Literature, mind, body and emotion


Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

In the eighteenth century, young female readers were warned not to meddle with romances, novels, and chocolate, all of which were likely to inflame the passions. (182)

This juxtaposition of two of my favourite actitivities-  reading and eating chocolate – emblematises Daniel Lord Smail’s view of literature in his On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Like my third addiction, coffee, a novel is a psychotropic substance that alters the chemistry of the brain, and thereby alters moods and feelings.

This view of literature features in the final chapter of a book that is aimed to stimulate historians to revise their view of the grand narrative of history. Although the Judeo-Christian chronology in which history began with Genesis has been abandoned by scientists, it has been translated into a secular key: history in the textbooks is assumed to begin when biological ‘pre-history’ gave way to culture with the rise of civilization, six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. Traditional reasons for neglecting the Paleolithic, the period from the introduction of stone tools by hominids to the introduction of agriculture (2.6 million years ago-10.000 BC), is a lack of written sources. Smail convincingly demonstrates that current historiography is no longer based on this assumption. There are other signs than writing that historians can analyse. Smail chose to focus on the brain as a means to connect what he calls ‘deep history’ to our current world.

After a lucid survey of views of history in the first two chapters and rejecting earlier attempts to connect history and the brain that were too much based in a binary division between nature and culture (see The Thinking Meat Project for a summary and review), Smail turns to his alternative grand narrative of history, based on the human brain:

The mere knowledge that the things we do and see and experience have mood-altering effects, that culture impinges on psychology (and vice versa), should encourage us to ask why. The answer to that question takes us into the deep past, for the brain has a history[.] (160)

What I like about this book is its nuanced attempt to integrate sciences of the brain with the discipline of history. Smail does not view biology as the underlying determinant of everything we do, his view is much more nuanced. He stresses that cultural practices shape human brains, and therefore have neurophysiological consequences. This provides a way out of the nature/nurture divide, one of the last binaries to be deconstructed by cultural theory:

[R]ecent trends in biology and neurobiology have emphasized the degree to which organisms are built by the interaction of genes, environment, and random developmental noise, to the point where there can be no nature without nurture and vice versa, as every right-thinking observer has long suspected anyway (119)

Cultural phenomena, such as men who become furiously angry when their masculinity is insulted, or Victorian women who swoon at the sight of blood, are somatic: they materialise in the body and are hard to fake since they are wired in brain-body chemistry. But these reactions are not universal either, these phenomena inscribed into the brain and the body by culture. This means that there is no clear divide between nature and nurture, between biology and civilization, and that in turn allows Smail to make a case for a grand narrative of history that connects the deep history of early human life to the present.

In the fifth chapter of his book, “Civilization and Psychotrophy,” Smail gives an example of how historians can integrate the human brain into their work. He introduces a taxonomy of psychotropic substances:

  • Teletropic mechanisms are the various devices used in human society to create mood changes in other people (170). He mentions his own practice of lecturing to his students, in which he employs devices such as titillation, amusement or shock to produce mood effects in his students’ brains, and keep them focused on the material. Medieval teachers used beating in a similar belief that brain-body effects could stimulate learning. Smail distinguishes between symbiotic and exploitative teletropic mechanisms. The distinction is in the eye of the beholder, and is based on the intended effects. Religious rituals, for example, bring a change in brain activity (recently scientifically demonstrated for meditation) that can be seen as symbiotic, since it contributes to the mental well-being of those who participate in the ritual. At the same time, these rituals can be seen as exploitative when rulers use them to reduce protest and strengthen their power over the people (it is interesting that Smail reproduces Marx’s idea that religion is opium for the people (a psychotropic substance if ever there was one), but does not quote Marx).
  • Autotropic mechanisms are devices that influence the body chemistry of the self. Examples are ingested substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee or chocolate, but also behaviours such as running, listening to music, reading, seeing a movie, or having sex.

The chapter largely focuses on the huge explosion of autotropic devices in the eighteenth century, hence the opening quotation of this post. With the sudden rise of coffee houses, salons and cafés, the popularity of tobacco, chocolate, chili pepper, and leisure reading, the eighteenth century saw an enormous increase in the use of autotropic devices. After exploring these phenomena, Smail offers an alternative grand narrative of history based on this interaction between culture and the brain by means of mood-altering mechanisms. The use of psychtropies can be seen to rise slowly across the later Paleolithic, accelerating in the Neolithic and shows a steep increase in the last few centuries. The problem with this model for Smail’s purposes of writing a deep history is that the use of mood-altering substances begins to increase at precisely the moment when humans turn to agriculture, in the Neolithic – which is the traditional moment of the beginning of history. Smail admits that this is a problem, but adds: “Yet the deep history remains essential to the story, since it is the only way to really understand why our brains opreate the way they do” (163). Another line of development he sketches is the more recent shift from teletropic to autotropic devices:

By way of offering a grand narrative, it may be possible some day to argue that European societies, between the twelfth and the nineteenth centuries, witnessed a tectonic shift away from teletropic mechanisms manipulated by ruling elites toward a new order in which the teletropies of dominance were replaced by the growing range of autotropic mechanisms available on an increasingly unregulated market. (The rise of the fascist regimes of the twentieth century might well pose a challenge to the simple teleology of this model, reminding us that history is always complex and never linear. (186)

Although he shows himself aware of the problematic of teleology, the purpose of Smail’s book is to do precisely that: to replace existing teleologies with one based on the interaction between human culture and human brain. Although I admire his attempt to disrupt the nature/nurture boundary, enjoyed his lucidly written book, and am secretly fond of sweeping statements myself, I do see problems with this proposed grand narrative. In what follows, I will take his view of the novel as the focus for my objections.

Firstly, I do not think medieval religious rituals can be so simply categorized as teletropic – as devices to induce a change in the state of mind in other people. In traditions of mysticism, religious rituals are very much autotropic, and do not rely on the authority of the church, for example.

A similar problem arises with the categorisation of novels. chocolatelunaIn Smail’s view, the novel ranks with coffee and chocolate as an autotropic device: something that you use to influence your own body chemistry. Agreed, on some nights, a good novel accompanied by those two other substances does function as such. But could novels not also be seen as a teletropic device: it is a text written by someone else who influences your state of mind, across space, as Smail defines teletropy – but also over time. I don’t mean to reduce a novel to its message, or to the ideas it contains, but all kinds of literature have the power to make you experience what you read as if it is happening here and now, asking you to engage with what is portrayed (Aristotle’s concept of energeia). In the Aristotelian view, the emotions triggered by literature have a cognitive effect, and it is this cognitive aspect that is left out of the picture if a novel is compared to a piece of chocolate. A view of the novel’s effects on the body and mind should try to include both the mood-altering and the cognitive effects, and see how they are created by the text, and how the two relate to each other.

If a novel can be teletropic, then a television show or computer game can be too, and this seriously complicates Smail’s model. We need only look at Berlusconi’s media empire to see how teletropic mechanisms increase political power also today. And viewed from the perspective of Foucault’s notion of governmentality, could we argue that the ‘increasingly unregulated market’ is the neo-capitalist power structure of our day? Even if we seem to make choices for auto-tropic devices, how much are those choices our own?

If I find the time, this post is part of a series of reviews of books that explore that relation between literature (theatre included), emotions, body and mind. I previously reviewed Katherine Craik’s Reading Sensations and a paper by John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble. On my shortlist for (re-)reading and reviewing are: Jane F. Thrailkill’s Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism (2007), Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect (2004) and Tanya Pollard’s Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (2005). Perhaps I will start a bibliography like the one on the body on a separate page – reading tips, any one?

Reviews of On Deep History and the Brain:


2 thoughts on “Literature, mind, body and emotion

  1. First, congratulations for the review. It was a pleasure reading it. And you also made me curious to read the book. If I am to add something, I would say this: You explain that Smail divides psychotropic substances into the ones that are used on others and the ones that people use for themselves. Then you detail how he deploys a set of examples according to specific societies. Hence my reading is that he doesn’t classify the very nature of the examples, but the types of decision involved in choosing and using those substances. It’s so true that the industry of advertizing (mass media included) makes us question every commercial decision we make, but that doesn’t exclude any attempt to classify – in order to differentiate and understand better – placing one type of decision on the top of another, analyzing which decision is more or less a personal choice. As you say yourself, the best quality of the book might consists of trying to clarify the nature/nurture long time debate and the detail you very correctly noticed might not be wrong per se – a weak piece of argument in the whole plea- but a misplacement of items in the taxonomy or, rather, a poorly constructed taxonomy.

  2. Dear Raluca,

    Thanks for your response. I think that my problem with classification is bigger than you suggest — it is important that Smail ranks television with autotropic devices, because his overall argument in the final chapters is that we moved from a time of teletropic devices in the middle ages to a time of autotropic devices in the present. I think this theory of such a historical development is problematic, for two reasons: the religious experience that Smail categorizes as teletropic also existed in forms that resisted the rule of the elite in the middle ages; and two, I think that television is also a teletropic device – our current experience economy is not controlled by a medieval feudal class, but by a neo-capitalism, which pretends to leave us a choice, but are those choices really our own? Smail contrasts the ruling elites of the middle ages with the ‘unregulated market’ of capitalism, thus suggesting that there is no controlling power behind the autotropics of today. It is not the same kind of power, but I do think the forces of neo-capitalism are a power that shapes the choices we can make, and in the current experience economy uses devises that seem autotropic as teletropic devices. Television might seem autotropic, but when you watch it, it also operates as a teletropic device, that instills a desire for more seemingly autotropic experiences.

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