A major modern ideology claims that we are essentially our brains, and that the brain sciences will explain all human behavior and revolutionize society at large. As shown in my previous book, Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (with F. Ortega, 2017), such ideology has become enormously influential since the mid-20th century, with the growth of the neurosciences and their application to an expanding range of human issues. A new book, Performing Brains on Screen (PBS, 2022) explores how films have represented it; the book appeared in Amsterdam University Press, a leading publisher on film and media.
Why film? Because since the late 19th century, it has helped forge, transform or maintain values, beliefs, ideals, prejudices, hopes, expectations and puzzles, including those concerning mind, body, personhood and personal identity. Dealing with over 200 movies since a 1909 French short where a man behaves like a monkey after receiving a monkey brain, PBS discusses how fiction cinema performs those puzzles.
After a chapter on US 1920-30s pulp “scientifiction,” with which later movies offer fascinating resonances, PBS delves into four vast areas of filmic production: naked brains and living heads; personal survival; Frankenstein’s brains; memory. Mad scientists and brain transplantations vary everywhere, but genres and styles vary enormously, and plots range from implausibly weird stories to retrospectively prophetic insights. Yet brainfilms share a fundamental feature. They begin by assuming the cerebral subject ideology, always postulating (in philosopher R. Puccetti’s words), that “Where goes a brain, there goes a person. ”Subsequently, though, their visuals and story lines question it and problematize it. In spite of initially reducing self to brain, they enact the idea that social contexts, relations, and the extra-cerebral body are constitutive of personhood and personal identity. Thus, behind the first impression that the cinema adheres to the belief that we are our brains, we find that it uses such belief as a narrative and visual resource to become one of the most powerful modern reminders of humans’ essentially relational and embodied nature.