Friday, September 11, 2009

Privileged Standpoints

Over at the excellent Letters from a Librarian, Lauren has been writing beautifully about Evelyn Scott's Escapade (putting me quite to shame in my inability so far to follow up on my intentions!). In the last few days she's put up three posts (one, two, three), in which she provides some excellent passages from the book, along with thoughts of her own (which she incorrectly thinks of as not "substantive"), touching on Montaigne, Aristotle and Blake, Woolf and Duras, and even A.S. Byatt.

I still have some additional thoughts of my own about this book, beyond what I've already written, but for now I want to pursue a line of thought prompted by Lauren's remarks in the second of these posts. She addresses a passage from Escapade about childbirth and the many "truly worrisome notions that work their way into treatises on the art of living", by philosophers and essayists, by, for example, Montaigne and Aristotle. Here is the passage from Scott:
I wondered why the birth of a child appealed so little to the imagination of the
artist. Why were all the great realistic novels of the world concerned with only
one aspect of sex? This surely was the last -- the very last thing -- one needed
to know before one came to conclusions about life.
Lauren observes that there is an "easy answer to her question" which "can be passed over in silence". Of course this easy answer is intimately related to those worrisome notions on the art of living. Such treatises have tended to be written by men, and artists for so long were generally men, men who did not have to worry themselves with the messy business of bearing or raising children, or even being near them, who were able to separate themselves from the world, to thus be able to enjoy solitude and to engage in deep self-study. The events of pregnancy and childbirth are ignored because they, historically, have nothing to do with such concepts (though in the highly individualized West, the United States especially, even these experiences are apparently to be understood as part of the same process of selfhood).

I maintain further that we are only recently coming to grips with how the brain works because science and philosophy were for so long completely male endeavors--again, away from community, away from the practice of raising children, from the experience of being regularly around children. A few months back, I quoted what I called a "crucial observation" from Levi at Larval Subjects to the effect that philosophers tend to "privilege the standpoint of the adult" and ignore childhood development. I have no doubt that this observation is true. In fact, I'm arguing here that it's substantially true of scientists, too. That is, though there have clearly been remarkable advances in recent years in what is known about how the brain develops, the truth is that much of this new knowledge ought to have been at least philosophically available well before it was possible to observe the technical details.

Why would philosophers and scientists privilege the adult standpoint? Indeed, why would they privilege the male standpoint? I think I've already answered these questions. Men left children to women, period. But, as I suggested earlier, anyone who'd ever spent time around a child could tell that they are learning constantly, and that they are formed by both biology and history--the idea of the "bidirectionality of causal relations" should not be only a relatively recent development in modern neuroscience. At his blog Plastic Bodies, which I discovered via Graham Harman, Tom Sparrow writes about the important concept in neuroscience of "plasticity":
No longer is the brain being conceived as a preprogrammed CPU; it has been opened to history. The term "plasticity" names the capacity of the brain to be molded by history, to be informed and shaped by corporeal experience, and to likewise give form to history through corporeal activity. The plasticity of the central nervous system is particularly liable to change while still developing, but its capacity for change remains throughout the span of a life–which means that each individual’s capacity to learn, adapt, and act is singularized insofar as his or her history is unique.
Obviously many of the details associated with this could only have been recently discerned or observed. But I find it embarrassing that the brain could ever have been "conceived as a preprogrammed CPU". This speaks of a science and a philosophy, for all their wonderful contributions, that have operated too far removed from life itself, as lived by ordinary people, in particular as lived by women and children.

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