“We are condemned to sense,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in his Preface to Phenomenology of Perception (Landes translation, lxxxiv). The statement concludes a paragraph not on our bodily schema or our being toward the world (être à monde) but on history, or the relation of (natural) perception to (social) history. He ends the sentence with the conviction that “there is nothing we can do or say that does not acquire a name in history.”
We are condemned to sense. This is to say that we are the kind of being, a kind of animal, that is condemned to pull meaning and orientation out of our habitats, or what we come to call our worlds.
My close reading of Phenomenology of Perception this summer has been juxtaposed with my return to volume 1 of Foucault’s Dits et Écrits. It is a forceful intellectual juxtaposition, by which I mean that each text has exerted tangible force on the other as I alternate between them over the course of my morning reflections. It has led me to a different reception of Foucault’s early interest in transcendence–particularly with regard to Binswanger’s existential analysis–and his interest in limit with regard to the history of psychology (the history of the science of madness), to early literature of so-called sexual perversion, and to the authors (Robbe-Grillet, Sollers) involved in Tel Quel. Next to PP what I hear in Foucault’s use of transcendence and limit involves what I take to be the latter’s equal assimilation and rejection of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, specifically his assertions in PP about the embodied necessary links between perceptual faith, perceived objects, language, norms, and a lived world.
This post will focus on transcendence. I will take up the limit next week.
In PP, Merleau-Ponty’s first substantial engagement with the term occurs in his chapter, “The Body as a Sexed Being,” which aside from its male and heterosexual presumptions, is a chapter anyone interested in affect studies should ponder for the ways in which the philosopher anchors human being in the “affective milieu” of sexuality, without collapsing that affective milieu into Freudian desire and without granting it supreme force or steering capacity in the body’s pervasive intentionality (or protensivity) toward the world. In the section Landes titles “sexuality cannot be ‘transcended” (171-174), Merleau-Ponty refers to sexuality as an “atmosphere” that is “continuously present in human life” (171). As an atmosphere, sexuality conjoins other parts of bodily being that Merleau-Ponty refers to as pre-personal, anonymous, a “haze” and “a principle of indetermination.” From indetermination, sense emerges, without humans having to try. This is the sense in which we are condemned to sense. Because existence “is the very operation by which something that had no sense takes on sense,” existence transforms indetermination into determination. “Transcendence,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “is the name we shall give to this movement by which existence takes up for itself and transforms a de facto situation.”
Transcendence here refers to a kind of climbing out of the indeterminacy of embodied living, an “escape that is never an unconditioned freedom” (174) out of nature and into history–though, crucially, human nature and human history cannot be separated from each other.
It is startling, then, that in Foucault’s first published essay, his 1954 “Introduction” to Ludwig Binswanger’s 1930 essay, “Dream and Existence” (“Traum und Existenz”), he conjoins transcendence to the dream(er) and to the freedom of indeterminacy!
Foucault’s early work is typically discounted by Foucault scholars as youthful and unimportant. [Here I have been influenced by Bryan Smyth’s “Foucault and Binswanger,” SPEP supplement of Philosophy Today, 2011, and Elisabetta Basso’s “On Historicity and Transcendentality Again. Foucault’s Trajectory from Existential Psychiatry to Historical Epistemology,” Foucault Studies 2012.] I stake no position in that debate. Knowing that Foucault absorbed Merleau-Ponty’s lectures at the École Normal and also that he avidly read Heidegger, I’m interested only in what seems smoothly phenomenological and what seems other-than-phenomenological in his early writings.
As I read Foucault’s introduction to Binswanger’s text, he shifts emphasis from meaning (sens) to expression, and from concrete experience to dream. In both shifts, the effect is to underscore the gaps and silences in expression that are as important to meaning as are objects and words. (See Dits et Écrits, 1, p. 103), and to suggest the insufficiency of Heidegger’s (and Binswanger’s, and perhaps Merleau-Ponty’s) phenomenology in not grasping the normativity of the world-subject relation it theorizes.
The mad, the insane, also have their worlds, but they become Heraclitus’s idios cosmos, a private world that does not entwine with the ‘normal’ world around it. (Dits et Écrits, p. 119) For a connected example (salient ever since Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams), Foucault turns to the dreamer and the dream. The dream is a “plastic imaginary”, he writes (p. 97). It is in this sense of mutation, of moving between and beyond the determinations of one’s self and world, that Foucault seems to connect the dream to human transcendence.
For example in response to Spinoza’s linking of dream and transcendence, Foucault comments: “The dream, like all imaginary experience, is thus a specific form of experience that is not entirely reconstituted by psychology and the content of which designates man as transcendent being. The imagination, sign of transcendence; the dream, experience of this transcendence under the sign of the imaginary”. (p. 111) He also notes, drawing from classical literature on the dream, “the dream being to the imagination what grace is to the heart or will.” (p. 112)
In both of these quotations, the human ability to climb out is not oriented toward the determination that congeals an always-present (and always-pulsing, always affective) indeterminacy, but is rather oriented toward the gaps or silences, the plasticity of that determination in order to become-other(wise). This act of climbing out, this act of transcendence is in the dream, which is an expression of the imagination. The theological concept of grace is a perfect counterpart here, since the heart or will might have their desires, their motivations, and their anxious hesitations, but it is God’s grace that activates the heart or will and enables human possibility to become startling change.
The dream is not a fantasy, not the aimless or canny ramblings of the unconscious, but precisely a kind of worlding, a worlding that shows the human capacity for transcendence in the sense of the capacity to climb out of the normal(izing) worlds around us.
Foucault, having recently written on Kant’s anthropology, and anticipating his critique of the human sciences in The Order of Things (1966), concludes that, “The dream is an anthropological index of transcendence. (116)
The dream shows us that we are not condemned to sense.
Foucault then, by citing Shakespeare, links liberty to the dream’s ability to express the human capacity for transcendence. ) “If the dream carries the most profound human significations (significations), it is not in the measure where it denounces hidden mechanisms and shows up inhuman workings, it is on the contrary in the measure where it brings to light the liberty that is most original to man [or: ‘that is the very essence of human being’].” (p. 121)
Foucault does not here take on Merleau-Ponty. His introduction is not a critique of his teacher so much as what I might call a side-step away from iterations of philosophy he was taught in school. Where Merleau-Ponty seeks to understand the emergence and coherence of a world (“form is the very appearance of the world, not its condition of possibility. It is the birth of a norm, not realized according to a norm.” p.62), Foucault seeks to understand how and why that emergence and coherence become traps we wish (and have the ability) to transcend. Where Merleau-Ponty focuses on objects coming into felt experience and linguistic stability (“The whole life of consciousness tends to posit objects, since it is only consciousness (or self-knowledge) insofar as it takes itself up and gathers itself together in an identifiable object.” p. 74), Foucault turns to the dream, to the gauzy, gappy image-world that also signals consciousness and self-knowledge, but differently. Finally, where Merleau-Ponty rightly sees humans as like other animals that climb out of nature not by escaping it but by establishing norms within it (“the animal itself projects the norms of its milieu and establishes the terms of its vital problem.” p. 80), Foucault sees humans establishing problems (such as the problem of madness) through norms and pegs as the vital task of humanity our desire and capacity to climb out of the naturalization of normativity.