Historicizing the Brain

Eveyln Waugh’s classic novel, Brideshead Revisited, is about love, religion, vice – and about subjectivity: who are we, really, and how did we come to be that way? Towards the middle of the book, as the charming and flamboyant Sebastian Flyte participates in ever more excess, our chief protagonist, Charles Ryder, reflects back on comments made by Sebastian’s sister, Julia. “Poor Sebastien”, Charles recalls her once remarking: “it’s something chemical in him.” (Waugh, 1962 [1945], 125). Julia, it seems, was suggesting that Sebastian’s alcoholism is in part a consequence of some aspect of his biology – a proposition Charles strongly rebukes. To him, Sebastian’s complex family life and commitment to Catholicism caused his present state: talk of “chemicals” was anathema.

That was the cant phrase of the time, derived from heaven knows what misconception of popular science. “There’s something chemical between them” was used to explain the over-mastering hate or love of any two people. It was the old concept of determinism, in a new form. I do not believe there was anything chemical in my friend. (Waugh,1962 [1945], 125)

Such commitments to first, the bodily soma and its epiphenomena as important building blocks of the self, and second, to the rejection of such perspectives, are not, of course, limited to the friends and acquaintances of Captain Charles Ryder. Rather, in Britain, as in many other nations, understandings of the ontogeny of subjectivity – and challenges to these – have waxed and waned across diverse aspects of biology, psychology, and “the environment”. The premise of much work in the social sciences and humanities over the last decade is that contemporary subjectivities are going through some form of neurologisation, determined (to great or lesser extents) by developments in, and the related cultural traction of, the ‘new brain sciences’. A central argument of Being Brains is that, given the histories of phrenology, psychology, and neurology, the playing out of debates around the role neuroscience might have in the production of ourselves should be taken as neither a coincidence or a surprise. Nor is neuroscientific knowledge necessarily deterministic of contemporary forms of selfhood: as Vidal and Ortega meticulously show, “the cerebral subject was enabled by an early modern reconceptualization of personal identity, independently of any naturalist knowledge about the brain” (21).

It’s a little hard for me to engage critically with Being Brains, since I have for some time been part of a community of scholarship that seeks move away from unilateral celebration or denigration of the neurosciences – a community to which Ortega and Vidal have been key contributors. In ways resonant with their intellectual agenda, I’ve sought to locate instances where understandings of the neurological appear to hold some kind of traction, and to interrogate more precisely how, why, to what extent, in what fashion, and with what ramifications. When I was developing my PhD thesis, I took some reassurance in attending meetings on neuroscience and society where these established scholars likewise critiqued (what I felt to be) over-generalizing commentaries on the brain and its import. I was delighted when, in 2009, Vidal published “Brainhood, anthropological figure of modernity” in History of the Human Sciences. It was a breath of fresh air, and I continue to recommend it. I am, then, hardly an unbiased reader of Being Brains. To be banally brief: I think it’s great and you should read it. I risk becoming irritatingly self-regarding if I go on at length about why, since any commentary from me on Vidal and Ortega’s work is likely to read as a rather vainglorious summary of things I presume to like about my own. At least, that’s how I’d interpret such a review.

What I can, I hope, safely say is that one thing I find particularly compelling about Being Brains (as with much historical writing) is its implicit invitation to historicize the novel. Sociologists and anthropologists are terribly good (read: bad) at finding new things in the world that weren’t previously there: new processes, new understandings, and so on and so forth – and I say that as someone who is, if anything, a sociologist of science, technology and medicine. Notwithstanding obligatory nods to reflexivity, social scientists are, unfortunately, largely less adept at questioning whether these things really are so new, or instead whether they are merely new to the researcher. This propensity to “discover” novelty is strikingly apparent in much commentary on neuroscience and society (though probably far less so in more recent work). Through precise, yet never turgid, historical detail, Ortega and Vidal make abundantly clear why this tendency needs to be challenged.

No book or article is perfect, of course. In the case of Being Brains, I sometimes wondered if, somewhat paradoxically, the claim that ideas about the brain preceded scientific work rather than the converse (if the authors will forgive me for eliding their subtlety with this summary) was just a little over-stated. For instance, in Chapter 1 we are told in some concluding comments about shifting logics of cerebral fitness that “none of this can be explained by invoking neuroscientific advances” (57). This is a bold claim (I’m fixated by the “none”), and I think it needs to be considered more carefully. I don’t think it detracts from the richness of Vidal and Ortega’s arguments to leave at least some room for the possibility that science constructed as novel can exert effects in the world that can be considered significant, precisely because of this ascription. This is by no means an enjoiner towards a thin form of explanation of the kind Being Brains articulates frustration with, but is rather an invitation to a thicker form of elucidation that allows for the multi-directionality and non-linearity of traffic between “science” and “society”. Indeed, it is something that Vidal and Ortega note they are themselves orientated towards (4). Maybe I’m being unfair, or a little bit dim. I probably care too much about the “none“. Perhaps this is the kind of thing Ortega and Vidal will address in further detail in future work. In any case, I enjoyed the book and value its contribution. And I don’t think that’s just because of something chemical.


Work Cited

Waugh, E. 1962 [1945]. Brideshead Revisited. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


Martyn Pickersgill is Wellcome Trust Reader in Social Studies of Biomedicine in Edinburgh Medical School. His work (primarily) focusses on the social dimensions of neuroscience and mental health. Martyn and colleagues at Edinburgh are currently establishing a new Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, following seed funding from the Wellcome Trust of £1 million.