A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Raveling the Brain: Toward a Transdisciplinary Neurorhetoric

Nate DeProspo, University of South Carolina

Published August 31, 2022

Challenging traditional methodological approaches in the neurosciences that attempt to “unravel” the truth of our neuroprocesses, Jordynn Jack is invested in raveling the brain, which takes a more exploratory, interdisciplinary angle. For Jack, raveling is less about truth-seeking, per se, and more about forging productive connections between the scientific and the rhetorical. Imbuing the neurosciences with important insights from the rhetorical tradition and from new materialist philosophies, Jack’s project attempts to foster a more networked, “neurorhetorical” consideration of the mind and its relations. Through this conjunctive approach, Jack invites the rhetorical studies scholar to think through the entangled dynamics of scientific knowledge production, conceptuality, and rhetorical context.

The book’s primary critical target is scientific representationalism—a methodology that promises both a neutral interpretive lens and an unmediated access to reality. According to Jack, such vulgar representationalism in the neurosciences comes in several forms, including neurorealism (Chapter 1) and neuroessentialism (Chapter 2), both of which pursue objectivity at the expense of the complexity of relations. The complexity that scientists aim to represent and to clarify is neutralized, as Jack argues, by the goals and modes of analysis. Therefore, a traditional scientific approach is limited, problematically, by its inclinations toward truth and clarity. Offering a shift in orientation and in methodology, Jack wants to ravel problems rather than unravel them, to dwell in the complexity and the messiness of problematics rather than offer tidy resolutions to difficult conceptual-material assemblages.

To be clear, in doing this Jack does not prescribe a critical orientation, or a new -ism, with the goals of paradigm change. Her project is more modest—more careful—than this. Perhaps because of her methodological interest in the difficulties of knowledge production, Jack does not attempt to brand or market her project as a revolutionary new approach. Instead, Jack focuses exclusively on engaging immanent analyses of the conditions of knowledge in the discursive ecologies of neuroscience. In the wake of this analysis, Jack’s “neurorhetorical approach” attempts to offer a revision of traditional knowledge-making practices. For Jack, this revision involves the productive bridging of the social and the scientific. Raveling, for instance, is Jack’s primary tool for connecting discursive, technological, cultural, and rhetorical assemblages. Rather than taking a representationalist approach that would seek to ascertain the truth of the brain’s processes, removing or separating the brain from cultural or material variables, Jack’s method aims to attend to the social-material complexity that is constitutive of neural activity—a complexity that is typically elided, willfully or not, in the neurosciences. 

The stated goal of Jack’s project is twofold: to attend to the conditions of possibility for knowledge production in the field(s) of neuroscience and to offer an account of neural relations that considers the influence of rhetorical, material, and cultural variables. Jack’s style of thinking emphasizes multiplicity and connectivity rather than separability or distinctness. Such an orientation resonates with Gilles Deleuze’s ontology, which stresses the inseparability of matter and concept. Deleuze sees concepts as “concrete assemblages” and as “events” (36), as relations that take part in the construction of reality rather than as static entities that merely report on reality. Curiously, however, there is no mention of Deleuze in Raveling, which may have been a strategic decision, as most of Jack’s theoretical reference points are rooted in the rhetorical tradition and in more contemporary, new materialist scholarship. Jack mobilizes her critique through the works of Kenneth Burke, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway, all of whom allow her to deconstruct, in various ways, the reductive apparatus of scientific objectivity.

Drawing from Latour’s theory of network, Jack employs the concept of the “rhetorical-material meshwork,” which refers to “the set of interconnected discourses, arguments, bodies, tools, techniques, practices, theories, and traditions that neuroscientists use to do research” (5). The guiding question in the analysis of a rhetorical-material meshwork is: how does neuroscience make its truth claims, and how might we productively complicate this process? What this analysis entails is an attention to the process by which knowledge is produced, rather than discovered, in the neurosciences. Although Jack’s book bridges disciplines with a kind of experimental and exploratory verve, her focus on the immanent dynamics of scientific discourse squares her project directly within the field of rhetoric. Such an attunement to methods of research and styles of reasoning is a hallmark of rhetorical studies, which often has as its critical object the very process by which objectivity becomes established.

Scholars in rhetorical studies will be interested in Jack’s deployment of metaphor, which she sees as an uninterrogated mode of engagement in neuroscientific research. In Chapter 1, Jack argues that metaphor, as a constitutive conceptual category or tool, does not “merely explain or illuminate things. Instead, metaphor serves inventive purposes” (22). Adopting a quasi-Burkean orientation, Jack suggests that metaphor structurally infiltrates objectivity, both upsetting objectivity from within and allowing for its perpetuation in scientific practice. Jack argues that this particular dynamic of conceptuality is unconsidered in neurorealism. Specifying the types of metaphors that are typically deployed, Jack suggests that substitution and reification are the primary tools through which the brain is appraised in neurorealist research. In the study of behaviors and their relation to regions of the brain, the complexity of a neural process is substituted for a specific brain region, which is then “posited as a real thing” (22). A classic example of this performative discourse is when the prefrontal cortex is called the “decision-making center” (22). The metaphor “decision-making center,” which was established by a conceptual movement of substitution, is then reified as objectively real, or as existing prior to or outside of the scene of analysis.

Jack argues that neurorealism tends to operate at the level of the fact claim, in which, for instance, the decision-making center is said to exist in the prefrontal cortex. On the other hand, neuroessentialism—the subject of Chapter 2—tends to operate at the level of definition, in which certain neuroprocesses are defined and essentialized through the scenes of analysis. Jack argues that because of the limitations on measuring apparatuses and on the methods of experimentation, the studies that employ neuroessentialism often must reduce certain variables to ascertain verifiable results of analysis. For instance, individuals cannot be analyzed under “normal” conditions in an fMRI machine, as they are typically immobile and can only respond by clicking a button (42). To investigate creativity and its “neural correlates,” for instance, the study must meet these limiting conditions, which restrict the conceptual potential of the project. For such a study to produce demonstrable results, creativity must already be reduced to its essence as a concept and must already be assigned to a specific region of the brain in which it is stimulated. Along with this a priori framework, the scene of observation is so narrow that it actually prohibits the enactment of the very phenomenon—creativity—under analysis. 

Reduction, deduction, and separation: these are the styles of engagement that are most consistently scrutinized in Jack’s project because these are styles that forbid the kind of collective, connective thinking to which she aspires. In her chapter on affect, for instance, Jack argues that a traditional, rhetorical study of affect sees it as distinct from, or prior to, discursive relations, or “that affect is separable from language, thought, and emotion” (145). The challenge for Jack, then, is to take a more productive, “neurorhetorical” approach to affective relations, to inquire into how affect, discourse, culture, and history are all raveled together.

In a particularly poignant example of the interplay between affective and cultural dynamics, Jack relays her personal response to the U.S. terrorist attacks on 9/11 (146). Because she grew up in Canada and had only been in the U.S. for one year upon the event, Jack was unable to experience any real grief, fear, or sorrow in the face of the news, and the subsequent footage, of the twin towers falling. Jack did not know of the significance of the World Trade Center, or its symbolic weight as a pillar in the heart of New York City. She did not feel the same sense of belonging—or loss—that her American-born peers did; she didn’t feel like her country was under attack. According to certain theories of affect (as separable from or prior to socialization), this example does not make any sense. Or, to put it differently, a theory of affect as a universal, pre-cultural, sensory phenomenon cannot account for the contingencies of social context and their potential affective coordinates. The notion of affect as a purely scientific or bodily phenomenon is for Jack reductive because it does not consider the irreducible connectivity between emotional response, enculturation, and historical context. As Jack suggests, the body and/as its history are often reduced in traditional neuroscientific approaches (152).

Jack traces a lineage of cognitive approaches to rhetoric to form a classical foundation for her neurorhetorical approach, which will certainly please more traditional rhetorical theorists who might otherwise hesitate to engage the connection between rhetorical studies and neuroscience. Jack notes that questions of cognition and affective response have been central to the study and practice of rhetoric since antiquity (6). This project will be especially relevant for rhetorical scholars who are interested in the conceptual problematics of new materialism, in which the relations between discourse, conceptuality, materiality, and objectivity are variously pursued and articulated. Raveling the Brain is carefully written, neatly organized, and offers an accessible exposition of the rhetoric of neuroscience. Often conceptually adventurous, Jack’s inquiry into the conditions of scientific knowledge production puts pressure on a perennial problematic of philosophy: the limits of interpretation. 

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Columbia UP, 1994.

Jack, Jordynn. Raveling the Brain: Toward a Transdisciplinary Neurorhetoric. Ohio State UP, 2019.