Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Visible and the Invisible (1964)

In perception we witness the miracle of a totality that surpasses what one think to be its conditions or its parts, that from afar holds them under its power, as if they existed only on its threshold and wee destined to lose themselves in it. (8)

The world is what I perceive, but as soon as we examine and express its absolute proximity, it also becomes, inexplicably, irremediable distance. (8)

He defines reflection as a return to oneself. Or, more precisely, the illusion of such a return must be and is persistently reaffirmed by insisting on the “impossible-possible” immanence of subject and object—the possibility of worldly experience which Kant can never account for but nevertheless requires in order to get his analytic off the ground. The efficacy of reflection depends on repressing the dynamics of experience that would furnish reflection with its raw material (34).

But Merleau-Ponty does not want to replace reflection with merely a naïve, perceptual faith (cf. Bennet and Levinas here); he wants to take into account “the total situation.”

In other words, we are catching sight of the necessity of another operation besides the conversion to reflection, more fundamental than it, of a sort of hyper-reflection (sur-réflexion) that would also take itself and the changes it introduces into the spectacle into account. It accordingly would not lose sight of the brute thing and the brute perception and would not finally efface them, would not cut the organic bonds between the perception and the thing perceived with a hypothesis of inexistence. On the contrary, it would set itself the task of thinking about them, of reflecting on the transcendence of the world as transcendence, speaking of it not according to the law of word-meanings inherent in the given language, but with perhaps difficult effort that uses significations of words to express, beyond themselves, our mute contact with things, when they are not yet things said. (38)

This then requires, or leads to, new forms of judgment. Perception is not judged according to categories of skepticism and reflective doubt—which would require, for example, “the innocent to prove their non-culpability.” Rather, each perception must be analyzed and accepted as “possibilities of the same world, possibilities that could have been, radiations of this unique world that ‘there is’” (41).

Merleau-Ponty, therefore, “reproaches” the philosophy of reflection “not only for transforming the world into noema, but also for distorting the being of the reflecting ‘subject’ by conceiving it as thought”—and finally for rendering unthinkable its relations with other ‘subjects; in the world that is common to them” (43). This then is the total situation—a situation that accounts for the subject’s full intertwining with others and the world. And this knowledge brings with it an ethics:

And this is why the very fragility of a perception, attested by its breakup and by the substitution of another perception, far from authorizing us to efface the index of “reality” from them all, obliges us to concede it to all of them, to recognize all of them as variants of the same world, and finally to consider them not as all false but as all true, not as repeated failures in the determination of the world but as progressive approximations. (41)

What sort of subject lives in this world? This is question Merleau-Ponty tries to answer in the final chapter, “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,” with the concept of the flesh:

The flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term “element,” in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being. The flesh is in this sense and element of being. (139)

One should relate this immediately to Levinas’ early conception of the elemental in Totality and Infinity, but also to Deleuze’s reading Spinoza, and to nominalism in general. The flesh is meant to articulate the subject as both subject and object—as touching and being touched, as “two leaves.” In this sense, it is not difficult to connect this to Lukács’s claim for the proletariat being the subject-object of history. To both, there is power in this convergence. Yet how should one also distinguish between these theories and the original Hegelian project of bringing together subject and substance? Perhaps we need affect theory for this—and an ethics that is rigorously non-productive, non-aggressive?? In other words, a new concept of desire (and also of appetite and taste):

The body is lost outside of the world and its goals, fascinated by the unique occupation of floating in Being with another life, of making itself the outside of its inside and the inside of its outside. And henceforth movement, touch, vision, applying themselves, return toward their source and, in the patient and silent labor of desire, begin the paradox of expression. (144)

Expression. Expression is animation, the animation of Being. Merleau-Ponty can reverse these terms by way of “style” because he marks out a continuum between the desires implicit in language and the modes of desire that determine/inform existential comportments. Crucially, these mediations are reversible (inside-outside, outside-inside), which is in itself either sublation of (one more iteration of) the Hegelian dialectic or, perhaps, a momentary exemption from dialectical tensions (cf. Levinas, Deleuze).

And is in Levinas, these relations with the world penetrate the subject to its core, obviously, since the subject-object “division” is always-already inherent to the hand that touches itself, for example. There is therefore a temporal element that manifests itself in existential time:

 There is a “partial coincidence” between subject and object—“always past or always future, an experience that remembers an impossible past, anticipates an impossible future…and therefore is not a coincidence, [not] a real fusion.” (122-3)




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