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Merleau-Ponty: The Body as Expression, and Speech from Phenomenology of

Perception
[A. Empiricism and intellectualism in the theory of aphasia, equally insufficient]
Right from the jumping off point of the essay, we are able to situate the
phenomenon of speech and acts of signification within MPs work more broadly of
distancing philosophy from the Cartesian project of rigid division between the
subject of certainty and the surrounding objects of the natural world. MP tells us
that it is the actual speaking subject that problematizes the rational, dualistic
subject. However, the former, the subject of the immediate experience of speech,
signification, and gesture cannot be located in any accounts of speech circulating at
the time of his writing. The comparatively reductionist account of speech and
language, those notions which fail to grasp the complexity of the speaker and
speech, theorize language as a series of verbal images left as traces from words
spoken and heard. For MP, language as verbal images fails to explain many
constitutive elements of the act of signification regardless of whether traces or not
these images are considered to be bodily or regarded as deposits in the
unconscious. Whether words are responses produced through the workings of the
nervous system or if consciousness brings forth appropriate words based on
acquired associations, there is no intentional speaking subject found in either of
these accounts.
In cases of aphasia, there are a number of cases that beg more nuanced
conceptions of speech than those mentioned. With some patients, spoken language
is under siege while written language remains intact, and vice versa. MP explains
that this is because language is constituted by many independent components and
because speech is a being that comes from reason. However, we can be sure that
this being from reason does not connote a flatly intellectual account of speech
based on associations, but a conditioning of language by thought that exceeds the
mind in isolation from the body. He goes on to suggest that accounts of aphasia fail
to see that what aphasia patients lose is not a certain stock of words, as if these
images were excised from a storehouse in the mind, but a particular manner or
style of deploying them. Surely considered anomalous from traditional perspectives
on aphasia, MP points to oddities in tests done with patients as a means of drawing
up the intentional elements of language over and above its articulatory-motor
moment of production, wherein common understanding pegs the deficit that
characterizes the disorder. Here we find the first stirrings of his own construction of
an alternative theory of speech and the speaking subject:
Even when they proceed correctly at the beginning of the test [matching like
color samples], it is not the participation of the samples in a single
idea that guides them, but rather the experience of an immediate
resemblance, and this is why they can only classify the samples after
having brought them together. (181).

Here, naming something as seemingly straightforward as a color involves


stealing attention away from unique and dynamic qualities in favor of a style of
perception that allows something to be configured as a representative sample of an
essence or category. It is this more intellectual than experiential form of perception,
a Gestalt switch from singularities to larger like groups, that is absent in cases of
aphasia. As with instances in which aphasics can produce appropriate or
automatic responses but lack the same words when tested for spontaneous
production, it is as if the dynamic, action-orientation of words is intact and the
unmotivated designation of objects cannot be mustered. MP calls this a falling back
from the categorical attitude into the concrete attitude. The distinction between
categorical and concrete here is somewhat counter-intuitive, but evinces a
departure from the modern scientific worldview in which atomized or categorical
units and kinds are considered primary givens in nature. For MP, the concrete
attitude does not evoke the noumenal things-in-themselves, but the dynamic unity
of things in their reciprocally-formative interrelations with those who perceive them.
[B. Language has a sense.]
The problematic commonality between the empirical and intellectual
accounts of language beyond which MP seeks to move is that in each theory words
have no signification of their own, but simply serve to bring out or report on inner
operations. This demotion of words to passive carriers with no unique force of their
own is the same whether their operations are viewed as mechanically issuing from
past associations or as intellectual expressions of thoughts formed internally. These
accounts both view words as instrumental either for communicating a set of
associations or for enveloping a pre-existing concept which the mind grasps first.
The word itself which accomplishes communication and envelopes alreadymeaningful thought is never explained. That the word has a sense is reason enough
for MP to move beyond both empiricism and intellectualism in one fell swoop.
Then, there is the question of the speaking subject: language is only an
external accompaniment of thought. In the first account [empiricism], we exist prior
to the word as meaningful; in the second [intellectualism], we are beyond it in the
first, there is no one who speaks; in the second, there is certainly a subject, but it is
the thinking subject, not the speaking subject. (182). From either perspective, the
subject is barred from the prospect of producing speech immanently as endowed
with a sense for which it simultaneously gains recognition and to which it lends itself
for construction. The speaking subject is ironically, as it were, passed over in
silence. He proceeds to vie for the fact that language is the production of thought
properly speaking, rather than its neutral enveloping. This is a move geared toward
stripping the speaking subject of residual interiority, left by the notions of the
thinking subject as subjectivity par excellence. The question of the speaking subject
in relation to words and the accomplishment of thought in speech will be developed
in tandem by MP, as an important reminder of their reciprocal co-creative
production.

[C. Language does not presuppose thought, it accomplishes thought.]


Take, as he suggests, the mere fact that writers often begin writing books
without knowing exactly what it is theyll end up writing about. The expression of
thought as the actual instance of thought, or as the decisive move in thought that
imbues it with sense and signature, occurs through an act of appropriating abstract
motion of flashes which would otherwise fall into the unconscious the moment it
appears (183). From this description we are faced with the rather complex looping
of thought conditioned by affect and language production accomplishing thought.
Are we to understand that there is an a-personal or perhaps pre-subjective
quality to thought? Theorists of affect give us a more detailed sense of what nonappropriated thoughts and their effects look like. We are reminded of Spinozas
ontological assertion that the mind is anyway simply the idea of the body, or the
body given in the form idea. For MP as well, first offering a somewhat less radical
position, the thought in speech that intellectualism misses must be a thought
circulating through the body, or one which is not a product of the mind in the style
requisite for Cartesian subjectivity.
Returning to the question of subjectivity specifically, we can note that the
emergence of subjectivity for MP occurs in the moment of expression that binds
persons to thoughts that are at once natural and cultural, blurring the often
supposed binary between the two. This relative degree of exteriority is not far from
the Lacanian speaking subject who becomes subject through immersion in the
symbolic realm of speech. However, for MP this exteriority is not simply relational,
though it certainly is that, but it is also productive.
To further sediment the style in which speech accomplishes thought rather
than delivers it ready-made, he reconsiders the notion of speaking in which a
subject formed before speech, a thinking subject, is the sole adjudicator of sense,
endowing empty words with sense from her thoughts. It would seem that here, as
everywhere, it seems true at first glance that consciousness can only find in its
experience what it had itself put there. (184).
So, it turns out that without words having their own sense with which the
speaker engages in an interrelation of mutual sense-giving, communication would
be illusory and subjects would remain individually packaged and intellectually
satisfied therein. Thinking together, going to class, philosophizing with a friend
becomes unnecessary and even evokes a burden of sharing that can only apply to a
product already finished. To dismantle this notion, MP turns again to the infinite
productivity of language, urging us to notice that the power of reading and
understanding others beyond our own capacities for spontaneous thought are
portals to other worlds of signification where thought is delivered phenomenally as
re-awakened, re-combined, and revitalized. Communication here is mutuallyenriching not so that two droll internalities can ward off solipsism, but because

heightened capacity for thought emerges. The temporal coordinates of


understanding, which occurs retroactively, posits indeterminacy as an entrance
point, positioning understanding not as a coming into intellectual, propositional
knowledge but as the stirrings of sense-making. These are the transformative
dimensions of speech that are often neglected in favor of positing exclusively the
sense in which speech is given as a mere treasury of signifiers to be used as
thought delivery systems.
Gestural signification, which MP notes is immanent in speech, takes a primary
position in relation to conceptual signification. Were this not the case, how would
the most accomplished thinkers still be able to argue about what their predecessors
meant? Or better, why can we sometimes not understand what we ourselves have
written? Of art, though certainly expandable to our own craft, he writes A piece of
music or a painting that is not immediately understood ultimately creates its own
public so long as it truly says something which is to say, by secreting its own
signification. (185).The secretion of signification, equated with truly [saying]
something, presents sense as the excess or overflow of language understood as a
collection of signifiers in mimetic correspondence with objects. By moving from an
understanding of signification as a determinate, linguistic representation to
signification as a gestural conveyance of a sense or a style, we also free the speaker
from the impossible responsibility of knowing precisely what she is presenting when
she speaksself-mastery of this kind and the stability tacitly posited therein is only
conceivable in an understanding of speech where words are designations plucked
from things and organized by speakers.
[D. Thought in words.]
MP goes on to charge words with a quality of immediacy in relation to
thought, such that thought and speech are non-dissociable, as with the orator
[who] does not think prior to speaking, nor even while speaking (185). He is
drawing attention here to the possibility of an embodied knowledge that bypasses
mental representations, leaving in their place direct, felt experiences that are their
own, immanent criteria for truth rather than the correspondences sought by mental
representations to produce certainty as the truth criterion. This operation applies
similarly for words as for thought:
I have no need of representing to myself the word in order to know it and to
pronounce it. It is enough that I possess its articulatory and sonorous essence as
one of the modulations or one of the possible uses of my body. (186).
In this way the intimate, formative interrelation between the speaking subject
and the word chips away at the distinction between culture and nature that
obscures the speakers role in producing a world of which language is a part. The
word, even when viewed as a sedimentation of cultural history, is not any less a
part of the expressive equipment of the body. We continue to witness the force of

the primacy of embodiment, when he returns to a discussion of mental images and


memories of reference more broadly, this time to understand them as necessarily
taking root from the present as it is embodied. Memory is rooted in the body so long
as we take into consideration the fact that the our bodies are our means of adopting
attitudes, and therefore of creating wklhat he calls pseudo-presents, as we
attempt to use all available means of re-opening time from the present.
For example: To say that I imagine Pierre is to say that I obtain a pseudo-presence
of Pierre by triggering the Pierre-behavior. Just as imagined Pierre is only one of
the modalities of my being in the world, the verbal image too is only one of the
modalities of my phonetic gesticulation, given with many others in the overall
consciousness in my body. (186).
This is meant to evince the non-specific, abstract nature of the word, as a
means of getting at the sense in which the word always mixes into the entire
embodied constellation of the speaker/listener. The verbal image is recapitulated
here, not as non-existent, nor as failing to be ontologically viable as language per
se, but as the recall of a gesture in one modality or in another. In this sense, we can
say that speech is properly a-modal, despite attempts by Broca, Chomsky, and
others to localize and thus restrict its production to certain areas in the brain.
[E. Thought is expression]
As the external existence of sense, speech is more akin to the presence of
thought in the sensible world, and not its clothing, but rather its emblem or its
body.(187). MP helps us eschew any presumption or ideal in philosophy to create
thought for thoughts sake because of the fact that it exists, as with all objects for
MP, as part of the sensible world which we embody. It is by re-framing thought as
expression that we may affect a final return to the speaking subject as MP sees her.
Beneath, but also beyond conceptual signification lies existential signification or the
ways in which speech as gesture indexes a full-bodied figuration of being in the
world.
[F. The Understanding of Gesture]
For instance, in an angry or threatening gesture, he contends that the
process is not as complicated or as intellectual as we may be impelled to posit
initially. We are not rehearsing an association-based understanding, to the tune of I
know that grizzly bears are threatening and that they have X qualities to explain
why they target me as prey. Instead, we read threat directly in the gesture; the
gesture is the threat itself. The sense of the gesture thus understood is not behind
the gesture, it merges with the structure of the world that the gesture sketches out
and that I take up for myself. (192).
In light of speech understood as a gesture that signifies a dynamic, but
unified mode of embodiment in the world, we are invited to scrutinize further what

precisely is happening in moments of interpretation or readership. As readers and


interpreters we operate or glean sense by bearing witness to thought as an
expression of the mode of embodiment of another. For MP, Existential mimicry
involves the enveloping or the imitation of a style or affective value (i.e. a particular
speed or intensity) that aims at other worlds rather than receipt of anothers
conceptual statements which are necessarily linked to specific propositional
contents. Viewed this way, identification occurs through the body in the form of
engagement and coexistence as much with ones own body as with the gestural
significations of another. We are offered an example of how knowledge of others
ushers in self-knowledge in the way that a childs observation of others behavior
lends an understanding of her own affects in a goal-oriented behavior which serves
to manage them. More broadly, communication is elaborated as achieved through
the reciprocity between my intentions and the other persons gestures, and
between my gestures and the intentions which can be read in the other persons
behavior. (191).
In any case, if we hold to a view of expression in which gestures simply index
pre-figured concepts and categories, it is unclear how we would ever experience
anything besides the shadow of lifeless Platonic forms. For MP this is a philosophy
inadequate for beings shot through with vitality and who are in perpetual in-mixture
with the world.
----------------------Modern theory of aphasia: existential; treats thought and objective language as a
fundamental activity by which man projects himself toward a world. It is not that
the subject cannot restrict herself to sorting based on one principle of classification,
but that there is no principle of classification at all. There is only the shifting,
immediate experience of relations based on multiple apparent perspectives.
Every linguistic operation presupposes the apprehension of a sense, but the
sense here and there is somehow specialized. There are different layers of
signification, from the visual signification of the word up to its conceptual
signification, passing through the verbal concept. We will never understand
these two ideas simultaneously if we continue to oscillate between the
notions of motoricity and intelligence, and if we do not discover a third
notion that allows them to be integrated: a function, identical at all levels,
that would be at work as much in the hidden preparations of speech as in the
articulatory phenomena a function that bears the entire edifice of language,
and that nevertheless solidifies into relatively autonomous processes.
Culture/nature
Emotion in a moving constellation of gestures
Ossification of language kills its imaginative function [Schneider]

Expression as enactment of embodied possibilities, possibilities can be embodied


Transcendence: acquisition, patterning, opening to new conduct that can be
understood by witnesses open and indefinite power of giving significance