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The Social Brain


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Neuroaesthetics: Process and Becoming Section

I’ll tell you one or two or three basic points, such that you can retain them mentally. My title is the social brain and reflecting on this after the fact it occurred to me just to call it, either the Spinozist brain or, more mysteriously, the socialist cortex. The latter phrase came from/by reading and preparing for this. I’ll explain later what it refers to. As it has already been alluded to in some of the earlier sessions that there can be a social path to an inquiry into cognition, and intellect and mind, a social path that has been quite prevalent in recent years. The social intellect, this exciting title-volume from 10-15 years ago called Machiavellian Intelligence, which studies how chimpanzees exhibit forms of predictive response towards each other in manipulative forms of behavior where their behavior resembles what socialist have called Machiavellian.  Essentially it’s showing that there is a social element in the way that minds work, a form of research that echoes some of the research into intentional actions in some of the new, hottest parts of the cognitive Neuroscience. But what I’m going to try and draw out on this social brain problematic is what might be called the Spinoza tradition, and that tradition amounts to, I would say Spinoza himself, despite the fact that there was no brain theory per se in Spinoza. The Russian Soviet social psychologist, founder of neuropsychology, linguist, developmental psychologist, called Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (figure from the 1920s-30s, died very young in the mid 30’s). So Spinoza, Vygotsky and thirdly, and I guess quite briefly, Toni Negri, whose work I’m sure many of you are familiar with, a contemporary Italian philosopher, and the idea that there is something in common in this tradition, both because they all reach back to Spinoza, and because of a kind of vision of brain, that is something that’s already social.  The idea of putting all these figures together first occurred as far as I know with anther person, another Italian, Paulo Virno, who has written on or two very interesting essays on this. Virno himself was an actor in the same civil movements in the 70s as Toni Negri. As I said I’ll do three things: I’ll try to set up the Spinozaist context, I’ll look at the work of Vygotsky and the people around him, and I will conclude with a reference to the gesture, to the work of Negri.

So the basic claim, we’ve been underpinning as representative, the brain is social or, to paraphrase that, not everything is in the head or the brain was made for the world and the Spinozian context for this, is that we are effectively always already in the world an entire universe of relations, all we are is a particular intersection in a giant network. We’re quantity in motion and rest just like my watch or something much bigger than me and we relate to the smaller bodies and the larger bodies that we compose in some infinite number called the waste. And that’s what it is to be something. The ideas that I have in my mind are further instances of such relations and the more that those ideas relate indeed to all the other things that are out there, the better off I am, the greater my power and acting is. In that sense, what it is to be some thing like me is to be social and it’s been popular to bash on Descartes for most of the 21st century and this is no exception. There’s an easy distinction to make here between the Cartesian view, which is still the view of phenomenology of a first’s person perspective and ego, that essentially the thinking ego grounds the world. The thinker perceives the world. And this view in the Spinozaist view is the other way round: the world perceives the thinker. Spinoza says homo cogitat. He doesn’t say cogito ergo sum. There is thinking, the human thinks, there is no foundational character in the act of thinking. One might add to this and this is indeed quite important for the social psychology of Vygotsky who left behind an unpublished manuscript on Spinoza’s theory of the emotions that this way,which I’m always necessarily related to a host of other things, includes my emotions and some of you are probably familiar with Damasio. When popular neuroscientists writing exciting bestseller books like Damasio, when they invoke Spinoza they mean exactly that aspect. The way in which you can’t eliminate the emotions or affects of what a person is, they are some sense the very basic mechanisms by which I am plugged in.

So…that’s the general context, the aspect that I mentioned, of the way in which the contents of my head are certainly not private and their linking to everything else …that’s part of what is called common notions and Toni Negri tries to make that into a political fact.. I think of in this sense my presentation feels affinities with the journey of Jules Davidoff’s presentation, this idea that I’m alone and a real unit, a sort of Christian meditative character, is sort of a nice fiction what I really am is all these social bubbly things waiting to come out.

The second moment here, the Russian moment, what I might call the socialist cortex is expressed in particularly bizarre phrase by the Bolshevik trial psychologist who is sort of a cruder version of Vygotsky, I do want to explore it, it’s good to give cruder versions or something. As quoted by Vygotski in one of his writings.

“The cortex is on a shared half with socialism and socialism is on a shared half with the cortex.” What now ends up being about in Vygotsky is the idea —in a sense I’m jumping ahead-, the idea that not only through linguistic development am I necessarily a place in a world of social relations and there is no need first then to socialize me a la Piaget etc. There is me, who is the product of social relationships. Well that type of psychological study in Vygotsky ends up meaning that to and that’s a surprise, cause I remembered that he had a Spinozaist reference, and when I went to look for it, I suppose I was startled, for 1920’s brain science, to find the same things.   My interaction with the social cultural environment produces changes in the functional architecture of my cortex. Nowadays it is let’s say a banality, and a frequently said exciting thing. I’m not a professional brain scientist or a psychologist but it is amazing to find these said at the 20s at the Soviet Union.

So you see that claim and I hope you begin to see there is affinities with the title, the theme of this conference. If the claim that the social cultural world has direct impact on my physiological make-up….you of course can extrapolate from that things in the artistic direction and so Deleuze who of course is nothing else than another Spinozaist …I don’t think this has been quoted  and probably doesn’t hurt, the line in Deleuze which is the closest thing I can find as a slogan for this conference is in the second cinema volume and I believe it is in the context of speaking about Antonioni and I had written the paragraph but I lost it. It has this line that I think there is another version of this line in the Negotiations volume: the brain and art are engaged in a back and forth sculpting process… that’s the cultural analog for the socio-developmental claim made by Vygotsky.

So, this second Spinozain moment, the claim that there’s something in my very nature that leads me to be sculpted by the social world and that’s part of what my brain is for and about. The more sober formulation of this is Luria, who is a famous, younger collaborator of Vygotsky, for whom, social history ties the knots that produce new correlations between certain zones of the cervical cortex.

So this idea that, whatever that phrase was, that socialism and the cortex ran the same path, which actually means the new man’s idea of the new socialist man, will be created through the cortex, is not so different from saying something like, the cortex is the locus of avant-guardism, and you know, that can be challenged…a very interesting discussion we haven’t yet been able to have here. About that type of stuff called interface, that type of interface between the physiology and the creative. You heard the Deleuze phrase I just savaged before, creating new circuits in art means creating them in the brain…I drag it out of it…for the cultural part I mention Deleuze…i was pointing out at once just moments ago….there’s someone else. This is not my three part Spinozaist developmental point, but this idea that we are culturally, physiologically interactive is not originall Deleuze. The famous essay by Walter Benjamin, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is of course all about the idea that our perceptual schema itself is socially determined. The Soviets had learned this not from reflecting on the cinema and things like that, like Benjamin. They learned it from field trips to Uzbekistan and doing experiments on visual illusions because they found it in the 30s in Uzbekistan obviously, they found population groups that had extremely well demarcated levels of exposure to westernization. The more westernized they were the more they were familiar with abstraction. It sounds a little weird to put it that way. The less westernized they were the less they were taken in by illusions. There are three points then to this social brain so far. There’s the idea that not so much in a static anatomical way but more in a dynamic and physiological way, the brain itself, regardless of the high level of theoretical discussion we might have that as I think Andreas gestured to in a very careful way. The brain itself displays features which reflect its embeddedness in the social world and as I said, this is on the one hand reinforced by some of the social cognition work that I don’t have time to go into. It’s secondly reinforced by this ontological group of studies…it’s thirdly reinforced and this is more complicated (I think it was mentioned probably by Warren a very important book by Terrence Deacon (1997), called the Symbolic Species) and this is again I don’t remember if he mentions Vygotsky or not, I don’t remember if he does but, it’s quite similar to Vygotsky’s claims, something with more Darwinian flavour to it, that the long-term evolution of our brains reflects our linguistic activity and you can see this in its shape. What’s missing from all these, moving right along to the conclusion, we’re at this point in possession of a vision, both in some general ontological Spinozaist framework of this world of relations, and these exclusive studies of cognition, brain development etc. We’re now in possession of a vision of the social brain. This however doesn’t take us into what was really meant of that unlucky phrase, the “socialist cortex”. We’re just saying social, but a socialist cortex is a more extreme thing still. What’s missing from this is what might be called the theory of transformation, of a radical transformation in the social world and that’s what Toni Negri will fit in here. He made a very famous scholarly work on Marx, the synonym term for social brain is drawn from these notebook on the general intellect, and what this phrase seems to refer to is that I know I’m inseparable from the ecological world…but I’m inseparable from that context and that general intellect is neither the old fashioned humanist thing that I have and the machines don’t have, nor is just the machines themselves. It’s the total force for all these things. I feel that this maybe is an easy reaction, a shallow reaction to have. A paper that I hadn’t read by chance before I knew he was an organizer of the conference, the paper by Charlie Gere on brains, glosses on the general intellect business and then compares it to the very peculiar idea of the “noosphere” – maybe that’s why I always thought general intellect has something strange about it. Maybe what’s most real about something is not that it’s flesh and blood or a silicon structure, but it’s intellect. I may be wrong in being uncomfortable about it but there’s something that’s a bit idealistic about that, there, I would think. And in that sense, it helps to put it right back into this social brain. And I like that phrase…real dirty part. And I think it should be clear, I would like that to be clear, that this outlook, this Spinoza brain outlook, to not be confused with three things. The least important of which, and I doubt that most of the people here involve in this way, is certainly not to be confused, with this computational approach of the brains, the traditional artificial intelligence. More importantly, it shouldn’t be confused with the phenomenological outlook, and the two lines possibly imposed to each other, Erwin Straus, who is a phenomenologist of the early 20th century has said: man thinks, not the brain, and Deleuze responded to this quite nicely: the brain thinks, not man. But if you hear that man thinks, not the brain, it should be pretty clear, that whether or not the outlook I am proposing is definitively true, it’s not going to be a happy bedfellow with phenomenology. One other reason, for this sharp distinction, and perhaps this is another proof you don’t want to confuse it with is with all people having a crucial distinction between natural sciences and human science and this is very German tradition. It’s very crucial, both for the Heidegger people, and then it’s also very crucial for the Frankfurt people.

I will close with two points. First, I intend to spend much time on Negri. Negri himself in very recent writings has gone back a little bit. This question of the brain and the relationship between brain and tool rather than the traditional relationship between me and the tool has effectively overcome or sublimated with the brain that think separately between me and the world of machines. He reconnects that, the common notion of Spinoza, this idea that my ideas are necessarily ideas of my emotions, not necessarily plugged in to everything else. And there are political consequences he derives from this idea that the brain is a tool.  There’s no more alienation between me and the factory, I am part of the process of production, as I have a brain. So, I think I already gestured how this perspective is more or less synonymous with the neuroaesthetic perspective. This idea that the socioculture world and the brain structure itself are if not one and the same in a life similarity at least not divorced from each other. Thank you.

Charles Wolfe is Fellow, Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University. He is co-editor of ‘Multitudes’ (Paris). He edited ‘The Renewal of Materialism’ (Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, 22:1, New York, 2000); (with Antonio Negri), ‘Desiderio del Mostro’ (Rome, 2001), on monsters; and a special Dossier of ‘Multitudes’ on the philosophy of biology (2004).