Scars Etched in History Itself II: History Is Real, Research Time, 26/05/2015

Continued from last post . . . I only know the popular psychology version of what trauma is. If I were to use concepts of trauma as an analytic angle of the Utopias project, I'd have a lot of work to do. But I'm using a slightly strange, if enlightening set of ideas from Western philosophy to understand the long-term effects of the First World War.

Men like this lived for four years on land that was
constantly being bombed. You are not normal anymore.
It's weird about the man himself who developed the ideas of time, becoming, and history that will be important to the middle arc of the Utopias manuscript. Henri Bergson himself, even though he lived and worked through the First World War, passed the entire affair by in the Sorbonne.

He was politically idealistic enough after the war to have worked with the League of Nations, as a major figure in the League's organization for intellectual cooperation between France and Germany. But he was politically naïve enough that he didn't understand that all his French co-workers were systematically barring German scientists and researchers from joining. It says Franco-German cooperation on the box label, so that must be what we're all dedicated to.

Bergson the man made a lot of mistakes. Just about everything that's explicitly argued in his book Creative Evolution has been utterly disproven by mainstream biology ever since. Though I do, at some point, want to talk with Steve Fuller about what he'd have to say about Bergson's evolutionary theory as a fruitful critical perspective on evolutionary theory.

But his ideas about time, history, and memory? That's the bomb.

The heart of Bergson's thinking about time is that the past is real. The present is the roiling moment of becoming, the leading edge of a process. But that process is the creation of the past. The intuitive presumption for most of us is that the present is all that's real, and the past isn't any longer. That's why we say it was.

But the past is real, and we literally carry it with us all the time. How we do so is open to interpretation. Bergson doesn't go into much detail about what kind of substance the past is. The closest he comes in Matter and Memory is when he draws a very abstract diagram of a downward-pointed cone. 

This is seriously the most information we
bloody get about this cone. Bergson's weird.
The bottom point of the cone is our current experience of the entire world around us. With every moment, more and more keeps building up in the cone, as it expands, growing taller, wider from the top, and heavier. Of course, this isn't a real cone that we carry with us. But the cone is the reality of each of our pasts. It’s the history of our duration.

Here's where it gets really trippy. And where how we understand personal trauma (at least as far as the popular version goes) returns to the picture. Memory is our mental faculty of perceiving this real past that is a-materially part of us.* Such perception of your past traces a zigzagging path through the cone of your personal duration so far. A moment of the present actually perceives, accurately or hazily, a series of events in your own past duration.

* Bergson seriously never engages in metaphysical speculation as to what kind of substance this past could be composed of, as if it would be any kind of analogy with matter. Why would he? All you need to know is that it’s the real past. Why would you think it had even a fundamental framework anything like matter? Or even its opposite (and maybe negation), spirit? Without even knowing he’s doing it, Bergson finds himself pushing our metaphysical buttons in ways they’ve never been fondled before. Do you see why I enjoy his writing so much? Where was I?

The past is real, and is part of us. We remember by perceiving past events in this collected sack of experience in the present moment. Such perception, and what you perceive, need not be voluntary. And such involuntary memory might perceive something terrifying.

Bergson's psychological reflections were grounded in the cutting edge science of his day. His psychological influences are unique among his scientific studies in that they turned out to be correct, influencing the successful psychological science we’ve developed since then. Aside from the behaviourist ideas, which Bergson never would have let slide. His philosophy worshipped creativity.

But you can see how Bergson's philosophy can help understand the experience of trauma, at least philosophically and ethically. He gives us metaphysical resources to take seriously the notion that the wounds a trauma inflicts on your personality are real, and part of you. Because the experience itself is and always will be part of you. So trauma counselling is learning to control your involuntary memory, so that you no longer perceive so clearly and starkly such horrifying experiences.

The question is whether and how any of this can be articulated on a cultural or civilizational scale. . . . To be Continued

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