TLettrineHIS post is about the formation of the subject in Merleau-Ponty. I’m sketching this for a couple of reasons, but mostly so that stuff I want to talk about later will make sense. I want to draw out some links between Merleau-Ponty and Levinas a little bit (even though Levinas and hard-core Levinasians would likely shudder at the thought), primarily focussing on the echoes between them (rather than the dissonance). The reason for this will become clear when I discuss Merleau-Ponty’s conception of ‘bodily tolerances’ in relation to Levinas’ thinking on suffering. But before I get there, I want to see how self and other play out for Merleau-Ponty, especially because his phenomenology is thoroughly anti-Cartesian-split, and this is, I think, important for rethinking suffering… and a whole lot of other stuff.

Merleau-Ponty uses the same logic over and over to counter dualistic kinds of thinking. He’s (occasionally almost explicitly!) anti-Hegelian: he’s not interested in taking an existing dualism and producing a synthesis. Rather, he argues that in order for there to be a distinction between, say, mind and body, there needs to be, prior to that, an intertwining of the two: not a union, mind you. (I think at some point he talks about things being unified just like the parts of the arm are: they are all different bits, but they all work together, depend upon each other, affect each other, and yet remain different to each other.) He goes into a whole lot of detail about the way that it’s impossible to understand how the mind and body might later come to have effects on each other if you presume from the outset they are absolutely distinct. But in addition to tackling the Cartesian split (mind/body), he also takes on the self/world and self/other distinctions. As such, of course, his work poses a significant challenge to the (often implicit) conception of the liberal humanist subject, who is always and endlessly rational, whose truth lies in consciousness, whose body functions merely as a tool or worse, a prison keeping him (most often!) from true freedom. It’s not really surprising, then, that numerous feminist theorists have taken up, and taken to task, parts of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. But he sticks to male pronouns and for reasons that will become clear in later posts, I’m just going to [sic] them when they come from him, even though it’ll get rooly old rooly quickly, because I think there are problems with just changing them to inclusive.

He problematises dualisms throughout all his work, but his discussion of childhood development is perhaps easier to understand than others because it discusses the progress towards what we might think of as subjectivity. So I’m focussing on “The Child’s Relations With Others,” from The Primacy of Perception. Okay. Sufficient intro, methinks.

Before becoming an embodied subject, the child is unaware of the distinction between his/her own body and that of others. In some sense I guess this is the Lacanian origin-point too (but I will bear correction on that because Lacan is not my strength (due to tolerating his writing style also not being my strength). Even in this state, however, is the development of the bodily, corporeal or postural schema (for MP the terms seem almost interchangeable), which occurs through the linking of the introceptive (how I feel my body as aligned in space) and extroceptive (how I see my body). This schema is a sense of the body’s organisation as a totality, a sense of its orientation in the world: ‘a perception of my body’s position in relation to the vertical, the horizontal, and certain other axes of important co-ordinates of its environment.’ (p. 117) Even as babies, then, we know when we’re upside-down. (He has an intriguing discussion of this cenethetic sense in Phenomenology of Perception as just one of the ways that different ways of being in the world necessitate different perceptions: animals who climb trees have a far more detailed up-down perception than we do.)

Now. The other and me:

My ‘psyche’ is not a series of ‘states of consciousness’ that are rigorously closed in on themselves and inaccessible to anyone but me. My consciousness is turned primarily toward the world, turned towards things; it is above all a relation to the world. The other’s consciousness as well is chiefly a certain way of comporting himself toward the world. Thus it is in his [sic] conduct, in the manner in which the other deals with the world, that I will be able to discover his [sic] consciousness. (p. 116-7)

Here already, we can see that rather than understanding consciousness as isolated and solipsistic, Merleau-Ponty reconfigures it as always turned outward. The embodied subject (no mind/body split) is always already in relation with the world—comported towards it—and thus with others. This ‘comportment’ comes to hold an especial significance for Merleau-Ponty, and loosely I think of it as akin to a way of being-in-the-world with the peculiar sense of bringing together which is, obviously, key to our dear Maurice’s point. More:

the perception of others is made comprehensible if one supposes that psychogenesis begins in a state where the child is unaware of himself [sic] and the other as different beings… a state of pre-communication, wherein the other’s intentions somehow play across my body while my intentions play across his [sic]. (p. 119; his emphasis)

This allows what MP calls “‘postural impregnation’ of my own body by the conducts I witness.” (p. 118) Thus because of this intercorporeality, the child echoing the conducts of others does not merely imitate the behaviours of others; rather, this mixing-up of my own and the other’s intentions, and my own and the other’s behaviours is key:

in perceiving the other, my body and his [sic] are coupled… this conduct which I am able only to see, I live somehow from a distance. I make it mine; I recover [reprendre] it or comprehend it… It is this transfer of my intentions to the other’s body and of his [sic] intention to my own, my alienation of the other and his [sic] alienation of me, that makes possible the perception of others. (p. 118)

Okay, so I just want to point something out about the translation here: reprendre is from the French ‘prendre’ meaning ‘to take’; and again, I suppose, with comprendre, from which is ‘comprehend’. Thus what Merleau-Ponty is getting at but the translation hinders a little is that this is a kind of taking-up-together rather than simply an appropriation. Or that’s my line on it anyway. This is (following (Henri?) Wallon) syncretic sociability, where in my extroceptive body (my body as I see it), my introceptive body (my body as I feel it) and the other come together and inflect each other. Each of these elements, however, do not pre-exist their interrelation, but are threads spun from the wool of child-and-world-and-others. Nor is this to be understood as a synthesis; I’m going to go with the old, old translation of ‘syncretism’ which I’m told (perhaps wrongly, but my etymonline source is distinctly unhelpful) comes from ‘to keep’ and ‘with/together’ alongside Merleau-Ponty’s anti-synthesis stance to justify this. And I think this is significant because it does not suppose that self and other ever fully coincide. The other, recalling Levinas, is always other. Indeed, it is, in the end, the non-coincidence of the other and me that enables me to be; just as Levinas suggests, it is the radical difference—the alterity— of the other that allows the subject to be (responsible). ‘Alienation’ in the passage above comes to signify the recognition (though not cognitive, I think) and response to this difference. With

the constitution of the other in his [sic] difference, there occurs a segregation, a distinction of individuals—a process which, moreover, as we shall see, is never completely finished. (p. 119)

Syncretic sociability, then, is never ended. It is not that we go through an intercorporeal phase we then grow out of; rather, elements of the confusion (note to self: keep an eye out for con- words!) of self and other always remain, and remain necessary to the continual process of embodied subjectivity. That is to say, even beyond my development of a sense of self, my sense of my own body, my perception of it, and my perception of the other’s body remain in process, mutually constitutive, co-constitutive. New experiences—and particularly the way I am affected intercorporeally by others—will change my habituated ways of being in the world. The passage of time also alters my body’s styles and thus my comportment, including, as we shall see, my bodily tolerances. The syncretic relation renders the embodied subject always, necessarily, ambiguous and open (entirely unlike the liberal humanist subject).