The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (Book Review)

Author: Eric Kandel
Publisher: New York: Random House
Reviewed by: By Mark Stafford, 652 pp., 2012

The title of Eric Kandel's latest book offers a double reference to the intentions of the author: on one side is a brilliant attempt to capture the dynamic level of exchange between science and art that existed in Vienna from1880 until the exodus of Austrian artists and scientists prior to the Anschluss with Germany, and on the other is a wish to introduce the lay reader to the new level of insight that contemporary neuroscientists have about the relation of the brain to psychic experience.

With astonishing erudition, from the history of art through to medicine and psychoanalysis, Kandel traces the evolution of neurology from the late 19 th - century research hospitals of Europe to our contemporary “age of insight ” and the 21 st-century prospect of a new level of appreciation of the relation between mind, brain, and body.

The research of neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks (2010), R. V. Ramachandran (2012), Michael Gazzaniga, J. Le D oux (2002), and Francis Crick (1994), among others, have culminated in an ever - increasing tide of books that aim to show the lay reader what the title of Steven Pinker's (2001 /2009) book boldly stated : How the Brain Works.

While philosophers such as John Searle, Thomas Nagel, and Paul Churchland continue to debate the borderline between brain and consciousness, neuroscientists are predisposed to support the philosophical position of Daniel Dennett, whose book Consciousness Explained (1991) was one of the first comprehensive overviews of the field, that consciousness has indeed been explained.

Unlike many neuroscientists, however, Kandel has retained his deep and long - held belief that Freud's work constitutes an immensely important foundation for this new science. In Kandel's view, Freud's speculative theory of the relation between conscious and unconscious process, the use of a topology of psychic activity that distinguished between “I,” “ it,” and “Over-I,” was scientifically justifiable because the scientific instruments that Freud might have used to develop his neurological insights into, for example, aphasia were neither available or even conceivable. This makes The Age of Insight an indispensible work for anyone who is interested in the relation of neuroscience to the practice of psychoanalysis.

Kandel is a supremely ambitious thinker, and at times the range of phenomena that he wishes to account for can leave the reader sensing that his arguments and interpretations, particularly about forms of cultural production, might be more telling if they were elaborated with rather more consideration to the extensive scholarly literature that exists on, for example, the art of Gustav Klimt or the position of women in fin de si è cle Vienna.

Nobel Prize w inners (at least in the sciences) are very busy people. Kandel would rather the reader get the whole picture than worry too much about where the argument might require more careful attention to “semantic” issues. Scientists who write about art, Kandel included, often ignore what they consider to be “unnecessary” attention to questions of definition, preferring to believe instead that the cultural facts speak for themselves.

Nevertheless, weaving together contemporary laboratory research that includes evolutionary, genetic, chemical, neurological, and psychological approaches, Kandel envisions a “new science” that will not only find ways to ameliorate illnesses such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and schizophrenia, but also answer the major questions of human subjectivity — including, as he claims to do this in this book, explain ing why art is important to us.

Due to both National Institute of Mental Health and corporate pharmacological funding, neuroscience is now probably larger than any other field in science. Kandel's book is particularly timely with regard to the claims that neuroscientists make to be able to understand not just the functioning of the brain, the neuronal-perceptual apparatus, and consciousness itself, but also the functioning of society, sexual relations, parenting, and even economic activity. Hopefully the book can become something of a clarion call for those who would like to see the “century of the mind” devote some of this vast treasury of government funds to phenomena that are certainly of the intellect, such as poetry or music, but are not empirically testable.

In the eyes of many neuroscientists, all human activity can be studied within a neuroscientific frame, and our understanding of these phenomena will be the better for it. Vast and brilliant as Kandel's work on fin de siècle Vienna and its formative influence on modernity may be, it reveals that there is an element of hubris in this claim.

While there are many aspects of the neuroscien tific conception of human subjectivity that need to be questioned, I have chosen in this review to merely highlight where some areas of Kandel's analysis of Viennese culture indicate that the very concepts that neuroscience uses frequently reproduce a naïve conception of art as having a specific use value, and that this is a symptom of the limitation of even the most sophisticated neuroscientists, whose theoretical framework is overdetermined by the fundamental idea that any human action can eventually be determined to be rooted in an evolutionary or genetic determinant.

Whil e the field of genetics has a distinct material object to map, namely, DNA, neuroscience claims the brain as its object. However, “the brain” is also one of the tools that is actually be ing used in the research itself, and since the relation between brain and mind always provokes massive debate among neurologists, philosophers, and most other serious students of the human condition, the field of neuroscience is basically as wide as any researcher wants it to be. I know a very up - to - date classicist who is getting funding offers on the basis that his analysis of the role of masks in ancient Greek drama is confirming the kind of research that neuroscience is conducting on facial recognition.

While a generalized fear of neuroscience would be absurd, neuroscience is based up on the interrelation between the chemical and electrical activity within the brain, the relation of this activity to our various forms of perception, and the interrelation between our own body and the external world, and thus it easily leads to the misperception that it is The Science of everything. This is especially true when it refuses to examine the legitimate claim that neuroscience is itself determined by cultural forces, ideologies, economic structures, and limitations that shape the way it identifies the objects of its study.

Kandel's approach is very important in that he confirms that neuroscience needs to acknowledge the importance in understanding the human of the work of the artist — just as Kandel's first guide, Freud, always reminded us.

While Kandel might join Howard Gardner in announcing The Mind' s New Science (1987), the interests of neuroscience are not actually new ; rather, they have always been at the center of scientific psychology, and have contributed to some of the main philosophical and anthropological questions. The dramatic increase in research in this field is not that these questions have suddenly become more pertinent and fascinating. S eventeenth - century philosopher-scientists like Locke, Hobbes, and Descartes were just as interested in them as we are ; however, the real change is that new technologies, particularly the f MRI, are providing us with ways to map the neuronal activities in the human brain, with previously unavailable precision.

In addition to providing a brilliant overview of the promises offered by contemporary neuroscience, Kandel offers an appreciation of the ongoing importance of Austro-Hungarian culture that can stand alongside the notabl e work of Carl Schorske (1980), Jacques Le Rider (1993), and Allan Janik and Stephen Toumlin (1973), who, among a host of more specialist students, have provided readings of Austrian art, music, literature, and culture.

However, there is a major difference between Kandel's book and the critical approach used in these studies. They make use of the long history of humanistic interpretation founded upon the act of dialectical reading. In such a reading, the use of an interpretative concept — such as modernism — is provisionally used as a way to elaborate the specificity of a painting or work of literature, whereas Kandel, despite his deep love of literature and art, is also drawn to a form of scientific positivism that claims that cultural productions illustrate scientific insights (or are derived from them). The claims of art historians can be equally self-confirming when they suggest, for example, that an artist is “essentially a postmodernist, ” but both strategies are highly reductive as a consequence of the conviction that they have located the Holy Grail.

Kandel's analysis of his beloved painters, Kokosch k a and Klimt, is a case in point. For Kandel the subject of a painting is secondary to the style of the painting, because he presumes that the artist is somehow painting the picture in order to represent something in the world as well as his perception of that something in the world.

However, it doesn't occur to Kandel, despite his own acknowledgement of the role of the unconscious, that it is often the case that the cultural value of a painting may emerge years after it has been painted, and that it might be perceived as important for reasons other than those that the artist might have had at the time. This is notably the case with Klimt, whose great friezes in the Vienna Medical Hospital, far from being expressions of Klimt' s indebtedness to medical imagery, as Kandel thinks, were widely rejected at the time by th e medical community. Kandel takes note of this, but does not want to account for it in any detailed manner, because it would reveal the prejudice of the Austrian medical establishment, rather than the emancipatory role that Kandel wants to argue that the friezes had.

So ambitious is Kandel's attempt to synthesize Austrian scientific and artistic culture that I think it is beholden of the lay reviewer of the work to prepare the reader for the fact that each of the five major divisions that Kandel makes in his own magnum opus could have become (and in my opinion require) a separate book.

Kandel is perhaps so involved with the host of very large - scale projects he oversees — including a major one in which he is “modeling” schizophrenia in mice — that he would prefer to deliver a doorstop of a book to which the lay reader must uncritically succumb. But no reader of Schorske (1980), Le Rider (1993), or Janik and Toumlin (1973) would ever feel that the points that they were making about the Viennese were not up for alternative interpretation and reading, and there is a sense that Kandel is holding his reader hostage to one overarching thesis.

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