Lauren and Trisha Blog about Bergson

On page 172 of Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson writes: “We have supposed that the mind travels unceasingly over the interval comprised between its two extreme limits, the plane of action and the plane of dream.  Let us suppose that we have to make a decision.  Collecting, organizing the totality of its experience in what we call its character, the mind causes it to converge upon actions in which we shall afterwards find, together with the past which is their matter, the unforeseen form which is stamped upon them by personality; but the action is not able to become real unless it succeeds in encasing itself in the actual situation, that is to say, in that particular assemblage of circumstances which is due to the particular position of the body in time and space.”

Lauren and Trisha (who’s talking?) have chosen to give you a sort of reading or interpretation of the same paragraph. Our thinking behind this is to offer you something—even in its incompleteness—to take into your consciousness. We hope it will supplement thoughts you were already having, inspire new ones and/or somehow inspire your present. It is our gift, however shabby, to all of you.

Trisha says:

All the stops and starts:

Bergson, as I see him (as an image, just as I see myself), is pointing us both toward the idea that our mind and duration “travel unceasingly,” that is, are moving constantly AND to the idea that we, as humans, create the point, the divide, the A and B, as it were. However, he is simultaneously pointing us toward the extreme limits between “the plane of action” and “the plane of dream.”  I see these as coordinating with a few pairs: body/memory, pure perception/pure memory, body/mind, body/spirit.  For the sake of clarity (let’s be honest, I am only half trying to be clear), I will stick to pure perception and pure memory. Pure perception would be, I think, that which is only perception and no memory. What would this look like? I think of Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates”; she could only perceive and not remember so she kept having the same experience over again. In effect, this is the only instance where one could have the same experience. But, even then, she did still have her longterm memory so she could sit, eat and do all of those normal “habitual”  things. She just couldn’t remember the day before. But, moving on from that digression, Bergson toys with us a little (he is a heartbreaker) and writes “suppose we have to make a decision,” that is, a decision between the dreamer and the actor or the plane of action. He is, I egging us on a bit here, tempting us with what we so badly want to fall back on: the absolute duality of mind-body. He pretends and we, in turn, become very excited (or I do, at least) that things will be simple, that a decision between the two will be made once and for all. Oh no, he presses on by saying that our “character” or “personality” is formed as a collection, as an assemblage of objects, experiences, circumstances—in short: images. Yet, this personality cannot be realized simply in mind alone nor body. Rather, there isn’t a character until he/she is in the “actual situation.” In this actual situation, he/she becomes real by both the spirit and the body (thus, we don’t have to make a decision) because we act, that is to say, we make action, we do action because our body receiving sensations and moving its lovely limbs in that particular situation coordinates with the mind. This is done through the habitual, so our action in the present is only possible because of our habitual past. Again, he was only teasing us by saying we had to make a choice. The body-habits are connected to the pure memory and thus/therefore help shape the present. Our pure memory gives freely of recollections that can guide the present into action.

And Lauren says:

I think I honed in on this passage because it feels like an examination of how the mind (maybe more accurately character or personality, actually) might be seen as a composition-in-progress, undergoing constant revision.  Though this is far removed from what I’m familiar with when I think of, for example, written composition, it helps me to better understand, I think, what Bergson is talking about.

According to Bergson, it seems that the mind composes experience; that is, that it (re)combines memories, and that in this composition is the make-up of character (personality, which seems to be functioning synonymously with character, here).  We are truly, in Bergson’s formulation, the sum of our experiences, and we give them a specific weight and form that they do not have on their own, but rather have only through our arrangement and interpretation (“the unforeseen form stamped upon them by personality”).  When we make a decision, then, it seems that our mind files through the past relevant experiences, and assembles them to compose a decision—an action—which isn’t “real” unless it becomes a part of the very particular (perhaps rhetorical?) situation out of which the need for a decision arose.  This last part is hard to follow, but I think it means that until we see this decision-action as a part of this situation, it cannot be the next step—we must think that it belongs before it can happen.

The particularity involved in one person’s decision making process vs. another’s, in how someone might view or re-view “that particular assemblage of circumstances which is due to the particular position of the body in time and space,” and the way that action is contingent upon how the mind’s character/personality has arranged and interpreted its past experiences, brings me back to representation.  People remember things differently, represent them differently in their memories, and thus make decisions based off memories that are different than the decisions others would make.  In a specific rhetorical situation, we might choose to write or speak differently than someone else because of the way our memories and the resources we call upon to make decisions are composed differently in our minds. This might explain, say, the difference between the way Trisha and I are, though writing at the very same time, likely writing about and interpreting this passage in ways unique to each of us.  Bergson’s way of thinking about how we make decisions for bodily action, in this passage, brings me back to rhetorical action and the way we choose the arguments we make, the concepts we draw from, the very words we write when we actually compose, and how they come from our mind’s own distinct and constantly revised form of composition.  I’m starting to become aware of the implications such a way of thinking about memory might have for thinking about composition.

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~ by laurenmcamp on September 18, 2010.

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