The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror

Here is the reading for October 31st’s meeting.  A printable copy is here, and the meeting location is here.

There are two basic themes at work in Dylan Trigg’s The Thing.  First, the body.  We might typically think of our bodies as the thing we are most at home in; my body is me, I own it, I can master it and dominate it.  Trigg argues that this sense of unity and coherence can be undermined by a sense of the otherness of our flesh.  Second,  the book is an attempt to push phenomenology, which is normally about the human point of view, into the inhuman realm.

The Unhuman

In recent years, writers such as Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier have been arguing that the sense of the contingency of the human point of view is linked to realism: humanity will eventually go extinct, so there is a world without the human perspective, “in which the gaze of human subjectivity loses its privileged place.” (3)  This makes the phenomenological tradition look archaic, given how concerned it is with the human perspective.

However, thinking of a world without us is still thinking about us.  While phenomenology takes the human point of view as its point of departure, it can move on to something else.  It can move on to an unhuman realm, a term he uses for two reasons.  First, he uses the term “unhuman” to connect with the uncanny, a sense of not being at home, of something being not quite right.  Second, the word does not negate humanity.  It is through the “inclusion of the human that the nonhuman element becomes visible.”  This is not an anthropocentrism; rather, it is a “letting of the unhumanity of the human speak for itself.” (6)

There are two sides to the body.  First, it is the medium of meaningful being-in-the-world, and second, it is the empirical object with internal organs.  For Descartes and the British empiricists, the relation to the body is secondary; you can cut off a hand without much change in who you are.  

Trigg thinks the body is primary in the constitution of self, but not as a site of unity and coherence.  It is anterior to personal history, not culturally assimilated, and somehow outside the social world; it is an “unethical body”.  Specifically:

The body to be posited in this book is not only anterior to humanity but in some sense is opposed to human existence, at least insofar as it destabilizes the experience of being a subject by establishing an unassimilated depth within the heart of familiar existence. (8)

It is a body horror.  The affect of horror allows for the thematization of the unhuman.  Why do we need the affect of horror to explain any of this?  Phenomenology commits itself to the world and the subject constituting one another:  

“Neither idealism nor realism, phenomenology merges the two through the concept of perceptual intentionality, where we — living subjects — are at all times in a relationship with a world.” (41)

For Martin Heidegger, that circularity appears in the concept of mood.  Mood is the prereflective way in which the world is given in its experiential significance.  Mood gives the world meaning for the subject:

“We are always already — a phrase that haunts phenomenology — in a mood insofar as our relationship with the world is laden with meaning and never entirely neutral.  That we are unable to not be in a mood means that the world can never have a phenomenal status without already being interpreted in a specific way.” (42)

In Being and Time, Heidegger gives the mood of anxiety pride of place; in anxiety, the meaningful structures of the world recede, leaving one with a sense of finitude.  Trigg wants to suggest that horror is the mood that opens up the possibility of thinking about our bodies as something alien to us.

From Beyond

Several years ago, a Martian meteor was found on Earth.  It contained fossilized organisms which may have originated on Mars.  This leads to the possibility that life actually originated on Mars and then arrived here later: Earthly life may actually be Martian.  The meteor allows us to ask how much our bodies owe to Earthly history, and how much they owe to an alternate history.

Edmund Husserl’s essay “The Earth Does Not Move” ties together spatiality, corporeality, and the scientific study of nature using the concept of the Earth as a pre-given of experience.  Earth is a unity; not one planet among many, or an object upon which others rest, but a constitutive element of spatiality.  We are completely tied to the Earth, as Hussel says in this two quotes: “All developments, all relative histories have to that extent a single primordial history of which they are episodes” and “There is only one humanity and one Earth — all the fragments which are or have been separated from it belong to it.” (23)

For Hussel, there are two sides to Earth: the empirical and the transcendental (which is constitutive of experience).  We can never get around that always human, transcendental Earth; even the hypothesis of humanity being wiped out requires the ego to make sense of it.  Husserl says, “What sense could the collapsing masses in space… have, if the constituting life were eliminated?”  This constituting ego “precedes all actual and possible beings, and anything existent whether in real or irreal sense.” (24-25)

In Husserl, the Earth is always a humanized Earth; it gains its structure thanks to a relationship with the body, and vice versa; the body is always tied to the Earth.  Husserl ends up conflating the ethical and the epistemic: he makes the Earth the foundation both of what we are and what we can know.  Trigg tries to get around this by taking seriously an origin that is anterior to experience: a phenomenology of the alien.  “Methodologically, we proceed by ontologically amplifying… the speculative phenomenology that underlies our relation to [the meteor].” (26)  The meteor presents us with the prospect of an origin that is anterior to subjectivity but at the same time constitutive of it:  

“The origin is anterior to subjectivity insofar as it resists being integrated into the subject both spatially and temporally. Simultaneously, the origin is not consigned to a mythical past, but is instead implicated in the very materiality of the human being.  This double bind is a paradox.  on the one hand, in the flesh of our bodies, we find a materiality that leads us toward an alien existence.  At the same time, this other world remains accessible in that it is given to us precisely as human subjects.” (26)

This phenomenology requires us to break the connection with the Earth and see the body as a fragment of materiality that is both human and non-human.  He does this with a turn to Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty sees another past, another origin.  He approaches it from the perspective of the human-animal relation, which gives us a view of the human-alien relation.  He sees the origin of the subject as a metamorphosis rather than a beginning from zero, a gradual process rather than a departing from nature.  He refuses the idea that,

“. . . human being begins at one point in the deep past and then proceeds to sublimate the rational unfolding of a corporeal history.  Rather, that same history co-exists alongside the subject in the present, forming a double that both mirrors and distorts the emergence of human existence.” (28)

So when Merleu-Ponty speaks of the human-animal relationship, he talks about a “lateral” relationship ”that does not abolish kinship”.  Not only alongside animals, but also within each other.  This intertwining of different life forms is a “prehistory of the subject’s alterity — an alien region, in which both the deep future and the deeper past collectively dwell.” (29)  It’s not the human reflecting on its image projected onto the animal; it’s a genuine alterity that lurks within humanity:

“This gaze into the depths of a prehistory reveals a time prior to the split between animal and human.  If the primordial vision is located in the abysses of time, then it is nevertheless one that is preserved in the articulation of the body, which, as we will see in the chapters to follow, retains the strange kinship binding the human with its nonhuman other.” (29)

So Merleu-Ponty’s philosophy of nature is a phenomenology of the subject as alien.  It is not a subjectivity that is integrated, but instead marks an excess and resists descriptive experience.  Phenomenology “reaches a limit, and therefore must now be understood as an indirect ontology that retains human experience only as a symptom.” (30)

The Body and Correlationism

Merleau-Ponty switches from mood to the body.  Our bodies are our expressive attachment to the world.  They each express the other; “. . . the world is defined in a corporeal way in that it is discovered through the body.”  Body and world are co-constituative of one another.  The body provides the “grounding for the structural and thematic relationship with the other. . . . Mood and body are two ways in which subjectivity is inextricably and pre-thematically tied to the world.” (42) There are other structures that tie subjectivity to the world, like language or the transcendental.  

In each case, there are two consequences.  The first is epistemological.  Thought is restricted to the world of human experience; thinking cannot get beyond its conditions.  As Quentin Meillassoux says, thought cannot “compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone.” (43)  This is what Meillassoux calls correlationism.  As Meillassoux says correlationism is “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.”  This idea is found of much of modern philosophy, from Kant to phenomenology.

The second problem is ethical.  The focus on human experience leads to a restricted notion of what it means to be human.  It’s an ethics of finitude that emphasizes our relation to the world, and makes everything from death, to time to spatiality human concepts; “More than this, these same concepts are regarded as having an ethical value, in that they provide an opportunity for subjects to (re)define themselves or their values.” (45)  The goal for this ethics becomes to feel “at home” in the world.  In destablizing the body and Earth as homely, Trigg is seeking a way past these problems.

The Flesh of the Thing

In 1951, AJ Ayer had a conversation with Merleau-Ponty and Georges Batailles about whether or not the sun existed before humans.  Ayer thought it obviously did, but Merleau-Ponty and Baitailles were more skeptical.

The question of the world before humans also appeared in The Phenomenology of Perception.  There, the debate between realism and idealism was central to Merleau-Ponty’s formulation of classical pheneomenology.  The point was not to refute either, but to incorporate both into a phenomenological account of the body as prior to that dichotomy.

Merleau-Ponty poses the question, What is a thing?  At first, it is just what it appears to be: a mix of form and content witha  consistency that aligns with perception.  There is a natural harmony between the thing and perception.  But that natural harmony can be broken when looing at the body as just a material mass; it becomes “as strange as the lunar landscape.”

He had some trouble moving beyond Husserl; he says “the thing is the correlate of my body … The thing is constituted in the hold my body has upon it.”  He acknowledges these thoughts are not equal to the real: “if we want to describe the real such as it appears to us in perceptual experience, we find it burdened with anthropological predicates.” (106)

He attempts to get outside phenomenology with a recognition of the “non-human element which lies hidden” and as “unware of us, it remains in-itself.”  (107)  He says looking at things metaphysically reveals them as “hostile and alien, no longer and interloctutor, but a resolutely silent Other.” (107)

His later focus on the real as what resists perception is basically his move away from descriptive phenomenology and towards an account of what sort of ontology is revealed in Husserl’s thinking.  In contrast with Husserl’s humanization of the Earh, he says his interest is in “the world and. . . the mind before their correlative idealizations.” (108)  He turns realism and idealism against each other by making the Earth no longer the ground of subjective experience to an element of “flesh” which is prior to both the ego and the subject.

Anterior Fossils and the Anonymous Flesh

The idea of the Earth before humans leads us back to Quentin Meillassoux.  We know the age of the Earth and we can date fossils from long before the rise of the humans; Meillassoux’s question is “How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and of life — posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?” (109-110)  He calls an arche-fossil is a materiall which indicates an ancestral reality prior to humans.  A standard phenomenological reading of the arche-fossil has to recover it under the human perspective: “the fossil is a million years old (for humans)”.  The statement must include that “for humans” codicil, and so the scientific statement cannot be read literally and simply.

Meillassoux says that the phenomenologist must say: “To understand the fossil, it is necessary to proceed from the present to the past, following a logical order, rather than from the past to the present, following a chronological order.” (111)  The ancestral is reduced to a atifact of the transcendental (something posited, a la Fichte).  Trigg wants to find a phenomenology which can deal with both the otherness of the body and the anteriority of the world.  To do that, Trigg will use Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh.  In moving away from Husserl, Merleau-Ponty finds another side of perception, “one that is hostile and silent to experience, and in some sense anterior to space and time.” (115)  This “natural being”, silent to experience, “cannot remain outside phenomenology and should have its place within it.” (117)  This natural being is “barbarous”, a term he takes from Fredrich Schelling (a contemporary of Hegel’s).  The etymological history of “barbarous” is important: it refers to foreign or strange, not uncultured.  Schelling refers to that natural ground is “eternally obscure”, “insane”, “noctural”, and “the night of chaos and unreason”.  For his part, Merleau-Ponty refers to nature as,

“. . . the most ancient element, ‘an abyss of the past’. . . the fundamental stuff of all life and of every existing being, something terrifying, a barbaric principle that one can overcome, but never put aside.” (120)

It is an attempt at an ontology stripped of all humanity:

“As Merleau-Ponty argues, to understand nature, it is not a question of enforcing an idealised, Kantian framework upon raw matter.  Rather, this idealised framework needs to be inverted and deformed, meaning that ‘what we call the I and what we call a living being have a common root in pre-objective Being’.  At the same time, this gesture does not mean implanting a vitalism in the inorganic realm, less still a pantheism or a nature guided by teleology, in which all-is-one by dint of a pre-established harmony in the cosmos.  Rather, to develop a ‘phenomenology of prereflexive Being,’ as Schelling (and Merleau-Ponty) are doing, is to recognise the ‘terrible’ darkness that lurks within all things.” (121)

Ultimately, what we get here is a body stripped of all subjectivity; the body as an anonymous mass of flesh, a primordial ontology:

“The universe of theory subtends of an already present universe.  Behind this world, there is a more originary world, anterior to all activity, ‘world before a thesis’: the perceived world.  Whereas the first is given as a constructed world, the perceived world is given itself in flesh and blood.”

In his conclusion, Trigg says:

“Before subjectivity, before humanity, another origin anterior to experience emerges.  Formless, the flesh of the thing embeds itself in the brute world, against which a philosophy of description undergoes a loss of orientation and thereby finds itself in the midst of its alienage.  Nowhere is this alien resistance clearer than in the materiality of the body, as much as an organ of perception in the present moment as a prehistory unknowable except as the trace left behind.  As this body withdraws from experience, so it produces an excess in the world, which must be approached from beneath matter, or rather, from beyond matter.  Devoid of subjectivity, devoid of experience, silence intervenes.  In this zone, the indifference of the flesh gives bith to the thing.  The thing has no identity, except that of a constantly mutating process, barren of all specificity and instead able insidiously to adapt itself to its surroundings.  Of it, we can only say that there is a thing.  The thing is there, present but only as a field of anonymity.  Into this murmur of an indifferent cosmos, Merleau-Ponty positions us on the verge of thing and flesh…” (131)


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