World of artefacts

One of the consequences of all the work done, is to understand that we live in a world of artefacts, whether material or as mere mental representations – even though those representations are rooted in a very concrete sensorimotor memory. That means that not only we spend much time and effort constantly adapting to the presence of others, but also to a world of objects that are both physical objects and a symbolic presence of the rules that regulate their uses and the expected conducts around them during our lives.

Even our stream of mind represents an artefact that is a construct supposed to keep us channelled into a conditioned state and capacity to respond to sollicitations in a codified way. We think in order to keep ourselves in constant relation to the presence of the objects that drive us in our need to engage in sensorimotricity, as well as the memory through which we learnt and still cling on to self-regulation to the gaze of others. As children, we learn how to behave around objects and discriminate those that we are free to use with lighter constraint and others that we should take more care of or are forbidden to touch entirely. This seminal memory of learning how to deal with objects is in direct continuity with the role of our stream of conscious that is both rooted into our infantile needs to express sensorimotor and emotional interactions and our constant application to social rules based on conformity and the fear of rejection.

To understand the continuity between the rules surrounding objects and our relation to others around them is key.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

Controlled objects and semantic simplification

All that was explored in the earlier articles rely on the idea that mental representations such as formalised speech within our stream of conscious pertain to a double process of control and thus, of simplification – that means, a process of objectification. It is not so much about the objects of thought then, as it is about the kind of relation that we seek to maintain set into : a position of relative control. But, this position of control means that we need to simplify our relation to a rich and complex environment. The processes of focus and dedicated attention are already part of most bodies’ capacity to invest an enactive relation to their environment of perception – which it shapes in the way of modulating perception to the investment of sensorimotricity (F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, 1991). For human beings, as sensorimotricity would be disrupted according to the hypothesis of the sensorimotor paradox theory, the ‘mind’ and its force of representation (dislocated from its necessity of enacting specific sensorimotor situations) would try its best to maintain a position of consistency towards the latter sensorimotor canvas. Because the force driving mental representation would be born from its very sensorimotor structure, it still has to use the same kind of primary connections in order to produce mental images and though remain structurally sound.

If Chilean biologist Francisco Varela described sensorimotricity as a coupling (of sensory and motor faculties), in a way, the human mind should work the same : by coupling a state of activity, abstracted from the memory of experienced sensorimotricity, with the emotional outcome of still having to manage current sensorimotor interaction itself, invested and available to the world around them. So, it is a complex tension of not getting to disconnect the two ‘interfaces’ from which the imaginary is a secondary layer : one that is imaging a mirror representation from recomposed and formalised memory into a consistent enough self-narrative to potentially project oneself into, and the other still having to interact to a certain degree of autonomy with their perceived environment. Moreover, the whole thing has to be sequenced as it cannot do both at the exact same time, as we suggested in a previous article. But, that is the complexity that a human brain has to manage, while still sustaining in the mean time and as well as possible an emotional stability through a constant state of disruption.

So, from raw imaginary to symbolic structuration in that sense – given the adaptation that anyone is virtually subjected to some sets of rules organising and regulating social ensembles amid other human beings –, the evolution needs some kind of semantic simplification, some routes for imaginary self-narratives to maintain some consistency through times of emotional unstabilities when it gets too disconnected from its capacity to simulate body enaction well enough and thus, maintain a valid enough sense of sensorimotricity working so the whole body doesn’t decompensate and collapse eventually. Because the whole balance relies on the capacity of the abstracted mind to maintain a sort of virtual progress and stimulation that may emulate a sense of sensorimotor balance. The body has to feel like it is still walking on its two feet. Hence its repetitive structure and constant resetting of similar patterns of thought, as stressed by Ellen Dissanayake in the studies in neuroaesthetics cited in the earlier text connecting evolutionary psychology and ethology. The semantic of the mind would be less in that perspective about specific and arbitrary meaning, again, than about the continuity of the body’s ability to work and create its own situated meaning. That is why the stream of conscious and its symbolic work of sustaining the body’s neural structure is opportunistic, even when it has to repress memories, experiences and traumas that are too hard to bear. It takes what is available for it to keep on working, what the environment of the person allows them to connect with the world of others that they share.

As a consequence, when we are elaborating our mental world of representation from the inside of a group’s belonging, we may be too focused on clearing up, simplifying or on the contrary complexifying the details than to get a better idea of how this ensemble of representation and meaning works by itself and what are its limits. In order to understand the limits of a group’s world of meaning and representation, one has to understand exclusion from the group’s ensemble. If not experiencing it themselves, at least understanding it from an outside perspective. As well, as human beings, it would be good to come to think outside the box and work at excluding ourselves only for a moment from that constant seek for imperative emotional consistency so to understand the constraints and the limits of the world that we try so hard to replicate and sustain within our own minds. The drive that we give to it not absolute, that to say, as it is only born from our mere existence as bodies in this world.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

Social psycho-physionomy : a hypothesis ?

Beyond the questionable elaboration of any kind of ‘morphopsychology’ aimed at finding any absolute correspondence between physical traits and individual psychology, it remains interesting and maybe important to observe one other hypothesis : that the way that we are perceived by others according to conventional categories affects the reactions that they would have to our presence and thus, our possible interactions with them, up to the point that it would encourage or inhibit our agency and its expression in a shared world of meaning.

That means that what we act and think doesn’t exist as an absolute, but only as the expression of possibilities according to what our bodies allow us to express and to the ways that we learn to control that expression so to seek gratification or avoid social and moral sanction. In any case, any intention of ours that we would express will be interpreted by others to the extent of what they see and project onto our bodies in the first place. Any prejudice and defence mechanism attached to certain body traits and/or conduct (in terms of gender associations, race or culture, social class markers, visible abilities or disabilities, alleged sexuality, …) will taint the value granted to our actions or the expression of our personality, whether in a positive, negative or rather neutral way.

As most of those prejudices are socially conditioned and generate some constants, from our first family environment to our social ones and the whole mythological ensemble that composes and ties together the values of our societies into our main narrative structures, we rapidly internalise them as prescriptions in order to avoid exclusion and hostility. There would be then indeed some kind of social psycho-physionomy, because our perception of our own identity as a composition of what it is possible for us to express or not in a world of others is conditioned by the way that other people are likely to perceive us and define in our place that identity, based on what they see from the outside. Some social elements of identification take part of such default identity prescriptions, according to some enforced social norms that any individual has to take position to. They are indeed enforced and internalised symbolically as the consequences of stepping out of them can be very material and impact our access to the resources vital to our survival, hence the violence that they can convey. It even becomes part of the compulsive activity of our stream of thought that works at maintaining a form of stability to the world around us while preserving as well as possible our capacity to respond to what is expected from our own physical and external attributes, as they are supposed to carry some meaning and lead to a certain outcome assiociated with those traits.

Therefore, maybe, the opposition between the symbolic and the imaginary, for instance as developed in lacanian theory, comes from the capacity or not to elaborate a correspondence between those attributes and any agreed meaning between parts, that would form a symbolic field for our agency that we could invest with a clear mind, given that its proper meaning would be understood, received and responded to without conflict. On the contrary, the imaginary would always fill the lack of a common understanding over the interpretation that we are to give to the external expression of a body’s capacity, personality and even sole presence in a shared world.

In a way, our imaginary is always in a struggle and resistance to that eventuality that our presence in the world would be misunderstood and mistaken for something that we have no inclination for. We are forced into a symbolic world that tends to polarise what is most difficult to admit into something that could be more easily assimilated into the practices of the group. As those compulsive identificatory mechanisms are embedded within a history of violence and systemic oppression, most of our instantaneous and mental responses to the presence of others may be based on fear, to which can also respond a misplacing of desire. For instance, in cispatriarcal and sexist societies, the fear of most cisgender men to be misidentified as potentially homosexual or overly feminine as they try to confirm their socially marked virility based on emotion control, may tend to disrupt desire into objectifying women or people identified as such into mere sexual attributes (that can assimilate people from groups assigned to minority as ‘weak’, inferior and whose intolerable and guilty presence should be resolved into destruction). As the violence of any desire would become opportunistic to self-reassurance, having to absolutely contradict the assumption of non-standard cisheterosexuality in order to keep conforming to the group’s line of conduct, it shows us one possible continuity within most sexist and sexual violence altogether, where self-inflicted violence is turned back against groups already assigned to minority (up to people under age for what concerns pedocriminal actions). The expression of certain emotions being likely to be identified as something that it may or may not be, in the panic of a social sanction and outcast, anything must come to compensate that fear of rejection and stigma.

Part of it is symbolic, in that case because it would have something to do with a problematic inscription of homosexual desire in the education of cisgender men, and part of it is imaginary, because the first event that comes to the mind and causes the panic is something that is merely coming to existence and has not specific determination yet : an outburst of sensorimotor projection as a response to a situation of tension to other bodies. Hence, somewhat, the partial nature of the way that pulsion, in freudian terms, would be displaced into sanctioned and problematic objects, to the subject’s suffering of an intolerable misunderstanding of their own feelings and sensations – such object as the idea of the penis of another cisgender man, that tells us something about how the classic oedipal structure may have itself seen erected the father’s ‘phallus’ into a silent taboo, while deriving the sexual drive to the mythical and convenient mother. In a way, maybe gay and queer sex in a large sense may show a way that a typical cisgender man’s penis could be disinvested from the archetypical father’s authority exercising necessarily a form of violence prescribed onto the subject. It is no wonder that the idea of freudian’s super-ego would be associated with the drive to morality (when not excessive) and that some analysts would see gay and queer identity as a lack of it, without analysing the dimension of constraint into the prescription of morality within a history of violence and oppression – in its confiscation of vital resources and its excruciating call to conformity onto those who can’t while asking for nothing else than to be able to live with peace and dignity.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

About the unconscious

The idea of the unconscious is a construction, a representation born of the idea of the repressed, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud elaborated his representations of the psychic apparatus as the first topic – being the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious – around the year 1900, and the second topic – the id, the I and the superego – around 1923. Though there is an explicit connection in his work between what is proscribed and repressed to the mind into the unconscious and the matter of the body, this representation remains structured by a classical and binary view on the mind vs. the body – albeit Freud’s take on the theory of pulsions. Such a view still takes the mind as a closed system that somehow filters what can or cannot be expressed and assimilated to the structure of the self within a certain context. Whether we like it or not, speaking of an unconscious – rather than reflecting upon what remains unconscious as, unexpressed or unrepresented – essentialises the mental space where it is all supposed to take place, whatever we might think of it or do about it.

In the work that we are doing here, we suggested that the very capacity of our species to develop imagination and thoughts might have originated from a sensorimotor paradox, rooted in the very functioning of the body, its neural network and constant feedback with the individuals’ environment of interaction. In this case, mental images, symbolic relations and thoughts as mere simulations of sensorimotor memory would compose a whole that could not easily be told apart, as they are all intricated into one living, sensory and emotional experience. What can be tested by our direct experience is that we are constantly in control over what we can do or express or not. Necessarily, that control will inhibit what we forbid ourselves even to think of. What remains unconscious is simply what is forbidden and discarted from mental representation in our very constant relation with our cultural and social milieu.

As a consequence, of course, it impacts our conduct, our daily interactions, our experiences, creating new memories and especially, traumatic ones that will, in their turn, generate new points of control over what we allow ourselves to express, feel and think or not. To talk about an unconscious, it seems, would allow us to continue a process of disembodiement of that motion of control, that in fact occurs in this constant interaction with our surroundings from the moment that we are told how to do or not to do or think, encouraged to do some and discouraged to do others. Then, if we cannot understand and connect with our own agency why things are, should or should not be forbidden, of course, it will remain a traumatic inscription that cannot be told, because it cannot be talked about without facing an unsolvable conflict. If we cannot ask to understand something, we cannot let it out, make it something other than ourselves and consider it in common rather than identifying with it.

The very reification of the unconscious pertains to a feeling of control over what we think of our minds and bodies and what comes to us, without necessarily having to contextualise all that makes us a thinking body. That may be what we are going to do in this space for reflection.

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.

Representation affecting bodies : how we re-invent memories

Texte en pdf :

One last but important point of the theory to the sensorimotor paradox, is that it is all a matter of memories. Human beings live all experiences through their body. According to the sensorimotor paradox proposition, the imaginary would have been born in the separation of perceptive images from the capacity to enact them into sensorimotor interaction. Then, all mental images that we use separately from any of those direct interactions are sourced in memories, experiences, traumas.

This is important because it makes it all quite simple, even in its richness and complexity. Memory re-enacts pain through traumatic embedding, which elaboration creates ways to equilibrate the possible re-enactment of pain. It does that by mingling images re-enacting painful experiences with others. This is, basically, what the activity of the signifier sources in, to redistribute pain across ways of equivalence. If that someone else there seems not to be feeling any pain in some situation that I can relate to, it may create a dissonance with what I am actually struggling with but also divert it away for a time. It creates a frame for diversion. Language itself systematically diverts us from memories of actual situations by taking the very memory of speaking with somebody else as the main course of my attention. Imagination and language always struggle together to create movement away from the pain of living with one’s own body that is, due to a very human moral and social teaching, in a state of sensorimotor paradox almost all the time.

It doesn’t mean that pain and the immediate experience of our body is not real, but that the experience of sensory and emotional contact is very soon taken up by the necessity to embed it into imagination. Because we cannot react to everything – that we have learnt not to through our evolution and our social and moral rules and codes of conduct –, we have to keep in balance with the incessant and mingling stream of our memories. And memories are not as formal as we conceive them when we talk about scenes that we would be able to describe. Every one of our moves and sensory experiences is constituting memory on a sensorimotor basis. Every living being is a constituting memory that elaborates means of interaction with their perceived environments (F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, 1991, again).

So it brings some relativity to any referencial system based on cultural and symbolic assumptions. We all are memory and none given but all elaborated through time and context. We are all fantastically equal as to the nature of our being here with and in our very own bodies. Language in symbolic systems crystalise specific forms for their reproduction, but they only are that formal on paper. A symbol in memory would always be blurred out to the fluidity of sensory impressions. A system of analogy and combination such as linguistics’ creates another reality and realm for experience and memory that is the experience, for example, of writing and symbolisation. The concept of artification proposed by Ellen Dissanayke comes in very powerfully here to remind us that once it is enacted and expressed, the reproduction of a mental image on a shared sensory-experienced medium and material becomes another and completely new object for another kind of experience and thus, another kind of memory.

The mark left by this new object of experience constitutes a new form of alterity that only enables for formalisation as it would constitute a scene, a situation of meeting that may recall some other but more distant memories. The artification process creates the distance necessary to believe that the convergence of memories of pain with some resemblant situations that I would find myself confronted to may be controlled, in the same way that I control my hand that can be taken as someone else’s in some strange experience of my vision. The elaboration of symbolic contractions, once expressed to the field of sensory experience, becomes something else entirely. They become objects and new experiences that we have to deal with, most of all collectively. For most of the time, we don’t know anymore how to relate the experience of such objects of language to our own primary experiences of the other – that is a structuring relational situation and the foundations of traumatic elaboration and individual development. And we are organic matter, hence the whole of it is memory, that is obvious when it comes to the neural system.

But, it all comes from here, not from any set of abstract rule, that are only a way to approach it. We have to be careful when it comes to symbolic-based analysis, otherwise, one would tend to forget that it is secondary-related experience ; that means, the experience of someone else’s speech about it (or oneself as someone else’s). One reason we mostly equilibrate pain through the constant work of self-situation in the stream of our thoughts, is that we learn to separate the spaces where we speak of what is happening from those where we experience our reality in the solitude of our own body. The spaces for speech bring consistency to the state of sensorimotor paradox for it allows us to derive our anxiety to a relational structure where there is someone else to listen and hold our attention. This kind of space structures the way we cope with the suspension of memories into images that may be up to reviving memories of pain. The situation of sensorimotor paradox forces us to navigate memories of situations to which it is not the place to respond. The incapacity to respond to the situation that we are in now places us as well in the incapacity to respond to other imaginary situations that come to our disturbed mind, that is a disturbed neural system.

The founding principle of the sensorimotor paradox theory is that the capacity to hold on motor responses from sensory stimulation is disturbing and that our neural system is not prepared to being held too long. So mental image generation is, in a way, an emergency response to that situation that forces to constantly bring movement to the way we represent ourselves being caught in impossible situations. Imagination is a way out in distress, for we can’t jump out of the paradox once it all depended on our capacity to maintain it and behave according to a certain prescribed conduct. There are other ways to ease up that distress, that would bring a sense of security and lower the urgency of an escape. So much depend now on our capacity to produce work from our capacity to associate our memories to the structures of language. But it is all based on material constructs and debt-based symbolic and traumatic ties, ultimately to be able to eat and survive.

Threfore, domination dynamics and political systems of oppression that are based on traumatic memory are as real as we can analyse and deconstruct their basis. But we need to remember our strict equality before the living as we are all made out of memories that are proper to us and to which we develop our own ways to relate.

Facing trauma

We are seized into a network of interpretation. At the centre, there is a blindspot where one cannot reflect on themselves without borrowing back from another’s point of view. That is the paradox of the word ‘me’, that cannot reach its aim directly without separating from it, making it an object of shared consideration. The use of words, even in the secret of one’s stream of thoughts, automatically simulates and triggers sensorimotor enaction and its interpersonal nature. Its image is cristallised in symbolic memories. It always implies someone else to whom is addressed a speech in action, that implicates the participation of the body in the recognition of a shared reality.

Imagination for itself, free of words, in a work of meditation and contemplation, cutting off the continuity of the stream of thought, would make the individual a witness to their own images. The image of their own body and the simulated sensorimotor stimulations that might occur while diving into those self-generated images, would thus have the individual’s body participating as ‘passive’, being its own witness.

That is the place for facing trauma, for healing, by reducing every moving body to the force that they bear, their inertia. We could analyse the ‘absence of foundings’ seeked in the Indian meditation tradition of Madhyamaka (see F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, 1991) in those terms, that it is about centring oneself where one’s self cannot be interpreted but witnessed, even to themselves. It doesn’t borrow the way of speech anymore, only the self-generation of sensory imprints and memories, some orientated in the manner of a dream.

In his short History of Taoism, Rémi Mathieu (Le taoïsme, PUF, Paris, 2019) stresses the attachment of early theoretical corpus about the dao (the « Way ») in pre-Imperial China, from the 5th to the 3rd century B.C. – with their supposed leading authors being Lao Zi, Zhouang Zi and Lie Zi – to the limits of speech and their preference to the use of images. We can see that we might necessarily involve someone else’s gaze in speech, for it would involve the very structure of enactment to someone else in its symbolic and conventional nature – speech manifesting mutual convention on reality and the duty of the individual to respond to that reality they constantly redefine with others. On the contrary, one could be the witness of images and other sensory stimulations without necessarily involving the responsability of others, being non-communicable.

If the origin of trauma is a contact, whether slight and light or large and heavy, then beyond the reconstitution of the scene through psychoanalytic deconstruction, the inert and non-communicable nature of sensory memory should be addressed too. Inertia means the difficulty to slow down or divert the movement of an object, in Physics. Some Eastern traditions of thinking adopted a different strategy than resistance to the inertia of the wound, by taking the oblique, by removing the place where the subject is supposed to be in the network of the debt and trauma, as a being necessarily subject and mean to interpretation.

The compulsory nature of interpretation relies on being situated in the web of some semantic structure, of the world of meaning defining the capacity to borrow common words and representations to elaborate a speech, with its performative nature. We formulate the demand that someone else would understand and support the validity of the speech that we engage with our life and its integrity. Even the most elementary word assessing the reality and existence of a ‘me’ implies that someone else would understand and support the word that is meant to address it. One would always depend on that understanding, and it might not be self-evident. To say ‘me’ stresses the gap between the calling of the word and the separation from the very reality that it tries to address – while one says ‘me’ still minding that someone else that would have to approve their statement. This reality is still to be founded again and again with others through the use of collectively defined speech, and one cannot possibly control how this would be interpreted in all its forms.

The only thing that one would be able to control, is their own situation at the centre of the web where words are shut down, and the mind only bears witness to itself.

Photo credit : « Butterfly », La Fille Renne, Martinique