Thursday, November 20, 2008

Merleau-Ponty; Reckoning with the Possibility of An Other

“When I speak or understand, I experience that presence of others in myself or of myself in others which is the stumbling-block of the theory of intersubjectivity, I experience the presence of what is represented which is the stumbling-block of the theory of time, and I finally understand what is meant by Husserl’s enigmatic statement, ‘transcendental subjectivity is intersubjectivity.” (94).

If we are attentive to the above quotation, provided that we are possessed of the particular acquisitions which might enable us to be so attentive, we notice that it is, indeed, saying something. Can we use the words in the above quotation as so many orientational devices? In order to demonstrate some understanding of the above quote, as much for myself, as to possible others whose gaze might also come across the present engagement, it seems necessary to be able to organize a discourse around it and hence point to a certain style of ‘thinking’ which has been acquired. We are dealing with a kind of expressive intention, which, while contained, or present, within the quote above necessarily outstrips it and goes beyond the words of the quote as such. As such, the current offering will attempt to point to the theory of corporeality that underlies this, otherwise enigmatic, declaration. If the current offering is successful it will manage to express something, perhaps, taking possession of what it is able to say. By being attentive to the thoughts expressed in the above quotation we are reckoning with the expression of another, which may be the result of a similar kind of reckoning. This line of thought seems to point to a further question, which may merit some attention.
Disembodied, and treated as an object for scientific investigation, language is emptied of its sense and seemingly appears as arbitrary and non-sensical. Language is meaningful only as it is lived by speaking subjects. The, otherwise, seemingly accidental historical procession of language, appears as a unity only through its usage by a speaking subject as it relates to a community of speakers. Language, therefore, as a system of differences, or disparate elements, becomes unified by a silent intention to express. Language, as a kind of enabling, is the primary mode of intending to mean anything at all. If we are attentive to the opening fragment of the statement, “when I speak, or understand,” it seems almost as if speaking and understanding are used interchangeably as if they are signifying a single phenomenon. Rather, it is the case that speaking and understanding, complete each other in the act of speech, which is made possible through the body as my corporeal unity. As embodied, our relation to the world around us takes place within a kind of phenomenal field, which has been silently given over to the habitual modes of coping with things in the ‘world’ where we find ourselves already disposed. It is not the case that, when I conduct myself in the ‘world,’ I am expressly thematizing my manner of coping with the objects therein; rather, in silence my coping takes place in a kind of pre-reflective awareness. It is, therefore, the case that the body acts as a kind of mediation of my relations to objects in the ‘world.’ Similarly, with language, the speaking subject does not pick and choose the words, within which he will attempt to contain a pre-established thought; rather, words are offered to the silent intention which makes use of them in an act of speaking.
“Signification arouses speech as the world arouses my body- by a mute presence which awakens my intentions without deploying itself before them” (86).
Informed by a certain ‘style’ of speaking, language allows for expression by affording itself to my silent intention. It is the case, therefore, that language comes to mediate between my urge, or desire, to express, and the words which offer themselves. It is this movement, from a silent intention to wordy embodiment, which allows Merleau-Ponty to declare that: “my spoken words surprise me and teach me my thought” (85).
Speech, therefore, is a gesture, an indication, or a pointing toward, a certain intended signification. Speech, if it is understood, brings a certain something before us, but what is the status of that something? Firstly, given that language is equivocal, the signified necessarily goes beyond any attempt to signify it. As such, language never affords total expression, but rather, is merely the linguistic embodiment of an attempt to signify. It is therefore, the case that these significations have the status of “Ideas,” which target, or aim at total expression but are constantly outstripped by the “things themselves” which they signify. The signified is never present before the act of expression; rather, it is this act of expression which realizes it as an intention. It is, furthermore, appropriate to say that we have, or possess, a language as the sum total of available significations.[1] The significative intention, therefore, must draw from available meanings but is also limited by the ‘world’ as the limit of possible meanings. The speaking subject, therefore, through the power of expression, is able to draw from available meaning and in turn, through them, constitute a new meaning. Understanding the meaning, therefore, is a process of taking up the signification of others, or having them “dwell within me,” such that a new ‘style’ of thought has been awakened. What has, thereby, been ‘acquired’ will remain available, without the need to reactivate the original process of constitution. A new ‘sedimentation’ has been constituted, which does not erase, or eliminate, the ‘sedimentations’ previously available. Rather the new ‘acquisition’ is incorporated into the cultural tradition that is language and is added as a new possibility for an expressive intention. The speech of others comes to “dwell” within me in a movement of transcendence, beyond the merely available meanings of the language, and is understood the moment I am able to take it within myself and express it anew. It seems to be the case, therefore, that what is available to me is not solely my ‘own,’ but ‘ours’ in the sense that what is available to me is available to everyone and only becomes mine specifically when, through my mute intention, I take it up into myself and express it anew. The ‘tradition,’ or language, is that which gives us the means of realizing our significative, or mute, intentions, however, at the same time it is constituted as the result of our expressivity.
We have, hitherto, examined how it is that, “when I speak or understand, I experience that presence of others in myself or of myself in others.” At this point we must point to the ‘representation,’ which seems to inform the ‘theory of time.’ The movement toward expression, we have taken up in our examination, is necessarily a temporal one. We have pointed to the intrinsic historicity of language, which brings into the present all present existing previously. Furthermore, we have demonstrated how it is that speech seems to teach me my thought. It, therefore, seems to be the case that the speaking subject comes to find itself through the temporal event of speech. That which is understood through the act of speaking, or listening, is gathered up into the speaking subject and projected forward in a further act of speaking. It is, therefore, the case that when I come to understand something, when something has been ‘acquired,’ I must incorporate my acquisition into a totality of meanings which were already available. The ‘field of understanding’ has thus been opened to a meaning beyond what was available in the previous moment and is, thereby, able to project what has been retained into a further moment. The temporality of this movement is precisely that which informs the theory of time.[2] Merleau-Ponty alludes to this theory of time when he states: “Our present keeps the promises of our past; we keep others’ promises” (92). The speaking subject is, therefore, a kind of temporal movement, taking place temporally, within which, every singular subjects brings with it the entirety of its past, as well as the past of others.
The body seems to be that which informs me that I am not merely a kind of transcendent consciousness. The “intentional transgression,” is that which informs me that my body is not a mere ‘thing’ in the Cartesian sense. The body forces us to reckon with a ‘pre-constituted’ ‘world,’ whose as suchness is forever beyond our grasp, although, we continuously attempt to speak it through the speech of the past. Every expression seems to shed new ‘light’ upon it, but only as it is ‘recollected’ through the moment, which we cannot grasp except as something which has already gone beyond us. The ‘intentional transgression’ seems to be enacted the moment I come across my body as already constituted in the ‘world.’ Through this, ‘intentional transgression,’ I come across the body of others whose ego I am not, whose understanding, although I know nothing of it in any sense I can call my own, is not my mode of being. The expressions of ‘others’ inform, or inhabit me, in the sense that I am given over to their expression, to the ‘ways’ they demarcate through their expressivity. We, therefore, speak the ‘world’ to each other in a communal way making our ‘thought’ available to the ‘thoughts’ of others, and having the ‘thoughts’ of others available to ourselves. We transcend, or transgress, beyond limits, which, if we reflect upon them, seem insurmountable. We bring our light, and the light of our past, forward through the temporal moment, which is but a flash in time.
Husserl’s ‘enigmatic’ statement seems to benefit from a certain clarity if we are attentive to what Merleau-Ponty has described. If we understand the declaration that “transcendental subjectivity is intersubjectivity,” then we have gone through the movement we have examined above. We have taken up the thought of Husserl, through the thought of Merleau-Ponty. If it is possible to say that Husserl remains present in Merleau-Ponty, it is, furthermore, possible to say that Husserl is present here in the moment of this text. However, at the same time, what perhaps remains unclear is what we mean to say when we invoke the names Husserl, or Merleau-Ponty. Do we have to reckon with the entirety of their thought in order to intend something through them? If these names are somehow present in the current offering what does this mean? Perhaps, this is what is meant by the declaration that “transcendental subjectivity is intersubjectivity?” I have these names, whose meanings will constantly be stretched, or perhaps altered, as my field of understanding is stretched by the power of expression. If I consider this text to be my own, do I not owe a debt to the names I invoke? In what sense are the names speaking through me as so many past intentions, awakening me to the possibility of my ‘own’ thought, or speech. In the present offering, if I seem to be taking possession of these thoughts in what way do these thoughts become mine? Or, perhaps further, in what sense am I responsible for them? Indeed, it would seem that these names carry themselves forward, through my present offering, in the moment of this text whose flux I cannot arrest. If I return to this offering a week, or perhaps, a year from the present moment will these words not seem as if they had been written by another? Or, even further, in what sense might it be the case that these thoughts written by an ‘Other?’
[1] Language is intrinsically historical, in the sense that any synchronic moment possesses all previous synchronic moments within it. Any particular present carries with it all presents occurring prior to it. The distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic, therefore, cannot be maintained in a language as it is lived. It is the case, therefore, that any particular signification becomes available as a kind of ‘sedimentation’ within the ‘tradition’ of a language.
[2] In its specificity this theory of time is Husserl’s, and is grounded upon the ‘Living Present,’ as my Living Present which ‘intertwines’ with the historical present of the ‘traditions’ which are available to me.

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