Thursday, June 17, 2010

wild meaning

What The Visible and the Invisible boils down to is an attempt to evoke the origination of meaning, signification, and expression - the nascence of our experience of truth. Merleau-Ponty himself didn't get far, since he died - as the probably apocryphal but lovely story goes, while reading Descartes.

I translated an article a few years ago that argued that the issue is translation. Expression in language is a translation of what Merleau-Ponty resorts to calling the wild meaning or wild being of our pre-reflective experience.

We do not see, do not hear the ideas, and not even with the mind’s eye or with the third ear: and yet they are there, behind the sounds or between them, behind the lights or between them, recognizable through their always special, always unique manner of entrenching themselves behind them,... (VI, 151)

The very end of the chapter everybody in the Merleau-Ponty biz talks about goes like this:

In a sense the whole of philosophy, as Husserl says, consists in restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning, an expression of experience by experience, which in particular clarifies the special domain of language. And, in a sense, as Valéry said, language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests. (VI, 155)

That's pretty, but, as is so often the case with Merleau-Ponty, even in the stuff he actually finished and published, it's ambiguous. Since his point is that experience is ambiguous, and our giving expression to it disambiguates it in a particular direction, creates/discovers in it a provisional truth, then his own ambiguous writing is itself evocative. That's one thing I've always both deeply admired and been quite irritated by.

The human work of expression - and philosophy is just the account of how this work takes place - is this disambiguation or translation of what Merleau-Ponty calls "mute things" or "mute experience." He takes this from Husserl in the Cartesian Meditations, so I'll have to go back to that again (he was apparently reading that, Husserl's "Origin of Geometry" essay, and something by Descartes as he was working this out).

But I woke up last night trying to figure out what this idea of "mute experience" or "mute things" means. The philosophy which proposes that expression in language translates and gives voice to the mute things could seem to be a bad humanism - that is, a humanism that privileges the human source of meaning as not only our source of meaning, but the source of meaning. Clearly, Merleau-Ponty is trying not to do that - we're passive in our activity, after all, and for our expressions to express the mute things, they can't be merely ours.

Why assume things are mute? Why assume wild being is inarticulate - if that's what "mute" means? What does "mute" mean, for that matter? (That too could be considered a pun, but watch out for that smuggled-in dualism, bub!)

If I (to wit, a human) were to make the case that the mute things converse, that they disambiguate themselves, I'd probably be making the same humanistic mistake: this would obviously be my own account of their articulation.

I think I have the biggest problem buying "mute" things and "mute" experience when I consider music. Human beings play music, but music isn't a human phenomenon, it's a natural phenomenon - related to vibration, proportion, harmony. As much as we overlay all this with our musical expressions, music only happens because the universe is built this way. (I hasten to add that this is not a cosmological question, it's about how meaning arises.) I have a hard time admitting to writing a tune, because the tune is already implicit in - well, you might say, in physics, but let's continue to say wild being. Any tune is implicit in it. Any sequence of tones of any duration, spanning any register, including those we don't hear, is, simply, there.

This makes "mute" very hard for me to fathom, and I think pushing that a little further might help me figure out something about my take on the relationship between my subjection to "wild being" (e.g., that I vibrate, that bits of me vibrate aurally, in particular) and my active perceiving of others, the world, things (e.g., someone singing, music, guitars omg guitars), and to musical meaning. The passion at the heart of this leads me again to want an erotic account.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Music vis a vis thinking: If one learns a complicated classical or fingerstyle guitar-piece--playing bass, rhythm and melody all at the same time--we are wont to say we are thinking when we are learning, practicing, and playing. But once the piece is learned, the player can begin playing, and the piece will flow out of the players fingers, while the player can carry on a conversation at the same time, not giving a thought to the music, which plays out from beginning to end.