Hands, shelter and proprioception

In episode 11 of Star Trek Discovery‘s third season (2020), First Officer Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is about to take temporary captaincy of the starship Discovery. She goes to Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) to seek her support and reassurance. To that, the latter explains to her that on Starfleet ships, there is a metal burr under the left-armrest of the Captain chair, that she has witnessed Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) as well as Captain Saru (Doug Jones) press on with their thumb and rub when getting into difficult situations. In Michael Burnham’s opinion, it was a way for them to ‘stay in the moment’, to keep touch with reality or even, we might say, a sense of it. Further more, when she got to be Captain herself, the sight of this shiny spot reminded her of her bond to her former Captain and motherlike figure and helped her connect with this affective and emotional tie on to her task.

From that example, we would like to come back to what psychoanalyst Darian Leader observed about our relationship to our own hands1, that we always manage to occupy them, often unconsciously, tickling or rubbing objects with them. We saw that one effect of the sensorimotor paradox is that it creates a radical opening and suspension in sensorimotricity. As motor enaction is not possible in that particular situation (the hand that I see is also the hand that cannot grasp itself), the sense of reality becomes highly dependent on the conditions of that relation. Motor fixation implies a hightened sense of being surrounded – but we are also drawn back to the decision that we have to make about it. All the space for decision and deliberation becomes an imaginary space, as there is no immediate motor possibility to it – except ending the relation by removing our hand. The thinking about it through self-representation becomes the mediation. It is all waiting for me to decide how I am going to lead my own way out. Otherwise, in the meantime, anything could happen. And as this anything can not be related to a motor response that I could make without being forced to think inside of the delay and lag of that response, as I am busy staring at my own hand, this same hand becomes the only last resort to finding this response up to enact.

This hold on the imaginary has soon, yet progressively been taken up by another kind of relation and questioning, through the others surrounding me and their gaze : how much it could question this sense of myself as needing the support of my own hands, or anything else that one could hold on to, a sound, an image, a feeling. The escape of my own hands, as well as other forms of self-stimulation – which are very present, for instance, in autistic people’s daily lives and experiences –, is also a way to sustain that tension of feeling surrounded and overwhelmed. Anything could happen from others, as much as we got to rely on them for affective and material support, and we are taught from trauma that their expectations are often hard to comprehend and anticipate, though we try to do so. The temporality of our relation to others is a temporality of imagination, of suspension, of expectation, of being receptive to images, impressions, to the anticipation of their next moves. But our body needs to get back to a more direct grasp on its own reality and possibility, that is a reality of enacting motricity and its possible outcomes. This is how we relate our perceptions to our need for sensorimotricity and the integrity of our body. This is how we ground ourselves in our capacity to move onward and keep on being the agent of our own telling. This is how we find shelter in our own body and get a sense of ourselves, of proprioception, how we stimulate our body in order to, at least, feel that we are still able to respond and still exist, in the sense of expressing something out of our situation.

The main dialogue occurs between ourselves and others, sensorimotricity and imagination. It is good, sometimes and eventually, to step out of symbolic ties to come back to that and try to spell a name out of the single meaning of our hands.

1In Darian Leader, Hands, Hamish Hamilton, 2016.

Synthesis – Sensorimotor paradox and symbolic sight

Taking inspiration from German philosopher Georg Hegel’s parable of the Master and the Slave, we could describe one of the main traits of what we might call the workings of the symbolic. Take a shore on a distant island. Two people would get to stand there and look at the horizon. One is a colonial person, the other is an indigenous person. The colonial person would look at the horizon and see, maybe, homeland. The indigenous person would look at the horizon and see, perhaps, a prison. The view is the same, but the sight is different. The colonial person would refer their experience to the land and country they came from. We could imagine that the indigenous person would feel they could never find their homeland back to the way it used to be. So works the symbolic : the word may be the same, but the memory that is sighted behind may be very different according to one’s situation (read also Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, 1988).

In his most significant work, that is what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorised as the object a, what is sighted, often without a name nor a clear image, behind the word or meaning that we address. And the same happens with the sensorimotor paradox : though one cannot go beyond the blocking of sensorimotricity when gazing at their own hand, their imagination has to go beyond, simulating a different sight. Memory tries to simulate the image of a situation where sensorimotricity is still valid and functioning. It’s just a way for our neural system to survive the delay or lag of the response, as biologist Gerald M. Edelman stated (The Remembered Present, 1989).

Later on, this leads us to a more daily and contemporary experience out of the evolutionary perspective : the social control cast on one’s body into prescribed conducts forces them into integrating a relation with what has to be blocked in their spontaneous interactions with their surroundings. Body expression is channelled through blocking sensorimotor interactions, a blocking that would force the body and, let us suppose, the neural system into a paradox : to get the impulse to enact an interaction and have itself self-restrained. To justify the self-restraint of sensorimotricity must be balanced with the perspective of, at least, an imaginary resolution, so the entropy of the blocking would not lead to an outburst.

We do not need to still be staring at our own hand to experience a sensorimotor paradox when a whole social system of imagination and self-awareness has been based on controlling body expression and sensorimotor interaction. What keeps us in sight of something, in spite of the violence of feeling restrained, keeps being rooted in the capacity to maintain a viable imaginary perspective, even blinded by the illusion of something else. Likewise, words comprise a distance, that is implicit to the sensorimotor and relational disposition in which words and speech modalities are learnt and take place. We learn to speak and exchange with a certain physical distance from others, and the memory of the right distance to observe is also comprised in the use of words. Then speech, especially self-speech in the constant stream of thoughts, is also a way to recreate this safe distance that is also a measure of the liberty to act. It comes to sensorimotricity and its memory at the very heart of words. Whether raising awareness to some other part of our surroundings when staring at our own hand or desperately trying to occult a reality that we cannot socially address with some other word, image or discourse, the symbolic always functions as a re-establishment of a viable sensorimotor perspective that we could enact ourselves from as a living being.

That is why, as French queer activist Delphine Montera stated (@autistequeer_le_docu on Instagram), analysing a systemic structure such as Ableism can be powerful tool for a broader social, political and intersectional analysis. This synthesis between the evolutionary hypothesis of the sensorimotor paradox theory and what we experience today on a daily basis as human beings may be the most important bridge to consider and take care of here. We may not have much time to delay or reverse the consequences of our History and the way that we persevere into self-destructive politics in our societies. But as long as there is a bridge, there is a possibility for transformation.

Photo credit : « Butterfly », La Fille Renne ❤

Re-learning trauma

As we may have seen earlier, memory being constantly re-generated, re-created and re-directed through sensorimotricity, the uses of symbolic memory select those patterns and structures which it maintains. Those are useful, notably, to social interactions and protection. Moreover, trauma helps or forces us to occupy spaces of interaction that would be likely to keep us safe, or safer than other ways. But one thing that we can learn from the scales in which short-, middle- and long-term memory generate and sustain useful patterns to sensorimotricity and imagination, is that we never learn anything once. What we learn is constantly re-learnt, because memory is never fixed, it is either sustained directly or it is indirectly.

The indirect way is the one of trauma, that builds up around the memory of pain – either slight or large – others ways of interacting with what surrounds us. As we are invited to learn and sustain what is presented to us as viable ways to do so, first by our parent-s or caretaker-s, we all have our own ways of measuring the distance between anticipated and unanticipated trauma. That is, between one that is explained in a way or another by the teaching of social patterns and meaning, and the other that is not and then fully in the charge of the individual themselves – often kept secret.

What we mean to address here is that hopefully, either the one or the other has to constantly be re-learnt and redefined. We constantly have the choice to do so, unless the trauma built around the memory of the wound is too deeply rooted to the ways that we had to find to keep ourselves safe. The way that trauma is anticipated, for example when we teach children to mind danger, can create and elude another kind of trauma that isn’t cleared out to be heard. That is the case in rape culture, when we notably teach little and young girls to mind their behaviour and appearance so not to attract sexual aggressors – the responsability becomes theirs to make aggression not happen. That is also the case with racialised people teaching their kids to mind their conduct so it would not raise racist interpretation, tainting their behaviour with prejudice due to the colour of their skin, more likely to be dehumanised and disposable – the responsability becomes theirs to bear the charge of anticipating racism. The same goes on with other kinds of discrimination based on class, race, gender, sexuality or ability.

But the world of memory is more mobile than we think and the relation to aggression, its memory and the persistance of potential re-enactment can also be redefined. Trauma builds up around the wound, that leaves the mark of the object that is the source of the aggression, which we would try to avoid further on. What is important to understand, to all people who experienced trauma, is that the source of the aggression, the aggressor-s cast aggression on you. The aggression and its contact is the object that makes the memory. Even the face of one aggressor becomes an abstract image and situations of domination are ones where the person-s that cast it use it as a mean of torture – as they can use it again and wield the power on you to do so. But, the object of aggression doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to you, for you create a memory. You can, hopefully, untie it from the person-s that believe they can cast it and submit your identity to this tie. Yet, ultimately, that is you that have the power to situate this memory in your body and not theirs.

The most difficult thing is to abstract the object of the wound from the threat of its re-enactment. As you re-learn everything that you do and know at every moment, for you are one body based on sensorimotricity, you can re-learn and re-direct this object as something that is fully yours to remember, to situate in your life, your past, your present, and define. No one else can define it for you feel it, and the other should be powerless to own that, unless you let them.

That is my call to you : once the thorn is out of your skin, it is no longer what sustains the pain that it might have provoked. This pain belongs to you and you only. And you might want to choose where it will take you.