Body, Liquidity, and Flesh: Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, and the Elements of Interpersonal Communication

By Macke, Frank J. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Body, Liquidity, and Flesh: Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, and the Elements of Interpersonal Communication


Macke, Frank J., Philosophy Today


The theme of "embodiment" has emerged over the last two decades as a highly prominent topic in the human sciences. Much of this discourse has been developed from the work of Foucault, some of it is derived from Merleau-Ponty, and other points of view have contributed by way of anthropology, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Though this discourse has energized contemporary discussions of power and agency, there is a difficulty that this thinking must eventually encounter as it addresses the experience of embodiment as an intersubjective encounter with its own otherness. More specifically, Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, as it unfolds in The Visible and the Invisible challenges reflective consciousness to open itself up to a genuinely "post-Cartesian" experience of spirit and substance. ' It is not at all clear to me that this post-Cartesian challenge has been sufficiently taken on by the human sciences.

Phenomenology awakened the modern mind to the possibility of embodied subjectivity, of reason grounded in the experience of a vital, fleshly consciousness. Yet, for all of the discourse generated on the body as a site of power and contest, the concept of the body still seems too often discussed as a creature of organic autonomy, as a soft, at times bony tissue that encloses a shell of subjective experience and existence. It is my belief that an attentive reading of Bachelard's reflections on air, water, and dreams can offer a unique possibility for revisiting the thought of Merleau-Ponty-of awakening postmodern and post-Cartesian consciousness to a much richer encounter with the phenomenology of the body and the experience of the flesh.

Merleau-Ponty defines "flesh" as chiasm, as an interlacing of a being with, potentially, all other beings. As a complex tissue of 'experience and in experience, flesh cannot, thus, be encountered as a familiar "thing." It is continually in process, continually alive and dying, made up of flows and vapors, presenting itself to everyday perception as an illusion of substance and a deception of material stability. I will argue that flesh might best be understood as an intersubjective plasma, as a complex of fluid elements that are just as capable of hardness as they are of liquidity. "Assets" of memory and experience become "liquid" in moments of communicative intimacy and psychological transformation. As such, this essay will consider the concept of the body not as a medium of communication but as communication itself, as communication entered and exited by way of liquidity and crystallization.

The Conditions of Embodiment

What is my body?-this body that writes and speaks these words? Is it merely a bio-mechanical thing? My eyes that gaze upon my arms, my legs, my face in the mirror: they too are "of this body, this body upon which they are focused like alien and mysterious cameras. That which gains the attention from the modern psychiatrist and neuroscientist-in other words, my brain-still, through their investigations, continues to earn the full academic credit for thinking about this body, my body. Yet it too is entirely of this body. This place of thought, where Descartes once began, is also the place of feeling and sensation. I am conscious of my body and its parts. And by way of my body and its thinking and reflective properties, I am also conscious of being conscious-as I am also aware of what coming-to-consciousness feels like, especially of moving from sleep to awakening, or of being jarred to attention from reverie.

Conscious of my body, conscious of my consciousness, and of even my capacity for self, I remain somewhat baffled-especially in this context-about the comfortable certainty exhibited currently across academic fields that my mind is embodied.2 There is still so much to be discovered regarding the limits and conditions for both my body and this entity that has been named "mind." In German, the preferred term for "mind" is Geist, which is customarily translated as "spirit" (or its Anglo-Germanic cognate equivalent "ghost"). …

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