Xenophobia, self and the stream of thought

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

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

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

Showing our ‘best part’

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

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

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

Making the difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequences to the question of time

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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.

1See « Heidegger | Por Darío Sztajnszrajber », Faculdad Libre, january 2016 on YouTube.

2Read Francisco Varela, « Le cerveau n’est pas un ordinateur », La Recherche, Issue 308, april 1998.

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.