First, the images. Then the words.
What was that?
It was a sketch based on some philosophy. Specifically, some of the ideas of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61). MP1 was fascinated by perception. His major (doorstopping) philosophical work was The Phenomenology of Perception.
MP was also keen on solving a traditional philosophical puzzle: How can something be a mind and a body at the same time? That is, how can we exist as subjects who think and objects who exist in the world which we think about.2
For MP, the answer lay in a study of perception but not a scientific study because science treats the body as an object. MP was interested in looking at how perception operates in the lived world – the world from which science itself arises. Indeed, for MP, perception precedes language and rational thought.
For MP, perception represented the process by which the world separated itself out into objects and subjects. The body, as part of the world, is that space in which the world sees itself. It is a “body-subject”. The world is only visible and has meaning to us because we are embodied and situated within it.
MP sought to uncover the pre-linguistic processes through which this birth of vision, and consequently meaning, occurred. But with time he came to feel that he had not managed to properly solve the problem of how the world separates into objects and subjects. In The Phenomenology of Perception he worked with words and ideas which presupposed a radical distinction between objects and subjects, the perceived world and the perceiver. His idea of the “body-subject” didn’t overcome this philosophical dualism, it simply enshrined it in a new concept.
At the time of his (untimely) death, MP was working on a new, extremely poetic, set of concepts to enable us to understand ourselves. The manuscript and notes he made were collected together in The Visible and the Invisible. Using the concepts of “Flesh” and “Chiasm”, MP sought to understand the “invisible” processes at work which made the world “visible” to itself.
So what has this got to do with my 40 second video?
MP was fascinated by the paintings of Paul Cezanne. He thought that Cezanne was, through painting, engaged in the same endeavour as himself – an attempt to capture the way in which the world becomes visible to perception before language, rational thought or science has begun to work on it.3
What I am interested in is visualising this set of ideas and I think there is scope to do this on the basis that MP felt Cezanne was striving to do something similar in painting.
Video, of course, is not perception. It is something else to be perceived, just as Cezanne’s landscapes are objects in the world. But it can act as an analogue in exploring the way in which a perceiver and the perceived world emerge from a unitary nature and that is what the sketch, above, seeks to do. Video, unlike painting, is also temporal. It can be used to explore or visualise processes. I like grainy, lo-fi video because it categorically is video. You can see it as a process.
One consequence of MP’s ideas is the impossibility of a god’s eye view or, equally, the incoherence of such a concept. A god’s eye view is one which sees everything, not just everything at any one point in time but throughout time. What I’ve tried to sketch is how a god’s eye view creates not absolute clarity and knowledge but confusion and a loss of meaning. Only if the perceiver is situated somewhere, looking at something from a particular perspective, does the world become visible, make sense.
Vision, existence, moreover, is unstable. From a unitary nature the world separates out into the visible world and the world of vision. As embodied subjects we exist in both worlds even though we cannot focus on both worlds simultaneously – a fact which we can experience whenever our hands touch one another. The moment the right hand touches the left and the left feels itself being touched, the right hand ceases touching and becomes the touched hand. Whilst we are always subjects in the world of objects, we can never experience ourselves as both simultaneously. But philosophy, painting, moving images – these are methods of exploring that simultaneity.
1. It’s just easier.
2. At the time he was writing science hadn’t managed to work out what consciousness was and MP would say it still hasn’t because it looks at humans as objects in the world like any other.