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.
At this point, there is very little to add to the theory as it stands. As one practices both its implications and early buddhism, there comes to be little to think, else having to fabricate a thinking out of no reason. Hence, the theory has to become practice. All that is from the body doesn’t have to be turned, interpreted and projected into language and symbolic determination. From there comes the liberty not to self-determine an experience of some reality that is both real and remembered.
At this point, there is little to be thought of – and yet, we have to find a new practice for others to be.
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.
The idea of the unconscious is a construction, a representation born of the idea of the repressed, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud elaborated his representations of the psychic apparatus as the first topic – being the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious – around the year 1900, and the second topic – the id, the I and the superego – around 1923. Though there is an explicit connection in his work between what is proscribed and repressed to the mind into the unconscious and the matter of the body, this representation remains structured by a classical and binary view on the mind vs. the body – albeit Freud’s take on the theory of pulsions. Such a view still takes the mind as a closed system that somehow filters what can or cannot be expressed and assimilated to the structure of the self within a certain context. Whether we like it or not, speaking of an unconscious – rather than reflecting upon what remains unconscious as, unexpressed or unrepresented – essentialises the mental space where it is all supposed to take place, whatever we might think of it or do about it.
In the work that we are doing here, we suggested that the very capacity of our species to develop imagination and thoughts might have originated from a sensorimotor paradox, rooted in the very functioning of the body, its neural network and constant feedback with the individuals’ environment of interaction. In this case, mental images, symbolic relations and thoughts as mere simulations of sensorimotor memory would compose a whole that could not easily be told apart, as they are all intricated into one living, sensory and emotional experience. What can be tested by our direct experience is that we are constantly in control over what we can do or express or not. Necessarily, that control will inhibit what we forbid ourselves even to think of. What remains unconscious is simply what is forbidden and discarted from mental representation in our very constant relation with our cultural and social milieu.
As a consequence, of course, it impacts our conduct, our daily interactions, our experiences, creating new memories and especially, traumatic ones that will, in their turn, generate new points of control over what we allow ourselves to express, feel and think or not. To talk about an unconscious, it seems, would allow us to continue a process of disembodiement of that motion of control, that in fact occurs in this constant interaction with our surroundings from the moment that we are told how to do or not to do or think, encouraged to do some and discouraged to do others. Then, if we cannot understand and connect with our own agency why things are, should or should not be forbidden, of course, it will remain a traumatic inscription that cannot be told, because it cannot be talked about without facing an unsolvable conflict. If we cannot ask to understand something, we cannot let it out, make it something other than ourselves and consider it in common rather than identifying with it.
The very reification of the unconscious pertains to a feeling of control over what we think of our minds and bodies and what comes to us, without necessarily having to contextualise all that makes us a thinking body. That may be what we are going to do in this space for reflection.
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.
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.
Undergoing a Buddhist practice is no mean feat. The impact on one’s own daily life can be extensive, for it touches the very heart of what makes up for a human experience. The core of Buddhist philosophies, notably regarding the early texts1, remains remarkably modern in the ways that it critically tackles the notions of Self or Non-Self and the conditional structures of our perceptions, understood as both sensory and mental. But it also offers a path in order to make peace with the inherent instability of lived experience. It gets there from the observation that everything is always changing to some degree, which fact is ‘hard to face’ – dukkha. According to American psychologist Mark Epstein2, the etymology of the term dukkha (considered the first of the Four Noble Truths in early Buddhism3 and usually translated as ‘suffering’ or rather, as ‘unsatisfactory’, if we follow secular Buddhist scholar Doug Smith’s position) notably offers us a reflection on the nature of trauma, that we already inspected earlier.4 Trauma would be in all the moments of everyday life that may be ‘hard to face’, for whatever reasons and to whatever degree, whether slight or large.
Likewise, the unsatisfactory nature of many of our daily experiences can apply of course to painful experiences as much as to pleasurable ones, as they are as well destined to end eventually. The key practice of Buddhist philosophy would then be precisely to acknowledge our tendency to cling on to and identify with things in the world as if they pertained to some stable and everlasting entity or Self – though it really is impermanent, as all things are according to the Buddhist stance. As such, they can only be situated experiences and serve as skilful means to connect, enact and find understanding with others within specific contexts of interaction. From the mindful awareness of the tendency that we may have to react to distressful situations by clinging on to some fixed representations of how things, including ourselves and our practice, are or should be, we can learn to restrain those kinds of reaction born from fear and calm ourselves down.
If at the time, around the 5th century BCE, the Buddha reportedly elaborated his analysis on whether a notion of Self was skilful and on mental states and ethics in contradistinction with Brahmanic beliefs, the way that it highlights complex and intricated notions of identity is still vivid and deserves consideration. We already, in earlier essays, suggested how the interpretation of dukkha connected with our definition of trauma as founding our growth and (self-)perception, as an agent of contrast, adaptation and interpretation, that would mostly vary in degree.5 It would also be interesting to consider how the central idea of Non-Self and the Buddhist recommendations about it, such as equanimity toward change and non-attachment can raise useful connections to the core of the theory of the sensorimotor paradox. (Let us note that non-attachment is not to be mistaken for detachment and not caring about the world and others. On the contrary, non-attachment would be about welcoming but not grasping, not identifying and adopting an attitude of lovingkindness toward things around and within us that are impermanent and that we cannot totally control.)
The theory of the sensorimotor paradox
As to the heart of the theory of the sensorimotor paradox, as we remind it, it is the evolutionary hypothesis that the development of human species’ capacity for imagination might have been possible thanks to a sensorimotor paradox – first, the situation of gazing at one’s own hand(s). Sensorimotor usual interactions would break down as the object of the gazing here is the very same one as the hand that I would have the impulse to react with in relation to any other object. Biologist Gerald M. Edelman’s condition for self-consciousness would be satisfied, as the usual neural response to stimulation would then be ‘delayed or lagged’6. This particular situation would produce a disconnection of the sensorimotor image then generated from the possibility of its enaction toward this very situation – frozen. (It is to be noted here that we understand the concepts of sensorimotricity and enaction as used and developed by Chilean Biologist Francisco Varela in his work, that was deeply inspired by Buddhism itself.7)
That means that imagination, as a first support for later collective elaboration of networks of symbolisation, would rely on a gap opened within our capacity to spontaneously and compulsively respond to a situation on the sensorimotor level. In this disconnection between situation and sensorimotor reaction, the working and relative autonomy of the mental image that we would find ourselves caught into, as well as the emotional effect of being frozen into that moment would act as an equivalent substitution, so to release the entropy of restraining and delaying the response that would have been otherwise given. We, in a way, grasp to that image as there is nothing else that we can grasp on to.
It gives a complex configuration where I become myself the object of a somewhat abstract scene and complicated feeling, as my own hand alienates from myself and becomes part of something seeming to belong to the outside world. My perception of the latter, of what it is and means to me shifts as well, as it seems to become, through the assimilation of my hand, a part of me, an ontological experience. So, we do tend to identify to our mental images and representations as they are the substitutes to a most vital and bodily need for sensorimotor interaction. The disruption of this elementary capacity produces a situation of distress, that needs an emergency alternative, found in the situation itself and its imaginary-like outcome. Any idea and perception of a self would be, from that point, a reconstruction from the ongoing and traumatic (in the sense mentioned above) generation of sensorimotor memory, which would later on articulate with social interactions, rules and conventions, looped within itself, its own narrative activity and constant work of anticipation and interpretation. Eventually, it locates all its effort and tension internalising non-expressed and then repressed possibilities within the body.
In a way, as did psychoanalysis, for instance and to an extent with the freudian unconscious and the lacanian concepts of signifiers and the symbolic, early Buddhism aimed well at understanding how much any mental formalisation would come up as an attempt at grasping on to some safety resort, at rescuing oneself from distress, seeking a form of stability. As we saw, the state of paradox described in the theory that we developed before is a highly distressful one, as the very structure of sensorimotricity and capacity for the body to function is put at risk. In a passionating way, early Buddhist psychological analysis and the ways that it offers to heal and make peace with our disruptive sense of self are stimulating and encouraging, especially in dire times such as ours today.
What say ‘me’ ?
The second paradox that we discussed in the work that is being done here8 is the paradox of the word ‘me’. When I say ‘me’, aiming at the reality of my lived and non-communicable sensorimotor and emotional experience, I have to step out of that experience in order to involve the participation of someone else, which I hope to get in order to testify of the existence of such a concrete object as a ‘me’. We can see here how it connects with the Buddhist assertion according to which any permanent and everlasting ‘Self’ that we are expected to find by inspection is only seeming to exist within a conventional, relational and situated construct.
It also joins with the structure of the mirror phase, such as the one proposed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan since the 1930’s, taking up from Henri Wallon’s first observation : an ‘I’ can only exist within a dualistic structure where it would oppose a ‘you’ or a ‘it’ as a common and outside object of consideration. There, we need the outside gaze to give the object ‘me’ its form. As I say ‘me’, I also marvel at the possibility that such a space could open in-between me and someone else that would allow my own existence to become some object separated from my prime experience, which is so difficult to grasp. The word ‘me’, its fiction and narrative structure take me back into the circle of my relation to someone else that I wish to be supported by as the structure of a testified and ever-standing reality. So, there is a form of attachment, in the sense developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960’s. Saying ‘me’ may be an attempt at making contact again with someone else, even in the abyss of self-disruption, at recreating some stable bond though it is always unsure, because this ‘me’ reality needs the same relational structure to hold, beyond the security of a closer physical contact, which always ends eventually.
That is the same relational structure that we try to maintain on a moment to moment basis by compulsively diving into our constant stream of thought. We need someone to talk to and address just to maintain the formal representation and illusion of some self, that would exist and be expressed through speech : to talk is to exist within a bond to others that seems to guarantee a form of permanence, in a way by a relation of moral debt. By their name, we take debt from others to stay with us attached, for better or worse, even though that kind of permanence is but a wish that may overlap its possibility. Otherwise, we risk facing the gap that we mentioned before, this hole and lack of a possibility to respond, as we grew up as individuals integrating the codes of conduct and social behaviour that we intimately know rule our interactions with others and our capacity to be accepted and thus survive among them, should we feel safely that we can be loved. The theory of the sensorimotor paradox gives a possible way of understanding why the gap is inevitable as it would be founding our very capacity to think, to retain sensorimotor enaction within imaginary and symbolic processes.
The way of healing
On its side, Buddhism proposed very early efficient ways both to make peace with the non-existence of some self-evident Self that would exist outside of conventional and experiencial structures and situations, and to encourage the development of a middle-ground between abandoning the implication of a self and still feeling concerned by what happens to the world around us and others – a centred ethics between desperate nihilism and morals. In a way, it joins with some concerns raised by English psychoanalyst Darian Leader in most of his work, about indulging in some detached and looped-in theorisation on the nature of the mind, from the same groups of people which work should be of finding better ways of helping people in their own contexts of experience.9 The same distinction is made in early Buddhism, according to Doug Smith, between ‘No Self’ and ‘Non-Self’.10 Indeed, the claim made by the Buddha would not have been to say that we should eradicate the Self, but to understand that any experience of something like a ‘Self’ is but momentary and conventional, that we should not get attached to it hoping that it would last and support us forever. On the evolutionary level, of course, we can also link that perspective to scholar in neuroaesthetics Ellen Dissanayake’s suggestion that our aesthetic experience of the world is less about the semantic content of the forms that we create, for example in the arts, than the simple fact that we do have an unique and singular experience in which we find ourselves committed.11
And that is the whole point of the sensorimotor paradox theory, that we find ourselves taken in a situation where we are forced to be spectator and witness to our own experience, that immediately creates a scene that comes to mediate our means to address that experience. Our imagination becomes the place where the ‘I’ can exist so long as we make it, but there is still to make this very scene exist as well for others so to make evidence that its potential reality would survive beyond its passing moment. We need others to believe ourselves that that moment, the memory from which we try to make sense would be passed on and live forever in the world, and heal beyond that hope.
1 In their various recensions in Pāli, Sanskrit or Chinese, and claimed to be best represented today by the Theravāda tradition, though there seems to be controversies on the matter. You can find an introduction to the Theravāda in Walpola Rahula’s book, What The Buddha Taught (1959, 1974).
3We will lean very much on the introductory work by Doug Smith, Study Director at the Dharma Institute, notably as displayed on his YouTube channel Doug’s Dharma. See, on the subject of dukkha, « Buddhism’s First Noble Truth ».
5Read also Darian Leader, Jouissance. Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction, Stilus, 2020.
6In Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present, Basic Books, 1987.
7The last part of collective book The Embodied Mind (written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, MIT Press, 1991) is dedicated to the influence on their work of late Madhyamaka Buddhism and its ecological touch.
Taking inspiration from German philosopher Georg Hegel’s parable of the Master and the Slave, we could describe one of the main traits of what we might call the workings of the symbolic. Take a shore on a distant island. Two people would get to stand there and look at the horizon. One is a colonial person, the other is an indigenous person. The colonial person would look at the horizon and see, maybe, homeland. The indigenous person would look at the horizon and see, perhaps, a prison. The view is the same, but the sight is different. The colonial person would refer their experience to the land and country they came from. We could imagine that the indigenous person would feel they could never find their homeland back to the way it used to be. So works the symbolic : the word may be the same, but the memory that is sighted behind may be very different according to one’s situation (read also Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, 1988).
In his most significant work, that is what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorised as the object a, what is sighted, often without a name nor a clear image, behind the word or meaning that we address. And the same happens with the sensorimotor paradox : though one cannot go beyond the blocking of sensorimotricity when gazing at their own hand, their imagination has to go beyond, simulating a different sight. Memory tries to simulate the image of a situation where sensorimotricity is still valid and functioning. It’s just a way for our neural system to survive the delay or lag of the response, as biologist Gerald M. Edelman stated (The Remembered Present, 1989).
Later on, this leads us to a more daily and contemporary experience out of the evolutionary perspective : the social control cast on one’s body into prescribed conducts forces them into integrating a relation with what has to be blocked in their spontaneous interactions with their surroundings. Body expression is channelled through blocking sensorimotor interactions, a blocking that would force the body and, let us suppose, the neural system into a paradox : to get the impulse to enact an interaction and have itself self-restrained. To justify the self-restraint of sensorimotricity must be balanced with the perspective of, at least, an imaginary resolution, so the entropy of the blocking would not lead to an outburst.
We do not need to still be staring at our own hand to experience a sensorimotor paradox when a whole social system of imagination and self-awareness has been based on controlling body expression and sensorimotor interaction. What keeps us in sight of something, in spite of the violence of feeling restrained, keeps being rooted in the capacity to maintain a viable imaginary perspective, even blinded by the illusion of something else. Likewise, words comprise a distance, that is implicit to the sensorimotor and relational disposition in which words and speech modalities are learnt and take place. We learn to speak and exchange with a certain physical distance from others, and the memory of the right distance to observe is also comprised in the use of words. Then speech, especially self-speech in the constant stream of thoughts, is also a way to recreate this safe distance that is also a measure of the liberty to act. It comes to sensorimotricity and its memory at the very heart of words. Whether raising awareness to some other part of our surroundings when staring at our own hand or desperately trying to occult a reality that we cannot socially address with some other word, image or discourse, the symbolic always functions as a re-establishment of a viable sensorimotor perspective that we could enact ourselves from as a living being.
That is why, as French queer activist Delphine Montera stated (@autistequeer_le_docu on Instagram), analysing a systemic structure such as Ableism can be powerful tool for a broader social, political and intersectional analysis. This synthesis between the evolutionary hypothesis of the sensorimotor paradox theory and what we experience today on a daily basis as human beings may be the most important bridge to consider and take care of here. We may not have much time to delay or reverse the consequences of our History and the way that we persevere into self-destructive politics in our societies. But as long as there is a bridge, there is a possibility for transformation.
One of the key features to understand the outcomes of the sensorimotor paradox proposition, as to the situation of the body in social and moral conduct, is that we constantly and compulsively have to justify to ourselves our being still. We could be bursting in the moment and open space for interaction with the impulse to enact what we see – especially being kept on hold for so long. But we don’t do that, for we have been taught not to, respectfully of what is considered convenient to whatever society we came to live in. That is where we desperately need a relation in order to situate our still body, obedient to the social rules through moral teaching, to justify that we do so.
With our inspection of the workings of trauma and Darian Leader’s work on the question of pain (La jouissance, vraiment ?, 2020), we stressed the fact that every experience – even the slightest sensory situation of contact – was subject to a reorganisation of what is actually available and possible in the world for the person. Further more, this potential space opens to interpretation as soon as it comes to involve someone else’s gaze – and even our own as someone else’s. But something that we haven’t adressed yet is that we have to live with ourselves then, with some body of ours entered the realm of strangers, and that is something quite different again than elaborating long-term meaning. What happens with the day-to-day insecurity of having to maintain the structure and the frame for constant self-interpretation through the possibility of the other’s gaze is relying on the very personal sense of one’s own body being highly subject and vulnerable to aggressions. Why should we trust the possibility that we would not be hurt ?
The learning of strategies to prevent oneself from being hurt shows lines that are common to main social structures and some that are more specific to local experiences and to the singularity of the person. The distribution of moral violence would depend on the variety and diversity of the spaces into which we project possibilities. However, the liberty to move freely, should it not be hurtful to anyone, is more often submitted to moral scrutiny. The conformity to social norms, as to what is proper a form for a human being in society, is mostly taught out of fear of rejection and sanction, more than out of a dialogue and the teachings of consent and mutual self-determination. The efficiency of morals relies on the uniformity of its application, rather than the observation and expression of local idiosyncraties.
Then, as much as we feel compelled to justify our being here as a trustworthy member of the group, we also finally owe ourselves to justify our own obedience to the collective gaze, especially where it comprises various forms of brutality – most of them systemic and non-expressed to the social and political conversation in any other way than being what is ‘normal’ or performed as such (Judith Butler, Gender trouble, 1990). We, in fact, tend to be well aware of a form of captivity, to which we have to consent if not willing to be the figure of the outcast. Where we are can be the place of the socially right or the socially wrong – or the invisible at the intersection of political structures of oppression (Kimberlé Crenshaw, « Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics », 1989). But still, a body kept still, its possibilities to enact put on hold to imagination, is an impatient body, that we have to reason out. We have to set ourselves back to the relational structures of obedience and speech readiness against the very near possibility to burst out of stillness into the image that we extracted from a perceptive contradiction.
As seen with Francisco Varela’s work (The Embodied Mind, 1991), sensory perception is co-dependent on the modalities of sensorimotor interaction. We see a world that we could enact from. The modalities of our perception are tied up to the way our body constantly produces and creates a world where it is « functional ». We perceive what we actively act towards and reciprocally, what we sense is acting to us to another kind of world already. Each contact to our senses is sort of a meeting that we commit to. As we saw, the fact that a sensorimotor paradox – the activity of our hands through the development of bipedal stance and the sensorimotor contradiction of seeing the hand that can’t reach itself – could have produced an image without the possibility to enact it would be key to the birth of imagination. Moreover, we have to situate ourselves to it, and that is what we called the workings of trauma. Then, when we enter the symbolic structures of language, of social and moral debt and of interpretation, we have to keep our own body available for that kind of consistent work and keep ourselves ready and aware of its necessity. We have to keep on being human on these social and intimate terms. That is a harsh kind of self-training, never perfected because always highly dependent on the evaluation of others, its moral prescription and the perspective of the sanction.
So we have to tell our body to wait until the spaces come where it would be safe. Until then, we try our best to keep it together – our vigilance to the way that it is perceived by others, the pursuit of our own way to go through, the preservation of intimate spaces for relief. The relational duty we have to others is then also relying on that relational duty to our own body that concentrates the whole of our experience. The question of impulse, that we discussed in The Vulvic Network section, is thus fundamentally less pertaining to a sexual endeavour than to the very necessity to keep this sensorimotor contradiction from any possible enaction. We now hope to bring that matter to the conversation, in order to shed some clarity on the perspective of any enduring cure.
Trauma has a deep and discrete connection with failure and mourning. When the attempt of meeting fails, the continuity of the body’s existence pushes us to recreate bond with it, to find meaning again. Meaning comes because of something that is not self-evident anymore. The presence of our own body doesn’t look up to the same reality. We have lost an attempt, yet our body reminds us that we are still on the try, on one side of the river.
This essay wants to acknowledge the progress that we have made with the theory of the three paradoxes in making the foundations of the cognitive structures of our species clearer. And at the same time, we are still wondering on its outcomes. What kind of ethics should it claim from us ? Are we ready not to seek means of control and increase them, but to rethink the way we situate ourselves in those living ecosystems that we share with other species ? As many plead for a better consideration of ecofeminisms’ analysis, what we have learnt now should encourage us to validate their concerns.
The structure of trauma is then very important to consider, because it all starts with an effort to meet reality, a reality that we represent to ourselves, something in front of us, part of us but impossible to reach permanently. The hand that I see in front of me is at the same time the one that I keep. Being both, it cannot be decided as either one of them without destroying the part that I do not choose. The memory of this situation literally gives birth to imagination, and its coordination with the teaching of the presence of others, to symbolic meaning. We only partly choose what is meaningful to us.
Having a mind in human terms means that we are stuck between two possible worlds – the world that is myself and the world that is something else – and never allowed to part from this space in-between. We weave trauma as we tell stories to express this state of being at the same time actor-ress and audience to our own being seen. As long as we interpret what we see and what we suppose that is seen, we cannot choose side. We are always wandering in the breach between both. We need the other that might see us to exist in the symbolic world that we hold in stead of being there. Psychoanalysis, notably, cannot bypass the assumption that our own reality is withheld inside of its evasive fundamental nature. We will all lose in the end the thread that ties us to others. That we will let it go, is certain. That we must look forward to what remains, is better.
This essay will try, not to be explicit, but to be honest and sincere about what we think is good to be taken : the existence of the body, interpretation and language, culture and creolisation, and most of all, the cure and the care.
Voluntarily, we will favour sources from women, trans*1 and non-binary people as much as possible. Likewise, we will put forward points of view and perspectives from minorities of race and class. The reason is that sometimes, the consistency between the norm of knowledge and its social tacit contracts must be broken to admit other forms of reality, being nonetheless human.
The consistency of the telling can and must be allowed to be broken and disrupted, especially when it has been confiscated for political reasons. What the theory of the sensorimotor paradox has informed us, is that one symbolic order is always relative to the interpretation one makes over their situation toward pain. Trauma reifies pain, transforms it into a voice of our own.
The voice of trauma tries hard to steal the pain away, but is always the most powerful to dialogue with it. Discovering Agnès Dru’s work on choregraphy and her reflection around the idea of creolisation, as developed by Edouard Glissant, writer born in Martinique, made me think again about the subversive nature of the telling of trauma.
We have to acknowledge the debt. Then I think that the best way to tell the story of meaning in our human species’ evolution is to stay as close as possible to the power of trauma to upset the way that we, people, make History our own.
I – From a sensorimotor paradox to interpretation
Creolisation demands that the heterogenous elements put in relation ‘intervalue each other’, that there be no degradation or reduction of the being, either from the inside or the outside, in this contact and in this mixing. And why creolisation and not crossing ? Because creolisation is unpredictable, though one could calculate the effects of a crossing.
Edouard Gilssant, Introduction à une poétique du divers, 1995
It might seem odd that we would evoke a notion such as creolisation while making connections to a theory of anthropogenesis. Now, take that odd. What are the postulates of the three paradoxes theory ?
We consider that a simple sensorimotor paradox due to the development of bipedal stance might have sufficed to permit the elaboration of the human cognitive structures of thinking.
This paradox would be due to the « delay or lag » (condition of Edelman) in the motor response to sensory sollicitation (whilst I am holding my own hand in front of me in order to see it as something else than myself, I can only keep my body suspended, frozen). This delay would disconnect the production of a sensory memory from the necessity to enact a motor response ; hence, the production of pure images, at first a representation of oneself.
Imagination would have to find its way to a proper shared social value while sharing this experience with others. The symbolic comes from shared and recurrent meaning and thus, is arbitrary and idiosyncratic to the group.
Then, as a consequence, the relativity and conjectural nature of the norms of our knowledge, likely based on Western Sciences, must be acted.
Which means that we have all to gain in considering an extraction from a partial and situated point of view that, despite its qualities, is consitent with structures of systemic political domination.
21st century thinking cannot be other than decolonial, feminist, deductive of class analysis. As stated by intersectional feminist figures such as (but not limited to) Angela Davis, bell hooks, Colette Guillaumin or Françoise Vergès, without those dimensions, the consistency of the production of thinking with structures of political and social determination would tend to exclude a non-neglectable portion and spectrum of actual human experiences. The idea of decolonialism, born in South America in the 1990’s, states that despite the end of formal colonialism, racism – deeply connected to sexism – keeps on living as a structural motive to the unequal distribution of wealth and political power. Coloniality dictates what is proper and valid as a representation of the norm and the critique of neoliberalism would thus point out the disparities in the application of what should be an egalitarian political liberalism. However, capitalism still creates and maintains a partial ruling of its own competition doctrine (social darwinism).
The assumption that the advance of Western societies regarding its scientific, technological and legal sophistication should justify their domination over other forms of societies should on the contrary push us to deconstruct the idea that this supposed advance would be a goal in itself. Hence the ethics of knowledge in front of an imperialist doctrine. The one who knows, what do they know and what for ? How is knowledge shared and what should the ethics of right be in those exchanges ? How to identify the structures of violence in any culture without be biaised to our own ?
There would be, at the heart of any assumption of knowledge, the desire to be recognised as valid to the group. Attachment is one of the most fundamental motions guiding a human life as well as so many other species’.2 That is why the structures of society conditioning the access to legit recognition are so important to scrutinise, because the debt to those who are excluded from that legitimity would be either justified or denied by those who would benefit from it. As we made the goal to our own development conditioned by a competitive system, we would benefit from the exclusion of the contestants. Dealing with their will to exist in one way or another demands either an immediate physical repression or the setting of symbolic ties to keep the possibility of repression up as a menacing signal. (By the way, interestingly the history of virility and the taming of the male bodies to martial obedience would, according to philosopher Olivia Gazalé [Le mythe de la virilité, 2017], as far as we may know come way back from Greek and Roman’s Antiquity.3) One would just have to give another enough to lose.
Why think on the idea of creolisation then, here ? Because, as Françoise Vergès answered on an interview on France Culture, on March 8th 2019, some important notion such as feminism are in a way tagged, for example, to a cultural situation. Then to Françoise Vergès, who was raised in the island of La Réunion and lived in Algeria, the idea of ‘feminism’ was not consistent with her experience, but seemed to pertain to a white bourgeois movement and to this application of French universalism – ‘we are all French’, but in practice, some are more French, more legit than others to the title and knowing better what is best for everyone – that is colonial in essence. Education cannot define but what is understood as common as to come to the good.
This example stresses that words do have a technical meaning but also a social and a personal meaning. They have a powerful symbolic impact and we cannot be oblivious of the fact that our text, our telling our reality, will be inevitably interpreted and received differently according to the reader. Our simple being here in one social space is providing a very heterogenous variety of meanings according to whom would read it.
Our attachment, in the theory of the three paradoxes, to the sensorimotor condition to the genesis of thinking is connected with a demand to be open to this variety of interpretations to which leads the situation of each individual’s experience. The very idea of situated knowledge, promoted by feminist thinker Donna Haraway, invites us to go further into its implications to the sensorimotor paradox theory.
Nothing gets meaning outside of the stimulation of sensorimotor imaging. It is the capacity to apprehend an action and at the same time to block its enacting that situates meaning at the core of human experience. One of the conditions of the theory is that no change, no evolution in any species comes from the sky. It only comes as a co-adaptative and chance-like interaction with changing environments and as well changing as our perception and the modalities of our interaction with them change (F. Varela, E. Thompson and E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, 1993).
Language only comes as a way to temporarily fixate our relation to our environments and the way that we situate ourselves within – I agree, it is a very ecofeminist way to tackle the issue. As our experience changes constantly, it is only a matter of wishful thinking that we would hold words and other manifestations of meaning (gestual, graphic) as faithful depictions of how we value our progress in existence amongst others. The harder we try to permanently apply those structures in a rigid way, for fear of losing grip on reality, the more we discart the callings of our own perception of it.
Words contain more than a solid truth, they contain memory that is deeply embodied in our personal history. The way that we move and perceive ourselves is marked by the situation we adapted to in order to be accepted, first as children, then as grown ups. The image that we show of ourselves in the public spaces, no matter how large, is also shaped by a variety of slight or larger traumas that determined our own personal creolisation.
The definition that we established of the trauma is that it is not that much of the shock that created the wound, but the mark left by it and the activity of healing over it. Roughly, we described it as a a + b = c equation. An object b meets a subject a (the quality of subject can be reciprocal, regardless of the intensity of the meeting) ; but after the meeting, the result is no longer one or the other but a new object that is the mark, visible or invisible, the memory of the meeting.
Further more, the possible meaning in the etymology of trauma that is ‘the defeat’ suggests its interpretative nature. It is about the response that we give away and the meaning that we have then given to the presence of this memory in our life. It is about how we tell the story of our situation in the shared world of imagination, to which we mimetically intergrate the example of others. The impact that this memory has deep down in our body drives our conduct up in discrete ways – that is why trauma can be unconsciously passed to generations.
What we have to learn from the narratives of colonial heritage and slavery is not that different from what we would have to learn from ourselves if we really tried to ask the question. What is the value of such a word, of such a knowledge in the way that one perceives themself ? Knowledge is always deeply personal. We know nothing for knowledge itself. We only situate ourselves with knowledge – don’t we dialogue with the actions of our hands and thoughts ? It should be then first consistent with the way we actually situate ourselves, logically, before to connect with more global considerations.
What we learnt from the sensorimotor paradox is that we are compulsively (to borrow from biologist Julia Serano) in demand to resolve the contradiction within itself. Our imagination is dependent on the domestication of the body at the service of the liberation of the production of images from sensorimotor enaction. The fabric of our capacity to use memory to the service of the combination of sensory imprints and their identification demands that we tell our body to be available for it, and then to stop or partialy stop to respond to our direct environments.
We progressively learn to compartmentalise our responses and their address, so that we can and must maintain a stream of thoughts – that is the representation of our conduct – and at the same time continue to interact. We are still seeking stability through this. As psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said so elegantly, we learn to be alone in the presence of others, connecting what is not communicable (our sensory experience) with what can be through language. The sides of language depend on the other people’s interpretation : the way we move, the way we show faces (see mother-infant interactions in Ellen Dissanayake’s neuroaesthetics studies), what we ask, the attention that we ask and the way that we ask it.
All that pertain to some ‘meta-hermeneutics’, to the sensorimotor fabric of interpretation that implies that we observe ourselves progress in the representation of our own world of meaning. To the latter we connect common meanings and ideas, patterns and structures to our own traumatic experience. So it is never abstract and it is always massive, because the body is a mass of its own and should be respected.
That is why the aim of this essay is to converge to our body’s deep and rich experience, always unique, in order to situate our presomption of knowledge in the light shed by the hypothetical advance of the theory of the three paradoxes.
The idea of meta-hermeneutics came from the statement that the body is constantly subject to interpretation. It emits meaning as a feedback to the way we anticipate that it would be interpreted in time and space. That I imagine myself doing something pertains to such an anticipation. Not only meaning is sedimented in verbal language, but the total sensorimotor experience and its memory are engaged in meaning. It is always one meaningto one body.
Language works with two main qualities and operators : analogy and combination. To make language out of something requires only to give it meaning in reference to a normative setting ; hence, the expectation and anticipation, which requires to be aware of whole formalised narrative patterns (Paul Ricœur, Temps et récit, 1983). A norm is always a measuring tool, as to its mathematical definition. I see my own hand that I hold in front of me, then I am situated as a subject relatively to this state of tension to my own hand. I create time and space relatively to that measure. Between the two is the norm that conditions interpretation – that means, the practice of analogies and combinations from a set of elementary notions and references.
Language is structural. Its speaking and writing are only the emerged and visible, the communicable aspects of it. But its structure leans on the whole commitment of the body to its sensorimotricity and the channeling of memory. That is why we started with trauma, because trauma is holding the line, it is demanding attention and arousing concern and care. Trauma roots our emotional resources in the experience and memory of the body and creates a norm for itself. When this memory is triggered, there is a signal for a response, that is how the living works. Trauma is sensory and memory and it creates an object that was unknown before. Trauma, either slight or large, creates the reactualisation of our relation to the world. It creates new conditions for it. We interpret our situation because of trauma.
Yet, contrarily to most species, the voluntary use of those memories, their modularisation, formalisation, combination and generalisation are due to a measure of control on our own capacity to produce images : that means, to produce new memories, to forge them out of the compilation of sedimented and articulated meaning. But again, what makes language here is not only that, but the fact that we constitute the conditions so it could be shared with someone else. Language needs mutuality, then it needs conventions. It needs a shared norm to which each member of the group would comply to make a minimal understanding.
Thus, the way I move would in itself not constitute a language but only as it would eventually anticipate someone else’s interpretation. Then I would conduct my movements to what I suppose would be a convention and a norm for meaning. You would find analogy (I compare myself to the norm) and combination (I adjust heterogenous elements and cues to a consistent normed ensemble). The way I walk is a sedimented compilation of such an internalised social control on how the body should be read in the shared space.4
The capacity to voluntarily recall oneself to the situation of being observed and having to adjust to the others’ gaze is provided with the capacity to hold the body from its actual situation in space and time, and to create a controlled new norm for experience in which the emotional resources are everything. When the sensorimotor paradox of the gazed hand, emotions become central and it resonates with our position in-between (like the mirror phase in psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory). As Ellen Dissanayake stated, the body imprint in the (proto-)aesthetic experience is primary to its semantics :
‘If one considers the temporal arts, it is clear that not all arts are symbolic— for instance vocalizing or playing a musical instrument, marking beats, or dancing. Their effects are emotional more than cognitive-symbolic: they attract attention, sustain interest, and create and mold emotion. Visual marks need not automatically be assumed to be representational, as in the earliest drawings of children and, arguably, the earliest rock markings of our ancestors. On the contrary, these are traces of marking as an activity in its own right, having an effect on the world and making the ordinary surface extraordinary. Aesthetic operations of regularizing or formalizing, repeating, exaggerating, and elaborating these marks are additionally interesting and satisfying, even when they are not symbolic.’5
It of course depends on the definition that we make of the symbolic. In the more lacanian sense, it would mean something that constitutes a sedimented meaning, a substitution ; but also a tension to something lost inthetranslation. The notion of symbolic is consistent with the collective inscription and handling of trauma and the idea of nost-algia, ‘the pain of the return’, the latter being impossible. We take the symbol for something else.
In fact, the discrepancy between the sedimented memory and its representation creates a tension to what is impossible to transform. You cannot transform something that is in something that was – in the same way that you can’t decide whether this hand is the one that you hold or the one that you gaze, which cannot be simultaneous. The sensorimotor paradox, which would be theoretically founding the cognitive structures of our species, makes it very difficult to situate the place of the subject. Is it in the tension to the object I hold my attention to or in the fact that, holding the object, I am also holding my own self participating to a moment of intense relation ? As to shared traumatic experiences (in the large sense including basic sensory experiences), we collectively try to withhold what social interactions can’t or don’t allow to express and how much trauma can be written in shared spaces.
But as it would be rooted in the sensorimotor paradox with our hands, it would not be illogical to think imagination as simulating the response that hasn’t been actualised.6 An image is always perceived as a substitution, an analogy for something that the body would experience. To mentally hold an image is not that much different from actually holding it with our hands. – The situation is transposed, but isn’t it the same with symbolic inscription ? The less it is expressed, the more it relies on this tension to anticipate the response that would be given at least as a substitutive image.
Ellen Dissanayake situates the nest of the proto-aesthetic process in the mother-infant early interactions – involving repetition, formalisation and ritualisation in order to draw attention. Of course, the theory of the sensorimotor paradox is mostly relevent in an anthropogenealogical perspective, to mark the turn between some of the common structures between mammal species and what makes the specificity of ours. Then the environments in which individuals are born change progressively.
The early encounters and interactions that a human infant makes today are radically different to those of our prime ancestors. The conducts get progressively codified, taught to be conform to a collective norm for mutual interpretation. Again, evolution is always fully interactive and by adapting our means to relate to our environments, we make our perspectives toward them evolve ; as well for those surrounding us.
A world with humans is radically different for any species to adapt to than a world without. Yet, the proscriptive way of analysing evolution proposed by biologist Francisco Varela – stating that less than seeking optimal adaptation, species would only have to find stability as long as some critical situations, endangering survival and procreation, would be successfully avoided – enables us to think meaning as something that most of the time escapes moral prescription and encapsulation, as well in the field of language. The foundings of psychoanalysis rely on this idea that something in the body’s experience is unprescriptible, irreducible and escapes but its own normalisation.
Allegedly, the idea of a sensorimotor paradox resolves the aporia by determining a most probable point to what is irreducible in the experience of (self-)consciousness. We are enthusiastic as to capacity that it offers to consider symbolic experience as a result of an embodied co-adaptative setting for long-term evolution.
Once learnt how to experience such a thing as distancing imagination from the body’s response and emerging the emotional resources for self-consciousness, it only has to be stabilised in time, and repeated over and over in the same way that we continually speak to ourselves in our own minds.
But what is a paradox in the first place, and most of all a sensorimotor one ? A paradox is a rupture in logics. Roughly, it is saying that a = b with b ≠ a. You would summon an equivalence between two objects that are radically unidentical or incompatible. A paradox is an attempt to make coexist two entities that structurally cannot, like two opposite magnets.
In the terms of the sensorimotor paradox, it means that the object of my own hand cannot be at the same time the mean to achieve an action and the manifestation of a still object that I would focus on. Sensorimotricity implies that I would be aware of the presence of my hand in space and time to my senses ; yet it is not the same thing than to want and summon it to stay right in front of me as if it would not be coordinated to me anymore.
Each time I interact with my surrounding environments, sensorimotricity means the way that my movements and my senses constantly coordinate together in order to make those interactions, to enact possibilities offered by them. We learn from what we discover that we can do with what is surrounding us. With the development of bipedal stance, our hands got more and more liberty to express new ways of interacting and at the same time, a special dedication to grasping things, as well as a certain idleness whenever they are not used. Far from the nose and mouth, our relation to surrounding things is more and more mediated by the specialisation of our hands.
That means that whenever I would hold my own hand in front of me as to see what it is, the attention it would catch from me to stare at it momentarily freezes my whole body to be attentive. The hand is no longer the mean to interaction, it is the object of a possible interaction in and with itself. I summon the fixity of two parties, making coexist two impossible things : a hand that would and would not be mine, a body that would likely be to resume interaction but frozen to its object.
The possibility to make this relation exist and to keep it still pushes the subject into subjugation, for the otherness quality of this hand cannot be fully extracted from the concrete reality of its being part of my own body. Two kinds of reality come to coexist in the same object : being or not being me, something ‘other than me’ to the control of my body. So I can control something other than me, the image of a thing there, through the stillness and focus of my body. Therefore again, the paradox opens the way to an impossible solution that I envision as a crush in something that should be logical.
If anything goes right and sensorimotricity keeps on cycling, I am not to be conscious of its nature. Its disruption, in another hand, makes me aware of the structure that supports it. Experience becomes other than self-evident as I shift my perspective. The world around me becomes a question as the previous modalities of my interactions with it came to disruption. I am exposed as a body with an experience, as this same experience got exposed by being cut from the necessity of its tie to sensorimotricity.
The paradox is that I can come back and forth yet cannot stay but in-between, because my experience is nevertheless rooted in sensorimotor condition. The paradox is a moment when I identify to the image that has been produced. More than that, I identify to the relation I made to it, to the extraordinary tension that it provoked. But also, the artificial character of this situation indicates that it requires a voluntary commitment. The deep personal connection that I would make with such a relation exposes the quality of the subject as I become one to myself. I become an experience separated from the rest. I ‘discommit’, to borrow from philosopher Etienne Bimbenet.7
A paradox has a dazing quality that discombobulates as one cannot find the usual path between elements. Something of the sublime is contained, reminding of what is laying in the unknown. Most of horrific literature rely on displaying anomalies in the fabric of the usual sense of reality, such as in H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories. If the latter wrote his stories out of a very deep sense of xenophobia that has to be inspected, criticised and contextualised, it is interesting to value the precedent he set to Western imagination.
Most of the time, first person scientific record is employed to make the anomaly concrete in contrast to a firm establishment of rational thinking. The characters are reluctant to say what they experienced as being too radical and irrational to be taken for granted. But has imagination not this quality of being set in total breaking from ordinary experience of reality and then, pushing us to create new connections beyond our cultural inscription, between the world that we live in andthis secondary strange layout of transformed memory imprints ? In fact, it seems to make sense that we constantly make correspondence between what we are to experience in the present moment and the stabilisation of images that we use to rely on, to make sense from the very destabilisation of reality. Because we have to make some sense out of them, in the same way that a person experiencing psychosis would try to make sense out of a disruption in the experience of reality (Darian Leader, What is madness ?, 2011).
Further more, one thing that the sensorimotor paradox introduces is a rising entropy. The activity of the body is mostly cyclic and constantly has to renew itself while the paradox, introducing a disruption in the cycle, forces attention to a straight connection. While the body is put on hold, its internal energy still produced is also waiting for resuming its resolution and transformation.
So the paradox creates stillness and the fixation of an artificial state. It creates a linear perspective to a sole problem : how to get out of it ? Again, it marks trauma as something that cannot be resolved but only bypassed, resumed to the normal activity of the body. The attachment to what was represented and emotionally charged but not recovered would be a strong motive to anguish and depression. Nostalgia is a fundamental drive.
But the image cannot be eternally fixed, for the body is always cycling. Like in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things (1996), life gets circling around the stillness of trauma, erasing the traces and covering it up with new memories. Yet the effort to recover from a wound creates blank spots as we refuse and deny access to experiences that might revive the pain. What it forbids us pushes us to new adaptations.
The way that we relate to our environments, to others and our own body is not solely determined by our traumas but the detours that we take to avoid it while it is still trying our attention. Likewise in the sensorimotor paradox, it is not the paradox in itself that may have driven our thoughts to the evolution of the human mind but in fact, all the ways that we bypassed its impossibility in order to make sense out of our experience of the world again.
An interesting parallel can be made with psychoanalytic literature, when Jacques Lacan evokes Sigmund Freud’s work from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in his seventh seminary on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Let us quote :
‘This is [the primary drive to experience reality] what Freud points out to us when he says that the primary goal and the closest to the test of reality is not to find in real perception an object that would correspond to what the subject represents to themselves at the time, but it is to find it again, to testify to oneself that it is still present in reality.
[…] This is without a doubt a course of control, of reference, according to what ? – to the world of their desire. They make proof that something, after all, is really there that, to a certain extent, may be useful. […] This object will be there when all the conditions will be fulfilled, in the end – of course, it is clear that what it is about to be found cannot be found. It is of its nature that the object is lost as it is. It will be never found again. Something is there in the meantime, if not something better or worse, but in the meantime.
The Freudian world, that means the one of our experience, includes that this is this object, das Ding, as an absolute Other of the subject, that it is about to find.’8
For what we may be cautious of about the context of creation of both Freudian and Lacanian’s theory9, there is this thing in common that we can connect to our analysis. According to Jacques Lacan, ‘the necessity to speak ideas, to articulate them, introduces between them an order that often is artificial.’10 This, in Lacanian theory, corresponds to the chain of the signifier, that we may understand now as a consequence of the incapacity to resolve the founding sensorimotor paradox. The entropy and ‘the structure of experience accumulated’, all the memory that has not been followed by a resolution in their enaction, is condemned to swirl and to find ways in and out on their own.
It is interesting to view language as a certain way not to interact but to recreate the movement of possible interactions from a distance, to recreate scenes that would match convenient patterns. We are made the subject of an experience of not being able to resolve a situation that should have been. We have to maintain it open. We are are made subject of an impossibility and it is quite crual to be made a subject, because we are put at the centre of an irresolution and become the object of a desperate seek for it to be resolved nonetheless.
For one thing, the sensorimotor paradox allowed us (if confirmed) to gather a sense of ourselves being remotely connected to things around us and a sense of ourselves for its own sake. The first idea when it came to it was to analyse the correspondence we could have made between the distant connection to our own hand and the one symbolically situating objects around us for our own reference. Again, analogy and combination. This tree there maybe is not that different from me and my hand, maybe they are equivalent, maybe I can grasp the idea that this tree would have an answer for me to the problem of my hand.
Suddenly, I can rely on those things surrounding me as to release the discomfort of being suddenly me and only me. Nothing else can be expected from this moment, yet it compulsively cannot just be useless – it has to be meaningful on the contrary. We ask from the things surrounding us an answer to the anxiety of being resourceless in front of our own emotions. There is all to wager that the beginnings of our thinking should have possessed something of a madness. To quote Darian Leader, there is ‘a difference between being mad and going mad’. The intensification of the relation to reality would have given quite an insolent power to those things around us, and we must say that thinking in itself, if not supported by convention, is very close to what we call psychosis. To interpret their being there when we feel so confused would have likely been in fact the early moments of mystical reading and finding meaning in the world whenever it made no sense anymore.
We become subject by becoming an object to a world of meaning (that sometimes pushes us to reappropriate what is offensive to us). Only convention separates the subject from the world that creates them. This way we interpret ourselves as demanding support from a knowing world, for we suppose that there is some consistence in a world that seems to stand so well when we can barely know what is happening to us. Whenever we receive this support, it is good to be, otherwise, we are not so sure.
That also has to do with the very structure of trauma, as we perceive the other that is touching us as a force that is pushed on us in their otherness, that we have to make our own – not much as a subject, but as an alien object (so is the paradoxical hand). That is why it is always about the narrative of how we are left in the world after meeting the other. We talked about slight trauma because the cause of trauma doesn’t have to be massive in itself to constitue an experience. The touch of a leaf falling on our arm is a trauma. It is a contact, and we try to give meaning if not to the leaf itself, at least to the moment and scene where the experience happened with something other than us.
It is very important to remember that from the moment we adjusted to a situation where we learnt that we could in fact not respond while being virtually able to – the ‘virtually being paradoxical –, we could summon this control over ourselves to wonder about the very possibility that things would happen to us as we would be the centre of a world of meaning.
For a centre to be, an inertia has to be set. From that inertia, we would decide of the value and necessity of a response or we could simply be at the centre and see what would happen to us. We would likely give priority and motion to what would come to be surrounding us rather than necessarily resume our busy focused life.
Then the strangeness of our own hand moving can become as fascinating as any other creature’s. To borrow from Ellen Dissanayake again, the ordinary can become extra-ordinary simply by charging with the intensity of our affective demand for a relation to the world. But who or what is going to take charge of meaning and the organisation of time and space in this time being ? What is going to drive and modulate our attention ?
The formalisation of speech has a lot to do with the thinning of body activity at the heart of the paradoxical sensorimotor suspension. We are always in and out of sensorimotricity as we summon our memories and at the same time have to send the signal to others and the world that we are still setting the course of a dialogue. The support that we seek from our environments is for releasing the anxiety of being pointless at the moment when the paradoxical state founding our conduct is not derived to a distraction.
In fact, if we stay still, we are vulnerable to attacks or any contact. The anxiety of suspending the body in its sensorimotricity is that what’s around us is still happening, including the risk that somebody or something would cut us from our moment and demand a response from us that would have become less than obvious. Stillness has to be codified as to guarantee a safe space around us. Hence giving meaning to the world and mapping reality as a minimal measure of control.
It is dangerous to stop and think. Literally, it was and is when we would start to question whether to run or wonder. We wouldn’t chase a rabbit but may be struck by the flash of its running through the bush. What the other does that we can’t do would maybe start to appear more familiar in the strangeness of our own feelings. At least something is running through while we cannot decide where our feet are.
At last, we start to read things as if they were a clue to our own extension. We would have to measure the distance from our disability to determine ourselves. ‘What is it asking from me ?’ And the other one that is like me, what does they want from me if I am made unabled to respond ? And what is the alternative ?
Interstingly, in a conversation with writers Marci Blackman and Darnell Moore called « From Pain to Power » on The New School, October 7th 2015, writer and scholar bell hooks refers to psychoanalyst Alice Miller by saying that ‘the abused child can survive if they have a witness. In the sense that the witness becomes the person that offers you a different sense of yourself.’ Alice Miller wrote that ‘our body does never lie’ and in the same way, it connects to the definition that Jacques Lacan gives of the real as ‘what you would always find again at the same place’11 and the symbolic being circling around it.
What does come to stop the blankness of the state of paradox that would constitute the basis of an availability for thinking ? Something has to drive us out of the stupor that the sensorimotor paradox would provoke, and it should be true that the idea of a third party between us and ourselves would offer this other perspective. Because the state of paradox is a restraint and it is intense and painful in an unique way. Coming from the outside, the other may be a thread to catch in order to find back the track to shared reality. Maybe the gaze of this other one, this witness, would be a solution to my being stuck. Maybe the interaction with them is how I take back on the course of something that would luckily prove uninterrupted.
Because it is an interruption, basically, this paradox, and the body doesn’t like to be so radically stopped in its rolling on. Yet again, something exists in the state of paradox that does not otherwise : the possibility to relate to something that is impossible to grasp, to take and understand. That is this quality of mystery, of not being connected, the gap in the chain of the signifier, that makes the salt and taste for what is utterly unknown. The sensorimotor paradox is, literally, the invention of the unknown – because we ask something from our disability to act our own body out of its radical exhibition. We are paradoxically to be both ourselves and the urge to get out of this moment of capture.
From a world where only stimulation and response exist, suddenly comes the unrelated, the encagement of reality inside of the owner of a body. The paradox makes no sense, it has no direction anymore for it is directed at itself, but it is utter and sheer presence to something that we cannot fathom for we cannot act to it – just step back and literally ‘get out’ of the loop. There is this sense of being plunged in gravity, frozen into a bath of overwhelming sensations. What is taking hold of us that we cannot but try to go beyond its hold on us, for it is uneasy to feel frozen and caught, powerless and at the same time, ourselves the source of this intense relation.
It has something to do with this idea of philosopher Gilles Deleuze that the ‘invisible is what can only be seen, and the unspeakable what can only be spoken’.12 What is unrelated is at the core of the symbolic system as a break-up from sensorimotricity in order to produce an image and then a series of images chained together in order to avoid the impossibility to crack the paradox.
It is very important to see that the idea of a sensorimotor paradox permits us to understand why the rooting of the symbolic is so difficult to apprehend, because it is a limit-point of the body revolving on itself. As an initial symbolic trauma, it may certainly have set the course of a remodelling of reality and the modalities through which to perceive and enact our being situated here and never alone with ourselves.
II – Playing balance : the covering up of trauma
And who shall separate the dust
What later we shall be :
Whose keen discerning eye will scan
And solve the mystery ?
Georgia Douglas Johnson, Common dust
A good example of covering up trauma is in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag series (2016). Her character seems to be constantly avoiding the expression of trauma while in the same time she is determined to meet people and push them to some exposure. She comes as a mass of erratic impulses, trying to connect but not knowing how, only knowing that no one would be supposed to say things in the open. So she doesn’t speak the trauma, but she provokes people to constantly remind it to the viewer. She would not say how annoying her step-mother is but she would steal the statuette in her office. She doesn’t judge others as much as she questions how much attention they would pay to her and thus she sets the boundaries of trauma around her, according to the resistance of others to address it.
In an incredible way, the series shows someone who witnesses the covering up of trauma under substitutive conventions, but as she keeps quiet about her revolt against it, her whole body being here nonetheless seems desperate to tell it out. So there is a violence in morality, in the way conventional moral laws not only forbid certain things but prescribe a standard conduct. As we leant on philosopher Paul Ricœur statement ‘because there is the violence, there is the morals’13, we returned the corollary : ‘because there is the morals, there is the violence’. Violence is the conditioning of aggressiveness inside of the restraint of moral laws. They create boundaries even before the individuals could comprehend and analyse the reason why as to form an adequate ethics about it.
Therefore our interactions with the social spaces and in the world of meaning are conditioned by favoured or inhibited conducts. Some areas of those concrete or mental spaces are greyed by the incapacity to relate to them, because it would not be accepted and one would be considered distracted from the correct path. We then assumed in earlier work that collective rights should be decided in an awareness of political and social constructs and in respect of each other’s right to self-determination, support and consent. That is why individuals and groups should be able to claim up their own narratives according to local shared experience, in relation to structural political settings.
Quite recently, in France, singer and actress Camelia Jordana, born in Toulon from Algerian parents and grand-parents who first came to France in the 1950’s, has spoken up for herself and those who don’t feel safe in front of police officers, supposed to protect the population. Though her testimony is supported by an official study by Défenseur des Droits stating that young people (especially young men) of colour are more likely to be checked by the police than other parts of the population (2017), the young woman is now to suffer a public and mediatic backlash. She was definitely not supposed to say that, for an artist from immigrant descent should be grateful to come to publicity, even as a token for an apparent pledge of diversity. What is not spoken is of course that such a system of political power that we find in France and elsewhere got to pile up over systems of domination, notably colonial but also internal, and that the collective trauma that the national narrative built upon cannot be addressed nor reckoned as still structuring our society.
The history of France is not just ‘there was the Colonial Era’ at some point and then, over, we turned the page. It is the history of all the people in the Caribbean, on the African and Asian continents that it has immersed into the district of its meaning. Those people have to respond to it and many of their voices are not heard or made audible and valued. We make some people in debt for having been accepted on our territory while we have built some of our geopolitical influence on the exploitation and coercition of theirs in the first place. One stated very eloquently : ‘before you tell someone to go back to their country, ask who went to whose first.’
So there is this language of control that makes the living of many people precarious as the guarantee of legit belonging is not given. There is this repeated shock over the same wound, ‘you are not legit’ as black, brown or asian people, as a woman would be compared to a man that is supposed to be more rational, as a person with handicap, a LGBTQIA+ person, body non-conforming, lower-class, etc. The articulation of those people’s situation in public speech is not widely spread, so those persons have to constantly explain it again and then personally commit themselves to set the dialogue around their own personal and shared trauma.
By depriving someone from the collective nature of their speech, making it neglectable and only reliant on their vulnerable individuality, though it is recurrent and systemic, you can crush this experience and make the conditions for their legit speech precarious. Trauma will try out different possible narratives depending on the difficulty to access the direct zone of the pain. It needs time to progressively nest the interpreted story of the trauma around the origin of the pain.
When you repeatedly push the person or group to relive the very situation that caused it so they can’t elaborate a multi-directional perspective around, you create a system of domination. When it is collectively addressed, trauma can virtually be addressed with everyone. So time and space are not closing down on the person or group like it is still the case for most people now. And we do not value this symbolic oppression as much as we should. It in fact makes very different possibilities of life from a same apparent setting of reality.
Why bell hooks evoked this idea of Alice Miller’s that you need a witness to elaborate trauma and survive, is probably that you need to elaborate a map of your rights. With no outter gaze to escape a narrowing duality, you are blocked – same with the hand paradox. The legitimacy to exist and have access to conscious public speech and expression is also affecting the possibility for the body to occupy spaces. Again, we can take up sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea that ‘the legitimacy of symbolic violence necessarily depends on the legitimacy of physical violence’14, that notably the State (which is a fiction for the consistency of the actual political structures) uses to maintain its domination though apparently providing people with some liberty.
What happens on a macroscopic scale is yet not that different from what happens more locally. In another of her conferences, bell hooks comes back with actress Laverne Cox (on The New School, october 2014) on the idea that beyond the self-acheivement of their respective careers, it is still about the journey to that point that isn’t shown in the words or images of their respective books or films. It is very relevant to the question of trauma, because what we knit from trauma to our narrative is still very different from the vivid experience that cannot be told. (Bell hooks also makes a very relevant point about the way White people care about the idea of safe space, which is not that self-evident if you are yourself living anyway with a sense of anxiety caused by a racist, classist and sexist division of society – that is why she prefers to talk about ‘being comfortable with risk’.)
There again, we find back this dimension of trauma that makes something communicable from something that is not, something collective borrowing many voices from something deeply personal and intimate that pushes the person on to their emotional boundaries. So what could be their collective boundaries and how much personal space can sanctuarise within them ?
Pain forces us to draw attention to the sensory surface on which it pressures. It polarises the way that we perceive reality for a moment or for a while. The work of trauma is to first put some grey on the surface in order to cover it up with other colours and reorganise our perception of time and space and what we can do with them. So now we are going to address the way that we do elaborate trauma and how it may be relevant to the idea and practice of the cure.
‘It is far away the time of the beginning of the war, when the militiamen of Sigüenza refused the rich cooking of the barracks, because they only wanted to feed on ham and chicken. This memory sets in front of me the image of Hippo, draws in the dark his eyes of light, brings back to my ears his indulgent words : « To them the ham is a revenge ; in Spain the poor could not buy ham. »
Tears run from my eyes. This is the first time since his death that I cry this way, isolated in the dark, for myself alone, freely, with great sobbing, hidden in the corner of a door, away from anyone’s gaze, in all weakness.
I must go back as soon as possible to the front, the rear is no good to me. My days here will fill up with discouraging images, I will have too many useless leasures, too many nights haunted by all the dead stayed behind me. I can be of service only in action, I feel incapable of assuming other tasks than those of the war itself. And I accepted to survive Hippo only on the condition that I continue our fight.’15
In her personal story and memories of the Spanish War of 1936, Mika Etchebéhère tells us about the complicated role she had to play to the militiamen under siege. When her husband dies on the front, she becomes a ‘mother of war’ to the heterogenous variety of men, most with no experience of the war, who came and joined the trotskist column of the POUM.
‘I don’t have, like the militiamen, the right to hang out in bars to shorten the days and nights without fights. My status of fearless woman without blame, of special woman, forbids me to. So do my personal convictions.’16 She earlier explained that it was the only way for her to put some distance with the potential lust of men who would be otherwise tempted. Then she has to maintain a certain irreproachable conduct for herself in order to be respected as a person and not consumed as an object of desire.
This conduct also constitutes a way for her to stay focused on a temporality consistent with her possibilities of action, preventing her from collapsing with grief and sorrow. The moment of pain that she describes when she finally lets herself go with her feelings of loss, alone in the streets of a constantly bombed Madrid, tells us something about the distinction of trauma compared to its original pain : one cannot change what caused the pain, but they can change the narrative of trauma.
Why is the nature of collective representations so important ? Why do so many people, from yesterday to now, act to make people aware and change the way that we represent ourselves as a society ? Mostly because if you cannot allow people with pain to nurrish a narrative that would lead to a reconfiguration of possibilities, you simply push them to keep stuck there, crushed under the weight with no means to make their own voice heard.
Trauma covers up the pain of the constant return to things that cannot be changed anymore, and to do that it has to reshape the form reality would take to the person. They have then to be able to believe that other worlds are possible, other ways of relating to others, to recreate a network of values in which they would be able to find balance and play it.
When a flesh wound, the process of healing would require to leave the wound alone, and then over the scar something new might happen. The mark is still there but it can be interpreted as a mark, as something of which the radical openness has been decided toward one of the possibilities that it offered to deal with, when chosen the world of meaning in which to do that.
The world in which Mika Etchebéhère could count on the presence of her husband to justify that she would be there fighting has gone, as well as the possibility to see him again. So she has to lean on the possibilities that the collective mind permits her to enact in order to still be perceived as a person in her own right. She has to play on the symbolic binary representation of women as being either the virgin, the mother or the whore. Eventually she has to repress a huge spectrum of what she could do or express so she would not fall from one determination to the other.
What was true for a woman in the 1930’s is not less true today, even if it took various other forms and at the same time encountered progress in some ways. We all have to chose directions at different moments in our lives. If we expect to find resistance in the way that who we are would be interpreted in social spaces, how does it map our own representation and perception of the world surrounding us ?
There is a picture I like very much by La Fille Renne, who is a gender non-conforming photographer working with argentic cameras, which represents a group of black birds (that I assume to be cormorants) taking flight on a rocky shore. The whole thing is a bit stern and does have a gloomy touch but at the same time, there is this flight and the group from which we tend to predict the following of a global movement altogether. It is not one bird, but the sense that the first one would gather a chain of others, all alike and all individuals at the same time, from which we would draw expectations and consequences.
Here again we have a fine and moving depiction of trauma. Something is leaving us to be alone (the first bird), but as we come to expect that the others will follow and that there would be a chain of cause and consequence to which we might be able to participate, it stimulates the movement to join, to identify to what is common to us in this form – individualities gathering into something consistent together.
Trauma is something very strong because it draws consequence as radically different from the cause. The whole picture changes as the object changes. It is not the bird leaving anymore, it is the group. It is not the wound, but the scar. It is not the loss of someone you loved, it is your own dignity in front of adversity. It is not the infamy of slavery, it is the transformation of language and music and dance through creolisation.
The first shock provoked a scene that could only last for a moment of meeting and pain, either slight or large. The scene of contact created something blank around the point of the shock, a stimulation too intense to focus on anything else. Pain obsesses attention and paralyses it. Like the sensorimotor paradox, it creates an impossibility to relate to it, mostly because it belongs to the two parts of the meeting over the region where the contact happens. It cannot be accessed nor born and sustained with attention, that has to be driven to a second circle around while it is healing.
We cannot participate actively to the healing in fact, because driving attention to it would only make it harder, because we cannot change it. The wound has its own inertia. What we can do is bring balance all around the second zone from the wound and progressively prepare to the aftermath of the scarred wound, to elaborate the narrative, the world of interpretation that would create past over something that was, to draw consequences from the mark – from loneliness to an offer toward the collective space. Like History, trauma works in layers. The problem is when the wound is constantly reopened and we cannot tell stories anymore and thus, new realities, because we are too busy with the pain to figure out a way not to be alone.
The reflection around La Fille Renne’s photograph echoes with another of bell hooks’s conferences (I sware that I am no official promoter), this time with writer and activist Chirlaine McCray. They talk about the sense of fragmentation and dissociation of identity according to the different social spaces that one would have to adapt to (especially when this effort would be as radical as Black and other discriminated people would have to suffer). The question she asks is ‘how to bring those pieces together and emerge as a whole self ?’ Both women agree on the statement that ‘you don’t heal in isolation’.
Here again, the reflection started on this photograph of cormorants taking flight gives us a clue that is that pain discoordinates our selves into pieces. Pain is pressuring a point in the body and soul around which nothing can relate anymore except to the pain itself. Pain is what can only be felt and too intensly. However the mind, on its side, is still looking for an overall coordination. It wants to act as if the whole body was available to a response. As we got used to resort to imagination in order to relay whatever we can’t or won’t enact physically, the best way to counter pain is to acknowledge the place of its being, the zone and intimacy that it pushes us to, the isolation that it requires for itself to disrelate. But we cannot disrelate ourselves or we drawn. That is why we need the chain, another track to follow, step by step, sequencing time and space through a global new trajectory that we anticipate the form. We interpret the latter from this very anticipation.
We haven’t quite tackled yet the importance of bipedal stance as to the pattern sequencing induced by walking, that means that the sensorimotor structures and modalities of our enaction to our various environments. If imagination resorts to sensorimotor memory imprints, combining analogies, the formalisation and articulation of meaning and our progress to it will be consistent with the global perception of our sensorimotor interactions and their emotional entailments.
There is an analogy made between the sense of physically participating to our reality and the emotional feeling of not enacting but imagining and displacing them. As Ellen Dissanayake stated, attention to movement doesn’t have to be symbolically related but it still pertains to a syntax of emotion, playing with the balance between tension and resolution and how the body responds to them. What shows the group of birds ready to follow the head of the chain is that the perception and anticipation of a movement that would leave a trail, a mark and draw a line restablishes this in-between tying the whole and the parts together. We participate to the whole through its sequencing that would induce a patterned rhythm to its movement, something articulated.
It is relevant in music where the sense of the beat or its annihilation would ease or not the sequencing of time consistently with the tapping of our feet. As well, this back and forth between tension and resolution has been a motive to progressive deconstruction in modern Western written music since Gustav Mahler to spectral music and later on with concrete and electronic compositions – from formal syntax to the formalisation of movement. But we could also join the very keen analysis of comedy made by Hannah Gadsby in her show Nanette (2018), where she explains to the audience how she would create tension and hold it until a release.
Again, what pertains to the symbolic and language in all that is the perpetual control over the way people situate themselves to others and their own body. To see one bird flying away is not the same thing as witnessing the take flight of a group. For on one hand, the isolation of one’s own individuality would be soften by the dispersion of attention to the group. Attention would synthesise the discrepencies in the gathering of individuals into the more global form of the group itself. And on the other hand, because to imagine oneself joining the collective effort would blur the perception of their own body and identify in a multi-directional way to the plurality of angles through which to perceive a shared identity. (That is the disturbing element with cubism, for instance, because the plurality of angles disrupts the linearity of how one would perceive the contours of identity. But it is the same with Hannah Gadsby when she introduces, for a moment of tension, a doubt in the liability of the speaker to their audience.)
So it goes with trauma, because pain breaks the continuum in the perception of time and space as to the continuity of the body, and the activity of trauma would try to recreate this sense of a whole, of identity out of this shattering. That is why again, as it would remind us of the example given by Darian Leader of a woman rolling herself in plastic tape in order to mend the feeling of her body threatening to break into pieces, the breaking point of psychosis, for example, is deeply continuous to the same stucture of how trauma works. And that is why so many racialised people reclaim their right, today, for the recognition of their traumas and the consequences on their psyche in a system of oppression.
(By the way, bell hooks considers love as the best foundation to heal, combining care, commitment, responsability, respect and trust, in partnership and/or friendship – so, I leave it here.)
‘The birds sang in chorus first,’ said Rhoda. ‘Now the scullery door is unbarred. Off they fly. Off they fly like a fling of seed. But one sings by the bedroom window alone.’
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
In an interview given to Self, Laverne Cox explains : ‘For me, personally, my body matters. How I exist in this body, feel in this body, is really important.’17 A clue that this idea of the channelling of trauma, in order to recreate a continuity through fragmentation, gave us is that indeed, facing the elaboration of trauma needs some kind of sustainability and support.
On a TED Talk on vulnerability (2019), social worker Brené Brown went to the first definition of the word ‘courage’ (instead of ‘bravery’), in order to understand better how some people would manage to get along with vulnerability and embrace it. She found out that it came from the Latin cor, that means ‘heart’, and that it originally meant ‘to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart’.
Now remember the Greek etymology of trauma, that meant ‘the wound’ but could also mean ‘the defeat’. Trauma is a shock wave, but not the shock itself, that is a concentration point, deeply localised and non-communicable. Trauma, as we saw, is the story-making over the wound. But trauma may or may not be actively supported by an act of courage. To ‘tell the story of who you are with your whole heart’, you have to support the story that you would lean your relation to others on.
That means that this way for you to tell your own story situates your self in the world of meaning that you wish to share with others. That means that sometimes, you have to transform the direct symbolic environments that you live in (family, social spaces, society) into one that would be fit to you inner self and to the story and voice that you would spontaneously be to carry and offer and share.
Hence, when Laverne Cox speaks of the importance of her body to her, she speaks of how she would make the way she looks as truthful as possible to her story, that she would be the most spontaneous and free to tell about herself whole-heartedly. This can apply to gender as well as to anything else. The question is : are you a better person telling that story this way more than another ? Because to tell a story is to tell a direction. For as we saw, the sense of a story is consistent with the sense of formalisation and context. It gives us what to expect, even if it goes to the unexpected. It is not making that story up. It is just adjusting the way to tell it – and there gestual and self-graphic communication are a form of language, pertaining to the telling of the story – to the way to best embody its meaning whenever it is about the meaning of your own self. It is setting the ethics from which a dialogue could be initiated with others in respect of each other’s self-determination.
Lately, we are witnessing the uprising of Black people against police violence. In France, Assa Traoré is fighting so that justice would be given back after the death of her brother from the same systemic violence. How to tell one’s story from collective trauma and oppression ? How to sort individual voices from that ? Director Amandine Gay released a documentary film in 2017 called Ouvrir la voix, that shows 23 women speaking of their experience as Black women in France, from colonial history in the African continent and the Antilles. It is striking that many of them would struggle in order to situate themselves amongst a series of stereotyped injunctions both as Black and women, out or even inside their own community.
But what is interesting is the question of the voice, how and to whom the authority of speech is usually given ? The answer, of course, is mostly to standing class heterosexual White men as a political system. This is not prejudice to say that. It is statistics. According to the INSEE, in 2014, women represented 21% of the salaried managers in France and 35% of managers owning their own business.18 This does not include yet racial statistics, neither does it include other discriminatory criteriums such as those hindering for instance lower-class, LGBTQIA+ people or people with disabilities.
So the question of whose voices and speech do we hear the most and are more likely to have moral advantage over others is crucial in order to understand why a person such as Laverne Cox would have to struggle with inner injunctions, memories and reminiscence of people bringing her down. Indeed, she would have to select more appropriate voices and daily narratives that would on the contrary allow her to sustain trauma and elaborate her own valid story with courage.
So it is important to consider that to tell a story of one’s own sometimes necessitates to reshape the mental environments in which one lives with theirselves while living in an actual world that is oppressive to them – to be able to be alone in the presence of others in any term. How, through telling the trauma with courage, one can rethink and reshape the way they actually face others without behing ashamed of who they are ?
‘The strong smell of the kitchen cuts my breath off. The smoke and the human smells created a solid and blackish mass that is painful to cross. Someone hands me to the tip of a knife half a grilled toast, trickling with rancid butter and sugar. I thank and say that I’ll eat later, without explaining that an invincible nausea has filled my mouth with salty saliva that costs me to swallow back. A mouthful of eau de vie calms my stomach. Half a glass helps me sleep.’
Mika Etchebéhère, Ma Guerre d’Espagne à moi, 1976
So many questioned what a room is to a person. Virginia Woolf did. Bell hooks does frequently, speaking of her home as being a comforting haven full of familiar objects. Journalist Mona Chollet wrote an essay called Chez soi, ‘Home’ (2015). Mika Etchebéhère evoked the cohabitation with militiamen on the trenches of la Pinada de Húmera, facing the cold, the mud and material precarity – as well as the tacit contract of mutual protection with her fellow fighters in such a dire situation, that forced her to embody the figure of the exceptional woman.
Where are we to be the exception that sets a singularity for oneself, and when are we to measure that our identity is setting a mapping of what we hope that we can do while others are being around ? One of the reasons why we inspected the large spectrum of body expression and situation as an act of language is that the conduct of the body is responding to a topology. This topology is socially and symbolically learnt through morals in the development of the individuals.
As Donald Winnicott said, we learn to be alone in the presence of others, we learn to set a distance between the others and us that permits to evaluate the permission to move and to what extent we can or cannot move – where, when, how, what for and in the presence of whom ? We have to behave according to a taught normed conduct, to be minding the consent of others, whether they are minding ours and our well-being or not. So we do learn to create the room that we are allowed to occupy and to displace.
Body expression pertains to the identification of this room that we carry with us amongst others. The first thing checked is whether or not this safe distance is respected and respects others’. The sense of the space taken by one’s self amongst others is not neutral but as much dependant on a history of gender, race, class and validity as much as the rest. In France, Laura Nsafou and Barbara Brun addressed the issue of the stigmatisation of Black hair in their comic book Comme un million de papillons noirs (2018), that is one example of how notably Black women are taught since their childhood that their hair should not take space and drive attention to them. In another conversation with bell hooks19, filmmaker Shola Lynch told the reconfiguration of her four year-old daughter’s imagination when she released the trailer of the movie she had made on Angela Davis. She describes how her daughter took up Angela Davis’ Afro hair for herself, switching up from the previous princess idealisation fed through mainstream imagery.
Those are some examples of what it means to take some room for oneself. As well, in her film Parched (2015), Indian director Leena Yadav shows how four young women get to recreate a room of their own through a community of experience, in a society that is deeply harsh to women. In another context, Syrian qanun player Maya Youssef told me on an interview for Deuxième Page webzine20 that sometimes, while walking in the streets, she had some flash of memories of the Damascus that she knew before the bombings. There the access to a room that would feel like a whole, that would feel like home, is being denied by trauma.
On one hand, trauma creates a proximity with something that is lost, but also sets a distance to finding it again, because it revives the pain. Some of the topics of the cure are about deconstructing all the cumulated layers of meaning, the saturation of space around the wound in order to access the zone where it took place and when, to acknowledge its situation as well as the distance that one could take from it then. To situate the wound that created the trauma and name it is the most diffidult part of the cure because of the accumulation of corollary rooms that it has colonised with its topology.
As we were moving from trauma, we were also prevented from the surrounding room that it infected with pain, and thus a whole range of the expression of our self that could not be enacted in the corresponding spaces. To identify the location of the wound and the room that it prevented us from accessing may allow us to approach this location by another angle, to create a new situation for a similar location – but in another space and time. Even a trauma connected to a specific place would confront the reminiscence of memories but acknowledge at the same time that this is not the exact same place, that the return to the exact same place and time is impossible, that time created a distance that may now play for us – or not, like in the end of Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis (2007) and Marjane’s impossible return to Iran.
What we learnt from the first definition of the word courage is that next to the deconstruction of trauma through its telling, would come the setting of new conditions for the future. Trauma is over-localised in the personal, in the non-communicable experience of pain, whether slight or large. It still situates the sensitivity of the person. But what would they be to choose to offer others in the spaces that they share ? What would they be the most truthful to themselves to put in the middle ground between them and anybody else ? How would they ‘tell the story of who they are with their whole heart’, if not best, at least well enough ?
It is interesting that bell hooks would put love at the centre of her work, because love is a commitment to what we share with others. Anyone could and should have their room of their own, so a dialogue could happen in full consent, according to what we put in the middle to observe together and rejoice on, to find common ground. It does not happen without willingly making it happen. We have to situate ourselves at a chosen distance from others that would allow each part to observe not only what has been offered to sharing, but the quality of the relation itself.
In their tender comic book La Fille dans l’Ecran (2019), Manon Desveaux and Lou Lubie share pages to tell the story of a growing love between two women, one living in France, the other in Canada, despite the distance. That is a precious story because it reminds the reader that love – whatever form and relation it might take – can be discrete and made out of small mutual and progressive accords in finding one space for another in their lives.
Living on the same planet and finding a room for oneself is not easy, especially because space is saturated with debt and shrinking to the isolation of people into boxes, whether symbolic or literal. The next and last part of this essay will be about how to elaborate the cure in such a context and why our cultural representations are so important to help define the rooms that anyone should be allowed to take for themselves.
III – Declarative Culture
“I’m writing for black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”
Toni Morrison, interview for The Guardian, April 25th 2015
In his book Testo Junkie, philosopher Paul B. Preciado provocatively stated in his analysis of biopolitics : ‘The process of isolation and technical production of hormones permits to establish a cartography of disciplinary sexopolitical spaces and localises there the different institutions of reclusion and control of feminity and masculinity as technical enclaves of gender production. […] A great part of the clinical tests of hormones [have been practiced] in colonial enclaves (the pill, for instance, was tested on the Black population of Puerto Rico), in psychiatric enclaves (homosexuals and transsexuals were declared mentally ill and submitted to violent surgical and hormonal protocoles), inside penitential and correctional walls, and so until the hormonal technics could be absorbed by the daily anonymity of domestic spaces and schools. [They could be] introduced in an intentional and deliberate manner in a human body as [biopolitical entities and] realities attached to an ensemble of institutions, converted in language, image, product, capital, collective desire. That is how they came to me.’21
If Preciado’s approach is radical, it is interesting as to the theory of information it leans on and develops. Injected on one part of the body, hormones would have an effect on some other part(s). This reaction remotely informs us of the autonomous trajectory of the fluid. There is, according to the philosopher, a symbolic consistency between the elaboration of modern and technological capitalism and the blurring of concrete boundaries induced by the fluidity and acceleration of information and its uses – what bell hooks would call ‘the uses of imagination’.
If we think back of the elaboration of the public relation system and modern propaganda – the ‘engineering of consent’ theorised by Edward Bernays since the 1920’s –, we can notice that the embedding of semantic layers such as consumption, the manipulation of popular imagery, the thrive of chemical and medication industry, the less and less hidden collusion between the political and the corporation system as well as the displacement of the infrastructures of control such as those cited by Preciado from institution to institution, are all assimilated to a pro-active and declarative culture that has been confiscated, owned, determined and driven by what bell hooks also so elegantly calls this regime of ‘imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy’. The cultural appropriation of the local narratives to the maintaining of structures of domination does come from the elaboration of the strategies of addressing the masses and channelling global movements withing them.
When writer Toni Morrison said that she wrote for Black people, it came from the necessity to localise a space where to gather a sense of collective identity. While the shock doctrine, theorised by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, always leans on the first step of trauma, the one when we try to make sense of the wound while it is still fresh, to specify who you are addressing issues for allows the concerned individuals to settle on an understanding, whether temporary or permanent. We seek stability, almost metaphorically from the sensorimotor stability seeking of finding a sound ground in wilderness. The visualisation of one’s perspectives and possibilities in life on an imaginary and symbolic level is always resourcing on those sensory imprints and the stimulation of sensorimotor-like analogies, that means from a memory of interactive or internal movement.
But we live in such a model of society, where all identities come to boil down to the same function of being either a consumer if you are not clearly a master or a slave, that it becomes really hard to realise what you are behind the colour – that is, to quote Morrison, ‘only a colour’ – and what part you can play in getting to collective progress. Because in the end, it all boils down to being either the master or the slave, the winner or the loser, the free citizen or the swarming throng. And indeed, as writer Benjamin Constant observed in his 1819 speech De la Liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes, the structures of political freedom to the Moderns changed above all because of the specialisation of the technical elites to which was given the representation of the political. Yet as well as the end of colonisation in theory did not end racism in practice, modern democracies did only embed differently social inequalities in their practice of power.
In the Antic Greek ‘democracy’, only the ‘citizens’ got to be concerned with the ruling of the City, with great social scrutiny from their peers according to Benjamin Constant. Of course, it did not concern slaves and women. But what impact can we have today, when all alternatives to the dominant model are either swiped away or dismentled from their resources, and yet so many layers separate the working class from the executive, for instance within transnational corporations ? One cannot go see their boss and negociate directly when companies are so huge, held by groups and dependent on shareholdings and debt system, that one cannot know who to address to in order to have something changed. And the same goes with politics and social issues, when you don’t know who to address in order to have things changed, knowing that the real heads holding the means are so far off from the impact their choices have on the social and natural ecosystems that they exploit.
The direct cognitive line from action to consequence, from answer to response has been so stretched and shattered that the only thing that one can have direct impact on is mostly the way that they would consume their environments, either material, social or imaginary. So the way that we fill our representations of the world with images and meanings is not neutral. It is dependent on a choice that has been made and is perpetuated over what is facilitated and what is made difficult.
In fact, the question of political and social autonomy has always been sensitive as to the relations with power – you could look at the history of anarchy. Today, the massive externalisation of the resources and production, whatever the scale of that externalisation, makes obvious the dependence that we have on the providing system. Urban infrastructures make it difficult to imagine how we could immediately survive to a cut off from the production and distribution centres. Again, the autonomous access to close natural ecosystems allows the connection between the resources and what it is that we eat and drink, but is here made thinner and always more difficult to evaluate.
Look for example how we tend to use the term ‘product’ for almost everything that is being subject to marketing, that comes to us through the same medias, the same screens ; and then we have an easy access to representations with more and more fluidity, but the means to our relations to those things remain the same. We only buy a moment in time that is a permission to only have a relation to whatever happens to be made available to us : we ask for the basis of what we are. We do not relate to things in themselves, in the unicity of the moment with what they are, but can only relate to our craving for a relation that we can’t make because of the debt that we take with the provider.
And that’s the rub, that is the hardest thing to swallow in this ‘imperialist, White-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy’ : we always only get momentary tranquility to being allowed to at least relate to something but from the same entity, the same economical and symbolic body, provider of consumption, in essence destructive and unstable – provider of shallow.
There is in Paul B. Preciado’s approach the idea that fluids and information, in their teleonomic function, relate to the invisible, to what cannot be seized easily. In fact, the trail left by the fluids as well as the running of information from one point to another is quite discrete. We can only retrace the route that it has taken afterwards through some analysis, to recompose the history of information. This leads us to the assumption of the cure.
What is analysis ? Analysis is a way to approach a value, which means a point, zone or place, through a series of approximations. It has been made particularly clear in mathematics and has to do with the density of the ensembles described and their applications. What is interesting for us is that analysis goes with a topology. The framing of a value gives it a neighborhood, which indicates the space that the value, the object or place takes. The value is a place in an ensemble and takes its quality and shape within the ensemble, in contrast. It is coordinated in relation to the scale and reference that we use in order to measure it.
Following the evaluation of its intrinsic qualities through cues of identification, we can evaluate our possibilities of movement around it. To break it would annihilate, deconstruct the consistency of the object ; but to relate to it, we need to preserve its envelope, the integrity of its form. Analysis is a form of evaluation of what constitutes the quality of the object by its form, according to the range of detail that we would choose to describe and approach it. From that point, we would be able to interact with the object in question.
Before to be functions in language, modes of expression such as affirmative or interrogative are rooted in the attitude one would have toward an object – then it has to do with sensorimotricity again. Eventually, when we would analyse the dynamics of language, we would have to relate it to the sensorimotor coordination that they simulate, block, contain into images, ideas, symbolic organisation.
For instance, such a semantic object as pain describes a situation when we are impeached to react willingly. The decision of an attitude is contradicted by the fact that our body says ‘no’. So pain is a ‘no’. It is still, unmoving, tense. But more generally, the use of words means to fixate moments that would otherwise be escaping us. The original situation of the sensorimotor paradox is also a ‘no’ to live interaction with the object that is our still hand. Then images escape us. Then we may fight the ‘no’ of our own body in pain, not being able to resume the tension, or grasp the images manifesting for themselves.
Anyways, having to stay still for respect of a codified social conduct is a ‘no’ that we escape from with the use of language, in order to mark our imagination in space and time. Language is a form of analysis for the power of production of images, from the ‘no’ put on our body’s liberty to move as they wish. There is a constant movement between how the body – that we are – is kept still and the scrutiny of language and interpretation over our imagination. And this scrutiny can be hard on the way that we imagine our own containment.
Our self-regulation into social hermeneutics can either struggle with the norms when they are injust or injustly ruled – even though it is always a working –, or try to analyse our own history with them. What are the places where we cannot go and why ? Why should we not go there or why would we like to go ? What possibilities would they offer and what change would they provoke to our self-regulated self ? Who would we possibly be offered to be there ?
But also from here, what are the representations at play ? How is the individual’s identity prescribed into the shaping ensemble of the cultural, social and moral norms that they have been pushed to integrate ? What territory has been shaped by the possible places displayed by the social and symbolic channelling of imagination ? How can analysis help deconstruct and understand the apparent consistency of this perscribed identity and help gather more information on the fluidity of the person’s experience beyond that ? Then, how to help reshape their own narrative according to one deeper sense of who they could have been and be without such a perscription ?
All that stresses the deep inter-connection between language and the body, and the impact of chosen representations on the regulation of imagination – thus, on the experience one would have of and with their own enbodiement. It is about how to make body, to have a sense of oneself as a whole. We saw that the situation of paradox represents a moment of dissociation within the sensorimotor function of the body. To try to simulate this function within the use of memory in imagination represents a way to contain this dissociation.
Then we can see that the fact that the very root of the human mind is to dissociate the body from its primary function makes it even harder when someone is to see possible ways shut down. The extreme vulnerability that we are put to makes us desperate for stability. From a situation where we are puzzled, we seek for another where we can go forward and stand for the renewed integrity of our body as a whole, as knowingly possessing the liberty to enact its own way.
So analysis – for instance a possible and aware psychoanalysis – is meant to finding solutions, to map a territory for self-enaction and most of all, a proper ethics of such a realisation should be aware of the mutuality of our concerns. It is always a matter of approximation. The deepest that we can get to the soul and the root of our own mind is a state of impossibility. It is a ‘no, our body can’t go there, it can’t swallow itself up, it cannot close the loop itself, but only recreate others with others’. So here we are with each others, all of us, on the same planet. And that’s it. What are we going to do with this ?
Hopefully, we can acknowledge that the attempt to resolve oneself and to assimilate one’s own paradox led us to believe that we could swallow the whole world around. That is the mystics of humanity, to try to resolve the world of meaning for not being able to resolve one’s own inner and fundamental contradiction. How can we analyse this whole history of self-destructiveness but also, for nothing is either black or white, of great generosity and hope and sharing and of course, of some true loving showing up as made possible here and there ?
How to map what we could do to fix things collectively despite all the trauma, most of it unexpressed, that prevents many people from even thinking of analysing things beyond the blackmailing of an injust social pressure ? How can we sort out the huge mass of geopolitical inertia that paralyses our whole societies, inducing growing precarity, lack of time and means for proper spaces and their sharing ? Because it all matters in our existences, from the slightest to the deepest traumas. None is non-important. We are all important and inter-connected. All that we have to do is choose our spaces according to what needs most to be expressed from our spontaneous nature and the best way that we can accompany that. No one should be left alone, unless they are not ready.
There is no cure outside of the world that is determining what spaces and times we are allowed to embrace and how. That is also what we have to work with. So we should inspect some possibilities one by one, try to take the time for each of them. The state of urgency that we are put under makes it difficult to see clearly, so does the menace of physical and symbolic violence.
Either way, we can only do and hopefully acheive that collectively.
Note on the middle ground
We compulsively and constantly try to create meaning so to gather a proper context for action. As our paradoxical state is undermining the adhesion of cognition to sensorimotricity, we might often lose our sense of coordination and orientation. When we take a speech, the content might be secondary. What we value is how it situates us in action, how it engages our body’s image in time and space. Hence, this is the value of this action that is in question.
Trauma, as we saw, informs us of alterity. It is the elaboration of a topology around the formation of a contrast. Something touches me and I have to situate myself after this touch. The identification with the origin of the touch has failed. Beyond the momentary unity with my own physical reaction, there is the persistence of having to respond later on to some kinf of status quo, to find some balance out of this live and imprescriptible experience. Yet a response is always an elaboration to a context regulating interactions. We create meaning in order to remind us of how to situate ourselves to this context (that is most likely to crystallise social representations), then the event in itself is pushed back to a secondary space and time for action, pertaining to the hermeneutic or cognitive-semiotic field.
As Darian Leader justly reminded in a recent article on the coronavirus pandemic : ‘In infancy, we do not learn safety via trial and error, running into the street to learn that cars are dangerous. Rather, we learn safety by learning to obey, so that the rules of safety are effectively the rules of obedience. Now, if a child later runs across a busy road on its own, it may be more fearful of a parent finding out than of being hit by any vehicle.’22 It thus becomes more urgent to remind oneself of the injunction to obey the prescribed conduct than to actually mind what is physically imminent to us.
It is interesting when we think of some practices and philosophies of meditation or martial arts that imply the central idea of a middle ground, for instance when we inspect the traditions of Madhyamaka or the history of Taoism and their implications through time to the creation of Zen philosophy in Japan and later on, of Aikido by ōsensei Morihei Ueshiba. The whole philosophy of the Middle Way is about finding a neutral ground. It takes on the situation of the body in its (cultural) context of co-interpretation and seeks the minimal possible response. It also brings out, in some of those philosophies, poetic representations of elementary forces that enable an imaginary to develop in projections relying less on social interactions than on natural ecosystems, seen as original free of moral debt and possession.
The purpose of those philosophies may help answer a few questions : If the conditions set for my response become primary to the physical situation that I am confronted to, what does it say about the value of my action when I make my response ? Is the latter really fit to the situation, or does try to comply first to external social imperatives that I internalised throughout my being taught to ? How can I use a middle ground to answer them both on an equal term of treatment ? Can I respond to the actual physical situation and its possible social interpretation the same way ? Where do sensorimotor experience and symbolic crystallisation come to meet that I could join, rather than swinging from one to another ?
As a dialogue would involve what we put in common in the intermediary space between ourselves and others, there might be a confusion whether what we actually engage in our action belongs to us or to someone else’s determination – even a symbolic entity holding authority over us, either transmitted from our parents or the authorities above them. Do we have the authorisation to engage this part in their name ? What is the scene that we try to recreate when we speak, and who do we really have at the back of our mind when we do that ? To whom do we situate ourselves when we respond to a situation ?
To acknowledge that there is a middle ground is precious, because this is the place where it all circulates, where we project our imagination and perpetually put forth our concern for the opinion of others and their state of mind before other concerns. Then the answer maybe is not to declare that ‘I should put myself first’, because saying that is still situating oneself against the domination of an outside force and authority. It is still putting oneself in a system of difference and thus, in the catching of trauma. They would never extract themselves from anticipating others’ reaction to their presence in shared space.
But situating oneself on this middle ground, understanding that is where meaning occurs, where it is all relative, with no absolute hierarchy between the living and the non-living but a variety of movement, that we are at the crossway between our physical experience and its constant submission to co-interpretation, we might be able to observe things more clearly.
What is of my part ? What is of others’ ? What is put in common and what should be reminded to ? Even trauma works out with pain, trying to resume movement that the latter stops. It may diffuse it with anxiety while trying to recreate meaning. But at a certain point, it is good to step out of the workings of trauma in its hold on the diffusing of pain. Trauma, as positive as it can be as an attempt to overcome its source, is nonetheless still defined by pain. Finding a middle ground is then less an effort to give up on the resolution of trauma, than a place where to acknowledge its embedding of pain into our narrative. It may on the contrary allow us to care about how much we let pain absorb us and define our own situation in time and space toward others.
As long as we produce speech and meaning, we situate ourselves as being constantly and virtually interpreted by others and oneself as someone else. Therefore, being always entangled in that net, we should rather embody it and accompany the circle, as in Aikido’s central teaching, and from there going, pacify aggression.
[…] and nothing seemed to be real in solitude.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The lathe of heaven, 1971
We would always need a final touch to set the course of any kind of reflection. This sentence in Ursula Le Guin’s novel made me think of what made things feel real or not, and it seemed that it would come down to this balance between the affirmative or interrogative position to the object of our wondering. Whenever we say some word and wonder about its meaning, to intuitively know and ‘see’what it is meaning would sometimes be not enough. We would on the contrary expect to be able to describe it with other words in order to make it true, to share it and make it feel like it is indeed some part of our reality.
Facing the idea represented by the word, we are put in quite an interrogative position, as we can face it but quite not move around it. A word is a location in the territory of language. In order to be able to move through the realm of language, we have to be able to go round some description with what is of use for it, in order to progress in this topology offered by words or any form of language. We only ask from them, as we ask and are asked from others, to resolve our interrogation, our primary indecision, into an affirmation – a grasp.
Of course, it all comes back down to the primary sensorimotor paradox of our hands. If we meet an object and do not know how and if we can handle it, we would hold on until we figure out how to do it. As to the paradox in itself, we saw that it created a state of indetermination – can I or can’t I grasp this object that is my own hand ? – and then, we would look for some way to resolve it. As it cannot be resolved without substracting ourselves from the situation by removing our hand, what would substitute to the fact that we couldn’t, that we failed in doing it ?
The sense of the real is waiting for a conclusion, to something to be affirmed, should it be the state of radical openness as a response. The paradox is when we are unable to find the means to determine our situation to what is surrounding us ; when this cannot be related and coordinated, disabled from movement and the connections necessary to it, when we cannot resolve an interrogation into at least some momentary affirmation.
To face some reality and not be able to go round it and move, whether physically or with our own language, this forms an anxiety – then anguish. No one should lack the words to describe or the means to move around what they feel, because without movement and decision, there is only a paradox.
And paradoxes are always suffocating in the end.
Here begins our collective responsability.
1We use the asterisk to mean all the variety in which transness can express gender identity.
2Read psychologist John Bowlby on the notion of attachment.
3Listen also her interview with Victoire Tuaillon on the Les couilles sur la table podcast, « Educations viriles », Binge Audio, 2018.
4See the work of choregrapher Angelin Preljocaj with female prisoners in « Danser sa peine », a documentary film by Valérie Müller (2020), and how the way we see those women can change.
5In Ellen Dissanayake, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetic », Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009), p. 166.
6‘The recent discovery of mirror neurons indicates that the sensorimotor areas that are active in the brain when a person performs a goal-directed action are triggered when the person observes someone else perform the action (e.g., Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004).’, in Irene Mittelberg, « The exbodied mind: Cognitive-semiotic principles as motivating forces in gesture », Body – Language – Communication : An International Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction, Vol. 1, collective, De Gruyter Mouton, Germany, 2013.
7In Etienne Bimbenet, L’animal que je ne suis plus, Ed. Gallimard, 2011.
8In Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, Livre VII : L’éthique de la psychanalyse, Ed. Seuil, Paris, 1986, p. 65. My translation.
9Their work and practice mostly concerned a portion of the population that could afford to require such a therapy as psychoanalysis. As pioneer investigation reporter Nellie Bly shew, in 1887 with her paper « 10 day in a madhouse », is that the others would end up in institutions with often no regard for their healing or even the actual necessity to lock them up in the first place. Surely, philosopher Michel Foucault’s analysis of prison control in the large sense of how to structure power in our societies would be useful to complete a critique of systematic institutionalisation. Moreover, the lack of consciousness for gender and class issues as structuring the collective body has to be underlined, as activist Angela Davis did. As bell hooks says to writer Jill Soloway on The New School conference, September 6th 2016 : ‘Jews have psychanalysis. If you have trauma, it’s good to have avenues of healing. And I think as African-Americans, we are still struggling to have those avenues of therapeutic means. Jews have psychanalysis, we’ve got the church, but fortunately […] often Jesus wants us to suffer.’ And Jill Soloway to add : ‘The psychological is political.’