Emmanuel Alloa: Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty, Fordham University Press, 2017

Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty Couverture du livre Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Emmanuel Alloa, Translated by Jane Marie Todd, Foreword by Renaud Barbaras
Fordham University Press
2017
144

Iris Elisabeth Laner: Revisionen der Zeitlichkeit: Zur Phänomenologie des Bildes nach Husserl, Derrida und Merleau-Ponty, Wilhelm Fink, 2017

Revisionen der Zeitlichkeit: Zur Phänomenologie des Bildes nach Husserl, Derrida und Merleau-Ponty Couverture du livre Revisionen der Zeitlichkeit: Zur Phänomenologie des Bildes nach Husserl, Derrida und Merleau-Ponty
Phänomenologische Untersuchungen, Band: 33
Iris Elisabeth Laner
Wilhelm Fink
2016
453

Le phénomène du vivant. Buytendijk et l’anthropologie philosophique, Metis Presses (2016)

Le phénomène du vivant. Buytendijk et l'anthropologie philosophique Couverture du livre Le phénomène du vivant. Buytendijk et l'anthropologie philosophique
ChampContrechamp Essais
Christian Sommer, Florence Burgat
MetisPresses
21.11.2016
Hardcover
166

http://metispresses.ch/shop/le-phenomene-du-vivant/

Douglas Low: In Defense of Phenomenology: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy

In Defense of Phenomenology: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy Couverture du livre In Defense of Phenomenology: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy
Douglas Low
Transaction
2016
Hardcover $89.95
194

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier et autres dialogues, 1946-1959, Editions Verdier, 2016

Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier et autres dialogues, 1946-1959 Couverture du livre Entretiens avec Georges Charbonnier et autres dialogues, 1946-1959
Philosophie
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Editions Verdier
2016
Broché 24.00 €
448

Michael R. Kelly: Phenomenology and the Problem of Time

Phenomenology and the Problem of Time Couverture du livre Phenomenology and the Problem of Time
Michael R. Kelly
Palgrave Macmillan UK
2016
Hardcover 96,29 €
XLVIII, 212

Anya Daly: Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity

Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity Couverture du livre Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity
Anya Daly
Philosophy
Palgrave MacMillan
2016
Hardcover $95.00
xiv + 312

Reviewed by: David Markwell (University College Dublin)

Anya Daly’s Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity is a welcome entry to the growing secondary literature that focuses on the implicit ethical dimensions of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical project. There is little doubt that Merleau-Ponty’s untimely death interrupted a trajectory of thinking as exciting as it was innovating; an attempt to explicate a radically new ontological view that stressed the interdependence of subject, other and world, which Merleau-Ponty thought would lead to the re-centring of the axiological in philosophy.[1] That Merleau-Ponty saw his philosophical project containing ethical elements can be seen as early as the Phenomenology of Perception. For Merleau-Ponty, the body is not simply just a biological entity, but rather the location of multiple levels of social, sexual, expressive and emotional values that both constitute and constrain the subject in her dealings with the world.[2] Daly picks up the challenge that Merleau-Ponty set himself to attempt and make explicit an ethical framework that originates in perception, leads to an understanding of intersubjectivity as inter-corporeality, and becomes expressed ontologically, as she characterises it, as a ‘non-dual ontology.’[3]

            In the tradition of thinkers such as Renaud Barbaras and Donald Landes[4] (among others) Daly reads the trajectory of Merleau-Ponty’s thought as mostly continuous. This means that one is not forced to choose between a so-called ‘early’ or ‘late’ Merleau-Ponty. Daly attempts to construct an ethics in Merleau-Ponty’s project by showing that the subject of experience set out in the accounts of perception and behaviour in The Structure of Behaviour and Phenomenology of Perception become more explicitly axiological in the writings on aesthetics and language such as ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ and The Prose of the World, where expression and style become central themes, to his final writings ‘Eye and Mind,’ and The Visible and the Invisible where he finally presents his non-dualist ontology, cashed out in the terms of ‘flesh,’ ‘reversibility,’ and ‘chiasm.’ Thus, she argues, for Merleau-Ponty the relationship between the percipient and her object of perception are fundamentally interdependent and this relationship is axiological. She combines this excellent reading of Merleau-Ponty with trends in contemporary embodied approaches to neuroscience to provide empirical validation for the ontological claims made by Merleau-Ponty. The book then can be divided into two sections: exegetical and empirical. Chapters 2-5 comprise Daly’s close reading of Merleau-Ponty while chapters 6-8 connect the account with contemporary neuroscientific approaches to perception and action, with a particular focus on the experience of empathy.

            Daly’s book is well written, persuasively presented, and she clearly shows how Merleau-Ponty’s ontological insights can be useful to ethical discourse. For her, an ethical project in Merleau-Ponty arises out of the question posed by the encounter with the other that begins in perception.[5] Thus the project is not a ‘first-order’ one of explicating norms, obligations, or practices that make up an ethical system.[6] Rather an ethical project in Merleau-Ponty deals with the ‘second-order’ questions of who/what counts as the other, what is the nature of the relationship between the self and the other, and what is (or should be) our response to the other. Daly describes this as an ‘ethics of insight’[7] that finds its basis in Merleau-Ponty’s non-dualist ontology; the intimate relationship between self, other, and world that is, as she argues, inherently ethical. For Daly there is a ‘pre-objective’ and ‘pre-reflective’ relationship between the self and the other in Merleau-Ponty’s thought which allows for a ‘bottom-up’ approach to ethics.[8] Daly provides a close, tight reading of all of Merleau-Ponty’s texts in these exegetical chapters and they are the strongest part of her book.

            Daly’s argumentation throughout this first half of the book is exceptionally strong, and nowhere is this better on display than in the fifth chapter ‘Objections to the Reversibility Thesis.’ This chapter sees her defending Merleau-Ponty’s crucial reversibility thesis against criticisms from Claude Lefort and Emmanuel Levinas. The reversibility thesis argues that ‘self, other and world are inherently relational’[9] and as Daly has argued previously this inherent relationality is ethical. What is crucial about this thesis is that it withstands sceptical and solipsistic objections. The thesis must allow for real communication between self and other, and for there to be real difference between these two agents; ‘the Other must be a genuine irreducible Other.’[10] Against the objections of asymmetry and the necessity of a ‘third term,’ that names and provides the law between self and other, as presented by Lefort,[11] Daly argues that reversibility need not require symmetry or a third term. These criticisms fail to understand the idea of flesh as identity-in-difference.[12] She argues that the problem of asymmetry – that the experience of the other remains opaque in salient ways when compared to the experience of myself – does not undermine the reversibility thesis but rather guarantees it. Reversibility is not a mechanistic process where terms are fungible, but rather is a process of ‘dialectical reciprocity.’[13] Because the world, the things there-in, and the self and other are meaningful-in-themselves Lefort’s ‘third term’ is redundant.[14] The members of the relation organise themselves into a meaningful whole and there is no necessity for external meaning to be imposed. Levinas criticizes Merleau-Ponty’s approach for being reductive, claiming that reversibility reduces the radical alterity of the other and that his ontology is homogenous.[15] Daly argues against Levinas that Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is non-reductive[16] and that a number of lateral relations of alterity obtain between the subject, the world, and the other.[17] Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, responsibility between self and other is bi-directional; with neither self nor other bearing sole responsibility towards the other member of the relationship.[18] Daly presents Merleau-Ponty’s account as a non-theistic alternative to Levinas’ theistic account.[19]

            In the second half of the book Daly brings Merleau-Ponty’s ontological claims together with contemporary phenomenological, psychological, and embodied neuroscientific approaches to perception, intersubjectivity, and empathy. She draws on the work of Shaun Gallagher, Thomas Fuchs, Francisco Valera, and Dan Zahavi (among others) to show how these accounts provide empirical verifications of Merleau-Ponty’s claims she presented in the first half of her book. These empirical accounts illustrate that the interdependent relationship between self and other is deeper than the notion of social interdependence, and help Daly transition the ‘problem of others’ from an epistemological concern towards an ethical one.[20] These chapters are well written and present the relevant research in an organised manner, however it is unclear if what she presents here will sway anyone who is not previously sympathetic towards Merleau-Ponty’s ontological view.

            Daly concludes her book by connecting Merleau-Ponty’s ontological claims to those made in Buddhist Metaphysics. She notes that there are striking similarities between Merleau-Ponty’s non-dual ontology, the inherently relational, and for Daly ethical, interconnections between self, other, and world, and the Buddhist notion of ‘dependent arising’ or ‘interdependent origination,’ that the self, other, and world are connected in ambiguous multi-causal chains which never settle into ‘pure’ identifiable entities.[21] Both stress the interconnections and contingency of existence and offer a ground for ethics based on a form of insight. Daly is correct that there are fruitful connections and comparisons to be made between these two approaches. Although her book is not a work of comparative philosophy[22] Daly’s use of Merleau-Ponty to illustrate Buddhist concepts and Buddhist concepts to further explicate Merleau-Pontian concepts is well executed and shows a commitment to heterodox approaches to philosophy.

            Overall Daly’s book is very strong but there are a few places where her argument could be strengthened. Key to a reading of Merleau-Ponty that argues for continuity between his early and late writings are the ideas of ‘expression’ and ‘style,’ which are found throughout Merleau-Ponty’s works. Merleau-Ponty has a highly idiosyncratic understanding of these two key ideas which become more important as he transitions from his phenomenological writings to his ontological ones. For Merleau-Ponty an expression is not an exterior sign of an interior thought, but is rather the embodied subject attempting to use instituted language in a way to say something new and different about the world. Key in this is that the expression itself is meaningful, and its usage then becomes the accomplishment of expression.[23] Style is a sub-type of expression: a way of encountering an expression as a totality and finding it interpretable. Style is the way the embodied subject carries herself in the world and the manner in which she uses available gestures and linguistic expressions to communicate and interact in the world. The salient factor is that one’s style is expressive even if one is unaware of this expressivity.

            While Daly does discuss these concepts in her book their central role in the ethical relationship in Merleau-Ponty is not stressed enough. Daly’s discussion of style mostly centres on aesthetic and deliberate linguistic expressions and it is a missed opportunity to not extend the discussion to the notion of corporeal styles. This would allow for a connection to be made between style and the idea of flesh as identity-in-difference. Style, as presented by Merleau-Ponty, functions as an expression of the other’s entire being-in-the-world which is more identifiable in others than it is in ourselves. It is the manifestation of the radical alterity of the other; her complete transcendence of the other made partially available in immanent perception. For example, when we see the other act in the world we gain partial access to her alterity by the realisation that she does not comport herself in and towards the world in the same manner as we would. However, her behaviour is not so different from ours as to be incomprehensible. Style cements the notion of identity-in-difference which is key to Merleau-Ponty’s ontological claims and an ethics based on these positions. Daly’s defence of the reversibility thesis, which is well researched and expertly argued, seems another opportunity where the concept of style could be used to further her argument. Since style manifests relationally in the encounter between the self and other, or in the perception of the other’s engagement with the world, it provides evidence that the other we encounter remains always an other than myself.

            A second aspect of Daly’s book that needs development is the connection she wishes to make between Merleau-Ponty’s concept of hyper-reflection and the Buddhist notion of mindfulness meditation practices such as shamatha and vipassana.[24] While the discussion of hyper-reflection in The Visible and the Invisible is brief[25] and not, one assumes, fully developed, the connection Daly attempts appears to miss the mark. This is due to the fact that hyper-reflection and mindfulness meditation are two very different practices meant to be used for different facets of one’s life.

            Merleau-Ponty’s introduction of hyper-reflection occurs in the first chapter of The Visible and the Invisible entitled ‘Reflection and Interrogation.’ In this chapter Merleau-Ponty attempts to show how one of the ways in which philosophy has historically approached ontological problems is inadequate to describe the structure of existence. His main target in the chapter is Husserl and Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. For Merleau-Ponty reflection is the Husserlian methodology of epoché, transcendental reduction, and eidetic variation, which put out of play the nature of the world and the culturally, linguistically, and affectively formed experiencer of the world.[26] For Merleau-Ponty, this is insufficient to allow one to understand the ontological interdependence that underpins the world of experience. Reflection, as a cognitive attempt to understand the phenomenon of perception and thus gain insight into the ontological structure of existence shows us ‘the necessity of another operation beside the conversion to reflection, more fundamental than it, or a sort of hyper-reflection (sur-réflexion) that would also take itself and the changes it introduces into the spectacle into account.’[27] Merleau-Ponty’s hyper-reflection, the taking into consideration both the existing world (with all its cultural, historical, and linguistic sedimentations) and the existing percipient (with all her affective, cultural, historical, and linguistic constituents), is what is necessary should we choose to attempt and gain ontological insight through the reflective or phenomenological route. This, then, is a highly cognitive process, meant to be used when one is engaged in philosophical or phenomenological undertakings. Hyper-reflection is a meta-philosophical position; it suggests how we should be doing philosophy if we choose to approach philosophy from the phenomenological standpoint. This means that hyper-reflection is a second-order conceptual process; a methodology of reflecting on how we reflect.

            Sharply contrasted with this is mindfulness meditation in Buddhism. Vipassana is a practice that begins with focusing on the breath in an attempt to both calm and slow down the routine cognitive processes of the mind. The aim is to gain direct, experiential, insight into the truth of interdependent origination.[28] It is by actively stripping away the everyday cognitive processes of the mind that one becomes aware of interdependent origination, ‘no-self,’ and the other core ideas of Buddhism. Mindfulness meditation is radically non-cognitive, or perhaps better, an anti-cognitive practice. It asks one to focus on one’s breath as a means of slowing (and eventually) stopping entrenched cognitive processes so that one can experience the ontological interdependence of self, other, and world. This is why, for example, the Zen kōan is a riddle that specifically cannot be answered by the cognitive faculties. The insight required to ‘answer’ a kōan is achieved through sitting in meditation with the riddle and not thinking about it. The point of kōan or mindfulness practice is to break down normal cognitive faculties so that we can see the world in a different way. Mindfulness meditation is a first-order practice meant to change how we experience the world.

            The issue with connecting hyper-reflection and mindfulness mediation, as I hope to have illustrated, is that the two are incommensurable in at least two ways. The first is that where hyper-reflection is a second-order meta-philosophical positon about how we should do philosophy, meditation is a first-order practice concerned with transforming our experience. The second incommensurability is that hyper-refection is a highly cognitive process where mindfulness is a radically anti-cognitive exercise. Both attempt to illustrate similar ontological claims but they cannot function analogously.

            The parallel that can be drawn between mindfulness meditation and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is to the latter’s account of perception coupled with the phenomenon of expression. In his ‘Unpublished Text,’ Merleau-Ponty describes how perception and expression can show a ‘good ambiguity,’ which would be spontaneous and gather ‘the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole.’[29] He goes on to describe this ambiguity as a ‘wonder’ stating that this would be metaphysics and the beginning of the ethical.[30] This coupling of perception and expression described as wonder is the closest Merleau-Ponty gets to a direct experiential access to his ontological view. This of course presents a difficulty. Merleau-Ponty’s account does not give us the practical tools for how we are to have this experience of perception coupled with expression nor does he state how this will help one come to understand the concepts of flesh, reversibility, and identity-in-difference. Merleau-Ponty’s account lacks the practical elements that are built into Buddhism and mindfulness practice.

            None of the above criticisms are meant to detract from what is, on the whole, an excellent and welcome entry in the growing secondary literature on Merleau-Ponty and ethics. Daly presents a strong case for reconsidering the ethical encounter in Merleau-Ponty’s thought and her views will prove useful to any scholar wishing to advance an ethical project based on Merleau-Ponty’s work. Her book makes an important contribution to the linking of phenomenological philosophy with the cognitive sciences and the intertwining of Western and Eastern philosophies is extremely valuable for anyone interested in comparative philosophy. Her characterisation of his view as non-dualist ontology and her defence of the reversibility thesis are invaluable tools to anyone wishing to advance a heterodox approach to ethics.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘An Unpublished Text by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: A Prospectus of his Work,’ trans. Arleen B. Dallery in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 3-11, 11. Hereafter Text.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012). See especially Part One; Chapter Five ‘The Body as Sexed Being,’ (156-78) and Chapter Six ‘The Body as Expression, and Speech,’ (179-205), as well as Part Three, Chapter Three ‘Freedom,’ (458-83). Hereafter PhP.

[3] Anya Daly, Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 26. Daly provides an excellent gloss on the difference between ‘non-dual ontology’ and ‘relational ontology’ arguing that relational ontology can, and often is, misconstrued as a form of monism (i.e. what actually exists is the relation, not the distinct relata as constituent parts of the relation) which misses Merleau-Ponty’s ontological insight that the ‘flesh of the world’ is identity-in-difference. See note 22 at Daly, 26.

[4] See for example: Renaud Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology, trans. Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawlor (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 2004) and Donald A. Landes, Merleau-Ponty and the Paradoxes of Expression (London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013).

[5] Daly, 5.

[6] Daly, 5.

[7] Daly, 5.

[8] Daly, 9. This is in contrast to ‘top-down’ approaches such as consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.

[9] Daly, 139.

[10] Daly, 139.

[11] Daly, 140-41.

[12] Daly, 144-45.

[13] Daly, 145.

[14] Daly, 146.

[15] Daly, 153.

[16] Daly, 155.

[17] Daly, 158-60.

[18] Daly, 167.

[19] Daly, 156.

[20] Daly, 174.

[21] Daly, 298.

[22] Daly, 16.

[23] PhP, 192 and passim.

[24] Daly, 296.

[25] The concept is only explicitly used by Merleau-Ponty twice in the book. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 38 and 46. Hereafter abbreviated VI.

[26] See VI, 45-46 where Merleau-Ponty says ‘[this] is what Husserl brought frankly into the open when he said that every transcendental reduction is also an eidetic reduction, that is: every effort to comprehend the spectacle of the world from within and from the source demands that we detach ourselves from the effective unfolding of our perceptions and from our perceptions of the world, […]. To reflect is not to coincide with the flux from its source unto its last ramifications; it is to disengage from the things; perceptions, world, and perception of the world….’

[27] VI, 38.

[28] Daly, xi and 289.

[29] Text, 11.

[30] Text, 11.

Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity

Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity Couverture du livre Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Intersubjectivity
Anya Daly
Palgrave Macmillan UK
2016
Hardcover $95.00
313

http://www.palgrave.com/br/book/9781137527431

Mauro Carbone: The Flesh of Images

The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema Couverture du livre The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema
SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Mauro Carbone
Philosophy
SUNY Press
2015
Paperback $24.95
128

Reviewed by: Paul A. di Georgio (Department of Philosophy,  Duquesne University)

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 visibleand 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.

Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (Eds.): Merleau-Ponty. Space, Place, Architecture

Merleau-Ponty: Space, Place, Architecture Couverture du livre Merleau-Ponty: Space, Place, Architecture
Series in Continental Thought
Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (Eds.)
Philosophy, Architecture
Ohio University Press
2015
Hardcover $64.00
294

Reviewed by: Paul A. di Georgio (Duquesne University)

With this collection of essays, which is in fact the first of its kind, Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCain have assembled a provocative group of papers which explore one of the most compelling dimensions of contemporary Merleau-Ponty scholarship. The set of papers contained in this volume all take to task the relation, as well as the application, of key concepts in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre to a refocused examination of architecture, spatiality, and, importantly, the political.

For Merleau-Ponty the phenomenological subject is, as Locke puts it, “firmly embedded in the world, even before we represent it to ourselves through geometrical or symbolic means.” (5) It follows that the way in which environment, and architecture in particular, are, as Merleau-Ponty would say, “interwoven” with phenomenal experience holds significant influence over our thinking of being, whether it comes down to our construction of dwelling structures or our interpersonal relations.

So if the idea, here, comes down to the co-constitution of the phenomenal lifeworld, which Locke aptly calls “corporeal companionship,” then it is apparent that we can productively reconsider architectural theory and design from an embodied phenomenological perspective. Furthermore we can reexamine this same perspective not for the way in which it situates space, but rather, for the way in which space situates it. The textual launching point for this insight, in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, is found in “Eye and Mind” in the well-known passage where he indicates that the articulation of “light and space” in fact “speak to us,” and he suggests that it is here that a new conception of being bursts onto the scene. Locke’s introduction aptly opens with an epigraph which reminds us of this.

So what exactly are these new conceptions of being? Locke suggests that there are three main strands of philosophical thinking which operate in this area of inquiry, predicated upon either phenomenological space or, with respect to Merleau-Ponty’s later thought, the philosophy of the “flesh.” The three strands are as follows: i) feminist philosophies and critiques of culture, ii) ecophenomenology or so-called “deep ecology,” and iii) material-object philosophies inspired by Deleuze (6). While the collection of essays in the text are organized into three groups, these groups in fact do not correspond to the philosophical strands which Locke here enumerates. Rather, the editors have grouped the papers together in terms of how they relate to the idea of phenomenological limits. Locke does maintain, however, that each paper in the volume engages the claims of these three strands of thinking. I would argue that this is the case, although some of the papers point back to these divisions more so than others.

In any case, the volume is comprised of three parts: liminal space, temporal space, and shared space. Overall I would argue that the third section is, of the three, the most explicitly occupied with the three strands which Locke identifies in her introduction, and in particular, with the political dimensions thereof. That said, there are certainly papers throughout the volume which are at the very least implicit in their reference to the strands, if not exactly exoteric in their presentation.

The essays in the first part, liminal space, all to some extent concern what Locke calls “border regions or boundaries.” (8) As Locke notes, for Merleau-Ponty these experiences have a definite part to play in the constitution of experience. In the first two papers of this section Glen Mazis and Galen Johnson each offer thoughtful examinations of the way in which depth plays into phenomenological thinking, not to mention phenomenological experience itself. Mazis takes up a study of the depth of darkness and the onset of the night. He concludes that some architects, including Gehry, actually design structures which in their housing of a person embody Merleau-Ponty’s construal of spatial inhabitation by bodies. (40-1) Johnson is mainly concerned with the idea of “unreason” as exemplified in (baroque) painting, and Rembrandt’s Nightwatch in particular, which is, of course, a work of special interest to Merleau-Ponty. I was impressed and intrigued by how, at the end of his paper, Johnson cleverly compared Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze on the movement or “rhythm” at work, while at the same time he called into question the sufficiency of the sort of non-phenomenological rhythm which Deleuze identifies.

It goes without saying that this specific set of essays would be incomplete without a contribution from Edward Casey, who has been involved in this area of phenomenological scholarship for quite some time. Casey’s paper, like Mazis’s, takes up a sustained reflection on a specific work of culture. Here he presents his take on the way in which the very design and phenomenology of the Parthenon is rife with edges and boundaries. His punctilious phenomenological description of the this monumental structure is so in-depth that the edges at play practically disappear before us (just as they arguably do in ordinary experience)―and Casey points out this very fact himself. (85)

The final paper in this first section, that on liminal space, is pretty different, especially compared to the inclusion from Casey, and for this reason the paper really stood out to me. Randall Johnson ambitiously weds a phenomenological analysis of what I’d like to call being-in-water, although not in lip service to English translations of Heidegger, to (what seems to me to be) Lacanian psychoanalytic theorety. Johnson focuses on water as unique in how primitively and directly it is phenomenologically experienced, in contrast, as Locke notes, to the “high-altitude” thinking condemned by Husserl (and echoed by Merleau-Ponty). The sort of boundary at play in liquid immersion is at once drastically different from and markedly similar to the other sorts of experience which are described in the papers of this first section.

The next part of the book is focused on the theme of temporal space, and the way in which, following the thought of Merleau-Ponty, the notion of the flesh is interwoven with a dimension which is oriented in time (not to mention space). This second part of the book almost conceives of time as the sort of “glue” which maintains the myriad boundaries explored in the first part.

Here the first essay, by David Morris, takes a look at how memory transcends what is present on a personal level or basis, and extends outward to—or perhaps extends from—things like “places, buildings, and things.” (109) This essay really resonated with me, and I would imagine with others, right at the beginning when Morris notes how various spatial strategies have been known to masters of memory for a long, long time. In the rest of the paper Morris artfully weaves Merleau-Ponty’s thought with a very reasonable argument for how it is that architecture is “articulating temporality in place.” (121)

Dorothea Olkowski’s paper, which is next in the collection, is particularly useful for how it insightfully situates Merleau-Ponty within a broader phenomenological and philosophico-temporal context. Ultimately her conclusion is that the work of Merleau-Ponty stands superior in a way to that of both Husserl and Bergson (and perhaps Sartre as well) for the manner in which it “brings time to space and articulates how it is that our acts are our abode, our dwelling.” (144)

As was the case with Johnson’s paper at the end of the first part, the next paper in this second part, written by Lisa Guenther, constitutes a shift from the way in which the first two papers are framed. Here Guenther examines the phenomenological position of the person who is profoundly confined, that is, the solitary prisoner, who indubitably is crushed in her or his being by the deliberately diminished version of the lifeworld to which this person is relegated. In spite of my contention that it is the final part of this book which is the most overtly political, here Guenther gives us a lot to think about when it comes to policy, and her paper actually opens with a bevy of statistics reminding us of just how preponderant incarceration is in the present-day USA. Guenther’s conclusions in the paper are most touching and provocative, including her insight that if it is the case that our personal freedom is derived from the “punitive isolation of others” then this is a “sham and shameful kind of freedom.” (164)

Lastly in the second part we find D.R. Koukal’s take on the phenomenological implications of torture, and I have to admit that, like Guenther’s paper, Koukal’s contribution calls for significant political consideration. His paper is focused on the sense in which, following Merleau-Ponty, she or he who is subject to torture is irreparably harmed by the “architect of torture” who institutes a damaged space within which one finds “holes” where previously there was meaning. For Koukal these holes are “distortions of the social fabric” that violate space as we, and others, “terrorists” or not, live it.

The third part of the book concerns space which is shared or communal. There is a lot of interesting material here since one of the fundamental questions comes down to how it is that we phenomenologically experience with others the making or designation of public places. The first paper in this final part is from Rachel McCann, and it offers a very nuanced inspection of Merleau-Ponty’s choice of metaphors in his descriptions of phenomenology. Ultimately McCann’s conclusion is that we as readers should strive to really inhabit the metaphors of which Merleau-Ponty makes use, even if the natural temptation is to engage his thought on the linguistic level alone, since, after all, we know his ideas through his writing. McCann presents an alternative way of reading his writing which is drastically more phenomenological, since what is called for is imaginative thought when it comes to the shared-spatial dimension of the “encounter.”

Next, and in the spirit of some of the more politically-direct work in the second part of the book, there is an essay by Suzanne Cataldi Laba, in which she carries out a phenomenological examination of shelter. Particularly intriguing is her suggestion that some members of our society are subject to fundamental violence to the extent that space, especially in a sheltering sense, is not ensured for all persons, and the absence of such space causes deep phenomenological harm.

Nancy Barta-Smith, in the following paper, presents a phenomenology of being a twin. The upshot of this paper is her suggestion that those of us who are not twins can lean something about Mitsein by considering the ontological and phenomenological position of the twin qua natural double. But the point is to notice how others always already “move us affectively” and Barta-Smith argues that this experience is felt resoundingly by the widow, the reminiscent siblings, and even the lifelong friends.

The final paper of the third part, and of the book, is from Helen Fielding, and it’s on a lot: public art, Irigaray, the body as sexed, and the basic experience of difference. Like the paper by Casey, Fielding’s contribution here is really admirable and worthwhile for how directly it appropriates the phenomenological method in all of its richly descriptive splendor. For Fielding, this is done with art in a Toronto airport, as well as the sculpture Maman by Louise Bourgeois. Fielding’s conclusion is that public spaces and public art operate as confluences out of difference, confluences which arise out of the primordial sameness or proximity which permits us to identify difference in the first place. The implicit suggestion is that it would behoove us to strive to become more cognizant of this fact.

In all, I think that this is an exceptionally impressive collection of provocative essays, all of which apply Merleau-Ponty’s ideas to new fields and frontiers. This book will probably be of most use and interest to those who already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s work, as well as those who are interested in the political implications which are expressed in or entailed by phenomenological concepts and techniques.