Tuesday 15 November, 2011

Governing Conduct in the Age of the Brain


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Convenor: Professor Nikolas Rose


Are developments in the neurosciences transforming our conceptions of what it is to be a human being, and if so, how, in what ways, and with what consequences? And with what implications for the social and human sciences? It is far too early to reach any definitive diagnosis: investigations into the brain and nervous system can be traced back many centuries, but neuroscience is barely fifty years old. We need to be wary of suggestions that we are in the midst of epochal transformations. Yet it is hard to ignore the pervasiveness of references to the brain and neuroscience in our own times, the growth of research and scientific publishing, the scale of public and private investment in this research, the frequency of popular accounts of new discoveries about the brain in the mass media and in books written for a mass market. In this lecture, I argue that a number of mutations – conceptual, technological, economic and biopolitical - have enabled the neurosciences to leave the enclosed space of the laboratory and gain traction in the world outside. In the course of these mutations, the human brain has come to be anatomised at a molecular level, understood as plastic, and mutable across the life-course, exquisitely adapted to human interaction and sociality, and open to investigation at both molecular and systemic scales in a range of novel experimental setups. This has generated a sense of human neurobiology as not merely setting the conditions for the lives of human beings in societies, but also as shaping those social lives in all manner of ways that are not amenable to consciousness. Yet this is not ‘neuroreductionism’, and persons are not understood as determined by their neurobiology, or reduced to mere puppets of their brains. I will give some examples of the ways in which neurobiological knowledges are becoming technological, and reshaping some of the ways in which we are governed by others, and govern ourselves in practices from child rearing to the criminal justice system. It is right to be sceptical of the excitable claims of the popularisers of neuroscience, and the naïve enthusiasm of those who see this new knowledge of the brain as providing solutions to socio-political and cultural ills from lack of social mobility to crime control. Yet a recognition of this neurobiological transformation of our sense of what it is to be human should not be feared, for it opens many pathways for the productive transformation of the human sciences themselves.

This lecture is co-sponsored by Sydney Ideas, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the Biopolitics of Science Research Network and The Australian Sociological Association


Nikolas Rose’s current research concerns biological and genetic psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience, and its social, ethical, cultural and legal implications. He has published widely across: the sociology of psychiatry; the social and political history of the human sciences; the genealogy
of subjectivity; the history of empirical thought in sociology, and on the changing rationalities and techniques of political power. His extensive body of work has been translated into ten languages. He is co-editor of BioSocieties: an interdisciplinary journal for social studies of neuroscience, genomics and the life sciences.