Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sick of the brain

Can I tell you how sick I am of the Brain? The 90s were the decade of the Brain and it's all been very exciting... But how do we get past the brain and back to personhood? I know at least N believes I worship the god of Science at an electronic shrine (! :) and while I do take quite an interest in cognitive science, I getting more and more wary of mentioning it in my classes. At the same time, I find it to be of increasing political import to raise for discussion.

For example, today, I read my students latest paper proposals... Soooo many of them are convinced that the mind is the brain, is a person. What do I do?!? Seriously... I mean, for my own sanity! If I read one more paper that cites a biology text book to refute Aquinas or Descartes, I'm going to scream! I encourage them to draw examples from popular culture or media... As a result, several of my students cite this persnickety article that is supposed to disabuse me of the view that one should study philosophy before 1985.

I just feel like I am totally failing if they leave my class thinking that... So far, we've only read Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes. I just can't convince them that describing personhood involves describing anything but the action of a collection of machine-like parts.

As if my students weren't enough, my therapist recently recommended
Louann Brizendine The Female Brain. (My therapist and I are now "breaking-up") The book was trashed by Nature as "psychoneural indocrination," and there would be no need to harp on it if it weren't still selling and popular. But it is... and I think it deserves a good thrashing from a phenomenological level too.

Brizendine essentializes both gender and brains. She basically claims that there are two types of brains and, equivalently, two types of people. One, the female brain, was "marinated" in estrogen (her words) early on and thus capable of all kinds of interpersonal connections that that the un-marinated male is not. Male brains lead to semi-autistic behavior and definitely to infidelity. If you, perchance, do not identify with her phenomenological account of female experience, then you are just less female and more male (or perhaps just less human, I'm not sure). (Lesbians, apparently, were just improperly marinated.) She mentions some vaguely feminist concerns in the introduction and conclusion, but declares that she had to put aside political scruples in the service of scientific truth. The critiques she imagines seem limited to those possibley posed by second-wave feminists; she makes no mention of third wave feminism, gender studies or queer studies.

Not only does Brizedine essentailize genders but she essentializes brains. Sure, these brains show up in bodies, but just as isolated organs popped inside a ready-made shell that in itself contributes little to identity, knowledge, or experience.

What do we do with this sort of material? Again, on the one hand, if this is bad work on so many account, perhaps it doesn't deserve refutation or further discussion and publicity. On the other hand, if my students' papers are any indication, then this book is just a timely reflection of the dominant culture... and in a way, not to spend time refuting it is politically lazy.

My students are very concerned about animals and the environment. I feel I should be able to exploit this... at least as a distraction from The Brain.