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 ❤

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.

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.

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.

Simply put

Simply put, we can synthesise the purpose of the sensorimotor paradox theory this way, that two major structural situations may suffice to give a frame open enough to analyse the emergence of the cognitive disposition of human species :

  1. Sensorimotor paradox : given by the prominence and autonomy of the hands in our field of vision, consistent with the progressive and iterative development of bipedal stance, the situation of sensorimotor paradox would be first accidental, then actively looked for, sustained then maintained into a system of psycho-motor conduct. When I am gazing my own hand, what was then the manifestation of my agency toward objects becomes the object itself, interrupting the normal course of sensorimotor interactions in order for me to gaze it while it is still. Should I want to resume those interactions, I would have to break the object that I am attentive to by removing my hand. Being both the agent and the object at the same time, this situation provokes a paradox that opens to the free and deliberate production of images, of sensory imprints and representations of both those qualities for themselves : a scene, thus, imagination. It would then give us reciptivity for mental images disconnected from the necessity to enact the sensorimotor response (the idea of a ‘delay or lag of the response’ given by neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman, 1990). It gives us as well a strong sense of one’s self, as the energy of the body that is mobilised and blocked from enacting sensorimotor stimulation provokes a form of entropic emotional distress, waiting for some kind of resolution.
  2. Trauma : understood as any situation of contact where the cause and the effect, the exogene element and the endogene one merge momentarily on the same surface, pushing the organism to develop a proper response in order to adapt to the reconfiguration of what they could expect from their interactions with the outside (even when it is about oneself experienced as an object of interaction and attention). Trauma can be large (a violent shock) or slight (discrete sensory and emotional events). Either way, they contribute to modulate how attention is driven and kept to the expectation of a certain type of memories, which would be likely to be reactivated, implying the kind of response then to be given. It leads us to a general frame for basic interpretation system, including a first system of conduct that would lean on self-interpretation according to traumatic memory – thus, to the creation of a subject, along with its tie to the local and more general structures of morals and violence within their own cultural jurisdiction.

The frame is rather simple, but enough to deal with the complexity of the connections that it allows to create between a rich variety of situated experiences (in the sense given by Donna Haraway, 1988). It is, following neurobiologist Francisco Varela’s analysis (1991), a proscriptive frame setting only the necessary threshold-like marks to permit all this variety of the evolutionary paths to form without any other prescriptive encapsulation (which would pertain to the elaboration of norms for optimal adaptation, whether natural or social). It is then an open system and should keep on being so.

It allows us to find terms with identity analysis such as philosopher Judith Butler’s coming to the spectrum of gender (1990, before she diverted from the proliferation of gender to a more restrictive vision1), but not restricted to. As philosopher Elsa Dorlin analysed from Butler, ‘If the subject is constructed within and by its acts, acts that it is ordered to accomplish and repeat, if the subject is a performative act in the sense that what I say, what I do, produces a – gendered – speaker to proclaim them and a – gendered – agent to perform them, we must conclude that the subject is not pre-discursive, that it does not pre-exist to its action.’2 As psychoanalyst Darian Leader stated as well as to the concept of jouissance in lacanian theory (2020), the latter (nor any other) cannot exist outside of its relational structure, that can include the complexity of traumatic experience on various levels – as analysed, for instance, through the lense of intersectionality in social studies (Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1989).

The frame is rather simple, because it must not be ideological. It must be aware of its political situation and radically cut from their appropriation. It must on the contrary be a tool in order to reappropriate means for thinking and analysis to their full extent. Our responsability in making our situatedness as a species is total. It is literally in our hands, though we cannot ‘forget the punitive force that domination deploys against all bodily styles that are not consistent with the heteronormed relation that presides to the articulation of the regulating categories that are sex, gender and sexuality, punitive force that attempt to the very life of those bodies’, as added Elsa Dorlin3 – but we may also include other categories pertaining to differenciation based on social class, age, validity, …

Although pain and trauma, whether slight or large, are crucial to the development and self-consciousness of all beings, symbolic violence and domination, pervasive in the conflictual maintaining of a stable identity, are fully dependent on the legitimation of physical violence (Pierre Bourdieu, 2012) – hence the (meta-)hermeneutic intrication between violence and morals (Paul Ricœur, 2010). Violence is thus not necessary, but always chosen and political at some point, driven into the maintaining of self-enacting social structures, the reinforcing and teaching of their laws.

As violence is unnecessary as a ‘natural’ trait, it is also unnecessary and uninvited in the course of this theoretical corpus. The core of the work put forward here is, on the contrary, about demonstrating how much violence should be discarted as a given but as a full social construct, reinforcing self-inflicting symbolic ties. It is but a possibility that is the easiest to reproduce as a patterned behaviour, and it is always anchored in the affective and emotional ressources of our experience, marking us up to our aesthetic sense (Ellen Dissanayake, 2009).

The theory of the sensorimotor paradox implies necessarily the acceptation and opening to all the variety of intermediary spaces where the right of anyone to self-determine themselves cannot be but mutual. The spaces for such a right must apply to everyone, respectful to the spaces in-between that we open in common and around which to share what one would choose and fully consent to.

Cited bibliography :

  • Bourdieu Pierre, Sur l’État, Cours au Collège de France 1989-1992, Paris, Seuil, 2012
  • Butler Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990
  • Crenshaw Kimberlé, « Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics », University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989, Article 8
  • Dissanayake Ellen, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics », Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009), pp. 148-173
  • Dorlin Elsa, Sexe, genre et sexualités, Paris, PUF, 2018, p. 127
  • Haraway Donna, « Situated Knowledges : The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective », Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599 (25 pages)
  • Darian Leader, La jouissance, vraiment ?, Paris, Stilus, 2020
  • Ricœur Paul, Écrits et conférences 2 : Herméneutique, Paris, Seuil, 2010
  • Varela Francisco, Thompson Evan & Rosch Eleanor, The Embodied Mind, MIT Press, 1991

1Listen to Sam Bourcier Marie-Hélène Bourcier at the time) – Entretien – La Théorie Queer dans « Les Chemins de la philosophie » avec Adèle Van Reeth (2014), France Culture

2In Elsa Dorlin, Sexe, genre et sexualités, PUF, 2018, Paris, p. 127. My translation.

3It is however surprising that she refers to Sam Bourcier and Paul B. Preciado’s work by their dead name in her book. Though first published in 2008, we are surprised that the reedition would not update, should it betray the reluctance to grant trans speech their true legitimacy.

Facing trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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