Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (Eds.): Merleau-Ponty. Space, Place, Architecture

Paul DiGeorgio

Merleau-Ponty: Space, Place, Architecture Book Cover Merleau-Ponty: Space, Place, Architecture
Series in Continental Thought
Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (Eds.)
Philosophy, Architecture
Ohio University Press
Hardcover $64.00

Reviewed by: Paul A. di Georgio (Duquesne University)

With this collection of essays, which is in fact the first of its kind, Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCain have assembled a provocative group of papers which explore one of the most compelling dimensions of contemporary Merleau-Ponty scholarship. The set of papers contained in this volume all take to task the relation, as well as the application, of key concepts in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre to a refocused examination of architecture, spatiality, and, importantly, the political.

For Merleau-Ponty the phenomenological subject is, as Locke puts it, “firmly embedded in the world, even before we represent it to ourselves through geometrical or symbolic means.” (5) It follows that the way in which environment, and architecture in particular, are, as Merleau-Ponty would say, “interwoven” with phenomenal experience holds significant influence over our thinking of being, whether it comes down to our construction of dwelling structures or our interpersonal relations.

So if the idea, here, comes down to the co-constitution of the phenomenal lifeworld, which Locke aptly calls “corporeal companionship,” then it is apparent that we can productively reconsider architectural theory and design from an embodied phenomenological perspective. Furthermore we can reexamine this same perspective not for the way in which it situates space, but rather, for the way in which space situates it. The textual launching point for this insight, in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, is found in “Eye and Mind” in the well-known passage where he indicates that the articulation of “light and space” in fact “speak to us,” and he suggests that it is here that a new conception of being bursts onto the scene. Locke’s introduction aptly opens with an epigraph which reminds us of this.

So what exactly are these new conceptions of being? Locke suggests that there are three main strands of philosophical thinking which operate in this area of inquiry, predicated upon either phenomenological space or, with respect to Merleau-Ponty’s later thought, the philosophy of the “flesh.” The three strands are as follows: i) feminist philosophies and critiques of culture, ii) ecophenomenology or so-called “deep ecology,” and iii) material-object philosophies inspired by Deleuze (6). While the collection of essays in the text are organized into three groups, these groups in fact do not correspond to the philosophical strands which Locke here enumerates. Rather, the editors have grouped the papers together in terms of how they relate to the idea of phenomenological limits. Locke does maintain, however, that each paper in the volume engages the claims of these three strands of thinking. I would argue that this is the case, although some of the papers point back to these divisions more so than others.

In any case, the volume is comprised of three parts: liminal space, temporal space, and shared space. Overall I would argue that the third section is, of the three, the most explicitly occupied with the three strands which Locke identifies in her introduction, and in particular, with the political dimensions thereof. That said, there are certainly papers throughout the volume which are at the very least implicit in their reference to the strands, if not exactly exoteric in their presentation.

The essays in the first part, liminal space, all to some extent concern what Locke calls “border regions or boundaries.” (8) As Locke notes, for Merleau-Ponty these experiences have a definite part to play in the constitution of experience. In the first two papers of this section Glen Mazis and Galen Johnson each offer thoughtful examinations of the way in which depth plays into phenomenological thinking, not to mention phenomenological experience itself. Mazis takes up a study of the depth of darkness and the onset of the night. He concludes that some architects, including Gehry, actually design structures which in their housing of a person embody Merleau-Ponty’s construal of spatial inhabitation by bodies. (40-1) Johnson is mainly concerned with the idea of “unreason” as exemplified in (baroque) painting, and Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in particular, which is, of course, a work of special interest to Merleau-Ponty. I was impressed and intrigued by how, at the end of his paper, Johnson cleverly compared Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze on the movement or “rhythm” at work, while at the same time he called into question the sufficiency of the sort of non-phenomenological rhythm which Deleuze identifies.

It goes without saying that this specific set of essays would be incomplete without a contribution from Edward Casey, who has been involved in this area of phenomenological scholarship for quite some time. Casey’s paper, like Mazis’s, takes up a sustained reflection on a specific work of culture. Here he presents his take on the way in which the very design and phenomenology of the Parthenon is rife with edges and boundaries. His punctilious phenomenological description of the this monumental structure is so in-depth that the edges at play practically disappear before us (just as they arguably do in ordinary experience)―and Casey points out this very fact himself. (85)

The final paper in this first section, that on liminal space, is pretty different, especially compared to the inclusion from Casey, and for this reason the paper really stood out to me. Randall Johnson ambitiously weds a phenomenological analysis of what I’d like to call being-in-water, although not in lip service to English translations of Heidegger, to (what seems to me to be) Lacanian psychoanalytic theorety. Johnson focuses on water as unique in how primitively and directly it is phenomenologically experienced, in contrast, as Locke notes, to the “high-altitude” thinking condemned by Husserl (and echoed by Merleau-Ponty). The sort of boundary at play in liquid immersion is at once drastically different from and markedly similar to the other sorts of experience which are described in the papers of this first section.

The next part of the book is focused on the theme of temporal space, and the way in which, following the thought of Merleau-Ponty, the notion of the flesh is interwoven with a dimension which is oriented in time (not to mention space). This second part of the book almost conceives of time as the sort of “glue” which maintains the myriad boundaries explored in the first part.

Here the first essay, by David Morris, takes a look at how memory transcends what is present on a personal level or basis, and extends outward to—or perhaps extends from—things like “places, buildings, and things.” (109) This essay really resonated with me, and I would imagine with others, right at the beginning when Morris notes how various spatial strategies have been known to masters of memory for a long, long time. In the rest of the paper Morris artfully weaves Merleau-Ponty’s thought with a very reasonable argument for how it is that architecture is “articulating temporality in place.” (121)

Dorothea Olkowski’s paper, which is next in the collection, is particularly useful for how it insightfully situates Merleau-Ponty within a broader phenomenological and philosophico-temporal context. Ultimately her conclusion is that the work of Merleau-Ponty stands superior in a way to that of both Husserl and Bergson (and perhaps Sartre as well) for the manner in which it “brings time to space and articulates how it is that our acts are our abode, our dwelling.” (144)

As was the case with Johnson’s paper at the end of the first part, the next paper in this second part, written by Lisa Guenther, constitutes a shift from the way in which the first two papers are framed. Here Guenther examines the phenomenological position of the person who is profoundly confined, that is, the solitary prisoner, who indubitably is crushed in her or his being by the deliberately diminished version of the lifeworld to which this person is relegated. In spite of my contention that it is the final part of this book which is the most overtly political, here Guenther gives us a lot to think about when it comes to policy, and her paper actually opens with a bevy of statistics reminding us of just how preponderant incarceration is in the present-day USA. Guenther’s conclusions in the paper are most touching and provocative, including her insight that if it is the case that our personal freedom is derived from the “punitive isolation of others” then this is a “sham and shameful kind of freedom.” (164)

Lastly in the second part we find D.R. Koukal’s take on the phenomenological implications of torture, and I have to admit that, like Guenther’s paper, Koukal’s contribution calls for significant political consideration. His paper is focused on the sense in which, following Merleau-Ponty, she or he who is subject to torture is irreparably harmed by the “architect of torture” who institutes a damaged space within which one finds “holes” where previously there was meaning. For Koukal these holes are “distortions of the social fabric” that violate space as we, and others, “terrorists” or not, live it.

The third part of the book concerns space which is shared or communal. There is a lot of interesting material here since one of the fundamental questions comes down to how it is that we phenomenologically experience with others the making or designation of public places. The first paper in this final part is from Rachel McCann, and it offers a very nuanced inspection of Merleau-Ponty’s choice of metaphors in his descriptions of phenomenology. Ultimately McCann’s conclusion is that we as readers should strive to really inhabit the metaphors of which Merleau-Ponty makes use, even if the natural temptation is to engage his thought on the linguistic level alone, since, after all, we know his ideas through his writing. McCann presents an alternative way of reading his writing which is drastically more phenomenological, since what is called for is imaginative thought when it comes to the shared-spatial dimension of the “encounter.”

Next, and in the spirit of some of the more politically-direct work in the second part of the book, there is an essay by Suzanne Cataldi Laba, in which she carries out a phenomenological examination of shelter. Particularly intriguing is her suggestion that some members of our society are subject to fundamental violence to the extent that space, especially in a sheltering sense, is not ensured for all persons, and the absence of such space causes deep phenomenological harm.

Nancy Barta-Smith, in the following paper, presents a phenomenology of being a twin. The upshot of this paper is her suggestion that those of us who are not twins can lean something about Mitsein by considering the ontological and phenomenological position of the twin qua natural double. But the point is to notice how others always already “move us affectively” and Barta-Smith argues that this experience is felt resoundingly by the widow, the reminiscent siblings, and even the lifelong friends.

The final paper of the third part, and of the book, is from Helen Fielding, and it’s on a lot: public art, Irigaray, the body as sexed, and the basic experience of difference. Like the paper by Casey, Fielding’s contribution here is really admirable and worthwhile for how directly it appropriates the phenomenological method in all of its richly descriptive splendor. For Fielding, this is done with art in a Toronto airport, as well as the sculpture Maman by Louise Bourgeois. Fielding’s conclusion is that public spaces and public art operate as confluences out of difference, confluences which arise out of the primordial sameness or proximity which permits us to identify difference in the first place. The implicit suggestion is that it would behoove us to strive to become more cognizant of this fact.

In all, I think that this is an exceptionally impressive collection of provocative essays, all of which apply Merleau-Ponty’s ideas to new fields and frontiers. This book will probably be of most use and interest to those who already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s work, as well as those who are interested in the political implications which are expressed in or entailed by phenomenological concepts and techniques.

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Paul DiGeorgio

I am a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh PA 15221. I specialize in existentialism, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion.