The Brain's Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics

The Brain's Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics

by Victoria Pitts-Taylor

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In The Brain's Body Victoria Pitts-Taylor brings feminist and critical theory to bear on new development in neuroscience to demonstrate how power and inequality are materially and symbolically entangled with neurobiological bodies. Pitts-Taylor is interested in how the brain interacts with and is impacted by social structures, especially in regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability, as well as how those social structures shape neuroscientific knowledge. Pointing out that some brain scientists have not fully abandoned reductionist or determinist explanations of neurobiology, Pitts-Taylor moves beyond debates over nature and nurture to address the politics of plastic, biosocial brains. She highlights the potential of research into poverty's effects on the brain to reinforce certain notions of poor subjects and to justify particular forms of governance, while her queer critique of kinship research demonstrates the limitations of hypotheses based on heteronormative assumptions. In her exploration of the embodied mind and the "embrained" body, Pitts-Taylor highlights the inextricability of nature and culture and shows why using feminist and queer thought is essential to understanding the biosociality of the brain.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822361268
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/16/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,167,727
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Victoria Pitts-Taylor is Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University and the author of Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture.

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The Brain's Body

Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics

By Victoria Pitts-Taylor

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7437-4


The Phenomenon of Brain Plasticity

When philosopher Catherine Malabou (2008) asks, what should we do with our brain?, she joins a chorus trying to awaken us to the discovery of the brain's lifelong plasticity, its ability to change and be changed. Neuroscientific ideas of brain plasticity have existed for over a century, but they were mostly confined to the development of very young brains, to learning and memory, and to recovery from injury. Otherwise, the human brain was, for much of the twentieth century, understood to be biologically determined. It seemed to be faithful to genetic blueprints, governed according to immutable rules, and, after very early development, fixed for life. One can still find many references to such a brain: in the neuroscientific literature on sex difference, for example, which leans heavily on evolutionary logic to explain the existence of brains that are purportedly organized as male or female. Yet according to many interlocutors of brain science, the twenty-first-century view is that the brain modifies itself in response to experience throughout the lifespan. The plastic brain is ontogenetically shaped in dynamic relation with its environment; this means, in the language of Bergson and Deleuze, that brains are biological becomings, always in process, always open to transforming themselves and being transformed. Lifelong neural plasticity may open up possibilities for agency and freedom. It may afford what Andy Clark calls a "profoundly embodied" agency (2007, 265), one that allows us to transform "who and what we are" (2004, 34). Malabou says plasticity renders us "precisely in the sense of a work: sculpture, modeling, architecture" (2008, 7). What sort of work, then, is it?

Figuring Plasticity

Brain plasticity animates naturalized philosophy as a biological condition to be reckoned with, if not celebrated. But it can also be seen as a trope of the contemporary social order, or as a justification for biotechnological intervention into everyday life. Malabou notes a resonance between neural plasticity and the demands for constant flexibility, multitasking, and self-alteration in late capitalism. Similarly, Emily Martin describes a manic plasticity demanded in the global marketplace, which asks us to be "always adapting, scanning the environment, continuously changing in creative and innovative ways, flying from one thing to another, pushing the limits of everything, doing it all with an intense level of energy focused totally on the future" (2000, 578–79). Others note that the popular discourse on brain plasticity encourages subjects to physically modify themselves with the help of neuroscientific expertise (Kraus 2012; Pitts-Taylor 2010; Schmitz 2012; Vidal and Ortega 2011). And while brain plasticity is conceived as having tremendous clinical potential for reversing the effects of traumas and degenerative diseases, it equally underpins biotechnical, pharmaceutical, and military industries aimed at cognitive modification and enhancement (Moreno 2012). A whole range of techniques, for example, involving cognitive exercises, brain–machine interfaces, drugs, supplements, electric stimulators, and brain mapping technologies, now target the brain for modification and rewiring. In the contemporary understanding of plasticity there may be no less than a "new master narrative of changing the brain-body, which thrives on the technoscientific ambition to monitor, control, and transform processes of life on the very level of their material composition" (Papadopoulos 2011, 433).

Plasticity may offer a reprieve from biological determinism, but its "dual association" with freedom and control (Papadopoulos 2011) must be confronted. How can its promise be understood when plasticity so neatly coincides with dominant ideologies and practices, or when it threatens the body-subject with techniques of governmentality? Malabou's answer is to distinguish the flexibility demanded by technoscientific capitalism from the "true" plasticity given by nature. Flexibility, she says, is a discourse that produces the subject in accordance with her neurobiology in only a distorted and superficial way. Plasticity, by contrast, is an ontological condition generated by the capacities of biology. Whereas flexibility presents an endlessly polymorphous, ultimately "reproductive and normative" subject (2008, 72), true plasticity is more rebellious. It refers to the brain's literal fashioning and refashioning, and contains a tension within itself, culminating in a "disobedience to every form, a refusal to submit to a model" (2008, 6). I find the divisions Malabou makes between epistemology and ontology (and between normativity and freedom) far too neat. However, they highlight the two matters of concern in contemporary discussions of the plastic brain that I want to address.

Construct, Property, or Phenomenon?

The first concern is whether the essence of neural plasticity can be extracted from how it is represented in science and everyday life. Naturalized philosophy often treats empirical research as more or less neutral information that can ground theories about human essence or experience. Malabou, for example, forswears any truck with neuroscientific knowledge by simply declaring herself a materialist, a stance that disallows even "the least separation" (2012, 212) between the brain and mind. Her assumption is that if one is a materialist, one must accept the neurobiological facts. If there is something wrong with neuroscientific knowledge, it is because the facts are being distorted or appropriated. By contrast, social constructionists see such representations as inextricable from the facts themselves. Even though they don't usually deny the existence of material realities, social constructionist arguments treat scientific objects as theorizable only in representational terms, as the effects of discourse. Cynthia Kraus, for example, asks not what we should do with the brain, but rather "what kind of social order and conceptions of human agency are being co-produced through knowledge claims about brain plasticity?" (2012, 253). In her view, appeals to plasticity, which are found not only in naturalized philosophy but also, as I discuss later, in feminist empiricist treatments of neuroscience, reproduce the cerebral subject who is defined by and reduced to the brain. Kraus argues that feminists should rethink whether plasticity is the "right tool for the job" (251) of combating biological determinism.

On the one side, plasticity is a biological property that is described in neuroscientific research but is essentially untouched by its representations. This stance allows Malabou to theorize the biological body despite its epistemic mediation, but it is philosophically unsatisfying. This is because it contradicts the most striking insight highlighted in her account of neural plasticity: to think something changes the thing that thinks it. The strict divisions between knowledge and essence, representation and being, break down in the contemporary plastic brain. On the flip side, treating plasticity as a social construct allows one to grasp how representations of plasticity are productive in and of themselves, and recognizes power/knowledge at work in descriptions of the brain. But it stops short of acknowledging how meanings are materialized in matter, how they literally modify brains and body-subjects, and, conversely, how they are touched by what they represent. To dismiss plasticity as a mere trope, one that has only a representational reality, foreshortens a grasp of its deeply biopolitical character. Biopolitics "has crossed the epistemic threshold" (Vatter 2009, n.p.); it involves not just the description but also the governance of biological life (Foucault 2009).

One does not necessarily have to choose between these positions. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost claim that one can "accept social constructionist arguments while also insisting that the material realm is irreducible to culture or discourse and that cultural artifacts are not arbitrary vis-à-vis nature" (2010, 27). With respect to plasticity, this means acknowledging that even though there is only mediated access to brain properties, the properties themselves must be addressed nonetheless. If discourses change body-subjects, they can only do so because bodies are amenable to being changed. Both epistemology and ontology matter; what's more, it is their relation that matters most with respect to the plastic brain. I argue that plasticity demands such an onto-epistemological approach, one that takes questions of being and knowing as inseparable. Karen Barad's theory of agential realism (2007), for example, argues for seeing scientific objects and their measurements together as comprising phenomena, which are both real and actively shaped. In this chapter I think of plasticity as such a phenomenon. It is a set of materialities that demands interpretation; in other words, it has ontological import, but also bears the imprints of its observation.

Whose Work Is It?

The second concern I want to address is whether and how the brain's plasticity translates into agency. In what sense, precisely, is the plastic brain a work? And, more important, whose work is it? There are a number of possibilities, including (but not limited to) (a) that the agency of plasticity belongs to the subject, (b) that it inhabits the biological body, or (c) that it lies outside the body-subject entirely, for example, given to culture. The first possibility, embraced by many popular guides to brain science, is that the potential of neural plasticity is available to a subject who can modify her own brain. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, for example, champion the possibility of "self-directed neuroplasticity" (2002, 254). One can alter the availability of neurotransmitters through antidepressants and other drugs; in the current age one is also told that it is possible to facilitate more efficient synaptic connections, create new pathways, and even promote the growth of new neurons. Modifications of the brain may address health problems, such as mental illness, infertility, obesity, or dementia, to name a few examples, or enhance cognitive performance. Rose and Abi-Rached (2013) describe such practices as a contemporary form of somaticization, where the individual is pressed to optimize and enhance her biology as a matter of personal management, wellness, and neoliberal citizenship. While there are many ways in which individuals can now participate in transforming their brains, the claim of self-directed neuroplasticity raises a number of problems. It presupposes a version of dualism, not quite between mind and body, but between the brain- as-mind that directs the action and brain-asbody that is acted upon. It presumes personal ownership over the brain's capacities, as if the brain responds to (and only to) the desires of its body-subject. It sees agency as a "fixed human property" (Malafouris 2008, 23) under the command of an exclusively human subject.

Those who (like me) put far less stock in the intentional subject as the master of her own biology nonetheless may find potential in plasticity. In many accounts of plasticity the brain makes itself on its own, without guidance or permission from a knowing subject. It changes without the subject's consciousness of, or control over, when or how it is being changed, and according to certain models of cognition it does so without need of symbolic representations or meanings. The brain that changes itself may be an instance of the "generativity and resilience of material forms with which social actors interact, forms which circumscribe, encourage, and contest their discourses" (Coole and Frost 2010, 26). Rather than freedom from biology, the plastic brain may suggest that biology itself entails a kind of freedom, which is found in the multiplicity of its potential and the unpredictability of its actualization. Deleuzian readings of synaptic plasticity, for example, lend the brain a radically agential character, even while rendering it vulnerable to control society. It is variously described as a "reservoir of potential" (Hauptmann 2010, 20); one that has a capacity to "explode its form" (Malabou 2008, 12); as having an "outsider" status, as "anomalous" and "unintelligible" (Watson 1998, 42); as engaged in conditioned reflexes but also "creative tracings" that are entirely new (Murphie 2010, 8); as entangled with technologies that allow body-subjects to "re-configure our neural connections all the time," rendering us multiple, able to do and be many things at once (Rotman 2000, 74).

Rather than ontogenetically unique, creative, and unpredictable, the plastic brain can be also seen as habituated, imprinted by the social patterning and regularity of experience. The plastic brain, according to some of the research discussed below, is not indifferent to its surroundings but rather inextricably dependent on them. Despite the temptation to read it primarily in terms of biological freedom, one can also see in neuroplasticity the brain's vulnerability to its environment, its exposure to and situatedness in the world, including to language, values, and social structures. For some observers, plasticity means not freedom and agency but rather cultural inscription, that "from birth on, our mind as well as the correlated brain structures are essentially shaped by social and cultural influences" (Fuchs 2005, 115). This may mean that the plastic brain is susceptible to social hierarchies and inequalities, perhaps even expressed in phenotypes such as a gendered or classed brain. In feminist writings the plastic brain resists biological determinism, largely through its openness to cultural shaping and influence, including gender socialization (Schmitz and Hoeppner 2014). For feminist empiricists, evidence of brain plasticity is a resource to critique scientific sex/gender bias and an alternative explanation for findings of sex differences in the brain. Although feminists are highly critical of neuroscientific claims of bifurcated sex difference, some suggest that the brain's vulnerability to gender training may explain observable differences in brain function and structure. They argue that social forces, rather than evolutionary ones, are the cause of neurobiological difference.

The move to read plasticity through the lens of gender socialization, alongside efforts to discover a neural phenotype of poverty and other biosocial research programs, underscores the necessity to theorize plasticity not as a social construction, nor as an unmediated matter of fact, but rather as a jointly ontological and epistemological concern, one whose agentic implications are not immediately straightforward. I make this case below, but first I offer a brief (and necessarily partial) description of neuroscientific research on plasticity, which suggests that it cannot be understood as generic or monolithic. Plasticity is neither an undisputable fact with a singular meaning nor a mere social construction. Rather, it refers to multiple materialities that are entangled with specific research questions, practices of scientific measurement, and ideas about development, environmental context, and biosociality. The promise of neural plasticity depends in part on how it is defined and measured.

Plasticities of the Brain

Plasticity has some shared meanings across different knowledge sites, but also gains significance and weight in particular contexts (Jordan-Young 2014; Kraus 2012; Pitts-Taylor 2010; B. Rubin 2009). At the start of modern neuroscience, the concept of plasticity emerged to address how neurons' connections with each other are related to the brain's activity. In the mid- twentieth century, this synaptic or "functional" plasticity often was elaborated in contrast to the apparently fixed structural organization of the brain. Evidence of the mature brain's ability to rewire and reshape itself in response to new stimuli and activity has more recently led to biosocial models of brain structure as well as function. This history should not be conceived in a teleological fashion, where the brain is merely awarded greater plasticity over time. Even in the current moment, when neural plasticity is more broadly recognized than ever before, the brain does not appear to be globally or monolithically plastic. Rather, in different research programs plasticity is unevenly distributed across developmental time scales, various regions of the brain, and even potentially between persons.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: The Social Brain and Corporeal Politics  1

1. The Phenomenon of Brain Plasticity  17

2. What Difference Does the Body Make?  43

3. I Feel Your Pain  67

4. Neurobiology and the Queerness of Kinship  95

Conclusion: The Multiplicity of Embodiment  119

Notes  129

References  153

Index  177

What People are Saying About This

Gut Feminism - Elizabeth A. Wilson

"The Brain’s Body brings clarity and sociological finesse to current debates about the role of neuroscientific data in public and intellectual life. With remarkable fluency, this book places the embodied specifics of race, class, disability, gender, and sexuality at the center of our responses to the brain sciences. This will be an indispensable and widely read guide for how to work with neurological data in the social sciences."

Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences - Rebecca M. Jordan-Young

"An exciting book, The Brain's Body adds wonderful new dimensions to the fruitful but still limited conversation between neuroscience and feminism while introducing readers to new literatures, novel interpretations, and exciting interweavings of arguments on key debates about neuroscience from a variety of fields. In generous and creative ways, Victoria Pitts-Taylor mines contemporary neuroscience for its nonreductionist potential, pointing out some of its clear resonances with feminist epistemologies. No one else has yet tackled in such depth the ways that emerging research regarding brain plasticity provide a strong empirical bridge between 'mainstream' science and feminist theory."

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