Friday, May 29, 2015

What should Christians do with their brains?

Not to replicate the caricature of the world: this is what we should do with our brain. To refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion.
Catherine Malabou
To cancel the fluxes, to lower our self-controlling guard, to accept exploding from time to time: this is what we should do with our brains. It is time to remember that some explosions are not in fact terrorist--explosions of rage, for example. Perhaps we ought to relearn how to enrage ourselves, to explode against a certain culture of docility, of amenity, of the effacement of all conflict even as we live in a state of permanent war. It is not because the struggle has changed form, it is not because it is no longer really possible to fight a boss, owner, or father that there is no struggle to wage against exploitation. To ask "What should we do with our brain?" is above all to visualize the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile. (What Should We Do With Our Brain?, 78-79)

Malabou's thesis is simple: recent science has given us a new basic description of the brain and how it functions, but our lack of awareness of this neurological (plastic) understanding of the brain controls us precisely by our lack of awareness.

We know the brain is massively plastic. Increasingly neuroscience informs the drugs we take, the decisions we make, the way we map the world and understand the world.

And yet..

A while back in an article for Word & World,  I took a stab at exploring the practice of idiosyncrasy as an aspect of resurrection in Christ, an analysis of Pauline theological and Christological motifs in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I continue fascinated by the role of holy fools and prophets in the life of faith.

Consider also that the higher one rises, the more authority one gains, the less freedom one has. Musicians who seek broad, popular appeal have to shrug off their distinctive stylings. Mumford & Sons drops their banjo. Taylor Swift loses her twang. Taylor Swift seems to have found herself a bit more in the process. Mumford, sadly, have lost themselves completely.

But you know what I mean, regardless of medium. Principled politicians race to the middle in order to get elected. Academics who take on administrative roles temper their academic freedom. Prophetic pastors dampen their advocacy for justice in order to appease disparate groups in their congregations. Middle children attempt, often successfully but to the detriment of their own psyche, not to self-differentiate too much.

You could make a rather convincing case for Jesus' crucifixion resulting from his unwillingness to conform to the rigid demands of society to be plastic, and instead Jesus "visualized the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile."

To be conscious of the plasticity of one's brain is to give oneself the means to say no. (Marc Jeannerod)

Jesus' brain kept his head up, until it killed him. Jesus was remarkable precisely in his freedom to say no.

Holy saints and fools of every age have followed suit, from stylites to anchorites to Óscar Romero. They have not allowed the world to take advantage of the plasticity of their brains. Instead they have, with self-differentiating stability, exploded on the stage with quietly massive plasticity.

If you don't quite believe me, just experiment with not doing something basically everyone else does. Don't say the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. I don't. Ever. Watch the world expect you, with overwhelming rigidity, to be more malleable, conform to the norm.

Perhaps this is a bad example, even a dangerous one. Any attempt at saying "no" to plastic demands will be qualified by self-doubts and re-appraisals. But idiosyncracy carries on. It plays the banjo even though there are less album sales. It remains libertarian and so fails to secure the presidency. It remains faithful in ways the world perceives as rigid, strange, perhaps even perverse.

It's an awkward path, and the prophetic can easily tip over into the provocative. Not every "no" is free. Sometimes we say "no" out of a strange type of negative conformity.

Self-differentiation is no easy achievement. It is an exercise for a life-time. Perhaps the mark of a self-differentiated brain that is free to say "no" to the demands of a culture that expects plasticity is one additional, but essential thing. It is a brain that can say "no" while at ease, with no anxiety. It is the calm at the center of a storm, except in this case, the eye of the storm is not a symptom of it, but rather the beginning of its overcoming.

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