About the unconscious

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

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

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

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

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 ❤

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.

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.