Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Speaking Subject

Like Hung Wai-Shen, László Tengelyi argues that the tacit cogito of the Phenomenology of Perception was superseded by Merleau-Ponty's later phenomenology (The Wild Region in Life-History, p. 33; I will unpack Tengelyi's discussion more fully in a later post). Tengelyi alerts us to the following passage in The Prose of the World:

In the "I speak" psychology rediscovers for us an operation, a dimension, and relations which do not belong to thought in the ordinary sense. "I think" means there is a certain locus called "I" where action and awareness of action are not different, where being confounds itself with its own awareness of itself, and thus where no intrusion from outside is even conceivable. Such an "I" could not speak. He who speaks enters into a system of relations which presuppose his presence and at the same time make him open and vulnerable.

(p. 17)

Having begun to reread The Prose of the World, I now feel that my previous objections to Hung were not well thought through, and my understanding of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of language was inadequate. However, I still feel that the obliteration of the tacit cogito is not complete. I will explore Merleau-Ponty's thinking about the speaking subject, language and expression with an eye to how his thinking might overcome the limitations of the Cartesianism of the tacit cogito, such as it is.

"We now regard language as the reverberation of my relations with myself and with others" Merleau-Ponty announces (p. 20, my emphasis). Tengelyi argues that Merleau-Ponty approaches language as a diacritical system, a system in which the "I speak" is included. This is true as far is it goes; however, Merleau-Ponty's descriptions of this system frequently make use of musical metaphors, metaphors of gesture suggestive of dance, and of course the analogy with painting. Modern structural linguistics is only one model he uses to investigate the phenomenon of language. Language is embodied. Language is expressive. The expressive "system of harmony," operating through the locution that touches on sedimented significations to make them yield strange sounds (p. 13) belongs to another interior system of the relation between self and other:

[S]peech and understanding are moments in the unified system of self-other. The substratum of this system is not a pure "I". . . but rather an "I" endowed with a body which reveals its thoughts sometimes to attribute them to itself and at other times to impute them to someone else. I accommodate the other person through my language and my body. Even the distance which the normal subject puts between himself and others, as well as the clear distinction between speaking and listening, are modalities of the system of embodied subjects. . . . As an embodied subject, I am exposed to the other person, just as he is to me, and I identify myself with the person speaking before me.

(p. 18, Merleau-Ponty's emphasis)

Although Merleau-Ponty here talks of the other "before" me, he is in fact inclined to regard the essential relation between speaking subjects as lateral. He claims that "the other is never present face-to-face" (p. 133). The other is, instead, "always on the margin of what I see and hear, he is this side of me, he is beside or behind me, but he is not in that place which my look flattens and empties of any 'interior'" (p. 134). The other is decentered because the self is decentered; the embodiment of the speaking subject means that it is open and vulnerable, and that, counterintuitively perhaps, it can be generalized. "From the first time I relied on my body to explore the world, I knew that this corporeal relation to the world could be generalized" (p. 136). For Merleau-Ponty, the world has a bite, and we empathize with everybody exposed to its bite as we are. "As long as it adheres to my body like the tunic of Nessus, the world exists not only for me but for everyone in it who makes gestures toward it" (p. 137). In a footnote, Merleau-Ponty discusses style in terms of a "nonconstituted rationality of the thing-axis" and he says that "a nonconstituted rationality is possible only if the thing is nonfrontal, ob-ject, but what bites into me, and what I bite into through my body; if the thing is, itself too, given through an indirect grasp, lateral like the other person–such a rationality has decentering as the ground of meaning" (p. 45, Merleau-Ponty's emphasis). When Merleau-Ponty says that "[t]he signification of signs derives initially from their configuration in current usage, from the style of human relations that emanate from them" (p. 36), I take this to mean that its meaning is grounded in a decentering. "There can speech (and in the end personality) only for an "I" which contains the germ of a depersonalization" (p. 19). In a footnote he explains that this depersonalization is founded on an originary fusion of the embodied subject and her world, and he notes that "[t]his foundation does not prevent language from coming back dialectically over what preceded it and transforming the purely carnal and vital coexistence with the world and bodies inot a coexistence of language" (p. 20).

In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty defines the tacit cogito as "the presence of oneself to oneself, being no less than existence" (p. 404). In The Prose of the World he is concerned with this same relation of self to self. He asks, "How can the cogito emigrate beyond me, since it is me" (p. 134)? His answer is that "there is a myself which is other, which dwells elsewhere and deprives me of my central location" (p. 135, Merleau-Ponty's emphasis). Thus the tacit cogito is in one sense superseded by a decentered self, by a bodily coexistence. Yet nobody who has read Phenomenology of Perception would be utterly surprised to find bodily coexistence inhabiting the decentered self.

"The tacit cogito is a cogito only when it has found expression for itself," Merleau-Ponty says (Phenomenology, ibidem). By arguing, in The Prose of the World, that the cogito does not speak (and I find its lack of personality most interesting), it appears that Merleau-Ponty has left behind the tacit cogito as well. On the other hand, there is a tacit dimension to the speaking subject, the "strange expressive organism" (p. 14) for whom speaking and listening are but two modalities of the same expressive life. And, Merleau-Ponty says that speech "never quite pierces the 'eternal silence' of private subjectivity" (p. 43). "[W]e should consider speech before it has been pronounced, against the ground of the silence which precedes it, which never ceases to accompany it, and without which it would say nothing. Moreover, we should be sensitive to the thread of silence from which the tissue of speech is woven" (pp. 45-46). Thus it seems that the only thing Merleau-Ponty has left by the wayside is the cogito itself. The relation of oneself to oneself, and the silence of the speaking subject are intact. Does Merleau-Ponty thereby free himself from a problem of Cartesian subjectivity? I'm not sure. It would be fair to say, I think, that the problem has been decentered.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 4:11 PM.


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