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Issue 134

Mind Reader

The rise of the ‘neuronovel’ and its implications

BY Michael Sayeau in Culture Digest | 01 OCT 10

Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances, 2008. Courtesy: HarperCollins, London.

In his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921) T.S. Eliot famously described a historical shift in our psychology; he labelled this the ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Something happened during the 17th century, according to Eliot, that tore feeling away from thought, injecting a terminal and increasingly neurotic self-awareness into human experience. While Eliot didn’t delve deeply into the historical context that underwrote the aesthetic change that he detected, it’s hard not to match his findings with the story of the early development of capitalism (and the alienation it produces) that Karl Marx and so many others described.

Modern art and literature have long been preoccupied with the relationship between aesthetic reflexivity and the alienation from everyday life in a rapidly changing world. New forms of communication and transformation disrupt our senses of space and time, while developments in the human sciences call into question many of the age-old ways in which we have understood who we are. While this is, to a certain extent, a perennial theme of modern experience, something new is also afoot. As Ewa Hess and Hennric Jokeit, among others, have recently argued, the emergence of ‘neurocapitalism’ – the entanglement of capitalism with the science and medicine of the mind via the pharmaceutical industry and ideologies of performance – has resulted in a new form of alienation that is significantly different from prior forms of self-estrangement.

In short, we increasingly can’t help but understand – as Hess and Jokeit have it – ‘melancholy as serotonin deficiency, attention as the noradrenalin-induced modulation of stimulus-processing and, not least, love as a consequence of the secretion of centrally-acting bonding hormones.’ When it is serotonin reuptake, rather than emotion, that is remembered in tranquility, the artist or writer is faced with a dilemma even more resistant to aesthetic representation than those faced by the artists of the past, as artistic sublimity itself runs into the wall of a cold, chemical materialism. This aesthetic dilemma maps in turn an emergent existential dilemma faced by anyone whose daily life is lived in the midst of neurocapitalism, in which it becomes ever more difficult to understand happiness in terms other than those that provide the taglines of multi-million dollar pharmaceutical PR campaigns (such as Pfizer’s original television adverts for Zoloft, the erectile dysfunction cure, that famously frame each year’s Superbowl: ‘When you know more about what’s wrong, you can help make it right’).

One of the places where the strange effects of this transformation have appeared is in the novel. As Marco Roth observes in his 2009 essay in n+1, ‘Rise of the Neuronovel’: ‘What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel – the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind – has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain.’ Roth begins his piece with a surprisingly long – though not exhaustive – list of works that have appeared (and the psychopathologies covered) in this new genre: ‘Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love [1997] (De Clérambault’s syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional “presiding psychiatrist” and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn [1999] (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [2001] (autism), Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker [2006] (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday [2005] (Huntington’s disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances [2008] (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray’s Lowboy [2009] (paranoid schizophrenia).’

Speculating about why ‘so many writers try their hands and brain’ at this new subgenre, Roth writes that – with the exhaustion of the theoretical ‘linguistic turn’, which purported that there is nothing outside the text, Freudian psychology and the rise of clinical psychopharmacology – there seems to be an increasing tendency to explain ‘approximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity’.

The shift toward the neuronovel – the psychochemical explanation of human interiority rather than the idealized, romanticized version of the same that we’re most familiar with from the form – that Roth charts has, of course, more than simply literary ramifications. The amorphous mysteries of the self, long since the central stuff of prose fiction, give way, for instance, in McEwan’s Saturday (2005) to something quite different, something more materialist. If the modern novel has been long since preoccupied with the exploration of human interiority – what it feels like to be us here and now – in this novel something else happens. We overhear the character’s thoughts, even thoughts about himself, but they have a particular pattern. Here’s an example from the beginning of the novel: ‘A habitual observer of his own moods, he wonders about this sustained, distorting euphoria. Perhaps down at the molecular level there’s been a chemical accident while he slept – something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events; or it’s the prospect of Saturday, or the paradoxical consequence of extreme tiredness.’

We’re not unused to this sort of introspection – the examination of the interior regions, the self-awareness of the autonomous bourgeois subject. But in Saturday, due to the fact that the central character is a brain surgeon, he tends to see itself as well as speculate about others from a neurochemical perspective. Happiness and elation aren’t simply happiness or elation – they are the meta-effects of a prompted ‘dopamine-like receptor’. And while due to his training McEwan’s character certainly has privileged access to the vocabulary of neurology, in another sense he is simply an advanced model of all of us, informed as we are by our medical practitioners, ever more likely to wonder about our serotonin levels than the state of our souls.

The shifts taken in McEwan’s novel – like so many of the others in Roth’s list – push toward a disabling of some of the basic facets of art under the pressures of new scientific knowledge. What is the place of beauty, or love, or the mysteries of consciousness and the vicissitudes of social relationships in a world explicable in these terms? But these shifts that entail the rise of the neuronovel and related forms of art may actually, if indirectly, point in another more optimistic direction as well. After all, early-century Modernism was itself born out of a similar set of problems and difficulties of self-understanding.

While neurocapitalism busily reduces our horizons of happiness – offering pills in place of social change, medicalized diagnosis rather than political discontent – it also brings with it a set of potentially constructive contradictions for artists and writers to attempt to solve. To take up the question of happiness after its chemical reduction, or of often-deviant desire against the tautologies of evolutionary psychology, is perhaps a step toward the reinvigoration of art itself. The fact that we live in the grip of a new form of enlightened alienation, but one that doesn’t translate so readily into the melancholy lyricism and reflexive abstraction to which artists and writers of the past have had recourse, is a situation as quietly promising as it has been so far disabling.

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London, UK.