Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bergson’s memory and the traffic jam in Beirut

In the Preface that he wrote in 1910, Bergson says that Matter and Memory “is frankly dualistic,” since it “affirms both the reality of matter and the reality of spirit (Matter and Memory, p. 9). However, he is quick to warn us that the aim of the book is really “to overcome the theoretical difficulties which have always beset dualism” (ibid.). In the history of philosophy, these theoretical difficulties have generally arisen from a view of external perception, which always seems to result in an opposition between representation and matter. Thus, Bergson's theory of “pure perception,” laid out in the first chapter of Matter and Memory aims to show that — beyond both realism and idealism — our knowledge of things, in its pure state, takes place within the things it represents.

But, in order to show this, Bergson starts with a hypothesis that all we sense are images. Now we can see the basis of Bergson's use of images in his method of intuition. He is re-stating the problem of perception in terms of images because it seems to be an intermediate position between realism and idealism (Matter and Memory, p. 26). Bergson is employing the concept of image to dispell the false belief — central to realism and materialism — that matter is a thing that possesses a hidden power able to produce representations in us. Bergson, however, not only criticizes materialism, but also idealism insofar as it attempts to reduce matter to the representation we have of it. For Bergson, image differs from representation, but it does not in nature from representation since Bergson's criticism of materialism consists in showing that matter does not differ in nature from representation. For Bergson, the image is less than a thing but more than a representation. The “more” and the “less” indicates that representation differs from the image by degree. It also indicates that perception is continuous with images of matter. Through the hypothesis of the image, Bergson is re-attaching perception to the real.

In perception — Bergson demonstrates this point through his theory of pure perception — the image of a material thing becomes a representation. A representation is always in the image virtually. We shall return to this concept of virtuality below. In any case, in perception, there is a transition from the image as being in itself to its being for me. But, perception adds nothing new to the image; in fact, it subtracts from it. Representation is a diminution of the image; the transition from image to pure perception is “discernment in the etymological sense of the word,” a “slicing up” or a “selection” (Matter and Memory, p. 38). According to Bergson, selection occurs because of necessities or utility based in our bodies. In other words, conscious representation results from the suppression of what has no interest for bodily functions and the conservation only of what does interest bodily functions. The conscious perception of a living being therefore exhibits a “necessary poverty” ( Matter and Memory, p. 38).

If we can circle back for a moment, although Bergson shows that we perceive things in the things, the necessary poverty of perception means that it cannot define intuition. Turning back from the habitual use of intelligence for needs, intuition, as we can see now, places us above or below representations. Intuition is fundamentally un-representative. In this regard, the following passage from the third chapter of Matter and Memory becomes very important:

If you abolish my consciousness … matter resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and traveling in every direction like shivers. In short, try first to connect together the discontinuous objects of daily experience; then, resolve the motionless continuity of these qualities into vibrations, which are moving in place; finally, attach yourself to these movements, by freeing yourself from the divisible space that underlies them in order to consider only their mobility – this undivided act that your consciousness grasps in the movement that you yourself execute. You will obtain a vision of matter that is perhaps fatiguing for your imagination, but pure and stripped of what the requirements of life make you add to it in external perception. Reestablish now my consciousness, and with it, the requirements of life: farther and farther, and by crossing over each time enormous periods of the internal history of things, quasi-instantaneous views are going to be taken, views this time pictorial, of which the most vivid colors condense an infinity of repetitions and elementary changes. In just the same way the thousands of successive positions of a runner are contracted into one sole symbolic attitude, which our eye perceives, which art reproduces, and which becomes for everyone the image of a man who runs (Matter and Memory, pp.208-209).

Like the descriptions of intuition, this passage describes how we can resolve the images of matter into mobile vibrations. In this way, we overcome the inadequacy of all images of duration. We would have to call the experience described here not a perception of matter, but a memory of matter because of its richness. As we have already suggested, Bergsonian intuition is memory. So, we turn now to memory.

As we saw in the discussion of method above, Bergson always makes a differentiation within a mixture. Therefore, he sees that our word “memory” mixes together two different kinds of memories. On the one hand, there is habit-memory, which consists in obtaining certain automatic behavior by means of repetition; in other words, it coincides with the acquisition of sensori-motor mechanisms. On the other hand, there is true or “pure” memory; it is the survival of personal memories, a survival that, for Bergson, is unconscious. In other words, we have habit-memory actually aligned with bodily perception. Pure memory is something else, and here we encounter Bergson's famous (or infamous) image of the memory cone.

The image of the inverted cone occurs twice in the third chapter of Matter and Memory (pp. 152 and 162). The image of the cone is constructed with a plane and an inverted cone whose summit is inserted into the plane. The plane, “plane P,” as Bergson calls it, is the “plane of my actual representation of the universe.” The cone “SAB,” of course, is supposed to symbolize memory, specifically, the true memory or regressive memory. At the cone's base, “AB,” we have unconscious memories, the oldest surviving memories, which come forward spontaneously, for example, in dreams. As we descend, we have an indefinite number of different regions of the past ordered by their distance or nearness to the present. The second cone image represents these different regions with horizontal lines trisecting the cone. At the summit of the cone, “S,” we have the image of my body which is concentrated into a point, into the present perception. The summit is inserted into the plane and thus the image of my body “participates in the plane” of my actual representation of the universe.

The inverted cone image is no exception to Bergson's belief that all images are inadequate to duration. The inverted cone is really supposed to symbolize a dynamic process, mobility. Memories are descending down the cone from the past to the present perception and action. The idea that memories are descending means that true memory in Bergson is progressive. This progressive movement of memory as a whole takes place, according to Bergson, between the extremes of the base of “pure memory,” which is immobile and which Bergson calls “contemplation” (Matter and Memory, p. 163), and the plane where action takes place. Whenever Bergson in any of his works mentions contemplation, he is thinking of Plotinus, on whom he lectured many times. But, in contrast to Plotinus, for Bergson, thinking is not mere contemplation; it is the entire or integral movement of memory between contemplation and action. Thinking, for Bergson, occurs when pure memory moves forward into singular images. This forward movement occurs by means of two movements which the inverted cone symbolizes. On the one hand, the cone is supposed to rotate. Bergson compares the experience of true memory to a telescope, which allows us to understand the rotating movement. What we are supposed to visualize with the cone is a telescope that we are pointing up at the night sky. Thus, when I am trying to remember something, I at first see nothing all. What will help us understand this image is the idea of my character. When I try to remember how my character came about, at first, I might not remember anything; no image might at first come to mind. Pure memory for Bergson precedes images; it is unconscious. But, I try to focus, as if I were rotating the rings that control the lenses in the “telescope”; then some singular images come into view. Rotation is really the key to Bergson's concept of virtuality. Always, we start with something like the Milky Way, a cloud of interpenetration; but then the cloud starts to condense into singular drops, into singular stars. This movement from interpenetration to fragmentation, from unity to multiplicity, (and even from multiplicity to juxtaposition) is always potential or virtual. But the reverse process is also virtual. Therefore the cone has a second movement, “contraction” (Matter and Memory, p. 168). If we remain with the telescope image, we can see that the images of the constellation must be narrowed, brought down the tube so that they will fit into my eye. Here we have a movement from singular images to generalities, on which action can be based. The movement of memory always results in action. But also, for Bergson, this twofold movement of rotation and contraction can be repeated in language. Even though Bergson never devotes much reflection to language – we shall return to this point below– he is well aware that literary creation resembles natural creation. Here we should consult his early essay on laughter. But, with this creative movement, which is memory, we can turn to creative evolution.

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