My dissertation offers the first monograph-length scholarly account of the politics and history of neural engineering by documenting the creation of permanent intracerebral brain implants for affective disorders. By combining both ethnographic and historical research, my dissertation tracks the problem that the emergence of biomedical techniques for engineering the human brain has posed within liberal political philosophy for the question of "freedom," and how the interaction between political ideology and biomedical technology have shaped the conditions and political economy of contemporary brain engineering research. I argue that these development reflect the changing formation of liberal political ideologies of the subject in response to the emergence of new political-economic forms in the “data economy.”
The project demonstrates how the key political and ideological conditions for contemporary neural engineering came about, and suggests how we should begin to imagine political alternatives in the present. Thus, my dissertation intervenes in three areas of contemporary scholarly debate and public significance.
The first is to clarify a genealogy of changes in liberal political ideology and its framing of “the human” from the 20th to the 21st century. Many scholarly accounts have tried to reckon with the problem that the manipulability of the human body and brain through biomedicine poses for the liberal axiom of “freedom” and “individuality.” Often, these accounts resort to overarching concepts like “biopolitics” that do not take into account historical specificity. My dissertation historicizes how “freedom” as a concern came to be articulated through anxieties about neural engineering, and how these articulations have changed from the Cold War to the present.
Second, my work intervenes in the historiography of the neurosciences: in contrast to a regnant scholarly narrative that frames the neurosciences as having emerged out of a militarized Cold War scientific apparatus, I demonstrate the utopic and progressive visions of a universal science of the human that animated neuroscience before 1970. This matters because it shows that the contemporary state of the brain sciences, subordinated to the twin dictates of the militarized state and commercialized science, is the outcome of political decisions that can be fought and reversed.
Finally, my work demonstrates in rich ethnographic detail the outcome of these political dynamics in order to intervene in key debates about how to theorize biomedicine within the “data economy.” My work argues that the central ethical and political problems posed by neural data cannot be solved through reverting to liberal conceptions of property, privacy, freedom, and the self, and suggests ways of thinking toward new political goals.