Boring Notes on Merleau-Ponty: Time and Subjectivity (plus Lemons)


I recently finished reading Lemon, a rather strange, but entertaining novel that details the rise and fall of a love affair between a man named Wendell and a lemon. There are obvious psychological interpretations one could wield here about projection, possession, obsession, fetish and so on, but that’s the less interesting route. There is a very funny sequence when he and the lemon visit his parents:

Do you talk to it? whispers his mother.

-Yes I do. But not condescendingly. Not like to a dog.

-Does it talk back to you?

-Mom, it’s a lemon.

-Is it a talking lemon?

-It speaks yes in a way to me, but not out loud. I’m not insane.

For some reason I kept thinking of Merleau-Ponty while I was reading Lemon.Most likely M-P initially popped up in my head because of all of the descriptions of the lemon’s flesh, but I also thought of Merleau-Ponty’s description –in The Primacy of Perception–of how loving someone illustrates a paradox. Just as what we perceive is the thing or the world, in an analogous way we love the person. Like the perception of the thing, our love of the person is not directed merely at certain qualities; however, the qualities of the thing or of the person do form the data of our perceptual acts. Yet our declarations of love obviously extend beyond the presented qualities. Thus, paradoxically, love “claims to be eternal when a sickness, perhaps an accident, will destroy it.” (Pri of P, 127) Merleau-Ponty insists that this does not make the declaration of love vain, and that “it is true, at the moment of this promise, that our love extends beyond qualities, beyond the body, beyond time, even though we could not love without qualities, bodies, and time.” (Pri of P, 127) This could be misinterpreted to mean that love is fickle or that our (or at least Merleau-Ponty’s) declarations of love are disingenuous. But rather than creating doubts about perception and love that could never be satisfied, Merleau-Ponty means to express the paradox of perecption and of love; acts in which we intend more than we can ever make present to ourselves, experiences which transcend themselves. In perceiving the world, just as in loving someone or something (in this case), we commit ourselves to an intended sense which, despite its absolute meaning, despite being true, can nevertheless be overturned by unforeseeable circumstances.

While reading Lemon I often thought what it might be like to give a phenomenological account of this love affair from both perspectives, that is, of the lemon and Wendall. Nevertheless, however possible or impossible such an endeavor is, it makes for interesting reflection. Yet, that’s not really what I’m up to here. All of this thought about Merleau-Ponty (and more recently about Michel Henry) led me to pick up his posthumous work, The Visible and Invisible, and jot down some thoughts/notes about subjectivity and time. Pretty boring.

As is well known, in his phenomenological analysis Merleau-Ponty keeps returning to our situatedness; we are in the world, but not like an object in a container (or a lemon?). Getting past any empiricisist notions and baggage means that this ‘in-the-world’ is not a way of spatially placing us as an object, but of expressing a process of engagement with the world. Yes, obvious enough. For M-P the importance of being-in-the-world is to get at a better understanding of the nature of human experience and the world thus experienced. The key notion that M-P has to put in place to get started at all is that of being embodied. He brings this idea out very well in the discussion of skills or what he calls ‘habits’. In The Phenomenology of Perception M-P discusses the way in which we habitually are in the world. You can observe this yourself, although it is often only brought to consciousness when it doesn’t work, for example, when you feel for where the light switch was in your previous apartment rather than where it is now. How much of what we do is bodily rather than some abstractly imagined disconnected consciousness is very striking. Merleau-Ponty tends to reject the idealist conception of experience as that which is immanent to consciousness. Our experience is a movement towards what could never be present “in person” in this experience, what would remain transcendent to us, its absence is a sort of originary experience. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology submits Being as the single source of the subject and object and as such, rests on a new conception of intentionality. The subject is no more than perception and thought cast as the self-expression of Being. Being as such is for Merleau-Ponty, the highest abstraction, all cows become black. We look for Being not on the side of the object, like Sartre, or the subject, like Husserl, but rather, in the in-between-the locale where subject and object encounter each other. This in-between is the common flesh of being, neither for nor in-itself. Flesh is the common ground of the subject and object, it is, for lack of a better word the “stuff” out of which the body and things are made of. So now, Being is akin to a process of differentiation. The chiasm between the sensible (subject) and the sentient (object) is crucial for Merleau-Ponty’s ontology, without this concept there would be neither the visible (properly speaking) nor a vision if there did not exist a distance, disjunction or an irreducibility of one to the other. The sentient and sensible are inseparably intertwined onto each another.

There is in Merleau-Ponty then, an ontological difference wherein the relation between the world’s latency and Being corresponds to the visible and invisible. In fact, Being is the invisible of the visible, the invisible is the very depth of the visible and penetrates it. As being qua invisible, we discern the flesh of things, the depth or latency of the world correlates with the infinity of Being. Being is pregnant with dimensionality, it is the matrix which consists of an infinite number of possibilities. Being is ‘the there is’ of the world, the wild logos. Nature, for Merleau-Ponty is the active presence between the subject and things, the chiasm or wild logos is the result of a dehiscence of Being. In its splitting, being articulates itself into the sensing-sensible chiasm. This turn is crucial, the meaning of Being is identified with its very appearing and the emergence of sensation in the midst of the sensible, in a way, subjectivity is overcome by resituating it as the starting point. This in no way assures that the transcendence of Being is constituted in or grounded upon its immanence to consciousness. Put differently, the Cartesian method is left behind, flesh is the original presence of all beings which are present to us, causes depth, contours and meaning-the question that is left over is this, ‘what is the ‘there is’ of the world?’

Well, for Merleau-Ponty the arrival of consciousness is the arrival of difference-the sensing/sensible differentiation is lifted up. If we put this in Sartrean terminology, Mereleu-Ponty’s ontology looks something like this: The for-itself, as phenomenology has recognized, has nothing in-itself about it and is wholly intentional, a project of the world, a kind of nothingness found in the nerve of Being which differentiates itself into the in-itself [sensible] and for-itself [sentient]. With Merleau-Ponty we have an indirect ontology that conceives of Being in beings, Being is thought as the presupposed and ungraspable ground of subjectivity. The subject is vision, which is a result of the folding back of the flesh into seeing/visible, the subject is Being expressing itself! No longer does it make sense to say “I perceive”-perception is not an act or state of consciousness of a subject enclosed within himself and ontologically distinct from the being which is perceived from inside the Cartesian garden. I don’t stand in front of the world, rather, I share its flesh. Perception? Perhaps it’s too “narcissistic.” The hypostasis of the subject arises by way of a process of individuation-the undivided flesh of the sensible is made concrete and folds back on itself and forms in a fragment of the flesh an inside, a sensation. Subjectivity is ‘the there is’ of the world. Subjectivity, like the body, is a sensing-sensible, it is no more than the folding back of the sensible on itself in its presence to itself.

So, because Being is the invisible of the visible that which is present in each visible but is not a visible can’t be an object of consciousness except indirectly, here is the full departure from Husserl, instead of landing in an eidetic intuition we find an absence which must be deciphered. Thought bumps heads with the logos of being-itself, such a radical reflection thinks sensible life as an explosion of undifferentiated flesh. Now for Descartes, there is projected a reflective grappling of an essence from ongoing temporal existence, that is to say, a movement of return from a vantage point outside time back to the lived experience that gives up the moment as static and provides a foundation for being certain regarding ‘being’. Merleau-Ponty decenters the movement of significance that emerges from a consciousness of syntheses to a fluctuating one that refuses totalization, likewise, the account of time is altered by the rejection of the ‘subject’. So, in examining time we find a certainty in the enveloping indeterminacy of ongoing becoming, there is nothing grounding our experience. The notion of reversibility is of importance, here the temporality of the body is understood as a working through of its encounter with what we perceive [within the enfolding world]. The temporality of reversibility implies that the past keeps becoming itself through unfolding which transform it. Such as it is, the temporal ‘flow’ is an enterprise of sorts, it takes on greater depth in its chiasmatic reversals or folding. We find time within the unfolding of our body’s perceptual probing. Moreover, we find that time is lodged within the world’s brute being. Within the upsurge of time we find differing dimensionalities, time is in no way unitary in its internal structure, in fact the alleged unity is no more than our presumptive perceptual faith. The body-subject’s sense is a fold in the flesh of the world, the reversibility of the flesh is also the reversibility of the past and the present. Time double backs upon itself to become something transformed with new depths of both the past and present. This movement emerges from perceptual reversals within chiasims of temporality that are held for example, by the scenery. Time is both implosion and interweaving as much as it is an unfolding. Time emerges within the body, its reversibility is a circling back, it is a risk. Yet, it never completely overlaps, the slippage of time creates gaps between time and meaning. The body-subject looks out on the world from a particular perspective, subjectivity is not separable from embodiment and hence, this process of sedimentation we have been parsing out. As the present is continually transformed the past enters into the circle of becoming.

Time is neither horizontal nor vertical. The interplay of myself and the world come together in their incompatibility in the encirclement of time. I come back to myself from the world: the East River outside my window, Albert Ayler’s sax filling the space of my apartment….

There is something at work here that is continually intriguing for me. More later.

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