John Mullarkey. Philosophy Today. Volume 40, Issue 3. Fall, 1996.
It is nothing new to remark on the puzzling nature of the term “postmodernism.” For all its prefix’s portentous celebration of finality, postmodernism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. As a firm fixture of present-day thinking, a particularly obstinate paradox has attached itself to the word. Of course, the paradox recedes when “modernity” is read not simply as the “present-day” but as a certain tradition within human thought and culture spanning from the Seventeenth-century to the Twentieth. The postmodern then signifies a new manner of thinking with prejudices, themes, and methodologies all its own. In this essay, however, it is the first alternative that is being taken as granted. Rather than pretend that there is a general metatheory defining the postmodern in all its forms, another axiom will be embraced in what follows, namely, that there is much more in common between the ostensibly modern and the avowedly postmodern than either may be willing to admit. Postmodernity does not constitute a radical break with modernity so much as a particular innovative understanding of such modern and mundane topics as subjectivity, the present, and perception.
This said, I am not going to continue with any metatheoretical discussion of philosophy here. My object instead is to look at this innovative understanding through the ideas of one currently neglected thinker whose work has for many years been regarded as irredeemably modernist. The figure in question is Henri Bergson, the author of a philosophy which was very much the philosophie nouvelle of its own time.
For nearly two decades Bergsonism was at the forefront of European philosophy; for half of that time, from 1907 to 1917, Bergson was the philosopher of Europe with an influence spreading far beyond his own discipline and into the fine arts, sociology, psychology, history, and politics. Yet by the end of the Great War that influence was over. In a manner presaging our contemporary cult of change, Bergsonian thought departed from the scene almost as quickly as it had arrived on it. For reasons we will not examine here, his philosophical legacy became more of an historical curiosity than a viable position.
Recent examinations of his work, however, have sought to re-establish the philosophical integrity of Bergsonism, one avenue of research being its status as a precursor to that currently new philosophy we call “postmodern.” Yet there are few obvious routes of unambiguous philosophical influence that can be traced in this regard: the postmodern paradigm has been unconditional in its marginalization of Bergson’s significance for its thinking. So it is Bergson’s thematic antecedence that holds an interest for those engaged in this particular exercise of philosophical rehabilitation. Rather than through any acknowledged historical influence, Bergson’s philosophy proves its worth, it is argued, through its prescient analyses of such first-order themes as time, space, and subjectivity.
For the most part, however, these postmodern readings have confined themselves to re-interpreting subject-matter traditionally associated with Bergson: duree, intuition, and elan vital. Rarely have the characteristically postmodern notions of difference, presence, and the aporia of perception been investigated as properly Bergsonian themes as well. The purpose of this essay is to reverse this situation. I want to show that Bergson is thinking about difference and presence at the same time as he writes about the mind-body problem and the status of scientific objectivity (to take just two examples), and that his postmodernism does not lie solely in the retrospective light of contemporary theory: the philosophy of duree is equally the philosophy of duree-difference.
The three areas of difference, perception, and presence, therefore, will set the structure for what follows. Part One examines Bergson’s own philosophy of difference as it emerges from his critique of negativity to receive a truly Bergsonian incarnation as the concept of “dissociation.” Parts Two and Three in their turn respectively tackle the themes of perception and the temporal dimension of presence-the present-showing how the two receive a treatment from Bergson that underscores a multiform and pluralistic understanding of them both.
Bergsonism, a philosophy of temporal novelty in every sense, is an interesting and challenging case to choose for an excavation of nascent postmodernism; it would be fitting if his work, so long shunned by the new philosophies of the Twentieth-century, existentialism, critical theory, and structuralism, should now provide the means by which postmodernism, by definition the newest of these intellectual movements, is reclaimed by an older thought.
Negativity, Difference, Dissociation
A noticeable interest for certain postmodern readings of Bergson lies in recasting him as an early post-structuralist philosopher in particular. Bergsonian intuition, for instance, has been read anew as a philosophical method partly synonymous with the “method” of deconstruction, “alerting us to the mobility of `difference.”‘ Part of this new enthusiasm must be put down to the influence of Gilles Deleuze and what has been described as his “post-structural” appropriation of Bergson’s thought. Vincent Descombes, Gillian Rose, and others all help to compound this impression with references to Deleuze as either the “disciple of Bergson,” or the embodiment of the “New Bergsonism.” This is no exaggeration: Deleuze himself paints Bergson as an early philosopher of diference, or more specifically, of Deleuze’s notion of the differentiation of difference:
Duration is always the location and the environment of differences in kind;it is even their totality and multiplicity. There are no differences in kind except in duration-while space is nothing other than the location, the environment, the totality of differences in degree.
Whatever one’s view of Deleuze’s own philosophy, what he writes about Bergson here is no distortion.s In the 1889 Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience, homogeneous space is defined as “a principle of differentiation other than that of qualitative differentiation,” and Bergson’s methodological essay “Introduction a la metaphysique” from 1903 proposes that one of the objects of metaphysics, traditionally the preserve of presence, should be to “operate differentations” as well as “integrations.” Part of the philosophy of duree, then, is a philosophy of difference.But this actualite of Bergson goes beyond an affinity with Deleuze alone. Martin Jay, for example, see Bergson’s critique of the spatialization of time echoed in Derrida’s work. More broadly still, others think of Bergson’s thought as an early attempt to articulate such various postmodern ideas as Ricoeur’s narrative self or Levinas’ protoethics. One recent commentator has even gone so far as point to the convergence between Bergson’s treatment of the body and Foucault’s account of power. Yet for all the connections perceived by the commentators, it is rare for any of these thinkers themselves to acknowledge an influence stemming from Bergson. Apart from Deleuze, only Levinas has taken time to credit Bergson with a significance for his thought, and even then, such disclosures have only appeared in interviews rather than his primary works. Besides these two, whenever others mention Bergson’s name, it is almost always to damn it. This is even the case in treatments of subject-matter where one might expect Bergson to receive a sympathetic hearing. Throughout the course of Ricoeur’s Temps et recit, for instance, Bergson, when referred to at all, meets with unremitting hostility, while in “Ousia and gramme,” Derrida tows the Heideggerean line in Sein und Zeit on the radicality of Bergson’s analysis of time, which is to say that it has little or none at all.
So we must return to Deleuze for an example of a postmodern thinker with an avowed Bergsonian influence. Having done so, what first ought to be noted is that Deleuze takes his cue largely from Bergson’s critique of the concept of nothingness. According to Deleuze, Bergson’s denigration of negativity automatically leads to the primacy of difference. Deleuze’s own argument is none too clear, but one reason why he might think this has been unearthed by R. M. Gale in an analytic investigation of Bergson’s critique. What first comes to light in Gale’s analysis is that Bergson espouses a redundancy theory of existence that allows him to play on the fact that any attempted conceptualisation of nothingness will necessarily represent it as existent and thereby fall flat on its face. But Gale believes that the consequences of this thesis are no less devastating for Bergson’s own assertions that nothingness is derived from the act of negation and, that being so, that all negation is at base a substitution. If negation is a substitution then the nature of non-existence itself is transformed to mean “incompatibility.” However:
Bergson’s analysis of thinking that A is non-existent as thinking that A is incompatible with some existent reality or actual reality in general not only does not require [the redundancy thesis] but is rendered absurd by it, since every negative existential judgement would turn out to be necessarily false.
Difference thus supersedes both Being and Nothingness. The working hypothesis in every aspect of Bergson’s philosophy is one of disunity and difference, be it of Being, self, causality, or even science. In respect to the concepts of self and of causality, Bergson has some particularly interesting points to make. In general, a persisting and subsisting subject is given little space in Bergsonian texts:
The “Ego” is only a sign by which one recalls the primitive intuition (a very vague one at that) which furnished psychology with its object: it is only a word, and the great mistake is to think that one could, by staying in the same sphere, find a thing behind the word.
The Bergsonian subject is spread across many planes and myriad versions; in a course given on the concept of personality he goes so far as to liken it to the pathology of multiple personality and to a series of “possessions.” Maritain noted with disfavor that “it is … impossible, in the Bergsonian thesis, to say or to think I,” while Merleau-Ponty bemoaned the fact that in Bergson’s philosophy “the subject dies.” As Simon Clarke has noted in Bergson’s regard: “The `death of the subject’ … has roots that go back deep into French philosophy.”
But the Bergsonian subject has not only been “decentered,” it has been put in motion to such an extent that it now encompasses both what is with and what is without a center. Whether the ego is essentially and exclusively multiple or singular is not a valid issue for Bergson, for all such imagery stems from the repudiated realm of homogeneous space. It is, on the contrary, what Bergson calls a “qualitative multiplicity”: “a unity that is multiple and a multiplicity that is one.”
As for causality, according to Bergson, we should never speak of any such general notion of “causality” at all, for there are as many “causalities” as there are different events “causally” related. The rigidity of the relation between cause and effect actually admits of nuances, degrees, and exceptions, each denoting a different proportional relationship between those events we denominate “cause” and “effect.”
Any further traces of difference at play in Bergson’s thought, however, will only come to light if we adapt our analysis to what is strictly his own vocabulary, and by that I mean the concept of “dissociation,” an idea which can be found in nearly every one of his texts. What was a purely psychological term prevalent in the nineteenth century, is given a thoroughly ontological bearing in Bergsonian thought.
The elan vital itself is one representation of dissociation. “Life,” he writes, proceeds “by dissociation and division.” A living entity is not what has been composed from cells so much as what “has made the cells by means of [a] dissociation” of itself. The import of such dissociationism in Bergson’s approach to biology is that each and every living entity has its integral value recognized. Bergsonian evolutionism is radically non-hierarchical, positing a “discontinuous evolution which proceeds by bounds, obtaining at each stopping-place a combination, perfect of its kind.” Just as the earlier Essai argued for the ontological integrity of experience, that the perception of gray, for example, is not a variation upon the perception of white, so in the 1907 L’Evolution creatrice, neither humanity nor any other species is treated as a variation upon a transcendental theme. Because life proceeds by dissociation, the differences between species are more fundamental than the similarities. If there are any hierarchies to be found, they are created immanently when each species freely elects to fall into self-absorption and a disregard for “almost all the rest of life.” In that “dissociation,” read as Bergson’s own philosophy of difference, supersedes any transcendental hierarchy, the very recognition of this fact carries a certain normative significance along with itself. To think in terms of unfounded hierarchies is to fall into self-absorption and with that form a well-founded hierarchy with oneself at the lowest point on the scale. This is the great irony posited by Bergsonian vitalism, which has as much ethical import as it has biological significance.
Bergson’s treatment of epistemology also leans heavily on the notion of dissociation. Our knowledge, he writes, far from being “made up of a gradual association” is the “effect of a sudden dissociation.” Understanding itself is also described as “a certain faculty of dissociating,” while memory works by dissociating perceived similarities into rigid conceptual differences. Even the Essai’s analysis of Number explains counting as a “dissociation” whereby a given qualitative multiplicity (an affective impression underlying a particular number) is reduced to a homogeneous quantity (the abstracted number itself).
In Bergson’s last major work, Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, dissociation makes a final appearance in the guise of his “Law of Dichotomy.” This law describes the movement by which every reality, understood in process terms as “tendency,”So can be shattered into two opposing tendencies (or realities) in and through the very act of being represented. A revealing gloss on this is provided by the 1903 “Introduction to Metaphysics” where Bergson writes that there is:
Scarcely any concrete reality upon which one cannot take two opposing views at the same time and which is consequently not subsumed under the two antagonistic concepts. Hence a thesis and an antithesis that it would be vain for us to try logically to reconcile.
Twenty-nine years later in Les Deux sources, this dichotomous conceptuality is transposed onto an ontological plane: the act of representing difference brings about a real difference or dissociation. What is significant about these passages, therefore, is the connection revealed within them between the concept of dissociation, here acting in the guise of a “law of dichotomy,” and that of representation.
Having dealt as much as we can with how difference translates itself in Bergsonian terms, the second part of this essay will turn to examine the relationship between difference and another favorite theme of postmodern philosophy, the (im)possibility of perception.
The Impurity of Perception
If ever a book was wholly dominated by the theme of perception, it is Bergson’s second and most intimidating work, Matiere et memoire (published 1896). This becomes clear from the introduction’s first two pages when an ontology of”images” is announced as a strategy to side-step every previous ontology that has opposed “representation” to the “thing” itself. Central to this philosophy of the image, however, and central also to a fundamental tension within this text, is the treatment Matiere et memoire gives to the body. On account of the privileged status of the body, each of the Bergsonian “images” enunciated at the outset is able to exist in “two distinct systems”: one where each image exists “for itself,” a system Bergson attributes to science, the other where the very same images exist for the one “central image” of one’s own body, a system he calls “consciousness.” It might seem that Bergson is relapsing into a dualistic ontology of objective reality and subjective representation, his only innovation being the role assumed by the body in the constitution of this dichotomy. Yet he also describes the objective scientific image as no more than an ideal “limit” or “schema,” whose existence is not prior to its referral to the image of the body, but is actually created by the pragmatic action of the body itself. The apparently objective space (and time) that science works with:
Express, in an abstract form, the double work of solidification and of division which we effect on the moving continuity of the real in order to obtain there a fulcrum for our action, in order to fix within it starting points for our operation, in short, to introduce into it real changes. They are the diagrammatic design of our eventual action upon matter.
The phrase “eventual action” is to be understood as the possible action of the body, as Matiere et memoire clearly states: “The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them.” With this adage, what we previously understood as the objective reality of”science” is now seen anew as a creation of the body.
But there is a problem. Bergson seems to be simultaneously saying that: 1) There is an objective set of images that exists for itself, the system belonging to science, which is independent of one’s body but which can also be transformed into a world of images oriented towards one’s body; as well as that 2) The spatial reality we take to be external to ourselves, the one that science works with, is the product of our diagrammatic design upon the “moving continuity of the real.”
It is the status of this system of objective images that has been problematized: does it exist for itself and before my action upon it or is it a purely derivative product of my body’s activity upon a moving reality which evades the scientific gaze? I believe that the answer to this riddle, a riddle not exclusive to Bergson but one that has haunted philosophy from the very start, can be found in a thought experiment Bergson conducts in Matiere et memoire. The rationale behind the experiment is to render the system of objective images as it is experienced, not from the situation of either myself or my body, but from a thoroughly objective stand-point, a veritable “view from nowhere.” He calls such a view “pure perception.”
To create this pure perception, and with that get to the heart of the relationship between self and world (be that self an embodied one or otherwise), Bergson attempts an exorcism of all that might make perception subjective. He thus constructs a perception that belongs neither to any subject, nor any body-subject, but instead to a supposed mathematical point perfectly mirroring the universe surrounding it. The body literally becomes a point perspective. The objective state thus revealed would be an absorption in a timeless, immediate present, a vision of the world where we are “actually placed outside ourselves; we touch the reality of the object in an immediate intuition.”
Yet Bergson realizes that even this anonymous perception will never achieve its desired objectivity. What is given in this pure perception as a “presence” is still not the entirety of the object. The “present image” or “objective reality” is never fully present, remaining always partially obscured. All that is given is what interests our perspective, even though it is a perspective constituted by a body without extension. Simply because it has to be located, perception cannot fail to be perspectival and as such, cause the suppression of the presence of any supposed objective reality. The images of objectivity may be fully present to each other, existing “for themselves,” but they can only be known under pain of diminution. Pure perception itself is consequently described as a type of “representation,” and it can never escape being representation, as all perception entails the reduction of a presence. The coincidence with the object desired can only ever be a “partial coincidence.”
What do we learn from this in respect to our problem concerning the status of the objective and scientific image? Surely not that it is an illusion: Bergson’s respect for the natural sciences was too great for him to have ever implied that, and he states explicitly that “an image may be without being perceived.” On the contrary, whether or not the system of objective images actually exists is really irrelevant, for the lesson we learn is that it can never be given to any perspective, including the scientific one. This is surely the meaning of Bergson’s famous critique of simultaneity. The world can only be experienced piecemeal through the succession of its various aspects, not all at once in a simultaneous vision. Deleuze puts it as follows:
Bergson may not dispel the concept of perception in toto, but, by positing the purest perception as nonetheless representational, he explodes the notion of perception, in all its forms, as a complete coincidence with the immediate present. Indeed, there are themes in his writing that seem to lead us to a new view of not only perception, but of an immediate objective present itself. The aim of the final part of this essay will be to bring to light Bergson’s dissipation of this notion of the present. In doing so, we will see the downfall of the temporal dimension of”presence,” that other casualty of postmodern thought.
The Ambiguity of the Present
It is not that “the present” was ever safe in Bergsonian philosophy; since he criticized the notion of simultaneity in his first work, it had always been under threat. From the moment the Essai argued that there can be no apprehension of a pure “now,” a mainstay of so much of the philosophy that had preceded was suddenly being challenged in the most radical fashion. Yet the response then could always have been that the Essai only outlaws simultaneity from areas in which consciousness is implicated: the notion is nevertheless retained in the category of pure space, and with that, a foothold is also salvaged for the present.
Yet without going into the debatable status of space in the Essai, a cursory reading of Bergson’s other writings soon offers evidence indicating that the present as such also lies on uncertain ground. Andre Robinet writes of the “ambiguity of the present” in Bergsonism, while another critic refers to the Bergsonian present as an “indefinite field” or “temporal hole.” Though Bergson can also refer in a rather matter-of-fact manner to the present as “the consciousness I have of my body” or “the very materiality of our existence,” he also shows us that the body can be “seized at different levels” and that material objects too can be known in different ways, either superficially or profoundly. Even when he says that “what I call `my present’ has one foot in my past and another in my future,” the very fact that the meaning of “future” and “past” is relative to the meaning of the word “present” only accentuates the difficulty he has brought to light. Bergson’s present is problematised simply because the singularity of its various co-referents, perception, the body, or the material world, have themselves already been dispersed amongst a diverse range of forms.
But Bergson actually amplifies the issue even more with a number of puzzles concerning the present. The first concerns the distinction between immediate and mediate memory. Bergson finds it illegitimate. There can only be a difference of degree and not of nature between the retention of the short-term and long-term past, for it would be no more mysterious were we able to retain a life-time’s experience of the past than it is to be able to retain twelve seconds of it. Bergson presents the (non-) difference between the two as follows:
My present, at this moment, is the sentence I am pronouncing. But it is so because I want to limit the field of my attention to my sentence. This attention is something that can be made longer or shorter, like the interval between two points of a compass … An attention which could be extended indefinitely would embrace, along with the preceding sentence, all the anterior phrases of the lecture and the events which preceded the lecture, and as large a portion of what we call our past as desired. The distinction we make between our present and past is therefore, if not arbitrary, at least relative to the extent of the field which our attention to life can embrace. Yet by this last sentence which relativizes the definition of the present, Bergson has also shown that what is at issue need not necessarily be which portion of the past is being retained, but rather which present is being attended. In the same location he subsequently argues that “the preservation of the past in the present is nothing else than the indivisibility of change.” In place of “the indivisibility of change” he also uses the phrase “undivided present.” But we might ask in relation to both whether inferring the preservation of the past from the indivisibility of the present is the most legitimate move open to Bergson. If he can argue for the preservation of the past in virtue of its being “automatically” preserved within the indivisible structure of the present, we might question in turn whether this “indivisible” structure tells us as much of the ambiguous and polyvalent nature of the present as it does of the mysterious immanence of the past. Indeed, it has been proposed that Bergson’s argument as regards the continuity of mediate and immediate memory actually undercuts Matiere et memoire :s dualism of memory and perception, and marks as a result the abandonment of his hypothesis of the integral conservation of the past.”‘ We might conclude ourselves that the differences highlighted by Bergson in respect of our varying “attention to life” do not delineate different types of memory so much as different types of perception, and with that, different forms of “the” present (which is really to say that they delineate the fact that there is no present at all).
A recent commentary on Bergson has placed great emphasis on the importance of particularity and situation in his thought. Movement and concrete “extensity,” feeling and consciousness, all are defined by their particular situation or moment, by their place or level. It is noteworthy in this regard that amongst the alterations made to the material that would become the second chapter of Matiere et memoire (it had been published previously as an article), Bergson qualifies a number of references to an impersonal perception by inserting a possessive pronoun: la perception becomes ma perception. The same can be said of the present as well: there are only new, individual and owned presents that may well have qualities overlapping with others (and from which we can abstract something called the present), but that nonetheless remain unique in toto. But again, if there is a range of different presents given to particular perspectives, there is nothing corresponding to our normal understanding of a singular “present” at all.
The appearance of such a disintegrated present in Bergsonism also comes to light in his second enigma concerning this temporal dimension. As part of an argument challenging the reduction of memory to its physiological basis, Bergson outlines the following problem. It is a principle of the opposing view that “when certain cells come into play there is perception, and that the action of those cells has left traces so that, when the perception has vanished, there is memory.” But one might wonder when a perception is supposed to objectively come to an end to allow for the creation of the memory corresponding to it:
What right have we, then, to suppose that memory … divides psychical life into definite periods and awaits the end of each period in order to rule up its accounts with perception? …This is to ignore the fact that the perception is ordinarily composed of successive parts, and that these parts have just as much individuality, or rather just as little, as the whole. Of each of them we can as well say that its object is disappearing all along: how, then, could the recollection arise only when everything is over?
Bergson is here highlighting the materialist’s constant switching between an objective system of images, physiological mechanisms, traces, engrams, and so on, and the subjective system of images inscribed within conscious perception. Bergson believes that the only possible answer is that “the formation of memory is never posterior to the formation of perception; it is contemporaneous with it.” Though certain interpreters have taken this even more puzzling response in earnest, Bergson himself abandoned it in a later treatment of the same issue with an acknowledgment that “before converting our perception into memory we usually wait till our present is finished.”
But did Bergson need to abandon his earlier argument so completely? It may be that Bergson’s initial solution was only the other half of an antinomy concerning memory. On the one hand, if there is any temporal lag between a perception and its memory, the perception will not have been remembered in its entirety. But as any part lost of a perception is itself a perception, this is as much as to say that certain consciously perceived experiences not only will not but cannot ever be remembered. As far as we know, however, there is no evidence to believe that this is true, or even could be true. On the other hand, to avoid such an outcome one must suppose that memory is formed simultaneously with perception. Yet if this is the case, then the present must have the mysterious ability to duplicate itself at once into both a perception and a memory of the present. However, both sides of this Bergsonian antinomy assume that there is one simple thing called the present, another simple thing called the past, and that perception pertains as exclusively to the first as memory pertains exclusively to the second. Bergson himself admits in the course of the analysis that one way out of this antinomy would be to assume that “the present leaves no trace in memory.” But virtually as much follows from the interpretation of Bergson’s thought that highlights the impurity of pure perception, or in other words, that acknowledges that the Bergsonian present is inherently ambiguous.
Though Bergson does not forsake the language of presence entirely, it is so transformed in his hands as to have lost nearly all of what counts officially as its modernist significance. Of course, the terminology Bergson uses of pure perception, the present, and objectivity will never ease the way for a postmodern interpretation of his thought such as the one sketched above. It is of little matter, it will be said, that his philosophy tacitly inscribes a polyvalent understanding of perception and the present; what counts is whether Bergson knew that it did, whether he was fully consciousness of the strategies he employed (and whether they were strategies), and whether this is reflected in the content and complete control he exercised over his writing (even if this writing should be arguing for the impossibility of such control). Yet when we look to this content, what do we find? Talk of pure perception and presence, even though we all now know that “pure perception does not exist.”91 In speaking of purity, Bergson betrays his modernist nature. Bergsonism must be transparently and intentionally postmodern if it is to be postmodern at all.
This, however, is but one conception of the postmodern, that of a philosophy which is aware of its own metaphilosophical situation; if we reject this (thoroughly modem) equation between metatheoretical consciousness and “postmodernity” (here read as a number of new developments to old questions), then ample room is left for us to acknowledge the value of philosophies, equally modem and radical, that are guided less by intention than, if this word will be permitted, intuition. Bergson’s is clearly one of them.