Merleau-Ponty Between Subjectivity and Power
Existential phenomenology is political. This could be a scholastic claim, given the wide-ranging influence of canonical existential phenomenologists like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty on prominent continental political theorists such as Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, Arendt, Rorty, Butler and Taylor. Or it might be an historical claim, given Merleau-Ponty and Sartre’s personal involvement in political struggles, for example (and Heidegger’s own unhappy involvement, which is political in a different way). But the central, and original, claim of Diana Coole’s Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics After Anti-Humanism is that existential phenomenology, at its best, is political.1 Coole focuses on Merleau-Ponty because more than any other existential phenomenologist, she argues, he came to develop an account of being-in-the-world that showed how everyday “coexistence,” as uncovered by phenomenological inquiry, is always suffused with practices of power and conflict. Furthermore, because he recognizes that power as well as rationality is woven into the fabric of the intersubjective world, Merleau-Ponty is uniquely capable, Coole claims, of situating embodied agents between an antiquated “philosophy of the subject” and an overzealous antihumanist “philosophy of power.” Her central task is twofold, then: to show how existential phenomenology is political, and to show how Merleau-Ponty’s political existential phenomenology succeeds where others do not.
In contrast to those who interpret Merleau-Ponty’s later political writings as a substantive departure from his earlier, more traditionally phenomenological studies, Coole argues that Merleau-Ponty’s politics represented a radicalization and critical deepening of his earlier work. (2007, 13–14) The relatively early Phenomenology of Perception, she argues, “presents something of a methodological schema for Merleau- Ponty studies, including those of politics.” (126) This argument for continuity is founded by the claim that Merleau-Ponty, following Husserl, understood modern philosophy and politics alike to be held captive by various manifestations of a singular crisis. (160) The crisis was modern rationalism, and Merleau-Ponty’s abiding goal was to find alternatives to it. Coole defines rationalism: “this kind of reason either claims certainty for its knowledge of nature, history, or society and uses it as a means to control them or, inversely, it sees such phenomena as inert forms immune to knowledge but available for subjection to the will.” (26) In other words, modern rationalism separates an ideal realm of values and thought from material life but fails to recognize the relativity of its own presuppositions. (42) Rationalist philosophy and practices have no account of their own genealogy or contingency. Of greatest consequence, then, is that rationalism is dangerous because collective practices and political institutions enact the founding ontological presuppositions of a culture; problems with mind-body and subject-object dualisms, for example, manifest in unhealthy social relations. “Ideas become diffused across lifeworlds as taken-for-granted horizons for thought and action,” Coole writes, often with tragic and violent consequences. (69 and 78)
The creativity, erudition, and even risky nature of Coole’s account turns up most strikingly where she traces Merleau-Ponty’s critique of rationalism through his many disparate interests. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of intellectualism and empiricism in Phenomenology of Perception can be analogized to his critique of liberalism and communism, she argues. Throughout the book Coole suggests, directly and indirectly, that all of the following dualities are in some sense manifestations of rationalist assumptions:
• Early Marx/Late Marx
• The West/The Other
The former of these dualities are all attributes, outgrowths, or entailments of subject-centered philosophy; the latter are various terms of force. In each case, subjectivist and objectivist prejudices represent two sides of the same rationalist coin, the baleful effects of which are as notable in theories of perception as they are in political life. And in contrast to all of them, as Merleau-Ponty writes in the preface to the Phenomenology, “the question is always how I can be open to phenomena that transcend me, and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that I take them up and live them.” (1962, 363)
Merleau-Ponty’s return to ontology, and to a “politics of the flesh,” Coole argues, represents a “third term” intended to reject rationalism embodied in all these forms. The flesh is a “corporeal and historical materialism,” (108) where “meaning and materiality are simply inseparable.” (100) It is derived from Husserl’s conception of the “third dimension,” which “unfolds between the oppositions traditionally reproduced by science and philosophy.” (160) The deep advantage of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the flesh is that, because it rejects the mind/material distinction, it is capable of articulating a social ontology that both accurately depicts the “choreography of the way collective life unfolds” and provides a source for normative judgments of particular collective practices. (138)
For Coole, the anti-humanist critique of Merleau-Ponty is dispelled by the concept of the flesh, for it shows that Merleau-Ponty does not understand intentional relations to be bridges between conscious subjects and a non-discursive world. The flesh is a “formative medium” of both objectivity and subjectivity. (168) One cannot say, then, that he did not sufficiently abandon the anthropocentric assumptions of a subject-centered philosophy of intentional consciousness. (177) As such, Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the productive activity of the pre-personal body enables him to articulate a source of agency which his anti-humanist critics, such as Butler, Derrida and Deleuze lack, because “the body is a powerful if oft neglected actor in politics.” (175) Political agency arises somewhere between subjectivity and power: “what I have emphasized here,” Coole writes, “is the way Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh helps us to grasp the existential, material aspects of collective life without reducing everything either to discourse (or power) or to the actions of a thinking subject.” (191)
Coole’s focus on Merleau-Ponty’s consistent rejection of these traditional prejudices uncovers something profound and persistent within his thought. The importance of her project stems not only from the fact that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological and political works remain dissatisfyingly disconnected in the existing scholarship, but also in her thesis that existential phenomenology is political. Existential phenomenology puts the social world “in the body,” as Pierre Bourdieu says, and not enough work has been dedicated to locating the theme of this politically potent thought within existential phenomenology itself. It may make sense to think of Bourdieu as “applied Merleau-Ponty,” however, because there are many unanswered questions about Merleau-Ponty’s own application of existential phenomenology to politics, at least in the way Coole has outlined this project.
One example of Coole’s bridge-building between political praxis and theories of perception is her use of the term “concrete,” which Merleau-Ponty places at the heart of existential philosophy. Between phenomenology and politics, however, “concrete” has distinct meanings. It is unclear on Coole’s account whether concrete means “particular,” as in the perceptual affordances of the unique situation, or whether it means “real” or “material,” as in the concrete realities of economic conditions. The latter is a rather un- Merleau-Pontian concept, but it seems to be required by Coole’s assessment that his politics resides between excesses of subjectivity and power.2 Rationalist thinking problematically polarizes the world into mind and matter, or subjectivity and power. Coole may mean that by “concrete” Merleau-Ponty means to salvage what is right about historical materialism, in the sense that everyday coexistence is suffused with concrete material forces of power and conflict. Such a reading, however, remains either parasitic upon the mind/matter duality Merleau-Ponty intends to move beyond or is undeveloped with respect to the phenomenological and existential meaning of “concrete material forces of power and conflict.”
The vagueness of the term “concrete” exemplifies the difficulty of specifying the meaning of politically engaged existential phenomenology. If philosophy is one kind of political praxis, how is this unique form of praxis enacted? Coole recognizes the wrongness of the claim that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology had a systematic political structure. Nor need it have one. As thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu have shown, politics resides in the everyday practices of socialized bodies. Merleau-Ponty is on safe ground if his concept of politically engaged phenomenology resides in the micropolitics of everyday life. But how, then, do these everyday practices fulfill their ostensibly normative intentions to affect macro-level political processes?
The normative ideal behind a politics of the flesh, Coole argues, is “hyper reflexivity:” a combination of Heideggerian aletheia and Foucauldian problematization. Proceeding through the world by “an ongoing but contingent interrogation of its surroundings,” (170) the body provokes experiences of uncovering or opening oneself to one’s foregoing understanding of what and how things are. Merleau-Ponty called this process “dissipating the myths” in Humanism and Terror. Through dialectical, interrogative, and critical experiences, we are able to see that “subjectivity and consciousness are not the source or cause of knowledge but emergent processes – openings – within the genealogy of truth.” (177) I have no quarrel with this ideal, but is it obvious that seizing upon the right ontology enables political agents to “open” political practices in the ways that Coole suggests? How, exactly, is this done? How does a genealogy of truth translate into effective action? What are the daily practices? The institutional relationships? An old materialist worry seems to apply: the insistence that right political action begins with good philosophy may simply be a way of avoiding action.
If politics is, on the other hand, ineluctably philosophical, how does Merleau-Ponty’s politics interact with traditions and ongoing questions in political theory? Consider Coole’s interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of liberalism, which she puts within the context of his ongoing battle against rationalism: “[liberalism’s] dependence on universal principles allows the liberal state to deny its own contingency and violence but to condemn its opponents unequivocally.” (51) This may be true, but it avoids a far more challenging question: is this failing internal to liberalism or merely representative of unfulfilled liberal ideals? How does Merleau-Ponty’s critique help us to answer this question? I don’t want to say that it cannot, but many charge Merleau-Ponty’s political theory with failing to meet the rigorous and original quality of his phenomenology’s contribution to traditional accounts of perception, intentionality, etc. It’s difficult to see what proof Coole has against this claim.
One of the most intriguing and novel suggestions that Coole makes (albeit in passing) is that the flesh is an “emergent” entity, specifically as the medium of engaged political phenomenology. The idea is that the flesh is something over and above its constituent parts, much like a termite mound or a gaggle of geese flying in V-formation seem to exhibit emergent collective intelligence which may be irreducible to the individuals which comprise them. Merleau-Ponty’s intent to move beyond traditional prejudices, rather than merely situate his thought between them, leads to the concept of emergence because he wants to reformulate our understanding of the relationship between flesh and its component parts. Truly moving beyond dualities like reflective philosophy and engaged praxis encourages new directions for our very concepts of thought and action. As such, Coole’s account would be enriched by more direct engagement with ongoing studies of emergence, complexity, and systems theory. Emergent entities, for example, can be said to be irreducible, merely surprising, or metaphysically novel with respect to their constituent parts; is the flesh one of these?
Absent a developed account of emergence, the default position for Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh (which ostensibly represents his engaged political phenomenology) seems to be between subjectivity and power. Understood this way, however, Merleau-Ponty’s politics edges into something like that of the Frankfurt School. Coole is right to show that Merleau-Ponty’s existential phenomenology can or did warrant a critical philosophy, but the Frankfurt theorists (toward whom Coole intends to draw Merleau- Ponty) argued that power and force dominate, overlay, siege, and/or sluice their way into the “lifeworld.” These models utilize an inside/outside distinction that Merleau-Ponty would reject. If the meaning of “suffuse” is to be continuous from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to his politics, then whatever gets suffused must in some sense be self-generating, in the sense that power, conflict, reification, etc are part of, or implicated by, everyday coexistence. Coole too easily speaks of power as a force external to ordinary coexistence, rendering obscure the distinctness of Merleau-Ponty’s critical philosophy. One wants to know more about the relationship between everyday coexistence and power. If power does not “overlay” coexistence, should we say that everyday coexistence is “nothing but power?” Or does Merleau-Ponty mean “no everyday coexistence without power” or “no power without everyday coexistence?” These questions are left open by Coole’s account. Answering them may make the task of finding criteria for political normativity harder, but it marks an irreducible difference between a critical existential phenomenology and critical theory.
Finally, then, Coole’s assessment of Merleau-Ponty as a critical theorist also obscures a broader tension in his thought between the value of problematizing or overturning modernity’s hidden assumptions and the value of being indelibly situated in ordinary social space. Notwithstanding the perhaps too quick assimilation Coole makes between the phenomenological world of everyday coexistence and the critical theorist’s model of the lifeworld, the compelling reason Coole labels Merleau-Ponty a critical philosopher is his emphasis on interrogating the presumptions of the familiar world. Coole groups him with Nietzsche, Foucault, and (curiously) Husserl, as a genealogical thinker, broadly conceived, who is intent upon turning structures of power inside-out. (117) But this critical ethos, which marks a mode of existence, seems insufficiently balanced with Merleau-Ponty’s recognition that we are capable of freeing ourselves from a situation only because we are always already bound to one. Merleau-Ponty’s profound understanding of the autonomy of everyday existence – the self-propelled inertia which allows us to be involved in the world – distinguishes his work from the politically radical philosophers with whom Coole associates him. Freedom, for Merleau-Ponty, is possible because we are always committed to a situation. Contrary to the implications of Coole’s account, Merleau-Ponty does not only philosophize with a hammer.
Michael Brownstein ( email@example.com ) is an advanced graduate student in the department of philosophy at Penn State University. Currently, he is working on the normative implications for social theory of the relationship between nonconceptual coping and conceptuality, broadly pertaining to language, interpretation, and philosophical reflection. His dissertation analyzes the normative and pragmatic capabilities of the social theories of Bourdieu, Taylor, and Jon Elster as an upshot of their assessment of the relationship between practical intelligence and theoretical knowledge. Focusing on 20th century continental philosophy, social theory, and the philosophy of social science, he has also written on the relationship between philosophy and media, in particular, “user-generated” online communities (e.g. Wikipedia) and their contributions to conceptions of the public sphere.
1. ‘Existential phenomenology’ is not Coole’s own term. I believe, however, that it fairly and succinctly describes the general subject of her concern.
2. See, for example, Merleau-Ponty’s extended footnote on historical materialism in Phenomenology of Perception (198–201), or consider his introductory claim in the same work: “it is true, as Marx says, that history does not walk on its head, but it is also true that it does not think with its feet. Or one should say rather that it is neither its ‘head’ nor its ‘feet’ that we have to worry about, but its body”. (xxi)