Friday, 18 February 2011

After Disappearing

Some further sketches on the issue of disappearances. Above all, the question that concerns me is whether phenomenology can speak of the experience of disappearing. In the language of ruins, memories, and ghosts, much can be said about the resonance of things that are no longer present. Indeed, phenomenology’s strength is its ability to discern the “resolutely silent other” lurking within natural world (Merleau-Ponty). This requires an attention to what remains after things in the phenomenal world have either been destroyed or modified such that they are no longer recognizable as being the same. In a word, disappearing tacitly involves a theory of identity, be it personal or otherwise. To think in terms of the experience of the bodily self as disappearing, however, is a different task, as it requires a strange variant of phenomenology to enter the scene. Strange because: phenomenology must simultaneously concern the lived experience of the body while at the same time attending to the absence of that experience.

Here, Heidegger acts an intermediary. What appears after the self experiences its self as disappearing? Heidegger poses the question in relation to anxiety: “Anxiety reveals the nothing.” And the revelation of the nothing is only possible because the “I” has slipped away from itself, leaving the “pure Da-sein” of the “one” in a mode of unhomely persistence (I am compressing the details for the sake of brevity…) Unfortunately, Heidegger does not tell us what becomes of the (still) living body as the “I” slips, instead: “Beings as a whole become superfluous.” But the gaps in his sketch can be augmented with an appeal to Sartre’s concept of nausea.

Without wishing to conflate anxiety with nausea, it nonetheless seems to me that each bodily mood share two basic invariant traits. Each of them offering an insight into the experience of disappearing. One, in nausea and anxiety, the materiality of the world, including the body, loses its assurance as being both unequivocally “real” and thus “mine.” Two, because of this unreality, boundaries demarcating the body from other things becomes ambiguous, the limits of the flesh now exposed to a porous blurring.

Take the first point. How can the materiality of the body lose its status as being “real”? How, that is, can I experience my body as anything less than real? Taken from a phenomenological angle, the question has a peculiarity to it, given that the lived body is thought of as being the “absolute here” of spatiality. Thus in Merleau-Ponty, nausea becomes less a matter of the dissolution of the self and more a “vital experience…of our contingency” (296). Even in this “horror,” the bodily subject remains intact. The difference between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre’s account of nausea hinges upon the broader difference in their philosophies of the body.

Against Merleau-Ponty, Sartre will put forward a view of the body that accents its radical contingency and vulnerability (“Anything can happen, anything”). If Merleau-Ponty characterises the relation between body and world in organic terms, then in Sartre—at least the Sartre of 1938— this relation is subject to massive disruption, in which the “resolutely silent other” becomes trapped in a “lunar world.” In the mirror, Antoine Roquentin recognizes his face only in terms of the parts it is composed from. Rather than being a unified face, it is “a geological embossed map.” The face seen is through a “dumb, organic sense.” The increasing detachment of the body in Nausea is reflective of a fundamental lack of trust in the materiality of the body. (It is notable that in Being and Nothingness, Sartre will write about the experience of vertigo in the following way:

Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over. A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation.

Here, there is no anonymous body working behind the scenes, as there is in Merleau-Ponty, to bring the human body back from the abyss. Instead, the materiality coincides with its reality/unreality. As such, entering into a pathological relationship with the body means subjecting selfhood to continuous doubt. It is as though the simple fact of having a body is not enough to assure the experience of being embodied. Something remains unresolved in the body of Antoine Roquentin, an excess of doubt that remains after the lived body has partially disappeared, a “plenum that man cannot leave behind.”

The second point. If the materiality of the body undergoes a loss of reality in the face of nausea, then the bodily boundaries experienced from the inside-out simultaneously suffers a parallel erosion. Time and again, the experience of nausea returns us to the image of things in their hostility encroaching upon the porousness of the nauseated self. Losing the vital genesis needed to insulate the body from things in the world, those same things become possessed with a subjectivity, in which “one’s own body” becomes a voided space, Sartre: “The nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me...I am the one who is within it.” The sense of the body as becoming undifferentiated—at one with the walls—is at the heart of nausea’s disturbing affectivity: it is a mood, from which the subject is irreversibly altered having undergone it.

It is for these two reasons that nausea is literally brutalizing. (Incidentally, beyond the alchemical relation between prima materia and chaos, there is surely some kind of Heideggerian path that can be taken up here involving an etymological analysis of brutal and raw matter. On this point, Michael Brogan’s analysis of Sartre and Levinas on brute existence is especially good. He also reminds me of the significant role Levinas on insomnia plays in this discussion of disappearances and brute existence). What is there after the disappearance? In a passage I don’t immediately have access to (travelling) Levinas writes of the experience of putting a shell to one’s ear only to hear “rumbling” from within. An emptiness, which although immanent to the shell, has now become realized. (In this way, both Sartre and Levinas are fundamentally right to treat anxiety as a disclosure rather than, in the Freudian treatment, a closure of something behind anxiety). This shadow of an undifferentiated world in the midst of embodiment repeats itself in the “dull and inescapable nausea [that] perpetually reveals my body to my consciousness” of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Here, anxiety/nausea as the philosophical mood par excellence is justified. In the nauseated body, the revelatory moment of being attests to a dynamic of appearance and dis-appearing. As the material body reveals itself, so the singularity of the subject disappears. From a discrete entity in space and time, the subject becomes an anonymous constituent of that metaphysical framework.