Emmanuel Alloa: Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty

Shawn Loht

Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty
Emmanuel Alloa, Translated by Jane Marie Todd, Foreword by Renaud Barbaras
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This book is the first English-language translation of Alloa’s 2008 text, which originally appeared in French under the title La résistance du sensible: Merleau-Ponty critique de la transparence. Emmanuel Alloa is a student of the prominent Merleau-Ponty scholar Renaud Barbaras, and an occasional editor of Chiasmi, the leading journal for Merleau-Ponty studies.  Although the length of its body chapters comes in under 100 pages, this book is less of a standard introduction to Merleau-Ponty than a dense thematic, historical study of key issues figuring into the philosopher’s development from the early works up the unfinished texts in progress at the time of his death. The three principal chapters analyze the transformation and interior narrative of Merleau-Ponty’s thought across the three subjects that figure foremost in his legacy.  Chapter One examines the notion of perception in the context of the early texts The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception. The second chapter takes up Merleau-Ponty’s conception of language, with particular attention to the essays in the middle-period Signs and the abandoned work The Prose of the World. The third chapter, entitled “Ontology of the Visible,” studies Merleau-Ponty’s late attempts to formulate a phenomenological ontology centered in the visible and sensible. The book does not cover any aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s political or social philosophy. Throughout, Alloa discusses in depth the philosopher’s engagement with numerous influences and contemporaries including Husserl, Sartre, Fink, and Saussure. Methodological emphasis is likewise placed on the genesis behind Merleau-Ponty’s shaping of central concepts and terms.

Alloa’s statements in the Introduction of the book provide an overview of how he understands the core idea of Merleau-Ponty’s thought: while perception is ultimately the philosophical concept that overtly engaged Merleau-Ponty, it is the resistance of the sensible that the philosopher actually grappled with. By this notion of resistance, Alloa indicates that the sensible is what is obvious to perception, yet which cannot be penetrated by analysis (5-7). In highlighting the concept of the “obvious,” (or ob-vious) Alloa refers to what is in front of one and standing against one. For the sensible characterizes not merely what perception encounters, but also the experiential world as a whole (7). In Alloa’s view, this is decisive for Merleau-Ponty’s work because it provides a more focused approach than Husserl’s epistemological project of uncovering the conditions of knowledge. As Alloa sees it, Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental insight in this regard is recognizing that what is sensible, what is in front of one, resists; it is not transparent and never will be so. (In making this observation, Alloa is cueing upon the important difference Merleau-Ponty demonstrated from Husserl early in his career: the view, contra Husserl, that a complete reduction is never possible.) As Alloa observes on this score, treating the sensible as the entry point for philosophy is a more tangible and direct method than Husserl’s approach of beginning phenomenological description with the structures of consciousness. Moreover, Alloa suggests that for Merleau-Ponty, the perspectival limit of perception characterizes the essence of philosophizing as well, viz., to philosophize means to grapple with what resists and refuses transparency. This consequence results because thought is by nature also conditioned by the sensible; thinking is permeated by vision, and vice versa.  Therefore, to return to the things themselves, as is phenomenology’s mantra, entails thought becoming sensible (9, 11).

In the book’s first chapter, Alloa sets up the premises of Merleau-Ponty’s early studies on perception. He suggests that the first two major works, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, are of a piece insofar as the former attempts to show why a phenomenological account of experience cannot be reduced to a behavioral psychology, while the latter describes the phenomenology of sense experience in a positive fashion (16-17).  Structure describes human perception critically, from the outside looking in, whereas the Phenomenology is written with an emphasis on the first-person perspective of sense experience.  Alloa sees here not so much a tension in approaches as much as Merleau-Ponty’s developing recognition of a conflict between body and soul; the concept of behavior comprises the locus for Merleau-Ponty’s insight that sense experience is contingent on the milieu of the living being, which Alloa later identifies as the body (24). The phenomenon of behavior reveals an unnoticed synthesis of inner and outer, mind and body, such that this concept is seen as operative prior to any sort of dualism, yet not transparent to perception either. To parse Alloa’s claim here just a bit, the notion is perhaps not unlike Heidegger’s observation in Being and Time that to be a Dasein entails already existing in a world of immediate surroundings where things have their essence in their use; Dasein is neither an inner nor outer, but instead projective being-in-the-world.  Alloa sees a link between Structure and the Phenomenology in Merleau-Ponty’s implicit emphasis on the opacification of perception, or the notion that perception is underwritten by a lack of transparency.

Alloa similarly regards Merleau-Ponty’s career-long dialogue with Gestalt psychology as having its seeds in these early works.  For Merleau-Ponty, the concept of Gestalt is decisive for highlighting the world’s very appearing as structured (20), where perceptual consciousness is the “site” of this emergence.  The forms of the ready-made world of experience are not merely in the world, but emerge with the world.  For similar reasons, the mind-body relationship is not an instrumental one.  This observation brings to the fore the concept of “milieu”, which Alloa regards as a cornerstone of Merleau-Ponty’s early development.  The mind-body relation is founded on embeddedness in a milieu, where phenomenology entails describing an inventory of that milieu (20).  Yet Alloa highlights that Gestalt psychology in its traditional guise is insufficient for Merleau-Ponty because it fails to adopt a way of thinking about life; Gestalt psychology overlooks the dialectic between the living thing and its milieu, failing to recognize the dynamic identity of the physical and mental structures of experience (22-23).  The milieu comprised by embodiment functions as Merleau-Ponty’s corrective to the shortcomings of Gestalt psychology and scientific mechanism, for embodiment comprises the union of life and environment.

The topic of transcendence takes Alloa into Chapter Two.  Alloa suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with language during and after the early works epitomizes his effort to describe the unity of bodily movement and creative freedom (38).  “When the subject is collapsed to its corporeal condition alone, there is no longer any possibility of explaining how one moves beyond oneself” (33).  Transcendence, Alloa writes, is for Merleau-Ponty less important in the manner of establishing a new notion of epistemological or metaphysical foundation; more important in Merleau-Ponty’s view is the very act of transcending.  The act of transcending is coextensive with the opacity of the world (33).  Citing the Phenomenology, Alloa observes that an a priori ecstasy of the human subject orients one fundamentally toward this opacity, toward what one is not (33).  The first section of Chapter Two, entitled “Expression,” suggests that human expression for Merleau-Ponty comprises the extension of idealization or intellect into the embodied state.  Human movement is not merely a bodily activity but includes gesture (35).  In this light, following the Phenomenology, the body is the actuality of expression and represents the movement of expression (35).  As a result, language for Merleau-Ponty is forever to be subordinated to the phenomenon of expression as bodily act (39), which is to say, Merleau-Ponty does not endorse a pure grammar or universal linguistics.  Whereas, these are notions that for instance would be familiar to readers of Husserl’s Logical Investigations.  Moreover, Alloa highlights that the diacritical character of language, which Merleau-Ponty adopts from Saussure, further justifies the claim that language can never be made pure or universal.  Citing the abandoned text The Prose of the World, Alloa highlights that this character of language means signs, morphemes, and words only convey meaning in their assembly; language constitutes the practice of discriminating signs from one another.  And given language’s origin in the embodied state, these features have a coextension with the sensible.  Language’s diacritical character “will acquire the value of a perceptible interval forming a pattern on the sensible fabric itself” (45).  Yet, the transparency of language in human experience also reveals its resistance, echoing Alloa’s leading claim at the book’s start.  Namely, like the sensible, language’s character is to efface itself through its very transparency (51).

Alloa finishes this chapter by taking up the lines of questioning that permeate Merleau-Ponty’s middle works, especially Signs, Prose of the World, and the Nature lectures, on the issue of exactly where language resides.  Language does not reside in mere signs, symbols, or words, nor does it reside in meaning.  Where does language have its being?  Alloa sketches Merleau-Ponty’s position this way: “We must place ourselves at the very site of language in the process of making itself – between the given and what makes possible the act of giving – without conceiving of Saying on the basis of the already Said but also without relegating language to a sphere of pure potentiality, without isolating an abstract linguistic structure of yielding entirely to a completed embodiment in a concrete signifying formula” (53).  In brief, as Alloa describes it, the meeting of embodiment and linguistic signs requires one to describe the immaterial but not simply ideal birth of sense-making (53).  Alloa finds that painting for Merleau-Ponty provides one such avenue, to the extent that it comprises a “silent” form of expression, originative in the bodily gesture of the hand, yet also indicative of a verbal lack of mastery of the world and the world’s means of expression.  As such, painting exemplifies the birth of sense-making.  “The painter’s canvas becomes the site of an experience of relinquishment, an exposure to an outside where the protective envelope of everyday language disintegrates” (55-56).

The third and final chapter offers a focused account of the genesis leading to Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy, particularly his interest in developing an “ontology of the visible.”  Texts of especial importance are the philosopher’s final published work “Eye and Mind” and the posthumously edited Visible and Invisible.  In Alloa’s description, this late period of the philosopher engages the question of how something can be given to one as visible, and of how words can function to describe this occurrence (60).  Merleau-Ponty’s task during this period is to uncover the roots of the visible. Again, painting is decisive because the thought-process shown in work of masters such as Cezanne reveals the visible as resistance to transparency.  Alloa characterizes the philosopher’s stance this way: “Thinking as a painter means submitting to the laws of resistance and experiencing feelings within the limits of the sensible” (61).  The ontology of painting consequently affords Merleau-Ponty an entry point into the ontology of the visible not by way of what is seen, but by way of what is becoming-seen, becoming-visible (64).  This last brings Alloa to the crux of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh.”  Because art has its essence not in works but rather in realizing the sensible bonds of experience and world, art helps to instantiate the “flesh” binding the world and human being (65).  Given that “flesh” is an obscure concept in Merleau-Ponty, difficult to pin down precisely, Alloa devotes significant discussion to it.  Flesh is not a physical or atomistic substantial presence (which may be implied in Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of it in Visible as an element) but it is materially immanent in the sensible (65).  Yet flesh is not to be understood as a Leibnizian monad, transposing the principles of life onto nonliving materiality.  Alloa cites an unpublished note written by the philosopher in 1960 to the effect that the flesh of the world is not derivative from an understanding of the flesh of the body (67).  Rather, the human body we know is made of this very flesh of the world.  But again, one can ask, what is flesh and where does it come from?  Alloa concedes that Merleau-Ponty’s position on this issue could be ambivalent at best, given that the philosopher was still exploring this question at the time of his death.  One compromise, Alloa suggests, is to follow a clue from the Nature lectures, namely Merleau-Ponty’s remark that the sensible is the flesh of the world.  In other words, the sensible is the bond uniting experience and world, inner and outer, just insofar as it emerges in the interstices of the subjective and objective, not lying in just one or the other.  On the other hand, Alloa also suggests that the more ambiguous “flesh” perhaps better expresses what is neither subjective nor objective, but beyond these, that through which something sensible is sensed (68).  Alloa’s meaning seems to be something like the following: the sensation I experience through touching an object such as a pine cone is not merely fostered through my hand’s affectivity nor through the pine cone’s sensible characteristics (e.g. prickly, resinous, woody).  Rather, this experience have of the sensible is fostered by a “between” that allows sensible and sensing to meet.  I find Alloa’s discussion of flesh to be especially helpful and an illuminating part of the book.

Alloa rounds out the final chapter with some reflections on the underlying commitments of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible.  Alloa writes that Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception must become an ontology of the sensible because this is the only way to obviate dualism.  And conversely, the sensible must be the seat of ontology because the sensible is the ultimate ground of experience, the medium in which being inheres without needing to be posited (80).  Here, Alloa’s characterization of the sensible is not unlike Heidegger’s observations that being in its guise of ereignis comprises the groundless ground.  For Merleau-Ponty, the sensible is the ultimate, yet ungrounded given.

In summary, this short but dense book by Emmanuel Alloa is a challenging read. It is also a rewarding one for those willing to do the work to digest carefully his many insightful observations on Merleau-Ponty’s thought and development. Alloa makes a very good case for the notion that despite Merleau-Ponty’s stops and starts with various issues, there is nonetheless a guiding thread to his thought’s development.  To be truthful, however, there is an aspect in which this book is frustrating to use as an “introduction” to the philosopher, just because it is written at an astute historiographical level, not one for beginners.  One might wonder why the book’s title was altered for this English-language edition.  Alloa does not provide extensive exegetical readings of any specific books of Merleau-Ponty, opting instead for frequent citations of one or two lines of text, whose meaning Alloa typically takes as self-evident.  There is a measure in which these frequent citations seem taken out of context or otherwise lacking in justification for the lay reader. There is also a noticeable dearth of examples that might help to illustrate for a novice what is at stake in crucial distinctions. This is a book that will much better serve those who are already decently versed in Merleau-Ponty and who possess a workable understanding of at least some of Merleau-Ponty’s key themes. To that end, Alloa’s book will offer potential as a guide for connecting the various topics in Merleau-Ponty’s works and establishing a beginning-to-end narrative.


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