kneading-dough-720x380Those of you who are bread-makers understand the affective compulsion and cognitive satisfaction of good bread making: it is like and unlike the body-zone of writing a very good paragraph or playing a Mozart quartet with very good friends. The work of elements or the elements of the work are both mine and not mine, both under my control and fundamentally exceeding my control. There is a science to this bread making, which I confess I enjoy knowing of without ever quite having learned. Take, for instance, the joy and tedium of kneading. I know that at some point the yeast and gluten develop enough to tip the structure of the rolling mass under my fingers into something else, something now called bread dough. I know this because I feel it about ten minutes into the kneading; I feel a subtle but distinct change. More, I know that even after this change I need to keep kneading for a bit. Not too long, but long enough—according to its feel. This knowing and feeling are not particular cognitive or affective states; they are not distinct. The zone of bread making dissolves consciousness into the sticky glob, wafts yeasty floury smells into my pores, sends my fingers out to catch escaping bulgur grains and fold them back into the mass, and sets my feet and legs and hips circling in a rhythm of response to the sort of living breathing thing before me.

I could talk about this experience as a kind of tacit knowledge, and I could discuss it through a detailed chemical analysis, but I’d rather explain it as structural. In his 1942 book, Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty sought a path between critical philosophy (Kant) and scientific naturalism (particularly behavioral psychologists). He writes in a dense and floppy way about bodies and consciousness and things as three “dialectics” in constant circulation.

For instance he notes that “the phenomenal body must be a center of actions which radiate over a ‘milieu’” (157), a phrase that posits the body as at once focused and diffused.

Earlier in the text he writes against mechanical causality, noting that, “Reactions [of a ‘body’ to an ‘environment’] are not therefore a sequence of events; they carry within themselves an immanent intelligibility. Situation and reaction are linked internally by their common participation in a structure in which the mode of activity proper to the organism is expressed. Hence they cannot be placed one after the other as cause and effect: they are two moments of a circular process” (130, bold added).

Later he clarifies that “physical laws do not furnish an explanation of the structure, they represent explanation within the structures” (192). Cause and effect are already rather derivative forms of receiving and perceiving the phenomenal world.

Near the very end of his text, MMP posits consciousness as often so sunk into the structure that gives rise to it that it is indiscernible from what (I think) Raymond Williams will later term “structure of feeling”, that is, as an affective economy that is, as Williams writes, “the thought of feeling and the feeling of thought”:

“Consciousness can live in existing things without reflection, can abandon itself to their concrete structure, which has not yet been converted into expressible signification; certain episodes of its [consciousness’s] life, before having been reduced to the condition of available memories and inoffensive objects, can imprison its liberty by their [these episodes’] proper inertia, shrink its perception of the world, and impose stereotypes on behavior; likewise, before having conceptualized our class or our milieu, we are that class or that milieu” (222).

In a similar way, I am the bread that I am making. And it, I suppose, is me.

All of which is to say that one of the fundamental problems with the OOO turn to the things themselves is that they assume things. They assume things exist. They assume a separability of things that, by MMP’s phenomenology, only arises in and through structures of existence, structures that give rise not only to the physical laws that explain and constrain things, but also give rise to the consciousnesses that diligently insist on their fundamental “withdrawal” from human consciousness. The yeast, the dough, its smell, and my cognizance of its yeasty mutations—all of this, by MMP, arises out of a structure that forms a milieu within which my consciousness and body emerge as conduits of phenomenal experience.