The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.
The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.
In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.
Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.
In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.
The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.
The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.
The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.
Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament. His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.
In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.
In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.
Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?
Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital. If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.
Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.
Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.
Kirsch, A. 2014. “Technology Is Taking Over English: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, Article 117428.
Kracauer, S. 1969. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford Univ Press.
Monnoyeur, F. 2011. Infini des philosophes, infini des astronomes. Paris: Belin.
Monnoyeur, F. 2013. “Nicholas of Cusa’s methodology of the Infinite.” Proc. Conference on History & Philosophy of Infinity, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1595.0881
Scholem, G. 2014. “On Lament and Lamentation.” In Ferber I. & Schwebel P. (Eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, 313-320. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.
In his new book, La Machine sensible, Stefan Kristensen conceives the human mind as a sensible machine: a machine that seeks to stabilize incoming fluxes of sensory stimulation, before being rationally reflected. This opens up a thought-provoking discussion with contemporary phenomenological conceptions of the minimal self, which reappears as a technical invention, an artifact produced by the sensible machinery that works beyond our conscious grasp and reflective understanding. Like the technical object, the minimal self is for Kristensen an artifact produced to stabilize the relation between man and his environment. But in La Machine sensible technical invention does not amount to the application of a given system of knowledge. Machinic invention has its roots in the irrational and becomes rational ordering only after having fulfilled its primordial function: the organization of matter by life.
For the sake of brevity, this review will focus strictly on the theoretical issues that animate La Machine sensible. The true strength and originality of Kristensen’s book lies in combining a rich conceptual framework with detailed commentaries of empirical work both in psychopathology and in twentieth century art. Of the three parts that make up the book, I will discuss only the first (“The Self and the Machine”) and the third (“The Essence of the Machine”), the second (“The Machine and the Figuration of the Self”) being entirely devoted to the motive of the machine and the figuration of the self in art brut, James Tilly Matthews, Fernand Deligny, Victor Tausk, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein and Jean-Luc Godard. Kristensen has a deep background both in the phenomenological and psychoanalytical traditions and his astute appreciation of their respective virtues does not make him any less perceptive of their respective weaknesses. Honest about its goals and the unresolved puzzles pertaining to its rather brief examination of phenomena of biological organization, the book is most sharp in its ability to set up a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Szondi, Maldiney and Deleuze & Guattari. With that in mind, La Machine sensible is highly recommendable for anyone interested in the crossovers between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and the way these can open up an original reflection on contemporary visual art.
- Aisthesis Disturbed: Machinic Delusions
The first part of Kristensen’s book begins by turning to the literature on schizophrenia, in which the motif of an ‘influencing machine’ (une machine à influencer) represents a particular kind of delusion that is important for a good understanding of schizophrenia. The delusion of an influencing machine stands for an experience in which the patient is convinced to be manipulated through a machine, which itself remains beyond his or her grasp. Examining the subjective dimension of schizophrenia, Kristensen approaches this delusional experience as a particular kind of feeling. This avoids categorizing schizophrenia as a disturbance of either the psyche or the soma, since feeling usually involves both. Kristensen argues that whatever the person’s predominant schizophrenic symptoms, these can be regarded as instances, appearances, expressions of the same disturbance, the same fundamental kind of psychotic feeling of an influencing machine.
To situate the disturbance at the level of feeling is not to deny, however, the neurobiological basis of schizophrenia. Discussing the early clinical work of Viktor Tausk and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault in the light of recent work of Alfred Kraus, Thomas Fuchs, Louis A. Sass and Josef Parnas’ phenomenological Examination of Anomalous Self-Experience (EASE), Kristensen acknowledges that neurally based cognitive dysfunctions often play an important role, and indeed that they may often play the causal role in terms of kicking off symptoms. This does not mean, however, that subjective experiential phenomena, together with subjective responses to these phenomena, may not also play a key role. Rather than proposing an either/or dichotomy between neurological explanation and phenomenological description, our author follows Parnas in the viewpoint that phenomenology may just as well offer an explanatory contribution for the understanding of psychotic delusions. Accordingly, ‘the investigation concerns here the sense of this experience of alterity, from the point of view of the subject undergoing it’ (29).
In the most general terms, it is for Kristensen a person’s most immediate and fundamental, affective relationship to self and to world, which is disturbed in schizophrenic psychosis. This disturbance is a feeling of losing contact and connectedness with the world, of withdrawing into a world of one’s own, and of sensing the world as a hostile otherness. In schizophrenia, patients lose their sense of ownership; they seem to have no sense of property, not of a world but also not of themselves, even to the point of owning their bodies. It is this alienating feeling, which the patient’s language is unable to articulate and make sense of, and which may lead to a breakdown of personality, a cleavage of several personalities, and to several kinds of corporeal symptoms.
The sense of losing possession or control, at once over the world and over oneself, implies that possession, power or control lie elsewhere. The delusion of the influencing machine involves ‘the experience of domination, of a relation of asymmetrical force, which the machine is a particularly emblematic image of’ (36). One may certainly have the feeling of great energy and feel compelled to use it, but one seems to have no power to control it. It is as though something else is exercising this control and the patient does not know what this other is: he or she feels it as a foreign power that is mechanically triggered by an external causality.
Whatever form these experiences take, their presence is for the subject always an ordeal that gives rise to different strategies to confront these impulsions, whose essential trait is that the subject cannot escape them. It is due to this experience of passivity and powerlessness on the noetic level that one can speak of a machinic phenomenon on the noematic level (taking up a Husserlian vocabulary here) (30).
In an important concluding passage of the first chapter, Kristensen argues that one shouldn’t understand the schizophrenic delusion only negatively, as the delusional construction of a threat. Following Kraus, Fuchs and the psychoanalyst Ludivine Beillard-Robbert, he argues the schizophrenic delusion is ‘a fundamentally ambiguous phenomenon’ (13, 23) that can be considered at once as a symptom of disturbance and as an act of resistance, offering a certain stabilization. Indeed, ‘the simple fact that a hallucination is produced, that an image be drawn, that a text be written, either in front of the psychiatrist or in the most intimate reclusion, means that the delusional subject is in a process of resistance in the experience that he goes through’ (36). Kristensen emphasizes this point to debut the idea that the delusion would be itself a phenomenon empty of meaning. One must distinguish the patient’s primordial experiences, which appear to him or her as meaningless, and the delusion, which is produced as an attempt to make sense of them. Without this distinction, one cannot account for the fact that the schizophrenic is still a self and that he or she maintains a perspective onto the world. Like the drowning man who cannot swim, the patient continues to struggle:
The creation of an influencing machine in the psychic realm of the schizophrenic subject corresponds to a situation of complete powerlessness within which, nonetheless, the possibility of emancipation is given, although it is remote and inaccessible. This is exactly the paradoxical meaning of the delusion: to express the need of liberation by giving form to the confinement (38).
- The Bodily Self and the Sensible Machine
Kristensen’s understanding of the delusion of the influencing machine as at once a passive confrontation to something unknown and an active response to it, is central not only to his analysis of schizophrenia, but also to his philosophical understanding of selfhood (ipseity) in general. Against a conception of the self as characterized by full-fledged autonomy and self-reflective transparency, Kristensen argues the self is ‘structurally constituted by the internal tension between necessity and liberty’ (37). More precisely, Kristensen proposes a two-level model of the self, whereby the higher-level properties (the intentional, cognitive structure which has a degree of autonomy from the world) emerge from lower-level, sub-personal and non-conscious dynamical processes that act deterministically. The reflective, cognitive structure of the self, which is the mark of subjective autonomy, is for our author constituted by three fundamental, pre-reflective dimensions of experience: temporality, embodiment and self-differentiation inherent to pre-reflective experience. For Kristensen, these pre-reflective dimensions manifest dimensions of internal or intra-subjective alterity, which are never fully dominated and controlled by the subject. In Dan Zahavi’s terms, which Kristensen cites approvingly:
Subjectivity seems to be constituted in a way that allows it to relate to itself in an othering way. This self-alteration is something inherent in reflection. It is not something that reflection can ever overcome (Zahavi 2004: 150).
Although the pre-reflective, embodied level of the self is perpetually self-differing within the ‘diachronical’, egoless flow of time-consciousness, Kristensen agrees with Zahavi that one can speak already at this rudimentary level of a ‘minimal self’ (122). However, he disagrees with Zahavi’s view that minimal self does not depend upon social interaction for its development and/or its sustenance. Following Matthew Ratcliffe, Kristensen argues the constitution of minimal self should be re-conceptualized in interpersonal terms: ‘the primitive level of self-experience is always already of an intersubjective nature’ (126).
Our author develops this reconceptualization around two ideas. The first is that minimal self and alterity construct each other reciprocally through a pre-reflective libidinal and social dimension of ‘body schema’ (47, 54, 64). Drawing on the late work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (whose influence on Merleau-Ponty he reconstructs in detail), Kristensen conceives bodily ‘sensing itself’ (le sentir lui-même (49)) as a perceptual process that happens independently from conscious intentionality and reflection, and is interdependent on action. According to this account, sensing is a skillful bodily activity in which perception and action are constitutively interdependent, unlike at the personal level, where the action a perception leads to may depend on the agent’s intentions (105, 271). In Schilder’s sense, the body schema designates an integrated set of dynamic sensorimotor processes that organize perception and action in a sub-personal and non-conscious manner. As such, the body schema must be distinguished from what is sometimes called the ‘body-image’, which is the body as an intentional object of consciousness, i.e. the body as experienced as owned by the experiencing subject. For example, the body schema appropriates certain habitual postures and movements automatically. The body schema also incorporates certain significant parts of its environment into its own schema: the painter’s brush becomes an operative extension of her hand; the blind person’s cane becomes a sensing extension of the hand.
At this primordial level, a minimal self emerges from a libidinal, bodily relation to alterity. That is to say, the sensorimotor contribution of the body schema is actually constitutive of selfhood, rather than being merely causally implicated in experiences. But this dimension of embodiment is not of the order of personal ownership: the libidinal production of the bodily self through body schema precedes the constitution of an ego that distinguishes itself from its libidinal investments, and the primordial relation between self and alterity is characterized by a ‘fundamental polymorphism’ (52). This means that the libidinal body forms with the environment a system of reciprocal implication, stimulation and expression, a pre-personal, essentially ‘anonymous and general existence’ in which there is ‘confusion of an individual body schema with that of the other’ (53). Being essentially anonymous, non-personal and non-conscious, the body schema forms a ‘sensible machine’ that is not phenomenologically available to the reflective subject: it is neither the perception or imagination, nor the cognitive understanding, nor the emotional apprehension of ‘my’ body, but rather the libidinal drives that organize the body as it spontaneously interacts with its environment.
From this perspective, the unconscious is this libidinal dimension of my being in the world; if it remains inaccessible to consciousness and to explicit intersubjective sharing, this is not due to its radically intimate [psychic] character, but rather to its pre-reflective, corporeal generality (56).
As Henri Maldiney writes, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, the bodily sensing itself forms the ‘untouchable’ side of the self, ‘that of the self which I will never touch [cela de moi que je ne toucherai jamais]’ (Maldiney 2007: 138).
The second idea is that human subjectivity, that is to say, full-fledged selfhood with a degree of ‘ontological depth’ (123), emerges from a cultural-reflective dimension of interpersonal relations and symbolical-cognitive structures, such as language. Our author is fully aware that this second idea, as well as the identification of the libidinal basis of embodiment with the impersonal, non-subjective order of the unconscious, brings him particularly close to the position of Lacan. In fact, one of the strengths of the second chapter of La Machine sensible lies in showing how – despite the different conceptions of the unconscious in the early Merleau-Ponty and Lacan– the late Merleau-Ponty’s identification of the unconscious with the anonymous ‘flesh’ (chair) of the world is compatible with Lacan’s views on the discontinuous, problematic relation between consciousness and the unconscious. Despite valuing this proximity, however, Kristensen is also critical of Lacan. In conceiving the developmental emancipation to the symbolical dimension of subjectivity, Lacan neglected the importance of the productive role of the libidinal body and of affectivity in the constitution of the self. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, Lacan’s conception of the symbolic led him into an ‘idealist deviation’ (58, 63), conceiving the emergence of subjectivity strictly in terms of the symbolic and conscious mediation of instinctually driven life. For the generative constitution of the self, a model which does not do right to its bodily, affective, emotional and temporal constitution remains incomplete indeed.
By contrast, the psychoanalytically inspired work of the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney and the schizo-analytical work of Félix Guattari (both with and without Gilles Deleuze), demonstrate for Kristensen the possibility of a constructive conversation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, which is in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty’s late project of an ontology of the generativity of the flesh. Reading Guattari, Maldiney, Deleuze and Leopold Szondi in this light (whose influence on Deleuze & Guattari he also reconstructs in detail); our author’s goal is as follows:
… to construct a position from which to sketch a critique of the dominant reception of Merleau-Ponty in the domain of the theory of the self – a reception that draws mostly on the Phenomenology of Perception and leaves aside the objections and new perspectives in his seminars at the Collège de France and in the corpus of The Visible and the Invisible (47).
- The Minimal Life of the Self: Three Challenges
There are three general theoretical points that are key to Kristensen’s two-level model of the self that are helpful to see where his challenges lie. These points concern the emergence of self, the relational role of the environment, and the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.
i). Emergence: In thinking about the productive character of the self-organizing dynamics of sensorimotor processes, Kristensen seeks to conceive of a sub-personal level at which the biological and the mental are fundamentally indistinct (108). Against Szondi, who still remained caught in a dualism between blind sub-personal biological processes and the autonomous, mental realm of the self (‘le moi pontifex’ (106)), Kristensen aims to show how minimal self emerges in development from repetitive cycles of sub-personal, ‘infra-subjective’ sensorimotor processes of perception and action (235). In a touching passage on the work of the Feldenkrais therapist and choreographer Mara Vinadia (178-181), Kristensen notes how higher level cognitive processes and symbolical, linguistic forms of communication can be entrapped by sensorimotor disorders; as in the case of an autistic girl of three years and nine months old who expressed herself only by crying and shouting, who didn’t allow any eye contact and who didn’t let anyone get closer to her than three meters.
Faced with any kind of frustration or transgression of these limits, she would respond with immediate violence, bending her body like an arc and hitting her head against the ground. The therapist approaches this situation as follows: keeping her distance from the patient, her face and body averted, she takes on a series of immobile bodily postures, holding each figure for a fixed time interval, followed by a few steps in the room. When Vinadia arrives at her sixth posture, she notices the child has risen and begins to imitate her accurately, step by step. Yet, the patient doesn’t imitate her last posture: rather, she begins with the first, forcing Vinadia to start over from zero, and maintaining a lag of six between her and Vinadia’s postures. Astonishingly, after a number of weeks of repetitive sequences the child allows for more and more proximity, imitating Vinadia’s with lags of 5, 4, 3… up to the point of allowing the therapist to face her, and moving in perfect unison with her, such that it becomes impossible to designate who is initiating and imitating. Eventually, the child allows for more people, even strangers, to approach and address her.
Kristensen emphasizes that the initial refusal to enter into relation is not a sign of indifference but of a hyper-sensibility to the presence of others – an interpretation confirmed by neuro-scientific approaches of autism. The therapist’s work has consisted in establishing a reciprocal relation between the child and herself, a corporeal relation of sensing reciprocity that restored the sensorimotor dynamics constitutive of minimal self. This does not mean, of course, that a sequence of physical gestures alone could implement a cognitive state or a sense of possessing a self. The main takeaway is rather, that aside from higher-level neural processes, sub-personal sensorimotor processes of perception and action make a special, constitutive contribution to the machinery of selfhood.
ii). Environment: The second issue is about the relational role of the biological and social/collective environment and concerns the idea that minimal self is not only intimately embodied, but also intimately embedded in its environment. How does attention to this environmental embedding contribute something important to an understanding of the emergence of minimal self? In this regard, Kristensen distinguishes the kinds of account that typically stress features of organic integration, unitary functioning and sense-making across different levels of bodily embeddedness, from the more radical dynamic viewpoint he finds in Guattari and Deleuze, which stresses features of instability, chaos and heterogeneity characteristic of the energetic dynamics constitutive of minimal self (244-255).
For Kristensen, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of our perceptible integrations with the world in Phenomenology of Perception is exemplary of the first kind of account, as he conceives these integrations as the emergence of one unified ‘flesh’ by means of a reversible ‘chiasmic’ relation between body and environment. This approach emphasizes there is a minimal ‘nucleus’ of stability that constrains and directs the ongoing dynamics, a self-organizing nucleus that enables meaningful interactions to take place between the system and its environment (254, 294). Kristensen refers in this regard to Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which defines living ‘autopoietic machines’ by the self-referential organization of the causal interactions taking place in material systems, i.e. the self-referential, recursive organization of the causal loops that determine the particular dynamics within or between systems (254, 260). As the name suggests, autopoietic machines are essentially self-producing: the system produces ‘itself’ through the reciprocal causation between the components of the system and relations between them. One might say that from this viewpoint, one focuses on the product (minimal self) that emerges from dynamic processes: a composed, structured, organizationally closed system of self-production that to a certain extent determines the range and meaningfulness of its material interactions.
On the other hand, Guattari and Deleuze’s approach, which Kristensen is more sympathetic to, places emphasis on a system’s material, intensive dynamics, which are essentially driven by perturbations, ruptures in direction, breakdowns and failures, and which have no meaningfulness at all (they can acquire meaningfulness only for an eventual emergent system capable of controlling these dynamics). For Kristensen, the first, phenomenological point of view, tends to remain too one-sidedly focused upon the result: connections of meaning, autonomy and structure (254).The schizo-analytical viewpoint, however, stresses the primacy of dynamic material processes, and as such it emphasizes the heterogeneity underlying all constructed unity, the initial ‘chaosmos’ from which all order and stability emerge:
The point of view of the schizophrenic reveals the fact that the machinic assemblages [agencements machiniques] do not self-organize according to a meaningful order [selon un ordre sensé], but consist in the coexistence of heterogeneous elements whose mutual presence creates movements, displacements, production of novelty (245).
Within the phenomenological viewpoint, it is difficult to include the dimension of force or intensity. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible is a philosophy of the birth of meaning [la naissance du sens] and as such it tends to suspend or neglect the dimension of force. (…) The main merit of the notion of the machine within the perspective of a theory of subjectivity is that it allows for the articulation of these two dimensions and to make them appear as reciprocal conditions: the force of the machine is the condition of manifestation of meaningful forms, and the meaningful forms are conditions of apparition of the movements of the machine, which are heterogeneous to the register of meaning and which appear precisely as perturbations of meaningful structures (269).
iii). The relation between the personal and sub-personal: We have seen that instead of assuming minimal self as a kind of a priori form that is necessary for any kind of sensorimotor processing or cognition to take place, Kristensen argues that a better viewpoint on minimal self should help to understand how it might itself emerge from dynamic sensorimotor systems and the role of environmental embeddedness in such systems. These two points about emergence and the role of the environment naturally have consequences on how to view the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.
One way of considering the relation between the sub-personal and the personal is to conceive sub-personal sensorimotor processes as a kind of primordial, mute intentionality of the animal body with regard to the world – a Merleau-Pontian ‘I can’. Again, this insistence on the necessity of a primordial kind of subjective structure that is formally present in organic processes of self-regulation and self-production points to a tension with Kristensen’s point of view. Drawing on the work of Guattari and Deleuze, he stresses that the regulatory structures constitutive of the organism are not only constraining, but are themselves also constrained by material processes of individuation. These are morphodynamic, structure-making processes which grow out of intrinsic physical (thermodynamic, chemical) properties of their material elements. Preceding the passage to functional life, which they organize, these structure-making processes form a kind of static life that is intermediary between inorganic reality and functional life properly speaking. This intermediary order between matter and life fully organized is not a property of a self-referential, organic machine (a homeostatic, autopoietic, or organizational whole), but rather of an inorganic machine (an ontogenetic system of individuation).
Kristensen points out that for Guattari and Deleuze as well the organizational closure of psychic systems manifests itself as the emergence of a minimal self, i.e. an ‘I sense’ (129-130). But this minimal self is always secondary with regard to material processes of individuation, which it emerges from. Unlike Varela, Guattari and Deleuze do not consider the organism’s unity to be derived from a particular type of minimal selfhood or internal unity that is essentially intrinsic to it, over and against the mere aggregates encountered in physical nature. What distinguishes them from the Varelian view of the organism as subjectivity is that they posit rather something like an inorganic machine, which ‘processualizes’ subjectivity. It is not minimal self which is the ground of the process of individuation, but rather it is individuation which grounds minimal self.
La Machine sensible makes a convincing case that in postulating the essence of minimal self is an irreducible first-personness, an intentionality or organizational closure, phenomenological viewpoints risk neglecting the material conditions within which minimal self is produced and meaningful interactions between the self and its environment take place. This is probably due to the fact that these approaches seek to refute reductionist approaches to consciousness, which would reduce the latter to its material basis. Although Kristensen shares this non-reductionist Husserlian spirit, he argues the opposite gesture is no less unfortunate as it risks disregarding the matter and keeping the organizational structure, emptied of all “ontic depth” (121). For Kristensen, psychic phenomena such as minimal self must also be conceived of in materialist terms, which means one must understand sub-personal, generative processes also in terms of specific, concrete mechanisms that are applicable to material elements. The challenge here is to define the continuity between the material, the living and the psychic, whilst acknowledging that material elements are ‘a-signifying’, i.e. heterogeneous to the semiotic domain in which the living and psychic create meaning (65-6, 74). This final challenge, then, is what allows Kristensen to inscribe Guattari’s ‘machinic phenomenology’ (80) into the phenomenological program as formulated by the late Merleau-Ponty:
The ultimate task of phenomenology as philosophy of consciousness is to understand its relationship to non-phenomenology. What resists phenomenology within us – natural being, the ‘barbarous’ source Schelling spoke of – cannot remain outside phenomenology and should have its place within it. The philosopher has his shadow, which is not simply the factual absence of future light (Merleau-Ponty 1960: 176).
Maldiney, Henri. 2007. Penser l’homme et la folie. Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Millon.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1960. Signes. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard.
Stein, Waltraut J. 1970. ‘De-Animation: The Sense of Becoming Psychotic’, p. 87 in: Straus, Erwin W., and Griffith, Richard M. (eds.). 1970. Aisthesis and Aesthetics. The Fourth Lexington Conference on Pure and Applied Phenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Zahavi, Dan. 2004. ‘Alterity in Self’, p. 150 in: Gallagher, S., Watson, S. , Brun, Ph. and Romanski, Ph. (eds.). 2004. Ipseity and Alterity. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Rouen: Presses Universitaires de Rouen.
 This metaphor of drowning appears in an article by the phenomenologist Waltraut Stein. She writes: ‘Like the drowning man, the schizophrenic continues to struggle with surprising energy. He tries to “learn to swim” to come to terms with his psychosis in some way. Perhaps if he can go along with it for a time it will cease to disturb him so and he can find a way to overcome it, he thinks. But eventually he finds that it is too late and that there is no going along with it. Whatever he does, this power is always against him. Usually he finds that his efforts even increase his sense of being dispossessed’. (Stein, 1970: 99)
 In Zahavi’s characterization, the ‘minimal self’ designates the most fundamental sense of subjective ‘mineness’ or ‘first-personal givenness’ that accompanies all of our experiences and functions as a condition for the spatiotemporal structuring of experience. Cf., Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.