Birth of the symbolic

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Experience may be a continuum, we don’t have a linear position towards it as we try to gain a relative control over its flow. We postulated here the hypothesis that the genesis of the conditions of possibility to the capacities of imagination and thinking could have been connected to a situation of sensorimotor paradox during our evolution as a species. The development of bipedal stance and the relative liberation of our hands from locomotor functions would have encouraged this situation, as looking and gazing at one’s own hand(s) woud create a paradox to sensorimotricity : one has to freeze the latter up so that the object of their attention could remain as if it were any other object in the world. The identity and simultaneity of this object with the mean to usually grasp any other – the hand that grasps is here the very object to be grasped at the same time – is what creates a situation of paradox, an impossibility to resolve sensory stimulation into motor decision and enaction. As sensorimotricity is momentarily suspended, the memory image of that moment becomes abstracted from the possibility of its resolution into action, but then, it gathers another value, with a high emotional charge : being an image for the sake of imagination – hence, the possible birth of the imaginary, as a structure to be reproduced and re-enacted.

If this theoretical hypothesis about the conditions of possibility to the structures of the imaginary has been enough articulated to the general theory of the sensorimotor paradox, the shift to symbolic structuring had been left on hold. There was yet a gap untied between the use of the symbolic register in its psychoanalytic acception (notably, if we take Jacques Lacan’s distribution between the real, the symbolic and the imaginary registers) and the evolutionary theory that we are developing here. Yet, we come now with a clue, as what differenciates the imaginary and the symbolic beyond their usual classifications, is mobility : an image is always dependent on the fixity of attention to the viewer, while the symbolic is meant to liberate mobility by embedding meaning and direction into a rather unconscious structure.

Let us take one silly example : one can manage observing two objects together, let us say two fingers ; beyond that, one’s mind cannot stand the autonomous simultaneity of three, four or five fingers – so it has to browse, to simplify, to make a sweeping reduction, to synthesise into one single object of experience – let us say, ‘the fingers’ or ‘the five fingers of the hand’. So, there is a movement and a grouping architecture inside of that operation forced by the very limitations of our cognitive system. That is consistent with the fact that sensorimotor experience, interaction and relation to one’s surrounding environment works as a succession of investments to stimulations. We cannot invest sensorimotricity on more than one enaction at a time, even in situations of coordinated movements (the term enaction is here borrowed from Francisco Varela’s work). Raising two arms simultaneously, for instance, are part of the same global attention.

But, what happens if sensorimotricity is frozen in a paradox : the succession of sensory events that we suddenly witness without being able to enact a consistent reaction are taken, as a whole, as a group of events being part of the same intention, the one to respond that is being ‘delayed or lagged’ (Gerald M. Edelman, 1992). Then, when the sensorimotor paradox is lifted – as we withdraw our hand, for instance –, we can get back to our capacity to enact our impulsion to respond to our stimulating environment (to whatever degree) and so, we seal the imaginary moment in with the grasp at reality of the sensorimotor resolution and conclusion into the same object : a symbolic turn, to which we know that we leave things behind.

In a symbol, one single object or sign is taken for an ensemble, a group, a series of others that are set aside, reduced and synthesised into the symbolic object that we can more easily manipulate. The sensorimotor paradox produces a virtual memory image, in an effect of dilatation, that the individual intents to close into an unit that would bring back a more frontal, binary and approachable relation, but that would also carry with it the complexity of a groupal experience where multiple objects and sensory events were to be taken as one. After that, the individual can return to themselves and to the unity with their own body into sensorimotricity.

This symbolic binding of the image into enactive sensorimotricity is what would inscribe rich and complex ensembles of experience into the certitude that we could get back and return to ordinary interaction in a relative safety. That grouping movement to enclosing memory experience synthesises and thus, sublimates the lack of control that we have over that experience into a feeling of grasping onto something more concrete and palpable, that we can eventually act toward. And sublimation works with pain into trauma.

Trauma, in that sense, is the way that we enclose a complex sensory and emotional experience into a narrative that we could try to control, a posture toward experience that would allow us to get back to a certain form of agency, that is highly symbolic of our identity. To whatever degree, it all takes part in the symbolic functioning – registered as the symbolic into discourse – because it is meant to be forgotten, although the very act of affirming our agency was born from the necessity to take that control back from a moment of overwhelming stimulations and sollicitations. That is why, we can allege, the characteristic of the signifier in the symbolic activity is to be so volatile and mobile, as it may have been born from a serial and groupal framing of experience. The form of discourse uses that rhythm and sequencing of reality in order to maintain itself in some compulsive activity that is consistent to the body (Silvia Lippi, 2019).

In fact, as we generally try to get that amount of complexity into a more binary relational approach to experience (for instance, in the forms of speech), it is no wonder that a three-partite structure would rapidly stabilise as a main symbolic structure to subjectivity. As we are accompagnied and trained since we are children into the uses of language and body conduct, the complexity of the canonic mirror phase would be less about the complexity of the fragmented body image as it would be about the complexity of experiencing many things and not being able to return to oneself first, but to somebody else. I have to take the other in consideration and keep them in mind before I can get back to my own experience, to see if it agrees with them as we are taught and encouraged to. It is less the fact of watching, than of being watched, and having to learn how to separate our spontaneous reaction to experience from that presence even as we know that we are supposed to keep it in mind, to act always as if we were watched and held accountable for the way that we carry ourselves – and yet still try to get back from our initial position.

There is a tension to return to oneself, to resolve and release tension and attention, that is upheld by the other, either specific or the other as a symbolic function of vigilance. When this omnipresence becomes unbearable, we may easily be tempted to radically transform our perception of what this other means in order to return to ourselves away from the anticipation of a hurt – although we still keep it in mind in an alienated form – as we can suppose that it happens in what we call psychotic configurations and their degrees of overriding the possibility of return to body memory.

Then, again, we simplify. We reduce, for instance, the scope from three or more, to a two : ourselves and our discourse, coming and going, addressed to someone or a group of people. The symbolic is complexity reduced to a single binary relation that we maintain so to keep control over our body limits, carrying the charge of compensating the risk of losing ground. From there, eveything that is carried and comprised into that unit of agency is engulfed into the symbolic, both dependent on the context and our own means of experience. We can hope to enjoy the ride, and run before the rumble.

Cited bibliography :

Gerald M. Edelman, Biologie de la conscience, Odile Jacob, 1992.

Silvia Lippi, Rythme et mélancolie, Erès, 2019.

Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch, L’inscription corporelle de l’esprit, Seuil, 1993.

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 ❤

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 ❤