April 10, 2008
During breaks I would walk through empty rooms to discover changes curators had made in their spaces. I was a teenager when I began to feel at home in the silent, often light-filled buildings that held public art collections. I was annoyed by, resented, then was intrigued by, read about, studied, spent time with pieces that came to be my favourites. Visual artists were deeply informed about and experimenting with emerging, complex theories, cultural studies, political philosophy . . . academics did their best to avoid them until it became impossible to do so.
Reading Slavoj Žižek’s Organs without Bodies is a lot like my non-linear NGC meanderings in the 1990s. His writing provokes me but there is enough brilliance there that makes me keep his book in the reading stand beside my monitor, opened at different pages on different days. He is not a lazy thinker. Each page is like a hypertext reader indexing a myriad of artists, philosophers, scientists and entrepreneurs. He discusses Hawkins, Hegel, Heidegger and Hitchcock with equal comfort because he has actually ‘read’ and analysed’ their work.
I was drawn to his chapter section on hyphen-ethics more because of the probing, unsettling questions it raises than because of his conclusions. It will be one of those recurring themes that will be part of my own lifelong teaching, learning and research.
“What is false with todays discussion concerning the ethical consequences of biogenetics is that it is rapidly turning into what Germans call Bindenstrich-Ethik, the ethics of the hyphen – technology-ethics, environment-ethics, and so on. This ethics does have a role to play, a role homologous to that of the provisional ethic Descartes mentions at the beginning of his Discourse on Method: when we engage on a new path, full of dangers and shattering new insights, we need to stick to old established rules as a practical guide for our daily lives, although we are well aware that the new insights will compel us to provide a fresh foundation for our entire ethical edifice (in Descartes case, this new foundation was provided by Kant, in his ethics of subjective autonomy). Today, we are in the same predicament: the provisional ethics cannot replace the need for a thorough reflection of the emerging New (Žižek 2004:123).”
“In short, what gets lost here, in this hyphen-ethics, is simply ethics as such. The problem is not that universal ethics gets dissolved in particular topics but, on the contrary, that particular scientific breakthroughs are directly confronted with the old humanist “values” (say, how biogenetics affects our sense of dignity and autonomy). This, then, is the choice we are confronting today: either we choose the typically postmodern stance of reticence (let’s not go to the end, let’s keep a proper distance toward the scientific Thing so that this Thing will not draw us into a black hole, destroying all our moral and human notions), or we dare to “tarry with the negative (das Verweilen beim Negativen),” that is, we dare to fully examine the consequences of scientific modernity with the wager that “our Mind is a genome” will also function as an infinite judgment (Žižek 2004:123-4).”
“The main consequence of the scientific breakthrough in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of its construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus “desubstantialized,” deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called “earth.” Biogenetics, with its reduction of the human psyche itself to an object of technological manipulation, is therefore effectively a kind of empirical instantiation of what Heidegger perceived as the “danger” inherent to modern technology. Crucial here is the interdepedence of man and nature: by reducing man to just another object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right. Humanity itself relies on some notion of “human nature” as what we inherited and was simply given to us, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is thus that there is man only insofar as there is inhuman nature (Heidegger’s “earth”). (Žižek 2004:124).”
Slavoj Žižek is a dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst. He also co-directs the International Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck College. The Parallax View appeared last year.
Webliography and Bibliography
Žižek, Slavoj. 2004. “Against hyphen-ethics.” Organs without Bodies: on Deleuze and Consequences. New York/London: Routledge. pp. 123-132.
Titles >> Subtitles: Organs without Bodies >> on Deleuze and Consequences >> Consequences >> Science >> Cognitivism with Freud, Autopoiesis, Memes, Memes Everywhere, Against Hyphen-Ethics, Cognitive Closure?, “Little Jolts of Enjoyment”,
folksonomy: cultural studies, theory, philosophy, Deleuze, globalization, democracy, democratization, war on terror, Joan Copjec, biogenetics, hyphen-ethics, capitalism, Richard Dawkins, Jacques Derrida, Daniel Dennett, ethics, Ethical turn, Habermas, Kant, Laclau, Levinas, Lacan, Varela, religion, Pascal, Spinoza, The Quite American, Hegel, Heidegger, Massumi, Fukuyama, liberal democracy, Self, personhood, ethics, mind/brain, mind body, psychoanalysis, nature/culture, technology, mind and consciousness,
More by Slavoj Žižek:
Žižek, Slavoj. 2003. “Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket: Slavoj Žižek welcomes the prospect of biogenetic intervention.” London Review of Books. 25:10. May.
Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. “Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism.” Review of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane.” London Review of Books. 21:21. October 28.
Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. ‘You May!’ London Review of Books. 21:6. 18 March.
If our minds are what our brains do and changing our brain’s habits is harder than we think (Merkl 2007) will freedom evolve naturally towards a more just society?
May 4, 2007
If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing entrenched brain pathways may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) is the logical conclusion of an entirely naturalistic Darwinian human evolution a more just, humane world or a dystopia? Or you tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.
Dennett (2003) argues that the evolution of the human brain over deep time has followed the laws of natural science and that human free will is an emergent phenomena of that same physical process. He forcefully argues that biological determinism does not limit human behaviour to predictable, inevitable outcomes.
Dennett contends that recognition of the true nature of man as an exclusively physical body proscribed by the laws of nature will provide a stronger, wiser doctrine of freedom (Dennett 2003:22) than the belief that the reality of man resides in her immaterial, immortal human soul capable of defying the laws of nature (Dennett 2003:1).
Man’s evolution towards moral thinking and existential interpretations is constituted by higher levels of evolution, more advanced outcomes of the natural evolution of entities towards emergent changes that allowed them to avoid harm and reproduce themselves (Dennett 2003:22).
While Dennett draws on arguments from biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy proposing provocative and original arguments, there is a lack of the psychological or sociological2 imaginations in his work. It is in the area of habits (particularly those that are institutionalized or community-sanctioned) that flaws may be revealed in Dennett’s arguments of a logical evolutionary conclusion of an emergent salutary human nature incapable of overriding its material brain yet somehow managing to move beyond its own autopoietic system. Would human nature not follow evolutionary pathways towards conservation of the familiar while eliminating that which is uncomfortably unfamiliar from everyday life? What are the ethical implications for sustaining an authentic pluralism, diversity of cultures? It is in this area of an expanded Derridian hospitality towards the stranger, the unknown that Dennett’s secular humanism fails to respond.
Like Dennett, William James1 (1986:369 cited in Tursi 1999) perceived the same evolutionary principles at work in inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. In the same year that James developed his ideas on the relationship between the birth of human consciousness, habit and knowing, Freud explored the concept of habit formation as simple agents of conservation that are instinctual reaching deeply back through consciousness, through organic and even organic compulsions. James seemed to perceive the evolutionary changes in human consciousness as radical agents of variance and development. He aligned habit and knowing so that free human agents develop habits by force of will and character. James regretfully admits that habits are difficult to change after the age of thirty (1890). Freud’s theorized that an organism, including a human being, is disposed towards repeating its own lived experience while protecting itself against unsafe levels of stimulation from the unknown, the unheimlich or the uncanny. Freud argued that the cerebral cortex as the seat of consciousness, recorded negative past experiences of unfamiliar stimuli protected itself by constructed hardened defensive shields against outer stimuli. James acknowledges the way in which habitual sequences and customary feelings provide us with an agreeable feeling of being at home with oneself, whereas unsafe levels of excitation from uncustomary, unfamiliar, incongruous representations evoke distress, doubt, misunderstanding and irrationality (Essays in Philosophy 345). For a more in-depth thoughtful discussion see Tursi (1999).
James “advocates idiosyncrasy, spontaneity, and originality as enrichments to a malleable world, he always returns to habit (Tursi 1999). We reconfigure the unfamiliar or uncanny, the unheimlich to a more welcome pattern (Pragmatism 122).
Just as rivers can be reconfigured so too can our neural networks but deep entrenchment of fast flowing rivers in their time-worn river beds are less flexible, less plastic and more embedded.
It may seem easy to change your mind, but if it’s your brain we’re talking about, maybe it’s harder than we think. A University of Houston professor is looking into this with research into something called ‘brain plasticity (Merkl 2007 ).’
Key Words: brain plasticity, free will, entrenched core beliefs, reconfiguring entrenched brain pathways, habits, character, morality and meaning,
1 The work of William James, considered by his followers as canonical, has been derided by his critics as classist and elitist. I consider it fortunate that his work has again found a legitimate place even with these critics. James began or contributed to so many debates that have been recently resuscitated.
2 Pierre Boudieu’s studies on the reproduction of social values through cultural institutions through schools and museums, for example, reveal the degree to which entrenched societal values continue to be reinforced in a hidden curriculum that benefits exclusive, powerful social strata. In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that genocide was the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment project with its promise of a better society based on shared western values. The Other who refused modernity would be eradicated through a process of natural selection that ensured a safer world for those with more power to reproduce themselves.
Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society (Bauman 1989:8).
Zygmunt Bauman. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p8
Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “You tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.” >> papergirls. May 3.
Freud, Sigmund. 1953-75 . “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and Gen. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-75.
James, William. 1890. “Habit.” The Principles of Psychology.
James, William. 1986 . Essays in Psychical Research. Ed. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Merkl, Lisa. 2007. “How Plastic Is Your Brain? UH Engineer Seeks Answers.” Medical News Today. May 3.
Tursi, Renee. 1999. “William James’ Narrative of Habit.” Style. Spring.
© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. “If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing our brain’s habits may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) can we achieve a wiser, stronger freer society through a process of purely natural selection as Dennett predicts?” >> Speechless