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already a light-being

May 26, 2009

[Dermot Moran in TPM] Merleau-Ponty describes very well in his Phenomenology of Perception the kind of floating grey sea of colour that we see when our eyes are closed “leaving no distance between me and it”. Hence we think we are enclosed; eyelids touching the eyes. In contrast, in his Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre asserts that the light that comes through the closed eyelids in the morning “is already a light-being”. Seeing yields being itself, never the experience of a subjective “quality” but of an objective reality. As Merleau-Ponty says: “to see is to enter a universe of beings that display themselves, and they would not do this if they could not be hidden behind each other … in other words to look at an object is to inhabit it.”

While seeing seems to be detached from the other senses, in fact it is folded in with them, especially touch. For Aristotle already, seeing is a kind of touch. Husserl points out that the eye is also a centre for touch sensations (the eyeball can be touched, we can feel the movement of the eye in the eye-socket, through “muscle sensations”, and so on). But he maintains that “I do not see myself, my body, the way I touch myself” (Ideas II ). Touch localises us in the world in a way that seeing does not. We can only see because we can touch. Yet, seeing seems to release us and floats us off into space.

Seeing can touch: it touches the texture of things. We literally see roughness and smoothness, for example, the coarse texture of the carpet. There are, moreover, strong continuities between touch and vision, as Merleau-Ponty confirms. Touch retains the sense of a distance between touched things just as sight does. We can touch something with gloves on and still feel the smoothness. Both sense modalities require that we move ourselves (eyes, fingers) across the surface of the object to see or touch the smoothness. It is often thought that the sense of touch disappears when one lifts one’s hand off one kind of surface before touching another surface. Merleau-Ponty, on the contrary, thinks a kind of indefinite trace of the sense of touch remains. It is not, Merleau-Ponty says, “a tactile nothingness” but “a tactile space devoid of matter, a tactile background”. The same is true in vision. In the movement of the gaze from one thing to the other, we do not drop into the invisible. (read)

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