World of artefacts

One of the consequences of all the work done, is to understand that we live in a world of artefacts, whether material or as mere mental representations – even though those representations are rooted in a very concrete sensorimotor memory. That means that not only we spend much time and effort constantly adapting to the presence of others, but also to a world of objects that are both physical objects and a symbolic presence of the rules that regulate their uses and the expected conducts around them during our lives.

Even our stream of mind represents an artefact that is a construct supposed to keep us channelled into a conditioned state and capacity to respond to sollicitations in a codified way. We think in order to keep ourselves in constant relation to the presence of the objects that drive us in our need to engage in sensorimotricity, as well as the memory through which we learnt and still cling on to self-regulation to the gaze of others. As children, we learn how to behave around objects and discriminate those that we are free to use with lighter constraint and others that we should take more care of or are forbidden to touch entirely. This seminal memory of learning how to deal with objects is in direct continuity with the role of our stream of conscious that is both rooted into our infantile needs to express sensorimotor and emotional interactions and our constant application to social rules based on conformity and the fear of rejection.

To understand the continuity between the rules surrounding objects and our relation to others around them is key.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

Controlled objects and semantic simplification

All that was explored in the earlier articles rely on the idea that mental representations such as formalised speech within our stream of conscious pertain to a double process of control and thus, of simplification – that means, a process of objectification. It is not so much about the objects of thought then, as it is about the kind of relation that we seek to maintain set into : a position of relative control. But, this position of control means that we need to simplify our relation to a rich and complex environment. The processes of focus and dedicated attention are already part of most bodies’ capacity to invest an enactive relation to their environment of perception – which it shapes in the way of modulating perception to the investment of sensorimotricity (F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, 1991). For human beings, as sensorimotricity would be disrupted according to the hypothesis of the sensorimotor paradox theory, the ‘mind’ and its force of representation (dislocated from its necessity of enacting specific sensorimotor situations) would try its best to maintain a position of consistency towards the latter sensorimotor canvas. Because the force driving mental representation would be born from its very sensorimotor structure, it still has to use the same kind of primary connections in order to produce mental images and though remain structurally sound.

If Chilean biologist Francisco Varela described sensorimotricity as a coupling (of sensory and motor faculties), in a way, the human mind should work the same : by coupling a state of activity, abstracted from the memory of experienced sensorimotricity, with the emotional outcome of still having to manage current sensorimotor interaction itself, invested and available to the world around them. So, it is a complex tension of not getting to disconnect the two ‘interfaces’ from which the imaginary is a secondary layer : one that is imaging a mirror representation from recomposed and formalised memory into a consistent enough self-narrative to potentially project oneself into, and the other still having to interact to a certain degree of autonomy with their perceived environment. Moreover, the whole thing has to be sequenced as it cannot do both at the exact same time, as we suggested in a previous article. But, that is the complexity that a human brain has to manage, while still sustaining in the mean time and as well as possible an emotional stability through a constant state of disruption.

So, from raw imaginary to symbolic structuration in that sense – given the adaptation that anyone is virtually subjected to some sets of rules organising and regulating social ensembles amid other human beings –, the evolution needs some kind of semantic simplification, some routes for imaginary self-narratives to maintain some consistency through times of emotional unstabilities when it gets too disconnected from its capacity to simulate body enaction well enough and thus, maintain a valid enough sense of sensorimotricity working so the whole body doesn’t decompensate and collapse eventually. Because the whole balance relies on the capacity of the abstracted mind to maintain a sort of virtual progress and stimulation that may emulate a sense of sensorimotor balance. The body has to feel like it is still walking on its two feet. Hence its repetitive structure and constant resetting of similar patterns of thought, as stressed by Ellen Dissanayake in the studies in neuroaesthetics cited in the earlier text connecting evolutionary psychology and ethology. The semantic of the mind would be less in that perspective about specific and arbitrary meaning, again, than about the continuity of the body’s ability to work and create its own situated meaning. That is why the stream of conscious and its symbolic work of sustaining the body’s neural structure is opportunistic, even when it has to repress memories, experiences and traumas that are too hard to bear. It takes what is available for it to keep on working, what the environment of the person allows them to connect with the world of others that they share.

As a consequence, when we are elaborating our mental world of representation from the inside of a group’s belonging, we may be too focused on clearing up, simplifying or on the contrary complexifying the details than to get a better idea of how this ensemble of representation and meaning works by itself and what are its limits. In order to understand the limits of a group’s world of meaning and representation, one has to understand exclusion from the group’s ensemble. If not experiencing it themselves, at least understanding it from an outside perspective. As well, as human beings, it would be good to come to think outside the box and work at excluding ourselves only for a moment from that constant seek for imperative emotional consistency so to understand the constraints and the limits of the world that we try so hard to replicate and sustain within our own minds. The drive that we give to it not absolute, that to say, as it is only born from our mere existence as bodies in this world.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

Fleeting minds

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

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

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

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

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

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

Social psycho-physionomy : a hypothesis ?

Beyond the questionable elaboration of any kind of ‘morphopsychology’ aimed at finding any absolute correspondence between physical traits and individual psychology, it remains interesting and maybe important to observe one other hypothesis : that the way that we are perceived by others according to conventional categories affects the reactions that they would have to our presence and thus, our possible interactions with them, up to the point that it would encourage or inhibit our agency and its expression in a shared world of meaning.

That means that what we act and think doesn’t exist as an absolute, but only as the expression of possibilities according to what our bodies allow us to express and to the ways that we learn to control that expression so to seek gratification or avoid social and moral sanction. In any case, any intention of ours that we would express will be interpreted by others to the extent of what they see and project onto our bodies in the first place. Any prejudice and defence mechanism attached to certain body traits and/or conduct (in terms of gender associations, race or culture, social class markers, visible abilities or disabilities, alleged sexuality, …) will taint the value granted to our actions or the expression of our personality, whether in a positive, negative or rather neutral way.

As most of those prejudices are socially conditioned and generate some constants, from our first family environment to our social ones and the whole mythological ensemble that composes and ties together the values of our societies into our main narrative structures, we rapidly internalise them as prescriptions in order to avoid exclusion and hostility. There would be then indeed some kind of social psycho-physionomy, because our perception of our own identity as a composition of what it is possible for us to express or not in a world of others is conditioned by the way that other people are likely to perceive us and define in our place that identity, based on what they see from the outside. Some social elements of identification take part of such default identity prescriptions, according to some enforced social norms that any individual has to take position to. They are indeed enforced and internalised symbolically as the consequences of stepping out of them can be very material and impact our access to the resources vital to our survival, hence the violence that they can convey. It even becomes part of the compulsive activity of our stream of thought that works at maintaining a form of stability to the world around us while preserving as well as possible our capacity to respond to what is expected from our own physical and external attributes, as they are supposed to carry some meaning and lead to a certain outcome assiociated with those traits.

Therefore, maybe, the opposition between the symbolic and the imaginary, for instance as developed in lacanian theory, comes from the capacity or not to elaborate a correspondence between those attributes and any agreed meaning between parts, that would form a symbolic field for our agency that we could invest with a clear mind, given that its proper meaning would be understood, received and responded to without conflict. On the contrary, the imaginary would always fill the lack of a common understanding over the interpretation that we are to give to the external expression of a body’s capacity, personality and even sole presence in a shared world.

In a way, our imaginary is always in a struggle and resistance to that eventuality that our presence in the world would be misunderstood and mistaken for something that we have no inclination for. We are forced into a symbolic world that tends to polarise what is most difficult to admit into something that could be more easily assimilated into the practices of the group. As those compulsive identificatory mechanisms are embedded within a history of violence and systemic oppression, most of our instantaneous and mental responses to the presence of others may be based on fear, to which can also respond a misplacing of desire. For instance, in cispatriarcal and sexist societies, the fear of most cisgender men to be misidentified as potentially homosexual or overly feminine as they try to confirm their socially marked virility based on emotion control, may tend to disrupt desire into objectifying women or people identified as such into mere sexual attributes (that can assimilate people from groups assigned to minority as ‘weak’, inferior and whose intolerable and guilty presence should be resolved into destruction). As the violence of any desire would become opportunistic to self-reassurance, having to absolutely contradict the assumption of non-standard cisheterosexuality in order to keep conforming to the group’s line of conduct, it shows us one possible continuity within most sexist and sexual violence altogether, where self-inflicted violence is turned back against groups already assigned to minority (up to people under age for what concerns pedocriminal actions). The expression of certain emotions being likely to be identified as something that it may or may not be, in the panic of a social sanction and outcast, anything must come to compensate that fear of rejection and stigma.

Part of it is symbolic, in that case because it would have something to do with a problematic inscription of homosexual desire in the education of cisgender men, and part of it is imaginary, because the first event that comes to the mind and causes the panic is something that is merely coming to existence and has not specific determination yet : an outburst of sensorimotor projection as a response to a situation of tension to other bodies. Hence, somewhat, the partial nature of the way that pulsion, in freudian terms, would be displaced into sanctioned and problematic objects, to the subject’s suffering of an intolerable misunderstanding of their own feelings and sensations – such object as the idea of the penis of another cisgender man, that tells us something about how the classic oedipal structure may have itself seen erected the father’s ‘phallus’ into a silent taboo, while deriving the sexual drive to the mythical and convenient mother. In a way, maybe gay and queer sex in a large sense may show a way that a typical cisgender man’s penis could be disinvested from the archetypical father’s authority exercising necessarily a form of violence prescribed onto the subject. It is no wonder that the idea of freudian’s super-ego would be associated with the drive to morality (when not excessive) and that some analysts would see gay and queer identity as a lack of it, without analysing the dimension of constraint into the prescription of morality within a history of violence and oppression – in its confiscation of vital resources and its excruciating call to conformity onto those who can’t while asking for nothing else than to be able to live with peace and dignity.

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

To pronounce is a negation

The key binding idea of the sensorimotor paradox theory is a process of alienation. If you think of the act of denomination, to use a word, for instance, to point at and mean some object, experience or element of reality around or inside of us, is comprising an ensemble of properties contained in the idea that we have of such an object and turning it into something else : an object of discourse. As soon as one pronounces the word that is meant to describe a reality, this same reality vanishes as what matters now is the experience of saying something related to a common experience about it. It enters the realm of abstraction, that negates it. Even when I say ‘me’, as soon as I say the word, this object of discourse replaces the very experience that I try to transmit to someone else – and comprehensible for them – of the fact that I am. In the same way, when I gaze at my own hand, as soon as I start to envision it as some random object that I could maybe grasp with the same hand, it becomes alienated from myself for a moment of stolen and suspended consideration.

This states the impossible simultaneity of the word with its object, of the hand that momentarily seems to be not mine with the one that is related to my interaction with the world, or the attention that I could pay to my present experience with the very sensory, motor and emotional experience of pronouncing, even just in thought, a word or an image to remember it.

About sensorimotor simulation

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

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

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

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

About the stream of thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the unconscious

The idea of the unconscious is a construction, a representation born of the idea of the repressed, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud elaborated his representations of the psychic apparatus as the first topic – being the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious – around the year 1900, and the second topic – the id, the I and the superego – around 1923. Though there is an explicit connection in his work between what is proscribed and repressed to the mind into the unconscious and the matter of the body, this representation remains structured by a classical and binary view on the mind vs. the body – albeit Freud’s take on the theory of pulsions. Such a view still takes the mind as a closed system that somehow filters what can or cannot be expressed and assimilated to the structure of the self within a certain context. Whether we like it or not, speaking of an unconscious – rather than reflecting upon what remains unconscious as, unexpressed or unrepresented – essentialises the mental space where it is all supposed to take place, whatever we might think of it or do about it.

In the work that we are doing here, we suggested that the very capacity of our species to develop imagination and thoughts might have originated from a sensorimotor paradox, rooted in the very functioning of the body, its neural network and constant feedback with the individuals’ environment of interaction. In this case, mental images, symbolic relations and thoughts as mere simulations of sensorimotor memory would compose a whole that could not easily be told apart, as they are all intricated into one living, sensory and emotional experience. What can be tested by our direct experience is that we are constantly in control over what we can do or express or not. Necessarily, that control will inhibit what we forbid ourselves even to think of. What remains unconscious is simply what is forbidden and discarted from mental representation in our very constant relation with our cultural and social milieu.

As a consequence, of course, it impacts our conduct, our daily interactions, our experiences, creating new memories and especially, traumatic ones that will, in their turn, generate new points of control over what we allow ourselves to express, feel and think or not. To talk about an unconscious, it seems, would allow us to continue a process of disembodiement of that motion of control, that in fact occurs in this constant interaction with our surroundings from the moment that we are told how to do or not to do or think, encouraged to do some and discouraged to do others. Then, if we cannot understand and connect with our own agency why things are, should or should not be forbidden, of course, it will remain a traumatic inscription that cannot be told, because it cannot be talked about without facing an unsolvable conflict. If we cannot ask to understand something, we cannot let it out, make it something other than ourselves and consider it in common rather than identifying with it.

The very reification of the unconscious pertains to a feeling of control over what we think of our minds and bodies and what comes to us, without necessarily having to contextualise all that makes us a thinking body. That may be what we are going to do in this space for reflection.

Difficult to grasp

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

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

M. C. Escher, Relativity, 1953.

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

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

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

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

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤

How Early Buddhist philosophy and the Sensorimotor Paradox theory can connect

Text in pdf : A Setting Bird – How Early Buddhist philosophy and the Sensorimotor Paradox theory can connect

Undergoing a Buddhist practice is no mean feat. The impact on one’s own daily life can be extensive, for it touches the very heart of what makes up for a human experience. The core of Buddhist philosophies, notably regarding the early texts1, remains remarkably modern in the ways that it critically tackles the notions of Self or Non-Self and the conditional structures of our perceptions, understood as both sensory and mental. But it also offers a path in order to make peace with the inherent instability of lived experience. It gets there from the observation that everything is always changing to some degree, which fact is ‘hard to face’ – dukkha. According to American psychologist Mark Epstein2, the etymology of the term dukkha (considered the first of the Four Noble Truths in early Buddhism3 and usually translated as ‘suffering’ or rather, as ‘unsatisfactory’, if we follow secular Buddhist scholar Doug Smith’s position) notably offers us a reflection on the nature of trauma, that we already inspected earlier.4 Trauma would be in all the moments of everyday life that may be ‘hard to face’, for whatever reasons and to whatever degree, whether slight or large.

Likewise, the unsatisfactory nature of many of our daily experiences can apply of course to painful experiences as much as to pleasurable ones, as they are as well destined to end eventually. The key practice of Buddhist philosophy would then be precisely to acknowledge our tendency to cling on to and identify with things in the world as if they pertained to some stable and everlasting entity or Self – though it really is impermanent, as all things are according to the Buddhist stance. As such, they can only be situated experiences and serve as skilful means to connect, enact and find understanding with others within specific contexts of interaction. From the mindful awareness of the tendency that we may have to react to distressful situations by clinging on to some fixed representations of how things, including ourselves and our practice, are or should be, we can learn to restrain those kinds of reaction born from fear and calm ourselves down.

If at the time, around the 5th century BCE, the Buddha reportedly elaborated his analysis on whether a notion of Self was skilful and on mental states and ethics in contradistinction with Brahmanic beliefs, the way that it highlights complex and intricated notions of identity is still vivid and deserves consideration. We already, in earlier essays, suggested how the interpretation of dukkha connected with our definition of trauma as founding our growth and (self-)perception, as an agent of contrast, adaptation and interpretation, that would mostly vary in degree.5 It would also be interesting to consider how the central idea of Non-Self and the Buddhist recommendations about it, such as equanimity toward change and non-attachment can raise useful connections to the core of the theory of the sensorimotor paradox. (Let us note that non-attachment is not to be mistaken for detachment and not caring about the world and others. On the contrary, non-attachment would be about welcoming but not grasping, not identifying and adopting an attitude of lovingkindness toward things around and within us that are impermanent and that we cannot totally control.)

The theory of the sensorimotor paradox

As to the heart of the theory of the sensorimotor paradox, as we remind it, it is the evolutionary hypothesis that the development of human species’ capacity for imagination might have been possible thanks to a sensorimotor paradox – first, the situation of gazing at one’s own hand(s). Sensorimotor usual interactions would break down as the object of the gazing here is the very same one as the hand that I would have the impulse to react with in relation to any other object. Biologist Gerald M. Edelman’s condition for self-consciousness would be satisfied, as the usual neural response to stimulation would then be ‘delayed or lagged’6. This particular situation would produce a disconnection of the sensorimotor image then generated from the possibility of its enaction toward this very situation – frozen. (It is to be noted here that we understand the concepts of sensorimotricity and enaction as used and developed by Chilean Biologist Francisco Varela in his work, that was deeply inspired by Buddhism itself.7)

That means that imagination, as a first support for later collective elaboration of networks of symbolisation, would rely on a gap opened within our capacity to spontaneously and compulsively respond to a situation on the sensorimotor level. In this disconnection between situation and sensorimotor reaction, the working and relative autonomy of the mental image that we would find ourselves caught into, as well as the emotional effect of being frozen into that moment would act as an equivalent substitution, so to release the entropy of restraining and delaying the response that would have been otherwise given. We, in a way, grasp to that image as there is nothing else that we can grasp on to.

It gives a complex configuration where I become myself the object of a somewhat abstract scene and complicated feeling, as my own hand alienates from myself and becomes part of something seeming to belong to the outside world. My perception of the latter, of what it is and means to me shifts as well, as it seems to become, through the assimilation of my hand, a part of me, an ontological experience. So, we do tend to identify to our mental images and representations as they are the substitutes to a most vital and bodily need for sensorimotor interaction. The disruption of this elementary capacity produces a situation of distress, that needs an emergency alternative, found in the situation itself and its imaginary-like outcome. Any idea and perception of a self would be, from that point, a reconstruction from the ongoing and traumatic (in the sense mentioned above) generation of sensorimotor memory, which would later on articulate with social interactions, rules and conventions, looped within itself, its own narrative activity and constant work of anticipation and interpretation. Eventually, it locates all its effort and tension internalising non-expressed and then repressed possibilities within the body.

In a way, as did psychoanalysis, for instance and to an extent with the freudian unconscious and the lacanian concepts of signifiers and the symbolic, early Buddhism aimed well at understanding how much any mental formalisation would come up as an attempt at grasping on to some safety resort, at rescuing oneself from distress, seeking a form of stability. As we saw, the state of paradox described in the theory that we developed before is a highly distressful one, as the very structure of sensorimotricity and capacity for the body to function is put at risk. In a passionating way, early Buddhist psychological analysis and the ways that it offers to heal and make peace with our disruptive sense of self are stimulating and encouraging, especially in dire times such as ours today.

What say ‘me’ ?

 

The second paradox that we discussed in the work that is being done here8 is the paradox of the word ‘me’. When I say ‘me’, aiming at the reality of my lived and non-communicable sensorimotor and emotional experience, I have to step out of that experience in order to involve the participation of someone else, which I hope to get in order to testify of the existence of such a concrete object as a ‘me’. We can see here how it connects with the Buddhist assertion according to which any permanent and everlasting ‘Self’ that we are expected to find by inspection is only seeming to exist within a conventional, relational and situated construct.

It also joins with the structure of the mirror phase, such as the one proposed by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan since the 1930’s, taking up from Henri Wallon’s first observation : an ‘I’ can only exist within a dualistic structure where it would oppose a ‘you’ or a ‘it’ as a common and outside object of consideration. There, we need the outside gaze to give the object ‘me’ its form. As I say ‘me’, I also marvel at the possibility that such a space could open in-between me and someone else that would allow my own existence to become some object separated from my prime experience, which is so difficult to grasp. The word ‘me’, its fiction and narrative structure take me back into the circle of my relation to someone else that I wish to be supported by as the structure of a testified and ever-standing reality. So, there is a form of attachment, in the sense developed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960’s. Saying ‘me’ may be an attempt at making contact again with someone else, even in the abyss of self-disruption, at recreating some stable bond though it is always unsure, because this ‘me’ reality needs the same relational structure to hold, beyond the security of a closer physical contact, which always ends eventually.

That is the same relational structure that we try to maintain on a moment to moment basis by compulsively diving into our constant stream of thought. We need someone to talk to and address just to maintain the formal representation and illusion of some self, that would exist and be expressed through speech : to talk is to exist within a bond to others that seems to guarantee a form of permanence, in a way by a relation of moral debt. By their name, we take debt from others to stay with us attached, for better or worse, even though that kind of permanence is but a wish that may overlap its possibility. Otherwise, we risk facing the gap that we mentioned before, this hole and lack of a possibility to respond, as we grew up as individuals integrating the codes of conduct and social behaviour that we intimately know rule our interactions with others and our capacity to be accepted and thus survive among them, should we feel safely that we can be loved. The theory of the sensorimotor paradox gives a possible way of understanding why the gap is inevitable as it would be founding our very capacity to think, to retain sensorimotor enaction within imaginary and symbolic processes.

 

The way of healing

 

On its side, Buddhism proposed very early efficient ways both to make peace with the non-existence of some self-evident Self that would exist outside of conventional and experiencial structures and situations, and to encourage the development of a middle-ground between abandoning the implication of a self and still feeling concerned by what happens to the world around us and others – a centred ethics between desperate nihilism and morals. In a way, it joins with some concerns raised by English psychoanalyst Darian Leader in most of his work, about indulging in some detached and looped-in theorisation on the nature of the mind, from the same groups of people which work should be of finding better ways of helping people in their own contexts of experience.9 The same distinction is made in early Buddhism, according to Doug Smith, between ‘No Self’ and ‘Non-Self’.10 Indeed, the claim made by the Buddha would not have been to say that we should eradicate the Self, but to understand that any experience of something like a ‘Self’ is but momentary and conventional, that we should not get attached to it hoping that it would last and support us forever. On the evolutionary level, of course, we can also link that perspective to scholar in neuroaesthetics Ellen Dissanayake’s suggestion that our aesthetic experience of the world is less about the semantic content of the forms that we create, for example in the arts, than the simple fact that we do have an unique and singular experience in which we find ourselves committed.11

And that is the whole point of the sensorimotor paradox theory, that we find ourselves taken in a situation where we are forced to be spectator and witness to our own experience, that immediately creates a scene that comes to mediate our means to address that experience. Our imagination becomes the place where the ‘I’ can exist so long as we make it, but there is still to make this very scene exist as well for others so to make evidence that its potential reality would survive beyond its passing moment. We need others to believe ourselves that that moment, the memory from which we try to make sense would be passed on and live forever in the world, and heal beyond that hope.

1 In their various recensions in Pāli, Sanskrit or Chinese, and claimed to be best represented today by the Theravāda tradition, though there seems to be controversies on the matter. You can find an introduction to the Theravāda in Walpola Rahula’s book, What The Buddha Taught (1959, 1974).

3We will lean very much on the introductory work by Doug Smith, Study Director at the Dharma Institute, notably as displayed on his YouTube channel Doug’s Dharma. See, on the subject of dukkha, « Buddhism’s First Noble Truth ».

5Read also Darian Leader, Jouissance. Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction, Stilus, 2020.

6In Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present, Basic Books, 1987.

7The last part of collective book The Embodied Mind (written with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, MIT Press, 1991) is dedicated to the influence on their work of late Madhyamaka Buddhism and its ecological touch.

8Read Clémence Ortega Douville, Three Paradoxes and Concentric Circles, https://threeparadoxes.com/the-book/

9Read, for instance, the late essay « Re-reading Little Hans », JCFAR, 2021.

10Watch, for instance, « Did the Buddha Teach No Self ? », https://youtu.be/wUDnPy6ACG4

11Read, 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. Available here : https://www.ellendissanayake.com/publications/pdf/EllenDissanayake_CognitiveSemiotics5.pdf

Credit : « Moth », by La Fille Renne ❤