In response to a a previous post, my good friend Michael and one of my most valued interlocutors cites Merleau-Ponty and writes:
“Everything I see is on principle within my reach, at least within reach of my sight, and is marked upon the map of the “I can.” Each of the two maps is complete. The visible world and the world of my motor projects are both total parts of the same Being.
“Immersed in the visible by his body, itself visible, the see-er does not appropriate what he sees; he merely approaches it by looking, he opens onto the world. And for its part, that world of which he is a part is not in itself, or matter. My movement is not a decision made by the mind, an absolute doing which would decree, from the depths of a subjective retreat, some change of place miraculously executed in extended space. It is the natural sequel to, and maturation of, vision. I say of a thing that it is moved; but my body moves itself; my movement is self-moved. It is not ignorance of self, blind to itself; it radiates from a self….
“The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the “other side” of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought—but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt—a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future….
“This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.3 Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies,4 are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things—in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and in the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution still present within crystal, the undividedness of the sensing and the sensed…
“A human body is present when, between the see-er and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand a kind of crossover occurs, when the spark of the sensing/sensible is lit, when the fire starts to burn that will not cease until some accident befalls the body, undoing what no accident would have sufficed to do…
“Once this strange system of exchanges is given, we find before us all the problems of painting. These problems illustrate the enigma of the body, which enigma in turn legitimates them. Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility. “Nature is on the inside,” says Cézanne. Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them.” [Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind’, p.3]
There is a “carnal formula” of presence. Things have a consistent presence in/through our bodies – beyond all thetic codings – which forces us to confront structural (material) consequences. Life and politics are no less than this.
Among the other things I wish to say in the post to which Michael is responding, is that phenomenology is constitutively unable to think the real of the body. This is the root of my debate with Sara Ahmed, as well. While phenomenology can certainly describe how we experience our bodies, it never manages to get at the fundamental opacity of body and affect. The body, as real, is not something given to consciousness or lived experience. Put differently, our bodies are something we never experience. At most, we experience the effects of our bodies, never our bodies as such.
In an earlier post on the opacity of affect, I make this point in terms of Spinoza. As Spinoza writes, in the Ethics, “[t]he idea of any affection of the human body does not involve adequate knowledge of the human body” (2p27). For Spinoza, the cause of any affect is never given to consciousness. Is my depression the result of a neuro-chemical process, a bad diet, a lack of nicotine, or something else besides, or is it the result of something pertaining to my existential life project at the level of experience and lived consciousness? This question can never be answered from the standpoint of lived experience. Lived experience tells me of all sorts of affects that inhabit my embodied life, but tells me nothing of their causes.
This is why phenomenology cannot but be epiphenomenology. Descriptively it tells us all sorts of important and interesting things about how we experience the world– assuming that it’s legitimate to ever use the royal “we” in a world characterized by neural-diversity –but it cannot answer questions about causes and the veracity of these experiences. As a consequence, phenomenology can never have the foundationalist role that phenomenologists, up to and including Merleau-Ponty, would like to claim for it. Far from providing us with a ground upon which other phenomena are to be explained as the phenomenologists would say, phenomenology gives us a set of effects or descriptions, that are in need of an explanation. Often those explanations are wildly misleading when taken in their own terms or when treated as a ground.
This is one of the points of what I’ve recently been proposing as “Borromean critical theory“. It’s not a question of rejecting phenomenology, but of blunting its pretensions. Likewise with semiotics. Phenomenology is, of course, valid as a description of how we experience ourselves and the world. It’s shortcomings are two-fold: First, it remains too humanistic, focusing on a phenomenology of human experience, while failing to recognize the experience of other beings. This is problematic for two reasons. On the one hand, it overly generalizes in speaking of “the human” while failing to recognize the neuro-diversity of homo sapiens (e.g., Temple Grandin). This problem can only be surmounted through comparative phenomenology, such as thinkers like Sara Ahmed and Cary Wolf practice in their queer and disability studies respectively. On the other hand, more radically, we need comparative phenomenology across species, as thinkers such as Jakob von Uexkull, Ian Bogost, and Donna Haraway have taught us to do with their “alien phenomenologies”. If you’re still restricting yourself to what cats are for us– and engaging in vomit inducing discussions of glances and winks and all the other silliness (replete with Greek etymologies and references to Pseudo-Dionysus) that appears at Continental phenomenology conferences (I’ll be so glad when this irrelevant crap ends, viz. tacky) –rather than what we are for cats, you’re on the wrong track. Second, these descriptions are, at best, descriptions. The prohibition against the natural attitude has made us all idiots by preventing us from recognizing that these are things to be explained (sometimes culturally, sometimes neurologically/biologically, sometimes in terms of consciousness) rather than things to be explained. They’ve instituted a new dogmatism that prevents us from exploring causes, a new ignorance, a new denialism that has been an impediment to philosophy and thought within Continental circles. This is why, for the time being, the most ethical strategy might consist in temporarily shaming phenomenologists and laughing them out of the room until they’re willing to begin taking findings pertaining to causes seriously, rather than smugly– and self-servingly, from the standpoint of academic politics and power –dismissing them as relics of the natural attitude.
At any rate, the body is not something you experience, though it is something whose effects you experience. No one has ever experienced metabolism, though everyone has experienced wakefulness and fatigue, and no one has ever felt their brain or the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on their body. A body simply can’t be experienced because every body is constitutively withdrawn from its effects. This is why descriptive analysis, whenever treated is a ground, is always so misleading and reactionary. A mere Foucaultian or phenomenological descriptive/semiotic of the body does not a materialism makes. Materiality is always constitutively withdrawn from all signification and lived experience.