The imagination of the brain in contemporary neuro-culture

An interview with Stephan Besser

4 October 2016

Stephan Besser is Assistant professor of Dutch Studies (Moderne Nederlandse letterkunde) at the UvA and coordinator of the ASCA research group 'Neuroaesthetics and Neurocultures'. He also serves as the program director of the Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies (OSL). He is a member of the SMART organizing committee since 2015. Stephan's current research focuses on ‘worldings’ of the brain in contemporary neuroculture and the isomorphic imagination of shared patterns, homologies and resonances between neural structures and the world at large. He studies these discourses and imageries in contemporary film, literature, social theory and works of (popular) neuroscience.

“My background is in German literature and history; I studied at Humboldt University and spent a semester abroad at the University of Amsterdam. I did my PhD here at the UvA, at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). My dissertation was on the German colonial period, more specifically on the construction of the tropics as space of diseases and pathology in the German colonial context around 1900. So my research was on ‘topicality’ as a discursive construction, but then as a discursive construction in which specific sciences are involved, like medicine and the natural sciences. And that fueled my interest in interdisciplinarity and also in scientific contexts. After I finished my PhD I worked at the department of media studies first, where I started teaching, and then at literary studies. Five years ago I made the switch to the Dutch department. I am now assistant professor at the Dutch department, more specifically modern Dutch literature.”

“My current work is on the imagination of the brain in contemporary neuro-culture. Neuro-culture is defined as the interdiscursive circulation of ideas about the brain in contemporary culture. Interdiscursive in the popular realm – like in film and literature, but also in science, in the more specialized sciences of the brain or and in neuro-aesthetic research. I look at the ways in which the brain is imagined in neuro-culture, and more specifically at what I call the isomorphic imagination of the brain and the world. That has to do with a similarity or homologies of forms. What I see as one of the principles of the imagination of the brain in contemporary culture is that the same forms and shapes return within the brain, in its structure and functions, and outside of the brain, in culture at large or in works of art. Think of the science fiction film Avatar: there are networks everywhere, on the micro level of neurons in brain scans that are shown in the film, on the level of inter-species connections and even on the level of the biosphere of the entire planet, which turns out to be one giant neuronal network. This is what I call a world-brain isomorphism. It seems almost magical, like in a pre-modern epistemology: the microcosm and the macrocosm mirror each other."

"The interesting thing is that such isomorphisms, ‘echoes’ and resemblances cannot only be found in films like Avatar, but also, for instance, in contemporary research in cultural neuroscience. People just seem very inclined to recognize similar patterns within the brain and in the extra cerebral world and to see a meaningful relation between them. There is, for instance, some influential research in cognitive art history that comes close to suggesting that the ‘crystalline’ structure of neurons in the visual cortex is ‘echoed’ in similar morphologies and shapes of certain works of art. I want to understand what makes this isomorphic imagination in its current form possible.  One important element, I think, is the present focus on discourses on plasticity. Generally speaking, they reinforce the notion that patterns inside and outside the brain co-emerge and shape each other. The Avatar scenario of total correspondence and homology may be very far out there, but traces of isomorphic thinking can be found everywhere in contemporary neuro-culture." 

“There is a link with the research that I did earlier on tropicality. I was also interested then in what you could call ‘the poetics of knowledge’: the ways in which knowledge – including scientific and medical knowledge – is created and produced by literary means. This can be language, metaphors, tropes, narratives, but also other means of representation, like graphs, systems of notation, temperature charts, etcetera. When I had finished my research on tropicality, I turned to the brain. That was 6 or 7 years ago, and the brain was at that point already a very prominent object of knowledge in the larger cultural realm, including literature. Quite a few novels about the brain appeared at that time, and there was a lot of attention for certain philosophical questions relating to the brain: whether we are our brains or not, the issue of free will, moral physiologies etc. I started to wonder about the poetics of knowledge of the brain, and the brain as a topic in literary texts and in culture at large: in films and in other genres. So I was still looking at the poetics of knowledge, but the object shifted: it was not the tropics in the colonial period, but the brain in a contemporary context. But, at first at least, the methodology was still mostly the same: a critical approach to the construction of the brain as an object in popular knowledge – and popularized science. I am not a neuroscientist myself, but like other scholars I dared to say something about the role of metaphors and other tropes in the construction of the brain as an object of knowledge and fascination. This falls under a research paradigm that is known as critical neuroscience: a critical perspective on the ideological effects and the political consequences of the expansion of neuro-knowledge to other societal realms, leading to the emergence of new disciplines like neuro-economy, neuro-theology, neuro-aesthetics and so on."

"But after a while, like other humanities scholars, I realized that this critical approach alone was not enough. It is not very convincing to simply maintain that the brain is a ‘discursive construction’ and to claim using it as an explanation in social and cultural context potentially dangerous because it can bring up all kinds of Darwinian and neuro-reductionist arguments.  Therefore I also started asking myself: what can we as humanities scholars actually learn from neuroscience, and more specifically also from cognitive science research, for our own research projects? So there was a certain shift in perspective from just being critical to integrating cognitive forms of knowledge into our own research as well. For me this means that in my research on the isomorphic imagination I am now also working with analogical cross-mapping theories from cognitive studies and trying to integrate neuroscientific approaches to pattern recognition and analogy.”

“Together with Patricia Pisters I coordinate the research group ‘Neuroaesthetics and Neurocultures’. That started about 4 years ago as an initiative of Patricia and a group of PhD students at that time, and a couple of months later I joined that group as well. We started meeting on a monthly basis and also formed a reading group for a larger community of participants, where we discuss our own work and everything we find interesting and relevant for our research. We also organized conference this year, Worlding the Brain [see also the SMART interview with Patricia Pisters] and have a SMART workshop coming up, on predictive processing as an interdisciplinary concept on November 16.”

“Neuro-aesthetics is generally understood as the attempt to describe aesthetic phenomena or aesthetic experiences with neurological or neuro-scientific means. It tries to get a grasp on what is happening in the brain when people make certain aesthetic experiences and attempts to find neural correlates or neural-material underpinnings of aesthetic experiences such as the sublime. The aesthetics of neuroscience – or the ‘poetics of knowledge’ that I talked about – is something different: it has more to do with aesthetic aspects of the production in neuroscientific knowledge itself. (To give a simple example, think of the shiny colors used in brain scans or the network metaphors that I mentioned). Still, we think that these two aspects – neuro-aesthetics and poetics of knowledge – are not entirely different but entangled with each other. This is what our group both tries to bring into practice: not to separate them, but to see them as if they are at different sides of a spectrum. This is what I hope to do in my work on the isomorphic imagination as well.”

“I think that this interest, form a humanities perspective, in ‘science’ not merely as an object of critique but also as partner in thinking and research is a broader phenomenon these days. I myself got interested in cognitive science research coming from a background that is or was dominated by Foucauldian discourse analysis and, broadly speaking, the post-structuralist paradigm. I think it is fair to say that a certain reorientation within and beyond this paradigm is currently taking place with critical movements and ‘turns’ like new materialism, affect studies, the environmental humanities and many more. Certain habitualized ways of describing phenomena as ‘discursive construction’ – implying that they are somehow only or at least primarily made of language – for several reasons are not experienced as very convincing anymore. (And, to be sure, Foucault himself never was a ‘discursive constructivist’ in this limited sense.) As a result, many people in the humanities now are more open to thinking about the actual materiality of experiences, the physiology of affects, and about all kinds of social and bodily constraints on the way in which people think, act.”

“Foucauldian discourse analysis has always been about constraints (what people could think or believe in a specific context) and incitement to discourse in specific ways.  So in a way, cultural cognitive studies is doing something similar: It is also about constraints and patterns of thinking, just not so much from a discursive but rather from a cognitive perspective. Why do we think the way we think, and what are the cognitive or brain mechanisms that support these patterns. I do not believe in a general convergence or unity of knowledge across the faculties, but there are specific points of contact that could and should be explored more. And I that, think generally speaking, in the humanities there is a new openness for exploring these new points of contact.”


Published by  SMART Cognitive Science