Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mandik, Peter. Review of Catherine Malibou's WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR BRAIN? NDPR (April 2009).

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do with Our Brain?. Trans. Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

There's little doubt of the increasing significance of the brain sciences for the rest of our contemporary culture, though there's much to explore about what this all amounts to. It is appropriate for the portions of the academy beyond the centers of neuroscientific activity to take note of and absorb the significance of the advances made about such a crucial literal part of each of us. Neuroscience has already received relatively widespread attention from philosophers, most notably from philosophers of mind and of science (though neuroethicists seem to be growing in number), well versed in the technical details of functional magnetic resonance imaging, dopamine, the lateral geniculate nucleus, and long-term potentiation. However, to my knowledge, the resultant philosophy produced by philosophers attending to the neurosciences has been overwhelmingly done in the tradition of analytic philosophy, a few references to Merleau-Ponty notwithstanding. The item under current scrutiny is not part of this neuroscience-influenced strand of contemporary analytic philosophy. The volume appears in Fordham University Press's series Perspectives in Continental Philosophy, is authored by a previous co-author of Derrida's, and has as one of its back-cover blurbs one from Žižek (which I cannot resist pointing out starts off like this: "As a rule, neuroscientists avoid two things like a vampire avoids garlic: any links to European metaphysics, political engagement, and reflection upon the social conditions which gave rise to their science"). What we have here, for better or for worse, is a piece of continental neurophilosophy.

What should we do with What Should We Do with Our Brain?? For starters, let us not doubt that the titular question is a good one. The question does however admit of multiple readings, some of which hinge on how to take the 'should'. Reading it as asking a practical question renders it akin to "What should we do with our abs?" Closer, however, to Malabou's purposes is a reading more political, if not moral, making it more along the lines of "What should we do with our homeless?" Or closer to the actual question at hand: "What should we do with ourselves?" Malabou's answer may be summarized concisely in her own words: We should

refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion . . . To ask "What should we do with our brain?" is above all to visualize the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile. (pp. 78-79)

If that's the answer then, one might wonder, what's any of this got to do with brains? Couldn't someone who didn't even know we have brains nonetheless make such a moral/political recommendation? Malabou's answer arrives very close to the end of her 82-pages of main text. However, despite being a short journey, one nonetheless wonders if the destination really needed a route that took a detour through neuroscience. . . .

Read the whole review here: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=15887.

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