Here’s a notes version of my talk from this symposium at Trinity College, Dublin on 10th Dec 2021.
Critical Ontologies of Neuroculture
Tony D Sampson
I’ll begin with some context about my research in digital culture.
Then I’ll introduce two examples of what I call a critical ontology of neuroculture. I’ll conclude with some “extrinsic interferences,” hopefully intended to open up a dialogue with the neurosciences.
I’m a critical theorist of digital culture and communication, working in the arts and humanities. My critical work explores the power dynamics that occur when cultures and societies merge with digital technology. But my approach originates in a much older academic spat between two forefathers of sociology: Gabriel Tarde and Emile Durkheim. On one hand, Durkheim wanted his version of sociology to be distinct from biology and psychology. He focused on the emergence of a collective consciousness that supervenes and shapes the microlevels of collective social density. In short, Durkheim’s social subjects are the product of the macro-societies they are born into.
On the other hand, Tarde concentrates on microsocial-relations, grasped at an intersection between sociological, biological and psychological collective experience. Tarde’s collective dynamic is alternatively defined entirely at the microlevel of contagious nonconscious associations. Importantly, for Tarde, micro-societies are not about individuals or emergent collectives, but rather the social is constantly made by micro-relations. “Society is imitation, imitation is society.”
There’s a neuroscientific dimension to Tarde, who referred to the budding brain sciences of the 1800s to postulate about the brain’s capacity to imitate. There are some authors, like Thrift e.g., who make more explicit links between Tarde’s imitative brain and mirror neurons. We could also make a link between Tarde and the epigenetic turn. Although I’m wary of reducing social relations to brains or neurons in this way, microsociology avoids modelling digital culture as emergent collective intelligence, global minds or cognitive excess.
On the contrary, Tarde offers a kind of speculative mimetic theory in which social relations are transmitted, absorbed and transformed in contagious affective atmospheres.
There are several points to make concerning this approach…
The imitation thesis evades the study of the personal in favour of overlaps between self and other.
The biological and sociological become enmeshed.
More specifically, as Teresa Brennan contends, “transmissions of affect” pass through social atmospheres before they enter the biological body through the skin, the nervous system, the neuron network…
The collective dynamics of the social atmosphere is increasingly entangled with a technological nonconscious.
The social is nonhuman too!
A Tardean technological nonconscious draws attention to an ‘outside of thought’…
In this latter respect, Tarde’s affective contagions are outside of thought since they are not individually or collectively conscious in the cognitive sense. Instead they occur in the insensible degrees between volition and mechanical habit. This is how we arrive at Tarde’s somnambulist, existing between two seemingly paradoxical states…
Differing then from a rationalist, cognitive frame of reference, my work is further influenced by A.N. Whitehead’s realist, aesthetic ontology. Indeed, Whitehead had his own sleepwalker.
“We sleep; we are half-awake; we are aware of our perceptions, but are devoid of generalities in thought; we are vividly absorbed within a small region of abstract thought while oblivious to the world around; we are attending to our emotions – some torrent of passion – to them and to nothing else; we are morbidly discursive in the width of our attention; and finally we sink back into temporary obliviousness, sleeping or stunned.”
As Isabelle Stengers notes, Whitehead’s brain does not bifurcate from nature. At its most exceptional, its most plastic, the brain is a mere foothold in the experience of reality. It is certainly not a cognitive command post!
The outside of thought becomes central to contemporary affect theory debates about what constitutes a journey from pre-personal, nonconscious sensations of experience to emergent conscious emotions and cognition.
Evidently, trying to bring together these ontological concerns and a critical theory approach to understand the expansionist nature of neuroculture is somewhat problematic. There is, after all, a tradition in critical theory – largely based on continental philosophy – that creates a distance between itself and science! There are distinct boundary lines drawn between disciplines – particularly, between biology and culture.
In The Assemblage Brain, I argue that a different critical methodology is needed…
A kind of critical ontology – suspicious of neuroculture, but equally informed by ontological “interferences” between philosophy, art and science. This is a critical theory without distance. The resulting diagram draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? … which is, after all, a book all about the brain!
It is a challenging book. Particularly for those familiar with Deleuze and Guattari’s earlier work. Again, as Stengers notes, in What is Philosophy?, the renowned philosophers of mixture, become decidedly unmixed. But importantly, What is Philosophy? tests the limits and potential of disciplinary mixtures.
It helps grasp the extent to which things can and cannot mix. What can mix is largely determined by extrinsic interferences, produced by, for example, the way a poetic philosophy or artwork might prompt scientific questions, or how an imaginary scientific figure (or demon) might probe an artwork. I will introduce some examples.
I will now provide a couple of examples of neuroculture
A critical ontology of neuroaesthetics
A critical ontology of Human Computer Interaction (HCI)
Let’s begin by saying that there’s a great deal to be suspicious about in neuroaesthetics.
Given that it’s a discipline that could potentially bring art and science together, neuroaesthetics is an incredibly isolated pursuit of beauty in the brain. It certainly ignores most contemporary aesthetic enquiry in the arts, which has moved on from the crude question of “what is beauty” to address other concepts of aesthetic experience, like pleasure, desire, emotions, art for art’s sake, attention, distraction, ecology, thing-power, object-oriented ontologies, and even pretentiousness in art.
It is these latter references to the pretentions of, e.g., conceptual art, which seem at odds with a positivistic, rationalist neuroaesthetic “pursuit of beauty!” As Graham Harman amusingly contends, there is much distrust in rationalist science about the pretentions of art and philosophy. He compares this distrust to Daniel Dennett’s loathing of wine tasting. Here we meet Dennett’s scientific demon. His extrinsic interference. Why accept the opinion of a pretentious wine connoisseur, he claims, when one could imagine a machine that distinguishes between good and bad wine?
Indeed, a very similar imaginary machine appears in Ramachandran’s neuroaesthetics. His machine can unlock the brain to discern between objective beauty and the “dubious” imposters of conceptual art. So, someone as pretentious as Duchamp, e.g., is described as a foolish figure. “As any child in an art gallery can see,” Ramachandran argues, the conceptual artist “parades himself in the emperor’s new clothes.”
The rationalist’s pursuit of beauty is reliant on these demonic interferences. E.g. In Rolls’s expansive rationalist neuroculture project
Neuropolitics (rationalist politics)
The pursuit of beauty in the brain is grasped by combining algorithmic neuroscience with the logic of meme culture. Accordingly, Neo-Darwinist evolutionary algorithms have become embedded in neuron networks… producing an overriding system of reasoning, based on rewards and punishment. As follows, Rolls’s conclusion is very similar to Dennett’s wine tasting machine…
Good art is beautifully rewarding
Bad art is punishingly ugly
Another problem with rationalist neuroaesthetics is its locationist tendencies, informed by brain-imaging technologies. Here I think we can learn a lot from the brain imaging pioneer, Robert G Shulman, who refers to these kinds of studies as fMRI phrenology. It is here that ontological questions start to figure writ large in a critical analysis of neuroaesthetics. Significantly, Shulman introduces this image of an early, and highly influential, brain imaging experiment. On one hand, we can see why the journey from the stimulated whisker to a specific location in the mouse’s brain would excite the fMRI researcher. On the other, though, Shulman notes how the image raises many questions concerning assumptions made about the relation between external stimulation (sensations) and the emergence of these spatialized internal concepts. For Shulman, the brain-image presents a problematic neurocorrelate. Between (1), external stimuli, (2), brain regions, and (3), assumed mental states.
Locationist assumptions go to the heart of the neuroaesthetic problem, whereby psychological experiences, like beauty, and even pretentiousness, only become realisable when mapped to, and enacted on, specific regions, associated with certain functions.
Similar, in Semir Zeki’s article, “Art and the Brain,” he traces the function of art from the cortical retina to specific locations in the brain. Ultimately, Zeki’s neuroaesthetics is an ocularcentric pursuit of beauty that maps certain art genres (e.g. representational, abstract & kinetic art) to specific brain regions.
But, of course, rationalism is just one of many approaches in the neurosciences.
My second example looks at an influential, neuroscientific-led emotional turn, which is evidently pitched against rationalism. As Damasio argues, the emotional turn challenges the “rationalist conception that to obtain the best results, emotions must be kept out.” Which is to say, “rational processing must be unencumbered by passion.” Rather than being grasped as messy violations of rational thinking, Damasio contends that nonconscious somatic markers, or bodily affect, may well be enmeshed in the networks of reason.
Indeed, the shifting role of brain-body relations figures significantly across three paradigms of HCI.
The First Ergonomic Paradigm originates in industrial engineering. Influenced by Taylorist principles of efficient body-machine couplings, in the factory, ergonomics latterly incorporates computerized interactions. Through the scientific management of bodily interactions with machines, ergonomics confronts what Taylor called the “evils of inefficiency.” That is, workplace idleness, pathologies and fatigue.
So, where is the brain in ergonomics?
The critical theory of Taylorism begins with Antonio Gramsci’s Mechanization and the Worker’s Brain. Gramsci’s theory is perhaps surprising. Taylorist factories are not the “spiritual death of the worker.” While the trade becomes embedded in muscular memories and gestures, the brain “far from being mummified, reaches a state of complete freedom.” Gramsci’s brain is mostly unencumbered and potentially available for thinking outside of work.
In contrast, the Second Paradigm of HCI introduces an intensification of mind-labour, informed by the analogical coupling of mind and computer (dual information processors) in cognitive psychology. Following a post-Taylorist trajectory, “the disciplines of the efficiency of the body are replaced by a new instrument of labor — the mind.” This coupling enables managerial strategies to develop based on perception, attention, memory and mental models.
A Third Paradigm of HCI, stems from the same set of issues identified in the emotional turn, including “the marginalization of emotion in classic cognitive work.” It is closely aligned to affective computing and emotional design strategies used in industry. Emotions are explicitly linked to Damasio’s thesis, and broadly understood as a “type of information flow”, which influences cognition and behaviour.
In terms of critical theory, efficient emotions and feelings become the new instrument of digital labour. The emotional brain thesis drives a shift from cognitive capitalism to something we might even call aesthetic capitalism. Whatever we call it, the question is, how do we deploy a critical ontology to understand it? From an affect theory perspective, the introduction of what Norman calls the overriding visceral level of experience processing is interesting.
Norman’s model of experience maps onto the tripart distinction already made in new materialist affect theory between affect, feelings, and emotions… whereby…
Affect is a pre-personal, nonconscious experience. It’s an intensity, a pre-formed readiness potential, which arrives before consciousness kicks in.
Feelings are sensations triggered by affect– they provide a biographical sensory index for future reference.
Emotions are cognitive – they are the surfacing of bodily sensations in consciousness
This coincidence is not surprising. Both are influenced by the neurosciences. Massumi’s key affect theory text is supported by EEG experiments and references to Libet’s readiness potential. Damasio, LeDoux, and others, are also widely cited in affect theory
In many ways, both HCI and affect theory point to a growing interest in the nonconscious…
To start to conclude, then, I want to relate these ideas about a pre-personal, nonconscious experience to the ‘outside of thought.’
There are two main points to make here…
Firstly, the outside of thought is not only outside of rational, cognitive processes, but it is also an aesthetic experience – outside of spatialized locations. What is missing from the journey from the mouse’s whisker to its brain could have a temporal dimension, devoid of the storage metaphors of cognitive science. Such an exploration of the temporalities of proto-perception might help us to rethink this journey.
The second point to make is that such an enquiry into proto-perception need not assume physicalism. Affect theory does not concern a levelling-up of representational, semiotic experiences, from synapse to fully formed personal, phenomenal experience. Likewise, a Tardean social theory does not assume the emergence of “I” or “self” in isolation.
Tarde further challenges a mereological theory of emergent consciousness, whereby the sum total of the smaller parts of a brain emerge as a complete cognitive consciousness – individually or collectively. Pre-personal intensities are not necessarily prototypes of personality, as such. In contrast, proto-perception might be considered as Clough’s version of auto-affection. That is, not the self experiencing itself, but experience, experiencing itself!
To make this point, I’d like to end with two proto-neuroscience interferences inspired by Henri Bergson’s poetic philosophy in Matter and Memory. These are interferences that similarly confront the assumptions found in the neuroimage of the mouse. They problematize this journey between visceral sensation and mental concept, between material vitality and conscious representation.
So, the first experiment asks what might happen if experience could free itself from consciousness?
Would it become disconnected from what Bergson calls the ‘divisible spaces’, and “quasi-instantaneous views” of consciousness?
Could a disconnected experience escape pictorial condensations of matter?
Would it be a non-representational experience?
Bergson’s disconnected experience would prove fatiguing for cognitive imagination…”
But nevertheless, compared to conscious perception, it would be a pure and stripped-out perception (like memory persevered in pure duration).
As follows, experience becomes resolved into the ceaseless, numberless vibrations of matter itself which “travel in every direction, like shivers.”
When experience is reconnected with consciousness, Bergson contends that it will return to its divisible spaces, like a filmstrip sketching out the thousands of successive positions of a person running:
This is Bergson’s Movement Image!
The second experiment imagines a fictional neuroimaging technology, able to penetrate and observe this filmstrip in the grey matter of the brain.
How would this filmstrip be registered in the brain?
What would the operators of Bergson’s brain-imaging technology actually observe?
He expected some “foreshadowing, in the form of a sketch or a tendency, of movement.”
These sketches of movement may appear somewhere in the matter of the brain, as a trace of some kind…
But, Bergson contends, such flickers would reveal nothing of any journey between physiological and psychological experience. There would be no representations stored in the brain. Today’s brain-imaging technologies have not, after all, discovered a photographic album in the brain!
The point is that the movement image is not stored in any observable, condensed, psycho-data, or spatialized location.
To finish, then, these Bergson inspired experiments ask us to reconsider the minds relation to matter. Along these lines, I want to finish with another quote from A.N. Whitehead that captures the relation between his nonbifurcated brain and material vitality…
“[W]e cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain.”