About artbrain.org

Over the last 25 years (1996–2021), artbrain.org has developed alternative vocabularies and practices with which to rethink the fields that describe sensation, perception, and cognition. Founded in 1996, artbrain.org consists of the Journal of Neuroaesthetics and Chaoid Gallery and was established by Warren Neidich and Nathalie Anglès with an online launch in 1997. Starting with a lecture series in 1996 by Neidich on neuroaesthetics at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, artbrain.org has also catalyzed conferences and publications that have further contributed to the field.

Activist Neuroaesthetics

by Warren Neidich

Three categories of Neuroaesthetics currently at play consist of a positivist, idealist and activist classification. (Charles Wolfe)1

Positivist Neuroaesthetics utilizes scientific methods and neuroimaging to explain and locate the origins of artistic and cultural production to the cerebral modules of the material brain confined by the bony carapace of the skull. Aesthetics products like paintings, sculptures, poems and films are considered objects of considerable interest for study and the scientific method, rather then an artistic one, is considered the superior model with which to do this. This method emphasizes reductionist and deterministic methodology and does not take into account the history of the work of art in its social, political, economic or cultural becoming, seeing it instead as a crystallized non-changing form this is sensed and perceived by a cognitive apparatus that also is unchanging. It refutes the importance of emergence. Positivist neuroaesthetics is linked to positivist scientific inquiries and analytic philosophical epistemologies. As such it is linked to various debunked scientific histories such as phrenology, physiognomy and especially craniometry and biometry, which led to ideas of scientific racism. This was especially true for beliefs in the mental superiority of the white races that fueled the racist imaginary. Obviously an alternative method of inquiry is required.

Idealist Neuroaesthetics, adapting the ideas of continental philosophy especially those of Gilles Deleuze, understands that creating new circuits in art means creating them concomitantly in the material brain as well. According to this model artistic methods using materials, apparatuses and methodologies generated by artistic practice have the potential to produce an alternative regime of facts much different than that generated by the scientific method examining the same categories of sensible and situated experiences. Importantly, non-commercial and experimental art production is linked to the process of neuromodulation of the brains architecture occurring both at the global macroscopic and the local synaptic level of the brain, both of which are considered plastic, distributed and networked. What does this mean? First of all the brain is not a crystallized modular entity and the brain can not be thought of an entity with discrete areas of function but rather must be understood in its distributed functionality, rather made up of local and global maps that all participate to varying degrees in any operation. Secondly the brain must be thought of as both intracranial and extra-cranial, with the situated body intervening and creating a platform. Also the brain must be understood in the context of deep history in which the influence of the microbial world or microsome of the gut contributes. The extra-cranial brain and its social brain have undergone tremendous changes as a result of the technological advances of the last fifty years as well as the more recent disruption of the Post-humanism and the Post-anthropocene.

At the microscopic level neural plasticity and epigenesis play fundamental roles in the way this extra-cranial brain can alter and change the architecture of the brain.

Neural plasticity expressed through the model first elucidated by the great neuroscientists Gerald Edelman and Jean-Pierre Changeux, plays a central role in this process, as well as, as we will also see, in my third classification ‘activist neuroaesthetics’. As I mentioned above the brain is not limited to the skull but is both intra-cranial and extra-cranial. Extra-cranial implies the situated body encountering and interacting with the existential world of objects, things, their relations and the social habitus of subjectivities. We have emphasized already that this social habitus has undergone a seismic shift resulting from a relinquishing of a human male-dominated eurocentric world view as well the overwhelming confluence of new technologies resulting in cognitive capitalism. As such the coextensive brain and mind is embodied and extended. Capacities have undergone coextensive shifts as well. Let’s see how by first going over some anatomy and the physiology of neural plasticity on a microscopic and macroscopic level.

I would like to introduce the term the Brain without Organs to understand that the brain is malleable and plastic and is not designated or subsumed by a superordinate plan or organizing principle but is instead open and becoming.

First what is a body without organs. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guitari attribute the expression to Antonin Artaud who stated, “’The body is the body/it stands alone/ it has no need of organs/ the body is never an organism/ organisms/ organisms are the enemies of bodies’.  It is a body that is totally unfixed like a terratoma or a body of heterodoxy (at variance with the official doctrine). First it is a body in which the organization of its organs – from its intimate cellular structure to its relationship with other organs to its relationship to the entire organism – are free from the despotism of the body’s overall plan. In other words, it is free of the rules and regulations of the specific apriori program situated in the DNA code. Secondly, It utilizes its different pathologies as methodologies of escape and defense against this evolutionary dictatorship. “ It is the hypochondriacal body in which part of the body denied. It is the schizo-body in a state of catatonia. It is the masochistic body who ‘has its sadist or whore sew it up; the eyes, anus, urethra, breasts, and nose are sewn up. It has itself strung up to stop the organs from working, flayed, as if the organs clung to the skin, sodomized, smothered, to make sure everything is sealed tight.” 2

In other words it is a body that is remade into another image of itself and which functions according to other codes of disorder and anarchy. It implies, therefore, a body still neutral that can become anything within reason or unreason. Thirdly, “A [Body without organs] is made in such a way that it can be occupied,populated only by intensities. That is why we treat the BwO (Body without Organs) as the full egg ( fertilized egg*) before the extension of the organism and the organization of the organs, before the formation of the strata; as the intense egg defined by axes and vectors, gradients and thresholds, by dynamic tendencies involving energy transformation and kinematic movements involving group displacement, by migrations: all independent of accessory forms because the organs appear and function here only as pure intensities…No organ is constant as regards either function or position…sex organs sprout anywhere… rectums open, defecate and close… the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments.” 3

I want to now introduce the term the Brain without Organs as I would like to suggest that in the transformation of the proletariat to the cognitariat the body without organs and its resistance to Taylorist accumulations of surplus value of the human body in the Fordist schema is no longer adequate. We need a brain without organs as a form of resistance to cognitive surplus value in the age of neural capitalism and Hebbian optimized neural-web interactions. Lets look into this more deeply.

The Body without Organs can be considered a form of resistance to the systemic control of populations of bodies. It becomes a metaphor for such resistance. The body without organs can not be made more efficient. It is beyond capitalistic subsumption and recuperation because it is a body beyond organization. It fights against its domination by the machinic intelligence of the assembly line and its boredom and desire for participation led to Fordism being supplanted by Toyotism or post-Fordism. But what about today? Is the the notion of the body without organs up to the task of emancipating a body which is acephalic or hypercephalic, depending on how you look at it. It is connected but no longer collective. For our times especially with the looming of AI and Singularity, as Ray Kurzweil refers to it, we will need a new concept to contend with the coming corporatization of our brains and minds. The total privatization of our neural function by Neural Capitalism.

I want to speak about the Brain without Organs (BrWO): an entity that is indeterminate and malleable. The BrWO is in a constant state of becoming and regression trending towards a non-organismic expression of pure pluripotentiality. Tracing Deleuze’s idea of the body without organs and superimposing it upon a notion of the brain, one could say that the brain without organs does not lack modules, hubs and verifiable cognits, it simply lacks the organism, that is a particular organization of organs. The Brain without Organs is an indeterminate organ and neuralplasticity is its agency. One could also say that our neural plastic potential is a form of the commons, currently under the assault by neoliberalist politics and its apparatuses; private and corporate ownership

Activist Neuroaesthetics is related to the idealist category but goes one step further to include it as an important tool for social and political transformation. It understands that neuroaesthetics is key to the emancipatory ethics and politics at odds with what Michel Foucault called the process of governmentalization and metalite. The seismic shifts in the socio-cultural-political definitions that characterize post-Humanism and the post-Anthropocene are inscribed in the material architecture of the brain especially as a result of the salience driven neural modulation.

Poetry intervenes in the social and semiotic environment, and is a key component to the distributions of sensibility as Jacques Ranciere refers to it, in his book The Politics of Aesthetics. He describes the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (le partage du sensible) as the ‘implicit law governing the sensible order that parcels out places and forms of participation in a common world by first establishing the modes of perception within which these are inscribed.’4 Implicit in this statement is that sovereignty, the entity, whether absolute or popular, local or global, that has jurisdiction over a territory or group of people, produces a system of perceptual facts that are regulated and, in turn, regulate its constituents as perceptual bodies. molding them into a concrete and uniform entity. Rancière also includes times and forms of activity in this distribution. In the end, who sees or hears what or decides to move through what spaces in time designates either their inclusion or exclusion. As noted above the embodied and extended brain is not simply limited to inside the skull but extends out to include the world of objects, things and their relations as well as the socio-lingusitic environment. This environment is in a state of constant contestation and as such is in a process of constant evolution. The process is interiorized to intervene upon the neural plastic brain as well. Repetitive and omnipresent objects, object relations found, for instance, as an advert appearing on multiple platforms such as billboards, TV commercials and pop ads on the Internet express the capacity to neuromodulate neural networks by, for instance, stabilizing groups labile synapses.

Franco Berardi has written about the power of the poet in our moment of cognitive capitalism in his book The Uprising. “We call poetry the semiotic concatenation that exceeds the sphere of exchange and the codified correspondence of the signifier and signified; it is the semiotic concatenation that creates new pathways of signification and opens the way to a reactivation of the relation between sensibility and time, as sensibility is the faculty that makes possible the singularity of the enunciation and the singularity of the understanding of a non-codified enunciation.”5 Like the shaman, the poet and artist create and use special languages to reach meanings outside the normalized realm of interpretation. In our world of semiotic capitalism, subsumed as it is in cognitive capitalism, where the brain and mind are the new factories of the 21 st century, the poet, the shaman and the artist estrange the semiotic habitus as it entangles itself in the above mentioned distribution of sensibility releasing it from its common use. Thus poetry estranges and disrupts the denotation or description of the semiotic sphere and in the end creates new weights and balances of millions of synapses in the material brain in, for instance, the left dominant hemisphere. This poetic neuromodulation provides the platform for a political agenda of art and poetry, so called activist neuroaesthetics. New networks in the semio-linguistic field perpetrated by poetry as it manifests itself as new forms of meanings, linguistic constructions, metaphors and metonymy might mean the production of new networks in those neural systems important for the production of comprehension, understanding and thought. This is the power of art.

  1. Wolfe, Charles. Three neuroaesthetics. Artbrain.org 2016
  2. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (29, 30)
  3. Ibid (153)
  4. Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, (London and New York: Continuum 2004).
  5. Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi, The uprising: on poetry and finance. ( Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) 2012)