Urban Flesh

By Weiss, Gail | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Urban Flesh


Weiss, Gail, Philosophy Today


The Violence of Binaries

Through a critical appropriation of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's conception of flesh, Luce Irigaray stresses those aspects of the flesh Merleau-Ponty merely hints at when he suggests that the flesh stylizes, by which he means the differentiations of the flesh, how the flesh of one cannot be exchanged for the flesh of another. Irigaray is especially concerned with a very particular form of fleshly differentiation, namely, sexual difference, and she takes Merleau-Ponty to task for failing to acknowledge its irreversibility. Most notably, she argues that women's flesh has historically been understood as a (deficient) mirror of men's flesh, a specular surface that, far from revealing genuine difference, reveals only what men want to see. The danger, on her account, of understanding the flesh as a "general thing" is that the flesh is not pure generality; rather the flesh is always already differentiated and some forms of differentiation, most notably sexual differentiation, are misrecognized if they are understood through the model of reversibility that Merleau-Ponty famously illustrates through the example of one hand touching the other. In this example, the hand touched in turn becomes the hand touching, and while these two experiences are distinct, the capacity of either hand to have either experience implies a sameness in difference, a narcissistic cycle that Irigaray identifies with a masculine desire to encompass and master genuine difference. Opposing Merleau-Ponty's "elemental" logic of generality, a generality that she claims is at odds with the ongoing, polymorphous sex-specific differentiation that distinguishes feminine flesh, the sex "which is not one," Irigaray is nonetheless clearly indebted to Merleau-Ponty's insight that the flesh functions as an "incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being." Indeed, I would argue, Merleau-Ponty's provocative understanding of how the flesh stylizes being suggests an ongoing process of differentiation that cannot be reduced to sameness. And yet, insofar as it stylizes, the flesh also unifies, weaving together disparate gestures, movements, bodies, and situations into a dynamic fabric of meaning that must be continually reworked, made and unmade.

The city is itself an excellent example of such a richly textured fabric of meaning. We need only look to the checkered racist and sexist histories of so many American cities to recognize both the fragility as well as the strength of the ties that collectively produce the varied stylizations (liberatory as well as oppressive) of urban flesh. By emphasizing the corporeal connections and disconnections that differentiate what I am calling urban flesh, this essay seeks to support the work of contemporary feminist theorists, critical race theorists, disability theorists, and others who refuse the reductive violence of the binary logic that would have us privilege unity over difference or difference over unity. As we shall see, however, such a position should not be construed as an escape from the violence of limitation, for this latter is encountered outside of as well as within binary systems.

The focus for this particular discussion then, is on the differentiations that produce and are produced by the materiality of the urban, that is, by urban flesh. The very expression "urban flesh" invokes the specter of that which allegedly escapes the urban, namely, nature or natural flesh. To speak of urban flesh, then, requires that we come to terms in some way with the role that nature and the concept of the natural play in circumscribing the possibilities and limits of urban existence.1 Just as it is no longer fashionable to embrace a Cartesian mind/body dualism, the nature/city divide is also held by many theorists to be passé, an artificial distinction that has traditionally taken the form of reifying the "purity" of nature in contrast to the "polluting" features of urban life. …

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