In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty attempts to show how perception is possible by articulating the intimacy between seer and seen, touching and tangible, which is, according to Merleau-Ponty, “an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 130f.). In doing so, he intends to break through the idea that vision consists of a connection between an isolated and empty object that is completely identical with itself, and a seer who is similarly empty and opens herself to the visible to be filled by it in the act of seeing. However, taking as a point of departure the idea that seer and seen are enveloped into one another, he needs to give an account for why we neither completely blend into the visible, nor that the visible fully passes over into us, which would make vision “vanish at the moment of formation” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 131), due to the absence of any limit between seer and seen.
To sustain the idea that the touching and the tangible, and the seer and the seen are always interconnected with one another, but do not end up being completely identical, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of flesh. This notion articulates that in an act of vision, our look seems to be “in a relation of pre-established harmony with [the visible things], as though it knew them before knowing them, […] and yet the views taken are not desultory—I do not look at a chaos, but at things—so that finally one cannot say if it is the look or if it is the things that command” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 133). This relation of harmony makes it that perception is not an activity of the subject that allows for carving out specific visibles in an otherwise incomprehensibly chaotic field—this would be to introduce a form of transcendental subjectivity, and neither does the activity lie on the side of the object that independently carves out its own distinctive space of existence. Rather, there is a prior enmeshment of the seer and the seen: “he who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 134f.). This “it” that both the seer and the seen “are of,” is what Merleau-Ponty terms the flesh.
In recent scholarship on Merleau-Ponty it has been repeatedly pointed out that the notion of flesh is highly ambiguous and has given rise to many misunderstandings (e.g., Alloa, 2017: 67; Carbone, 2015).Footnote 2 One common misunderstanding has been to interpret the term “flesh” as being an equivalent to or generalization of the Husserlian notion of Leib. In Ideas II, Husserl famously distinguishes between Leib and Körper, and suggests that there is a unique double aspectivity to our body, namely that it is both a spatiotemporal object, as well as the very medium that makes it possible to experience other objects. On Husserl’s account, the body (Leib) appears as “the medium of all perception,” and a “zero point of orientation […] out of which the pure Ego intuits space and the whole world of the senses” (Husserl, 1989: 61). On this account, one is capable of entering into the world and grasping what is exterior on the basis of the subjectivity of one’s body that offers a medium of constitution. In one way or another, embodiment, here appears as something that is a pre-condition for entering in the world, but is itself not fully exterior. Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology of the flesh, however, intends to overcome this very duality between body (or consciousness) and world, such that the notion of “flesh” should not be equated with those of Leib or embodiment.
For Merleau-Ponty, it is not because we own our body that vision becomes possible, but rather that because we are part of the world that is made of certain stuff (flesh) that one can say that one has a body in the first place (see Alloa, 2017: 90). The flesh, then, is a condition for corporeality and the possibility of encountering other objects. Because our body belongs to the flesh, it has the capacity of seeing and being seen and encounter other visibles in virtue of this (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 136). This can be clarified through the standard phenomenological description of an individual touching her own hand, an act in which both the individual’s capacity of touching and its capacity to be touched are exemplified. This capacity to be touched, or to be seen, reveals that a seer belongs to the same flesh that the seen is part of as well. It is through this shared material that vision becomes possible: “[T]he thickness of flesh between seer and the things is constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of his corporeity; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 135). In the act of seeing, our body thus communicates with other sentient beings and in doing so distinguishes it from them as being sensible to other sentients. Yet, this is only possible because of their mutual belonging to the universal flesh of the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 137).
Since our body belongs to the flesh as a sensible sentient, it is impossible to gaze over other entities, because it is the very belonging of the body to the flesh that makes vision possible: “My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle [of vision]. But my seeing body subtends this visible body, and all the visible with it. There is reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 138). Through this reciprocity, the visible passes over into the seen, just as the seer is constituted as to be seen for others in the act of vision. In the act of seeing, the seen and the seer thus intertwine in the sense of becoming coupled in a particular way of becoming present to one another. This is what Merleau-Ponty calls the fundamental narcissism of vision: “[S]ince the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 139). But more profoundly, seeing is a passive activity, it is “to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom, so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 139). Hence, vision presupposes an intimate connection with other visibles, as well as a sufficient distance that makes it possible to see and experience something as being something other than oneself.
The coupling of seer and seen in the act of vision does, therefore, not result in a solipsism in which every organism inhabits its own world in the absence of any interaction. Instead, the fact that other bodies also are sensible sentients and share the openness of the flesh—a flesh that passes through all beings—makes any solipsism impossible: “What is open to us, therefore, with the reversibility of the visible and the tangible, is—if not yet the incorporeal—at least an intercorporeal being, a presumptive domain of the visible and the tangible, which extends further than the things I touch and see at present” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 142f.). The notion of flesh, therefore, denotes a participation of all visibles in a shared medium in which they are constituted in a particular way in relation to others through how visibles are constituted for them.
Even though all entities participate in the flesh, their individual constitution might diverge. What the flesh generates is a certain openness for one another that is a condition of possibility for interaction. Before entering in a particular relation, “[t]here are two caverns, two opennesses, two stages where something will take place—and which both belong to the same world” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 263). However, how these entities are open to another is dependent on what a specific openness is responsive to, as well as how it is molded in its relation with another entity to which it has been opened up to. That is, the openness of a certain entity is what makes it possible to enter in a particular relationship with another one (and vice versa), but the different entities only attain a specific shape in virtue of being in a particular chiasmic relationship.
Also when entities are constituted in a particular way in a particular chiasmic relationship, they remain to be open to entering into novel relationships. If not, there would not be two entities in the first place, but a complete coincidence of them, which would turn them into one entity. Hence, the concept of “openness” functions to articulate that “[t]here is no coinciding of the seer with the visible” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 261). The openness makes it possible that each entity “borrows from the other, takes from or encroaches upon the other, intersects with the other” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 261). What this points to is that each entity, and importantly, each human being only takes a certain shape in its relation to other entities, and is constituted in virtue of how it is enveloped into other entities and the other way around.
No entity can be assigned certain characteristics or properties in isolation, but these are instead only constituted in the relationship with other beings. In understanding the relationships between entities in terms of a mutual constitution, Merleau-Ponty does away with any possible mechanistic causal explanation of the relationships with entities, as these kinds of explanations presuppose the existence of already constituted entities that engage in particular interactions in virtue of them having certain essential characteristics (see Carusi & Hoel, 2014: 210). Instead, the multitude of entities at any given moment make up a complex field in which they become sensible to one another, leading to their individual constitution. This is why it can be said that Merleau-Ponty holds that the relations we have with other beings have a chiasmic structure: in the act of vision, seers make themselves available to the others to be perceived in a particular manner and vice versa. The consequence of this perspective is that also experience is crucially dependent on the chiasmic relationship with other entities.
This view aligns well with Alloa’s interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology: how other entities are perceived and attributed meaning to is dependent on the field that is constituted through the mutual relationships between the entities that constitute it, and has an irreducibly singular, embedded, embodied, and situated dimension (Alloa, 2017: 89f.). As McWeeny has put it: “The ontological concept of flesh allows us to affirm the relationality and complexity of lived experience, which does not present beings as either mind or body, active or passive, self or other, oppressed or privileged, but as both of these aspects at the same time” (McWeeny, 2014: 277). However, as we will show in the next sections, this chiasmic structure not only relevantly articulates how lived experience is always grounded in the particular chiasmic relationships that humans engage in but also shapes how nonhuman beings became visible to humans and humans to nonhuman beings: both interpersonal relationships and relationships with nonhuman beings have a chiasmic structure.