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The Occlusion of Dialogics: What It Means to Converse with a Philosopher

For the Love of the Negative

I am having an interesting para-discussion with Nicola over at The Whim  on the good of talking about “the shadow” or “spectrality” or “negation” in particular when adopting an ontology of plenitude (which he himself seems to embrace), and he directed me to this wonderful post at Fido the Yak, explicating just how affective, how experiential negativity could be interpreted.

There, M. Ponty is cited, speaking to the full-spectrum of how we read (and overcome/complete) a past philosopher. Nicola seems to have in mind the richness of this engagement, the way that “sensibilities” seem to flesh-out otherwise abstract binaries of Self/Other (and the mother of all binaries Being/Non-Being).

I want to direct myself briefly to the opening thoughts on shadow, when reading a philosopher dialogically, what M. Ponty calls the “dialogical experience”:

In dialogical experience, I do not communicate to another a thought possessed elsewhere. I think with him and make myself in his image; moreover, his thought comes to itself only be formulating itself and offering itself to me, so that there is no clear-cut distinction between what would belong strictly to an author and what the interpretation projects into the author. What defines a thought is what is was still seeking to say, its “unthought,” which can be revealed only in a reflection which, on the basis of its difference, turns itself into the echo of the thought. Therefore, the rejection of the idea that one must subject a reading to objectivity in favor of the idea that one must attempt to explicate an unthought can be a higher form of fidelity.

As I expressed to Nicola, I do not see what service is paid by the importation of Hegelian inspired terms such as “shadow” or “the other” or “negative”, as if when we think along with another thinker we are conducting some kind of binary mathematics of exchange and surpass. I would claim that actually there is no such thing as the “dialogical experience” as it is here defined, where we strictly make ourselves the image of the other, (and this image-reflection accurately depicts what we are doing when we think along with someone else…there is always something more…much more). The reason for this is that, as M. Ponty says, in the dialogical experience I do not communicate to another a thought possessed elsewhere. This plainly is not only impossible, it is an illusion. We necessarily, when we inhabit the thoughts of another, bring to them thoughts that are possessed elsewhere. Not only the “elsewhere” of my entire genealogy of thoughts, but also the matrix of far-reaching points with which I have come in contact, and which have formed me. I communicate to the soma of a thinker the full contrain web of my being, and insofar as we communicate (even with a dead thinker), the nodal mutualities of our contacts. The illusion of a shadow, a specter, a mirrored reflection, is just that, the suppression of all our rich histories/possibilities, the ignoring of what consonant powers that are in operation, the very things that we are to make ourselves aware of if we are to bring our communication into more active fruition. It is NEVER the case of a Self and an Other meeting in binary form (even if this be our fantasy).

Shaking Hands with the Dead

Then M. Ponty works to subvert the priority of this binary through a richness of affective inhabitation, with a marvelous metaphor of hand-shaking…

The reason why I have evidence of the other man’s being-there when I shake his hand is that his hand is substituted for my left hand, and my body annexes the body of another person in that “sort of reflection” it is paradoxically the seat of.

We can feel this. But in shaking hands it is never the case of merely one body then another, one hand then another. The inhabitation, the annexing, is ever always the case of past hands shaken, the firmness of the grip, the communications of regard, proximity, obliquely or directly steered directionality, things that communicate themselves with a musicality of culture, intent, habit, mise-en-scene  compassry, a panoply of effects stretching out in every direction. Even in this well-chosen example there is no dialogic. In shaking hands the world explodes and connects again, and in the aperture of what philosophers call “the Other” there are so many “others” (as in, alterations, ripples, unowned, unauthored echoes and vibrations).

In this sense, even as M. Ponty tries to invigorate the pale abstractions “the Other”, the “negation” , the “shadow”, the “shadow” with a material and bodily grounding, I think this only points to the dread mistake of beginning with these philosophical binaries born of Idealist conceptions of Consciousness, the centrality of Being. What is suppressed is the polyvocality of effects, and therefore is lost the full horizon of what actually is being engaged.

This has substantial consequence for how we read past philosophers. For instance as I mutually inhabit Spinoza’s mind/frame if I allowed myself to regularly think that I am doing so under dialogical experiences of mirroring and shadow making, bringing to his thought nothing that its outside of it, I would have occluded myself of the very richness of my mental hand. For instance, the inheritance of Pragmatism and Neoplatonism I regularly bring to Spinoza, and it would be a dis-service to pretend that this is not what I am doing. But it is more than this. In studying Spinoza’s optical practices, and reconstructing much of his possible physical experiences of daily lens-grinding, I also bring to his so-called “thought” something of the mutuality of an understanding of what bodily practices are expressed in thought. I understand his thought from within its prospective source. It is not mere reflection, but also that we share a world. If I imagine him at his lathe, engaging in repetitious circular motions of pressure, fine-detail polishing, the objectivity I appeal to is not Self-Other, but that of World. I am not seeking, or constructing the un-thought of his thought, because my engagement is not an ascent from what what below me. It is much more two strains of music finding harmony across a larger melody.

It is for this reason that when M. Ponty wants to concentrate on the interior of another thinker, sinking down into the bodily real of animality (always the interior for the phenomenologist)…

This is what animalia and men are: absolutely present beings who have a wake of the negative. A perceiving body that I see is also a certain absence that is hollowed out and tactfully dealt with behind that body by its behavior. But absence is itself rooted in presence; it is through his body that the other person’s soul is soul in my eyes.

…this is only half, or a third of it. This game of binaries always must call in more in order to make sense of it. It is never the case of interiors coming into contact with interiors, merely, but rather the concreteness of world which bridges and maintains any consonance whatsoever. There is never any “hollowing out” (except as a moment of occlusion). M. Ponty wants to play the +/- , Being/Non-Being, game albeit with a beautifully, and suitably animal body ethic. The music of engagement is always richer than this. What is “behind” behavior is thus not only what is “underneath” (as if we are playing with cloaks again, as Heidegger loves to do), but also beyond and outside, in our substantial mutuality of world. There is no negative.