21 Jan 2011

Body Parts: Merleau-Ponty's Corporeal Organism and Deleuze's Funky Machine-Body

by Corry Shores
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Stephen Worth at ASIFA
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Body Parts:
Merleau-Ponty's Corporeal Organism and Deleuze's Funky Machine-Body

What does your body's organization got to do with you?

When we notice how the parts of our body remain coordinated, we get the sense that there is something complete and consistent about us. But do we also not feel that we are more than just a mere machine? Who we really are is not something mechanical in this way. We might look at the mechanical workings of our body in a different way. Perhaps our parts function differentially from one another. And this might be what makes us more than the machines we build.

Brief Summary

The parts and workings of our body are thoroughly integrated organically for Merleau-Ponty. And there is more. Our body is thoroughly integrated organically with the parts of the world around us as well. It is on this basis that the phenomenal world can be given to us.

Points Relative to Deleuze

Yet for Deleuze, a phenomenon is given to our body on the opposite conditions: 1) our body must be working differentially within itself, and not organically, and 2) our body must be differentially relating to the world.

For Merleau-Ponty, the parts of our bodies are thoroughly integrated organically with one another, especially in their functioning. This is something already there from the beginning. When we reach for an object, that requires a coordination of our bodily parts. And if a child reaches for an object, she does not need to be conscious of the motions of each part in order to do so. The parts of her body began already in a state of coordination.
We find in the unity of the body the same implicatory structure as we have already described in discussing space. The various parts of my body, its visual, tactile and motor aspects are not simply co-ordinated. If I am sitting at my table and I want to reach the telephone, the movement of my hand towards it, the straightening of the upper part of the body, the tautening of the leg muscles are enveloped in each other. I desire a certain result and the relevant tasks are spontaneously distributed amongst the appropriate segments, the possible combinations being presented in advance as equivalent: I can continue leaning back in my chair provided that I stretch my arm further, or lean forward, or even partly stand up. All these movements are available to us in virtue of their common meaning. That is why, in their first attempts at grasping, children look, not at their hand, but at the object: the various parts of the body are known to us through their functional value only, and their co-ordination is not learnt. Similarly, when I am sitting at my table, I can instantly visualize the parts of my body which are hidden from me. As I contract my foot in my shoe, I can see it. This power belongs to me even with respect to parts of the body which I have never seen. (172b.d)
Nous retrouvons dans l'unité du corps la structure d'implication que nous avons déjà décrite à propos de l'espace. Les différentes parties de mon corps, ses aspects visuels, tactiles et moteurs ne sont pas simplement coordonnés. Si je suis assis à ma table et que je veuille atteindre le téléphone, le mouvement de la main vers l'objet, le redressement du tronc, la contraction des muscles des jambes s'enveloppent l'un l'autre ; je veux un certain résultat, et les tâches se répartissent d'elles-mêmes entre les segments intéressés, les combinaisons possibles étant d'avance données comme équivalentes : je puis rester adossé au fauteuil, à condition d'étendre davantage le bras, ou me pencher en avant, ou même me lever à demi. Tous ces mouvements sont à notre disposition à partir de leur signification commune. C'est pourquoi, dans les premières tentatives de préhension, les enfants ne regardent pas leur main, mais l'objet : les différents segments du corps ne sont connus que dans leur valeur fonctionnelle et leur coordination n'est pas apprise. De même, quand je suis assis à ma table, je puis instantanément « visualiser » les parties de mon corps qu'elle me cache. En même temps que je contracte mon pied dans ma chaussure, je le vois. Ce pouvoir m'appartient même pour les parties de mon corps que je n'ai jamais vues. (185b.c)
Recall that when we are aware of one thing, all the other things it is related to are within the range of our awareness, but at the horizon; we are marginally aware of them. We might instead say that we are aware of them, but only indeterminately, or indirectly, or implicitly. In a similar manner, small parts or aspects of our body speak the body as a whole. Our body, in fact, is already given to us from the beginning as an organically integrated whole being.
everyone recognizes his own silhouette or his own walk when it is filmed. Thus we do not recognize the appearance of what we have often seen, and on the other hand we immediately recognize the visual representation of what is invisible to us in our own body. [...] Each of us sees himself as it were through an inner eye which from a few yards away is looking at us from the head to the knees. Thus the connecting link between the parts of our body and that between our visual and tactile experience are not forged gradually and cumulatively. I do not translate the ‘data of touch’ 'into the language of seeing’ or vice versa—I do not bring together one by one the parts of my body; this translation and this unification are performed once and for all within me: they are my body, itself. Are we then to say that we perceive our body in virtue of its law of construction, as we know in advance all the possible facets of a cube in virtue of its geometrical structure? But—to say nothing at this stage about external objects—our own body acquaints us with a species of unity which is not a matter of subsumption under a law. (173a.b)
We do not merely behold as spectators the relations between the parts of our body, and the correlations between the visual and tactile body: we are ourselves the unifier of these arms and legs, the person who both sees and touches them. (173d)
On a pu montrer que nous ne reconnaissons pas notre propre main en photographie, que même beaucoup de sujets hésitent à reconnaître parmi d'autres leur propre écriture, et que, par contre, chacun reconnaît sa silhouette ou sa démarche filmée. Ainsi nous ne reconnaissons pas par la vue ce que nous avons cependant vu souvent, et par contre nous reconnaissons d'emblée la représentation visuelle de ce qui dans notre corps nous est invi- | sible. [...] Chacun de nous se voit comme par un œil intérieur qui, de quelques mètres de distance, nous regarde de la tête aux genoux. Ainsi la connexion des segments de notre corps et celle de notre expérience visuelle et de notre expérience tactile ne se réalisent pas de proche en proche et par accumulation. Je ne traduis pas « dans le langage de la vue » les « données du toucher» ou inversement, - je n'assemble pas les parties de mon corps une à une ; cette traduction et cet assemblage sont faits une fois pour toutes en moi : ils sont mon corps même. Dirons-nous donc, que nous percevons notre corps par sa loi de construction, comme nous connaissons d'avance toutes les perspectives possibles d'un cube à partir de sa structure géométrique? Mais - pour ne rien dire encore des objets extérieurs - le corps propre nous enseigne un mode d'unité qui n'est pas la subsomption sous une loi. (185-186)
Nous ne contemplons pas seulement les rapports des segments de notre corps et les corrélations du corps visuel et du corps tactile : nous sommes nous-mêmes celui qui tient ensemble ces bras et ces jambes, celui qui à la fois les voit et les touche. (186c)
Consider when we feel something hit our arm. At the same time that we feel it, we can in a way see it too, even if we are not looking at it. From how it feels, we can see certain visual qualities of it, we can 'see' for example that it has a hard smooth surface, if that is how it feels. This is because all the parts of our body, all its senses, integrate together into shared actions.
A certain tactile experience felt in the upper arm signifies a certain tactile experience in the forearm and shoulder, along with a certain visual aspect of the same arm, not because the various tactile perceptions among themselves, or the tactile and visual ones, are all involved in one intelligible arm, as the different facets of a cube are related to the idea of a cube, but because the arm seen and the arm touched, like the different segments of the arm, together perform one and the same action. (175c)
Une certaine expérience tactile du bras signifie une certaine expérience tactile de l'avantbras et de l'épaule, un certain aspect visuel du même bras, non que les différentes perceptions tactiles, les perceptions tactiles et les perceptions visuelles participent toutes à un même bras intelligible, comme les vues perspectives d'un cube à l'idée du cube, mais parce que le bras vu et le bras touché, comme les différents segments du bras, font tous ensemble un même geste. (188b)
But it is not just the parts of the body which are organically related. Our body itself integrates organically with the world around it. Merleau-Ponty offers his famous example of the blind person who learns to walk with a stick. At first she might feel the stick making contact with her hand. But after a while, it becomes as though the end of the stick is her new point of contact with the objects around her. She no longer feels the contact between her hand and the stick, but instead between the stick and the ground or other things she is feeling. We see that we are inherently geared to be organically integrated with the objective world around us. The blind person's awareness wants and tries to extend into its surrounding world. We use phones to reach into distant places. Our organic integration with the world is what is given to us from the beginning of our lives when we first start extending our awareness to the world around us. This is "the organic relationship between subject and world, the active transcendence of consciousness, the momentum which carries it into a thing and into a world by means of its organs and instruments" (176d, emphasis mine); "le rapport organique du sujet et du monde, la transcendance active de la conscience, le mouvement par lequel elle se jette dans une chose et dans un monde par le moyen de ses organes et de ses instruments" (189c, emphasis mine).

Even the way we look at things is like the walking stick; it is our way of extending our bodily organizations into the worldly organizations that we are organized together with.
In the gaze we have at our disposal a natural instrument analogous to the blind man’s stick. The gaze gets more or less from things according to the way in which it questions them, ranges over or dwells on them. To learn to see colours it is to acquire a certain style of seeing, a new use of one’s own body: it is to enrich and recast the body image. (177bc)
Le regard obtient plus ou moins des choses selon la manière dont il les interroge, dont il glisse ou appuie sur elles. Apprendre à voir les couleurs, c'est acquérir un certain style de vision, un nouvel usage du corps propre, c'est enrichir et réorganiser le schéma corporel. (190b)

Deleuze presents to us a very different view on the body, and we will try to expand on it. If our bodies were perfectly integrated, within themselves and with the world, then they would be like automatic machines. It cannot be that this internal and external integration is our consciousness extending into the world. No, instead it is our being unconsciously aware of ourselves and world. Often we have conversations over a meal or drinks, and we reach for a glass without any awareness of it, without looking at it. For Merleau-Ponty, this is the organic integration within our body and between our body and the world. But for a Deleuzean phenomenology, this would be the opposite of an experience of a phenomenon. We are not perceiving anything really, not being conscious of the glass. A phenomenon would occur if someone drank from our glass when we were not looking. We then lift it with too much force, causing the drink to splash in our face. Our hands were assuming they were feeling one sort of thing. What they were also feeling was another sort of thing. The phenomenon is that impact of difference we feel when these two incoherent perceptual facts clashed with one another. In that case, we find ourselves not organically integrated with the world. And we find our body's parts not properly coordinated. So for a Deleuzean phenomenology, the organic integration within the body and between the body and world is not what is phenomenologically interesting. The opposite concerns us. We are interested in moments of incoherence, which is the real source of phenomenal content.

And yet, somehow our bodies hold together. And we continue relating to the world. Does that not mean there is some fundamentally important coherence at work? That might be so. But is it the integrated sort of coherence Merleau-Ponty speaks-of? Is our consciousness for example coordinated and interwoven with our body like strands of a fabric? Or perhaps is it in a way doing its own thing, while our body does its own thing, with the two dancing along together, each doing it's own dance? Do the parts of our body blend and make a harmony? Or do they operate in their own ways, like the disjointed parts of funk music? Do things need to be organically related integrationally in order for there to be an overall functioning? Or perhaps is it the opposite case, that proper functioning requires disjunctive functions? Consider the workings of a Rube Goldberg machine.

Rube Goldberg machine without text

Its parts differentially relate. These parts' functions are incoherent. Can we not see our body this way too? What the eyeball is doing and what the stomach are doing are two very different things. If they were both doing the same thing, there would not be the need for both of them. It is only because they differentially relate that they can find themselves together with one another. Different functions combine to make a machine. That is what a machine is, a combination of different functions. Just consider. What if we saw the whole world like a Rube Goldberg machine, and we saw our own bodies made-up like such a machine, and furthermore, we saw our bodies as part of the greater Goldberg world machine? Is that inconceivable? We are not saying that the world is an absolute chaos. We are not also saying that the world is something between chaos and order. We are saying that the world is differentially mechanical. Suppose we insisted on saying that parts of the world are integrated together
, like the parts of the solar system or the parts of our bodies. Do we still need to say it is because the parts are organically integrated? The earth is pulling at the moon. But the moon is pulling itself away from the earth. Together they spin around. It is on the basis of the incoherence of their forces that the two can maintain their differential relation. It is not that there is a harmonic balance in their motions. It is that there is no end yet to their differential relations.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Transl. Colin Smith. London/New York: Routledge, 1958.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.
Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1945.

Rube Goldberg machine
(Thanks Stephen Worth at ASIFA)

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