- The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics by Victoria Pitts-Taylor
The brain matters. Says the opening line from Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics. On the face of it, the human brain matters inasmuch as it is the body’s central information processing organ; the CEO that presides over many of our executive bodily functions. But the brain matters beyond the ways in which it has biologically evolved and currently processes information. The brain also matters in social thought, as neuroscientific research has historically informed widespread perceptions of certain bodies and persons at the social and institutional level. Moreover, the brain is embodied, and bodies accrue social and political meanings beyond what they represent at the level of scientific interest. Pitts-Taylor takes this interplay between science and culture as her starting point, and she investigates the entanglement of brains and bodies with cultures and ideologies (1). [End Page E-3]
The project of Pitts-Taylor’s book can be broadly situated at the crossroads of feminist theory, neuroscience, philosophy of biology, social epistemology, and queer and disability theory. In the introduction, she limns the broad historical architecture of this varied, interdisciplinary locale. For much of 20th century thought, the brain and the mind had been separately conceptualized as objects of philosophical and scientific inquiry. The brain belonged to the body, for the most part, while the mind was conceived as an epiphenomenal happening of its own. Toward the end of the century, however, such conceptual distinctions began to seriously weaken, as the boundaries between philosophy, cognitive science, and neuroscience started to erode. Soon, the brain and the mind coalesced into a biological whole, and a new conception of the mind as both embodied and deeply social came into prominence among some researchers in the neurobiological sciences. At this juncture, the mind/brain, with its deeply social profile and underpinnings, was no longer regarded as biologically fixed. Instead, the brain was now understood as “the product of embodied experience,” as “the foundation for (and reflected in) social structures,” and as “subject to intervention and transformation.” (5)
The Brain’s Body follows in this lineage of naturalistic questioning into, among other things, the mindedness of the body, the bio-materiality of cognition, and the situatedness of cognizing bodies in material cultures. In the spirit of critical rebelliousness, however, Pitts-Taylor’s book turns this lineage on itself, animating its critique and commentary by calling the cultural situatedness of this tradition itself into question. If the brain, qua the object of study, is plastic and can be socially influenced, should we not, qua theorists of the embodied brain, also heed and problematize the ways that such influences configure into our theorizing about the brain and the body? Pitts-Taylor thinks that we should! But this means that our theorizing about the brain is itself deeply plastic and impressionable, and thus open to the influence of social and ideological structures. Pitts-Taylor’s book, in a nutshell, is concerned with this concentric interplay of brains, bodies, and power structures. In a view that the book persuasively argues for, this interdependence is not merely symbolic, but also extends into the ways in which material structures are configured, including the literal structure of the brain. As such, and as the subtitle of the work suggests, “the book is concerned with the corporeal politics of the brain and the neurobiological body”(5) wherein the interplay of discourse and ideology manifests not merely through symbolisms and at the level of representations, but also in the corporeality of the world around us. [End Page E-4]
Along these lines, Chapter 1 offers a discussion of the phenomenon of plasticity. The concept of neural plasticity, which refers to the ability of our brains to change and be changed, captures an exciting reprieve from the orthodoxy of neurodeterminism and biological reductionism. But, with the advancement of various forms of biotechnology, plasticity research also now holds potential for different modes of biogovernance and pharmaceutical intervention into contemporary life.1As such, plasticity is a...