Life and Death in the Nervous System: A Review of Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s ‘Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age’

James Rakoczi reviews Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Unraveling is about facilitated communication, regimes of personhood, and just how far our nervous systems reach. It argues that it is both wrong and harmful to conceptualise neurological conditions as disorders of the individual. Instead, they are states of being which signify the fundamental role of interrelatedness and care in all social communication as well as in the production of subjectivity itself. Anthropologist Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s previous work conducted similarly unravelling investigations into the alleged asociality of biological states, e.g., his fantastic Slumbering Masses. To my literary critical delight, this book marks Wolf-Meyer’s turn to life-writing as a resource which can help construct ‘a countergenealogy of the brain, neuroscience, and neurological disorder’ (p. 30).

Wolf-Meyer builds his argument by presenting various U.S.-published memoirs of coma, autism, deafness, and aphasia – categories chosen to deliberately ‘sit uneasily under the rubric of neurological disorder’ (p. xiii) – in order to advocate for ‘an affective theory of subjectivity that is fundamentally cybernetic’ (p. 5). Cybernetics, writes Wolf-Meyer, ‘offers a way to displace the reductivism of neuroscientific materialism and replace it with an understanding of disorder as an interpretation of the combined material relations between the body and its environment’ (p. 30). It will herald a more inclusive world for disabled and divergent subjects, an ‘affective bioethics’ attuned to reciprocity rather than value-based judgements about quality of life, and it will instruct the formation of ‘a politics of care to come’ (p. 252). In this review, I will make the case that both Unraveling’s strengths and points of contention lie within this optimism. Wolf-Meyer presents cybernetics as a liberatory power, disrupting the violence of contemporary neurological understanding by decentring norm-governed conceptions of subjectivity. This invests cybernetics with a counterhegemonic spirit which I am unsure reflects the complex history that entangles the brain with systems theory. I suggest conversely that cybernetics was always neurology’s other half, modelling the human brain through holistic imbrication in socioecological systems. Equally embroiled in neurology’s troubled genealogies of disorder, can cybernetics really be asserted as the grounds of a neurological revival?

This is not to suggest the book does not probe the uneven power relations of neurological knowledge production. There are nuanced if surprisingly sympathetic discussions of controversial neurologists such as Harry Harlow and José Delgado. Furthermore, in the book’s opening chapter, Wolf-Meyer redescribes the case of Phineas Gage, the nineteenth-century railroad construction worker who survived an iron rod being propelled through his brain, as a neuro-capitalist fairy-tale only retrospectively constructed in twentieth-century neuroscience textbooks. Gage’s infamous personality change, from considerate worker to irritable dropout, highlights that the desire to reduce behaviour to brain states conceals a deeper desire to posit “normal” brain function as wedded to the labour-production of value. Such brain-centric readings in turn fail to sufficiently explain Gage’s experiences. Chapter Two posits a further reductionism complicit with the ableism suggested in this brain reductionism. This is the reductionism of the ‘symbolic subject’ who achieves recognition only through successful participation in the pre-existing ‘symbolic ordering of society’ (p. 98). Wolf-Meyer uses an early caregiver memoir of childhood autism, Josh Greenfeld’s A Child Called Noah (1972), and Henry Kisor’s What’s That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness (1990), to argue instead for a presentive, interactional semiotics that necessarily cannot occlude those without access to predetermined understandings of language. The chapter concludes with an appraisal of “collaborative over communicative” meaning making at La Borde clinic. Wolf-Meyer views Jean Oury’s support of electroshock therapy and Félix Guattari’s incomplete ‘divorce’ from ‘psychoanalytic training’ as harmful perpetuations of neurological and symbolic reduction, but ultimately identifies potential in the clinic’s ‘transversal basis of relations’ (pp. 118-9). Given that the other side of Guattari’s career – his work with Gilles Deleuze – led to a critique of ‘modulation’ as an administrating technique to co-opt people into systems of control (Deleuze, p. 4), I was left questioning how an excerpted anti-psychiatric history coalesces with Unraveling’s own aims for cybernetic care.

Chapter Three offers a brilliant revisionary account of ghostwriting and facilitated communication through a careful reading of Peyton and Diane Goddard’s I Am Intelligent: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Autism (2012), noting the elided care role of writer Carol Cujec in the text’s composition. Wolf-Meyer argues that the labour-intensive processes of ghostwritten memoirs (where someone writes the text on behalf of another) do not defer from but, in fact, exemplify the material externalisation and networked care of others that goes into the production of all expression. Wolf-Meyer develops this claim to its furthest reach in Chapter Four which pulls ‘together the neurological, symbolic, and material views of the subject into a robust framework that recognizes the diversity of influences in making persons and subjects’ (p. 166). He presents Ron Suskind’s Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism (2014) which document how Ron’s family used animated film to construct a mode of interaction with their autistic son. Such leaps, argues Wolf-Meyer, reconceptualises communication impairment not as an asymbolic lack but as a fundamental neurological disjunction: a difference that opens up the possibility for enacting new communicative capacities—a ‘node’ in the nervous system’s ‘network of relations and connections’ (p. 22).

Such field-thinking destabilizes the brain as ‘an epistemic, causal object’ (p. 217). Moreover, it has a therapeutic function as testified to by cybernetically-informed psychotherapeutics (and its attending vocabulary of singularity, amplification, and resonance). Allowing groups to express meanings not only on their own terms, but through their own mediums, lets the intractable difficulties of life to be examined without imposing a framework of how life should be. By making it impossible to ‘reify individuals as divorced from an interdependent relationship with their sociotechnical environment’ (p. 217), Wolf-Meyer hints at a mode of therapy that acts on and within milieus as well as persons. Chapter Five turns from these possible therapeutics to instead describe two sets of parallel memoirs: Paul West and Diane Ackerman’s memoirs addressing Paul’s language loss after a stroke, and the viciously opposed memoirs by Terri Schiavo’s husband (who advocated for her right to die) and parents (who, backed by conservative lawmakers, fought for her right to life). The cybernetic approach, Wolf-Meyer suggests, enables non-hierarchical and context-rooted bioethics to assist in such fraught neurological conflicts.

An explicit consequence of Unraveling’s use of cybernetics is the ‘disavowal of the historicity of language’  which Wolf-Meyer understands as necessary for transforming our understanding of encounter between bodies into a site of care and ‘immanent meaning making’ (pp. 193-3) that works across bodies. By centring linguistic historicity as the heart of neuro-symbolic discrimination, I wondered whether Wolf-Meyer risks not highlighting the harm that cybernetic conceptions of communication themselves impose over those labelled as disordered subjects. This is apparent in Wolf-Meyer’s otherwise incisive reading of Antonio Damasio. Damasio’s neuro-reductionism proposes a ‘new spiritualism that finds its roots in the brain’s capacities for self-conception’, yet Wolf-Meyer’s concern is with Damasio’s lack of ‘awareness that these capacities are only made possible through relations that exceed the individual brain’ (p. 51). Foregrounding the cybernetic assemblages that make a subject merely displaces Damasio’s problematic themes of homeostasis-as-purpose into the social. What remains uninterrogated are the governing imaginaries of self-forming pattern, of autopoietic order, which might sharply diverge from the worldviews and lived experiences of those deemed as living in a state of neurological disorder.

Similarly, Unraveling understands memoir itself as a form of ‘technology’ (p. 123), with technology understood as an interactional prosthetic that contributes to the making of all subjects. Wolf-Meyer acknowledges on this count his indebtedness to Bernard Stiegler’s understanding of the human as ‘without qualities’, with language itself ‘a kind of technology’ (p. 298). Such claims naturalise the human, ironically enough, through the human’s fundamental capacity for denaturalisation (through technology, play, deceit, and so on). Yet the processes of normative understandings of the human remain very much in place: the telic drive for humans—for all organisms—to become what they are, creatures tasked with the assemblage of themselves. This definition of memoir as technic could itself have been unraveled through analysing in more depth the idiosyncratic “non-making” moments peppered throughout the texts which Wolf-Meyer patiently documents.

Jasbir Puar describes a Spivakian tension in disability studies between ‘granting “voice” to the subaltern’ and the need ‘to destabilize the privileging of communication/representation/language altogether’ (qtd., p. 289). Wolf-Meyer, by audaciously defining the nebulous category of neurological disorder through the ‘central symptom’ of language – ‘the apparent lack of being able to communicate in an untroubled and transparent way’ (p. 6) – offers cybernetic subjectivity as the means to resolve this political tension by accentuating its precondition as a therapeutic ‘double bind’, a term which refers to disorders which emerge from conflicts between communicative and ‘metacommunicative’ acts (Bateson, 1972). For those disavowed because of language-based impairment, cybernetics is offered both to refute communication as ‘an index of an individual’s claim to personhood’ (p. 257) and embrace communication as something that carries on, an irrevocable and inevitable texture of the material relationalities of our world: ‘Acknowledging that lives are made together’, writes Wolf-Meyer, ‘means accepting that there is no outside of connectivity, only its denial’ (p. 258). Such a line is typical of a piece of scholarship both beautifully expressed and incisively forthright about its own stakes. Unraveling is expansive, literate and thought-provoking for the fields of critical disability study, medical humanities, and anthropology over which it leans. If I have stressed some philosophical worries about the text, it is only to indicate how generative the volume is, how invested the text is with its subject, and to admire the hope of a future promised by the indeterminate metaphors of neurology and the careful anthropological unfurling of the textual present.

References

Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59: 3-7.

Puar, Jasbir. 2013. The Cost of Getting Better: Ability and Debility. Lennard Davis (ed), Disability Studies Reader. 4th edn. New York: Routledge, pp. 177-184.

Stiegler, Bernard. 1998. Technics and Time I: The Fault of Epimetheus. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (trans), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J.. 2012. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

James Rakoczi is a researcher and writer affiliated with the Centre for the Humanities and Health at King’s College London. He earned his doctorate in 2020 for a thesis on Merleau-Ponty and contemporary literatures of the brain and nervous system. He has published and presented on topics such as the poetry of neuropathic pain, disability activism, epilepsy in colonial imaginaries, and the politics of narcolepsy. James can be followed on Twitter @JamesRakoczi.

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