My attention was recently drawn to the Knit a Neuron project at Bristol University established by Anne Cooke and Helen Featherstone. The project, aimed at public engagement with science, invited participants to craft a brain cell in the rich artistic medium of wool. This turns out to be a larger movement which goes far beyond philosophical wooliness to rethinking the relationship between art and science. (Have a look also at the Art-Science research project being conducted by Aberystwyth colleagues Deborah Dixon, Libby Straughan and Harriet Hawkins.) And just last weekend, there was a ‘cosmic craft’ event at the Science Museum where people collectively experimented with knitting the solar system and geometric shapes.
What has this got to do with soft paternalism, behaviour change, and this here geography-inspired blog, I hear you ask. Interestingly, a group of geographers (Doreen Jakob, Hayden Lorimer, Kendra Strauss and Nicola Thomas) has recently instigated a novel discussion on the Geographies of Craft and Crafting, which is to be a conference session at the 2011 Association of American Geographers Annual Conference. This exciting session will examine, amongst other things, the re-emergence of craft as a cultural and economic movement; craft, labour and social reproduction; and ‘craftivism’ and the politics of craft and crafting.
Yes, but what has that got to do with soft paternalism and changing cultures of governing? The advent of neural knitting may be just another incarnation of the ‘new neuros’ currently sweeping political, economic, cultural and social explanation. It will not have escaped your attention that the neurosciences have acquired something of an elite status in contemporary thought – both academic and popular. Neuroscientific expertise is mobilised in all manner of ways, from neuroeducation, neuromarketing to neuroeconomics. And public policymakers are increasingly looking to neuroscientific insights in developing more supple and sophisticated forms of governing which go with the grain of human cognition, as noted in the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government’s 2010 publication, MINDSPACE. Even human geographers are in on it, with ‘geographers of affect’ readily adopting neural explanations of (pre-)cognition, embodied and emotional rationalities, and economic geographers adopting evolutionary, neurobiological and behavioural revelations in their accounts of – for instance – the global financial crisis, or the location of firms.
My question is whether all these new neuros add up to something called neurocapitalism – one in which the economic orthodoxies of capitalism are re-imagined through the biological certainties of the brain sciences (arguably economic and biological theories have always been closely intertwined). If so, should we be worried about it? Could neurocapitalism produce new neuro-citizens? Do behaviouralist cultures of governing reinforce economic inequalities by segmenting irrational and rational publics? Are fears (or so-called ‘neurophobias’) of strategies of intervention, manipulation and management of the emotions and decision making justified? If the debate about human consciousness is over (as some prominent neuroscientists would have us believe), then why do we keep on acting as if we are active subjects able to make history, change futures and refuse to submit?
Is neuroknitting a slippery slope…?