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 ❤

Hands, shelter and proprioception

In episode 11 of Star Trek Discovery‘s third season (2020), First Officer Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is about to take temporary captaincy of the starship Discovery. She goes to Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) to seek her support and reassurance. To that, the latter explains to her that on Starfleet ships, there is a metal burr under the left-armrest of the Captain chair, that she has witnessed Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) as well as Captain Saru (Doug Jones) press on with their thumb and rub when getting into difficult situations. In Michael Burnham’s opinion, it was a way for them to ‘stay in the moment’, to keep touch with reality or even, we might say, a sense of it. Further more, when she got to be Captain herself, the sight of this shiny spot reminded her of her bond to her former Captain and motherlike figure and helped her connect with this affective and emotional tie on to her task.

From that example, we would like to come back to what psychoanalyst Darian Leader observed about our relationship to our own hands1, that we always manage to occupy them, often unconsciously, tickling or rubbing objects with them. We saw that one effect of the sensorimotor paradox is that it creates a radical opening and suspension in sensorimotricity. As motor enaction is not possible in that particular situation (the hand that I see is also the hand that cannot grasp itself), the sense of reality becomes highly dependent on the conditions of that relation. Motor fixation implies a hightened sense of being surrounded – but we are also drawn back to the decision that we have to make about it. All the space for decision and deliberation becomes an imaginary space, as there is no immediate motor possibility to it – except ending the relation by removing our hand. The thinking about it through self-representation becomes the mediation. It is all waiting for me to decide how I am going to lead my own way out. Otherwise, in the meantime, anything could happen. And as this anything can not be related to a motor response that I could make without being forced to think inside of the delay and lag of that response, as I am busy staring at my own hand, this same hand becomes the only last resort to finding this response up to enact.

This hold on the imaginary has soon, yet progressively been taken up by another kind of relation and questioning, through the others surrounding me and their gaze : how much it could question this sense of myself as needing the support of my own hands, or anything else that one could hold on to, a sound, an image, a feeling. The escape of my own hands, as well as other forms of self-stimulation – which are very present, for instance, in autistic people’s daily lives and experiences –, is also a way to sustain that tension of feeling surrounded and overwhelmed. Anything could happen from others, as much as we got to rely on them for affective and material support, and we are taught from trauma that their expectations are often hard to comprehend and anticipate, though we try to do so. The temporality of our relation to others is a temporality of imagination, of suspension, of expectation, of being receptive to images, impressions, to the anticipation of their next moves. But our body needs to get back to a more direct grasp on its own reality and possibility, that is a reality of enacting motricity and its possible outcomes. This is how we relate our perceptions to our need for sensorimotricity and the integrity of our body. This is how we ground ourselves in our capacity to move onward and keep on being the agent of our own telling. This is how we find shelter in our own body and get a sense of ourselves, of proprioception, how we stimulate our body in order to, at least, feel that we are still able to respond and still exist, in the sense of expressing something out of our situation.

The main dialogue occurs between ourselves and others, sensorimotricity and imagination. It is good, sometimes and eventually, to step out of symbolic ties to come back to that and try to spell a name out of the single meaning of our hands.

1In Darian Leader, Hands, Hamish Hamilton, 2016.

Synthesis – Sensorimotor paradox and symbolic sight

Taking inspiration from German philosopher Georg Hegel’s parable of the Master and the Slave, we could describe one of the main traits of what we might call the workings of the symbolic. Take a shore on a distant island. Two people would get to stand there and look at the horizon. One is a colonial person, the other is an indigenous person. The colonial person would look at the horizon and see, maybe, homeland. The indigenous person would look at the horizon and see, perhaps, a prison. The view is the same, but the sight is different. The colonial person would refer their experience to the land and country they came from. We could imagine that the indigenous person would feel they could never find their homeland back to the way it used to be. So works the symbolic : the word may be the same, but the memory that is sighted behind may be very different according to one’s situation (read also Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, 1988).

In his most significant work, that is what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorised as the object a, what is sighted, often without a name nor a clear image, behind the word or meaning that we address. And the same happens with the sensorimotor paradox : though one cannot go beyond the blocking of sensorimotricity when gazing at their own hand, their imagination has to go beyond, simulating a different sight. Memory tries to simulate the image of a situation where sensorimotricity is still valid and functioning. It’s just a way for our neural system to survive the delay or lag of the response, as biologist Gerald M. Edelman stated (The Remembered Present, 1989).

Later on, this leads us to a more daily and contemporary experience out of the evolutionary perspective : the social control cast on one’s body into prescribed conducts forces them into integrating a relation with what has to be blocked in their spontaneous interactions with their surroundings. Body expression is channelled through blocking sensorimotor interactions, a blocking that would force the body and, let us suppose, the neural system into a paradox : to get the impulse to enact an interaction and have itself self-restrained. To justify the self-restraint of sensorimotricity must be balanced with the perspective of, at least, an imaginary resolution, so the entropy of the blocking would not lead to an outburst.

We do not need to still be staring at our own hand to experience a sensorimotor paradox when a whole social system of imagination and self-awareness has been based on controlling body expression and sensorimotor interaction. What keeps us in sight of something, in spite of the violence of feeling restrained, keeps being rooted in the capacity to maintain a viable imaginary perspective, even blinded by the illusion of something else. Likewise, words comprise a distance, that is implicit to the sensorimotor and relational disposition in which words and speech modalities are learnt and take place. We learn to speak and exchange with a certain physical distance from others, and the memory of the right distance to observe is also comprised in the use of words. Then speech, especially self-speech in the constant stream of thoughts, is also a way to recreate this safe distance that is also a measure of the liberty to act. It comes to sensorimotricity and its memory at the very heart of words. Whether raising awareness to some other part of our surroundings when staring at our own hand or desperately trying to occult a reality that we cannot socially address with some other word, image or discourse, the symbolic always functions as a re-establishment of a viable sensorimotor perspective that we could enact ourselves from as a living being.

That is why, as French queer activist Delphine Montera stated (@autistequeer_le_docu on Instagram), analysing a systemic structure such as Ableism can be powerful tool for a broader social, political and intersectional analysis. This synthesis between the evolutionary hypothesis of the sensorimotor paradox theory and what we experience today on a daily basis as human beings may be the most important bridge to consider and take care of here. We may not have much time to delay or reverse the consequences of our History and the way that we persevere into self-destructive politics in our societies. But as long as there is a bridge, there is a possibility for transformation.

Photo credit : « Butterfly », La Fille Renne ❤

Re-learning trauma

As we may have seen earlier, memory being constantly re-generated, re-created and re-directed through sensorimotricity, the uses of symbolic memory select those patterns and structures which it maintains. Those are useful, notably, to social interactions and protection. Moreover, trauma helps or forces us to occupy spaces of interaction that would be likely to keep us safe, or safer than other ways. But one thing that we can learn from the scales in which short-, middle- and long-term memory generate and sustain useful patterns to sensorimotricity and imagination, is that we never learn anything once. What we learn is constantly re-learnt, because memory is never fixed, it is either sustained directly or it is indirectly.

The indirect way is the one of trauma, that builds up around the memory of pain – either slight or large – others ways of interacting with what surrounds us. As we are invited to learn and sustain what is presented to us as viable ways to do so, first by our parent-s or caretaker-s, we all have our own ways of measuring the distance between anticipated and unanticipated trauma. That is, between one that is explained in a way or another by the teaching of social patterns and meaning, and the other that is not and then fully in the charge of the individual themselves – often kept secret.

What we mean to address here is that hopefully, either the one or the other has to constantly be re-learnt and redefined. We constantly have the choice to do so, unless the trauma built around the memory of the wound is too deeply rooted to the ways that we had to find to keep ourselves safe. The way that trauma is anticipated, for example when we teach children to mind danger, can create and elude another kind of trauma that isn’t cleared out to be heard. That is the case in rape culture, when we notably teach little and young girls to mind their behaviour and appearance so not to attract sexual aggressors – the responsability becomes theirs to make aggression not happen. That is also the case with racialised people teaching their kids to mind their conduct so it would not raise racist interpretation, tainting their behaviour with prejudice due to the colour of their skin, more likely to be dehumanised and disposable – the responsability becomes theirs to bear the charge of anticipating racism. The same goes on with other kinds of discrimination based on class, race, gender, sexuality or ability.

But the world of memory is more mobile than we think and the relation to aggression, its memory and the persistance of potential re-enactment can also be redefined. Trauma builds up around the wound, that leaves the mark of the object that is the source of the aggression, which we would try to avoid further on. What is important to understand, to all people who experienced trauma, is that the source of the aggression, the aggressor-s cast aggression on you. The aggression and its contact is the object that makes the memory. Even the face of one aggressor becomes an abstract image and situations of domination are ones where the person-s that cast it use it as a mean of torture – as they can use it again and wield the power on you to do so. But, the object of aggression doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to you, for you create a memory. You can, hopefully, untie it from the person-s that believe they can cast it and submit your identity to this tie. Yet, ultimately, that is you that have the power to situate this memory in your body and not theirs.

The most difficult thing is to abstract the object of the wound from the threat of its re-enactment. As you re-learn everything that you do and know at every moment, for you are one body based on sensorimotricity, you can re-learn and re-direct this object as something that is fully yours to remember, to situate in your life, your past, your present, and define. No one else can define it for you feel it, and the other should be powerless to own that, unless you let them.

That is my call to you : once the thorn is out of your skin, it is no longer what sustains the pain that it might have provoked. This pain belongs to you and you only. And you might want to choose where it will take you.

Representation affecting bodies : how we re-invent memories

Texte en pdf :

One last but important point of the theory to the sensorimotor paradox, is that it is all a matter of memories. Human beings live all experiences through their body. According to the sensorimotor paradox proposition, the imaginary would have been born in the separation of perceptive images from the capacity to enact them into sensorimotor interaction. Then, all mental images that we use separately from any of those direct interactions are sourced in memories, experiences, traumas.

This is important because it makes it all quite simple, even in its richness and complexity. Memory re-enacts pain through traumatic embedding, which elaboration creates ways to equilibrate the possible re-enactment of pain. It does that by mingling images re-enacting painful experiences with others. This is, basically, what the activity of the signifier sources in, to redistribute pain across ways of equivalence. If that someone else there seems not to be feeling any pain in some situation that I can relate to, it may create a dissonance with what I am actually struggling with but also divert it away for a time. It creates a frame for diversion. Language itself systematically diverts us from memories of actual situations by taking the very memory of speaking with somebody else as the main course of my attention. Imagination and language always struggle together to create movement away from the pain of living with one’s own body that is, due to a very human moral and social teaching, in a state of sensorimotor paradox almost all the time.

It doesn’t mean that pain and the immediate experience of our body is not real, but that the experience of sensory and emotional contact is very soon taken up by the necessity to embed it into imagination. Because we cannot react to everything – that we have learnt not to through our evolution and our social and moral rules and codes of conduct –, we have to keep in balance with the incessant and mingling stream of our memories. And memories are not as formal as we conceive them when we talk about scenes that we would be able to describe. Every one of our moves and sensory experiences is constituting memory on a sensorimotor basis. Every living being is a constituting memory that elaborates means of interaction with their perceived environments (F. Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind, 1991, again).

So it brings some relativity to any referencial system based on cultural and symbolic assumptions. We all are memory and none given but all elaborated through time and context. We are all fantastically equal as to the nature of our being here with and in our very own bodies. Language in symbolic systems crystalise specific forms for their reproduction, but they only are that formal on paper. A symbol in memory would always be blurred out to the fluidity of sensory impressions. A system of analogy and combination such as linguistics’ creates another reality and realm for experience and memory that is the experience, for example, of writing and symbolisation. The concept of artification proposed by Ellen Dissanayke comes in very powerfully here to remind us that once it is enacted and expressed, the reproduction of a mental image on a shared sensory-experienced medium and material becomes another and completely new object for another kind of experience and thus, another kind of memory.

The mark left by this new object of experience constitutes a new form of alterity that only enables for formalisation as it would constitute a scene, a situation of meeting that may recall some other but more distant memories. The artification process creates the distance necessary to believe that the convergence of memories of pain with some resemblant situations that I would find myself confronted to may be controlled, in the same way that I control my hand that can be taken as someone else’s in some strange experience of my vision. The elaboration of symbolic contractions, once expressed to the field of sensory experience, becomes something else entirely. They become objects and new experiences that we have to deal with, most of all collectively. For most of the time, we don’t know anymore how to relate the experience of such objects of language to our own primary experiences of the other – that is a structuring relational situation and the foundations of traumatic elaboration and individual development. And we are organic matter, hence the whole of it is memory, that is obvious when it comes to the neural system.

But, it all comes from here, not from any set of abstract rule, that are only a way to approach it. We have to be careful when it comes to symbolic-based analysis, otherwise, one would tend to forget that it is secondary-related experience ; that means, the experience of someone else’s speech about it (or oneself as someone else’s). One reason we mostly equilibrate pain through the constant work of self-situation in the stream of our thoughts, is that we learn to separate the spaces where we speak of what is happening from those where we experience our reality in the solitude of our own body. The spaces for speech bring consistency to the state of sensorimotor paradox for it allows us to derive our anxiety to a relational structure where there is someone else to listen and hold our attention. This kind of space structures the way we cope with the suspension of memories into images that may be up to reviving memories of pain. The situation of sensorimotor paradox forces us to navigate memories of situations to which it is not the place to respond. The incapacity to respond to the situation that we are in now places us as well in the incapacity to respond to other imaginary situations that come to our disturbed mind, that is a disturbed neural system.

The founding principle of the sensorimotor paradox theory is that the capacity to hold on motor responses from sensory stimulation is disturbing and that our neural system is not prepared to being held too long. So mental image generation is, in a way, an emergency response to that situation that forces to constantly bring movement to the way we represent ourselves being caught in impossible situations. Imagination is a way out in distress, for we can’t jump out of the paradox once it all depended on our capacity to maintain it and behave according to a certain prescribed conduct. There are other ways to ease up that distress, that would bring a sense of security and lower the urgency of an escape. So much depend now on our capacity to produce work from our capacity to associate our memories to the structures of language. But it is all based on material constructs and debt-based symbolic and traumatic ties, ultimately to be able to eat and survive.

Threfore, domination dynamics and political systems of oppression that are based on traumatic memory are as real as we can analyse and deconstruct their basis. But we need to remember our strict equality before the living as we are all made out of memories that are proper to us and to which we develop our own ways to relate.

Key relational structure in the three paradoxes theory

One of the key features to understand the outcomes of the sensorimotor paradox proposition, as to the situation of the body in social and moral conduct, is that we constantly and compulsively have to justify to ourselves our being still. We could be bursting in the moment and open space for interaction with the impulse to enact what we see – especially being kept on hold for so long. But we don’t do that, for we have been taught not to, respectfully of what is considered convenient to whatever society we came to live in. That is where we desperately need a relation in order to situate our still body, obedient to the social rules through moral teaching, to justify that we do so.

With our inspection of the workings of trauma and Darian Leader’s work on the question of pain (La jouissance, vraiment ?, 2020), we stressed the fact that every experience – even the slightest sensory situation of contact – was subject to a reorganisation of what is actually available and possible in the world for the person. Further more, this potential space opens to interpretation as soon as it comes to involve someone else’s gaze – and even our own as someone else’s. But something that we haven’t adressed yet is that we have to live with ourselves then, with some body of ours entered the realm of strangers, and that is something quite different again than elaborating long-term meaning. What happens with the day-to-day insecurity of having to maintain the structure and the frame for constant self-interpretation through the possibility of the other’s gaze is relying on the very personal sense of one’s own body being highly subject and vulnerable to aggressions. Why should we trust the possibility that we would not be hurt ?

The learning of strategies to prevent oneself from being hurt shows lines that are common to main social structures and some that are more specific to local experiences and to the singularity of the person. The distribution of moral violence would depend on the variety and diversity of the spaces into which we project possibilities. However, the liberty to move freely, should it not be hurtful to anyone, is more often submitted to moral scrutiny. The conformity to social norms, as to what is proper a form for a human being in society, is mostly taught out of fear of rejection and sanction, more than out of a dialogue and the teachings of consent and mutual self-determination. The efficiency of morals relies on the uniformity of its application, rather than the observation and expression of local idiosyncraties.

Then, as much as we feel compelled to justify our being here as a trustworthy member of the group, we also finally owe ourselves to justify our own obedience to the collective gaze, especially where it comprises various forms of brutality – most of them systemic and non-expressed to the social and political conversation in any other way than being what is ‘normal’ or performed as such (Judith Butler, Gender trouble, 1990). We, in fact, tend to be well aware of a form of captivity, to which we have to consent if not willing to be the figure of the outcast. Where we are can be the place of the socially right or the socially wrong – or the invisible at the intersection of political structures of oppression (Kimberlé Crenshaw, « Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics », 1989). But still, a body kept still, its possibilities to enact put on hold to imagination, is an impatient body, that we have to reason out. We have to set ourselves back to the relational structures of obedience and speech readiness against the very near possibility to burst out of stillness into the image that we extracted from a perceptive contradiction.

As seen with Francisco Varela’s work (The Embodied Mind, 1991), sensory perception is co-dependent on the modalities of sensorimotor interaction. We see a world that we could enact from. The modalities of our perception are tied up to the way our body constantly produces and creates a world where it is « functional ». We perceive what we actively act towards and reciprocally, what we sense is acting to us to another kind of world already. Each contact to our senses is sort of a meeting that we commit to. As we saw, the fact that a sensorimotor paradox – the activity of our hands through the development of bipedal stance and the sensorimotor contradiction of seeing the hand that can’t reach itself – could have produced an image without the possibility to enact it would be key to the birth of imagination. Moreover, we have to situate ourselves to it, and that is what we called the workings of trauma. Then, when we enter the symbolic structures of language, of social and moral debt and of interpretation, we have to keep our own body available for that kind of consistent work and keep ourselves ready and aware of its necessity. We have to keep on being human on these social and intimate terms. That is a harsh kind of self-training, never perfected because always highly dependent on the evaluation of others, its moral prescription and the perspective of the sanction.

So we have to tell our body to wait until the spaces come where it would be safe. Until then, we try our best to keep it together – our vigilance to the way that it is perceived by others, the pursuit of our own way to go through, the preservation of intimate spaces for relief. The relational duty we have to others is then also relying on that relational duty to our own body that concentrates the whole of our experience. The question of impulse, that we discussed in The Vulvic Network section, is thus fundamentally less pertaining to a sexual endeavour than to the very necessity to keep this sensorimotor contradiction from any possible enaction. We now hope to bring that matter to the conversation, in order to shed some clarity on the perspective of any enduring cure.

Photo credit : « Butterfly », La Fille Renne ❤

Simply put

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cited bibliography :

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

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

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

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