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Response to PoP II: Repression and The Body

In the beginning of Part One of his PoP, Marleau-Ponty describes the ways the body is accounted and conceived according to the fields of study such as physiology and psychology. The particular theme around which Marleau-Ponty bases his objections on, are the traditional Empiricist preconceptions and understandings of the psychical and psychological dimension of the human mind and body. Through an exposition of certain methods and preconceptions employed in physiology, Marleau-Ponty responds with a claim that asserts that the body is not merely an object situated within “a geometrical space indifferent to what it contains”, but has its own notion and understanding of spatiality and temporality1. These specific understandings of spatiality are grounded in not only the way being appears to consciousness from the first-person perspective, but also on how perception is inherently intertwined with the body as a totality—its organs, body parts, etc.—through which the subject perceives the world and develops their own understanding of spatiality and temporality. As Marleau-Ponty succinctly puts it, “I am conscious of the world by means of my body.”2 The world, and the phenomena within it, are perceived (and made conscious) by the body based on the circumstance in which it exists—the irreducible constituents of the body itself, and the “milieu” of being, its projects, its social relations, its intersubjectivity.

Because the body is a whole through which a being perceives and has an understanding of its own phenomenological world, certain tensions arise when it encounters certain circumstances that disrupt this understanding. One of these oppositions is what Marleau-Ponty refers to as repression, a term he borrows from psychoanalysis. Repression occurs when a subject is forced to no longer look through their phenomenal field of first-person bodily existence, but through an impersonal, objectified perspective that is mediated and imposed on them3. Marleau-Ponty distinguishes these two forms of existence as personal existence and impersonal existence; in the case of repression, the former is repressed by the latter4. In the example of the phantom limb, Marleau-Ponty demonstrates how the presence of a phantom limb, is a desperate attempt of the body to reclaim a certain “repressed experience” of personal existence that is now unavailable due the lack of a limb, which disrupts the totality of the phenomenal field through which the subject perceives their being5.

Because the subject struggles to grasp phenomena through a body whose totality had been disrupted, they are frequently compelled to understand the world normatively, in objective, impersonal terms. Seeing a psychiatrist when one has some mental diagnosis, or seeing a physiologist when one has a damaged limb; are perhaps one of many examples in which normative standards of medical and mental treatment seek to normatively re-establish order of the body6. Due to the impersonal nature of these acts, they are seen as an act of repression to the body of the subject, which cause them to feel a particular enxiety—an antagony against a force that imposes impersonal existence on them7. As Marleau-Ponty explains, “[a]ll repression is thus the passage from first person existence to a sort of scholastic view of this existence”8. In the act of this repression, the body finds itself in a situation in which it is unable to cope with, and renounces reality through “a flight into autism” which seeks to obliterate the objective world, and find renunciation with genuine personal existence9.

The lack of limb which causes the phenomena of the “phantom limb”, is an example of how the body attempts to renounce and recover its severed phenomenal field. This process cannot be explained neither in psychical nor in physiological conception alone, and the two approaches must be combined in order to provide a more adequate explanation. Even primitive animal reflexes are not mere blind physiological processes that casually react to stimulation, but contain a certain expression of a “behavioural milieu”, a “pre-objective perspective” that attempts to affirm a particular form of “being in the world”10. The feeling of a lack of certain body parts however, is not the only cause for the feeling of repression. A body may feel repression not only due to impersonal, “scholastic” forces, but also due to its innate composition: when a body migh feel excess or unbelonging to some of its own body parts. This feeling can be innate from an individual’s birth. Marleau-Ponty briefly mentions what resembles like dysphoria, or more specifically, somatoparaphrenia: where one denies ownership of a limb or an entire side of one’s body, a situation in which a person might “sense a second person implanted within his body. He is a man in one half of his body, a woman in the other”11. With the presence of inconsistencies and disruptions within the body, Marleau-Ponty seeks to demonstrate how existence and perception are inherently intertwined within the body. Since physiology and psychology employ particular methods of objectivisation around which phenomena are generalised, Marleau-Ponty offers a way of looking at that the body as something that embodies a particular phemonemnological horizon from which a unique phenomenological perspective of the subject is centred.

  1. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 55 

  2. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 84 

  3. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 55 (re-check) 

  4. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 86 

  5. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 88 

  6. One may see how this thought in particular was laid out explicitly by Michel Foucault, who’s influence from Merleau-Ponty can be expounded here in particular. In his History of Madness (1961) and The Birth of the Clinic (1963), Foucault exemplifies a study of the emergence of the modern concept of “mental illness” in Europe. In this account, Foucault provides an account of the prejudices of modern psychiatry, which classified abnormalities of the body (whether psychical or physiological) according to the standards of “empirical disciplines”. This form of treatment of illness, is precisely the form of repression that are instigated within social institutions that disrupt the phenomenological totality of an individual’s body. If Merleau-Ponty provided the philosophical account of repression of the body, Foucault expounded how this problem is agonized in the organisation of certain social, medical, and mental institutions. 

  7. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 85 

  8. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 85 

  9. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 88 

  10. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 81 

  11. Phenomenology of Perception, p. 91