such terms represent a stable or coherent category – leaving aside the contingency, partiality, and specificity of the myriad different practices that are actually affiliated to this image. But if we are going to talk about ‘neuroscience,’ then we need to be clear whether we are talking about, for example, cognitive neuroscience, or molecular neuroscience, or systems neuroscience, or neuroanatomy, or whatever it is. This might seem like a nitpick – but actually such practices, only lately gathered under the umbrella, ‘neuroscience,’ have significantly different inheritances and trajectories. What gets lost, when we fail to recognise these differences, is any sense of the lively debates, contests, and disagreements that actually go on within ‘neuroscience’ itself. In fairness internal critique is discussed in the introduction (p.3). Still, overall, I felt that I got little sense from the book of the sheer range of (often quarrelling) methods, perspectives, epistemologies, and so on, that go on under this polyvalent noun, ‘neuroscience.’ For example, when De Kesel says in his interesting and suggestive contribution that he will ‘show the limits of neurology’s attempt to comprehend freedom’ (p.13), it is not clear to me what is indicated by that noun, ‘neurology.’ Indeed no neurological work is explicitly cited; we have only secondary philosophical texts. Similarly, Reynaert, in his philosophically rich chapter, argues ‘that neuroscience runs the risk of becoming dystopic in a logical sense by committing a category mistake’ (p.62). But relatively little ‘neuroscience’ is discussed in the chapter, beyond the now somewhat hoary example of Benjamin Libet’s experiments on free will, and conversations around it (p.75). Indeed, something that strikes me about the volume, taken in the round (by no means applicable to all chapters), is that, for a book about ‘neuroscience and critique’, there is sometimes quite a bit less actual neuroscience discussed than one might anticipate – even in chapters that claim to speak of either neuroscience or the brain.

Rather than simply picking holes, however, I want to use this feature of the volume to pose a broader question in the sociology of knowledge: what are we are we actually talking about when we talk about neuroscience? What are we (here I mean ‘we’ scholars in the social sciences and humanities, and not only the present authors) concerned about, or critical of, when we are concerned about, or critical of, ‘neuroscience’? Because clearly it is not always the laboratory practice, or the output, of an actually-existing neuroscience. And here is maybe the crux of the issue: the editors and authors would perhaps respond – with justification – by saying that they do not promise in-depth reading of neuroscience literatures; that their interest is in (as per the subtitle) ‘a neurological turn’ – which is to say, a cultural and historical object, and not a laboratory one. What concerns them is the way in which the neurosciences ‘are both situated within culture and in turn influence culture’ – as well as the practices of bordering that then ensue (p.4). Which is all fair enough. But I cannot get over the feeling that, in the absence of a committed and detailed attention to specific and carefully-parsed neuroscientific literatures, we are potentially faced with a paper tiger. Which prompts another question: how are we to think sociologically about critical attentions to ‘neuroscience,’ and to a ‘neurological turn,’ when those intentions are not necessarily or always made manifest via a sustained attention to contemporary neuroscientific experiments, practices, or concepts? Is there not some risk that we are in the presence of a phantom – that the ‘neuroscience’ in question may only be a product of the very critique that presumes to unravel it?

This brings me to my second critical point. It seems to me that the central question of the book is, as De Vos and Pluth put in a perceptive and subtle introduction: ‘what are the conditions for a critique of the neurosciences from the humanities?’ (p.3). As they point out, there can be no reactionary turning-back to the ‘before’ of neuroculture – not least because, as Nikolas Rose (2003) and others have pointed out, we cannot now separate our subjectivity from our consciousness (or indeed our inhabitation) of our cerebrality 5. What is needed, according to De Vos and Pluth, is ‘something other than a simple, humanistic critique of the neurosciences’ – a way of thinking that

engages in questions about the conditions of possibility, impossibility, and the domain, or range, of different sciences and disciplines… how far does the legitimacy of the neurosciences extend? How is the relation of the neurosciences to the humanities to be thought? (p. 4).

I am sympathetic to such an ambition. We see one aspect of it in the chapter by Philipp Haueis and Jan Slaby, which critically analyses the stakes of the Human Brain Project, arguing that that project is entangled in specific computational and economic infrastructures – thereby producing a kind of ‘de-organ-ization’ of the brain, even leading to a kind of ‘world-making,’ that reconfigures the outside vis-à-vis the experimental microworld of brain and computer’ (p.124, 131). We see it similarly in the contribution of Ariane Bazan, which maps a history of interaction between biology and psychology, and diagnoses a new ‘moment’ for psychology, via a neuropsychoanalysis that works to ‘characterize the… knotting-points between the biological and the mental,’ placing physiological and clinical concepts in new orders of relation, and thus subverting old hierarchies (p.181). There is much to admire in such critical analyses. And yet. In The Limits of Critique (2015), the literary theorist, Rita Felski distinguishes between two ways of being suspicious. 6 The first, ‘digging down,’ is the now deeply unfashionable practice of digging into the concealed ‘truth’ of the text, to discover what’s really being said (Marx and Freud are obvious icons of this mode [p.61]). The other mode of suspicion, more recent, and perhaps more subtle, works through a strategy of ‘standing back.’ The goal – clearly, Michel Foucault is the guiding light – is now ‘to “denaturalize” the text, to expose its social construction by expounding on the conditions in which it is embedded’ (p.54). I read the critical ambiton of Neuroscience and Critique very much through this latter mode. And yet, as Felski points out, the distinction between the two may be less profound than it seems: for all its analytical coolness, she argues, for all its disdain for simplistic hermeneutics, that second mode, that critical-theory procedure of ‘standing back,’ is ‘just as suspicious and distrustful’ as its truth-digging forebears – surrounding this practice is still a profound commitment to ‘drawing out undetected yet defining forces, to explain what remains invisible or unnoticed by others’ (p.83). For all its subtlety, I wonder if we are not, throughout this volume, still in that old suspicious mode. What Felski demands of us, in any event, is that we take seriously the question of whether we are not, in 2016, still mired in critical accounts of neuroscience, and neuroculture, which, even at their most sophisticated, are still working to dredge up, to make visible, to spatialize, that always-undetected, mysterious, and all-powerful force.

Neuroscience, says Joseph Dumit, in an important afterword to the book, is surprisingly weak today (p.223). Indeed it is precisely its weakness, its epistemological fragility and plasticity, argues Dumit, that makes neuroscience dangerous in the hands of industrial, political, and economic actors, working to instrumentalize research for their pre-determined ends. Dumit asks us to thus read the essays in Neuroscience and Critique as a map of fragility – a helpful guide to tensions and aporias within neuroscience, which the reader may wish not only to note, but to exacerbate (here I am reminded of Kraus’s desire for dissensus). And that reader might so exacerbate not with destructive or paranoid intent, but precisely to ‘help defend [neuroscience’s] right to explore brains against its instrumentalization by industries’ (p.226-228). This is the vital question: what kind of neuroscience do we want to see in the world? At the risk of introducing simplicities of my own: what kind of neuroscience are our scientific collaborators and colleagues working towards, and what tools do we have for working with them, for collaborating with them, even for making shared things with them? How far are ‘we’ willing to travel down that road? The map in this book is certainly a good point for starting those conversations. But it is precisely conversations, interactions, and shared readings, that need to be had. And for this, I think we need to let go of that still-suspicious work of standing back. Even if our primary interest is in cultural objects, we need to engage more closely with actual neuroscientific experiments, in their many actual manifestations in the world. This, it seems to me, is the still unrealised promise of neuroscience and critique.


Des Fitzgerald is a lecturer in sociology at Cardiff University. His first book, co-authored with Felicity Callard, Rethinking interdisicplinarity across the social sciences and neurosciences, is available open access from Palgrave Macmillan now.