Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”: Uncanny Neuroscience and the Radical Self-Exam

Lauren Mitchell //   Ted Chiang’s short story “Exhalation,” which you can read online here, evokes pleasure alongside mourning. Written from the perspective of a nameless anatomist in a mechanized future, Chiang re-casts the body as an “extraordinary machine,” where air, flesh and blood is replaced by argon, metal and gold. The story defamiliarizes a human landscape, and in that way offers a kind of futuristic allegory of the near-inevitable death of a society when its vital resources run out—an allegory that may be particularly chilling as we linger in the era of the anthropocene, and as we reflect on anxieties about the death of the human race. The story reaches a crescendo when the narrator performs an auto-dissection—a dissection of his own brain in hopes of discovering something about the mechanism of memory. Instead, he learns that the resource that makes the brain run is air—argon—and that it is a limited resource.

As a work of science fiction that lifts its prose from a case report, the story is already a creative revision of scientific practice as one that is intrinsically personal by way of our narrator, who reports discoveries but is already in mourning over a world that is destined to fail—and despite this, a world that he is fascinated by and hopeful for. “Exhalation” stands at a unique nexus within a claim that radical self-exam and surgical practice share a fundamentally artistic root, which is further reaffirmed by its form as a work of speculative fiction. The story also uncannily re-frames contemporary neuroscientific and medical practice, and its relationship to self-exam. As it is ostensibly the documentation of an experiment, “Exhalation” plays off of current debates in neuroscience and inquiry about the brain. Anatomical science in this story makes bodies into machines made of rods, pistons, and titanium, mysterious because of their durability—that the only version of a “cadaver” these beings would be able to acquire would have died due to a horrific accident. Chiang confronts the question of “structure versus function”–how an organ looks, versus how it works—which has been an ongoing tension in medicine as imaging technologies become more prevalent as diagnostic tools.

Emily Martin, and later Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached, have used the term “neuro-reductionism” to describe the overwhelming belief that imaging technology, such as MRI, that can determine the size and shape of brain structures, offers flawlessly objective answers about function. Instead, Rose and Abi-Rached emphasize the interpretive work of diagnosis when looking at these images. Neuro-reductionism indicates a school of thought that brain structures fundamentally influence brain functions, which, they point out, may have detrimental impacts. One typical example is that there is a great deal of public interest in (and funding for) work that attempts to understand “the minds of criminals” through physiology, and specifically through MRI imaging technology — rather than a psychological evaluation. Nineteenth-century scholars and enthusiasts might immediately recognize what that sounds like: a highly technologized version of craniometry or phrenology.

The auto-dissection in “Exhalation” routes the bizarre practice of “trepanning” through a fictional back-door. Trepanning is the creation of a small hole in the skull, a surgical practice with a long and robust history which was often performed by some kind of specialist (I use that word loosely), who may or may not have been a doctor. For better or worse, it gained some popularity, sometimes as a “holistic practice,” sometimes as a means of getting high, up until the 1990s, often done by harrowing DIY methods. (For a morbid afternoon activity, you can research artists Joe Mellen and Amanda Feilding. You can also find parts of Feilding’s short film documenting her self-trepannation, entitled, “Heartbeat in the Brain.” It is not for the weak of heart. Or the weak of stomach.)

It’s significant that Feilding is an artist, as self-experimentation runs parallel to the provocative challenges of physical limitations that are taken up by performance artists on a regular basis. The word “self-exam” is often linked to feminist movements extending from the 1960s until now that encourage(d) speculum self-exams in an attempt to empower people with cervixes in medical settings (other recommended practices include monthly breast and testicular self-exams). But it has also been deployed as a useful strategy in the sciences and in performance art alike to satisfy curiosity and discovery.

Self-exam is part of a system that democratizes medical knowledge, while also being part of a system of alienating performance art. Medical self-exam is not necessarily inherently or always artistic, but acts of self-exam invert medical hierarchies so that the procedure—whatever it may be—takes on a signification beyond itself. It represents heightened self-knowledge that is risky because it threatens destruction—one wrong move, and who know what will happen? It opens the borders of privacy, and renders one physically and affectively vulnerable. It therefore openly troubles scientific objectivity.

The concept of “the scientist experimenting on himself” is not new—it has a long literary as well as scientific history. The works of E.T.A. Hoffman, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson, just to name a few, have canonized archetypal scientific figures who have taken experiments too far, who have overstepped a boundary into a self-destructive and irreversible procedure. The eighteenth-century anatomist John Hunter infected himself with syphilis in an attempt to prove it was the same disease as gonorrhea. One less extreme, but still fascinating, non-literary example of a self-experimenting scientists is Russ Poldrack at UT-Austin, a neuroscientist who mapped his own brain, stepping into his own MRI weekly for over a year to document changes. He was able to report that his findings—his self-exam—indicated that brain plasticity has the potential to change radically from week to week, a fact that could have powerful implications for the way we think about thinking.

Neuroscience is a field that remains especially fraught with theories, stories, and narratives to find specific answers to our questions about the human mind and how it works—questions that are often met with with more questions than answers. Neuroscientist E. Kale Edmiston (who happens to be a close friend of mine) commented in an interview with me that part of this challenge is, “We create these concepts, and then try to find pre-existing biological structures to fit them. It’s tautological.” We expect that neurobiological systems will yield to the way that we have narrated them. Self-exam troubles scientific stability, and yet it is a fragile stability to begin with.

Of course, I am not a neuroscientist, and so I can only vocally cheer for what I perceive to be exciting research, which, I’m assuming, reaches some kind of rigorous standard I’m not professionally familiar with. But what I can say, especially with Poldrack in mind, is such radical self-exam catalyzes a narrative that is vulnerable and harrowing, somehow making the scientist, fictional or not, more believable, more human. Rose and Abi-Rached point out that neuroscience, as a new and highly interdisciplinary field, is highly concerned with the autobiographical elements and rationales of its key figures (the scientists)–there is a cult of personalities that rubs off on biographers and historians, universities, funders, and, because of all of this, the science itself.

Perhaps like the fairly new field that is neuroscience, art represents autotheoretical practices of the artists—a series of personal systems and signifiers that, somehow, cohere into a narrative. Like the people who pursued self-trepannation, the anatomist of “Exhalation” ends carefully balanced between a nearly-metaphysical awe of consciousness: “The universe began as an enormous breath being held… And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.”

 

 

Works Referenced

Chiang, Ted. “Exhalation.” Lightspeed Magazine. Web. 11 November 2018.

Poldrack, Russell A.  New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal About Our Thoughts.  Princeton University Press, 2018. 

Rose, Nikolas S. Politics of Life Itself : Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century . Princeton University Press, 2007.

Rose, Nikolas S., with Joelle M. Abi-Rached. Neuro the New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind . Princeton University Press, 2013.

Thomas, Helen and Ahmend, Jamilah. Cultural Bodies: Ethnography and Theory. Blackwell

Publishing Ltd. 2008.

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