Zwickau Press has published my book Boundaries Thick and Permeable. You can find the amazon link here. My undergraduate thesis served as the skeleton for a further year of revising, refining, and expanding that has led to its current shape. I don’t believe that there are samples available for interested parties [update: as of March 8 amazon has a preview available], so I’ll post one of the passages I’m most proud of below. This passage also speaks directly to a lot of the discussion we’ve been having over the last few months on this blog on the topics of art, authentic expression, and creativity. For ease of online reading, I’ve removed all footnotes – but don’t worry, footnotes are there in full abundance in the book.
From this context of our givenness, Merleau-Ponty works to articulate a politics and practice of freedom. In fact, writing that “[t]here is…never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness,” he argues that the self’s total immersion in the world is the condition of its freedom. One of the most compelling and comprehensive ways by which Merleau-Ponty demonstrates and elaborates on this point is in his various accounts of self-expression. In particular, his examinations of the work of artists are illustrative.
In one instance of these, Merleau-Ponty reflects on a video that shows Matisse working in slow motion. In this video, each rapid stroke “was seen to meditate in solemn, expanded time – in the imminence of a world’s creation – to try ten possible movements, dance in front of the canvas, brush it lightly several times, and crash down finally like a lightning stroke upon the one line necessary.” In this video we see that Matisse did not consciously contemplate each stroke, as if reflective thought were primary. Rather, “[b]y a simple gesture he resolved the problem which in retrospect seemed to imply an infinite number of data.” And this, Merleau-Ponty argues, strikes against the claim that in modern art we witness the creative expression of individual difference (as opposed to the purely objective representation of classical painting). The visual of Matisse’s brush moving beyond Matisse’s own cognizance shows that Matisse is not an esoteric individual understood by none, expressing a sublime subjectivity that – at least to the extent that his creation is “authentic” – he has created and that owes nothing to anybody. At the same time, Merleau-Ponty observes that “Matisse’s hand did hesitate. Consequently, there was a choice, and the chosen line was chosen in such a way as to observe, scattered out over the painting, a score of conditions which were…unformulatable for anyone but Matisse, since they were only defined and imposed by the intention of executing that particular painting which did not yet exist.” In continuity with this, a Matisse painting clearly contains Matisse’s individual, creative spirit in it, such that one could not say that his paintings are not examples of creative expression and interpretation. (And in the same way, classical painting bears the marks of creative interpretation, such that it also is not determined purely by its object of representation.)
It is thus that Merleau-Ponty works to articulate an account of expression that, far from self-definition, is a foundational and lived through co-existence and communion with the world. To do so, he grounds expression in the body’s perceptual bonds to the world. In perception the world invades us, placing certain demands on us (e.g., summoning our gaze to a particular point) and our bodies meet this invasion, taking hold of and constituting it. Hence “[t]here is no hyle, no sensation which is not in communication.” In this way Merleau-Ponty shows us that it is through the perpetual and inevitable communication of perception that we actively live with and through the world. And this is the relationship that gives birth to a person’s particular style of being that “brings…meaning into being or makes it effective” in the very process of being handed over into a world of meaning. Thus, “[a]ll perception, all action which presupposes it, and in short every human use of the body is already primordial expression.”
However, this articulation brings us to the dilemma of whether it is possible to be freely expressing subjects within a pre-objective intentionality. Merleau-Ponty’s work consistently struggles with this problem, and frequently returns to what it means to cultivate a style of perception and communication with the world. In line with this, he observes that:
“Just as…when I walk round an object, I am not presented with a succession of perspective views which I subsequently co-ordinate…so I am not myself a succession of psychic acts, nor for that matter a nuclear I who bring them together into a synthetic unity, but one single temporality which is engaged, from birth, in making itself progressively explicit, and in confirming that cohesion in each successive present…. The primary truth is indeed ‘I think’, but only provided that we understand thereby ‘I belong to myself’ while belonging to the world…. [For i]nside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself.”
In other words, to say that the body brings us the synthesis of the world does not collapse body to world. Instead, it names “the body [as] a power of natural expression,” such that the self is the ongoing work of movement and intention that molds out a certain style of being in the midst of a world which constitutes us. We think and know from within the messiness of our bodily perspective; to think and know well will be to slowly emerge from and dive back into our particularity and the particularity of the world around us in an ongoing exchange with the world that comes from the world. We live and work dynamically, grappling with the world that we have been given in our particular, lived orientations. Thus, the artist is always working in dialogue with the world, which is “why his [sic] labor, which is obscure for him, is nevertheless guided and oriented.”
For Merleau-Ponty, to thus make expression inseparable from our movement through the world locates expression in the realm of gesture. That the body acts as a flow of perception/intention/gesture in and through the world means that we express and create as a part of our gestural movements. So, for example, our handwriting remains identifiable across a nearly infinite variety of writing circumstances; this because we do not write with a “thing-hand,” but with a phenomenal-hand that has cultivated “its own ubiquitous style, which is undivided in one’s gesture.” Likewise, a woman walking by is “a certain manner of being flesh which is given entirely in her walk or even in the simple click of her heel on the ground.” With such observations, Merleau-Ponty contends that, “the artist makes his [sic] style radiate into the very fibers of the material he is working on [just as] I move my body without even knowing which muscles and nerve paths should intervene, nor where I must look for the instruments of that action.” Hence, to return to our initial example, with a simple gesture Matisse made an impossible decision and expressed himself; caught up in the world, he moved to make something. He was not simply tossed about by the world; but, pulled by the particular style of his intentional bonds to the waves of the world, which solicited this stroke rather than that one, he created a work of art. Likewise, our (more or less) expressive and free “stamp” on things lives in our various gestural movements.
From here Merleau-Ponty claims that our gestural expression does not represent or correspond to external meanings, but, rather, reveals immanent meanings. This is not to say that meaning stems from an inner subject, but that “[t]he meaning of a gesture…is intermingled with the structure of the world outlined by the gesture.” For example, when “[f]aced with an angry or threatening gesture, I have no need, in order to understand it, to recall the feelings which I myself experienced when I used these gestures on my own account…. [A]nd what is more, I do not see anger or a threatening attitude as a psychic fact hidden behind the gesture, I read anger in it. The gesture does not make me think of anger, it is anger itself.” Likewise, speaking of the striking differences between the behaviours associated with certain emotions across cultures, Merleau-Ponty observes, that “the difference of behaviour corresponds to a difference in the emotions themselves.”
This does not mean that gestures are things. Rather, gestures embody the primordial intentionality of their being in the cultivated rhythm of their own movement. As gestural, our expressive being lives its truths and values, created in relationship with the world. Hence, just as the painting itself does not so much express (a meaning), as it finds itself imbibed with meaning (which is why neither a description nor an analysis of art can bring us to it or replace it), we can say that our gestures constitute a world. In sum, style does not simply bestow meaning on the world or, on the other hand, represent it; instead, it is our way of living, working, and seeing by which we receive and establish a world.