Feminist Interpretations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Edited by Dorothea Olkowski, and Edited by Gail Weiss
Feminist Interpretations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Edited by Dorothea Olkowski, and Edited by Gail Weiss
“This work is an important addition for specialists, but not geared to undergraduates.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
In addition to the editors, the contributors are Jorella Andrews, David Brubaker, Judith Butler, Laura Doyle, Helen Fielding, Vicki Kirby, Sonia Kruks, Ann Murphy, Johanna Oksala, and Beata Stawarska.
“This work is an important addition for specialists, but not geared to undergraduates.”
“Through many original and a few reprinted pieces, this collection demonstrates that there still remains much to explore and develop with and against Merleau-Ponty’s corpus. Feminist Interpretations of Merleau-Ponty definitely provides much to think about and demonstrates, as Weiss writes, ‘new ways of doing philosophy.’”
“Exhibiting well the scope and diversity of feminist readings of Merleau-Ponty, the volume is an important contribution that will be of interest to theorists in many fields, while at the same time encouraging further specialized work in the area—something that may well benefit feminist philosophy, but will certainly enrich Merleau-Ponty studies.”
Dorothea Olkowski is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
Gail Weiss is Director of the Human Sciences Program and Associate Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University.
Introduction: The Situated Subject
1. Merleau-Ponty and the Problem of Difference in Feminism
2. Only Nature Is Mother to the Child
3. White Logic and the Constancy of Color
4. The Concept of Flesh
5. Sexual Difference as a Question of Ethics: Alterities of the Flesh in Irigaray and Merleau-Ponty
6. Culpability and the Double Cross: Irigaray with Merleau-Ponty
7. Urban Flesh
8. Vision, Violence, and the Other: A Merleau-Pontean Ethics
9. Bodies Inside/Out: Violation and Resistance from the Prison Cell to The Bluest Eye
10. Female Freedom: Can the Lived Body Be Emancipated?
11. Care for the Flesh: Gilligan, Merleau-Ponty, and Corporeal Styles
12. Language in the Flesh: The Disturbance of Discourse in Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Irigaray
Introduction: The Situated Subject
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61) came to philosophy in an era that encompassed both intense social and political upheaval, as well as rich and diverse philosophical developments. Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir were prominent among those thinkers preoccupied with conceptualizing the contemporary situation of human beings. Phenomenology and existentialism were the products of these reflections. For Husserl, phenomenology is the study of phenomena, of things as they appear to us in experience and not as they are either in themselves or in reality. Thus Husserl was able to focus on the sense or meaning of phenomena for a pure human consciousness rather than become entangled in mundane debates about reference. Nonetheless, Heidegger, along with most phenomenologists of the following generation, demanded a return to “being-in-the-world,” beginning with our own insertion into the everyday world of useful things and proceeding from there to the reflective acts of “Dasein,” a being who is aware of and brings into question the meaning of its own existence as well as that of the world as a whole. Greatly influenced by Heidegger’s conception of human Dasein in the world, Sartre situates human beings in relation to their modes of temporalization in order to differentiate between Being-in-itself (nonconscious being), Being-for-itself (a transcendence that nihilates any particular being), and Being-for-others (the self as an object for others). For Sartre, every transcendent being is a flight toward its projects, which it can only achieve through the nihilation of its own immanence and the objectification of other beings, thereby denying them their transcendence in order to achieve its own. Unsatisfied with the knowing subject of a pure phenomenology, as well as with the conflicts of Sartre’s transcendent subject, Beauvoir posits an embodied subject who fully expresses the ambiguity of lived experience. This subject has been described as one whose intentionality is imbued with joy and delight at her awareness of the intersubjective world as the site of freedom, a freedom that does not entail objectification of others. Thus, the subject’s delight exceeds and overcomes the feeling of anxiety that arises in the encounter with the other who may threaten the subject’s own transcendence. This calls for an ethics in which the subject recognizes that the ethical will to liberate the other and to delight in the other’s existence can and must undermine any desire to control them.
Although frequently associated with Sartre, through the journal Les Temps Modernes, Merleau-Ponty maintained a critical distance from Sartre’s subject-object structure with its attendant intersubjective conflicts. Instead, he turned to empirical psychology to articulate a novel theory of the relation between embodied consciousness and nature, defined as the organic, the psychological, and the social worlds. Critical of the philosophical presuppositions of both “‘objectivism,’ understood as naturalism in philosophy, behaviorism in psychology, and mechanism in biology; [and] on the other hand, what he calls ‘intellectualism,’” a form of neo-Kantianism, Merleau-Ponty reinterprets Gestalt psychology to develop his own analysis of the structure of experience insofar as it is given to us phenomenologically. Hence, the title of his first book, The Structure of Behavior. After repeated excursions to the Husserl archives at the University of Louvain, Belgium, Merleau-Ponty also began to incorporate Husserl’s terminology and concepts into his complex account of perceptual experience. This inclusion opened Merleau-Ponty’s thinking to phenomenology as the study of phenomena, that is, to things as they appear to our experience, as well as to the meanings things have in our experience. No doubt, as Sonia Kruks has argued, this view appeared as a claim against the tradition of epistemology. Rather than positing a knower “who can come to have real knowledge of objects that are independent of his or her own existence,” Merleau-Ponty insists that “the relation of knower to known, of subject to object, always takes place in situation.” This leads to the necessity of showing that situated knowledge is not uniquely private but shared, a necessity all the more urgent if we take phenomenology to be the description of experience from the point of view of an individual subjectivity. Thus, while phenomenology in general must pay great attention to the ontological question of what it is to be a “being-in-situation,” given his grounding in empirical psychology, Merleau-Ponty’s particular view of this is that a being-in-situation is an embodied, perceptual being.
The feminist encounter with Maurice Merleau-Ponty can be said to have started with Simone de Beauvoir’s 1945 review of Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception, in which Beauvoir expresses her agreement with the idea of the situated, embodied subject. Our body, she argues, is our manner of being at the world (être au monde) and it involves itself in the sensible world by taking up and assuming spatial existence. This occurs, according to Merleau-Ponty, when we do not treat space as merely a container in which objects and persons appear, nor understand it as a system unified by a subject who acts, but instead reflect on our situated experience as a third spatiality. What we discover, he argues, is a system of possible actions and a body whose place is defined according to its tasks or interests in the world and according to how it is situated because, for such a body, space is an open field of corporeal possibilities. In order to clarify his point, Merleau-Ponty proposes a spatial experiment. Place a subject in a situation in which she sees a room only through a mirror that reflects it at a forty-five-degree angle, and the subject will at first see the room as slanted. Anyone walking through the room appears to be leaning and any object falling in the room falls obliquely. Overwhelmingly, the subject feels herself not at home with the room and its activities. But after a few minutes something strange and miraculous occurs: the room, the person walking through the room, and the falling object become vertical. This “miracle” can take place because the body is not some thing in an objectively held space but is located where there is something to be done, an activity to be carried out, no matter how rudimentary. Walking, sitting, opening a door, using an object, all resituate the embodied subject so she feels that she can inhabit the room. As Merleau-Ponty claims, “It is then, a certain possession of the world by my body, a certain gearing of my body to the world.”
This account of the spatial realignment of an embodied, situated subject reflects the body’s potential for certain movements such as sitting, standing, and reaching, and also the demand for vertical rather than oblique planes. Likewise it reflects the spatial environment as something that calls for certain kinds of movements and certain kinds of actions so that not only does the embodied subject inhabit and enjoy space, but she is also open to the influence and power over herself of things and spaces and, also, of other embodied beings. The integration that the embodied subject experiences between herself and her environment takes place when the subject’s motor intentions unfold as the world responds in accordance with the subject’s expectations. Such a perceptual ground is fundamentally “a basis of my life, a general setting in which my body can coexist with the world,” and so with others. The connection to other living beings arises because every conceivable being, Merleau-Ponty maintains, is related directly or indirectly to this general setting, this perceived world, making it the horizon of all our perceptions, each of which passes on its spatial orientation to whatever perception follows it. In order for this not to result in an infinite regress, Merleau-Ponty opts for a prepersonal orientation for the experiencing subject, a prepersonal, anonymous life that can only be located in the body, a communication with the world that he declares is more ancient than thought, saturating consciousness, yet impenetrable to reflection. These considerations are at the basis of the feminist invocation and feminist critique of Merleau-Ponty. Beauvoir voices no fundamental disagreement with Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the situated subject, and Merleau-Ponty even argues that it is Beauvoir who laid the foundations for existential phenomenology in her novel She Came to Stay. There, in her account of a woman on the edge of a love triangle, Beauvoir creates a character who discovers that her fundamental communications with others occur less in relation to her intentional consciousness than in her bodily situatedness, her spatial location in a world in which other beings and things are integrated with her own environment. Beauvoir affirms Merleau-Ponty’s conception when she argues that situated existence must be expressed by both the history and the prehistory that is our body, a previously given or prepersonal spatiality characterizing each body; a milieu that must remain somewhat opaque but is also the background of our embodied interconnections.
Following Beauvoir, it is probably Luce Irigaray who has had the greatest impact on feminist interpretations of Merleau-Ponty. Not only does she rethink Merleau-Ponty’s conception of spatiality, introducing the concept of the interval and rethinking that of the chiasm, but she also addresses the privilege Merleau-Ponty accords to visibility. For Merleau-Ponty, the chiasmatic relation entails the double and crossed situating of the visible and the tangible and the tangible in the visible, as well as the relation between seer and seen, touching and being touched, such that the seer is looked at by the things she sees and touched by the things she touches. The chiasmatic relation implies, as well, a new ontological conceptualization, that of the flesh, a connective tissue or intertwining constituting both world and body on a prepersonal level. Although she embraces the concept of the chiasmus, Irigaray is concerned that chiasmatically, “woman always tends towards something else without ever turning to herself as site of a positive element,” and so the positive and negative poles always divide themselves between the two sexes. In place of this Irigaray proposes a double loop in which each sex moves out toward the other then back to itself. This, in turn, makes possible the concept of the interval, the intermediate, the space between each double loop in which entirely new relations between subject and object, woman and man, are possible. For Irigaray, without such an interval, no subject can even enter the world, for there would be no spacing for the freedom of questioning between two. Moreover, two sentient beings would have to inhabit the same world in the same way in order to even encounter each other, and the risk that one would overwhelm the other is always present. Following her reformulation of the chiasmatic relation, and to the extent that Merleau-Ponty’s conception does seem to privilege vision, Irigaray asserts not simply that the visible and the tactile are reversible, but that intrauterine tactile experience is the primal sensibility, followed by the sound of the mother’s voice. As such, the prepersonal realm is much less anonymous than Merleau-Ponty postulates and much more the realm of the maternal-feminine.
Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of the prepersonal structures of existence that are prior to and the ground of any intellectual relations with the world have been subject to extensive critique for their masculinist bias. Iris Marion Young points out that Merleau-Ponty has attracted the interest of feminist philosophers by locating subjectivity in the body, thereby giving the lived body ontological status as the first locus of intentionality, a pure presence to the world and an openness to its possibilities. Nevertheless, she echoes Irigaray’s concerns by stating that an epistemology emerging from a feminine subjectivity might well privilege touch over sight and that Merleau-Ponty only occasionally offers a concept of the lived body specific to women, a bodily comportment typical of both feminine existence and of the modes and structures in the world that condition that existence. Others, among them Judith Butler, have praised some aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s work while at the same time voicing skepticism. Butler commends Merleau-Ponty for his recognition of social and historical factors that are intrinsic to any theory of the body, which is not, for him, coextensive with mere existence. Nevertheless, Butler, more forcefully than Young, has argued that Merleau-Ponty privileges the gaze in matters of sexuality, which he describes in unremittingly heterosexual terms, a perspective that he tends to naturalize, forgetting his previous commitment to historical and cultural life. Michel Le Doeuff is even more explicit in her critique of Merleau-Ponty, arguing that the visible body, perceived by the so-called normal subject, is a woman’s body seen by the gaze of the man, who will soon move from gaze to gesture, from vision to touch, remaking what he sees, accenting his own erogenous tastes. The disturbing implication of this position is that each woman seen by a man is seen from within the framework of what Le Doeuff takes to be a generalized structure of power, the power of each man to redraw or remake anything he sees no matter how idiosyncratically this is done. She finds this particularly disturbing in the intellectual realm, where male scholars still publish books about women making use only of the work of other male scholars and implying—using reasoning very much like that used by Merleau-Ponty—that a man has the right to represent women as he wishes.
More recently, feminist philosophers have begun a reassessment of the value of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for feminism. Although they do not deny the masculine bias of his thinking, there is, nevertheless, a concerted attempt to take up what is most useful in his work. Sonia Kruks and Gail Weiss, who have both contributed essays to this volume, are significant in this new effort. Kruks traces Merleau-Ponty’s usefulness to feminist philosophy to the obvious affinities between the ideas of Beauvoir and those of Merleau-Ponty. Kruks argues that “although Merleau-Ponty is . . . well aware that objectifying and alienating relations are not only possible but often central to human existence, his account of the lived experience of ‘the’ body—the body that perceives, moves, touches, and acts in this world—is not that of a body that is pervasively cast as other.” Instead, she argues, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body is that it is a generality; in other words, as embodied, subjects inhabit an anonymous or prepersonal realm, which he later called flesh, and which includes both the flesh of bodies and the flesh of the world. It is flesh that provides human beings with a general atmosphere of intersubjective communication prior to cognition and therefore prior to social or gender stratification. For her part, Weiss finds much of value in Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the body image, the corporeal schema that plays an indispensable stabilizing role in the perceptual process and makes it possible for the perceiver to come into possession of a world. Although the body might be subject to oppression from others or from society, insofar as it is a style of being, a body image, embodied being, is also the condition of the possibility of transformation and openness to possibilities. Most important for Weiss is the idea that, already for Merleau-Ponty, there are a plurality of body images for every embodied being, which change in relation to the intercorporeal world that each being inhabits. Intercorporeality, in Weiss’s account, arises as an originary openness to others, who, in turn, contribute to the constitution of each self by means of the differential or diacritical structure that organizes both perception and language and that makes it possible to articulate the extent to which the social and the bodily realm intertwine without the latter becoming the cause of the former.
Given the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to the phenomenological idea of situated embodiment, every chapter in this volume, in some significant manner, reflects on what it means to be a spatially situated and embodied subject and how it is either possible or necessary to make this the basis of both our individual and our intersubjective lives. If Merleau-Ponty’s claims can be upheld, then the spatial situatedness of prepersonal existence not only grounds and resituates our experience of the environment and things, but more important, also grounds the experience of other human beings as other and resituates them as related to the perceiving subject in the midst of their multiple differences, their profound otherness and separateness. It does this because, if, as we claimed above, the body’s place is defined according to its tasks or interests in the world, this will be the case not only with respect to the world of things but also with respect to other human beings. As human beings, our tasks and interests situate our experience. Thus, in this volume, the question will often arise of whether Merleau-Ponty has solved the problematic of sexual difference, especially with respect to the question of the gender of the prepersonal as well as the intentional subject. Many of the chapters in this volume address whether, or the extent to which, the ethics of sexual difference can be successfully formulated by his phenomenology. The answer may well lie in how each of the authors takes up the question of Merleau-Ponty’s as well as her or his own tasks and interests, for on Merleau-Ponty’s account, what interests us is what we will seek to ground and situate with respect to our experience and knowledge.
The tasks and interests with which this volume begins are those of the relation of intersubjectivity to embodiment as they encourage or discourage sexual difference in Merleau-Ponty’s work. In the opening chapter, “Merleau-Ponty and the Problem of Difference in Feminism,” Sonia Kruks lays out the framework for an ethics of sexual difference from the perspective of an intersubjective interpretation of Merleau-Ponty. Although Kruks admits that Merleau-Ponty does mostly conceive of the body as masculine, she argues that embodiment alone is not necessarily a guarantee of intersubjectivity, since embodiment is a site of antagonisms and conflicts as much as it offers positive potentialities for communication and harmonious intersubjectivity. Kruks maintains that feminism has a need to acknowledge both situated knowledges and objective or shared and public knowledges, and she argues that Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology performs precisely this task. He does this, she thinks, because his philosophical arguments are dialectical, so that his abstract accounts of embodiment must be interpreted through the lens of his later, more complex ideas on culture, language, politics, and history. Merleau-Ponty thus places the perceiver in a situated world that she cannot wholly control where perceiver and perceived form a whole, a gestalt in which each interacts with the other in order to be what it is. For Kruks, this is the basis of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of an anonymous and prepersonal embodiment, but it is also the basis of anyone’s particular point of view insofar as having a body and being able to look gives one a spatial location and so a view of the world. Thus the prepersonal is always also particular and suffused with social significations, and the relation between self and world can thereby be understood to involve both affirmation and negation and so is dialectical. However, the existence of others presents difficulties, and solipsism affirms the extent to which it is possible, on Merleau-Ponty’s account, for others to exist only as objects for the subject. Kruks proposes that, in the end, what brings us together is our affective bond with others, by which we participate in acts of solidarity with those whose social identities are different from our own. This is the basis of feminist solidarity: since women’s bodies and lives are highly differentiated with respect to one another, only the generic nature of feminine embodiment is adequate to account for solidarity and possible positive intersubjective relations. Yet Kruks seems to acknowledge that intersubjective relations will of necessity be partial, for the dialectical nature of embodiment incorporates a negative moment as well as a positive one so that it is up to us to choose which aspect of our embodiment to live.
The felt, affective bond with others that Kruks proposes as the basis of intersubjective relations is precisely the problem taken up in Dorothea Olkowski’s chapter, “Only Nature Is Mother to the Child.” Beginning with Merleau-Ponty’s claim that understanding an experience, as opposed to living through it, tends to produce distortions that never quite capture the authenticity of the lived-through moment and that the child’s experience of authenticity and immediacy is an indispensable acquisition underlying maturity, the question Olkowski raises is, Why does Merleau-Ponty insist on the primacy of nature so as to exclude any traces of the child’s relation to a mother? Nowhere in the human cultural world does the child appear to find positive affective relations between human beings; thus, without an originary experience of coexistence or reciprocity, intersubjective attachments appear to be impossible. Even though Merleau-Ponty recognizes that the child’s world is originally a world of feeling, he is led to give up the idea of the psyche, the feeling one has of one’s own existence, and to replace it with the concept of behavior. In other words, Merleau-Ponty trades off what is felt—including the felt relation to the mother, who nurtures and cares for the child, for behavior, which can be seen and so is predominantly visual. This move resolves certain crucial problems, such as how the child comes to have an experience of the other. But in dismissing a fundamental tactile or felt experience of the child, Merleau-Ponty gives up the child’s felt relation, not just with an other, but with a mother, proposing instead that the child begins in a state in which she is unaware of any self-other differences at all, and then by means of the specular image, comes to see herself and others as separate beings.
Olkowski then asks, If the child truly begins in an undifferentiated world, what could possibly introduce differentiation? Intersubjectivity may well commence with the felt experience of the child, which begins in the body of the woman who gives birth, who carries the child to term, and who then nurtures and cares for the child. Without this felt, intersubjective life, vision alone does not guarantee that what is seen is understood by the child to be an other or a separate being. This is affirmed in Merleau-Ponty’s own account by his acknowledgment that specular knowledge of oneself is also alienation, that in gazing into the mirror the child is no longer what she felt herself to be but is only that image in the mirror. Since the feeling component of lived experience has been dismissed by Merleau-Ponty as being too chaotic to offer any meaningful information to the child, the child can only experience herself, the world, and others through the specular image. However, caught up in this image, the child is alienated from herself, from the world, and from others to the point where intersubjectivity becomes alienation. Confronted with this empty human world, Merleau-Ponty falls back upon the hypothesis of an originary experience of harmonized nature. Yet, as Olkowski concludes, if the child’s felt experience of birth and being nurtured by the mother is nothing but undifferentiated chaos, there appears to be an unbridgeable gap between the experience of the child and the experience of the adult, which vision does not close.
In “White Logic and the Constancy of Color,” Helen Fielding addresses intersubjectivity by means of what she calls an underlying theme for Merleau-Ponty, that is, the suppression of lived corporeal creativity and its submission to the mind’s unifying representational activity. She asks, How does an embodied subject both encounter a sedimented, thus familiarly significant, world and also remain open to new forms of sedimentation? How can we use our cognition to make sense of what we experience even while remaining alive to the possibilities that our corporeal interactions generate? One the one hand, Fielding argues that phenomenological description can be used to reveal the invisible operations of the suppression of corporeal creativity, but on the other, she finds that phenomenology also neutralizes its own activities and so obscures the relations of dominance that it creates. Exemplary, in this regard, according to Fielding, are the invisible operations of the phenomenal structures that privilege white skin in Western culture, structures that obscure the privilege they make possible behind a screen of neutrality and normality. Fielding supports the position that the apparent cultural invisibility of white skin is oriented by racially and sexually specific understandings of a mind/body dualism linking mind to a white male and inherently rational European model, while it links the body to a feminine “colored” emotional embodiment. Given that white as a hue is taken to be no color because it is all colors, it is easily made to designate the human norm as well as social norms in which white symbolizes the good.
Yet perception demands difference and only color allows differentiation. Because white light best illuminates the structure of objects, uniformly reflecting the varied surfaces of objects, it is almost always favored over colored lighting, even as it neutralizes difference. Thus color perception provides an important clue to the apprehension of cognitive elements such as concepts. Like a color, a concept can affect the way in which things appear. A concept, such as “humanity,” has a horizon of being that precedes and overlaps with its cognitive dimension. In this manner, both concepts and colors exceed what they signify and represent; thus, focusing on racism and sexism as they are represented and signified fails to comprehend the ontological foundations that dictate how things and people appear in a racist and sexist horizon. This and other horizons cancel out any stray data that do not conform to their logic. Such tension between creative thinking and adherence to sedimented structures is embedded in Merleau-Ponty’s work, and Fielding suggests that he did not realize the implications of his perceptual theory for an understanding of creativity. Fielding recognizes and embraces the need for a thought that opens up the potential of the body for dismantling sedimented structures in order to create new ways of relating and signifying and she continues to interrogate Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to find the lived basis of these modes of being.
In the final chapter addressed specifically to intersubjectivity, a critical view of the concept of flesh is proposed by Beata Stawarska. In “The Concept of Flesh,” she argues for the importance of maintaining a self/other distinction in relation to Merleau-Ponty’s conception of flesh. The concept of flesh has been criticized by feminists for articulating human experience in terms of universal categories and so failing to acknowledge the gender-specific experience of the body. Stawarska is concerned also with an analogous effect of universalizing, that is, the massive reduction of the intersubjective experience of the body to the body proper as manifested in the encounter with other embodied persons. She notes how Merleau-Ponty describes the intrasubjective bodily experience of touching one’s own hand in which touching and being touched are reversible. He claims that the same principle operates between bodies, since active touching can always be reversed into passive being touched, or the seer can become the seen. The problem, according to Stawarska, is that in making the move from intracorporeality to intercorporeality, the very difference between these two modes of being is erased and the sensible difference between what is mine and what is other disappears. As a result, the concrete specificity of any corporeal dynamic gets submerged in a collapse into the universal model of reversible self-touching. This is a result, she argues, of the masculine frame of mind that continually misrepresents the structures of intersubjectivity as well as gender in its tendency to reduce the other to the same. Thus the male regards his body as a direct and normal connection to the world and sees himself as the essential and sovereign subject for whom the other recedes to the status of an inessential and dependent object. The latter tendency makes it impossible to account for an authentic relation with the other.
Stawarska acknowledges that Merleau-Ponty conceived of flesh as a prototype of being, thus as apersonal and anonymous, the generality of incarnate being, not of the personal experience of the body. The personal perspective was the focus of Merleau-Ponty’s earlier work and the question raised here is whether he successfully abandoned the perspective of the body proper or merely generalized it in his ontology of flesh. The intercorporeal encounter with an other is understood through analogy with one’s intracorporeal reversibility, insofar as in a handshake, for example, the other’s body is annexed by one’s own. However, as Merleau-Ponty makes clear, only touching one’s own body yields the double sensation of toucher-touching; that is, I cannot be an other, since I have my own place. No actual reversal is possible except from the point of view of a detached spectator who could incorporate both the hand touching and the hand being touched in a single act. Stawarska concludes that if only an impersonal spectator could uphold the thesis of intracorporeal reversibility, its characterization in terms of world flesh must be universalization of the experience of a unique “body proper,” which serves as a norm for Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. But this universalisalizing tendency has a larger scope than has previously been identified in the feminist interpretations of Merleau-Ponty, in that it leads both to the bracketing of gender and the self/other specificity. Stawarska argues that this failure to develop an authentic relation to the other is an inherent trait of the masculinist frame of mind and that it is most prominent in the oppression of women by men, insofar as men have consistently reduced women to the category of secondary and subordinate beings, devoid of free subjectivity.
Judith Butler’s subtle exploration of ethics and sexual difference offers an introduction to the intertwining of recent feminist approaches with that of Merleau-Ponty. In “Sexual Difference as a Question of Ethics: Alterities of the Flesh in Irigaray and Merleau-Ponty,” Butler begins by arguing for Luce Irigaray’s subordination to the prephilosophical texts she reads, insofar as Irigary attributes to them a power that she also seeks to undo. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, in particular, Irigaray engages in an “intertwining,” which enacts the theory of flesh that it also interrogates, thereby installing itself willingly within that text. The ethical question, raised by Butler, is whether Irigaray’s method works to confirm and enhance the power of the text it seeks to counter. Butler proposes that Irigaray enacts an intertwining that suggests a mutually constitutive relation in which the feminine is the negative condition of the possibility of the masculine. This exposes the vulnerability of Merleau-Ponty’s concepts in particular, and the philosophical tradition in general, to what they exclude, an exclusion that in its turn is radically dependent upon what it refuses. As Butler reads him, Merleau-Ponty is concerned with how the dominant relation between understanding and vision has elided the role of tactility. So he suggests that there is a primary intertwining of language, vision, and touch that might best be understood on the level of aesthetic experience and ontology rather than through epistemology, whose subject-object distinction arises out of and so is secondary to that intertwining. For Irigaray, however, Merleau-Ponty’s intertwining already presupposes a set of established relations that forecloses the open future, the never yet known, which is open to the paradigmatic ethical question “Who are you?” She would reformulate the intertwining as constitutive in the sense that through it feminine and masculine each admits its own internal impossibility through its relation to the Other, a dynamic differentiation in proximity. What unfolds, for Butler, is a textual “intertwining” between Irigaray and Merleau-Ponty; each is engaged in a primary complicity with the Other without which no subject or author can emerge. The ethical question now becomes one of how to treat the Other well when that other is never fully Other, when the difference between self and Other is originally equivocal.
For Irigaray, Merleau-Ponty’s intertwining is solipsistic, while for Butler, Merleau-Ponty’s embodied “I” implicates this “I” in the world outside itself in which it is no longer the center or ground. This, in turn, makes possible Irigaray’s identification of the maternal body as prior to this “I” and its embodied objects. But this, Butler argues, is to reduce a complex set of constituting interrelations to “oneself,” that is, to the maternal body. Furthermore, it appears that what makes the refusal of alterity a masculinist enterprise, for Irigaray, is her use of the psychoanalytic model in which the mother is nothing but the site of a narcissistic reflection for the masculine subject. In her eyes, Merleau-Ponty has first repudiated the maternal, then reappropriated it in the form of intertwining or flesh occasioned by the masculine subject. Butler’s response to this is to inquire if it is not the case that the maternal body is also situated in relations of alterity without which it could not exist. If so, does not Merleau-Ponty’s insistence upon a prior world, which he calls flesh, offer a way out of the controlling figure of the maternal and out of the binary trap of both mothers and men? Similarly with language, Irigaray claims that insofar as language emerges directly from bodily life, it is subject to the same solipsism as is vision and touch. Again, Butler asks if Irigaray is not assuming that the same structure of narcissism is operating here when the fact that she is implicated in Merleau-Ponty’s text, that it is the site of her expropriation, indicates something quite different. If Merleau-Ponty is implicated in the world of flesh, to disavow it would be to disavow himself as well, likewise with the experience of the Other. As Butler argues, “To have one’s being implicated in the Other is thus to be intertwined from the start but not for that reason to be reducible to—or exchangeable with—one another.” However, Butler immediately adds that none of this would have come to light without Irigaray’s intervention. Only by working through Irigaray’s reworking of Merleau-Ponty’s text can Butler read his text in this manner. And likewise, only by appropriating Merleau-Ponty’s text does Irigaray go on to derive a feminist philosophy both continuous with and other than the tradition she inherits.
In her chapter, “Culpability and the Double Cross: Irigaray with Merleau-Ponty,” Vicky Kirby explains that the attraction of feminist philosophy for her has always been the promise that ideas and values associated with women, which had formerly been conceived almost entirely in negative terms, might be able to be reconceived in a positive manner. She finds that Luce Irigaray, in particular, is able to begin her analyses with philosophy’s own positions and self-definitions in order to disclose the value of what is repressed or disavowed in the logic of these philosophies. Kirby is particularly interested in Irigaray’s critique of the Western philosophical concept of the subject, especially insofar as this concept is caught up with particular ideas about the feminine and the maternal. Kirby argues that, for Irigaray, although any examination of the maternal will inevitably take us to our history and origins, we must guard against nostalgia, which works to “block the threshold of the ethical world,” by hiding “man’s” anxieties about the carnality of his own history, allowing him to commodify and control his origins by replacing his fleshly origins by building a world that is largely uninhabitable. Chiefly, it is the technological world guided by instrumental knowledge that dismembers the world and cuts it up into usable and manageable parts. Kirby suggests that for Irigaray, rather than managing the world, we might consider staying attuned to it and to our own bodies through perception, which neither closes women off nor manages them. Kirby points out that this solution is deliberately elusive with respect to defining women, for Irigaray is not interested in establishing an alternative representation of women; rather, she merely seeks to question the constraints already in place.
Kirby finds in Merleau-Ponty a formidable ally for Irigaray, particularly because he confounds traditional dichotomous divisions with the notion of the flesh as the world’s becoming itself and, in its “reversibility,” embracing itself. So when Irigaray criticizes Merleau-Ponty for displacing the feminine by reconceiving of the maternal in terms of flesh, Kirby is prepared to defend the notion of the maternal as the world (re)conceiving itself, invaginating itself and so perceiving itself by opening itself up to the experience of its own difference, its noncoincidence in a manner that is unashamedly lacking in reserve. Thus the generative nature of the sensible undoes the so-called spatial and temporal exclusivity of maternity insofar as perception allows the world to seize its own alienness and in the wonder of this encounter to reconceive itself. This is not only possible but necessary, because nothing is preexistent in nature and everything is in the process of becoming itself. This is not, Kirby cautions, a return to a prediscursive moment, but rather the ability of flesh to perceive and center itself in its dispersion. It is maternity in the sense of the issuing forth of an identity across space and time in a world in which the senses become the “measurants for Being.” Kirby argues that Merleau-Ponty grounds language in difference and that Merleau-Ponty’s conception of “visibility” can be read as Jacques Derrida’s “textuality” such that when flesh diverges from itself, it fractures the separate sensory modalities in each body as well as between bodies so that, as Merleau-Ponty argues, there is a kind of presence of other people within each person. For Kirby, Irigaray erases this extraordinary reading of carnality when she reads it as a symptom of masculinist theft, and Kirby accuses Irigaray of resorting to a notion of duration as linear time by making tactility the perceptual ground of nurturing and support and so of visibility. Likewise, Irigaray places maternity at the origin of giving, so it is not itself subject to birth. The continual insistence on purity of origins that Kirby finds everywhere in Irigaray’s work is, she argues, found nowhere in Merleau-Ponty, for whom violation is impossible because everything is always already given and, in this givenness, intertwined with everything else—visible and tactile, self and other, self and world, body and language. Given this “generosity,” as Kirby calls it, the male subject becomes as unstable as the female, and reversibility rather than violation becomes the foundation of a radical new ethics because the condition of reversibility constrains us to be responsible insofar as all human beings issue from the flesh of sexual difference, the flesh of the world.
Gail Weiss wishes to explore the intersubjective value of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh by extending it to the materiality of the urban in her chapter, “Urban Flesh.” If we have succeeded in overcoming or at least addressing the mind/body dualism of Cartesianism, then it may be time, she argues, to turn to the nature/city divide and to give it adequate theoretical attention. It is, Weiss maintains, a distinction no less gendered, racist, and classist than that of mind/body dualism. This claim is all the more important in light of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Witnessed by thousands around the world, the images of human pain and suffering as well as those of the collapsing buildings ignited a worldwide visceral sense of vulnerability. This disruption of the so-called natural attitude reawakens our awareness of those countries recently as well as continually ravaged by war or natural disasters. Rather than seeking a fast return to the natural attitude, Weiss suggests that we take up Merleau-Ponty’s claim that for us, as incarnate beings, violence is our lot. To this Weiss adds that even the prospect of reconstruction following violent incidents may call for the violence of justice to rectify the situation, for even a nominally liberal society may, in reality, be oppressive. What is needed, Weiss suggests, is some recognition and understanding of the manner in which bodies exceed the boundaries of their own skin to participate in the “flesh of the world,” insofar as the relation between them is, as Merleau-Ponty might argue, “chiasmatic.” Given the reality that many inhabitants of cities and towns literally have no place to dwell leads Weiss to caution those who would put too much emphasis on the need for a home in which to cultivate one’s individual identity and those who ignore the often profound alienation that cities may evoke for their inhabitants, not to mention those for whom even a beautiful home is a prison. In the end, Weiss argues for a much more nuanced picture of the flesh of dwelling, one that does not gloss its violence any more than it romanticizes its possibilities, which may include peace and joy but also discord and disorder.
The complex relation between intersubjectivity and ethics, perception and the other, is explored in Jorella Andrews’s “Vision, Violence, and the Other: A Merleau-Pontean Ethics.” She grants that for Merleau-Ponty, perception opens up the intersubjective world to human beings, but in so doing, it also opens up an ethical world and a metaethics. Merleau-Ponty claims that perception is in some sense violent, but it is a violence that is not connected to any sort of objectification. Vision, in particular, although strongly associated with fixing things in their place as objects, need not objectify. Instead, Andrews argues, the gaze is precisely antiocular, a refusal to see and to engage in seeing, since seeing does not fix objects in place but opens up the possibility for ongoing interaction in our perceptual relations. Therefore, Andrews argues, perception makes and unmakes worlds, selves, and others. To deny this openness and vulnerability would be to flee the intersubjective world, where all bodies are marked with the traces of mortality, for the stable but limited realm of the rational and the willful. To refuse to acknowledge the instability of perception is to refuse the experience of another kind of permanence, one found only among bodies, and to enter a solipsistic realm. Any failure to recognize others implies the failure to experience ourselves as seen by them, which is not the same as merely assigning others a place in our world through our conceptions of them.
Andrews hypothesizes that it is precisely these notions of intersubjective life that form the basis of Merleau-Ponty’s ethics. A truly ethical situation, she argues, is a truly intersubjective one in which human beings reveal themselves by generously meeting others whose perspectives are juxtaposed to their own. Rather than suppressing others’ perspectives, Andrews maintains that Merleau-Ponty argues for their expression so that differences may be negotiated. This is evidenced in Merleau-Ponty’s account of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel L’invitée, which he finds contains numerous descriptions pointing to this kind of ethics, one that arises within a situation rather than being externally imposed. In such descriptions of situated ethical connections, freedom, according to Merleau-Ponty, is a matter of accepting all one’s involvements and going beyond them to examine the means by which one becomes involved in the first place. This brings Andrews back to her original thesis regarding the instability of perception. For she concludes that the means by which one becomes involved with others in a flexible and nonobjectivizing manner is through the lived body with all its vulnerabilities and concrete modes of being, which precedes all thought about the world and, presumably, all action as well.
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body is put to the test by Laura Doyle in her moving chapter, “Bodies Inside/Out: Violation and Resistance from the Prison Cell to The Bluest Eye,” in which Doyle proposes to examine the paradoxical carnal logic where bodily vulnerability founds resistance and weakness forms the ground of defiance. The torture of IRA prisoners held in the Long Kesh prison involved the penetration of their bodily orifices by means of fists and metal tools. This is no mere display of mastery over the prisoners’ bodies, cautions Doyle; it is a display of mastery over the space contained within the body; what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the chiasmus, the ontological center that is the space of possibility. Insofar as there is always a hiatus between self-touching bodily parts, the part of the body touched and the part touching never coincide. This hiatus is the space of possibility as well as the space of vulnerability, spanned by the total being of the body and by that of the world. The point of torture and humiliation is not only to inflict pain but to divide the person from her own possibilities by invading and occupying the space of the body’s chiasmatic relations. Moreover, the use or threat of invasive means such as rape reveals that the geopolitical landscape is an extension of the bodily interior, in the intercorporeal sense that Merleau-Ponty theorizes, and so to enter one is to signal one’s intention to enter the other. Yet the very attempt at invasion opens up resistance in the form of an internal breathing space that cannot be penetrated, since it is nonmaterial.
In spite of the initial accounts given by prisoners describing how they defended themselves mentally against their torture by dissociating mind from body, Doyle argues that more careful attention to their accounts reveals that the prisoners preserved themselves by means of their twoness, the joining of interior to exterior, lived-inside to lived-outside. For women prisoners in particular, “it is the hands” that came to the rescue, the very hands that exemplify the chiasmatic relation between touching and touched. Thus when all the prisoner’s handworked objects were taken away, it left them without the anticipation and promise of things and shut down the chiasm, reducing their life. Doyle asserts that it is the very doubleness of the chiasm that allows this to happen, that turns one’s own things, once taken away or stolen, against oneself. So the prisoner learns to hoard and to hide even the most trivial things, using the folds of the world to reaccess space, to revivify time. In this manner, the inside of the isolated prison cell where things from the outside world are hoarded and hidden maintains the prisoner in the chiasm where inside/outside and isolation/connection are still lived. This same interpretation of the chiasm guides Doyle’s reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, whose protagonist suffers immeasurably from a life in which the very persons, objects, and events that open the world to her also make possible her abject condition. This intercorporeality epitomizes the gap between the protected reader of these accounts and the prisoners/sufferers, a reading that does not merely inform but that brings the reader to witness events both alienating and involving, focusing on the disparity between the sufferings of the subjects and the safety of the witness, yet not allowing for a closure of the chiasm, leaving open the gap, the wound.
The relation between morality and freedom is the subject of Johanna Oksala’s chapter, “Female Freedom: Can the Lived Body Be Emancipated?” Against those who criticize Merleau-Ponty for universalizing intracorporeality into intercorporeality, Oksala argues that Iris Young’s adaptation and Jean Grimshaw’s and Judith Butler’s earlier criticisms of Merleau-Ponty each presuppose a foundationalist reading of Merleau-Ponty, that is, an analysis of the body’s structures as a universal and stable foundation for subjectivity. Oksala opposes this understanding of the body-subject as an existential constant whose universal structures are the foundation for all forms of subjectivity. Rather, she maintains, subjectivity is always historically constituted, even for the anonymous body, and this makes it possible to suggest new and interesting ways to think about the freedom of the female body. Oksala focuses on the operative intentionality of the body, which is directed to the world and places one in situations in the world. This intentionality is prior to or beneath the intentionality of acts directed toward particular objects; it is the intertwining of body and world and is expressed in the idea of the prepersonal or anonymous tacit cogito, a prereflective subjectivity as yet unaware of itself because it is inseparable from the world with which it is intertwined.
Oksala wishes to articulate a more radical reading of Merleau-Ponty, one that rejects the anonymous body as foundational by emphasizing the reciprocity of all constitutive processes. She argues that for Merleau-Ponty, as for Husserl before him, other people are the precondition for the objectivity of perceptions because in order for something to be an object for one perceiver, it must carry the possibility of being simultaneously perceived from other points of view. Therefore, intersubjectivity, not the anonymous body, is the condition of the possibility of perception and it constitutes objective reality out of the threefold structure of subjectivity-intersubjectivity-world. Social normality is intersubjectively constituted for Merleau-Ponty, because the anonymous body is also intersubjectively generated; it is a dynamic and developing structure and not merely a naturalized foundation. Oksala argues that Merleau-Ponty transforms the nature/culture dichotomy into an intersubjectively constituted order constrained by our cultural environment. The historical constitution of the body remains essentially ambiguous and dynamic. Thus, although “female” embodiment is culturally constituted, it is never completely so, never a mere mechanical repetition, because intersubjective norms are not merely copied, they are taken up and lived, providing an ontological freedom without which political freedom is impossible.
In “Care for the Flesh: Gilligan, Merleau-Ponty, and Corporeal Styles,” David Brubaker directly addresses and defends the ethics of care, making use of the concept of embodiment as flesh to justify it. Carol Gilligan’s care ethics is well known for its empirically gendered “different voice,” which moves away from the frameworks of disinterested reason and impartial justice and toward the concreteness of noticing the personal needs of unique individuals. This leads to the question of whether the perspective of care is logically incompatible with a rational moral framework. Brubaker argues that the ethics of care demands a personal principle that nevertheless specifies a repeatable context associated with the concrete individuality of each moral agent. Thus perceivers are aware of both perspectives but tend to prefer only one. Brubaker adds that such choices might be guided by a supporting context of visibility that allows for a feeling of attachment and the desire to care for the concrete needs of persons. Flesh, it is argued, entails many of the characteristics and relations of care insofar as it first serves as a subjective or personal principle of the self-affirmation of one’s own unique existence, which is then universalized to the flesh of the hand grasping one’s own and so to all. Following from this, the subjective injunction to care for the material basis of one’s own unique existence may then be universalized as well, making possible the transfer of care for self to care for others, within the realm of visibility and tactility.
But what if gender is suppressed in considering the moral perspective of care? In such circumstances, the evidence of a different voice, a self attached to others, and a new ethic will all also be suppressed. If gender and care are causally connected either to the social milieu or to biological factors, then care cannot be a general principle of morality upholding personal autonomy. If every person has the capacity to alternate between justice and care, then it is possible that a gender difference might be associated at this particular moment in history with one or the other choice. Ultimately, Brubaker concludes, the moral perspective of care for the flesh is not the same as an empirical understanding of the structural relations that cause social and economic inequality in society. If a corporeal ethics can contribute to the desire to change the world, then the concreteness of subjectivity is of the greatest importance and the voices of women may indeed lead to a more interconnected existence that does not exclude sexual difference. This would be an existence in which the subjective contexts of visibility and touch bind each thing to every other and constitute zones of indeterminacy that enable body-images; self-concepts; and conceptions of sex, gender, race, and class to inhere within the realm of the individual person’s own unique and practical existence.
Ann Murphy captures this same tension in her examination of the desire to unveil a “wild” or originary experience and the sedimentation of language and culture in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. In “Language in the Flesh: The Disturbance of Discourse in Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Irigaray,” she explores the split between our collective immersion in a primordial historicity that prereflectively informs our judgments and the political need for difference or alterity. What is at stake here is the concern that if Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology cannot sufficiently theorize alterity, it is neither politically nor ethically viable. Such, at least, she maintains, is the critique aimed at Merleau-Ponty by Emmanual Levinas and Luce Irigaray. Murphy argues that Irigaray assents to Merleau-Ponty’s return to prediscursive experience in order to construct language differently. However, Merleau-Ponty’s description of this world, where all the possibilities of language are pregiven, provokes the accusation that language must remain tied to patterns of patriarchal exclusion. Moreover, Levinas, whose idea of ethics requires the Other’s transcendence of history and irreducibility to a common material soil, suggests that lacking this sort of ethics, Merleau-Ponty has none at all.
It is Levinas, first of all, who originally applauds Merleau-Ponty’s freeing of expressive language from its subordination to thought, particularly with respect to transcendental idealism. However, for Levinas, Merleau-Ponty continues to ground signification in intentionality, a consciousness of its object that recovers all the rights of subjectivism and interiority. Whereas, for Levinas, the prelinguistic orientation of language must come from outside any historical context, so that the call to ethics can disrupt the politicohistorical landscape in the face of humanity, which overflows every idea of it. Thus language, in order to be ethical rather than political, can neither represent nor assimilate but must imply a radical separation between interlocutors. Murphy’s reply is to inquire of Levinas how it is possible to conceive of bodies beyond history, since if conditions such as sex and race influence the body’s interactions with the world, then the consequences of the failure to take history into account may be enormous. However, if Levinas and Irigaray are right, then Merleau-Ponty reduces speech to an encounter that fails to exceed the duplication of one’s own experience and is, therefore, is not open to novelty. If so, Murphy argues, this is a critique of phenomenology itself, of the extent to which it is haunted by subjectivism. Yet Merleau-Ponty, she believes, is not the proper target of such a critique insofar as in his descriptions, the relation between self and other is always rendered in terms of alterity and dispersion. And insofar as this is the case, this brings him closer to Irigaray’s position that symbolic discourse does indeed suppress sexual difference and it is just this suppression that Merleau-Ponty strives to overcome.
The scope of these chapters confirms that numerous aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy are valued by feminist theory. As Shannon Sullivan has noted, these include “the primacy given to bodily existence; the attention paid to the pre-reflective aspects of human life, including its indeterminacy and ambiguity; the importance of situation and situatedness for understanding our engagement with/in the world; and the crucial role that habit plays in corporeal existence,” all within the context of making sense of lived experience in an intersubjective world of shared meaning. Nevertheless, if there is much here for feminist theories to build on, there may also be controversies giving rise to a call for new conceptions of human existence. Certainly, as has been stated above, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body is that as embodied, subjects inhabit an anonymous or prepersonal realm, later called flesh, which includes both the flesh of bodies and the flesh of the world. Several of the contributors to this volume argue that the concept of flesh describes the general atmosphere of intersubjective communication prior to cognition and so prior to social or gender stratification. Yet, as Sullivan has also claimed, echoing several other authors in this volume, we must take care not to overestimate the usefulness of bodily commonalities and shared structures for philosophy. The social and cultural milieu are powerful determinants, influencing the direction and meaning of human acts, diminishing and redirecting the embodied intentionality of any being who thereby expects the acts of others to echo her own. It may be the case, then, that the future of feminist interpretations of Merleau-Ponty as well as the working out of feminist questions regarding embodiment will be located precisely here in this nexus between generality and specificity, between the structure of anonymous, prepersonal, embodied existence and that of gendered, personal life in order to discover some structure that might account for both while privileging neither.
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