Sensation rebuilt: Carnal ontology in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty
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The phenomenological approaches to embodiment presented by Levinas and Merleau-Ponty cannot provide an adequate account of bodily identity because their methodological commitments forbid them from admitting the central role that sensation plays in the constitution of experience. This neglect is symptomatic of their tradition's suspicion toward sensation as an explanatory concept, a suspicion stemming from Kant's critique of empiricist metaphysics and Husserl's critique of psychologism and objectivism. By contrast, I suggest that only with a robust theory of sensation can the integrity of the body and its relations be fully captured. I therefore develop--contra Kant and Husserl's idealism--a realist conception of sensation that is at once materialist and phenomenological.
The phenomenologists distort the nature of intercorporeal relations and their most significant insights prove to be non-phenomenological. I find this useful for rebuilding the concept of sensation on materialist grounds. Merleau-Ponty grants too much control to the lived body, and thereby neglects its passive aspects. His view that relations between bodies are reversible is thus inadequate. Levinas endows the body with a substantial passivity, to the point that the susceptibility of the body becomes its defining feature. I defend a more balanced position that features the body's plasticity --its capacity to give form to its environment while receiving form from that same environment. My theory synthesizes the phenomenologists with other historical figures, from Spinoza to Deleuze, as well as critical race, feminist, and embodied cognition theorists. To conclude, I suggest that only the plastic body adequately describes the subject's aesthetic relations, and can therefore serve as the basis for an immanent ethics of embodiment.
produced by the affective valence of our situations. A “situation,” as Mark Johnson understands it, is a complex event which occurs between an organism and its environment. It is very close to what Merleau-Ponty means by our existential situation, or being in the world. Drawing from the philosophy of Dewey as well as the neuroscience of Antonio Damasio, Johnson argues that 148 Gail Weiss, Refiguring the Ordinary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 79. Weiss points out that it is his
Visible and the Invisible. It is not clear, however, how the flesh becomes sentient or why some beings achieve sentience while others remain merely sensible. “For if the body is a thing among things, it is so in a stronger and deeper sense than they,” Merleau-Ponty asserts. (VI 137/181). It seems possible to overcome this dualism by broadening the scope of sentience to include any entity that can receive sensory stimulation. If this stimulation is regarded as an objective event, and is not
guarantee. 274 Silvia Benso, “The Breathing of the Air: Presocratic Echoes in Levinas,” in Levinas and the Ancients, eds. Brian Schroeder and Silvia Benso (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 20. 275 Benso, “The Breathing of the Air,” 20. 99 It is true that we always access the sensible in the present and, affective encounters notwithstanding, via representation. But “the represented, the present, is a fact, already belonging to a past” (TI 130/103). To apprehend the sensible as
Harman, “Levinas’s Threefold Critique of Heidegger,” Philosophy Today (forthcoming, 2010). On the negative implications of Levinas’s position for environmental philosophy, see Christian Diehm, “Facing Nature: Levinas Beyond the Human,” Philosophy Today 44, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 51-59. 103 the body, but of its “ambiguous” nature, which Levinas identifies with consciousness (TI 165/139). Consciousness, he says, is not an incarnation, but a “disincarnation,” a “positioning of the corporeity of the
but this docility is at once a matter of tolerance and creation, taken together as a single trait: creative tolerance. Our brains are, to an extent, genetically determined, but it is this necessary determination that allows for “a possible margin of improvisation” that is at once singularly determined and historically singularizing.357 Every body’s experience will likewise be singular, which means that no two bodies will encounter the same object in identical ways. Plasticity describes the