Neurocritiques? Neuroentanglements? Thinking through collaboration with cognitive neuro-sciences/scientists

Critical Neuro workshop Nov small

Mapping the field of neurocritique & neuroentanglements

On November 29, a group of us gathered at the Culture and Mental Health Research Unit at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal – on a day that felt very cold to me (-15 degrees C), but probably far from cold to Montreal’s hardy residents (who are accustomed to enduring temperatures that can drop to -40). The workshop, “Mapping the field of neurocritique and neuroentanglements”, was the latest in a series of international “Critical Neuroscience” workshops, and was organized by Suparna Choudhury and hosted by Laurence Kirmayer (both from the Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry at McGill University). As our abstract for the workshop stated:

the main focus [of the workshop] is on assessing emerging approaches to neurocritique – both from within neuroscience (e.g. newly intensified debates about methods and limitations of techniques) and from outside it (e.g. anthropological, historical or political critiques). Another focus is on ‘experimental entanglements’: we will discuss both the opportunities and the difficulties one encounters when attempting to engage constructively in experimental work from a multidisciplinary perspective.

The audience was a diverse one – and included psychiatrists and neuroscientists, as well as anthropologists, other social scientists, historians and medical humanities scholars (and of course several people belonged to more than one of these categories). At this particular workshop, we presenters were, in contrast, undoubtedly weighted towards the humanities and social sciences. (This led the one practising neuroscientist who presented, Daniel Margulies, to reflect retrospectively about the various and heterogeneous ways in which we ‘projected’ on to him in the course of the day, and to wonder about the role(s) that we humanities and social science scholars – both individually and as group – unconsciously wanted him to perform as a neuroscientist.)

It is also worth noting that several of us in the room – including Jan Slaby, Daniel Margulies and I – have been participants for at least half a decade in these interdisciplinary neuroscience-humanities-social sciences fora, and have been conducting informal (auto)ethnographies of how they have variously cohered, dehisced, splintered and remade themselves as the wider discourse surrounding neuroscience has shifted over the course of the last few years. There is much more to be done fully to understand what is at stake in the current need … nay, desire for such fora. (It is also worth reflecting on how long that desire will last and what shape these collaborative spaces across the disciplines might eventually take; I am – in my guise as a historian of science and of psychiatry – increasingly gripped by a fantasy of throwing myself into the twenty-second century so as to be able to look back to the strange, generative interdisciplinary intimacies that were being forged in the field of cognitive neuroscience in the first decades of the twenty-first.)

At stake in our discussions was the large question (which we addressed epistemologically, sociologically and normatively) of the articulation between the humanities, the social sciences and the neurosciences. How, for example, does a model of neurocritique indebted to the Frankfurt School – and elucidated in Jan Slaby’s and Suparna Choudhury’s proposal for a critical neuroscience – differ from that of ‘experimental entanglements’, which my colleague Des Fitzgerald and I have been exploring in the course of developing collaborative, experimental work with neuroscientists? (And, as Laurence Kirmayer emphasized, what is at stake in moving the problematic of entanglement from the field of quantum mechanics to our collaborative transdisciplinary endeavours in cognitive neuroscience?) Does a model of neurocritique/critical neuroscience adumbrate a dyadic system that pivots on intrusion (by the humanities and social sciences) and defence (by cognitive neuroscience), wondered Jan, in comparison with more ‘virus-like’ processes conjured up through a logic of ‘entanglements?’

Individual presenters contributed to these overarching discussions and preoccupations in a variety of direct and indirect ways. Alberto Sanchez-Allred, for example, in his paper “’Putting the brakes on’: prefrontal cortex and the preservation of solitary, thinking selves” offered a fascinating account of how neuroscience has been enlisted in attempts to give new energy to the historically and philosophically dense figure of the solitary, thinking self. Daniel Margulies and Jan Slaby, in dialogue with one another over “Meeting the Brain on Its Own Terms”, asked whether there might be a way to study the brain without incorporating our current models of the mind as formulated by cognitive psychology. In wondering whether it might be possible to endeavour to develop concepts and criteria “from working with the brain itself”, rather from psychological models as we employ them today, they made a provocative (and playful?) bid for “going disciplinary” rather than going inter- or trans-disciplinary.

We were delighted to end the workshop with a presentation by an interlocutor new to the “Critical Neuroscience” group, Sabine Arnaud, a research group director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Her talk, “Inventing the abnormal in late nineteenth-century France and Italy: The deaf, an exemplary case”, focused on the problem of deafness in the nineteenth century, and foregrounded the struggles of disciplines vis-à-vis their objects of knowledge. Her argument drew energy from close and careful readings of Foucault as well as from extensive archival research, as she demonstrated how different disciplines fought over “deafness” in the nineteenth century, and examined cases in which one discipline attempted to absorb another, rather than pursuing a logic of specialization. Sabine alerted us to how much is at stake epistemologically and institutionally as domains and disciplines redefine their borders and goals. Her talk provided us with new ways of reflecting on the contemporary field of neuroscience – another arena in which a number of disciplines are arguably having to share (to fight over?) a scientific object. Her talk had the wonderful result of leaving me more perturbed and preoccupied than I had been at the start of the day by how to interpret the calls for “collaboration” and “interdisciplinarity” that course through not only the domains of “neurocritique” and “neuroentanglement”, but through today’s academy more broadly.

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