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"Brain": An Essay by Nima Bassiri (Keywords: Neuroscience; Selfhood; Ontology; Power; Governance)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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A familiar and commonplace conviction holds that the brain is the absolute biological substratum of the self; it is a conviction that holds suppositionally, that is, in an as-of-yet uncorroborated (in an exhaustively experimental) sense. There is nothing especially novel or modern about this supposition, as it had been available for natural philosophers to appropriate, develop, and contest, in some form or another, for centuries. It was only after the nineteenth century that the brain’s suppositional status transformed from a conjecture that was primarily the object of metaphysical interrogation into a performatively avowed conviction that demanded anxious reassertion and institutional reinforcement. This transformation had little to do with the state of neuroscientific knowledge; rather, it had almost everything to do with the steady institutionalization of the human sciences, which came increasingly to shape the political and economic realities of North Atlantic, and eventually global, populations.

What changed, in other words, was not that some underlying reality of the brain was discovered but, instead, that scientific institutions acquired the moral, political, and epistemic authority to make veridical declarations about the brain, claims which ultimately bore out on the status of the self – not metaphysically, but administratively, socio-economically, and even culturally. Truth claims about the brain functioned less to resolve philosophical dilemmas about the mind and body and more as a mechanism by which populations could be managed and overseen. Authoritative claims about the brain acquired the power to yield real effects on how people were incited to regard and conduct themselves. It is not, therefore, that the brain is the biological substratum of the self but, rather, that the brain became the truth of the self, in the sense that the historical accumulation of authority to make truth claims about the brain signalled the power to shape behaviours, attitudes, and stylizations of the self. The power to shape conduct and attitudes was in large part effectuated by the authority that the human sciences amassed beginning in the nineteenth century, particularly in their capacity to provide institutions of political authority with the means by which larger and more widespread populations could be governed without the persistent need for direct state mediation or forms of sovereign violence.

Authoritative claims about the brain acquired the power to yield real effects on how people were incited to regard and conduct themselves.

One effect of this transformation was that individuals were incited to regard themselves as biological entities – living and medicalizable. This entailed adopting a starkly secularized worldview, at least in some measure, in which people came to be concerned with the status of their health and vital well-being, a status that was necessarily yoked to institutions and discourses of science and medicine. As such, this biologization demanded new forms of maintenance, upkeep, and safeguarding as well as new benchmarks for social propriety and political-economic viability. To be healthy, for instance, meant not only acquiescing to the authority of medical and scientific expertise but also demonstrating an unencumbered show of economic productivity and social harmony. There were, in other words, right ways to enact oneself as a biological entity, and, as a result, new political imperatives, economic demands, and forms of population management arose, underwritten by novel rationalizations and the emergent veridical force of science. The increasing primacy of the brain’s suppositional status must be situated here, as an expression of what it means to be governed as a biological entity and from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

That suppositional status must furthermore be regarded as directly interwoven with the function psychiatry long served as a governing matrix – as Michel Foucault has described in his various accounts of “psychiatric power” – augmenting psychiatric orchestrations of social behaviours and attitudes, particularly after WWII, not only with computational paradigms and chemical intercessions but with new political economies; the brain, after all, has become something capable of “optimization” in a way that the psyche alone never quite was. The suppositional status of the brain now subserves the entrepreneurial aspirations of the self and the accumulation of one’s own human capital.

The brain’s suppositional status with respect to the self, however, is not the lynchpin to such transformations but merely its symptom. The primacy of the brain, in other words, particularly over the course of the twentieth century, functions as a something of a barometer for how we have come to be governed. If I say that we have increasingly come to be governed through or as our brains, I do not mean that our actions, thoughts, and emotions have become commandeered, monitored, or informationally aggregated through futuristically dystopic neuro-technologies. Of course, our actions, thoughts, and emotions very much have been commandeered, monitored, and informationally aggregated – but through the far more familiar dystopia called capitalism. When I say that we are governed through and as our brains, I mean instead that we are governed according to the types of subjects that we have been incited to view ourselves as being – biologized, medicalized, plastic, mouldable – and that we inevitably pay a price if we refuse to view ourselves in such a way, insofar as we come to regard ourselves as having fallen anomalously outside the purview of the norm.


My intention here is not to impugn neuroscientific knowledge production. For some, the brain’s suppositional status, and the brain-self equivalence that it furnishes, has the capacity to function as an important political corrective, and to that end the neurosciences should be defended, not critiqued. The defence comes down to the question of political credibility. If structural political-economic injuries, for example, can be described in biological terms, as neurologically recognizable forms of trauma, then those injuries can be fortified with scientific authority and, through that authority, the need to redress those injuries can become more politically convincing. Structurally racist economic inequity, such an argument purports, can be more credibly defined as a form of political violence if it can be shown to produce real and lasting neurological damage. This sort of defence can often be little more than a naïve scientism; but it can also be a tactical recognition that while one hardly needs neuroscience to justify the fact that racialized economic inequity is a form of violence, any discourse that can help mitigate the damage of that violence should, within reason, be utilized.

This form of thinking, however, operates under the assumption that a biologized account of political-economic injury will finally be the account that prevails, the one that definitively yields justice and ethical reparation. Unfortunately, political faith in neuroscientific truth is a perilous wager. For when the brain sciences ask, “who are we?” they are posing a somewhat disingenuous question. They know exactly who we are: we are people whose intelligibility, social worth, and ontological value are defined according to the contours of truth claims made about the brain. We are, in other words, only what the constraints of brain science will allow us to be. This is not detrimental in principle ­– we are, after all, only whatever dominant truth claims about the self will allow us to be in any given period. And, I should add, scholars like Nikolas Rose and Emily Martin have observed the ethically palliative role that the self-identification with one’s brain can occasion. The conviction that it is my brain that is disordered, and that it is not I who am the cause of my mental illness, can offer both emotional respite and the promise of therapeutic relief – as can psychopharmaceutical interventions in many cases.

The neurosciences are increasingly infiltrated with commercial provocations and incitements to generate knowledge with an eye for the market.

But as scientific knowledge production grows increasingly privatized and commercialized, a feature particularly conspicuous for the brain and “psy-” sciences today, those constraints will remain unfailingly, if only covertly, beholden to pernicious economic interests. Scholars of “critical neuroscience” (a broadly interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies), as well as neuroscience researchers, including Fernando Vidal, Francisco Ortega, Suparna Choudhury, and Felicity Callard, have deployed and popularized the term “cerebral subject” to critically define what the self has become as a consequence of the ever-growing nature of neuroscientific authority. What I would add is that as the neurosciences are increasingly infiltrated with commercial provocations and incitements to generate knowledge with an eye for the market, the fidelity that the “cerebral subject” maintains in relation to capitalist imperatives will far outweigh, at least for now, whatever forms of justice or ethical redress it might aspirationally yield. The neurosciences cannot hope to battle economic injustices when they are animated by the very same political-economic forces that institute those injustices in the first place. For now, in other words, the costs of the brain’s suppositional status far outweigh its advantages.


This raises the familiar question: what is to be done? Let us first take our cue from critical neuroscience scholars. As Vidal has argued, the brain’s suppositional status underwrites neuroscientific knowledge production; the neurosciences have not, in other words, proven the brain’s ontological primacy and synonymy with the self but have instead merely assumed both as foundational premises for the field. But the suppositional status of the brain’s primacy, as I posited above, is the symptom and effect of a deeper historical transformation in how we have come to be governed – and so, something more fundamental than mere overreach on the part of brain science researchers. It is, therefore, a condition that may not be capable of being systematically undone, certainly not at all once, though it is something that can be resisted strategically, gradually, and with some difficulty. The call to resistance would be predicated on the fact that the suppositional primacy of the brain may largely do more harm than good, politicizing and financializing us in ways that may on the whole be detrimental to our flourishing.

Resistance to the brain’s suppositional status, however, must not be directed at the neurosciences but, rather, to the self, in an arduous effort to unmoor ourselves from the biologisms that have come to constitute the veridical core of who and what we are, with the aim of re-anchoring our selfhood on other and, hopefully, more righteous and just ontologies where the sources of the self are at the very least not simultaneously complicit with the conditions of degradation and suffering. I would insist on the difficulty of such a task, however. For it requires effectively extricating myself from myself, as it were – from what I have come to understand to be my ontological essence even though that essentialness remains merely the effect of a contingent naturalization.

In the end, what we can say is that if the brain’s suppositional status is a barometer, then let us treat it as such. If we seek to resist the many, and often surreptitious, ways we have become cerebralized, governed in and through our brains, then the success of that resistance, of unmooring ourselves from the brain’s suppositional status, will be marked by how less pressing it becomes to think of ourselves in neurological terms. If I call for the brain to be relegated to the rank of yet another vital organ, no more or less important than, say, the liver, what I mean is that I advocate for the re-anchoring of myself upon other ontological sources. For as it stands, the political, institutional, and economic constraints of the brain’s suppositional status today function more to promote market-oriented behaviours and attitudes than they do forms of equitable flourishing.

Nima Bassiri is a critical theorist, historian of the human sciences, and assistant professor at Duke University, where he teaches in the Program in Literature, Duke’s interdisciplinary humanities and cultural studies department. He is also co-director of Duke’s Institute for Critical Theory. His first book, Madness and Enterprise: Psychiatry, Economic Reason, and the Emergence of Pathological Value, will be published next year by Chicago University Press. Website:


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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