Merleau-Ponty’s Theory of Embodiment and its ‘Return to the Body’ — A Commentary by Mirum Quazi
June 11, 2022
Mirum Quazi applies Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Theory of Embodiment” and its articulation of “Return to the Body” to the act of artmaking. In the process, the writer demonstrates how Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about the “embodied self” can be understood and appreciated by taking artmaking as a prime example to explain such core ideas from Merleau-Ponty’s great philosophical contributions to phenomenology.

The urge to understand—and in the process to grasp—an object has been a perennial impulse prevalent in western philosophical thought for centuries now. Any philosophical thought, whether it was Kant’s transcendental idealism or Descartes mind-body dualism aspired to facilitate a God’s eye view and underline a gap between the Subject and the Object where the former appears as if studying the object from a vast distance without considering its shared presence with the latter. Arguing against this abjectly cognitive exercise, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty posits that we step away from comprehension and dive back into lived experience. In other words, Merleau-Ponty suggests that we go back to the roots of our being entirely devoid of or free from objectification and categorisation. One way to think about this claim is to consider our presence or our consciousness (as a perceiving instrument) both aware and self-aware, only in relation to the objects surrounding it, in a way that there is no consciousness cut off from objects outside it—instead constantly contemplating it as a consciousness of something.

Developing an alternative to the Cartesian cogito, Merleau-Ponty reframes perception as interrelational and the Body, the World and Consciousness are argued to be intertwined and mutually engaged. Broaching the subject of the presence of the body, Merleau-Ponty argues that our bodies are an integral part of our modes of perception. The opening statement in the essay “Eye and Mind” stresses upon the lack of lived experience in scientific expositions and it is precisely alluding to the absence of the Body in our models of understanding how we perceive reality. By integrating the Body into the models of perception, Merleau-Ponty ushers us towards the foundational moment of perceiving a thing before the cognitive gesture embedded in our developed ways of comprehension that relies on what the act of objectifying things eventuates. The moment of comprehension then is detached from lived experience to the hilt.

Building on Valery’s claim that a painter “takes his body with him”, Merleau-Ponty concretises his idea of the unity of behaviour of the mind and the body.  The act of painting as much as being an exercise of vision is also an exercise of touch. The painter primarily paints with their body and not with their mind. The act of seeing according to Merleau-Ponty is not a cognitive exercise but rather part of the sensate bodily modes of perception and the act of touch or the movement of our bodies is guided for the most part by our vision. Our eyes, for the most part, do not set up an image for the mind but work autonomously in relation to the world around us. Considering the priority that the body is given, not just as a biological fact but also as embodying consciousness, the idea of the figure of the painter and the act of painting is reframed in relation to the overlapping of vision and touch on the canvas.

The painter then could be described as someone who makes the appearance appear or someone who makes the vision visible. The depth in paintings reinforces this argument because it depicts the ability of the eye to travel in space. The touch on the canvas records the movement of the eye but at the same time there is no gap between them. This non-separability of vision and motion is what foregrounds artistic practice by embedding the act of paintingthe moment of depositing a stroke on the canvasregulated not by the mind, but by the body. The body then becomes the initial instrument in this act and the act of painting consequently could be argued as not being driven by operation of thought but by the abject presence of the body as a component of the perceptual openness to the world.

While Cezanne’s paintings no doubt manifest this overlapping of the motor with the vision, or the touch with seeing, maybe Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône exemplifies it. Even a cursory glance is enough to notice the presence of touch as explicitly visible. The painting before making itself understood makes itself felt. The brushstrokes guide the vision of the painter as much as the vision guides the brushstrokes. The vast panoramic vision of the starry sky is transferred on the canvas through approximate touch. The vision is subjected to a stylistic modulation in touch and while it could be argued that it is a metaphorical disclosure influenced by the interiority of the artist, it is also to some extent a purely sensate exercise giving way to strokes that weave textures—which among other things are characterised by a tactile quality. In this mode, the artist is not an information processor working to remodel the world interpretatively but being there in the world and recognising the inherent wholeness of this being.

Starry Night Over the Rhône
Vincent van Gogh

When we consider the act of painting not as an operation of thought but as an exploration of vision through touch, the skill and the method of the artist is placed in the spotlight. By focusing more on the stylistic choices that the artist has employed, we give precedence to the artist first and foremost as a technician and also cognise the intentionality of his choices in the process. This approach towards understanding a painting or rather should we say experiencing a painting also liberates the spectator by doing away with the urge of going beyond the painting to make sense of what is being painted. Trying to understand art as a representation of something and immediately trying to grasp what it stands for doesn’t give the spectator the freedom to govern their experience in the present. The spectator is not entirely an autonomous figure experiencing the painting in terms of what is in front of them in the present if they are prefiguring the painting by taking into account the rational, conventional or conceptual speculations that might or might not be relevant to the painting. In this process of trying to grasp or categorise a painting, the spectator suspends the possibility of an instinctive judgment bereft of presuppositions.

The phenomenological approach gives priority to an engagement that rests primarily on absorbing the painting not as a representation of something out there but absorbing the arrangement of the representation on the canvas manifested in the decisions taken by the artist. By doing this, the spectator becomes the sole interpreter of the painting and this experience is regulated by their bodily senses rather than an active cognitive engagement with the painting. This problematises the use of titles as well. The moment we put a label on a painting, it triggers a very finite or controlled association of the artwork at hand. Moreover, how do we label a painting? How do we name it? Should the artist be the only person able to exercise this act of confinement and textual framing? Or should the spectator name the painting provisionally and the painting then is renamed and remade in each novel gaze of each spectator? Do we attend to the visuality of the painting or do we go beyond it?

The relationship between text and the image is fraught because the presence of the text guides the spectator’s perception or rather contaminates it. This is why the phenomenological method argues for a purely descriptive relationship of language with an image because then the image is not subjected to fixed meaning, which again brings the body as a mode of perception to the fore. If painting is the expressivity of vision through touch, then the purely descriptive exercise of the spectator only unravels the bodily mode of perception because it resists the interpretative urge the mind reflexively wanders towards. This unfettered engagement facilitates a dialogue between both the spectator and the painting. The instinctive associations reveal as much about the painting to the spectator as the painting reveals the inner echoes of the psyche to the individual.

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About the Contributor

<a href="" target="_self">Mirum Quazi</a>

Mirum Quazi

Mirum Quazi specializes in film studies, theory and criticism. He previously studied humanities at Amar Singh College. Apart from being a film buff he has a keen interest in philosophy and literature, in particular Russian literature. He spends his time analyzing films and studying the visual language and aesthetics of scenes from a variety of films from all over the world. In his free time, he works on independent film, documentary and photography projects.