what should we do with our brain – a metaphorical critique

“The brain has always been described by means of technological metaphors.” [1]  neural pathways

One of the first handlings of this idiom occurred in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics: “Metaphor is the transference of a name from the object to which it has a natural application…” (Aristotle, Poetics, 21). More recently, individuals such as I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and Max Black have made consequential advances in the field of metaphorical criticism, enabling its use to aid heavily in ornamentation and decoration, as structuring principle and discovery and description of the truth.[2]

According to Richards, all thought is metaphoric because when individuals attribute meaning, they are “simply seeing in one context an aspect similar to one [they] encountered in an earlier context.”[3] Though the work of theorists including Michael Osborn and Robert L. Ivie, we have a better understanding of how language relates us to reality, and how we as humans constitute reality through our use of symbols. When we process symbols to better understand reality, we are often using the metaphor. Phenomenological anomalies become accessible to us through the development of a physical materialism that often comes to life via symbols. When we attribute names or symbols to these phenomena, we are using the metaphor.

Along with the above, a number of others have stressed the importance of the metaphor. Nietzsche argued that it is simply the way in which we encounter the world: “A nerve-stimulus, first transformed into percept! First metaphor! The percept again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one.”[4] In these viewpoints, metaphor occurs prior to and generates the discovery of ideas.

Foss explains a great example of this usage in Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice via the metaphor that “time is money.” By using terminology such as “I’ve invested a lot of time in someone,” “You need to budget your time” and “this gadget will save you time” we begin to equate time through a financial viewpoint; it now shares its level of worth with money. In metaphoric criticism, Max Black has developed an influential method known as interaction theory which juxtaposes two terms in the metaphor generally regarded to belong to two differing classes of experience. The first term is called the tenor, principal subject, or focus, while the second term is called the vehicle, secondary subject, or frame. For example, “The brain is a machine” is a metaphor for which brain is the tenor, and machine is the frame. The process from there then is to discriminate what traits are commonplace by the tenor and vehicle, and form a type of discerning argument. As the associated characteristics of the tenor and vehicle interact, some are accentuated while others are contained. As one goes through this progression of deconstructing tenor and vehicle of the metaphor, it becomes apparent that the metaphor serves an argumentative purpose: metaphor constitutes argument.[5]

To choose a common metaphor and artifact to further describe this process, the human brain has been the target of metaphoric assignments for quite some time: mirror, projector, computer, economy. (Tabbi, 1998) Others have termed the brain central telephone exchange, machine, and even government. While some illustrations appear more accurate than others, there are those who feel as a society that we’ve sorely missed the mark. In Catherine Malabou’s innovative work What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2008) she issues the challenge of deconstructing what we’ve always thought of our brains, and bestows an even greater one: what should we use it for?

Malabou begins the work by repetitiously stating “Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it.” The concept of consciousness is paramount to her: she not only calls attention to the many cities at work neurologically, but the fact that we do not know it. From “know thyself” forward, awareness has been the crux of academic and technological progress. Malabou’s critique of our neuronal dogma is an attempt not only to break away from the ideological presuppositions the field of neuroscience currently includes, but a call to become conscious of them-and of ourselves.

The first method of metaphoric criticism we may employ includes simply dissecting the metaphor. How does it function? In which way is Malabou trying to shake the current opinion of its role? Previously (as mentioned above) common symbols used for the brain include computer, central telephone exchange and machine. However, with Malabou’s concept of plasticity, the rigidity of these allegories will no longer suffice. Machines, computers and central telephone exchanges have a control center; an unyielding and stiff method of prescribing action and processing information. Plasticity is rigidity’s direct anonym, and as we have seen that metaphor not only tells a story but constitutes an argument, new metaphors must come into play. Our brains are no longer known to be entirely genetically determined, static or even simply flexible. “Plasticity, in effect, is not flexibility. Let us not forget that plasticity is a mechanism for adapting, while flexibility is a mechanism for submitting.”[6]  We must ascertain a new meaning, and this is Malabou’s challenge. She must use a metaphoric criticism to tear down the current views and instill the new.

We have now seen how the tenor and vehicle of “brain as machine” will no longer suffice. Let’s take a look at what Malabou uses as alternative: brain as plastic. Taken from the Greek plassein, to mold, plasticity has two basic definitions: one is to receive form, and one is to give form. “Plasticity in the nervous system means an alteration in structure or function brought about by development, experience or injury.”[7]Instead of mindlessly accumulating new metaphors for our brain, Malabou relies on the fact that we are the minds who make the metaphors, and sets out to explain just why the old metaphoric arguments won’t work. She offers perspective and a choice to the audience, just as Foss speaks of in Rhetorical Criticism, “If the audience finds the associated characteristics acceptable and sees the appropriateness of linking the two systems of characteristics, the audience accepts the argument.” In the context of modern day capitalism, Malabou creates a fantastic charge and call to consciousness, taking aide from European metaphysics, political engagement and neuroscience. By changing the terms (linguistically, semantically and literally) of the game, Malabou effectively provides a metaphoric critique to the prevailing comprehension of the function of the human brain.

In conclusion, a metaphoric criticism is best employed here simply because it is what the author employs herself. As Foss further states in Rhetorical Criticism, “Whatever metaphor is used to label and experience a phenomenon, then, suggests evaluations of it and appropriate behavior in response.” The old metaphors used suggest a worldview of a time passed, before the age of functional and real-time neurological imaging. The new formation of the model of our brain must be in line with the modern self: dynamic, transforming and revolutionary. We can no longer think of our brains, our neuronal selves, as but flexible and anonymous; as machine. We must affirm our capacity for change and confess our plasticity: evolutionary, adaptive, explosive. We must no longer consent to depression via disaffiliation; to be “blind to our own cinema.” Our brains tell us a story-whether we choose to listen or not. Karl Marx once stated “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it.” As Malabou so eloquently proves throughout her work that a simple metaphor does not suffice and thus hinders a proper understanding for the plastic brain, she relies on concepts such as ecological, self-creating and emancipatory instead. Plasticity cannot be domesticated. The brain is ever-changing; so then must our conception of it be also.

“…At bottom, neuronal man has not known how to speak of himself. It is time to free his speech.”

-Catherine Malabou


[1] (Jeannerod, 2004).

[2] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 359

[3] Ibid, p. 359

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense,” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy, trans. Maximilian A. Mugge, II. New York: Macmillan, 1911., p. 178

[5] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 361

[6] Marc Jeannerod, 2004.

[7] See the entry “Plasticity in the Nervous System,” in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, ed. Richard L. Gregory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 623.

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Philosophy in the Present

Diana and Zizek

The following is a few scattered and collected thoughts I had after finally reading Philosophy in the Present. The text is a short work of conversations between Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. After having the privilege of finally seeing him speak,  I thought I share my brief reaction.

            Because the philosopher constructs his own problems, he is an inventor of  problems, which is to say he is not someone who can be asked on television, night after night, what he thinks about what’s going on. A genuine philosopher is someone who decides on his own account what the important problems are, someone who proposes new problems for everyone. Philosophy is first and foremost this: the invention of new problems.[1]

Should philosophy intervene in the world? Although this question has probed our minds and cultures for centuries, there is something about the present time, the 21st century that makes this question even more interesting. With revolt seemingly coming from every crevice of our existence, in many societies, chaos would seem to reign. Therefore the question need be posed, possibly now more than ever under the current reign of the age of information: should philosophy intervene?

Before we attempt to answer this question, I would like to provide a method of critique-that of ideology. According to Foss, an ideology is a pattern or set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, values or interpretations of the world by which a culture or group operates.[2] An ideology of any given group typically includes their religious inclinations, predilections toward a governing body, motives, desires, and various psychological stances. Ideologies may be widely spread over a number of cultures (i.e. women need be thin and should esteem to be sexually attractive to men) or may be less direct and slightly ambiguous. An example of a somewhat prevailing and yet subvert ideology would be that men are superior to women in the workforce. Many scholars have lent to the concept of ideological criticism, including Philip C. Wander, Michael Calvin McGee, Janice Hocker Rushing, Thomas S. Frentz, Celeste M. Condit; I would like to focus on the more structuralist approach of Claude Levi-Strauss. Structuralism is the theoretical paradigm which states that the smaller fragments of a culture need be understood in relation to their overarching system. In ideological criticism, it is more a series of projects in which linguistics is used as a model for attempts to develop the ‘grammars’ of systems such as myths, novels, or genres.[3] By constructing these grammars, structuralists may gain insight to the varying ideologies of a given artifact.

Other studies that also inform the process of ideological critique are Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Pierce’s work in semiotics, Terry Eagleton and Luis Althusser’s work on materialism in Marxist thought, Paul de Man’s deconstructionism and postmodern theory of alienation and destabilization. The postmodern method is useful to ideological critics in that it suggests deeper examination into the context surrounding an artifact. Another method particularly obliging to the field is that of cultural studies, in this context, cultural studies are the “interdisciplinary project directed at uncovering oppressive relations and discovering available forces with the potential to lead to liberation or emancipation.”[4] One basic assumption of cultural studies, whether they stem from Jung, Marx, feminist or postmodern perspectives, is that culture consists of everyday discursive practices, and those practices both embody and construct one’s ideology. By studying elements in popular culture such as novels, music and film, one may obtain a distinct picture of a civilization’s ideology. A primary task of the ideological critic is to discern which of these ideologies are being made to prevail, and which have been forced into silence.

In Philosophy in the Present, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek endeavor to record a series of conversations as an invitation to philosophy. They at once agree and disagree on the outcome of the question of philosophy’s role in society. According to Badiou, the dominating ideology of the day is one of a democratic materialism which would deny the existence of truth and distinguish only “bodies” and “languages.” What Badiou would propose is the complete shift in the current model toward a “materialist dialectic,” a component of Marxism which synthesizes Hegel’s dialectics and acknowledges there are these “bodies” and “languages” but also truths. In this stance, truth goes unnoticed unless there is a break in the laws of being and appearance and a truth may become accessible only for a moment. This is what Badiou sees as the ‘event.’ If we seek to find the prevailing ideologies embodied in his portion of the artifact, we may also find the implications: what human efforts are being thwarted by oppressive existing ideologies? Who is representing these ideologies, and are these representatives fit to occupy the position of the intellectual?

The work begins with Badiou, who will be our main focus in this dialogue. Through a series of historical examples, he defines the ‘philosophical situation,’ and we come to our first revelation via Badiou: in the end, power is violence.  There must be a clarity between first the choice and the decision, and second, the distance between power and truths. “These are the three great tasks of philosophy: to deal with choice, with distance and with exception – at least if philosophy is to count for something in life to be something other than an academic discipline” (Badiou, 12). In Badiou’s eyes, for life to have meaning, one must accept the event; one must remain at a distance from power, and one must always be firm in their decision. They must be in the exception, and must at all costs live with the consequences of their decisions. In this sense, it is safe to assume the first author in this work feels it best to abstain from the rise to power-to abstain corruption and tyranny of the highest classes. What ideology is not being represented here is therefore that of the ruler. To Badiou, elections of standard parliamentarianism are often decided by the decision of the undecided, and because of this, he believes it best the philosopher refrain from constant electoral choices altogether. With all of the above information, then, we may deduce that for better or worse, the ideology represented is not just leaving out the beliefs of the supreme rulers, it is also often excluding the views of the masses. As the electoral process is typically limited to few options, it leaves no space for the radical exception, or an exception at all. Neither does it allow radical choice, or the distance aforementioned. Due to this, it does not constitute a ‘philosophical situation’ and the role of the philosopher is best left to be minimal. With this in mind, drawing back to our ideological critique, ideologies of the masses are both represented and not, and the ideology of the philosopher is both represented and not.

If one digs a bit deeper into Badiou, the above concepts are obviously not near as cut and dry as they may seem. He may believe at one time that the philosopher should refrain from participating in electoral processes in one vein, and yet he would advocate philosophy as ethical and political intervention in another. In one sense, Badiou would as a whole disagree with the ruling power, yet he seems to transfer it to the philosopher all the while- a type of subversive philosopher-king. As philosophy must be absolutely distinguished from politics, this necessarily creates a gulf of ideologies not represented in the work. The dominant ideology here is obviously the words and world of the philosopher and the intellectually elite. Regardless of the seemingly all-inclusive “power to the people” attitude that lies in the heart of many leftist philosophers, it would seem this ideology leaves much to be desired. By separating and/or elevating the thoughts of the philosopher, many are left out. In the words of Badiou, “Politics aims at the transformation of collective situations, while philosophy seeks to propose new problems for everyone.” From here, Badiou goes on to explain his eight theses of universality, and ends his section on philosophy of the present.

In conclusion, an ideological critique of Badiou’s dialogue in Philosophy in the Present is most suited because of the way it uniquely illuminates the subversive and dominant beliefs of the author’s system. In using rhetorical strategies to convince the reader that, for example, in the electoral process the vast majority of voters must be uneducated and unaware of potential implications of their choices, a mass is excluded from ideological representation due to the rationale of an inferior intellect. Who may question the philosopher? In implementing a rhetorical criticism, we may utilize the artifact as the basis for proposing new ideologies that allow other ideologies and interests to be more visible. Ironically enough, in the end, this has remained the ultimate goal of the philosopher all along: to pursue and encourage a love of wisdom and knowledge. As Badiou has said, there is a hidden agenda behind every ideology. It is in the critique and deconstruction of a text and ultimately ideal that we see what human potential is being thwarted by existing ideologies, and esteem to better understand ourselves and the world around us.


[1] Žižek, Slavoj and Badiou, Alain. Philosophy in the Present.New York: Polity Press, 2010.

[2] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 291

[3] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 292

[4] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 293

Sing me to sleep: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

 

We accept the love we think we deserve

 

            How does one interpret reality? Psychologically speaking, one may take a number of viewpoints. Countless factors come to play, first and foremost being the common argument of ‘nature or nurture.’ Aspects such as religion, race, culture, gender, sexuality, economic status, and mental health history can all work together to create vastly differing versions of reality. In stories, “narratives help us impose order on the flow of experience so that we can make sense of events and actions in our lives. They allow us to interpret reality because they help us decide what a particular experience ‘is about’ and how the various elements of our experience are connected.” (Foss, 399).

When someone reads a story, listens to a song, or watches a film, what determines their overall opinion and stance on what has transpired? As we mature from children into adolescents and adults, our methods of discernment have the capacity to shift radically. Not only upbringing and the norms of childhood, but also life experiences contribute to the process of modification in how one perceives their world.

Many narratives are chronologically organized, that is, organized in a time-observant sequence of events, while others may focus more on a specific character or theme. Narratives may come in the form of graphic novels, films, television, conversation with others, speeches, short stories, graffiti, music and other folklore. The use of symbols throughout the different forms are what arguably best categorize them as such, and to demonstrate this, I’d like to look at a poignant and inspiring ‘coming of age’ narrative entitled The Perks of Being A Wallflower. How does one interpret reality; but even more importantly, how is the construction of a narrative used to determine how we interpret reality?

Set in Pittsburgin the early 90s, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story of the transformation of desperate introversion in an extroverted high school universe. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Charlie anonymously writes letters to an undisclosed recipient detailing the meaningful and turbulent journey through his freshman year. As the narrative begins, Charlie’s best (and only) friend has just committed suicide. Due to this, Charlie’s introversion and acute timidity as a new student are greatly challenged as he meets a spectrum of new friends along the way, not least of all, his English teacher Bill. As his relationship develops with this mentor, he is introduced via his surroundings to music, literature, love, sex and drugs. Throughout the novel, the reader is constantly subjected to perceptions of reality from many different perspectives. Sam, the beautiful and popular but taken woman of Charlie’s affection, her gay stepbrother and Charlie’s new best friend Patrick, and others including his family and peers make up the vastly different interpretations that all come together to challenge and question Charlie’s previously understood ideas and worldview. As Charlie as introduced to new musicians like The Smiths, Ride, Nick Drake, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, U2 and Nat King Cole, his journey becomes increasingly personally psychoanalytic as he learns to relate, in one way or another, to these musicians.

To begin analysis, I’d like to start by looking at our main question: how does the author use the narrator and protagonist’s surroundings and cultural arena to construct a perception of reality? Charlie begins his textually prominent setting of high school in the immediate aftermath of an incredibly traumatic event: losing his best and only friend to suicide. Not only do we commence our journey in what is known already to be a daunting period, we also begin through the eyes of a painfully shy boy who is emotionally damaged and alone. Our opening and lasting impression of him describes the death of his favorite aunt, and later in life, dear friend.

Throughout the first portion of our novel, we see Charlie’s more intellectual habits develop-the way he rereads books twice to more fully understand them; the way he accepts all the extra essay assignments from his English teacher (and later mentor) Bill with a vigor. In the beginning, our perception of reality is formed through the eyes of an overachieving boy who simply wants to get through, and possibly fit in. His definition of reality is one of survival-of holding it all in as long as he possibly can.

The second way we are introduced to his existence is the mode in which he meets new people. Through his surrounding of stronger, more single dimension characters such as Sam, Patrick, his family and teacher Bill, we are shown how Charlie slowly enables himself to become a somewhat social being. In a largely stable environment, however, Charlie remains the wildcard, frequently being prone to crying over what is termed “silly things” and repressed feelings of guilt from the tragic death of his aunt in particular. The deeper in to the narrative we go, the more objective our surroundings seem, and the more subjective Charlie’s character dimension and experience prove. As a deliberately vague description of what happened between his aunt and he at a young age reappears throughout the work, we begin to slowly understand this trauma has played a far larger role in shaping who he is than previously thought. It is himself, and his aunt that prove to be the most round and conflicted characters of the narrative, thus allowing them the greatest space for growth. Charlie is a radically dynamic figure growing in knowledge, experience, and maturity more and more until he finally accepts his loss of innocence.

Another way we can examine Charlie’s social worldview is by asking what parts of his culture are privileged, and what parts are repressed. Through Charlie’s friend Patrick’s secret homosexual relationship with the quarterback of the football team, Charlie’s heightened embarrassment over his frequent display of emotion in crying and his family’s unrealistic expectations of Charlie’s older brother’s college success, we may see his culture is not too far from our own. The ‘popular’ kids in school remain those in financially advantageous situations; the outcasts remain the quiet or socially awkward. In Charlie’s world, blending into the crowd is desirable, while individuality and deviance is highly discouraged. In this way, Sam is able to retain a strong sense of acceptance due to her beauty and class status, while her brother falls socially down when word gets out of his sexual identity. What this says about their system of ethics is that the patriarchy reigns. The privileged prevail while the less privileged do not. The beautiful thing in Charlie’s developing social situation is that these lines become more and more blurred as he is able to find true acceptance from the outcasts and privileged alike.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about Charlie’s point of view as narrator. Chbosky has given Charlie a very human and humble tone, beginning quietly and ending more confidently. As the overall theme of the work is coming of age, loss of innocence and psychological resilience, it should be noted what Charlie learns, and most importantly, what he realizes in the end. As a child, Charlie was repeatedly molested by his favorite aunt. He only comes to understand this in the final pages-in the epilogue, no less. Through all of his pain, loss and personal turmoil, Charlie tells us a story of hope through friendship, love and music, how to get by in the tough world of adolescence, and the upside of being a wallflower. Charlie is not omniscient or omnipresent-he is just a boy, trying to figure out how to become a man. In Charlie’s indirect narration, we are shown a world of people who are tangible and relatable to every era. His story is trustworthy, reliable and raw. By the sense of established confidence in Charlie’s letters, we are shown a brilliant world of living splendidly through trial.

In conclusion, applying a narrative criticism best illuminates this artifact because it allows the reader and critic to more closely examine what is revealed about the individual’s or culture’s identity. It allows us to ask probing questions into their worldview and motives for action by looking at subjectivity in character dimensions. Narrative criticism enables one not only to analyze the content of the worldview, but the form and structure of that worldview as well. By looking deeply into the sexual and emotional trauma Charlie has undergone, by looking at all of the external factors including ethical, cultural, religious (or lack thereof), social, economical, and intellectual combined with his internal processing revealed to us by the author, we can truly appreciate what constitutes this hopeful ‘reality’ our protagonist has found.

Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Ed. Sonja K. Foss. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, Inc. 1996.