Charles T. Wolfe, Three neuroaesthetics

At a time when different forms of agency are attempting to mediate the face of cultural discourse including those closely aligned with aesthetics proper such as post-colonialism, curatorial practice, performance studies as well as those claiming rights from heterodox corners of cognitive science such as cognitive archaeology and ‘cognitive poetics’, a new vocabulary needs to be invented to clear up the ideological accretions and obscurities that seem to be the order of the day. In this regard I would like clarify these emerging positions with the hope of later unpacking their logics and future repercussions of these so-called neuroaesthetic programs. I shall suggest a distinction between three kinds of neuroaesthetics, which I’ll term for the sake of convenience, the positivist, the idealist, and the activist.

Positivist neuroaesthetics seeks to locate the origins of artistic and cultural expression within the determined confines of so-called cerebral modules and link by extension cultural functions as such as the forms of their production. Thus what appears hanging upon museum walls are in fact forms of auto-realization of cerebral function. Key flaws in this position relate to a lack of attention to either cultural history (sometime couched in terms of cultural memory) and historical materialism as well as towards neuro-developmental evolution taking place on the individual or population level. In a species of ‘category mistake’ reminiscent of evolutionary psychology with its appeals to static paleolithic forms of life, this incarnation of neuroaesthetics seeks to tell us, factually, that Cubism is an expression of “the way we actually see.”1 Here the distinctions between artistic practice, representation, truth and the activity of the brain itself are quite thin. The problem is only magnified when the focus of positivist neuroaesthetics turns away from ‘science’ to the actual production of cultural forms without regard for the extreme differences inherent in the scientific method and the artistic method. Artistic facts and scientific facts are two very different species of knowledge formation. As a result we find grotesque statements such as this one concerning literature: “I picture a future for writing that dispenses with mystery wherever it can, that embraces the astounding strides in thought-organ research. Ideally, a future where neuroimaging both miniaturizes and becomes widespread, augmenting the craft of authors, critics, agents and publishing houses.”2

In contrast, a more idealist neuroaesthetics does not seek to “explain” one field, e.g. painting, by another field such as neuroanatomy aided by neuroimaging. How does a series of black and white stripes in a photograph or painting cause reactions in the visual cortex? Rather, in a stronger recognition of plasticity without any claim for a ‘science’ to explain cultural production – not least given a kind of historical over determination and sedimentation of perception – it emphasizes, like Deleuze, that “Creating new circuits in art means creating them in the brain.”3 That culture has the power to modify and modulate neurobiological activity which results in changes in the shape of the neural architecture at the microscopic and molar level. A more naturalist version of this position would appeal to the notion of ‘scaffolding’, according to which we are inseparable, as Andy Clark put it, from the “looping interactions” between our brains, our bodies, and “complex cultural and technological environments.”4

Activist neuroaesthetics is seen as a tool for positive political change. It shares with the idealist form, a commitment to a kind of ontological monism in which the aesthetic and the neuronal occur on one shared plane, without either being more fundamental than the other. It is fluid and non-linear and harkens to the call of intensities at critical points of assemblage and disassemblage. As such it sees an impetus or drive to precisely “create new circuits.” as a ethico-political construct. Whether it is in the form of an artistic intervention, a curatorial practice, or a theoretical statement, this more militant neuroesthète makes use of “the histories, critiques, practices, apparatuses, spaces, and non-spaces and temporalities of artistic practice” as these manifest themselves in painting, sculpture, performance, film, video, and installation art, “to counter these arguments and instead incite a different truth production program or alternative paradigm at odds with institutional practices.”5 These paradigms share with extended cognition that the results of these cultural changes is/are linked to analogous changes in the network structures of the brain with which it is coupled. Here we find projects as diverse as Neidich’s alt visual and/or alt cognitive ergonomics, and the still-unexplored Vygotskyan project to connect political reform to the knowledge of the cortex.6 Again, like the more idealist form of neuroaesthetics, these do hold that “the power of art is to create additionally evolving forms of variability in the environment that couple with the equally diverse forms of the brain’s own variability” (Neidich, Glossary of Cognitive Activism). Thus his interest in noise and improvisation as means to this end. Yet they add a meliorist project, a belief that world can be made better. It promotes the belief for a production of alternate zones of affect and perception, with implications of a distancing from mainstream social production (like the notion of the “distribution of the sensible”).

The promise and the paradox of an activist neuroaesthetics is quite similar to that of another intriguing yet at times nebulous concept, cognitive capitalism, because both share a duality of the normative and the natural, the virtual and the actual, the avant-garde and the status quo. That is, cognitive capitalism is both (a) a description of a an actual, ‘second nature’ status quo in which our brains are a key component of our labor, and the system of exploitation correspondingly targets this fact, and (b) a project to overcome this state of affairs with a normative, virtual impetus to create increasing difference and disturbance in the network. This militant form of neuroaesthetics what Neidich eludes to in his forth coming Glossary of Cognitive Activism, seeks to take advantage of the fact our plasticity and interrelation with liquid, mutable, social and cultural forms, to create “new forms of variability” at odds with crystallized forms of repression in the here and now and yet to come. This is a far cry from neuro-advice for writers and publishers, or scientists claiming to discover laws of aesthetic experience.

1 Semir Zeki, Inner vision: An exploration of art and the brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). For a helpful warning on these issues (which interestingly comes from the naturalistic side rather than from a defense-of-art-and-its-mystery sentiment), see Lambrous Malafouris, “Mindful art,” Comment on Nicolas J. Bullot, Rolf Reber, “The artful mind meets art history: Toward a psycho-historical framework for the science of art appreciation,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36 (2013): 123–180), comment at 151-152.

2 D.G. Walter, “What neuroscience tells us about the art of fiction” (2012),

3 Gilles Deleuze, “On The Time-Image,” in Negotiations 1972-1990, trans. M. Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 60. Note, however, that Deleuze – in a manner recalling his late statements on the virtual and attacks on advertising – declares immediately prior to this statement that aesthetics cannot be separated from the “complementary questions of cretinization and cerebralization” (ibid., emphasis mine).

4 Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs. Minds, technologies and the future of human intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 11, 43. See also Malafouris’ “material engagement theory.”

5 Warren Neidich, “The Architectonics of the Mind’s Eye in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism,” in Charles Wolfe, ed., Brain Theory (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 265.

6 Charles Wolfe, “From Spinoza to the socialist cortex: Steps toward the social brain,” in Deborah Hauptmann and Warren Neidich, eds., Cognitive Architecture. From Bio-Politics To Noo-Politics (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, Delft School of Design Series, 2010), 184-206.