In the Journals

"Neuroscience and subjectivity": a special journal issue

The latest issue of Subjectivity — which focuses on “Neuroscience and subjectivity” — includes a number of interesting articles in the rapidly advancing discussion around neuroscience and society. In their opening Editorial (the only article available without a subscription) guest editors John Cromby, Tim Newton and Simon J Williams argue that:

[T]he neurosciences are likely to continue occupying a contradictory position in relation to humanities and social science studies of subjectivity. At the worst, their capacity to colonise, reduce and dismiss the richness of explanatory detail that the social sciences and humanities work with will continue to disturb and repel. But the neurosciences might also offer insights that enrich our understandings of the ways in which cultural, social and material influence actually get made flesh, and hence of the ways in which the enculturated brain and body subtend and enable not simply subjectivity but intersubjectivity,” (Cromby, Newton and Williams 2011).

The papers in this issue approach the links between neuroscience and subjectivity in relation to three broad questions: “First: What and where are the neural mechanisms that enable subjectivity?…. Second: How is or should the neural be figured in relation to the social?… Third: How are tropes and metaphors from neuroscience already informing the subjectivities we are able to become?” (Cromby, Newton and Williams 2011).

The TOC and abstracts:

John Cromby, Tim Newton and Simon J Williams, Neuroscience and subjectivity

Felicity Callard and Daniel S Margulies, The Subject at Rest: Novel conceptualizations of self and brain from cognitive neuroscience’s study of the ‘resting state’

The neuroscientific field of ‘resting state’ research has been described as heralding a paradigm shift in functional neuroimaging. As this new field has been central to the development of a cognitive neuroscientific theory of inner mental life, we here map and analyse its emergence and potential implications for conceptualizations of brain, self and subjectivity within and beyond the neurosciences. The article traces how the ‘resting state’ and ‘default mode’ became visible as objects of scientific enquiry through the yoking together of what were initially separate research endeavours addressing different neurophysiological and neuropsychological questions. In the process, ‘rest’ – as signifying the cessation of movement or labour – has been transformed: the brain, inner mental life – and potentially the self – are conceptualized by researchers in this field as perpetually productive and oriented towards the future.

Clifford van Ommen and Vasi van Deventer, The economy of centre within the aneconomy of neurological architecture

Neuroscience may be read as part of a historical search for an integrative and agentive centre. The prefrontal cortices, the dominant locus of the executive functions, which includes the control of cognitive processes and the regulation of self in the process of fulfilling intentions, is currently such a centre. This attribution is complexified through a deconstructive reading of texts by the neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg. What emerge are dynamics that decentre attempts to determine a point from which agency may proceed. It is argued that the grounds for centric claims simultaneously undermine such ambitions.

Elizabeth A Wilson, Neurological entanglements: The case of paediatric depressions, SSRIs and suicidal ideation

This article explores the neurological entanglements that are the stuff of depressive states in treatment. My particular concern is the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in depressed paediatric populations. The use of antidepressants to treat childhood and adolescent depressions has become more frequent in recent years, and more controversial. My ambition is not to intervene into these debates directly, but to push some of our thinking about the substrata of depression in new directions. I am interested in what philosophies of the body and what theories of mind the psychological literatures about paediatric depression lean on, and silently promote. Drawing on neurological and clinical trial data, the article argues that depressive states are neither caused nor cured by singular events (a gene; a pharmaceutical); rather they are complex, non-deterministic sedimentations of pharmaco-affective, ideo-chemical and neuro-social affiliations.

Maurizio Meloni, Philosophical implications of neuroscience: The space for a critique

In an intellectual atmosphere still marked by the ideological failures of the twentieth century, the expectations for neuroscience are extremely high, even in fields traditionally sheltered from the seductions of neurobiological explanations, such as political theory, sociology and philosophy. In an attempt to problematize the reception that this neuroscientific vocabulary has received, I provide in this article a cartography of three major lines of philosophical criticism of neuroscience – ‘conceptual’, ‘societal’ and ‘embodied-enactive’ – put forward recently by philosophers of different intellectual traditions. Although these criticisms are important in shedding light on some epistemological inconsistencies of the neuroscientific programme, the need remains to supplement this philosophical work with a different kind of critique, one that could address more directly the social and political relevance of neuroscience as well understand our epoch’s urge to ‘turn neurobiological’ previously cultural or sociological phenomena.

Francisco Ortega and Suparna Choudhury, ‘Wired up differently’: Autism, adolescence and the politics of neurological identities

With the rapid rise in neuroscience research in the last two decades, neuroscientific claims have travelled far beyond the laboratory and increasingly, ‘facts’ about the brain have entered the popular imagination. As cognitive neuroscience steps up its focus on neurological distinctions between different ‘kinds of people’, researchers in the social sciences and humanities have begun to investigate the role of neurological vocabulary in the constitution of identities. In this article, we explore the terrain of ‘neurological identities’ through a comparative analysis of identity issues among individuals diagnosed with autism, and among adolescents – two categories of people who constitute important objects of study in current work in cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry. In particular, we explore the social conditions that render neuroscience a language palatable to autistic self-advocates and controversial to adolescents. Through these case studies, we demonstrate the heterogeneity of the role of the brain in projects of identity formation, and the many possible meanings conferred by the notion of ‘being wired up differently’.

Martyn Pickersgill, Sarah Cunningham-Burley and Paul Martin, Constituting neurologic subjects: Neuroscience, subjectivity and the mundane significance of the brain

What are the links between neuroscience and personhood? This article explores this question empirically through the lens of ‘neurologic subjectivity’. Drawing on focus group research, we examine how individuals draw on both neuroscience and the neurological to articulate subjectivity. Our participants’ talk demonstrates the importance of ideas about the brain for understanding their selves and others. However, reference to the brain was not a thoroughly dominant discourse; rather, neurologic ideas may be accepted, played with, and resisted. Thus, the brain is an object of ‘mundane significance’, often distant from everyday experience. We argue that individuals can best be understood as bricoleurs, piecing together diverse knowledges pertaining to soma, psyche and society: neuroscientific concepts compete with, integrate into, and only occasionally fully supplant, pre-existing notions of subjectivity. It might therefore be argued that it is, in part, through the sociological gaze itself that neurologic subjectivity is constituted.

One Response to "Neuroscience and subjectivity": a special journal issue

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