Any assertion on a scientific subject requires a method. To affirm that, of course, is in itself a way to say that there is something to talk about that is subject to objection. Thus we must prevent the matter not from objection and discussion, but to be pushed forward as an invariable truth, regardless of the consequences.
We have used images so far, representations to express what we meant with the human mind’s structure. That is very vague and not that practical but for theory. And yet we might be reluctant about the manipulation over the subject’s mind and autonomy, for the sake of proving an ideological theorisation.
We are here wondering about the ins and outs of the human species’s evolution and the conditions of possibilities for its cognitive structures, intricated with the symbolic activity – however we need to precise what it means in terms of method and practical theory.
Human beings are not tied to objects by a metaphysical bond. There is nothing that proves that necessarily, we are connected to objects the way we think we might be. The bond, the connection, is symbolic. Yet, we need to discriminate the interpersonal origin of such a feeling, that we invest into objects to tie them to us.
Discussion has run over the possibility to describe things through a topological description, and to consider the existence of objects for us as floating ensembles.
Let us enter the matter.
First when meeting an object, when making ‘eye contact’ to it, there is an evaluation made instantly on its potential dangerousness. Memory is summoned over its texture, to wager whether we remember if it hurts or not. Is it soft in touch ? Is it hard ? Is it harsh ? Does it sting or scratch ? There is a tactile investment that goes with traumatic imprint.
During childhood, we use to fall down a lot and learn what kind of ground hurts and what kind is safe for us to fall. Freud’s famous example of the Fort-Da game, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), is also that : the spool that the little boy throws away, will it be hurt or not ? The fact that he could pull it back by the thread, safe and sound, meant that the ground was safe for the spool – and for the boy.
Instantly, when gazing an object, I evaluate whether I could manipulate it easily, without care, or whether it should be handled cautiously, because it would be fragile or I would be likely to hurt myself on it. The traumatic memory of such aggressive textures in touch is summoned. It is a preliminary for all interaction.
Then, all the most urgent possibilities related to the safety of the object are tried out through what we could call a symbolic sieve. The more delicate the matter, the tighter the sieving. Will it hurt me ? Are other people involved ? Is it related to a more general surroundings ? Is that a debt-related object ? Should I do something this instant about it or anyone ? Such questions are implied in the first moments of an intentional relation to an object.
Then, when all the possibilities have been tried out and the relation to the object declared safe, I am only left with a residue, which is the symbolic relation. I have nothing to respond to the object at this instant and thus I am left with anything else to consider about it : to resume the stream of my thinking, that it allows me to do.
The object makes part of a floating ensemble which I come across and from which I have to determine the possibilities for safe interactions. If I can’t take it, handle the object because it is fragile, or harmful, or charged with a moral debt to other people, I can only withdraw my response to it, and deal with it imaginarily, on the symbolic level.
I have first to determine the modalities of my interactions with it, and then take a place before it that would not put me in some harm or difficult position towards the others. For instance, if I am on the bus, the holding bars are available for a standard use to hold myself, but not likely to be harmlessly pushed on nor to damage. I can handle it without the fear of breaking it, I would be harmed if pushed on it, and I would have to answer to an authority if I came to damage it.
The world of objects is floating because they are connected to us only through the modalities of our possible interactions with them. They depend on our prime physical experience with it or equivalent objects, as well as on the moral and social rules stating which laws I would have to answer to while relating to them.
We are situated in the network of the rules, that prevails over the objects themselves.
A question of method : the sensorimotor
The method we would like to push forward for theoretical investigation, in order to make it suitable to the ethics of practical use, is a validation protocol based on the sensorimotor test. We aim at the pre-symbolic to measure the validity of whatever theory on the mind and identity.
Symbolic categories are objects, and like any objects they depend on the modalities of their use, on the network of meanings and values bound to them. As feminist writer Monique Wittig stated in a violent critic of psychoanalysis1, we need what Donna Haraway called ‘situated knowledge’ to understand that discourse has a direct effect on people’s reality. To declare the universality of a scientific discourse may be efficient and harmless inside of a certain cultural environment, but more terribly efficient as to its consequences on some others.
The question of the debt is central in social and moral topology. Therefore, the more reasonable option to study the human mind’s structure is to refer to the sensorimotor criterium. Of course, as suggested, we should be cautious about not making the latter another reified category that would monopolise the others.
Then let us explain why it could be a reasonable risk. It could be because what we did not talk about yet are the symbolic dimensions, invested in the symbolic relation between the subject’s system and the object’s ensemble, which limits are moving and unclear. Those dimensions are the values of the body that are discarted in the process of sieving the urgent possibilities of interaction, and then displaced into the symbolic relations.
For instance, the sexual is a symbolic dimension pushed away in the distance because illicit in such or such social and moral environment. A car or a pool of water have no reason to be directly recognised as sexual symbols. However at this moment it is assumed that I am not supposed to have sex, in this very place, for example in a public place. Then the sexual is a dimension of an urge in the body that I could invest as an interpretative dimension for the symbolical displacement of the object.
I am not supposed to use the car or the pool publicly in a different way than the expected one, nor to spoil it or in any way put myself in danger by behaving inappropriately to it, to be hit or drawn. That being stated, I can however integrate the object into my thinking and imagining, and then the value of the body is invested as a dimension of my symbolic use.
However, the sensorimotor is not a value of the body. The sensorimotor is an invisible function that only states that two systems (the subject’s organism and its physical environment) are necessarily interacting in any way suitable to them. The fact that there is a necessity evacuates the indication of a value. It says nothing on the way it should do it, only that it does in any way whatsoever that would suit the biological option of such individual of such species.
On the contrary, the criterium of movement has a value, within certain conditions of possibilities, that has to do with that the deprivation of movement, as an engaged possibility, is a reduction of the individual’s freedom. On the other hand, it is a logical contradiction to deprive someone from the sensorimotor, which would mean depriving someone from the conditions of possibility of the body, though it doesn’t say anything about how this body should be and do it.
Everything that is engaged within the animal species is engaged in the sensorimotor function, which conditions that something can happen between them and their interactive environment. Yet again, to say that there is a sensorimotor activity doesn’t say anything at all about what it is – only that something is happening, for us to be determined.
A validation protocol
Then as a method, we lean on that logical system to borrow the least objectable options. A validation protocol could use several questions : can this theoretical formalisation stand the sensorimotor test ? How much can it be reduced to it (original motor image displaced in the symbolic) ? Can it be equated or put in relation to social and moral laws ? What substitution would then occur between a restrained action and a symbolic function ? Can it constitute a closed coherent topology ?
As for the latter, it means that the topological structure of the system would require the minimal outward connections to another system. That is why we find that the hand paradox situation is so powerful, because when entered the sensorimotor loop of gazing one’s own hand, unsure about which is the reason and which is the mean for it, you can exclude everything else outside of this closed system, at least temporarily.
This exclusion of the other dynamic systems outside means that we delay our attentional responses to it. That implies that the values of the body are invested into symbolical dimensions, a system of substitution for what we are not likely to do at this instant.
In fact, this way of thinking the evolution of the human species until today is telling us something about getting out of a system of difference and analysis through negative deduction. It is much more about a positive scrutiny on the singularities of the system that we study.
Hence there is a very important question of method again implied. If you are setting your analysis criterium on the dimensions of the symbolic, you are getting in the way, and the subject is already engaged in a substitution from discarted action to symbolical incorporation.
The idea of floating ensembles is to say that between the subject and ‘their’ objects, there is a vacuum, a void through which the subject is forging ways, bridges and connections. The subject is recreating a body in this void to make room for what has been discarted, because of the others or because of the nature of the objects themselves, the traumatic memory they carry with them.
The subject recreates in the absence of action, a stable body of the symbolic that means : it is held by others, then I don’t have to hold it. This notebook, if I press on it too hard, it would be damaged or would hurt my skin, so I would better not touch it and leave it be since I have no use to it right now. Yet someone else might take it, confiscate the notebook. Then what else should I do ? Would someone else come and talk to me about it or anything else ? What to do about the notebook ?
Unanswered question during which the position of the body is questioned as a doubt on its well being here. I am prevented from several harmful actions to this object and thus I have to sort my usefulness out. After all, the sensorimotor activity is still sollicitated, but inhibited by the moral teaching of social rules.
However the fact is that the sensorimotor sense is still tickled by the activity of the body and the presence of an environment. It is to count on it. And the fact that it is still here, even when perplexed about the impossibility to decide something on what to do next, tells us that this is the only condition that we cannot escape when speaking of live beings.
Yet, it still doesn’t tell us anything about the symbolic and thus it is powerful, because it leaves room for it and with room, the possibility for a topological organisation.
1In Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind (1992)