28 Jul 2009

The Warmth which Gives It Light. Memory’s Sensitivities to Sensations, and Present Perceptions’ Embodying Embrace of the Past. §84, Matter and Memory.

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The Warmth which Gives It Light

Memory’s Sensitivities to Sensations,

and Present Perceptions’ Embodying Embrace of the Past

Henri Bergson

Matter and Memory

Matière et mémoire

Chapter III.

Of the Survival of Images. Memory and Mind.

Chapitre III.

De la survivance des images la mémoire et l’esprit

Section XXII

Relation of Past and Present

Rapport du passé au présent

§ 84 The two memories and their interplay.

Each borrows from and supports the other

Much of the previous material was a lengthy digression. Before that, Bergson was distinguishing habit-memory from image-memory. Habitual memories are like automatic mechanisms. For example, we memorize a passage. Then later, we initiate it, saying just the first word. Our bodies then continue reciting the rest of the passage, automatically. This feat was accomplished by contracting a long series of motor memories into one bodily habit. The other sort of memory involves our recalling images of previous perceptions. All present perceptions contract with these memories. Hence the past is always a real part of the present, although in virtual form. (195d) Bergson will now explain how the two are connected.

Our bodily habit-memory is always in the momentary present, and our image-memory is ever contracted with that momentary present. In this way the two “cohere closely together;” hence, “our body is nothing but that part of our representation which is ever being born again, the part always present, or rather that which at each moment is just past.” (196a)

So we contract images of our body with memories of past perceptions. Because our body for us is itself an image, we cannot think that it stores up all our memory-images. Thus past and in fact even present perceptions will never be found in the brain itself.

Our body-image is continually in a state of becoming. It serves as a gate-way:

It is then the place of passage of the movements received and thrown back, a hyphen, a connecting link between the things which act upon me and the things upon which I act, – the seat, in a word, of the sensori-motor phenomena. (196c)

C'est donc le lieu de passage des mouvements reçus et renvoyés, le trait d’union entre les choses qui agissent sur moi et les choses sur lesquelles j'agis, le siège, en un mot, des phénomènes sensori-moteurs. (165)

Bergson illustrates with a cone diagram.

The whole cone is the totality of the recollections that have accumulated to become our memory. The point S is our present, which unceasingly moves forward in time. We see also that point S – the bodily present – travels across a plane. Recall that at every moment of our perceptions, there is a contraction between our past memories and our present sensations. Together these produce a perception, which is always a combination of past and present. Throughout time, our sensations change and give us continually distinct data. We are to think of the point of contact between the cone and the surface as being the current perception. We learned that this perception really excludes nothing from our past. This is because every contraction contracts the whole past with the present. And so the whole past is continually present. It might seem that only certain memories are called to our present awareness, while the rest are stored somewhere. But for Bergson, they are always there in our perceptions, except we only notice the parts which are immediately useful to us. So we think of point S on plane P as the current moment when all of our past contracts with new images, but thereby the whole is colored or added-to. So as S runs along P, and thus as our perceptions continue their unceasing and changing course, the cone enlarges. In as sense, the new contracted images get ‘pushed’ up into the cone, making the whole thing expand. I suggest we imagine a leaky pen set firmly at one place upon an absorbent paper. The ink will continue to flow into that center-point. But as it does, it pushes the ink at the boundaries further outward. The longer we hold the pen there, the more the circle expands. Bergson’s cone diagram illustrates a similar principle. But what is important to notice is that:

a) The moment of present perceptions is always moving and changing, which adds new (contracted) images to our memories.

b) The entirety of all our memories contracts with the present perception, like the whole cone funneling down to its bottom point.

c) The continuous present is an instantaneous point in the immediate now; however, we do not experience it as such, because our whole past is always a part of the present.

d) The cone is absolutely real, and in fact really a part of our present perceptions. However, it is real in a unique way. It is virtual.

Our habits are bodily memories which have contracted many past perceptions into one (complex) automatic movement. So in that sense, it is a memory. However, because it acts spontaneously to present conditions, it seems to operate in the instantaneous present. So Bergson calls it “quasi-instantaneous” memory. All the previous memories serve as its ‘base.’ The point of a cone is still a part of the cone, just a very concentrated section. So on the one hand, in the case of perception, the past allows us to perceive things in the present, by sustaining them with contractions from the past. In this way, memories guide our perceptions and help them inform us of which present bodily-habit to enact, by means of recognition. So for example, if we are driving and see a red light, our past memories of stopping at red-lights inform our body to now hit the brakes. But on the other hand, our current perceptions give our past something to contract-with and be currently alive-through; they give the past a “means of taking on a body, of materializing themselves, in short of becoming present.” In order to recall something, our recollection must “descend from the heights of pure memory down to the precise point where action is taking place.” (197d) In this way, the present appeals to the past, which responds in turn. But at the same time, the past borrows from our current action’s sensori-motor elements “the warmth which gives it life.”

Images from the English translation [click to enlarge]

Images from the original French [click to enlarge]

Bergson, Henri. Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l'esprit. Ed. Félix Alcan. Paris: Ancienne Librairie Germer Bailliere et Cie, 1903. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/matireetmmoiree01berggoog

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Transl. Nancy Margaret Paul & W. Scott Palmer. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004; originally published by George Allen & Co., Ltd., London, 1912. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/mattermemory00berg

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