“…a primary experience of being overwhelmed…”
Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself
“…the continuous music of being alive…”
Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant
I can never go back and know what, as an infant, I first felt, what my original sensations were, nor can I recapture the initial experience of moving, of being touched, that might have awakened my self-consciousness and cognitive powers. I can theorize but not really know what that primary feeling had to do with the development of my mature possibilities as a self. What was the world like that first day? Impossibly clangy, bright, chilly, filled with new smells? Is it possible that these sensory experiences are still available to me in some form? If not, have they renounced any role whatsoever in who I am now, in how I move, in what I can become?
If, as Judith Butler puts it, we begin by “being overwhelmed,” how—I want to know—did I respond to this “primary experience”? What were my earliest gestures and where, in me, are they now? Did I gasp for breath, my lungs heaving inside my fragile ribs? Did my arms and legs flail, seeking the comfort of elastic walls but extending way too far out from my trunk into a much broader range than expected, into some element I now call “space”? And when did these largely reflexive movements, repeated in close approximation by all my baby brethren, become something intentional, become mine, become something like a response that I made to a specific call?
The child psychologist, Daniel Stern, has traced the origin of our embodied self not to a primary experience of being overwhelmed, a kind of deer-in-the-headlights passivity, but rather to a “kinesthetic background,” or a positive sense of one’s own actions, one’s own movements. He likens this underlying sense—which never leaves us—to a kind of “continuous music” that is playing, whether we are aware of it or not. In his ground-breaking study of the gestural behavior of infants, Daniel Stern speculates that the mature “self”—that is, the collection of sensations, perceptions, feelings, memories, and thoughts that I call “mine”—is actually composed of four distinct but interpenetrating layers. First, there is the “emergent self” that forms during the first two months of our life, building on our innate motor capacities. Then there is the “core self,” which allows us to distinguish between our own moving body and the motile presence of another human being. Relying on these first two experiences of selfhood there then emerges a more solidly defined “subjective self,” that is, a self that enters into relations of a more conscious, intentional nature with others. Finally, there is the “verbal self,” the one who can give an account of herself.
What is most compelling to me personally is his claim that these states do not supplant one another but instead co-exist; they function simultaneously throughout one’s lifetime. Stern argues that we can shift intermittently from one state to another under a variety of conditions and activities, such as love-making (in which we harness our earliest power to blend and harmonize our movements with those of an other) and the experience of stress or pain (which can undermine the “higher” levels of self-consciousness and drive us deep down into our tissues, ligaments, and bones). In particular, Stern identifies our enacted corporeality—the gestures we make and can feel ourselves making—as that which allows us access to earlier orders of experience. That is, because gesturing offers an experience of kinetic (and, often, tactile) sensation, it can call up an earlier motor memory, or more accurately, our underlying capacity for making motor memories. In infancy, we move from sensing the self as blood flowing, heart beating, limbs flailing or hands gripping, to the sensation of an emergently voluntary—but still partially random—kick. Between the random and the voluntary, the imposed reaction and the volitional response, is a space that eludes theorization.
Judith Butler has nonetheless tried to explore the space between the reflexive and the voluntary movement, but she has done so as a philosopher, not as a clinical psychologist. She speculates that before we execute our earliest gestures we enter an initial phase of radical passivity, a “primary experience of being overwhelmed.” Citing Jean Laplanche, a psychoanalyst in the Lacanian vein, Butler depicts the infant as profoundly “clueless.” This initial phase is associated—by her, but also by a long tradition of philosophers—with the experience of being touched, and, more precisely, with being brought into self-awareness by that touch. (Imagine the hands of the midwife or the steel of the forceps that touch us in ways we can neither invite nor prevent.) Her point in Giving An Account of Oneself—prefigured in an essay published that same year (2005), “Merleau-Ponty and the Touch of Malebranche”—is that prior to anything we can initiate, we are already constituted by something outside of ourselves. Animation, for Butler, is a matter of being addressed, either by touch or, in what is to me a less persuasive account, by language. Butler contends that this non-narratable phrase of our existence, this state prior to the emergence of an individuated subjectivity, is also prior to an ability to initiate a movement, to respond with what I am calling a “gesture” (a movement oriented by a relation). In other words, by the time we can gesture, we must already gesture in a certain (culturally overdetermined) way; we are already conditioned by the touch that has awakened our subjectivity. In contrast, for Edmund Husserl (an important influence on Merleau-Ponty and, more covertly, Butler), touch implies—and cannot happen without—an awakening to kinetic possibilities. For him, there is something active and agentic simply in being-in-the-world, in being available to be touched, to be awakened, to be interpellated, to be conditioned. If that were not the case, if being did not imply an active state, we would just remain passive objects of the other’s touch. There would be nothing we could do, no mirroring or “pairing” (Husserl’s term) of the other’s conduct, no entering into relation that would allow us to respond.
Are these two accounts, Butler’s and Stern’s (roughly, the psychoanalytic and the phenomenological) fundamentally irreconcilable? Stern’s clinical experience suggests to him that from the get-go the infant is a capable and agentic being. She is not a helpless flailing baby, but rather someone assertively delivering forceful, if partially random, kicks. Stern works from a solid base of clinical evidence to show that Jacques Lacan’s pre-mirror stage is merely a figment of the psychoanalytic imagination. Sensory organs in the womb are already busily constructing the neural networks necessary to the future development of Stern’s four layers of selfhood. In other words, because of the lengthy period of gestation, the experience of being touched (even if only by soft tissue) entails the development of a capacity to push back.
Yet satisfying as Stern’s account may be, it does not explain entirely the nature, texture, and meaning of that period during which we travel from being primarily a bundle of reflexes and dispositions to being more active, expressive, intentional subjects. “Being overwhelmed,” as well as close cognates, such as “panic” and “bewilderment,” strike me as viable ways to describe the dissonance we sometimes feel between ourselves and our world. We might periodically sense this bewilderment despite our neurological preparation, our marvelous panoply of genetic dispositions and their elegant epigenetic elaborations. I can’t help wondering, then, whether something of this dissonance, this static, doesn’t accompany “the continuous music of being alive.” Could it be that “being overwhelmed,” rather than being a “primary experience,” is instead a secondary reaction to new conditions our capacities cannot yet encompass?
Let me try to put this differently. It is, for me, an undeniable autobiographical reality that I still frequently find myself “being overwhelmed.” Every day, even several times a day, I seem to live through situations in which I feel helpless: all the things I know how to do, all the gestures I know how to make, suddenly seem woefully inadequate. They do not answer to the complexities of the moment. When confronted with what I will optimistically call “the challenges of life,” I find that my repertory of “I can”s offers several mechanical movements of self-defense but lamentably few authentic gestures. I fail to respond in a way that harmonizes with the circumstances and simultaneously harmonizes with myself.
But what do I mean by “authentic” gesture? Curiously, what first comes to mind when I think of the “authentic” versus the “inadequate” is the act of saying “no.” That is, I immediately associate my authenticity, my closeness to my own life, with the physical act of pushing something/someone away. Many of us sense acutely the negativity involved in self-discovery. I would wager that at times the nature of the emergent self is negative, its texture uneven, its meaning the very origin of critique. Alternatively, though, I would also associate the authentic gesture with synchronization, not mirroring the other but accommodating the other or relinquishing some (social) boundary normally maintained. For instance, I feel authentic when I am embracing someone I love and when I remain in that embrace for a long time. Remaining for a long time can sometimes feel awkward (depending on the social context), but at other times physical intimacy feels so right that ending that embrace is like falling from a dimension of tactile plenitude back into what analytic philosophers mistakenly call a “higher” order of the self. This “higher” order (from “Higher Order Thought” theory, or “HOT”) is comparable to Stern’s “subjective self.” The “subjective self” knows itself to be distinctive, different from the other. It is the self that has become self-conscious about its relation to other selves, a social and socialized self, a stage of differentiation (and thus emancipation) but also of potential isolation (and thus imprisonment) for which we developmentally strive.
To give a less dramatic example… I often feel like I am making an authentic gesture when I scratch the throat of my cat. Here is a case in which being absorbed in an act of affection mutes my self-consciousness (insofar as I am indeed absorbed). I am in a state of being focused on the other, yet I am not fused with my cat in some self-destructive way. Yet another instance comes to mind, this one having less to do with relating to another living being than relating to another living element: floating on the surface of a calm ocean. Here, floating is not stillness (nor is it posture). Floating on the surface of moving water is highly active, for it requires a set of constantly unfolding micro-gestural adjustments and renewed synchronizations. I enter into an intersubjective dialogue with the ripples, which in turn are modified as they respond to my weight.
In those moments of tenderness or dialogue, absorbed in the action of micro-adjusting, I am, precisely, not overwhelmed. The water isn’t trying to drag me under; instead, the water is giving me continual nods and nudges to which I thoughtfully adjust. A liquid tongue is licking my entire “back body” (as we say in Iyengar Yoga), and that tongue is requiring of me that I gesturally respond. Is this gestural response something like my earliest gestures? Is floating on the sea like floating in the womb? Who knows? I can only say that, developmentally speaking, the two experiences cannot be identical. Something else is happening when I float on the surface of the sea. The touch of the water on my skin activates a cognitively informed motor intentionality. I know that if I don’t keep moving, I will sink. An unborn child cannot know this, nor can she know how to respond effectively, appropriately, to all the other interpellations—human and atmospheric—that she will soon receive. To be sure, floating may be an experience of motor attunement that draws from (and echoes) earlier gestures associated with floating. It may, more to the point, draw from an innate motor capacity that allows me to make such gestural re-alignments. Perhaps ultimately it is this innate motor capacity to align—or attempt to align—that characterized my earliest gestures in response to the experience (which I now consider “secondary”) of being overwhelmed.
If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that I will continue to have experiences of being overwhelmed. As long as I am alive, I will confront situations, or have memories, that make me feel as though the breath were being pressed out of my body, the thoughts sucked out of my mind. I will also find within me multiple possibilities of response to the moments of involuntary vulnerability that life inevitably presents. Whatever is “primary” seems to stick around. That is why I’ve been attracted to the practice of shamanism. Shamanism—at least the variety to which I have been exposed—teaches that within the self we hold an incredible wealth of sensory memories, sedimentations of the scents we have smelled, the things we have seen. The shamanic journey we go on with closed eyes is landscaped, perfumed, and scored with these traces of previous sensations. In an ideal world, I would spend a part of each day living with what I’ve already lived, cultivating the capacity to observe what’s already inside—not to create a role, like a Method actor, but just to find out who, corporeally, I am. I remember once going on a shamanic journey in which I touched the coat of a black bear. I actually sensed the coat as damp, warm, and soft, felt the clumps of slightly burnt-smelling hair brush my cheek. I have of course never enjoyed that degree of proximity to a bear; but my imagination was extrapolating from traces of sense experiences I have had. It was building out of scraps of my past a story I could relive and share. Thus I believe that my earliest experiences still live somewhere in my body and that, however gently, they orient the thoughts I entertain and the behaviors I exhibit. I repeat my earliest gestures a million times a day—as I draw breath in and out, as I close and open my eyes, as I confront with tools from the past a whole new world.
This essay first appeared in issue 17 of Mantis, a journal of poetry, translation and criticism housed at Stanford University.