Expressivity of Bodies: The Synesthetic Affinity Between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty. Thought of the Day 54.0


It is in the description of the synesthetic experience that Deleuze finds resources for his own theory of sensation. And it is in this context that Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty are closest. For Deleuze sees each sensation as a dynamic evolution, sensation is that which passes from one ‘order’ to another, from one ‘level’ to another. This means that each sensation is at diverse levels, of different orders, or in several domains….it is characteristic of sensation to encompass a constitutive difference of level and a plurality of constituting domains. What this means for Deleuze is that sensations cannot be isolated in a particular field of sense; these fields interpenetrate, so that sensation jumps from one domain to another, becoming-color in the visual field or becoming-music on the auditory level. For Deleuze (and this goes beyond what Merleau-Ponty explicitly says), sensation can flow from one field to another, because it belongs to a vital rhythm which subtends these fields, or more precisely, which gives rise to the different fields of sense as it contracts and expands, as it moves between different levels of tension and dilation.

If, as Merleau-Ponty says (and Deleuze concurs), synesthetic perception is the rule, then the act of recognition that identifies each sensation with a determinate quality or sense and operates their synthesis within the unity of an object, hides from us the complexity of perception, and the heterogeneity of the perceiving body. Synesthesia shows that the unity of the body is constituted in the transversal communication of the senses. But these senses are not pre given in the body; they correspond to sensations that move between levels of bodily energy – finding different expression in each other. To each of these levels corresponds a particular way of living space and time; hence the simultaneity in depth that is experienced in vision is not the lateral coexistence of touch, and the continuous, sensuous and overlapping extension of touch is lost in the expansion of vision. This heterogenous multiplicity of levels, or senses, is open to communication; each expresses its embodiment in its own way, and each expresses differently the contents of the other senses.

Thus sensation is not the causal process, but the communication and synchronization of senses within my body, and of my body with the sensible world; it is, as Merleau-Ponty says, a communion. And despite frequent appeal in the Phenomenology of Perception to the sameness of the body and to the common world to ground the diversity of experience, the appeal here goes in a different direction. It is the differences of rhythm and of becoming, which characterize the sensible world, that open it up to my experience. For the expressive body is itself such a rhythm, capable of synchronizing and coexisting with the others. And Merleau-Ponty refers to this relationship between the body and the world as one of sympathy. He is close here to identifying the lived body with the temporization of existence, with a particular rhythm of duration; and he is close to perceiving the world as the coexistence of such temporalizations, such rhythms. The expressivity of the lived body implies a singular relation to others, and a different kind of intercorporeity than would be the case for two merely physical bodies. This intercorporeity should be understood as inter-temporality. Merleau-Ponty proposes this at the end of the chapter on perception in his Phenomenology of Perception, when he says,

But two temporalities are not mutually exclusive as are two consciousnesses, because each one knows itself only by projecting itself into the present where they can interweave.

Thus our bodies as different rhythms of duration can coexist and communicate, can synchronize to each other – in the same way that my body vibrated to the colors of the sensible world. But, in the case of two lived bodies, the synchronization occurs on both sides – with the result that I can experience an internal resonance with the other when the experiences harmonize, or the shattering disappointment of a  miscommunication when the attempt fails. The experience of coexistence is hence not a guarantee of communication or understanding, for this communication must ultimately be based on our differences as expressive bodies and singular durations. Our coexistence calls forth an attempt, which is the intuition.


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