Once more on ‘neuroenhancement’ and love

Back in 2014, I wrote a critique of the work of Brian Earp and others, who were advocating for the use of oxytocin and other chemicals to be incorporated into a program for the ‘neuroenhancement’ of love. Earp et alia have written a reply to their critics, of whom there are several.

The primary point of their reply is that they were not, in fact, being neuroreductionist in their work, and see chemical interventions as part of a broader suite of measures to tinker with love. On this point, I believe that Earp et al are deceived, their vague gesturing to the ‘social’ elements of love notwithstanding. My argument was that at the crux of their work, Earp et al were reducing love from a verb (of a relational kind) to a noun, a feeling, something Imaginary in the Lacanian sense. This feeling can then in turn be manipulated by one method or another. It is true that Earp sees a role for the use of words in these manipulations, but the entity being manipulated is an imaginary rather than symbolic phenomenon.

The noun/verb distinction, one which is somewhat obscured in some English usages, is critical is here. Consider shame and ‘shaming’, for instance. If we regard shame as a noun, it becomes an affect in which I am implicated. If we regard it as a verb – for instance, ‘the Other shames me’ – we have constructed an essentially paranoid account of the situation in question. Likewise, the difference between aimer and amour is missing in Earp et al, since it is only as amour, as a noun denoting an imaginary feeling that they are concerned with love.

The more significant part of my critique, concerning the ideological implications of Earp’s take on technology, did not receive any reply, though a couple of other critics who raised questions along similar lines did receive some response. When confronted with the proposition that ‘neuroenhancement’ is a form of control or manipulation on its subjects, Earp’s response is to argue that a set of ‘ethical guidelines’ would allow the technologists to establish some happy, middle ground between their intervention being something like the self-administration of chocolate, and complete ‘mind control’. So it’s to be a bit of mind control, then?

I believe that there are some grounds for scepticism when it comes to this supposed happy medium. For all of the grave flaws of the traditional medical model, there are limits to intervention insofar as the practice is concerned with the abolition of symptoms. In other words, it is a practice with something in common with the pleasure principle and the ego-ideal, in contrast to neuroenhancement, which, in principle, has no limits, and is correspondingly more in line with the superego. Perhaps, as Earp would have it, this superego can be tamed by an ethical committee and organised along utilitarian principles with minimal ill-effects for subjects. But this assumes the myth of a neutral technology, when as the work of Earp and others showed clearly, their project of attaining ‘positive physical and emotional outcomes’ was thoroughly ideological and mystificatory from the start. Technology, and technicality itself are not some nonaligned apparatus, derived from pure science, which are then ‘good’ or ‘bad depending on the application. Rather, technology embodies social relations, and the superegoic nature of ‘enhancement’ is prevalent not just in the self-administration of oxytocin but in the ‘brain training’ apps that are doing the rounds. Functionally, they bear strong parallels to the apps which some anorexics use to relentless monitor and modify their bodies. The strong grounds for suspicion toward ‘neuroenhancement’ therefore remain intact. Nonetheless, I expect the enhancement model to continue on in other iterations than the neurochemical.



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