Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 25 May 2012

The Philosophy of the Flesh: Notes on Merleau-Ponty and Agamben

These notes are meant to show that we are not standing still on the promised "autonomist ontology". Apologies for the quotations in French and Portuguese. These links are useful:

Kant regresses back into Cartesian dualism by simply positing the “finitude” of the per-cipient subject and the “noumenality”, the incom-prehensibility of the per-ceived Object, of Being in its “totality”. This is the kernel of what we may call (with Merleau-Ponty) “the transcendental attitude”. Kant distinguishes two “moments” (momenta) of experience, one being the “constitutive” (perception) and the other the “regulative” (concepts or theory). This “separation” (or chorismos) of perception and the perceived, of the percipi and the esse, already pre-supposes a dualism of perceiving Subject and perceived Object. The act of perception is founded on the logical presupposition that there is a “thing” that is to be perceived – the Object. And the logical requirement of the act of perceiving is that there be an “entity”, a Subject, that “does” the perceiving. Whereas Descartes had placed the Ego or the Soul at the summit of philosophy, Kant preferred to appoint the logico-mathematical powers of human thought. It is the very ec-sistence of logico-mathematical id-entities that are within life and the world, within experience, and yet are independent of experience for their “truth” or “validity” – it is this a priori ec-sistence of logico-mathematical rules or laws that confirms the ec-sistence of two separate yet inextricable aspects of human existence: the constitutive principle of experience and the regulative principle of theory, the awareness or intuition of the res or “things”and the cognitive ability to link these “things” according to cognitive rules. There exists therefore both a faculty that “links” or “con-nects” ideas between themselves, and a faculty that links or connects these “ideas” with “things”, and an entity that pro-duces these “ideas” (the Sub-ject) as well as the “things” (that are ordered and connected) in themselves! Here Being is seen as “pre-sence”, as a fixed entity: what is forgotten is that the only “fixity” is that of the “degree zero” of being, which is its “being-for-others”, its perceptibility and not some kind of “nothing-ness” (Heidegger), as even Merleau-Ponty ends up mistaking it:

Les choses et le monde visibles, d'ailleurs, sont-ils autrement faits? Ils sont toujours derrière ce que j'en vois, en horizon, et ce qu'on appelle visibilité est cette transcendance même. Nulle chose, nul côté de la chose ne se montre qu'en cachant activement les autres, en les dénonçant dans l'acte de les masquer. Voir, c'est par principe voir plus qu'on ne voit, c'est accéder à un être de latence. L'invisible est le relief et la profondeur du visible, et pas plus que lui le visible ne comporte de positivité pure. (Signes, p26, my emphases.)

Merleau-Ponty, like Heidegger and Husserl and Hegel before them, continues to approach the question of being in its “verticality”, its transcendence – and so betrays his own enterprise. (Arendt speaks of “depth” [or ‘true being’] and “surfaces” [or ‘mere appearances’] to distinguish between transcendence and immanence [see ‘LotM’, p26 and p30 on “the value of the surface”]. Negri adopts this term, too in his writings on Spinoza.) Had he turned to the immanentists, he would have understood more fully what he himself sustains below when he substitutes “visible et invisible” for “etre et neant” – the impossibility of Being ec-sisting in its “totality”, as “pre-sence” that would render the pre-sent (the nunc stans) meaningless, as “un etre sans restriction”; - and therefore the futility or irrelevance of transcendentalism:

Dimensionnalité, ouverture n'auraient plus de sens. L’absolument ouvert s'appliquerait complètement sur un être sans restriction, et, faute d'une autre dimension dont elle ait à se distinguer, ce que nous appelions la « verticalité », - le présent - ne voudrait plus rien dire. Plutôt que de l'être et du néant, il vaudrait mieux parler du visible et de l'invisible, en répétant qu'ils ne sont pas contradictoi-res. On dit invisible comme on dit immobile: non pour ce qui est étranger au mouvement, mais pour ce qui s'y maintient fixe. C'est le point ou le degré zéro de visibilité, l'ouverture d'une dimension du visible. Un zéro à tous égards, un être sans restriction ne sont pas à considérer. Quand je parle du néant, il y a déjà de l’être, ce néant ne néantise donc pas pour de bon, et cet être n'est pas identique à soi, sans question. (Signes, p27.)

The limit of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception can be sensed in his failure to appreciate how the notion of “becoming” in Nietzsche’s version of the concept does not leave “the sensible, time and history” untouched but trans-values them quite radically:
La philosophie qui dévoile ce chiasma du visible et de l'invisible est tout le contraire d'un survol. Elle s'enfonce dans le sensible, dans le temps, dans l'histoire, vers leurs jointures, elle ne les dépasse pas par des forces qu'elle aurait en propre, elle ne les dépasse que dans leur sens. On rappelait récemment le mot de Montaigne « tout mouvement nous découvre. » et l'on en tirait avec raison que l'homme n'est qu'en mouvement 6. De même le monde ne tient, l'Être ne tient qu'en mouvement, c'est ainsi seulement que toutes choses peuvent être ensemble. La philosophie est la remémoration [anamnesis] de cet être-là, dont la science ne s'occupe pas, parce qu'elle conçoit les rapports de l'être et de la connaissance comme ceux du géométral et de ses projections, et qu'elle oublie l'être d'enveloppement, ce qu'on [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 28] pourrait appeler la topologie de l'être.

But Merleau-Ponty’s interesting notion of “invisibility” as “the degree zero of visibility” leads us back to the discussion over Schmitt’s “exception” and Hobbes’s “hypothesis” and Nietzsche’s Invariance – all of which are “border” or “liminal” concepts, as it were, and offer revealing radiographies of the bourgeois transcendental and ontogenetic understanding of human being. Having just stated that “quand je parle du néant, il y a déjà de l’être”, Merleau-Ponty remains locked in the transcendental attitude that he attempts to supersede because he remains tied to the Heideggerian phenomenological notion of “nothing-ness”: if “being is in motion”, if it is a “be-coming”, then there must also be a non-being that pre-supposes being, which is the “space” left “empty” by the pre-sent being understood as a fixity. Similarly, “in-visibility” has meaning or “sense” only in the light of visibility (“la lueure de l’etre”, an echo of Heidegger’s Lichtung). Merleau-Ponty has a vice of falling into these delusional dualisms as when he speaks of “silence” enveloping “words”, for meaning or “sens” as “l’etre d’enveloppement” and the Platonic “anamnesis” (cf. his expressions above, at p.28 of ‘Signes’).

It is interesting also that Foucault and then Agamben (Homo Sacer) mistake this “degree zero” for some puerile pre-political “state of innocence” that has been tainted by “statality”, by civil society as “bourgeois society”, as a degeneration or de-secration from “zoe” to “bios”. In effect, Agamben et alii erect a “naked life” as a bulwark against the “fiction” of citizenship that de-fines the “border” between the state of legality and that of “exception”.  

E em referencia a esta definicao que Foucault, ao final da
Vontade de saber, resume o processo atraves do qual, nos
limiares da Idade Moderna, a vida natural comep, par sua
vez, a ser incluida nos mecanismos enos calculos do poder
estatal, e a politica se transforma em biopolitica: "Par milenios,
o homem permaneceu o que era para Aristoteles: um animal
vivente e, alem disso, capaz de existencia politica; o homem
moderno e um animal em cuja politica esta em questao a sua
vida de ser vivente." (Foucault, 1976, p. 127) (See pp.3-4 of Eng. Edtn.)

Despite his appeals to the authoriality of Hannah Arendt (for he is a master at seeking out associations with “authors” such as Heidegger and Deleuze), Agamben neglects the cardinal importance that Arendt gave precisely to the concept of “citizenship”, not as a mark of biopolitical repression, but indeed as the only realistic and real “protection” of a human being by a human community! There is no reference in Arendt to this “primacy of natural life” to which Agamben refers (p.4). Little wonder that he should complain (same page) that “Arendt establishes no connection” between the analyses in ‘HC’ and in ‘OT’! The Nazi concentration camps operated not on the basis that “citizenship” was denied to the Jews, as Agamben foolishly believes, but precisely on the Nietzschean and later Schmittian notion that society and its “ontogeny of thought” are fictitious “masks” that serve to dissemble the “nakedness” of life as exploitation! Though this debacle may have begun with the progressive emargination of social groups from the protection of citizenship, as Arendt genially showed, the Nazis never saw Jews as “people deprived of citizenship” – and they never meant thereby “to exclude” them from any kind of biopolitical “statality” or “statal power”. The Nazis quite simply ob-literated the very notion of “citizenship” altogether! – In such a way that the Jews became in their eyes the “innocent” (Unschuldig!) victims of the struggle for life, the war of all against all, - the state of nature that is exactly what Agamben’s notion of “nuda vita” and Foucault’s earlier Aristotelian one of “zoe” ineluctably revive! In the Nazi ideology, Jews were merely the representatives of a losing “slave morality” that were to be dominated by the homologously “ir-responsible” or “un-accountable” (un-ver-antwort-lich) Nazi “Arian” bearers of the “master morality”! To lump together political systems that retain the notion of “citizenship” with systems like the Nazi state that abolished citizenship completely is to commit a political misjudgement of the worst possible kind! The puerility of Agamben’s “late-romantic” Rousseauean reveries is of an almost unbearable naivete’ – something that Nietzsche exposed and ridiculed with “the ontogeny of thought” which shows, in a manner later rejuvenated by Arendt, the (sit venia verbo!) “nakedness” (allusion to Agamben’s “nuda vita” or naked life) of the violence that the bourgeois transcendental attitude and ontogeny unleashes on beings human because of its equally “naked” denigration and denial of any phylogenetic inter esse, let alone “citizenship”! Nietzsche falsely believed to be able to overcome the nihilism of Western thought by exposing its Invariance: in reality, however, he only ended up identifying the ineluctability of exploitation and of “the pathos of distance”, as well as the instrumentality of the capitalist logico-mathematical and scientific order. (Esposito, incidentally, has sought to redefine inter esse as comunitas, with the emphasis on the munere which preserves the social individuality of the esse and shifts the political emphasis from the inter.)


Or, si nous chassons de notre esprit l'idée d'un texte original dont notre langage serait la traduction ou la version chiffrée, nous verrons que l'idée d'une expression complète fait non-sens, que tout langage est indirect ou allusif, est, si l'on veut, silence. (‘Signes’, p45)

 Again, the “totality” of being, just like “the complete expression” is a non-sense, says Merleau-Ponty. The “parallelism” of word and object, of thought and word is therefore also a nonsense:

Il n'est pas davantage de pensée qui soit complètement pensée et qui ne demande à des mots le moyen d'être présente à elle-même. Pensée et parole s'escomptent l'une l'autre. Elles se substituent continuellement l'une à l'autre. Elles sont relais, stimulus l'une pour l'autre. Toute pensée vient des paroles et y retourne, toute parole est née dans les pensées et finit en elles. Il y a entre les hommes et en chacun une incroyable végétation de paroles dont les « pensées » sont la nervure. - On dira - mais enfin, si la parole est autre chose que bruit ou son, c'est que la pensée y dépose une charge de sens -, et le sens lexical ou grammatical d'abord - de sorte qu'il n'y a jamais contact que de la pensée avec la pensée -. Bien sûr, des sons ne sont parlants que pour une pensée, cela ne veut pas dire que la parole soit dérivée ou seconde. Bien sûr, le système même du langage a sa structure pensable. Mais, quand nous parlons, nous ne la pensons pas comme la pense le linguiste, nous n'y pensons pas même, nous pensons à ce que nous disons. Ce n'est pas seulement que nous ne puissions penser à deux choses à la fois : on dirait que, pour avoir devant nous un signifié, que ce soit [26] à l'émission ou à la réception, il faut que nous cessions de nous représenter le code et même le message, que nous nous fassions purs opérateurs de la parole. La parole opérante fait penser et la pensée vive trouve magiquement ses mots. Il n'y a pas la pensée et le langage, chacun des deux ordres à l'examen se dédouble et envoie un rameau dans l'autre. (‘Signes’, p24)

In fact here even the “la” of “la pensee” ought to be in cursive – because if languages interpenetrate thoughts, then it is foolhardy to postulate the existence of “one” thought: there are as many “thoughts” as there are words to articulate and express them. Merleau-Ponty obliquely argues as much when he rightly observes that there cannot be any plausible analytical distinction between synchronic “parole” and diachronic “langue” a’ la Saussure. (See generally “Le Phenomene du Langage” in Signes, p.85:
L'expérience de la parole n'aurait alors rien à nous enseigner sur l’être du langage, elle n'aurait pas de portée ontologique.
C'est ce qui est impossible. Dès qu'on distingue, à côté de la science objective du langage, une phénoménologie de la parole, on met en route une dialectique par laquelle les deux disciplines entrent en communication.
D'abord le point de vue « subjectif » enveloppe le point de vue « objectif » ; la synchronie enveloppe la diachronie. Le passé du langage a commencé par être Maurice Merleau-Ponty, SIGNES. (1960) 86
présent, la série des faits linguistiques fortuits que la perspective objective met en évidence s'est incorporée à un langage qui, à chaque moment, était un système doué d'une logique interne.

Here once again Merleau-Ponty seems unable to distinguish between human ana-lysis – literally, the retrovisual categorization of reality that ends up in the prima philosophia (ontology) and the “reality” that is the “fundament” or even the “abyss” of thought and language and action, in short, of what may be called the point of intuition, the reality of perception.

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