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Gutted: A Sympathetic Primer in Six Parts. #2 Plasticity
.. in which our columnist james taylor-foster considers the growth in recognition of neuroplasticity and what such awareness may say about the ultimate project: the design of the self.

In this six-part column, curator and cultural critic james taylor-foster explores spatial and design imaginaries through the lens of the body. Rather than looking at the systems we have constructed to understand the world, these texts explore our own visceral construction to reveal something of how we orient and experience life. This column pauses to consider the unusual relationships between the shapes of ourselves and the designed world.

Tara Swart is an example of a very particular type of fact-core guru. A medical doctor and neuroscientist turned ‘executive coach’ and broadcaster, her podcast episodes boast hooks such as Blooming from Burnout and Manifesting Magnetism. She’s among those who advocate for the notion of cradle-to-grave neuroplasticity – the relatively fresh understanding that our neural networks can be fundamentally rewired by way of concerted effort, and across our lives. Where at one time neural plasticity was once thought to only be possible in children, this form of self-help champions that radical change to our behaviours, desires, and self-limiting actions are not only possible but entirely within our floundering grasp. Even if you’re past your supposed prime.

Where at one time neural plasticity was once thought to only be possible in children, this form of self-help champions that radical change to our behaviours, desires, and self-limiting actions are not only possible but entirely within our floundering grasp.

Phew. That felt like an ad for Swart, and perhaps it is. I’ve been (semi-sceptically) engaging with science-backed self-help like this for some time now. It can be a tricky thing to participate in: empowering in the sense that you feel validated on a journey of growth, yet unsettling in the amount of work required to reach those greener pastures. I’ve been told on numerous occasions that the most efficient route to a bestseller in the Anglosphere is to write something categorised under ‘self help’ in a bookshop. Like the motivational speaking circuit, it is ambiguously attractive and supports the foundational societal belief that growth constitutes the greatest good. Another widespread belief: that the cultivation — or even design — of one’s own personality for one’s own personal profit, is deeply satiated by self-help, and the practice of neuroplasticity in particular.1

The idea that we can be reborn again and again in a lifelong joyride of neural relationships is a liberating thought. A gentle cynicism nudges back only when I consider how such thinking may mirror the reality that we find ourselves in – a moment in which digital design permits us to perform endless acts of self-creation.

Referential drawing by james taylor-foster (2024).

I am all in for anything that opposes the notion that we are fixed, inflexible, or static. The idea that we can be reborn again and again in a lifelong joyride of neural relationships is a liberating thought. A gentle cynicism nudges back only when I consider how such thinking may mirror the reality that we find ourselves in – a moment in which digital design permits us to perform endless acts of self-creation. We have become sensitive to the shared desire for self-invention. From hookup apps to image sharing services, there is a continuous need to modulate our outward selves, and any boundary between the physical and virtual has long since evaporated. Our inner selves are seemingly covered by the realm of self-help. As alienating as these spaces may in truth be, their capacity to recognise our individualities tends to outweigh the unsettling peculiarity of it all. As reality becomes a doom-scroll of desire, the ability to opt-out is no longer a choice. To cease playing a part in the performance—a tragic comedy of sorts—requires cash, security, and IRL community.

This is the original content of our time – an inauthentic journey towards authenticity.

The same sense of disbelonging arises when I try to help my self. Engaging with the likes of Dr Tara warms the heart because it suggests that all the tools for real-world reinvention are already with you. The scale of her listenership suggests that it’s the right thing to do. This is the original content of our time – an inauthentic journey towards authenticity. Culture is little more than the inevitable and continuous crashing together of multiple stories, all at once, however – and for that we should be grateful. It is a mess of works-in-progress, of insecurity and failure writ large on people, communities, and places. In this way, self-creation has real stakes. As irresistible as it can seem, the desire to design who you are or could be, is missing the point. You, and all your evolutions, are entwined with and mirrored in the fates of everyone and everything.

Bio
james taylor-foster is a writer, cultural critic, and curator of design and digital culture trained in architecture. They are the curator of contemporary architecture and design at ArkDes, and have developed a number of curatorial projects in Stockholm including Cruising Pavilion: Architecture, Gay Sex and Cruising Culture and Space Popular: Value in the Virtual, alongside public installations with Studio Ossidiana, Swedish Girls, and others. They curated WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD – the first museum exhibition to explore the culture and creative field of ASMR, currently touring. Most recently, they worked with Joar Nango and collaborators to present Girjegumpi: The Sámi Architecture Library in the Nordic Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Their first collaborative collection of essays, softspot, was published in 2021 (InOtherWords).

Credits:
Cover image: Martin Simonic (2023)

Notes
1 There has always been some degree of fascination in the possibility of inner betterment for outward gain. The centuries-old Italian concept of sprezzatura describes a presentation of effortlessness and ease, of careless grace. The Japanese notion of shibumi describes the presentation of subtle, unobtrusive beauty. Japan’s Umami, once ascribed only to taste, now signifies something trend-based.

Published
01 Feb 2024
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