Noli me tangere
Noli me tangere
A Fragment on Vision in Merleau-Ponty
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter argues that what Merleau–Ponty is attempting to do, perhaps in all of his work, is to reconceive sensing, to use Merleau–Ponty's French, to reconceive, sentir. But to do this, one must privilege a particular sense, more precisely, a specific experience. It argues that Merleau–Ponty privileges vision—and one should not overlook the ambiguity of this term.
It is obvious that, in The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault's use of the phrase “visible and invisible” alludes to Merleau-Ponty. If someone knows anything about Merleau-Ponty, that person knows his description of the touching-touched relation. Yet it seems to me that one must always recall that Merleau-Ponty's final published work is “Eye and Mind,” not “Hand and Mind.” Merleau-Ponty—and here again Foucault is quite close to Merleau-Ponty—is a philosopher of vision. To demonstrate this point, let me bring forward two short quotes from Merleau-Ponty's unfinished The Visible and the Invisible. First, in chapter2, Merleau-Ponty says, “To be sure, our world is principally and essentially visual; one would not make a world out of scents or sounds” (VI 115 / 83); then, in chapter4, “vision comes to complete the aesthesiological body” (VI 202 / 154). But perhaps the strongest evidence for this claim lies in the fact that Merleau-Ponty, in “Eye and Mind,” criticizes the Cartesian theory of vision because it is modeled not on seeing but on touch, not on action at a distance but on action by contact (OE 37). Let me be more precise. What Merleau-Ponty is attempting to do, perhaps in all of his work, is to reconceive sensing, to use Merleau-Ponty's French, to reconceive sentir. But to do this, it seems to me, one must privilege a particular sense, more precisely, a specific experience. I am arguing that Merleau-Ponty privileges vision—and one should not overlook the ambiguity of this term.
(p.88) The privilege that Merleau-Ponty gives to vision does not mean that “the prejudice of presence” dominates his thinking.1 Merleau-Ponty is opposed to this prejudice because he sees that it consists in fact in a prejudice of purity. This prejudice of purity can function in two ways for Merleau-Ponty. One can conceive sensing, that is, to repeat Merleau-Ponty's French, sentir, as fusion, in which case one touches pure facts—here, sentir takes place in an absolute proximity somewhere. Or, one can conceive sentir as a survey (survoler), in which case one sees pure essences—here, sentir takes place at an infinite distance everywhere (ubiquity) (VI 168–69 / 127). The prejudice resides in both the purity of touch, fusion and absolute proximity, and the purity of vision (which Merleau-Ponty also calls the “kosmostheoros”), survey and infinite distance. These two sides are complements, and Merleau-Ponty gives us an oxymoronic expression to help us overcome them: “palpation with the eyes.”2
Although Merleau-Ponty does not say what I am about to say, it seems to me that it is implied by his rejection of sentir conceived as fusion or coincidence. The first thing one must notice about the experience of vision is that it involves a prohibition: I must not touch the thing seen, or I must keep it at a distance. Vision is based on this prohibition because if I apply the thing I am looking at right on my eyeball, I cannot see it. Therefore, to repeat my title, “Noli me tangere!” Thanks to this prohibition, then, “we see things themselves,” which is the first sentence of The Visible and the Invisible. But we can still ask: Why or how is it possible to see things themselves? Due to the prohibition of contact, I am not fusion. Therefore, if I am, as well, not a kosmostheoros—a view from nowhere—if my eyes see (and not my mind from an infinite distance), then my eyes are visible things too; they can be seen. Vision involves, therefore, a fundamental passivity (VI 183 / 139): the seer can be seen. Since I am visible, I am related to or even resemble the things I see, which allows me to see them themselves. Yet again, if my eyes see, if one is standing upright, vertical, with feet on the ground, things are not flat and juxtaposed.3 One thing stands behind another and is therefore obscured and hidden. Here, Merleau-Ponty appeals to Husserl's idea of horizon (VI 195 / 148). Like a horizon, which recedes as one approaches, which remains invisible, which cannot be touched, the distance in vision is “for good” (cf. VI 122 / 89). Merleau-Ponty's idea of a distance that is “for good” probably is the source of Foucault's work on vision. Perhaps with this distance Merleau-Ponty too was on the verge of (p.89) conceiving singularities that could not be recognized. We must leave this question to the side.
There is a more obvious question. What about touch in Merleau-Ponty? Merleau-Ponty indeed speaks about contact, touch, and the touching-touched. In the famous fourth chapter to The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty discusses touch twice. The first time (VI 175–76 / 133) occurs when Merleau-Ponty is trying to explain how it is that the gaze seems to possess already, as if in a “pre-established harmony,” visible things. More than the eyes, the hands are seen and touched. The passivity that allows for an in principle “kinship” between sensing and sensed can be understood more easily, therefore, through touch, and Merleau-Ponty says that the palpation of the eyes is a “remarkable variant” of this “closer” palpation by the hands (VI 175 / 133). The context of the second time in which Merleau-Ponty discusses touch is very specific. In discussing the experience of others, Merleau-Ponty has opened up the possibility of ideas and thought, or the mind. He then suddenly worries (if you ask me) that he has relapsed into the position of Phenomenology of Perception, placing a kind of tacit thought or cogito at the foundation of the body (VI 191 / 145). On the basis of certain famous working notes, we know that Merleau-Ponty was trying to avoid, in The Visible and the Invisible, anything like a tacit cogito. But then, after this worry, he feels obligated to re-examine his notion of the flesh. He says, “To begin with, we spoke summarily of a reversibility of seeing and the visible, of touching and the touched.” He continues, “It is time to emphasize that it is a reversibility always imminent and never realized in fact. My left hand is always on the verge [sur le point] of touching my right hand touching the things, but I never reach coincidence” (VI 194 / 147, my emphasis). I know this will sound strange, but I think the only way to interpret this sur le point is to say now that the closer palpation of the hands is a “remarkable variant” of vision. The imminence implies that there is a distance there, between the two hands, which is “for good,” and therefore the opening of a horizon and invisibility is there too. In fact, we can go farther with this interpretation. The touching-touched experience is what psychologists have called a double sensation. But this sensation can really be double, can be two and not one, only if there is no fusion. If there were fusion or coincidence, then either everything would be touching, fused into activity, or everything would be touched, fused into passivity (cf. VI 163 /122), but not both touching-touched. Even in relation to this famous, tangible example, we would have to say that there is a prohibition (p.90) against touch, even here we would have to say, “Noli me tangere!” Indeed, Merleau-Ponty says almost as much. He discusses touch the second time because he is concerned about the genesis of ideas. The imminence of coincidence implies that there is always hiddenness and invisibility in this experience, in the flesh, and this hiddenness is the origin of ideas. So, Merleau-Ponty says:
[ideas] could not be given to us as ideas except in a carnal experience… they owe their authority, their fascinating, indestructible power, precisely to the fact that they are in transparency behind the sensible, or in its heart. Each time we want to get access to the idea immediately or lay hands on it [mettre la main sur elle], or circumscribe it, or see it unveiled, we really feel that the attempt is misconceived [la tentative est un contre-sens]. (VI 197 / 150, my emphasis)
Even if we must say that Merleau-Ponty's imminence of coincidence is not stubborn enough, we can now ask Foucault's question: “Who are we?” I think the answer to this question must remain open, in constant differentiation and alteration. If the developed forms of human experience are concerned primarily with the goal of a recognizable self-identity, then I think that these forms must be reduced, reduced down into singularities, which would be more immanent than the self, and reduced up into ideas, which would be more transcendent than the self. In other words, the reduction of the autonomy of the developed forms of human experience means a transformation of our human thinking into a nonhuman mode, into a nonhuman (and not human) experience. I think this reduction is the only way out of the form of life called “man,” and therefore the only way into what calls for thinking: an experience of what is above or below man. The title of my comments, “noli me tangere,” of course, is the Latin translation of the Greek “me mou aptou,” which is found in John's Gospel (20:17).4 The risen Jesus, that is, a Jesus who is still alive while dead, tells Mary Magdalene, “Don't touch me!”; she may look upon him only. It seems to me that only the prohibition, the impotence of touch and the potency to see, preserves the distance that makes him other than human. It seems to me that this distance, given in an exemplary way in vision, is the condition of all alterity. It turns us into the followers (les suivants).
(1.) See John Russon, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003). See my review of Russon's excellent book, “‘Noli me tangere’: Reflections on Vision Starting from John Russon's Human Experience,” in Continental Philosophy Review (forthcoming).
(2.) See Françoise Dastur, “Monde, Chair, Vision,” in Chair et langage: Essais sur Merleau-Ponty (Paris: Encre Marine, 2001), pp. 97–99.
(3.) For more on verticality and distance, see Erwin W. Strauss, “The Upright Posture,” in Psychiatric Quarterly 26, no. 4 (October 1952): 529–61, esp. p. 546.
(4.) See LT 120.