Friday, 2 October 2009

Merleau-Ponty: The Edge of Being

In his paper on “Borders and Boundaries,” (in the excellent Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy collection by SUNY), Edward Casey makes the claim that “Merleau-Ponty did not concern himself much with borders and edges,” before outlining how his instinct was to look further afield, in the process continuing Husserl’s legacy of “continuism.” For Casey, Merleau-Ponty’s “divergences” (├ęcart) are forever orientated toward eventual restoration, carried at all times by the “perceptual faith,” which ultimately arrives at the notion of the “flesh.” In Casey’s view, the reason for the omission of edges within Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is because they “conceal a scene of violence from our view or thought. They undermine what resides within the realm of comfortable or conventional thought. They disconnect and discomfort us.”

Casey’s alignment between edges and violence is absolutely right. Much could be said here on the relation here between phenomenology and place, and how phenomenology has tended to limit its access to certain places which are imbued with what Casey calls “a tempered edge, a mellow-out border.” Much could also be said for the Merleau-Ponty scholarship in general, which has also tended to limit its focus toward instances of bodily continuity and spatial unity (Casey goes so far to say that within his own “brilliant ontology,” Merleau-Ponty “represses” the edge). Yet it seems to me that there is an uncharted area at the core of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, in which an incipient edge carves its presence directly into the lived body—and that is the presence of the prepersonal body. Some prefatory points on this, then.

A question that I keep returning to: What is the body, this “mass of tactile, labyrinthine, and kinaesthetic data” (290)? Its modalities are inexhaustible—wild, natural, anonymous, perceiving, knowing, erotic, anxious and so forth. It is easy to get overwhelmed in this topology of embodiment, and thus beneficial to return to things more broadly. I will take the personal body as being identifiable with Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “one’s own body.” Characteristic of this term is an account of the body as involving an “absolute here,” orientated, unified, constitutive of the “I,” and a “nexus of living meanings.” This is the body in its plenitude, taken primarily as a lived rather than biological/physical body. My body belongs to me, my body is me, “a strange mixture of being-in-itself and a being-for-itself,” in Gary Brent Madison’s cogent formula.

The upshot of this essential idea is that body-in-itself is itself a subject with an intentionality peculiar to its own materiality termed “motor intentionality.” The body knows, and it does so in an ontologically more primary way than mental intentionality. How is this possible? Because “beneath” (note the directionality of Merleau-Ponty’s word) “personal existence,” an…
“…almost impersonal existence” resides, “which can be practically taken for granted, and which I rely on to keep me alive….it can be said that my organism, as a prepersonal cleaving to the general form of the world, as an anonymous and general existence, plays, beneath my personal life, the part of an inborn complex” (pp. 96–97).
Strikingly, Merleau-Ponty is effectively claiming that the unity of embodiment is made possible thanks to an anonymous subject existing “beneath” my personal existence, such that I am kept “alive” by this absent presence. Are we simply dealing with an instance of Merleau-Ponty’s “perceptual faith,” of which Casey thinks keeps the Merleau-Ponty’s spatio-temporal continuity intact? Merleau-Ponty speaks of when I am in danger, whereupon “my body lends itself without reserve to action” (97). The body retains, maintains, and envelops the world in, as he’ll go on to say later, its own flesh and that of the world’s flesh, too.

The critical (and underdeveloped) question is how, if at all, do the personal and prepersonal bodies encounter one another? Some of the germs of this discussion were distilled over at the Plastic Bodies blog. At stake in that discussion was the question of whether we “experience” the anonymous body as a symptomatic appearance. Here, however, we need to be careful not to conflate Merleau-Ponty’s anonymous body with something primordial like Levinas’s il y a (more on this relation later). Again, how do these aspects relate to one another?

Merleau-Ponty will speak of a “another subject beneath me, for whom a world exists before I am here, and who marks out my place in it” (296). My own body is also a body that precedes my personal existence, my existence is only the “resumption of a prepersonal tradition.” If this prepersonal tradition is persistently tacit, even when faced with moments of danger, then does it ever come to light? Despite Merleau-Ponty’s avowed philosophy of ambiguity, nowhere, as Casey indicates, is the edge of the body thematized a concern for the embodied subject. At no place does a void open, into which “one’s own body” becomes overpowered by the “impersonal zones” that surrounded me on all sides.

How to reach the edge of the personal body? Does the world cease to be once the personal body reaches its own end? What is the world for the personal body, this “pre-world, in which as yet no men existed” that Merleau-Ponty alludes to (376)? It is enough to problematize this issue without seeking to resolve it (that demand is the task of a bigger project, and not a blog post). But however this problem is raised, then I think it must be done so via temporality. The body’s ontogenesis, from anonymous to personal and then back to anonymous, is a narrative defined by each stage. Ultimately the focus concerns liminal experiences, in which the “alien civilization” that I have been born into comes to the foreground, effected in part from a dislocation from “the other body,” this “alien life” (412). Only in this retrospective, temporal analysis can the cracks and edges in the flesh be discerned.