Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Charting a course between Husserl and Bergson via Merleau-Ponty

What the Hell is Invariant Vitalism? April 15th, 2007 I’m sure some of you were thinking this after you read my post below. It is a fair enough question and so I’m going to give a sketch of what this might mean, with lots of reference to Renaud Barbaras’ remarkable book Desire and Distance: An Introduction to a Phenomenology of Desire.
From a phenomenological standpoint, and here I am bracketing the very question of how the subject thinking thinks the object outside (or ‘correlationism’), there is always an invariant that is contrasted with movement. Following upon the work done by Husserl in his fragment ‘The originary ark, the earth, does not move’ (described delightfully described as a ’subversion of the Copernican thesis’) and that of Merleau-Ponty in his lecture course ‘Husserl at the Limits of Phenomenology’, Barbaras goes on to say that the invariant contrasted with bodily movement is grasped as the world and not as a thing. I should note here that I’ve tried to make a big deal about the difference (and co-implication) of world and earth, and it is here where such a notion may actually be helpful. One thing I like about this is that it fosters a better notion of nature than what we normal get when we posit something beyond nature, or the ‘non-natural’. Both the world and the earth are natural, whereas one is constructed and the other is the material for that construction. (Is my thinking here not exactly terracentric? Yes, yes it is. Perhaps a problem. We will see.) Now, I think this differentiation may be of interest to Barbaras because he goes on to tell us that the phenomenological reduction is ultimately a critique of pure nothingness and the principle of sufficient reason (encapsulated in the question why is there something rather than nothing?). Now, this is interesting in and of itself and I’ve written on it elsewhere, but it also opens up to the question of what do we have then if we bracket the world, which can be bracketed because it’s being is conditional, whereas the being of the earth is not conditional but neither is it fully positive.
Barbaras’ goes on to show how this negation of pure nothingness opens up to the notion of ‘being-at-a-distance’. He believes this moves beyond the shortcomings of thinking being as a play between positive being and negative nothingness. Being-at-a-distance is indebted to the Bergsonian transfer of ontological positivity to duration what traditional metaphysics had accorded to essence. What Barbaras adds to this is a kind of Deleuzian notion of desire. Desire, for Barbaras, does not refer to a lack, but this does not then mean that desire is complete, rather it is always referred to an originary incompleteness. Which is to say, when we say that desire does not lack we are saying that nothing can fulfil it. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, we can describe this incompleteness as fullness following on fullness evidenced by the fact that we do not experience pure nothingness.
So, back to invariant vitalism. What Barbaras goes on to do with these notions is bestow upon life the properity of subject or that which can act (and here this complicates his correlationist tendencies since the world itself also acts, leading him to posit that the only true cosmology would be a cosmobiology). The very heart of subjectivity is desire, the being-incomplete, and desire is always a desire for the world, which is to say for a continuation of experience. No longer can the world/earth simply be said to be the invariant of perception, for something lies even behind both world and earth. The name of this is being-incomplete which is the invariant principle - or life. Which is to say that the invariance of this vitalism, or the notion that there is something pushing material forward that is not reducible to mechanics, is this being-at-a-distance or being-incomplete of the world soul and organism of the earth (two heteroaffective modalities of life).
I think this lays out a pretty decent sketch of what I’m getting at here. I’ve simplified much of Barbaras here, which is unfortunate as his account of motion or life as motion is also interesting. But there seems to be a lack of consistency in some of his account, partly due to his charting a course between Husserl and Bergson via Merleau-Ponty. I’m sure my own paper will suffer from this lack due to its coordinates. Posted by Anthony Paul Smith Filed in vitalism, philosophy 6 Comments »

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