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.

Note on the question of space

Text in pdf :

The proposition that we just made on the role of memory in our perception of time leads us to some corollary consequences on the perception of space. As sensorimotor memory is encapsulated into a play of substitution with the production of mental images, what we usually call the signifier are merely possibilities left open in a world of meaning that is conditioning the global world of our action. Action is dependent on agency, which specifies how interaction is formalised in a context for interpretation, telling and meaning, mostly in terms of cause and consequence. So, it is dependent on the way that language (as including all that fall into the realm of interpretation) is structuring speech in order to orientate the narrative and address its audience as well as it tells something about the intention of the speaker. We invest some signifier, some mental object taken for a situation that is impossible to enact. We play the audience as well as we play the part for them, but we try to address something more personal that is at stake in our daily lives. Speech is, in a way, taken for some other spectrum of our interaction with others that social conventions forbid – that is partly why sexualities are one of the most difficult matter to address collectively. If the other person shows the signs that their world of understanding doesn’t include the possibility for you to exist any other way than the way they prescribe their expectations on you, you may try or not to avoid confrontation over that particular conflict. Whether it is about gender, race, social class, validity or other social traits, we saw that there is a different measure from a prescriptive regulation of social interactions, based on the compulsory observance of prescribed conducts, to a proscriptive one that would be based on the mutual right to self-determination.

However, we mostly live in prescriptive society systems based on showing the signs of obedience, on what is visible in order to prove our right to be left in peace and that we mean no harm to the public moral order. Moreover, a social contract based on competition includes that we have to prove our will to participate if not being excluded from the race, from start or in the meantime. Trust becomes secondary. First, we have to liberate ourselves from the duty to justify our presence, for fear of a sanction, that could be either physical, emotional, social or material, sometimes only for not having the right gender, colour of skin, sexual orientation, belief, capacity or general appearance which will condition the way we are to be interpreted in shared spaces (even to ourselves). So speaking is often a way to show first the guarantee of our participation to whatever convention is put forth about the ongoing conversation, even more than a real capacity to invest oneself into dialogue. The political issues in the repartition of social spaces for the use of power become crucial to the elaboration of both individual and collective trauma, as well as to the capacity to feel safe enough to actually be receptive to others in those places. The symptoms of trauma are then often more destined to address the right to heal in the first place than the healing itself. Yet, would reclaiming the right to heal necessarily mean taking a debt to society ? It shouldn’t be, yet it mostly feels like most of the time, we would not even have the right to be heard and listened to with enough care. It would be even more so as intermediary spaces for self-elaboration and dialogue tend to disappear under more and more extreme neoliberal political doctrines. It becomes then more difficult as well to elaborate a thinking that could result in positive and transformative action in and through those available spaces.

Repeating and remembering

According to Sigmund Freud – who initiated psychoanalytic study in the late 19th century, so within his social and personal time and belief system –, the person who shows their symptoms as being the manifest problem would be ‘repeating instead of remembering’ what has already emerged as such to their knowledge, as they are subjected to the conditions of resistance.1 To understand what they are resisting to when it comes to telling what hurts them, is to understand what debt would not yet be paid if it were told to someone that would not even have to hold it. If the debt has to be unlocked, so that the situation of pain would not be likely to come back again, some word has to be taken for it, that is likely to be someone else’s – what we usually call ‘transference’ in psychoanalytic theory and practice. If I address the hurt somewhere while I am still concerned about some other space out there where the debt would still run on – that means that I have sworn, even in tacit agreement, to respond to any demand –, it appears quite clearly that my freedom to say anything here will only have a few consequences there : either to transform or break the contract. But it becomes more complicated when the debt is sworn to a whole society system and the latter is calling people like me to conformity or submission. The repeating of the symptom, as a defencive system, gets quite along with the performance of the debt : we respond as an anticipation to the calling. Maybe, because we fear that we would not be able to fulfill its demand, that is always and can only be too much. In freudian theory with the Second Topic (since Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920 and on), that is the idea of the Super-Ego, that constant moral authority upon the individual. The symptom then, as part of the trauma, is still a response to the pain and hurt ; however, as one cannot do anything about the pain itself, their sole capacity to respond anything remains one vital sign and call for their integrity and existence. Any sensorimotor system in any being, except in withdrawal, would spontaneously repond to contact, sensory or emotional stimulation. But in the sensorimotor paradox, some part of those stimulations relate to a situation of impossibility. Thus, they remain unrelated, unless we start relating them between them, making some rough correspondence.

What we learnt about time in the last article is that memory is still ongoing, generating itself. Memory is the symptom of and for a transformation, as the transformed organism and the effects of this transformation on the perception of reality will again lead to new and sometimes completely alien transformations. As well, speech and imagination always reactualise and renew the conditions and coordinates for evolving one’s perceived identity. As a symptom of the sensorimotor paradox that we are maintained in, it permits the simulation of the neural connections that are derived from sensorimotor stimulations. Imagination allows us to stay alive though we are in a state of partial paralysis. It is quite clear in the elaboration of trauma, that we cannot represent to ourselves the moment of contact, the shock, for there is the moment to respond as a living organism. Then, the whole neural system for sensorimotricity is mobilised to the response. But nothing can prepare to a paradox. The state of sensorimotor paradox puts us in a perpetual state of anticipation, getting ready to and yet in an incapacity to respond in any immediate motion. But we have to question the modalities of our relation to the world, so to project possibilities, alternative scenes and situations, to which we cannot respond either. For a while.

Addressing the hurt

From here, we produce images without response as well as we produce trauma. Because it hurts not to know what to do, the indecision and suspension, to be contained. As a product of trauma, imagination and later on discourse are elaborated out of a situation that we cannot think nor address. Therefore, indeed, it is one thing to remember in the way the body adapted its knowledge of reality to trauma, and another to articulate memory into coordinate spaces for representation and transmission. A whole part of our lives is built on driving away from what we can’t address by performing imagination, speech and social representation.

We learn to use different spaces for different uses and social practices. ‘Go to your room’ is what we would say to a child when we teach them about what has become illicit to them in the shared place of the living-room. Their behaviour has become too deviant for the conduct that they were supposed to be taught to. They have to be managed in the education of the rules that counts for any adult to be grown. Each room obeys to different rules, and those rules replicate in the heterogenous social spaces out of home. However, being hurt by someone or something, especially when it comes to figures of authority, pushes trauma onto the person’s boundaries. The violence of being hurt cannot be related to meaning, as the junction of pain and the agency of the other blurs the capacity to think the moment when pain was inflicted. But as one would be aware that the conditions for such an agency as the agency of violence are still valid in society, what could they ever say that would repay their right to heal, to transform or break the contract ? In the context of our mostly ‘Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist and Patriarcal’ societies, as would bell hooks state, how could saying anything change the cycle of violence that still endures ? Many people can be trapped in spaces where expressing oneself turns into drifting away from the prescribed and favoured normed conduct and subjectivity, and being punished for it.

Therefore, the hurt, in its most affective sense, gets mostly about not being able to drive oneself away from the norms and social patterns that state what is acceptable or not to be told about oneself. For many people, those would push away the capacity to situate themselves toward their own moral and physical integrity. Further more, they would dictate how one should adapt optimally to the selective structures of our societies. Some other forms of being and living are yet possible but likely to suffer and be confronted to refusal and outcasting, whether they are the source or not of actual harm to others and society. Often, the voice of the victims are unlikely to be heard and recognised as being their own agents and concerned about how they could tell the trauma that changed their worlds. But speaking of a victim implies that we invest a certain regime of justice, that is to hear what happened or is still happening. It means that the whole society is summoned here to address how we hear or not the acts of violence and what that says about the way that we make society together. It is never a solitary justice, for we should all be concerned by the way we collectively address the question of violence and the fact that it is as well generated by choices that we make as a society and its collective history.

When someone wants to be heard, whatever they say, what they do give away and ask from the person that they address their symptoms to by telling their hurt by whatever means available, is that they would rather address the fear of not being heard, of being refused a space for telling anything that would be worth hearing. The confiscation of the private and collective spaces hinders the telling of the very specificities and similarities of one’s experience with others as confronted to the heterogeneity of social spaces. And it is still creating a doubt about the capacity to actually be heard and considered as a plain subject, in their integrity, for there is a much stronger prescription over what is preferable to be heard and which codified social identities to perform. Social norms will tell you the ways that are privileged when you at least try to address the question of who you are in the collective spaces. The less variety of those spaces, the more difficult it will be to hear different stories and the gaps there to fill. The categories of language, speech and social representation offer modalities for self-action and their justification. If you know that you are not supposed to show anything else than what is already told and prepared for – for you have learnt it the hard way or even by witnessing the uses of others –, you would be likely to transgress by showing otherwise. And no individual matter, as soon as it involves the telling, can be deprived from its collective origin.

1In Sigmund Freud, La technique psychanalytique, « Remémoration, répétition et perlaboration », PUF, coll. Quadrige, Paris, 2007 (1914), p. 121.

Photo credit : « Butterfly », La Fille Renne ❤

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.