Lenart Škof, Petri Berndtson (Eds.): Atmospheres of Breathing

Atmospheres of Breathing Book Cover Atmospheres of Breathing
Lenart Škof, Petri Berndtson (Eds.)
SUNY Press
2018
Paperback $27.95
326

Reviewed by: Victoria Wynne-Jones (The University of Auckland)

‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair.’
—Drew Leder (226)

There is a new genre in philosophy, it is one that is ‘respiratory.’ So argue Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson in the introduction to the edited volume Atmospheres of Breathing. Citing Luce Irigaray’s dismissal of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy as ‘one forgetting the breath,’ Škof and Berndtson go on to argue that since Plato, Western traditions of philosophy have indeed been ‘oblivious to breath’ (ix). This narrative forms the impetus for their project, one in which they aim to present ‘an archaeology of breath’ from ‘respiratory philosophers as spiritual archaeologists excavating [the breath’s] hidden ontological, epistemological, ethical, religious and political layers.’ (ix)

Škof and Berndtson ask what kind of philosophy such a respiratory, breathing or breath-full philosophy might be? (x) How would it think and understand relations between thinking and breathing, between philosophy and respiration? And what might the start of such a philosophy be? According to Škof and Berndtson, the message from the ‘great breathers’ is that ‘it is not enough to think – one must also breathe’ (x-xi). Škof and Berndtson ponder whether the relationship between thinking and breathing is a parallel one or whether it is rather ‘a chiasmic relation in which the thinker and the experience of breathing somehow constantly intertwine in an essential manner, perpetually inspiring each other?’(xi). Their question then becomes how do breathing and thinking influence each other as well as whether ‘every thought, even those we barely notice, is at some fundamental level already in a hidden and latent manner a respiratory thought – that is, a thought somehow inspired by the breath?’

Ruminating upon Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s assertion that the ‘the fundamental error of philosophy is its constant “forgetting of breathing” (x) Škof and Berndtson argue that in Western philosophy such forgetfulness has ‘made it possible for the dangerous idea of dualism to become a paradigm of modern philosophy.’ (xiii) Perhaps inevitably the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of René Descartes and the third of his Meditations on First Philosophy. As summarised by Škof and Berndtson, in the relevant section Descartes seeks to ‘address only himself by looking deeper and deeper into himself’ so that he might be more better known and familiar to himself (xii). Such self-knowledge can only be achieved via a withdrawal from the so-called deceptive world of the senses. Škof and Berndtson point out that even though Descartes describes his withdrawal, from the visual by closing his eyes, from the auditory by blocking his ears, it is impossible for him to block his nostrils and mouth, as these are required to breathe. Descartes’ description is therefore erroneous, ‘as he forgets breathing he is not at all truthful in what he writes.’ Had his pursuit of obtaining ‘pure and indubitable self-knowledge’ lead to him blocking his respiratory openings he would have experienced, according to Škof and Berndtson ‘a dreadful experience of anxiety… his sole thought would have been I am feeling terrible. How long can I hold my breath? I really need to breathe.’ Had the philosopher experienced this train of thought, argue the editors of Atmospheres of Breath, Cartesian philosophy would have been absolutely different as would Western philosophy. Tying into Kahn’s proposition, Škof and Berndtson surmise that had Descartes been more aware of own breathing he never would have arrived at his dualistic philosophy (xiii). If the starting principle of philosophy is the experience of breathing, which ‘perpetually intertwines the self, the body and the world,’ then dualism becomes untenable.

A focus upon the breath means that such a philosophical project is resolutely embodied. This ties into Irigaray’s assertion included on the first page of the introduction, that awareness of the breath is in fact ‘essential for an embodied ethics of difference in our globalized, ecological age’ (ix). Daoist philosopher Zhangzi, considered by Škof and Berndtson to be ‘the philosopher for breathing,’ focuses upon fundamental difference of breathing as a way of theorising difference between people (xiv). Whereas a ‘The True Man’ breaths deeply, with his heels, from head to toe with an ‘expanded, cultivated breath,’ those who breathe merely with their throats cannot ‘experience the vastness of breath in all of its spiritual and ontological possibilities and atmospheres.’ Harking back to Descartes, Škof and Berndtson caution ‘it is not enough to think, one also has to breathe. Dangerous are the thinkers who have not breathed enough’ (xiv).

Further reinforcement of the overall thrust of this edited volume is provided by Khan, according to whom the only true error or fundamental wrongdoing in human life ‘is to let one breath go without being conscious of it’ (xiv-xv). For Khan, to be ‘unaware of the phenomenon of breathing’ which is ‘this most important thing in life’ is also to be oblivious to its ‘manifold mysteries’ (xv). Breath is a ‘vast current which goes through everything,’ this atmosphere of breath surrounds, intermediates and flows through everything, it comes from our very consciousness and extends to external being and the physical world. Škof and Berndtson contrast this with an average person’s experience of breathing which is superficial, hence completely missing the profound dimensions of its atmospheres and possibilities. There is a respiratory difference, which is the ‘difference between breathing consciously and freely’ and not doing so and between ‘thinking breathfully and not thinking breathfully’ as well as ‘cultivating and not cultivating breathing’ (xvi). For Irigaray such a cultivation of breathing is linked to ‘the cultivation of ethics in ourselves and in our intersubjective relations’ (xvii). Such difference is in fact a fundamental principle of this respiratory philosophy. For Škof and Berndtson breathing is ‘openness, respiratory openness, a perpetual opening to the atmosphere of air’ (xvi). In such respiratory and aerial openness ‘all questions, problems, and subjects of philosophy appear as questions, problems and subjects of respiratory philosophy. Their appearance takes place within this respiratory openness as the atmosphere of breathing.’

Yet the question remains, what could this new philosophy as respiratory philosophy be? One aspect is a revisionist project proposed by Škof and Berndtson which involves a re-reading of ‘the great thinkers in a respiratory key to examine their relation to the phenomenon of breath’(xiii). This respiratory philosophy aims to see the world in a respiratory way and within the atmospheres of breathing so that one might ‘re-experience all the questions of philosophy as questions concerning the atmospheres of breathing’ (xvi and xv). Such a revision of the world means that everything ‘be re-thought, re-examined, and re-experienced within these atmospheres of breathing’ (xviii) Thus, any ‘questions of life,’ indeed ‘all questions of philosophy become respiratory questions of philosophy’ that is ‘they are seen perpetually from the perspective of breathing’ (xvii). Therefore each chapter in this edited volume investigates philosophical questions from the perspective of breathing and in doing so ‘are transformed into respiratory questions’ (xvii).

The editors have divided the book into five sections: philosophical atmospheres of breathing, philosophical traditions of breathing, voices and media of breathing, breathful and breathless worlds and a postface. However another way of regarding the volume is to see that some of the essays engage in more post-human understandings of breath, others are concerned with philosophies of breath that originate from ancient Hebrew, east Asian or indigenous traditions of thought. A selection take their insights from the discipline of medical science and the domain of poetry. Finally, several chapters engage with what is considered to be classic phenomenology.

The most invigorating chapters in this edited volume focus more on ‘atmospheres,’ on creating a genealogy of matter or media that is breathed. Four in particular go some way in arguing that ‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair’ (226) John Durham Peters, a media theorist based at Yale University sets out a ‘deep history of breathing’ (182) beginning with a natural history of oxygen. Though now oxygen is a widespread element, this was not always the case. During its first three billion years the earth was a giant oxygen vacuum, its natural sinks quickly sucking up any available freestanding oxygen. Anaerobic forms of life went on to produce an overabundance of oxygen that could no longer be absorbed by natural sinks. Durham Peters writes of the way in which the earth itself breathes or participates in an exchange of other elements; mountains, oceans and forests acted as planetary lungs, carrying out their exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (183). The Great Oxidation Event which occurred around 2.3 billion years ago, meant that oxygen as a catastrophic toxin caused the biggest extinction in earth’s history. Organisms which adapted to the new habitat used oxygen as the basis for respiration became the new dominant organisms on earth.

A similar project is undertaken by political theorist Marijn Nieuwenhuis who is based at the University of Warwick. Nieuwenhuis’s project is to unfold a ‘a story of breath as an inspiring medium’ (200) one that has affected ‘metaphysicians, alchemists, chemists, physicians, military commanders, and contemporary law enforcers.’ Nieuwenhuis politicises air, arguing that knowledge about it and its relationship to the body informs processes of governance. Thus Nieuwenhuis’ narrative describes how, in a western context breath is entangled with ‘questions of life, health, biopolitics, death, killing and thanatopolitics.’ Nieuwenhuis’ narrative spans from the ancient Greek concept of pneuma or air as something that separates life from non-life to the Cartesian de-spiritualization of pneuma (201), slowly moving towards a secularization and materialization of air. By the nineteenth century the regulation of air became one of the central priorities of new biopolitical regimes of power (203). Oxygen, as an immediate requirement for human life meant that the quality and availability of breathable air became a crucial biopolitical medium in and through which power could be expressed. Pneumatic research lead to knowledge about gaseous compounds, so that ‘the medium of air could sustain breathing bodies as well as poison them’ (204). Combining chemical expertise with the power of the state, gases such as chlorine and phosgene were the primary agents in twentieth-century gas warfare (205). The aim of gassing, explains Nieuwenhuis was not to ‘kill the enemy, but, as pulmonary agents are designed to do, to take away their breath’ Suffocation of the air was designed to terrorize the enemy physiologically and psychologically rather than to kill.

Nieuwenhuis argues that the idea of gassing being morally superior over other forms of state violence continues to this day in the domestic deployment of ‘non-lethal’ lachrymators of tear gas by contemporary law-enforcement officers (206). Nieuwenhuis borrows Sloterdijk’s term ‘atmosterrorism’ or terrorism of the very atmosphere, to describe the way in which gassing propels the body’s vital respiratory mechanism to turn against itself. As part of ‘modern atmospheric governance,’ air become a medium by which to discipline and punish, it is an extraordinary weapon used to govern populations. As described by Nieuwenhuis, over the course of a century, gassing has transformed from an illegal means to wage war into a legitimate governmental technology to suppress and disrupt the movement of protesting bodies. Nieuwenhuis’ history speaks of bodies and their relationships to air and the atmospheric environment, such relationships have a collective and explicitly political dimension when the very atmosphere is used against the body (208).

Nieuwenhuis’ chapter with its description of how knowledges of respiration have been appropriated to serve ‘biopolitical and thanatopolitical purposes’ ties into arguments made by Durham Peters about techniques and technologies that make up ‘media of breathing’ (179). According to Durham Peters techniques need not take any lasting material form, whereas technologies always require a physical tool or device. Breathing techniques have been developed for activities as diverse as ‘giving birth, singing, yoga’ swimming and deep-sea diving’ whereas modern breathing technologies modify hostile atmospheres or supplement a lacking body with apparatuses (180). Durham Peters creates a four part outline to categorise the media of breathing: there are techniques that affect the breather; techniques that affect the atmosphere; technologies that affect the breather and technologies that affect the atmosphere. Within this matrix Durham Peters places human and animal techniques for holding and modulating the breath, manipulations of the atmosphere, medical enhancements of breathing capacities as well as systematic and intentional alterations of atmospheres through technologies such as those described by Nieuwenhuis.

Just as Durham Peters and Nieuwenhuis create politicised, atmosphere-centric narratives, in her chapter Magdalena Górska, a feminist theorist from Utrecht University, argues for a re-thinking of politics in relation to bodily actions of breathing (247). In terms of the way in which parts of this edited volume attempt to de-anthropocentrize the breath, the highlight is Durham Peters’ description of cetacean and dolphin breathing, with their radically different ear-nose-and-throat complex in which phonating and eating are completely separate (183-184). Durham Peters’ account serves to challenge the blithe assumption that all animals necessarily breathe in the same way. Connected to this is Górska’s account of breathing as a process shared across human and nonhuman life forms. Dynamic breathing is, Górska explains, a matter for ‘human-embodied subjects’ as well as for ‘other animals, over- and underwater beings, plants, soil and elements’ (247). Inspired by feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad, Górska’s chapter seeks to create a non-reductive understanding of breath. For Górska, breathing is transformed according to which breathing actors, such as oxygen, diaphragm or tree one follows. Far from homogenous, even human breathing is enacted differently in relation to lung specificities, some might be partially collapsed with cancer or coal dust sediment, there are different sizes and different respiratory capacities (248). There are also different rhythms and flows of breathing across different bodies that vary according to age, constitution and size and breath can also be aided by respiratory aids and technologies.

Górska emphasises the diversity of breath as a ‘flow of worldly circulation’ (250). Troubling body-boundaries, breath problematizes distinctions such as inside and outside and ‘complications notions of self, other and environment.’ Lungs that breathe polluted air activate matters of environmental politics, and Górska draws attention to the way in which there is diversity within the breathability of life and air quality, breathing is therefore a deeply political matter: ‘the ability to take a breath and to breathe fresh air is a matter of intersectional situatedness in and enactment of local and global power relations.’ This is summarised in Górska’s point that ‘It matters if and how one can breathe and if and how one’s life is breathable’ (252). Another important point made by Górska is that social power relations or manifestations of oppressive structures such as ‘racism, classism, colonialism, heteronormativity, gender normativity , sexism and ableism’ might create dynamics that affect breathing causing anxiety, panic attacks and changes in breathing. Of crucial importance to Górska is a ‘literal enactment of the struggle for a breathable life’ or ‘nonhegemonic breathable life and existence’ (255).

Integral to the de-anthropocentric thrust within this publication is the postface written by David Abram, an eco-philosopher based in the foothills of the Southern Rockies. Abram posits that climate change is a consequence of taking the air we breathe for granted and ‘failing to respect or notice the elemental medium we’re immersed within’ (263). Although the atmosphere is ‘ungraspable, unmappable and hopelessly unpredictable’ it is indelibly tied to breath and is in fact a ‘ubiquitous and meaning-filled plenum’ (264). Abram writes of how awareness involves a ‘felt experience of earth’s atmosphere’ it is something we are ‘corporeally situated within’ (265) something that is continuous with what twists the grasses and lofts the crows, whether it is imbibed through nostrils or the stomata in leaves. Abram gently reminds that consciousness is not unique to our species, it is in fact a ‘property of the breathing biosphere.’ Abram describes how Inuit and Yupik peoples speak of a breath-soul that dwells in each living being, providing life and awareness to humans, animals and plants and how a person’s breath-soul is her part of the wider mind of the wind (266). Such concepts of a holy wind are subscribed to by Dineh and Navajo as well as Hopi and Zuni. Abram turns to the Hebrew tradition of ruah as a divine wind and rushing spirit (269). Abram points out the primacy of breath in oral traditions, an identification of awareness with the unseen air, the sacredness accorded to the invisible medium in which we are bodily immersed (270). Hence words are ‘nothing other than shaped breath,’ air is intermediary in all communication and is the very medium of meaning. In his chapter Abram writes of the ‘need for air’ for ‘a bit of breathing space, for a chance to breathe, a way to remember what is primary,’ a catching of one’s breath (272). One way in which to do so is through story-telling as this helps to engage with each other face-to-face in corporeal exchange as well as ‘re-new our participation in the more-than human community, in the breathing commons’ (273). It is through listening and the telling of tales, argues Abram that we might bringing our spinning minds ‘back into alignment with the broad intelligence of the biosphere’ and ‘reclaim our membership in the commonwealth of breath’ (274-275).

As mentioned earlier, many of the chapters in this edited volume seek to either enrich phenomenology with insights gleaned from Eastern or indigenous knowledges as is the case with Abram. Petri Berndtson from the University of Jvaäkylä reflects on whether breathing or respiration might teach us an ontology or shed light upon an investigative philosophical project of re-defining being. (26). With the aid of concepts of inspiration, expiration, inhalation and exhalation taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Berndtson posits that we are in fact ‘respiration within being’ so that, in respiratory terms, being-in-the-world might be re-phrased as ‘breathing-in-the-world’ (28). Berndtson re-vivifies his project of articulating a new ontology or philosophy with the aid of Japanese Zen teachings that focus on breathing as well as seated mediation or zazen (29). It is from these traditions that Berndtson comes to ‘an inspiration and expiration of being’ or an experience of participating in universal breathing as almost a feeling of being breathed. This idea of a world of nothing but breathing or the way in which we are ‘always already respiration within being’ (37) is encapsulated in a quotation from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki:

What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. (30)

Together with a Japanese concept of , or the atmosphere of air as open and empty space’ (34) Berndtson summarises that a ‘new atmospheric, respiratory ontology’ requires a ‘constant deepening of our essential respiratory openness to the world of nothing but breathing’ (42). An ontological method of respiratory philosophy is therefore ‘breathing as a fundamental openness to air’ and ‘to silently hearken breathing as mindfully as possible’ (37-38.)

Rolf Elberfeld, a philosopher based at the University of Hildesheim in Germany also explores aspects of the aesthetics of breathing in Japan as well as China. Elberfeld explains that ki in Japanese is a word that means breath as well as ‘a dense entanglement of sensory levels, feelings, physical sensations and moods’ something that transcend distinctions between subject and object’ (73). Ki is also examined by philosopher Tadashi Ogawa in another chapter. Ogawa translates ki as ‘wind’ and discusses it in relation to historical Japanese practices of preventive medicine. Ogawa gives an account of ki as a ‘phenomenology of wind’ similar to the way in which in English one is ‘winded’ when one’s breath is forcefully taken away. Processes of inhaling and exhaling involve breath as ‘air-wind’ moving from the interior to the exterior of one’s body (143). Ogawa adds that ki is associated with the movement and flow of life, it is vitality or ‘the energy of life’ (144).

According to Elberfeld, qi is an old Chinese word for breathing, weather, atmosphere as well as subtle phenomena like movement, relationships references and a ‘fundamental movement in life’ (71). Also included within this publication is a chapter by Jana Rosker, a scholar based at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which examines the importance of qi for Chinese philosophy. Rosker argues that qi is connected to air and breathing, it is often something physically present, yet invisible (127). Linked to breath, Rosker explains that the word qi is of fundamental and vital significance for any organic existence. As an organic state qi ‘is internalized in the human body, but simultaneously it connects all existing beings in the universe that are endowed with life’ (128). Nothing can live without qi, it is a vital force underlying all forms of life, it is a ‘principle of vital creativity’ and ‘the cause of any change and transformation.’ Rosker gives a genealogical account of the various ways in which qi has been misinterpreted over time, however she concludes by arguing that according to Chinese philosophy qi is a ‘limitless source of all creation,’ an ‘omnipresent cosmic creative flow’ that is evident in human breath (136). It is Elberfield’s hope that in conceiving of breathing as an ‘aesthetic category,’ approaches and descriptions from Ancient China or Japan might prove enlightening for contemporary aesthetic practice (75). Looking at examples from painting, theatre and dance Elberfield introduces some intriguing ideas for example: that actors and audience members form a dense field of unity in breathing (74) and that breathing could be placed at the centre of aesthetic description so that ‘an aesthetic of breathing could develop the attention to the breathing processes in aesthetic processes’ (78).

Tamara Ditrich from the University of Sydney, a scholar in Sanskrit and Pāli creates a methodical account of the significance of breath in ancient Indian religious and philosophical milieu in order to describe how these provide a context for early Buddhist teachings (99). Ditrich examines the role of ‘mindfulness of breathing’ as a key method of mediation in many Buddhist contemplative practices. Ditrich explains that mindfulness, a concept that is currently gaining a lot of attention is an ‘ethical praxis within Buddhist teachings’ that ‘reflects on the intrinsic interrelation between ethics and breath’ (99). Mindfulness is described as an ‘ethical watchfulness,’ a ‘contemplative awareness of mental and physical phenomena arising in the present moment’ (102). Where Ditrich gives an account of breathing taken from her studies in ancient Indian and Buddhist teachings, James Morley, a clinical psychologist and student of yoga based in New Jersey gives an interpretation of the yoga practice of prānāyāma or breath control that is influenced by the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (115). Morley is particularly interested in elucidating the actual experience of breath control through Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the ‘lived-body.’ It is from Merleau-Ponty that Morely takes the idea that flesh, with its primordial, elemental character is in fact the substance of the world, a crossing point between subject and object, body and world. This has special relevance to yoga in which control of the body is equated with the mastery of external nature (117-118). According to Morley breath control is in fact the ‘master metaphor’ for the goal of yoga which is to achieve a ‘homology’ between body and world.’ For Morley, breath control, integral to the practice of yoga is in fact a ‘concrete experience of the body as a relation between inside and outside. To breathe is to pull external air into ourselves and to rhythmically release outward something of ourselves.’ Morely argues that yogic prānāyāma, as exemplified in the writings of the scholar-practitioner T.K.V. Desikachar resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s explication of interiority, exteriority and his thesis of reversibility. For Morley such accounts of breath control bring Western thought ‘down to earth’ by focusing on the lived human body as philosophical and psychological ground.

Writing at the intersection of eastern traditions, medicine and phenomenology, Drew Leder from Loyola College in Maryland also addresses spiritual practices relating to the breath. For Leder breath is ‘a theatre for the play of health and illness’ (219). From a western biological and medical perspective, together with a phenomenological approach focusing on the lived body Leder argues for breath as a hinge, ‘between many embodied levels, organs, and functions, and between the body and its lifeworld… between trajectories of personal health, illness, and treatment.’ (220). Leder’s hinge recalls the swinging door of Zen, it is defined as a ‘joint or flexible surface that holds together two parts, allowing them to swing relative to one another. Such a ‘living hinge’ is an interface between ‘the conscious and unconscious body;’ the ‘voluntary and involuntary;’ ‘physical dualities,’ ‘the local and expansive act;’ ‘movement and stillness;’ the ‘flow of receiving and returning’ and ‘visible and invisible realms’ (222.)

Breath, according to Leder is a ‘powerful health restorative’ (223) he points out that ‘Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have [. . .] heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.’

On a similar note, Havi Carel a philosopher from the University in Bristol who also teaches medical students creates ‘a philosophical framework for the understanding of the experience of breathlessness’ (233). A phenomenological approach is crucial here as such experiences are ‘total and overwhelming to the sufferer, but also largely invisible to the outsider.’ Harking back to Górska’s approach to specificities of breath and panic attacks, Carel points out that ‘Whilst the physiology of breathlessness is well understood, the subjective experiences of breathing and breathlessness are understudied and our vocabulary and concepts with which to understand them are limited’ (234). Carel creates a ‘phenomenology of breathlessness’ in order to explore the tensions between ‘medical and cultural or intuitive understandings of breathing and breathlessness’ (235). Carel turns to Merleau-Ponty for whom ‘embodiment determines possibilities and existence is ‘being able to be.’ Accordingly, in breathlessness, possibilities seem to be truncated, curtailed, or altogether closed off’ (237).

As part of his contribution, Kevin Hart from the University of Virginia turns to the poetry as ‘thoughts that breathe,’ specifically in the poems of Mark Strand (153). For Hart, breath is the very ‘condition of possibility for poetry.’ Binding together phenomenology and poetry, Hart seeks to probe ‘how poems think, how poems breathe’ and ‘how new breath must be found’ (155). Hart mines through themes of breath in Strand’s poems, seeking out whispers, blows and dying breath. Quoting Strand, Hart writes ‘breath is a mirror clouded by words… our words appear only in breath’ and ‘we see ourselves in that cloud’ (157-158). Where Hart turned to poetry, Jones Irwin, a philosopher based in Dublin City University looks at the writing of dramatist Antonin Artaud and his understanding of breath as articulated via Jacques Derrida. For Artaud ‘the question of breathing is of prime importance,’ (169) in his prophetic writings there is a particular focus on breath, bodies and expression, making up what Irwin calls a ‘radicalizing’ and ‘existential perspective’ (168). In combat with the mind-body dualism Artaud stresses the importance of flesh, ‘the rawness of reality’ and a ‘re-inspiration of breath’ (169). As part of his Theatre of Cruelty project, cruelty stands in for the metaphysicians’ theft of breath and life-force. Artaud sought to reinstantiate a ‘body without organs’ that is ‘an authentic self’ who breathes for herself and can ‘inspire cultural and social revolution.’ In 1965 Derrida aligned his project of deconstruction with Artaud’s reinvocation of breath in his essay La Parole Soufflée (the breathed or stolen speech). According to Derrida breath and writing are crucial, however such writing must be a ‘nonphonetic’ and ‘hieroglyphic’ ‘writing of the body.’ Indeed Artaud’s physical theatre was made up of a ‘physical language of ‘shouts, gestures, expressions’ seeking to listen more closely to life and ‘return to sonority, intonation’ and ‘intensity’ (170). Once identities are lost or spirited away by the alienation of everyday existence, bodies must then be ‘inspired’ or ‘spritualised’ in order to be cured (171). Of importance to Irwin, Derrida, Artaud is a transformation of the relationship between art and body (172). The ‘machinery of breath’ must be at work as part of the concept of a ‘subjectile,’ part subject, part projectile, one that engages in ‘new bodily writing, being starts with movement, force before form’ and emphasising radical expression. What is traced is a movement, a process, life-force, existence and fragile, embodied breathing’ as part of a ‘theatre of breath’ (175).

Within his chapter, US-based philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin, like Berndtson seeks to combine insights gleaned from Eastern thought, specifically from Tibetan Buddhism with what could be considered classic phenomenology. Perhaps part of the justification for such an assembling of ideas is that breathing practices from such cultures provides more concrete addition to phenomenological theory which has a tendency to be highly abstract. For his exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of breathing’ Kleinberg-Levin brings together concepts from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger with those from Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan together with those of Heraclitus. As part of this project Kleinberg-Levin argues that breathing as psyche and the self as Psyche are closely related and involved with logos as articulation of being, speech and individuation (5-6). There can be no logos or speech without breath and according to Kleinberg-Levin it is only with language that one becomes truly human (6). For Kleinberg-Levin, meditative work with breathing can be a ‘source of transformative energy for process of self-development, fulfillment, individuation’ (5).

Although Kleinberg-Levin’s account is very general there is some acknowledgement of variations in atmospheres, respiratory systems as well as the way in which breathing is always-already spatialised and affected by ‘cultural norms, social interactions, our moods, states of mind’ (11). Like Górska and Carel, Kleinberg-Levin’s story about breathing includes an account of the way in which anxiety can be suffocating, making breathing extremely difficult or laboured. As pointed out in this hermeneutics, an openness is required in which to breathe, the very word anxiety is derived from ‘narrowness,’ a pertinent quotation from Kierkegaard is included: ‘without possibility, a man cannot, as it were, draw breath’ (12). Kleinberg-Levin applies his hermeneutics of breath to a broader argument about how speech is a development of breathing, prayer is a fulfillment of speech and that breathing is ‘essentially a mode of prayer’ (14). Earlier on in the chapter Kleinberg-Levin hints at how breath and the space it occurs within are ‘co-constituting’ (11) and later on, reflects on writings from a Tibetan scholar and the way in which ‘the space outside the body and the space that the body occupies are not really separate (15), they constitute a natural, dynamic unity. Breathing practices produce an ‘ontological body of breath’ one whose breathing is open to the energy fields of the cosmos, it is through the mindfulness of mediation that one might breathe away the ego (16).

In his chapter, Slovenian-based researcher and co-editor of this volume Lenart Škof examines philosophies that are deeply relational in particular theories of Luce Irigaray that consider the significance of dyadic encounters, what Škof refers to as ‘an ethically radicalized mode of between-two, based on the ontology of self-affection, sexual difference, and our mutual mesocosmical breathing’ (53). Škof highlights ideas taken from Irigaray about the way in which those within a couple ‘breathe the same air, but we breathe it differently’ (54). He emphasises the concept of self-affection a something which must be cultivated, embodied as well as centred upon the breath. As part of an ontology of the breath Škof examines Irigaray’s developmental story about the significance of the breath, its necessity for autonomy (56) as well as the importance of creating a ‘reserve of disposable breath.’ Such a reserve of breath is required for ‘keeping and maintaining ourselves in our self-affection, and then for having its share for others in our compassion’ (57). Škof argues that such conceptions of the breath have deeply theological implications.

Throughout Atmospheres of Breathing many of its authors turn to concepts taken from pre-Socratic thinkers. In the chapter by US-based philosopher Silvia Benso, Anaximenes’ conceptions of air are discussed in relation the writings of Emmanuel Levinas for whom it is important to note, phenomenology was considered to be too solipsistic a project. Benso’s chapter seeks to create a Levinasian reading of specific ancient ideas, to find resonances between the two in terms of the way in which they conceptualise air, inspiration and alterity. The crucial passage from Anaximenes, via Aetius is as follows: ‘As our soul [psyche], he says, being air [aer] holds us together and controls us, so does wind [or breath; pneuma] and air [aer] enclose the whole world’ (87-88). According to Benso, for Anaximenes air is substantial, it is a basic form of substance, one that has both material and spiritual features, and the psyche is simultaneously air and breath, it is ‘assimilated to a natural, physical principle’ that is seen at work in the entire universe so that there is, Benso explains, an analogy or structural coincidence between microcosm and macrocosm (88). Here air and breath are synonymous, and breath is something enlivening, a life-force that is ‘forceful, vital, organic,’ there is no breath, except in breathing, a lung-based or ‘pulmonary activity’ of ‘taking in and letting out, of inspiration and expiration.’ Breathing individualises and enables subjectivity, producing physiological, psychological, physical and spiritual life. It is with assurance that Benso delves into the intricacies of Levinas’ thought and its relationship to such ideas. Breath as something both material and spiritual that Benso ruminates in relation to a selection of Levinas’ writings. According to Levinas “An openness of the self to the other… breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up’ and ‘psychism’ is a ‘deep inspiration… an inspiring, breathing the other in as well as a being inspired, animated by the other’ (93). Hence breathing, inspiration and language have animating and ontological force on an embodied level.

On the whole this edited volume goes some way in helping one to re-learn to see the world in a respiratory way, offering various approaches to a ‘world in which ‘everything breathes again’ (xviii). The publication is successful in its proposition of a respiratory philosophy, each chapter ensures that breath cannot be forgotten. In the words of Nobel literature prize winner Elias Canetti the project evokes ‘thoughts that make it easier to breathe rather than thoughts that bite’ (xviii). Škof and Berndtson’s project is indeed a worthy one, particularly when it stresses the importance of the atmosphere which is breathed in, an entity that is too often taken for granted and consumed via processes that are more often than not unconscious.

Marklen E. Konurbaev: Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech

Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech Book Cover Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech
Marklen E. Konurbaev
Palgrave Macmillan
2018
Hardback 96,29 €
XX, 234

Reviewed by: Michael S. Dauber (St. John’s University School of Law)

Introduction

Marklen E. Konurbaev’s new book, Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech provides a rich phenomenological account of speech in its varied forms. The book not only focuses on the phenomenology of the speech act itself, but addresses what it is like to hear, read, compose, process, understand, and respond to speech. This review will provide a summary of Konurbaev’s account and rhetorical style. The first section provides a general overview of Konurbaev’s overall account. The second section addresses the phenomenology of creating (i.e. composing and performing) speech. The third section examines the phenomenology of receiving (i.e. hearing or reading) speech, including the mental processes we perform to internalize and understand speech. In the fourth section, I examine Konurbaev’s rhetorical style, both in terms of the structure and elements of his argument and with regard to the material he chooses not to include in his book. This section also proposes a brief critique of Konurbaev’s account and methodology, although the main substance of his account is strong and will remain unchallenged in this article. While portions of the book pay special attention to specific parts of speech (i.e. different kinds of terms and the relationships between them), I will primarily focus on Konurbaev’s account of speech as a phenomenon as we encounter it in speaking, listening, and reading.

I. A Brief Overview of Konurbaev’s Account

Before fully exploring Konurbaev’s book, it is crucial to define the scope of his account and the terms with which he explores speech. Konurbaev speaks often of “life” (ihya) and “awakening.” He is primarily interested in the ways in which speech prompts us to create vivid visual representations in our minds and prompts us to engage with the world and individuals around. “Life,” then, does not refer to anything biological, although it certainly depends on a biological organism to produce it. Rather, Konurbaev uses “life” to refer to the living, changing mental concepts and representations in our minds when hearing, creating, performing, or understanding speech. He writes that “’Life’ … is a phenomenon that is largely dependent on the speech agent’s ability to build in his or her mind a dynamic, evolving and balanced reflection of interrelated objects caused by the act of linguistic communication…” (Marklen E. Konurbaev, Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech, 5)[1]. “Awakening” is the process by which speech stimulates this mental life, the process by which the listener builds “a dynamic, evolving and balanced reflection” of the life in the speaker’s mind.

Two other concepts are vital to understanding Konurbaev’s account: foregrounding and backgrounding. Foregrounding essentially consists of the concepts at the focus of our attention, the material with which we are primarily concerned, while backgrounding consists of the concepts, emotions, and other material through which we interpret and analyze the concepts in the foreground. Konurbaev writes:

In the highly changing world of speech perception where the weight and value of every linguistic element in speech may change several times, the mental vision of life strongly depends on the ‘ratio’ of the span between the currently prominent elements and those that remain in the dark, in the perspective. As we move on during speech comprehension, this proportion should certainly change. But the twilight area, or the proportion of the positive and negative prominence should always remain stable. If it does not, the representation of the reality becomes ‘lopsided’ in a sense that the element that was bright and perceptually strong a page or a minute ago cannot possibly retain this condition in the new linguistic circumstances. This variation of phenomenological objects in speech gives them the volume that is so necessary for their natural human perception. (63-64)

Decoding speech thus requires balance between the “prominent elements” (the terms and concepts that are the focus of the message) and the background concepts and perspectives through which the message is interpreted.

With these concepts in mind, the central claim of his book is that “every act of communication should be a phenomenological act in a sense that it causes the experience of life awakening in the minds of readers or listeners. A phenomenon then is neither the sun when it rises, or the moon when it appears, or the stars scattered in heaven, or the clouds after the rain—but the dynamic mental representation of the reality caused by the act of speech” (x). Konurbaev is primarily interested in the first-person experience of life awakening and of interacting with speech phenomena. Readers should thus not be surprised when they primarily encounter examples from literature or personal anecdotes from the author rather than hard biological material. I return to this point in section IV.

How best to summarize Konurbaev’s account? The clearest explanation is that Konurbaev sees speech as a dynamic process in which we internalize and integrate information and concepts as part of our mental life; when we wish to stimulate life awakening in others, we engage in a process of searching and composing the proper terms to recreate our own mental life in the mind of the person receiving our speech, responding to the visual and verbal cues they provide to alter our speech accordingly. We receive a speaker’s words and construct tentative mental representations of their ideas, transforming those images as more information becomes available. When speaking, we gauge whether or not the receiver understands the message; if they do not, we seek new ways of conveying the message.

II. The Phenomenology of Creating Speech

Although Konurbaev spends most of the book exploring the phenomenology of linguistic interpretation and the ways messages generate life in the mind of recipients, he also provides a rich phenomenology of speech creation. The goal of speech is to stimulate life in the mind of the receiver. Speech, then, “is a representation of its author’s thoughts, ideas, communicative intentions and emotional states” (31). To do this, speakers employ language, which Konurbaev says “is like a chain of ‘genes’ that are reproducible and recognizable, and yet, susceptible to variation that may or may not introduce a change into a long-established system” (56). Language changes over time just as genetic material evolves across generations, incorporating new elements and discarding outdated and ineffective terms through the series of human speech interactions. In crafting speech, “Every user of language invariably checks the elements available to him or her in the process of communication and decides whether their potential is strong enough to express the desired meaning or attitude” (Ibid).

Crafting a message requires both a consideration of the potential meanings of terms and of the background context through which the message will be interpreted. Speakers must be aware of the receiver’s frame of reference and the cultural assumptions he or she may hold to understand the range of possible interpretations he or she may form, and thus select the words, emotions, and rhetorical style that will best stimulate the life the speaker wishes to create. Speakers produce their messages by gathering previously used concepts and speech interactions and anticipating the ways receivers may interpret the message.

Speech is not just about conveying concepts and information the way textbooks do, however. Speakers aim to produce emotions, to persuade, to win approval, to convey feelings and experiences in the minds of receivers. The ultimate goal is to produce “faith, which is an authentic representation of reality in speech, a synthesis, an effect of a moving life, of ‘living’ through a new experience, which is mental and yet real, ample and organic, mixed with the person’s past experience—a phenomenon of sustainable movement and change” (115). To do so, speakers must use terms and a rhetorical style “that would evoke the complete scenes of life in the reader’s or the listener’s mind as quickly as possible” (123).

Konurbaev writes that speakers compose messages essentially by taking a “general vision” (Topos) and compiles words to convey that vision to the receiver, “[returning]… as many times as possible to add all the features discovered during the communication act to its overall vision as life” (148). This involves “drafting” a vision of the topology, breaking the concepts up into parts, forming bonds between the elements of the Topos, and then selecting terms and phrases that capture these elements (149-150). This process is subsequently mirrored in the perception of speech, as receivers analyze the bonds and interpret the message through the hermeneutic circle and compose their own Topos.

III. The Phenomenology of Receiving Speech

The process of receiving and internalizing speech occurs in many stages. In his introduction, Konurbaev writes that “we decode the linguistic message at least eight times” (7). First, we decode speech syntactically, analyzing the structure of the message. Second, we examine the message for “logical integrity with fact” (Ibid). Third, receivers examine the message for its expressive meaning in terms of foregrounded material. Fourth, receivers begin to analyze the overall meaning, to hypothesize about the life the speaker wishes to prompt in the receiver. Fifth, we begin to use emotional cues to integrate background concepts and memories to deepen our understanding. Sixth, receivers predict or anticipate the overall direction of the remainder of the message and subsequently use this information to inform the seventh step of correcting the draft mental representations produced in the first five steps. Finally, “the eight level of the genesis of life in speech permeates and encapsulates all the previous ones through mental audition, the chief function of which is to support one of the main constituents of life balance and hierarchy of the key reference points of speech” (Ibid).

Crucially, each of these processes occurs within the wider context of backgrounding and foregrounding, and of the background assumptions and beliefs we hold about the world and of each other. Assumptions and other conceptual elements in the background become lenses through which we interpret the speaker’s message; elements of the message jump into focus, into the foreground or spotlight of our attention, while others drift to the background to help construe the foreground elements properly. Konurbaev writes that the interpretation of speech involves both historical and predictive elements (25-26), calling to mind the Heideggerian emphasis on gathering the historical and present facts about oneself and projecting them into the future to assess one’s possibilities (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)). In the same vein, receivers gather background assumptions, historical events, and knowledge about the speaker and the message to predict the direction that message will take, anticipating the meaning and adapting one’s mental representations of the message accordingly.

The result of these processes is a world of visual and conceptual representations, of life in the mind of the receiver. Moreover, Konurbaev argues this type of life presents an objective reality, “as real as our material bodily life is, in a sense that it is built on our vision of the whole undivided body of vision, because ontologically only the whole has the potential of sustainable living” (Konurbaev, 38). This world is unstable, however, and relies on the internal consistency of the message elements: “Life is a hierarchical world where every element of reality is deemed real only when its existence is justified by other elements and is not at odds with them” (39). If elements disagree, life collapses and the receiver must begin to construct their mental representations anew. Thankfully, the human mind is adept at handling the processes of creating and sustaining life: Konurbaev acknowledges that we seldom get bogged down in the fine nuances of everyday messages, and life is capable of rapidly “regenerating” itself in the face of errors and new information (40-41).

But how do our minds successfully interpret messages and construct life from concepts? Konurbaev lays out what he calls the String Theory of Foregrounding. The basic concept of the theory is that “A string is a mental association drawn between the words in the context of speech. Once the correlation is established, the reader draws the mental map of relative prominence of words and their relationship to each other in representing the subject of the text” (65). Readers scan the text for elements to bring to into focus (into the foreground) and then connect conceptual strings of meanings to form “shapes” of larger concepts and meanings. Konurbaev calls the places at which strings (meanings) intersect and converge “impact zones,” areas in which the meaning of the message is strongest (68).

There are several kinds of conceptual strings involved in producing life. Structural strings, composed of the syntactical elements of the message, connect the conceptual elements of the message to each other, conveying the relationships between the terms. Semantic strings pertain to the meaning and flavor of the concepts and terms in the message. Epistemic strings contribute to the formation of knowledge, and “rely on the preliminary vision of the whole [message]” (77). Attitudinal strings seek to invoke “feelings and judgments ranging between acceptance and rejection” (92). Although we must possess all of the strings to weave the full meaning of the message together, Konurbaev observes that the mind generates life before the message is complete, and receivers must continuously alter their mental images as more information becomes available.

Konurbaev writes that “Speech perception is unthinkable without empathy and Dasein” (152), pointing to the idea that receivers must understand the lived experience and life situation of the speaker, predicting those elements that may not appear in the words of the message itself. Just as Dasein incorporates one’s previous lived history, context, and the facts about one’s existence in projecting one’s possibilities into the future, the phenomenology of speech involves careful consideration of one’s life experience, “general worldview, erudition, level of education, emotionality and linguistic proficiency” (156). Speakers and recipients essentially make observations, recall previous observations, make generalizations based on “the realities of our lives,” and project this information into the future, forming mental representations of messages and observations “and their influence on the course of our lives” (160).

IV. Konurbaev’s Rhetorical Style

Konurbaev’s book explores speech in vivid terms. While the basic concepts could be conveyed in a comparatively dry, brief style, Konurbaev employs examples from literature to demonstrate the ways readers or receivers of speech explore messages for meaning, building complex and rich strings of concepts as they proceed and more information becomes available. He uses examples ranging from the book of Isaiah in the Bible (5-11) to a parable written by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (15-16), from Søren Kierkegaard (23) to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (52). Konurbaev also uses rich language to produce an artistic phenomenology of speech, using metaphors and similes to describe the true flavor and experience of speech. Describing the phenomenon of conveying an idea to others, he writes:

‘I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known; and I spake and made myself known to the multitudes and they harkened unto the manner of my speech and then unto the matter thereof; and then spake in return and while beholding how I felt about their speech they knew me, and I, in beholding their reaction unto what I ere said—knew them; and, finally, I began to know myself through the contemplation of these people’s reaction unto my words and, alas, gained but little satisfaction in this pursuit, but am still struggling in good earnest to understand if I actually live and have the enthralling vigour of life in my veins or have already evaporated into the thin air of ephemeral illusions of the multitude.’ (1-2)

As mentioned in section III above, Konurbaev uses the imagery of strings and canvasses to artfully describe the ways our minds construct visual representations and meanings from perceived speech. His artistic language and varied examples makes for a flavorful, lively read.

For all of the things Konurbaev’s book does well, there are two critical points to be made about his rhetorical style. The first concerns the materials he includes and the materials he ignores. The book does not provide any true biological account of the ways our brains process messages and speech. Granted, Konurbaev clearly states that his book is meant to present a phenomenological account of the lived experience of speech, not a biological or neurological account of how we process and create speech. However, he spends considerable time focusing on what he claims are thought processes that occur in our brains, and on page 164 provides a graphic representation of a brain carved up by sections corresponding to different neurological functions. While the graphic is suited to the purpose and context of the passage, readers may often catch themselves wondering how much of Konurbaev’s account is based in actual observation, in actual scientific data. Moreover, even if Konurbaev’s account is completely accurate, the book would only benefit from a brief chapter or several sections detailing the biological side of speech. Philosophy is concerned with completion, with grasping all aspects of a phenomenon, and the book would only be stronger by including that material.

Further, Konurbaev only truly addresses the biological in the beginning of Chapter Seven, “Organon of Life as a Phenomenon of Speech,” where he writes that “The biological aspect [of speech] has little or no effect on the quality of life as we, people, see it and live by—as humans, not merely as one of the members of the animal kingdom” (169). He divides life (i.e. the mental representations involved in speech) into Life(p), life as a mental phenomenon and lived experience, and Life(b), the biological processes and senses on which we base Life(p) (170). There are two rhetorical issues with this section. First, it simply seems false that the biological aspects of speech have little effect on mental life, given that the lived experience of speech and interpretation supervene on the proper functioning of biological processes. Second, the distinction between Life(p) and Life(b) is crucial to parsing Konurbaev’s account in the proper context. Up to that point in my reading I often wondered why he hadn’t addressed the role of biology in his account, and many readers may have the same experience. Konurbaev’s account would be best served by including this material earlier in the book and simply recalling it as needed in Chapter 7, rather than waiting to introduce it until the later stages of the work.

A second point of criticism concerns the order in which Konurbaev discusses his ideas. He does not address the whole of a concept or factor of speech in one location in the book; he does not proceed sequentially from what it is like to create speech to what it is like to receive and decode that speech, for example, but rather meanders through topics as the chapters progress. The result is that one only fully grasps the phenomenology of the various components of speech by the end of the book, but not very clearly throughout, making it difficult to anticipate where the account is heading. This actually resembles Konurbaev’s central claims about speech interpretation: receivers construct hypotheses and mental representations of the message and continuously revise and incorporate new information as it becomes available, only reaching true understanding once the whole message has been delivered. Similarly, speech is a complex phenomenon that Konurbaev’s readers may only fully grasp by the end of the book. Whether or not the metaphor is intentional, it would be easier for readers if Konurbaev organized his book around the individual parts of speech as a phenomenon (i.e. creating speech, receiving speech, speech parts, etc.) rather than drifting between topics.

V. Conclusion

Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech provides a compelling, broad phenomenological account that captures all of the varied aspects of speech as a lived phenomenon. The book is well-suited for anyone interested in the philosophy of speech or in phenomenology in general, and is an excellent contribution to the field.

Bibliography:

Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (SUNY University Press, 2010). Originally published in 1927.

Marklen E. Konurbaev. Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).


[1] Unless otherwise stated, all references are taken from Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech by Marklen E. Konurbaev (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).

Jean-Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology, Routledge, 2018

Being and Nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology Book Cover Being and Nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology
Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Sarah Richmond.
Routledge
2018
Hardback £36.00
848

Sebastian Luft, Ruth Hagengruber (Eds.): Women Phenomenologists on Social Ontology: We-Experiences, Communal Life, and Joint Action, Springer, 2018

Women Phenomenologists on Social Ontology: We-Experiences, Communal Life, and Joint Action Book Cover Women Phenomenologists on Social Ontology: We-Experiences, Communal Life, and Joint Action
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Volume 1
Sebastian Luft, Ruth Hagengruber (Eds.)
Springer
2018
Hardback $119.99
XXIV, 248

Françoise Dastur: Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident, Les Belles Lettres, 2018

Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident Book Cover Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident
Encre Marine
Françoise Dastur
Les Belles Lettres
2018
Broché 25.50 €
224

Marklen E. Konurbaev: Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech Book Cover Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech
Marklen E. Konurbaev
Palgrave Macmillan
2018
Hardback 96,29 €
XX, 234

Gerard Kuperus, Marjolein Oele (Eds.): Ontologies of Nature: Continental Perspectives and Environmental Reorientations, Springer, 2017

Ontologies of Nature: Continental Perspectives and Environmental Reorientations Book Cover Ontologies of Nature: Continental Perspectives and Environmental Reorientations
Contributions To Phenomenology, Volume 92
Gerard Kuperus, Marjolein Oele (Eds.)
Springer
2017
Hardcover 96,29 €
X, 287

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

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
2017
Paperback $28.00
152

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.

 

Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2018

Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty
Series in Continental Thought, № 51
Judith Wambacq
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press
2018
Hardcover $95.00
296