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Thoughts on Bergson’s Matter and Memory

April 20, 2009

The essence of time is that it goes by….

The psychical state, then, that I call ‘my present,’ must be both a perception of the immediate past and a determination of the immediate future.

—Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, p. 137,138

At the root of Henri Bergson’s conception of consciousness is the elementary and vaguely scandalous assertion that the universe exists. (see Matter and Memory, p. 63) This universe is a vast constellation of images; at the center of any individual’s world is an image of a special sort: the body. The body moves through space, acting upon and being acted upon by other images. It perceives these external images in two ways: The more primitive, and more important to survival, of these ways is determinate perception. The body perceives in an image of the external world exactly what it needs to perceive in order to successfully make its next move: When I see a falling branch above my head, the most important quality to perceive in the branch is the quality of falling; it matters very little whether the branch is oak or birch, white or tan, whether the branch may have moss on its north side and a sizable knot on its south. In the moment, I am unlikely to recognize any of these qualities. I sense precisely what is necessary for the proper motor reaction—that is, to get out of the way of the falling branch. Out of necessity, the representation of the image or the branch in my mind is something much less than the reality of the image itself. (see p. 35) Consciousness does not add to an image; it must always subtract.

Consciousness subtracts from the image in indeterminate perception as well. It simply subtracts less. The more sophisticated the brain of an organism, the more capable it is of perceiving more than is necessary for the simple (survival) motor reaction. In other words, higher intelligence means the capacity to perceive the functionally useless. (History is littered with connoisseurs of Bergsonian uselessness. Walter Benjamin has, in the elegiac tones of an insufficiently devoted Marxist, spoken of the souvenir collector’s capacity to liberate things “from the drudgery of usefulness.” The contemplative intellectuals of the Russian 1840s earned for themselves the label “superfluous men”.) The Russian philosopher Aleksei Losev wrote that each image holds within it an entire universe of characteristics and connotations—indeed, its very own dialectic of ideas and counter ideas, shattering the Cartesian/Aristotelian dualism of object and idea (see Lossky, N.O., History of Russian Philosophy, pp., 292-297). If you seek an idea about a thing; it suffices to look intensely at the thing. Losev’s concept dovetails nicely with Bergson’s indeterminate perception: Any worldly image has more within it than we can possibly process. Indeed, our effectiveness as bodies in action demands that our perception subtracts from the object. But when we have both the sophistication of intellect and the luxury of reflection—in other words, when the branch is not falling—we have the capacity to perceive more in an object than is strictly necessary.

We process the image in two immediate ways. First, we process in order to act in relation to the external world. We can get out of the way of the branch, we can catch the branch, we can shout for help once the branch has struck us and opened an impressive gash in our head. Second, once we have perceived the image, and perhaps attempted to act in relation to the external world, we sense the internal action of our body. This action is processed as affect. We feel pain. We feel fear. Perhaps, when no one comes to help, we feel sadness, or even regret that we have so few helpful friends. The image of the external world has called upon the image at the center of the world—that is our body—to act internally upon itself.

A perceived image becomes part of our trove of pure, or virtual, memories. These memories are essential to all future perception. In Bergson’s model, perception and memory are mutually constituted: stirred by a new perception of a worldly image, the relevant pure memory “comes out to meet” the image. Upon this meeting, the memory is no longer pure or virtual, or even memory—it is an active phenomenon, the “memory-image,” which completes the perception, fleshes it out, provides it meaning and context. Upon our very first childhood perception of a stove, we do not know it is a stove, but as we acquire a store of memories of the stove, future perceptions of it are completed by those memories: It is a stove. It is hot. Mother uses it to make food. I should not touch it when mother is using it to make food, because that is precisely the moment when it is hot. Some memories lead us directly to action, without creating the representation of an image in our mind: these memories are nothing more than habits, appropriate learned reactions to familiar objects or constellations of objects in the external world. Other memories form pictures—these are the result of attentive perception. Attentive perception, writes Bergson, “involves a reflection…the projection, outside ourselves, of an actively created image, identical with, or similar to, the object upon which it comes to mold itself.” (p. 102)

Bergson argues that memories are not stored as images in the brain. In their virtual, or pure, form, accumulated recollections do not have sensory detail, only the capacity, when activated by current perceptions, to call upon the sensory centers of the brain to reconstruct imagery in the present. The mind’s eye, then, sees in a memory not the past, but an image being created at that very moment by diverse sensory centers at the distant reaches of the brain. This is not only in accordance with recent neurological science (see Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi’s Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000)); it also presupposes artistic forms that accept that the images of past and present are layers in a unified spatio-temporal environment: Memory is the mind’s present, not its past: Note, for instance, the scene in Citizen Kane in which Leeland is telling Thompson of his long-ago adventures with Kane, and the images of this supposed long ago can be seen through the window directly behind Leeland. This is not played up in the film as some fantastic conceit, singing look at me; I’m a new idea. Rather, the scene is brief and could be missed by the inattentive eye (i.e., the determinate perception of one who sees only what one needs to see for one’s motor needs—if such a viewer finds his way to Kane); the layering of time in Kane unfolds in a way Bergson, one imagines, would approve of: as something utterly natural.

* * *

Bergson locates the body between past and future, image and action. It is, he says “that part of my duration which is in the process of growth.” (138) The body, in short, is the place where we feel the flux of the material world. But what is this material world?

Matter, Bergson writes, is “a present which is always beginning again” (138). That is, insensate matter is that which repeats, or “acts” its past, while living things are that which act anew, and thus bring change (beyond geological change) to the material world (themselves included). Useful motion depends on our recognition of the matter that surrounds us; recognition is the process that permits us to compare our immediate perception of matter to our acquired, generalized understanding of what things are. Without this comparison, living things are condemned to forever to react to the world only through uninformed guesswork. More advanced brains are those which make more intensive use of memory: that is, they not only react and move, but reflect, bringing ever more memory to bear on the imagery of the material world. Our ability to perceive the complexity of the material world increases in proportion to the amount of memory we utilize in the act of perception: in this way, perception becomes reflection. The present perception, which is always technically a memory (“the remembered present,” as neurologists Edelman and Tononi call it. (E & T, 107)), becomes an image mediated by thought, a coordinated complex of richly grasped sight, sound, smell and touch, accompanied by conceptual understanding, affective response, and even doubt.

Our capacity to sense such heterogeneity in the material world is not a given: it is, rather, an ingenious solution we impose on the continuity of matter in the universe. Since matter occupies our entire sensory world, air and object alike, our minds must, for the sake of our own survival, learn how to perceive strict boundaries between material objects that, in reality, blur into one another like shades in a rainsplattered watercolor. This blurring of boundaries reflects the reality of the material universe: what we call “space” is a limitless and indivisible vibration of matter; there are no breaks between matter, no emptiness, no place we can declare the end of matter. There is only ceaseless vibration, the hum of creation.

Our minds impose a similar, and even more artificial, disciplining grid on time. Actual duration, Bergman writes, has no “instants”; a motion that takes place in time and space is indivisible; it is not a series of mini-movements that can be measured in units of distance and time. A movement is not a movement at all if we impose these imaginary subdivisions upon it: What is half a movement? An eighth of a movement? To imagine the point at which to measure fractional movement, we must impose an imaginary cessation of the movement in time and space, an interruption to its duration at which we match it up to an imaginary time-grid with arbitrary but agreed-upon units (Bergson calls this “homogeneous time”) and an imaginary space with equally arbitrary units grafted upon the essential continuity and indivisibility of space. The divisible line one would draw to graph a movement in time and space cannot represent actual movement and “duration in its flow” (191); it can only symbolize the duration to make it more convenient for our use.

Bergson does not condemn the use of these imaginary and arbitrary time-space grids; they are essential to facilitate our effective action within and upon the material universe; action becomes almost incomprehensible without them. But, he argues, if we are to speak about true knowledge, and to attempt to understand the nature of how man survives, thrives, and ultimately goes beyond surviving and thriving to reflect and create, we must be willing to admit that we have created a world of minutes and miles as a tool, that nature in reality unfolds not in homogeneous time and space but in movements that occupy certain durations in undivided space, and that these durations may—depending on the nature, capacities and needs of the being perceiving them—appear to stretch or contract to infinite lengths or imperceptible flashes. “Imaginary homogeneous time,” writes Bergson, “is…an idol of language, a fiction… In reality there is no one rhythm of duration; it is possible to imagine many different rhythms which, slower or faster, measure the degree of tension or relaxation of different kinds of consciousness and thereby fix their respective places in the scale of being.” (p. 207)

If what we call space and time are, in actuality, continuous motion and indivisible duration, they become extraordinarily supple conceptions for the reflective mind. Our indeterminate perception can draw more from the motion of matter, allowing more memory to pour forth into the moment of perception—bringing, indeed, the entire plane of individual memory to bear upon the object under examination. (see Bergson’s diagrams on p. 152 and 162) As we do this, the pure memory is activated, the various sensory centers of our brain generate inner sight and sound and smell, and what was virtual and image-less is coordinated among the parallel systems of the brain (in a process Edelman and Tononi call “reentry”) to form a “memory-image”—a present internal image composed of perceptions of the past.

This image, the remembered past, informs, interacts, and contrasts with the newer image, the “remembered present” that we see before us. The more intently we look upon the images of the material world, the more we can extend the tension of our memory, breaking with the generic, imposed rhythms of homogeneous time and space. We have torn the transparency that human consciousness, for eminently practical reasons, has laid over time and space, and replaced it with one of our own individual making. This is what happens when we become “lost in thought” or experience seemingly interminable “instants”. It is why sometimes, in moments of contemplation we may find that “time has gotten away” from us. (In reality, it is we who have gotten away from “time”.) This variant tension of memory also explains why, in moments of intense concentration, we may experience in our mind an extraordinarily rich and lengthy internal duration during a patch of homogeneous time in which the hands on our watch have scarcely moved.

For Bergson, the essence of sentient life is movement, and the essence of movement is the solidarity of past and present. (p. 218) The life-form that is slave to necessity must impose discipline on this solidarity, narrowing the sieve through which past can inform present; such a being hasn’t the luxury of seeing more than needs to be seen, and cannot countenance the indeterminacy of coexisting and conflicting images of time: The environment cannot be permitted to exhibit more than its most relevant and immediate traits, and the memory is useful only to the extent that it provides useful crib-notes to these traits: notes that enable us to recognize, classify, recall useful responses, and react. But Bergson is interested in the outer boundaries, or perhaps the boundlessness, of human consciousness. If space and time are better seen as duration of movement of matter upon matter, the division of past and present become less relevant: if the action of our mind upon the world consists in perceiving it in a particular way, and that perception draws on memory-images of what we have previously perceived, has not the past become an active part of the present? Has not the past made itself real in its action upon the world? This form of action is, granted, less easily diagrammed and symbolized as a motion across measurable homogeneous space and time, but it is an action: the mind (itself represented in space as matter) moves: the human brain is a veritable hive of movement, an extraordinarily active bit of matter, and never more so than when it is making copious use of the memory image: Consciousness, Bergman argues, moves constantly back and forth between the demands of present perception and the memory-images that can more deeply inform that perception (this constitutive process is another element of the theory of “reentry” developed by Edelman and Tonino eight decades later). This internal movement engages an ever-greater number of memories, calling upon them either because of their similarity to the perceived image or contiguity with the similar memory.

The apparent complexity of Bergson’s thought has at its core the beautiful simplicity of corresponding to our own consciousness of the way our minds work: I order a cup of coffee and look around the old cafe, I remember a distant day in a similar place, I recall a moment that took place just before we went to the cafe—my small son and a little girl playing on a windblown, deserted blacktop playground beneath the scorching desert sun; I remember the sounds of the tetherball chains, the balls themselves long since removed, clanging against the poles; I recall a story I once wrote with a similar concluding image, a story I was proud of, which I ought to have published but never did; I feel a sense of regret sweep over me, and then, a sense of determination to write once more.

The usefulness of my resolve to write again can be debated; what is clear, though, is that the impact of memory upon perception has utterly transformed my experience of the “present” moment in the café. A present that, in its most determinate sense, ought to have consisted in me taking my coffee from the counter, being conscious not to spill it upon myself, and drinking it, was turned into a present in which I perceived not only the hot mug in my hands, but the clanging chains of my son’s early childhood and my own creative regret, events spanning ten years in homogeneous time but at this very moment coexisting as the present action of my mind in response to the cues of the material world, Indeed, the memories are not an adjunct to my perception of the coffee shop, but an integral part of my perception of the shop. My consciousness has managed to find a rhythm of duration different from the homogeneous, measurable rhythms that purely determinate perception would have required. I have, in these few moments, contracted time and made seemingly disparate scenes share the present moment. I have freed myself from the rhythms of necessity.

Bergson spends much of his book arguing against both materialism and idealism. He writes with scientific precision and a pronounced taste for the logically verifiable. Nonetheless, what he seeks in the end is to demonstrate the union of body and soul, and he apprehends in memory the unmistakable stamp of the divine. The memory-image, by giving us greater access to, and insight into, the implications of the material world, enables us to break free from the responses of the automaton. It gives us the liberty to perceive the world and react to it in all of the unexpected and idiosyncratic ways that bring meaning to life and dynamism to the world. “Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds,” Bergson writes, “and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom.” (249)

Greg Blake Miller

Appendix: Bergson’s last three sentences alone are worth the price of admission:

“Not only, by its memory of former experience, does this consciousness retain the past better and better, so as to organize it with the present in a newer and richer decision but, living with an intenser life, contracting, by its memory of the immediate experience, a growing number of external moments in its present duration, it becomes more capable of creating acts of which the inner indetermination, spread over as large a multiplicity of the moments of matter as you please, will pass the more easily through the meshes of necessity. Thus, whether we consider it in time or in space, freedom always seems to have its roop deep in necessity and to be intimately organized with it. Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom.” (249)

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