Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject

Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject. Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017, 304 pp.

The main thesis of Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject is that, despite claims to the contrary, the possibility of thinking about ourselves in terms of our brains is not a recent development spurred by neuroscience. Rather, it stems from early modern (18th-century) ideas. Drawing on (neo-) Foucauldian concepts and thinking, Vidal and Ortega refer to the book as a “genealogy of the cerebral subject” (p. 13). In what they call a “travelogue” (p. 6), discussing a range of historical and present instantiations of the cerebral subject, they “examine the roots of the notion that, as persons, humans are in principle reducible to their brains” (p. 3). Thus, we do not just have brains, but we are our brains, where “the brain is the physical basis of personhood,” although the authors note, responding to criticisms of their earlier work, that there are other selves that are important in our thinking too, such as “psychological selves [and] chemical selves” (p. 15).

Revisiting theories such as phrenology and 19th-century advice on encouraging a healthy (double) brain, their book is historically and theoretically expansive, while also frequently amusing. After discussing 19th-century neuroascesis (“regimes and prescriptions that (…) were advertised as having been specifically designed to enhance brain function” [p. 43]), Vidal and Ortega discuss the different disciplines of the neuro (e.g., neurolaw, neurophilosophy, neuroethics); the cerebralization of distress and neurodiversity; and the neuro in film and literature. Each chapter shows, in different ways, not only the substantiation of the cerebral subject but also, importantly, ambivalences and ambiguities in this thesis. This nuanced analysis is one of the strongest points of the book. The authors refuse to assert a hegemony of neuro with no room for other views and disciplines.

Throughout the book, Vidal and Ortega are fairly critical of the idea that many neuroscientific studies base explanations for human behavior and culture on correlative studies and in so doing “apply methods that are intrinsically inadequate to the objects and phenomena they claim to address” (p. 8). Such studies, the authors argue, confuse correlation for causation. Critiques of neuroscience and the reductionism therein are now fairly commonplace, and indeed in a recent Somatosphere book forum, Ortega quotes Des Fitzgerald’s remark about the “sheer redundancy of the critical theorist’s wagging finger” (Ortega 2018).

While I agree with Fitzgerald’s sentiment, the criticisms of neuro in Being Brains are to some extent helpful for the claim Vidal and Ortega want to make. Their claim is that neuroscience has “allegedly substantiated but not crucially affected an ideology that in its modern form dates from the late seventeenth century. That is why the cultural history of the cerebral subject is largely independent from the history of brain science” (p. 35). They further claim that the neural is seen as the dominant explanatory factor, even when scholars such as “cultural neuroscientists” suggest otherwise, for what is found in the brain is ultimately seen by these scholars as explaining psychological or cultural processes rather than the other way around. Yet, to make these two points, the authors would not have needed to reiterate the idea that neuroscience mistakes correlation for causation (in itself quite a positivistic rather than a necessarily genealogical argument) as much as they do now. Eventually, their criticisms of neuroscience do indeed become tiresome to read; however, at times these criticisms make for amusing reading as well, such as in the following quote from Zeki, a neuro-aesthetic scholar: “[A]ll human activity is dictated by the organization and laws of the brain; that, therefore, there can be no real theory of art and aesthetics unless neurobiologically based” (p. 108).

Being Brains is perhaps at its best and most original in its final chapter on the brain in literature and film, where Vidal and Ortega examine “neuro lit crit,” neuronovels, and films about brains (films that are generally about identity and memory). The vast majority of the authors to whom they refer are male, which is a shame, particularly considering the fact that the work of Siri Hustvedt, for instance, might have helped nuance their arguments. Leaving that point aside, the chapter interestingly shows the ways in which art can at once postulate something (e.g., we are our brains) while simultaneously critically interrogating it:

[V]isual and narrative resources may convey ambivalence and contradiction or simultaneously display apparently incompatible claims. Rather than being an aesthetic or intellectual defect, this feature reveals fiction’s ability to unfold the complexity of the questions it explores and suggests that univocal answers are not available. (p. 191)

Art thus allows for ambivalences and ambiguities that can shed light on the current human condition, what the authors refer to in an earlier chapter as “the constitutive ambivalence of cerebralizing processes” (p. 166).

Indeed, in various chapters, the authors show how “[t]here are different ways of being a cerebral subject, ways that do not depend directly on scientific results and idioms but on choices of a different nature (psychological, moral, political, social, even rhetorical) that use those idioms and results as resources.” (p. 187). For instance, while psychological distress is often “cerebralized,” this can be done in different ways, from a cerebralization of depression among psychiatrists (but not nearly as much among people with depression), to the neurodiversity movement’s arguments for a more neuro-inclusive culture in which their being neurologically different is not just recognised but almost celebrated. Such ambivalences, contradictions, and multiplicities make for good and at times entertaining reading.

However, the authors could have taken this one step further. Just pointing out that there are different ways of being a cerebral subject and that “brainhood” is sometimes resisted leaves aside the question what this means for the genealogy of “being brains.” Is the existence of ambivalence merely confirming the brainhood thesis (i.e., “the constitutive ambivalence of cerebralizing processes” [p. 166])? The conclusion of the book is fairly short, and it only states that the ambivalence in the arts towards the brainhood thesis is suggestive of it being an ideology rather than an empirical fact (p. 231). This would not come as a surprise to, for instance, science studies scholars. Despite this slightly unsatisfactory conclusion, Being Brains is a highly illuminating genealogy of modern brainhood and its constitutive elements, drawing on interesting and relevant empirical research across a range of time periods, disciplines, and practices. It will be thought provoking for scholars in a range of disciplines, from social studies of neuroscience to neuroscience itself.


Reference Cited

Ortega, F. 2018. Beyond  “Paranoia” and “Reparation”: Tracing Autism Neuroscience. (accessed February 9, 2018).