Sunday, June 20, 2010

Neurochemically normal

Today I read an interesting article by Simone Fullagar based on her interviews with Australian women taking antidepressants.  I've been looking for pieces that are grappling with what our new neuroscientific understandings of problems, like depression and addiction, mean for how people understand themselves and their possibilities for self-transformation.  Fullagar (2009) notes:
Relations of biopower have moved beyond the body as the focus of a clinical gaze towards a different somatic conception of subjectivity that visualizes life at the molecular level.
Locating illness at the molecular level seems to give a certain kind of biological certainty that extends beyond notions of individual choice.  The idea, for instance, that addiction is brain disease, seems to give it a biological basis that downplays the notion that drug use is an individual’s failure of will or a poor decision.   This transformation towards what has been called the neurochemical self is especially interesting to me in light of other scholarship that suggests we are increasingly held responsible for own health and illness.  Galvin (2002), for example, argues that, in our neoliberal society, matters once seen as the responsibility of the state are increasingly matters of individual responsibility.  According to Galvin:
The healthy person is, in effect, symbolic of the ideal neoliberal citizen, autonomous, active and responsible, and the person who deviates from this ideal state is at best lacking in value and worst morally culpable.
If we can choose to be healthy (think of the constant exhortations to exercise, eat right, take your medicine), then the corollary is that we are culpable when get sick.  How then do we reconcile these two trends --  to locate illnesses (particularly those previously understood to be based on personal choice, like addiction) in the brain and to hold people increasingly responsible for their own health?  Are we blaming the person or blaming their brain?

Fullagar helped put a few pieces together for me.  In my interviews with drug users, there is a constant refrain about how addiction treatment medications help them “feel normal.”   Fullagar heard the same from some of the women in her study taking antidepressants and notes that the promise of the medication is restore normality.  The normality being restored, however, is that consistent with very prescribed notions of a neoliberal self (in the case of Fullagar’s analysis these selves are also gendered in traditional ways).   She says:
These products [pharmaceuticals] products have emerged out of the broader transformation of knowledge within biocapitalism, science and the clinical encounter to profoundly change the way that we imagine and relate to our biological selves at the molecular level…  Within mental health and illness discourses, this flexible, somatic individual is rendered thinkable as neurochemically deficient via the authority of molecular science that locates disorder and dysfunction in the brain (p.392).
“Neurcohemically deficient selves” --  selves which, once they understand they are neurochmeically abnormal, are then responsible for becoming normal.   And normalcy is defined in ways consistent with neoliberal ideals of individualism, responsibility, and consumption.  Increasingly, biocapitalism is at the ready with a pill or a technology that can return you and your brain to normal – the normal that serves their interests.