Mauro Carbone’s The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty Between Painting and Cinema, a translation by Marta Nijhuis of the French original that debuted in 2011, is a short book that, despite its brevity, has quite a lot to say. Instead of deliberately working towards a grand, singular thesis with his chapters (although the final chapter is rather conclusive and synthetic), Carbone assembles six essays that all look in different, sophisticated ways at how Merleau-Ponty’s late work can further our understanding of art, music, time, and ontology.
Carbone does not only situate Merleau-Ponty’s later phenomenology vis-a-vis thoughtful reflections on cinema and painting, but he also establishes thoughtful connections, as well as creative and sometimes playful tensions, with the work of myriad other writers, from Freud to Jean-Luc Nancy. This smart book is nothing short of a philosophical tour de force that nicely sweeps through numerous dimensions of Carbone’s work over the course of the past decade and a half.
As is the case with some other recent Merleau-Ponty scholarship, here the central focus is on the late-period turn to the ontology of the “flesh,” an area that Carbone has been exploring since at least the early 2000s. He notes in his introduction that “flesh” is sometimes used interchangeably in Merleau-Ponty’s writing with the term “visibility” (1) and he argues that too often this point is “forgotten.” It shouldn’t be, though, because for Carbone thinking of the flesh in terms of visibility can sort out the way phenomenology can grasp at Being.
He points out that one of the most noteworthy features of Merleau-Ponty’s texts during this period is a turn to a different manner of ontological thinking, which isn’t exactly a novel or controversial claim, but what Carbone does with the “visible” is intriguing. He indicates that the “visible” is “only sketched” in Merleau-Ponty’s writing but evinces what he calls “the reciprocal precession of the vision and the invisible.” (5) He refers to the mutually constitutive relation between seeing, vision, and capability-of-being-seen, or the visible. To put it simply, the visible is “folded” into the viewer, while at the same time the viewer can’t view anything at all without that which is visible—and so the viewer is herself folded into the visual phenomenon. (57) “Visibility” is what we call the product of this mutual folding. Carbone characterizes this situation as paradoxical, and he illuminates the scrambling and disruptive effect of the “presence of images” that betrays how inadequate our normal philosophical categories are. Thus what Merleau-Ponty does with visibility is not so different from what he does in earlier texts with the opposition between subject and object (Phenomenology of Perception). We’ve seen similar claims in Nietzsche (“Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”) and and even Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception) but what’s new here is a sophisticated phenomenological framework that Merleau-Ponty brings to the table, elaborated upon by Carbone, although comparing these various sources might prove to be useful.
The essays that make up the chapters basically work off of this observation about the disruptive power of beholding an image, and they apply it to different areas of aesthetics. I’d have to say that the fourth chapter, centered on cinema and temporality, is the most provocative and interesting and it is here that Carbone does some of his best work. It is also here with the focus on the rhythmic nature of the cinematic frame that you can already see Carbone working toward a leap that he will make near the end of the book. Carbone echoes Jean-Pierre Charcosset and argues that on Merleau-Ponty’s terms, the film cannot be what it is not without the image as such, but rather, not without the rhythmic arrangement of its set of images.
Ultimately in the sixth and final chapter Carbone ends up at a form of visibility which doesn’t seem so visible at all, and yet after thoughtful consideration with Carbone seems like the example of visibility par excellence: audition, or listening. One would not say that in the case of music there is not an image, so this move is quite natural despite how surprising it might be to jump from one faculty of sense to another. In a way part of the point here, I think, is to minimize the distinction between these faculties. In this final chapter Carbone also makes some interesting remarks concerning the relation between philosophy and non-philosophy, a topic of great interest, of course, to Merleau-Ponty.
As fecund as it is short, the book does ask for a bit of work from its readers, and it will probably be a more straightforward experience for engaged readers who have been following Carbone for a while. That said, because of the fact that some of the repackaged and revised material will be very familiar to Carbone’s readers, the book might be the most rewarding and enlightening for those who are taking their first look at his Merleau-Ponty scholarship. These readers should work slowly through the book, even if it might be tempting to do otherwise with such a short text.