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I am unsatisfied with Bergson’s treatment of Spirit in the nonhuman. I invoke the “nonhuman” as a broad category, which includes not just nonhuman animals, but also plants and other life forms, as well as the artificial intelligences of computers and robots which were barely even entering the realm of science fiction during Bergson’s time. I admit that, as far as the animal’s ability for cognition goes, Bergson is ahead of most of his contemporaries. He grants animals access to their own forms of perception, and even grants that, in such cases as a dog recognizing its owner, “it is possible that vague images of the past overflow into the present perception.” Nevertheless, the animal’s ability for memory remains involuntary, “rather lived than thought”:

“To call up the past in the form of an image, we must be able to withdraw ourselves from the action of the moment, we must have the power to value the useless, we must have the will to dream. Man alone is capable of such an effort” (82).

This is impossible to disprove from our human point of view, but what we’ve discovered since Bergson’s time would seem to suggest that it is wrong; in particular, the observed capacity of primates and many other species (including, I think, dogs) to mourn the deceased strikes me as a clear example of animals “valuing the useless.” It is important to note that this uniquely human capacity to “detach” is also a uniquely human deficiency for Bergson; the intellect, which continually draws us away from the present moment, is what prevents us from actually “knowing” life in its immediacy. Bergson seems to argue that animals have a more innate sense of durée, but that the human’s unique ability to contemplate “durée” as a concept at all is what grants us our singular power to transform the virtual into actuality. I imagine that this tension is what Deleuze inherits when he champions the “becoming-animal.” Without directly acknowledging it (although, admittedly, I have only read summaries of Creative Evolution, a text which might address these questions better than Matter and Memory), Bergson suggests that animals offer alternative relationships to time that the human must draw upon in the quest to actualize the virtual. I would be interested in revisiting Berssenbrugge’s reflections on embodying the animal consciousness with this is mind.

My dissatisfaction is not just with Bergson’s treatment of the animal, however. For all the effort Bergson makes to distinguish life from the matter which constitutes it, he on occasion assigns a strange primacy to the subject’s materiality:

“That matter should be perceived without the help of a nervous system and without organs of sense, is not theoretically inconceivable; but it is practically impossible because such perception would be of no use. It would suit a phantom, not a living, and, therefore, acting, being” (44).

Perception is apparently of no use to plants then. I suppose we could argue that something like roots meet the criteria for “organs of sense” in their response to the surrounding soil’s environment, but at some point the “organ of sense” becomes an infinitely broad and thus useless concept. Could we not then assign “sensation” to computers and even less sophisticated machines? For that matter, how can we distinguish the beings which “act” in Bergson’s view from the “intentional objects” in Harman’s cosmology? After all, Harman’s rolling marble encounters the table as a “sensory” object. I can see now how Bennett’s and others’ focus on a “vibrant” materiality draws directly on Bergson’s language of vitalism, but this seems to me in pretty strong opposition to the thrust of Bergson’s argument. “Vitalism” for Bergson is the quality of human, and to a lesser extent animal, Spirit—not that of matter as is. Yet if we extend properties of sensation beyond the animal—and I would say that we must, given that Bergsonian “perception,” the mere potential for action, has apparently little to do with how “alive” something is—then it seems to me like we must view vitality as an intrinsic property of all matter. Perhaps, then, Bergson’s immaterial “phantom” is the only imaginable thing (if we can call it a thing) that lacks Spirit altogether.

~Graham

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