TEXT review

Exploring ‘the paradoxical monstrosity of art’

review by Jean-François Vernay


Jason Tougaw
The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience
Yale University Press, New Haven/ London 2018
ISBN 978-0-300-22117-6
HC 282 pp USD40


Jason Tougaw is the author of a memoir tackling neurodiversity, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (2017) and of Strange Cases: The Medical Case History and the British Novel (2006), a comparative study mingling fiction and medical case histories. His compelling new book, The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience, which expands his past interests in pathology, pathography, the rhetoric of disability, neurodivergence, literary culture and the medical humanities, is a welcome addition to the growing bibliography of Cognitive Literary Studies, and more specifically, one of its subsets: Neuro Lit Crit – succinctly described as ‘literary criticism informed by “neuroscientific vocabulary”’ (27).

In the last subsection entitled, ‘The Elusive Brain’, of his 2014 New York Times article, James Gorman comments, as follows, on the enigmatic quality of this obscure organ which underpins all cognitive mechanisms:

No one expects the brain to yield its secrets quickly or easily. Neuroscientists are fond of deflecting hope even as they point to potential success. Science may come to understand neurons, brain regions, connections, make progress on Parkinson’s. Alzheimer’s or depression, and even decipher the code or codes the brain uses to send and store information. But, as any neuroscientist sooner or later cautions in discussing the prospects for breakthroughs, we are not going to “solve the brain” anytime soon – not going to explain consciousness, the self, the precise mechanisms that produce a poem. (Gorman 2014: 1)

It is within the context of this budding scientific field, showing great potential yet vulnerable to neurospeculation, that Jason Tougaw has authored his third book tackling neuromania [1], Neuro Lit Crit, neurodivergence, brain memoirs, autistic autobiographies, neurodiversity, the neuronovel, neurocomics, and the like. His self-confessed ‘aim is to account for a broad range of literary responses to neuroscience and neuromania – and to contextualise them in relation to philosophical, social, and scientific debates about the brain’s role in the making of life and self’ (5). Not only is Jason Tougaw venturing in uncharted waters, but he is also treading on dangerous ground as the credibility of Cognitive Literary Studies is often undermined by accusations of indulging in reductionist views, neurospeculation, epistemological carelessness, and neurobabble offering a veneer of scientificity. Besides, as Terence Cave notes, a misonesim of sorts seems to work against the field:

…cognitive methodologies and explanatory frameworks have not yet begun to inflect the common language of literary study; indeed, they often meet with resistance both from those who remain attached to traditional modes of literary history and criticism and from those who pursue variants of the literary theory that characterized the late twentieth-century scene. (Cave 2016: 15) [2]

In this particular context, Jason Tougaw’s The Elusive Brain is at once a brave challenge to the mainstream resistance and an invaluable contribution to neurohumanistic ways of reading into the subjectivity of literary creation.

The book’s multi-chapter division, occasionally interspersed with short interludes, creates a well-paced rhythm which enables the author to touch on several aspects of brain matter and its relation to some innovative literary experiments which triangulate the dynamics between biology, culture and self. By entering Jason Tougaw’s literary laboratory, readers will be exposed to personal accounts and literary representations of the brain-self relationship, thus making some headway in this murky area, which still largely remains a conundrum in brain science. Literary language and literature as a whole are graced with the ability ‘to create speculative knowledge that works as much through feeling as it does through thought. Literature pushes up against questions neurology can’t answer’ (24).  

While the neurological works by, say, Richard Powers, Temple Grandin, Oliver Sacks and Kay Redfield Jamison – which Jason Tougaw convincingly analyses in The Elusive Brain – are illustrative of a streak Ortega and Vidal identified as ‘brains in literature’ (35), they are also textual evidence of the fruitful dialogue that disability studies and Cognitive Literary Studies can engage through neurodivergence and the insights the latter might yield into social injustice. What is more, these writings have a valuable social function insofar as they are bound to fuel the advocacy and activism of the neurodiversity movement by taking up the cudgels for a more inclusive vision of neurological identity.
Jason Tougaw essentially analyses five literary subgenres featuring neurological narratives (i.e. brain memoirs, ASD autobiographies, Neurodivergence fiction, neuronovels and neurocomics) which ultimately disclose the felicities and limitations of brain science and point to the self as an entangled sum of many constituent elements.

Brain memoirs, despite their wide variety and different mind styles (as exemplified by the writings of Howard Duly, Jill Bolte Taylor, Alix Kates Shuulman and Siri Hustvedt), tend to unanimously reveal ‘the writer as organism’ (75) and share a handful of commonalities which are duly listed by Jason Tougaw. Their exploration of brain/self dynamics in the form of a quest of identity in a state of flux is, however, markedly different from that of neurotypical memoirists: ‘Where many traditional memoirs take selfhood for granted, brain memoirs investigate how mind, brain, body and culture interact to create or perform selfhood, and that investigation has social, scientific, and philosophical implications’ (76).

The informing books by Naomi Higashida, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay and John Elder Robison provide telling examples of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) autobiographies which resonate with neurodiversity politics. After contrasting these narratives of atypical cognition with brain memoirs, Tougaw interestingly observes that advocates of autistic culture have shifted from parents whose child is on the spectrum to ‘aspies’ (i.e. people who identify as autistic) sharing their insider’s perspective of neurodivergence. Animated by a sense of social justice, these authors, whose discourse is modelled on their mind styles and patterns of thinking, tend to be subversive by turning ‘the rhetorical tables on neurotypical norms – a common move in neurodiversity discourse’ (105) and by pointing to the shortcomings of neurotypicality. Ultimately, they navigate a path through preconceptions of ASD, trying to come across as ‘different and not defective’ (114).

The chapter that follows this is about what I would call ‘neurodivergence fiction’, mainly written by authors who are not affected by their subject-matter and so who are meddling with neurodiversity politics from the outside: ‘Their authors appropriate neurological difference in order to experiment with novel narration styles’ (131) and create sui generis characters, rather than generic ones with which neurotypical readers would readily identify. The intellectual challenge is greater, given that

When a narrator represents some form of neurodivergence, interpretation becomes an exercise in working out relations between neurological difference and neurological norms. In that sense, it calls on readers to engage in imaginative niche construction. (140)

The major ethical pitfall of these stories, as Tougaw puts it, is ‘their propensity to be received as portraits of lived neurological difference’ (155).

The discussion of neuronovels by Thomas Harris (Hannibal, 1999), Ian McEwan (Saturday, 2005), Siri Hustvedt (The Sorrows of an American, 2009), John Wray (Lowboy, 2010) and Maud Casey (The Man Who Walked Away, 2014) enables Jason Tougaw to examine the implications of representing the physical brain in fictional worlds. Commonly associated with this genre is its recurring fantasy of how ‘touching brains may reveal the stuff of which self is made’ (157). Composed in the age of neutral plasticity, these neuronovels shed new epistemological light on interiority, subjectivity and the elusiveness of the brain, in an attempt to enrich ideas of selfhood and consciousness through counterfactual thinking. The aesthetic representation of this organ of soft nervous tissue made of 90% fat and water is both literal and metaphorical:

While the conscious or semiconscious thought of imagination or affect cannot be found in physical brains, there is also a sense that various forms of unconscious cognition take place in the activity of our nervous systems. (159)

Neuro-graphic narratives are the subcultural fifth form of these literary experiments, to be found in the last chapter – a richly illustrated one – of The Elusive Brain. These fantasy-packed stories, feeding on meta-representation, are analysed in comparison with the neuro-imaging obtained through brain-scanning technologies. For Tougaw,

neurocomics visualise a particularly vivid version of an idea implicit in most brain memoir and neuronovels: We need to find more effective means of communicating how knowledge about our brains is produced. (191)

While the inclusion of neurocomics frames has the usefulness of a few thousand words, the translation of the French captions, which has been poached from various sources, is occasionally approximate. For instance, Fig 9 (209) would rather translate as ‘You wouldn’t think so, but this flood of absurdities takes root in my brain. Images are born’.

Tougaw’s cognitively stimulating study impacts on several fronts: it gestures toward an exploration of ‘the paradoxical monstrosity of art’ [3]; it attests to the ever-increasing popularity of cognitivism and its influence on various disciplines such as the humanities; and it demonstrates that embracing the inter-implication of literature and neuroscience is a fruitful venture which, paradoxically enough, is a no-brainer.




Works cited



Jean-François Vernay is a creative writer and scholar, author of several books, the latest of which are The Seduction of Fiction: A Plea for Putting Emotions Back into Literary Interpretation (Palgrave) and its sequel: La Séduction de la fiction (Hermann). He is currently working on a project entitled Cognitive Readings of Australian Culture. He blogs at http://jean-francoisvernay.blogspot.com


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford