Thursday, July 3, 2008

Long Live the Primordial Flesh

The phenomenological insurrection against the late Kant, against the Kant of the neo-Kantians, against the Kant of the domination of judgment, did not achieve its final form with Heidegger. Kant’s search for the origins of human experience did not go far enough to satisfy Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Hewing close to Heidegger’s critique (as described in my previous post), Merleau-Ponty asserted that the productive imagination is “a more primordial form of intentionality than that which is manifest in intellectual intuiton” (Cutrofello, 72). This is a version of Heidegger’s “common root hypothesis” which holds that the sensibility and the understanding both originate in the imagination. Merleau-Ponty goes further, stating that a process called primordial perception is located in the productive imagination, and that this primordial perception is in fact the origin of the pure concepts of the understanding (a.k.a the categories). Merleau-Ponty’s project, which he called “the phenomenology of perception” (also the title of his most important book), seeks to disclose the generative operations by which conditions of reality come into being, rather than, as Kant did, disclosing merely the static conditions of possibility of experience. These generative operations, Merleau-Ponty claimed, all derived from the embodiment of human consciousness, a condition he also called originary motility. Temporality and spatiality are “equiprimordial structures of being-in-the-world,” which is to say simply that we have knowledge of time and space (and therefore, that time and space exist) only because we primordially perceive ourselves to be a thing that moves spatially and temporally.

For the judgment-privileging Kant, a critical thinker must subject phenomena (appearances) to the analogies of experience (the categories of relation: inherence, dependence, and concurrence, which respectively establish the substance/accident dichotomy, the cause/effect dichotomy, and reciprocal causality between distinct substances) in order to ascend from mere judgments of perception to judgments of experience. This process permits the thinker to discriminate between his or her own subjective perceptions (judgments of perception) and his or her experience of an objective, normative world (judgments of experience), a world that may be shared with other thinkers. Kant thus establishes the world’s objectivity at the level of (in Merleau-Ponty’s term) thetic intentionality, or intentionality related to acts. (In this view, judgment is an act.) Against this, Merleau-Ponty argues that the phenomenology of perception reveals that the world may be considered “proto-objective,” and shared, at the level of the pre-thetic intentionality of the productive imagination, “an operative intentionality at work before any positing or any judgment” (The Phenomenology of Perception, 429). Thus Merleau-Ponty holds that “the world is not what I think, but what I live through” (ibid, xvi-xvii)—and this lived-through world is not merely idiosyncratic to the particular subject living it. Merleau-Ponty’s Cronenbergian term for this world is flesh, and the flesh of the thinker is not different in kind from the flesh of the world, and the two are in constant communication, or correspondence: “the presence of the world is precisely the presence of its flesh to my flesh” (cited in Cutrofello, 77). This is sometimes known as Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh ontology” (though none of the secondary texts I consulted today employ this term).

Merleau-Ponty’s enormously influential and deeply anti-Kantian aesthetics celebrates this notion, and for Merleau-Ponty the exemplary artist for such aesthetics is Cézanne, whose paintings “consist of nothing but sensible qualities which are presented as the primordial reality out of which the so-called ‘primary’ qualities [e.g., of geometrical properties] are abstracted. As such they represent not the birth of science [as do, Merleau-Ponty asserts, the anatomical drawings of Leonardo] but the reverse moment when science rediscovers its phenomenological origins” (Cutrofello, 78). Cézanne’s “endlessly reflective” project seeks “to express the phenomenon of expressiveness itself” and thus to show that the object of science [e.g., a chemical compound such as mercuric sulfide] is not only not primary but truly secondary to the perceptual phenomenon or phenomena to which that scientific object corresponds [e.g., a certain kind of red]. The end-result of such a project would be to restore the ontological dignity of indeterminate perceptual phenomena, rather than assuming that the objective world has a fully determinate character. This assumption Merleau-Ponty attributes not only to Kant but also to Husserl, since it is inherent in the former’s notion of sensible manifold and the latter’s similar notion of hyle. These notions of the pre-thetic stratum are unworkable for Merleau-Ponty because they assume that, in the initial intuition, what is given is already a multiplicity (in the pre-Deleuzian sense) of sensory data, a complex of determinate parts, a “piecemeal synthesis of discrete sensations” rather than “the grasping of forms” that does not yet “point to” any “explicit positing of diversity” (sited in Cutrofello, 72).

Note on sources: In every post in my present project, I rely principally upon Andrew Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. For many posts I also consult relevant sections of The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought and Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. For the present post on Merleau-Ponty, I’ve referred to the following secondary texts:
Jae Emerling, Theory for Art History
Bernard Fauconnier, “Sartre et Merleau-Ponty: Égaux mais pas semblables” (in Le Magazine littéraire #468)

1 comment:

Pour of Tor said...

Your blog has surpassed my limited philosophical abilities. Thus, I challenge you to a blog-off of "Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows"!! [She throws down the gauntlet of SOFAing. She thinks now rather than calling ourselves "Students Ogling Fine Arts," which always distressed her, because the arts being ogled were not, strictly speaking, the fine ones, we should call ourselves "Scholars Ogling Factious Arts." Or possibly "Feateous Arts." You decide. She also wonders how she got caught up in the third person in this stage direction.] Have you started it yet? (I have not.) I was thinking perhaps a series of "here are my thoughts as I make my way through the work" posts, from my end, and if you fancied the prospect, we could engage in a sort of blog-dialogue (blogalogue?). Let me know....