Book Review: Plasticity and Pathology: On the Formation of the Neural Subject

Plasticity and Pathology: On the Formation of the Neural Subject. David Bates and Nima Bassiri, eds. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016, 368pp.

In pairing the terms “plasticity” and “pathology,” editors David Bates and Nima Bassiri invite us to see both terms with new eyes. The volume incites readers to explore how pathology may be a site of plastic creativity, a stance that disrupts the conventional binary in which pathology indicates a lack of plastic repair and transformation. Composed of a short preface and 10 essays by 12 contributors in anthropology, history, philosophy, literature, and rhetoric, this volume is an excellent illustration of the productive ways that scholars in the humanities and social sciences might make neuroscience an interlocutor in our explorations of human experience.

As I see it, the volume addresses three major themes that articulate, with more or less emphasis in each essay, across the text as a whole. These themes are: subjectivity and personhood, the cultural and historical specificity of scientific knowledge production, and the shifting relationships between plasticity and pathology. I discuss a selection of essays as they articulate with these core themes.

In their preface, Bates and Bassiri note that injury and pathological conditions in the brain, which prompt neuroplastic responses, may transform the brain so dramatically that personhood, in turn, is entirely transformed. They suggest that concepts of plasticity and pathology (and personhood, I would argue) are fluid to the core. Subjectivity and personhood have been richly explored by other social science and humanities treatments of neuroscience, but framing these considerations through the lens of plasticity and pathology invites fresh and useful theorizations. Catherine Malabou’s chapter articulates a view of subjectivity as inherently in process, plastic, a future-oriented “entity that exists only insofar as it remains unknown” (p. 24). Malabou suggests that dialogue between continental and cognitivist philosophy should inform an effort to transcend the either/or of humanistic and neurobiological understandings of humanity broadly, and subjectivity more specifically.

Pathological conditions provoke poignant windows into the ways that the neuronal articulates with the subjective. Nima Bassiri’s chapter investigates the relation between personhood and pathology through the study of Hughlings Jackson, a neurologist who wrote at the end of the 19th century. Hughlings Jackson argued that in the presence of neuropathology, a “new person” emerges—and further, that “double mentation” (p. 95) or bifurcated consciousness was not in itself pathological. His theory unified “all the pathological disunities of the self” (p. 103). Hughlings Jackson was concerned with situations in which brain pathology (the emergence of a new person) provoked criminal outbursts, complicating our understanding of personal responsibility. Bassiri compellingly illustrates the ways these concerns contributed to changing perceptions between the boundaries of health and disease and further argues that neurological reasoning paved the way for a new understanding of “neural personhood.”

In her chapter, Cathy Gere highlights the historical specificity of the ways scientific regimes are understood to align with political projects and imperatives. Scientists studying the “behavioral effects of pain and pleasure” (p. 36) found themselves marginalized in the aftermath of the Cold War, an era fraught with anxieties about social control. These “hedonist psychologists” posited that behavior was ultimately plastic and oriented toward reward and punishment, which could be externally manipulated—a world view that seemed dangerously close to mind control. In contrast, cognitive scientists posited a vision of humans working within the constraints of an “inborn structure” that presumably could not be manipulated; freedom within these constraints seemed to offer the capacity for (democratic, rather than totalitarian) rational decision-making. That Cold War politics drove a vilification of plasticity, in contrast with our contemporary celebration of the same, prompts readers to consider the social and political stakes of embracing these divergent models.

The cultural and historical specificities of both scientific knowledge production and subjectivity emerge beautifully in Hannah Proctor and Laura Salisbury’s chapter. This focuses on the text, The Man with a Shattered World, authored by Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria about his patient, L. Zasetsky, a soldier in the Red Army who suffered a devastating brain injury. The historical moment of the injury, in 1943, orients Proctor and Salisbury’s analysis of this text and an explicit “entanglement of neurobiology with a revolutionary politics,” precisely a Soviet concept of plasticity (p. 164). The narrative that Luria creates, shaped by Zasetsky’s own journal records, maintains the “psychic discontinuities” (p. 169), the “repetitions and inconsistencies,” and the “clipped and cryptic style” (p. 184) of Zasetsky himself, and refuses to impose an artificial coherence on Zasetsky’s experience. Proctor and Salisbury make a compelling argument for seeing the concept of neuroplasticity as historically and politically embedded: scientific logics mirror contemporary social logics, speaking both to prospects for “this damaged individual” (Zasetsky) and also to “a devastated society that nevertheless held to the hope that another world might be possible” (p. 180).

Artificial intelligence provides a provocative lens into the shifting relationships between plasticity and pathology. David Bates’s chapter most clearly highlights how we might see pathology itself as a site for creativity. In contrast to Georges Canguilhem’s understanding of living beings as uniquely capable of creating new norms through pathology, whereas machines were seen as automatic and non-creative, Bates describes how cybernetics researchers imagined machines that could learn and transform. Given that machines qua machines were understood as and designed to be automatic and unable to respond to novelty, Bates posits that cyberneticians sought to imagine “machinic pathology” (p. 198): a machine with the plastic capacity to produce unexpected and novel actions. In the subsequent chapter, Joseph Dumit explores the diagramming conventions and use of flowcharts to describe cognitive processes, among PET scan researchers, cognitive scientists, and cyberneticians. Dumit highlights the artificiality with which we draw boundaries between the human brain (as something inherently flexible and creative) and the computer or machine (as inherently automatic and logical): Plasticity and pathology entail each other across both categories of being, in sometimes surprising ways.

In the closing chapter, Tobias Rees takes up these shifting boundaries. His analysis is based on ethnographic research in the Parisian neuroplasticity research lab of Alain Prochiantz. Prochiantz’s findings contravened long-accepted views that the adult human brain was (in Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s words) “essentially fixed” (p. 319), what Rees describes as the “plasticity-pathology axis … according to which it is the absence of plasticity in the adult that … [means] pathology has to be concerned with cell death” (p. 322). Prochiantz, however, was involved in research that implied that many diseases were caused not by cellular degeneration (cell death) but by insufficient birth of new neurons (cell life). These findings prompt Rees to wonder if a new concept of pathology itself was emerging, one that decoupled disease from death and produced a new understanding of the plasticity–pathology axis: Because new cells do form in healthy adult human brains, pathology must be concerned with when they do not form. This notion of a reframed plasticity–pathology axis constitutes a perfect finish to a volume deeply engaged with the shifting relationships between these core concepts.

While in some essays I desired more targeted articulations of core arguments, and the volume might have benefited from a more capacious editor’s introduction, it was a pleasure to read this book and to deeply engage these collected essays. This text is an important contribution to social science and humanities scholarship on neuroscience and medicine, and I look forward to recommending it to colleagues and students. I plan to use this text in future instantiations of my seminar, The Anthropology of Neuroscience, which is for advanced undergraduate and graduate students; it would also be an excellent resource for graduate seminars.

Reference Cited

Luria, A. R.
1975 The Man with a Shattered World. L. Solotaroff, trans. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.


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