27 Sep 2011

The Action and Passion of Present Time, §k, Prt.3, Ch.2, Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception



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The Action and Passion of Present Time


Maurice Merleau-Ponty


Phénoménologie de la perception
Phenomenology of Perception


Troisième Partie : L'être-pour-soi et l'être-au-monde
Part III. Being-for-Itself and Being-in-the-World



Ch. 2. La temporalité
Ch. 2. Temporality


What does the present as the source of your time, and your dually active and passive engagement with time's passing, go to do with you?

Some part of us puts all the continuously changing moments of our lives together in order to make the whole of our life-time. Our present moment seems free for the most part to go anywhere. So we feel active in the present. Yet, in order to make the moments of our lives pass by together in one continuous flow, we do not need to exert any extra mental effort, so in that sense it is passive. If we want to become aware of this process, we need to be highly attentive to what is going on right now. We need to feel the motion of time, feel ourselves constantly changing with each moment. Who are we? We seem to be the movement of these changes itself.


Brief Summary

The thrust of time is our consciousness. Its source is always the immediate present. It is both fully active and yet fully passive. It is active because it is presently spontaneously in action. It is passive, because we are this action itself, and thus our consciousness need not introduce any additional action so to synthesize the parts.


Points relative to Deleuze

Deleuze phenomenal time would be dually active and passive, but for different reasons. Time consciousness is a matter of the affection from logically incompatible impressions given simultaneously but whose incompossibility suggests a temporal tension between them. When we see ourselves in the mirror and notice signs of age, the image we had for ourselves collides with the image we see. This gives us time as an intensity, and this is the passive reception of a shock. But simultaneous with the passive reception is our self-affective modifications, the production of which is what Deleuze calls 'rhythm', and it is the active side. When we have these experiences of self-disidentification, do we collapse; does our identity disintegrate? Instead, we alter how we feel, how we perceive ourselves, how we interact with others, so that we can sustain ourselves despite the shock of the temporal affection. This self-affecting that is simultaneous with temporal-affection is like dancing with time, it is 'rhythm'. The flow of time is a product of this rhythm, and it is our active contribution. When we see the older self in the mirror, we are shocked by the affect of two years difference given immediately. This is not time passing, but sudden intense time. We then change ourselves to move beyond the shock, so that the next time we look in the mirror it is less shocking. This moving beyond the temporal affection is synthesizing time so that it extends beyond moments of immediacy. We create a new variation of ourself, which shockingly contrasts with how we just were. Because we are continually being affected, we are continually modifying ourselves rhythmically. Our always feeling a shock from moment to moment is our sense of time's passage. But it is really a series of discontinuous moments, whose temporal character is synthesized by means of the intensities of their differences.




The continuous thrust of the flow of time is the same as our subjectivity and self-consciousness, and it is a self-affective openness and launch toward an other. Our immediate field of awareness has explicit and implicit contents. Certain implicit contents call to our curiosities to bring our explicit awareness upon them. Before moving our explicit awareness to them, we were protentionally aware of them. And what we were just explicitly aware of is now in our implicit retentional awareness. The thrust of time is this movement between implicit and explicit protentions and retentions. To arrive at the coming awareness, the present awareness becomes aware of another part of itself that is immediate although implicit, on the horizons or margins of our consciousness as a protention. So the current act of consciousness self-affectively modifies itself (turning implicit to explicit as explicit turns implicit), and as a result, temporal relations transition (future becomes present, present becomes past). It is in this way that the self-affection is the thrust of time. But since the next act of consciousness is distinct in that it has unique explicit contents that were not explicit in all other acts, this is still a movement of consciousness towards otherness. But this is in fact our otherness, because the thrust is our subjectivity. This is because the thrust is continuous. Although it is the movement of one conscious act away from itself, every such act involves this same movement, and they synthesize as a continuous transition. This makes all parts belong together as belonging to our current act of consciousness. It is self-consciousness, because as a process in action, the implicit and explicit awareness blur together, such that one part of our awareness is aware of another part (the explicit and implicit), so long as we understand the process as being in motion.


Summary §k

The thrust of phenomenal time's transition-synthesis is not a passive synthesis, but a certain kind. It is not that our consciousness is the passive receiver of a multiplicity of conscious acts. Rather, it is passive in the sense that we do not synthesize the contents as if we were standing outside the flow and constituting it synthetically. Instead, we are inside the flow, and we ourselves are the synthesis. To be who we are, and to be conscious of time, and for the moments to integrate, we do not need to perform an additional action.
What is called passivity is not the acceptance by us of an alien reality, or a causal action exerted upon us from outside: it is being encompassed, being in a situation—prior to which we do not exist—which we are perpetually resuming and which is constitute of us. A spontaneity ‘acquired’ once and for all, and one which ‘perpetuates itself in being in virtue of its being acquired’ is precisely time and subjectivity. (1945: 490 bc / 496cd)
Merleau-Ponty does not agree with Heidegger that time somehow flows from the future and has its future in advance. Phenomenologically speaking, phenomena, including the phenomenon of time, are given in the present, and we cannot but view the past and future from the perspective of the present. Thus time is spontaneous and springs from the present.

We are not temporal beings because we are spontaneous and because, as consciousnesses, we tear ourselves away from ourselves. On the contrary, time is the foundation and measure of our spontaneity, and the power of out-running and of ‘nihilating’ (‘néantiser’) which dwells within us and is ourselves, is itself given to us with temporality and life. (491a / 497b)
We need to view the thrust of time as fully and dully active and passive, as Husserl would have it. It is active because we now at the present moment are at the heart of time's spontaneity. But it is passive in the sense that it is immediately given as our continuous synthesis of it, and thus we do not apply any additional action in order to bring the parts together.

Our birth, or, as Husserl has it in his unpublished writings, our ‘generativity’, is the basis both of our activity or individuality, and our passivity or generality—that inner weakness which prevents us from ever achieving the density of an absolute individual. We are not in some incomprehensible way an activity joined to a passivity, an automatism surmounted by a will, a perception surmounted by a judgement, but wholly active and wholly passive, because we are the upsurge of time. (491b / 497c)


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

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



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