This past weekend, I attended the majority of a conference called “The Phsycopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism”, which my program at CalArts co-hosted. A great three days of events, which included the author of one of my favorite books of theory, Franco “Bifo” Berardi as the keynote speaker, left my brain stuffed, both excited and exhausted.
A variety of speakers presented their various approaches to the concept laid out by the title of this conference, but what I want to discuss here has to do with only one of them: psychiatrist and neurobiologist Bruce Wexler.
Dr. Wexler was invited to speak at this conference of critical theorists probably for a variety of reasons that I can only speculate about. What I do know is that we read one of his texts on brain plasticity in class, in conjunction with a text by Catherine Malabou–a prominent thinker in the field of theory–on the same subject (albeit from a more critical/philosophical view than a biological/scientific one). The connection between a theorist and a scientist had been made, both in the pairing of readings in our class and in the invitation extended to a scientist to come and present at a theory conference. Now, there are a lot of titles being thrown around here, many of them meaningless. To generalize, we can say that a scientist presented his work at a kind of philosophy conference.
I say a kind of philosophy conference because it is important to note that many of the theorists we are reading tend to avoid the philosophical distinction, as it tends to imply both a background in certain a certain western/continental cannon and also because philosophers traditionally have been seen as above or at least outside of the cultural and political concerns of real people in society. The theorists we’ve been reading–and who appeared at the conference–rather work primarily within the realm of our cultural “moment”, usually by analyzing as wide a variety of subjects as possible–from Pixar animations to contemporary art. This distinction will become important in my argument for this type of cross-disciplinary interest, which is entirely lacking in a more philosophical distinction.
It is in this context that Dr. Wexler, a scientist, presented his work. I don’t want to spend the time describing the nature of his presentation in too much depth, but essentially Dr. Wexler, among many other projects, has put his studies in brain plasticity to use in low-achieving schools via computer and exercise programs targeted at increasing cognitive capacities in 5-9 year-olds. His work has achieved wide success, as well as the NIH Director’s award for “high impact, high innovation, paradigm-changing medical research”.
You can read more about his work if you like. The point is this: despite his demonstrated success at helping young people, and indeed at helping people in general through his career as a doctor, Dr. Wexler was met with criticism from the audience at the conference. The details don’t matter much for my argument here either, so I’ll continue to generalize; essentially, the audience at a conference dedicated to exploring avenues for undermining the forces of cognitive capitalism (read: neoliberalism, semio-capitalism, the digital/creative economy, et. al.) balked at Dr. Wexler’s terminology, and the overall implication that teaching kids to think better via computer technology would prepare them for success in this poisoned society–to succeed at the very digital labor that the entire conference had gathered to undermine. (Indeed, at the very labor whose conditions, it could be argued, created a generation of kids with ADHD in the first place, etc, etc.)
I certainly agree with many of the criticisms raised at Dr. Wexler’s talk. But I was surprised both at the level of criticism that Dr. Wexler seemed to face in his Q&A (which seemed less considerate and more antagonistic) and also with the lingering disdain for his entire presentation that I encountered when talking to my peers afterward.
As “critical” theorists, I wonder if there isn’t a bias towards approaching a new text or idea precisely from the side of criticism, moving towards acceptance only with an extremely compelling argument. I am not suggesting that such a critical stance is not valuable; in many ways, theory would be impossible without it. I am only suggesting that there is a limit and a context in which criticism might be practiced. Theorists are trained to find the hidden flaws, the cracks in the veneer of arguments that may be problematic, knowingly or unknowingly. But there is a difference between uncovering connections that haven’t been made, and imposing a critical stance on a work–an un-nuanced act at a time when nuance is demanded.
One such case was this scenario with Dr. Wexler. When he used the phrase “digital laborer”, everyone in the audience gaped wide-eyed at his brazenness. But of course it was obvious that Dr. Wexler, unaware of the implications and loaded histories of such terms, was using these words–not thoughtlessly, no–but within another discursive field entirely. Anyone taking the time to accept Dr. Wexler’s thoughts on their own terms would have gotten much less in their own way in attempts to engage the Doctor’s work.
I wonder therefore if a position could be practiced in which the question is not so much “Where are the flaws?” but rather “Where is the good?”. Every text, no matter how problematic, has within it, if thoughtfully written, concepts that are useful. These virtues perhaps go under or un emphasized, since it is easy to dismiss something in totality that doesn’t please us in part.
That Dr. Wexler does tangible good helping kids (as one of his projects) is a given. That he was met with such resistance at a conference outside his field–which he attended in good faith for the advancement of a cross-disciplinary idea; where he repeatedly responded to criticism with humility and grace, saying “That’s why I’m here. If you can help me make it better, I want to make it better”–is a shame. I am most probably exaggerating the tension in the room. But nevertheless, as a site for consideration, I would like to rephrase something said once at school, which is that we are all trying to do the same good work. And in that vein, even if an argument is made using the opposite all of our internal principles, we must treat our enemies gently. In this case, the theorists at the conference were working from one end of the spectrum–attempting to consider radical alternatives to cognitive capitalism–while Dr. Wexler did the same work from the other end, by cleaning up the mess.
I truly believe that a conference such as this is one of the only sites in the academic realm where disciplines such as neurobiology, art, and political theory can come together and learn from each other. We should value that rare stage we’ve erected and the bridges built from it. Scientists with an understanding of the social, cultural, and political implications of their work; cultural theorists with an arsenal of both scientific and artistic experiences to draw from–these are simply the beginnings of possible outcomes of extended and cultivated critical generosity.
And if all this seems obvious, it should be.