Sunday, February 03, 2008

Where Merleau-Ponty is quick to see a gap where the body would play or function, Derrida sees total play, that breaks with this functioning

Le gai savoir philosophy, literature, art, and other things Saturday, February 2, 2008
Some remarks on Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus, and Derrida
Derrida's quite formulaic comments in On Touching--Jean Luc Nancy on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty would add something to current general readings of Merleau-Ponty here in the US. These can be represented generally (and only generally) by Hubert Dreyfus' work on Merleau-Ponty and skill acquisition (which are summed up quite nicely in a paper he gives here). Dreyfus makes much about the anti-representationalist or bodily nature of perception that Merleau-Ponty employs as an alternative to the more "representationalist" theories of the mind--especially found in computational models. These representationalist theories of mind would require a perception to be registered not necessarily consciously, but by the system or network of input/output relations that constitute the functional mind. Merleau-Ponty places the impression a perception makes beyond our outside these sites of registration, as Dreyfus quotes Merleau-Ponty as saying:

An impression can never by itself be associated with another impression. Nor has it the power to arouse others. It does so only provided that it is already understood in the light of the past experience in which it co-existed with those which we are concerned to arouse.

This pre-representational precomprehension would structure experience beyond any computational model and even (or, as Merleau-Ponty constantly reminds us in his Phenomenology of Perception) beyond any Kantian transcendental structure, situating it in a network of relations that are lived spatially and temporally in the purity of a gap or space between the world and the mind or self that lives. This space (and time) is the body, and it is only on the basis of this body, this pre-understanding of the possibility of a perceptual impression to mean or to have value (we are speaking loosely and too quickly here) that we then can have an impression at all and associate it with another--that is, come forth or be represented and related explicitly with the other--as the computational or representationalist model of the mind would have it. The gap in between the "source" of the perception (the world) and "destination" that receives it as an impression (the mind--again, speaking very loosely) is the space and time in which there would exist a contingent (thus not transcendental or ideal or Kantian) comportment that structures the possibility of these two, and in fact is possibility itself: the unique fabric or intertwining of the world and the self that juts into time and space as an intention. It is here that we must look for phenomena like skill-acquisition, learning, decision, etc. etc.--and Dreyfus outlines quite clearly all the possibilities of this.
Now, Derrida considers this space and time itself divided or dispersed--that is, this gap across which stretches an intention is itself a gap, a space and time, and so on and so on. But not because the body or the intentional network that structures our experience just has at its center an irreducible gap, that every intention is itself never fully able to be bridged and grasp (Dreyfus looks closely at grasping) what it wants to get at or accomplish itself except arbitrarily (by fantasy) or by starting over (compulsion): rather, it is because for there to be an intention, for this intentional space prior to representation to be contingent and not ideal, to be fully worldly, that is, indeterminate and yet (as intention) finite, there would have to exist infinite contingency, the possibility of complete indetermination. In other words, the pre-representational body of intention (my prior worldly understanding that juts through space and time and accomplishes) only accomplishes what it does because at its heart, it is completely the carrying out of what, outside this intention, is capable of being represented fully. In other words, the computational model is what is at the heart of this pre-computational intention: it has to be able to be represented by this model to such an extent that it is, in its accomplishing of the intention, exactly indistinguishable from it. The space of intentional precomprehension is, therefore, precisely in its contingency, absolutely ideal.
So the tendency to grasp, for example. This is often used as the expression of the preunderstanding or comprehension of a bodily subjectivity that makes possible and comprehensible any subjectivity, any decision that comes to mind consciously: it is only on the basis of a tendency to grasp that one can grasp and also think to themselves that they want to grasp whatever they grasp. How would Derrida look at this? Well, the body, as the intentional structure that really is the locus where the grasping is made possible, is itself rent apart as a space of intention. So my grasping would not be able to be traced as taking place there, in the bodily subjectivity. At the same time, it would still not be in the mind as represented. The tendency, in other words, would give us nothing to look at: there is no ground or basis on which one could represent to oneself the possibility of grasping--where in Merleau-Ponty (that is, Dreyfus' Merleau-Ponty, mainly) it is only on this basis that there is this representation. The tendency is empty: it is itself totally other than a tendency, a consistency, a structure of itself prior to what is structured. Rather, the tendency to grasp would be "caused" or based only on the possibility that it could be the action of someone who could say to themselves "I want to grasp this" and thereby carry it out. The carrying out of the tendency to grasp would be only possible if it is impossible as a tendency, if it were, as a tendency, already completely other to itself in its non-being, in its functioning. In fact, it would have to be precisely this representation, this saying, in order to be a tendency: in short, the intentional must be the computational or representational in order to be intentional.
This isn't some basic playing with concepts: in fact, every act would be structured and actually accomplished this way, for Derrida. In the space of the lived body, there is already division that makes it determined by the possibility of what it makes possible (representation)--thus making it impossible: this is how every intention finds its fulfillment--that is, impossibly. This means that it is always radically contingent to the extent that it looks like it could merely be calculated by a computer, merely associated. This constitutes his whole objection to the reading of Husserl that Merleau-Ponty engages in: where Merleau-Ponty is quick to see a gap where the body would play or function, Derrida sees total play, unreserved play, total functioning, to the extent that it breaks with this functioning. To put it in the language of the quote of Dreyfus: it is only on the basis of the fact that every impression is associated with every other that there could be a space prior to this which, as the understanding that makes them possible, brings them about and in so doing brings nothing about or renders itself impossible. I'll post more on this later, but hopefully these sketches will do some good. Posted by Mike at 1:14 AM What is written about: , ,

1 comment:

  1. You know I get the impression from all of these guys that prattle on about various philosophies of the body that none of them are actually involved in any form of consistent discipline of the body via hatha yoga, tai chi, aikido, pilates, rolfing, and of the various body-based methods of psycho-physical transformation that were pioneered at Esalen and described (for instance) in the masterful The Future of the Body by Michael Body.