Book Review: SELF AND EMOTIONAL LIFE, Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou (Columbia University Press, 2013)
Most of us know that we don’t know ourselves as well as we like to think we do but there is a more trusting and steadfast belief in our possession of a self. In everyday life we make reference to it in a variety of ways and, notwithstanding those occasions when we catch a glimpse of an image in a mirror and wonder who that person is, filling out personal details on a form is not usually the cause of metaphysical trepidation. Besides such acts of public self-identification, we do not doubt that our name is also a marker for a more private and defended identity that lies behind the forename and surname we answer to and surrender to others. Descartes got to the heart of it when he set about doubting everything about the world but reached a bedrock of knowledge with the certainty of his own thinking self. From this zero-level of self-proof a mind-body dichotomy emerged as constitutive of the conscious subject and while many philosophers after Descartes have challenged his model it is only with the advance of neuroscience that it has been seriously wounded. This is the subject matter of Self and Emotional Life, a book of two halves by two authors.
Neurobiology shows the brain, consciousness and the body’s nervous system to be interconnected in such remarkably labile ways that the metaphor of the brain as a computer, neatly processing information that reaches it via the senses, has to give way to a picture of an open organism, plastic and frangible, affective and cognitive. The brain – the emotional brain – is modelled as the site of a libidinal economy and this carries implications for any notion of a selfhood inhabiting a comfortable milieu where a subject can be in conversation with itself and its affects. Such an alluring notion is understandable; we think mostly with words after all and forms of introspection, as depicted in cartoon’s thought bubbles or in fiction’s stream-of-consciousness, can seem like engagements with our inner self.
Affects are modifications in our organism – originating through encounters with the other — that lead to the inward dispositions, the feelings that make up a daily intercourse we call selfhood. Affects belong less to logical structures of thought than to an existential force, the feeling of being alive. For the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio – a key thinker for both authors of this book – it is the philosopher Spinoza we should look to for guidance in this territory. Damasio translates Spinoza’s axiom that mind and body are attributes of the same substance into scientific discourse about the brain’s activity as a mapping of the body. The familiar computer model of the brain as the headquarters for processing and distributing sense data from one bodily module to another is replaced by a spatial one of image formations, neural patterns that inscribe bodily events: ‘The human mind is the very idea or knowledge of the human body’ (Spinoza). Events that contribute positively to the regulation of the body polis, conducive to survival in other words, register as emotions of joy and help preserve the body’s integrity (needless to say, a negative corollary is also possible). The self is the aggregated force of this dynamic and emotions render the organism’s fluctuating levels of satisfaction: well-being experienced as degrees of joy and happiness; states of disequilibrium felt as quantities of distress and sorrow.
Neural patterns that pertain to a biological order and which mirror the mind-body organism are susceptible to neurological damage. A consequence is the possibility of a subjectivity divorced from affects, a subject unaware of its own emotions: a person lacking what seems essential to selfhood. Case histories of neurologically-damaged individuals bear witness to personality changes that result in severe impairment of emotional processes without any accompanying loss of cognitive faculties and Malabou mentions some alarming instances of this.
The idea of the subject as anonymous, absent from itself, attracts Malabou’s interest and underpins her call for a new kind of materialism, one that will allow for some rapport, instead of hostility, between the humanities and the life sciences. Common ground has to be found in an understanding of the unconscious, once shied away from by the sciences as empirically unverifiable. This is the territory of the second half of Self and Emotional Life and stylistically it’s a different read from what has gone before. Catherine Malabou’s first language may not be English but she writes in it most agreeably; Adrian Johnston is American and writes in a highly cerebral and hyper-intellectual manner — think Data from Star Trek having speed-read every paragraph penned by Freud and Lacan discoursing on the assumption that everyone else has as well. Johnston’s sentences are syntactically tight, with each clause unyieldingly locked in to the whole, which makes for logical clarity when expressing a complex train of ideas but which also applies sustained pressure on the left hemisphere of the parietal lobe and gives this reader brain fatigue after a few pages; if only he was less economic with some of the expositions and could dawdle along the way with an anecdote or easy digression.
The second half of the book continues the examination of what it means to speak of feelings that are not felt. An emotion is a physiological process and while we are often aware of how our body starkly registers this – a blush, a stammer, change in heart beat — we are also party to a cognitive mapping that translates these bodily states into images and representations, into the feelings we come to recognise as essential to our sense of self. But feelings may not always be consciously felt and Johnston walks across the bridge that Damasio — by claiming we can have a feeling without knowing it — builds between neurobiology and psychoanalysis.
Johnston dissects Freud and Lacan with surgical precision. Freud, he shows, was at first unwilling to admit that feelings could reside in the unconscious but, just as Lacan is traditionally seen to be of this persuasion, such a stance reveals nuances when probed and finessed. Johnston, author of an excellent book on the Slovenian maestro (Žižek’s Ontology) turns to Žižek to support reflections on the interaction between nature and nurture, the conjoining of affect with cognition. Like our two feet, if we want to get somewhere we have to use both and they have to work together. What happens when they don’t is the province of neuroscience but also of psychoanalysis and philosophy; postulating common ground between these fields, and a language for mutual understanding, is the uncommon achievement of Johnston’s and Malabou’s book.