Monday, 25 May 2009

From the Window

The lustre of melancholy. Perhaps that same lustre will one day reduce all places to a dim luminosity on the horizon. All places directed toward the same tragic end, broken from their site, and subordinated to an amorphous mass. In the meantime, the days are getting longer. But so too is the grey sky, which has been dispatched to drop humid rain over the balcony. Tonight, the window is open and the fire escape is visible. The tip of a coffee machine my brother bought me in 2006 is poking out, its dereliction a result of my caffeine intolerance. From down below, the smell of burnt sugar and oats is coming in. My head is positioned outside of the window and the rain is collecting in an empty glass Pepsi bottle. But there is no food here, only unopened tins of inedible materiality.

The End of Days? No, just the end of this day –this month –this table. “Soon there will be nothing where there never was anything.” But the substance of a life endures. With it, a disarming asymmetry runs parallel: my body yearns to be a site of inhabitation, but the inhabitation transcends the limits of my body, positioning itself in an underground region prior to all awareness. Alas, the indifference of all human places passes through us, oblivious to the sediment we deposit in the walls and doors. Unaffected by the outburst of human emotion, the world of things and memories remains static, poised in its global coldness. But no cosmic void can subdue the human craving for stone, cotton, and wood to reciprocate our affections. The chair that becomes an extension of my being; the balcony that becomes my thinking ground; the window that becomes a glance inwards—all follies in the wasteland of desire and memory.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Anonymous Flesh

Once more, I am fumbling in the darkness of Merleau-Ponty’s flesh. I cannot explain why this notion continues to haunt and hound me other than through some intuitive sense of its searing profundity. My questions are mounting: how does the flesh undercut the division between my body and yours? More broadly: how can we commit to a phenomenology of the flesh without subjecting that element to the “look” of the subject? Phrased still a different way: how do we retain the primacy of the body without already seeing things in their “place”? Indeed, can the flesh even be “seen”?

The immediate response is to turn to Merleau-Ponty’s much cited example of the reversibility of touching, whereupon “my body touched and my body touching [means] there is overlapping or encroachment” (p. 143). And so my body opens itself to profound ambiguity. Although I, as bodily subject, am able to both touch and be touched, never are the two coincidental with one another. Never does the touched and touching hand come together as a unitary phenomenon. Rather, some-thing unfolds in that crevice, a difference that underscores all identity. The difference, it turns out, is not an alienating force, but an expression of the corporeal world that is unmasked when different bodies fold into one another, as Merleau-Ponty puts it: “…[identity and difference] bring to birth a ray of natural light that illuminates all flesh and not only my own” (p. 142).

Illuminates all flesh.” How can this be possible? Merleau-Ponty also asks: “Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh”? (p. 138). A few years ago, I had thought of the flesh as an adhesive element. I cannot be sure I was right. Does the flesh bind materiality? Yet the flesh is not matter. No, the flesh is an element that precedes matter. Does the flesh materialises as matter? No, the flesh is “thinkable by itself” (p. 140).

We return: “Illuminates all flesh.” We must remember that in some deep sense the unfolding/enveloping/illuminating of flesh breaks the “fundamental narcissism of all vision” (p. 139). Seen in this way, the agency that (re)appears the midst of the egocentric perception of the world is not some refined transcendental ego that survives the phenomenological epoché. Rather, what is unmasked is an “anonymous visibility [that] inhabits both of us, a vision in general” (p. 142). Here, I think we touch on a clue. The anonymity of the flesh is not an eye without a perspective but an element alien to cognition—precisely because it resists abstraction but has already planted itself in the human body. The flesh is already with us. But with us in an impersonal way. The flesh, after all, is not reducible to corporeality. No, in an exemplary way, the body reflects and vibrates the flesh in its contours, ecstasies, and ruptures.

Phenomenologically, how is this claim demonstrable? How, that is, do we experience the trees as watching us, except as the evocation of a strange memory? The answer is to resist humanising the flesh – to countenance a flesh without sight and sound. The anonymous flesh: the flesh before the division of subject and object, which is forever on the verge of coming to the foreground, and yet always retains a distance from the surface.