*I am finishing up a new book on play and ethical theory. I’ll say more about it once I have a publisher and a date of publication is set. For now, here is a chapter from the book on one of philosophy’s most genial characters, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It is “heavy” as it’s part of the series on the ontology of clothes. In this case, it combines the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and the metaphysical theology of Przywara. If you like reading it, by all means, leave comments as in the final draft of the book I can use your ideas to nuance the argument I make. Cheers.
The Visible and the Invisible is a brilliant reflection on the body. Although studies of the body have mushroomed since its publication in 1964, Merleau-Ponty’s role is unclear. Despite its brilliance, there is a sense that Merleau-Ponty missed something absolutely crucial about our embodiment: biopolitics.
Biopolitics is Foucault’s term for his insight that the body is the point of application of sovereign power. This insight has proven electric. With Agamben, biopolitics becomes the claim that investigation of the body requires political theology and he seems persuaded by Bakunin’s options: either bureaucracy (angelism) or nature (vitalism).
Why return to Merleau-Ponty whose phenomenology inquires into the body apart from Establishment and its techniques of punishment, labour, medicine, war, and sex? He helps my argument move forward because his flesh is clothed. It is noteworthy that his phenomenology of the body relies heavily on motifs of textiles, tailoring, and style (VI, 115; Signs, 167). About the colour red: “it is a certain node in the woof of the simultaneous and the successive. It is a concretion of visibility, it is not an atom. The red dress a fortiori holds with all its fibers onto the fabric of the visible, and thereby onto a fabric of invisible being” (VI, 132).
Przywara’s central claim is that the creature is a “posture of distance” and in these next three chapters I will show that this is a potent formulation of the meaning of natural law (Aquinas) and explains why flesh is always rule of law (Reid). This first of the three chapters discusses Merleau-Ponty’s description of flesh as “lace-works,” which he offers as a criticism of Scheler’s hierarchy of values (VI, 270). Merleau-Ponty does not have a biopolitics in Foucault’s sense but he does think flesh egalitarian rather than aristocratic. Yet his phenomenological description of flesh as “lace-works” complicates matters for him. His three preferred motifs of description – the biological, clothing, and landscape – all point to the body as ornamental and articulated in ludic gesture. What Merleau-Ponty calls “this Baroque world” (Signs, 181).
This moves my argument forward: Przywara’s posture (vitalism) of distance (angelism) breaks up the diplopia of Bakunin. Diplopia is a term Merleau-Ponty borrows from the Catholic philosopher, Maurice Blondel, and gives The Visible and the Invisible structural concerns very like Analogia Entis. Bakunin and Agamben seek to free the body of state sovereignty. They are right to want rid of managerial law: Merleau-Ponty shows that interior to flesh is decoration, marriage, family, and play, in short, liturgy. The body is already rule of law and managerial law is excessive law. Law is part of play, however, and ritual does not happen outside of Establishment: state sovereignty is compatible with natural law. Modernity’s humanism is failing because state sovereignty is either excessive (univocity) or remiss (equivocity) and more often than not both. Merleau-Ponty’s flesh avoids decapitation by affirming naturalism and Establishment.
Heir to Pope Gregory VII, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of flesh shows how a metaphysics of morals helps adjudicate ethical problems. In particular, his account of flesh as clothed helps us think through moral questions raised by clothes. Is a sumptuary law excessive managerial law? One of the most delicate moral questions in the West today is how to respond to the desire of Muslims for Sharia law, or at the very least, the desire for public recognition of modesty in the West. A related problem is how Western business ought to respond to the rising demand for “modest wear.” Leahy and Agamben are so insightful because their argument over sovereignty comes back to an argument about vanity. In the last few decades, life in the West has been radically altered by war and terrorism and an upswing in administrative law to manage the consequences (this fact is the inspiration for Agamben’s philosophical and theological work). Starting in the late `60’s legal rulings about abortion provoked the resurgence of political Catholicism typified by the intellectual papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Political Islam is a more recent phenomenon in the West and its focus can be fairly summed up, I think, as a dispute about vanity. We ought not be surprised: Plato’s Republic is about the same issue. Indeed, look closely at our greatest theoreticians and almost all think about vanity and ornament. Merleau-Ponty’s dressed flesh is a case in point, as is Edmund Burke, who we see more of in this chapter.
The Visible and the Invisible is a careful phenomenology that reveals decapitation (diplopia) as a false accounting of the ontic and noetic. Flesh (ontic) is not speech (noetic) – there is a distance – but there is also a “prolongation” of being in speech (VI, 118). Merleau-Ponty argues against idealism in Husserl and materialism in Sartre: indeed, in a very Przywara way, he notes in particular about Sartre that his thinking flips back and forth between angelism and vitalism. Somewhat like Schopenhauer, the visible (object) and invisible (idea and sonorous undertow of the visible) are flesh doubling (VI, 114) and this means both theopanism and pantheism are bad accountings of reality. He is after something like the analogia entis, therefore, and the doubling that puts a distance between object (being) and idea (speech) edges towards Reid’s gestural body (being/speech).
The relationship between object and subject is interior to flesh, he thinks of the relationship as a splitting open (dehiscence). In this way, Merleau-Ponty avoids univocity and equivocity because object and experience are co-originals: as in Przywara, the model is a suspension of ontic (being) and noetic (speech). At one point, Merleau-Ponty says he is not doing anthropology but Reid’s gestural body presses the question: Can we separate flesh from ritual? We will see that Merleau-Ponty concedes the point.
His preferred motifs of biology, dress, and landscape help Merleau-Ponty avoid angelism (the Cartesian tradition culminating in Husserl’s idealist essentialism), but he does not want to back into vitalism (a shredded plurality of drives). When beautifully casting flesh as “open vortexes in the sonorous world” (VI, 151), Merleau-Ponty edges into the phenomenon of play. His effort to steer clear of angelism and vitalism means flesh intimates that body (existence) is internally value tones (essence) lived playfully and ritually and thus as law (Aquinas).
In a 1960 working note to The Visible and the Invisible Merleau-Ponty describes flesh as “lace-works.” Drawn from fashion and craft, the image conveys that being is a visible and invisible expanse (as lace is presence and absence). The visible – our experience of the myriad objects of the world – is a series of differentiations in “massive flesh.” This visibility has an obverse, invisibility, that itself is double in meaning. On the one hand, the invisible is a collective name for our ideas or conceptualizations – these object-contents are not visible in the way objects are – and on the other, the invisible is a collective name for a “raw being,” a real undertow or “occult,” (VI, 183) birthing the visible and our conceptualizations.
How to think about the invisible is the nub of Merleau-Ponty’s dispute with Scheler (VI, 270). Can one think this undertow without conceding Scheler’s theory of values?
Merleau-Ponty admits that “the most difficult point” (VI, 149) addressed in The Visible and the Invisible is the bond between flesh and idea, between the visible and “the interior armature” or “whole architecture” (VI, 114) of the flesh that the visible manifests and conceals. Certain ideas in our minds map this armature because a prolongation of it (VI, 151): they span the ontic and noetic, world and mind; indeed, both world and mind open up inside these ideas (VI, 152). Music, literature, the passions convey these ideas, but not the sciences. Science does not give us the surest truth but rather the arts and the reason is that science is all too well aware of the visible and cannot appreciate that the visible manifests and conceals. Science is an investigation into causality and aims for a complete description of objects that implicitly relies on the mentalism of Cartesian metaphysics (VI, 206). Just as the “backside” of the rose bush out of my window is hidden from me, and just as objects take on specificity as the mind isolates them from rapid perceptual changes and their identity-in-an-expanse, so scientific exactitude in pressing visibility conceals (VI, 136). It is an abstraction of objects that grants far too great a scope to mental definitional operations (Descartes’s res cogitans is too much a noetics) (VI, 213). Merleau-Ponty’s Baroque world teems with “ultra things” as we are all, metaphysically, comparable to children (PP, 99).
Merleau-Ponty’s doubling is an effort to block the temptation to Cartesian (and Parmenidian) univocity. It has continuities with Schopenhauer’s double-aspect theory and Przywara’s suspension but most remarkable is the degree to which Merleau-Ponty accords coherence to the invisible. He must be delicate. He means to escape the noetics of res cogitans, with its heavy emphasis on the subject (angelism), but does not want to back into naïve realism, in which the subject has no role, and collapse into materialism (vitalism). He casts the invisible as “vaginal” potency (VI, 115, 124, 209) of “the wild region” (VI, 115) or what Przywara in his phenomenology of civilizations describes as Etruscan (AE, 489-90). Shaftesbury and Scheler think they are really value tones.
Merleau-Ponty is fond of landscape as a motif to capture the differentiations internal to flesh. Shaftesbury offers a gloriously fine-grained phenomenology of landscape:
Behold the disposition and order of these finer sorts of apartments, gardens, and villa! The kind of harmony to the eye from the various shapes and colours agreeably mixed and ranged in lines, intercrossing without confusion and fortunately coincident. A parterre, cypresses, groves, wildernesses. Statues, her and there, of virtue, fortitude, temperance. Heroes’ busts, philosophers’ heads, with suitable mottoes and inscriptions. Solemn representations of things deeply natural. Caves, grottoes, rocks. Urns and obelisks in retired places and disposed at proper distances and points of sight, with all those symmetries which silently express a reigning order, peace, harmony and beauty.
This description – and I assume all find it convincing – is replete with value tones and hierarchy. One could imagine a garden built around the ghoulish but there would be something pointed and self-conscious about it. A garden featuring the virtues, heroic, intellectual, and religious is not only not absurd but “deeply natural.”
Drawing on Proust’s account of music, Merleau-Ponty appears to concede the point: “The performer is no longer producing or reproducing the sonata: he feels himself, and the others feel him to be at the service of the sonata; the sonata sings through him or cries out so suddenly that he must “dash on his bow” to follow it” (VI, 151). A quotation from Proust follows immediately: “Never was the spoken language so inflexibly necessitated, never did it know to such an extent the pertinence of the questions, the evidence of the responses” (VI, 151).
Not only does Merleau-Ponty give voice to the Anglo-German value tradition here but the subject (speech) is cast as gesture, play, and obedience. The musician obeys the sonata, he is in the grip of a vortex of the sonorous world. Przywara would say the same (AE, 158-59). This vortex in being speaks as a gesture, the dashing of the bow, and the spectators in Black Tie will the player on desperate for their sensibility and his to be aligned with “a reigning order.” “The pregnancy is what, in the visible, requires of me a correct focusing, defines its correctness. My body obeys the pregnancy, it “responds” to it, it is what is suspended on it, flesh responding to flesh” (VI, 209; emphasis original). Though Merleau-Ponty does not draw out the point, here we see a hint of biopolitics: for opera, ballet, chamber and symphonic, and church music are all part of the Establishment. Our sensibility is flooded with the visible (objects of awareness), the fecund discretion of a “carnal texture” “that traces itself out magically under our eyes without a tracer:” ideas neither from the world nor the mind but spanning the two – “the original ecstasy” – a fertility opening making each possible; this gravid suspension Merleau-Ponty calls flesh and Przywara potentia obedientialis.
In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the musician obeys the sonata. Another phenomenologist, Aurel Kolnai, observes a bow to the sovereignty of objects. Edmund Burke adds that this bow is always a bow to Establishment, the settled institutions of a people: the civil service, diplomatic corps, our military and its famous regiments, the courts, universities, churches, the pub, etc. Each of these institutions house and express value clusters and, profoundly, deference to these is also a refusal to use power to manipulate objects contrary to their natures. Indeed, for Merleau-Ponty (though not Shaftesbury) we suffer “intentional threads around certain knots” (Signs, 165) which are “upright, insistent, flaying our glance with their edges” (Signs, 181).
 M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Northwestern University Press, 1968).
 M. Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 155, 133-35 among many pages.
 M. Merlea-Ponty, Signs (Northwestern University Press, 1972).
 E. Alloa, Resistance of the Sensible World (Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 80-81.
 At the very least, intimates: Merleau-Ponty likes the idea of polymorphism because he does not want to think of objects or values as discrete essences (VI, 206-07): cf. M. Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception (Northwestern University Press, 1982), p. 5 (hereafter = PP). The red dress is red by “com-position,” that is, it is only what it is by its relationship with other reds about it and even other colours: this is why being is said to be a texture (Merleau-Ponty was very taken with pointillism [ ]; cf. VI, 207). I think Shaftesbury’s account of value tones compatible with this polymorphism: in pointillism the tones still come to visibility. I also think a “hard” doctrine of value tones possible. The point is to escape Cartesianism (really the legacy of Heraclitus and Parmenides) and the analogia entis does so. “Hard” value tones make sense of Proust – and important test case – and there are times when Merleau-Ponty speaks this way himself (VI, 207-08).
 A. A. Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 416-17.
 Signs, p. 174.
 It is a little unclear how liquid Merleau-Ponty thought this “vaginal” potency. As noted in the footnote 4, there are places where he speaks of “hard” value tones. If too liquid, he’ll loose the bow to the sovereignty of the object but, of course, his Leftism might welcome the transformational and revolutionary possibilities of a lack of deference. The problem here though is whether he’d have slipped back into Cartesianism, a univocity of omnipotent divine will. And if he has, an added worry would be that his philosophy is not phenomenological but ideological.