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 ❤

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 ❤

Fleeting minds

Ideas and mental representations are floating and fleeting events and experiences – that is why it costs us a constant effort and commitment to sustain them. We seem to largely resist abandonment to a present sensory experience that would not bring guarantees of safety as to our capacity to respond to sollicitations from our social world and existence. We have to maintain a mental conditioning that would allow us to respond as spontaneously as possible in the most appropriate way, so not to risk the awkwardness or outrage of being off mark in some way. That comes down the tension exerciced toward our moral environment which would work in a prescriptive way, pressuring from the outside but internalised and anticipated from the inside.

However, maybe one of our worst fear is to lose track of our own mental continuity in line with that prescription. Psychoanalyst’s Jacques Lacan’s idea of a ‘chain of the signifier’ does point to that anxiety of finding support on any mental representation that would do, at least momentarily. There is a constraint to that effort of conformity that is not that much based on care for oneself and others, but on the fear of their sanction and rejection. Our drive to attachment from an early age (in psychologist John Bowlby’s sense) confronts us to the way that family and its extensions are structured within societal boundaries to relational engagement and expression. Local dialogues and agreements between living beings are most of the time constained within those boundaries that affect the ways that we come forward with our needs up to their very possible question. If the way to conduct oneself is prescribed as one and unique possible way, there is nothing to ask if not being led to question the very foundations of such an exclusive way. And again, if we cannot ask that very question, the call for an answer will go on trying to find its own way within the limited available possibilities, especially when those carry the weight of an often unspoken violence.

Memory was never meant to be fixed, as its sensorimotor and neural roots are always sollicitating connections and self-generation. So, what we do, is try to put on hold micro-spaces in order to grasp onto those mental generations into something that could remind us of some idea of what might be expected in such or such social environmental conditions. In an earlier talk with a physicist working at the Paris University of Jussieu on astral particles and black matter, he explained to me to how they were looking for those particles of black matter that would be able to cross the surface of the mountains of the Pyrenees deeper than most particles do from the universe. By removing as much particle noise as possible around the site of their measurements, they hoped to catch something about it. The problem was that with no reference to configure their settings, as black matter is supposed to interact with no other particle, they could not be sure about anything to be found at this point. That is the inertia of indetermination, as a straight line needing no force nor effort to push itself through.

Our body knows how to sink into its own absoption within its sensory triggers and motor response impulses. We have been maintained very much in a strong state of dependency to others in order to seek our material vital needs, especially and up to a breaking point within our Western societies, as the generalised practice of externalisation and increase of social precarity induces insecurity upon them. Here, we are always in debt to someone else, and ultimately, to capital. So, it becomes often complicated to create our own questions, anything that would at least to belong to us so to address the issues of our potential insecurities. We have to borrow another language, so it goes circle. We are virtually sollicitated everytimes within our capacity to abstract relations and rarely get to fully take the time and space to dialogue with one another in whichever way. What we grasp on is often merely the hope for a momentary truce from the constant pressure to adapt a cycle of aggression, though we know that much of our difficulties have identified political roots. We cannot heal while being complicit to the way that our society models are built on the ruthless exploitation of the ressources and the living, but in the state where things are, we can merely survive without it on the individual level.

There is a spiral in the insecurity of living this way in this particular political and economical setting. The chain of the signifier is always a form of a chain of authority. The way that our mind works is and will always be floating and fleeting. That it should be a problem only relies on our fears, their causes and their consequences, but is also equally a matter of individual practice as it is of the collective.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

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.

About sensorimotor simulation

One last note would be addressed to the notion of sensorimotor simulation. The whole theory of the sensorimotor paradox lies on the idea that motor enaction of a contradictory situation, such as gazing at one’s own hand and the impossibility to catch it with itself, is subtituted by its imaginary outcome, which gets disconnected from the very need to enact sensorimotor impulse in the first place. Yet, the fact that the enaction of the impulse is contradicted, that the neural response is ‘delayed or lagged’ (to borrow from Gerald M. Edelman’s condition for self-consciousness) doesn’t mean that the impulse doesn’t come from the same place ; that is, that our imagination and stream of thought don’t come from the same neural system, only diverted from the possibility that the impulse should be enacted physically but contained, confined to the limits of the production of mental images and self-induced memory.

One empirical experience that could stress that, is that if one gets to mentally represent to themselves a continuous piece of music or sound, for example, that mental representation would be systematically cut off by physically emitted sounds such as breathing or tapping with one’s fingers – which are both a way that grounds us back to our present reality, as investigated by psychoanalyst Darian Leader in Hands (Hamish Hamilton, 2016). If I imagine a continuous sound, for instance an organ playing one continuous note, and I breathe in, even for half a second the sound that I imagine will be interrupted by the perception of the actual sound of my breathing – as I perceive it by the same way that I neurally perceive what I mentally produce from a reconstituted memory. Beyond speaking for a question of paying attention to two different things simultaneously, this kind of phenomenon supports the idea of emitting both a physical and mentally represented sound being physiologically impossible. I could be thinking or having a music playing in my head and still hear what is around me without the latter perturbing the continuity of my mental activity. But, it is something else when it comes to being able to think and emit a sound at the same time by whatever means. (The question should be addressed differently as to the linguistic experience of hearing impaired or deaf people, notably, as communication would be centred on other sensorimotor and memory organisations.)

This means that somehow, they have an equal value as to the origin of the experience, whether physically enacted or mentally simulated, which supports again the theory of the sensorimotor paradox. We can see the stream of thought, for instance, as a preparation of an action that is looped and continuously delayed. But, as soon as one sound is enacted from the body, it liberates motor enaction in its relation to sound perception and releases the effort of neural looping. We can triangulate the sensorimotor paradox hypothesis with Gerlad M. Edelman’s condition for self-consciousness and the fact that, as far as the physical action of emitting whatever sound is concerned, we cannot physically enact it and imagine it at the same time – in the same way that we can’t be with the hand and catch the hand with itself at the same time. Thus, to think and emit mental representation is a neural contraction that requires much more energy and tension than we think.

This note is meant to support further synthesis and elaboration from the theoretical corpus already existing on the matter. So it seems, things only just began.

About the stream of thought

In a previous text, we highlighted some of the issues that we might encounter with a certain use of the concept of the unconscious in psychoanalysis. In this additional note, we will precise something that could be analysed about the stream of thought and the role that it plays in controlling and repressing what might be framed as unconscious – as not expressed directly and openly to oneself, but also contained by something else, keeping the mind busy elsewhere from primary wounds, with thoughts and mental representations creating a diverting noise. (Further more, we will remind what we can take from the theory of the sensorimotor paradox, that is that the very action of thinking would be itself a defence mechanism and an imaginary resort to body disruption.)

Notably, what our daily mental activity and stream of thought teaches us about how we learn to think is that most of the commentaries that might come up, say, when we see somebody in the street, is often composed of the usual sorts of speech that we hear around us when it comes to certain apparent caracteristics of people and how we learnt to identify them according to some formalised system of association (the way that their body shows, the way that they dress, speak and behave and that we associate with desirable or undesirable traits, something different or alike from us, …). It is often less of a personal point of view that we might have about our actual encounter with such people, but an anticipation of what may be said about them according to discriminatory and reactionary perspectives from an enclosed world of meaning (might it be about notions of gender, race, social class, sexuality, disability, …).

When we learn how to speak, understand others and think, we learn it in a great part from situations of interaction with people situated in their experience, their traumas and their dependence on their own cultural and social situation. We learn to be situated as a function of other people’s reactions to us, how they objectify us or not and their conduct. When we learn to think and think ourselves, if we follow psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s proposition of the mirror phase, we learn that we are defined in our symbolic position amongst others by the commentaries that are made about us and others, as a world of contrast, and that how we define others in a way protects us from being pointed and commented at ourselves. Naming objects and people, as an intermediary space to run from our own inertia, would be, in that understanding, a reaction to the strangeness of being commented at. It is also a founding paradox that we can’t symbolically tell anything about ourselves without stepping out of ourselves, resorting to conventional means like a language system and external designation, even though we try to make ourselves special to ourselves and those closest to us (to borrow from Ellen Dissanyake’s artification theory in neuroaesthetics). Analysing our stream of thought then mostly tells us more about our insecurities about living and trying to situate ourselves in a world where certain body attributes might expose us to social stigma and rejection and others to care (even excessive care or objectification), than a reflection on who those people other than us (and potentially exposed to social stigma) might actually be beyond those compulsory and external identifications, but enriched by a foundation of acceptance and dialogue.

Really, we learn a great deal of how we should think and behave in our daily lives, according to that kind of compulsive control, by mentally repeating speech and assertions that we think might come up in certain situations as in the stories that we witnessed, those kinds of commentaries and phantasies of assertiveness and reclaimed agency that may release for a moment the tension of being around people in an open space without really knowing what to do about it, for most of us are so immature on so many affective levels. Most of us haven’t learnt to establish common ground with strangers without resorting to any prescribed and pre-established order and frame of meaning, and whether people other than us might conform to it or not. If it were completely open as a shared space, we could simply be around them and not mind that they share the same space as us, save the relations of power that keep us in the urgency of our constraint. (What is precious about Black American scholar bell hooks’ expression of an ‘Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy’ in intersectional studies, though incomplete, is how compact it all feels within one same body of experience.)

In fact, we are mostly educated and formed into the fear of being judged non-conformed to a set of norms according to which one would belong to the group or not. The fear of exclusion works against the safety of any open space, and that is why some healing and political spaces are held in non-mixity within concerned communities. The tension between sharing a common given space and the difficulty to create safe meeting areas would likely trigger that kind of fear of rejection and a reflex of targeting back at others as a response born from fear, arguing over why they should likely be rejected by the same logic of conformity to the group – something that philosopher Sara Ahmed analysed as to the way oppressed subjects might intuitively internalise, potentialise and have to adapt to a general climate of violence against them within their own body reaction.1 In a compulsive fashion, the apparent liberty of others to be in their own different way in the same space as us can make us very uncomfortable if this way is alien to the one that we were trained and are training ourselves to be fitting, because it exposes a space of freedom that maybe we internalised as dangerous. We are still trying to find some stability between what we are spontaneously prone to do and what we have come to forbid and repress ourselves from doing and even representing to ourselves as possible. Our world of meaning comes to shrink, as well as the scope of what we know and are open to, as to our own intuitive and bodily experience.

Whatever is, most of our compulsive daily thinking resorts on that reflex to use formalised and repeated speech in order to divert our attention from our deeper insecurities and the difficulty to be and feel safe in social spaces as bodies, that are always interpreted by others and thus, never neutral. ‘The intimate is political’, as it is said in feminist, intersectional and crip theory. If we are commented upon since our early age, of course, those commentaries stick to our skin and form our identity, along with more material issues that they are connected to (access to any resources that we need to grow and live in a sustainable way). Maybe, we feel attacked when anything evades the possibility to be commented at and then objectified and controlled – especially when it comes to something as uncontrollable and contradictory as desire –, as we learnt to navigate inside of such a dense network of designations and meanings, covering up the very sense of our own bodily experience that doesn’t seem to belong to us to decide and situate in our own terms. Only that experience, sensory and emotional, is and should be inalienable. The rest is noise, at least very much of it. It is the noise of having to deal with an environment of interpretation where we are the interpreting or the interpreted, where we objectify others but are first objectified ourselves since we were infants (in most cases).

Some practices, like the practice of Buddhism, help us disidentify from those commentaries that we make or that are made about ourselves, but that is no mean feat. Thoughts are memory, a self-generating and simulated sensorimotor memory. It is not logical at all. Those mental images come from our experience as a body and first defined by the limits of what our body experienced and is capable of experiencing. Our indecision as a body generates those kinds of neural loops, where neural and motor responses are ‘delayed or lagged’ into abstracted mental images (to borrow from neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman), creating new memories that only happened in our own head that would loop again. And maybe, we cling on to that capacity to enclose our own mind and protect ourselves, stay in control of what happens by that very mean, especially as we are socially, morally and affectively trained to do that. Social norms have nothing to do with the diversity of modalities of experience and living, but most of the time with the violence of perpetuated structures of domination and conditioning. This is the frame of the world that we were made able to comprehend. So, it is important to take that note whenever we consider ourselves as thinking beings, that any of our abstraction is rooting out of a protecting screen of noise, that often leaves as us stranger to ourselves – and that under that screen, what we fear and cannot be said remains unseen.

1In Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

Difficult to grasp

One reason why the theory of the sensorimotor paradox may be difficult to grasp is because a paradox is difficult to grasp. It forces us to look at a situation from two contradictory ways at the same time. Though any process of differenciation requires that we alternate between two different objects, the simultaneity in the paradox hinders the capacity to differenciate one part from the other as different, nor can we figure out how they could evolve and change. But, it also comes from the fact that the two objects coexisting in a contradictory way are not likely to collide. That is, for instance, the very fact that I cannot collide with my own reflection in a mirror that makes its experience paradoxical. Logically, if I moved further on toward it, I should come to meet with it, but it never really happens. Precisely, the solution to a paradox is never logical, but imaginary.

Likewise, the famous impossible constructions in Dutch artist M. C. Escher’s lithographs display physical dimensions that should not coexist, whether they represent staircases or a waterfall going impossible ways. A paradox means that two dimensions of one same object or a set of two identical objects could have opposite properties and still coexist in the same space at the same time. It is something like an A = -A = 0 equation. One cannot go anywhere with a paradox. However, it presents a crack within the very structure of how a body can or is supposed to interact with their surrounding environments.

M. C. Escher, Relativity, 1953.

There, we get to the paradox in sensorimotricity when it comes to the situation of gazing at one’s own hand and not being able to go anywhere beyond that confrontation. At a certain distance, within a certain setting, gazing at one’s own hand is an impossible direction : one cannot look elsewhere and cannot seize anything else, but is condemned to stare at each other with their own hand for as long as it can be sustained. But, we hate paradoxes. We want to find solutions to their trap, a way out, to overcome them, even though we cannot resolve them. We want to determine a path that would progressively lead somewhere, by differenciating each step. A paradox is too radical, as no direction would lead to a consistent solution : thus, no progression could overcome it. It gets all assimilated within this same and only situation, that swallows all effort up within its abyss.

There is something difficult to bear also in a paradox that is physiological. The confusion cast over the neural system to make those contradictory options coexist cannot be held for too long without increasing a sense of distress. The way out of a paradox is always an escape from a singular image that crystallises the impossibility to project into a viable solution that we could think of on a sensorimotor level. We cannot make the scene change, whatever effort we put into trying, and this impossibility to make things change can be suffocating.

But, finding an escape from an impossible representation puts us in relation with that very representation, the image for itself and as an image that comes as one, unified, impossible to alter but in a radical break-up. The image becomes the object that we are forced to relate to. It is not the hand, nor the solution. It is the whole picture as a complete new possibility. Paradoxes exist for themselves. They have no other purpose than to force us into a relation to their closed-in and looped reality. So, we have to differecienciate oursselves from it, if we cannot change it. Somewhat, an intense sense of one’s own experience of reality comes out of the encounter with a paradox, even at the cost of alienating one’s own body for a moment when the representation of the body becomes more real than the prime experience body itself. We are, in a way, stepping out of ourselves.

Therefore, there is a constant struggle in representing our ‘self’, our own reality as an image to ourselves. It is a paradox to represent something like a ‘me’ from the outside and somehow, as we mentioned in an earlier text, that is something that a practice such as a Buddhist practice helps us deal with in a more peaceful way. If we cannot do anything out of a paradox, even the paradox of our own thoughts, we may better stop struggling with it and keep our minds to a more gentle and skillful use. The best way to live with a paradox is only to acknowledge that it exists.

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.

Xenophobia, self and the stream of thought

If there is something that is proper to the nature of mental images is that they are invasive. Once a memory exists, it becomes difficult to pretend it doesn’t affect the way that one moves toward the world. However, the more we grow, the more we are sollicitated to use images, to designate things, even in their absence, or to state one’s purpose. We learn more and more to act through them – often compulsively or desperately. As we saw earlier, one of the effects of a sensorimotor paradox is to blur the limits between agent and object, between what is from oneself and what is from someone or something else. Is my hand the object or the mean to grasp it ? The memory or trace that is left from that indecision is, fundamentally, the memory of a possible action that is awkwardly identified with the situation to the object that cannot be resolved. The whole experience is taken into memory. As to the sensorimotor paradox, we respond to that situation by maintaining an uncertainty over which is which, as it is the memory of an impossibility to enact, that leaves us with ourself that is now experienced as an open self, an experience in itself – self-conscious. It is the suspension of a possible resolution that could be enacted to the object that we are relating to, and we are the receptacle of that experience.

Then, already in the structure of this hypothetical early paradox, we have the structure of agency, because the image of possible action is fully determined by the limitations of its context. We represent to ourself something that appears alien, that forces us into relation. It is alien because we cannot solve it with any immediate action. The tension and emotion that this relation provokes become in themselves the outcome which we would resort on to enact ourselves out of it. Mental images and thoughts are always caught in their relational intrication, frozen, suspended into debating how to resolve. How we elaborate our own narration also means how much progression we can get, inside of this gap between the generation of memory (the images) and actual motor enactment. As our hands are still a challenge and we are still exposed to the presence of others, the riddle is never prompt to be solved, because they are, somehow, part of the same problem or question. Similar situations will confront us to similar memories and their proximity will allow us to contrast and nuances between them, entering into the detail, sometimes making analogies between previously unrelated things – a metaphor. This generation of a network of memories will also confront us to the presence of others familiar enough to us. Especially, the other’s gaze or the other’s touch or vocal presence will create something to attach to in moments of discomfort. Their stability as something that cannot be avoided makes it quite similar to a same paradox – wanting to go through, but facing the impossibility to do so, working with the distance between them.

The way that we are to respond to that presence becomes a possibility from which the outcome may or not be pleasurable. At any stage of our evolution as a species, we must have enriched the way that we treated those memories and adapted to them as well as we got to fit our natural and social environments. Being born in social conditions ruled by language, it becomes quite difficult not to use images, at least situated sound images and memories, not to think through them in the idiom that is used to get us ready to respond – even difficult to think in onomatopeias. We are, as human beings, constantly maintained in an environment where we are likely to be summoned to respond to the question ‘What is your purpose ?’ – in words or at least, through our behaviour and social conduct, led to interpretation. Therefore, the constant stream of our thoughts is what we rely on to keep ourselves on a common understanding, according to how we feel that we are expected to respond. Our traumatic experience will of course compulsively push us to always be prepared to be summoned to give a response, for others or to ourselves. This mental and physical conditioning would also reduce the chances that we would be taken by surprise and unprepared, requiring a time to adjust and exposing the cracks in social dynamics.

Showing our ‘best part’

What autistic activists’ works show is that social conduct based on what is called neurotypics, relies on the implicit and tacit contract to respond to any demand without exposing the social arbitrary constructs which work to prevent any genuine question from happening without a measure of control. It is all supposed to ‘aller de soi’, to be ‘natural’, though it is something that we had to learn, being sollicitated to copy certain kinds of behaviour and reject others since the early age.1 Therefore, in a sense, the ways that we got to learn how to respond to those interactions are impregnated with the contexts to which we had to adapt and in which certain aspects of our identity got to emerge. Those contexts and the learning of some constants in other people’s reactions encourage us to show those affordable aspects as they push us into inhibiting those that would lead to a sanction. In most ways and most context, we are supposed to prove that we have ‘learnt our lesson’, that we are obedient now. So, a great part of our identity is based on learning a lesson that would allow us not to be sanctioned by our social environment. A great part of our constant stream of thoughts is there to help us maintain this ability to attest that we indeed have the means to perform to that demand and that we will commit to showing our ‘best part’ – the obedient or the challenging one, the one that will not get us into trouble and force others to work into fixing it, teaching the lesson to the messy child, or the one that would eventually subjugate opposition. It takes a constant pressure on our bodily conduct to maintain such kind of readiness. Being defensive over vulnerability is something that we learn.

However, we do not simply recreate the expected task in our minds when we are thinking ‘at random’. We also continuously recreate a situation where we would have to justify ourselves – and hopefully overcome. More precisely, we tend to hang on to certain types of discourse – mostly nurrished by fiction, representations and a world of combined images – that seem to offer an empowering or at least decisive enough posture. Those discourses would most probably tend to provide some kind of progression that would mean that we are moving on to a point of resolution. The latter would testify that we would be right in the end and the debt is paid – or it would agitate a sense of restlessness demanding from ourself an impossible decision. It is a defense, and it is an escape, whether from being denied the right to a response or being denied the utter capacity to respond anyway. Moreover, as we endlessly recreate a paradigmatic situation that were somehow part of our teaching – often inhibiting in a traumatic way sanctioned aspects of our experience – but from different perspectives, what we call the unconscious in psychoanalysis would actively and negatively form from that effort to defend against the repetition of aggression (Freudian’s idea of the repressed). Yet, it is not much compulsive behaviours or thoughts that would constitute repetition, but the sheer possibility for aggression that we react to from restless trauma. Aggression can be defined as the impossibility to annul a force coming toward us to imminent contact. The memory of the pain is also the memory of the incapacity to prevent the pain. Trauma is then the active part of repositioning around the memory of that contact. Then, through the stream of our thoughts, we try to annul the possibility of aggression by the very means through which we were told that we were supposed to respond and be heard – that little measure of decision conditioning our interactions. To quote Black American lesbian poetess Audre Lorde, we are actually ‘using the Master’s tools’ to dismantle the Master’s house, which is a way of perpetuating the hold that traumatic bond has on us, that we still feel that it conditions our agency and the performing of our identity. Identity is formed through those possibilities, because it is what is likely to be identified and caught into collective memory.

According to biologist Gerald M. Edelman, the stability of our experience of reality and cognition relies on a network of neural re-entries.2 It is not a given that would passively be treated like a computer would, but a continuous activity of reactualisation and reinforcement of connections. Thus, the capacity to ‘delay or lag neural responses’3 – that the idea of the sensorimotor paradox is all about – should also be depending on our capacity to maintain this delay and stimulate new connections so neural activity could be sustainable. This should be supported by the whole achitecture of our memory summoned to the task of feeling fit and ready to respond on a common ground to our surroundings, here to be limited by a traumatic and symbolic field composing our self-consciousness. We constantly and mentally recreate an environment of experience in which we are supposed to show our commitment and that is based on the production of mental images and representations, attaching traumatic learning and body control to a set of shared values that serve recognition. As we mutually recognise a certain behaviour approximatively the same way, leaving time and a space open enough to adjust, we would be likely to find common ground in the end or break apart. The more violent and probable the eventuality of aggression in our physical environment of experience, the more defensive we would get to preserving our integrity. As we depend more and more on others to sustain our living and attachment, this hold on self-discourse would likely get crucial to surround pain, rejection and harm and their memory – as would the modalities of our self-justification. The measure of liberty, trust and affection left to us might serve as a resource to elaborate this other measure of protection.

Making the difference

In fact, we can find that the activity of the stream of thought is in some aspects closely tied to social norms such as of ableism and xenophobia (here, in a more general way than racism, meaning the fear of others and alienation). As we keep ourselves in the capacity to respond to others in a certain way that would testify that we belong to the same common understanding, language and culture, it maintains a certain idea of the familiar and, in contrast, of the strange, the exogenous, the dangerous. The fear not to be recognised as a valid member of the group by others because of our responding awkwardly has a lot to do with the energy that we put in mentally defending our position in a way that should seem legit, reliable and indisputable. To respond in a way that would not seem appropriate according to some customs and standards would be likely to expose gaps in the fabric of conventioned social interactions and the fear of others to be unmasked themselves. It may also arise the disturbing feeling that there is something beyond language, something raw, an impulse to join that has been taught to control, memories of refusal and those, tainted, of acceptance. It is the feeling that beyond language’s stabilisation of what we expect as reality, the eagerness for any kind of contact or its utter fear can form the most powerful of denials. Political structures of ruling tend to manage the dynamics between violence and a polarising sense of morality – that means justifying a state of violence as if it were a given order to be transmitted and followed. By preparing ourselves to be put to the test of belonging, we cling on to the idea that we would resist excommunication, outcasting and alienation – either the alienated, the moron4 or the stranger. The necessity that the other would make their purpose familiar to us – what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan expressed by the Italian sentence ‘Che vuoi ?’, ‘What do you want ?’ –, based on common knowledge and experience or our mutual capacity for dialogue and understanding, would be largely replaced by focusing on our own previous encounters (family, community or a largest part of our society) and how much we are still busy trying to find the best response. Fear is not a restless wound, it is restless trauma, the impossibility for some defensive effort to at least acknowledge the wound that it came from. Because as we saw with Chilean biologist Francisco Varela, violence is prescriptive. If it is structurally continuous and we are in tension to the intimate knowledge that we are eventually to comply to – because it is a structure of domination – an order, then it will be a source of pain and fear, sollicitating a constant defensive effort. Moreover, as the limits of our own identity are blurred by the state of sensorimotor paradox that leaves imagination open without granting the possibility for any careless motor enaction, violence will condition the way that we imagine the world.

The meeting of difference will immediately lead to a defensive reaction. Learning to withdraw from the impulse to react, in action or in meditation, should therefore be a strong political and non-violent act in a violent context. Asian-based philosophies such as Madhyamaka Bouddhism, Daoism or Zen reflect on how much our own action is conditioned by the demand of others, and if that demand is just or confused, excessive, violent not necessarily because the act is violent, but because the demand itself is conditioned by a violent context of learning. Those disciplines tend to work on questioning the minimal portion of self-awareness that can be preserved, and how much of what is arbitrarily meant to reflect the demand of others can be neglected. What can we genuinely share in common ? Or what is it that you demand that you do not to me, but to someone else’s from whom was transmitted the memory of pain ?

1We already mentioned in a previous article René A. Spitz, De la naissance à la parole : La première année de la vie, PUF, 2002.

2Read Catherine Padovan, Rémy Versace & Brigitte Nevers, La mémoire dans tous ses états, Solal, 2002.

3In Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present : A Bio-logical Theory of Consciousness, New York, Basic Books, 1989.

4In Gerald V. O’Brien, Framing the moron : The social construction of feeble-mindedness in the American eugenic era, Manchester University Press, 2013.