Review by Laura McMahon, Villanova University
Scott Marratto’s excellent book on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of subjectivity accomplishes several things at once. First and foremost, Marratto outlines with clarity and rigor a vision of human subjectivity as a dynamic and incomplete process of emergence that occurs in the relation between body and world, rather than—as many versions of the modern subject seem to suggest—a reified conscious interiority. Second, he engages with contemporary research in cognitive science in order both to find support for many of Merleau-Ponty’s theses and to clarify how the latter’s positions ultimately remain ontologically distinct from these later developments in philosophical and scientific research. Third, Marratto situates Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of subjectivity within the discourse of recent critiques of the modern subject, arguing convincingly that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in fact anticipates post-structuralist concerns rather then itself falling prey to them. Finally, though it is expressly not his aim to trace the temporal development of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Marratto discovers in Phenomenology of Perception (1945)—the chief textual focus of The Intercorporeal Self—ontological themes which resonate across Merleau-Ponty’s corpus.
Chapter 1 of The Intercorporeal Self (“Situation and the Embodied Mind”) explores the themes of sensation and spatiality in Phenomenology of Perception. Many empiricist approaches to cognition attempt to give a static, third-personal account of the perceiving self by envisioning a passive organism impressed by sensory information which it subsequently organizes, or computes, in acts of judgment. Against this, Marratto puts Merleau-Ponty’s work into dialogue with Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noë’s recent experimental studies on sensorimotor perception and J. J. Gibson’s ecological psychology in order to demonstrate how sensory perception—an irreducibly first-personal phenomenon—is only possible for a situated organism that moves through space. The perceiving self is not merely a complex fact within the world, as empiricist approaches would have it, but is dynamically revelatory of the world. Marratto’s chief thesis regarding the nature of subjectivity in Merleau-Ponty begins with the insight that perception only occurs for an experiencing self that articulates its environment through its movement through a “world-in-depth.” Rather than the cause and effect model of empiricist accounts of sensation, Marratto adopts Merleau-Ponty’s logic of motivation and decision to begin to express the dynamics of subjectivity. Since perception only occurs in subjective movement, there must be a “tacit decision” to move on the part of the perceiving self. While we ordinarily think of decisions as following upon conscious deliberation, Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of decision here refers to a pre-conscious decision that always already “secretly” informs the world of perception. This tacit decision is motivated—allows itself to be moved—by the perceptual world that will in turn be articulated in perception. The paradox of subjectivity is that what motivates decisive subjective life—the sensible world—only appears within decisive subjective life (and can thus be the object of phenomenological description).
Marratto explores this paradox of subjective experience in greater depth in Chapter 2 (“Making Space”), through—precisely—a further exploration of the phenomenon of depth itself. Marratto argues that he world-in-depth of perceptual movement points us to a temporal depth that motivates all embodied perceptual experience, and which prevents this experience from ever simply coinciding with itself or the sensible world of experience. It is on this point that Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of subjectivity ontologically differs from the sensorimotor and ecological epistemologies discussed in Chapter 1: while Merleau-Ponty shares with these approaches a critique of the empiricist’s view of sensory experience as the passive reception of sense data, he differs from them in that he discovers a special status of sensation within perceptual experience itself. While perception is not pure passivity but rather behavioural movement, its activity is nevertheless always motivated by—and thus passively dependent upon—a sensory reality that it did not itself create, but which is a “deep” beginning which only appears within perception as sens (connoting both “sense” and “meaning”). Marratto argues that this unorganized sensory motivation, which shows itself, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, only as a “dream” or “stupor” in self-conscious life, is the non-sense at the heart of sense, or the “past that has never been present” which subtends the structure or form of behaviour, and which carries with it a structural indeterminacy in all present experience—and, Marratto argues, all subjectivity itself. He discusses the phenomenon of learning in order to bring out this latter point. While behaviour articulates its situation, it must do so in such a way that it is structurally open to the contingent facticity of new content—contingent facticity that would motivate its own further transformation. Perception does not impose its own laws on sensory content, but rather intelligently responds to reality in such a way that it undergoes its own ceaseless transformation.
In Chapter 3 (“Subjectivity and the ‘Style’ of the World”), Marratto further distinguishes Merleau-Ponty’s account of subjectivity from the attempts of sensorimotor and ecological scientific approaches to explain the nature of situated cognition according to invariant structural laws governing the relationship between perception and the environment, as these approaches miss the dynamic dialectic we have begun to observe between the sensory world and experiential behavior that emerges as an open-ended, self-transforming identity. Laws do not ground the significance of perceptual experience, but rather emerge as norms within it. Marratto argues that any epistemology of situated cognition must be grounded upon an ontology of autopoesis. To illustrate the nature of autopoesis, Marratto distinguishes between two kinds of movement, one which moves in accordance with “information” processed from the perceptual world and one which learns how to make sense of the sensible world in new ways. While the former moves within an instituted world, the latter is engaged in a project of at once instituting new meanings and responsively “stylizing” itself.
Chapter 4 (“Auto-affection and Alterity”) addresses itself to deconstruction’s critique of the “metaphysics of presence” that is seen to inform the phenomenological approaches of both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. The challenge rests on an interpretation of subjectivity as self-present consciousness; in Derrida’s view, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of le corps propre (the lived or “own” body) privileges present-tense continuity and identity to the exclusion of difference, non-presence, and alterity. Drawing on the insights offered in his first three chapters, Marratto responds to this challenge on Merleau-Ponty’s behalf by arguing that self-conscious life is always already haunted by the deep past of anonymous sensibility—a past that constantly withdraws from self-conscious experience, rendering it permanently delayed and “out of sync” with itself. Self-conscious identity is thus the effect rather than the basis of an originary temporality which cannot itself be present in experience; it is an ongoing “repetition without original” that accords in important respects with Derrida’s concept of différance. Along with Levinas, Derrida also takes issue with Merleau-Ponty’s exploration of the relationship with the other person on the model of the handshake, which he argues is closely akin to the “double touching” we experience when we touch one of our hands with the other. This primal bodily confusion of self and other, which Derrida and Levinas seem to understand as a claim to immediate knowledge of another self, is seen to occlude the irreducible difference between self and other. Marratto argues, however, that just as the self is not consciously transparent to itself but is haunted by the “time before time” of sensible generality, so the relation to the other self is not in the first instance one of conscious knowledge, but is “prepared” in the anonymous being of the sensible in which my body and the body of the other are “mutually involved.” This originary involvement is not, then, the intersubjectivity of conscious subjects but rather the deeper “intercorporeity” of sensible life from which conscious differences emerge.
In the fifth and final chapter of The Intercorporeal Self (“Ipseity and Language”), Marratto gives fullest expression to the ontological thesis at play in his interpretation of the nature of subjectivity in Merleau-Ponty. The concept of a situated self with which he began implies a thesis about being as such, which is not reducible to consciousness of being but is rather the cradle from which sense emerges in movement. Consciousness is dependent upon a prehistorical ontological event of expression to which it is forever responding—moving in letting itself be moved. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology concerns this primordial event which can never be exhaustively captured in reflective consciousness, but which nevertheless only retroactively appears in the language of reflection. While many scholars have identified the theme of language as belonging to Merleau-Ponty’s later work and as in crucial ways absent from Phenomenology of Perception, Marratto argues that his own analysis of the retroactive nature of subjectivity in this early work already entails what will only became systematically explicit later. The paradoxical nature of all creative expression is that it is at once instituted and instituting; it neither creates ex nihilo nor merely repeats. Marratto “solves” this paradox by arguing that there is an inexhaustible “yet-to-be-said” to which subjective expression is always responding. This is a “silence” which demands to be forever spoken anew by a subjectivity that is itself articulated, in a further resonance with Derridean différance, within the sense and style of its “own” responsive expression.
The Intercorporeal Self is a technically sophisticated and enriching work that engages with many interpretive strands and approaches in Merleau-Ponty scholarship, clarifying what is distinct and powerful about Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of subjectivity. Marratto situates Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology within the diverse world of its reception, both in 20th-century French philosophy and in contemporary cognitive science. He further offers compelling theses of his own regarding not only how we should read Merleau-Ponty, but also about the dynamic, emergent, and permanently unfinished nature of a subjectivity “stylizing” itself in time, forever drawing on a fund of anonymous sensible experience through which we are forever intertwined with a world of others. The Intercorporeal Self is a substantial contribution to Merleau-Ponty scholarship, and should inspire future research on Merleau-Ponty’s rich corpus, as well as into the nature of sensibility and subjectivity themselves.