19 Aug 2015

Somers-Hall, (5.3), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘5.3 Merleau-Ponty and Depth (229–32/288–91, 241–4/302–5)’, summary

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos and other distracting mistakes. Somers-Hall is abbreviated SH and Difference and Repetition as DR.]

Summary of

Henry Somers-Hall

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition:
An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide

Part 1
A Guide to the Text

Chapter 5. The Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensiblence


5.3 Merleau-Ponty and Depth (229–32/288–91, 241–4/302–5)



Brief summary: 

Parallel to Deleuze’s three syntheses of time are his three spatial syntheses. 1) Intensive differences are localized by being distributed into various spatial locations, and they move from place to place according to how they interrelate and interact (in thermodynamics, for example, heat moves from its location to where cold is located, normally). 2) The extensive space into which these intensities are distributed and the qualities belonging to those things in extensive space come about somehow by means of intensive depth. 3) These distributions of intensities and their explications into extensive properties and other qualities continues to remain fresh and in a perpetual state of renewal. This is because the intensive depth responsible for them returns eternally, that is, it never ceases to inject newness and variety into the system, counteracting the entropy which would otherwise cause the system to eventually die.


We will want to explain the constitution of systems, which operate in extensive space. But we need to explain also the genesis of those systems as well as the space they occupy. [For some reason,] this is not something we can do from within space or extensity. [“If we are to explain the constitution of systems, Deleuze claims, then we cannot do so within space or extensity. Rather, we need to explain the genesis of space as well as the systems it contains” (SH 170). Perhaps the idea is that since we need to explain the origins of extensive space, we cannot assume it as a concept in our explanation.] [The next points are a little complicated, so let us first run through them. 1) For Kant, the intuition of time is given to a subject. 2) But this means that the subject is in a sense outside of time, and thus we cannot give an account of how the subject emerges within time. 3) Deleuze makes a similar point about space. 4) Spatial relations and properties can likewise be (perhaps erroneously) seen as given to a subject existing outside space. 5) Deleuze, however, proposed a view of the self that is not preconstituted and pregiven, but rather is something that is produced through passive synthesis. 6) There were three syntheses of time involved in the production of the subject (at least the third one is). 7) Similarly there are three syntheses of space. 8) We noted in the last section that on account of entropy we might think there is an arrow of time directed toward the heat death of the universe, that is, from particular, ordered systems to generalized disordered ones. 9) We also saw this arrow of time with the first synthesis of habit. (See by the way James Williams’ very excellent explanation of the arrow of time in the first synthesis. The memorial past is particular and determinate but the anticipated future is general and indeterminate, thus time of the first synthesis is asymmetrical, pointing like an arrow to the future). 10) (Perhaps we are not focusing on the first spatial synthesis here, because we discussed it in the prior section. It is hard for me to characterize it.) “The second spatial synthesis will give an account of how a horizon of intensive depth constitutes the qualities and localised intensities presupposed by thermodynamics”. And this synthesis of space can be equated with the temporal synthesis of memory. 11) Just as the in the third synthesis of time there was the pure intensity of the eternal return, in the third spatial synthesis there is pure depth as intensity.]

We have already seen in Chapter 2 that for Kant the intuition of time was given to a subject. | As such, an account of the emergence of the subject within time was rendered impossible. Deleuze makes a similar point here about space. So long as space is seen purely as an ‘anticipation of perception’ (DR 231/291), the subject will be seen as given. With the subject comes the constituted realm of qualities, as well as ‘the high and the low, the right and the left, the figure and the ground’ (DR 229/288) as structures that show themselves for a subject. In Chapter 2, Deleuze introduced the notion of a passive synthesis, that is, a synthesis that constituted a subject rather than presupposing one. Just as there were three syntheses of time, so there are three spatial syntheses. When we looked at the notion of entropy in the previous section, we noted that the system of differences of intensities constituted an arrow of time. This arrow moved from particular, ordered systems to generalised, disordered systems. This directionality from the particular to the general forms a rough analogue of the first temporal synthesis of habit. The second spatial synthesis will give an account of how a horizon of intensive depth constitutes the qualities and localised intensities presupposed by thermodynamics. This synthesis can be equated with the synthesis of memory. Finally, just as there was a third synthesis of time in terms of the pure intensity of the eternal return, there is a third spatial synthesis of pure depth as intensity. In this section, I want to go through the second and third of these syntheses.
(SH 170-171)

Recall from section 1.11 “how for Merleau-Ponty, forgetfulness of the perspectivism of our experience led us to posit a world of objects” (SH 171) [I do not remember how this worked. I think the idea was that objects are phenomenally constituted perspectivally, with our own being a center of origin, but this also means that given that our perspective is limited, objects are never entirely constituted. So we need to forget the perspectivalness of object constitution in order to regard the world as being made of objects that exist fully independent of any perspectival awareness of them]. [Objects are related to one another by phenomenal implication. The red carpet has a particular way its color appears. Just by looking at it, we implicitly are aware of the lamp shining down on it to give it that particular illumination we see. And likewise, the variations in shading imply the objects interposing between the light source and the carpet. So the phenomenal constitution of any one object already carries in it implicitly spatial relations to other objects affecting its appearance. And that distance is also depth.  That might be what SH means here:] “Within this world, objects were understood in terms of their relationships with other objects, that is, the distances they held to their surroundings. As such, we cannot explain the nature of constituted objects without also explaining the possibility of these distance relations: we need an explanation of space. In this regard, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of depth is central” (171). [If we think about our field of vision, it extends up and down and left and right. So we directly perceive height and width. However, the layers of depth all stack up in a way that appears much more two-dimensional that in fact they are. However, there are clues in the relatively two-dimensional field of vision that tell us there is also a dimension of depth away from us. For example, things further away appear smaller and less apt to come into clear focus. Painters work with a two-dimensional surface but they place visual clues in the image so that we can view spatial relations of depth in the painting.]

As he notes, traditionally depth has been considered to be different from the other dimensions of height and breadth. Whereas those dimensions are directly perceivable by us, depth is imperceptible. If we take a naive view of painting, we can see a painting as presenting a number of signs that allow us to reconstruct a three-dimensional space on the basis of the two dimensions given by its surface (lines that converge to a point in the painting are used to recreate lines that remain parallel in space itself, more boldly coloured objects are taken to be closer to the viewer, etc.). On this reading, which Merleau-Ponty notes is the foundation of Renaissance painting (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 174), depth would be a construction on the basis of extensive magnitudes that are visible to us. | ‘Depth is a third dimension derived from the other two’ (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 172).
(SH 171-172)

However, [unlike with the painters using visual clues in the two dimensions of the painted image to indicate spatial depth] Merleau-Ponty does not attempt to derive depth from the other two dimensions but rather he sees depth as “that by which the given dimensions of extensity are given to us” (172). [I cannot figure out how this works. Maybe depth is to be understood as a more basic structure, like spatial juxtaposition itself. I am not sure what else depth would be such that the other dimensions would be made possible on its basis. So maybe the idea is that when we see depth, we see a unification of many different juxtaposed layers of extensive space. On the basis of this spatial synthesis we can order the points of space in height and width as being side-by-side. Or maybe somehow depth is to be understood simply as something like spatial variation in a very general sense. The following seems to be our best description of it, “Depth thus understood is, rather, the experience of the reversibility of dimensions, of a global ‘locality’ – everything in the same place at the same time, a locality from which height, width, and depth are abstracted, of a voluminosity we express when we say that a thing is there. (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 180)”. From this I still do not understand how it works. Let me quote:]

Merleau-Ponty’s claim about this form of understanding of depth is that, while it recognises the perspectival nature of our experience, this perspectivism ultimately sees perspective as a subjective feature of our representations of an objective and pre-existing spatiality [the following up to citation is Merleau-Ponty quotation]:

What I call depth is in reality a juxtaposition of points, making it comparable to breadth. I am simply badly placed to see it. I should see it if I were in the position of a spectator looking on from the side, who can take in at a glance the series of objects spread out in front of me, whereas for me they conceal each other – or see the distance from my body to the first object, whereas for me this distance is compressed into a point . . . For God, who is everywhere, breadth is immediately equivalent to depth. (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 255)

While representation attempts to derive the field of depth from the two given dimensions, thus characterising depth itself as an axis of extended space, Merleau-Ponty reverses this procedure. That is, rather than seeing depth as derived from the given dimensions, he sees it as that by which the given dimensions of extensity are given to us. Depth is not merely breadth seen from another angle, but rather is something different in kind that, by making possible a field of autonomous but interrelated objects, also makes possible the system of extensive distances taken as foundational by representation [the following up to citation is Merleau-Ponty quotation].

Once depth is understood in this way, we can no longer call it a third dimension. In the first place, if it were a dimension, it would be the first one; there are forms and definite planes only if it is stipulated how far from me their different parts are. But a first dimension that contains all the others is no longer a dimension, at least in the ordinary sense of a certain relationship according to which we make measurements. Depth thus understood is, rather, the experience of the reversibility of dimensions, of a global ‘locality’ – everything in the same place at the same time, a locality from which height, width, and depth are abstracted, of a voluminosity we express when we say that a thing is there. (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 180)

As Merleau-Ponty notes, this primordial depth here is no longer simply a ‘container’ for objects and qualities which are found within it. A consequence of this is that the genesis of quality and the genesis of space can no longer be seen as two separate projects: ‘We must seek space and its content as together’ (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 180). In ‘Eye and Mind’, he makes the claim that the enigma of depth is one of the primary inspirations of modern painting, and takes the work of Paul Klee and Paul | Cézanne as exemplary of the new project of showing ‘how the things become things, how the world becomes world’ (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 181).
(SH 172-173)

[So we are going along with this idea that somehow it is out of depth that the other dimensions are generated. Deleuze thinks this too. Again, I am not sure how this is for Deleuze, if for him this also applies in matters of perception. Merleau-Ponty does think that depth is non-extensive, but he does not equate it with intensity. Deleuze however does. Now we note how in the first “thermodynamic synthesis”, intensity was localized (perhaps because it was a matter of one particular temperature differential at some place in some system). Somehow (and I do not know how this works) in the second spatial synthesis intensity is what allows localization, since it is “a horizon that allows things and qualities to be constituted” (173). The spatial world has four features, and thus intensity is responsible for them: 1) the extensive distance between things, 2) the three dimensions of space which allows for things to have distance between them, 3) “the milieu of intensive differences recognised by thermodynamics as responsible for the appearance of qualities” (but I still do not know how that works), and 4) the qualities themselves that appear (in objects in space). The third synthesis of space is space just as an intensive quantity or pure spatium. Now, the second synthesis of space explains how intensity explicates into spatial extensity (the “how” part I still do not grasp). The next idea seems to be that this is as far as Merleau-Ponty goes, but since Deleuze sees depth as different in kind from the other dimensions and thus for him it is definable independently of extensity, then that means Deleuze goes further than Merleau-Ponty.]

This process by which a primordial depth is expressed in the form of qualities and extensions is, for Deleuze, the second spatial synthesis. ‘Depth as the (ultimate and original) heterogeneous dimension is the matrix of all extensity, including its third dimension considered to be homogeneous with the other two’ (DR 229/288). In a move that goes beyond Merleau-Ponty, he equates this non-extensive depth with intensity (‘Depth is the intensity of being, or vice-versa’ [DR, 231/290]). Now, we can note that while in the first thermodynamic synthesis, intensity was localised, in this second synthesis, intensity is rather that which allows localisation to take place – it is a horizon that allows things and qualities to be constituted. It is therefore responsible for four features of the spatial world: extensio, as the individual distances between objects; the extensum, as the three dimensions of space themselves (the frame of reference for the extensio); qualitas, as the milieu of intensive differences recognised by thermodynamics as responsible for the appearance of qualities; and quale, as these qualities themselves. Just as there were three temporal syntheses, here there are three spatial syntheses. The third synthesis of time was the pure form of time, prior to its expression in habit or memory. Deleuze describes the third spatial synthesis as ‘space as a whole, but space as an intensive quantity: the pure spatium’ (DR 230/289). While the second synthesis provides an account of the process by which intensity as depth generates the three dimensions (the explication of extensity), Deleuze notes that the fact that depth is different in kind from the dimensions it constitutes means that it is ‘definable independently of extensity’ (DR 230/289). The third spatial synthesis therefore goes beyond Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account by considering intensity independently of this process of the constitution of perspective.
(SH 173)

Just like with the third synthesis of time, Deleuze equates the third spatial synthesis with the eternal return (173). The eternal return is not like Plato’s doctrine of the circularity of time where the same situations repeat. [I do not follow the next points. Maybe the idea is that depth does not repeat but is prior to all things that do repeat. I will quote because I am missing the idea here:]

Just as Deleuze equated the third synthesis of time with the eternal return (2.8), in so far as it presented us with the pure field of intensity that gave rise to the two modes of temporality, the third spatial synthesis is also equated with the eternal return. Once again, as we saw in Chapter 2, Deleuze makes the point that the eternal return is not to be seen as something like the Platonic doctrine of an actual circularity of time, with a concomitant replication of a prior state of affairs. Rather than the eternal return being the claim that ‘things revolve’ (DR 241/302), | depth is precisely what is responsible for the constitution of things, and hence must be prior to them. Thus, ‘things must be dispersed within difference, and their identity must be dissolved before they become subject to eternal return and to identity in the eternal return’ (DR 241/302). If we are to think the unground from which things emerge, this unground cannot be thought in terms of things without leading to an infinite regress.

[I do not get the next paragraph very well. It seems the ideas are the following. For Deleuze, intensity generates extensity and the intensive differences distributed within extensity. Thermodynamics takes extensive space and its intensive distributions as givens. This means it is not aware that there is a creative and productive force that brings them about and that perhaps continues to somehow add energy or imbalance or life or something which would mean that there is not a certain heat death in the end. And maybe also the fact that intensity keeps injecting these anti-entropy factors into the world is like the eternal return, which is the continual repetition of new conditions in the world whose outcomes are not pre-calculatable.]

These three syntheses therefore explain why for Deleuze the increase in entropy proposed by thermodynamics is a transcendental illusion. Thermodynamics notes that intensive differences that we find already constituted and located in a spatial milieu tend to equalise themselves, but such an account only gives us half the picture. What is missing is the account given by the second and third syntheses whereby the extensive magnitudes thermodynamics presupposes, and with them the systems of intensive differences, are constituted. This presupposition that extensity is already constituted in effect rules out any consideration of these syntheses, thus leading to the transcendental illusion that intensive difference can only be equalised, but not constituted. The thought of depth is the thought of the eternal return because it is the thought of a field of intensity that is not cancelled by the laws of entropy. In fact, Deleuze claims that the eternal return is the thought of that which gives rise to the laws of nature, mirroring his analysis of repetition we looked at in the introduction (0.2). In the next section, we will address an issue brought up by this third synthesis. While we may have an understanding of intensity operating within extensive space (the difference in temperature between two locations, for instance), what does Deleuze mean by intensity defined independently of extension?
(SH 174)


Citations from:

Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013.

Or if otherwise noted:

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994/London: Continuum, 2004.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964), ‘Eye and Mind’, trans. Carlton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 159–90.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962), Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.







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