Sinthome over at Larval Subjects has been kicking around some ideas of scene, act and agency; there’s a response, too, at Rough Theory. His latest post, however, is the one that really felt like it was attempting to negotiate a question that I am working with and over at the moment in relation to the thesis. It’s something I’m adding to a chapter, so forgive me if these thoughts are blurry and underconceptualised; hopefully they will have that blissful moment of crystalisation soon.

Sinthome’s concern is slightly different to mine, and it means that my reading of his post is likely a little sideways of his intention (apologies to all; perhaps you should go and read his post first before reading my ‘version’ ;-)). Sinthome is asking questions about the possibility of agency: where does it arise from? how can it be understood? where, in the space between the ‘scene’ (what I would tend to call the ‘situation’) within which the individual is constituted, and their ability to act, does agency actually arise? In some sense, particularly towards the end of his post, I get the feeling that what Sinthome is actually interested in is not agency per se; he’s interested in where something that differs from and thereby challenges the scene can and does arise. This, to be clear, is likely to be my reading, given that agency is one of those words (up there with liberal, humanist, sovereign and self-present) that makes of my skin a jittery topography. With my cultural studies eyes, then, it is where and how difference occurs in such a way as to permit an agent to do otherwise (or, as I am more likely to phrase it, so as to engender a way of being that is otherwise) than the scene would require that is of central concern here.

So, to drag this thinking kicking and screaming into my usual phenomenological stuff, I want to consider the concept of ‘sedimentation’ as it occurs in Merleau-Ponty. Sedimentation, for Merleau-Ponty, is what enables me, in some sense, to properly ‘be’ a subject. Although (rather frustratingly) Merleau-Ponty resists a thorough discussion of this concept, it seems that sedimentation is the layering of experiences that permit a sense of cohesiveness—a sense of a subject—to be produced. In my thesis (sigh), I tend to think of this layering in a somewhat counter-intuitive way: it occurs, I’m suggesting, as the carving of a river into a landscape. The flow of water produces it, and reproduces it, and it grows deeper and deeper and more difficult to shift. Its banks are, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, bodily tolerances, which cannot be exceeded without discomfit and possibly even suffering. In other words, Merleau-Ponty argues that the sedimentation (or habituation, an alternative but perhaps no less interesting term) of a particular style of being in the world tends to produce that style of being in the world (with all its attendant comportments toward the world and others, and its specific forms of contextually defined perceptual practices) as the path of least resistance. We may not be able to ‘be’ (subjects) except as a river, but this means that the riverbed and its banks are key to our being. We must, in other words, have limits.

Enter my Levinasian/Derridean-inspired concern with alterity. In a move Levinas would probably disapprove of, I do not think that alterity is something that dwells in an elsewhere plane. Rather, because I want to think the subject as thoroughly embodied (that is, as an embodied subject, avoiding all kinds of Cartesian splittage), I also want to think otherness as a matter of bodily being. This is, to be clear, not a reduction of the other to their body, but to say that this reduction is precisely not possible: the other is embodied, too. (And yes, for you smartarses out there, even you are embodied for me. Your virtuality does not entail your reduction to ‘mind’!). But the problem with sedimentation, or, to take a particular line on it, the sedimentation of perception, is that this would seem to mean that that which is actually different, that which is unique about the other, remains imperceivable (wow, who knew that was a word? ;-)). Let me unpack that a little, coz it’s kinda dense and I feel bad dragging you guys into the theoretical labyrinth of the end of the thesis before I’ve really traced the most efficient way through it.

Perception (as I’ve also discussed here) is not neutral. It is bound up with the meaning-making techniques of the context within which I live. I recounted Nikki Sullivan’s story in which a Scottish lady mistook, at first sight, children for monkeys. This occurred because her perception was shaped by the context in which she had lived her life, a context within which children behaved in particular ways, and more specifically, a context which produced the racially different other as so proximate to animality that such a ‘mistake’ was easily made. (Mistake is in scare quotes there because in true poststructuralist style, I do not believe there to be ‘Truth’ against which her perception became an error.) In this sense, then, it’s fairly clear that really, what I can see is shaped by what I have already seen.

This is the depressing side of poststructural analyses, in lots of ways. Butler deploys Foucault to demonstrate that the repetition of particular acts produces a truth of the subject which in turn means that the subject experiences their adherence to, say, norms of gender or sexuality or liberal humanist subjectivity (to the concept of a free agent, I would say, too, with a friendly poke at Sinthome) as their own, personal truth. It’s a sweet system, and one finely tuned to its own reproduction. Butler does offer an element of a way out: the deformation of repetition, she argues, the fact that a subject cannot remain the same, and cannot always reproduce norms (particularly not given their ideality) offers a space within which to transgress them, to challenge them. But as Diprose argues (and I’ve cited her on this topic here) this remains a fairly individualised mode of challenge to the normative structures of power, and as such reproduces what is, perhaps, the key norm of contemporary power: the radical individualism of the subject. (This, in other words, is my concern about framing such a discussion as a matter of ‘agency’… )

Alrighty now, let’s return to sedimentation. One of the key points that I am making in my thesis (we hope) is that whilst numerous feminist and critical race scholars argue that Merleau-Ponty can be used to challenge the presumption of universal subjectivity—that is, they argue that MP can be used to account for embodied differences—in so doing, they implicitly constitute the structure of embodiment in a particular way. For a long time, this troubled me: it seemed that although such adoptions of Merleau-Ponty’s theory did enable some sense of subjects differently embodied, it seemed that this presumed an underlying and universal structuring of the body. In some sense, it was implied that the body was always constituted in and through these processes of sedimentation, but that what was sedimented was always different, and shaped by sex-gender, sexuality, race, whiteness, ability and so on. The form/content distinction implicit here troubled me: the sedimentation of embodiment was being treated as natural, even by those with the most invested in denaturalisation.

And as I thought about it more, and particularly in relation to a problematising of ideas of normalcy and the norm, I realised how key issues of the construction of time were to this analysis. Sedimentation, according to the river analogy I used earlier, would seem to suggest that who I am now is a kind of averaging-out of the experiences I’ve had in the past, each of which were conditioned by their pasts. In other words, sedimentation required that experience a and experience b were constructed as the same. Yet in order to understand these two experiences as the same, what was required was some means of stripping out the ways in which they were different, to leave a ‘core’ of the experience that enabled these two experiences to be identified with each other. This kind of ‘stripping out’ is not neutral, not at all. It requires a standard by which all else is measured; as Irigaray has suggested, woman is conceived as lacking only if you take as your ‘measuring-stick’ (pun very much intended) a morphology recognised as defined in particular by the cock. This is, indeed, what happens whenever science attempts to measure: it takes a particular concern, and all other facets must be stripped out. Ability is defined by the norm of the able-bodied, such that those we recognise as ‘disabled’ thereby become disabled. In other words, embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty, is structured by sedimentation, and sedimentation requires the concept of the norm.

Phew. I’m skittering all over the place here. Sorry about that. The problem with conceptualising of subjectivity as a product of such sedimentation is that it creates little space for movement: if the only way that an experience is permitted to matter (to the embodied subject) is through the filter of what has already occurred, then difference as difference won’t be perceived. It can’t be, for we have no way to see what we have not already seen. The new other that I encounter thus remains comprehensible insofar as he or she is understood as ‘like’ what I have seen before. That which exceeds that graspability doesn’t, on this conception of the embodied subject, even figure for me.

In other words, we wind up with something totalising here, if we trust that the very nature of the body is one that shapes itself through sedimentation. I don’t think that this is the whole story: I think it is, in fact, possible to perceive the other as other. It’s harder, maybe, and occurs less frequently than what we might want, but it does occur. And what I want to suggest is that the perception of the other alters me, fundamentally. The gift of the other to me is, in fact, a means of perceiving differently. My response to the other begins, in other words, with the other’s troubling of the normative structure of sedimentation such that I am altered so that I might see him, her, hir, it… In this respect, perhaps, we return to Levinas’ conception of the anarchic as the time of the other: it is a time beyond, before, out-of-synchronicity with, the structuring of time in and through the norm of presence. And it is this anarchic gift of the other as other, not reducible, not reduced by sedimentary perceptual practices, that in troubling the normative structure of embodiment, offers me an elsewise, another way to be… a way of being in the world unlike what has been, and unlike any other…

Sorry, all, I have to go and read Merleau-Ponty on time and don’t have time (sigh, sigh) to make this more accessible, or even really… ahem… comprehensible in the first place. Perhaps next time around 🙂 Also, you should check out the discussion here for some seriously interesting kicking around of ideas!