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Dr. Julian Henneberg


Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Subjects of Substance: Recent U.S. Literature and the Materiality of Mind

Dissertation in Culture

Mentoring team:
First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Winfried Fluck
Second Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Frank Kelleter
Third Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ulla Haselstein

Modern conceptions of subjectivity have typically opposed the immaterial “I” or self to the realm of the physical. As an inheritance of Western theological and philosophical discourses, this dualist separation of mind and matter can still legitimately be considered the “official doctrine” (Ryle) or “consensual orthodoxy” (Belsey) of our contemporary cultural imagination. Recent decades, however, have seen increased efforts to redefine the self as the product of material entities and processes. This shift has been primarily driven by scientific and medical fields such as neuroscience and evolutionary (i.e., genetic) biology and psychology. Its effects include the (re-)biologization of psychiatry and psychotherapy and the attendant rise of psychotropic medication. These contemporary medico-scientific discourses and practices demonstrably draw on historical models and disciplinary traditions. Yet their newfound focus on genetic, biomolecular, and neural levels of analysis, along with their interest in the plastic and modular nature of brain and self, can be said to constitute a “new materialism” that views the human mind as mutable, measureable, and amenable to physical manipulation.

In a parallel development, this new materialism has become a topic of interest for the humanities as well as for literary production. Sociological concepts like Alain Ehrenberg’s “cerebral subject” or Nikolas Rose’s “neurochemical self” appear increasingly pertinent to memoirs of mental illness or drug addiction and to novels that recast established literary concepts like consciousness and character as biomedical phenomena. My study proposes that instead of merely appropriating scientific and medical terminology, U.S. literature has of late been developing its own conceptions of somatic subjectivity. In this process, neurobiological explanations of the human subject can either appear a challenge to traditional humanistic forms of knowledge or, conversely, as a rich resource that provides one more piece to the puzzle of human existence. Starting from this assumption, my dissertation examines the forms, functions, and effects of materialist models of mind in a number of memoirs and novels, the majority of which have been published in the past two decades. This textual analysis is preceded by an elucidation of the key terms and concepts of the present study. Discussing, among others, works by Michael Clune, Kay Redfield Jamison, and Siri Hustvedt, the first chapter then discusses “neuro-memoirs,” i.e., autobiographical texts that view the relation between subjectivity and the nervous system in the context of medical, or medicalized, conditions. The subsequent three chapters focus on novels by, respectively, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Richard Powers—authors who to my mind have presented the most extensive and most productive treatments of “materialist minds” in recent U.S. fiction.

My dissertation argues that the occurrence of materialist models of mind in literature depends just as much on intertextual dynamics as it does on scientific and medical discourses. While Richard Powers claims to have modeled the narrative perspective of The Echo Maker on neurological insights about the nature of mammalian consciousness, I contend that the construction of his novel owes more to literary convention than the author’s programmatic statements would have us believe. Likewise, the “biopsychosocial” self-portraits of mental or neurological disorder that we find in neuro-memoirs are just as concerned with the accurate representation of embodied pathology as they are with rhetorical strategies that position the authors as rational and “reasonable” subjects. At times, however, epistemological premises and literary aesthetics do exist in intricate reciprocity: in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace produces a striking correspondence between his text’s formal features and its thematic concerns, both of which are informed by a looped and recursive conception of the mind-body nexus that Wallace derived from personal experience as well as from literary, philosophical, and psychological texts and theories.

While this fictional and non-fictional interest in the materiality of the mind is still too recent and too circumscribed a literary phenomenon to constitute a unified or unique kind of writing—not yet comparable, say, to modernist and postmodernist literatures and their roots in psychoanalytic and poststructuralist models of the psyche—new materialist ideas nevertheless afford contemporary authors the possibility of creating formal and thematic resonances that extend both backwards into the past and forward into the future. The notion of a fragmented and distributed subjectivity, imported by literary authors from the natural, cognitive, and neural sciences, clearly contains echoes of critical theory’s attack on the traditional philosophy of the subject (Subjektphilosophie). At the same time, however, this notion also effectively renovates the (self-)representation of literary consciousness. In the texts I examine, cellular and molecular determinants of behavior and experience complement social and psychological ones as authors and characters confront the plurality of agencies that constitute their subjectivity. As a result, these texts are often suffused with an implicit or explicit need to reconcile the conflicts that this inner multiplicity gives rise to.

Acknowledging the postmodern destabilization of the philosophy of the subject while reaffirming the agency of materiality and the body, the authors I discuss share the aim of reformulating poststructuralist ideas through an engagement with the plastic, self-organizing “multiple in our very midst” (Julian Murphet). In their attempt to reconcile contemporary philosophy and neuroscience with the pragmatic demands of life as a moral and selfresponsible agent, their texts tackle an old dilemma from a new perspective. The contradictory complexity of the “I,” its internal alienation, and psychic discord—the Nietzschean “malady of the will”—may well be anthropological constants. Yet texts that reconceptualize decentered subjectivities in the contemporary terms of medical materialism produce effects that are wholly specific to their cultural moment. On the one hand, as the subject relinquishes some of its volition and decision-making powers, the balance of power appears to shift and favor the cogito over the corporeal. On the other hand, this shift renews the importance of self-narration and self-responsibility, since coming to terms with the mutable and susceptible cerebral subject requires an increase in (individual and social) attentiveness and care. In this regard, the supposed materiality of mind holds an additional allure for authors. By critically engaging with this latest manifestation of the perennial mindbody problem, literature proves itself capable of integrating, if not mastering, a potential threat to the knowledge claims of the arts and humanities. A new naturalism may be encroaching upon their terrain, but by meeting the challenge head-on, the writers discussed here are attempting to reposition themselves as the arbiters of philosophical and pragmatic questions that are as relevant as they are timely.

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft