Joyous Inquiry philosophy, literature, art, and other things i'm up to and working on, in cambridge, california, new york, princeton, and wherever else i may be
Friday, March 14, 2008 The body of Jean-Luc Nancy performs
Nancy's magnificent essay "Corpus," in The Birth To Presence, would do much for anyone trying to link a more phenomenological tradition of thought about the body and embodiment, culminating in the reflections of Merleau-Ponty that seem today to be gaining in popularity (and will be gaining even more, with the upcoming publication of Sean Kelly's new translation of The Phenomenology of Perception), to those reflections on embodiment that have perhaps more recently arisen (though, through Foucault, one could say that their origins are the same) in work on performativity. Nancy essentially could be said to--like Derrida--take the theses of the latter tradition and elaborate them in the language of the former--though perhaps with more intent than Derrida to elaborate, rather than focus on the resistances or misreadings this elaboration would also constitute. In short, Nancy makes the performative body thinkable in terms not of performativity but of the body "itself:" that task which Judith Butler attempts so nobly and rigorously within terms of performativity (and power) in Bodies that Matter.
Merleau-Ponty held that the body was a basic disposition or structure of intentionality constituting a particular point of view. This has the effect of reversing the oldest conception of the body in the way Nancy describes:
...one had to dispense with the body, with the very idea of the body. The body was born in Plato's cave, or rather it was conceived and shaped in the form of the cave: as a prison or tomb of the soul, and the body first was thought from the inside, as buried darkness into which light only penetrates in the form of reflections, and reality only in the form of shadows. This body is seen from the inside, as in the common but anguishing fantasy of seeing the mother's body from the inside, as in the fantasy of inhabiting one's own belly, without father or mother, before any father and bother, before all sex and all reproduction, and of getting hold of oneself there, as a nocturnal eye open to a world of chains and simulacra. This body is first and interiority dedicated to images, and to the knowledge of images; it is the "inside" of representation, and at the same time the representation of that "inside." -"Corpus," The Birth to Presence, 191-2
Merleau-Ponty shows that the body itself must, prior to being this inside, create this insideness. In other words, it must be outside its inside, ek-statically, as an interface with the world that juts out into it. The body is outside, for Merleau-Ponty (for some merits of this view and the amazingness of Merleau-Ponty more generally, see one of my earlier posts on him).
But can this body itself be viewed by itself? It is here that the question of performativity would come up: one would be viewing one's own body from the outside. The difficulty of this for Merleau-Ponty is that viewing as such requires that the body precisely be unable to view itself. It turns back on itself, but can never quite slip out of its own grip on itself to fully, coherently, see itself. This would require it remove itself from its bodily, embodied perspective (to the third-person perspective that he says science studies), which Merleau-Ponty holds to be impossible. And it would have to do this precisely without overshooting itself or viewing itself past or beyond or outside itself. This is really the crux of the problem, and why the impossibility is there in the first place. Merleau-Ponty thinks intentionality can only be unidirectional, fundamentally, because (this is ultimately a Heideggerian claim which Merleau-Ponty does not make well in The Phenomenology of Perception; precisely because he is not trying to run into the problems Heidegger encountered in expanding and refuting Husserl's "Internal Time-Consciousness" essay; in other words, he sticks close to Husserl against Heidegger to be more Heideggerian than Heidegger) the body is temporal and finite. It temporalizes itself, or bursts forward towards the world temporally from... the inside. Or rather, an outside that can only gain coherence by equally being the most inside of insides. By being outside, by structuring the Platonic inside, Merleau-Ponty is really positing just an inside that is prior to the inside. At least in The Phenomenology of Perception. He moves beyond this in his later work, most notably The Visible and the Invisible. Of course this view might be the only one that makes sense to some people, most notably those just discovering Merleau-Ponty and using him to counter representationalist theories of perception and action either phenomenologically or in computational models (cf. Dreyfus, Taylor, Kelly, even Davidson etc.).
But it cannot account for performativity. This is probably why, despite the affinity that one might think resides between Butler and Merleau-Ponty in their concern for the bodily (and that some unthinking critics looking for new theoretical combinations have mistakenly asserted exists in their statements about the body), Butler does not engage him.
Merleau-Ponty holds an interesting and somewhat controversial (though, upon some reflection, completely intuitive) view regarding the objects that our body intends towards: they can be viewed (or, in general, related or intended to) from all angles. This means that when I am outside and my body sees a house across the street, I am seeing the back of the house as well as the side "facing" me. Why? Because my intention must already be relating beyond what is represented to the general presence of the house which my body recognizes. The house is part of a field of action or intention that could include me going behind the house: thus my body (perhaps more dimly) can be said to perceive the "back" of the house when I perceive its "front."
The question Nancy is asking, then, would be about how the body itself could be viewed like this. And viewed like this while also remaining that body that is viewing. In other words, how can the body view (we are using vision, because it is the easiest example) itself? This is the question of performance: the body must somehow remain itself at the same time as it performs or makes viewable (to this very body and to others--and we should note that we are only loosely using "viewable" here as a synonym for performance: we mean viewable only in the sense that the body is "viewing" or "seeing," not that performance has to do with mere exhibition as such) this self. To use a different sense: it would be like trying to hear oneself speak in the first and third person at the same time about oneself. And another (and this is a famous example): it would be like trying to touch oneself touching (take one arm and with a finger touch the other, trying to be touched in the second arm and feel the touching in the finger of the first arm at the same time).
Nancy claims throughout "Corpus" that this is precisely what the body does--and, we must add, thoroughly fails to do. At the point at which the body would see itself (and see all of itself, every angle of itself, like the house), it would precisely be failing to see itself: not because it is really still "inside" itself in being beyond itself and thus misses itself, but exactly for the reason that it does not miss itself and sees itself. It actually does hear itself speak in the first and third person, and this is why it becomes, as it were, deaf to itself. Or, with the example of touch, it touches itself touching and yet touches as itself: it touches itself and is touched by itself. Because this means it is no longer an "itself:" the body is external to itself, then, but not because it is beyond itself by virtue of some intention. It is because this "itself" is ("itself") an externality. In other words, it is "shared out of itself," partes extra partes:
...here, at the body, there is the sense of touch, the touch of the thing, which touches "itself" without an "itself" where it can get at itself, and which is touched and moved in this unbound sense of touch, and so separated from itself, shared out of itself. -"Corpus," 203
The body would have to be some residue of both itself moving outward from inside (towards what the inner considered outer, that is, the outside that is related to in terms of the inside, thus when what is taken to exist or matter is only "insides") and coming back inside from the outside (towards what the outer considered inner, that is, the inside when what is taken to exist or have sense is only "outsides") at the same time. It would not be a membrane or an interface, however, that had consistency as a point by itself. Rather, it would be the trace of both inside and outside, first and third person, as they made their respective movements (holding that only insides and outsides, respectively, had sense) into their opposites. It would not exist at that point at which it would perform itself: this would have only the consistency of a performance. Thinking this point is the hardest because it lacks any density whatsoever, but, as I said, Nancy will help both those who think of performance to think phenomenologically and those who think of phenomenology performatively. Posted by Mike at 7:39 PM What is written about: Butler, Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Nancy