Countermemory or joyous inquiry: philosophy, literature, art, and other things i'm up to and working on, in cambridge, california, new york city, princeton, and wherever else i may be. Saturday, June 7, 2008
With this perspective on perception comprehended, can now finally turn to “the visible:” for what does Merleau-Ponty mean when he says that this unity of perspective, achieved through motility or movement, is precisely a movement “through the visible?” This is where Merleau-Ponty’s thinking in the fifteen or so years between the Phenomenology of Perception and The Visible and the Invisible comes into play, though the ideas of the latter work—as Derrida remarks throughout On Touching (OT, 210 and passim)—are very much present in the former. As Merleau-Ponty himself remarks in his working notes to the unfinished later work, the Phenomenology of Perception focuses more on how the body interacts with the world, and not how it is also, as he says in the above quote, “a part of it.” This is obviously because the Phenomenology of Perception must show how the empiricist and intellectualist perspectives on the body are inadequate. Nevertheless, the crucial question remains and did remain the following within those fifteen or so years, as it was touched on and reformulated in other writings: how is it possible that the body is not only the materialization (as it were) of motility or movement but also, as he says soon after the already quoted paragraphs of “Eye and Mind,” “a thing among things” (“EM,” 163)—that is, precisely while still remaining this materialization of movement?
Now, Merleau-Ponty’s first step to try and answer this question is to change his terminology as he extends his perspective beyond Phenomenology of Perception. The “visible,” therefore, becomes precisely what has gone under the name of “the world” in our discussion of the body so far. However—and here is where the extension is operative—this new term is used with a crucial difference: the body is also of the visible. Merleau-Ponty thus effects a shift that refines the way we talk about the world and the body within it, because we now can refer to the world precisely as what is sensed or perceived by the body, or as precisely that which the body, in its movement, “makes a difference in,” as he says above. Thus the world’s character loses its last remnants of “objectivity”—as something standing over against the body, not already mapped somehow upon the senses—and gets thought with the body always as co-present, as it were, with any perception. In other words, one crucial result of the analysis in Phenomenology of Perception that we have not stressed in our reconstitution of its logic gets brought immediately to the fore: no world can exist, qua world, without a body that has its moving, roaming perspective upon and within it. No perception, no world. Calling this world “the visible,” then, brings this out nicely. We can see this logic in the shift take place (as well as recognized some elements of it that we have already traversed in different terms, like the “seeming obviousness” of the body) in the first paragraph of The Visible and the Invisible:
We see the things themselves, the world is what we see: formulae of this kind express a faith common to the natural man and the philosopher—the moment he opens his eyes; they refer to a deep-seated set of mute “opinions” implicated in our lives. But what is strange about this faith is that if we seek to articulate it into theses or statements, if we ask ourselves what is this we, what seeing is, and what the thing or world is, we enter into a labyrinth of difficulties and contradictions… (The Visible and the Invisible, 3).
Merleau-Ponty’s approach thus aims at what we see as it is implicated in what seeing is. Insofar as we are specifying what we see, implicated thus, we are (obviously, but again not so obviously) talking about the visible. Furthermore, we can now also say that insofar as we are talking about that side from which we are seeing what is visible, Merleau-Ponty talks about vision. This vision takes place in that unity still called the body. Thus, we now can somewhat understand the sentence of Merleau-Ponty from “Eye and Mind” above: “that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.”
But, it might be said, the most crucial question has just been broached: neither the visible nor vision amount wholly to “what seeing is,” as Merleau-Ponty says. And at the same time, we have just extended the concept of the body further—by making it something that, along with the world or the visible, is also visible—but have not developed this point. We shall see that it is precisely by combining these two points that we arrive at an understanding of that still-enigmatic word “intertwining,” which defines the body and brings the visible out for us more richly as something that is crucial for painting. In other words, it will be precisely through understanding how the body, in its vision, itself is visible that we will understand that total act of seeing which is the fuller, richer concept of the body as it operates in Merleau-Ponty’s later work... (To be continued...) Posted by Mike Johnduff What is written about: Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Nancy