Representation affecting bodies : how we re-invent memories

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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.