12 Sep 2011

Unity under Displacement: The Moving Integration with Absence as the Phenomenon of Time. §g ch2 prt3 of Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

by Corry Shores
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Unity under Displacement:
The Moving Integration with Absence
as the Phenomenon of Time

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Phénoménologie de la perception
Phenomenology of Perception

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

Ch. 2. La temporalité
Ch. 2. Temporality


What does time's continuous movement from absence to presence got to do with you?

We might look back at our youth as being a better time of our lives. These moments have passed. We are aware of them only through the eyes of the present, which sees them differently than they were originally seen by our younger self, because each moment since then has given new ways and reasons to reflect upon these former times. It might even seem that our youth is drifting away from us like a boat cast to sea, while death looms on the horizon, sailing slowly but determinedly toward us to take us away. But so long as we are living, perhaps whenever we feel time directly, it is not as a distance to our youth but rather as the continuous movement of new moments passing in and out of our lives. When do we feel time? What does time feel like? Does it feel like a motion? That same motion was with us when we were young, and will be there with us until the end. There is one time of our lives.


Brief Summary

The phenomenon of time is its integrated motion in and out of absences (future to past) that are thoroughly tied to and announced implicitly in any given present moment of this continuous movement. We are not retentionally aware at moment C of past moments A and B, because B through the eyes of moment C has become modified to B', and A then to A''. They are all a part of one act of retentional awareness, so they are no longer successive moments. Their temporal successive character is given phenomenally in their continuous modification from A' to A'' for example. Each moment differentiates itself from the others, on account of their having been once present to the exclusion of the presence of the others. But this exclusion is possible on the basis of the continuous motion which brought any one moment into the present and which takes it out as well. The present is not a pure present, because it implicitly announces the future's 'destiny', just as it implicitly announces the destined passing of the past moments. The future and past cross over each other in the present moment. So there is one unified time that is made of diverse moments of presencing and that is in a continuous motion of transition in and out of absence.


Points relative to Deleuze

Merleau-Ponty's phenomenon of time is its givenness to us as a continuous motion of dispacements from absence to presence to absence, with all motions being integrated with the rest such that at any moment, the others are given implicitly somehow. Each moments A, B, C, and D, held in our retentional awareness, have contents which differentiate each one from the others. But they are no longer successive in the temporal sense, because back when they were in the process of passing through presence, their neighbors were absent; yet in our retentional awareness, all moments, all neighbors, are given together in our present moment of consciousness. The phenomenon of time is their continuous motion from the future to the past through the present, which involves their going deeper and deeper into our retentional awareness, being modified each time from the new perspective we take at each new moment.

The Deleuzean phenomenon of time will also involve the differentiation between A, B, and C, and in fact will be more clearly based on it. What allows moment A to move to moment B is the fact they are different to begin with, for otherwise we would remain at moment A. The Deleuzean phenomenon of time is not the movement from the one to the other, but rather that flashing moment when their differences are given. In other words, we do not have time because we go from instant A continuously to instant B. During the passage between them, they in a way are both given simultaneously as the differences between them. So there is a shock from one moment to the next. The logic of becoming is something like: (A and B) when A implies not-B and B implies not-A. At the original seat of the phenomenon of time, at its primordial core, what we phenomenally feel most directly when time appears to us, is not its motion, but the paradoxical co-givennes of incompatible (incompossible) states of affairs. So phenomenologically speaking, the origin of phenomenal time is the sudden flashes of differential relations that shock us. If we look in the mirror and for the first time notice a sign of age, like a wrinkle, for a brief instant we feel three years time having passed. Time is not the linear time-line A, B, C, D, nor is it the continuous movement of absence to presence to absence, of A to B concurrent with A to A'. Time is instead the contentless, purely affective difference between A and B, between A and D, between A and A'', and so on. It is in fact the discontinuity from A to B that gives the passage its temporal character, not the continuity. Thus what gives the present its temporal character is not its continuous passage from future to the past, but rather the fact that the present is discontinuous with these other moments, standing out completely from them as not fitting in completely with them. The parts of the present that give us temporal affections are not the continuities, the announcements of the future; those go unnoticed because they do not tell us anything. The temporally phenomenal content of the present are its shocking standings-out from the past and future. Deleuzean phenomenal time is always sudden, always based on paradoxical combinations and incompatibilities whose differential shocks between them alert our attention to what is immediately given.



Review Paragraph §f

Previously Merleau-Ponty discussed Husserl's triangle diagram for retentional awareness.


(From Phenomenology of Perception 479 / 484)

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Current moment A in the next moment became something in our retentional awareness, A'. In yet another succeeding moment, we are not just attending to A retentionally, we are rather intending A'', which is a retention of a retention of A. It might seem that each moment we are retentionally aware of something not unified with the original A. Yet, we regard them as all being intentional awareness of one A. This is because there is a continuous passage of their going further into the past, so we can get back to A when we are at C. During moment C, we have in our mind a retention of prior moment B, so this is B'. B' has in its retentional awareness prior retention A'. But because B' was modified by C, that makes A' modified as well, making it A''. When we trace events back to A, we do so by seeing A'', which is A under the view of two layers of retentional modification. Merleau-Ponty says that these new layers of consciousness do not block our view of the past moment, but they also do not give us a direct view of it either. It is rather like seeing the bottom of a stream through the clear water moving above it. But this still does not give us a phenomenal experience of time, because it does not include the absence involved in succession. He also notes that we have a more primordial intentional awareness of the feeling of our current moment of awareness leaning up against the absences of the past and future whose forces are pushing and pulling the current moment away. There is a paradox here. This involves an absolute difference between things which are not unified, because it is between absence and presence, and yet it is also on the basis of this differential relation that all moments are connected immediately upon one another and thus time's uncombinable parts are as well the grounds for time's unification.


Summary
§g

To solve these problems, Merleau-Ponty reminds us that what we are considering is an instant of our mental awareness, which I think is each diagonal line in the diagram. Thus we are not dealing with discrete moments A B C, because our instant has just C, B', and A'' all as parts of the same moment of consciousness. There are not a multiplicity of various different retentions and protentions in this one instant of awareness. (1945: 481d / 486d) Also, it is not firstly that there is an arising present which then causes secondarily the past to pile up, and the future be anticipated differently. This is because our awareness of the present is itself the movement of the future into the present, and the present into the past. All three are in motion simultaneously.
The upsurge of a | fresh present does not cause a heaping up of the past and a tremor of the future; the fresh present is the passage of future to present, and of former present to past, and when time begins to move, it moves throughout its whole length. (481b / 486-487)
The instants A, B, and C are not given in one instant each as successive moments. They are rather given as the movement from A'-B to A''-B'-C. What makes A B and C different in one moment of consciousness is not that they are successive, because they here are not, but rather that they differentiate among one another within our awareness. What gives them their temporal character in such a present immediate experience is not so much the temporal gap between A, B, and C, which is now gone; rather the phenomenon of time here is the awareness of A' becoming A'' and B becoming B'. These are retentions, which means the phenomenon of time is our awareness of some event in the past being continuously seen through a continuously thickening lens of other intervening retentional moments linking to it.
The ‘instants’ A, B and C are not successively in being, but differentiate themselves from each other, and correspondingly A passes into A′ and thence into A″. In short, the system of retentions collects into itself at each instant what was, an instant earlier, the system of protentions. There is, then, not a multiplicity of linked phenomena, but one single phenomenon of running-off. Time is the one single movement appropriate to itself in all its parts, as a gesture includes all the muscular contractions necessary for its execution. When we pass from B to C, there is, as it were, a bursting, or a disintegration of B into B′, of A′ into A″, and C itself which, while it was on the way, announced its coming by a continuous emission of Abschattungen, has no sooner come into existence than it already begins to lose its substance. (481c.d / 487a.b)
I wonder if one way to view this would be something like a reverb or the visual trail left behind fast moving objects. Maybe what can make these phenomena seem magical is not just hearing the simultaneity of the past and the present, but also hearing the movement of the present into the past, represented as its continual fading. A reverb might give us all at once conscious moments A, B, and C of our experience of a sound. The phenomenon of time in Merleau-Ponty's sense would then be us hearing the action of the fading out as the sound extends, because perhaps us hearing the fading of the beginning of the sound, the A moment, corresponds with it receding deeper into our retentional awareness; so the diminishing vividness of the sound in our ears would match the diminishing vividness in our retentional awareness. So when we hear a reverb, while hearing moment C, the prior moment has faded somewhat, so it is not B but rather B', and the first moment is even more faded, and is thus A'' rather than A.

When time appears to us as something we notice, what we sense is a sort of outward blooming from the reality that is given to us now. The present moment A soon becomes B. So A becomes B. But also, A makes a transition not just to B, but also to being something in our retentional awareness, so A also becomes A'. What links A with A', the present intention with its immediately succeeding retention, is not some synthesis of the two on the basis of their identification with one another. The transitional movement from one state to the next is what binds them together. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenon of time is like an awareness of the continuous motion of intentional contents slipping down the retentional diagonal of Husserl's diagram.
It is nothing but a general flight out of the Itself, the one law governing these centrifugal movements, or again, as Heidegger says, an ek-stase. While B becomes C, it becomes also B′; and simultaneously A which, while becoming B, had also become A′, lapses into A″. A, A′ and A″ on the one hand, and B and B′ on the other, are bound together, not by any identifying synthesis, which would fix them at a point in time, but by a transition-synthesis (Übergangssynthesis), in so far as they issue one from the other, and each of these projections is merely one aspect of the total bursting forth or dehiscence. Hence time, in our primordial experience of it, is not for us a system of objective positions, through which we pass, but a mobile setting which moves away from us, like the landscape seen through a railway carriage window. (481-482 / 487bc.d)
Merleau-Ponty then describes the passage of time as like a sort of movement coming first from a distance into explicit physical expression and then fading back into a distance. When a new moment comes, it was in a way germinating somehow within what we are immediately aware-of. Slowly it comes to bloom, and in this way it sort of fades-in to full volume in the present. Then reaching its peak, it fades back into the retentional margins of our awareness.
the disintegration undoes what the passage from future to present had achieved: C is the culmination of a long concentration which has brought it to maturity; as it was being built up, it made its approach known by progressively fewer Abschattungen, for it was approaching bodily. When it came into the present it brought with it its genesis, of which it was merely the ultimate expression, and the impending presence of what was to come after it. So that, when D comes into being and pushes C into the past, C is not suddenly bereft of its being; its disintegration is forever the inverse or the consequence of its coming to maturity. In short, since in time being and passing are synonymous, by becoming past, the event does not cease to be. (482b.c / 488a.b)
What we call objective time - we might think of it as time outside our consciousness - can be found in the sliding overlap of the future and the past in the present. He uses the term 'destiny' to explain how it is that the basis of time involves something absent that as well is fully given in presence. Because everything comes to be through this overlapping passage of future to past through the present, what comes to be was destined previously to arrive now, and it as well, as something temporal, is now destined to pass out of existence in the next moment.
The origin of objective time, with its fixed positions lying beneath our gaze, is not to be sought in any eternal synthesis, but in the mutual harmonizing and overlapping of past and future through the present, and in the very passing of time. Time maintains what it has caused to be, at the very time it expels it from being, because the new being was announced by its predecessor as destined to be, and because, for the latter, to become present was the same thing as being destined to pass away. (482c / 488b.c, boldface mine)
For Bergson, duration is essentially a continuous flow of newness. Merleau-Ponty says that Bergson should not have reduced the essence of time to just its continuity. The continuous passage of time means that the movement from future to present to past proceeds by gradations so imperceptible that they all blend together. This in a way denies the absolute difference between the presence of the present and the absence of the future and past.
Bergson was wrong in explaining the unity of time in terms of its continuity, since that amounts to confusing past, present and future on the excuse that we pass from one to the other by imperceptible transitions; in short, it amounts to denying time altogether. (482d / 488c)
Merleau-Ponty says that Bergson was however right to think of time's continuity as an essential temporal phenomenon. Merleau-Ponty goes on to analyze what he thinks it is that makes up the phenomenon of time's continuity. He seems to be saying that the continuity is the horizonal integration of the present with the absent past and future. What makes moment C what it is, is that it is both an anticipation of D at the same time a passing into the past. Continuity is always an active motion of passage. Each moment is thoroughly integrated with the others and none are completely distinguishable from one another, on account of the continuous passage.
Bergson was wrong in explaining the unity of time in terms of its continuity, since that amounts to confusing past, present and future on the excuse that we pass from one to the other by imperceptible transitions; in short, it amounts to denying time altogether. But he was right to stick to the continuity of time as an essential phenomenon. It is simply a matter of elucidating this. Instant C and instant D, however near they are together, are not indistinguishable, for if they were there would be no time; what happens is that they run into each other and C becomes D because C has never been anything but the anticipation of D as present, and of its own lapse into the past. (482-483 / 488d, boldface mine)
This means that the future and the past are spoken through the present, even if in a much less obvious way. Thus the phenomenon of time is not an experience of a series of nows, each with its own view of the past and future, which secondarily requires our consciousness to string them together synthetically. Rather, the phenomenon of time is their motional unity, their continuous transitioning into and through one another. There is one time as the motion of coming into explicit awareness of the present through a continual transitional movement from future to the past through the present. The absence of the past and future is given now, but not as an open announcement in the present, but rather as what is announcing itself as coming and as having passed already.
This amounts to saying that each present reasserts the presence of the whole past which it supplants, and anticipates that of all that is to come, and that by definition the present is not shut up | within itself, but transcends itself towards a future and a past. What there is, is not a present, then another present which takes its place in being, and not even a present with its vistas of past and future followed by another present in which those vistas are disrupted, so that one and the same spectator is needed to effect the synthesis of successive perspectives: there is one single time which is self-confirmatory, which can bring nothing into existence unless it has already laid that thing’s foundations as present and eventual past, and which establishes itself at a stroke. (483b / 488-489)


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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