Chronophotography of dancer Ami Shulman walking, (Montreal 2009) by Joseph Butch Rovan
I have not mentioned the work of Henri Bergson very often in the past. I actually can remember of having used his work only once through Deleuze’s seminar about cinema when I was attempting to explain the essence of Spinoza’s work about the body. In this article, I therefore want to interpret Bergson directly through his writings and, more particularly, by studying the fourth chapter of Matter and Memory (1896) that is entitled “The Delimiting and Fixing of Images. Perception and Matter. Soul and Body.” In this chapter, Bergson pedagogically works in steps to dissolve the illusion we have when considering any movement. For him, such an illusion is explicited by what is known as the paradox of Zeno of Elea, which considers the movement as infinitely divisible into moments of immobility, just like a mathematician would describe a line as an infinite array of points. Bergson does not discuss the nature of the paradox, but rather its premisses: the error is to divide movement:
Movement visibly consists in passing from one point to another, and consequently in traversing space. Now the space which is traversed is infinitely divisible; and as the movement is, so to speak, applied to the line along which it passes, it appears to be one with this line and, like it, divisible. Has not the movement itself drawn the line? Has it not traversed in turn the successive and juxtaposed points of that line? Yes, no doubt, but these points have no reality except in a line drawn, that is to say motionless; and by the very fact that you represent the movement to yourself successively in these different points, you necessarily arrest it in each of them; your successive positions are, at bottom, only so many imaginary halts. You substitute the path for the journey, and because the journey is subtended by the path you think that the two coincide. But how should a progress coincide with a thing, a movement with an immobility?
But common sense and language have a right to do so and are even bound to do so, for, since they always regard the becoming as a thing to be made use of, they have no more concern with the interior organization of movement than a workman has with the molecular structure of his tools. In holding movement to be divisible, as its trajectory is, common sense merely expresses the two facts which alone are of importance in practical life: first, that every movement describes a space; second, that at every point of this space the moving body might stop. But the philosopher who reasons upon the inner nature of movement is bound to restore to it the mobility which is its essence, and this is what Zeno omits to do
As Bergson writes, points have no reality and therefore cannot be considered to describe a movement. What could describe it however is what I would like to call a sliding point. What I mean by that is that, if one indeed look only at one moment of the movement, — if one look at a film still for example — one has to look at each point being part of the movement as intrinsically carrying an inertia, that is not appearing to the eye — hence the problem of phenomenology. Let us try to take an example that does not focus its the visual aspect to illustrate this inertia. Look at what happens to the bodies when they are in movement: yours is in a train, and suddenly the train breaks in a sort of effort to embody a point rather than a line. Your body won’t break simultaneously with the train, it will be projected in the continuity of a movement; this is so true that this inertia is the real danger of sudden break and accidents. This inertia is called by Bergson, and later by Deleuze and Simondon, devenir (becoming).
Let us examine this concept as, through it, we can think of a holistic philosophy. So far, we looked at movement in a relatively traditional manner. Bergson uses the example of a hand that goes from one resting position to another, thus defining a line with two extremities. This is the movement we are the most familiar with as we can relate to it through immediate referential. Nevertheless, the very notion of resting position is irrelevant. As Bergson himself writes, we are embedded in a continuité mouvante (moving continuity) as the whole material world is continuously changing its configuration:
A moving continuity is given to us, in which everything changes and yet remains: whence comes it that we dissociate the two terms, permanence and change, and then represent permanence by bodies and change by homogeneous movements in space? […]Whence comes then the irresistible tendency to set up a material universe that is discontinuous, composed of bodies which have clearly defined outlines and change their place, that is, their relation with each other?
By extension of what we have seen above, we are continuously in a state of inertia. What that means is that everything we do is the continuity of the movement we are embedded in. This is how Bergson uses Spinoza (without quoting him directly) and his determinism (see past article); to put it simply, what we do is the logical consequence of the sum of “events” that occurred in the world before it. However, Bergson, who writes his book a bit more than two centuries after the publication of Spinoza’s Ethics, goes a bit further, or rather explains Spinoza through a terminology that allows the notion of freedom:
To reply, to an action received, by an immediate reaction which adopts the rhythm of the first and continues it in the same duration, to be in the present and in a present which is always beginning again, – this is the fundamental law of matter: herein consists necessity. If there are actions that are really free, or at least partly in determinate, they can only belong to beings able to fix, at long intervals, that becoming to which their own becoming clings, able to solidify it into distinct moments, and so to condense matter and, by assimilating it, to digest it into movements of reaction which will pass through the meshes of natural necessity.
In other words (less beautiful than the ones Bergson uses), if we study what our inertia/becoming is made of, what is its speed and its trajectory, we won’t be able to reduce it, but we will able to anticipate its effect, and therefore to be more in control of the manner we experience them. The example of the train used above is relatively self-explanatory of such an observation as we all experienced it. It is not surprising then that Deleuze and Guattari were able to come-up with a political interpretation of the notion of becoming as such an anticipation and ultimately, a specific vision of freedom can be acted as a political construction. Nevertheless, if the movements of the world can be seen as sliding points with their trajectories and their speed, and that we can therefore anticipate on them, it also means that diagrams of power can be drawn in a transcendental way. As my friend Sarah Choukah, who is passionate by ballistics,was pointing out to me, the totality of the cartography of power established by Foucault can be seen as an analysis of the trajectory and projectory (in its double meaning of throwing something and foreseeing something) anticipation of the movements of the bodies.
What does that mean to consider architecture through this definition? Each wall, determines trajectories of movement and therefore control the latter, hence its impossibility to be apolitical. I usually write that architecture is intrinsically violent and I have attempted to demonstrate it, rather than explaining what it means at an axiomatic level. Bergson talks about pain being the result of the distance between other bodies and mine reduced to a minimum:
But the more the distance diminishes between these bodies and our own, the more the possible action tends to transform itself into a real action, the call for action becoming more urgent in the measure and proportion that the distance diminishes. And when this distance is nil, that is to say when the body to be perceived is our own body, it is a real and no longer a virtual action that our perception sketches out. Such is, precisely, the nature of pain, an actual effort of the damaged part to set things to rights, an effort that is local, isolated, and thereby condemned to failure, in an organism which can no longer act except as a whole.
We can think of architecture as being the discipline that tends to reduce the distance between our body and other bodies to a minimum, distance that our body would continuously attempt to reestablish (we rarely touch walls when we move). In a Bergsonian interpretation, that would mean that architecture is, by definition, a pain apparatus, principle of the violence I was evoking above.
However, we can also think of the encounters of body triggers by architecture as potentially empowering rather than painful or sad (using the Spinozist terminology). After all, our body is continuously in direct contact with other bodies like the ground, a chair, our clothes, the air etc. Of course we do not all interact with these bodies the same way: our clothes are so close to our body that they are often able to embrace its movement, the air does not requires an important amount of energy to be moved by our body whereas the amount of energy to pass through a concrete wall is considerable. In every case, our interaction with these bodies are effected by the movement we are embedded into. Only when we are ceasing this movement in our minds – always retrospectively – are we able to truly fix limits between the bodies of the world. On the other hand, when we accept to consider the indivisibility 0f the global movement that is the world, we should able to see the “insensible gradations” between them that Bergson describes:
That there are, in a sense, multiple objects, that one man is distinct from another man, tree from tree, stone from stone, is an indisputable fact; for each of these beings, each of these things, has characteristic properties and obeys a determined law of evolution. But the separation between a thing and its environment cannot be absolutely definite and clear cut; there is a passage by insensible gradations from the one to the other: the close solidarity which binds all the objects of the material universe, the perpetuity of their reciprocal actions and reactions, is sufficient to prove that they have not the precise limits which we attribute to them. Our perception outlines, so to speak, the form of their nucleus; it terminates them at the point where our possible action upon them ceases, where, consequently, they cease to interest our needs.