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.
Kandel begins his book with a beautiful account of the salon culture of Bertha Bosch-Kanjel, whose home provided an important meeting place for artists such as Klimt and the members of her family, who were making important medical advances in Vienna's hospitals. But this salon culture was not the driving force of Austro-Hungarian culture, but rather a symptom of its nervous vitally and the limited control that its social elite, especially those with ties to the court, had over a vast and potentially fractious empire.
The origins of the “nervous splendor” (as Frederic Morton described it) of Austro-Hungary (not just Vienna) are far more complex than Kandel's idea that it was created by brilliant salons suggests, and such an idea has been refuted by all the major studies of the period, such as those of Schorske (1980), Le Rider (1993), and Allan and Toumlin (1973).
Suggesting as Kandel does that Austrian art is the product of Viennese cosmopolitanism is to ignore that this very cosmopolitanism was a tense accommodation of the conflicting forces of nationalism and imperialism that existed throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kandel presents Vienna's cultural elite as in control of their very fragile empire, but he ignores how conflicted this ruling elite was as to how to avoid the dangers of chaos deriving from nascent nationalism, and, most importantly, he ignores that their “sophistication” failed them and was in many ways a form of willed ignorance.
This incredibly diverse culture thrived for a very short period of time, and while it is certainly legitimate to claim as Kandel does that it is the birth place of expressionism, it is also possible to argue that the angst, what Kandel calls the “irrational, ” in the art of Kokosch k a and Klimt speaks to the socioeconomic fragility and moral hypocrisy of a society that was increasing ly aware that it had no future.
Despite its “brilliance,” it collapsed rapidly, first due to the problems of succession caused after the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and then because of a massive economic crisis in the late 19 th century that led both to a increased call for national autonomy from all of the 35 different ethnic groups within the empire, and most notoriously due to the instauration of anti- S emitism as the benchmark for the future of Austrian n ationalism : the more the Jews were repressed, the greater the chances of Austria surviving ; the more power they were given, the greater likelihood the state would collapse.
However glittering Vienna may have been (and Kandel is very nostalgic about it), no study of Austrian culture can really begin without at least mentioning these phenomena — enlightened sophistication combined with great hypocrisy and the impending sense of an apocalypse — in order to explain what Klimt, Kokosch k a, and Schiele in their painting, Schnitzler, Roth, and Zweig (1924) in their literature, and Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg in their music were responding to.
It is simply not plausible to suggest that the value of their art derives from some kind of objective, progressive, or enlightened attempt that they were making in order to extend the expressiveness of their artistic fields; rather, they were responding to a remarkable sense of social angst and uncertainty about the future of civilization and reason itself — and they were right.
The expression of emotion in the painting of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele that Kandel claims is derived from a new scientific understanding of human sexuality and particularly female subjectivity is far from the opening up a more optimistic view of the potential of men and women to appreciate their sexual desire, but rather the bitter fruit of the way in which the tensions within Austro-Hungary produced a culture that contained and thrive d upon the tension and opposition between conservative Catholicism and enlightenment liberalism — and the figure of the femme fatale was the most striking embodiment of this tension : women as both sexually desirable and threatening.
Rather oddly, Kandel makes no place for the discussion of religion in his discussion of the rejection of Klimt's art by the Austro-Hungarian establishment, and yet it was precisely his contempt of the influence of Catholicism that animated his remarkable friezes and led him to leave behind those painterly references that were so tied to the church's patronage of art.
In fact, the influence of religious ideology on painting and image making, particularly on Western a rt, is one of the more obvious instances of the ways in which visual art interprets or frames human experience in a way that is not related to the cognitive processing of “purely” retinal information. If it is the case that visual art is about “ cognitive recognition” of “unconscious emotion, ” as Kandel presupposes, then the abstract act that simultaneously emerged with expressionism (and was certainly more influential on the path of 20 th - century art) would be illegible — since its departure point is the invisible, rather than the visible.
As we can learn from his beautiful memoir In Search of Memory (2002), Kandel was a brilliant student who studied his countr y's history and collapse, not least because this had forced his parents to emigrate, like so many other Viennese, to New York in the 1930s. But perhaps because he has such (rightful) admiration for the culture of Vienna, and most particularly because he wants to persist with the thesis that the medical establishment exercised an enlightening influence on that society, he doesn't take the time to delineate the antagonistic tensions within the society.
Kandel's fundamentally romantic view of expressionism contributes to a considerable misreading of Austrian art criticism, deriving from the groundbreaking work of Alois Riegl (1902) and culminating in the work of his student, E. H. Gombrich, which he feels produced a new appreciation of art based again on the new neurological insight into perception provided by Austrian science. I suspect that specialist art historians would largely reject this reading of both Riegl's and Gombrich's (1960/2000) work, and despite making references to scholarly sources, Kandel, despite the fact that he is presenting a thesis as mammoth as that of the relation between art and the unconscious, largely ignores the way in which contemporary art historians struggle with the contribution, certainly immense, of Riegl to the discipline.
Unlike Kandel, Riegl was a historicist, and his main interest was to put art history o n a secure foundation of historical criticism, following as this did from Hegel's influence as well as the work of Dilthey. Riegl's vast historical studies allowed for a loosening of the kind of periodization of style, classical, baroque, romantic, and so on, which had been used by Wolf f lin to form the initial framework for the nascent discipline of art history.
In a rather bowdlerized version of history, these periods were used by connoisseurs and museum collectors, but Riegl aimed to replace them with a historicizing of the art object that could place it within a much wider context of a cultural moment defined by religious, political, and ethic al assumptions that all found their expression in the presentation of representations of style and value. It is unquestionably true that Rieg l's critical method led him to deconstruct the romantic notion of an ideal beauty and that as a consequence he defended Kokosch k a and others against the charge that their work was not “beautiful, ” but his criticism does not seem to have been derived in any way from advances in the biological sciences.
There is a link between German art critics and Austrian psychology, but it does not occur until the 1930s, with the research of the Kohlers, what came to be known as Gestalt psychology, and its influence on critics such as Arnheim who then argue d that the visual arts had to be seen in visual terms rather than as the expression of a cultural “geist”.
While Klimt's art or Riegl's criticism require a book unto themselves, it would also be helpful if Kandel present ed in more detail to a lay reader how contemporary research into brain functions confirm s Kandel's view of the appeal of the “beautiful. ”
Kandel details what he thinks the synapses are doing with the images that are first created within the eye, but surely when I look at something the ultimate designation of it as “beautiful” must be the consequence of a number of nonlinear associations, including ones that have to do with the subject' s relation to speech and language.
My reason for wishing for a stand-alone book on this subject is that Kandel's research is very original in that he confirms that we see “unconsciously. ” This would confirm why such a phenomena as hysterical blindness could occur, and shows the extent to which “seeing” is related to an “unconscious” drive activity — what psychoanalysis calls scopophilia— rather than being simply a cognitive function. This recognition of the role of the unconscious in seeing is a part of Kandel's wider acceptance of the existence of the u nconscious within terms that are very similar to Freud's work in the “Project for a Scientific Psychology.” Incidentally, this research certainly indicates that it is the first Freudian topic — the fundamental division of the subject between unconscious and conscious — that contemporary research on the brain confirms.
Finally, I don't believe it diminishes Kandel's obvious intelligence to suggest that he needs another book in which to further his speculative explorations of a new relation between science and art and, most importantly, why he thinks this would lead to a cultural renaissance. Such a book would require him to show a much greater awareness of the issues and achievements of contemporary art. There are a host of contemporary critics who have explored this domain, from Peter Gallison to Barbara Maria Stafford, even Bruno Latour, but Kandel seems to think that the first person to have considered an evaluation of the relation between the practices of the visual arts and neuroscience is himself. He rejects entirely a basic tenet that art criticism after Kant has managed to establish since its relatively recent emergence in the late 19 th century, which is that the concept of beauty changes even while the functioning of the eye and the brain have remained constant. While certain ancient works continue to fascinate us, other works that were once highly admired are now considered redundant ; therefore, the experience of art is not a constant due to evolutionary particularities.
By presenting his cultural criticism in th is way, Kandel has made it relatively immune to interrogation. Nobel Prize winners are allowed to publish pretty much what they want, but that doesn't mean that we should not question whether they have not overstepped their area of expertise. Kandel was awarded his prize for the study of the molecular basis of memory in the sea snail Aplysia.
Eric Kandel was born in Vienna in 1929, but was fortunate to have parents with the foresight and the means to send to send their two sons to New York, before the Anschluss with Germany began wreak its dreadful effect upon the Austro-Jewish community.
As a teenager in Brooklyn, as he writes in In Search of Memory, Kandel was immediately aware of having lost a world of artistic and scientific vitality the like of which Europe has never again witnessed. Although he was a child at the time, he was a member of an astonishingly talented diaspora of Austrian minds, including John Von Neuman, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenburg, and, of course, Sigmund Freud.
Kandel's early life experience generated in his adolescence a deep appreciation of the intersection of science, painting, music, and literature that had existed in Vienna even after World War I.
So deeply affected was he by the political cataclysm that he and his family had witnessed after 1930 that after an education both in a yeshiva, where he became fluent in Hebrew, and in a Brooklyn public high school, he went on to study history and politics at Harvard with a particular interest in analyzing the economic and political crisis that had contributed to the decline of liberalism, the rise of anti- Semitism, and ultimately the political union and full collaboration with Nazism. A brilliant student from a young age, he was able to also continue to study biology, which he eventually made his field of professional research.
But while a young man he also found a field that brought together his interest in history, science, and the humanities — psychoanalysis. Harvard had a t this time opened its doors to émigré psychoanalysts who did not conform to the American model of the medically trained, psychiatrically oriented analysts who dominated and dictated the doctrine of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
The two most notable of these psychoanalysts were Erik Erikson and Ernst Kris, both of whom had a background in and particularly strong interest in the visual arts. This was particularly the case with Kris, who had initially trained with the great art historian Ernest Gombrich, colleague of Aby Warburg and disciple of Alois Riegl. After undergoing analysis Kris began to practice and also to write extensively on the relation between psychoanalysis and the visual arts.
Kandel fell in love with Alice Kris, daughter of the art historian, and briefly with psychoanalysis. In fact, the brilliance of Kandel's work lies in the fact that unlike the majority of contemporary neuroscience, he not only appreciates Freud's work, but is also aware of the difference between the way in which Freud was attempting to make the subjectivity intelligible and the way in which modern science approaches the study of the subject.
In part because of the conservatism and rigidity of psychoanalysis in the U nited States in the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as the difficulty that American psychoanalysts had with the relation of analysis to science, Kandel turned to biological and neurological research.
Thus, it is from his direct experience with both psychoanalysis and art history that The Age of Insight originates, but it is in my opinion deeply nostalgic for a Viennese liberalism that certainly didn't exist without the repression of a great many contradictions and injustices.
The nostalgic and adulatory image of the Vienna Medical Hospital and the medical establishment in general plays down the rife anti- S emitism that greatly restricted the possibility of Freud and his fellow Jewish students from acquiring teaching positions that would have enabled them to continue their research. The nostalgic and contestable claims of the book is that this medical establishment contributed to a change in the way in which women were viewed in society, but in fact Freud was marginalized by this community for suggesting that hysteria was not caused by lesions or inherited traits.
While women's illness es are subjected to stud y, Kandel avoids discussing in any detail the remarkable story of Ignaz Semmelweiss, who at the Vienna Medical H ospital discovered the cause of pu er peral fever but whose research pointed literarily to the dirty fingers of the d octors who presided over the maternity ward ; like Freud, he was ostracized and forced out of this much - lauded community. Instead, he mentions the Semmelweis story as one of the hospital's achievements.
The treatment of women in the hospital betrayed all the prejudices and hypocrisy of the Viennese bourgeoisie, who far from being emancipated and enlightened, as Kandel characterizes them, were accepting of the widespread sexual enslavement of working - class women, as well as the denial that “respectable” Viennese men regularly infected their wives and children with syphilis.
This is why, for this reader, at least, Kandel's conviction that fin de siècle Vienna was a place of female emancipation, and that the work of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oscar Kokoschka played an important role in promoting a new image of female sexuality, is to actually reduce the very great importance that this work had on provoking, for example, Freud's reflection on the obscurity of feminine sexuality.
No viewer of Schiele can really believe his paintings were emancipatory or even validating of sexual desire. The painter was confronting his hated countrymen with the violence of their hypocrisy regarding sexuality, and his genius is that he depict s a horror about the carnal that is rather more truthful than a naïve humanism that claims that the sexual is solely life affirming and “healthy. ”
With respect to the “life-affirming” effects of some artists, Kandel suggests at one point in a very reductive discussion of Klimt's life that Klimt' s paintings reflect his many passionate and “life - affirming” relations with women, as well as his refusal to accept the hypocrisy of marriage. There is unlikely to be an art historian who can agree that it is women's emancipation that Klimt's paintings evoke, brilliant works of art as they doubtless are ; rather, it is instead the unveiling of male desire, with its double wish of being able to both possess and control the feminine.
What counts is the remarkable style that Klimt invented, one that was able to hold the tension of his ambivalence toward the feminine and the degree to which a new form of sexual rivalry and antagonism was framing the conditions of modernity. Kandel does not mention the sixteen women who appeared at Klimt's funeral claiming to have borne his children and hoping that the family of this brilliant painter, but very cold man, would somehow grant the ir children their rightful paternity. As we know, the family did not, nor had Klimt made any provision in his will to do so — so much for the emancipatory benefits of medicine and science on the artistic community.
Kandel uses the work of Alois Riegl as his benchmark for the highly debatable theory that the primary significance of painting is that it allows the viewer to better understand his or her own perceptual process, and in particular to distinguish visual illusion from visual fact.
In my view, t he importance of Riegl's work is that he draws our attention to the cultural significance of the tensions within the style of an artist like Kokosch k a, and that our aesthetic satisfaction and valuation of the painting derives from the artist' s creation of a style or language that so forcibly concentrates and delineates subjective experience. This is what great criticism tries to do — to draw our attention to something that we not only have not noticed, but that also has had a considerable influence on our comprehension of the phenomena that we presuppose to have importance.
The influences upon Riegl were not neuropsychological, and he was not directly influenced by Gestalt psychology ; instead, he was influenced by the philosophy of art proposed by Hegel and Burckhardt, whose idealism he dispensed with and replaced with a historical materialism that was decidedly non- Marxist and has subsequently been remarkably fruitful in the debate among art critics of the relation between the work of art and historical memory.
While I greatly admire Kandel's respect for Freud's identification of unconscious processes, I think that his misreading of art history is influenced by his early exposure to the work of Ernst Kris (1952), who studied with Riegl and Gombrich but went on to be better known as a psychoanalyst, and in particular an analyst who fully supported the major revision to Freudian theory undertaken by Anna Freud and Hans Hartmann.
Kandel spends the remaining 200 pages of his book providing the lay reader with a rapid update of all the brilliant research that irrefutably supports all of his earlier claims, which can be summarized simply.
Painting (which he repeatedly makes synonymous with art) is essentially telling us that we find things beautiful because on the one hand, they are orderly (Gombrich's thesis), and on the other hand, they evoke sexual gratification and desire. He gives us numerous examples of the kind of experiment that consist s of showing viewers an image and then correlating the image to some neuronal activity in the brain — which then confirms that the image is having some effect on the activity of either a motor function or a higher processing function. For Kandel, one of the most important contemporary artists is Chuck Close, because his practice of painting portraits in squares that mimic the retinal structure confirms the interrelation of the physiological information with artistic practices. One wonder s if he is aware of the work of Gerhard Richter?
Remarkable as Kandel's ability to master and retain all of these projects most certainly is, they do not add up to a coherent and hence aesthetically pleasing overview of the field — in fact, that has been done by Solms and Turnbull (2002) in a book that accepts that it is not the number of different research projects that helps the lay person understand what contemporary neuroscientists think they are up to, but rather an overview of the different kinds of questions they are trying to answer.
Many of the projects that Kandel discusses rather ironically suggest that the scientists are posing questions in a rather naïve manner — such as, “ Why do we find such and such horrifying or ugly to look at?” —and hen answering it with some data drawn from brain imaging that clearly indicates that the imagery was being processed in an area of the brain that they had previously concluded was where responses to “fearful” situations was being processed. They already had the answer before they posed the question — it happens in the brain.
Finally, it is worth restating that Kandel is a remarkable researcher and a profoundly educated scientist in an era where public statements by scientists are often indifferent to the singularity of subjective experience. In my view, the problem with his thesis about art derives from a theoretical conviction that the function of memory is the processing of information and that its value derives from its ability to distinguish the actual from the illusory.
If he were a little more Freudian, he might reconsider the framing of experiments that aim to explain memory functions that can generally be categorized as either short-term or long - term, but instead consider that memory is an archeology of the traces of experience that have been repressed and that we can have an experience of an “involuntary” memory that enables us to reconstitute an experience that we had repressed from our conscious memory of who we are. Thus, what causes this retrieval to occur is not the need for information about the external world, but rather the possibility of a radical break with how we experience both our internal and external world. Remembering is always related to a certain form of forgetting, for which we have no neuronal signal, and unfortunately we will not invest much in searching for it.
For Kandel, the “illusory” aspect of art has to be given a cognitive function ; otherwise, he cannot comprehend his own deep appreciation of it. The poignant beauty of this contradiction in his own subjective position is lovingly illustrated by his inclusion of a photograph of his wife in his discussion of the importance in the apprehension of beauty of the role of symmetry.
Perhaps he simply wanted to send a love letter to his wife by including this photograph and didn't mean it to be an illustration of his thesis at all, but actually it does illustrate the subjective truth of his own contradictions. His wife Denise is singularly beautiful to him (he dedicates the book to her), but to another man she might not be beautiful at all — regardless of how symmetrical her features are. Furthermore, what we see is not Denise, but a photograph of her, and the question for an art critic is — what value does this style of photography and representation have for us culturally and politically?
Kandel continues to make important contributions to the revision of our current psychiatric education. In the textbooks that he worked on during the time he was involved in research on the location of “memory” in the cortical region, he rightly reproached American psychoanalysts for their intellectual resistance to insights from other fields of scientific research, particularly neurology.
The problem s with the narrow vision of psychoanalysis and psychiatry in the United States are social and political, but Kandel does not want to acknowledge this, just as he does not want to see that among the beauties of Vienna there w as also horror. What kept Adolf Hitler in Vienna was his love for its design and art, and while he was no fan of Klimt, he certainly devoted himself to painting charming street scenes and hoped that he might become a stage designer.
Kandel has considerable enthusiasm for the role of market forces in supporting scientific research, despite the fact that these same market forces prevent thousands of schizophrenics from receiving even adequate care. Another poignant instance of this refusal to acknowledge any dialectical movement within knowledge is the way in which Kandel's research into schizophrenia was recently hailed and praised because of his conviction that rapid progress might now be possible because the illness can be simulated in rats.
The business of psychopharm a cology, neurosurgery, and electrochemical treatments are founded on the search for “universal” solutions to subjective experience. This belief and search for a universal knowledge of subjective experience is most distinctly revealed in the final section of Kandel's book.
Convinced as he is that neuroscience can explain aesthetic feelings and that as a consequence of being able to explain aesthetic responses we are therefore on the verge of a great breakthrough in our understanding of the emotional life of humans, he is completely oblivious to the obvious : that while we are certainly the subjects of modern science and its way of examining the macro and micro structures of our existence, modern art, even granting its diverse definitions, assumes its importance on the level of a pure difference from the universal of science.
While it is completely tenable to hold the view that certain artistic endeavors converge with certain scientific conceptions of experience, the very value of art lies in the fact that the artist is not constrained by the attempt to universalize his or her own experience.
Kandel seems to share an inability on the part of the neuroscientific community to engage sufficiently enough in the humanities to see that they have disciplinary practices that, even though they are not experimental or empirical, are nevertheless rigorous.
Eric Kandel is far superior in his erudition than many of his fellow scientists, but he remains overconfident that he has found the Holy Grail when i t comes to understanding the brain and the beholder's experience of art.
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