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Works Reviewed: Adrian Johnston & Catherine Malabou Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 276 pages.

The age of neurobiology has, apparently, arrived. Bookshelves groan, figuratively for the most part, under titles such as The Brain that Changes Itself, Brain Rules, and Clinical Neuroanatomy Made Ridiculously Simple. The authority of neuroscience has been harnessed into such a diverse range of causes as the fervent opposition to religion (a la Sam Harris), the proof of life after death in Eben Alexander’s The Proof of Heaven, and the critique of internet technology in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Neuroscience also provides a conceptual framework for more colourful titles, including Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Literature, too, is well within the province of neurobiology since, after all, Proust was a Neuroscientist. In the television series Alphas the language of neuroscience, rather than genetics, is used to account for the superhuman abilities of its protagonists. The denizens of the self-help genre now frequently include references to neurology or fMRI images in a trend which one reviewer of popular neuroscience books scathingly labelled “brain porn.”(Steven Poole, New Statesman)

There have surely been many legitimate advances in our understanding of the human brain over the past years. To sort out the pseudo-scientific from the legitimate claims, and thereby to assess what neuroscience can actually say about human existence, requires thoughtful reflection. It is this task that Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou set for themselves in Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience. As they draw from the critical wellsprings of the Continental tradition of European philosophy and psychoanalysis they argue that the scope and method of these disciplines are themselves radically challenged, though not necessarily undone, by the findings of contemporary neuroscience. Critical engagement is imperative, particularly given the lack of attention typically paid to the sciences of the mind within the discourses of psychoanalyis and Continental philosophy. Johnston writes:

Nowadays, it simply isn’t true that one has to sell one’s philosophical or pscyhoanalytic soul in its entirety in order to dance with the neurobiological devil…In fact, over the past half century, scientific matters concerning neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, epigenetics, and newly proposed revisions to Darwinian depictions of evolution, among other topics, have destroyed the caricature of biological approaches to subjectivity upon which the ever more-hollow excuses of a tired old antinaturalism rely, caricatures depicting such approaches as essentially deterministic and reductive.

Johnston and Malabou contend that developments in the neurosciences do change the way we conceptualize the human subject, that is, the self. This changed understanding relates to a redefinition of affective or emotional life. The brain is increasingly understood, not as a logical processing machine, but as the centre of a dynamic, plastic, and inherently emotional life. Malabou identifies it as the center of “a new libidinal economy‘ and argues that a new conception of affects is emerging. The issue, for Malabou, is whether this new conception will lead to a genuinely different approach to emotions, passions, and feelings. She stages this as a problematic between of knowing whether emotions and affects are to be considered, in the traditional way, as rooted in the “process of auto-affection of the subject” or whether the idea of the emotional brain actually challenges this notion in favour of “an originary deserted subject?” Noting that Continental philosophy, particularly deconstruction, and psychoanalysis have already posed significant challenges to the notion of a subject that is fully present to itself Malabou goes on to ponder whether the findings of neuroscience confirm this conviction or shift it to entirely new ground. Her conviction is quite clearly that a radical change has occurred, although she does not for that reason jettison the work and intuition of her own philosophical tradition and training.

Both Malabou and Johnston seek to triangulate philosophy, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, and to encourage their readers to reconsider their sense of each of these fields and the possible connections and alliances between them. It is an interdisciplinary work, and one that is clearly regarded by the authors as a preliminary gesture towards reconciliation of fields of study that have typically been characterized by isolation and polemic. Seizing on current interest in a dynamic emotional conception of the brain Malabou and Johnston reconsider the limitations and potential of psychoanalytic work and philosophical wisdom to speak about the emotional life of human subjects.

For Malabou this journey centres around the affect of wonder, and the possibility of its loss. Wonder is first among the passions of the soul, for, “without wonder the subject wouldn’t be able to have a feeling of itself.” What then, questions Malabou, are we to make of the claim of neurobiologists that brain damage can cause the subject to become completely detached from their own affective life; to lose their sense of wonder while continuing to be biologically alive? The destructive potential of trauma leads Malabou to form her conception of hetero-heteroaffection, that is, a notion of the subject as radically absent to itself.

She does this through a philosophical genealogy that traces through Rene Descartes and Jacques Derrida to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, then loops back around through Baruch Spinoza to Gilles Deleuze and Damasio again. Descartes and Spinoza are thinkers whom Damasio has himself written on extensively, with Descartes playing the role of the “metaphysician of presence” and Spinoza the “protoneurobiologist.” Derrida and Deleuze are brought in to add some depth to the philosophical history, as well as to avoid a too neat and easy packaging of Descartes and Spinoza. Malabou also contends that although both Derrida and Deleuze, in very different ways, challenged the notion of a subject that is present to itself, they did not envisage the possibility of a complete emotional deprivation that leaves the first-person perspective intact. It is this destructive plasticity, the potential loss of an absolute destruction and loss of a certain part of our psychic and emotional life that drives Malabou’s work and her challenge to traditional philosophic concepts and the limitations of psychoanalytic practice. At the same time, she is hopeful that the time has come in which a new materialist philosophy can be constructed, and bridges built between the humanities and biological sciences.

Johnston, for his part, focuses on the affect of guilt and its relation to the unconscious. Through a close reading of Freud and Jacques Lacan, he contends that, although muted and ambiguous, there are indications in both of these thinkers towards a construction of unconscious feelings or misfelt feelings. Johnston contends that guilt is a good candidate for being to practical philosophy what wonder is to theoretical philosophy, that is, “a foundational effect that is a catalyst for the deliberations, decisions, and deeds of concern to philosophy’s prescriptions in addition to its wonder-driven descriptions.”(77)

It is not, however, for reasons of practical philosophy that Johnston pays attention to the phenomenon of guilt, but rather because it is the one affect which Freud refers to when speculating about the possibility of unconscious affects. Still, the distance between theoretical and practical philosophy is suggestive of the distance between Malabou’s challenges to the theoretical underpinnings of psychoanalysis and Johnston’s endeavours to show the therapeutic viability of Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly as interpreted by Lacan. While both Freud and Lacan appear to categorically rule out the notion of unconscious affects there remains a certain ambiguity around the feeling of guilt, particularly in Freud’s work. Through this ambiguity Johnston works to develop a conception of “misfelt feelings”, that is, that the emotions lie, and not only by attaching themselves to inappropriate signifiers. It seems that the subtle inextricability of the emotions, language, and biological being is at stake here, and Johnston makes a powerful case that an encounter between current findings in neuroscience and the theoretical discoveries of psychoanalysis can provide a basis for a rich and dialectically nuanced account of emotional life.

Self and Emotional Life stakes, in fairly bold tones, a provisional encounter between disciplines which often meet under fairly antagonistic terms. They manage to avoid sectarian posturing, for the most part, although the book is clearly written for a readership with at least some background in Continental philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and developments in neuroscience.  Finally beyond the general difficulty of learning the concepts the work is plagued by an irregular syntax, particularly in the section by Johnston, which makes reading rather more difficult than necessary. Overall, however, it remains an important work in providing resources and a framework wherein the findings of neuroscience can be reasonably assessed and interpreted.