Saturday, January 09, 2010

Phenomenology and objects

From Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception:
The things of the world are not simply neutral objects which stand before us for our contemplation. Each one of them symbolises or recalls a particular way of behaving, provoking in us reactions which are either favourable or unfavourable. This is why people’s tastes, character, and the attitude they adopt to the world and to particular things can be deciphered from the objects with which they choose to surround themselves, their preferences for certain colours or the places where they like to go for walks.
Merleau-Ponty, citing Sartre, argues that we grasp an object's various qualities simultaneously, with each justifying the others and defining themselves in terms of the others. A kind of gestalt is necessary for the object to become identifiable to our perception as a particular thing. A thing has a "halo," according to C├ęzanne.

How does this apply to being perceived ourselves by others? Are we deciphered, decoded, as the passage suggests, or are we perceived as an unstable mix of traits all straining to become tautological, all seeking to signifying each other and then ultimately the self from whom they have emanated? The former is the consumerist trap that Baudrillard delineates, the reduction of identity to a code from which it cannot escape. The latter offers a different possibility, a way of nullifying the signification dimension of objects in a complex self that reconstitutes all those meanings as something else, or perhaps nothing.

And then there is this:
the relationship between human beings and things is no longer one of distance and mastery such as that which obtained between the sovereign mind and the piece of wax in Descartes’ famous description. Rather, the relationship is less clear-cut: vertiginous proximity prevents us both from apprehending ourselves as a pure intellect separate from things and from defining things as pure objects lacking in all human attributes.
We are aware of being both subject and object, each category slipping away into the other; when we seek to build subjectivity out of objects, the horizons of that subjectivity are objectified, autonomy is sacrificed in favor of rendering being concrete, perceptible to others.

So the way we relate to the things of the world is no longer as a pure intellect trying to master an object or space that stands before it. Rather, this relationship is an ambiguous one, between beings who are both embodied and limited and an enigmatic world of which we catch a glimpse (indeed which we haunt incessantly) but only ever from points of view that hide as much as they reveal, a world in which every object displays the human face it acquires in a human gaze.
Whose face is that? Are we having a war with others, fighting to establish our identity in the things we share the perception of, negotiating how it will mean something about and to each person who sees it? Does this ambiguity resolve itself or is it anxiety inducing, leading to the need to avoid the "hell" of other people? An object anchors our limited but unique and particular point of view; it entices us to ground our unique sense of self in a kind of glorified ignorance. We exist only as long as ambiguity about the object persists.

The processes of self-knowledge Merleau-Ponty describes in the following passage have become the skeletal structure of serial consumerism:
There is no
way of living with others which takes away the burden of being myself, which allows me to not have an opinion; there is no ‘inner’ life that is not a first attempt to relate to another person. In this ambiguous position, which has been forced on
us because we have a body and a history (both personally and collectively), we can never know complete rest. We are continually obliged to work on our differences, to explain things we have said that have not been properly understood, to reveal what is hidden within us and to perceive other people.
We know ourselves through the medium of others and the objects we associate with them by proxy. Consumerism seeks to remove the direct person-person relation so that all our self-knowledge comes from glimpsing the ghost of others in things, so that the things themselves seem to have life (brand identity) of their own. They become fetishized. How does the direct human relation get blocked in a society dependent on consumerism? By extensive mediatization.

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