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Francesca Brittan joins the Vossius Center for one month in May 2023 as a Research Fellow with the project 'Instrumentality, Ideology, and the Orchestration of Mind'.

About the project

Musical instruments have long operated as epistemological proxies for the brain and nervous system. Famously, René Descartes imagined the pneumatic organ as a model for the hydraulic pumping of “animal spirits” through hollow nerve tubules (1630s). Later, Thomas Willis, in his Cerebri anatome (1664) compared nervous action to the operations of a “celestial harp,” figuring nerves as resonating strings integrated in the delicate fabric of the brain. In the early eighteenth century, David Hartley drew on violin and cello models to conceptualize how nervous vibration might be encoded as physical memory (thus laying the foundations of associationist psychology). And in L’homme machine (1747) Julien Offray de La Mettrie described the brain as a “self-performing clavecin” able to record sensations like melodies, then replay them at will.

Scholarship by (among others) Jamie Kassler, Stanley Finger, and Clifford Rose explores these analogues—and, more broadly, the resonant intertwining of musical and neural sciences across the late Renaissance and Enlightenment. But what happens at the dawn of the nineteenth century? The project I propose traces shifts in neurophysiological theory beginning around the 1790s, when the brain began to be understood not as a unified instrument of soul but a collection of separate cognitive tools. The change was ushered in by phrenological theory, especially the work of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, who proposed a newly elaborate theory of cortical localization. As their ideas were taken up by the fields of neurophysiology, psychology, and moral philosophy, the modular brain was increasingly figured in orchestral terms: functional minds were sectional, well-harmonized, and strongly-conducted (Azaïs, Broussais, Cubi y Soler); dysfunctional minds were cacophonic and improperly led (Ribot, Poincaré, Kraepelin). As minds were reimagined as orchestral, orchestras themselves began to be described in language borrowed from the neural sciences.

In this project, I trace not only the rejuvenation of the neural orchestra but the spectral ideologies it harbors. I am interested in metaphoricity as a technology blurring scientific models across time, opening what Rancière calls “a passage or a transport,” a vibrational cord pulling us back to earlier psychosocial formations (Dissensus). Rhetorical regression is also a process of reanimation; in the case of the neural orchestra, language itself acts as a spectral force allowing authoritarian ideologies to move across time, disciplinary boundaries, and epistemic divides (Derrida, Bourdieu, Foucault). But recognition and resistance is possible: I close this project by contemplating models of decentralized minds (Buzsaki, Searle) and conductorless orchestras (Les Dissonances; Spira Mirabilis). Scientists and performers alike have offered us avenues for change, including models across musical and neuroscientific lines whose goal is to democratize power, deconstruct the legacies of empire, and in so doing, repair (or perhaps reimagine) the legacy of orchestral neuropolitics.

About the researcher

Francesca Brittan is a scholar of music and sound cultures 1800-present. She holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University (2007), and was a Research Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge between 2006-08. Her current research and teaching interests are strongly cross-disciplinary, often operating at the intersection of music, science, and magic. They include sonic histories of medicine; conceptions of auditory attention/cognition from the eighteenth- to the twenty-first century; music and neuroscience (including neurodivergent auralities); orchestral and conducting cultures; and  musical-magical traditions from Orpheus to Harry Potter. She occasionally teaches courses on popular music, especially blues and early rock and roll. 

Brittan’s first book, Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz (Cambridge, 2017) traces intersections between musical enchantment and romantic science from Berlioz to Stravinsky. Current book projects include Instruments of Mind: Neural Organologies from Descartes to Cybernetics and The Conductor’s Wand: Histories and Post-Histories of Orchestral Power.