# PHILOSOPHY /// The Inertia of the Norm: Reconciling Bergson’s Movement with Sartre’s Café Waiter


Henri Bergson in his office / Jean-Paul Sartre at the Café Flore

First of all, I would like to apologize for persistently using Western philosophy and more specifically French one (Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, Simondon, Bergson, Sartre, Glissant); it happens to be the one that I am the most familiar with thanks to facilitated means of learning about it (mostly radiophonic!). I simply hope that this does not narrow down my discourse to something too skimpy. What I would like to attempt in the following text is to combine two philosophies that have not much in common: the one of Henri Bergson and the one of Jean-Paul Sartre.

As I tried to demonstrate in a previous text, entitled “Politics and Philosophy of the Sliding Point Based on Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory,” the philosophy of Bergson can help us to think of each of our actions in life as the result of the inertia of a continuous movement — or maybe an original source of movement but that might be too theological. I was using the example of our body in a suddenly breaking train: no one will deny the fact that when we are projected forward, as the body continues its fast movement while the train is slowing down, we are not accomplishing the free act of movement; on the contrary, we are subjected to inertia. If we extend this example to the totality of our actions and being, as well as the ones of the rest of the bodies of the world, we find ourselves embedded within the inertia of the world. Just like in Spinoza’s philosophy, we are not free, but we can learn to know more and more the causes that determine our actions; in other words, the vectors of movement of the inertia we are subjected to.

As I wrote in the previous article, such an interpretation of the world does not go without strong political consequences. The understanding of the movement’s vectors implies a form of anticipation of the movement that can be — but not necessarily — a source of power from a body on another. For the purpose of this article, let us try however not to consider the bodies in their individuality but rather as the parts of a larger system. In order to do so, we can start by quoting the example that Sartre takes in Being and Nothingness (1943) in order to distinguish sincerity and mauvaise foi (disingenuous behavior) — two concepts we won’t really look at here (my emphasis in bold):

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the waiter in the cafe plays with his condition in order to realize it. (Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes,  Philosophical Library, 1956)

I would like to use this passage of Sartre for a different argument than the one that he, himself, unfolds in his book. If we would see this café waiter as Sartre does — probably at the Café Flore where he was often writing — we would say that he is being a caricature of himself, or rather, a caricature of a waiter. What is this assessment based on? It is based on the fact that we think we know what a waiter looks like and acts like. From where do we know that? We know it from the experience of having seen waiters before or, in other words, from everything that constitute the norm for a waiter. The mechanisms described in the previous passage are constituted by the social conditions (historical, geographical, cultural) that provides the inertia in which this waiter is embedded — for the record, Sartre would have probably disagreed with that. Norm is nothing else than the inertia I was describing above, considered at a sociological level.

I do not want to trigger any confusion here: we should not waste time wondering what would be a society liberated from any form of norm, or even worse, what was society “before” there was a normative system, in a sort of natural condition. These questions are useless as they suppose that the inertia could simply cease to be effectuated, that the breaking train could actually stop. Even if we were to refuse any form of social interaction in our life, we would still be subjected to a form of inertia, the type of one that is so violent that it projects you out of the train. There is therefore no escape from the inertia/norm.

What it means politically is that there is a possibility of understanding of the processes that construct this norm, — the vector of the inertia — and that there is therefore a potentiality to place our actions at a certain ‘moment’ of these processes. This  positioning can be done more or less close from the ‘accomplishment’ of the norm, this moment when the waiter fully “realize” his condition as Sartre puts it. Just like a mathematical function that tends towards a number without ever reaching it, one may tend towards the realization of his or her condition but will never fully reach it: the norm, it is its paradox, never gets realized, it is a horizon. Understanding this status may allow to place ourselves further from this unreachable number in the constructive process of a norm, embracing our becoming to use a Deleuzian concept.

I have been writing before about what it means for the realm of the body and architecture. The ideal normalized body is an expression of the unreachable characteristics of the norm and wanting to consider this body as a paradigm to design architecture constitutes a violence in the way it will attempt to force any body to fits as close as possible with this paradigm. By considering any other body, architecture will takes its place in the constructive process of the norm; however, it will situate itself further from the moment of its totalitarian realization and it can thus incarnate a political manifesto.