In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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Like the Kantian that begins from the current state of knowledge and then essentializes its conditions, thereby naturalizing that knowledge and foreclosing future developments (in connection with phenomenology Deleuze called this the formation of “Ur-Doxa”), the psycho- and socio-biologist begins with the way humans in our current historical and cultural setting do things and then locating this way of doing things in our biology (here “biology” is, in these discourses, the new “innate”, just as orange is the new “pink”). Implicit in this thesis, then, is that one risks monstrosity, chaos, profound psychic suffering, should they dare violate the wisdom of natural selection and heritability. By contrast, the approaches of ethnography, Critical Theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, semiotics, sociology, structural linguistics, etc., have a deep emancipatory dimension. By revealing the cultural and historical contingency of how we do things through, for example, comparative studies of different cultures, it becomes possible to, as Foucault so nicely put it, to “imagine otherwise”. Sexual identities, gender roles, forms of social organization, the various goals that we’re taught as we grow up, etc., are now rendered contingent and, as a result, new possibilities that might be more just, more fulfilling, more harmonious, etc., become available. Heidegger, in Being and Time, famously declared that where the phenomenological space of Dasein’s lived experience is concerned, the book that one is reading is far closer than the glasses upon his nose. The glasses on your nose fall, as it were, into the background becoming invisible. They function as a condition for that reading, but one that becomes an invisible, obvious, second-nature. These various social sciences render visible our own invisible conditions for encountering ourselves, others, and the world. And in doing so, they open new possibilities.

The situation with neurology is often similar to that of psycho- and socio-biology. On any given day we can open the newspaper and read about how such and such a hormone, neurotransmitter, or failure of wiring has been discovered to cause such and such a psychic malady. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett describes the genome as an algorithm which he describes as being independent of its material instantiation (i.e., that it could be instantiated in a variety of different media), and which he suggests unfolds according to its own immanent and inexorable principles. Psycho- and sociobiology thus explains our nature and characteristics on the basis of this programming in the genes. The ideology of neurology often falls prey to a similar set of assumptions, treating the brain as a self-enclosed universe functioning according to its own “programming”, independent of the world about it. That depression we experience, the story goes, has nothing to do with our life history or social conditions, but is rather simply a “chemical imbalance”. In other words, our brain is thought in a way detached from our cultural world and life.

Not surprisingly, the theorist steeped in cultural studies has the knee-jerk reaction of rejecting fields like neurology and evolutionary biology tout court. We can see such a reaction implicitly at work in a comment responding to my post on Catherine Malabou. There Bryan writes:

I also don’t think Malabou’s book refutes Mikhael’s point at all, but it does put into question the kind of scientific positivism you’ve been espousing lately (from the idea of our finer and finer instruments approximating the truth of the universe, to the discussion of pharmaceuticals and anti-depressants as a substitute for psychoanalysis–reaffirming some of the basic tenets of today’s ideology).

In the end, I think this debate over science is predicated largely on a misunderstanding, and the ongoing rhetorical conceit of your recent entries (”A realist would say [blank], against the correlationist who says [blank] about the world…”) is, I think, a little bit distasteful–especially for someone who was once a Lacanian analyst.

I think Bryan’s reference to my Lacanian background as contrasted with my recent “distasteful” forays into neurology betrays a fundamental misapprehension of what it is that I’m up to. For those who are longtime readers of this blog, it will be recalled that for a number of years I have been obsessed with questions of process, mixtures, and individuation. When I refer to individuation, I am not referring to the classical problem of how one entity is distinguished from another entity, but rather the process of ontogenesis, the process of the genesis of entities, whereby individuals come-to-be. Central to accounts of individuation or ontogenesis deriving from Simondon and Deleuze, is the thesis that the genesis of individuals is never that of the instantiation of a pre-existent model or plan, but rather ontogenesis, individuation, is a process that involves a highly complex and creative interaction between the internal milieu of the entity in becoming and the world about it.

As Alberto Toscano has observed in his brilliant Theater of Production, the school of biology known as “developmental systems theory” (sometimes referred to as “interactive constructivism”), is an excellent example of individuation or ontogeny. Unlike schools of biology centered around the gene as an inexorably unfolding gene program in the production of phenotypes, DST has focused on its research on the ontogeny of organisms, emphasizing phenotypic plasticity for one and the same genotype. Where the genecentric biologist asserts a unilateral ontogenetic processes from genes as “master programs” presiding over the ultimate outcome of the phenotype or developed organism, DST underlines bidirectional causation at all levels of scale and development between genes, proteins, cells, networks of cells, organs, and environment. As Richard Lewontin puts it in his brilliant article, “Gene, Organism, and Environment”,

Individual development is not an unfolding, and evolution is not a solutions to present problems. Rather, genes, organisms, and environments are in reciprocal interaction with each other in a way that each is both cause and effect in a quite complex, although perfectly analyzable, way. (Cycles of Contingency, 61)

If the organism is not a solution to a problem posed by its environment, then this is because it constitutes its environment. The snake and the tit mouse might be in the same general region of space, but they have, as it were, different environments (as von Uexkull argued so well in his work on ethology). However, the organism is also constituted by its environment. The relationship here is dialectical, and indeed, Lewontin refers to DST as “dialectical biology”. The biologist Gilbert Gottlieb expresses this point in slightly more technical terms,

The unidirectional S-F [Structural-Function Development] view assumes that genetic activity gives rise to structural maturation that then leads to function in a nonreciprocal fashion, whereas the biderectional view holds that there are reciprocal influences among genetic activity, structural maturation, and function. In the unidirectional view, the activity of genes and the maturation process are pictured as relativity encapsulated or insulated, so that they are uninfluenced by feedback from the maturation process or function, whereas the bidirectional view assumes that genetic activity and maturation are affected by function, activity, or experience. The bidirectional or probabilistic view applied to the usual unidirectional formula calls for arrows going back to genetic activity to indicate feedback serving as signals for the turning on and off of genetic activity. The usual view, as in the central dogma of molecular biology… calls for genetic activity to be regulated by the genetic system itself in a strictly feedforward manner. (ibid., 46)

Gottlieb first began to formulate these claims in response to research into chicks they had done where they varied the environment of bird embryos in the egg producing variations in their phenotype and behavior. Prior to this it had been thought that chick development was a unilateral developmental process independent of environment, but this research disconfirmed that thesis. We can thus see why these theorists refer to developmental systems, rather than the ontogeny of organisms. If this hypothesis is true, then it follows that we cannot locate ontogeny at the level of the organism, but rather must look at the bidirectional feedback relations at all levels of the system, ranging from DNA, RNA, proteins, cells, networks of cells, organs, and environment.

Now, these issues might appear remote from the debates surrounding gene centrists and culturists, but in fact, DST goes straight to the heart of these debates. For while sophisticated theorists such as ourselves hate to hear it put in such stark terms, these debates ultimately boil down to the debate between nature and nurture. The gene centrists look down their nose at the cultural theorists as they have massive bodies of empirical research at hand, based on careful observation and experimentation (yet oddly this doesn’t prevent them from proposing highly speculative theses that aren’t merited by their actual research). The culturalists look down their nose at the gene centrists because they have massive bodies of cultural research indicating the fundamental plasticity of humans and human social formations.

Go back and read the passage from Gottleib carefully. In asserting the primacy of developmental systems and the bidirectionality of causal relations between different levels of these systems ranging from DNA to the environment, Gottleib is pointing out the manner in which the environment (not to mention RNA, cells, networks of cells, and organs) can actualize and activate DNA in a variety of ways producing very different outcomes. Pause and consider that for a moment. Rather than an inexorable unilateral development from DNA to structure and function, we instead get bidirectional feeding forward and backward producing an aleatory outcome that can only be described as a genuine creation. Factors such as environmental temperature, light and darkness, the presence or absence of particular nutrients and chemical substances, the presence or absence of dampness, the presence of various predators, altitude, caregivers, etc., all make important differences in the final actualized individual or phenotypical outcome. But to speak of a phenotypical outcome is already to speak poorly, for ontogenesis is a lifelong process for the organism that doesn’t simply end with maturity. But in addition to all of this, all things being equal, cultural formations, social relations, social encounters, etc., as environmental factors, feed back all the way to the genetic level as well. I am not simply a product of my culture at the level of my mentality, my subjectivity, but at the level of my cells and my DNA as well. Were I born in the 18th century, my DNA and my cells would be actualized differently as a result of a variety of different environmental factors ranging from diet to how I am brought up. My phenotype, my mature organism, would not be the same.

And so too with the plasticity of the brain or our synaptic self. What we have at the level of the brain is not a unilateral determination of self by neurology, but rather we have a highly complex developmental system that includes our DNA, our cells, our basic biology, but also the world about us, our experience, our culture, and so on. If including something like bidirectional developmental systems in our social ontology is an important, even vital move, then this is because our best social theories have encountered an internal deadlock and theoretical pessimism on par with the sort of reactionary pessimism found in psycho- and socio-biology. While the pessimism of our best cultural theory is not reactionary as in the case of psycho- and socio-biology, there is nonetheless a sort of fatalism that haunts these theoretical orientations. As evidenced by theoretical moves we witness in Badiou with his theory of the subject, the event, and truth-procedures or Zizek in his account of the subject and the act, cultural theory today finds itself in an impasse where it has explained things too well. It wonders how it is ever possible to escape subjectivization through power, signs, discourse, and the social if the subject is conceived, after the fashion of Foucault, as a mere fold of power.

What the DST approach affords is an emphasis on the aleatory and creative nature of bio-cultural development that allows for the production of a subject that is not simply a mobius fold power or biology. Bryan worries that I, as a former Lacanian analyst, have given up on the history of subjects, the signifier, signs, relations to the Other and others, and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. What, rather, I search for is a more expansive material semiotics that is capable of embracing the physical, the biological, the technological, the neurological, the economic, the social, the signifying, the chemical, and all the rest without striving to reduce the organism to one of these dimensions. In addition to this, I look for a social and psychological theory that is strong enough, that is well founded enough, to respond to the smug and superior glance down the nose on the part of the psycho- and sociobiologist… That is, a theoretical framework capable of meeting the material cause with the material cause rather than simply trying to explain it away.