Monday, July 18, 2011

notes toward a do-it-yourself transcendental phenomenology of embodiment

I finished reading Michel Henry's Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body. The conclusion very unhelpfully develops a theological position on the finitude of the body and the infinity of the transcendental life (i.e., the body that I am as a transcendental subject) in relation to the Christian concept of sin. Henry seemed particularly miffed about sexuality being taken as a naturally occurring need that, as subjects, we can't determine actively.

What I am able to take away from reading this thing is his challenge to the more received view of embodiment in phenomenological philosophy circles. I have come to agree with Henry that the typical view is fairly confused. For instance, taking Husserl's position to be transcendental idealism, very like Kant's - which it is, in the first book of Ideas - the body appears to be an object of experience. This makes it very difficult to (1) resolve Cartesian dualism, which seems to be an important goal, and (2) understand why my body is experienced differently than anything else.

The typical reading of the phenomenological tradition leaves Husserl right there, staring at his Albrecht Dürer woodcut in confusion, and turns to Merleau-Ponty as the so-called "philosopher of the body." Merleau-Ponty very cleverly kept reading Husserl, and even more cleverly re-wrote much of the second book of Ideas and some of the passive synthesis lectures, under the new title Phenomenology of Perception. There, Merleau-Ponty interprets subjectivity as always embodied, as the very famous "body-subject" that is ambiguously subject and object, both for myself and for others. For instance, when, while slicing a peach for arugula-white peach-pignola-chevre-white pepper salad, I cut into my finger, I have an ambiguous experience of my finger as profoundly me (cuz the pain is mine ineluctably), and as a weird sort of object, obtrusively getting in the way of the perfectly fine plan I had all worked out, and bleeding on my peach like the stupid fleshy blood-filled sack of stupid bloody flesh my stupid finger is.

Henry, by asserting that the transcendental phenomenological ego (the "one who experiences" that is at the origin of everything that a consciousness undergoes) is not a ghost in a machine, but is instead living flesh itself, takes up Merleau-Ponty's later re-conception of the ambiguous body-subject, and pushes it, in a way, an ontological step backward. Now this "life," or "absolute life" is the living body itself. Henry has thus resolved the ambiguity of the body-subject being a subject and an object by denying the objectivity of the (transcendental) body.

This is a great move, because it forces us to reconsider the starting point of phenomenological philosophy, consciousness, as living instead of thinking, as affectivity instead of cognition, and so corrects the idealist tendency of Husserl's earlier work. Henry makes this move at great theological expense that I am unwilling to pay, however, and he makes dogmatic and altogether unhelpful stipulations about the ontology of this transcendental body. What I've decided is necessary is to begin phenomenology all over again (and damn, does it creep me out how Husserlian that is), and just start with a phenomenological reduction to embodied consciousness.

Here's what you'll need for this project:

* a body (that is, a living body, yours, currently occupied by you, and I assume preferably only by you)
* consciousness


Wait, something's missing here. Henry has us re-open phenomenology on the basis of the ontological origin of experience in the transcendental life of this embodied consciousness. But for this kind of life to experience, to have meaning, it can't be alone, can it? The fundamental thing about embodiment is just that: it's never alone. The transcendental body is just as much an idealism as the allegedly disembodied transcendental ego, unless that body is not only always already an embodied consciousness, but also always already a body in the world. And that's where Henry seems obviously to go wrong: his "life" exists ab aeterno and sui generis, and it is very hard to imagine how that body could find itself unless already in a world - otherwise, nothing would ever happen to it.

So I think we need:

* a world
* others

And now we have Merleau-Ponty's set-up from the Phenomenology. Or, you could just say, we need to understand life as flesh that is of the flesh of the world itself, as in The Visible and the Invisible.

All that is to say, Merleau-Ponty had something essentially right with ambiguity.

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