The history of phenomenology has, broadly speaking, still operated within the framework of a particularly Cartesian set of decisions. Much of these, of course, have been well discussed, criticized, even answered and overcome, starting even as early as Heidegger’s own discussions of Husserl. But what has for the most part continued to exercise its hold is a kind of bipolarity regarding intentional description: most phenomenology continues to operate within a framework where two key actors are in place, the subject and the object. Whether this be qualified by an original being-with-others, a radical passivity or asymmetry on the part of what stands in for or “comes after” the subject, a radicalization of knowable interiority on the part of the subject, or a deep intertwining of the two poles, the basic division of two sets of furniture in the world, minds and things, still occupies a paradigmatic hold. So to introduce a third, a media, an intermediary par excellence, as Emanuele Coccia does in his book Sensible Life, is already to take a deeply critical stance towards the phenomenological tradition. The book’s subtitle, a micro-ontology of the image, goes a long way to spell out the basic shape of his investigation: to investigate the kind of being of a being already unlike because lesser than the obvious, nearly self-evident poles of mind and thing (hence micro-), that which makes up the “sensible” stuff, the image.
What Coccia looks into is the kind of being which one encounters when one actually looks to what occurs in intentional relation. Rather than predetermining the intentional relation between subject and object as correlation, Coccia tries to think the meaningful transmission of the form of the thing to the mind, and, quite importantly, vice versa. The formal existence of the thing outside of itself, imprinted upon the world, is the image. Quite specifically, the life of the image is that of which is neither thing nor mind, and thus gives an explication not only of the traditional problem of the mind’s relation to the external world, but to the less thought mirror image of this problem, of the reification of the mind’s actions within the realm of things. Take one luminous passage from among the many that fill the book: “As every exterior image has psychogenic consequences for those who receive it, so too does every image that we emit produce effects. If we emit images, if we strive to sensify the spirit, to produce the sensible out of it, it is because images are not merely cognitive realities. Above every thing else, they act. Odors, tastes, sounds: Every thing of the sensible has effects and exhibits an efficacy that is difficult to define because it is inferior in rank to the causality that the real exercises on the real.” (76)
Coccia grounds his discussion upon less a specific difficulty or criticism on the part of phenomenology, and instead looks to a particular refusal or forgetting at the dawn of the modern, a decision made by Descartes himself. What is refused is the medieval notion of “intentional species”, for the sake of enabling the thought of “a subject truly autonomous from the world and from the surrounding objects. Only the exile of intentional species has made it possible for the subject to coincide with thought, as activity and as result, in all of its forms. With Descartes, sensation and sensitive life (exactly like thought and intellectual life) can be explained only if we take the subject as a point of departure…” (6-7). Hence the implicit criticism of phenomenology as a whole: to remain within the fixation of the bipolar is to simply repeat a decision of Descartes’s, one which was done for reasons entirely without interest for the phenomenologists, who more often than not are doing their best to extricate the subject from its supposed autonomy: “It is as if phenomenology, though it affirms the priority of perception over consciousness, it is not able to grasp the Being of the sensible independently from the Being of the subject, of the soul that perceives it.” (32)
Likewise, there is no problem of phenomenalization. “There is always an intermediary place between us and objects, a womb in which the object becomes sensible, a space in which it becomes phainomenon. It is in this intermediary space that things become capable of being sensed, and it is from this intermediary space that living beings harvest the sensible with which they nourish their souls day and night.” (14) Once intentional species, the sensible, the image, is introduced in its own particular being, the dynamics of natural life are themselves clarified. As such, Coccia gives particular attention to the anthropology of the sensible, “the manner in which the image and the sensible give body to activities of the spirit and give life to man’s own body.” (5) What follows from this is a kind of infinite bio-semiosis, all things of life giving off images of themselves and retaining them outside of themselves. With this, then, comes a refusal of a definite break between human and animal life. If the fundamental ontological substrate of intentional relation, the image transmitted in media, is indigenous to all forms of life:
“Media in the cosmos, therefore, produce a continuum in which the living and their environment become physiologically inseparable. Media are the place in which nature fades into spirit and culture, the prosthesis through which rationality accesses objectivity… Thanks to images, matter is never inert but always malleable and full of form, and the mind is never purely interiority but technique and mundane life. It is harmful, then, to reduce the sensible life to the psychological; images have a cosmological function, not merely a gnoseological or physical one. Images are the true cosmic transformers that allow for the spiritualization of the corporeal (or its animation) and the embodiment of the spirit.” (38)
With as far reaching as this exciting book’s claims are, it remains a short book, and this for an unfortunate lack of discussion of the oftentimes hidden interlocutors, especially those of the phenomenological. For while these interesting answers to phenomenological lacunae, to a certain wearying lack of metaphysics are as I’ve said exciting, we are left without explicit discussion as to what recommends this particularly vast speculative positing. And to a certain extent, this is justified. Coccia frames his discussion as a certain pre-modern retrieval; the burden of proof would seem to be on those who follow Descartes’s refusal. At the same time, discussion of those who would at first glance be in a form of agreement with Coccia is also lacking; for his scant references to Lacan and Simmel notwithstanding, one wonders how congenial Coccia would find Arendt’s discussion of life as display, or Derrida’s fascination with the traces of signs. Likewise, though I find it fitting to describe this profusion of images as a sort of bio-semiosis, nowhere is semiotics even mentioned within the book.
For all of that, Coccia’s work remains exciting, and a decidedly interesting counter-point to a number of decidedly modern decisions still held onto within the philosophical world.