Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hemisphereless James


Years ago I ordered William James’s Principles of Psychology ([1898]; ed. George A. Miller; Harvard University Press,1981) and Niels Bohr’s Philosophical Writings . . . 1933-1957 (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1978) in the same batch of books, and was very surprised to discover that the former was about 1300 pages and the latter 100. James took twelve years to write the Principles, but Bohr’s interest in writing philosophically at all was apparently not that strong, even over twenty. The essays are really occasional pieces, while James’s work, it's no secret, is intensely personal and reflexively organic. It becomes a moralized cosmology of life, a guide to living in the guise of a description of the properties of being alive. (I’d be interested in knowing about readings that track James’s personal investment in detail rather than just noting that he wrote it after a breakdown and in the mode of self-analysis.)

Like Descartes, James searches for a zero degree from which to start living. It’s notable that he takes the trouble to justify his exclusion of inanimate entities, as though the line between inert and living matter were not obvious enough to assume. That when “we pass from such actions” as are performed by magnetized iron filings “to those of living things, we notice a striking difference” which consists in living things’ caring to move and act (20), does not so much define the biological as raise the possibility—as Descartes does by positing mechanical animals—of the appearance of life without the desire for it. Although the first differences James notes are between iron filings and Romeo and Juliet, between “chopping the foot of a tree” and “the foot of a fellow-man” (20, 25), he proves the difference where it matters by vivisecting a series of conscious beings, ascending from hapless frogs to dogs, monkeys, and lobe-injured people. We know we are conscious through privation (as Freud would agree):

If, then, we reduce the frog’s nervous system to the spinal cord alone, by making a section behind the base of the skull, between the spinal cord and the medulla oblongata, thereby cutting off the brain from all connection with the rest of the body, the frog will still continue to live, but with a very peculiarly modified activity. It ceases to breathe or swallow; it lies flat on its belly, and does not, like a normal frog, sit up on its fore-paws, though its hind-legs are kept, as usual, folded against its body and immediately resume this position if drawn out. If thrown on its back it lies there quietly, without turning over like a normal frog. (28)

While dissatisfaction spurs the action that lets us know we’re alive, the effect of the experiments, and of the diegesis of the early chapters, is to move in the opposite direction, showing how the living thing can suffer the vegetable condition of not caring about itself. “Prey is not pursued nor are enemies shunned by ordinary hemisphereless frogs” (32); they no longer make choices, so that “copulation occurs per fas aut nefas, occasionally between males, often with dead females, in puddles exposed on the highway” (35). The explicit shock is now the one latent in the example of the filings, of how much of the capacity for, and therefore the appearance of, action can be preserved without there being any self or meaning in it: “if . . . we take a pigeon, and cut out his hemispheres as they are ordinarily cut out for a lecture-room demonstration[,] [t]here is not a movement natural to him which this brainless bird cannot perform if expressly excited thereto; only the inner promptings seem deficient, and when left to himself he spends most of his time crouched on the ground with his head sunk between his shoulders as if asleep” (32).

The pathos of the recumbent animals serves the function--cutting across the narrative order of events--of stimulating the vivisector and the reader to care on their behalf, and discover their own aliveness by contrast, at the price that aliveness is relativized and contingent for all. Here the nineteenth-century relative freedom of convention in scientific writing allows James—and not only James, since it’s interestingly pervasive to the time, in the material he cites, for example—to express for the hemisphereless animal what it cannot express for itself, a desire that, further, James expresses on its behalf before he goes on to do so on his own. From the substrate that James keeps calling the “ordinary" brainless organism (and more precisely, his ability to feel something for them), he rebuilds to account for the almost equal disturbance of possible and partial repair. Although strictly speaking it can't restore a loss, the hemisphereless animal can create new actions for old purposes, and force a cognitive path through cortical obstructions: “e.g., the sound of ‘give your paw’ discharges after some weeks into the same canine muscles into which it used to discharge before the operation” (78). The good news is that a lot of capacity, even for consciousness, is built in, and that every action that happens makes it easier to do that action again; the bad news is the same—that “the original organization . . . must always be the ground-work of the psychological scheme” (141), on which “every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar” (131).

Image: Damien Hirst, Mother and Child Divided, 2007