Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Karín Lesnik-Oberstein reviews The Metamorphoses of the Brain

Jan De VosThe Metamorphoses of the Brain: Neurologisation and its Discontents. London: Palgrave, 2016. 250 pp.

Review by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein

The rage for neuroscientific claims and discoveries continues unabated in the academic and popular media. In this, his newest monograph, Jan De Vos offers a rigorously scholarly analysis of what the reasons for this may be and how this determines the ways the claims are made. His guiding question is, “What are we exactly, when we are said to be our brain?” (p. 6). Of course, ever since the neuroturn came upon us several decades ago it has been accompanied by its critics, often from a liberal corner, including eminent commentators such as Raymond Tallis,[1] or from the perspective of gender, including, for instance, Cordelia Fine[2] and Victoria Pitts-Taylor.[3] De Vos, however, is a Lacanian, and therefore his critique takes an alternative route, pursuing two crucial, radical claims: first, that neuroscience does not, and cannot, in fact, supersede psychology by being some sort of truly objective, empirical, science; and, second, that this is the case not just for popular neuroscience but equally for the most “technical” kind. Through De Vos’s analyses of the uses of neuroscience in chapters (several of which were published previously as journal articles) on education, in relation to the iconography of brain imaging, in the philosophies and theories of Catherine Malabou and Brian Massumi, and in politics, he argues lucidly and persistently how the claims made do not move beyond psychology—as they wish and believe—but are instead necessarily predetermined and inhabited by it. De Vos writes in relation to “thought experiments” about digitally uploading the brain, for instance: “in divising the very algorithms through which one would be uploaded, would there not also be the choice of which psychology (Freudian, Pavlovian, etc.) you would prefer to be uploaded?” (p. 8). However, De Vos does not wish to retrieve or defend psychology as in turn necessarily superior to neuroscience; instead, he understands psychology itself to be just as much an ideological production as the neuroscience, hence his use of the term psychologisation (and neurologisation), indicating how psychology (and neuroscience) disseminates and embeds itself socially and culturally through the very discourses and practices that supposedly spring from it. This view that neuroscience cannot be the “end of psychology” is for De Vos neither pessimistic nor nihilist: such senses of loss only operate when there is a progressivist faith firmly in place, one which insists upon the necessity of a transparency which will finally reveal the truth of the human despite the human. Instead, throughout his book, De Vos warns us powerfully and importantly that there are inherent dangers in such an apparently commonsensical and innocuous belief: “Our epochal memento mori, you are nothing but a brain, the endlessly repeated super-egoic command that manifests itself through all kinds of channels . . . thus serves to obfuscate the Real, that is, it covers up the skandalon of us no longer knowing what it means to be human” (pp. 9–10).

[1] See, for instance, Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (New York, 2011).

[2] See Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences (New York, 2010).

[3] See Victoria Pitts-Taylor, The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (Durham, N.C., 2016).