The Meaning of a Meaningless Coincidence I: Questions, Composing, 22/07/2015

In the early days of Adam Writes Everything, when I was still very uncertain what precisely this blog was going to be, especially its content and tone, I wrote a couple of posts under a category called “Triangulation.” They were essentially comparisons of different thinkers and ideas.

Eventually, I decided not to write these anymore, because they didn’t actually seem very fertile for developing ideas. And they didn't seem all that engaging for readers. These are the two questions that I ask myself about whatever I post here. 1) Will writing a post push a vague idea in a creative direction or otherwise help me figure out something that puzzles me? 2) Would someone actually enjoy reading it?

Those early posts just plunked two coincidentally similar ideas next to each other. Sometimes, two or more writers discussed the same topic, and sometimes, one writer actually influenced the other and I wanted to think about how. But coincidences don’t really make good philosophy.

The influence of Marinetti's Tactilist art appears in a
decadent and depraved American Hollywood film.
Here’s an example. I noticed an odd coincidence reading an old Marinetti essay the other night. He was discussing the framework of a new approach to art that he called Tactilism. It was artwork that you were supposed to experience not by looking at it or listening to it, but by rubbing your hands over it. They were panels whose material was designed to the smallest detail to provoke a particular tactile sensation.

Marinetti described how he first thought of this idea when he was a soldier in the Great War, serving in the battles against Austria. He was stumbling through a trench in total darkness trying to find a place to sleep, his hand passing over dirt, metal, clothing, flesh. He realized that this was a whole new way of seeing the world, through touch. 

We hardly ever think about just how detailed our tactile sensations can be. So he developed a form of art that would emphasize tactility, let us develop our hands to higher capacities of perceptivity than we typically do.

As Marinetti thought about what touch actually was, he came to understand it as the fundamental sense. All other perceptions – visual, auditory, olfactory, proprioception, and so on – were derived from the basic nature of touch. All perception is detection of objects around us and moving through them. Touch and avoidance of touch.

It occurred to me that Marinetti’s insight, which he developed in the context of his artwork, was fundamentally the same as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s when, in the last years of his life, he developed a philosophy of perception that saw touch and physical contact as foundational to all experience. 

Merleau-Ponty was working in the sub-discipline of phenomenology, particularly the tradition of Edmund Husserl. Merleau’s work during and shortly after the Second World War built on and expanded many of Husserl’s ideas, rooting them in a scientific context as research on brain injuries* discovered the complexity and depth of perception’s interdependence with neural architecture. 

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of opportunities
to study the effects of shrapnel head injuries on
human perception.
* The Second World War, particularly its flying shrapnel, produced many examples of traumatic brain injuries that were quite valuable for the growth of humanity's knowledge, even as their sufferers struggled to return to a worthwhile life.

I remember one professor I had as an undergraduate, who thought Merleau did little beyond expanding Husserl’s yet-unpublished papers. Merleau's mid-career work often ran into the same fundamental problem that Husserl did: how to get out of the subjective perspective. 

Merleau overcame this through a simple shift in focus from analyzing vision as essential perception, to touch. From there, he developed the conception of the subject not as a viewer, but as a field constantly interacting with other fields and bodies around her. This concept of the subject as a field of affects integrated in a huge complex of overlapping fields is the lynchpin for the conception of the subject at the heart of my ecological philosophy writing.**

** I’m in the process of booking my in-person and virtual speaking tour to promote Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. So more details coming to a campus near you.

Marinetti mentions this concept of the subject as a field as a logical derivation from his own reflections on the perceptual primacy of touch and tactility. He arrived at this profound, revolutionary philosophical concept through thinking about art. 

Here, we have two solitary figures with no actual historical relationship where Marinetti could have influenced Merleau philosophically at all. We only have their coincidental development of the same concept. Why bother thinking about it at all? To be continued . . . 

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