Friday, July 09, 2010

thickness, commingling flesh, co-perception
with a methodological excursus

More on thickness as a dimension of the encounter with flesh. Your thickness is not identical to mine, is not given identically to mine. Of course I feel my own thickness from the inside as well as at the surface. I feel it viscerally, and variably. I feel your thickness from the surface of the skin – though I do feel thickness within, sense density and mass of you, it is from the skin inward, or even beyond the skin, in the air of you. This thickness is an interior dimension that gives weight and gives presence, but is not itself presented as such, except, to a certain extent for oneself, of oneself. It is a dimension of my embodiment for myself.

I can artificially induce this self-presentation by doing something we don’t often do, like gripping my own thigh. It isn’t far different from gripping your thigh, but it is different. Obviously, the feeling of resistance to my grip has, of me, within me, a correlate feeling of being gripped, that I don’t feel in your thigh. And there is always something surprising in my grip of your thigh than of my own, an awakeness to touch that your thigh induces in my hands, not only and not because of some sexual meaning of my touch or the situation, but that the thickness of your thigh lacks auto-affection of the grip itself, that is, it ratifies or affirms your presence in the flesh, as flesh. And there is always something surprising about your grip on my thigh, that I’m subjected to being gripped, that I’m in the flesh as well. Merleau-Ponty puts the matter of the other’s presence paradoxically as bearing an originary absence, a non-presence. Thickness of flesh describes this non-presence, the unpresentable that awakens my touch to your presence in the flesh.

I tend to want to sort out, disambiguate, or positively restate Merleau-Ponty’s numerous paradoxes and double-negations (neither… nor…). This unpresentable being that makes the other present bugs me like all the rest do. For one thing, it’s also true of myself and my being for myself, though at a different level, and with the proviso that I’m always potentially viscerally present to myself. While it may be true that proprioception and perceptual narcissism are always closer to me than my perception of others or the world, sometimes this is made too much of. Against this tendency, I want to emphasize that something like a co-perception or narcissism à deux takes place.

The closer we are, for instance inside one another, the further we are from the asymptote of absolute differentiation or self-containment or self-possession, and the closer we are to the asymptote of coincidence, identity, or to abandonment, self-dispossession, possession by the other. Asymptotes because neither of these is possible, we remain somewhere between total self-possession and total abandonment. The imperious “I can” and the enslaved – er, “I do”?? no, that ain’t right! – are both impossible states of being. They would be like absolute wakefulness or endless sleep, and neither of these are proper to the being of a critter that is still sentient, conscious. What I’m describing – in particular in erotic entanglements – are moments of closer coincidence of our experience, of our flesh. We are never a single, shared body – desire would cease to exist if that were to happen. Our flesh commingles, and its boundaries are fluid for us, especially if we pay attention to flesh being a metaphor or evocation and not a literal signification. “My” flesh is, as it were, borrowed, and not strictly mine. “My” flesh is “mine” only insofar as the flesh “of the world” provides flesh for “me.” In our erotic clutch, we borrow from one another’s flesh, we give our flesh to one another, exposing, opening to and for one another, and it makes little sense of the situation to rend flesh into separated bodies. (I very much doubt I’m the only one who’s had that “whose leg is that?” experience, for instance. And: who moves whom? who moves upon whom? who moves in whom? Rather, there is moving flesh, flesh moving along flesh, into flesh). I’m not generally thinking much about thickness or phenomenology at those times, to be honest, but my reflection is that this commingled flesh is thick with us both – as your touch penetrates my “interior” thickness, now I am thick for myself as through you, as through your touching. Who touches whom? Whose “body” do “I feel” then?

Of course, this description is based on a particular sexual practice. It’s only for purposes of illustration. Although issues of gender, sexual orientation, sexual practices and disciplines are raised by and relevant to this description, since I’m not here interested in the sexual practice itself, I think I can let this rest for the time being. I’m not sure how to deal with these issues in this investigation of erotics of sensation, though I have no real doubt that they matter for how and through what we engage sensation erotically. As various commentators have suggested, about various of my descriptions: we learn to play an instrument, we get a taste for whisky, we become gendered and sexualized — and in so doing, “thinking with our hands” or “thinking musically,” “orientating,” etc., we indeed discipline desire and orientate our erotic entanglements. From the standpoint of this investigation, that’s akin to saying that my erotic entanglements are different from yours. Your version of this descriptive account could be tremendously different. That's fine, even if your sexual practice involves steel bars, chains, pain and punishment, or sensory deprivation, or no actual bodily contact at all. You still draw desire from flesh that you draw from the flesh of “others” and “the world” – from what I’ve stolen Lingis’ term “foreign bodies” to name.

The really problematic case would be someone who experiences no erotic desire, no desire for flesh. I find this genuinely unimaginable. I know there are people who describe themselves as asexual, which I do find profoundly hard to understand, but I’m not meaning erotic desire to refer only to the sexual (the examples are just very powerfully illustrative and provocative, so I prefer them). Erotic desire is the desire of flesh for flesh, for sensation. Maybe I’m being too Aristotelian about this, but I think all sensible flesh desires to sense flesh.

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