Rajiv Kaushik: Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology

Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology Book Cover Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Rajiv Kaushik
SUNY Press
2019
Paperback $25.95
202

Reviewed by: Keith Whitmoyer (Pace University)

The wealth of literature that has emerged (and continues to emerge) on Merleau-Ponty’s thought is striking considering that the span between the publication of the author’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), and his last, posthumous work, The Visible and the Invisible (1965), was only a touch more than two decades of active, “serious” academic production.[1] Reading through much of this commentary, one encounters a series of issues and motifs that seem to circulate through discussions of this philosophy: the living body, perceptual experience, motor intentionality, the flesh, the chiasm, reversibility, the place of painting and with respect to these, the author’s engagement and relationship with Husserl on matters autochthonous to phenomenology. This list, of course, goes on. As a reader of both Merleau-Ponty and literature on his thought, one wonders what, if anything, remains to be said.

Kaushik’s work, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, I think, clearly indicates that the answers to the above question—whether and what remains to be said—are yes, and much. It makes this indication, however, by rethinking what it means to read and write about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by showing that there is a thought and philosophy here that goes well beyond the well-trodden signs that have typically framed approaches and discussions of this author and his work. Kaushik shows us quite eloquently that readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work need no longer rehearse a series of questions that have already been well-documented (perhaps over-documented) and that there remains much to be thought and discussed. Rather than discourse about the lived body, perceptual experience, the flesh, and so forth, we are introduced to another set of signs that frame and render Merleau-Ponty’s thought and which re-constitute its legibility: the symbolic matrix, the elemental, the oneiric, and most importantly, the event.

In addition to opening the field of Merleau-Ponty studies to a series of questions and motifs that have for the most part been unconsidered, Kaushik’s book accomplishes a second task. To the extent to which Between Philosophy and Symbolism provides another set of signs for entering the domain of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, this work also repositions this thought with respect to the history of 20th Century continental philosophy. In a manner that is the analogue to way in which a set of signs gets recycled within the literature on this thinker, Merleau-Ponty is almost invariably attached to the 20th Century’s “phenomenological curve,” the upslope being the work of Husserl and his immediate constellation, the peak probably being Heidegger, the beginning of the downward slope including its rise in France and the immediate post-war period, ending, of course, with the rise of “post-phenomenology” in the figures of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, who all in their own ways tried to ring its death knell. By recasting the signs by which we would enter Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Kaushik, I think, succeeds in dismantling this curve (which surely deserves no less and probably worse). Not only does Merleau-Ponty appear as belonging more to “post-phenomenology” than as a member of the movement but the very terms by which we would want to define “phenomenology” in contrast to “non-phenomenology” (including “post”-phenomenology) become (rightly) contested. By re-framing the approach to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Kaushik’s book re-frames the manner in which we can make sense of what means to belong (or not to belong) to the phenomenological movement and what “phenomenology” can signify in the first place. I want to take the opportunity to explore these transformations through a series of concepts that make up the infrastructure of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, the analysis of which will constitute this writing: the matrix, the symbolic, the element, and the event.

The subtitle of Kaushik’s book, The Matrixed Ontology, already indicates the central role that this concept will play in his reading. A matrix or “matrix event” is positioned against a theory of the transcendental field where the transcendental as such is identified with some form of ipseity: a self-identical, discrete consciousness that occupies the role of referent for the sense of a world it constitutes. Of course we find such a theory of the transcendental most clearly in Kant’s “I think that must accompany all my representations,” the transcendental unity of apperception; in Husserl through the various iterations of transcendental consciousness and egoicity; and of course in Sartre’s theory of consciousness as the active, centripetal constituting agency of the world’s meaning (“nothingness”). Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is distinguished from these theories at the point where the transcendental field is now reconceived—not as the privilege of a constituting self—but as the interstice, fissure, or, as it were, silent lacuna, the écart (divergence) of difference within beings that allows them their phenomenality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty, on Kaushik’s reading, gives a theory of the transcendental that not only allows for but requires internal differentiation. This is a crucial claim because, as Kaushik indicates, it is this revised theory of transcendentality that immunizes Merleau-Ponty’s thought against the critique that phenomenology necessarily eliminates difference, and in so doing, occludes the possibility of thinking the event as such.

Thinking through the configurations and operations of matrices, as well as their corresponding eventualities, occupies much of the individual analyses of the text. We nonetheless encounter some indications in the Introduction, to which I will briefly turn. Kaushik states:

Matrix events do not emphasize self-consciousness at the cost of difference. They are, in fact, called matrices because they constellate difference as difference…. A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology—that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent.[2]

The typical criticism would be that, in its attempt to trace the lines of force that produce and shore up the everyday appearance of the world and the sense it has for us, phenomenology will discover an absolute origin that constitutes this sense. Such an origin, as the origin of all difference, would not itself be subject to difference. It would be a purely centripetal, outwardly oriented movement that thinks but is not an object thought, sees but is not seen, speaks but which cannot be heard, constitutes a time to which it would not be subjected, and constitutes a space in which it would not be found. As Kaushik indicates, such an origin could, by definition, not abide any exteriority, could have no relation to anything that would not in principle be subjected to its sense-making movement, and in this way could not stand in relation to anything radically other to it. A matrix event, by contrast, produces sense but in such a manner that it nonetheless still includes and even welcomes what is beyond its sense. Whereas the traditional, phenomenological view of the transcendental ends with a closure into sense and the elimination of non-sense, a matrix event remains constitutively open to non-sense and what is outside, and in this way is “adventurous:” the matrix event is never complete but remains on its way, unterwegs, as Heidegger might say, but “on its way” only to difference. Kaushik notes in this regard:

An event is not singular but plural. Its plurality, furthermore, prevents the event from being teleological. That there is a temporal character to the matrix event means neither that it is an origin from which other times succeed nor that it is a destination into which all times lead. The event is neither an origin nor a destination.”[3]

Matrix events are made legible over the course of the text through a second concept, the importance of which is already suggested by the title, symbolism. Kaushik, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, will also speak of the “symbolic matrix,” and one also hears very clearly through the invocation of this concept the “symbolic form,” and both Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky are on the horizon here, filtered through Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Institution in Personal and Public History and his last publication, “Eye and Mind.” I want to consider symbolic form and symbolic matrix under the general rubric of symbolism, which I believe should be understood verbally.

In the Institution lectures, Merleau-Ponty says:

The parallel [of painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not as a philosophy of symbolic forms.[4]

The idea at play here, taken up again in the essay Eye and Mind, is that, as Merleau-Ponty famously says, “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.”[5] That is to say, every theory painting—even one that attempts to ignore or deprecate it such as we find in Descartes or Kant—is a theory of expression, a theory about how the sense of what is comes into being, and every theory of expression is already metaphysics, since metaphysics has only ever been the attempt to think the becoming—the expression—of what is. The significant claim here is that we need to hear “metaphysics” not as the “statement of ideas”—metaphysics in a profound sense has nothing to do with the articulation of theses about being—but “as the invention of symbolic forms,” i.e., the invention of ways and means that allow for the expression of a certain point of view, a certain perspective, or way of seeing. Renaissance painting is of course just this: the presentation and making visible of a certain Weltanschauung, a certain frame—one might even say Ge-stell—for what it means to appear, what it means to be.

Kaushik makes the following commentary on the text from the Institution lectures:

His last sentence here, ‘consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic forms,’ is sweeping and radical in its proposal to alter both the method and aim of philosophy. If philosophy criticism is itself a symbolic form, this would mean that the ground for every truth claim in fact enfolds a symbolic component. The height of philosophical criticism would then, counterintuitively, eventuate in the symbolic. If so, philosophical criticism becomes absorbed by something very much counter to its usual goals, a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.[6]

If metaphysics is the invention of symbolic forms, then the tasks for philosophy as well as its very nature are reconfigured and rethought. It means that the symbolic is no longer a regional matter for a specified branch of philosophical discourse but that the symbolic—symbolism in the verbal sense—is at the very center of philosophical discourse. This means, according to Kaushik, that philosophy cannot hope to arrive at a final diapason of self-consciousness or absolute knowledge but that it encounters at best “a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.”[7] In being oriented by and in terms of symbolic forms, philosophical inquiry is constitutively defined by a certain delay, an internal slippage as its symbols defer their sense. As a result (or even as a function) of this slippage, phenomenological method (now oriented in terms of symbolic forms) can no longer be understood as the disclosure of an absolute origin, but as indicated earlier, must be thought in terms of an ineliminable difference. Kaushik summarizes this as follows:

The symbolic does not, however, mediate or bring beings together with being but opens up and is the very difference between them. It is in other words, on an adventure and is not a destination end or even a proper origin. It takes or is always on an excursion—between consciousness and unconsciousness, body and world, oneself and another, and the things of the world—while also being no place otherwise.[8]

The adventure of sense, its radical openness, and the necessity of the event for phenomenological method are, in a way, thus premised on the symbolic. This adventurousness, however, requires another concept. If the symbolic introduces a function of slippage and differentiation within the articulation of sense, the principle of this slippage must still be clarified. Kaushik accomplishes this by invoking another term: the element, to which I will now briefly turn.

“Element,” of course, immediately recalls the oldest metaphysics of the Western tradition, the φυσιολόγοι, as Aristotle said, those who discoursed on φύσις or “nature.” We should be careful, however, not confuse the use of element at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism with a theory of nature, however, nor should we assume that by invoking this pre-Socratic notion that Kaushik wishes to recover or return to some absolute ὑποκείμενον beneath the phenomena that would explain or even express them. As the third term in the triad matrix-symbol-element, the elemental here designates both the plane of excess of sense and the unexpressed (and inexpressible) silence necessary and intrinsic to any event of phenomenality. In other words, the element is the invisible, the absent and by definition indeterminable interstices or lacunae within the world that allow for the visible, which would precisely be their inverse. Kaushik says:

The elements are, to my mind … by no means determinate, by no means exterior to the explicit phenomenon, and do not oppose it. They are rather within the phenomenon and even if they are not themselves phenomenal. They therefore do not introduce a new reality. The only reason they cannot be located is because they are always differentiated and have no specific locale.[9]

The element is, as it were, the unidentifiable, non-localizable and yet silent interior of things that gives but is not given, that makes possible while itself not being a possible object of identification. As such, the element provides the needed principle of slippage since it appears only in its absence, appears only as missing, known only indirectly through indication and never encountered as such. The element in this sense is elicited through analyses of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on light in connection with Heraclitus’s use of ἁπτόμενον, “kindling.” As Kaushik says a propos of illumination in Merleau-Ponty:

In the logic of light, it is important to Merleau-Ponty that what issues illumination is also within the illuminated. This means that, for him, illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark—that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can therefore be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. [Light] penetrates everywhere, explores the phenomenal plane, and yet can never be a single source from which we know about visible things…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. This refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light.[10]

Light or the “kindling” Heraclitus speaks of, the spark-like flash in which things appear, is elemental precisely at the point where light itself shows the phenomena but in its function as showing, itself withdraws and is not seen. I see the visible surface illuminated by the light but do not and cannot see the light itself. There is, as it were, then, a darkness, a shadow within all light that makes it possible as light, but in virtue of this darkness light itself remains elusive: vision only operates in virtue of our constitutive belatedness with respect to light—we see only after the fact, after the light itself has vanished, leaving behind only a trace in the form of the visible thing we see. Understood through light and lighting, the elemental is thus not identifiable with any kind of substrate, atom, matter, or even with a “basic ingredient.” The element, or elements, or elemental must be understood verbally: elementality is what happens, indeed, the event, when the things of the world flash up before us, where that flashing, that “deflagration” of the world’s sense comes to pass through an inverse event of recession, darkening, and shadow—a partial disintegration of the world’s sense around the edges, where sense emerges thanks to non-sense and without eliminating it. Elementality is the event of this lighting-darkening, a penumbric passage from one to the other in which the element as such is encountered only through its inverse, through what it allows and not, as it were, “in the flesh.”

The conceptual triad, matrix-symbol-element, as they function across the specific analyses of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, re-orient Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in such a way that we could no longer say with certainty that we are still in auspices of “phenomenology,” at least given the traditional sense of this as “transcendental science.” Indeed, through the mechanism of this conceptual triad, the very sense and meaning of “transcendental” becomes contested. Rather than a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Husserl, through Kaushik’s reading, we must now situate Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on the side of thinkers such as Deleuze and Derrida—thinkers of difference, slippage, and the event. I want to close this consideration of Between Philosophy and Symbolism by turning to the event in more detail.

Since the publication of Badiou’s Being and Event (1988), it has become fashionable for “philosophies of the event,” including Badiou but also figures such as Meillassoux and so-called “speculative realism,” to pose what is supposed to be a fatal critique of phenomenology. The critique, as Kaushik nicely phrases it, operates like this:

The assumption is that phenomenology reorients incoherency to coherency, inconsistency to consistency, nonsense to sense, and therefore also closes itself to the truly abnormal aspect of events… a philosophy of the event does not exclude the transcendental per se…. Only when it is conceived in terms of an intention, whether subjective or bodily, does the transcendental exclude the event…. An event would break from all forms of intentionality so radically that it cannot be an origin, destination, or even a preexisting referent, and its eventfulness would instead be utterly spontaneous.[11]

The conceptual triad matrix-symbol-element undoes intentionality—it makes sense of the birth of sense without reducing this genesis to an intentional form that would erase its excess, other, and outside. In other words, what the reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism accomplishes is the articulation of a phenomenology that allows for incoherency, inconsistency and nonsense to dwell within the sense of the world and that the emergence of sense does not exclude these. Kaushik reiterates this in the conclusion of the text, where he says “The impossible is internal to all senses, configuring them from within. This matrix, between sense and the meaning that cannot possible make sense, implies that no sense ever exhausts its non-sense.”[12] If the impossible is internal to all senses, if sense itself requires a non-sense internal to it, then it would seem that phenomenology—at least the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty—is already a philosophy of the event.

If Kaushik’s analyses are correct, and the close reading and analyses of the text indicate that they are, then the supposed fatal critique of phenomenology posed by philosophies of the event is not only not fatal, but premised on a misreading of phenomenology—or at least a misreading of the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, by making Merleau-Ponty’s thought legible in terms of and through the matrix-symbolic-element, the traditional series of concepts that typically make up the currency of Merleau-Ponty studies—body, perception, flesh, etc.—are recast such that their internal relationship as well as Merelau-Ponty’s original contributions to philosophy (his engagement with Husserl, his conceptualization of phenomenology and its method, etc.) now come to fore clearly in a way hitherto undocumented. That being said, I will only add that Between Philosophy and Symbolism indicates that the more traditional interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s thought (lived body, perception, flesh, etc.) are, in a sense, already in the past and that they most likely belong there, footnotes to a philosophy that itself continues to thrive and live. The readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work who are yet to come will leave these traditional readings there, in the past, and instead take Between Philosophy and Symbolism as their point of departure.


[1] Contrast Heidegger, who published Being and Time in 1927 and whose academic activity seems to have lasted at least until the late sixties, almost twice the output of Merleau-Ponty.

[2] Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2019), xii.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Institution and Passivity. Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 44; Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Galen Johnson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.

[6] Kaushik, Between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii-xix.

[7] Ibid., xix.

[8] Ibid., xx.

[9] Ibid., xxii.

[10] Ibid., 64-65.

[11] Ibid., xi-xii.

[12] Ibid., 128.