13 Jan 2011

Naive Infinity: Original Perception in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze

Naive Infinity:
Original Perception in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze

What does a pure experience of color got to do with us?

The way we interact with our world has a lot to do with how we think it is structured. But perhaps it is structured purely by difference. And if so, this means there is absolute freedom in how the world might appear to us, so long as we are not enforcing the same structure upon it.

Brief Summary

The child's world is made of indeterminate parts. Their determinations are just on the horizon of their awareness. Once they become explicit, the child now sees the word in terms of those explicit structures, and thus no longer with such a sense of indeterminacy.

Points Relative to Deleuze

Or perhaps we might instead think that the world is originally given in definite differences, even though not all of them make a practical difference in a given situation, so they do not appear so pronounced. And thus, the possibility remains that we might experience the world as pure variation, without distractions of constituted structures.

Merleau-Ponty writes of the child's initial experiences of color. She first can only distinguish colored things from non-colored things. Then, she distinguishes warm and cool shades of colored regions. Finally, she can discern different colors. The psychologist mistakenly thinks that the different specific colors were perceived by the child but just not recognized as having its particular identity. Merleau-Ponty instead says that the colors were originally seen in an indeterminate form, and only gradually does the child come to constitute them distinctly. In other words, the child sees different colors but not so much the differences/distinctions between them, although these differences are on the horizon of their awareness. In other words, there are relations between the colors that are seen, but only implicitly. The child might see a green apple next to a red one. She may then have a vague feeling that one is different from the other, but she has not yet compared different red things with each other and different green things with each other, and then contrast the two. When finally she does do this, she sees that her previously vague feeling of the difference between the colors was based on one being red and the other green.
it has long been known that during the first nine months of life, infants distinguish only globally the coloured from the colourless; thereafter coloured areas form into 'warm' and 'cold' shades, and finally the detailed colours are arrived at. But psychologists would concede here no more than that ignorance or the confusion of names prevents the child from distinguishing colours. The child must, it was alleged, see green where it is; all he was failing to do was to pay attention and apprehend his own phenomena. The reason for these assertions was that psychologists were not yet able to conceive a world in which colours were indeterminate, or a colour which was not a precise quality. The criticism of these prejudices, on the other hand, allows the world of colours to be perceived as a secondary formation, based on a series of 'physiognomic' distinctions: that between the 'warm' and the 'cold' shades, that between the 'coloured' and the 'non-couloured'. We | cannot compare these phenomena, which take the place of colour in children, to any determinate quality, and in the same way the 'strange' colours seen by a diseased person cannot be identified with any colour of the spectrum. The first perception of colours properly speaking, then, is a change of the structure of consciousness, the establishment of a new dimension of experience, the setting forth of an a priori. Now attention has to be conceived on the model of these primary acts, since secondary attention, which would be limited to recalling knowledge already gained, would once more identify it with acquisition. To pay attention is not merely further to elucidate pre-existing data, it is to bring about a new articulation of them by taking them as figures. They are preformed only as horizons, they constitute in reality new regions in the total world. It is precisely the original structure which they introduce that brings out the identity of the object before and after the act of attention. (34-35 / fr. 54, boldface mine)

Let's contrast that now with a Deleuzean phenomenological perspective. We might begin with Deleuze's reference to Stan Brakhage's exploring a "Cézannian world before man, a dawn of ourselves, by filming all the shades of green seen by a baby in the prairie" (Deleuze Cinema 1, p.87). Deleuze also refers us to Louis Marcorelles’ Éléments pour un nouveau cinéma, where he quotes Brakhage as writing:
Imagine an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything, but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “green?” How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.” (Marcorelles, p.142-143; qt from Brakhage Encounters)
This sort of encounter with color seems as though it might not have the idea of a horizon of color formations. So the child is not even implicitly aware of general color variations like green and red, but rather only sees pure variations of color. This will bring us closer to Deleuze theory of perception. A perception of a color is a differential between other visual givens. We perceive green when there are countless differences between yellow and blue flashing before our eyes.

Deleuze microperceptions yellow blue green differential perception animation
(Animation above is my own, made with Open Office Draw and Unfreeze.)

So in Deleuzean phenomenology, we do not take the psychologist's view that the child sees the colors but has not developed the capacity to identify them. For, the psychologist assumes that the perception of color is of a homogeneous field of similarity, where for Deleuze what we primarily perceive are microperceptions, each one being a differential variation to another, and only on a higher order will there appear another level of differentiation that makes one color stand-out against another one. Yet Deleuzean phenomenology is not like Merleau-Ponty's either. It is not that the child sees all the holistically integrated relations between colors implicitly on account of them being on the horizon of her awareness. This is because to see any one of the variations means that it is standing-out. It presents itself as not fitting-in. This is on the basis of a fundamental incoherence of the parts of perception. And also, note how Merleau-Ponty says that once the child learns to discern the different colors, she now has a new structure of consciousness, a new a priori, which means from now on she automatically sees green as green and not as an indeterminate color. Deleuzean phenomenology would be based on there remaining the possibility that we can return to our original capacity to see just pure variation. So in Deleuzean phenomenology, we would regard us as always perceiving just pure variation, in the form of infinitely small differential microperceptions. All there would be are intensive differences, that is, differences in degree of change between them [See Deleuze's discussion of Scotus' white wall for more on how our visual field can be pure intensive variation, at Ch. 12 of Expressionism in Philosophy and Cours Vincennes 10/03/1981]. Now consider if we see a rainbow. It is possible to see it as pure variation. But we might see it against a blue sky, which for some reason causes the yellow variations of the rainbow to stand-out. So all the variations in the yellow band go less noticed. But all these variations are then differentially related to the variations of blue in the sky. So this is a higher order of differentiation, and the phenomenon here is the differential relation between the sky's blue variations and the rainbow's yellow variations. This does not eliminate the smaller variations, it only adds on a higher order another layer of difference. But by doing so, this allows us to take the yellow variations together as extending in a certain region of the rainbow and constituting a certain general quality, yellow. We often have practical reasons for doing such extensive qualitative constitutings. It is useful to cut-up the world into different pieces that may functionally relate to one another. I might just need to recognize the difference between green and red so to pick the right apple. Or maybe I need to distinguish different types of red to pick the right red apple. It is all based on the differences that make a difference in a particular situation. And making these divisions allows us to establish boundaries between extents of space and generalizations of qualities, like regions of shade on a white wall. So we might think of ourselves as being in either an intensive or an extensive mood. The child is in an intensive mood; she only perceives pure variations. But we, when regarding our world as being made of extensive parts with generalized qualities, we are in the extensive mood. Yet Deleuzean phenomenology is based on our capacity to leave the extensive mood to enter a state where we experience pure variations. This happens for example when we have sublime experiences or when we view a Francis Bacon painting. So here is a difference with Merleau-Ponty, who said that the structures of the child's perception change after learning the colors. For Deleuze, the structures do not change, only new ones are added, and these new structures can be broken back down to the perception of pure intensities.

Stan. “Encounters,” By Brakhage – Anthology (Criterion, 2001).

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image. Transl. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam. London: The Athlone Press, 1986.

Louis. Éléments pour un nouveau cinéma. Paris: Unesco, 1970. Living Cinema: New Directions in Contemporary Film-making, Transl. Isabel Quigly. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973.

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.

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