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Biomedicine in museums

The rising star of the brain

Even though the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL is heading towards its ultimate death, it is still organising some pretty interesting seminars. For example, Maximilian Stadler’s (MPI-WG, Berlin) talk, titled ‘Cerebro-centrism and the History of the Neurosciences’, on Thursday 13 May at 4pm:

‘Surely the rising star of body parts in the 1980s’, historian Elaine Showalter noted in 1987, must have been the brain. Its rising star – largely, of course, thanks to the impressive expansions of the neurosciences ever since – then also made coalesce a field of historical scholarship which usually, and perhaps a bit too sloppily, is labeled just that: the history of the neurosciences. Timely enough an endeavor it is; histories of the neurosciences, however, are hard to come by in the history of the neurosciences. In a sense, no such histories yet exist. What exists, more properly, are cultural histories of the brain: stories of its cultural meanings, the social malleability of concepts, and the historicity and historical specificity of brain-centred discourses and practices.

The brain is indeed hardly a surprising choice of subject matter for the history of neuroscience; but, as I am going to argue in this talk, it is a historiographically far from unproblematic one. The case against the casual conflation of a history of the neurosciences with that of the brain I am going to develop by way of detour through the case of cybernetics – a particularly cerebral, and insufficiently problematized, vision of the neuroscientific past.

On my reading, the centrality accorded to cybernetics in historical accounts of mid-twentieth century neuroscientific developments is, more than anything else, a function of the public and intellectual visibility of cybernetics. As such, it is symptomatic of the broader, cerebro-centric tendency that is the subject of this talk: at best, the tendency to obscure crucial spaces of inquiry that are indeed all-too-easily glossed over in the necessarily manifold origins of neuroscience – devoid as they were, as I shall suggest, of the brain, of ‘culture’, and the philosophical excitement cybernetics once generated; at worst, the tendency to conflate cultural histories of the brain, of the mind-body problem, and of discourses of human nature with the diverse and, more often than not, quite mundane nature of neuroscientific advances.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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