Issue 4/2014 - Kognitives Kapital

Duende and the Neurobiological Sublime

Warren Neidich

‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’ So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought…‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation. (Lorca, 2007)

In their most pure and utopian form I would like to suggest that autonomous delinked artistic practices utilize their own histories, procedures, technologies, and materials to sample alternative spatial and temporal experiential networks other then those of institutional and commercial regimes. Sampling a multiplicity of alternative heterodoxic networks from hidden and implicit conditions of the cultural landscape they produce an unorthodox dynamic re-distribution of the sensible. As Jacques Rancière, in The Politics of Aesthetics, describes the ‘distribution of the sensible’ or ‘le partage du sensible’ as the ’implicit law governing the sensible order that parcels out places and forms of participation in a common world by first establishing the modes of perception within which these are inscribed.’ (Ranciere, 2004) These modes of production/perception are not limited to an elaboration of designed urban space, where these distributions can become highly activated as a part of a branded commercial environment that captures and hold a consumers’ attention but, as we will see shortly, elaborate coupled static and dynamic functional networks in the brain as well. In cognitive capitalism it is this transition from the sensed sensorium to the direct sculpting of the neurobiological architecture itself, through the molding of the brains’ neural plasticity as its’ primary mode of operation, that defines its difference from those forms of governmentalization that preceded in Fordism and Post-fordism. In the model presented here, fields of engineered distributions are now bound and entangled with fields of static and dynamic neural networks as part of an enacted and extended forms of auto-subjectivation in which an internalized sovereignty auto corrects and auto regulates the self.
( Malafouris) I would like to make the claim that in a world in which police actions are directed towards the maintenance of this distribution of the sensible and now it neural contingencies art, including poetry and music as well as architecture, act as potential disruptive forces. Through their ability first to redistribute static and dynamic regimes of sensibility and insensibility they create states of emergency of sensibility and the habits of perception and in some cases a state of exception. As George Schwab states in his forward to Carl Schmidtt’s Political Theology, ‘In short, “the exception” said Schmidtt, “is that which can not be subsumed.” ( Schmidtt, 1922) A state of suspension of government ensues, and a state of exception is produced. In the narrative that follows, the power of art and architecture can also produce these states of suspension and exception in the world of objects and things but in the brain as well. I want to explore two different concepts that act upon different parts of the production and reception cycling of artistic forms to produce these states of exception; duende and the neurobiological sublime. Before moving on to the body of the text it is necessary to delineate the key concepts of neuroplasticity and neuropower in order to understand how these processes might work. The present context does not allow for a full elaboration of this subject matter and I urge those interested to consult my essay Neuropower: Art in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism.( Neidich, 2012)

The Neuroplastic Potential and Neuropower.
Neuropower is part of what is referred to as the late stage of cognitive capitalism or its ‘cognitive turn’. (Neidich, 2012, Neidich, 2014) First and foremost, neuropower acts upon the neural plastic potential of the brain in the living present, especially but not exclusively during what are referred to as the critical periods of development, all the while being guided by the desire to produce a conscripted and enrolled individual of the future. Critical periods are temporal windows, occurring early in life, in which the nervous system is especially sensitive to the effects of the environment . Neuroplasticity refers to story of the brains’ development as an unfolding of its full potential in the context of specific environmental contingencies. Its’ architecture is not totally determined at birth by its genetic inheritance and it is further sculpted into its adult form by the world it finds itself living and in accordance with its species specific needs. Secondly, it redirects the armamentarium of power from a focus on distributions of sensations in the natural and designed world to the functional connections of working memory located in the prefrontal cortex, which are recalled in the process of making future decisions. ( Neidich, 2012 ) “ A new plan is a rearrangement of that memory with a new set of objectives, a new order, a new timetable, and a new ultimate goal-but the plan is essentially based on old experience of prior actions...the plan is for the organism a way of imagining or creating the future by means of new or reconstituted neural network. That network, like the networks that serve attentive set, is part of the “ memory of the future.” (Fuster, 2008) Neuropower generates regimes of predictive algorithms that challenge the variability inherent in future outcomes. As such it challenges the conditions of the future itself as something chosen and closed. It therefore refutes the very idea of the future as something unknown.

For the purposes here I want to focus on its first definition and continue my argument by contending that culture, rather then nature as in former times, is a primary factor sculpting the brain. In the tertiary knowledge and service economies it is information that is primarily acting upon the brains’ potential. Furthermore, that delinked emancipatory artistic practices, such as conceptual art, can counter coded institutionalized and commercialized forms not only in the world of objects, things and ideas but in the brain as well. In cognitive capitalism this has taken the form of a competition for the brains epigenetically constructed attentional and mnemonic architectures

Neuropower is a form of biopower, which substitutes its predecessor’s concerns with the political control of the body of its entire population with that their minds and brains. Although linked to disciplinary societies it has more in common with Gilles Deleuze’s society of control and Maurizio Lazzarato’s noo politics and constitutes a sophisticated and contemporary form of political control, subjugation and normalization. (Deleuze, 1992) ( Lazzarato, 2006)

Foucault in his course The Abnormal (the 15th of July, 1975) introduced the idea of biopolitical normativity as the idea that the biopolitical is no longer related to the discipline of the body (the negative power of repression) but rather the invention of new norms ( the positive power of normalization) . Thus the link between biopower and Jacques Ranciere’ s circulations and allotments of sensibilities in which the ultimate site of sovereign action are the perceptual and cognitive habits of the subject which ultimately transforms and normalizes his or her uniqueness and singularity into a form of homogenous and controlled collectivity. But Michaeal Hardt understands this conditioning as more complex. A collectivity that forms, on the one hand a new form of subjectivation referred to as global consumer citizenship produces, on the other, through the emergence and actualization of latent potentialities , new powers to appropriate control over space and time and thus to design the new cartography of the multitude. (Hardt, M. 2000). In cognitive capitalism the competition for neural space elaborated through history of generational existential encounters, for instance in Pop cultural domains or inside virtual platforms, is the key through which we must understand these relations. This is the new dialetic materialism of the 21st century. A Marxist or Socialist Brain as Charles Wolfe has called it. (Wolfe, 2010, 184-206)

The circuits through which Neuropower operate depend on whether the neural plasticity is conscripted by hegemonous networks of intensive political inscriptions that bind perceptual objects and relations in massive gestalts of power or whether instead ontogenetic neural architectures are epigenetically developed though the cumulative actions of emancipatory cultural networks. De-linked artistic expression appropriate the distributions of sensibility that defines a particular cultural landscape by redistributing its forms of binding, branding and attention networks. These redistributions release deep meanings that had lane dormant in the former regime. What had been implicit becomes explicit. In this model these redistributions, as they become remapped upon and tangential to governmenatalized distributions, call out to the brains variable potentialities in a different manner amplifying some of its latent neural connections and abating and minifying others. This is the power of art. Deunde and the neurobiological sublime represent different results, actions and products of this engagement between body, mind and cultural world.


Duende is a property of the contemporary performer who actions pushes the bodies potential into metastable dynamic non-linear, scale free phase transitions which results in the ‘possession’ of a collection of spectators. On one hand, it is an emanation of the artists voice as song or hand as written poetry resulting in sensorial, perceptual and experiential instability. In this sense it is linked to the notion of alterity. On the other, it creates a ‘collective construal’ felt in the heels and the toes reflecting a retro-temporal reverse projection backwards towards our instinctual selves releasing the community from the contingent social political, psychological and economic relations at play in any field of cultural production and the concomitant synchronous static and dynamic signatures utilized by the brain to interpret and act upon it. For duende is a dynamic meandering doodle in the brains nervous circuits and leaves no trace as memories but just a vague feeling of rapture. Its beyondness is its power. Duende unveils the limits and liberates the repertoire of collective emotional and affective responses. It activates social spaces in which the actors/agents specialized abilities stimulate other linkages, diagrams and networks of sensation leading to unclassifiable responses in the flesh of the brain of its audience. It registers in no geometries or topologies, and this is where it differs from other forms of cultural production, that normally inscribe themselves in cultural memory systems such as designed spaces and the filmic screen. Duende always exists as other never being tethered to larger symbolic systems; although symbols can be used to attain its orgasmic resonating dissonane. Even when acts of duende leave residues of passionate outbursts like broken wine glasses thrown against the wall in the heat of the passion of a song or broken walls the result of a smashed fist to emphasize a crescendo they are random events that are simply traces in anarchic displays rather then repetitive acts and patterns. Its memories are iconic and vivid but evanescent, decaying rapidly and share similarities to those memories of dreams that cannot be recalled. It registers as a lack because it can not utilize the necessary apparatuses like repetition and synchronicity that are required to increase neural efficiency, amplify neural connection and thus produce eidetic memory or photographic memory. Potential synapses may form but they are not retained and although variable nervous elements are called out their activation is momentary. The subject is left with a vague feeling of the event that it happened and like
a college student recounting his bout of drinking the previous night to his classmates states, “ I got totally wasted last night and was driving home and found myself on the side of the road. I have no idea how I got there.” It is the Snapchat of artistic interventions and in this way stays close to the ideas of Paolo Virno’s notion of immaterial labor that does not leave a trace. (Virno, 2004)
Deunde does not leave a recallable retraceable event as a modification of the neural architecture of the brain. Or if it does it is an activity located in the lower ancient parts of the brain cut off from normalized linguistic translation and codification. Like an optical illusion, which leads to seizures in predisposed individuals, duende confronts the neural apparatus with its own limitations and as a result leaves the brain in a postictal state. Its essence therefore is a temporary rebuke to cognitive capitalism.

The Neurobiological Sublime
Fredric Jameson describes his initial encounter with the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in the following way, ‘I am proposing the notion that we are here in the presence of something like a mutation in built space itself. My implication is that we ourselves, the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept pace with that evolution: there has been a mutation in the object unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject. We do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism…The newer architecture therefore-like other cultural products I have evoked in the proceeding remarks-stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium’. (Jameson, 1991) It is first and foremost a force to produce a swooning and feeling of disequilibrium and secondly a force to create new organs of perception in future generations, a process similar to that described by Terrence Deacon and Stanislas Daheane for the development of reading. (Deacon, 1999) (Daheane, 2004) For the neurological sublime does what duende can not do: leaving traces. Neural regimes and their perceptual and cognitive habits constructed in a time of modernism based as it was upon Euclidean essences, extensive modular formats, and orthogonal projections, Corbusier’s Ville Radieuze, 1924 rather then complex intensive diagrammatic post-modern spaces and volumes like the Bonaventure Hotel by John C. Portman were not up to the task of understanding and comprehending these new spaces. In other words a modernist brain whose potential synapses, variable neural elements and neural plasticity was sculpted by high modernism did not have proper assortments of apparatuses to fully comprehend the new intensive and network spaces and times of Postmodernism. In fact it would be necessary to await a future generation whose neural plasticity had been sculpted by the topological curves and designs of post-modernist motifs to understand its endless curves and hyperspace. The environment of the Bonaventure Hotel was sublime to Jameson and not totally perceptually available. It produced a mild sense of alienation that was mild like a deja vu. I call this transparent alienation in opposition to opaque alienation that defines the various psychopathologies of cognitive capitalism. Transparent alienation can transition into opaque alienation in time of accelerate culture changes which I refer to as excessive cultural plasticity. The psychopathologies of cognitive capitalism represent the most radical form of this process of cerebral dissensus resulting from the negative consequences of the generational and trans-generational neuromodulation. Unlike the neurobiological sublime in opaque alienation the subject is aware of his or her disability and seeks medical help. Forms of opaque alienation produced in our moment of cognitive capitalism are ADHD, ADD and panic attacks.

In this short rendition the concepts of duende and the neurobiological sublime it was necessary to use a trans-disciplinary approach. I borrow from multiple spheres of knowledge to broaden our understanding of the emancipatory capabilities of artistic production and its power to replenish the worn circuits of our brain’s anatomies in order to produce new forms of understanding; understandings that lay at the center of the human beings ability to produce new forms of subjectivity that counter parallel regimes of normativity in the context of new emerging dynamics of cultural saliency.