Saturday, July 16, 2011

the ambiguity of embodiment and the paradox of the transcendental subject

I've been poring over Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, Michel Henry's weird, insinuating, slantways critique of the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These are rambling notes, but I wanted to post them anyway because it's been driving me crazy today.

Henry seems to interpret “classical” phenomenology as making the body an instrument of the ego’s act of perception, as though (I think) the ego reflects upon the body’s sensuous engagements with the world and thus comes to perceive. The ego that would “constitute” the body, he suggests, would be disengaged from the world by that constitution, and the body would be disconnected from the ego, and a mere thing among things. His solution is to assert that the transcendental ego is already a transcendental body: the body is immanent to the transcendental ego and vice-versa, in the form of transcendental life. “Absolute subjectivity” must be already a body and life, rather than to “have” a body as a mere mass, or else, he says, it’s impossible to understand how a subject could move a body. This of course is the problem Descartes’ dualism leaves behind. But I think that, as a critique of Husserlian phenomenology, this attacks a straw man. Furthermore, in Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, Henry doesn’t provide a very clear argument, and rarely provides a concrete enough phenomenological description, to make his case very compelling. Instead, he takes up ambiguities in certain phenomenological accounts of embodiment (implicitly, Merleau-Ponty’s as well as Husserl’s), and pushes them to become paradoxes — that is, he imposes an interpretation on the ambiguities that insinuates their authors asserted the two sides of the ambiguity as each an ultimate and exclusive truth. Further, he takes up the paradoxes in their thought and pushes them to become outright absurdities — that is, he takes what they express with profound perplexity as paradoxes their thinking has led them to, and insinuates that they merely contradict themselves.

So, I want to get back to a basic level, and back to the things themselves. What about the embodiment of subjectivity/consciousness presents problems for phenomenological philosophy? One is, the constitution of objects, on the basis of what must be, for embodied consciousness, a series of passively traced adumbrations. A familiar problem. One that I think is more à propos to Henry’s work, is the relationship between consciousness and sense perception. The reason sense perception is so difficult (especially if you either impose the metaphysics Henry claims Husserl presupposes, or else presuppose the metaphysics Henry does), is that sense perception appears in our ordinary mundane experiences to be both under the command of consciousness itself, and also subject to “external” forces. (The overwhelming use of vision as a metonym for sense perception obscures this — another story for another day.) In my daily life, my sense of hearing is both under the command of my consciousness in my attending to particular sounds, i.e., “listening,” and subject to the “external” forces of noise. I can’t have one without the other: unless I am subject to noise, I can’t listen. (Here belongs all kinds of stuff about affect, desire, and so forth, that I’ll skip over for now.)

I interpret this, as a starting point, from Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the ambiguity of embodiment. As embodied, my consciousness/ego is subject and object, an active perceiver and a passive receiver. This obviously doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t say how this is possible. Merleau-Ponty later went back to Husserl’s later work, and found there, I believe, the clue to working this out more fully: passive synthesis. Husserl seems to have regarded the passive synthesis as an underlying, pre-conscious or unconscious, affectivity whereby consciousness has something to perceive. To get back to my example: I can’t listen unless there’s a field of sound for me to listen into for that which, already as I begin listening, is attracting my attention. That ongoing passive unity of the field of sound is what I have been calling my subjection — affectively, it subjects me both to desire and to “revulsion,” to what I would constitute as melodious, euphonious, and to what I would constitute as noise. But here’s the paradox: those unities within the field of sound draw my attention as sounds already anticipated “to-be-melodious,” and those others strike me as already anticipated “to-be-dysphonious.”

I can’t see any way for Henry’s account of the absolute subject as transcendental life to adequately address this twofold relation that hearing establishes, let alone the subjection to the passively synthesized field of sound already having an affective dimension. The subjection I’ve described would, I think, have to fall to Henry’s category of the merely objective body — I would be subjected to noise insofar as my body is an object among objects, and my capacity for listening would have to be more properly “mine.” Or else, in his other mood, he would have to say that such an account asserts as equally absolute a subject whose body is itself and who listens, and a subject whose body is, absurdly, an object, and thus declare the whole account absurd.


Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

OH Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii ain't got no bah-ah-ha-dee, and a-no body cares for a-me, yak-a-tat-ta, a-yak-a-tat-ta!

Anonymous said...

Going a bit far into the realms of fantasy.
A body is something we occupy for a short period of time.
Something to be a good meal or most importantly a good fuck with another body!

Doc Nagel said...

I'm all for the good fuck, to be sure. But I don't see what's "fantasy" about any of this, or why "occupying" it is a good way to think about it, or why "a short period of time" makes any difference.