To pronounce is a negation

The key binding idea of the sensorimotor paradox theory is a process of alienation. If you think of the act of denomination, to use a word, for instance, to point at and mean some object, experience or element of reality around or inside of us, is comprising an ensemble of properties contained in the idea that we have of such an object and turning it into something else : an object of discourse. As soon as one pronounces the word that is meant to describe a reality, this same reality vanishes as what matters now is the experience of saying something related to a common experience about it. It enters the realm of abstraction, that negates it. Even when I say ‘me’, as soon as I say the word, this object of discourse replaces the very experience that I try to transmit to someone else – and comprehensible for them – of the fact that I am. In the same way, when I gaze at my own hand, as soon as I start to envision it as some random object that I could maybe grasp with the same hand, it becomes alienated from myself for a moment of stolen and suspended consideration.

This states the impossible simultaneity of the word with its object, of the hand that momentarily seems to be not mine with the one that is related to my interaction with the world, or the attention that I could pay to my present experience with the very sensory, motor and emotional experience of pronouncing, even just in thought, a word or an image to remember it.

How Early Buddhist philosophy and the Sensorimotor Paradox theory can connect

Text in pdf : A Setting Bird – How Early Buddhist philosophy and the Sensorimotor Paradox theory can connect

Undergoing a Buddhist practice is no mean feat. The impact on one’s own daily life can be extensive, for it touches the very heart of what makes up for a human experience. The core of Buddhist philosophies, notably regarding the early texts1, remains remarkably modern in the ways that it critically tackles the notions of Self or Non-Self and the conditional structures of our perceptions, understood as both sensory and mental. But it also offers a path in order to make peace with the inherent instability of lived experience. It gets there from the observation that everything is always changing to some degree, which fact is ‘hard to face’ – dukkha. According to American psychologist Mark Epstein2, the etymology of the term dukkha (considered the first of the Four Noble Truths in early Buddhism3 and usually translated as ‘suffering’ or rather, as ‘unsatisfactory’, if we follow secular Buddhist scholar Doug Smith’s position) notably offers us a reflection on the nature of trauma, that we already inspected earlier.4 Trauma would be in all the moments of everyday life that may be ‘hard to face’, for whatever reasons and to whatever degree, whether slight or large.

Likewise, the unsatisfactory nature of many of our daily experiences can apply of course to painful experiences as much as to pleasurable ones, as they are as well destined to end eventually. The key practice of Buddhist philosophy would then be precisely to acknowledge our tendency to cling on to and identify with things in the world as if they pertained to some stable and everlasting entity or Self – though it really is impermanent, as all things are according to the Buddhist stance. As such, they can only be situated experiences and serve as skilful means to connect, enact and find understanding with others within specific contexts of interaction. From the mindful awareness of the tendency that we may have to react to distressful situations by clinging on to some fixed representations of how things, including ourselves and our practice, are or should be, we can learn to restrain those kinds of reaction born from fear and calm ourselves down.

If at the time, around the 5th century BCE, the Buddha reportedly elaborated his analysis on whether a notion of Self was skilful and on mental states and ethics in contradistinction with Brahmanic beliefs, the way that it highlights complex and intricated notions of identity is still vivid and deserves consideration. We already, in earlier essays, suggested how the interpretation of dukkha connected with our definition of trauma as founding our growth and (self-)perception, as an agent of contrast, adaptation and interpretation, that would mostly vary in degree.5 It would also be interesting to consider how the central idea of Non-Self and the Buddhist recommendations about it, such as equanimity toward change and non-attachment can raise useful connections to the core of the theory of the sensorimotor paradox. (Let us note that non-attachment is not to be mistaken for detachment and not caring about the world and others. On the contrary, non-attachment would be about welcoming but not grasping, not identifying and adopting an attitude of lovingkindness toward things around and within us that are impermanent and that we cannot totally control.)

The theory of the sensorimotor paradox

As to the heart of the theory of the sensorimotor paradox, as we remind it, it is the evolutionary hypothesis that the development of human species’ capacity for imagination might have been possible thanks to a sensorimotor paradox – first, the situation of gazing at one’s own hand(s). Sensorimotor usual interactions would break down as the object of the gazing here is the very same one as the hand that I would have the impulse to react with in relation to any other object. Biologist Gerald M. Edelman’s condition for self-consciousness would be satisfied, as the usual neural response to stimulation would then be ‘delayed or lagged’6. This particular situation would produce a disconnection of the sensorimotor image then generated from the possibility of its enaction toward this very situation – frozen. (It is to be noted here that we understand the concepts of sensorimotricity and enaction as used and developed by Chilean Biologist Francisco Varela in his work, that was deeply inspired by Buddhism itself.7)

That means that imagination, as a first support for later collective elaboration of networks of symbolisation, would rely on a gap opened within our capacity to spontaneously and compulsively respond to a situation on the sensorimotor level. In this disconnection between situation and sensorimotor reaction, the working and relative autonomy of the mental image that we would find ourselves caught into, as well as the emotional effect of being frozen into that moment would act as an equivalent substitution, so to release the entropy of restraining and delaying the response that would have been otherwise given. We, in a way, grasp to that image as there is nothing else that we can grasp on to.

It gives a complex configuration where I become myself the object of a somewhat abstract scene and complicated feeling, as my own hand alienates from myself and becomes part of something seeming to belong to the outside world. My perception of the latter, of what it is and means to me shifts as well, as it seems to become, through the assimilation of my hand, a part of me, an ontological experience. So, we do tend to identify to our mental images and representations as they are the substitutes to a most vital and bodily need for sensorimotor interaction. The disruption of this elementary capacity produces a situation of distress, that needs an emergency alternative, found in the situation itself and its imaginary-like outcome. Any idea and perception of a self would be, from that point, a reconstruction from the ongoing and traumatic (in the sense mentioned above) generation of sensorimotor memory, which would later on articulate with social interactions, rules and conventions, looped within itself, its own narrative activity and constant work of anticipation and interpretation. Eventually, it locates all its effort and tension internalising non-expressed and then repressed possibilities within the body.

In a way, as did psychoanalysis, for instance and to an extent with the freudian unconscious and the lacanian concepts of signifiers and the symbolic, early Buddhism aimed well at understanding how much any mental formalisation would come up as an attempt at grasping on to some safety resort, at rescuing oneself from distress, seeking a form of stability. As we saw, the state of paradox described in the theory that we developed before is a highly distressful one, as the very structure of sensorimotricity and capacity for the body to function is put at risk. In a passionating way, early Buddhist psychological analysis and the ways that it offers to heal and make peace with our disruptive sense of self are stimulating and encouraging, especially in dire times such as ours today.

What say ‘me’ ?

 

The second paradox that we discussed in the work that is being done here8 is the paradox of the word ‘me’. When I say ‘me’, aiming at the reality of my lived and non-communicable sensorimotor and emotional experience, I have to step out of that experience in order to involve the participation of someone else, which I hope to get in order to testify of the existence of such a concrete object as a ‘me’. We can see here how it connects with the Buddhist assertion according to which any permanent and everlasting ‘Self’ that we are expected to find by inspection is only seeming to exist within a conventional, relational and situated construct.

It also joins with the structure of the mirror phase, such as the one proposed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan since the 1930’s, taking up from Henri Wallon’s first observation : an ‘I’ can only exist within a dualistic structure where it would oppose a ‘you’ or a ‘it’ as a common and outside object of consideration. There, we need the outside gaze to give the object ‘me’ its form. As I say ‘me’, I also marvel at the possibility that such a space could open in-between me and someone else that would allow my own existence to become some object separated from my prime experience, which is so difficult to grasp. The word ‘me’, its fiction and narrative structure take me back into the circle of my relation to someone else that I wish to be supported by as the structure of a testified and ever-standing reality. So, there is a form of attachment, in the sense developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960’s. Saying ‘me’ may be an attempt at making contact again with someone else, even in the abyss of self-disruption, at recreating some stable bond though it is always unsure, because this ‘me’ reality needs the same relational structure to hold, beyond the security of a closer physical contact, which always ends eventually.

That is the same relational structure that we try to maintain on a moment to moment basis by compulsively diving into our constant stream of thought. We need someone to talk to and address just to maintain the formal representation and illusion of some self, that would exist and be expressed through speech : to talk is to exist within a bond to others that seems to guarantee a form of permanence, in a way by a relation of moral debt. By their name, we take debt from others to stay with us attached, for better or worse, even though that kind of permanence is but a wish that may overlap its possibility. Otherwise, we risk facing the gap that we mentioned before, this hole and lack of a possibility to respond, as we grew up as individuals integrating the codes of conduct and social behaviour that we intimately know rule our interactions with others and our capacity to be accepted and thus survive among them, should we feel safely that we can be loved. The theory of the sensorimotor paradox gives a possible way of understanding why the gap is inevitable as it would be founding our very capacity to think, to retain sensorimotor enaction within imaginary and symbolic processes.

 

The way of healing

 

On its side, Buddhism proposed very early efficient ways both to make peace with the non-existence of some self-evident Self that would exist outside of conventional and experiencial structures and situations, and to encourage the development of a middle-ground between abandoning the implication of a self and still feeling concerned by what happens to the world around us and others – a centred ethics between desperate nihilism and morals. In a way, it joins with some concerns raised by English psychoanalyst Darian Leader in most of his work, about indulging in some detached and looped-in theorisation on the nature of the mind, from the same groups of people which work should be of finding better ways of helping people in their own contexts of experience.9 The same distinction is made in early Buddhism, according to Doug Smith, between ‘No Self’ and ‘Non-Self’.10 Indeed, the claim made by the Buddha would not have been to say that we should eradicate the Self, but to understand that any experience of something like a ‘Self’ is but momentary and conventional, that we should not get attached to it hoping that it would last and support us forever. On the evolutionary level, of course, we can also link that perspective to scholar in neuroaesthetics Ellen Dissanayake’s suggestion that our aesthetic experience of the world is less about the semantic content of the forms that we create, for example in the arts, than the simple fact that we do have an unique and singular experience in which we find ourselves committed.11

And that is the whole point of the sensorimotor paradox theory, that we find ourselves taken in a situation where we are forced to be spectator and witness to our own experience, that immediately creates a scene that comes to mediate our means to address that experience. Our imagination becomes the place where the ‘I’ can exist so long as we make it, but there is still to make this very scene exist as well for others so to make evidence that its potential reality would survive beyond its passing moment. We need others to believe ourselves that that moment, the memory from which we try to make sense would be passed on and live forever in the world, and heal beyond that hope.

1 In their various recensions in Pāli, Sanskrit or Chinese, and claimed to be best represented today by the Theravāda tradition, though there seems to be controversies on the matter. You can find an introduction to the Theravāda in Walpola Rahula’s book, What The Buddha Taught (1959, 1974).

3We will lean very much on the introductory work by Doug Smith, Study Director at the Dharma Institute, notably as displayed on his YouTube channel Doug’s Dharma. See, on the subject of dukkha, « Buddhism’s First Noble Truth ».

5Read also Darian Leader, Jouissance. Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction, Stilus, 2020.

6In Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present, Basic Books, 1987.

7The last part of collective book The Embodied Mind (written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, MIT Press, 1991) is dedicated to the influence on their work of late Madhyamaka Buddhism and its ecological touch.

8Read Clémence Ortega Douville, Three Paradoxes and Concentric Circles, https://threeparadoxes.com/the-book/

9Read, for instance, the late essay « Re-reading Little Hans », JCFAR, 2021.

10Watch, for instance, « Did the Buddha Teach No Self ? », https://youtu.be/wUDnPy6ACG4

11Read, for instance, Ellen Dissanayake, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science,
Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics »,
Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009), pp. 148-173. Available here : https://www.ellendissanayake.com/publications/pdf/EllenDissanayake_CognitiveSemiotics5.pdf

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

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.

Consequences to the question of time

Texte en pdf :

From there, we could tackle in a new light the question of time. From the notion of memory and its role in sensorimotricity, given the proposition of the sensorimotor paradox as a condition of possibility for the evolution of our species, time unravels rather simply. As all experiences are and will always be only past, memory creating itself as a neural condition in sensorimotricity and ontogenic development, time is always a result of that memory. But we human bodies are continually seized in the maintaining of a state of sensorimotor paradox that we hold through socio-symbolic controls, so our perception of time, even in contemplation, is not the one of rest. On the contrary, even when we are still, we remain restless, suspended in our capacity as a body to interact freely with our perceived environments (Darian Leader, Hands, 2017). It is to say that when we approach the question of time, its perception and phenomenology, we have to take into account that we would always perceive it as an opportunity for action that is repeatedly lost. That is why we came back to this other meaning of trauma that could be that of ‘the defeat’. Our interpretative nature finds its measure in the bodily memory of action that is inhibited in order to favour prescribed conduct and mental projection. Our perception of time is full of interactions with our surroundings that are only whispered and fast discarted. Our perception of time is conditioned by that amount of aborted interactions that we are in the way of holding hidden, only sparked, in a perpetual state of forced equilibrium. We are never at rest with time unless we take a nap. We create time as a measure of the stability that we manage to get with our emotional trauma, that of silencing our own body to the performation of social conduct. The same conduct obeys to a very specific notion of time that is the compartmentalisation of labor in our societies.

So the restraint cast on our body by social imperatives pushes us to retain and examine the possibility of full occupation of space and time according to one’s own ‘biological rhythm’, to submit it to a constant and compulsive evaluation. We then create a memory of that time spent controlling our movement according to ritualised patterns that we learn from childhood to our latest socialisations, which have us reactualise them. Our experience of social time is highly sequenced, clockwise, all resting on our capacity to hold the paradox and keep our body tamed so to satisfy the assumption of someone else’s gaze – even oneself in a reflexive movement that impersonalises the relation to one’s own reality, as would philosopher Darío Sztajnszrajber put it.1 Through this gaze or anticipated gaze, we regulate our conduct and its restraint over our body, which generates a form of violence that cannot be expressed directly if not licenced in formalised and ritualised ways – as is ‘acting out’. So our perception of time, even a parenthesis of contemplated time, is never at rest. Even the break we take from social time to contemplation is timed up and conditioned by conventional spaces (at home, in a park or a temple, on a train, …) in which one doesn’t yet express sensorimotricity without deliberation. On the contrary, every move has to be chosen as a legit form of positioning towards others, as posing no threat nor exposing oneself to. Our perspective and projection in the future is therefore as well always conditioned by the necessity to mind our situation as to the repartition of spaces in political, moral and social structures.

From attention to memory

That debate between past, present and future has a philosophical history, as Paul Ricœur recalled in Temps et récit (1983), notably focusing on the figures of Augustine and Aristotle. In Book XI of his Confessions (approximately 397-401), Augustine elaborated an early phenomenology of time as the sense of it would constitute a tension between what we consider as future or past. The couple attentio-distentio expresses the idea of the continuity drawn out of the attention born to some local event. We cannot but experience time as an investment of our attention in reality, whether in action or imagination – and we saw that one is another side of the other. Trying to tell them apart is an attempt to distend the perception of time in a broader sense, that is the concept of distentio animi.

But the mental object of time itself is a product of imagination, sourced in the same memory, as we try to open a space for conceptual analogy and representation. Abstraction is an abstraction from actual sensorimotor memories. We approach future as an acheived form, something that would be past once it is done, but alternative from one actual past memory that we would know of – mingled. And that is even more true that memory always recomposes experience from its continuous making, self-generating. As we recall memories in a deliberate way2, we enact something that we learnt to do in our early development : to mind and considerate manageable memories, to use our body resources in order to access those memories as one mental space to be invested in our own imagination.

The situation of sensorimotor paradox puts us in a position of witnessing ourselves as an object of consideration. We become subject of images that we cannot enact otherwise than minding them, and our social teaching reinforces our effort of selection between licit or illicit manifestations of our bodily sense of reality. So the distance that is put from unaltered sensorimotor interaction by the paradox makes us perceive time as us witnessing of our being selecting what to express or not. We are in a way subject to our own effort of selection and conformity, so to open the spaces for action that we know are allowed for us to invest. This topology for projection and its image are only complete if they come as a perpetual past – that Ricœur expressed with the idea that some meaning makes only sense in relation to a borader context for its interpretation. The kind of future in which meaning will realise itself is continuous with the experience of delimited spaces for interpretation which have been experienced in a broader past – the one that is told. That is at this point that Ricœur summons some features of Aristotle’s poetics to underline how interpretation and formalised narrative structures are intertwined in the particular sense we would make of meaning. Here, the perception of time is rhythmed by the laced structures of the telling of an action. The way we tell things, the way the body is inscribed in the telling, are as important as what we actually tell, as it manifests the context in which we are to receive meaning. Part of our body always leaps with the action that is figured, as imagination is rooted in sensorimotor simulation. The telling always holds us back in the memory of our body. As well, the projection in a possible future is paradoxical and we are still trying to position ourselves in the perspective of realising it while we are resorbing at the same time the generation of past memory. The quality of being past is the quality of our body to still remain there where it is keeping position for an action to be told. Imagining a possible future or some alternative reality pertaining to dream or phantasy remains a substitution to immediate interaction, where the generation of past images becomes the source for others. In a way, while we are in the process of controlling our body expression and keeping ourselves still, the images born from aborted sensorimotor enaction come crashing against each other, from which crash we try to bring back some kind of order.

Consequences to the unconscious

This, of course, has serious implications to the theory of the unconscious, as we already saw in earlier work, because it dislocates the way we conceive it from the idea of a virtual finite space that would locate in our mind – and in the very fact that we would speak of an object that would be the unconscious, even as a realm. Unconscious is a quality of something not being brought to consciousness, as the latter would be articulating the person’s discourse and its position as leading their agency and understanding. It is closer to the repressed, at the heart of Sigmund Freud’s founding principles to freshly-born psychoanalysis. What we learnt from psychoanalysis is that signifiers are opportunists. They are easily associated with a state of mind, re-rooting and rewriting through the elaboration of trauma. In the end, it all belongs to the same neural system where memory is constantly generated in the purpose of facilitating sensorimotor interaction that we are stuck in the effort to inhibit and keep quiet. This inhibition of sensorimotor enaction creates a swell of self-generating memory that is not able to relate to motor coordination. As it cannot associate with motor expression, it is more likely to do with some other images that would substitute to realisation in order to get a release.

On a practical side, our brain needs to hold control over its limits, that is also routed in sensorimotor coordination. Using those self-generated memories as a resource for imagination and thinking is likely to use the same means than to coordinate movement, simulating those neural connections in order to recreate a consistent chronology based on formalised sensorimotor memories. The situation of sensorimotor paradox has the effect of destabilising the routes through which to enact a stimulation. As we cannot repond directly to its object, we would rush on something else, like the fact that something unusual and extraordinary happens to us. Here again, Ellen Dissanayake’s work in the field of neuroaesthetics is very useful to connect formalisation in ethological study and the hypothesis of artification, as aesthetic sense would be embedded in a very personal and emotional sensory inscription into a broader sense of reality.3 We situate ourselves in an interpretative time that is us trying to deal with this break in sensorimotricity, trying to bring back balance into a disruptive experience. The image becomes what is happening to us. That is what we are trying to bring back some sense and meaning from, to situate ourselves to. Our perception of time is always consistent with this effort to maintain of form of stability and chronological consistency out of a disruption in sensorimotor coordination. Otherwise, this self-generation of images, as they are not coordinated, open to an abyss ; and though here is the origin of our ability to think, that required some work of formalisation, as well as it got entangled in the intimate ties of symbolic debt to others like us. There is a history of imagination that makes one with the history of trauma.

Our body is where it is standing. It is a pack of memory, but also our connections with others actually are a convergence of memories. That means a lot, eventually that it is completely up to us to relate to those memories in the way that would be suited to our deeper sense of who we are both as a body and as a person. And then, the person reinvents the body they are living with.

1See « Heidegger | Por Darío Sztajnszrajber », Faculdad Libre, january 2016 on YouTube.

2Read Francisco Varela, « Le cerveau n’est pas un ordinateur », La Recherche, Issue 308, april 1998.

3Read, for instance, Ellen Dissanayake, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics », Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009), pp. 148-173.