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At the next Vossius Seminar Francesca Brittan and Stefano Furlan will present their research. Francesca Brittan (Case Western Reserve University and Vossius Research Fellow) will give the talk “The Neural Orchestra” and Stefano Furlan (Max-Planck-Institut and Vossius Research Fellow) will present "Beyond the Book of Nature: Wheeler the Storyteller and the Readability of the Universe".
Event details of Vossius Seminar
23 May 2023
16:00 -18:00
C1.13 Belle van Zuylenzaal

16:00 - 17:00 Francesca Brittan (Case Western Reserve University)

The Neural Orchestra

The neural sciences have long drawn on musical metaphor to model the physiological organization and cognitive operation of the brain. Famously, René Descartes imagined the pneumatic organ as a model for the hydraulic pumping of “animal spirits” through hollow nerve tubules. Later, David Hartley drew on string models to conceptualize how nervous vibration might be encoded as physical memory, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie described the brain as a “self-performing clavecin” able to record sensations like melodies, then replay them at will. In all of these cases, single musical instruments—often the most sophisticated or novel of their moment—operated as analogues for nervous perception and transmission.  But this began to change in the late eighteenth century, when notions of the brain and nerves as a unified system were challenged by the concept of a modular or multi-instrument mind: an orchestra.

Here, I concentrate on this moment of shift—on the orchestration of mind accomplished first in phrenological theory of the early 1800s, then in psychology, moral philosophy, and ethnography through the later nineteenth century. Functional minds, as I show, were conceived as sectional, well-harmonized, and strongly-conducted, while dysfunctional mentation was condemned as cacophonic and improperly led. As mind-brains were reimagined as orchestral, orchestras themselves began to be described in language borrowed from the neural sciences. The intersection was not just rhetorical but political and economic. Both centralized brains and conductor-dominated orchestras mirrored burgeoning forms of imperial expansion and control. Today, the rhetoric of neural orchestration persists, often in unwitting form, acting with spectral power on contemporary neuroscientific theory. I close by meditating on this phenomenon—on the capacity for metaphor to operate as a passage or transport conveying authoritarian ideologies across time, disciplinary boundaries, and epistemic divides.

About the researcher

Francesca Brittan is Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University. Her scholarly work focuses on music and sound cultures since 1800, often at the intersection of scientific histories. Her first book, Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz (Cambridge, 2017) traces links between musical enchantment and romantic science from Berlioz to Stravinsky.

Current projects include two co-edited volumes: The Attentive Ear: Sound, Cognition, and Subjectivity (University of Pennsylvania Press, with Carmel Raz); and Berlioz and His World (University of Chicago Press, with Sarah Hibberd). Brittan's second monograph-in-progress, Instruments of Mind, examines entanglements between musical and neural organologies from Descartes to the present, bringing together sonic, cognitive, and neuroscientific histories.

Her work has been bolstered by fellowships from the University of Cambridge, the University of Amsterdam, the American Musicological Society, the NEH, and the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada. She has been the grateful recipient of prizes including the American Musicological Society’s Alfred Einstein Award.

17:00 - 18:00 Stefan Furlan (Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Berlin)

Beyond the Book of Nature: Wheeler the Storyteller and the Readability of the Universe

Physicist John A. Wheeler (1911-2008) is often considered a “visionary” who portrayed vistas of future research, but less appreciated are his passion for and active involvement with history: in a way, he worked as an intergenerational mediator. He promoted historiography and the use of analogies with science of the past to support his own ambitious speculations in subjects such as cosmology and fundamental physics. Thus, Wheeler gradually created a series of quasi-historical narratives in direct relation with his own research agenda and philosophical outlook. Using his unpublished notebooks, I will discuss how his work on black holes during the 1960s represented a turning point for his worldview and what implications for cosmic order and the knowability of the universe he drew from that.

About the researcher

Stefano Furlan is currently finishing his doctoral thesis at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. After degrees in the humanities and theoretical physics (University of Torino), he has been studying the history of physics and in particular the life and work of American physicist John A. Wheeler, whose scholarship ranges from nuclear physics, the American bomb project, and studies in gravity and general relativity, most notably black holes. Wheeler sourced many of his ideas in a deep involvement with philosophy and the arts, and it is that crossover which is Stefano’s subject of study as a Junior Vossius Fellow in the Spring of 2023.