Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Marxian Neuroeconomics

by Benjamin Campbell

“Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art.”

Christopher Caudwell, Studies in a Dying Culture

Throughout the 1970s, it became common to refer to cultural productions as postmodern, a term applied to such divergent forms as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, David Bowie’s Low, and the Sony Building on Madison Avenue. Yet, it was, and remains, very much an open question to what extent these forms represented a unified phenomenon. That is, what exactly is postmodernism, if it is it anything at all?

In 1984, Fredric Jameson published what remains the most influential theoretical account of the subject: Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In an attempt to understand the vastly disparate forms of cultural production that had been grouped under the same label, Jameson put forth the unapologetically Marxist periodization that the postmodern was the cultural expression of an underlying economic shift in the dynamics of capitalism.

To Jameson, the postmodern was characterized by a  cultural “schizophrenia” of pastiche, depthlessness, and a loss of historicity, a fusion of high and low culture that could be seen as the cultural expression of the multinational turn of globalized commodification. Using the economic periodization of Ernest Mandel, “late capitalism” was a return to a purer regime of capitalist accumulation, succeeding industrial or monopoly capitalism and its modernist cultural period, just as this earlier stage had succeeded a mercantile capitalism and its cultural logic of realism.

As science exists as part of our culture, it is interesting to inquire as to the extent Jameson’s periodization applies to our current scientific epoch of intellectual production. Yet postmodern science seems an unsuitable terminology, with postmodernism so strongly associated with the caricaturized relativisms of the great Science Wars of Science Studies (those disputes that so few in science actually noticed, with the notable exception of Alan Sokal). We could, of course, speak of post-industrial science, to emphasize the extent to which capitalist science, having previously served military conquest and industrial production, now serves to conquer new frontiers of accumulation for a corporate class of intellectual rentiers, who, having subjected the entire planetary surface to primitive accumulation have moved on to the conquest of new informational spaces in which to stake out “intellectual property.” However, in keeping with Jameson’s periodization, I will refer to the current subject (and our collective endeavor) as the science of late capital, just as we might speak of an earlier science of industrial capital, a modernist analog perhaps best exemplified by early cybernetics.

We will eventually return to this earlier period, but for now, let us simply note that the last several decades have seen a quantitative, yet qualitative, change in the scientific enterprise, characterized by a vast commodification of research, and a corresponding collapse of use value into exchange value and/or impact factor. Indeed, we could begin with the Nature paper, as Marx does the commodity, and trace out scientific analogs for much of Capital (such as the abstraction of labor, the production of surplus-value, the prolongation of the working day, the scientific reserve army of unemployed, overproduction crises, and so on). But our focus here is not on the economic base, as the reader is likely a scientific proletarian who understands the productive process all too well. Rather, we are interested in the effect of the productive process on cultural output, which we will take as the scientific ideas that are generated and disseminated.

The science of late capital is notable for an extreme division of labor resulting in a great atomization of knowledge, so self-evident that periodic attempts at systems science must continually be re-launched, like the recurring sequels of the latest Hollywood franchise. As a consequence, many of Jameson’s characteristics of the postmodern can be identified in contemporary science, with the effects most pronounced where the theoretical spaces are under constrained. This is most evident in the cognitive sciences which, having now dropped even their nominal and hexagonal pretension of unity, are indeed characterized by a fragmentation, lack of historical consciousness, pastiche of theoretical forms, and a narrowing of the gap between high and pop culture (think the academic seminar as TED talk). Thus, to Jameson’s examples of Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes and Doctorow’s Ragtime, we can add Douglas Hofstadter (more so in form than content) and Steven Pinker (more so in content than form) as emblematic of the cultural logic of late capital. While Hofstadter’s postmodernism is readily apparent, Pinker’s cognitive science is similarly delivered in sprawling and disjointed postmodern tomes, featuring a motley amalgam of evolutionary, computational, and linguistic themes pasted together for popular and professional consumption alike. Here, the fragmentation of intellectual production, and hence theory, has led to a synthesis that does not synthesize at all, but merely revels in the heterogeneity of mental functions, with natural selection (the theorist’s ultimate escape hatch) given credit for the great accentuation of theoretical difference, reflexive as it is, of the fragmentation in the underlying base of intellectual production. Perhaps the quintessential example is Marvin Minsky’s interpretation of the mind as loosely connected “society” of “agents”—Minsky’s The Society of Mind is the mind of (late capitalist) society.

Importantly, the current analysis, like Jameson’s of the postmodern and indeed Marx’s analysis of capital, must not be interpreted as an opposition to its subject out of an atavistic preference for a bygone era of cybernetic tortoises and homeostats. Rather, just as Marx sees capitalism for its unrealized (and unrealizable) potential, we have no choice but to marvel at the wonders of the contemporary sciences in all of their diversity, while yet recognizing the opposition of the productive base to a unified collective project. Thus, while Minsky and Pinker were not incorrect in presenting the brain as a collection of heterogeneous modules shaped by natural selection, the question remains that faced by an earlier generation: how to forge the “identity of identity and non-identity?”

In parallel to this Jamesonian analysis, I have previously suggested that the work of the cognitive revolution and early cognitive science was fundamentally Kantian, with the introduction of cognitive schemata serving as a reaction against a behaviorist empiricism. So let us return now to Kant’s intellectual era.

The German Ideology

While Immanuel Kant lived a quiet life in Königsberg, the same cannot be said for his time, with the French Revolution and its aftermath providing a political parallel to the Enlightenment’s intellectual apotheosis and crisis. Thus, the German Romanticism arising from the Enlightenment was born from an intellectual milieu of unprecedented disunity. As the poet Friedrich Schiller described: “Always chained to a single little fragment of the whole, man himself develops into only a fragment; always in his ear the monotonous sound of the wheel he turns… he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his business or science.”

Conspicuous in this fragmentation was Kant. While his philosophy can be seen as a reconciliation of opposing schools, it was a reconciliation founded not on unification but on a grand bargain. The rationalist Kant was awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by the barbarians at the gates of philosophy, and surrendered the world itself in order to retain his “forms of thought.” However these were seen by his successors as little more than dualist barricades that did little to address the threat of a radical skepticism. For how could we claim to have any knowledge of the external world if we can only observe “things-in-themselves” through forms of our own construction? In attempting to defend rationalism, Kant appeared to have trapped it behind its own fortifications. Kant’s immediate successors thus set out to address the crisis by transcending the intellectual fragmentation of the day and all of its dualisms. The culmination of this grand project of German Idealism would be found in the system of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

In his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Hegel appraised Kant’s work as “a very important step,” thus agreeing with the later Chomskyan position that the “forms of thought must be made an object of investigation.” However, Hegel cautioned: “Unfortunately there soon creeps in the misconception of already knowing before you know.” In other words, how do we decide on the forms of thought with which to represent the world, before we have observed the world through those forms?

What is notable and important about Hegel is his refusal to rest his philosophy on axioms, and as a result the static forms of Kant’s thought adopt dynamism in Hegel’s hands. In attempting to represent the object, the subject must continually strive to resolve contradictions between the object and the always-incomplete forms of thought used to represent it, as form approaches content. This is the “action of thought, which will hereafter be specially considered under the name of Dialectic.” It was via this dialectical process that Hegel completed Kant’s project of reconciling the rational with the empirical, transcending the great dualism of how the subject could come to know the object.

I have only roughly sketched Hegel’s epistemology (that is, his theory of knowledge), and unfortunately we must again defer our discussion of its relation to contemporary developments in the cognitive sciences, in order to touch upon the rest of Hegel’s philosophy. Because, from a purely epistemological standpoint, it seems unclear why Hegel’s dialectic would prove so controversial.

Hegel’s mixed repute owes itself in part, of course, to his notorious obscurantism, his writing seeming in many places undecipherable. But the truly contentious issue with Hegel is his metaphysics–that is, his speculations about the nature of seemingly everything. For Hegel did not content himself to bridge the dualist divide of Kantian epistemology, but rather attempted to unify his philosophy with what are now deemed the properly separate subjects of history, politics, science, and theology. Hegel introduced an intersubjective spirit, or Geist, and a conception of God that in contemporary parlance might be described as an emergent property of the universe. Indeed, one of the goals of Hegel’s philosophy was to transcend the limits of existing religion with a rational civic religion founded in the immanent, rather than the transcendent. As a result of this apparent philosophical overreach, many sympathetic readers have thus attempted to separate the good Hegel from the mystic (while many unsympathetic readers have stressed the latter). Indeed, Marx famously tried to preserve from Hegel “the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

Yet, before attempting to salvage Hegel’s epistemology by tearing asunder his grand system, we should take Hegel’s justification for his project seriously, even if we ultimately reject his metaphysical views (self-consciously reflecting as they did the spirit of his age). For Hegel would have argued that all knowledge, including science, is inseparable from philosophical assumptions about the way the world is, and that the role of the philosopher is to make the implicit assumptions of the age explicit and unified.

Indeed, any scientific conceit of objective science preceding mere philosophical speculation must clearly be dismissed as untenable. The history of science is replete with examples of metaphysical speculation (priors, in contemporary Bayesian) preceding, and indeed guiding, scientific confirmation (for instance, speculations about the atomic composition of matter). More importantly than listing historical examples, it could not be otherwise, for as Alfred North Whitehead put it, “induction presupposes metaphysics;” that is, one cannot make any inferences about a system absent speculation of how that system operates. Hegel’s dialectic would thus seem a mere recognition of the scientific method, a more accurate rendering than that of his critic Karl Popper, with the Hegelian dialectic emphasizing what is now known as the Duhem-Quine thesis: that hypotheses cannot be isolated from the totality of theory in which they are embedded.

It is because of this view of knowledge as an interdependent totality that Hegel confronts us as the most important philosopher of the past for understanding the fragmented present. Jameson has remarked that every generation has attempted to reimagine the dialectic. As I have previously suggested, this is currently being done through our “emerging conception of the brain.” But the mere notion of an emerging conception implies a certain Zeitgeist, which raises an interesting question about the fragmented science of late capital: if there were a postmodern scientific revolution, would we even recognize it?

Next, we will finally explore this Hegelian turn of the cognitive revolution.

November 2012