The Politics of Plasticity. Sex and Gender in the 21st Century Brain

Annelies Kleinherenbrink | The aim of this project is to trace and reflect on the many different ways in which the notion of ‘neuroplasticity’ is conceptualized, deployed, circulated, shared, contested, rejected or ignored when the relationship between sex / gender and the brain is at stake. Referring to the ability of the brain to undergo functional and structural changes in response to experience, neuroplasticity has become a central concept in (popular) neuroscientific explanations of diverse and flexible human behaviors. Surprisingly, the potential role of this phenomenon is rarely discussed when it comes to the development, endurance and variability of gendered traits. As such, the popular view that binary sex is simply ‘hardwired’ in the brain remains largely unchallenged by counter-evidence. Critics, mostly feminist scholars, advocate and actively contribute to a more rigorous scientific practice, one which actively explores the question of plasticity. By blurring biological development and social experience, plasticity puts feminist and neuroscientific concerns into close contact  – for example, questions about the ‘neuronal embodiment’ of social relations immediately arise. Plasticity thus opens up a multidisciplinary space from which the relationship between sex / gender and the brain can be reappraised. However, critical scholars have raised concerns about the ramifications of approaching sex / gender through the plastic brain. What exactly does neuroscientific knowledge add to feminist scholarship about gender identity or sexuality?  What kind of subjectivity does the trope of neuroplasticity, with its associated norms and values (malleability, flexibility, therapeutic intervention, self-improvement), constitute? Driven by a desire for more complex understandings of the brain, yet apprehensive about the implications of the ‘neuro-turn’ currently imposing itself upon the humanities, I explore the potential – bot promising and perilous – neuroplasticity has for feminist theory.

Supervisor | Patricia Pisters