Guest post: Interior traces of science
Interior Traces is a live multimedia radio drama exploring the ethical issues raised by advances in brain imaging.
The drama follows two characters: a woman with a brain tumour that changes her personality, and a young man with psychopathy. It imagines what might happen to them had they lived in 1906, the present day or in 2030. At the live events actors perform dramatic readings on stage, accompanied by live music and video projection, followed by a Q&A session or panel discussion.
Writing and researching Interior Traces gave my co-author Dr Louise Whiteley and I the opportunity to interview a wide range of scientists, medical practitioners and scientific thinkers. These included a neurosurgeon at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, neuroscientists at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and historians at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine.
We were fortunate to find a host of researchers who were happy to help us with the scientific content of our plays, and give their opinions on possible future developments in their field.
This collaboration allowed us to think about how to combine art and science (or to be specific, theatre and brain imaging) in a way that crosses the divide which is supposed to exist between these ‘Two Cultures’. More importantly, we wanted to create a work of fiction that was not merely parasitic upon the scientific disciplines on which it drew, but could perhaps inform debate about the ethical, social and political contexts in which future research might take place.
Drama happens because conflicting viewpoints come together in the space of the theatre. This multiple and agnostic approach displaces the idea of an authorial voice that has to take sides once and for all. As Louise and I worked on this project, we found ourselves inside many different discourses one after the other, supplied by the lawyers, forensic psychiatrists, researchers, ethicists, historians or doctors we spoke to.
Thankfully, we were writing a play rather than public policy, and so we didn’t have to choose between these conflicting positions. Instead we tried to set one argument against another, using each character to question the assumptions or conclusions of the others.
Bruno Latour, the philosopher and sociologist of science, has claimed that the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of science has completely disappeared (PDF 222KB). Latour claims that as a society we are engaged in collective experiments: in food production, in public health and in climate change. This claim is, I think, exaggerated, especially when one considers the proliferation of complex specialisations even within the boundaries of a single discipline such as cognitive science.
What does seem to be true, though, is that the laboratory walls are increasingly leaky, so that images and findings quickly escape and become feral, turning up in law courts and newspapers and other public arenas, where they are too often treated as the final word on a subject.
Interior Traces is full of such feral images, both in the stories themselves and the projected videos that accompany the live performances. It was exactly the unruly nature of these images that made them such rich and fascinating objects on which to base a story. And as we spoke to scientists about how these images were put together and interpreted, our appreciation for their complexity grew.
But this meant not accepting these images and the theories that accompanied them uncritically as things that were fully formed, naturalised or unquestionable (indeed, no good scientist would do so either). And yet we didn’t reject them out of hand either just because they were used in all sorts of unintended ways, popularised, politicised or polemicised.
Instead, we valued them precisely because they were both formed from and contributed to a complex and tangled narrative about our selfhood: one that is discovered in MRI scanners and laboratories, but also in public debates, courtroom orations and armchair philosophical reflections; that is variously told by the professionals we interviewed, but also by those very people whose brains, bodies, lives and selves are in question in the scanner.
James Wilkes is co-writer of Interior Traces.
Interior Traces is touring as part of the Identity Project from 5–14 May in Salisbury, Darlington, Bridport, Maidenhead, Oxford and Salford. It also screens at the How The Light Gets In Festival in Hay on 1 June. You can find out more about the project and tour, and download recordings of previous discussions, on the website.