Skin to Skin: Between Logos and Flesh

Sometimes when I read too much I get very quote heavy; rather than letting my own voice through in my writing, I can’t think of a better way to say it than the way I just read it. So when Merleau-Ponty explains the problem with Husserl’s project in two pages in the midst of The Visibile and the Invisible, I can’t think of a better way to proceed than to copy his words down.

“It is by considering language that we would best see how we are to and how we are not to return to the things themselves….

The philosopher speaks, but this is a weakness in him, and an inexplicable weakness: he should keep silent, coincide in silence, and rejoin in Being a philosophy that is there ready-made. But everything comes to pass as though he wished to put into words a certain silence he hearkens to within himself….

[What he seeks] would be a language of which he would not be the organizer, words he would not assemble, that would combine through him by virtue of a natural intertwining of their meaning, through the occult trading of the metaphor–where what counts is no longer the manifest meaning of each word and of each image, but the lateral relations, the kinships that are implicated in their transfers and their exchanges…. If language is not necessarily deceptive, truth is not coincidence, nor mute….

Because he has within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech as bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that, born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but–if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and all its foliation–the most valuable witness to Being….

Philosophy is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things, called forth by the voices of silence, and continues an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being.” (VI, 125-7)

The best and the worst thing about this text is that it seems to be the last word on the topic. A statement of openness that forecloses discussion, it was work like this that seemed to spell the end of philosophy. But Merleau-Ponty discouraged that kind of talk, so I think he’s blameless of the hubris of people like Heidegger or Strauss, who seemed to believe that the only interesting way to do philosophy was their way. Instead, he’s simply culpable for being so damned good.

I find inspiration in the notion of a project that grasps language in its ‘natural intertwinings,’ that seeks ‘lateral relations’ rather than ‘manifest meanings.’ What are the lateral relations within the vocabulary of governance and justice? How can words be ‘naturally’ intertwined? How can the ontological difference (the Being of every being) be understood as an ‘effort of articulation’?

M-P concludes that this is only possible if we give up the potency/actuality, real/ideal distinction that drives post-Aristotelian metaphysics. In its place he pushes the fleshy, embodied metaphors that cut through phenomena/noumena in favor of a “sensible world” that “emigrates… into another less heavy, more transparent body, as though it were to change flesh, abandoning the flesh of the body for that of language, and thereby would be emancipated but not freed from every condition.” (VI, 153) The flesh of politics brings the body politic into sharp focus. Bodies are characterized by health, strength, and beauty, rather than justice, power, or virtue. Is there a specifically active, communal sense of health that should guide governance, perhaps one that takes the notion of constitution to be a substantial rather than simply formal matter?

Second Opinions