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  • Conrad’s Neuroplasticity
  • Nidesh Lawtoo (bio)

The brain is a work, and we do not know it. We are its subjects—authors and products at once—and we do not know it.

—Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?1

[I]t is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity.

—Joseph Conrad, “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897)2

Nothing seems to escape the neuro turn. Not content with neurology, neuropsychology, and neuropsychiatry, the neurosciences are now infiltrating the humanities as well. There is now talk of neurophilosophy, neuroanthropology, neuroethics—even God is approached from the angle of neurotheology. It is thus not surprising that an adaptable field such as literary studies is currently being transformed by what goes under the rubric of neuroaesthetics. This enthusiastic outbreak of neuromania is contagious and seductive, but it can also be perceived as maddening and reductive. And rightly so, for the oxymoronic connection between aesthetics and the neurons that fire in the brain risks not only to infect the art of interpretation but also to kill the very soul of the subject matter it sets out to dissect. And yet, recent developments on both sides of the science/humanities divide strongly suggest that the binary between these competing perspectives may not be as polarized as it appears to be and that a productive dialogue can potentially emerge as these “two [End Page 771] cultures” face, confront, and reflect on each other—provided they do not attempt to mirror one another.3

As Paul Armstrong puts it in How Literature Plays with the Brain, “What the humanities have most to gain from . . . [t]aking up conversations with the neuroscientific community about matters of mutual interest” is nothing less “than a recovery of our disciplinary identity” (10). In this article, I would like to follow up on this hypothesis by turning to the literary case of Joseph Conrad, a modernist author who made the discovery of his own identity his primary subject of aesthetic exploration and, by doing so, provided influential case studies for articulating the protean identities of literary studies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I suggest that the neurosciences paradoxically confirm a point theorists in the humanities have been making all along: they emphasize the dominant role played by culture, history, and language—not nature—in the formation, deformation, and transformation of subjectivity.

Recent discoveries in the neurosciences have established that our brain is far more malleable than previously realized and, as a consequence, is continuously molded by cultural impressions throughout our entire lives. It is not simply that our mind is shaped by external, social influences that inform the content of what we think—that we long knew. Rather, it is the structure of the brain itself, in its synaptic, neuronal connections that has the capacity to change over time, reforming the very medium through which we think. As Norman Doidge puts it, “the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity.”4 This is good news for patients suffering from brain damage that was previously considered irreversible, such as post-stroke paralysis and phantom limbs. It is also good news for fields that are currently going through precarious and vulnerable times, like the humanities in general and literary studies in particular. Scholars in the humanities informed by critical theory are well positioned to absorb the implications of such models of plasticity, adaptability, resilience, and self-improvement. Far from wiring subjectivity in a fixed, immutable, biological essence, the neuroplastic revolution paradoxically contributes to moving us away from essentialist assumptions about what human nature is, or should be. It also encourages unreconstructed humanists to take an active stance in the formation of who we would like to become. This is, at least, what French philosopher Catherine Malabou suggests when she writes: “The brain is a work, and we do not know it. We are its subjects—authors and products at once—and we do not know it” (What Should We Do, 1).

My hypothesis in what follows is that Conrad knew it. And as the author—subject and...


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