‘Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition’ by Elizabeth Wilson

Reviewed by Wendy Hollway

© all rights reserved

What has feminism got to do with the microstructure of cognition (in other words, with connectionism)? By the end of this book I was convinced that the relationship could be a promising one if the ‘compulsively naturalizing antiessentialism’ of feminism came to terms with the different way of figuring the neurology in cognition that Wilson is exploring here, inspired in particular by Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychologyvia Derrida. To put it in Wilson’s unfailingly subtle and critically refined language:

Situated at the nexus – at once unlikely and overdetermined – of cognitive psychology, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and feminism, this book takes recent developments in connectionist theory as the means by which a number of questions can be asked not only about cognition, the brain and psychology, but also about the politics of feminist-critical interventions in contemporary scientific psychology’ (p5).

Connectionist theories offer a refiguring of cognition which goes beyond any simple location of cognitive processes in the brain, while retaining the neurological facets of connectionism as ‘indispensable to rethinking cognition, psyche, and biology’ (p13). ‘(C)onnectionist models figure cognitive processing as the spread of activation across a network of interconnected, neuron-like units. It is the connections between these units, rather than the units per se, that take on the pivotal role in the functioning of the network’ (p6).

If you are beginning to lose interest – this is a Humanities journal you’re reading after all – just hang on in, because you are probably caught up in the ‘usual theoretical habits and procedures’ (p1) which, Wilson argues, are profoundly problematic in the concept of gender, as feminism has come to shape it. She points out that the body at the centre of social, cultural, experiential and psychical discourses is ‘curiously abiological’ (p14). She notices how feminist psychology’s take-up of the body addresses only women’s reproductive body (the difference from men) and quotes Kirby’s reminder of other biological matter: “peristaltic movements of the viscera, the mitosis of cells, the electrical activity that plays across a synapse, the itinerary of a virus” and wants readers to open their minds to the possibility that it is in these neutral zones that current feminism ‘may gain its most effective political purchase on biology’ (p18). Much of the book is concerned with a meticulous, subtle and creative critique of the traditions of cognitive and neuropsychology, philosophy of mind, deconstruction, feminism and critical theory which have repeatedly got drawn into a biological reductionism: ‘There has been a persistent deflection of neurological explanations of psychological or behavioural attributes on the grounds that such explanations are a priori reductionist – not simply anti psychological .. but asocial and acultural’ (p13). This reductionism is invariably equated with a politically regressive stance. If critical and feminist theory can redirect our critical habits and procedures ‘so that biology and neurology are not the natural enemies of politics .. then we will find a greater productivity in biology than theories of gender would lead us to believe’ (p62).

This is a tall order, and one that could be approached from many angles. Wilson takes on the challenge that she sets herself, however, in that she not only critiques this dualistic order of things but takes on a refiguring of neurology and its relation to the psyche. Following Grosz and Kirby, she advocates ‘readings of biological matter wherein biology is thought as excess to the limits of presence, location and stasis that theories of biological determinism and theories of gender alike have ascribed to it’ (p65).

This reading takes off from the ‘uncanny points of convergence’ (p133) between three approaches to cognition, memory, the trace and psychical writing. These are Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology,Derrida’s reading of it and the recent connectionist theories of cognition in psychology. Briefly (and the account is scrupulously detailed and rigorous) ‘(w)hile the neurological is usually thought of as the self-present origin of the psyche, there is a strategic movement in all three of these projects that disperses this origin through a system of differences and deferrals’ (p133).

Psychoanalysis, according to Wilson, may have been a product of the division of neurology from psychology. Yet their integration was a project that obsessed Freud, one which he felt to have failed in. In the Project,Freud tried to resolve the paradox that ‘neurons are altered by stimulation, yet they must also remain unaltered for future stimulations’ (p142). His insight was to see neuronal effects as a function of differences, displacing the idea that psychical action is inherent in the neuron and replacing it with the idea that it is the effect of differential anatomical placement. This idea, incomplete as Wilson reveals it to be, ‘gives us our first … glimpse of a critique of neuropsychological locationism’ (p143), a critique which is central to Wilson’s argument. Derrida’s interpretation of Freud’s idea of facilitation (‘Bahnung’, otherwise translated as ‘breaching’) is informed by the thesis ‘that neuronal effect proceeds through difference and deferral’ (p145). As meaning is achieved through pure (Saussurian) difference, so facilitation can be attributed to the difference of facilitations, a delay as well as a spacing: ‘Différance, that ungraspable yet unerasable difference between facilitations, is what constitutes the psyche; it is difference and delay (différance) that are at the origin’ (p148). As a result the ‘trace’ ( a term which is at the heart of cognitive psychology, but usually reduces to an actual location in the brain, either explicitly or implicitly) need not be an empirically fixed entity, yet it is material, ‘the effect of breaching and somatic excitation’. In this way ‘confounding both a faithful scientism and a reactionary antineurologism, this trace exceeds the logic of empiricism versus antiempiricism by invoking an irreducible, non-present materiality’ (p149).

As in Wilson’s reading of Freud and Derrida, I cannot go into the detail of this connectionist model which the book provides. The individual units in a connectionist system function internally to propagate and transform activity in the network, so have no representational status. For example, the capacity of the networks to learn is explained by modifications to weights as a result of previous activations (p157). The idea moves away from the traditional linear and sequential manner in which cognitive information is expected to flow. Rules are implicit in the structure of the network (there are no stored rules in a central executive). Knowledge is distributed rather than local, and not locatable, either cognitively or anatomically. ‘(K)nowledge is stored in the spatial and temporal differences between connection weights’ (p160-1). ‘Thus there is a double displacement; from the locale of the unit or store to the connection, and then again from the connection to the spaces between connections’ (p161-2). Wilson goes on to argue

that the connectionist project offers an occasion for a critique of a self-present, originary, locatable psychical trace. Moreover this critique is delivered (surprisingly) through the processes of traditional scientific inquiry. Via connectionism, the embodiment of the psyche is enacted not through present cortical traces, but through the deferral and difference of a material trace that is nowhere locatable. (p162)

In her concluding chapter, Wilson gives a brief example of the potentially radical implications of such a revisioning of the cognitive trace. She argues that Simon le Vay’s scientific claim ‘that homosexual and heterosexual identities have a neurobiological substrate’ … ‘constitutes neurocognitive matter as self-present and originary’ (p202-3). This is in contrast to the body in queer theories, for example, which effect a ‘displacement of biological presence’ (p203). Politically speaking, science forecloses the idea of ‘neurocognitive mobility’ and critical theory recoils from the neurological domain in response. For Wilson, a breach, in contrast permits ‘the infraction of immobile boundaries and a displacement of the fixed political-critical spaces they enact’ (p204).

I have taken care to represent in hopefully faithful detail Wilson’s terrain and her argument because it is a powerful challenge to the dualisms within which feminists (notably feminist psychologists – of which I am one) tend to be constrained. Elizabeth Wilson’s thinking is shockingly – and refreshingly – different. It covers an immensely broad terrain. It remains impressively accessible. Even the book’s structure, whose coherence I questioned from time to time, probably better reflects the subtle ‘double movement’ she advocates, which glides between empiricism and criticism, neuropsychology and psychoanalysis, without relinquishing any of them, nor resolving their tensions. I hope it inspires feminist psychologists, indeed feminist anti-essentialists everywhere, to think the body biologically as well.
Wendy Hollway, Reader in Gender Relations, School of Psychology, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition by E.A. Wilson was published by Routledge:New York and London in 1998.

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