The Manifesto of Activist Neuroaesthetics

by Warren Neidich

1. Every person on planet Earth has the right to fully develop their neural plastic potential. This Manifesto of Activist Neuroaesthetics is a call to arms against engineered neural optimization. Activist Neuroaesthetics seeks to produce fully developed singular entities constituting a multiplicity whose differences in neural architectures (their neural diversity) are embraced and promoted as forms of collective autonomous power. Activist Neuroaesthetics promotes the idea that artists and art professionals play a key role in making this happen.

2. Neural plasticity is a human trait that knows no boundaries. Neural plasticity refers to the ways and means that the brains’ structure and function is modified by experience throughout life, although more so in youth. The brain’s materiality, both its grey matter consisting of cells called neurons especially its dendrites and synapses, as well as its white matter composed of myelenated axons called tracts are modified in this process.   In addition to normal training and experience recent evidence has drawn attention to injury induced functional and structural plasticity as well as plasticity involved in learning new skills. Activist Neuroaesthetics embraces neural plasticity as a political tool and means for change, resistance, and emancipation against the powers of neural capitalism which aims to normalize plasticity by sculpting its potential into something supple and easily controlled. As Catherine Malabou states: “Flexibility is plasticity without its genius.” While flexibility encourages supplication to power by unquestionably taking on its form, plasticity counters its power by inventing and creating its own forms beyond sovereignties normalizing apparatuses and dispositifs.

3. The brain is a variable and plastic interface consisting of adjustable populations of neural elements and undetermined and labile potential synapses. According to the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, this neural material arrangement is described at birth as the primary repertoire and is transformed by the evolving socio-political-cultural array (with which the human being interacts) into the secondary repertoire. Edelman was a pianist and his use of the word repertoire is a helpful metaphor in our moment of cognitive capitalism in which material labor has been replaced by immaterial labor. Immaterial labor and virtuosity are now the significant modulators of these predisposed neural relations. In this sense, immaterial relations are made material in the neural synaptic logics of the becoming mind-brain.

In the variation and noise of the nervous system resides its capacity for freedom and emancipation against new hegemonic forms of digital government called the Statisticon. The Statisticon is the most recent example of a form of power and governmental regulation that eclipses what Michel Foucault called ‘disciplinary power’ and Gilles Deleuze labeled the ‘society of control’. As its name implies, it is linked to the functional regularities found in data (especially those produced by Big Data) and has led to a new form of surveillance called the Big Other by Shoshana Zuboff. The key to the Statisticon is the process of voluntary auto-exploitation and the resulting difficulty in the production of solidarity and comradeship making a resistance to the dictatorship of capitalism almost impossible. Most importantly, with the help of immanent wired brain technologies linked to the World Wide Web, virtual reality, and the Internet of Everything (IoE), the situation could worsen. The Statisticon will provoke a form of neural subsumption where our thoughts and the brain wave patterns they conjure will be harnessed towards the production of new forms of accelerated labor. In other words, as Bill Gates has said, “work at the speed of thought”. We need to become aware immediately of this threat and create the means to counter its potential for cognitive abuse. Artists must be at the forefront of this struggle for the future of the future. Art as a form of mental hacking can provide an escape from this imminent disaster – if only we have the consciousness and courage to do so!

4. Human intelligence in its broad definition as linked capacities including reasoning, planning, problem solving, abstract thinking is not something that resides totally inside the brain, but is distributed, enacted and extended throughout the body and an entire host of evolving externalized technics and social formations embedded in various cultural, social, economic, and political networks. These external material and immaterial relations coevolve with the brain’s internal material ones in ways described by Bernard Stiegler as epiphylogenesis. Epiphylogenesis is dependent upon neural plasticity and epigenesis and refers to the way technics or tools become interiorized and entangled with the brains materiality in the end changing it. As such technical attributes are inscribed and re-coded in analogous templates emblazoned in the mutable neural architectonics generationally and trans-generationally. Technological inventions such as fire, spear point production, ceremonies involved with decorating the dead, and mass migration have (according to Daniel Lord Smail) been important in promoting concomitant morphogenetic changes in the brain over the past two million years leading to the enlargement of the frontal and temporal lobes. Processes that are still active and ongoing today!

5. Art’s power resides in its capacity to destabilize the authorized designed gestalts and affordances operating in the existential field of lived politically entangled sensible experience and, as a result, in the deconstruction and reformatting of the brains’ mutable architecture. This can be analogically understood as a condition that transforms what Giorgio Agamben has called the “zöe” into a specialized form of “bios”. Here I am referring to the transformation of the ‘neural zöe’ into a ‘neural bios’ or politicized material brain (also referred to as the xeno-materialist, alternative brain) constituting and constituted by the ever-evolving techno-linguistic-data environment.

6. In Cognitive Capitalism, the brain and the mind are the new factories of the 21st century and the intellect is the primary source of wealth. In fact, the general intellect is no longer constituted as machines and scientific know-how but is instead part of living labor. However, living labor does not mean what is already crystallized, but what is to come. The performing body—either the dancer or cellist—does not have to just play a score but can invent the score: that is the true definition of virtuosity. It is this periodic rejuvenation of the image of thought and its expression that constitutes our hopeful future.?

In the recent past feminism, post-colonialism, and conceptualism created the discursive and linguistic heterotopias that reconfigure social and semiotic material relations that make up the post-modern and post-human “distributions of the sensible” as Jacques Rancière has expressed it. An example of this process can be appreciated by examining what Laura Mulvey called avant-garde feminism in film especially as it emerged in the 1960s. These films were a product of the women’s movement and reacted against the suppressed meaning of femininity assigned by patriarchy to assert a counter-insurgency through a new language called counter-cinema. In the post-modern and post-structural environment of that moment, this language was able to ripple out from its specific medium into fields of generalized cultural production estranging and rupturing the omnipresent and pervasive patriarchal distributions of the sensible and semiotic habitus of semiocapitalism.

Yet, ‘distributions of the sensible’ are not just conditions of the extracranial brain (the trans-generation output of socio-political-cultural relations), but rather also a condition of the intracranial brain. The cranium is the bony skull that surrounds and embraces the brain and constitutes its inner and outer border. Mutated networked relations in the real, imaginary, and virtual landscape at odds with semiocapitalism create analogous changes in the brain that have repercussions for the memory work of the mind’s eye in which text and image are their currency. Mind and consciousness are meta-phenomena erupting from the dynamic relations of the situated body as an intra-articular agency interfacing the extra and intracranial brain as a complex. The power of art is found in its capacity to provoke deregulation and redistribution of the now networked sensible, as well as its power to cause analogous and concomitant mutations of the neural network configuration of the brain with which it is entangled.

7. The human being is the only animal that has the capacity to change its environment with the sole purpose of explicitly changing its own brain. The extracranial brain is a contested battlefield where different ideologies are engaged. Today, the environment is both static and mobile and exists on many platforms, from printed matter to virtual reality, simultaneously. It is not simply the hardware of built physical space, but the social and performative spaces of speaking, singing, dancing, and writing,  poetic and experimental conceptual prose that make up the rigorous counter and heterodoxic schemas operating in opposition to so-called precarious, valorized and financialized economies.

8. The intricate relationship between the socio-cultural-technical milieu and the brain is related to the sources and compositions of produced regularities, repetitions, distributions, synchronicities, and their pervasiveness, which together concretize, construct and compose the plastic neural biological substrate. On the one hand, reactionary governments attempt to limit cultural experience, promoting adherence to unchanging and crystalized essences in order to minimize complexity. On the other, progressive governments promote diverse cultural experiences that are variably heterodoxic and aleatory. Conservative dominions generate neurotypical subjects who are easily governed. The defunding of artistic education in the United States and elsewhere (in favor of a more technical education like the STEM curriculum) is a product of this desire for the neurotypical. Art education can be seen as a force against culturally determined asymmetric power relations that conservative regimes generate. Activist Neuroaesthetics understands the consequences of art production for the material brain and aligns itself with progressive approaches. It celebrates neurodiversity (including those on the autistic and attention deficit spectrums), rather than restricting them.

9. Positivist Neuroscience and Neuroaesthetics link with neoliberal neural capitalism to form a conservative dominion. Positivist Neuroaesthetics is prevalent in the United Kingdom and is associated with and supported by the Welcome Trust in London. Positivist Neuroaesthetics frames art as an assemblage of non-changing essences that can be experimented with to produce neuroscientific insights (rather than artistic ones) subsumed by the vast scientific universe with its own determinant rules and ideas of truth: rules at odds with artistic methods that do not require peer review and repeatable results subject to statistical investigation. In turn, this understanding of art minimizes the liminal and the role of the unconscious.

What Positivist Neuroaesthetics misses is the intentions of the artist as a provocateur of the social, political, economic, or cultural becomings that provide the context of the works’ production – for example, in Russian Constructivism and Agitprop. For Positivist Neuroaesthetics, the notion of an artwork as a reaction to previous art movements in which it is historically and conceptually aligned is considered unimportant. An MRI machine cannot account for the arts’ capacity to be realized as an idea through immaterial labor. Positivist Neuroaesthetics’ account of art is bereft of a language to consider instances of contingency and unpredictability such as found in the work of Fluxus. A single artwork, like Marcel Duchamps’ Fountain (1917) or Niki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Picture (1961), can alter the history of art and the truths it produces without concern as to whether those facts are ‘true’ or ‘false’ or misleading in a scientific sense. Positivist Neuroaesthetics refutes the importance of emergence. It attempts to reduce the magic of art and its ghosting in a capitalist attempt to codify and commodify that which has not already been codified and commodified in order to recuperate art’s divergent actions.

Along with neural consumerism and neuroeconomics, Positivist Neuroaesthetics contributes to the production of the perfected cognitariat, a digital laborer working on virtual platforms connected by World Wide Web to produce mentally derived data. One of Positivist Neuroaesthetics’ missions is to link neural efficiency to the digital marketplace in ways similar to how Taylorist management improved the surplus value generated by Fordist labor. Positivist Neuroaesthetics is part and parcel of right accelerationism as described by Nick Land in Fanged Noumena (2011) in which the “high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary techno sentient reservoir, into “dehumanized landscapes.” Instead, Activist Neuroaesthetics actively engages with the cultural milieu to instigate complex changes in the materiality of the brain. As Victoria Pitts-Taylor has written in the introduction to her book The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (2016): “Although it is not framed as such in scientific accounts, the plastic, social brain also reveals neurobiology to be political – that is, capable of change and transformation and open to social structures and their contestation.” Activist neuroaesthetics is attuned to left-leaning accelerationist ideas in which a sharing economy predominates postcapitalist models and restages tragic Landian nihilism as a comedic urban romance with technology. In their “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (2013), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue that Land confuses “speed with acceleration,” and misses an understanding of “an acceleration which is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility.” Could an accelerated technology, one which proposes a glitch aesthetic and noisy atmosphere be up to the task of deregulating capitalist exploitation and recuperation?

Additionally, unlike its Positivist counterpart, Activist Neuroaesthetics is not linked to a criterion of functionality because its underlying purpose is to explore (dis)functional solutions in order to disclose and reveal new paradigmatic landscapes of alterity. In this way, Activist Neuroaesthetics entangles the brain’s variation at birth (its dendrites and axons with different tuning capacities) with ever expanding cultural variations in space and time with which it is linked. The focus of Activist Neuroaesthetics, therefore, is this cultural variation and emphasizes that the political power of art and culture is to promote the neural diversity that results.

10. Activist Neuroaesthetics questions what neuro-enhancing drugs, new technologies (like brain-computer interfaces that link the brain to the internet currently explored by companies like Facebook and Neuralink), and the transition from artificial neural networks to artificial intelligence will do to our sense of self and freedom. Activist Neuroaesthetics is against Positivist Neuroaesthetics’ engagement with the industrial/military/mediated components of neural capitalism and its totalitarian inclinations. In other words, Activist Neuroaesthetics believes that brain-computer interfaces and memory disrupting technologies like optogenetics are not to be embraced, but critiqued. They are not necessarily being invented to help humankind or cure disease, as reported in the mainstream media, but rather constitute a front for a diabolic scheme towards a future of subjectivation and neural enhancement? Funded by DARPA and Google, these technologies establish the infrastructure of neural capitalism. Neural capitalism consists of a range of neural technologies and interfaces (such as Big Pharma, brain-computer interfaces and optogenetics, virtual environments, the Internet of Everything, and Deep AI linked to online sites like Facebook) in which the brain’s somatic and affective disposition is subsumed into its intricate networked metabolism. Artists are visual and auditory experts whose knowledge directs the creative machinery of the mediated knowledge economy.  It is therefore their responsibility to instruct the masses as to the contingencies of this new and evolving reality in the hopes of fashioning  various contraptions of resistance. We have the power to modify this reality and the consciousness it is producing.In other words, we don’t have to live in a world of Black Mirror.

11. Art’s utopian promise is not made with the market in mind. Activist Neuroaesthetics calls for art practices to reject their relation to the neoliberal art market as a liquid commodity that emphasizes their economic fungibility and exchange value on the global marketplace where artworks become inherently fetishized and commonplace. Rather, Activist Neuroaesthetics calls on all art practitioners to engage directly with the cultural milieu in order to mutate it in the hopes that their concerted actions will indirectly transform the conditions of the material brain. Activist Neuroaesthetics is against the branded artwork as a signifier to engage collector attention. Rather it emphasizes artistic practices with diverse outputs that are hard to recognize and assign to specific brands. It promotes works that disrupt the capitalist art market ecosystem. Cultural value transcends market value! Entrepreneurial artists who work for the system give up their greatest resource as an artist: to activate and engage the neural plasticity of the brain in order to increase its neural diversity, expression of variation and promote its material becoming.

12. Activist Neuroaesthetics understands that our capacity to consciously and directly affect our complex environment of evolving relations through artistic interventions is key to its importance and value as an emancipatory ethics. By consciously refunctioning and estranging the environment, we are also indirectly estranging and refunctioning our material brains’ as a result of engaging with  the brain’s neural plastic potential. This is what I refer to as cognitive activism and forms the basis of an Activist Neuroaesthetics that resists new forms of subjugation at work in neural capitalism. Activist Neuroaesthetics is more than simply an aesthetic response, but a way of reengineering what aesthetics, as a philosophical concept, means. As such, Activist Neuroaesthetics pro-actively forms a counter hegemony against the tactics of the neural economy which attempts to privatize and normalize the neural commons and as a result free thought.