Thursday, December 20, 2007

If I could ever weigh in on which philosopher writes with the most brilliance, it would absolutely have to be Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Le gai savoir Wednesday, December 19, 2007 Reading Merleau-Ponty
Revisiting Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work as I have been lately, I am revisiting again the infuriating experience of reading that his words create. At the same time, I am also revisiting some judgements this experience had created in me, and find myself still in deep agreement with them: if I could ever weigh in on which philosopher writes with the most brilliance, I would say that it would absolutely have to be Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
First, why infuriating? Because Merleau-Ponty is so very good at bringing forth images, scenes, examples, illustrative metaphors that you almost always are seduced into believing you understand what he says. But if you look again (and you always look again), and begin press him hard, he becomes extremely tough if not impossible sometimes to understand, especially if you want to reduce what he says to something you can recount to yourself or others, in propositional sentences. Usually, you just end up stumbling over your words, or giving up and trying to reconstitute what he is talking about for yourself.
But why brilliance? Precisely because of this looking again we just had to put in parentheses. The double-take you make when seduced, to try and slip out of the hold his words have on you is actually what constitutes the achievement of his writing. This violence done to language, this clumsy, lazy babble, punctuated with spasms of unbelievably acute phrasing, this catastrophe of signifiers brings forth nothing less than the phenomenon nearly always in some way, so that you must nearly always go back to understand and not merely experience what the words seem to give you almost immediately.
It is basically like reading Proust: it isn't a matter of grammar or of verbal wit as much as with the tempo of his sentences and how that inflects the content that rises up before you. You are surprised at the speed that you move with him through a thought, or rather with a phenomenon, that you have to then turn back, stop his exposition, and return to ask him what you just underwent actually meant. He throws experience at you in layers, one after the other, so that each concentrated illustration envelops you as you proceed through them. Or rather, never through them: it isn't as if you punctuate these sheets of meanings ever. You collect them, are obscured by them, covered and buried in them, and can only move on if you stop to take one or two off: the weight is too much. Look at how he describes language in speech in his Phenomenology of Perception:

The intention to speak can reside only in an open experience. It makes its appearance like the boiling point of a liquid, when, in the density of being, volumes of empty space are built up and move outwards. -Phenomenology of Perception, 228

This is almost too contracted, too tightly wound, and yet, precisely because of this "almost," because it only remains a threshold experience, it is not aphoristic. This almost shorthand, which could equally be the most polished rhetoric: it remains situated on the fold that creates this dual possibility. It works by extending a metaphor almost sloppily to the point at which the phenomenon seems circumscribed by its play, if not exactly suggested by its condensation into an image, and yet resists being pinned down to just this experience. This is the type of writing you make in a cafe after a little too much coffee--or a little too much to drink. It hits you hard as it carries you along, like a wave slapping you in the face as you get sucked out into the deep.The following quote is probably more typical, because more extended, less compact, and yet just as oddly precise:...

The thing is at the end of my gaze and, in general, at the end of my exploration... I must acknowledge that the table before me sustains a singular relation with my eyes and my body: I see it only if it is within their radius of action: above it there is the dark mass of my forehead, beneath it the more indecisive contour of my cheeks--both of these visible at the limit and capable of hiding the table, as if my vision of the world itself were formed from a certain point of the world. What is more, my movements and the movements of my eyes make the world vibrate--as one rocks a dolmen with one's finger without disturbing its fundamental solidity. With each flutter of my eyelashes a curtain lowers and rises, though I do not think for an instant of imputing this eclipse to the things themselves; with each movement of my eyes that sweep the space before me the things suffer a brief torsion, which I also ascribe to myself; and when I walk in the street with eyes fixed on the horizon of the houses, the whole of the setting near at hand quivers with each footfall on the asphalt, then settled down in its place... -The Visible and the Invisible, 7

Two things to note about this now--though at some point I'll return to this an explicate it more (I have to run):1) the synesthesia here that no longer even appears as a mixing of the sentences but as a grasping of the involved-ness of actual, everyday experience, which is a predominant feature of these extended descriptions (usually more so than here), and2) this is not an example exactly, but rather a sketch that seems to be able to accommodate an example if one wanted to actually rigorously think the point being made here for oneself--one could never say of walking along the street however that it is the primary, most important case in which this happens.
This fascinating language assigns itself through Merleau-Ponty the task of bringing the world itself as it worlds itself (as Heidegger would put it) out into the open as far as possible (and only with this emphasis on degree). This task for him is philosophy. It proceeds by installing itself the experiences of seeing, speaking and thinking as they arrange themselves prior to any ability of their being grasped or accounted for empirically or by a theorizing of a transcendental schema. These experiences, he says,

...have a name in all languages, but a name which in all of them also conveys significations in tufts, thickets of proper meanings and figurative meanings, so that, unlike those of science, not one of these names clarifies by attributing to what is named a circumscribed signification. Rather, they are the repeated index, the insistent reminder of a mystery as familiar as it is unexplained, of a light which, illuminating the rest, remains at its source in obscurity. -The Visible and the Invisible, 131

The task is for Merleau-Ponty not (merely or only) to activate this indexicality, or retrace its originality through a sort of etymological or philological gesture as old as philosophy itself, but rather to simply jostle it into enacting the phenomenon before you in its inadequacy: perhaps all it is is just a heightening and refinement of this indexicality, a learning to respond to it. Thus when he says in The Prose of the World, that
"men have been talking for a long time on earth, and three-quarters of what they say goes unnoticed," (3)
the key thing about this phrase is precisely that this is a statement of a fact rather than a lament: that is, the important thing is not that we notice what gets lost, but that we notice the the fact of the "unnoticing" and what it can bring to us of the unnoticed.Experiencing the ruining of an experience before you as you seem to grasp it, as you become more and more certain that you have had something similar happen: this is my experience of reading Merleau-Ponty. This crude, dirty, faulty language that cannot help but accurately render in the most striking and beautifully worded turns of phrase what the things themselves are, what the phenomenon is--I know it isn't the best writing, and it certainly doesn't provide for the most coherent and helpful experience of reading, but I think it is so brilliant. Posted by Mike at 8:45 PM What is written about:

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