continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 8.1-2 / 2019: 155-166

Sujetting Apocrypha from HOME

Graydon Wetzler

Introduction: Planned Obstinance

The modalization of the state of the subject - and this is what we are referring to when we speak about passions - is conceivable only if it begins by modalizing the object, which, in becoming a ‘value,’ imposes itself on the subject.[1] 

While models of narrative actions suffice for describing modal transformations at the level of story semiotics, for analysis of passional behavior, French semioticians Jacques Fontanille and A. J. Greimas  sought the tensional dynamics of intensive states beyond what a subject is doing to dig differential kinematics of story – ways of being while doing. The semiotics of passions stresses subject/object disjunctives, and in particular those put in play with an analytics of “fiduciary expectation” between passional subjects constituted not only by couplings of externalized modalizations and internalized states, but more vividly as tensions arising between modalizations and diverging subjectivities thereof. Herein, the paradoxes of `obstinacy' are particularly salient in tensional arrangements unexhausted when characterizing merely what is being done insofar as in need of ascribing a particular way of being while doing. Fontanille and Greimas schematize three possible obstinacies, or more generally, fiduciary “troubles”:         

  • a knowing-not-how-to-be (the subject knows that he is disjoined from his object);
  • a being-able-not-to-be or a not-being-able-to-be (the success of the enterprise is jeopardized);
  • a wanting-to-be (the subject wants nevertheless to be conjoined, and will do everything to this end).

With apocryphal things, we might find obstinacy a natural topos for placing a technical claim, promise or affordance along with nonbinding “fiduciary expectation” in misattributions, reduplicative paramnesias and pseudo-effects more generally. Here I seek a more subtle apocrypha, or confidence trick, in the place Richard Feynman diagnosed science as equivalently about detecting lies as much as getting stuck at obscurity (“you cannot prove a vague theory wrong”).[2]  

I discuss a series of DARPA hosted meetings[3] convening neuroscientists, computer scientists and social scientists to collectively survey prospects for a neurologically informed and technologically transferable science of story with particular interest to apply findings to serve U.S. strategy in international security contexts. An especially sticky nexus animating these meetings sought to mine theoretical neuroscience, quantitative social science and emerging simulation technologies to cull rhetorical strategies for sensing, modeling and acting on cultural sentiment (e.g., for classifying, predicting and deterring political dissent). Heeding Fontanille and Greimas, here we, in turn, seek fiduciary “troubles” along a complex sujet/fabula interface revealing these meetings as an apocryphal brittleness itself fractalizing a thicker neuro s/t (neuroscientific and neurotechnological) nexus. In other words, we track the differential figure/ground relation enabling (and cabling) neuroscience to emplot its technicity and its techniques to in turn emplot its scientificity. I do so by attending to a concrete modalization given by a DARPA program manager as a “dog that will hunt.”    

More specifically, during the second meeting, a neuroeconomist and entrepreneur summarized ongoing inductive laboratory studies combining games of trust with chemical infusions in an effort to resolve the conjoint of self-interest and other-regarding in economic decisions (especially those where potentially high value outcomes couple to behaviors that are costly). At the heart of these studies are a “moral molecule” and the circuit it operates, which the presenter consolidated in HOME ('Human Oxytocin Mediated Empathy') - a weighted triangle differentially cabling oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin to mediate our ''subjective experience of empathy” (4).[4] In both discursive and methodological construction, HOME becomes a constellation of particularly apocryphal technoscience when wired into the DARPA program. 

First is its participation in a technical imaginary of neuro STS (neuroscience, neurotechnology, neurosecurity) – that triple-helix of knowledge, market and control (university-industry-government) promising breakthrough recursions through spirals of basic neuroscience, technological transfer and statecraft. At HOME, this apocryphal spiral promises care, control and truth.  

Second, and directly related to the first fiduciary expectation is an internal resonance, or the precise love for what the American philosopher J.D. Trout diagnosed as a “neurophilic fuency [that] flourishes wherever heuristics in psychology are reductionist.” [5] In short, the pleasure of intellectual fluency is so rewarding as to solicit its feedback as a positive proof of genuine understanding.   

And an inseparable third apocrypha with primary interest for me here: While presented laboratory studies stimulated peripheral brain chemistry (with subjects receiving puffs of nasally-administered drugs and then operating a hypothesized circuit as if a volume pot ``to 'turn up' and 'turn down' moral sentiment''), DARPA targeted HOME’s address with more nuance, patience and precision where signal flow becomes obstinately continuous, culturally mediated and free flowing. In other words, we are in the presence of a theory of immersive media coupling error-correction with amplification: cabling attention with transcendence, or in operational terms, rest-and-digest with feed-and-breed. Plugging HOME in means an apocrypha of flow rather than force.  

1. Nut Under the Bedroom[6] 

"Neuro-Narratology does not exist yet…(Schneider 2017)[7] 

"…it’s a very shy molecule that degrades rapidly.(Zak 2011)

The neurochemical oxytocin has emerged as a watershed spanning R+D in neuroenhancement, normative medicine, attention economies and geopolitics. This molecule will be of keen interest to matters of apocryphal technoscience for its particular resonance and resistance to signal aesthetics mediating the wet and dry of current circuits of communication, control and care. In a longer future work, I combine Adele Clark's intersectional empirical method (situational analysis) with critical constructs introduced by Michel Foucault (biopower), Bernard Stiegler (technicity as pharmakon) and Eve Sedgwick (peri-performativity) to locate some vectors for intervening on some of the dry and wet of oxytocin’s larger media ethology. While alluding to these thinkers, here I focus on Foucault’s late notions of milieu and (counter-)conduct as well as Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s suggested Foucauldian update with “biogenic cabling” to traffic in oxytocin (OT) as both an empirical and conceptual circuit. A few talking points therefore on patching the former to the latter and into apocryphal technoscience:   

Following American botanist Vincent du Vigneaud’s (1928) success revealing this molecule’s unique handedness and his subsequent (1953) synthesis in an 8-bit form, OT’s shelf life had predominantly been associated with peri-reproductive functions for inducing milk letdown reflex, stimulating uterine contractions during labor and initiating (but not maintaining) maternal/offspring attachment. Synthetic OT also collaborated in instituting an ideal “labor curve.” Beyond these peri-reproductive functions, OT is more generally conceived to act differentially along male and female affect curves.[8] 

🡪  OT is therefore an intrinsically gendered circuit.   

Physiological effects become behavioral affects. OT is said to evoke feelings of contentment by reducing social anxiety while triggering motivation. Endogenous OT is thought to increase trust between strangers by inhibiting the amygdala and to modulate intergroup dynamics by increasing “in-group” bonding and “out-group” biasing. In other words, OT amplifies in the presence of “familiar or ‘safe’ conspecifics.”[9]  

🡪  OT is therefore an intrinsically political circuit.    

OT acts both locally (e.g., producing other neuropeptides) and at a distance (e.g., recurrently cascading through periphery and CNS). OT acts non-linearly (e.g., differentially modulating a serotonin, dopamine and testosterone curve with …!!!!!). Moreover, basal OT is near zero and degrades rapidly upon production. 

🡪  OT is therefore a complex, unruly, epigenetic circuit with, as I show, a vibrant apocryphal signal aesthetics.  

I trace these and related OT technoscience apocrypha in the scope of a single case introduced in the next section where I also elicit a pair of narrative analytics to help us track the figure/ground switches between empirical and conceptual circuits. The subsequent section puts Foucault in concert with Berardi in helping us to understand how this “very shy molecule” conduced an apocryphal promise of spurring non-standard signals for HOMI (human oxytocin mediated immersion).

2. Biogenic Counter-Cabling  

Existing critiques of DARPA’s so-called Narrative Networks program emphasize the Cold War technical imaginaries put in play. One representative report for example alludes to coercive apocrypha -- “pharmacologically incapacitating the psychological defenses of interrogation suspects,”[10] and appeals to instituted norms by citing the Chemical Weapons Convention defining any chemical for inducing ‘‘temporary incapacitation’’ as a ‘‘toxic chemical’’ and therefore banned. A more infinitesimal (Stieglerian) pharmacological structure of toxin and cure is needed where adversarial incapacitation is replaced by a neuroeconomics of immersion.

Fabula/syuzhet is the formalist narratological interface of an event with its emplotment. Postmodern theorists alerted us to the productive etiolations put in play by a presupposition of interleaved perspectives. It is in this latter sense that I deploy obstinacy as a passional configuration differentially attached to its being-while-doing. In media ecological terms, the latter signals a complex interaction between figure/ground relations.

With the concept of security, Foucault’s key narrative construct was the ‘milieu’ that he understood as a fundamental axis through which security deployed. Security does not react to a ‘milieu’ as a discrete existential threat as much as the finding of “a project, a political technique” for its apparatuses to emerge in order to “work, fabricate, organize, and plan” its form (38).[11] Whereas sovereignty operates on legal entities acting through volition and discipline operates through panoptic optics on some multiplicity of bodies performing normative rules, the milieu instead affects “precisely, a population” (37). Foucault specified the milieu’s conditions of possibility as “Lamarckian,” and more importantly distinctly “Newtonian” insofar as needing “to account for action at a distance of one body on another” (36). These also operationally bind the milieu with the operation of security:

“Let’s say then that sovereignty capitalizes a territory, raising the major problem of the seat of government, whereas discipline structures a space and addresses the essential problem of a hierarchical and functional distribution of elements, and security will try to plan a milieu in terms of events or series of events or possible elements, of series that will have to be regulated within a multivalent and transformable framework. The specific space of security refers then to a series of possible events; it refers to the temporal and the uncertain, which have to be inserted within a given space. The space in which a series of uncertain elements unfold is, I think, roughly what one can call the milieu. (35)

More succinctly, the milieu is “the medium of an action and the element in which it circulates” (36). Security targets the milieu as an agglomeration of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ givens, and ‘a circular link’ is established between effects and causes. The milieu gives security its project as a phenomenon of “a certain number of combined, overall effects bearing on all who live in it.” The milieu enables security to become self-referential. As an analytic, security focused Foucault on the micro-powers “not confined by definition to a precise domain” nor “determined by a sector of the scale, but as “a point of view, a method of decipherment which may be valid for the whole scale, whatever its size” (186).

In this setting, fundamental to Foucault’s characterization of bio-power was its distinguishing “not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective” but more importantly a modulation of relations and their relative flows, or a “way in which certain actions modify others” (789).[12] Critical for Foucault is to attend to the way power acts indirectly and with delay on subjects. While a relationship of violence “acts upon a body or upon things” in direct manner, bio-power does not require an inimical subject to operate. 

In seeking for the right term for organizing an analytics of power in this setting, Foucault suggests the term ‘conduct’, for perhaps its “equivocal nature” as “one of the best aids for coming to terms with the specificity of power relations” (789). He is remarking on the available multiplicity of interpretations registered in the term that (more explicit in French) is at once ’to drive’ and ’to behave,’ and as the translator notes, “whence la conduite, ‘conduct’ or ‘behaviour’” (later we might attempt to fold ‘to bring in, or forth’). In the productive equivocation of ‘conduct’, Foucault brings into focus that power is only mistakenly associated with confrontation, when it more accurately should be understood as the proper generality of governing action in terms of possibility. In this regard, for Foucault, ‘conduct’ both situates an analytics of coercive mechanisms that conduct behaviour as well as brings into presence “a more or less open field of possibilities” (789). In both interpretations, but more immanently in the second one, Foucault stressed that there is no “position of exteriority with respect to power” (Foucault 2013, 125- 7).[13] Instead, a notion of ‘counter-conduct’ is possible that shares with ”conduct,” as Foucault writes, “a series of elements that can be utilized and reutilized, reimplanted, reinserted, taken up in the direction of reinforcing a certain mode of conduct or of creating and recreating a type of counter-conduct” (27).[14]

In “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation,” Berardi (2011)[15] suggests updating Foucauldian analysis within our contemporary horizons of differential control. With salience, he calls on Deleuze as “a great reader of William Burroughs” who anticipated a coming shift from molar to molecular dispositifs “which are intrinsic to the very genesis of the conscious organism” and suggest replacing ‘control’ with ‘cabling’:

We move here from the phase of industrial discipline to that of the mutation of the organism, taking place through the inoculation of mutagenic principles, and the cabling of psychic, cognitive, genetic and relational circuits. We might replace the word ‘control’ with ‘cabling’. Biogenic cabling. Techno-linguistic cabling of the human brain’s printed circuit, cabling human brains in connection.

With particularly bite here, Berardi identifies another operational level cabling beneath molar control and multiplexing “the production of techno-linguistic means of production, psychopharmacology, media production and the production of the imaginary.” He continues,

My ‘point of observation’ is exactly this: the pathologies of the organism in the mutagenic age, the indeterminate and stochastic nature of the morphogenetic process in which the organism is looking for a new balance. In particular, my interest is focused on the processes of cognitive cabling induced by communication technologies and by techno-linguistic and techno-perceptual dispositifs. The latter produce a psycho-pathology which presents endemic features. By working on this indeterminacy and on the psychopathologies derived from it and by following the Guattarian schizoanalytic method, it is possible to rethink radically our notion of politics. Politics should be reconceptualized as the art of interference in the relationship between the techno-mediatic universe (dominated by specific agencies which act on the production of the imaginary and on the production of knowledge and are identifiable in the global capitalist corporations) and the ecology of mind.

OPOCRYPHA: Return to Fisherman’s Wharf

April 2011. I am attending a two-day workshop hosted by the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA).[16] The agency has convened an interdisciplinary group of scholars and defense industry contractors to survey, discuss and synthesize across disciplinary approaches linking narrative processing, neurobiology and story stimulus (for example by cuing sentiment, creating identities, and inciting political violence). Towards this, the meetings had “five mutually reinforcing and overlapping goals”: 

1.To assay narrative effects on our basic neurochemistry.

2. To understand the narrative impact on the neurobiology of memory, learning and identity.

3. To assess the narrative influence on the neurobiology of emotions.

4. To examine how narratives influence moral neurobiology.

5. To survey how narratives modulate other brain mechanisms related to social cognition.

Dr. Paul Zak is the lone presenter for a special afternoon session, “Narrative and Neurochemistry,” during which he briefed us on his neuroeconomic laboratory studies on the conjectured modulation of human empathy by the neurohormone, oxytocin (Zak 2011).[17] More precisely, Zak and his lab were endeavoring to not only ”directly link oxytocin to the subjective experience of empathy, and show that distress can inhibit empathy”; but more even more ambitiously attempting to deploy a control model (“Empathy-Generosity model”) as a means “to ‘turn up’ and ‘turn down’ moral sentiment” via ”physiologic manipulations” (Zak 2011). Zak’s central axiom states that a “person’s physiologic state affects his or her decisions”, and his principle signifier organizing the study of oxytocin is by “characterizing the HOME circuit” and then, simply, ”coming home” to ”identify situations in which moral sentiments will be engaged or disengaged”. Oxytocin is thus tagged, the “moral molecule.” This effectively chemically programmed and affectively computed algorithm is also scale-free: The scope of said molecule in Zak’s estimation spans ”health and welfare policies, organizational and institutional design, economic development, and happiness are presented” (1). Oxytocin is an apocryphal superobject (from inter-personal to institutional, fiduciary to sentimental, evo-devo to obstinate obsolescence), or to call upon Timothy Morton’s non-countable nomination as a hyperobject. Zak’s claim/promise to implement HOME with a volume pot is similarly scale-free, or perhaps more aptly colloidal in spanning, without resolving, macro, meso and nano.  

For a passional configuration to animate laboratory work, Zak solicits a classic economic aporia - the conflict between self- regarding and other-regarding behavior – then fleshes with canonical form in the conflict between Adam Smith’s seemingly antagonistic works on morality (1759) and wealth (1776). Zak writes:

How can Smith’s two views of human nature be reconciled? First, self-interest and a desire to help others are not mutually exclusive. One may work hard to help an ailing parent or contribute to a charity. Second, self-interest and empathy may operate in different situations and environments. Someone may clip coupons to save on groceries, and also open up one’s home to displaced disaster victims. Third, automatic empathic responses in the brain may or not affect decisions. We may feel empathy for a homeless person, but still choose not to give him money, perhaps out of a fear that we will ’enable’ him. We are both empathic and self-interested, and constantly adapt to varying social, economic, and institutional environments by changing the amount of self-regarding and other-regarding behavior. (2011)

In order to reconcile the drift between these estranged Smiths, Zak will set oxytocin loose to close the circuit in metal by neuroeconomically testing the unitary handedness of market and morality with a conjecture: “if moral sentiments are real and measurable, they should also be manipulable” and he continues, “I will describe how I have manipulated moral sentiments physiologically to understand if they are real and if so, how they work” (2011:2).    

The Empathy-Generosity-Punishment Model 

Zak bases the above model on four reasons that also motivate the study of neurophysiology in the context of moral sentiments. First, privileging physiologic foundations avoids the weaknesses of standard economic models of prosocial behavior” by going directly to the brain mechanisms producing the observed behavior. Second, grounding in brain mechanisms also avoids the naive assumptions of (hyper)-rationality” - that is, presupposing human actors (and nation-states) are always and everywhere rational” (3). Zak instead assumes “rational rationality” that predicts people will invest scarce cognitive resources in solving a decision problem only when the expected payoff is sufficiently large”. This model gives a more nuanced, contextual and affectively situated ecology of decision making “by including emotional influences while still optimizing using the preferences-beliefs-constraints framework”. Third, and dovetailing with the previous, Zak assumes nonlinearities factor in making decisions (see Zak and Barraza 2013, Barraza and Zak 2009).[18] In other words, it is not only “direct effects” in play, but also ”cross effects” (e.g., guilt and shame are posited): “participants in many experiments poorly and inconsistently report the reasons for their choices” (Zak 2011:3). Relations of self are unreliable, so additional modalities beyond self-report are needed.

Welcome HOME 

Zak’s research is organized around previous findings concerning the neurohormone oxytocin, and more specifically on a brain circuit he posits - ”Human Oxytocin Mediated Empathy” (HOME). I’ll cut thinner to summarize these settings. According to Zak, previous studies ”directly link oxytocin to the subjective experience of empathy and show that distress can inhibit empathy” (4). What is oxytocin? Zak is aware of OT’s ancient pedigree in motivating care for offspring, monogamy, and its hypothesized role in privileging biparental care units. Here Zak conjectures the maternal as a sticky template for more general other-regarding behaviors. He reminds us that,    

In addition to its role in the brain, OT is also released peripherally in body (Zak et al., 2005b). Peripheral OT binds to receptors in the heart and vagus nerve (which innervates the heart and gut), reducing heart rate and blood pressure thereby reducing anxiety (Porges, 2001). Thus, OT affects both brain and body, and informs the emotion regulation of fear/safety and approach/withdrawal behaviors. (4)

More schematically, Oxytocin 

  • Is a neuropeptide synthesized primarily in the magnocellular neurons of the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus.
  • Has peripheral (hormonal) actions, and also has actions in the brain.
  • Has its actions mediated by specific, high-affinity oxytocin receptors.
  • Is primarily known for its peripheral actions through secretion from the pituitary gland principally serving peri-reproductive functions for cervical dilation before birth, contractions during the second and third stages of labor and causing milk to be ‘let down’ into subareolar sinuses, from where it can be excreted via the nipple.  

Oxytocin routes centrally, and projects through the periphery, and is speculated to act as a meta-system (a system of systems), conducting relations upon relations, like modulating the subjective experience of subjectivity – whence state becomes object projected back as valence:  

Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security when in the company of the mate. This suggests oxytocin may be important for the inhibition of the brain regions associated with behavioral control, fear, and anxiety, thus allowing orgasm to occur. Research has also demonstrated that oxytocin can decrease anxiety and protect against stress, particularly in combination with social support.[19]

Where is HOME? It is a brain circuit posited by Zak and his lab to be the basis for moral sentiment by triggering the release of OT. As a circuit, it doesn’t ’act’ alone. The HOME circuit itself operationalizes two neurotransmitters, dopamine (DA) and serotonin (SERT). DA has been linked to goal-directed behaviors, drive and reinforcement learning” (Zak 2011:4). As a mode of subjectivity, DA conduces one to feel good”, and thus, in turn, compels them to ”to seek rewards such as food and sex”. In short, the DA wing of HOME conducts prosocial behaviors rewarding, and provides a feedback loop to sustain them.” In addition to the excitatory transmitter dopamine, HOME operationalizes the inhibitory transmitter SERT known to attenuate anxiety and thereby is conducive of effects on positive mood”. With reduced anxiety comes prosociality satiating our evolutionarily old fear of isolation.” Zak summarizes, HOME makes being around other humans nonaversive and even pleasant.” 

Figure 1: Zak’s conjectured HOME circuit. Image by author. 

HOME relates three conductors in a circuit - OT, DA, and SERT - such that a positive social stimulus causes OT release that potentiates the discharge of midbrain DA” while at the same time, released OT causes synaptic SERT to rise in turn producing calmness and a positive effect on mood by binding to 5-HT1A (serotonin) receptors in the temporal cortex and prefrontal cortex” (Zak 2011:4-5). Zak explains that the DA leg of HOME motivates people to action, and reinforces prosocial behaviors by making them rewarding while the SERT leg reduces the fear of social interaction and improves mood. Importantly, stress markers such as epinepherine and cortisol have a nonlinear effect on HOME: moderate stress increase OT while high levels of stress of fear inhibit OT release and thus the functioning of the HOME circuit” (4-5). An empirical convenience is also at work: OT release can be measured in blood, urine, and cerebral spinal fluid, and synthetic OT can be infused into human beings intravenously or intranasally to demonstrate its effect on behavior.”

AXIOM. – Pleasure is measurable, and all pleasures are commensurable; so much of one sort of pleasure felt by one sentient being equateable to so much of other sorts of pleasure felt by other sentients.[20] 

What is needed is a model predicting certain outcomes related to the manipulation of HOME. Zak tells us that, “I have discovered that the Empathy-Generosity is [a] related model introduced in a footnote by the prominent Irish statistician and economist Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (1845-1926) in his book Mathematical Psychics: An Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences” (5). In a double-Foucauldian shift, the borrowed model oscillates in an arousal-reason-norm helix. In the original sink, Edgeworth normed Jeremy Bentham’s “Hedonic calculus” with an appeal to a Fechnerian experiment,[21] supplementing a moral arithmetic with moral differential calculus and compelled by what Edgeworth himself suspected as being of apocryphal expression:

Equimultiples of equal pleasures are equateable; where the multiple of a pleasure signifies exactly similar pleasure (integral or differential) enjoyed by a multiple number of persons, or through a multiple time, or (time and persons being constant) a pleasure whose degree is a multiple of the degree of the given pleasure.”

Or, “notwithstanding personal differences, as of activity or demonstrativeness,” one may “accept identical objective marks as showing identical subjective states” (396).  A moral differential is economic – the management of home towards pleasure in full generality, MAX!O(h). In situ, the model challenges two people, denoted person 1 and person 2,” within an arena of a bounded decision made by 1 on how much of a fixed amount of resources (pecuniary or nonpecuniary) to offer 2. To test the model, participants play iterations of ’the ultimatum game (UG)’ that measures prosocial behaviors in terms of players matched in pairs where decision-maker 1 (DM1) offers a split of a fixed endowment M to decision-maker 2 (DM2)” (6). The stakes in UG enter in terms of DM2’s responding by either accepting or rejecting DM1’s offer - in the case of the former, both DMs are paid and the game ends; in the latter case, both DMs receive nothing. 

In the experiment, physiologic manipulations have three variations: oxytocin (OT), arginine vasopressin (AVP) and testosterone (T). OT is the target to manipulate empathy directly. The other two indirectly circumscribe OT. The model for instance predicts that AVP infusion would not ”affect generosity towards others, but would affect the threshold to punish other for being ungenerous,” while T is in a sense the juridical molecule proper: ”besides reducing generosity, we also expected that raising T pharmacologically would cause men to engage in more individually costly punishment of those making ungenerous offers relative to themselves on placebo” (7). In addition to proving the latter two predictions, Zak claims that his lab studies have found that by raising OT levels ”we could more than double the number of subjects who trusted a stranger with all their money” He also explains a more subtle perspective on OT: At the same time, OT did not affect objective risk-taking tasks or change cognition or mood. Instead, OT appears to subtly alter the balance between appropriate levels of trust and distrust of strangers, moving people towards greater trust” (7). 

STORyNET/N2: From Cuddle to Cuticle

 Figure 2: STORyNET poster (2011). 

To arrive at the apocryphal receptor of OT’s story kinematics we need to place Zak’s research, and the San Francisco workshop in the context of its two handles, both adjoined by a presupposition that “[n]arratives exert a powerful influence on human psychology; because of these influences, narratives are important in security contexts” (Casebeer 2011). Whereas ostensive drivers of the San Francisco agenda attended to care (PTSD etiologies of memory, empathy, prosociality, etc.), its STORyNET[22] progeny embedded narratives in the exceptionalist political discourse of securitization insofar as, “understanding the role stories play in a security context is a matter of great import and some urgency.” To make a story operable entails “ascertaining exactly what function stories enact, and by what mechanisms they do so... Doing this in a scientifically respectable manner requires a working theory of narratives, an understanding of what role narratives play in security contexts, and examination of how to best analyze stories—decomposing them and their psychological impact systematically.” STORyNET meetings thus sought to answer the philosophical question what is a story? first in securitas:

What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent? What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do they influence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends? How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict? Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?

And then in definiendis through a triangular analytics of digitalization, Fechnerian law, and evolutionary (even parasitical) dynamics:  

How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent, and repeatable fashion? What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people? Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system to influence behavior?

Figure 3: Freytag triangle-driven narratives differentially modulate dopamine release linked to liking/disliking reactions. Adapted from Casebeer[23] by the author.  

Tertiary ''slice'' endoporeutic |+| diuretic

The terminating tertiary convergence, “Modeling, Simulating and Sensing Narrative Influence,” took as a control variable the knot with which we began to hunt non-standard sensing suites for the influence with an apocryphal promise to spur and co-evolve, or perhaps simply seduce, “the basic science of stories to produce neuropsychologically-informed tools for warfighter.”[24] Attention was on (achieving) three (perceptual) control variables: 

1. analysis: advance methods to quantitatively decompose stories systematically,

2. neurobiology: quantify the influence of stories on human psychology in neuroscientific terms in (a) trust, (b) reward and (c) belief fixation domains, and;  

3. tools: exploit that understanding to develop Department of Defense tools useful at tactical-to-strategic level, including hardware (sensors), software (simulations), and suggested doctrinal modifications.

Note how the promised scale of storied operations in (3) matches Zak’s OT conjecture. To take us home along the Aristotelian triangular unity of tragic plot, we need first to educe pliancy and return into Freytag’s otherwise brittle pyramid. The full third of (3) above hunted “non-standard sensor suites keyed to the variables identified in improved influence models” by asking,

Are critical variables missing from current influence models? How can those variables best be identified and detected? What environmental variables are most critical for the influence process and how are those measured? What is the current state of standoff assessments of indirect measures of neural activity (capillary dilation, galvanic skin response, eye pupil dilation, etc.) and more direct measures (sensing detectable neurobiological compounds)? What technologies must be developed to enable improvements in those measures?[25] 

Non-standard sensing suites presented during the third meeting included catalytic biosensors, and microneedles made via microstereolithography for transdermal electrochemical sensing and delivery of small molecules through the skin.[26] The keyed import of this dog being to disjoin an intended transformation from its doing by subtly repurposing the details, a stand-off sensing platform tuned specifically to detect (and possible deliver), for example, oxytocin uptake and cascading. In this setting, oxytocin is what is called the sensing sensor's 'analyte' - the chemical species that is of interest in an analytical procedure. In other words, via the HOME circuit operationally linked to a stand-off sensing platform, Casebeer can at least conjecture a clandestine method for manipulating a person's subjective experience of empathy.

The title of the third meeting thus itself becomes a triangular schema for promising “a dog that will hunt.” [27] Zak's research gives the narrative theory within the neurobiology that supports it. The former aspect describes moral narrative in terms of a servomechanism feeding part of its action back HOME to calculate an optimal experience of empathy in the scene (distress, cost, etc.). The latter gives the effective structure for calculating, although the relevant computation is not digital, but rather a continuous, and contextually situated, differential. Together, these also yield a control model. Simulating narrative influence means taking the model to the empirical scene and analyzing the dynamics - toggling the two geographies (communicative and cerebral). This provides a specific control model.

When pressed for what successful research selected for this well-funded DARPA project would look like, Casebeer offered the following continuously differentiating algorithmic theatre. Imagine an iPhone lies on the table between us. It has been loaded with a stand-off biosensor tuned to HOME through a conflation of oxytocin with meaning. Now imagine we are in fact adversaries negotiating a ceasefire. Casebeer was in fact black-boxing a rubber-band negotiation with a Taliban leader. His servomechanism is reduced to a circuit (a calculably effective procedure) mediated by oxytocin wherein a continuously differentiating conjoint of OT-SERT-T is being cognized by an iPhone and eventually fed back (e.g., through an earpiece) as a control parameter. Casebeer’s speculated terminus is more nuanced however. Rather than a zero-state machine, OT-SERT-T is raw fabula and HOME is a cooked syuzhet, their recipe being susceptance.   

The trick is to recursively load different input story styles until your interlocutor’s over-compensations begin to conduce trust. We are arguably in the presence of what Sedgwick would’ve signaled as hyperbolic and periperformative. Like tuning an analog radio until the knot matches the dot, the other’s subjective experience of empathy, negotiation becomes asymmetrical - a pure conductance of conduct acting upon relations of actions.

[1] A.J. Greimas and J. Fontanille, The semiotics of passions: from states of affairs to states of feeling (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 4.  

[2] For explanation optimal import here, see Dusko Pavlovic “Logics of Authentication, Lieing and Obscurity” (2013).

[3] Narrative Networks (N2): Modeling, Simulating and Sensing Narrative Influence (June 29-30, 2011, Arlington, VA).

[4] Zak, Paul J. 2011. “The physiology of moral sentiments.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 77: 53-65.

[5] Trout, J. D. (2008). “Seduction without cause: uncovering explanatory neurophilia.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12 (8):281-282.

[6] Marks, J.H. “A neuroskeptic's guide to neuroethics and national security.” AJOB Neuroscience, 1(2): 4–12, 2010. In discussing “neurophilia,” and “neuroskeptism,” J.H. Marks (2010) pointed out that subthalamic nucleus inserts Greek derivative between two Latin ones vulnerable to mistranslating as ‘the nut under the bedroom” (180). The mistranslation equally captures the section nonetheless.    

[7] Schneider, Ralf Dipl.-Chem. Dr., Per Krogh Hansen, J. M. Pier, Philippe Roussin and Wolfgang Schmid. “Is There a Future for Neuro-Narratology? Thoughts on the Meeting of Cognitive Narratology and Neuroaesthetics.” (2017).

[8] This history forms part of my longer study. A compact summary here reads: In seeking to systematize ergoline effects (more uterine than psychedelic like the ergot derivatives, methylergometrine and lysergic acid diethylamide), Sir Henry Dale accidently discovered a naturally occurring oxytocic analog after injecting human postpituitary gland into a cat in 1906. After observing roughly equivalent labor induction in both pregnant and virgin felines, Dale christened this natural analog in a Greek conjoint of oxy (quick) + tocos (birth). By 1928, ‘Pituitrin’s’ apocryphal brand would see Parke Davis pharmaceuticals rebrand ergot under, ‘Pitocin.’ In fact, Dale’s conjectured unitary effect would subsequently be discerned as the hands of distinct, if nearly chemically indiscernible, agents- both posterior pituitary gland extracts, but one linked to uterine contractions and the other to raising blood pressure and antidiuresis. With this distinction, and following hundreds of thousands hog and beef gland extractions, in 1953, the American chemist Vincent Du Vigneaud synthesized the molecule, as well as the first “true” neuropeptide as such (Du Vigneaud et al., 1953a), receiving the Nobel Prize in recognition two years later. Synthetic oxytocin would nonetheless preserve its title to be administered through today via intravenous labeled, Pitocin®.  

[9] Zak, P. J. (2018). The Evolutionary Origins of Cooperation and Trade. Journal of Bioeconomics. DOI: 10.1007/s10818-017-9259-6.

[10] Tennison MN, Moreno JD (2012) “Neuroscience, Ethics, and National Security: The State of the Art.” PLoS Biol 10(3): e1001289.

[11] Foucault, Michel, Michel Senellart, François Ewald, and Alessandro Fontana. 2009. Security, territory, population: lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. New York, N.Y.: Picador/Palgrave Macmillan.

[12] Foucault, M. "The Subject and Power." Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 777-95.

[13] Foucault, M. (2013). Lectures on the Will to Know (Ed. A. I. Davidson, 1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[14] Davidson, A. I. (2011). “In Praise of Counter-Conduct.” History of the Human Sciences, 24(4), 25–41.

[15] Bifo “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation.” Culture Machine Vol. 7, 2005.

[16] N2: The Neurobiology of narratives.

[17] Zak, Paul J. “The Physiology of Moral Sentiments.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol. 77, no. 1, Jan. 2011, pp. 53–65.

[18] Barraza, Jorge A., and Paul J. Zak. “Empathy Toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin

Release and Subsequent Generosity.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1167, no. 1, June 2009, pp. 182–189

[19] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Oxytocin” (accessed July 24, 2019),

[20] Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (1879) "The Hedonical Calculus", Mind,

Volume 4, Issue 15 (July), p.394-408.

[21] Fechner Psychophysik, ix. 6: “The non-linear relationship between psychological sensation and the physical intensity of a stimulus […] became known as the Weber–Fechner law”

[22] Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts (Charlotesville, VA, February 28, 2011).

[23] Lt Col William D. Casebeer. “Stories, Neurobiology and Political Violence: Exploring the Neural Mechanisms of Narrative Psychology to Develop War Fighting Tools.” STORyNET presentation (Charlotesville, VA, February 28, 2011).

[24] Narrative Networks (N2): Modeling, Simulating and Sensing Narrative Influence (June 29-30, 2011, Arlington, VA).

[25] Narrative Networks (N2): Modeling, Simulating and Sensing Narrative Influence (June 29-30, 2011, Arlington, VA).

[26] The array of tech included the development of electrochemical, acoustic, optical, and cell-based sensors applicable to CW/BW agent detection and medical diagnostics.

[27] I am quoting DSO Program Manager LtCol Casebeer’s quip for potentially “sticky” (fundable) research proposals. Casebeer also cited research linking narratives to belief fixation with independent behavioral evidence that storytelling modulates “sacred values.” The neural correlates of those sacred values were of interest in order to hunt the hypothesis that stories can differentially move beliefs along the sacred/non-sacred “indifference” curve. For a summary, see “The Neurobiology Of Political Violence: New Tools, New Insights” (A Strategic Multilayer Assessment Workshop, 1-2 December 2010).