This is a continuation of the beginning of a paper (posted below as "To see in secret") I have just completed on Derrida and Merleau-Ponty:
Merleau-Ponty opens his discussion of painting in “Eye and Mind” with the body. This fact alone already proves that any description of his thought as just a general philosophy of the embodied—Jean Luc-Nancy calls it a “monism of the flesh” —might be, if not incorrect (this might be exactly what Merleau-Ponty does), then as reductive and as violent as describing Derrida in this way. For painting is not usually a place where we would expect the body to be thought: the fields of sexuality, ethics, and the philosophy of mind (with all its well classified and extremely interesting issues: physicalism, Turing machines, “neural nets,” and perhaps the most related to our problematic as well as, within the field, the most vaguely defined—qualia)—all these seem more at home philosophically with the body. However, for Merleau-Ponty, painting seems naturally to provoke this discussion of the body by the particular types of problems that it poses: indeed, as he will say, we cannot imagine it being otherwise. Regardless, even if this is nothing more than the most radical extension of this “monism” to all problems whatever, it is clear that new complications are introduced in both painting and the body that Derrida will probably pick up in that realm where they exceed the simple extensions of any of Merleau-Ponty’s particular prejudices—and these surely will be more complex and rich than any “monism” might produce. But let us witness the beginning of this discussion:
The painter “takes his body with him,” says Valéry. Indeed, we cannot imagine how a mind [un Esprit] could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body—not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement [mouvement].
I have only to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it, even if I do not know how this happens in the nervous machine. My mobile body makes a difference in the visible world, being a part of it; that is why I can steer it through the visible. Conversely, it is just as true that vision is attached to movement. We see only what we look at. What would vision be without eye movement? And how could the movement of the eyes bring things together if the movement were blind? If it were only a reflex? If it did not have its antennae, its clairvoyance? If vision were not prefigured in it?
Here we find several arguments in Merleau-Ponty’s earlier work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), condensed for us and taken beyond the logic of that particular investigation in a very specific way that will repay our attention, since this essay’s linkage of painting to the body will sketch for us that concept of the “visible” which needs to be thought to know what he means by “invisible.”
In his Phenomenology of Perception, as well as in the even earlier Structure of Comportment (1942), Merleau-Ponty made it clear how much is lost both for and by a science (as well as a culture) that indeed, as he says here, thinks the body is “a chunk of space,” or, at most, a mere meaningless interface (“a bundle of functions” or sometimes stimuli) between the outside and the inside of a system that is only there to sustain thought. The first notion of the body (“empiricist”) describes merely a collection of organs distributed in the space of physics, and is the object of physiology and medicine, as well as most other sciences that deal with it. The second view (“intellectualist”) is the philosopher’s notion of the body, as well as (if it is not the first notion) the psychologist’s and, we might add (though advances are continually moving in the direction of more holistic notions of brain-based psychic phenomena ) the average modern neuroscientist’s (**See, for one of numerous and promising examples--proving no doubt that categorizing all these views into two big camps is quite crude on Merleau-Ponty's part--the amazing work of Daniel Dennett, which combines computational models and artificial intelligence with neuroscience and the work of Merleau-Ponty and Husserl in what he calls “heterophenomenology:” cf. “Who’s on First? Heterophenomenology Explained.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10:9-10, p. 10-30). For Merleau-Ponty, however, the body is more like that background functioning that allows a particular perspective to be towards a world (or in the world, in the Heideggerian sense of this “in” ). In other words, for Merleau-Ponty, it is the unity, prior to (but not excluding) thought, that allows an extraordinary range of action that extends from reflexes and other fundamental and usually completely non-conscious tasks like breathing (which presuppose this unity—thus his comment, above, on how the body cannot be a collection of reflexes), to delicate manipulation of objects with the hands, or (what is a better example) the sophisticated movements of a soccer player or other athlete performed “without thinking.” Thus, in these paragraphs, Merleau-Ponty stresses the seemingly obvious (“we see only what we look at”), precisely because it is not obvious when one begins to think about the immense network of operations at play in that gap between what is traditionally thought of as “mind” and “world” (between “seeing” and “looking”). As he says, here is space where “I have only to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it, even if I do not know how this happens in the nervous machine.”
But, as the next sentence stresses, this amazing space is not prior to action or to any lived experience—so this theory of the body is not the theory of something upon which or by means of which actions occur: “my mobile body makes a difference in the visible world, being a part of it; that is why I can steer it through the visible” (italics added). What this means is that the body is less the “background functioning” that makes action possible, as we said, than it is the unity of an action of movement that is actually taking place. In fact, more generally, we might call it the unity of experience, if we stress the double genitive here: it is that which every experience presupposes and yet only exists in that experience. Brought about by an action towards and within the world (whether on the level of breathing or of some fancy soccer move), and yet being precisely what is necessary for that act to occur, it is probably better to describe this movement-experience by the word “motility,” as it is done in the Phenomenology of Perception: it is not so much any one movement as the potential to move actualized—that is, existing as a finite movement in space and in time. Regardless of what term one uses, however, we see now why the stress in this quote is on the mobile, on steering through the world, and the fact that the body is actually making a difference in the world or is unified around one perspective or motivation: though in its act of synthesis or unification through a distinct movement it might seem like the apperception of Kant, the body is not an intellectualist’s ideal structure of some sort as much as it is not an empiricist’s collection of organs. It is, instead, only that potential to act that is fully spent within any actual movement (**The language of potentials and action, of course, is inadequate, but brings out the transformation Merleau-Ponty is effecting with Husserl’s notion of intentionality. Intentionality shall be, for Merleau-Ponty, more concrete and more factical (in the Heideggerian sense) than in Husserl. As he says in the Phenomenology of Perception: we must ultimately “understand motility as basic intentionality” (PP, 159)). This concreteness of action no longer separated from the world as an ideal system of consciousness, looking upon it from the outside as a series of objects or data—this is what Merleau-Ponty is getting at in his assumption that embodied painting is the only painting we could imagine (“indeed, we cannot imagine how a mind could paint”). In the end, we understand that we cannot simply say that Merleau-Ponty thereby is giving us a bodily theory of perception (a word we have avoided until now, precisely because it seems so much like the viewing of an act outside of moving or desiring or intending towards it, but shall mean the same for us as apprehending or having a moving perspective upon the world), unless we mean by this and understand that, for him, perception is the body itself... (to be continued...)