Somatic-affective resonance and ethical sensibility
NB: I’m currently smoothing out a discussion on this topic for an article, so I apologize for the fuzziness.
Contemporary studies in neuroscience show the degree to which our automatic neural systems and sensorimotor apparati structure our social relations. Evan Thompson, in his Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, summarizes much research when he describes how “Neurons in the anterior cingular cortex that respond when a patient receives an unpleasant stimulus to his hand also respond when the patient watches a pinprick applied to the examiner’s hand” and how “many of the same brain areas are activated both when subjects imitate and when they observe facial expressions of various emotions” (395). For Thompson, this research describes a model of human relations in which we are fundamentally interdependent. The human body is hard-wired to respond somatically to other humans. Thompson concludes that “this constitutive interdependency shapes the social domain on the basis of a sensorimotor resonance between self and other in the perception and execution of action” (395). Emotions resonate in a way similar to sensorimotor actions: Thompson calls the ways in which individuals’ emotions affect others’ emotions “affective resonance” (395). Further studies show the embodied nature of ethics: neuroscientific studies by Greene et al have argued that human morality stems from areas of the brain such as the amygdala and the precuneus/PCC that govern emotion. For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to the human body’s various somatic/emotional response systems collectively as “somatic-affective resonance.”
Cognitive science can tell us how embodied social relations work, but can give us very little on how to apply that information to matters of everyday life. I propose viewing cognitive science’s revelations on social relations in a Levinasian light to move towards applying them to literature. Cognitive scientists and Levinas give surprisingly similar accounts of the fundamentals of human interaction. While cognitive science explores the somatic foundations of human interaction, Levinas writes of “the body being inverted into a one-for-the-other by animation” and a “signification of one for the other” (OB 72). Levinas calls this bodily “one-for-the-other” sensibility. Sensibility is “vulnerability” and a “passivity still more passive than any passivity” that forms the bedrock of human interaction and makes the ethical relation possible (166, 50). Sensibility is an involuntary, passive receptiveness to the Other in much the same way that mirror neurons are—indeed, Levinas explicitly identifies sensibility with the body: it lives “at the edges of the nerves” (14). Sensibility, or the body’s receptivity to the Other, opens the door to ethics. We may immediately see the confluences of Levinasian thought and cognitive science, but to move towards applying these insights to literature, I will examine sensibility further.
Having identified sensibility with somatic-affective resonance, I will explore how sensibility’s ties with signification can relate cognitive science to practical wisdom and literature. While cognitive science thoroughly describes the behavioral and biological structures of somatic-affective resonance, it can do little towards applying these insights to everyday life. Levinasian ethics can fill this gap. Levinas is insistent upon sensibility’s role in signification: to know that “sensibility qua vulnerability signifies, is to recognize a sense somewhere else than in ontology” (64). Signification “somewhere else than in ontology,” for Levinas, “overflows itself as a symbol of this in that” (62). This overflowing resists attempts to totalize or fully grasp signification—like water, one can never fully take hold of sensible signification. To synthesize what I’ve discussed, the core communications and relations that make up the foundation of the human experience are beyond totalization. What this means for practical considerations is that the metaphor “gut reaction” is quite apt: somatic-affective processes structure subjectivity and conscious thought. This idea is not new: Aristotle argues that bodily sensory data (aesthesis) is vital in practical wisdom (phronesis). However, Levinas contributes a model of the body’s role in cognition—one similar to that proposed by cognitive science—that opens the possibility of ethics and the impossibility of totalization. For Levinas and cognitive science, then, ethical deliberation can never be severed from the natural body, which is a priori culture. Such accounts of subjectivity offer emancipation from societal repression, totalization, and conceptualization.