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L'ère électrique. The Electric Age

 | 
Olivier Asselin
, 
Silvestra Mariniello
, 
Andrea Oberhuber

La pensée électrique/Electrical Thought

Media, Technology, and the Electric Unconsciousness in the 20th Century

Cornelius Borck

Texte intégral

  • 1 Herbert George Wells, The Time Machine (London: Heinemann, 1895).

1Just years before the arrival of the 20th century, time travel materialized in form of H. G. Wells’ famous novel The Time Machine. This device allowed one to travel to and from the future, not the past.1 A few decades into the new century, time travel in the opposite direction turned into a lived-through experience for some of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield’s patients, when their brains were explored by means of electrical stimulation to prevent damage during epilepsy surgery. The electric current forced recollections derived from the patient’s past when the stimulating electrode explored the cortex across its lateral surface (appropriately named the temporal cortex):

  • 2 Stanley Cobb, “Foreword,” in Daniel E. Sheer, ed., Electrical Stimulation of the Brain. An Interdi (...)

Perhaps one can best [start] by imagining that [Wilder] Penfield is stimulating one’s temporal cortex and producing states of déjà vu. Then one dreams back into the great days of the late nineteenth century when Fritsch and Hitzig began the epoch of physiological experiments by cerebral stimulation.... Exciting times indeed.2

  • 3 Timothy W. Kneeland and Carol A. B. Warren, Pushbutton Psychiatry: A History of Electroshock in Am (...)
  • 4 Anne Collins, In the Sleep Room: The Story of the Cia Brainwashing Experiments in Canada (Toronto: (...)

2With this fantasy, Stanley Cobb, professor emeritus and long-time head of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital, opened a scholarly volume titled Electrical Stimulation of the Brain in 1961. When a psychiatrist dreams of a time machine that allows him to live through great moments from the past, what he yearns for are, apparently, moments from the prehistory of the very method he supposes as time vehicle. One may at first respond by thinking how poor these scientists’ fantasies are, but laughter turns into shock as soon as one realizes that the person dreaming of submitting himself to invasive electric therapy may have prescribed many electric shocks to others, sending his psychiatric patients not into dream lands but into the horrors of an erased past. Electroshock therapy boomed throughout the years while Penfield was exploring human brains with electric stimulation during epilepsy surgery.3 McGill was the world’s center of brain stimulation in the hands of Wilder Penfield while Donald Ewen Cameron experimented next door, in psychiatry, with brain washing.4 The difference between the most subtle and brutal approaches seems merely to be a question of voltage.

Electrifying Histories

3This seems to be a first hint to be pursued; the grandiose and the grotesque, the banal and the brutal exist right next to each other in the history of electricity. A comparison of Cobb’s time-machine fantasy with Penfield’s report on how his electrical explorations resulted in the patient undergoing a déjà vu illustrates this point almost inadvertently:

  • 5 Wilder Penfield, “Memory and Perception,” Research Publications, Association for Research in Nervo (...)

One [type] of response is what patients have often described as a “flashback.”... When the electrode is applied, the patient may exclaim in surprise, as the young secretary, M.M. did: “Oh, I had a very, very familiar memory, in an office somewhere. I could see the desks. I was there and someone was calling to me, a man leaning on a desk with a pencil in his hand.” Or, he may call out in astonishment, as J.T. did (when the current was switched on without his knowledge): “Yes, Doctor, yes, Doctor! Now I hear people laughing—my friends in South Africa.... Yes, they are my two cousins.”5

  • 6 Wilder Penfield, “Memory Mechanisms,” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 67 (1952): 178–191.

4Again and again, the stimulating electrode acted reliably as a memory recollector, bringing back single, distinct, original experiences and not a mixture of memories or a generalization. According to Penfield’s account, the recollections evoked from the temporal cortex retained the detailed character of the original experiences that were lost in active recall, and the memories forced into the patient’s consciousness were experienced not only as present but as “more real” than a memory.6 However, it was left entirely to the accidental position of the electrode whether the stimulation resulted in the permanent boredom of an office life or a happy family reunion across the ocean.

  • 7 Paola Bertucci and Giuliano Pancaldi, eds., Electric Bodies: Episodes in the History of Medical El (...)
  • 8 Hermann Helmholtz, “Über die Zeit, welche nöthig ist, damit ein Gesichtseindruck zum Bewußtsein ko (...)
  • 9 Brigitte Felderer, ed., Wunschmaschine Welterfindung: eine Geschichte der Technikvisionen seit dem (...)
  • 10 Ingrid Ehrhardt, ed., Okkultismus und Avantgarde: von Munch bis Mondrian 1900–1915 (Ostfildern: Te (...)

5Following the idea of electric stimulation as time machine a little beyond family reunions and beyond the great episodes from laboratory research, more ambiguous states of déjà vu come to mind from the history of electric stimulation.7 Galvani’s spark of life fascinated Europe as much as its colonies; it inspired Shelley’s Frankenstein to revive his creature in a moment of fictional resurrection and it provoked serious attempts in electrical resurrection at the beginning of the 19th century. A few decades later, the electric telegraph reduced incredibly large distances to fractions of a second and fuelled dreams of instantaneous communication. Nervous signals, by contrast, traveled shockingly slowly, as German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz determined to the surprise of his contemporaries when he measured the velocity of the nerve impulse; the human mind lived a measurable distance behind the present time of its sensory apparatus, as it turned out.8 Towards the end of the century, high voltage demonstrated its mighty powers not only in deadly experiments with electrocution but, perhaps more fascinatingly, in new forms of electricity that traveled through human bodies like air.9 X-rays portrayed living humans as ghost-like skeletons, while wireless technology made ghostly voices speak from out of nowhere. Broadcasting provided the means for communication séances with the immaterial world, stimulating forays of the avant-garde into occultism and speculative psychical research.10

  • 11 Chris Hables Gray, ed., The Cyborg Handbook (London: Routledge, 1995).
  • 12 Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media (...)

6With the arrival of the 20th century, electricity took on new roles as general power supply but continued to evoke far ranging fantasies, from telepathic communication and electromagnetic mind control to therapeutic applications of currents in all possible forms (see fig. 1). Towards the century’s end, knowledge circulated predominantly along electronic networks and was being stored increasingly in digital formats. Fictional and not-so-fictional worlds of sensory stimulation and prosthetic technology formed immersive data spheres out of electricity and to virtual realities.11 In a provisional generalization across this coarse outline of electro-intellectual interferences, electricity appears to have addressed primarily the death/life divide in the 19th century, whereas in the 20th century, electricity permeated almost every aspect of life, technology, and society as a transformative power.12 More than simply causing or opposing death, electricity has been woven into the fabric of modernity, from its most basic levels to e-commerce and artificial intelligence. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, electricity does not so much reside over life and death as it is a prerequisite for living a life. In this perspective, electricity’s pervasiveness must be understood as operating on at least three different levels—as technology, medium, and model. Electricity furbished the everyday life with all sorts of new commodities; it acted and continues to act as intermedium in the strictest sense (i.e., as the standard of universal interchangeability), and formats circulating knowledge along the electronic domains of machine intelligence, virtual reality, and artificial life.

Figure 1. The ambivalences of electrotherapy in a Herald cartoon. From the Collections of the National Library of Medicine

  • 13 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalt (...)

7In tandem with the modern avant-garde of the interwar period, Walter Benjamin famously spoke of the optical unconscious and declared film to be the medium providing access to it “just as psychoanalysis did to the psychical.”13 With the close-up and slow motion, the film camera accessed an optical unconscious just as psychoanalysis had once opened a deep space hidden in an individual’s psyche. In psychoanalysis, this access had allowed the practitioner to uncover the suppressed from the past and to break the circle of repetition in a dynamic process, creating a revolution of self and society. Benjamin’s idea of a material unconscious invites us to conceptualize electricity in a similar way and to read its multiple modes of operation as a technological unconscious. Electricity and electric technologies are unrivalled in the pervasiveness with which they mediate life and reality. There can be little doubt that electric media mould the realms of daily life as well as the ways to access it. By exploring the technological unconscious along the three levels just introduced, this sketch of an argument may indicate how electricity could be situated as something like the technological unconscious of the 20th century.

  • 14 Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).

8Walter Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious, however, once reflected the totality of the period’s visual imagery and it provided the key to the imaginative in doing so.14 Electricity’s alleged promises were hailed with no less fanfare, and there has hardly been a single more sweeping technology during the 20th century, but it seems much more difficult to localize a similarly messianic dimension in electricity, perhaps because its forces were, and still are, too pervasive. Rather, Benjamin’s critical analysis questions (a) whether there can be a true utopian potential in electricity that goes beyond the wonderland promises of the electronics industry, and (b) where to localize it. Even without a clear answer to this general question, however, electricity appears to have always already appropriated its age. This is the reason why I want to speak of electricity as the technological unconscious in the 20th century. Its hallmark is a transgressive dynamic by which the changes electric technology has been mediating were never limited to a technological domain but permeated nature and culture. That is, at least, the conclusion from a series of examples I am presenting for investigating the ways in which the social, the personal, and the cognitive intertwine.

Techno-cultural Wonderworlds of the Human Body

  • 15 Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore: Joh (...)
  • 16 Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen: Eine volkstümliche Anatomie, Biologie, Physiologie und Entwick (...)
  • 17 For a more detailed analysis of Kahn’s visualization strategy, see Cornelius Borck, “Communicating (...)

9The amazement about electricity’s world of wonders provides a good starting point. With the arrival of general electric power supply, a fingertip sufficed to light a room or to turn off the biggest machine; networks of power connected a nation’s cities and radiant electricity permeated its spaces.15 Literally, as well as metaphorically, the electrification process galvanized technology, the human body, and psychic life to new forms of symbiosis, as best illustrated by Fritz Kahn’s popular anatomy Das Leben des Menschen.16 Imaginative and compelling drawings depict the functional organization of the human body as “modern” technological system. Conceptualizing organs and body functions by means of advanced technologies was not a new strategy but a continuing strand in the tradition of neurophysiological research and its popularization. Kahn, however, did more than simply apply this explanatory strategy as a rhetorical figure; he depicted the physiology of the human body as a cultural product.17 His visualizations demonstrated the interdependence of physiology and technology. The drawings styled psychophysiology as an electrically mediated form of modern life in the 1920s.

  • 18 Ernst Kapp, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik: zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Cultur aus ne (...)

10A particularly striking example is Kahn’s visualization of the sensory nervous system as a radio setup, in which the sensory cells equal the antenna; the wire, the neuron; the machine transforming the electromagnetic into acoustic waves, the nervous center in the brainstem; and the headphones, the conscious act in the cortical cells (see fig. 2). So far, the image follows the typical script of machine metaphors that dominated the philosophy of technology from Ernst Kapp to McLuhan.18 But the picture did more. It elaborated on this script in a particular way. First of all, the technology shown here was the most advanced then available. A regular radio service existed for no more than six years in Germany, but precisely because of its newness the radio served so well as explanatory framework. Only the newest electric technology would throw fresh light on so complicated a structure as the human brain, the implicit argument was. This was true of brain research in the 1920s as it is today. Looked back upon from the distance of some eighty years, however, it obviously adds a certain datedness to Kahn’s images. When brain theories indulge in avant-garde technology their inescapable fate appears to be that they will become outdated all the sooner. With the increased temporal distance and because of the historical situatedness, the image thus becomes transparent to the process of technological mediation itself, its electro-technical mechanizations. In this way, Kahn’s images illuminate in their historically problematic dimensions how electricity functions as model and medium in the technological unconscious.

  • 19 Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: essai d’anthropologie symétrique (Paris: Editions (...)
  • 20 Cornelius Borck, “Electricity as a Medium of Psychic Life: Electrotechnical Adventures into Psycho (...)

11Beyond that, this image offers itself for introducing Bruno Latour’s concept of nature/culture hybrids.19 In Kahn’s image, everything was artificial, not only the houses, the vehicles, and the emphasis on infrastructure and traffic. There were no trees or decorative plants depicted, and even the light was shown as artificial and coming from the electric street lamps—another recent invention. In strict consequence of this visualization strategy, even the physiology of the human nervous system had been transformed into a product of mass-culture, becoming an oversize advertisement spanning several floors of a large building. Meanwhile, this may no longer be a plausible or valid explanation of the function of a sensory nerve, but it still is a valuable visualization of how brain research results in a hybridization of its objects of investigation with the electrical technologies mobilized for their investigation. 20The media of brain research leave their traces on the knowledge produced.

Figure 2. Popular human physiology in the mid-1920s: the body’s sensing of heat visualized as an analogue to the reception of electromagnetic waves by means of a radio receiver with antenna, transformer, and ear phones. From Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen vol. 4 (Stuttgart: Kosmos Franckh’sche Verlagshandlung 1924) table vii

  • 21 Iwan Rhys Morus, Frankenstein’s Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-ninetee (...)
  • 22 Andreas Killen, Berlin Electropolis: Shock, Nerves, and German Modernity (Berkeley: University of (...)
  • 23 Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity (...)

12More than furbishing physiology with explanatory models, electricity also provided a framework for intervening into the human body and the brain, right from Luigi Galvani’s observations of twitching muscles.21 Towards the end of the 19th century, electrotherapy emerged as one of the first branches of techno-medicine. Soon after, the growing electrical industry produced gadgets and appliances of heterogeneous kinds, creating a huge market of home-treatment tools that complemented the professional therapeutic sector.22 Plug-in devices revolutionized the old practice of electrotherapy, both in hospitals and at home, recommended as a “re-vitalization” of the human body or for a recharging the “batteries of life.”23 The list of conditions and diseases it purported to benefit was long and non-specific. “Blue-light therapy,” for example, was one of the most popular home-based treatments using electricity during the period. When connected to power, the glass tubes emanated weak electromagnetic radiation visible by a bluish light. In fact, the tool became so popular that radio enthusiasts complained about frequent interferences from the therapeutic gadgets.

13Such interferences inspired others to conceive of the radio as a kind of mental electrotherapy:

  • 24 A. K. Fiala, “Elektrophysiologische Zukunftsprobleme, “Der Deutsche Rundfunk 2 (1924): 1036.

Sooner or later, precise data about the physiological ether waves accompanying the activity of mind and brain will become available. This evidence, then, opens up fantastic opportunities. In fact, due to the dramatic improvements of radio technology, the realization of the following idea now appears quite possible: i.e. to generate and transmit ether waves of particular frequency and specific character which enter into human brains and into centers of consciousness to such a degree that they impose upon the activities of an average human brain and paralyze any intentions.24

  • 25 Upton Sinclair, Mental Radio, introduction by William McDougall (Monrouia: Kessinger Publishing, 1 (...)

14The previous is an excerpt from Der Deutsche Rundfunk, the magazine of the German broadcasting service in the year 1924 (see fig. 3). And this was but one example of how the radio inspired brain theories and revived speculations about new possibilities for telepathy, for which Upton Sinclair coined the perfect title: Mental Radio.25 Before the brain’s electric activity eventually connected with the recordings of the electroencephalograph, brainwaves already existed in the public realm.

Figure 3. Fantasies capturing electricity’s mindful superpowers in the interwar period: radio stimulation employed for super-learning during sleep and for remote controlling fellow human beings. From A. F. Fiala, “Elektrophysiologische Zukunftsprobleme,” Der Deutsche Rundfunk 3 (1925): 73 and 206

Taping the Brain

15This was the context of debates, associations, and fantasies into which brainwaves materialized. During the summer of 1930, many newspapers reported on the “zig-zag line of the human soul,” a spectacular discovery by the German psychiatrist Hans Berger:

  • 26 Walter Finkler, “Die elektrische Schrift des Gehirns,” Neues Wiener Journal 38 (July 4, 1930) 7.

The scientists working with this apparatus are mind readers, they literally read the thoughts of the human guinea-pig with the silver electrodes in his head.... One imagine the wonder: There’s a man doing some mental calculation, cables go from his head to a recorder in the room nearby in which there is nothing but the zigzag of the pen of the recording machine going over the paper. But nonetheless, the scientists read the moment the man starts his calculation, and when he finishes.26

16More than being observable and recordable, brainwaves turned out to be perfectly legible and readable without any further distillation or analysis, so it seemed. The brain was literally writing its own activities onto paper. Electroencephalography, the recording of brainwaves, not only revealed well-formed and structured electrical potentials in human brains, but electroencephalography supposed this writing to be a kind of language, a messaging system waiting to be deciphered. Or, as the commentator of the German newspaper concluded his report, “Today brainscript consists of secret signs, tomorrow we will be able to recognize mental disorders in them, and the following day, we will start writing authentic letters in brainscript.”

  • 27 Etienne-Jules Marey, La méthode graphique dans le sciences expérimentales et principalement en phy (...)
  • 28 Robert M. Brain, “Representation on the Line: Graphic Recording Instruments and Scientific Moderni (...)

17In the idea of brainscript, electroencephalography revived Etienne Marey’s famous promise of having, in the graphic method, the means to let nature write her phenomena “in their own language.”27 And it pushed this notion forward into a new dimension. The concept of brainscript captured the description of brainwaves as the discovery of the language of the neurons in the brain, but beyond that, brainscript was also “our” language, the code of human thinking and feeling. Brainscript shared being one kind of natural language with the various curves and recordings that dominated physiology since the second half of the 19th century. But at the same time, brainscript operated on this side of the nature/culture divide. One may argue that this hybrid character is typical of the graphic method in general and that the graphic method was so powerful a machine for generating knowledge precisely because of its implicit cultural connotations.28 Even in this context, electroencephalography presents as a different case, as brainwaves were conceived of not only as hybrids but as mediators in the notion of brainscript. They were hybrids not because of a particular mode of scientific investigation but in their essence; they were supposed to be the stuff that anchored our cultural fabric in the world of the biological. Brainwaves came into being because they always already made sense.

  • 29 Edgar D. Adrian and Bryan H. C. Matthews, “The Berger Rhythm: Potential Changes from the Occipital (...)

18But was it really so easy? As scientific object, brainwaves were stabilized only some years later, when the neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate Edgar Douglas Adrian repeated Berger’s experiments and demonstrated the existence of brainwaves to the astonished Physiological Society in Cambridge in 1934.29 The British journal Spectator reported on this public demonstration, which was so simple an experiment and anything but a simple experiment:

  • 30 W. Grey Walter, “Thought and Brain: A Cambridge Experiment,” Spectator 153 (1934): 478–479.

Adrian and Matthews recently gave an elegant demonstration of these cortical potentials.... When the subject’s eyes were open the line was irregular, but when his eyes were shut it showed a regular series of large waves occurring at about ten a second.... Then came the surprise. When the subject shut his eyes and was given a simple problem in mental arithmetic, as long as he was working it out the waves were absent and the line was irregular, as when his eyes were open. When he had solved the problem, the waves reappeared.... So, with this technique, thought would seem to be a negative sort of thing.30

19At this public demonstration, the machine revealed several layers of regularity in brainwaves, including a perfect documentation of mental activity. It seemed as if the world of physical structures and innate forces, of electricity and nerve fibres, would bend over into the world of meaning, life, and sense. However, at this moment of writing sense, brainscript changed from a legible curve into meaningless scribbles. “So, with this technique, thought would seem to be a negative sort of thing.”

  • 31 Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Selected and Translated from the French by Annette Lavers (New York: (...)

20This withdrawal of a directly readable meaning of brainwaves was to be demonstrated most famously in another remarkable experiment some fifteen years later. In fact, the result of the experiment was not at all spectacular, but the event was—it was a kind of brainwave contest between three scientific geniuses: Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener. Unfortunately, only one result has been published. We do not know how the EEG of the theory of computation looked, nor that of cybernetics. All we have is the EEG of the theory of relativity, or to be more precise, the electrical activity of Einstein’s brain while being asked to think about the theory of relativity. The New York Times reported on it and soon after Life International brought the news to Europe, where Roland Barthes famously remarked about it: “One seems to suggest that the brainwaves must be intense because the theory of relativity is so difficult.”31 Two decades of progress in EEG technology and brainwave recording made surprisingly little difference. On all its eight channels the brainwave recorder broadcasted—nothing, a strange withdrawal or self-withdrawal of the event to be observed. “So, with this technique, thought would seem to be a negative sort of thing.”

Brain Machines

21This may have been different in the case of the famous cybernetician, since he had come up with his own theory about brainwaves and the function of brain rhythms. So, recording the thinking of Norbert Wiener would have resulted in a new form of technologically mediated self-referentiality (see fig. 4). Something of that sort seems to be captured in this photo showing Wiener eagerly waiting for the computer to print the analysis of his EEG, as if the autocorrelation machine would reconnect Wiener to his brainwaves. Here is Wiener’s theory of the EEG :

  • 32 Norbert Wiener, I Am a Mathematician (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956) 289.

[Brainwaves] speak a language of their own, but this language is not something that one can observe precisely with the naked eye, by merely looking at the ink records of the electroencephalograph. There is much information contained in these ink records, but it is like the information concerning the Egyptian language which we had in the days before the Rosetta Stone.... When the crude original records of brain waves are transformed by the autocorrelator, we obtain a picture of remarkable clarity and significance, quite unlike the illegible confusion of the crude records which have gone into the machine.32

22Obviously, Wiener did not think modestly of his contributions to the field when he recommended his conceptualization simply as the “Rosetta stone.” Once again, the EEG wrote in a perfect language, and Wiener’s comparison of brainwaves with hieroglyphs was hardly a coincidence; like hieroglyphs, brainwaves were conceived by him to be meaningful symbols and mimetic signs. The abstract meaning of the symbolic structure was supposed to be anchored in the reality of the phenomenon. For Wiener, the Rosetta stone of electroencephalography was a sharp peak in the band of alpha frequencies (at exactly 9.05 Hz). An autocorrelation analysis of the raw data converted the original recording of a brain activity into a graph of the distribution of the recorded frequencies:

  • 33 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: (...)

Note that a sharp frequency line is equivalent to an accurate clock. As the brain is in some sense a control and computation apparatus, it is natural to ask whether other forms of control and computation apparatus use clocks. In fact most of them do. Clocks are employed in such apparatus for the purpose of gating.33

Figure 4. Norbert Wiener eagerly awaiting the computer analysis of his brainwaves. Photograph courtesy of the Research Laboratory on Electronics of MIT

23According to Wiener, brains not only resembled computers in respect to their calculation capabilities but even used a similar mechanism of data processing.

24Wiener’s intuition, however, turned out not to be the EEG’s Rosetta stone. The frequency peak did not provide the key to deciphering brainwaves as a language but conceived of them as the operating mode of a machine. Rewriting the EEG as an autocorrelogram extinguished any possible messages for the purpose of accessing the hardware involved in the coding mechanism. Mistaking brains for computers occurred more than once during the 20th century. Maybe someday people will look back on computers as one of the most convenient and common forms of misunderstanding brains.

25More than being misleading, the misidentification of brains with computers is another manifestation of the technological unconscious. While it is true that computers do not work well as explanatory models, their role is not limited to providing ill-shaped metaphors. They simply work in more than just this way; for example, computers can be used to evaluate brains and to make them work “better.” That, at least, was Alan Gevins’ prognosis of the imminent future of EEG research in the 21st century:

  • 34 Alan Gevin, “What to Do with Your Own Personal Brain Scanner,” Robert L. Solso, ed., Mind and Brai (...)

An EEG device is just a computer with some wires touching the head and a little amplifier. It’s only a matter of a few years before you won’t even notice that there’s an EEG machine there at all since the electrodes and amps may be built into a baseball cap. No wires will connect the EEG machine to a computer. You and your brain will be like a wireless modem, beaming data about your state of alertness and level of attention and mental effort directly into the computer.34

  • 35 Sigmund Freud, “Lecture XXXI, The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” New Introductory Lectu (...)

26For Gevins, a neuroscientist and not a science fiction writer, the future of functional brain examination lies in the old EEG, not in fancy MRI imaging. In “a few years, not so many,” a small and useful device, christened “Your Own Personal Brain Scanner,” will offer its services for improving daily human performance. The miniaturized EEG machine would continuously monitor the regularity of the brainwaves and thus prevent its owner from falling asleep while driving along monotonous and endless motorways, for example, or it would suggest scheduling important events in concordance with peaks in mental activity. The Personal Brain Scanner would not undermine the subject’s autonomy with prosthetic intelligence; quite the contrary, autonomy itself would be enhanced. The machine would replace an allegedly natural ego with the technologically mediated self, and p: “Where Id was, there Ego shall be,”35 perfect control of the psychic apparatus by new digital knowledge of the self.

27Gevins’ Personal Brain Scanner not only opens a path into a digital utopia of brave neuroworlds, but it revives the project to turn human beings into remote-controlled autopilots. There is a surprising historical parallel to the Personal Brain Scanner, a very similar project proposed during World War Two by German physiologists working on war-related problems in high-altitude studies. In high-altitude sickness, brains switched off silently before the inhabitant self could take any notice of it. Faced with the situation that fighter planes routinely operated in altitudes where human brains frequently faded away without giving any warning signs, these neurophysiologists started to work on a project to complement pilots with a form of electric consciousness. In experiments simulating high-altitude, by having subjects breathe air-mixtures with reduced oxygen content, it had been established that the EEG was a sensitive detector of an impending loss of consciousness. Before the pilot’s performance diminished, as monitored here with a number-writing task (see fig. 5), the EEG signalled an incipient disturbance of mental activity as a result of the reduced oxygen supply, and the EEG would indicate an imminent loss of consciousness a few seconds before the subject fainted by the occurrence of unusually slow brainwaves.

Figure 5. Monitoring the brain’s performance for aerial battles: German soldier volunteering in EEG study of effects of simulated high altitude. From: Luftfahrtmedizin 5 (1943) 175

28These findings prompted the proposal to build an EEG machine that would continuously monitor the pilot’s brainwaves, filtering them for the occurrence of particularly slow rhythms. With the help of the machine, the pilots were furbished with access to the future of their brains, as the monitor would indicate an imminent loss of consciousness while the pilots were still in control and could dive down into a “secure altitude,” thereby rescuing themselves and their teams. By anticipating a brain state, the pilot would intervene into the life of his brain and intersect into this very logic of anticipation. In realizing the virtual life of his brain, the pilot would prevent its actualization. That was at least the theory. In actuality, the brainwave monitor was not yet a baseball cap but a room-size ensemble of machines. Their miniaturization was the hard part. The monitor never got off the ground in Germany, but the neurophysiologists catapulted themselves into the American space program immediately after the war. And sure enough, astronauts got their brainwaves recorded as part of the Apollo program, though this warning device was never realized, to my knowledge.

Electric Consciousness

29I started with Penfield’s brain research as a time machine into the past, with the states of déjà vu that electrical brain stimulations triggered in patients during neurosurgery. There, electric consciousness was the enforced reactivation of vaguely remembered past experiences. The recording of brainwaves, in contrast, initially kindled the fantasy of opening a bright future of perfect self-elucidation under the paradigm of an electric language. While this turned out to be a far more complicated task than envisioned, the brainwave monitor that the German neurophysiologists planned during the war certainly was a kind of time machine, accessing the nearer future. The purpose of this construction was to train a brain to outwit itself by anticipating the brain’s future and actively intervening into it. Who is the actor in such an arrangement: the brain causing trouble, the computer recognizing it, or the self-intervening into the course of events? Where is the centre of control? And what exactly happens in such a feedback circuit? Apparently, electric consciousness consists of a contradictory distribution of agency. Self, brain, and computer form a triangle oscillating between schizophrenic dissipation and happy trinity.

  • 36 Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tub (...)

30If the goal of brain research and EEG recording was simply to increase power and knowledge, a project such as Gevins’ Personal Brain Scanner was problematic if not absurd. But such an absurdity may not necessarily be the sign of a failed project. And this could happen in at least two respects. Even though the project “fails,” it may yield significant insight; this is a fairly common sequence of events in the history of science, where significant results happen along pursuits into completely different directions.36 But there may be an even more significant form of failure, a failure revealing an intrinsic dynamic of brain research. Maybe some forms of brain research do not generate knowledge that enable control and power, but a kind of knowledge that incorporates a surrendering to technology in order to get closer to the brain—to use a rather cryptic wording here that, hopefully, will become clear with the final set of examples.

  • 37 For a more detailed account of the emergence of electroencephalography, see Cornelius Borck, Hirns (...)

31Adrian’s reflections on his success with the public demonstration of brainwaves in Cambridge offer an exceptional starting point for exploring this alternative. But in order to evaluate them appropriately, it is important to note that the existence of brainwaves had taken Adrian by surprise. The experiments demonstrating the existence of brainwaves had been very easy, almost too easy. All the necessary instruments had already been there, in the physiological laboratory that was part of his international network of neuroscientific investigations. Nothing special was now required to employ them for the new task. The instruments and machines had been employed, in far more sophisticated arrangements, to record every possible electric signal from all sorts of nervous fibres across all kinds of experimental organisms. The experiments had been successful, very successful indeed, and in recognition of his achievements a Nobel Prize had been awarded to the forty-three-year-old professor of physiology. But now it looked as if the machines had been waiting, during all these busy years, for something else, for a different type of recording. For something that had been of concern in the general public for quite a while and that, more recently, had been the object of a paper by a German psychiatrist.37 And yet, no physiologist had yet bothered to look into this.

32In fact, the experiment turned out to be so simple that its success came as an embarrassment. Adrian and his engineer found the rhythmic electrical activity of the human head “almost at once,” as they later explained. Simply by wiring up his head to an electricity detector, the machine recorded Adrian’s brain activity as a line of ink on paper—and this kindled new doubts in Adrian:

  • 38 Edgar Douglas Adrian, “The Discovery of Berger,” Antoine Rémond, ed., Handbook of Electroencephalo (...)

As I was the subject, I was unable to see the alpha waves from my head being written out on the screen when I closed my eyes, and ceasing when I was required to solve problems in mental arithmetic, but I could tell from the general hush in the audience and the scratching noise of the pen that the demonstration was going well.... In fact it had gone so well that I began to wonder whether I had not unconsciously trained myself to produce the result by some kind of trick movement.38

  • 39 Scott Meier, The Chronic Crisis in Psychological Measurement and Assessment: A Historical Survey ( (...)

33The history of science provides many examples of such trick movements and unconscious training effects; one could write the history of experimental psychology as a continuous effort to control and counter lab-induced artificial phenomena.39 Again, the Cambridge experiment differs and reveals more. Even as artificial phenomena, even as the product of “some kind of trick movement,” brainwaves would still correlate with and represent mental processes. All the way down along Adrian’s scepticism, brainwaves would continue to write across the divide of the biological and the mental, but the position of the I generating them has become more complicated. Adrian’s reflections mirror and complement the Spectator’s conclusion: “So, with this technique, thought would seem to be a negative sort of thing.”

34Adrian drew his own conclusions from his scepticism about the significance of brainwaves. He certainly aimed at integrating the cerebral potential changes into a general theory of electric activity. But his integration of brainwaves into neurophysiology was not a reduction of mind to matter; quite the contrary, his efforts were part of a larger strategy to shield the mind from the destructive consequences of physiological explanation. A famous figure from his publications illustrates this point. In a somewhat ironic move, Adrian published the EEG of “E.D.A.” in comparison to that of a water beetle. “E.D.A.” certainly stands for Edgar Douglas Adrian, so it does not cost more brain than a water beetle’s ganglion to get a Nobel Prize. What may be seen, at first glance, as an insult to human dignity can also be read as a message to his colleagues to mind the limits of the method. Seen in this light, Adrian’s comparison of himself with the water beetle urged investigators not to rush to a hasty conceptualization of the mind on the basis of the narrow scope of EEG data. For Adrian, electricity was still a powerful paradigm for investigating the brain’s operations, but the technology of brainwave recording was no longer the medium of the mental life.

The Electric Unconscious

  • 40 Barbara Büscher, “Brain Operas. Gehirnwellen, Biofeedback und neue Technologien in künstlerischen (...)

35Adrian’s scepticism does not exclude the possibility of creating insightful experiments with brainwaves. During the 1960s, artists and composers became interested in brainwaves and started to experiment with EEG technologies. One of the pioneers was Alvin Lucier. His Music for Solo Performer, in 1964, turned the waste and the unresolved problems of EEG research into an artistic exploration of subjectivity.40 The setup was fairly simple. An EEG machine picked up the brainwaves of the performer and magnified the alpha waves several thousand times. These enlarged oscillations then drove mechanical instruments generating some sounds. But here is where the confusion started. Alpha waves were generated by the performer as long as he relaxed and disengaged from any specific task. Since this was a public performance on stage, the task was to generate sound; however, by listening to the sound—if the relaxation was successful so far—the performer would inevitably concentrate and thus extinguish the neuronal source of the sound and hence the music. At the core of the piece was a contradictory interface between the self, the brain, and the machine. The performance revolved precisely around the idea of turning the incompatible interferences between the self, the brain, and the machine into soundscapes.

36In this way, the performance accesses a zone of time and space of an uncertain structure beyond the margins of a Cartesian ontology. The sound generated in this arrangement reflected the psychic activity of the artist and was the product of his brain, as it was the product of the technology that itself was a form of materialized knowledge about the brain. But here, the intended confusion started since the sound patterns did not mirror any ideas or conceptions; quite the contrary, they resulted from refraining from such idealizations. “Self or brain?” was and still is an obviously misplaced question in such an arrangement that yields its aesthetic and epistemic insights from exploring the dead ends of neurophysiology. Such performances demonstrate the contradictory inconsistencies of attempts to outwit the brain and/or the self by means of advanced scientific knowledge. Neither the brain nor the self nor the machine controls the future of brain research. Autonomy has replaced a situation of mutual vacillating. Or in the words of Deleuze and Guattari,

  • 41 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Bur (...)

If the mental objects of philosophy, art, and science have a place, it will be in the deepest of the synaptic fissures, in the hiatuses, intervals, and meantimes of a nonobjectifiable brain, in a place where to go in search of them will be to create.41

37A recent experiment with brain–computer interfaces seems to point in this direction. The project was to use individual EEG signals for controlling a cursor, a typewriter, or simply electrical appliances in paralyzed patients. By developing specific filtering algorithms, the researchers from the Berlin Brain–Computer Interface finally succeeded in identifying and localizing a so-called readiness potential, a slow building up of negativity that precedes an active and conscious command. The reasons for filtering this signal had been entirely technical; the readiness potential was well known, and the neurophysiologically was well defined and large enough to stand out in real-world situations. However, the readiness potential is a peculiar thing, since it precedes the action by several hundred milliseconds. That may not appear as such a big time lag, but it is enough time for a computer to calculate thousands of algorithms.

38By using this signal the group ended up constructing an interface with which the subjects could observe how intentions formed in their minds, so to speak. The experimental paradigm was very simple: the intention to move a right-hand finger caused a readiness potential over the left hemispheric motor cortex, and this signal moved a computer cursor upwards to the right. However, the subjective experience was quite different because of the time lag between readiness potential and the conscious awareness of the decision-making process. The subject sitting in front of the computer would decide to move a finger, but before realizing this, the cursor was already moving appropriately. The interface for the paralyzed patient had been turned into an arrangement in which the brain communicated with the machine while the subject observed this communication. The subject literally watched her own acting.

39A journalist participating at the experiments expressed his surprise in the following words: “My God, I am a cursor!”

  • 42 Paul Valéry, [Cahiers V, IX, 124], in Cahiers, établie, présentée et annotée par Judith Robinson ( (...)

40Knowledge, technology, and life appear to be insolubly intertwined here; they relate to each other in terms of simulation and stimulation. At instances such as this one, brain research operates in a gap that Paul Valéry characterized in the following way: “In the interior of thinking and behind it, there is no thinking.”42

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Notes de fin

1 Herbert George Wells, The Time Machine (London: Heinemann, 1895).

2 Stanley Cobb, “Foreword,” in Daniel E. Sheer, ed., Electrical Stimulation of the Brain. An Interdisciplinary Survey of Neurobehavioral Integrative Systems (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961) vii.

3 Timothy W. Kneeland and Carol A. B. Warren, Pushbutton Psychiatry: A History of Electroshock in America (Westport: Praeger, 2002).

4 Anne Collins, In the Sleep Room: The Story of the Cia Brainwashing Experiments in Canada (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1988); Robert Cleghorn, “The McGill Experience of Robert A. Cleghorn, MD: Recollections of D. Ewen Cameron,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 7.1: 53–76, 1990; Theodore L. Sourkes and Gilbert Pinard, eds.: Building on a Proud Past: 50 Years of Psychiatry at McGill (Montreal: Department of Psychiatry of McGill University, 1995).

5 Wilder Penfield, “Memory and Perception,” Research Publications, Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease 48 (1970): 108–122, 112.

6 Wilder Penfield, “Memory Mechanisms,” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 67 (1952): 178–191.

7 Paola Bertucci and Giuliano Pancaldi, eds., Electric Bodies: Episodes in the History of Medical Electricity (Bologna: Centro Internazionale per la Storia delle Università e della Scienza, 2001).

8 Hermann Helmholtz, “Über die Zeit, welche nöthig ist, damit ein Gesichtseindruck zum Bewußtsein kommt, “Monatsbericht der Könglich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Sitzung 8 (Juni 1871) 333–337.

9 Brigitte Felderer, ed., Wunschmaschine Welterfindung: eine Geschichte der Technikvisionen seit dem 18. Jahrhundert (Wien: Springer, 1996).

10 Ingrid Ehrhardt, ed., Okkultismus und Avantgarde: von Munch bis Mondrian 1900–1915 (Ostfildern: Tertium, 1995).

11 Chris Hables Gray, ed., The Cyborg Handbook (London: Routledge, 1995).

12 Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

13 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, 1936], Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), 217–251.

14 Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).

15 Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

16 Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen: Eine volkstümliche Anatomie, Biologie, Physiologie und Entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen, 5 vols. (Stuttgart, Germany: Kosmos Franckh’sche Verlagshandlung, 1922–1931).

17 For a more detailed analysis of Kahn’s visualization strategy, see Cornelius Borck, “Communicating the Modern Body: Fritz Kahn’s Popular Images of Human Physiology as an Industrialized World,” Canadian Journal of Communication [in press].

18 Ernst Kapp, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik: zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Cultur aus neuen Gesichtspunkten (Braunschweig: Westermann, 1877); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994 [1964]).

19 Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: essai d’anthropologie symétrique (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1991).

20 Cornelius Borck, “Electricity as a Medium of Psychic Life: Electrotechnical Adventures into Psychodiagnosis in Weimar Germany,” Science in Context 14 (2001): 565–590.

21 Iwan Rhys Morus, Frankenstein’s Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-nineteenth-century London (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

22 Andreas Killen, Berlin Electropolis: Shock, Nerves, and German Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

23 Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity (Berkeley, 1993).

24 A. K. Fiala, “Elektrophysiologische Zukunftsprobleme, “Der Deutsche Rundfunk 2 (1924): 1036.

25 Upton Sinclair, Mental Radio, introduction by William McDougall (Monrouia: Kessinger Publishing, 1930).

26 Walter Finkler, “Die elektrische Schrift des Gehirns,” Neues Wiener Journal 38 (July 4, 1930) 7.

27 Etienne-Jules Marey, La méthode graphique dans le sciences expérimentales et principalement en physiologie et médécine (Paris: Masson, 1878) viii.

28 Robert M. Brain, “Representation on the Line: Graphic Recording Instruments and Scientific Modernism,” Bruce Clarke and Linda D. Henderson, eds., From Energy to Information: Representation in Science, Technology, and Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) 155–177.

29 Edgar D. Adrian and Bryan H. C. Matthews, “The Berger Rhythm: Potential Changes from the Occipital Lobes in Man,” Brain 57 (1934): 355–385.

30 W. Grey Walter, “Thought and Brain: A Cambridge Experiment,” Spectator 153 (1934): 478–479.

31 Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Selected and Translated from the French by Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 68.

32 Norbert Wiener, I Am a Mathematician (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956) 289.

33 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961) 197.

34 Alan Gevin, “What to Do with Your Own Personal Brain Scanner,” Robert L. Solso, ed., Mind and Brain in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997) 111–125.

35 Sigmund Freud, “Lecture XXXI, The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, vol. 23 of the Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1964) 80.

36 Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

37 For a more detailed account of the emergence of electroencephalography, see Cornelius Borck, Hirnströme: eine Kulturgeschichte der Elektroenzephalographie (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005).

38 Edgar Douglas Adrian, “The Discovery of Berger,” Antoine Rémond, ed., Handbook of Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, vol. 1, Appraisal and Perspective of the Functional Exploration of the Nervous System (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1971) 1A-5–1A-10.

39 Scott Meier, The Chronic Crisis in Psychological Measurement and Assessment: A Historical Survey (San Diego: Academic Press, 1994).

40 Barbara Büscher, “Brain Operas. Gehirnwellen, Biofeedback und neue Technologien in künstlerischen Anordnungen,” Kaleidoskopien 3 (2000): 23–47.

41 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) 209.

42 Paul Valéry, [Cahiers V, IX, 124], in Cahiers, établie, présentée et annotée par Judith Robinson (Paris: Gallimard, 1973).

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