The Metabolism of the Social Brain

One of the most seminal propositions in the field of psychiatry in the last half-century was Arthur Kleinman’s Depression, Somatization and the New Cross-cultural Psychiatry published in 1977 [1]. Unlike most psychiatric practices at the time, Kleinman made a strong case for the recognition of cultural differences, plurality and a case against the exportation or super-imposition of psychiatric theories onto other cultures–a practice that was very common within the colonial context. Crass examples like the case of the French psychiatrist Antoine Porot, head of the Algiers School of psychiatry and notorious for his racist justification of the French colonial structure and the implementation of these prejudices in psychiatric practice, as discussed and criticized by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth could stand as an epitome of such practices at the time. Kleinman’s engagement towards and questioning of the universality of psychodynamic models and psychiatric constructs and on the influence of ethnographic and anthropological research on psychiatric epidemiology in his “new cross-cultural psychiatry” and his models of culture-oriented somatization have become a tool for many practitioners today.

The struggle within the field of psychology in the 70s, and still today, to come to terms with the fact that Western epistemological models cannot be translated one-to-one to non-Western contexts could be characterized as a post-colonial mashing up, as it was the case with other disciplines like literature and history. Other disciplines, especially in medical and natural sciences, biotechnology, bioethics and neuroscientific technologies have been more reluctant to engage in such post-colonial reflections especially with the former colonies as a point of departure.

In the framework of the nGbK exhibition project The Ultimate Capital is the Sun – Metabolism in Contemporary Art, politics, philosophy and science, with this symposium the curators take up the challenge to instigate a reflection on scientific research beyond Eurocentric rationalization, exploring contemporary concepts and forms of cross-cultural psychiatry and issues of appropriation within a transdisciplinary constellation of artists, post-colonial theorists, and ethnopsychologists.

The panel will be an effort to deliberate on the different trajectories through which psychopathologies, related to postcolonial societies or expressed by non-Western peoples in Western societies, could be understood. From the vantage point of Merleau-Ponty's concept of the bodily experience and embodiment in general, phenomenology as a performative tool, and taking from Wilhelm Stekel’s concept of somatization, i.e. the conversion of mental symptoms like depression or anxieties into physical bodily symptoms, the varying possibilities of somatic expressivity will be put under a spotlight of transcultural psychology and will address neuro-phenomenological practises in the understanding of mental illness. As psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs underlined: “a phenomenology of embodiment may be combined with enactive approaches to cognitive neuroscience in order to overcome “Western” dualist concepts of the mind as an inner realm of representations that mirror the outside world. Phenomenological and ecological concepts of embodiment should also be conjoined to enable a new, advanced understanding of mental illness”.[2]

As the exhibition project The Ultimate Capital is the Sun, the symposium will focus on the idea and the artistic “strategy” of Anthropophagy [3] as a metabolic and digestive process.

For this to be realised the symposium will aim at exploring the philosophical notions of scientia, ‘bios’ and personhood within some non-Western societies–e.g. in Akan or Yoruba philosophies–and at cogitating on how societies with a colonial legacy and peoples with a post-colonial heritage metabolise and transform such concepts like neurosciences, genetic enhancement, bioethics, into their cultural understandings, philosophical frames and technological practices.


Kleinman AM (January 1977), Depression, somatization and the "new cross-cultural psychiatry", Soc Sci Med 11 (1): 3–10


Thomas Fuchs and Jann E. Schlimme, Embodiment and psychopathology: a phenomenological perspective in “Current Opinion in Psychiatry”, 2009, 22:570–575


see Brazilian “Antropofagia Cultural” modernist movement