Exploring the mind-body problem: An evening with Siri Hustvedt

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

“The truth is that people don’t agree on the mind. Confusion reigns. Scientists, philosophers and scholars frequently clash,” explained Siri Hustvedt to a gathered audience at Woburn House on Friday 23 October.

The American essayist, novelist and poet was in London to attend a daytime conference exploring academic responses to her work on her work hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The event, which borrowed its name from Hustvedt’s 2012 collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking was coordinated by Birkbeck English and Humanities PhD student, Alex Williamson, whose thesis examines the writing of Hustvedt and her husband, Paul Auster.

Siri Hustvedt (photo courtesy of Annabel-Clark-www.annabelclark.net)

Siri Hustvedt (photo courtesy of Annabel-Clark-www.annabelclark.net)

This particular event, however, was the associated evening seminar,– a public reading and open Q&A, comprising part of the Bloomsbury Festival, in which Hustvedt was tasked with laying out her thoughts on the ‘mind-body problem’.

Are the brain and mind different? What is the distinction between the mental and the physical? Such questions have fuelled the overarching mind-body debate which has been battered about for centuries within and between various spheres of academic pursuit. A debate, said Hustvedt, which is far from over.

“The unsolved problems of the mind and body are treated by the media, philosophers and science like they are behind us. But often the underlying assumptions are hidden. Much remains unknown about the mind and its relation to the world,” she continued.

This broad topic of discussion offered an illuminating window into Hustvedt’s portfolio of work, which for nearly four decades has spanned the realms of academia, art, fiction and non-fiction.

The Delusions of Certainty

(L-R) Siri Hustvedt and Dr Johanna Hartmann (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

(L-R) Siri Hustvedt and Dr Johanna Hartmann (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

The evening began with a reading from Hustvedt – an extract from her forthcoming 200-page essay, The Delusions of Certainty, in which she analyses the concepts of ‘the self’ and ‘consciousness’ and how they have been interpreted through the ages.

Philosophical luminaries including Alfred North Whitehead, Giambattista Vico, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes have all been influential in how we view the mind-body divide, Hustvedt noted. However, grand theories which have been created by such thinkers — constructivist, dualist and absolutist as many are – often serve to stultify and stymie the opportunity for further debate.

“Part of the problem is that of expertise,” she said. “My issue is with knowledge that presents itself as a finished theory. That is pernicious.”

A pluralist by nature, Hustvedt made her case for being sceptical of “truisms”, “asking questions” rather than rushing to answer them, and “acknowledging the limitations” of our own knowledge. The world-renowned writer’s thoughts came to the fore in her reading and the Q&A sessions which followed – initially an on-stage interview with Dr Johanna Hartmann, a contributor to the collection of academic responses to Hustvedt’s work, Zones of Focused Ambiguity in Siri Hustvedt’s Work; and secondly in an open Q&A session with the audience.

The topics touched upon during the evening were wide ranging:

  • the reductionist ‘Computational’ and ‘Hardwired’ models of the brain: “They should be put to bed forever,” Hustvedt remarked
  • the underlying misogyny in theories of artificial intelligence: “It’s about hopping over women entirely”
  • the value of Eastern medicine and philosophies: “As a pluralist, I try to read as much as I can, and to see how they can work together”
  • the production of art: “All art is a relational reality”
  • her ease in writing about a mysterious series of seizures she experienced earlier in her life: “I didn’t consider it a moral failing or something that was shameful. When I was over it, I just thought ‘this is really interesting, I could use it in my writing’”

A connection to something out there

In many cases, it was in raising her own questions, rather than making assertions, that Hustvedt’s core take-home message was laid bare.

Siri Hustvedt at the Birkbeck evening event (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

Siri Hustvedt at the Birkbeck evening event (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

“It’s fascinating, because it asks questions like, ‘can the endochrine system think?’”, she said in response to an audience member’s question about the phenomenon of false pregnancy. “Now, I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s good to ask the question.”

This approach to knowledge and truth lies at the heart of her essay, The Delusions of Certainty, and indeed her writing in general. Hustvedt rallies against the forced certainties of dominant discourses. The arrogance of such “wrapped up” scientific writing as Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works – the very publication which inspired Hustvedt to write her essay in the first place ­– distort debate.

That said, this doesn’t lessen her passion for the pursuit of knowledge, and the value of science.

“My aim here isn’t to ‘diss’ science,” she concluded. “It’s very important to assert something which is true. We’re all the beneficiaries of the models used in science that have power over the material world, such as antibiotics. But does it mean that the model is perfect? No, it just means it has some connection to something that’s out there.”

Hear Siri’s interview on the Birkbeck Voices podcast on iTunes or the Soundcloud link below.

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On Going On: Sustaining Life in Theatre

This post was contributed by Maria Patsou, PhD student, Birkbeck Department of English and Humanities who attended the One-day symposium, Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, 5 June 2015

Rosemary Lee discusses the intersections of work and life in her dance practice

Rosemary Lee discusses the intersections of work and life in her dance practice

This one-day symposium came at the end of a year’s exploration of desire in theatre at the Birkbeck Centre of Contemporary Performance. The intention of the symposium was to extend desire to ideas of support, wellbeing, welfare and overall sustainability of self and others from multiple angles.

The day was devised in the following sections:

It concluded with a Key Note Dialogue between Professor Alan Read and David Slater, on their community theatre work during the 80s at Rotherhithe.

Representing minority voices

Lobel’s and O’Brien’s autobiographical practice on physical illness highlighted the artist’s survival through presenting difficult material, utilising the audience’s negative and positive responses and voicing the unspoken.

D’Souza covered questions of empowerment and disempowerment, by narrating his relationship with theatre from an early age and focused on his experience of enabling others as a member of the RADA audition panel. In a similar autobiographical manner, Beau’s talk focused on the importance of performance for his survival, his relationship to enabling others, and the value of narrative in representing minority voices, a recurring theme of the day.

Questions arose on the separation between artist and human, performer and audience, and the ways we connect to each other. The value of obstacles and doing work in the community were the focal point of Lee’s and Shah’s presentation.

Lee discussed being sustained from the knowledge of creating something valuable for the society, and Shah explored thriving through disappointment, and utilising negative feelings on improving and going on.

Theatre in the community

During the second part of the day, Green examined the role of the producer in the theatre and the intricacies of surviving and controlling oneself. Wookey presented her work as an artist and entrepreneur and discussed finding strength to go on from within community, which was a common theme in Paul’s presentation as well, while Fleming presented the union’s efforts in giving people a voice and thus sustaining artists.

David Slater (left) and Alan Read (right) discuss their work in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop

David Slater (left) and Alan Read (right) discuss their work in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop

The Key Note Dialogue delivered by Alan Read and David Slater, complemented recurring themes about the place of theatre in the community and the importance of the community’s critique and concentrated on theatre as a mirror of societal change.

Perseverance and willingness to share were some of the day’s conclusions, as well as perceiving artist and human as one, and recognising performance as inextricably linked to its surroundings, in a community where each individual plays an instrumental part on sustaining and enabling themselves and others.

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