Wednesday, 10 December 2014


Simply put, neurofundamentalism is the belief that brains are creators. Where traditional theists believe in an all powerful God, neurofundamentalists believe in all powerful brains. But where traditional theists struggle against scientific materialism, neurofundamentalists fully embrace science in the certain conviction that it will eventually be confirmed that brains create images, models and symbols. Whilst neurofundamentalists await revelation from the gods of neuroscience, they draw attention to their sacred neurological equivalent of the Turin shroud ("grid cells" and "place cells") and declare these as solemn proof of the capacity of brains to generate their own tools. Yes tools. For what are models and images if not tools? But neurofundamentalists go much further than this. Not only do they claim that brains construct models and images, but according to neurofundamentalists, they also trade in some of the most sophisticated tools ever to have been devised by culture: symbols, signs and codes.

Like their traditional counterparts, neurofundamentalists come in various creeds, from idealists who are unshakeable in their conviction that everything we experience is a construct of the brain, to those of a more moderate persuasion who claim that brains only construct models if and when the need arises.

As preposterous as any of this may sound, it is a matter of demonstrable fact that neurofundamentalism is the current orthodoxy in the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind. The opponents of neurofundamentalism, on the other hand, are a small, fragmented and largely ignored minority. And like any reasonable people these thinkers also look to science and reason for evidence. Unlike neurofundamentalists though, they know that the search for what-was-never-there is a futile enterprise. In more than half a century of careful searching, not a single symbol has ever been found in any of the countless brains examined in this quest for the holy grail of neurofundamentalism.

It should be perfectly obvious that tool-use only evolves where intelligent agents are surrounded by raw materials and are fully embedded within fluctuating and often hostile environments populated by other intelligent competing organisms. Brains are not agents, their environment is relatively stable, they have no access to raw materials and they are in no direct competition with other intelligent organisms. There is no way in the world that brains are capable of constructing models, forming images or of generating and encoding symbols. These are the exclusive products and techniques of cultural evolution, not biological evolution. The necessary evolutionary antecedents of culture are completely different from those of biology. 

Whenever a theory assumes that biology can do what culture has become capable of doing under very different circumstances we should be on our guard because it is very likely that a vital distinction has been missed. Let's hope that neurofundamentalism is not as tenacious as its more traditional equivalents.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

"Get a Life" by Donald Brook: A Review

This review was originally published in Artlink Magazine Vol.34 No.3 here.

Get a life is a deceptive book, not because its author seeks to misdirect the reader, nor because he is in any way naive about the implications of his theories, but because the ideas it contains are so entertainingly and unthreateningly presented, yet on close examination they turn out to have teeth — sharp ones.

This new ebook by the British-Australian art theorist Donald Brook is a compendium of papers, articles and biographical recollections that trace Brook's developing thought from the mid 1960's to the present day. The various "perls" (a pun on the computer programming language), as he calls them, are strung together with chronological recollections of Brook's many involvements with the Australian artworld during the same period as well as several descriptions of other formative, informative, extraordinary, exasperating and sometimes poignant episodes and encounters.

For the last 50 years Brook has been weaving together various closely interrelated strands of conceptual analysis leading to the formulation of a body of theories with significant implications for our understanding of art, culture and perception — issues that are as relevant today as they ever were. Whether a modest ebook is the most appropriate or impactful means of disseminating these ideas remains to be seen, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the contents of this offering apply merely to the production, theory and consumption or artworks or even to the wider machinations of the artworld. Even a brief scan should be sufficient to persuade even the most skeptical reader that this book is packed with ideas, thought-provoking challenges to orthodoxy and even several powerful conceptual tools that could easily keep a diligent theorist employed for a very long time indeed.

Such glowing remarks beg a glaring question: if Brook has been a prominent and widely published member of the Australian artworld and his ‘perls’ have frequently been dispersed in international waters then why is he almost completely unknown outside Australia? It is tempting to jump to some scathing conclusions here about the narrow focus of the Anglo American outlook but whilst there is probably some truth in this conclusion I suspect that the factors involved are more complex than such a superficial response would suggest. 

The period of Brook's principal activity coincides with one in which Continental philosophy in general and Post-Structuralism in particular have held considerable attractions for many artists and art theorists. The clear reverberations of this cultural trend can still be discerned amongst much contemporary art and art criticism, yet throughout this period Brook's allegiances have remained firmly within the Analytic tradition, a tradition known more for its asceticism and restraint than its ability to enthral, entertain or even to mystify. The artworld isn't exactly renowned for its preoccupation with clarity, conceptual precision and disciplined enquiry and this presents a difficulty for any theorist aligned more with Wittgenstein, Ryle and J. L. Austin than Barthes, Derrida or Merleau-Ponty. This is not to say that Brook's writings are arid tracts with humble ambitions, quite the reverse, but what it does mean is that his rejection of much that is held sacred both within the Continental as well as the Analytic traditions of philosophy leaves him with few allies in the philosophy camp. Little wonder then that he continues to describe himself an artist and art theorist. But this also inevitably puts him into conflict with advocates of the transcendence of art or its intrinsic alterity and ineffability. Brook's claims are at once more substantial and more insightful and by diligent means he takes the careful reader on a journey that leads to some extraordinarily revealing realisations about the intimate and inextricable relations between representation, perception art and culture.

One of the most important additions to the toolkit of any bona fide pearl hunter is a implement for levering apart the two halves of shells that stubbornly conceal their contents. Over the years Brook has developed an uncanny knack of driving a critical wedge between what are commonly regarded as indivisible entities, of making distinctions where only ambiguity reigns. In the 1960’s he began to focus his attention on a curious division commonly encountered in commentaries on sculpture. In the paper "Perception and the Critical Appraisal of Sculpture" (1969) Brook describes how commentators often adopt one of two distinct forms of descriptive strategy that he defines as "Object Accounts" or "Picture Accounts". It turns out that these two approaches are the linguistic face of two radically different procedures of nonverbal representation, procedures that inform our everyday speech to a significant degree. Moreover, Picture Accounts are the result of cultural innovations of the kind exemplified by the 15h Century discovery of perspective and—incidentally—are centrally implicated in the perplexities of many optical illusions. Many such techniques that we now take for granted were completely unknown in ancient times, for example the knack of using blue pigments to depict aerial perspective. Only in recent years has it been confirmed — thus corroborating Brook's thesis — that colour perception for example is significantly informed by the cultural emergence of skills and materials capable of enhancing our genetically inherited capacities.

The emphasis on cultural innovation in Brook's thought is crucial and leads to several other important insights, perhaps the most prominent of which is a theory of what art actually is: an old canard perhaps but one that finds new life under Brook's discriminating lens. Brook argues that the artworld has a vested interest in claiming that art is a unique commodity that inheres only in works of art, whereas art is in fact the emergence of previously unexpected skills of human ingenuity that, once discovered, can subsequently be repeated and refined. Computer games, perspective, nicotine patches, photographs, particle accelerators, sculptures and even new forms of crime are all products of art. Whether these artefacts of art will be accepted by the artworld as works of art is, of course, a question that actually has very little to do with art. Furthermore, what follows, as Brook is quick to clarify, is the realisation that there is no such thing as art history, only the "construction of a rag-bag of stories about the ways in which certain loosely related cultural kinds have emerged, have changed, and have eventually been superseded."

Inevitably the arguments are more subtly nuanced than a brief summary can possibly elucidate but it should be apparent that this ebook has a lot to offer anyone interested in getting to grips with issues that have stymied philosophers and art theorists for centuries. Theories of all kinds should be measured by their ability to enable insights and to explain puzzles that have so far eluded our best efforts. Ideally they should also be clear and the examples they provide, vividly accessible. Get a Life succeeds admirably in doing so and into the bargain we also get several other gems including one of the most ludicrously funny yet shockingly chilling recollections ever to have graced the pages of a book of theory. "Depravity in Wharfdale" is a masterpiece of storytelling that will leave you breathless with its laughable grotesquery.

Brook can certainly spin a yarn, but even though Get a Life is frequently entertaining his intention is clearly not to regale us nor to showcase his linguistic or critical prowess but to provide an opportunity for close scrutiny of radical ideas that are in genuine need of serious critical attention. Inevitably there are times where the measured discussion betrays a hint of irritation at the paucity of critical reception of his work but it is clear that Brook has more pressing repercussions to explore than to become embroiled in petty bickering or bitterness.

Get a Life is an immensely intelligent book. It is witty but never cocky, eloquent but never showy, insightful but never boastful, and challenging but never laboured. Of course, you will want to draw your own conclusions. I can only recommend that you get a copy (here).