Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Weakness of Language; Part 5 of "The Visible and the Invisible"

Coming towards the end of The Visible and the Invisible, we find Merleau-Ponty coming to his most penetrating ideas on Phenomenology, and philosophy as the dialectic. We saw in the last post the unextinguishable fire of Merleau-Ponty confronting himself as someone who want's to understand the invisible sense of himself; never allowing himself to be settled in one notion of an infinite dialectic that keeps moving. Even as if he tells a story by saying that one comes to full acceptance by "stepping back and just looking", he nevertheless doesn't allow himself into this "positive" notion of the dialectic in hopes of gaining the "gaping quality" of the dialectic, in other words, the movement and not the settled notions of negativity and positivity. Much like the work on Derrida's interpretation of Husserl though, Merleau-Ponty comes up against the challenge brought to all phenomenologists by language, that all pervading manifestation of sense that doesn't seem to "merely" be one manifestation of a transcendental logic that Husserl wanted to prove in his Experience and Judgment. That both Derrida and Merleau-Ponty would confront language as the source and problem of phenomenology was always going to happen. As was stated in Derrida's interpretation of Husserl, one always applies ones concept to their version or story of a genesis. Even if a story of a genesis becomes abstract by the thinking of philosophy, it still relies on this one and only manifestation of what constitutes signified thought. Merleau-Ponty addresses language as rigorously as he does the dialectic. As The Visible and the Invisible wears on, you can almost sense Merleau-Ponty racing towards something he doesn't even intend to get to. There is certainly a sense of urgency that is pervading his style, a sense not found in his Phenomenology of Perception. How then does Merleau-Ponty confront the problem of language for the phenomenologist and the philosopher? "It is by considering language that we would best see how we are to and how we are not to return to the things themselves. If we dream of finding again the natural world or time through coincidence, of being identical to the 0-point which we see yonder, or to the pure memory which from the depths of ourselves governs our acts of recall, then language is a power for error, since it cuts the continuous tissue that joins us vitally to the things and to the past and is installed between ourselves and that tissue like a screen". Certainly a simile that belongs solely to Merleau-Ponty's prose (tissue like a screen). Language is how we first start to see what it means to "return to the things themselves", but language is a screen that cuts off the connection one would want to have with Being, that one is trying to seek through language. He refers to a zero-point which is the idea of a "pure" presence and somewhat surprisingly refers to pure memory as part of the work of phenomenology, not simply the intentional object of the act in pure memory, but the sense of pure memory itself which allows us to recall something "again and again". This is only surprising because Merleau-Ponty could have chosen any theme within Phenomenology to express the inescapable link between language and what Phenomenology is trying to describe. That he states the operation of "Pure Memory" described so solipistically and mechanically by Husserl in Experience and Judgment and his work on internal time consciousness is a pleasant surprise. I for one find that Phenomenology is most insightful when speculating on the actions of memory and the operations of sedimentation. For our purposes now though, it is to absolute zero-point of the presence, if it is at all "possible" in whatever ways we attempt to come to it. For Merleau-Ponty, this absolute presence is a tissue where everything is connected and a screen comes up in the manifestation of language that invades the tissue and makes us see this presence through a screen, obviously meaning with some distortions, and a degree of difference to a presence trying to be attained. This issues are obvious. Merleau-Ponty though expands his thought further to an almost-psychoanalytical description of the Dasein (being-there) who uses language. "The philosopher speaks, but this is a weakness in him, and an inexplicable weakness: he should keep silent, coincide in silence, and rejoin in Being a philosophy that is there ready-made. But yet everything comes to pass as though he wished to put into words a certain silence he hearkens to within himself". First off, Merleau-Ponty condemns (in the abstract) the spoken word as weakness of the thinker. Adding "Inexplicable weakness" is strange because of what follows in the next part of the sentence. Whether this is a translation problem or Merleau-Ponty's in his solipsistic moments, I don't know. Regardless, he asks us to coincide in silence, and rejoin in Being a philosophy that is there read-made. By the way, if those who are reading these posts are finding tons of analogies between Phenomenology and Eastern Philosophy, they wouldn't be mistaken. It's not strange that the Japanese have produced some incredible work in Phenomenology in the 20th century which this writing space will possibly take up for it's next text, the analysis of some of these Japanese phenomenologists. What can we possibly conceive as coinciding with silence and rejoining a ready-made Being. It's simply the idea of not talking and seeing what is already there. Phenomenology always tends to be bereft of any concrete examples so lets try to use one here to describe this idea. If I wander out into the wilderness by myself, I am most likely not talking unless I'm having a monologue with myself (which isn't unusual for "philosophers") or coming to past memories that are shaping my experience in the wilderness. But when I confront the fact that I need to pass over this stream and I don't have the jumping-power to jump over the steam I am left to what is already there. I can try to find a way around it walking above or below the stream to try to find a smaller gap so I can make the jump to the other side, but what often happens during these "wilderness expeditions" is that there is something "ready-made" for Being. In this case, it's usually a log that I can use to cross to the other side, albeit a log that might be slippery because if it's being permeated by the water below it. Try crossing it in an ice storm and you will really see how slippery a log can be, but personally, this is when "wilderness trips" are more fun. So here is an example of coinciding in silence with Being and the ready-made of Being. I'm not talking to myself when trying to find my way past the steam. I'm in Being using tools already "ready-to-hand" in order to accomplish certain things, in this case, crossing a river. The analogies here are absolute to part 1 of Heidegger's Being and Time where he establishes the concept of "ready-to-handness" so lucidly, and if I allow myself the luxury of throwing in my opinion on the matter of Phenomenology as a whole, no where will you find a better explanation of these ontological concepts of Dasein Being than in part 1 of Being and Time. Thus far the true philosopher is exactly the example I just gave (hey, aren't I great! I'm a true philosopher!). I'm not speaking and in a world with things that I happen to use without knowing that they are unusable. They are already (unconsciously) there and I am (unconsciously) already coming to the sense of using the log to cross over to the other part of the the mountain. I don't need to say to myself out-loud "I think this log will do for crossing over to the other side of the river. Of course, if I was with a bunch of wafflers who thought too much on the possibility of being able to cross the stream by the log, then it would be discussed. This is why "true" philosophers and phenomeologists tend to go on wilderness expeditions on their own :). One never tends to question oneself when not around others. Merleau-Ponty faithfully continues on in his well-practiced-dialectic-method by giving the thinker the possibility of being able to hear this silence and from this "hearkening" (Merleau-Ponty found it somewhat necessary for Phenomenology to be poetical, unlike Husserl) of this silence manifests a wish to put into words. This goes back to the last post where we found Merleau-Ponty "stepping back" from the negation of language (via doubt/skepticism) to "see the world as it is". I interpolated the idea that this can bring with it a tacky holistic fast-food religious experience of the presence. Essentially, the poetical, when done from an over-exuberant feeling of awe in the fact of what is just seen can make the Dasein (the Being-There, The Human Being) somewhat inappropriate and really just hokey. We've met these people before. The people who like to sum up the world in vast over-aggrandized statements, self-satisfied beyond belief (belonging nowhere to the dialectic of Mearleau-Ponty, Hegel, or Sartre.) are operating off that double negation of a "pure affirmation" without following through to the negation of the "pure affirmation". So for Merleau-Ponty, when one comes into the fact that they should be silent and "open to the world" if one were to really be good philosophers and phenomenologists (essentially nomads) then they shouldn't speak, but there is something coming from the belly of the thinker to expatiate this silence. Merleau-Ponty talks about the "Tyranny of Vision" of the world that is endowed to man. You could also say that there is a tyranny of language to Being, essentially the fact that there is no getting around the fact that one is always expressing by language these hidden secret structure of inner-silence, that nonetheless can't be described.
"His entire 'work' is this absurd effort. He wrote in order to state his contact with Being; he did not state it, and could not state it, since it is silence. Then he recommences...One has to believe, then, that language is not simply the contrary of the truth, of coincidence, that there is or could be a language of coincidence, a manner of making the things themselves speak-and this is what he seeks. It would be a language of which he would not be the organizer, words he would not assemble, that would combine through him by virtue of a natural intertwining of their meaning, through the occult trading of the metaphor-where what counts is no longer the manifest meaning of each word and each image, but the lateral relations, the kinships that are implicated in their transfers and their exchanges". If this sounds like what we called today "steam-of-conscious" thinking, you wouldn't be mistaken. This is basic solipsism in the flesh here. A language where the subject would not be the organizer? This in attempts to achieve the things themselves? It's no wonder why Merleau-Ponty found certain poetical prose as signifying phenomenology best. I personally think that Derrida's recognition of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake as an option for phenomenology from the mechanics of Husserl is better suited for the idea of phenomenology. It's not that difficult for a poet to hide intentional ambiguity's within their prose. I personally don't see this with the later Joyce, of course, there a couple thousand ideas of what the later Joyce is, but barring this infinite interpretation of an author, Joyce strikes me as absolutely operating in a context, albeit a context that is so specific and so indigenous that you never really solve the mannerisms and colloquialisms in the texts. It's as if if I were to be playing a basketball game at a friends house and his basketball hoop is slightly tilted to the right giving him an advantage on how to shoot the ball from that corner, and then writing about it. I could write about the fact that my friend said " 'Yep, I got the home court advantage' as I sat there disparaged over the fact that basketball hoops are supposed to be universally aligned". This to me signifys no ambiguity in the text, at least no intentional ambiguity. Will many people not understand it? Of course. But there is the tendency in many poets (of course I'm overgeneralizing here, and I wouldn't for a fact, as far as I read them, attribute a compulsion of ambiguity to Holderlin or Neruda) to throw in some ambiguous prose that is completely without context. I find this often with Poetry in general. There will be a line or two that are superfluous within the many. Maybe I'm not understanding it, but with Joyce, I can fully admit that I don't understand something but say "there is a way of understanding this if I just could grasp the context of the situation and the people involved". Merleau-Ponty somewhat clears up this steam-of-consciousness and meaningless language that is to get at the heart of the things themselves by speaking of "lateral relations" and "kinships" implicated in the statements. This understanding, this sense of a statement that is unorganized would be made sense of not be the meanings of an entire statement or proposition, or even the words themselves, but the likeness's between two words in a sentence, not necessarily the semantic likeness of words, but the likeness of the fact that two words can be combined together and not signify anything specific to ones mind, but yet, have a connection with each other to the point where the statement can be made. This is sort of a "pure grammar" where the relations between words matter rather than the words themselves. This Meta-Language would dispense with the structural admissions of the Signifier/Signified context of our patterns of recognition, and instead recognize how it's possible that two seemingly meaningless words can still be stated within a proposition. What is their relations that allow for this?
Merleau-Ponty nonetheless so far takes a negative dialectic in terms of language being able to describe a zero-point or pure presence. Being faithful to the infinite dialectic though, language is always recommencing or "putting into words a certain silence that he hearkens". While understanding that language can't establish the grounds for what it wants to establish, Merleau-Ponty also understands that it's inevitable for the Thinker to not feel the compulsion of his silence, his silence that just won't stay still as silence, but flies out of him at light-speed in order to become something other, something different, but something representative of this silence. Even if there was a Meta-Language to establish "lateral-relations" between meaningless words, the language being used to express these relations would still be the expressions of language, albeit so technical that it's certainly abstract, and in being abstract, gains more ground in authority for being able to speak about what's not a matter of being spoken about. The question really is, where is it that speaking comes from, where does the Logos appear, and how has it interminably established the infinite dialectic as exactly that, infinite. Why speak? This question isn't appropriate because of it's teleological motivation. More appropriately, one should ask, "How speak?" The manifestation of language is more appropriate in this sense of appearing rather than a sense of genesis in the former question.
Silence becoming spoken, always and already the case, silence can never be alone, but among others, among what's speakers.

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