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.
When it comes from and answers to the experience of many.
There has been much ado about the many ways we have tried to explain where a species such as ours could have come from. There has been over centuries of various cultural traditions and many passionating and beautiful insights, scientific explorations and creativity. Yet, let us just stop there and take a moment, for time is now running out. What if we could suggest one possibility, one single hypothesis that would provide us with a better chance at sorting all those questionings out ? What if, as the expression says, it was only in our hands all along and we missed it out ?
It is time to take a strong and gentle step. It is not only about knowledge. It is about a choice, a choice to make some space for imagining differently the starting point to the course of our entire common history. Some years ago, we started to develop and discuss a theory of anthropogenesis, called the ‘sensorimotor paradox theory’1. The idea was quite simple : according to biologist Gerald M. Edelman, what the human brain would have needed to develop the capacity for self-consciousness is the capacity to ‘delay or lag neural responses’.2 Indeed, if I automatically respond to a situation, I don’t take the time to think first about whether I would or not respond in the first place and how. Then, let us try something. Try to look at your own hand for a minute. Just open it in front of you and look at it as if it were any other object in your surrounding environment. Now, try to catch it without using your other hand and without withdrawing the one that stands as the object of your consideration. As much as you want to, you can’t. The need for a response is there, but forced to a delay, suspended. An image, the one of a possible action that you would like and feel the urge to do and resolve, but denied. An image, that stands for itself, as an only possibility for imagination.
The idea is simple and all the elements were there at the time of our prehistory, before engaging any semantics that would come later on with symbolic elaboration.3 The latter would not come from nothing, but be supported by an experience in the empirical world, that would develop alongside bipedal stance.4 The possibilities in the world as we perceive it would change dramatically. Our hands would become as useful as they are alien, identified to their objects, transforming the way that our body has to engage in an effort to touch and enact them.5 And, when it comes to enacting an impossible possibility, we get to a paradox, that opens room for an abyss – an abyss that only imagination and projection can fill. An abyss that we could stimulate and sustain just for the sake of its effect on ourselves. An abyss for stupefaction and the experience of the extraordinary.
Without even unravelling the whole chain of how we would have then developed symbolic and linguistic capacities, along with the transformation of socialisation and collective meaning, it seems important to stress that a robust founding hypothesis should be worth considering, if it means revisiting the whole paradigm that we use to rest our knowledge on. It means as well that we have an ethical responsability to decide where we would like to go with such a scientific and philosophical proposition, what we would do with it and why. Most of all, it may remodel many categories that were historically built on throughout the development of Western societies, very much entangled with cis-patriarcal6, capitalist, colonial, imperialist and pervasive ableist views. Our work leans then as much on Chilean biologist Francisco Varela’s work on proscriptive and permissive systems, as on intersectional social and political analysis concerning gender, race, class, sexuality or ability issues. For they are interpenetrated into the way that we make society and come to develop individually into seeing and participating of a shared world of meaning.
We will try to expose here the essential of what we need to know in order to evolve another gaze on things as they came to be where we are now. More importantly, we will try our best to make it accessible for the most, indulging the urge to overcome the exclusion of disabled and marginalised groups of people from the conversation. We will try to be thematic and as clear and interactive as possible. For this is collectively that the journey must resume.
I – ‘The natural order of things’
There are two ways of interpreting the evolution of anything, whether an individual or collective trajectory like the evolution of the various species on Earth. You can say that it happened this way but it was one possibility among many others, or that it had to happen that way. Biologist Francisco Varela argued that the second option was the one supported by neo-darwinist thinkers (like the computationist current in cognitive science), that he called a prescriptive vision of evolution.7 We know this interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theoretical work well by the expression : The survival of the fittest. In other words, it should mean that through a period of time, only the individuals of species that would adapt in an optimal way to certain environmental conditions would be the ones that eventually survive. This means that to this kind of doctrine, not only is it critical that nothing would impede the individuals’ capacity to survive and reproduce when the conditions change, but they should also do it in a certain way.
The major problem of this kind of perspective is that it takes the way that species did evolve and thrive – as much as we can observe it – as the way that hadto be given the circumstances. It also gets along with the idea that all physical traits or behaviours of such or such species necessarily are or have to be adaptative. Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding figures of ethology (though controversial for his ties with Nazi’s racist ideology), warned the readers of his work about misunderstanding what he called the ‘teleonomy’ of evolutive trajectories.8 Observing the result of a trajectory would indeed be very different from expecting a specific result, which expectation may distort interpretation. Moreover, he pointed out many examples of some species with remaining physical traits or behaviours that did not apparently offer any adaptative or evolutive advantage, but did not seem to bother them either. The criterium of their ‘utility’ would depend much on whom it is useful to.
This joins with Francisco Varela’s proposition that we should switch paradigm, from a prescriptive to a proscriptive vision of evolution. According to him, so long as nothing threatens the two criteria of their survival and reproduction (that is proscribed), there is no imperative that the individuals of a given species should adapt ‘optimally’ to arbitrary rules given from the outside. They would simply create their own relation to their environments of interaction as they perceive them and in a way, recreate them constantly by interacting with them as to, so to speak, live their lives. They would do so without having to mind what researchers would come to think about it maybe centuries later with their own perspectives, imperatives and goals. (We may remind by the way that in the field of epistemology, philosopher Thomas Kuhn already suggested that Science did not form itself in an abstract or blank canvas, but by the grouping of scientists, which means actual people tied to their times, societies and belief systems.9)
One key element to the shift proposed by Varela is the concept of sensorimotricity. The sensorimotor system describes the way that each individual constantly adjust their movements to their senses. The way that those stimulations inform them of their own situation in time and space shapes their relation to their surroundings and to a world of others. If I want to move my hand or my head to catch or smell something, I should do so by guiding my body through my own perception of my hand or my head moving (that I sense and see). That means that the way that I perceive my environment is also dependent on the way that I interact with and within it, by enacting the possibilities at hand and being embedded inside them. To Varela, the concept of enaction illustrates that adapting to one’s surrounding environment is not abstract and impartial, but that the individual commits to it and actually realises something that they only could do with their own body, situated in one particular moment and space. It has to do with agency even before being conscious that a story could be told about it. In addition, the very perception of space and time is relative and co-dependent on the scales of our capacity to perform such or such action, what we are in the capacity to perceive and grasp, limited by the measure of our own body. We tend to forget that because urban infrastructures have been designed for certain types of bodies, with a certain size and ability to evolve inside them. We even come to an anthropomorphic interpretation of how other species interact with our shared environment as we witness them be, in the way that we tell the stories that we imagine that they live. However, a spider has a very different perception of what a leaf is to them than we have, as well as somebody in a wheel-chair has a very different perception of stairs than physically abled people have, or autistic people would feel when it comes to neurotypical forms of interaction.10
This means that we have to be careful with the way that we describe possible processes of evolution, if we don’t mind our own situated perspective. Feminist philosopher Donna Haraway developed in this sense the concept of situated knowledge11, that means to deconstruct the very preconceptions that we have about knowledge, the context where it takes place and emerges, the social biases that we might be subjected to without being fully aware of or daring to think them (being part of a group that exercises an influence on our judgment). This methodological principle would apply to many fields of research and dynamic analysis, to which a proscriptive approach could benefit. What does say that Imperialist, White Supremacist, Capitalist Cis-Patriarcal and Ableist societies such as ours (to take up from Black American scholar bell hooks’ terms) necessarily had to acquire hegemony over the way that we practice, make society today and treat our living ecosystems ? The practice of scientific research doesn’t escape that question. To what aim and what kind of living together do we want reality to adapt to ? Because in the end, it is not only about knowledge, it is about a decision : deciding how we want to interact with our surrounding environments, for whom and, importantly enough, for how long. And this is a political issue, for the way that we describe our lived reality says a lot about what we omit to say about it and spend time and energy to silence.12
As any species does, we make our own reality by experiencing it with the means at hand, and now is the time to lift the vail.
Therefore, why is that distinction between the prescriptive and the proscriptive so important ? Because when you state that something must be this or that way, you should better find how to justify that assumption. Most of the time, the justification of prescriptive systems such as ‘Only those who adapt optimally to the current conditions survive’ hides the motive of defending one’s own privileged position, which they feel could be threatened, whether in a direct or indirect way. German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel illustrated this kind of relations of power in an allegory called, at the time (mid-19th century), the ‘Dialectic of the Master and the Slave’ – that would later inspire Karl Marx’s work. According to him, not only the ‘master‘ comes to be dependent on the work of the ‘slave‘ that they subjugated, but also on the pressure maintained on them so that they would not revolt and try to liberate themselves. Relations of power never stand by themselves, they have to be reinforced and maintained in time. There, a strategy is needed.
For instance, the way that we describe a world that should serve as a common-base understanding for all is very much dependent on who gets to produce such a description and impose it as a collective truth. It should be reminded that the vision of Darwin’s theory that we exposed earlier served the elaboration of what is commonly called Social Darwinism, since English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s work in the 1850’s. Social Darwinism applies the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ to the organisation of capitalist societies, promoting a minimum implication of the State into the economy and social organisation. According to the supporters of the ideology, if we only let things go and did not intervene in social and economical issues, the latter would simply solve themselves out and acheive balance according to some ‘natural order of things’. The ‘fittest’ would then ‘naturally’ occupy the top of social hierarchy, because this was, in a way, ‘meant to be’ and fit to their satisfaction. To this view, best is not hindering those who are fitted in their access to privilege. Except that the actual state of political and social organisation is not neutral and already dictates the norms according to which some should have access to the spaces where power and its distribution are given, and many others would not. To say that those with the capacities to produce wealth and acheive a higher social position should have the liberty to thrive without restriction shouldn’t mean that most of the others, on the sole basis of their birth place and social identity (gender, race, class, …), should be denied any of those opportunities and would not even get to the doorstep of that competition or even to a sustainable living. In the end, what is at stake is often not less than the very material and moral means for their mere survival.
Defending such a vision of how a society should work eludes that there is already a social hierarchy built on inequalities, political injustice and discriminations. In fact, it would only tend to favour mostly those who already benefit from them (check the regularly updated Oxfam reports), if it were not for the institution of adequate social and regulatory policies (when they are not turned back against the already most precarious of the concerned populations, as it is often the case). Most of all, such a position likes to forget that the ruling of the privileged only comes from a particular history of establishing and maintaining the very structures of privilege that would back up the heroic striving of the fittest. Those mostly resulted from a history of violence, systematic oppression and debt contract. In fact, most people’s position of subordination to those systems of power and oppression only holds because they are taken by the economical debt for the access to a relative peace and material services, even the vital ones – as capitalism creates value from exchanging and lending them for some virtual currency. There is always someone, an intermediary that we never see that eventually sums up the bill, as we don’t directly own the means of production for those goods and services.
So we are borrowing some comfort, in exchange for an agreement to certain practices that we don’t always understand, whether concerning the way that our consumption goods and primary services are produced or the financial cost of ‘tax avoidance’. And even if we don’t accept those terms, most of the times, we are not in the position to bargin with what our States choose to close their eyes on or actively promote. In France, for instance, the ‘Yellow Vests’ movements of 2018 against anti-social policies and growing precarity resulted in brutal police repression, that ended the hope to eventually be heard by politics when going to the streets. According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, it is because we can be deprived of that which is vital to our survival by an organisation of political power – in many cases, the State, which holds the legitimacy of the use of physical violence (police repression, imprisonment, confiscation of goods, …) –, that we are compelled to accept its imposed legitimacy in the use of symbolic violence (having us accept inequalities, even the most brutal).13 That is how it makes system.
There is always an ideology that then appears as a mean to justify inequalities, in order to go on making profit from them. It allows some to exercise political domination, even coming from people that do not hold the means of decision, but that are dependent on the slightest power that such a political system grants them in exchange for their obediance.14 Even oppressed people may have to accept the intolerable and ‘play the part’, sometimes reproducing onto those below them what they have to suffer, just so that they would survive themselves. Black studies, for example, from (but not limited to) W. E. B. Du Bois to Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Paul Gilroy, Toni Morrison or Maboula Soumahoro, analysed in that sense the impact of slavery on the colonised soul. On another subject, self-advocacy groups on neurodiversity regularly point out the effects of over-adaptating to the pressure of certain kinds of normed social interactions that autistic people, for instance, are the least comfortable with. The notion of ‘masking’ was notably developed to show how performing codified social cues was both a way to (over-)adapt to others’ expectations and to avoid negative reactions towards their autistic traits. Disability studies are also passionating when they come to cross with intersectional issues such as gender, race, class and sexuality (Crip Theory).15
All this detour is important because often, issues that are relative to social identifications have been subjected to strictly moral, then (pseudo-)medical interpretations throughout the history of Western societies and their colonies. French philosopher Michel Foucault described them as systems of control over the bodies, in the 1970’s. Thus, indigenous people, notably on the African continent, were the object of European colonisers’ curiosity, at the age of ‘biological racism’ or ‘anthropometry’, a pseudo-scientific endeavour that, for instance, promoted the measurement of skulls in order to establish an essential difference between races. Intersex people, in their turn, were (and are still in many countries, like France) mutilated and their gender scrutinised, for instance, by Neo-Zealand-American sexologist John Money in the 1960’s.16 Only in 1973 was homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association, then from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990 – but transidentity had to wait until 2018 to be finally removed from the same list.17 Those examples are all tied to the same prescription : one better be a cisgender heterosexual and able white man from an upper class than anything else ; and the more one diverts from that privileged model, the more difficult their road might be to access the same spaces and rights.
That is why we speak of systemic oppressions, that those who benefit at any level from them try to justify by means of statements over the ‘natural order of things’, so long as they are not impacted themselves. Feminist YouTuber Natalie Wynn analysed something interesting, by the way, concerning transphobic bigotery.18 She suggested that the slogan ‘Trans women are women’, serving as a defence of trans women against public attacks, apart from the fact that it excluded trans men and non-binary people, would focus very much attention on a metaphysical inquiry : ‘What is a woman ?’ Engaging that kind of question would surely lead to granting those who intended to do so in the first place the liberty to eventually deny womanhood to trans women. Instead, if we took another slogan such as ‘Trans Liberation Now’, this would rather stress the common political issues and discriminations that most trans people face, whether trans women, trans men, non-binary people and intersex people. Again, as long as someone’s identity is not threatening another’s physical, psychic or emotional integrity, why would anyone feel the urge to oppose and deny them the same essential rights than anyone else ? What kind of prescription is going on here ?
As well, a question that is supposedly posed as an elementary scientific conversation is merely hiding the attempt at denying and silencing the voices of minorities and their demand for social justice. It requires from marginalised groups of people to justify their own existence, already reduced to precarious conditions.19 It prevents us from recognising that their very means of living are threatened daily by discriminatory social and political infrastructures, practices and prejudices – which, in most capitalist and social class representations, mean to already objectify and alienate them into a source of disgust and rejection, inducing into others the fear of being assimilated to their distress.
Instead of saying to marginalised groups – whether they are marginalised on the basis of their gender, race, social class, of their sexual orientation or disability – : ‘We have other priorities. Why would you need to exist in public spaces and within social and political participation already ?’, we should be asking : ‘Why don’t you want us to exist and be public as well as you do ? And why would you address issues concerning our lives without even consulting us or having us invited to take part in those decisions ?’ If another example was required, on both American continents, indigenous people are dying or facing major harm, again, for asking this kind of question, whether they defend the Amazon from deforestation or sacred lands from a pipeline project.20 And they are not the only minorities that we are willing to sacrifice worldwide.
That is why such a concept as proscriptive systems is capital, precisely in order to open our vision of a shared reality to all narratives, points of view and histories that are intricated and which we depend on, especially in a globalised world. Scientific interpretation is never far from the political and never disconnected from a perspective on the kind of making society together we want to get to on this only yet livable planet. Eventually, a statement on how evolution works doesn’t only affect scientific research. It tells us something about the hierarchies that we create between living beings – those that are granted the spaces where decisions are made and those that are not. Our current competitive vision of the evolution of species tells us something about how we dare justify the destruction of our whole ecosystems with the idea that human species had to be on top of others. This vision of a ‘natural law’ to the reckless struggle for survival roots imperialist white-supremacist capitalist and ableist cis-patriarchy into defending a few people’s right to hegemony, under the pretense that otherwise, someone else would crush them first. ‘Better us than them, right ?’
Then, knowledge is indeed political, because some production of even a pretense of knowledge and its access could either benefit the inclusion of all voices, experiences and perspectives, or on the contrary, maintain the exclusion of the many to the privilege of the few. Black American lesbian poetess Audre Lorde, on that matter, stressed very well how the fact that the history of the minorities’ struggles was not compiled and transmitted in the official telling nor even that much inside the communities participated of a sense of dispossession. To her, in the context of Black feminist issues that she worked on, it was like they had to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and start it all over again from scratch at each generation.21 Further more, we cannot separate the production of knowledge from its material ends. Notably, to be visible and validated in capitalist terms, whether in the medias or in the sphere of scientific research, means that we be granted fundings. Whether those fundings depend on public or private investments, we can still ask who owns them and who decides of their attribution and to what end ? How could it orientate ongoing representations, studies and decision making ?22 It is not enough to address an issue, it should also be listened to and discussed in such conditions so it could eventually result in concrete material policies that would do justice to all parts. If the end of producing scientific knowledge is not to improve individual and collective shared means for living, what is it for then ?
That is why proscriptive systems are so important, because as long as the physical, mental and emotional integrity of each part engaged is respected and they are granted an equal right for participation, there are no reasons why we should prescribe any compulsory conduct onto them that would be preferable from establishing local and fully chosen agreements, taking the necessary time to find every moment’s balance at each place and for each situation. We need to be specific about the complexity of human and all the living’s realities. Nevertheless, in the context of societies that claim to be democratic, but developed throughout a history of colonisation, land theft and slavery and still perpetuate them through the geopolitics of global and neoliberal capitalism, we could only resist the pressure, keep thinking alternatives and wonder for the best…
All the questions raised before open to an ecological vision of knowledge, defined by Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers as ‘a milieu where livings with divergent interests cohabitate in an intricated way’.23 According to her, rather than clinging on exclusionary oppositions, for instance between the ‘rational’ and the ‘subjective’, we should invoke spaces that would be open for various situated experiences to be heard and considered in their participation to a same object of collective interest. They would in fact all create a different object altogether that would enrich our common perspective.
Such a separation between the ‘rational’ and objective, and the ’emotional’ and subjective often conceals an attempt at removing oneself from the possibility of being denied an affirmative position and being hurt by doing so – especially when they are not used to being criticised or rightfully suggested another possibility. It is a very prescriptive and moral attitude : ‘It is not me, it is the rule, that all must follow.’ Except that, as we saw, this affirmation almost never questions the founding grounds of those rules, nor whom they benefit to. We actually live under political systems that maintain themselves from the principle of being the tradition and inalienable law, no matter how unequal they may be. They are not supposed to be questioned since they benefit to some, and that is why there has been such a brutal backlash against movements of liberation, whether (trans)feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, ecologist, …
Most of the time, the resistance from tradition to self-questioning is the least rational thing. There is a symbiotic nature to our relationship with our environments of interaction that affects every part of our experience since childhood. It goes with sensorimotricity as with what English psychiatrist John Bowlby called attachment. Whatever skills that we develop in time, we develop them from a need to be granted a comforting grasp on our closest reality, notably our parents and primary caregivers. Our capacities or incapacities to formalise language and symbolic manipulations enable us, according to psychoanalytical theory since Sigmund Freud, to sublimate our insecurities towards an affective and positive response from our figures of attachment. Whatever ideal of adulthood might be this imperative to control one’s emotions, we are still built together through our sensory and emotional experiences, that means : trauma. And trauma affects and shapes what we allow ourselves to face in our daily lives.
Therefore, even observing the stars and the laws of physics cannot evade the question of whom the observation is meant for and to what purpose. The question of who receives a proposition as knowledge is both social and political, epistemological and hermeneutical, as the context of its emergence may inhibit or favour ways of expression over others. The general frame and world of meaning in which we conceive ideas may be fertile as the limits from which to create forms, as they can be desastrous as to their social implications if they come to impact political decisions in critical ways. If everything or anything cannot be taken and available as knowledge and valid as such for a vast majority of people – that means that knowledge itself is adaptable enough to various conditions –, then the contrary – the compliance of this variety of conditions to one unique set of knowledge – may resort to ideologies that may also be prejudicial. As we saw, a proscriptive frame to the production of knowledge, on the contrary, by protecting first the physical, psychic and emotional integrity of all the variety of people that may be impacted by its occurrence, would leave the door open to the conversation without threatening the very means that there would be one.
There is always a motive and conditions to the elaboration of a discourse on the reality that we try to share that is both produced by and for sentient people with a rich, diverse and often contradictory emotional experience. If one’s integration within the communities that concentrate the production of knowledge and its means of recognition appears to be a higher motive than the actual attention given to the task, relations of power within the group might cast some rigidity upon the very scope through which we conceive some discourse as knowledge or not. Then, if the general understanding of the group actually denies some portions of living experience as potentially conditioning their work field, it might result in a very partial vision of what reality is or should be. It is to forget that our very capacity to produce mental images and manipulate language structures relies on memory, that is constantly generated by our body on a sensorimotor basis and thus, always approximative and subjective. English psychoanalyst Darian Leader explored, in his book Jouissance (Paris – Stilus, 2020), 150 years of scientific literature on how the experience of pain, to whatever degree, fundamentally participates to our psychological growth. It cannot be perfect. The pretense to the production of knowledge may be of attaining a form of objectivity, but any language in itself is only a set of signs. Their interpretation, on the other hand, can never be cut off and extracted from the context through which one perceives their own world of experience to the intersection of others’, that is, in the end, always rooted in traumatic inscription.
II – Let us talk about collective trauma
We cover bodies and objects with meaning, signs that we identify as familiar, friendly or not. The idea that some thing or sign is familiar or friendly, or on the contrary, unfamiliar or unfriendly, seems to come with the more intuitive sense of feeling safe or not around them. The sense of security or insecurity prescribed onto some objects or figures might often be established by association though, rather than from direct experience with one particular person or object. Being afraid of being bitten by a dog might not necessarily mean that one has ever been bitten by a dog or this dog, but knows what it means to be bitten. Moreover, if a sign or figure is collectively pointed out as dangerous, ordering the members of the community to address their fear and insecurity at this designated cause – whether imaginary or based on experience –, we get to channel all the painful experience of a group of people into a collective traumatic response. Collective imagination would be fed by the need to respond to aggression and trauma, but designated an arbitrary expedient.
This collective response to a shared trauma finds its rationality in the cultural, political and social structures of what founds the organisation of a society, its internal hierarchies and justifications.24 It structures the elaboration of laws, whether official or not (it may be considered a kind of law within a family and taught to children that every dog bites, no matter their shape and apparent behaviour). It is true when we talk about large, deep and obvious traumas, like a terrorist attack or an economical crisis, but it is also true of slightest impressions. If attacks in the United States or in France claimed by islamic organisations did, for instance, foster the targeting of Muslim people more or less as the root of a radical opposition and problem, it was also reflecting a deeper conditioning of how we associate certain signs on the bodies (a beard, a vail, the colour of one’s skin) as a source of threat. Further more, such dynamics impact the way that sigmatised people would anticipate those associative reactions of fear toward them, affecting their relation to their own body in public spaces.25
The way that we create homogenous categories reveals the kind of oppositions that is supposed to unify a group. This is well known when we study the elaboration of racial categories throughout a history of colonialism and slavery. The political and economical goal of exploiting the bodies of the colonised and enslaved could not bear considering them as subjects capable of self-determination and free will. Even though people on the African continent before colonisation did not consider themselves as ‘Black’, for example, but as belonging to one kingdom or to one tribe or the other, all those different people were assimilated as one homogenous group, ‘Black people’, when displaced altogether on the American continents. They would become the ‘Black people’ as opposed to the ‘White people’, no matter how different those people are among each other within those arbitrary categories.
When collective trauma is used as a mean to justify discriminatory politics, whether on racial, gender, class or other basis, it durably shapes the way that a society produces imaginaries and justifies our narratives of justice, especially when it erases the traces of its own history, as the United States did with the history of Indigenous peoples. When one group casts a stigma and stereotyped attributes onto another, being associated with the sigmatised group casts onto you those presumed attributes with no regard for your own personnality and experience, but as a pre-requisite to that question : ‘Am I safe ?’ Something that Black American writer James Baldwin analysed so often, is that the oppressing group evolves motives to fear you because they don’t want to face that they are taking advantage of your situation as being oppressed by them. Therefore, it projects onto you the duty to prove that you are not a threat, that there is no need to feel in danger near you and retaliate. It shapes the perception that one has of themselves and the mental and emotional charge of adapting oneself to the gaze of someone else that doesn’t understand nor want to see them for what they are, of what kind of relation binds them together in a same though conflictual world of meaning.
In fact, the idea that trauma only affects the deeply wounded and the broken and diverts them from ‘normality’ is a very ableist view. It obliviates the fact that trauma affects us all and sometimes, not in the most overt ways. We elaborate our identity as a function of what we can allow ourselves to express among a society of others. That is why in identity issues, the personal is always tied to the political. As we saw earlier with Hegel, policies of domination often work as a contract, an exchange over someone’s life : ‘If you work for me, I’ll spare your life or won’t send you in prison and you will be able move within a certain limit’. The extent of that limit might be useful for a while when it relies on an equal treatment. It is not so salutary when it serves the domination of a group over another, not on the basis of their actions towards them, but for the simple fact that they are there.
Starting her Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston – Beacon Press, 2014), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds that the history of US settler colonialism is ‘the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.’26 As James Baldwin argued, it could not be so without alienating in the mind of the oppressor those whose existence, culture and history that they destroyed : as the ‘natural’, essential enemy. According to him, nothing was more frightening to ‘the white man’ than the terror of his own guilt27, especially when it comes to white people of popular classes, who lived next to the slaves and the segregated with only the colour of their skin to tell them apart. The proximity of their social class would make their cohabitation less bearable as it would require more personal effort from the white person to push away the pain of identifying with those that they force into slavery and extreme precarity.28 French scholar Maboula Soumahoro explained that it was one of the main differences between racism in France and in the United States : French people did not have to cohabitate with the slaves that they sent to the American continents on the same territory as people in the US had to, so it is still easier to pretend that racial issues do not exist or are neglectable in France, an ‘universalist’ and colour-blind country.29 However, what the establishment of the United States and their extension was even more radical, according to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, as they had almost totally erased all the traces of the Indigenous life and history before colonisation – if it weren’t for Indigenous peoples’ resistance to only survive and manage to preserve and pass on their culture.
That results over time into a system of intergenerational oppression and trauma that would establish the oppressor’s law : ‘Such category of people has always worked for us or others, it is in their nature to be servile, so this is the way that things are and any other way would be subversive, dangerous and unnatural.’ Of course, this goes on as well for discrimination and oppression against women and gender minorities, popular classes, disabled people, … If we question our ‘traditions’, we might sometimes discover actual skeletons in the closet. How to build one’s own identity in that kind of context ? When thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, for instance, analysed the effects of colonisation on the colonised mind – as well as the coloniser’s –, they precisely stressed those mechanisms of sustained oppression that came to alienate the very perception that they had of themselves. And we can extend that to the other oppressive dynamics, as intersectional analysis show, that imply that the access to resources that are essential to our survival and well-being are being dependent on our compliance to abusive systems of power concentrating and administrating them. We have to shape our personality, for instance, knowing that the access to those resources is dependent on our capacity to produce work in certain ways prescribed by preset relations of power that are maintained and that we are not in the position to discuss. The very fact that we are not part of the discussion about those matters, that the distance is too far from the source where the decisions are made for all, is participating to the tension that one has to bear in order to live with the violence that they induce. If we were to be participating subjects of such a system that would organise and distribute the resources available, we could name and ask whether their use is adequate to the benefit of all. If we are not and those resources are still being abusively exploited and our governing systems unchecked and uncontrolled as they damage the very ecosystems that we depend on, then it means that in a way, we are as much objectified and alienated, as we require to objectify and alienate those whose oppression we still benefit from. That ground has been a motive for anti-psychiatry movements in the 1960s and 1970s (R. D. Laing, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Bruce Alexander’s ‘rat park’ experiment30, …), as some perceived that a strictly institutional and drug-based approach was insufficient to tackle socially-conditioned aspects of mental distress. How to build and choose oneself as a person when the least of your daily action depends on the perimeter of your cage, exploiting the lands and seas that we dry off and poison or precarious workers here and in other countries ?
Anyhow, we manage to keep on functioning or trying to, although we experience trauma on a daily basis, repressing the guilt that we are told not to have already. And that is it : trauma, in a large sense, means how we adapt to radical changes in our sensory and emotional experience and appreciation, from the slightest encounter to the most violent injury. In its etymology, it means as much ‘the wound’ as ‘the defeat’.31 It is how we surrender to the change in our reality and try to draw a livable map of our daily interactions around that. It is the story that we tell around the wound, hoping that we would not awaken the pain of its memory. The deepest is the pain, the more distance we would try to create between what we tell ourselves and its remembrance. We can do it despite its psychological cost and most have had to be resilient for a large part of their lives, even if it means functioning differently. (By the way, we can also be and function differently from the prescribed and expected norm in the first place and manage to still ‘function’ anyway, despite the frictions that it would create to the outside world.) That is where we come to the interesting part, that trauma irrigates our whole experience, that it is the intersection, the merging of sensorimotricity and meaning – that it can be reclaimed, as so many minority-assigned communities have done since there were domination and oppression structures.
In their testimony at a TEDxUMN event, Two-Spirit scholar from the Rosebud Sioux tribe Nicholas Cetanzi Metcalf explained how they managed to navigate during their youth and life as an adult between two separate worlds of meaning : the ‘American’ and the Indian one.32 It became even more delicate when it came to gender issues. Though Two-Spirit people – who identify as men, women, both, in-between or as a third-gender on the gender spectrum, although assigned differently at birth or not – used to exist and hold important social and spiritual positions in almost all the 566 Indigenous Nations on the North American continent, the arrival of European settlers and the colonisation of the lands broke their internal organisation – as it did on other continents.33 Forcing the subjugated populations to a Christian education participated to a sense of confiscation and shame over their indigenous cultures, calling Two-Spirit people berdache – as ‘male prostitute’ –, prescribing the Western binary conception of gender onto them. As Cetanzi confesses, it is still a struggle to feel safe while affirming their cultural and gender identity – trauma that they were passed on through their parents and that they still pass on to their children, by warning them about the dangers of affirming their parent’s gender non-conforming identity.
We may think that this is only a matter that concerns minorities, pertaining to who they are and not a result of how they have been treated for centuries, in the same way that psychoanalytic and psychiatric theory and practice still mainly individualises and pathologises such issues as deviances. But trauma and its consequences are never only a matter of being wounded and failing to respond to the wound as any ‘normal person’ would. It is always deeply interpersonal and intricated into the very notion of meaning, which is inscribed into the collective sense and transmitted that way.If we cannot give back meaning to an experience and integrate it in the way that we project into possibilities, a way that could be heard with attention and dialogued with, if we keep on being isolated in our means to try to make things right – that is, that a collective guilt could also be addressed and not denied its reality and consequences on future generations – then, how could anyone be alright and feel up to the task of healing ?
III – Difficult diagnosis
‘The illusion of safety is as frustrating as it is powerful.’
Roxane Gay, « The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion », Bad Feminist, 2014
There are many reasons why trauma shouldn’t be seen solely as an individual issue. We have tried to analyse so far how the dynamic structures of trauma could be conceived and maintained collectively. One may object that it is too much taking from people their responsability for their own lives. In a sense, maybe ; but maybe the choices and decisions that we make are choices amongst possibilities. We would like to stress here that any responsability taken, moreover, depends on what one is asked for and what story is willing to be heard and most of all, understood. One is often well aware of the kind of stories that, on the contrary, cannot be told and the risk if we tell them of not being believed.
The world of meaning and comprehension that is collectively conceived and maintained, participates of what James Baldwin called ‘a system of reality’.34 Depending on how one situates themselves inside of a shared system of reality would not only affect the way that they would perceive the world around them, but the roles attached and expected from such a point of view and perspective upon their self-expression. What are the stories that we are usually told that we come to tell ourselves and to ourselves, because we expect that those are the stories that most people are used to hearing and ready to hear ?
In an essay called « The Careless Language of Sexual Violence », Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay reacts to the way that the shocking rape of an eleven year-old girl by eighteen young men in Cleveland, Texas, was covered. In fact, most newspapers emphasided on the fact that those men’s lives and the town’s would be impacted, without seeming to care that much about the girl, if not blaming her or her mother. Roxane Gay questions a culture of numbing toward the notions and representations of rape and rapists – whether in literature, newspapers, films and series, music, … –, pertaining to what we usually call ‘rape culture’. Such a way of depicting rape turns it as if it were an inevitable part of how our societies function – not a question of ‘if’ a person identified as a woman, or assimilated to that position, is likely to be raped, but of when. She says, ‘I increasingly feel that writing is a political act whether I intend it or not because we live in a culture where [careless reports and articles of such facts are] permissible and publishable. I am troubled by how we have allowed such intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence. We talk about rape, but we don’t carefully talk about rape.’35 In that context, many stories are not likely to be heard, at least without being distorted and used against themselves.
When we talk about trauma, we don’t only talk about someone being hurt and trying to recover from it, we talk about how we allow people that are hurt to tell their stories. Do we help them situate their experience into rightful meaning and redirect their lives on to new possibilities in a welcoming way ? Trauma is both about the repressed memory of the hurt and the strategies adopted by the person to avoid such a memory, go round it and keep on living in a way or another. We can learn otherwise, but only if we can stage the source of the pain in our sight. Trauma is about how we make room around the wound so that we can recover from it, should we feel allowed and safe enough to face it again. Buddhist traditions call it Dukkha, all the tribulations of everyday life that are ‘hard to face’.36 Indeed, there are two sides of trauma : one that we tell and one that we feel, to which we can hardly find the words.
In her reflection over the way that we usually talk about rape, Roxane Gay quotes scholars Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver’s book Rape and Representations (New York – Columbia University Press, 1991). They argued that ‘the act of rereading rape involves more than listening to silences ; it requires restoring rape to the literal, to the body : restoring, that is, the violence – the physical, sexual violation.’37 However difficult it is to hear and admit that one’s body can be violated, to live it in our own body, we need to understand that no one is immune to trauma, to the kind of contact that forces you to change your perspective, for the better or worse. But, how to tell in the most accurate way and share the reality of what is least communicable, that is, sensory and emotional experience ? They are both inalienable to our body’s most intimate reality, that is the experience of change and transformation that we cannot control, but only hope to guide. We can hope for better approximations. In the Buddhist view, it may be complicated as well to tell a story that would resemble ‘the truth’, in a world where everything is utterly changing and impermanent, close but never the same again38 ; therefore, one should better make peace with the way that their own body feels pain, discomfort and fear by accepting them in the first place. If the source of the pain is staged, one could change their own position toward it.
However, it is more difficult to let go of a wound when the causes are structural and persistent. The point is that, as many intersectional thinkers put forward, we should step out of an ‘either/or’ perspective – one that would state that if you fall short of the expected and prescribed norm, then you necessarily are to be antagonised. In that case, it is not that people can’t be resilient enough to live in a way or another with trauma or their disability in any matter – they don’t have the choice –, it is not because they do manage to live or survive through that they should still. Again, to observe people struggling with disabling pain in a certain context that doesn’t help nor is offering other acceptable solutions, doesn’t say more about them being hurt than it does about their being or feeling abandoned by the sense of community and support, of meaning and possibilities. That means, there might be a danger to the symptom and its diagnosis, in any kind of therapeutic or pseudo-therapeutic space that actually comes to hurt people who resort to it. Most disciplines would take the symptom as belonging to the individual’s responsability and failure to adapt to the way things presumably are and should be, rather than acknowledging that the way that we say they are could or should in fact be different.
Interpretation is based on a frame of reference, a language to its code and the limits of what it can express. If our frame is expecting too much, too rigid and excludes some possibilities, refuses to acknowledge a large piece of people’s actual experience, we take the risk of missing out what their experience is all about. We should listen first and try to understand ; yet, we should also be ready to put the very structures that found our expectations at risk as well. We should change the frame. If the system of reality and political system that we are living through are failing our comprehension and help to what many living beings are actually living on this planet, we should be ready to risk the pretend security of being held in debt to the power that it wields on them and all of us. That means, an unequal system of making society that is likely to induce hurting the people and living beings that are subjected to it, cannot be permitted to endure if we want to help those people durably and our shared ecosystems. At one moment in time, we should just stop putting bandages over wounds that find their causes still vivid and administering damage. There is a rage to trauma when it is bound to the injustice of political domination, that endures. It is not an individual failure : it is an attempt at surviving collective submission.
Nevertheless, they are not subjugated ; they are made by force.
Speaking of a change of frame, it seems now bewildering that most people have managed to get a sense of unlikely balance out of one of disruption. It is and at the same time, if we consider the theory of the sensorimotor paradox, they had and still have to. We probably have been passed on the habit of struggling, learning and normalising the disruption of one of our basic function as living beings, throughout some hundred thousands of years : sensorimotricity. The trauma of its constant contradiction – as is the hypothesis of the theory – may be at the core of our ability to elaborate meaning as a response, so that we would not find ourselves in complete disarray.
But, this must yet seem obscure as to how we came to make such a statement. We mentioned the sensorimotor paradox theory in our introduction without entering deeper into the subject. It is a complicated one, though rather simple, because it exposes a contradiction that is not to be resolved, a tension and chain reaction. The main idea is that seeing one’s own hand and staring at it as if it were any other object in our surrounding environment – especially when it is open in front of us – disrupts sensorimotricity. Something there is impossible to get beyond without hurting oneself or removing the object and ending the scene. For this object – the hand – to remain, we have to momentarily freeze ourselves to a certain extent, suspending our liberty to fully respond to any other object and most of all, to this very object – a part of our own body that we are willingly alienating from ourselves. It is a situation, a specific setting where the very hand that we are used to invest in order to fetch objects cannot move if we want this particular object to be. For this object to be, we have to deny our own capacity to act toward it : we are to be the witness that cannot participate other than in our potential imagination.
The experience is quite unique and prototypical, in fact, and provokes a dizziness that has no parallel with looking at any other part of one’s own body. It leaves the person with their sole capacity to witness the impression of their own senses and emotions, without being able to do anything about it – bodywise. Something, in that particular situation, blocks the capacity to enact any consistent interaction involving the whole body, but only the sense of that body, some level of self-consciousness (that is the condition of Edelman) – that is entropic, generates an internal and physiological disorder, because we want to but cannot enact the situation that stimulates us. Sensorimotor memory is generated without being able to go through it either. It is only but an image. It is the image of a moment, of a possibility without an end, circling and waiting for an unlikely outcome. We say that, but of course, such a habitual thing as living with one’s own hands can seem futile and hardly enough to make any suggestion about the origins of our capacity to think and elaborate imagination into narratives, especially if we think about those without hands or that cannot actually see. But, is it ? What about the way those people thousands of years ago would have felt like in such moments of self-exploration ? How could it change our bodies over a very long time ?
We reminded earlier that there should be a tighter connection between the depiction of an event and its bodily experience, how social conventions and norms of interaction have taught us to put a distance there from the expression of pain and distress, or even of pleasure – in fact, from the reality of the body. Imagine that you are frozen into a situation from which you need to get out, escape and try to resume your usual life – you could still call out for help, or try to break the spell that has you frozen. Staring at your own hand is much of the same : you cannot enact this situation, and you cannot simply eat your own hand – but you might still want to get out of it eventually. The situation is the image that you are stuck in, and the way out is the call, verbalisation or at least, the signifying of your distress that no one else can see. Psychoanalyst Darian Leader observed, in that sense, all the ways that our hands constantly have to be busy and fiddle with something when we are least aware, as if some part of us desperately had to express something out of it.39
The state of paradox makes everything strange around you, as you have to recover some sense of physical engagement, and marks in the world that you perceive. And yet, the dizziness is intoxicating, feels like a surreal moment. The experience is deeply personal, yet it might shape the urgent need to communicate something about it : a sense of one’s own self, palpable, concentrated, present and yet, impossible to extract. Even in order to say ‘Me’ and try to say something about yourself and the feeling of yourself, you have to do it so that others would understand, including their perspective, using a sign rather than transmitting the non-communicable reality of your experience. Yet, it feels like you are standing out of your own body, cast off, detached.
Paradoxes are hard to solve out. Their contradiction concentrates much energy that would find no solution, except a way out. They are traps that we can only give up. No matter how hard we try, it is as stimulating as it is frustrating. From there, such energy could fuel the need for a resolution, if not of the paradox itself, at least of other things that could find easier relief. As we try to understand some vision that cannot be, a dead end, we slowly elaborate ways round it : we elaborate the trauma of the impossible.
The proposition of the sensorimotor paradox as an evolutional drive is difficult to present without resorting to the reader’s own experience of such a paradox. We are trying to make avaible to representation something that is fundamentally an impossibility for literal resolution. It is a state of tension, that drains the mind and body. We cannot rest on a paradox, that is why such a psychoanalyst as Jacques Lacan used to say that signifiers (the sensory support of words : phonetic, scriptural, gestural, …) worked as a chain, always refering to another and never seeming to find an end – because it can’t. We think because we can’t rest on a paradox, and that a paradox is what keeps us on the edge of releasing everything that we contain into an acceptable conduct. Something must have been interrupted in our earliest ancestors’ daily lives and interactions, so to provide enough energy to sustain this specific need, the one for diving into an imaginary experience, suspending all the rest for a moment of sheer dissociation. Because it is dissociative, it is hard to picture. It rejects its self-observation. And else we believe in a supernatural intervention, our own body, others’ and the experience of our environments were the only things that could provoke such a radical shift, to push us beyond the limits of interaction. It happens within the perimeter of our own body’s self-experience and is a break in its capacity to provide a primary response, only to invest a secondary kind of responding : the one that is not acted out loud, only figured in one’s own mind – a representation of what could be enacted.
So, when we actually pounder the idea that such a simple fact as staring at one’s own hand could disrupt the very basis of sensorimotricity, it doesn’t take long before one actually considers that it could be a reliable starting point for supporting such a change. Our hands were one of the primary means for interaction and engagement in the world, first as a locomotor support, then as a relational one. It is elementary and radical enough to leave one no other choice but to confront themselves with what is hardest to face : the incapacity to respond, though in the urge to react, to a situation of discomfort. And gazing at one’s own hand is uncomfortable because one cannot solve it, as it is fundamentally contradictory : the hand with which one would first be tempted to grasp the object in question is the very hand that has to stay still, so that the object of one’s interest could remain available. Lest we lift the spell off.
As we saw, trauma such as an experience of distress is not only the memory of the experience, it is also how one would react and re-adapt to the existence of that memory and the way that it affected their sensory and emotional expectations in the long run. The fact is that in this case, the experience is unique as it gives us only two options : leaving the situation by resuming bodily interaction (and releasing the objectified hand), or sustaining it, along with its emotional turmoil, wondering about all the dizziness of a new world of experience. For imagination is an effort that needs to be sustained and first, could not reasonably be sustained without a little help from one’s own body. Imagination is born out of a violence against oneself, and it is in itself, a difficult diagnosis.
IV – Is anyone responding ?
Thinking, and notably the constant flow of conscious thoughts, is mostly born out of a certain urgency to resolve a tension that is difficult to distinguish and tell apart. To stop or try to stop thinking confronts us to the reality of such a suspension that we were talking about earlier. Thoughts cover up the silence and incapacity to close the fracture up. Thinking mostly is a resort, in order to vent an anxiety and energy that have been building up from stopping one’s own body in their spontaneous and careless interactions, inside of their surrounding environments. We are being taught this fundamental notion of social adaptation since childhood up to adulthood : what are the objects that we can or cannot touch, what is appropriate as an expression or behaviour, … But those rules come with internalised representations, that of experiencing a welcoming or rejecting response to our attempts at communicating the desire to reach others.
We can’t always get what we want in the time and space that we want it. Psychoanalysis, notably since Freud, spent considerable time and insights studying how such desire was to be sublimated into substitutive conducts. The latter would combine particular sets of body expressions, verbalisations and social activities – in agreement or not with social contracts, although mostly tacit. This process of substitution, mostly evading conscious planification, can work as an escape from literal and bodily confrontation with the entities denying us access to what we desire or demand, whether justified or not. We are often found in the tension between an aggressive response to our discomfort and fears, and the need to feel reassured, connected and supported, held whenever we lose touch with the ground. That is, by the way, what the sensorimotor paradox does : it makes us lose touch with the ground, that we try to figure out another way, from memory. It also opens a space in-between for imagination to replace the enaction of a conflict into symbolic narrative structures, whether they are conscious or not (anymore).
But, for this space to open, we first needed a crack in our commitment to responding and being responded into continuous interaction and feedback, so that we could then delay the response and escape into imagining it. It is important to say that according to the point of view that we choose, the fondness for imagining and thinking could even be seen as pathological on strictly sensorimotor terms (it is not ‘working’ and functional in its first use), that should require some adjustments and a great deal of learning. To some kind of purist, the sole act of thinking itself could be seen as a deviance to, say, the ‘laws of nature’, like thrusting a stick in a bicycle’s wheel. After all, it took us thousands of years to elaborate an alternative and make up for it. We are still younglings at the scale of evolution.
As we saw, the sensory and emotional image of our experience is all that remains available when it comes to the sensorimotor paradox. The time of sensorimotricity – of the instantaneous response – is suspended into opening to another kind of time, closer to a mystical and absolute experience – absolute because no response is possible to that particular situation, on the sensorimotor level, other than being a witness to it. As Ellen Dissanayake stated, the feeling of making something special – in our relation to an object onto which we leave our imprint – may be more significant than its symbolic content. Here, the possibility that there is a relation opens in itself to the ways that then give it a shape. There hasto be a content to be chosen because of the experience. The loss of ground creates the need for some kind of meaning ; but the interpretation, its justification and formalisation come after.
In psychoanalytic terms, the repression of the event that strikes the body comes before its symbolic substitution – and the ways for symbolising it have to find meaning in other sources of inspiration. As Darian Leader investigates it in Jouissance (2020), the experience of pain informs us of the existence of some limit to our body’s expension, whether physical or symbolic. The way that we will compose with those limits would take part of the inscription of trauma within our perception of what is surrounding us. In every move that we make, our traumatic memory is charging and alerting the possibility of a wound. On the symbolic level, the memory of the wound is its own alert, and we often try our best to avoid it and cover it with another kind of meaning, representations and social performance. The latter often constitutes the opportunity to not address the sense of insecurity that we may be inhabited with. Our social identity, the way that we appear to others and come to appear to ourselves, is woven in trauma.
It is curious then that while we may be struggling with our own inner trouble, others often seem to be just fine, living their lives ignorant of our own worries – and of course, they do have worries of their own. Maybe that is why we substitue so easily experiences that are difficult to face and their memories with forms, attitudes and sceneries that we witness and that seem to go on happening in the most natural and effortless way for others. We may not have or be able to intervene into others’ affairs and conduct that take place in front of us. Especially if we are a child surrounded by our parent-s or caretaker-s, the hopefully relative stability of their behaviour could be a source of support to our demand for a resolution. So long as everything is happening around us in all appearance of normality, of some form of stability and enough consistency, we can manage to learn to be alone with ourselves in the presence of others, as English psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott put it. In fact, more distressing than not being able to respond is that we would not be responded back. A silence for the mind because, again, we are losing our ground. There is nothing to replace and fill our own paradox with. In the very case of the sensorimotor paradox, as our own hand cannot respond to us, even the imaginary response that we could give by producing memory images could not undo the situation : our hand won’t respond until we break the scene. We have to give it up.
In the same way, it is because we know that anyone is not supposed to respond to our constant sollicitations for interaction – although we learnt the ways to do it and the modalities of verbal exchange – that we have to compensate with overthinking the very fact that we had to condition ourselves on to the end of maintaining an appearance of ‘normal’ conduct. We cannot get constant volontary interactions and at the same time, we cannot let ourselves be with our own bodies in any way that would seem unfit to social expectations. We cannot vent our need for interaction by climbing on tables or dancing ecstatically in the streets without raising worry and suspicion, for example. We cannot address out loud the traumatic memory of being refused total expressive freedom in a certain social context – maybe sometimes for good reasons, especially when aggressive to others. So we have to channel that energy into thinking and mostly, phantasising the response that we would give to the violence of having to remain silent. The energy that we have to contain cannot be spent by simply interacting with our environments at will, as children do spontaneously. That energy has to go to compulsive thinking, that is irrational ; because thinking is rooted in the emotional, not the rational (that psychoanalytic theory and practice usually acknowledge, although often neglecting certain relations of power and constraint that push harder on some people). As it is compulsive and immediate, it is the first means that we tend to use to cover up trauma as soon as we have learnt that expressing our pain and distress could be responded and perceived negatively as annoying.
In a way, our early ancestors may have had to learn how to be alone in the presence of others with their own experience ; that is, having them as a limit to what we can express and thus, soon after, a likely substitute to the very primary paradox itself, in order to sustain the capacity for imagination. In the seek for a response, not knowing how to adequately express their awkward emotions to others, maybe that is where objects intervened, to make sense out of their urging hands, deriving attention onto something else ; that means, their fabrication, their invention, their appropriation into something personal and their elevation to the status of the artificial, and the way others can see them too – artefacts. The object is here, silent, transcends and marks the call.
V – Trapped into thinking
One thing that we could learn from the ideas mentioned above, is that maybe thinking functions mostly as a traumatic response to a form of aggression. We mostly think compulsively in a restless way. Getting a rest from one’s own thoughts is often difficult to acheive for many people, especially if the context and conditions in which they are living is precarious in some or several ways. The few moments where we get to make sense out of this constant flow of thoughts and think that we acheived a kind of stability are usually very brief and swiftly swept away by another movement of thoughts that gets out of our control. Thinking happens, mainly, out of a sense of instability. It is a way of engaging sensorimotricity by simulating it, to get a grasp back at our body’s situation out of an utter dizziness. Somehow, because of social self-control, the enaction of sensorimotricity, to a certain extent, can only be imaged mentally. Because of the control that we exercise over ourselves, we have to virtually evacuate the tension of not being free and able to respond spontaneously to our surrounding stimulations. Imagination is the escape from the neural blocking. We are trapped into thinking.
This is something that we tend to forget, notably in our Western societies and cultures, but we may have used to think a great deal more with our hands in the past than we are now. Our hands, as they progressively liberated themselves from mainly locomotor functions with the increase of bipedal stance, were one of the first means for us to relate, reach and explore what was surrounding us. They were our mediation to experience. Our hands are more intimate to our way of seeing the world than we like to think, not only because we use them or not (if or at least, when we can), but because they carry the epigenic memory of our agency. They are both control and relation, and if the sensorimotor theory developed here is correct, they may be at the core of some blueprint that made our mind. The difference now is that we have to learn faster to show less of them than we talk. We are, since birth, stimulated that way (René A. Spitz, 1965)40.
We are sollicitated, progressively in our socialisation as children, to replace active and physical enaction to actual situations with alternatives, some kind of distance and restraint, so to privilege speech, observation and conversation. Some gestural forms of expression are proscribed or regarded as socially inappropriate, sometimes regardless of the actual harm that they cause. As they are perceived negatively, we learn to control them and discart them. In a whole, it has to do with social class : the higher someone is in the social hierarchy – if we refer only to Western societies –, the more control they are supposed to have over their own body, that also means that the least physical effort should be dispensed. In a model of mass society based on the idea of the middle-class, which is supposed to aspire to what the upper-class has – even if an ersatz of it –, speech, social representation and the increasing pursuit of evading all physical effort which can be delegated, participate of masking our dependence on sensory and motor integrity and reliance. Body autonomy becomes a privilege. Then, it goes without saying that performing certain social norms of conduct is supposed to prevent us from being associated with any form of disability, that have a history of stigmatisation and social outcast.
Our sensorimotor memory is the first that we get to explore, that shapes the rest of our interactions. Our mental representations are rooted in those memories of engaging physically and emotionally, of speaking or actively participating, if only as a witness, to someone else’s speech or action. Even if we don’t consciously picture some action while thinking through formalised language, the effectiveness of speech and the sensation of control that it provides derive directly from sensorimotor engagement. Thinking and our ability to language come from speech that eventually, is enacted through and as a sensorimotor feat. Moreover, it creates and participates of a collective scene, as the act of speech is being taught and sanctioned by the authority and participation of others, their stimulation, approval and understanding of our attempts at speaking or not. By the act of thinking, we engage all that memory that is bodily and affective at the root. We seek that effectiveness that, we hope, should result back into the primary participation of others in the play of words.
In that light, we could say that trauma is what prevents us from doing or imagining to ourselves what we could not do or enact without exposing ourselves to harm. It conditions our perspectives, what we intimately keep as a knowledge of where we cannot go. So, all the constant flow of conscious thought is mostly conditioning us to absolutely not go there, to not bring back those memories of a certain kind of situations where we are and feel exposed, especially if we can’t voice our pain out. We usually think our thoughts through a voice that, on the contrary, seems to embody a certain kind of confidence, force and assertiveness, that would be able to erase and contain fear. They work as an imperative to not go there where it is not safe, where others might hurt us, but also an imperative to look and appear a certain way that comforts the preset order of things.
Trauma, again, is not the hurt. It is the constant effort to not be exposed again to the hurt. Trauma is all the mental and body conditioning that we carry in order to not find ourselves in the situation where we would be wrong, found offensive to others (even when their reaction is injustified) and disempowered. Trauma is the force and pressure to make things appear as positive and pro-active as possible, still in control and having us not likely to be told off by anyone and discarted from our agency. There is a lot of anguish in trauma as it is, for much of it, socially constructed, because there might not be that much safe (whether public or private) spaces for people to breathe out of it.
Threfore, thinking is not at all neutral. It is compulsive and for most of it, built over fear, sublimated and derived away from our body and mind’s harm. Not only that, but the fear of being harmed may be even less important than the fear of being found powerless, robbed of one’s agency and own projection into living. One field of experience that is interesting in that matter is the practices of BDSM. Though often regarded as a pathological mean to sublimate trauma (into the ‘sadomasochistic’ frame), what has mainly been discarted in that outside interpretation is the importance of consent within those practices. That means that trauma can, in non-abusive cases, be adressed within controlled boundaries (Simon Z. Weismantel, 2014)41. As Roxane Gay put it : ‘when you say, in some form or fashion, stop, the pain or humiliation or domination stops, no questions asked. […] There is nothing better than knowing the suffering can stop’.42
YouTube video maker and artist Kat Blaque made a series of videos on her experience of BDSM43 – notably as a Black trans person. She also stresses the fact that what matters most to her is the empowering agency that comes with the importance of consent, to be able to set the limit to what would be done or not to and with her own body. Pain there is mostly a sensation that can be experienced within a safe and predictable enough environment and with skilled and concerned partner-s – in best and proper cases. But, how much do we really consent to the terms of our inclusion or exclusion within most of social spaces in our daily lives ? That remains largely conflictual. In that context, the prevalence of the choice given to the practicioners over what is done to and with their bodies and in what conditions gives more clarity to the balance between pain and control, between aggression and agency. Is pain really the problem in trauma, or is it the incapacity to respond to it in a closing and meaningful way ?
Most of many people’s traumatic hurt comes less from the first physical and emotional pain than from the incapacity to mutually recognise and set boundaries to it, to the conditions in which the subject of their body and psychic integrity will be addressed with others. In such a taboo subject as incest and pedocriminality for instance, the incapacity for the victims to feel that they would be heard by others is far more alienating than resisting and bear resilience to the pain.44 The traumatic conditioning of our thoughts often comes with the anxiety over whether we would actually have the spaces and time to tell who we are, our experiences or at least, discuss the terms of any exchange that we might participate to when meeting with other people. That is also very pregnant in the critique of neurotypical norms, which mostly imply the implicit nature of the terms given to social interactions, even when they are not supposed to include any explicit consent, for they are deemed to go without saying.
In fact, the arbitrary classifications supposed to rule our interactions with the world and others are most of the time taken for granted. They help maintain what sociologist Charles Tilly called ‘durable inequalities’, should they be theoretically inconsistent, though structurally persistent and mediated by collective and inter-individual representations as well as social practices in rather different spaces and on different levels (Gayle Rubin, 2012)45. There can be a discrepency between the performance of social interactions, especially when contrived, and the social context and relations of power pressuring the individuals to act a certain way – as there would be, for instance, a difference between cinema and the actual relations of power or collaboration between the people producing it, as there is between representation and the institution. What matters in the end is the impact in the long run of both performance and the structural motives for those social practices, whether or not they are sanctioned and privileged by social hierarchies, and whether we are to participate and get to choose their terms. Every space has its own rules, and within those spaces, any relation should be as carefully and mutually decided and chosen, whether stigmatised or not.
But unfortunately, we have to limit the breadth of our own minds to what appears safest in a social context where consent is often carelessly disregarded and broken. In « The Careless Language of Sexual Violence », Roxane Gay again points out, on a subject mentioned above, that ‘Perhaps we too casually use the term « rape culture » to address the very specific problems that rise from a culture mired in sexual violence. Should we, instead, focus on « rapist culture » because decades of addressing « rape culture » has accomplished so little ?’46 It is something that is much discussed in feminist circles, that the mention of the perpetrators of assaults is often eluded and their victims held passively accountable for their own situation – as if it fell from the sky. In the way that we keep telling those stories and kind of event, we often focus on the result – the person that has been hurt – but, without an agent – the actual person that commited the assault, the ones who put the landmines out there. Here, ‘the language of pain operates through signs, which convey histories that involve injuries to bodies, at the same time as they conceal the presence or « work » of other bodies.’47 For example, we regularly count how many women and trans people have been murdered for the past years, but we are often unable to stress that it is mostly cisgender men who murdered and still murder them, that the problem is not the victims but the assaulters and a system of violence that supports them. How can we put limits to something that isn’t there, hardly summoned to the recollection, that doesn’t appear in the terms of our understanding ? What if the same story is told over and over with a whole where an action should be ? Narratives matter.
What there is to understand is that we live in universes of representation that accompagny each and any one of our movements and thoughts, and that we enact rather unconsciously at any moment. In that sense, Judith Butler’s idea of performativity is consistent with Francisco Varela’s of sensorimotor enaction. If pain, as philosopher Sara Ahmed recalls, has an object, is deeply subjective and complex and ‘is not simply the feeling that corresponds to bodily damage’48, though experienced through our body, so is our response to it in the short and long run. The recognition of pain as pain that ‘involves complex forms of association between sensations and other kinds of « feeling states »‘ underlines that it is inscribed in a world of meaning. We respond to it with means available to us from our current and ongoing experience, both solitary and relational. Our response may even inhibit certain sensations of pain in order to uphold its immediate consistency. It may even generate something more emotionally disturbing in itself than the previous sensory event.
The recognition of pain would also be, in that perspective, the recognition of the surface of our body being a source of contact and vulnerability to others out of our control. Indeed, our skin, the borders and surface that ‘[separate] us from others also [connect] us to others.’49 Sara Ahmed as well quotes from philosopher Drew Leder’s The Absent Body (1990), when suggesting that in the absence of pain, ‘the body is « absent » only because it is perpetually outside itself, caught up in a multitude of involvements with other people.’ Dysfunctions such as pain would draw back attention to the body itself, or else, intensify its awareness. Experience is a spectrum that has some of its aspects reinforced and others seemingly muted – or not signified in ways that could allow us and others to be acknowledged.
Those considerations are interesting, because of the paradoxical nature that we suggested of the human mind and the apprehension of pain within the structure of trauma. This apprehension comes to have us over-preparing, orientating and narrowing our own capacity to respond to various situations accordingly where our body would be exposed to others, whether physically or virtually. All the ways that we try to respond to pain or any sensory disruption would eventually form a consistent ensemble of apprehension through which we would try to navigate as safely as possible in relation to other bodies and beings – with and to which we also hold on an experience of interaction and response. The way that those interactions are framed into narratives shape the way that we would carry our own body into a world of possibility or impossibility, in full or lack of awareness of our constant adapting to its surroundings.
The response of others to our pain, whatever it might be, is still a response that we could work from in order to express some part of what we would need to express in that moment. At least we try, or submit to an incapacity to do so. This creates a network of possibility or impossibility for us to express what we feel in various spaces and times and in relation to the probability that others would show themselves available to a (hopefully) positive listening and response. In return, witnessing someone else’s pain can also be a moment when I can open up, being available and releasing control to those trusting us with their vulnerability or not. Sometimes, we are just waiting in the world for the moments when we can finally relinquish that control and open up to others in ways that we feel are impossible or unlikely in our daily lives. Lacking control over the latter makes us even more eager to seizing those moments where we could finally let out our urge to be heard. Pain is waiting, lingering and trying to connect and release its charge, if not constructively, at least compulsively. We may be only looking for solutions that would permit us to find that interactive and enacting contact again – what Sara Ahmed calls contingency, word that shares the same Latin root with the word contact (that is, contingere : com, with ; tangere, to touch).
But, the precise location of pain can be rather difficult to point out at times. It creates some mental environment of seeking and easing the source of the pain and all the process to that seeking that brings us to its relational, repositioning and narrative aspects. It comes to mediate our interactions with others in pervasive ways. When it cannot be told and seen in its continuity, it might find other ways to express itself in and through the body, coming in-between our relations to others and our own body. The perception of our own body becomes relative to those relations as sometimes, the response that we give is less about the pain than it is about mending the possibility that we could have shared our situatedness with a world of meaning that would have us evolve.
Can we possibly grow a space for that ?
VI – Of objects and subjects
The formation of an object of experience or thought depends much on whether we are projecting any sort of action to it or not. Objectification goes with instrumentalisation. It does, whether actualised and enacted or only left hanging as a retained potentiality and an imaginary projection. To turn an experience of another body (any kind of body, whether living or inert) or one’s own into an object of experience means that we project, at some point, some kind of motor development. Even if it is internalised, repressed or delayed, we apprehend objectified experiences through the very deep memory of enacting some possible sensorimotor engagement to it. To mentally grasp an object, a form, is to mobilise such a memory. We have been trained and training for so long since childhood that we may not even notice the substitution of the mental image for the actualised action – though it is there.
Hence, the sense of alienation when we face other people, that we cannot objectify and physically interact with them at our will so easily. We become subject to the inalienable part of their presence, as we are unable to move them according to what we expect, as far as we may try as children, teenagers or adults. When we talk about human phenomenology (the spontaneous analysis of perception), we cannot escape a complicated dialectic between an active or passive position that cannot exist. What we expect from others depends a lot on what we know may be expected from us, that affects our interaction with them. Alienation then becomes moral when we fail to let another be the subject of a relation at the same level as us, when the other fails to accept being a subject with us, or when we feel incapable of being worthy of participation ourselves other than as the object of someone else’s expectations. To be subject to something is somehow to accept receiving something that is else, that is other than ourselves into a shared world. Resisting this, for fear of failure, hurt and trauma, pushes us to react on the level of a protective reaction ; that is, on the level of trying to turn our experience, or any part of it into an object that we could act toward and somehow control – even if it means alienating the very other that we fail receiving or that fails us.
Of course, the balance is tenuous to the structure of dialogue : not a confrontation between two objects, but a shared space opened between two subjects that are open themselves to acceptance and to a gift of oneself. All the reactions born of fear, such as rejection, or hate, or the delusional desire of possessing somone else, objectify and alienate those other than us (should it be within our own conception of ourselves) that we cannot welcome nor be welcomed by. What we repress in ourselves is precisely what we cannot allow ourselves to be welcomed by, that is a feeling well-known by many minority-assigned people. Trauma lingers in-between, creating non-objects, irrealisable and forbidden objects to which we cannot act nor relate to, leaving only contrived possibilities around them. All objects around us appear in contrast to those that we cannot see or form, because enacting them would seem far too painful to bear. In the mean time, valuable shared spaces for dialogue, care and collaboration find their pathways collapsed under the weight of traumatic and often repeated and systemic hurt. We are subject to a trauma for having been the object of a hurt – that is the shock –, but all violence in human societies is systemic as it is born of intricated contexts. Violence is not random aggression : it is aggression or self-aggression out of a collective restraint.
Such is the matter of all life and experience, for trauma isn’t only about the big things that hurt us the most as it is also about all the little things, all the small encounters and situations of contact that continuously shape our perception of the world around and push us to change and transform. Trauma is never linear, for experience is the least linear thing. Such an idea is at the core of most Buddhist traditions and is also a motive to question the categories in which we encapsulate reality and compartmentalise our failures at being subjects of balanced dialogue into objects of control. From this sense of what is in our hands, we could do much. We could, for example, degender our relation to our own bodies and others’, as advocated by non-binary writer and performer Alok Vaid Menon, as well as we could try to heal the traumatic fabric that tears our societies apart. We could step out of a binary between nature and culture, the urban world and the other ecosystems for an intricated perception and comprehension of what and where we are. But, unacknowledged pain still creates new objects for a delusion of control that we never had.
This is to understand that pain alienates us and others when we are not capable and willing to accept that being a subject is to let relations happen with bodies, ideas and perspectives that we cannot control and might not understand fully. But it is not more about optimal adaptation and appropriation. The boundaries that we can set are those that could help each part of the encounter accept that a shared space needs two subjects, and that neither is to be the object of the other without their share of consent. It is then about being open enough so to be able to let other than us happen, with the trust that they would do the same.
We exist as much as we are let to be. Now, let us make it mutual.
Of course, when we talk about trauma saying that it can be tied to the slightest experience of contact, it doesn’t mean that all trauma has the same ‘value’ or impact, but that it differs mostly in degree. Trauma is not equally invalidating or not. It is relative to the wound, that can have various proportions and degrees of severity. However, a severe wound doesn’t necessarily mean a severe trauma. It depends on whether or not the person can or cannot face it and go through its altering effects.
One can make more sense out of a grave injury than of less self-evident but deeper motives for desperation and helplessness. The whole mythology of the hero is based on that pattern. Trauma, in fact, is more about a collapse in perspective than it is about pain itself. Pain is mostly an organising sensation, whether occuring next to a physical encounter or a strictly internal motion or memory. In some sort of way, pain is but a situated memory of the body being imprinted into neural connections. It doesn’t tell much yet about the position of the individual toward the experience of pain – that tells the trauma. We saw earlier that the practice and culture of BDSM specifically allows a high degree of pain to be supported within a consensual system of projection, perspective and support that integrates pain as a consistent part of its sustainability. It is because we know that pain can end that it should not evolve into trauma. Because trauma is about how one can project themselves into enacting their own alternative perspectives inside of a set context that would make enough sense within ; or on the contrary, how one would find themselves unable to have those perspective and meaning formed in the first place. You cannot conceive a path in trauma, only create derogatory ones around it.
Trauma forms around that collapse in possibilities, which suddenly stop seeming within our reach, but out of touch. From there, we are forced to find new ways and shape new perspectives, but that demands work and the capacity to change or at least, to do with the resources available at the time. We often do things by default, for changing oneself can imply facing an adverse environment. That is why trauma is political. The objects that we have around us that we feel able to use and relate to are often the ones toward which we have less fear of being punished for. We build dependence over micro-sanctuaries, things that we like or are only able to eat or watch or do compulsively because outside of those spaces, many other things are difficult.
As pointed out by Darian Leader in Hands, the micro-space of our own hands forms one of such primary sanctuaries – maybe the first –, that can then welcome other objects. From that, we have a measure of our own limits. It can be hurtful, as it can be a start in order to build something else. Within such spaces, we become subjects to our own insecurities, which can be built and reinforced by structural forces, both external and internal. Those insecurities are often tied to experiences that involve some surrounding environment in the face of which we feel hampered or crippled. Crip theory is by the way a salvatory tool to imagine new spaces and times for our relations to them to be reconfigured through the experience of trauma as a private and collective issue as well. Trauma is then less about living with oneself in pain than it is about living with oneself amongst other people, in a network of relation within which we struggle to fit. It tells more about rejection and helplessness in the face of the ultimate perspective of institutionalisation and the denial of basic rights, than it informs us about what a person could do or not on their own and with the adequate support.
In the end, it is always a matter of having internalised the one perspective of being denied a voice of our own and the deprivation of the right to self-actualise and self-determine, despite all prescriptions. It is about casting upon someone a version of themselves from which it has been prescribed that they could never leave or change. It is about stating as an unalterable fact that one could or could not possibly evolve, even if we let them. It is about not even caring that anyone could.
Such is trauma, as a hermeneutic and moral issue, that means that some people are not supposed to grow out of a certain depiction of themselves where they are hurt, hurtful to others or dependent on someone or something else’s presence, that they should be stuck there forever. Can we change from our pain if we don’t allow others to change from the pain that they have done, yet, whatever their gravity ? Trauma is something woven, around which we grow the rest of our selves’ possibilities that are available and doable, until the memory of the pain is outgrown and we have to break up with the fear of that pain. But, can we do that if we know that some others won’t be able to because they are not supposed to ? It is a narrative, but we are not its only writers. We are, somehow, somewhere, part of a same story and memory, only through different angles. It eventually brings up the complicated notion of justice and whether it should be retributive and individual or not.
If the only response to trauma is a pay back, how could we ever change our collective imagination without the perspective of mutual hurt as a fatality ? Ultimately, the theory of anthropogenesis that we suggested brings an interesting response to that question : there will always be an unbalance, that is part of how maintaining humanhood would work ; but we still need to address all the intricated ways in which we are pressured and keep pressure on ourselves and others in return, whether directly or indirectly by our actions. It is counter-productive – if it ever should be productive – to try to resolve issues of power, trauma and justice by seeking an immediate sanction that would absolve us from the ongoing and collective work of healing.
We can have a better understanding of stable structures than we have of the immediate reactions that they sollicitate from us. We need a clear way in order to experience the present moment. To focus on whether or not we participate to structures of power and oppression and in what measure is far more stabilising to the body and mind than seeking for short-term reactions to provocations. It is not easy, because we are not all in a position of material and moral security that can allow that. Our relation to our own body can be an unfathomable trap – that is the paradox – within which we can rapidly lose ground. Because our main daily effort and energy goes to standing and sustaining predictable conducts, working with clear and readable structures for analysing the world that we live in and participate of is a good way to navigate all the uncertainties that lie ahead.
Reproducing formalised patterns of behaviour to look alike amongst others and avoid rejection is but one of the ways in which we try to forget and obliviate how much we broke our own bodies into a social mimic, or alienation for those who can’t. Social and cultural reproduction would not be a problem in itself, if it weren’t for the possibility or not of a choice. The possibility of choice is often constraint and broken by relations of power, pressure to conform and trauma. We internalise social norms as a source of possible danger, whether or not we benefit from them to some extent.
Justice should, in a sense, be mostly about being able to make our own choices and that it should be a mutual and reciprocal basic right. We have to be regulated. Our whole existence being rooted in a sensorimotor disruption calls for regulation. But, sole externally-based regulation, one that works from the threat of exclusion, is not the same thing as teaching and accompanying living beings into being able to self-regulate their insecurities and open to actively listen and understand, or at the very least accept other people’s perspectives. Such a structure as the idea of a proscriptive conception of making society and thinking oneself amongst others is, for example, one very simple way and structure through which to envision our place in a shared world. It goes with understanding that someone hurting you may simply be reacting to a universe of hurt. It doesn’t diminish the impact and gravity of their actions towards you, but it also tells very much about how we are made unable to perceive ourselves outside of a network of hurt and reaction that engage our compelled responsability – trapped in a cycle of direct or indirect retribution and with our own limitations, that being stigmatised instead of being acknowledged as a start from which to work and grow.
A way to conclude
We are constantly making some mental effort to remember the world that we live in and what is expected from us inside of it. Understandably, we don’t want to be caught off guard. We want to be prepared to drive away in advance any reason to be told off and brutalised. We know that our univserse of action is dependent on the world of understanding that is generally shared or at least, that most people are encouraged to perform. It may be alienating, but there is much at stake. Not performing the right conduct or response, what is socially taken as being the ‘right way’ to live and express oneself, can lead to harsh consequences. For some, it may lead to death. It is as simple and plain as that. The stakes can be very high ultimately, indeed.
We often forget that when we consider the activity of our human mind that we are not – as intersectional analysis never cease to stress – born out of a vacuum world. We are born out of pressure, since the moment that we are pushed away into the clear air, and though there are some forces that try to soften the weight of that pressure, with as much love and care as there can be, this pressure still orientates the way that we evolve in the world that we manage then to perceive. Most of us try to be seen in a positive and valued light, in spite of what it may cost to attract that light, some kind of care. Many of us struggle to know how. Many others try to pretend otherwise.
Imagine how it could have felt to be on the edge of something as disturbing as conceiving an object of imagination to the mind, before there was even a first human community, before there was any formalised and symbolic structure for language. What to do with such an overwhelming feeling of being related to something else than us that could suddenly bear some part of us that no one else could possibly know about ? How could we be our first of worlds ? This kind of imprint, in the sense of Ellen Dissanayake’s work, is at the heart of what we seek : creating connection. But, the connection is fragile, it is delicate. It is a perfect vulnerability.
There are only two absolutes : that we live and experience, and that we die. Within that measure is the desperate seek for meaningful encounters, with any beings or feel-like beings, so that we feel alive – or that it feels like we are living. However, we also depend on material sustenance, and we depend much on others, and if we are to be excluded from others, we might get lost. There is this pressure of not getting lost, because everyone fears that. Seeing someone lost reminds us of feeling lost ourselves with them : we lose the map. One second of distraction from that constant effort to keep our mind mapped within our socially-based response system is enough to feel a sudden loss of ground. What if we are never capable of coming back to the common world that conceived us as valid-enough beings to be let wandering, unasked ? In what world are we living in that could ask us to justify that we do try to keep on living without further questioning of our rightful belonging ? What kind of clue are we to give in to testify of that right ?
Our constant stream of though and self-imagination is the most dreadful way through which we try to keep the compass. Our ability to think is not a merry road, but a condition. It is of terror and hurt of being left alone in the wild or desert land that we try to surround ourselves in imagination with some kind of security and certainty, of a grasp on reality, from figures of inspiration that seem to embody the confidence that we wished that we had and that sometimes is past onto us or given away. Somehow, if we are lucky, there are beings that love us enough to give us that. Then, if we didn’t acknowledge that we are terrified, would we really be ‘human’ and need the love that fosters our imagination, for the better or worse ? And by what kind of magic trick are we made to convince ourselves that we are in control, though that form and figuration of control is but a wishful performance that we play on and on in our own head to keep us on track ? Are we really so sure that it will all be okay ? And if it is in some measure, to what cost if we don’t challenge all the unnecessary crushing over our heads ?
Somehow, we need to let go. We need to take that moment, to pounder the fact that we will never clear out the fracture from which we grew a mind and soul. And that is alright. We are a paradox at heart. Let us be proud of being alive anyway. We may not always know what keeps us alive, but that is okay too. All that we should resolve ourselves to do, is to work on releasing the pressure points that are in and out of ourselves. Some are little. Some are driving our whole societies to a point where there seems to be only to forsee a brutal end. As philosopher Hannah Arendt said, we have to learn how to move in the breach (Between Past and Future, 1968), but we could also fight for more than settling for the slightest piece of dignity. Which ever way, we are here to stay, for a while. So, it better be good. Let us sit down for a moment. Let us breathe. Let us take that hands of our own that would say that we will work together. Let us be resolute that we will never solve the unsolvable of our mind. Let us just walk round it for a while, and that will be good enough. Let us set a centre to dance for.
Or finally, let us try to make society all together again.
2In Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present : a Biological Theory of Consciousness, Basic Books, New York, 1989.
3Read Ellen Dissanayake, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetic », Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009).
4Which happens to be more relevant as a criterium for our evolution than the size of our brain. Read André Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la Parole – Tome I : Technique et language, Ed. Albin Michel, 1964.
6The ‘cis’ prefix stands for ‘cisgender’, as opposed to ‘transgender’. A cisgender person broadly identifies without discomfort with the gender assigned to their body at birth. It is a matter of fact that the gender binary canvas as a mean for rigid identification was very much imposed throughout the extension of Western and capitalist societies during the colonial and industrial era. The ‘rectification’ and uniformisation set onto the diversity of gender expressions as to shape them according to Christian but also medical, social and political normative views impacted as much pre-colonial societies in the other continents as the European ones (read Alok Vaid-Menon’s Beyond the Gender Binary, London – Penguin, 2020 ; Lexie’s book Une Histoire de Genre : Guide pour comprendre et défendre les transidentités, Paris – Marabout, 2021 ; or the collective work directed by Michaëla Danjé, AfroTrans, Paris – Cases Rebelles, 2021).
7In F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, Cognitive Science and Human Experience, MIT Press, 1991.
8In Konrad Lorenz, Les fondements de l’éthologie, Paris – Flammarion, 2009 (1978).
9In Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 4th Edition, 2012 (1962).
10‘Neurotypical’ means the way that uses and norms of social interaction are standardised in a way that benefit people at ease with certain social capacities, but harm people who can’t perform them without an additional effort.
11In Donna Haraway, « A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-
Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century », in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The
Reinvention of Nature, New York – Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181.
12A salute to Abigail Thorne and her Philosophy Tube YouTube channel.
13Read Pierre Bourdieu, Sur l’État, Cours au Collège de France (1989-1992), Paris – Seuil, 2012.
14This motivated German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of the Eichmann trial, to say that there was a ‘banality of evil’ in the way that Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ had been orchestrated so to assign every protagonist to a specific part of the chain of command and make them able to keep themselves unaware of their responsability.
38In the main Buddhist traditions of Theravāda and Mahāyāna, one of the central ideas is that even one’s own self cannot be consistent with any essential entity. It only appears as a delusional fabrication that would be tied to its objects of identification. One’s own name would, for instance, be such an object bringing the illusion of a stable identity, because of its recurrence, while all of our experiences are constantly changing, being born and let go of. ‘What we call a « being », an « individual » or « me », is a convenient word, a label that we attach to the combination of the five [constituents of experience, called the Five Aggregates].’ (The Five Aggregates being : Matter, Sensations, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Conscious. In this sense, the core of Bouddhist philosophy is based on a phenomenological approach that does not necessarily resort to the belief in any external and invisible deity.) In Walpola Rahula, L’enseignement du Bouddha, Paris – Seuil, 1961, p. 45. My translation.
In episode 11 of Star Trek Discovery‘s third season (2020), First Officer Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is about to take temporary captaincy of the starship Discovery. She goes to Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) to seek her support and reassurance. To that, the latter explains to her that on Starfleet ships, there is a metal burr under the left-armrest of the Captain chair, that she has witnessed Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) as well as Captain Saru (Doug Jones) press on with their thumb and rub when getting into difficult situations. In Michael Burnham’s opinion, it was a way for them to ‘stay in the moment’, to keep touch with reality or even, we might say, a sense of it. Further more, when she got to be Captain herself, the sight of this shiny spot reminded her of her bond to her former Captain and motherlike figure and helped her connect with this affective and emotional tie on to her task.
From that example, we would like to come back to what psychoanalyst Darian Leader observed about our relationship to our own hands1, that we always manage to occupy them, often unconsciously, tickling or rubbing objects with them. We saw that one effect of the sensorimotor paradox is that it creates a radical opening and suspension in sensorimotricity. As motor enaction is not possible in that particular situation (the hand that I see is also the hand that cannot grasp itself), the sense of reality becomes highly dependent on the conditions of that relation. Motor fixation implies a hightened sense of being surrounded – but we are also drawn back to the decision that we have to make about it. All the space for decision and deliberation becomes an imaginary space, as there is no immediate motor possibility to it – except ending the relation by removing our hand. The thinking about it through self-representation becomes the mediation. It is all waiting for me to decide how I am going to lead my own way out. Otherwise, in the meantime, anything could happen. And as this anything can not be related to a motor response that I could make without being forced to think inside of the delay and lag of that response, as I am busy staring at my own hand, this same hand becomes the only last resort to finding this response up to enact.
This hold on the imaginary has soon, yet progressively been taken up by another kind of relation and questioning, through the others surrounding me and their gaze : how much it could question this sense of myself as needing the support of my own hands, or anything else that one could hold on to, a sound, an image, a feeling. The escape of my own hands, as well as other forms of self-stimulation – which are very present, for instance, in autistic people’s daily lives and experiences –, is also a way to sustain that tension of feeling surrounded and overwhelmed. Anything could happen from others, as much as we got to rely on them for affective and material support, and we are taught from trauma that their expectations are often hard to comprehend and anticipate, though we try to do so. The temporality of our relation to others is a temporality of imagination, of suspension, of expectation, of being receptive to images, impressions, to the anticipation of their next moves. But our body needs to get back to a more direct grasp on its own reality and possibility, that is a reality of enacting motricity and its possible outcomes. This is how we relate our perceptions to our need for sensorimotricity and the integrity of our body. This is how we ground ourselves in our capacity to move onward and keep on being the agent of our own telling. This is how we find shelter in our own body and get a sense of ourselves, of proprioception, how we stimulate our body in order to, at least, feel that we are still able to respond and still exist, in the sense of expressing something out of our situation.
The main dialogue occurs between ourselves and others, sensorimotricity and imagination. It is good, sometimes and eventually, to step out of symbolic ties to come back to that and try to spell a name out of the single meaning of our hands.
If there is something that is proper to the nature of mental images is that they are invasive. Once a memory exists, it becomes difficult to pretend it doesn’t affect the way that one moves toward the world. However, the more we grow, the more we are sollicitated to use images, to designate things, even in their absence, or to state one’s purpose. We learn more and more to act through them – often compulsively or desperately. As we saw earlier, one of the effects of a sensorimotor paradox is to blur the limits between agent and object, between what is from oneself and what is from someone or something else. Is my hand the object or the mean to grasp it ? The memory or trace that is left from that indecision is, fundamentally, the memory of a possible action that is awkwardly identified with the situation to the object that cannot be resolved. The whole experience is taken into memory. As to the sensorimotor paradox, we respond to that situation by maintaining an uncertainty over which is which, as it is the memory of an impossibility to enact, that leaves us with ourself that is now experienced as an open self, an experience in itself – self-conscious. It is the suspension of a possible resolution that could be enacted to the object that we are relating to, and we are the receptacle of that experience.
Then, already in the structure of this hypothetical early paradox, we have the structure of agency, because the image of possible action is fully determined by the limitations of its context. We represent to ourself something that appears alien, that forces us into relation. It is alien because we cannot solve it with any immediate action. The tension and emotion that this relation provokes become in themselves the outcome which we would resort on to enact ourselves out of it. Mental images and thoughts are always caught in their relational intrication, frozen, suspended into debating how to resolve. How we elaborate our own narration also means how much progression we can get, inside of this gap between the generation of memory (the images) and actual motor enactment. As our hands are still a challenge and we are still exposed to the presence of others, the riddle is never prompt to be solved, because they are, somehow, part of the same problem or question. Similar situations will confront us to similar memories and their proximity will allow us to contrast and nuances between them, entering into the detail, sometimes making analogies between previously unrelated things – a metaphor. This generation of a network of memories will also confront us to the presence of others familiar enough to us. Especially, the other’s gaze or the other’s touch or vocal presence will create something to attach to in moments of discomfort. Their stability as something that cannot be avoided makes it quite similar to a same paradox – wanting to go through, but facing the impossibility to do so, working with the distance between them.
The way that we are to respond to that presence becomes a possibility from which the outcome may or not be pleasurable. At any stage of our evolution as a species, we must have enriched the way that we treated those memories and adapted to them as well as we got to fit our natural and social environments. Being born in social conditions ruled by language, it becomes quite difficult not to use images, at least situated sound images and memories, not to think through them in the idiom that is used to get us ready to respond – even difficult to think in onomatopeias. We are, as human beings, constantly maintained in an environment where we are likely to be summoned to respond to the question ‘What is your purpose ?’ – in words or at least, through our behaviour and social conduct, led to interpretation. Therefore, the constant stream of our thoughts is what we rely on to keep ourselves on a common understanding, according to how we feel that we are expected to respond. Our traumatic experience will of course compulsively push us to always be prepared to be summoned to give a response, for others or to ourselves. This mental and physical conditioning would also reduce the chances that we would be taken by surprise and unprepared, requiring a time to adjust and exposing the cracks in social dynamics.
Showing our ‘best part’
What autistic activists’ works show is that social conduct based on what is called neurotypics, relies on the implicit and tacit contract to respond to any demand without exposing the social arbitrary constructs which work to prevent any genuine question from happening without a measure of control. It is all supposed to ‘aller de soi’, to be ‘natural’, though it is something that we had to learn, being sollicitated to copy certain kinds of behaviour and reject others since the early age.1 Therefore, in a sense, the ways that we got to learn how to respond to those interactions are impregnated with the contexts to which we had to adapt and in which certain aspects of our identity got to emerge. Those contexts and the learning of some constants in other people’s reactions encourage us to show those affordable aspects as they push us into inhibiting those that would lead to a sanction. In most ways and most context, we are supposed to prove that we have ‘learnt our lesson’, that we are obedient now. So, a great part of our identity is based on learning a lesson that would allow us not to be sanctioned by our social environment. A great part of our constant stream of thoughts is there to help us maintain this ability to attest that we indeed have the means to perform to that demand and that we will commit to showing our ‘best part’ – the obedient or the challenging one, the one that will not get us into trouble and force others to work into fixing it, teaching the lesson to the messy child, or the one that would eventually subjugate opposition. It takes a constant pressure on our bodily conduct to maintain such kind of readiness. Being defensive over vulnerability is something that we learn.
However, we do not simply recreate the expected task in our minds when we are thinking ‘at random’. We also continuously recreate a situation where we would have to justify ourselves – and hopefully overcome. More precisely, we tend to hang on to certain types of discourse – mostly nurrished by fiction, representations and a world of combined images – that seem to offer an empowering or at least decisive enough posture. Those discourses would most probably tend to provide some kind of progression that would mean that we are moving on to a point of resolution. The latter would testify that we would be right in the end and the debt is paid – or it would agitate a sense of restlessness demanding from ourself an impossible decision. It is a defense, and it is an escape, whether from being denied the right to a response or being denied the utter capacity to respond anyway. Moreover, as we endlessly recreate a paradigmatic situation that were somehow part of our teaching – often inhibiting in a traumatic way sanctioned aspects of our experience – but from different perspectives, what we call the unconscious in psychoanalysis would actively and negatively form from that effort to defend against the repetition of aggression (Freudian’s idea of the repressed). Yet, it is not much compulsive behaviours or thoughts that would constitute repetition, but the sheer possibility for aggression that we react to from restless trauma. Aggression can be defined as the impossibility to annul a force coming toward us to imminent contact. The memory of the pain is also the memory of the incapacity to prevent the pain. Trauma is then the active part of repositioning around the memory of that contact. Then, through the stream of our thoughts, we try to annul the possibility of aggression by the very means through which we were told that we were supposed to respond and be heard – that little measure of decision conditioning our interactions. To quote Black American lesbian poetess Audre Lorde, we are actually ‘using the Master’s tools’ to dismantle the Master’s house, which is a way of perpetuating the hold that traumatic bond has on us, that we still feel that it conditions our agency and the performing of our identity. Identity is formed through those possibilities, because it is what is likely to be identified and caught into collective memory.
According to biologist Gerald M. Edelman, the stability of our experience of reality and cognition relies on a network of neural re-entries.2 It is not a given that would passively be treated like a computer would, but a continuous activity of reactualisation and reinforcement of connections. Thus, the capacity to ‘delay or lag neural responses’3 – that the idea of the sensorimotor paradox is all about – should also be depending on our capacity to maintain this delay and stimulate new connections so neural activity could be sustainable. This should be supported by the whole achitecture of our memory summoned to the task of feeling fit and ready to respond on a common ground to our surroundings, here to be limited by a traumatic and symbolic field composing our self-consciousness. We constantly and mentally recreate an environment of experience in which we are supposed to show our commitment and that is based on the production of mental images and representations, attaching traumatic learning and body control to a set of shared values that serve recognition. As we mutually recognise a certain behaviour approximatively the same way, leaving time and a space open enough to adjust, we would be likely to find common ground in the end or break apart. The more violent and probable the eventuality of aggression in our physical environment of experience, the more defensive we would get to preserving our integrity. As we depend more and more on others to sustain our living and attachment, this hold on self-discourse would likely get crucial to surround pain, rejection and harm and their memory – as would the modalities of our self-justification. The measure of liberty, trust and affection left to us might serve as a resource to elaborate this other measure of protection.
Making the difference
In fact, we can find that the activity of the stream of thought is in some aspects closely tied to social norms such as of ableism and xenophobia (here, in a more general way than racism, meaning the fear of others and alienation). As we keep ourselves in the capacity to respond to others in a certain way that would testify that we belong to the same common understanding, language and culture, it maintains a certain idea of the familiar and, in contrast, of the strange, the exogenous, the dangerous. The fear not to be recognised as a valid member of the group by others because of our responding awkwardly has a lot to do with the energy that we put in mentally defending our position in a way that should seem legit, reliable and indisputable. To respond in a way that would not seem appropriate according to some customs and standards would be likely to expose gaps in the fabric of conventioned social interactions and the fear of others to be unmasked themselves. It may also arise the disturbing feeling that there is something beyond language, something raw, an impulse to join that has been taught to control, memories of refusal and those, tainted, of acceptance. It is the feeling that beyond language’s stabilisation of what we expect as reality, the eagerness for any kind of contact or its utter fear can form the most powerful of denials. Political structures of ruling tend to manage the dynamics between violence and a polarising sense of morality – that means justifying a state of violence as if it were a given order to be transmitted and followed. By preparing ourselves to be put to the test of belonging, we cling on to the idea that we would resist excommunication, outcasting and alienation – either the alienated, the moron4 or the stranger. The necessity that the other would make their purpose familiar to us – what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan expressed by the Italian sentence ‘Che vuoi ?’, ‘What do you want ?’ –, based on common knowledge and experience or our mutual capacity for dialogue and understanding, would be largely replaced by focusing on our own previous encounters (family, community or a largest part of our society) and how much we are still busy trying to find the best response. Fear is not a restless wound, it is restless trauma, the impossibility for some defensive effort to at least acknowledge the wound that it came from. Because as we saw with Chilean biologist Francisco Varela, violence is prescriptive. If it is structurally continuous and we are in tension to the intimate knowledge that we are eventually to comply to – because it is a structure of domination – an order, then it will be a source of pain and fear, sollicitating a constant defensive effort. Moreover, as the limits of our own identity are blurred by the state of sensorimotor paradox that leaves imagination open without granting the possibility for any careless motor enaction, violence will condition the way that we imagine the world.
The meeting of difference will immediately lead to a defensive reaction. Learning to withdraw from the impulse to react, in action or in meditation, should therefore be a strong political and non-violent act in a violent context. Asian-based philosophies such as Madhyamaka Bouddhism, Daoism or Zen reflect on how much our own action is conditioned by the demand of others, and if that demand is just or confused, excessive, violent not necessarily because the act is violent, but because the demand itself is conditioned by a violent context of learning. Those disciplines tend to work on questioning the minimal portion of self-awareness that can be preserved, and how much of what is arbitrarily meant to reflect the demand of others can be neglected. What can we genuinely share in common ? Or what is it that you demand that you do not to me, but to someone else’s from whom was transmitted the memory of pain ?
1We already mentioned in a previous article René A. Spitz, De la naissance à la parole : La première année de la vie, PUF, 2002.
2Read Catherine Padovan, Rémy Versace & Brigitte Nevers, La mémoire dans tous ses états, Solal, 2002.
3In Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present : A Bio-logical Theory of Consciousness, New York, Basic Books, 1989.
4In Gerald V. O’Brien, Framing the moron : The social construction of feeble-mindedness in the American eugenic era, Manchester University Press, 2013.
From there, we could tackle in a new light the question of time. From the notion of memory and its role in sensorimotricity, given the proposition of the sensorimotor paradox as a condition of possibility for the evolution of our species, time unravels rather simply. As all experiences are and will always be only past, memory creating itself as a neural condition in sensorimotricity and ontogenic development, time is always a result of that memory. But we human bodies are continually seized in the maintaining of a state of sensorimotor paradox that we hold through socio-symbolic controls, so our perception of time, even in contemplation, is not the one of rest. On the contrary, even when we are still, we remain restless, suspended in our capacity as a body to interact freely with our perceived environments (Darian Leader, Hands, 2017). It is to say that when we approach the question of time, its perception and phenomenology, we have to take into account that we would always perceive it as an opportunity for action that is repeatedly lost. That is why we came back to this other meaning of trauma that could be that of ‘the defeat’. Our interpretative nature finds its measure in the bodily memory of action that is inhibited in order to favour prescribed conduct and mental projection. Our perception of time is full of interactions with our surroundings that are only whispered and fast discarted. Our perception of time is conditioned by that amount of aborted interactions that we are in the way of holding hidden, only sparked, in a perpetual state of forced equilibrium. We are never at rest with time unless we take a nap. We create time as a measure of the stability that we manage to get with our emotional trauma, that of silencing our own body to the performation of social conduct. The same conduct obeys to a very specific notion of time that is the compartmentalisation of labor in our societies.
So the restraint cast on our body by social imperatives pushes us to retain and examine the possibility of full occupation of space and time according to one’s own ‘biological rhythm’, to submit it to a constant and compulsive evaluation. We then create a memory of that time spent controlling our movement according to ritualised patterns that we learn from childhood to our latest socialisations, which have us reactualise them. Our experience of social time is highly sequenced, clockwise, all resting on our capacity to hold the paradox and keep our body tamed so to satisfy the assumption of someone else’s gaze – even oneself in a reflexive movement that impersonalises the relation to one’s own reality, as would philosopher Darío Sztajnszrajber put it.1 Through this gaze or anticipated gaze, we regulate our conduct and its restraint over our body, which generates a form of violence that cannot be expressed directly if not licenced in formalised and ritualised ways – as is ‘acting out’. So our perception of time, even a parenthesis of contemplated time, is never at rest. Even the break we take from social time to contemplation is timed up and conditioned by conventional spaces (at home, in a park or a temple, on a train, …) in which one doesn’t yet express sensorimotricity without deliberation. On the contrary, every move has to be chosen as a legit form of positioning towards others, as posing no threat nor exposing oneself to. Our perspective and projection in the future is therefore as well always conditioned by the necessity to mind our situation as to the repartition of spaces in political, moral and social structures.
From attention to memory
That debate between past, present and future has a philosophical history, as Paul Ricœur recalled in Temps et récit (1983), notably focusing on the figures of Augustine and Aristotle. In Book XI of his Confessions (approximately 397-401), Augustine elaborated an early phenomenology of time as the sense of it would constitute a tension between what we consider as future or past. The couple attentio-distentio expresses the idea of the continuity drawn out of the attention born to some local event. We cannot but experience time as an investment of our attention in reality, whether in action or imagination – and we saw that one is another side of the other. Trying to tell them apart is an attempt to distend the perception of time in a broader sense, that is the concept of distentio animi.
But the mental object of time itself is a product of imagination, sourced in the same memory, as we try to open a space for conceptual analogy and representation. Abstraction is an abstraction from actual sensorimotor memories. We approach future as an acheived form, something that would be past once it is done, but alternative from one actual past memory that we would know of – mingled. And that is even more true that memory always recomposes experience from its continuous making, self-generating. As we recall memories in a deliberate way2, we enact something that we learnt to do in our early development : to mind and considerate manageable memories, to use our body resources in order to access those memories as one mental space to be invested in our own imagination.
The situation of sensorimotor paradox puts us in a position of witnessing ourselves as an object of consideration. We become subject of images that we cannot enact otherwise than minding them, and our social teaching reinforces our effort of selection between licit or illicit manifestations of our bodily sense of reality. So the distance that is put from unaltered sensorimotor interaction by the paradox makes us perceive time as us witnessing of our being selecting what to express or not. We are in a way subject to our own effort of selection and conformity, so to open the spaces for action that we know are allowed for us to invest. This topology for projection and its image are only complete if they come as a perpetual past – that Ricœur expressed with the idea that some meaning makes only sense in relation to a borader context for its interpretation. The kind of future in which meaning will realise itself is continuous with the experience of delimited spaces for interpretation which have been experienced in a broader past – the one that is told. That is at this point that Ricœur summons some features of Aristotle’s poetics to underline how interpretation and formalised narrative structures are intertwined in the particular sense we would make of meaning. Here, the perception of time is rhythmed by the laced structures of the telling of an action. The way we tell things, the way the body is inscribed in the telling, are as important as what we actually tell, as it manifests the context in which we are to receive meaning. Part of our body always leaps with the action that is figured, as imagination is rooted in sensorimotor simulation. The telling always holds us back in the memory of our body. As well, the projection in a possible future is paradoxical and we are still trying to position ourselves in the perspective of realising it while we are resorbing at the same time the generation of past memory. The quality of being past is the quality of our body to still remain there where it is keeping position for an action to be told. Imagining a possible future or some alternative reality pertaining to dream or phantasy remains a substitution to immediate interaction, where the generation of past images becomes the source for others. In a way, while we are in the process of controlling our body expression and keeping ourselves still, the images born from aborted sensorimotor enaction come crashing against each other, from which crash we try to bring back some kind of order.
Consequences to the unconscious
This, of course, has serious implications to the theory of the unconscious, as we already saw in earlier work, because it dislocates the way we conceive it from the idea of a virtual finite space that would locate in our mind – and in the very fact that we would speak of an object that would be the unconscious, even as a realm. Unconscious is a quality of something not being brought to consciousness, as the latter would be articulating the person’s discourse and its position as leading their agency and understanding. It is closer to the repressed, at the heart of Sigmund Freud’s founding principles to freshly-born psychoanalysis. What we learnt from psychoanalysis is that signifiers are opportunists. They are easily associated with a state of mind, re-rooting and rewriting through the elaboration of trauma. In the end, it all belongs to the same neural system where memory is constantly generated in the purpose of facilitating sensorimotor interaction that we are stuck in the effort to inhibit and keep quiet. This inhibition of sensorimotor enaction creates a swell of self-generating memory that is not able to relate to motor coordination. As it cannot associate with motor expression, it is more likely to do with some other images that would substitute to realisation in order to get a release.
On a practical side, our brain needs to hold control over its limits, that is also routed in sensorimotor coordination. Using those self-generated memories as a resource for imagination and thinking is likely to use the same means than to coordinate movement, simulating those neural connections in order to recreate a consistent chronology based on formalised sensorimotor memories. The situation of sensorimotor paradox has the effect of destabilising the routes through which to enact a stimulation. As we cannot repond directly to its object, we would rush on something else, like the fact that something unusual and extraordinary happens to us. Here again, Ellen Dissanayake’s work in the field of neuroaesthetics is very useful to connect formalisation in ethological study and the hypothesis of artification, as aesthetic sense would be embedded in a very personal and emotional sensory inscription into a broader sense of reality.3 We situate ourselves in an interpretative time that is us trying to deal with this break in sensorimotricity, trying to bring back balance into a disruptive experience. The image becomes what is happening to us. That is what we are trying to bring back some sense and meaning from, to situate ourselves to. Our perception of time is always consistent with this effort to maintain of form of stability and chronological consistency out of a disruption in sensorimotor coordination. Otherwise, this self-generation of images, as they are not coordinated, open to an abyss ; and though here is the origin of our ability to think, that required some work of formalisation, as well as it got entangled in the intimate ties of symbolic debt to others like us. There is a history of imagination that makes one with the history of trauma.
Our body is where it is standing. It is a pack of memory, but also our connections with others actually are a convergence of memories. That means a lot, eventually that it is completely up to us to relate to those memories in the way that would be suited to our deeper sense of who we are both as a body and as a person. And then, the person reinvents the body they are living with.
3Read, for instance, Ellen Dissanayake, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics », Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009), pp. 148-173.
Simply put, we can synthesise the purpose of the sensorimotor paradox theory this way, that two major structural situations may suffice to give a frame open enough to analyse the emergence of the cognitive disposition of human species :
Sensorimotor paradox : given by the prominence and autonomy of the hands in our field of vision, consistent with the progressive and iterative development of bipedal stance, the situation of sensorimotor paradox would be first accidental, then actively looked for, sustained then maintained into a system of psycho-motor conduct. When I am gazing my own hand, what was then the manifestation of my agency toward objects becomes the object itself, interrupting the normal course of sensorimotor interactions in order for me to gaze it while it is still. Should I want to resume those interactions, I would have to break the object that I am attentive to by removing my hand. Being both the agent and the object at the same time, this situation provokes a paradox that opens to the free and deliberate production of images, of sensory imprints and representations of both those qualities for themselves : a scene, thus, imagination. It would then give us reciptivity for mental images disconnected from the necessity to enact the sensorimotor response (the idea of a ‘delay or lag of the response’ given by neurobiologist Gerald M. Edelman, 1990). It gives us as well a strong sense of one’s self, as the energy of the body that is mobilised and blocked from enacting sensorimotor stimulation provokes a form of entropic emotional distress, waiting for some kind of resolution.
Trauma : understood as any situation of contact where the cause and the effect, the exogene element and the endogene one merge momentarily on the same surface, pushing the organism to develop a proper response in order to adapt to the reconfiguration of what they could expect from their interactions with the outside (even when it is about oneself experienced as an object of interaction and attention). Trauma can be large (a violent shock) or slight (discrete sensory and emotional events). Either way, they contribute to modulate how attention is driven and kept to the expectation of a certain type of memories, which would be likely to be reactivated, implying the kind of response then to be given. It leads us to a general frame for basic interpretation system, including a first system of conduct that would lean on self-interpretation according to traumatic memory – thus, to the creation of a subject, along with its tie to the local and more general structures of morals and violence within their own cultural jurisdiction.
The frame is rather simple, but enough to deal with the complexity of the connections that it allows to create between a rich variety of situated experiences (in the sense given by Donna Haraway, 1988). It is, following neurobiologist Francisco Varela’s analysis (1991), a proscriptive frame setting only the necessary threshold-like marks to permit all this variety of the evolutionary paths to form without any other prescriptive encapsulation (which would pertain to the elaboration of norms for optimal adaptation, whether natural or social). It is then an open system and should keep on being so.
It allows us to find terms with identity analysis such as philosopher Judith Butler’s coming to the spectrum of gender (1990, before she diverted from the proliferation of gender to a more restrictive vision1), but not restricted to. As philosopher Elsa Dorlin analysed from Butler, ‘If the subject is constructed within and by its acts, acts that it is ordered to accomplish and repeat, if the subject is a performative act in the sense that what I say, what I do, produces a – gendered – speaker to proclaim them and a – gendered – agent to perform them, we must conclude that the subject is not pre-discursive, that it does not pre-exist to its action.’2 As psychoanalyst Darian Leader stated as well as to the concept of jouissance in lacanian theory (2020), the latter (nor any other) cannot exist outside of its relational structure, that can include the complexity of traumatic experience on various levels – as analysed, for instance, through the lense of intersectionality in social studies (Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1989).
The frame is rather simple, because it must not be ideological. It must be aware of its political situation and radically cut from their appropriation. It must on the contrary be a tool in order to reappropriate means for thinking and analysis to their full extent. Our responsability in making our situatedness as a species is total. It is literally in our hands, though we cannot ‘forget the punitive force that domination deploys against all bodily styles that are not consistent with the heteronormed relation that presides to the articulation of the regulating categories that are sex, gender and sexuality, punitive force that attempt to the very life of those bodies’, as added Elsa Dorlin3 – but we may also include other categories pertaining to differenciation based on social class, age, validity, …
Although pain and trauma, whether slight or large, are crucial to the development and self-consciousness of all beings, symbolic violence and domination, pervasive in the conflictual maintaining of a stable identity, are fully dependent on the legitimation of physical violence (Pierre Bourdieu, 2012) – hence the (meta-)hermeneutic intrication between violence and morals (Paul Ricœur, 2010). Violence is thus not necessary, but always chosen and political at some point, driven into the maintaining of self-enacting social structures, the reinforcing and teaching of their laws.
As violence is unnecessary as a ‘natural’ trait, it is also unnecessary and uninvited in the course of this theoretical corpus. The core of the work put forward here is, on the contrary, about demonstrating how much violence should be discarted as a given but as a full social construct, reinforcing self-inflicting symbolic ties. It is but a possibility that is the easiest to reproduce as a patterned behaviour, and it is always anchored in the affective and emotional ressources of our experience, marking us up to our aesthetic sense (Ellen Dissanayake, 2009).
The theory of the sensorimotor paradox implies necessarily the acceptation and opening to all the variety of intermediary spaces where the right of anyone to self-determine themselves cannot be but mutual. The spaces for such a right must apply to everyone, respectful to the spaces in-between that we open in common and around which to share what one would choose and fully consent to.
Cited bibliography :
Bourdieu Pierre, Sur l’État, Cours au Collège de France 1989-1992, Paris, Seuil, 2012
Butler Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990
Crenshaw Kimberlé, « Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics », University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989, Article 8
Dissanayake Ellen, « The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics », Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 5 (Fall 2009), pp. 148-173
Dorlin Elsa, Sexe, genre et sexualités, Paris, PUF, 2018, p. 127
Haraway Donna, « Situated Knowledges : The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective », Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599 (25 pages)
Darian Leader, La jouissance, vraiment ?, Paris, Stilus, 2020
Varela Francisco, Thompson Evan & Rosch Eleanor, The Embodied Mind, MIT Press, 1991
1Listen to Sam Bourcier Marie-Hélène Bourcier at the time) – Entretien – La Théorie Queer dans « Les Chemins de la philosophie » avec Adèle Van Reeth (2014), France Culture
2In Elsa Dorlin, Sexe, genre et sexualités, PUF, 2018, Paris, p. 127. My translation.
3It is however surprising that she refers to Sam Bourcier and Paul B. Preciado’s work by their dead name in her book. Though first published in 2008, we are surprised that the reedition would not update, should it betray the reluctance to grant trans speech their true legitimacy.
We are seized into a network of interpretation. At the centre, there is a blindspot where one cannot reflect on themselves without borrowing back from another’s point of view. That is the paradox of the word ‘me’, that cannot reach its aim directly without separating from it, making it an object of shared consideration. The use of words, even in the secret of one’s stream of thoughts, automatically simulates and triggers sensorimotor enaction and its interpersonal nature. Its image is cristallised in symbolic memories. It always implies someone else to whom is addressed a speech in action, that implicates the participation of the body in the recognition of a shared reality.
Imagination for itself, free of words, in a work of meditation and contemplation, cutting off the continuity of the stream of thought, would make the individual a witness to their own images. The image of their own body and the simulated sensorimotor stimulations that might occur while diving into those self-generated images, would thus have the individual’s body participating as ‘passive’, being its own witness.
That is the place for facing trauma, for healing, by reducing every moving body to the force that they bear, their inertia. We could analyse the ‘absence of foundings’ seeked in the Indian meditation tradition of Madhyamaka (see F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, 1991) in those terms, that it is about centring oneself where one’s self cannot be interpreted but witnessed, even to themselves. It doesn’t borrow the way of speech anymore, only the self-generation of sensory imprints and memories, some orientated in the manner of a dream.
In his short History of Taoism, Rémi Mathieu (Le taoïsme, PUF, Paris, 2019) stresses the attachment of early theoretical corpus about the dao (the « Way ») in pre-Imperial China, from the 5th to the 3rd century B.C. – with their supposed leading authors being Lao Zi, Zhouang Zi and Lie Zi – to the limits of speech and their preference to the use of images. We can see that we might necessarily involve someone else’s gaze in speech, for it would involve the very structure of enactment to someone else in its symbolic and conventional nature – speech manifesting mutual convention on reality and the duty of the individual to respond to that reality they constantly redefine with others. On the contrary, one could be the witness of images and other sensory stimulations without necessarily involving the responsability of others, being non-communicable.
If the origin of trauma is a contact, whether slight and light or large and heavy, then beyond the reconstitution of the scene through psychoanalytic deconstruction, the inert and non-communicable nature of sensory memory should be addressed too. Inertia means the difficulty to slow down or divert the movement of an object, in Physics. Some Eastern traditions of thinking adopted a different strategy than resistance to the inertia of the wound, by taking the oblique, by removing the place where the subject is supposed to be in the network of the debt and trauma, as a being necessarily subject and mean to interpretation.
The compulsory nature of interpretation relies on being situated in the web of some semantic structure, of the world of meaning defining the capacity to borrow common words and representations to elaborate a speech, with its performative nature. We formulate the demand that someone else would understand and support the validity of the speech that we engage with our life and its integrity. Even the most elementary word assessing the reality and existence of a ‘me’ implies that someone else would understand and support the word that is meant to address it. One would always depend on that understanding, and it might not be self-evident. To say ‘me’ stresses the gap between the calling of the word and the separation from the very reality that it tries to address – while one says ‘me’ still minding that someone else that would have to approve their statement. This reality is still to be founded again and again with others through the use of collectively defined speech, and one cannot possibly control how this would be interpreted in all its forms.
The only thing that one would be able to control, is their own situation at the centre of the web where words are shut down, and the mind only bears witness to itself.
Photo credit : « Butterfly », La Fille Renne, Martinique
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.’