Frieze: Mind Reader by Michael Sayeau

„In his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921) T.S. Eliot famously described a historical shift in our psychology; he labelled this the ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Something happened during the 17th century, according to Eliot, that tore feeling away from thought, injecting a terminal and increasingly neurotic self-awareness into human experience. While Eliot didn’t delve deeply into the historical context that underwrote the aesthetic change that he detected, it’s hard not to match his findings with the story of the early development of capitalism (and the alienation it produces) that Karl Marx and so many others described.

Modern art and literature have long been preoccupied with the relationship between aesthetic reflexivity and the alienation from everyday life in a rapidly changing world. New forms of communication and transformation disrupt our senses of space and time, while developments in the human sciences call into question many of the age-old ways in which we have understood who we are. While this is, to a certain extent, a perennial theme of modern experience, something new is also afoot. As Ewa Hess and Hennric Jokeit, among others, have recently argued, the emergence of ‘neurocapitalism’ – the entanglement of capitalism with the science and medicine of the mind via the pharmaceutical industry and ideologies of performance – has resulted in a new form of alienation that is significantly different from prior forms of self-estrangement.

In short, we increasingly can’t help but understand – as Hess and Jokeit have it – ‘melancholy as serotonin deficiency, attention as the noradrenalin-induced modulation of stimulus-processing and, not least, love as a consequence of the secretion of centrally-acting bonding hormones.’ When it is serotonin reuptake, rather than emotion, that is remembered in tranquility, the artist or writer is faced with a dilemma even more resistant to aesthetic representation than those faced by the artists of the past, as artistic sublimity itself runs into the wall of a cold, chemical materialism. This aesthetic dilemma maps in turn an emergent existential dilemma faced by anyone whose daily life is lived in the midst of neurocapitalism, in which it becomes ever more difficult to understand happiness in terms other than those that provide the taglines of multi-million dollar pharmaceutical PR campaigns (such as Pfizer’s original television adverts for Zoloft, the erectile dysfunction cure, that famously frame each year’s Superbowl: ‘When you know more about what’s wrong, you can help make it right’).

One of the places where the strange effects of this transformation have appeared is in the novel. As Marco Roth observes in his 2009 essay in n+1, ‘Rise of the Neuronovel’: ‘What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel – the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind – has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain.’ Roth begins his piece with a surprisingly long – though not exhaustive – list of works that have appeared (and the psychopathologies covered) in this new genre: ‘Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love [1997] (De Clérambault’s syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional “presiding psychiatrist” and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn [1999] (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [2001] (autism), Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker [2006] (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday [2005] (Huntington’s disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances [2008] (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray’s Lowboy [2009] (paranoid schizophrenia).’

Speculating about why ‘so many writers try their hands and brain’ at this new subgenre, Roth writes that – with the exhaustion of the theoretical ‘linguistic turn’, which purported that there is nothing outside the text, Freudian psychology and the rise of clinical psychopharmacology – there seems to be an increasing tendency to explain ‘approximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity’.“

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