Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Body as “Being-in-the World”


We can agree with Merleau-Ponty’s claim that to experience the world by way of the body is the original and basic mode of “being-in-the world” and of man’s relation to the world. However, in Merleau-Ponty, “being-in-the world” has an objectivistic, that is to say an abstract, character. He departs from the body as the given and overlooks that “being-in-the world” is not an autonomous process, which means that man does not experience his body directly, but through the concrete totality of his own epoch and the prevailing ideological “model” of the body, that is to say as a concrete human (social) being. The human body is not a natural datum and as such a phenomenon sui generis, it is a historical product. Not only is the relation to the body today essentially different in comparison to the ancient and Christian civilizations, but we deal with an essentially different body. Each civilization creates a specific body and a specific relation to it – and thus a specific man. Even in antiquity it was realized that to produce a particular body means at the same time to produce a particular type of man (master race and slave). The class and racial physiognomies are of utmost importance in bourgeois anthropology and the bourgeois Hellenists who idealize the antiquity place special emphasis on it. The specificity of capitalism is that it does not degenerate the body by depriving it of vitality (dying out of bodily functions) through a meditative activism (asceticism), as is the case in Christianity, but by transforming it into a machine through an instrumentalized (technicized) destructive and productional (profiteering) activism. The sports body is a typical product of “technical civilization”, meaning man’s body degenerated in a capitalistic way. At the same time, modern man’s “being-in-the world” means having a (critical) attitude to the existing world, as man is always “more” than that to which he is reduced in the existing world. The animal also is a body, but it experiences the world surrounding it in a basically different way than man. Man is a libertarian-creative being and experiences the world by way of humanized (socialized) senses, which means in a human way as a complete human being guided by a vision of the world he can create: animal is what it is; man is what he can be.

Merleau-Ponty claims that the body is a “way of appropriating the world”, but the body of today’s man has already been appropriated by capitalism and corresponds to the capitalistic appropriation of nature: it has an instrumental and destructive (denaturalizing) character. The relation to the world through the body is the relation of a capitalistically degenerated body (man) to a capitalistically degenerated world. An unreflected “naïve touch with the world” (Merleau-Ponty) is determined even before the birth – and it is not “naïve”. By the very act of conception, which is increasingly only a technical insemination of the increasingly ill woman with the increasingly ill semen, a being is created which, while still in his mother, is exposed to the fatal influence of the environment. Man is not “thrown into the world” (Heidegger), but is begotten in a fatally ill world and inevitably acquires the features of that world. Man “enters” a degenerated world as an already degenerated being: delivering of a child by a woman is only a manifest form in which the world delivers a man. Subjectivity is essentially determined before man has become aware of himself as a personality, which means before a self-conscious subjectivity. It is precisely at the level of physicality or unreflected perception that a child unconsciously adopts the life style and value models which determine his future behaviour: the body is the reservoir of the unconscious. The relation to the body in childhood largely conditions the development of personality, affective nature, mind, behaviour… The “embryology of the human mind” (Piaget) is conditioned by physical development and the conditions in which it occurs. The way in which a child is delivered, its first contact with the world, mother, light, the environment in which it grows, movements it masters, things it touches, sounds, smells, food and the rhythm of feeding, physical contact, surroundings, way of dressing, air, diapers, water, movements around it, restricted living space, toys, relation between parents, tension, aggressiveness of the environment – the entire living environment has a specific character and predetermines man’s relation to the world. In a child’s growing there is no spontaneous behaviour, which represents the pulsing of the original living rhythm of man’s natural being; the dominant rhythm is rather that of repression which “draws” man into the existing world by suppressing and degenerating man’s original nature and turning him into a pathological person. It is already in the early childhood that the “seed of evil” is inserted into man and the way it will develop and manifest itself is the matter of social circumstances, concrete life and personality. The so called “aggressiveness”, which directly affects the physical growth, does not stem from “man’s animal nature”, but is a pathological (psychical and bodily) reaction to the repression man is exposed to from his early years. When it is “spontaneous”, it is a compensatory behaviour which does not eliminate the causes of discontent, but contributes to their development.

In modern society, the relation to the body is mediated by the capitalist universe (industrial mimesis, the principle of rationality and efficiency, destructive instrumentalism…) which appears in the form of a technical sphere, alienated from and dominant over man, which is an immediate living environment and imposes the logic of living. It is by way of this sphere that the capital rules man and nature. Just as in antiquity man was the slave of the ruling order by way of the sphere of Olympic gods, so in capitalism he became the slave of the ruling order by way of science and technique. The instrumentalization of the body is based on the capitalistically-based division of labour, that is, on specialization and thus on man’s mutilation. Marx speaks of man being transformed into a freak in the industrial process of production, which is brilliantly demonstrated by Charlie Chaplin in his movie the “Modern Times”. The capitalistic form of alienated labour processes the body by turning it into a technical (working) tool, and reduces the mind to an operationalized intellect. A capitalistically degenerated body has degenerated senses and motoring. The dominant characteristics are the bodily mechanic, precision of movements, esthetics of the machine, deerotization, hypertrophy of some and atrophy of other functions, spiritless body and movements; instead of the ancient principle metron ariston, prevails an aggressive muscular body; the principle of optimum effort is replaced by the principle of “greater effort”; the prevailing character is (self) destructive and the prevailing movement is adjusted to the capitalist rhythm of reproduction, etc. Thus, it is not about a humanization, but about a technicization of the body (nature). The capitalist way of industrial production transformed man into a robotized freak. It is best seen in sport, in the principle “Recorders are born in vials!”, in which a robotized body is the highest esthetic challenge. If the body is neither natural nor human, then not only can man not “be-in-the world”, he can no longer be at all – since he is no longer a man.

Physicalness as “perceptiveness with its own spatiality and time” (Merleau-Ponty) is but an illusion: capitalism appropriates man by way of a capitalistically appropriated (degenerated natural) space, which means by way of destroying him as a natural and human being. “Peculiarity” of the body is not the self of man, but the self of the ruling order – as man is alienated, which means that the body is alienated from man and instrumentalized (degenerated) in a capitalist way. An instrumentalized relation to nature, which is reduced to the object of exploitation and destruction, conditions also the relation to the body which is man’s immediate nature. The existing world is unnatural and inhuman and man survives in it by way of a surrogate body. People live in towns which are capitalist ghettoes and in which the capitalist degeneration of nature, life and man has reached the climax: man is “illuminated” by artificial light, he breathes polluted air, drinks polluted water, eats poisoned food, lives a kind of life which destroys man’s connection to nature and his natural being… As far as time is concerned, capitalism instrumentalizes man by imposing on him the rhythm of life suitable to the pace of capitalist reproduction and which is of a technical and destructive character. It is a totalizing time which, above all, conditions the bodily rhythm and movements and crushes the biological rhythm of body’s functioning.

As man is, by way of his body, “immediately in the world”, the most fatal and inevitable form of the impact of capitalism, as the order of destruction, on man is through the body: the crisis of the world is, at the same time, the crisis of the body. Hence the basic form of man’s self-alienation is the alienation from one’s own body. Man experiences himself as an otherness as against the existing world through the suffering which is the consequence not only of his unsatisfied primary needs, but also of their mutilation. He flees the world by fleeing from his body, or by fleeing to his body (narcissism). Most people in the West experience everyday frustration because they discard their own body as worthless, unfitted to the ruling (consumer-advertising) model of the body which becomes the basis of social evaluation. Man experiences his body as a punishment, as something alien, and tries to mask it (“fashion”), or change it with exhausting physical exercises, “treatments”, operations… A capitalistically degenerated man has an instrumental relation to his own body based on the principle of profit. Physical appearance and health are not the purpose, but a vehicle for achieving social prestige and existence. The desirable model of the body is that which is in line with the dominant value-related model dictated by the dominant fashion concerns. The frequently changing fashion forces people to ever more frequent changes, which means an increasingly merciless treatment of the body. An industry was born for the production of images. The image becomes a commodity similarly to garments. The entertainment industry offers increasingly diversified forms of physical degeneration. Plastic surgery, body-building, fitness-centres and diets – all these serve to make man conform to the dominant model of the “beautiful” according to the standards of advertising industry. “Barbie” doll becomes the “most beautiful” form of man’s devaluation. As far as “Rocky”, “Rambo”, “Terminator” and other Hollywood freaks are concerned, they are the picture of the contemporary capitalist “superman”, whose cultural conscience has been “erased” and who is guided in his behaviour by a destructive idiocy.

The nature of a “spontaneous” movement is conditioned by the environment, circumstances and way of life. A “spontaneous” movement in a city is essentially different from a spontaneous movement in nature. The character of the movement conditions the nature of the body (sense motoring), the development of the intellect, interpersonal relations… Technicized movements, arising from the technical world and of a destructive-consumer character, represent the dominant form of repression over man. At the same time, physical movement has a symbolic significance: drinking “coca-cola” is not only meant to satisfy thirst and is not only a physical act; it is a symbolic relation of man to the existing world, to future, to himself and other people. Likewise, physical presence at a “McDonald’s” restaurant and the consumption of their surrogate food represent a symbolic form of being-in-the world and the production of the ruling order, and the same can be said of the boxing punch, technicized physical exercises, going to the stadium… “Searching for answers” in children’s “spontaneity” and in the cultures where man as an individual has not yet been emancipated, through the means and forms which are the products of capitalist civilization, is but a deviation in man’s struggle for emancipation. “Bad” rationality cannot be replaced by mystique, which is but a return to primitive forms of consciousness. The bourgeois theory no longer seeks to affirm the capitalist civilization, but to deal with the idea of future and mind itself. “To listen to the irrational” becomes the renouncement of cultural legacy and escape from life. The voices of the irrational are a cry of the suppressed and degenerated human needs, of a subdued personality. “To listen to the body”, which is the most direct product of the existing world, means to submit to the ruling order.

In contrast to the former ruling classes, the bourgeoisie strives to include the working layers into its spiritual, as well as into its living sphere. The capitalist way of life (“consumer society”) becomes a totalizing principle of life which spares no one and from which there is no escape. The commercialization of life is the worst form of totalitarianism ever created in history, since it completely submits nature, society and man to the destructive mechanism of the capitalist reproduction. Its essence is expressed in the monstrous maxim “Money does not stink!” – which illustrates the very gist of the ecocide capitalist terrorism. According to the dictate of the absolutized principle of profit, the totalizing of the world by “technical civilization” is in place – and it destroys the possibility of creating a humanist civilization – as well as of nature, body and bodily movement, which directly conditions the “development” of senses and man’s mental capacities. The dominant form of bodily activism becomes a consumer activism. The commercialization of the body is the “highest” form of capitalist degeneration of the body (man). Man’s body is not only part of a capitalistically degenerated world; it becomes a means of destroying the natural and the human and as such the enemy of man. A direct product of the “consumer society” is a man-consumer corresponded by a consumer-body in which the surrogates of “consumer civilization” are to vanish. Capitalism destroys the body by turning it into a destructive mechanism – causing hypertrophy of those physical functions which offer a possibility for the development of consumer society, and the atrophy of those functions which are not of a profitable character. The dominant rhythm is that of the capitalist reproduction which destroys the biological rhythm of life – without which there is no healthy man. Man is not only guided by a consumer activism as a value-related challenge, but his body cannot survive without an ever bigger number of devices and aids, as well as artificial living conditions. The capitalist totalizing of the world involves the capitalist totalizing of the body, which means its distortion and the creation of a chronically ill man who can survive only with an ever bigger amount of medicaments and medical interventions. Man’s survival is increasingly mediated by artificial means which turn him into an invalid. The body has lost its natural needs: it can no longer process natural food; it lives on medicaments and through medicaments. Man’s whole life is under “treatments” which, ultimately, are to enable him to survive in a functional harmony with the ruling order. Material wealth does not provide him with a healthy life; it rather causes a specific mental and physical degeneration of plutocracy. The relation to the body shows that the development of the “consumer standard” involves the destruction of the living standard. Work, way of life, movements, rhythm of living, diet, sleeping, space which is a modern ghetto (towns), air, water, food, tobacco, drugs, beverages, the way of life which destroys man’s natural being, night life – all these forms of life become a way of man’s degeneration. Cholesterol, cellulite, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurasthenia, depression, AIDS, etc. – are not the “diseases of contemporary world”, but are capitalistic form of man’s physical and mental degeneration. It is about a capitalist mutation of man performed by depriving man of natural and human life-creating force and degenerating him into a plastic and technical “being”. At the same time, an increasing number of threatening diseases are not naturally conditioned and of a natural character; they are the products of laboratories and are of a genocidal and profitable character. We are dealing here with a capitalist production of diseases which are being “treated” by turning man into a profitable patient, which means a chronically ill person. “Physical needs” of today’s man are determined by propaganda machinery and his social position. Man, who constantly devours increasing amounts of increasingly low quality food, is the most important strategic goal of the food industry. It creates an increasingly ill man who is, naturally, “attended to” by medical and pharmaceutical industry. The consumption of an increasing amount of food is not the need of our bodies, but is a compensation for a frustrated humanity. Capitalism is turning the consequences of the destruction of nature and man into the sources of profits and is developing ever more horrible mechanisms of destruction. The human body becomes a universal destructive machine and a universal garbage collector which should devour the ever more poisonous surrogates of the capitalist civilization. At the same time, existential anxiety, everyday humiliations, loneliness, hopelessness generated by the destructive capitalist nothingness, mentally distort man, and this is a direct cause of the degeneration of the body.

The essence of historical phenomena can be realized properly only if we realize the tendency of their development, which means the tendency of the development of the world in which they arise and develop. What the body is can be realized only in the context of the tendency of the development of capitalism. At the methodological level, phenomenology offers a possibility of grasping the phenomena, through “intentionality” and the “phenomenology of genesis”, in the context of their change (becoming). The “facticity of the world” (Merleau-Ponty) is not what by itself “creates Weltlichkeit der Welt” (worldliness of the world); it is the dominant (destructive) tendency of its development. It directly influences man’s physical and mental development and conditions his relation to the world.

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