Friday, 31 July 2009

The Wild Body

Faced with a “very lonely region of boundless horizons, under a perfectly cloudless sky, trees and plants in the perfectly motionless air, no animals, no human beings, no moving masses of water, the profoundest silence”—faced with all of this, Schopenhauer presents us with a body that is wholly divested of all corporeal intentions, reduced to a “vanishing nothingness” (p. 206). How do we get to this disembodied, affective state having previously been in a state of shared identity with the natural world? The answer is through a consummation of the subject-object relation. During moments of sublimity, we are “lost” in the object of contemplation, our own individuation suspended in a spectral chamber.

All that matters is the place. A lonely region summons a particular state, undermining the split between nature and human subjectivity. Precisely this commitment to content and context is where Schopenhauer enters into an unborn dialogue with Merleau-Ponty. Turning to the posthumously published “working notes” of Merleau-Ponty, then much of what is left unsaid about the flesh – not least its basically homogenous structure – can be modified with an appeal to Schopenhauer’s account of the will in nature.


How does the “brute being” of which Merleau-Ponty speaks come into an affective encounter? The problem is really that for Merleau-Ponty we are forever embodied, whereas if we are to link the classical sublime with the idea of a wild being, where “wild being” refers to a pre-reflective world, then the body – the cultural and cognitive body – must be carried along with us. All of this is a rather convoluted way of dealing with the body as a self-conscious thing. How to travel from the body as a cultural thing, affected with anxieties and passions, to the body as a region of the earth, in which all accounts of personal identity and the personal body are replaced by the anonymity of the wilderness?


The opening of Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (from where the above pictures are taken) gives us a nice instance of this tension between the anonymity of nature and the shared depth of the visible and the invisible. At first, the impression of this scene can be formulated as thus: human being, finite and egotistical, swallowed by the infinite and boundless grip of the surrounding world, the result of which instigates an aesthetic of the sublime in the viewer attending to this movement. Human being is literally dwarfed by the mountains, with all that is peculiar to human life – above all, the face – smouldered in the foggy presence of the Amazonian mountains. But this formula lends itself to the desire of the viewer, pre-empting the sublime in advance. Recall Merleau-Ponty: “There is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.” The scene is too easily read as a classical vision of the sublime. But if we reformulate the opening as less a mode of human life colonised by barren, anonymous wilderness and more as a scene of deep ambiguity between the microcosmic animation of human movement and the colossal stillness of the mountain, then the result is more of a hybrid. The mountain moves. Who is doing the moving, who commands the mountain: human life or the materiality of the mountain itself? The answer would be both. But this is not a harmonious agreement (as Herzog outlines in his inspiring philosophy of nature). Rather, what we are witnessing is a literal chiasm, a literal intersection of two pathways. As a viewer, the landscape touches a part of our embodied being that was there all along, and this is the flesh coming alive—a sentiment that is best expressed in Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “It is impossible to say that nature ends here and that man…starts here.”

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Natural Body

A strange path was taken in Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the body: beyond more than its physical appearance, the body became a site of knowledge to an inner world, a world in which a secret teleology is unfolding. Given that will and body are one and the same, there suddenly follows a leap from the human body as a manifestation of the will to nature in general. “It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature of what is manifested” (110). The will remains unbreakable, yet its phenomenal appearance is subject to a gradient of objectification, filtered through the principle of individuation. This language of “objectification” and “manifesting” is not arbitrary: by it, Schopenhauer avoids the Kantian problem of attempting to account for a causal relationship between the thing in itself and the phenomenal appearance of that thing. How does the empirical will interact with the general will? The answer is to subtract the language of “interaction.” The particular and the general will are reversible, each an aspect of the same thing. It is nonetheless a troubling and strange problem: namely, of how my self-consciousness, manifest as the empirical ego, experiences the thing in itself that inhabits my own body.

This is rather beside the point, however. What I want to focus on is exchange between the lived body as a manifestation of willing and the world of nature as a representation of the will. At first, it appears as though the human contact with the world of nature is asymmetrical in terms of non-human animals being guided by a drive that is blind to their knowledge. Accompanied by knowledge but not guided by it, as Schopenhauer says. Other differences and similarities emerge. The human being catches sight of the animal in its habitat, and since we can “presuppose with perfect certainty an identity with ourselves, we have no hesitation in attributing to it unchanged all the affections of will known to us in ourselves” (W2, 204). Yet what looks like an instance of anthropomorphism is soon contested, given that “as soon as we come to speak of phenomena of mere knowledge, we run into uncertainty” (Ibid). Speculation stretches over the human relationship with the animal as a thinking machine. Despite this ambiguity in the intellect of the animal, what remains intact is the insubordination of the will, which bring together the human and the non-human animal into a single system. “The will everywhere retains its identical nature, and shows itself as a great attachment to life” (206).

What is important in Schopenhauer’s account of the will in nature is its dynamism. The will is not a homogenous structure binding the human with the world, but an affective and manifold appearance in the world. And here, I think, Schopenhauer’s idea of gradients of objectivity is very powerful. Again, the manifestation of the will is not uniform in its appearance. Rather, what emerges in Schopenhauer’s philosophy of nature is a topography of the will coming into action (and a topography which reappears, of course, in his classification of the arts). Now, even if we do away with the “pessimistic” aspect of the will – i.e., its orientation toward perpetual striving and circular boredom – then what remains is the idea of an elemental agency preceding the split between subject and object, and binding all things into a unitary phenomenon. With its qualitative character suspended, what we are dealing is an adhesive thing, only accessible via the privileged space of the lived body.

A final point, then, on the pre-cognitive existence of the will. In chapter 23 of the second volume of World as Will and Representation, a fascinating passage crops up: “The will is that primary and original force itself, which forms and maintains the animal body, in that it carries out that body’s unconscious as well as conscious functions” (293). We could almost be in realm of Merleau-Ponty’s account of motor intentionality here. Forming and maintain the “body’s unconscious” life assumes a parallel role to Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the intelligibility of the body. Here, too, the will’s pernicious character does nothing to detract from a prior state of order. Indeed, it is almost as though if we were to suspend the will as a blind striving that leads to perpetual unfulfillment, then what would emerge is not only an order but a state of harmony.

My broad question is whether we can approach this reversibility between nature and subjectivity in a more phenomenological orientation; that is, in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s “wild being.” But I’ll take that point up next time.

The Knowing Body

There is something of a Husserlian strand in Schopenhauer’s account of embodiment, and it takes form in the transition from book one to two of his World as Will. If the first book is taken up with a broadly idealistic worldview, in which subjectivity imposes order onto the world, then at the turn of the second book, this current will leave the subject as a “winged cherub without a body” unless the tension between myself as an object in the world and myself as the centre of subjective experience is addressed (99). How is the lived body different from other objects in the world? The answer is through its relationship with the will, of course. “This and this alone gives him the key to his own phenomenon, reveals to him the significance and shows him the inner mechanism of his being, his actions, his movements” (100). In Husserlian terms, we are plotting the distinction between the physical (Körper) and the lived body (Leib). Yet Schopenhauer permits a peculiar epistemic dimension to the lived body that is lacking in Husserl, perhaps even in Husserl.

This epistemic dimension has a hazy formation to it, given that in the second book of WWI, the body is presented as being at the service of the will. The will and the motion of the body are said to be “one and the same thing” (100). Further still, the very objectification of the body is nothing less than the will rendered perceptible. A curious side-effect occurs. Ethically, pain and pleasure are determined, not according to second-order concepts, but to the denial and gratification of the will. This privileging of the body is truly a great move, even though the more tragic parts of Schopenhauer frame the body as something to be overcome. After all, what Schopenhauer is presenting us with is a unitary self, in which “mind” is not the guarantor of knowledge, action, and agency. Rather, “mind” is already body in Schopenhauer’s framework, already implicated in the anxieties and horrors of the body. The body is not an autonomous entity that can be “blamed” for its gestures, habits, and indiscretions—our freedom remains exposed to the circumstantial contingencies of willing, but not to the act of willing itself.

Before the tragic finale, however, Schopenhauer’s insertion of the will into the body makes a phantom out of the body yet at the same time, confers a tremendous visceral reality to that spectre working behind the scenes. What is my relationship to my body, for Schopenhauer? How do I regard the will that is not only manifest empirically but present beyond phenomenality within my body? All I see and experience is the tip of a Kantian iceberg. Visibility is a limit, and there exists a teleology to my own body that is in some sense alien to my self-consciousness. And here we come to the precise knowledge of this particular mode of willing: my experience of my own body, quite apart from it being an object of representation, is also a specific striving, as evident in my hunger as it is in “the force that turns the magnet to the North Pole” (110).

Wednesday, 22 July 2009