The Style of Things

Perception for Merleau-Ponty, as will other phenomenologists, is always an interpretation of a perceived object. Implied in this is the incontrovertible sense that we can never access things-in-themselves, unadulterated by our own subjectivity. An inevitable conclusion to the observation that we stuck with our perception is to question whether there are objects at all exterior to one’s conscious. Leaving aside this trajectory of though briefly, Merleau-Ponty seems to be leaning in another, more positive, direction. According to him, although humans mold sense data and perception, qualities are indeed attached to things outside of the self. In other words, “qualities are permanently subordinated to the things” (Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 48). In some sense this is a decentering of the human subject; an overturning of the Copernican revolution of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Things summon my entire being, rather than the inverse, my subjectivity summoning objects.

Returning to the infinite regress posed above, whether this world has an autonomous reality outside of our perception, we find that Merleau-Ponty is equivocal. “In one sense, he happily admits that the world we explore is something that exceeds us, and which needs to be approached on its own terms if it is every to yield up its secrets” (pp. 49-50). On the other hand, he is a product of his time and does not want to regress to naïve scientific realism. While he is, at times, a champion for a world distinct from human experience, he simultaneously holds that ““the thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself” (p. 50).

But it is noteworthy, however, that faced with this contradiction, Merleau-Ponty develops some innovative philosophical claims. Given his mixed concession as to the reality of the world, Merleau-Ponty sketches a make-shift metaphysics of relations. “If an object is not reducible to my perspective on it, and yet is also not a real entity outside of this perspective, then there is still another option: namely, perhaps an object is the focal point of many perspectives” (p. 50). The radical claim made here by Merleau-Ponty is as such: “the reality of a thing is defined by the sum total of perspectives by which other things perceive it” (p. 51). This world, in which inanimate things and objects actually perceive each other, is a simulacrum of the theory espoused by Whitehead. Put simply, objects come to be defined only in terms of their relation (or perception in this case) with other objects. This significantly creates a collective of objects to great thickness and depth, a “dimension in which things or elements of things envelop each other” (p. 53). Thus, to have a body, is “already to be folded into the things” (p. 53). Flesh or carnality, in other words, is the “intertwining, interlacing, interfacing” of the self with a democracy of other entities.

But we still have to account for the things in themselves. Given that objects are always already in a network of other objects that confer upon them meaning, it is a mere extension of this same thought to conceive of any given object as a collective or bunddle of other objects. One conclusion to draw from this hypothesis is that things, in general, have a specific profile, posture or style when interacting in the world. Perception, then, would be an attempt to understand the unique and animating impulse to things. Although a style is never visibly present, Graham Harman argues, our perception can grasp, in part, the an object’s “style of being”.

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