Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Non-Human in Merleau-Ponty

Something uneasy about the relationship between Merleau-Ponty and “correlationism" (see here and here). Above all: a slightly condescending view of Merleau-Ponty as a “gifted stylist,” with some “striking formulations,” but whose ontology is nevertheless lacking in originality and radicality. In a word, a thinker whose attempt to overcome Kantianism remains locked within a human-centric divide between world and human (granted that Merleau-Ponty himself remains aware of this divide, noting that “if we try to describe the real as it appears to us in perceptual experience, we find it overlaid with anthropological predicates” (PP. 58). Even—especially?—in his late philosophy, the supposed innovation of the “flesh” remains confined by a dualism contained within a monism. True, there is a layer of Merleau-Ponty which privileges the pairing of the human body and world, but much of the “objet-orientated” critique of Merleau-Ponty either overlooks other aspects of his philosophy or simply caricatures it as a purporting to be a bit “avant garde piece of continental philosophy.” My sense is that presenting Merleau-Ponty as being a “time-bomb” that failed to explode, thus securing the thinker in the history of ideas, is a bit of conceit (Harman’s analogy is itself a bit dubious, given that it presents philosophers as commodities with expiration dates).

Important to note that even in the problematic work of the earlier Merleau-Ponty (i.e., The Phenomenology of Perception), phenomenology already faces its own anthropomorphic edge. Already in this early stage, Merleau-Ponty is aware of the tension between experience and transcendence: “The question is always how I can be open to phenomena which transcend me and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that I take them up and live them” (PP, 417). In turn, this tension is approached by Merleau-Ponty’s radicalising of phenomenology, a process from which space and time as being “for us” is no longer the case. The reason being: the human body does not assume to be the centre of the world, around which reality revolves. Instead, Merleau-Ponty will speak of a body that ceases to have personal attributes, a point I have laboured here and elsewhere. It is neither of the world nor of the body, and thus not “for us.”

The principle implication being that while human and world correlate with another in a pregiven and personal sense, this relationship is not ontologically absolute. There is, after all, a “non-human element” prior to “my” experience of the world, which is “hostile and alien, no longer an interlocutor, but a resolutely silent Other” (PP, 372). Against Harman’s characterisation of the flesh as the “world looks at me just as I look at it,” even in the early Merleau-Ponty the ontology of the world as alien, hostile, and non-human is prior to my correlation with it in the first place. There is no cosy alliance of world and body in Merleau-Ponty, despite the ecological approbation of Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh” as leading toward a crude form of animism (cf. David Abram). As Ted Toadvine writes in his excellent Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature: “[The] resistant and aloof aspect of the thing is precisely what gives it the status of an in-itself in our experience, what rejects the body’s advances even while remaining, in some sense, correlated with it” (58). The ambiguity between the perception of the world and the world’s resistance to perception undercuts human experience, and gives an autonomy to the realism of the world. Flesh is not dialogue, flesh is not a synthesising unity—flesh is prior to human affectivity: it is only through the experience of a personal world that terms such as “unity” and “dialogue” become affixed to philosophical structures.