The primacy of perception in the era of communication
Marco Cesario 8 September 2008

A transversal study of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of time and space does not mean only analyzing the relationship between those categories and objects and events perceived by the conscience, but also to open a constructive dialogue between pure phenomenology and others sciences such as psychology, psychoanalysis, literature, neurology, biology, physics and arts. The objective is to reconstruct and develop Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “this space and this time that we are” through the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Bergson, and Whitehead, but also through the work of Proust, Claudel and Simon.

These were the conclusions of the international congress of philosophy “Merleau-Ponty. L’espace et le temps”, which took place at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris to celebrate the centenary of Merleau-Ponty’s birth. The congress gathered together many experts from France, the United States and Japan, who attempted to answer the questions posed by Merleau-Ponty’s main work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945). The event has today a special meaning, because we should not only discuss his philosophical positions, but also use his ‘phenomenological instruments’ to rethink the categories of space and time in the age of global communication. The new technological instruments and the media’s increasing power, provide us with free access to knowledge, as well as the possibility to become actors in spreading this knowledge. This is an advantage compared to period during which Merleau-Ponty debated ‘spatial consciousness’ because these new technologies have provoked an enlargement of cognitive structures and perceptive consciousness.

A new conception of space

In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty affirms that space is not the ‘real’ or the ‘logical’ ambit within which things are placed, but “the environment by which the position of things becomes possible”. From this point of view, space would not be a sort of ‘ether’ in which things are suspended but – as the philosopher himself explains – “the universal power of their connections”. I can stand between objects and consider space as their natural ambit or simply as their common attribute. But I can grasp the nature of space as from a subject and his interiority. Even if prior to me, space existed only in relation to a perceiving subject. When I observe the front of a house, I’m able to guess its dimensions and the position of the side-walls even if I’m not able to observe them directly. By isolating the house from its “horizon” (the other houses, the gardens etc), the house looks as if it emerges from a flat and bi-dimensional texture to become tri-dimensional. The house ‘comes out’ thanks to a special synthesis between what the eye is able to see and what the eye is able to guess, geometrically, behind the front. If I turn around the house, the front, the side-walls, disappear progressively and the back of the house suddenly ‘appears’. But the house I see is always the house observed from one or another precise point of view. According to Merleau-Ponty, space does not exist by itself, but in relation to the subject and to the conscience’s phenomenal field. From this point of view, the body does not move because there’s an empty space. The body is “an attitude in view of a present or possible task” and space is the means for this possibility. The body is inside the space just as the heart is inside the body. It keeps the ‘vision’ of visible things alive and creates with it a system. If I walk in an empty space without having a global perception of all the possible perspectives opened by my path, I would not be able to judge those perspectives as different aspects of the same reality. Thanks to the presence of a subject within a situation, and thanks to its movement within space, this synthesis can be possible. The space is inside the subject and the conscience is itself spatial.

Space and neuro-cognitive sciences today

Today, says Alain Berthoz, we cannot talk about a ‘singular’ space anymore, because for a living organism there are a multiplicity of mechanisms and levels of treatment of spatial proceedings. Following in the footsteps of Poincaré and Einstein, Berthoz refuses an ‘axiomatic’ approach to space, because it does not consider the role of sensible experience, of action and movement. According to Berthoz, today’s dominating idea of space is based on the preconceived idea that the brain treats spatial elements with the instruments provided by Euclidean geometry. Merleau-Ponty has also managed to avoid the classical concept of depth (based on the geometrical relations between distance, width and apparent surface) to introduce the notion of a ‘changing point of view’, which allows a virtual body to evaluate a viewed and not a measured width. In the famous example of a woman with a big hat passing through a slightly low doorway, the woman includes her hat within the boundary lines of her movement. The hat becomes definitely a part of her inner bodily scheme.

Space, motility and body art

According to Merleau-Ponty, space is motility. To explore an object I must move towards it by putting it at a distance. If I change the perspective, the object’s perception also changes. Thanks to this movement, I am able to verify the depth and the thickness of the object. But the object I see is the consequence of an immediate synthesis of its geometrical proportions. According to Stephan Kristensen, of Geneva University, the subject should not be conceived as ‘substance’ but as a ‘mobile figure’ and the body is the condition of his subjectivity. From this point of view, access to the interiority is possible only through the exhibition and the representation of the body. Those concepts are the basis of modern body art. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, in fact, inspired artists like Vito Acconci and Lygia Clark.

Time and simultaneity: from Saint Agustin to Einstein passing through Freud and Proust

Inspired by the ideas elaborated by Martin Heidgger in his famous lecture Der Begriff der Zeit (1925), Merleau-Ponty sets aside the conception of a ‘chronometric’ time. Time, according to Aristotle, is related to movement and duration in space. That is why it can be measured and quantified. But Merleau-Ponty’s spatial researches in the fields of neuro-cognitive sciences and experimental psychology caused him to abandon this concept of time. For instance, chronologically 3 comes before 5 but both are located within time and presuppose it. Time does not per se exist, but in relation to events occurring within it. By turning over the famous Heraclites’ metaphor, time would not be unidirectional, depending on an observer’s point of view. Time needs a “view over time”. According to Merleau-Ponty, the river is not coming from the past, passing through the present and going to the future. It is quite the opposite. The source looks like coming from the future and, once past the observer, the river falls to the abyss of past.

From this point of view, Merleau-Ponty is close to Saint Agustin whose conception of time is strictly related to the ‘presence’ of the subject in the past, the present and the future (thanks to the faculties of memory, attention and anticipation). But in the notes of Le Visible et l’Invisible, as emphasised by Mauro Carbone (Milan University), Merleau-Ponty refers also to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Proust’s Recherche. The idea of time would be connected with Freud’s unconscious and with an ‘indestructible’ and ‘a-temporal’ past. This past keeps living and modifying the present. Events do not unroll successively but simultaneously, beyond the distinction of time and space. By asserting that “reality only forms within the memory”, Merleau-Ponty means that the past is not just an illusion of reality but, thanks to temporal distance, it can develop its own meaning. Proust, in his famous pages in which he describes Méséglise’s hawthorns, by asserting that “the true hawthorns are those of the past”, paints the essence of a mythical time, a time “prior to time”, “further than India and China”.



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