A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

Feminism, Phenomenology and Embodiment

As one might expect, feminist scholars have found much to disagree with in Merleau-Ponty's and other phenomenologists' accounts of embodied existence, finding them patriarchal in their universalisation of forms of male embodiedness. Good examples would be Judith Butler's consideration of Merleau-Ponty's 'The Body In Its Sexual Being' in her 'Sexual Ideology and Phenomenological Description' , and the revisionist critiques of existential phenomenology of Iris Marion Young. . As though Merleau-Ponty's self-evidently and egregiously personalised account of libidinised perception really had the force to engross feeling and imagination that is ascribed to it. The very possibility of the critique and the extension of existential phenomenology to so-called female experiences of the body indicates that it is gratuitous; the strength of the critique is its weakness. If the critique is possible and called for, as it abundantly and assuredly is, then the thing critiqued has already lost the power it can never in fact have had. Similarly, the effort to revise and reform Merleau-Ponty's style of thought (and it is Merleau-Ponty who makes the point that a philosopher's idiom is always his or her bodily being), is an indication of just how nonprivative it is - or an indication of how much more helpful and disclosing for feminism it is for Merleau-Ponty to have erred in the particular ways he can be taken to have erred than for him to have tried to cover or reach into other modes of being-in-the body than those that he takes to be his own. In fact, it is Merleau-Ponty again who tells us that there is no favoured style or modality of being, nor is there even a quantitative measure of the minimum needed for bodily experience. Any kind of experience, however impoverished, is completely 'full', just as it is always also incomplete. There is always another situation from which our situation can be viewed; and recognising and acknowledging what our situation is, is one such other situation. For the last word has never been said and never will be on the ways in which we situate ourselves in our situated bodies, or on the ways in which our saying so situates us anew.

Take Iris Marion Young's impressive and beautiful essay 'Throwing Like A Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality', in which she describes women's typical failure to make use of bodily potentiality, for example in sporting activities, in which they typically wait for and react to events, rather than reaching out into and actively seeking to determine them, along with a failure to inhabit their bodily being comfortably. Women, Young argues, do not experience their bodies as transcendence, as men do (or as some of them claim to). She concludes:

The three modalities of feminine motility are that feminine movement exhibits an ambiguous transcendence, an inhibited intentionality, and a discontinuous unity with its surroundings. A source of these contradictory modalities is the bodily self-reference of feminine comportment, which derives from the woman's experience of the body as a thing at the same time as she experiences it as a capacity.

A reader of Samuel Beckett, or any other documenter of inhibited transcendence (which is to say anyone at all who has ever managed to say anything intelligible about any kind of bodily experience) will be able to recognise and acknowledge this feminine experience. It is not that these experiences are not marked as feminine, or not experienced by women in particularly self-recognising ways; it is that they are never simply, and once-and-for-all lived that way. Saying so has made a difference, outdated it. And this is not because Iris Marion Young is in the business of writing critique, which is meant to be a way of making a difference by its way of describing or saying so, though she is. It is because everything makes a difference, to everything (not the same kind of difference, and not, obviously, the same amount of difference, but different sorts and amounts of difference, depending). The woman shivering on the touchline (like the young Stephen Dedalus at the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as it happens) is no longer the same woman as soon as she grasps herself as such - in writing, reminiscence, conversation or philosophical reflection, or even when another - a curious man, say, is induced to grasp her situation. Her situatedness is then situated; her ambiguous transcendence is transcended (ambiguously and incompletely, of course, that is the point, or one of the points), her inhibited intentionality becomes intentionalised, her discontinuous unity with her surroundings is disclosed as a kind of whole (a temporary whole to be sure, because that is the only kind there is). Merleau-Ponty's self-characterisation was already open to Young's supplementation of it, as it would have had to be in order for there to be anything right about it at all. Of course, other attitudes towards Merleau-Pontyan phenomenology are perfectly possible. It would be possible for Merleau-Ponty to seem so completely wrong - for his language and the form of bodily comportment it involved to be so utterly alien or unsatisfactory - that there were nothing retrievable from it, and nothing interesting about it at all. This probably describes the situation in many quarters at the present moment. But in that case his work is not rendered defunct, so much as completely untouchable, by critique or anything else.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |