Mauro Carbone’s The Flesh of Images is a subtle and complex exploration of several interconnected themes in Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy centring on the role of images as the embodiment of ideas. Its overarching aim is to show how Merleau-Ponty’s views on painting and cinema anticipate and converge with a philosophical position that rethinks a Platonic conception of the ontological status and epistemic function of images which is taken to be traditionally dominant, but ill-suited to our contemporary technological and image-saturated world.
Carbone’s point of departure is to emphasize the intimate link – one sometimes neglected – between Merleau-Ponty’s basic ontological notion of ‘flesh’ (chair) and visibility. It is this link that will allow the implications of the notion of flesh for the role of images to be developed. According to the traditional Platonic notion – a ‘simplified version’ of which is to shape much contemporary thinking – images are a copy of something else, something absent that they function to make phenomenologically present (2). Such images are further linked with the notion of ‘representation’, with statically fixing the visible, and with entailing a split between two modes of ‘carnal’ and ‘intellectual’ vision (32). Against this, the six chapters of Carbone’s book undertake to show how Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of flesh entails not only a new conception of visibility, but also a revision of various underlying assumptions about how ideas are realized in the sensible world. To this end, having set out several possible misunderstandings of the notion of flesh (chapter 1), the core of the book (chapters 2-4) shows how Merleau-Ponty’s discussions of painting and cinema give rise to a new conception of images as something creative rather than passive copies, along with a corresponding mode of vision as seeing ‘according to’ and beyond what is actually presented. This is followed by an investigation of the notions of both temporality and light (chapter 5) implicit in this new conception of visibility, and finally by a brief discussion of the implications for philosophy of the resultant non-subject-centred view of idea formation (chapter 6).
The first chapter provides some background required to situate the book’s reflections and to appreciate their discursive relevance. Nancy, Derrida, and Henry are credited with having revitalized the notion of flesh in (primarily Francophone) contemporary philosophical discourse (10). However, Carbone argues that none of them fully does justice to Merleau-Ponty’s conception of flesh, particularly the latter’s political and aesthetic implications. One central concern here is whether or not the notion of flesh has unavoidable Christian connotations. While this prospect is embraced by Henry, it is part of what leads Derrida to think of the term ‘flesh’ as a conventional metaphor applying only to animate beings capable of self-affection, rather than a basic ontological notion encompassing animate and inanimate entities alike (11, 16). Despite himself advocating such an ontological claim, Carbone seeks to diffuse the delicate issue of whether the notion of flesh tends to differentiate or assimilate humans and nonhuman entities. He does this – somewhat surprisingly – by denying that it has any specific political or ethical implications, on the grounds that ‘the flesh founds every possible ethics and every possible politics’ (17).
The second chapter turns to the aesthetic implications of the notion of flesh, offering an original and ingenious Merleau-Pontian reading of Gauguin’s primitivism. Central to this is the thought that Gauguin’s paintings of nudes have a sculptural quality such that the intimated materiality – the ‘detour through stone or wood’ – shows up the co-belonging of the animate and the inanimate (25). By depicting human flesh and the flesh of the world as consubstantial in this way, Gauguin exemplifies ‘painting of the flesh’ in a dual sense. Corresponding to this duality is a specific kind of visibility in which the ‘first visibility’ of the depicted nude figures simultaneously reveals the ‘second visibility’ of their underlying ontological structure (27). Drawing on a distinction by Nancy, Carbone goes on to link this kind of visibility with Gauguin’s interest in polytheism: Whereas in the Christian tradition the sensible realm – particularly depiction of the skin – is a ‘veil’ that directs us to ‘a divine principle whose source […] it conceals’, polytheism emphasizes the essential visibility of its gods – as manifest embodiments of principles, so to speak (25). Gauguin’s sculptural treatment of human nudes thus proves important in two ways: in addition to allegorically depicting Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of flesh, it simultaneously ‘deconstructs’ the supposedly unavoidable Christian connotations of flesh to which Derrida had objected (25). Having complemented the previous chapter’s argument in this way, Carbone concludes that – rather than being an inherently Christian notion – flesh ‘presents itself as a philosophical figure of primitivism’ (28).
The third chapter draws on Klee’s artistic credo of ‘making visible’ and Rimbaud’s Letter of a Seer to articulate more fully the new mode of seeing required by the previous chapter’s discussion of the visibility of paintings. This new mode of seeing is referred to as ‘voyance’, a term usually rendered as ‘clairvoyance’ but here left untranslated. The notion of voyance contrasts first with the idea that the act of seeing something is a momentary operation, recognizing that this act also implies the possibility of a range of further visual experiences. In this sense voyance is a seeing ‘beyond’ the moment, a ‘transcendent’ seeing of ‘horizons’, a ‘vision that sees the invisible in the visible’ (34). Accordingly, to see in this sense is not simply to register a momentary visual stimulus, but to be guided by it, to see ‘according to’ and ‘beyond’ it. Moreover, by encompassing horizonal structure in the way just described, voyance is also to be capable – as required by Carbone’s interpretation of Gauguin’s work – of recognizing underlying ontological structures and so to function as a carnal Wesensschau, i.e. an intuiting of essences that is inseparable from sensible vision. Conceived in this way, voyance contrasts with not only the static fixing of the visible but also the split between carnal and intellectual vision that are taken to characterize Platonic visibility.
This mode of ‘transcendent’ seeing, voyance, needs to be underwritten by an appropriate form of temporality, which Carbone approaches in chapter 4 by considering the phenomenon of movement in film. For Merleau-Ponty, ‘a film is not a sum total of images, but a temporal Gestalt’ or form (42), with a unity comparable to that of a melody (44). This holistic orientation leads Merleau-Ponty, as Carbone explains, to resist a reductive explanation of movement perception in terms of either objects’ changes in physical location or internal experience alone, and instead to insist that both sides – internal synthesis and external scaffolding, so to speak – play a role in perceptual figure/ground formation. Further, as a temporal Gestalt, apparently realistic movement in film is to be understood not as a copy of reality, but as having a creative character – due to the choice of scenes, their temporal arrangement and rhythm, changes in camera perspective etc. (46, 56). However, Carbone follows Merleau-Ponty further in thinking of this account of movement in film as an anticipation of a new ontology, such that natural perception exhibits the same structure as the perception of cinematic movement (52, 48). Against the background of this assumption, he then turns to the notion of temporality inherent in the perception of movement. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s unpublished course notes, Carbone focuses on the relation of ‘precession’ holding between what is visible and what exists (or in the case of film between what is visible and cinematic images). This term denotes ‘mutuality in a temporal way’ or a ‘mutuality of anticipation’ (59) that prevents either of its relata being thought of as independent and basic. Such reciprocity of precession in turn implies a ‘temporal depth’ that must be understood in terms of an ‘architectonic’ or ‘mythical’ past (60) rather than a chronological sequence. It is in such a mythical past that we are to situate structural conditions that are ‘prior to’ – i.e. constantly at work in and presupposed by – feats of vision (as voyance).
The final two chapters develop further how ideas and their relation to humans are to be understood in the framework of Merleau-Ponty’s non-Platonic ontology. Corresponding to the nature of voyance, ideas must now be ‘sensible’ rather than intellectual, i.e. their mediation of general meaning is inseparable from some particular sensible presentation(s). The ‘visibility’ of these forms/ideas further appears to entail some kind of light. However, rather than a transcendent source of illumination (the ideas) that falls on the amorphous sensible realm, Merleau-Ponty – as Carbone painstakingly shows – conceives of a light that is ‘already diffused in the flesh’ of the world and has no need of a ‘metaphysical or subjectivist principle’ (69). On this view, Being itself has its own ‘luminosity’ (69) – ‘light of the flesh’ (72) – such that entities shine forth and mutually illuminate and occlude each other. The book concludes by outlining a non-subject-centred ‘theory of ideation’ (78) according to which (sensible) ideas are generated not by individual mental feats but ‘as an ontological event’ (80). By participating in such events the human agent is simultaneously to constitute itself as a ‘fold’ or ‘hollow’ in the all-encompassing ontological fabric of flesh.
As the preceding sketch of its content illustrates, the main task and principal virtue of Carbone’s book lies in its exploration of some important, but potentially obscure, aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s late work. Although short, the book is ambitious in scope. Its scholarship is impeccable and its elucidations of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking are invariably insightful and plausible. As such, it will be naturally appealing and of value to those specifically interested in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, particularly his late thinking. However, by bringing out nicely how artistic and philosophical projects can converge, and how a theoretical stance can be articulated in different visual media, the book will also appeal to those interested in the connections between philosophy and art, including art and film theorists. Finally, as Carbone himself signals, the book touches on many issues that will interest theorists of visual culture working in the tradition of the ‘iconic’ or ‘pictorial’ turn.
For all its strengths, the book has certain limitations that point to some of the ways in which Carbone’s work might be taken up productively by others. The first is that one might wonder what contribution it ultimately makes to a theoretical understanding of pictures or images, in particular whether it yields an empirically and conceptually adequate notion of images. Do Merleau-Ponty’s views apply, for example, to all kinds of picture? What about paintings in the Renaissance tradition or photographs – both of which seem attuned to a representationalist or Platonic visibility? Perhaps the power of Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on painting depends on a strategic choice of artist (Cézanne rather than Seurat, say, or Klee rather than Kandinsky). Further, do his views yield, or even aim at, a developed and tenable concept of an image? Although film and painting are intuitively pictorial media, it is not obvious that Merleau-Ponty subsumes them under a shared concept of ‘images’. Indeed, his explicit claim that film is not a ‘set of images’ (but a temporal Gestalt) hints at a more limited concept of an image as such – roughly: a single photographic frame – that would not obviously apply to paintings as Merleau-Ponty conceives them.
A second limitation of the book is that little is offered directly to establish the contemporary relevance of a Merleau-Pontian conception of images. To be sure, the background provided in chapter 1 makes it clear how Carbone’s discussion is contributing to philosophical discourse about the notion of flesh. However, on several occasions the book also claims relevance to contemporary cultural phenomena. It is suggested, for example, that it may help in considering ‘some of today’s most significant cultural phenomena’ such as the ‘new centrality of images’ in our technological world (2), or allow a ‘deeper understanding of the question concerning the presence of images today’ (5), and that its Merleau-Pontian ‘cinematic’ or ‘screen model’ is particularly suited to our ‘contemporary experience of images’ (3, 64). Yet these suggestions are not developed further in the book, and may not seem persuasive to a reader not antecedently convinced of the need to approach such issues within a Merleau-Pontian framework.
Despite these limitations, Carbone’s book succeeds in making a valuable contribution to all the areas it touches upon. In addition to its principal strengths – highlighted above – as an exploration of the visibility of flesh, his study both opens up several promising areas for further research, and facilitates such research by providing a sound exegetic foundation that will allow the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s late work for theoretical understanding of visual culture to be recognized more fully.