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Response to PoP III: The Fragile Intentionality of The Body

In the middle and towards the end of “Part One: The Body” of his PoP , Merleau-Ponty expounds on a phenomenological basis, the way in which the body of a being incorporates a “bodily space” in which a unique milieu is constituted within the existence of a being1. This space consists of a particular intentionality through which a body projects its own phenomenological understanding and relation in the world. This unique constitutive whole of the body, consists of a projection of temporality and signification onto the world through a set of categories that are unique to the being, which cannot be subjected neither to empirical explanation, nor intellectualist reflection, but instead, must remain subjected solely to an existential mode of understading2. Through an exposition of how this constitutive totality of the body becomes repressed or ruptured physiologically (through phantom limbs, prosthetics, etc.) and psychologically (through dyslexia, aphonia, etc. ) , Merleau-Ponty proceeds to define how these ruptures consist of an inability of the body to project its own being in the world. A being that had been raptured from any of the above mentioned causes, escapes into what can be generally summed up by Merleau-Ponty as a “flight into autism”3, in which the body deliberately refuses to interact with the external world (for example, through language communication and other forms of intersubjective forms interaction) and would rather live in a disorderly existence in which there is an external world that does not promise sense nor meaning to the body. Even the conception of time, which is most frequently viewed and understood by normal subjects as a linear “temporal vector”, becomes a meaningless notion for a repressed body; future and past become nothing but the “‘shriveled up’ continuations of the present”4. The body also denies space, because beneath this “objective space” there is a “primordial spatiality” of the body in which it can visualizes itself5. As much as repression reveals the phenomenological and existential significance of being in the world, to the subject, it resembles a trauma due to the being’s intentionality being repressed by the ruptures of its body.

Although Merleau-Ponty does demonstrate how a change in the extensions through which the body interacts with the world can entail traumatic consequences for the body, it is nevertheless a crucial development that permits the body to develop its own intentionality as it dwells in the world. Such a stage is crucial in the development in the infant stage of a child, for example, in the case where “children, during the first nine months of life, only distinguish globally between the colored and the achromatic; subsequently, colored areas become articulated into “warm” and “cool” shades, and eventually detailed colors are obtained.”6In this development, a child learns how to perceive and distinguish particular colors, which would be considered to be a normal development as the child learns the way of perceiving the phenomena of color and perception according to customary ways. However, there are other ways in which the body can become acquainted with a new way of navigating and perceiving the world. Such an example includes a blind man’s cane, which no longer functions as a mere external object, but creates a “sensitive zone” for the body of the blind man which becomes “analogous to a gaze”7. What occurred, is that the blind man’s body acquired a new way of signifying its own “situational”8and “primordial”9spatiality, which contrasts with the Cartesian, objective and empirical conception of space.

This unique totality of the body’s milieu and intentionality, is what makes a body a “work of art”10 that offers a particular ontological signification that cannot be fully conveyed through a universal language that resides outside of its bounds. This can be tied to what Merleau-Ponty considers to be the incapacity of language to function as a means of communicating and/or translating the sense and intentionality of a particular body because of its unique ways of signifying its spatiality, temporality, sexuality, being in the world, and existence.11 By demonstrating the unique interrelations of the body, Merleau-Ponty turns to examples where physiological forms of repression, cause the body to becomes traumatized by its being in the world. In the example with a young woman who was forbidden to see a young man that she loves, caused the woman to no longer be able to swallow food and who also loses her speech through a phenomena called aphonia12. This inability to speak passes as soon as the woman regains the permission to see the young man that she loves.13 In the case with aphonia, is not merely a refusal of the young woman to speak, but a consequence of the sexuality of her body being subjected to a from of repression that makes it want to cut off its intersubjective relations and communication with others.14 Since the language is a method of communicating with the intersubjective world that consists of other bodies–which also happens to be the source of the body’s repression–the body can no longer consider the outside world as a source for its “sense and form” in life, and decides to instead remain secluded within itself, in its own “lifes’s hiding place”. This kind of a response is precisely the “flight into autism” caused from quasi-existential trauma in which the external world cannot promise sense nor recognition to the existence of a body3.

  1. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 139 

  2. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 138 

  3. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 88  2

  4. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 137 

  5. Phenomenology of Perception, pp. 149-51 

  6. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 33 

  7. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 144 

  8. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 102 

  9. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 149 

  10. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 152 

  11. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 193 

  12. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 163 

  13. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 164 

  14. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 167