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Five Propositions on the Brain


Notes: Cinema and the Brain Journal of Neuro-Aesthetic Theory #2

Many people have a tree growing in their head, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree”—Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus

First Proposition: Philosophy and science share a brain

The encounter between philosophy and science constitutes an event of a special kind, since the event as such envelops both in a mutual form of thinking—of thinking through the other. We know all too well the vulgar forms that this event seems to conjure—the political reckoning with the possible ends of, say, genetic research or the production of chemical weapons. But in fact the event dwells in the “sense” that philosophy makes of science because philosophy does not settle for dogmatic statements or stupid clichés; rather, it undertakes the conceptualization of what often remains, in science, a chaos that is captured or tamed. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “Mathematical equations do not enjoy a tranquil certainty that would be like the sanction of dominant scientific opinion, but emerge from an abyss that makes the mathematician ‘skip over calculations,’ anticipating being unable to effect or arrive at the truth without ‘colliding from one side to the other.’”[1] Science, they explain, creates functions, but the task of philosophy is to conceptualize these functions, just as it is the task of philosophy to conceptualize the percepts and affects of art, to open thought to the chaos of these domains.

Even (or perhaps, especially) in the context of science, philosophy encounters a kind of chaos into which its own thinking is plunged. This is the risk or danger of philosophy, but it is also, in the context of new scientific development, especially in neuroscience, the confrontation with thinking itself, the confrontation with “what is called thinking” (Heidegger). Neuroscience and philosophy come together around the event called the brain, which is immanent with all events, every effort to think, because thinking always involves a confrontation with thought itself. In this respect, we cannot understand the brain if we cannot realize straightaway that the brain and the mind are not the same thing. The former is the object of a philosophical form of science, whereas the latter describes the “encounter” (Kierkegaard) of philosophy with science. The encounter can happen anywhere, or at any time, but the nature of the event must include both philosophy and science.

Second Propositions: The brain is not a “subject”

What do Deleuze and Guattari mean when they say we must conceive of the brain no longer from the position of a “Subject”? “We will speak of the brain as Cezanne spoke of landscape: the human is absent, but everything takes place in the brain.”[2] How do we achieve this pure perspective, the perspective of the brain, apart from its secondary connections and integrations? The question is potentially misleading because, if the true perspective of the brain belongs to what Deleuze and Guattari, employing the language of Whitehead, call the “superject,” then we cannot in fact recourse to any meta-narrative or metaphysical sense of the brain. There is no “brain behind the brain,” since this would only reinforce a conception of the brain as the internalized projection of a Subject who “acts, thinks, feels, wills, and desire”— yet another anthropomorphism of the brain!

As Deleuze and Guattari write, the brain “is neither an image (Gestalt) nor a perceived form, but a form in itself that corresponds to no external view.”[3] For this reason, the brain cannot be defined as a relation between perception and consciousness, since it is the totality of all relations, including those not yet actualized. This is why the totality specific to the brain is always partial in the sense that a plane of immanence is only partially composed in relation to other planes. It makes sense, therefore, according to Deleuze, to consider the brain in terms of relative speeds and intensive states. For example, what is the intensity accorded to perception, as distinguished from memory or recollection processes? What is the speed specific to consciousness, as distinguished from unconscious processes that exist below the threshold (or qualitative limit) of perceptions or recollections bound by a certain sensory-motor apparatus? It no longer makes sense to define the brain topologically (that is, in terms of specific spatio-temporal coordinates), since the brain is everything and everywhere, regardless of time and space. The brain is virtual, not a space but a plane (plan) that provides the conditions of time and space (actualization of the virtual). This in turn reshapes the organically determined brain, giving form to the “gray matter” of possibilities.

Third Proposition: The cinema is a cerebral machine or image of the brain

If the brain is a plane of immanence or consistency, then we might understand its function through networks of images themselves. The brain is a screen, Deleuze says, but the screen, the cinema, is also a brain, an organization of images and memories whose connections (regular or irrational) comprise an “image of thought.” In this respect, Deleuze’s two books on cinema form a single meditation on the brain itself and its various images. Each director that Deleuze discusses formulates the brain differently (yes, there is a cerebral style), but Deleuze singles out Stanley Kubrick as the director whose work takes a turn toward the full cerebralization of cinema. The brain and the world are virtually identical in Kubrick’s films because the world itself has become brain, a vast neural arrangement. For example, we find an image of the brain in the perversely centralized “war room” of Dr. Strangelove (1964), the hermetic maze of trenches in Paths of Glory (1957), the literal maze located in the property of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980), or the regimented symmetry of the marine barracks in Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Hence, while the world and brain are immanent, Kubrick contrives a world in which brains are environs that multiply and encounter other brains. Let us take what is perhaps the most vivid characterization of this topological problem, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where the brain is also objectively present in the form of the black monolith. Here, the brain is divided between a representation of the whole (the brain is the world); the presence of a distinct but impermeable thing represented by the monolith (a presence-in-itself, or Ding an sich, having neither an inside nor a definite external form); and finally, the generalized power that seems to be responsible for the plan of evolution on a planetary and cosmological level. Within this unfolding, naturally, there are special moments—divergences, bifurcations, forking paths, which stand out as “events.” The first of these is the “eventuation” of technology, before which the monolith’s arrival already anticipates this remarkable leap. A simple bone is transformed into a tool (a weapon), then later, with one of the greatest match-cuts in the history of cinema, into a spaceship capable of interplanetary travel. As Deleuze writes, Kubrick transforms the story of evolution itself, that is, the story of the brain, into a journey that leads both to the furthest reaches of space and, at the same time, to the differentiation of brain cells in the human embryo. “At the end of the ‘space odyssey’, it is following a fourth dimension that the sphere of the foetus and the sphere of the earth have a chance of entering into an incommensurable relation, unknown, one which would convert death into a new life.”[4] The brain, we could say, retains all possibilities (even birth or re-birth), but they have to be selected, chosen, and actualized.

Fourth Proposition: There are many brains but there is also a dominant image of the brain

As Deleuze argues, there are different brains—molecular, chemical, and even cinematic. One cannot reduce these other brains to avatars “created” by human intelligence, as a kind of externalized or “artificial” manifestation of a purely virtual brain. Rather, the computer is an actualization of a new brain and not an extension of the human faculty in the form of a cybernetic mechanism. The creation of the computer introduces the distinction between “artificial” and “natural” intelligence, and it is only from this point that we begin speaking of two brains, or of one brain that becomes highly differentiated from itself. Again, Kubrick’s portrayal of HAL 9000 in 2001 gives us a vivid illustration. HAL is not just the computer that runs the Discovery, HAL is the spaceship itself in its entirety. The astronauts “occupy” HAL, and he feels within him their presence and location, including the astronauts still in hibernation who are linked to his systems. At the same time, there is a location that does occupy HAL in the same manner, originally ascribed to the thoughts of astronaut Frank Bowman, which introduces a schism or paranoid formation. HAL’s calculated solution to this schism is simply to remove astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Pool from its own body, thus resolving the logical impasse.

An example of the chemical brain can be illustrated in the phenomenon of drugs. Is it, in fact, that the human brain is altered or modified by the chemical properties of the drug, or rather that we experience the introduction of another brain, a chemical brain that subordinates and makes use of the organic brain as one of its own exterior lobes or partial surfaces? In both these definitions we see that although the human is located as the intersection with these other brains, they are in no way subordinated to its image. The human brain is only one of several brains, only one path in which the brain is actualized along divergent lines, “the human being only one cerebral crystallization.”[5] At the same time, one could say that the actualization of the cybernetic brain has increased the number of circuits and pathways—perhaps even all the way to infinity—than were thought to be possible for the human brain beforehand. This event in the history of consciousness only appears to happen instantaneously, but it has in fact been prepared gradually by a series of evolutionary leaps. Recalling again the scene from 2001 where the bone spirals in the air and is suddenly transformed into a spaceship orbiting the earth, this event only appears to happen “in the blink of an eye,” since Kubrick wants to show the full crystallization of the idea that first sparks in the primitive intelligence. From the perspective of the idea itself, there is little difference between a bone and a spaceship (a difference, strictly speaking, of material composition), since both are objects that represent a certain cerebral objectification whereby the brain invests itself in matter and transforms the world into brain-matter.

Fifth Proposition: The future (of the) brain

The future (of the) brain seems, at this point, to be determined by the opposition between organic and cybernetic. We might employ Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology to say that while the human brain is deterritorialized onto the circuitry of the cybernetic brain, the cybernetic brain is simultaneously reterritorized onto the human brain. Consequently, the human brain has begun to wander through the wider circuits and pathways of the computer—even to the point where the distinction between human and cybernetic is blurred, if not dissolved altogether. Nevertheless, the human still tries to conceive of this relationship between the two brains according to an earlier former-matter distinction, by which it would appear that the human brain was simply employing the cybernetic brain as a path to its own actualization. Thus, there is more than a vestige of Hegelianism remaining in contemporary scientific narratives of the brain, in which Spirit (or Mind) takes a circuitous path of externalization in order to achieve a final identification between the actualized brain and the ideal that is potential in matter. We maintain, rather, that the mind is only the “ghost in the brain,” the sensory-motor double that has taken control of thinking but that thought is always catching the image of, like a strange spirit whose haunting we only dimly perceive. In neuroscience and the philosophy of mind, one usually finds the question of the cybernetic brain treated in terms of the possibility of artificial intelligence. For instance, the question arises as to whether it would be possible to create an intelligent machine (i.e., a “conscious” machine). But isn’t this the most feeble means of imagining the brain, determining its capacities and powers according to an organic (“human”) configuration? Deleuze is fond of Spinoza’s claim that “we do not know what a body can do,” but we are no closer to knowing what a brain can do when we reduce even its cerebral productions to reproductions, to making a “brain like our own.” Two dangers belong to this desire: the creation of a “disciplinary brain,” and the production of a new unconscious brain.

The first danger, the creation of a disciplinary brain, recalls Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), where the director explores the moral question that is attached to the sensory motor schema of the cinematic brain as a manner of correcting or rectifying the deficiency of the organic brain. Kubrick reverses the usual moral cliché concerning representations of sex and violence by already recognizing, in the very question itself, the splitting of the human subject into two brains that have already at a certain moment entered into combat, or of the idea of a higher brain that is able to control and subdue the lower, organic brain. In the middle of the film, the main character is connected to an apparatus not unlike that of film itself, where a soundtrack is repeated in conjunction with a series of images in order to produce a specific motor-response on the part of the subject. The result is uncontrollable nausea and vomiting. Thus, the “action-image” that belonged to the organic brain of the violent criminal is altered by the introduction of another sensory motor-schema, creating “new circuits” that effectively introduce a moralizing force.

The second danger–the reproduction of an unconscious brain–can be found in the project Kubrick was planning before he died, which Steven Spielberg used as the basis for A.I. (2001). The film revolves around the mission to make a life-like robot, a boy “who can love.” Here we might note that the seemingly preliminary question of mechanical feeling or affection has already been converted into a human emotion and, more to the point, a question of object-relations. The attempt to produce a life-like child induces in the robot a program that is transported from the organic brain, which is dominated by the logic of the lost object and of a never-ending mourning that we call consciousness. However, instead of the consciousness of death (“I will someday die”), we encounter the traumatic consciousness of artificiality (“I am not real”), which in turn produces a new form of unconsciousness—an unconscious that is specific to the cybernetic brain. Thus, a final irony associated with the desire to “make a brain like our own” is the creation of an unconscious desire in the cybernetic brain, even the possibility of a primary narcissism that would absorb all its functioning. From this point onward, the cybernetic brain would be subject to crashes that have nothing to do with gaps in its programming (as was the case with HAL 9000), but rather with the entire field of the virtual when it is mediated by the question of desire.

Notes

1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (Paris: Minuit, 1991), 191. All translations in the text are made by the authors.
2. Ibid, 198.
3. Ibid, 198.
4. Gilles Deleuze, L’Image-Temps (Paris: Minuit, 1985), 268.
5. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, 202.

Gregg Lambert is an associate professor of English at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Non-Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (Continuum, 2002) and Report to the Academy: The New Conflict of the Faculties (Critical Studies in Humanities) (The Davies Group, 2001). Gregory Flaxman is finishing his doctorate in the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).