Body Talk With Merleau-Ponty

It’s been a while since the last post. I’ve been working on my book about the psychopolitics of speech, among other things, and making applications for research funding. In the summer of 2017 I also wrote up an article on Gramsci and Post-Marxism. But one of my more agreeable experiences of late has been an introduction to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I had been fishing around for a way in to the opening chapter of the psychopolitics book and — having already drafted chapters 2 and 3 — I was hunting for a general approach that might focus attention on the oddities of speech. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to the body is not an obvious starter for thinking rhetorically, nor even psychoanalytically, about speech. But he does provide a general way to think about the affective dimension of human communication in his account of perception. Let me briefly explain how.

For M-P (it’s too long to write each time!) the body as a whole is the site of perception, not some conscious part of the brain. The body, he argues, is receptive to its environment and apprehends its situation far beyond the partial attentions of consciousness. Think, for example, of riding a bike or whizzing down the escalator to get to the tube train — none of this requires microscopic attention to every moment but is achieved mostly effortlessly. Bodies are, to a great extent, way ahead in sensing and coordinating our behaviours, anticipating dangers or feeling for opportunities. For M-P, the ‘body subject’, not consciousness, is our ‘pivot’ in the world. Indeed, for him the body discloses a ‘world’ for us. This Heideggerian term is used to say that our bodies place us in a meaningful situation before our speech or consciousness does; and the latter tends to follow the former in making sense of what we already ‘know’ in our bodies. If anything, speech is an expression of this sense of being in a world rather than a detached view from outside it. Our words, we could say, supplement and attend to what our bodies are already doing or expecting – often speech mirrors (in terminology and style) the manoeuvres of the body. Of course, we think and talk beyond the immediate situations given by our bodies, but only because our bodies as whole are themselves always anticipating what is coming and how we might develop our ongoing perspective. Speech is a specialisation of the body.

M-P offers an agreeable way to start thinking about rhetoric and speech as bodily practices rather than as emanations of the mind alone. Not only does he remind us of the embodied dimension of discourse — that is, the way speech necessarily involves bodies affecting each other in various ways — but also that human awareness and its attentions are bound up with body possibilities that lie beyond consciousness, or what he calls ‘the Flesh’. This, as scholars such as Diana Coole have pointed out, invites attention to the way politics and political discourses play out in terms of conflicts over corporeal experiences and the possible worlds these permit and refuse. Obviously, this is something already and to a great extent explored by feminists, not least Coole, Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Butler. But M-P is a great starting point for thinking the corporeal politics of rhetoric. More on this later, perhaps …

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