Plasticities. The place of critical neuroscience, materialities and behaviours. FINAL CFP
Co-conveners: Mark Paterson (Exeter), Jessica Pykett (Aberystwyth), James Ash (Northumbria)
Session sponsored by the History and Philosophy of Geography Research Group (HPGRG)
This session explores the implications of material and neural plasticity for geographical understandings of the shaping of mind, brain and behaviour.
In the wake of the return to a naïve materiality in geography (after e.g. Jackson 2000) and subsequent exploration of the figures of matter that underpin multiple materialisms (e.g. Anderson and Tolia-Kelly 2004), the concept of the 'material' is somewhat enlivened by the malleable and magical morphological qualities of plasticity. From the Greek plastikos (capable of being shaped or moulded), plasticity becomes equated with an ease of malleability. Quite apart from the vast proliferation of cheap organic and synthetic compounds with varying degrees of biodegradability, the underlying concept of plastikos lies behind notions of shaping or sculpture (in German Die Plastik, the plastic arts e.g. Herder 1778). The idea of sculpting – alongside understandings of the malleability of the human brain and its capacity to learn, adapt and repair – raises normative questions regarding the shaping of form and behaviour at a distance. At its most basic, a focus on material plasticity shifts attention from the Fordist metaphor of brain as machine to Malabou’s (2008) conception of “brain-world”.
It is the metaphor of sculptural shaping that Malabou employs in her impassioned appraisal of the philosophy behind neuroscience, What Should We Do With Our Brain? (2008). Along the model of the sculptor chipping away at a block of stone in order to bring forth the intended shape (with Heideggerian overtones), Malabou takes the double meaning of 'plasticity', as both moulding and as explosion. Firstly, moulding connotes processes of synaptic modulation and shifts in neuronal connection over time, along with the capacity for repair, or cortical plasticity. Secondly, explosion or deflagration confers the capacity to annihilate that form destructively, for example as plastic explosives or radical reconfiguration. Both uses of plasticity imply an underlying assumption about behaviour and a materialist theory of mind in action. But rather than seeing the overriding co-option of neuroscience in the public understanding of science or by neo-liberal government initiatives aimed at changing behaviours and shaping neurological responses (e.g. the UK Cabinet Office's 2010 publication, MINDSPACE), Malabou sees a more emancipatory aspect of thinking about plasticity; "to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model" (2008:6).
In parallel there is an identifiable gap between public understandings of neuroscience, the rise of questionably generalised or applied neuroscientific research, and the concomitant rise of quasi-expertise in neuroscientific techniques. Lacking from these areas is any sustained discussion of a theory of mind, the sculpting of geographical behaviours both in situ and at a distance, and a consideration of the politics and ethics of brain-shaping. With the potential of unfulfilled promises by neuroscience to 'nudge' (after Thaler & Sunstein 2008) behaviours according to broadly neo-liberal (soft paternalistic) agendas of the governance of areas of private life, the space of plasticity as disobedience and the refusal to submit to a model may be a welcome refrain.
We invite papers that deal with concepts of plasticity and/or critical neuroscience, including but not limited to:
• Theories of materiality and/or substance and the contributions of notions of plasticity;
• The public (mis)understanding of the neurosciences;
• The place of neuroscience in geography and/or critical theory;
• Implications of critical neuroscience for mind/body interactions;
• Critical approaches dealing with soft paternalism and/or connections between neuroscience, plasticity and governance, political-economy or social relations;
• Shaping of forms and actions over a distance through various technologies (e.g. teleplasticity);
• The role and limits of visual technologies and visualisation in explaining brain processes;
• Cortical plasticity and spatial perception (e.g. cases of sensory impairment, technologies of sensory substitution);
• Other bodily or distributed forms of cognition that might contest an individualistic brain-centred model;
• The gendered, racialised, classed or ‘othered’ aspects of material plasticity
• Evidence of social or collective activities that critically inform or contest the 'nudge' model (soft paternalism)
Please submit 250 word abstracts to Jessica Pykett ([log in to unmask]) by 11th February.