Image Credit: Andrew Tauber
In his later work, Merleau-Ponty attempts in several ways to explain what he calls the “the intertwining – the chiasm” (1964/1968, p. 130). As discussed in Chapter One, Merleau-Ponty details a new conception of the body as a ‘chiasm’ or crossing that demonstrates the ontological continuity between body and world. This intertwining chiasm combines subjective experience and objective existence and accounts for our immersion in a world. American philosopher, Galen Johnson suggests that the intertwining chapter signals a “decentering of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy away from the authority of the subject…” (1993, p. 45-46).
In my view, it also affirms Bergson’s notion of how life “is intended to secure the perfect fitting of our body to its environment” (1911/2005, p. xix). Merleau-Ponty argues that in the same way, looking palpates visible things, touch, in an even closer relationship, palpates the tangible, saying:
This can happen only if my hand while it is felt from within, is also accessible from without, itself tangible, for my other hand … Through this crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it; the two systems are applied upon one another, as the two halves of an orange. (1964/1968, p. 133)
This widely quoted and significant passage forms the experiential basis upon which Merleau-Ponty is able to extrapolate and extend his thinking to formulate his ontological notion of ‘flesh’. For Merleau-Ponty, this flesh is a process of exchange between body and world. It is a kinship between the sensing body and sensed things, between the perceiving and the perceived. This phenomenological experience provides a tangible, embodied event that he uses to expand his ideas into an absolute intertwining system that can account for embodiment, inter-subjectivity, and the world (Collins 2010, p.48).
It is significant that Merleau-Ponty privileges an embodied, performative event in this passage because it signals the limits of language for expressing ineffable concepts. The discursive method used in philosophy presents certain challenges and limitations when engaging with such concepts. As Collins notes, at the “edges of language” Merleau-Ponty crosses a threshold and “turns to the body” (2010, p. 48). It is particularly significant for this project that Merleau-Ponty crosses this threshold because the premise upon which he bases his new ontology is performative. In this project, I recognise the radical importance of this phenomenological event in catalysing a new interface between philosophy and performance. This performative trajectory has been instrumental in allowing for experiential shifts to occur in my practice and reaffirms the idea that some knowledge can only be communicated through the performative act as detailed in my earlier writing, Section 2.4 Live Knowing.
Using body-centred approaches, I bring philosophy and performance together to understand what Merleau-Ponty means by “he who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it” (1964/1968, p. 135). I experiment with his hand touching experience and record the following journal entry:
Journal Entry March 21st 2014
Bring hands together and train attention on the sensation of touch, first in right hand and then in left hand, back and forth. Exert slight pressure in the hand that is touching to isolate the sensation. Notice directional force in right hand and yielding in left hand. Direction touches, yielding is touched. And yet the opposite is also true. Yielding touches and direction is touched. Try to hold both touch and touched in awareness together. Can’t do straight away. Something shifts notice tingling sensation in the head moves from frontal lobes to parietal lobes. Can now hold both in awareness. Notice breath slows, eyes close. Aware of contemplative mood. Direct attention to space between hands. A different quality arises. A sweet-spot holds attention in equilibrium. Notice tingle sensation moves from parietal lobes to occipital and temporal lobes.
This phenomenological exploration helped me to activate an embodied experience of Merleau-Ponty’s criss-crossing. I recognise how attention training triggers different degrees of conscious awareness. The close attention to sensation and perception is affective and creates a visceral shift that allows me to access experience in a different way. As a result, I am simultaneously able to hold a more expansive repertoire of visceral phenomena in my awareness.
Over the course of my PhD project, I regularly returned to the above phenomenological experience. Over time, I have less interest in attuning-to the sensations of the hands and more interest in attuning-to that which I sensed between, through and around the hands. I learnt that experience is thicker and more immersive when attuned-to in this way. I began to experience the “broad current” of life that, as Bergson suggests, is “loaded … with an enormous multiplicity of interwoven potentialities” (1911/2005, 199). For example, I did not only identify with hands but could sense into their inextricable, immersive connection with the world. I dropped-in to something that felt more primal, less bifurcated, and I became aware of being immersed in a multifarious, living world. In this way, I was more attuned-to the movements and desires of life that act upon lived experience through visceral phenomena.
I noticed too that accessing experience in this way involved a kind of thinking that is different to ordinary experiences of thinking. There was a corporeal intelligence at play that I could sense and feel. For example, I observed that what initially seemed like a gap between my hands was not a gap at all. It became clear that the gap is thick with fecund possibility and conveys a visceral understanding of what Merleau-Ponty means by the phrase “continuous fabric” (1964/1968, p. 44). Johnson makes the point that Merleau-Ponty’s earlier work was more overtly tied to the unity of the subject, whereas in his later work, in the use of the word écart, he conveys a sense of “distances, gaps or spreads” (1993, p. 46). Accessing experience in this way has helped me to embrace this concept more fully and develop a visceral understanding of how the exchange between body and world is ever present. It also becomes clear, through experience, that the reversibility between subjective experience and objective existence is accessible through attention training but is always immanent and never fully realised.
Nevertheless, attuning-to this continuous fabric brought forth a quality of experience that felt different to ordinary experience. The more I worked with this quality of experience the more I noticed and appreciated the movement of my breath and the subsequent affect the breath had on other regions of the body. Sensory perception was heightened, and I became aware of the sounds of the environment, the temperature of the air and, and the ever-growing expanded field of visceral phenomena.
Later, the thick, continuous fabric of experience has a libidinal quality that feels pregnant with creative possibility. This libidinal quality is pleasurable, fluid, malleable, and highly responsive. The more I access experience in this way, the more immersed I become in its qualities and the more it is available to me with relative ease and repeatable certainty. The simple shift of attention from the substance of my hands to the thick continuous fabric of immersive conditions has profoundly transformed my understanding of and approach to lived experience.
In subsequent explorations I introduce the process of attuning-to what Gendlin calls the “felt sense” (1981a, p. 1). In my experience, the felt sense includes body-centred sensations, visceral inklings and/or sensory metaphors. Attuning-to the felt sense invariably creates a shift in understanding. I concur with Afford (1994) that the felt sense need not always be physically felt. For Afford, it doesn’t matter if there is no physical referent, what is important is that the experience feels body-centred.
Gendlin’s ideas about the body have resonances with Merleau-Ponty’s immersive accounts of the body. As Gendlin says, “we are setting up a new conception of the body” … “there is no body separate from process”, and “the body is not only what is inside the skin-envelope” (1997, p. 19, p. 27, p. 26). Attuning to sensation and perception in this way helps to interrogate what Merleau-Ponty says is “open to us…an intercorporeal being…which extends further than the things I touch and see at present” (1964/1968, p. 143).
Working in this way has developed a more expansive attunement capacity. My investigations reveal that it is possible to access experience differently, shift attention viscerally, and thus attune-to immersive and generative modes of experience. I argue that this process paves the way for a more tangible, consciously embodied approach to artistic creative activity.
Through experience, I now understand Merleau-Ponty’s desire for, “a simple state of non-thought” or at least thought that is different to everyday thinking (1964/1968, p. 44). Accessing experience differently makes that which moves between things more available to conscious awareness. The experience of in-betweenness is significant for creative practitioners because, as sociologist, Arpad Szakolczai (2009) says, in-betweenness dissolves order and creates a “fluid” (p. 145) or “malleable” (p. 148) situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established. These qualities are often associated with the role of artists in society particularly in the advent of modernism and beyond whereby “art was created as a revolution” (Mitchell 2015, para 5). Accessing experience in this way helps to create a visceral understanding of why the simple phenomenological exploration of hands touching one another is such a formative event in Merleau-Ponty’s ontological project.
This ontological exploration was a primary investigation in my research project. The secondary investigation was about using this different way of accessing experience to find visceral entry points into creative material for performance. One way I achieved this was to transpose the hand exploration to the vocal folds as captured in the following journal entry.
Journal Entry September 18th 2015
With short, sharp bursts of sound, can sense vocal folds coming together, moving apart. Experiment with sounding both on in-breath and out-breath. Drawn to that which is between the touching surfaces. The live and activated breath stimulates vocal folds and makes sound. Wonder – is breath creativity? Play with this idea – stay on one pitch for both in-breath and the out-breath. Notice realignment of spine and neck until sound emerges with less effort, less tension on vocal folds.
Visceral shifts are spontaneous, support breath to move through organism with greater ease and with more creative flow. Feels creative. Nasal passages and auditory tract have sensation of opening. A reciprocal exchange between sounds in room and sounding. Sounding on in-breath brings attention to the body as a resonating chamber. Can sense the bones in my skull and chest vibrate. Slowly include all bones, all muscles, all organs until whole organism – buzzing with sound and vibrating in response to sound; no longer on one pitch but activating the full vocal range in undulating vocalisations that are spontaneous, improvised and highly pleasurable.
This journal entry reveals that by holding more and more in my awareness I am able to feel the visceral terrain of lived experience. I no longer feel the vocal folds in isolation or as the source of sound but, as a vocal freedom emerges, I can sense into the whole body-world sounding organism. I recognise this as a creative process and wonder in this journal entry if indeed I am sensing the forces of creativity in action. I affirm that it certainly “feels creative”.
I share Merleau-Ponty’s wonder at the fundamental intertwining structures of life. During this period of discovery I made many notes to capture in words the ethereal qualities of the fundamental intertwining nature of lived experience. Eventually, the only way I can communicate my experiential findings is through the following performance text titled Curious & Closer.
Curious & Closer.
The following text is sung on an improvised descending scale.
I am close
Closer than finger to nail
Closer than eye to lid
(Smack lips together)
Closer than lips
Performer speaks the rest of the text,
uses fingers to discover the two sides of the mouth and two sides of the hands.
Two sides of the same
Knowing the other,
to be, be, be the other
Terrified inhale of breath
But without whom…
I am close
Closer than singer to song
Closer than fire to flame
Closer than lips
I am a reversible chain,
Woven into the lacuna of
Intimate intertwining windings
Finger touching finger finding
Tissue turning tissue linings
Between the lips of things,
Between the lips of things,
Nuzzle impressions and depressions
Assemble protrusions and exclusions
I expand, condense, boundaries between
That which is seen and unseen
Known and unknown
Felt and unfelt
Heard and un…..
Performer inhales, exhales,
uses breath to build to a wolf howl
Am, in the middle of things,
No looking back
What am I ? Who am I?
No No, No!
How, how, how am I?
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then …. I contradict myself;
Performer approaches an audience member and asks them a direct question.
How am I?
Performer allows time for audience member to respond and vocally plays around with their response – encouraging the audience member to do the same.
I am large …. I contain multitudes… and am not contain’d between my hat and boots”
(From Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855)
But am simply
(slow inhale/exhale of air)
This libidinal voice is a reminder to the artist that creativity is close. As I prepared this piece for performance in April 2016, I struggled with finding the dramatic intent. I settled on it being the voice of creativity. I embraced Merleau-Ponty’s idea that in order for “gesture or speech” to be expressed “the body must ultimately become the thought or the intention that it signifies” (1945/2012, p. 203). My intention was therefore, to personify creativity, and thus express something of its fundamental structure. A recorded version of this performance poem can be seen here:
Moving Image 5: Performance Vignette – Curious & Closer
This vignette is a direct reference to Merleau-Ponty’s “criss-crossing” and his example of the double-sided experience of the hands. It also attempts to capture Merleau-Ponty’s idea about how being needs creative differentiation to experience itself. The performance moves from a kind of terrified gibberish into the text of Curious & Closer. It is the first time that comprehensible language is used in the performance but even here meaning is shrouded because the first words are sung in a kind of recitative before I move into comprehensible speech. In the transition from gibberish to comprehensible speech there is a visceral sense of discovery. For example, the digits of the hands find first one lip then another lip (Figure 8). In so doing, the fingers scamper across the whole mouth, which creates a palpable sense of excited discovery. This continues as I move behind the audience touching their backs. One audience member affirms this sense of discovery saying, “I thought the discovery of the lips were salient moments. This was reinforced by your general very clear articulation” (Audience reflection, 16 April, 2016).
Figure 8: Fingers discover lips
Image Credit: Andrew Tauber
The attunement capacity I developed during my PhD project allowed me to apply what Machon (2011) refers to as a (syn)aesthtic style of performance in this vignette. The (syn)aesthetic style is a contemporary form of theatre that can be seen in works by Theatre de Complicite’s Street of Crocodiles, Caryl Churchill’s The Striker, and De la Guarda’s Villa! Villa!, Samual Beckett’s Not I, Steven Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, Pina Bausch’s Bluebeard, and DV8’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men” (p. 3) .This contemporary style of performance “emphasizes the sensuous” and foregrounds “the corporeal” (p. 23) by bringing attention to the body through gesture, movement, sound, and breath. The text itself might be what Machon calls a new kind of “writing as sensation” that as she says is “explicit, contradictorily tender and confrontational” (p. 31).
A performance text such as Curious & Closer requires an experimental approach, and so I spent time with my director Kirsten, exploring different voices, perspectives, vocal-tones, and points-of-view to acquire and associate a visceral sensation with every line. For example, we particularly worked with how I might communicate the sensorial qualities of lines such as “finger touching finger finding, tissue turning tissue linings” and “nuzzle impressions and depressions”. We experimented with how I might fully embody and sound words such as “nuzzle”. As discussed in Chapter Three, this was a process of fusing “the somatic and the semantic in order to produce a visceral response” (Machon 2009, p. 14).
For Machon, “Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological theory is important in theorizing around sensual and embodied perception” because he “highlights the significance of the ‘felt’ effect of a thing or experience and in doing so supports the primordial basis in which human perception is rooted” (2009, pp. 22-23). In the Curious & Closer vignette, my intention was to communicate how the body-world dynamic is a fundamental structure of creativity. In the following section, I examine a description of Picasso’s creative process that I believe highlights how this fundamental structure operates in service of artistic creativity.