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  • Motor Intentionality: Gestural Meaning in Bill Viola and Merleau-Ponty
  • Carrie Noland

The rise of new media studies has brought attention to artists such as Bill Viola while renewing scholarly interest in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This essay provides analyses of Merleau-Ponty and Viola that go against the grain of current scholarship on them both. By privileging the category of the gestural—central in Merleau-Ponty’s meditations but often eclipsed in recent criticism—the essay contradicts a trend in new media theory that associates embodiment not with motor intentionality but instead with a far more mysterious entity called “affect.” Reading Viola’s The Passions through Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, the essay brings to bear the author’s experience as a movement practitioner to restore the register of gestural performance to Viola’s visual images.

“Is it possible to express emotions without the movement of the face?”

—Bill Viola

During the last fifteen years of his life, roughly from Phenomenology of Perception of 1945 to the lectures on “Nature” of 1958–61,1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a theory of the gestural that has provided a fruitful new direction for continental philosophy. By combining a set of unique commitments—to Husserlian phenomenology, to Gestalt psychology, to Marxist materialism—Merleau-Ponty inaugurated a school of thought that associates human understanding not with cogitation but with embodied cogitation: he is interested in the body’s implication in what the mind thinks it knows. Indeed, it has become almost banal to claim that Merleau-Ponty is the philosopher par excellence of embodiment.2 But what has been far less frequently acknowledged is the degree to which that embodiment is conceived by Merleau-Ponty in terms of the gestures the animate human form can execute, the movements by means of which that body explores the world. Phenomenology of Perception is, almost from the first page to the last, a meditation on the role of the gestural in acts of embodied perception and cognition. Gestures clearly hold a privileged place in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical and aesthetic writings, but what he means by the word is not always easy to discern. In Phenomenology of Perception, The Structure of Behavior, and the lectures collected in Nature: Lectures and Course Notes, “gestures” (“gestes”) cover the same ground as Mauss’s “techniques of the body,” especially when treated in the context of the acquisition of habit. Elsewhere, though, “un geste” appears as a rather amorphous type of sign, a smile, for instance, but also a way of clenching the brows, scratching an itch, playing a keyboard, or applying paint.3 It would seem that gesturing, for Merleau-Ponty, is the inescapable medium in which animate forms navigate environments and enact intentions. Gestures are therefore, for him, the link between a naturally given body/world and an existential/cultural situation. Neither produced entirely by culture, nor imposed inevitably by nature, gestures are a culture’s distinctive way of conjugating what Merleau-Ponty once called the body’s “general power.” Gestures are a social manifestation of the body’s biologically driven “cleaving” to the world.4

It is perhaps due to this crucial, intermediary position of the gestural that it has become an important category for contemporary theorists of the body, especially those interested, as is Merleau-Ponty, in examining how cultural, organic, and technological forces interact to give birth to embodied beings. Nowhere has this interest been more pronounced than in the area of new media theory. In fact, new media theory has become a locus for a renewal of interest in Merleau-Ponty’s writings, just as the aesthetic objects privileged by new media theorists frequently thematize, register, and even dissect the gestural dimension. Although performance studies and dance ethnography have made headway in championing the contributions of Merleau-Ponty, it is arguably in the area of new media theory that his insights have been most fruitfully explored. José Gil, Mark Hansen, Brian Massumi, Brian Rotman, and Sha Xin Wei each argues persuasively that phenomenology’s approach to embodiment promises to correct a technological determinism that in the past has rarely considered the role of situated performance in humanity’s commerce with...