Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed

By Melanie Gilligan, 12 January 2004

In Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, William E. Connolly attempts to integrate recent research into neuroscience with an ethics of cultural plurality. Restaging the classic liberal opposition – plurality-intolerance – at the level of mental processes, he sees the contemporary experience of speed and shock as productive of a mental predisposition toward difference. In fact, for Connolly a certain plurality is endemic to the brain. For instance, neurological evidence shows that ‘higher functions’ of conscious, deliberative thought always relay through a brain region that was developed much earlier in our evolution and which transmits more ‘basic’ emotional responses.

This admixture of emotion and thought is non-causal and, though far from being arbitrary, is open to a degree of contingency – a possibility previously unacknowledged in scientific cognitive theories. The problem for Connolly is how to instantiate an ethics of pluralism in this context. The (hardly novel) proposition that conscious, logical thought is in fact laced with streams of primordial responses, unthought and affect-imbued, seems to him to contain a key. A Deleuzian of sorts, he presents the interaction between conscious thought and affective, non-verbal responses as far from simple, containing variegated interacting registers that are intensive combinations of cultural and biological effects. Later he parallels his image of cultural plurality with this layering of the self. Despite his insistence that the complex interrelation between different modes of thought and culture constitute them as such, he simplifies the political dimensions of his argument to such a degree that it becomes impressively sterile.

What remains? For Connolly, a Deleuzo-Pavlovian practice of neurological ‘self-fashioning’ is critical for the production of the ‘deep plurality’ adequate to the present accelerated culture of information. Connolly shows how one can use ‘techniques’ to mould layers of unconscious affect to produce ethical behaviour. Film, for instance, brings structural aspects of the mind to our attention thus provoking changes in patterns of thought. Deploying a Deleuze style notion of compound-identities and becomings, Neuropolitics adds the injunction that one can physically develop a greater tolerance of difference and flux through ‘thought exercises.’ This turns out to be the full extent of the politics promised in the book’s title. Connolly appeals to us to become more ‘generous’ and to work against mental habits of intolerance by cultivating creativity, fluidity and adaptability, but never exhibits any awareness that these personality characteristics have long been valorised as enabling the smoother extraction of profit. Not only do Connolly’s thought exercises resemble other techniques which work on unconscious processes such as ‘biofeedback’ therapy – the American medical industry’s answer to unassimilable behaviour like anger and anxiety – but he seems unaware that his well-intentioned theorising actually submits aspects of the self hitherto deemed resistant to new types of quantification and organisation. Connolly does not claim that the contemporary sciences of complexity (of which cognitive science is one) though inter-relational, contingent and nonteleological, are entirely adequate as a diagnostic tool for cultural and subject formations. However, he does argue that they afford a more flexible comprehension of culture than conventional science with its world of discrete and ascertainable systems. His next step is to dispense entirely with the notion of any separation between the cultural and scientific fields, accusing both science and cultural theory of a retrogressive tendency to separate nature and culture, rendering both their positions reductive.

Although this critique is worthwhile, Connolly’s own approach, which consists of synthesising what he finds valuable within both fields, lacks an analysis of the economic and historical factors that shape their interplay, leaving the already political construction of empirical, biological knowledge unchallenged. When Connolly does mention in passing the arch-philosopher of ‘tactics of the self’ and biopower, Michel Foucault, he fails to consider the biopolitical Pandora’s box his own notion of self-fashioning through Cognitive Science opens up.

Melanie Gilligan

Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed // William E. Connolly // Minnesota Press – Theory Out of Bounds series // 2002 // pb £14 // ISBN 081664022X