Mauro Carbone: The Flesh of Images

Monika Lemke

The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema Book Cover The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Mauro Carbone
SUNY Press
Paperback $24.95

Reviewed by: Monika Lemke (Ryerson University)

In The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema, Mauro Cabone suggests that the “flesh” is key to “visibility”. Flesh implies that the seer acknowledges an object’s (anti-metaphysical) independence. Against representation, Carbone takes issue with aesthetic theory’s stubborn misunderstanding of human perception at its metaphysical and ontological basis. Emphasizing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception, Carbone explores modes of artistic expression, such as cinema and painting. He believes this media communicates current human experiences of being in the world and orients the experience of seeing.

Highlighting Merleau-Ponty’s later work, Carbone maintains that “flesh” resonates within the seer to form an image of the thing present. Addressed equally to the philosophy of visual art as to metaphysics, Carbone stakes out an ontological status of images within Merleau-Ponty’s framework. Like Merleau-Ponty, he is inspired by modern art’s instinct for locating the visibility of the invisible in the perceived world. Carbone explores artists’ attitudes and techniques as reflections of the way people in modern life perceive their world.

In this brief book, Carbone reflects on modern art’s approach to “making visible” and the practice of seeing. However, the goal does not imply that the text’s subject is artwork. Instead, Carbone goes deliberately against representations’s metaphysical underpinnings. He maintains painting is a communicable experience of being in the world. Striking against dualisms common to Platonic and Cartesian metaphysics, Carbone approaches the artist or author as a “hollow” for experience brought into expression. This suggests that resonance, not creativity or vision, accounts for an ontological event.

Thoughout the book, Carbone gradually accumulates elements of Merleau-Ponty’s work.  He situates himself among “partisans of the radical questioning between philosophy and the status of images.” (5) He argues that flesh is the horizon informing people’s relationship to vision, as experienced in contemporary life.  It is a mutation had been signalled by Merleau-Ponty, but had not yet been sufficiently explored during Merleau-Ponty’s short lifetime. Throughout the book, Carbone appeals to visual forms of expression to illustrate what it means to see according to, or with the flesh of images.

Carbone sets out the term “flesh (of the sensible)” in Merleau-Pontian terms. He does this a number of ways. For one, he renders it as part of a Husserlian rehabilitation of the sensible. For another, he situates Merleau-Ponty’s flesh among debates of the “body proper”, a domain shared by Jean-Luc Nancy, Didier Franck, and Jacques Derrida, and discussed today by Pietro Montani, Roberto Esposito and others. Carbone explores the theme of the visibility of the flesh among theistic painting, through the work of, and commentary on, Paul Gauguin.

The fourth chapter is arguably the most illuminating. It concerns Merleau-Ponty’s reply to the Bergsonian judgment upon cinematic thinking. Bergson is dismissive toward ordinary perception and regards the cinematic eye as mere imitation. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, embraces the spontaneous, non-analytic, and synthetic character of the cinematic eye. For Merleau-Ponty, cinema is a shared record of “ordinary knowledge”. Borrowing from the so-called “new psychology”, Merleau Ponty referred to cinema as temporal Gestalt. According to Merleau-Ponty, Carbone argues, cinema’s perceptive logic “help[s] to indicate the direction to be followed in order to avoid the fundamental dualisms of the western tradition.” (55)

Carbone writes lucidly. Carbone clearly marks contributions specific to Merleau-Ponty, and provides ample background on concepts borrowed from aesthetic and psychoanalytic theory. More initiated scholars may find Nijuis’ original translations of Merleau-Ponty’s unpublished notes and documents of interest.

Readers may look forward to a Merleau-Pontian contribution to cinematic theory. Carbone’s skillful animation of the debate between Merleau-Ponty and Henri Bergson, or his brilliant summary cinema’s Gestalt effect, are worth particular attention. However, whether Carbone reflects on the mundane, the painterly, or the cinematic, the interpretation of their visibility remains common. As disparate as the text’s chapters may appear at the outset, the dialogue that develops between their themes is a sign of the significant durability of Carbone’s Merleau-Ponty. Carbone reveals the invisible in Merleau-Ponty with musical grace and resonance.

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