Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

Journal | Volume | Article



Incorporated recognizability

A handshake between Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Judith Butler

Martin Huth

pp. 119-145


Merleau-Pont's influential analyses of operative (corporeal) intentionality and the habitual body are this paper´s starting point for an interpretation and extension of Judith Butler´s concept of recognizability. Butler provides a theory of a differential allocation of recognition regarding vulnerability, which is established and elaborated in her newer books Precarious Life and Frames of War. On the level of public representation, there are groups that are marginalized, invisible or not recognizable due to their particular status as out-groups. Her examples are mostly focused on populations that are considered as enemies in the context of US politics and media after 9/11. These reflections on a structural allocation of recognition of lives as vulnerable can be widened by a synthesis with Merleau-Ponty´s reflections on the habitual body (in contrast to the body at this moment). Our habituations from early childhood form our most basic behaviors (the use of our senses, rudimentary movements, postures, and gestures). The lived body (Leib, corps propre) serves as a carrier of our behavior particularly not against the background of a separation between natural behavior and socially constructed meanings and purposes of our conduct. According to Merleau-Ponty, in the bodily behavior nature and culture are always-already merged.
Hence, cultural constructions of supposedly deserved compassion with vulnerable individuals, and in contrast the creation of distance and de-emphasis of compassion for enemies and horrible appearances (see Julia Kristeva´s Powers of Horror) that should be kept in distance and that should not be empathized in, are efficacious already on the level of perceptions and the production of affects. As a keystone of a logos of the aesthetic world, they pre-determine our structures of experiences and the paths of intentionality. A tacit recognizability is inscribed in the body on the level of basic behavior. It is expressed in habits of looking at, postures, and gestures that happen in a pre- or proto-intentional sphere. Thus, our immediate reactions and the accompanying affects towards children (e.g. compassion, perceived neediness – often resembling our reactions to some animals), homeless people (e.g. disgust, turning away) or drug addicts (e.g. disgust, fear, attributions of blame) differ significantly due to incorporated structures of recognition. It can be concluded that ethics and politics should regard these structural patterns of recognition not only on the level of representation and discourse but also on the level of tacit habituations, Gestalt perceptions, and immediate bodily reactions.

1 | Introduction

0This paper aims to offer a synthesis of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s earlier reflections on perception and the being-in-the-world (être au monde) “through” the lived body (corps propre) as presented in his Phenomenology of Perception (2012) and Judith Butler’s recent analyses of vulnerability and recognition (particularly in Frames of War, 2009). The main objective of this synthetic approach is to understand the ethical and political significance of operative intentionality. It will be shown that the moral and political infrastructure that provides the grounds of our sociality does not only consist of explicit de­cisions and official policies, but is particularly efficacious already at the level of pre-conscious perceptions, convictions, and responsive behaviors.

0Merleau-Ponty provides a thorough and highly influential analysis of ope­rative intentionality (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 441),1 which forms, as Claude Lefort puts it, “the bodily infrastructure that sustains the edifice of our repre­sentations” (Lefort 2012, xix). Beneath our act intentionality, we can detect a layer of our being-in-the-world that enables and conditions our explicit thoughts, judgments, and decisions. However, Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of this deep structure of existence rarely includes any moral and political considerations. He focuses first and foremost on perceptions of dice, houses or colors to show that these perceptions are saturated with significances that build a horizon of knowledge beyond the perceived thing “itself” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, e.g. 26). Judith Butler’s recent writings can complement this theory of operative intentionality with the notion of a tacit incorporation of norms and hegemonic patterns of recognition that pre-determines our per­ceptions, our affects, our judgments, and our actions as regards other living beings. Hence, ethical and political concerns that focus on explicit judgments and decisions come “too late” to capture an important dimension of norma­tivity.

0The relevant reflections will be carried out in the following steps:

  1. Section two provides a short synopsis of Merleau-Ponty’s characteri­zation of our being-in-the-world, his conceptualization of the lived body, his distinction of the habitual and actual layers of the body, and the corresponding distinction of operative and act inten­tionality.
  2. The third section sheds light on Butler’s recent theory of politically saturated frames of recognition. Butler focuses in particular on a dif­ferential recognition of vulnerability in public structures in terms of an unequal consideration of different populations. The culminating point of these reflections is the concept of recognizability: subtle pat­terns of recognition precede and sustain acts of recognition as their prerequisites in terms of categories, conventions, and norms (Butler 2009, 5).
  3. The fourth section is concerned with an analysis of the conceptual background of the synthesis of both theories. Common grounds be­tween both thinkers can be found in their different yet overlapping use of the concept of the body, their focus on the structures of per­ceptions, and their emphasis on affective responsiveness.
  4. Section five presents the actual synthesis of both theories and its consequences for our notion of morality and politics at the level of operative intentionality. It will highlight that (besides their overlap­ping features) there is a certain complementarity between the two approaches: Judith Butler’s theory of recognizability can provide the requisite know-how to reveal the ethical and political implications of Merleau-Pontys philosophy of the body, which is inextricably linked to his analysis of perception and operative intentionality. Conversely, Merleau-Ponty can contribute to a clarification of Butler’s theory of recognition. His phenomenology can extend and sharpen her app­roach by a thorough analysis of the incorporation of norms (which constitute the political scene of a socio-cultural context) in our perceptions and in our tacit dispositions of behavior.
  5. The sixth section focuses on the changeability of habituated patterns of recognition. As cultural frames are selective and contingent, they can shift or be interrupted by unframed or previously “unframeable” experiences.
  6. Finally, a short conclusion summarizes the paper.
2 | Merleau-Ponty’s Body and the Operative Intentionality

0Drawing on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty’s starting point in Phenomenology of Perception is our being-in-the-world. In contrast to the early Heidegger, who has often been blamed for neglecting the body in the earlier phases of his thinking (Aho 2010, Ciocan 2008), the French phenomenologist uses the concept of the lived body (corps propre, drawing from Husserl’s conception of the Leib as presented in Ideas II [Husserl 1993]) as a fundamental keystone of his early project. “[O]nly a subject that is inseparable from a particular body can have a place in the world, in space and in time” (Matthews 2014, 8). The bodily self as a center of experience is embedded in an ongoing com­munication with the world and, therefore, also with the other bodily beings that form the social world. In the upcoming section it will become visible that this is also a crucial point for our tentative synthesis with Butler’s theory. Indeed, the bodily self and its embeddedness in a social world constitute a fundamental basis for the political and ethical considerations in her own recent texts.

0The flip side of the coin of embodiment is an inevitable perspectivity of all our perceptions and notions: as a bodily being, I always take a particular “point of view upon the world” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 73, see also e.g. 69, 71, 81). This limitedness is not to be understood pejoratively; on the contrary, perspectivity is the condition of the possibility of any perception. Moreover, this also applies to “abstract” thinking. We consider e.g. a philo­sophical problem from “different angles”, we re-consider it from “a different point of view”. Hence, reflection also “only ever has a partial view and a limited power” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 62).2 Gestalt theory (as developed by the likes of Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, Kurt Goldstein or Viktor von Weizsäcker) provides Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualization of perspectivity with the most fundamental structure of perception located in a “here and now” (Ibid., 71): a figure against a background (a tacit horizon) forms “the very definition of the perceptual phenomenon” (Ibid., 4).3

0Hence, although it is a primordial constraint, the lived body is also the basic I can (Ibid., 139, 328). Drawing on Husserl (Husserl 1993, §60), Merleau-Ponty points to the body as a kind of prerequisite for our percep­tions and behaviors, which can be understood adequately only as a bodily know-how. This is further explained through the distinction between the ha­bitual and the actual body (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 84). Sedimented, that is, habitual ways of perceiving (and conceiving of) things in our environment equip us with an orientation that is not dependent on explicit knowledge and conscious operations. “Intentionality, [Merleau-Ponty] insists, is constituted neither by brute sensations nor by conceptual content, but by non-cognitive – indeed often unconscious – bodily skills and dispositions.” (Carman 2012, x) Any Gestalt, any immediate perception is always already charged with a sense (Merleau-Ponty 2012, e.g. 10) since the habitual body is the “knot of living significations” (Ibid., 153). This sense emerges from an intuitive res­ponse to solicitations of what we experience (cf. Ibid., 25). Merleau-Ponty usually takes politically and ethically neutral examples to clarify his idea of solicitation and bodily response: “[A] quality, such as a red area, signifies something, that is, for example, grasped as a patch on a background, means that the red is no longer merely this warm, experienced, and lived color in which I lose myself; rather, it announces some other thing without containing that thing, it sets an epistemic function to work (…)” (Ibid., 13f.). However, we can assume that these intuitive responses lose their neu­tral character if we consider encounters with living beings that turn out to be vulnerable or dependent on us. This will be a crucial element of the fusion of Merleau-Ponty’s and Butler’s reflections. While both point to a pervasiveness of sense in our perceptions, Butler provides the means to stress the impli­cations of a sensible that is always already impregnated with a political and ethical sense. In turn, in Merleau-Ponty we find a more concise analysis of the immediate constitution of sense in our perceptions.

0As actual bodies we are responsive to things in a known milieu (Ibid., 25), relying on the dispositions qua resources of the habitual body that we have acquired in the course of our lives. Without such a habitual body, we would only stumble from one encapsulated situation to another – because we would have to find ground and orientation for perception and behavior every time anew. No automatism can free us from the cascades of decisions that we needeven in apparently easy tasks such as walking, cycling or driving a car; but all these activities can indeed be performed without paying too much attention to them. One can even drive a car in more or less heavy traffic (where we are highly responsive to others’ behavior) while thinking about work, life, or Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy (see Gallagher and Zahavi 2008, 45f.). To conceptualize the function of the habitual body in an actual situa­tion, Merleau-Ponty draws from Husserl’s distinction between act inten­tionality and operative intentionality (see above). According to Merleau-Ponty, the operative intentionality is the kind of “intentionality that establishes the natural and pre-predicative unity of the world and of our life, the inten­tionality that appears in our desires, our evaluations, our landscape more clearly than it does in our objective knowledge” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, lxxxii) There is a non-thetic (or pre-thetic) intentional arc “that is not a thought” (Ibid., 241). Hence, sense emerges prior to judgment and freedom (Ibid., 465). Perceptions turn out to be already invested with a sense that relies on the habitual body, the consciousness as consciousness of something is reliant on a pre-conscious process beneath explicit thoughts and decisions, beneath the apophantic as. Therefore, it becomes understandable that we “(…) would have to say that one experiences in me” (Ibid., 223). But it is important to recall that this experiential process beneath our explicit intentions constitutes a particular perspective. This perspective is normatively charged, it is consti­tutive for the sense of the sensible, and it precedes our explicit political and ethical judgments and decisions. Hence, politics and morality are pheno­mena that are not adequately captured if analyzed solely through the lens of explicit decision-making and conscious attitudes.

0Moreover, this refers precisely to the sociality of the bodily existence. From the earliest childhood onwards, we are always already in a coexistence with others that deeply determines our perceptions and their horizons of sense. My habituations are not mine in a strict sense: they emerge from a shared history. The social world forms a dimension of my being and is of course also crucial for the constitution of the habitual body. We perceive and are (affec­tively) responsive as much to solicitations by red areas as by living beings in socially determined ways. And precisely this responsiveness in our gestures, postures, and gazes, located beneath the level of act inten­tionality, has moral significance since it forms a crucial element of recognition.

3 | Judith Butler’s Recognizability: the Field of Recognition

0Focusing mainly on Frames of War (2009), the following section provides a short synopsis of some important elements in Judith Butler’s recent texts. Although “[h]er theoretization of the abjection of subjugated groups is an enduring feature of her writings” (Schippers 2014, 2), newer publications are more particularly concerned with the theme of vulnerability, its differential allocation, and the selective recognition of this vulnerability.4 The concepts that are crucial for the further reflections in this paper (vulnerability, precariousness qua universally shared neediness of all bodily beings, precarity qua specific kind of neediness, recognizability, etc.) are elaborated in Frames of War in the most developed and concise way.

0The concept of precariousness (as introduced in Precarious Life 2004) serves as a starting point for Butler’s analysis of the bodily existence as dependent (at an ontological level) on “conditioned modes of persisting and flourishing” (Butler 2009, 14). This forms a fundamental equality of bodily beings5 (Ibid., 3) that could also be conceptualized as “inherent vulnerability” (Mackenzie, Rogers, and Dodds 2014, 7-8). As Birgit Schippers notes, “it puts forward a conception of the subject-human that anchors sheer physical survival and material bodily needs in a complex relationship to alterity“ (Schippers 2014, 18). Hence, in line with Merleau-Ponty, the bodily self can be conceived of as an intrinsically social being.

0As beings susceptible to injuries, but also – even more basically – needy and dependent on care and support, we are somehow equal. We all rely on the availability of resources such as “food, shelter, work, medical care, rights of mobility and expression, protection against injury and oppression” (Butler 2009, 22). Unsurprisingly, this precariousness is not to be conceived of as a mere fact but to be understood as morally charged: it imposes an obligation upon us (cf. Ibid., 2). Hence, the vulnerable body turns out to be a norma­tive phenomenon in nuce. However, things turn out to be more complicated if we consider the unequal allocation of vulnerability as reflected in the con­cept of precarity (Ibid., 3). There are populations and individuals that are particularly exposed to possible harm. Minorities and homeless, poor, disabled or diseased people are confronted with a “situational vulnerability” (Mack­enzie, Rogers, and Dodds 2014, 8) that increases their dependency on conditions and support significantly. Consequently, the conditions that sustain existence “are both our political responsibility and the matter of our most vexed ethical decisions” (Butler 2009, 23).

0This differentiation between precariousness and precarity is embedded in an overarching social ontology (of bodily existence) that is an opposite to “individualism” (Ibid., 19). Butler appears to be a proponent of the rela­tionalism that takes our dependency on others and on recognition by others into account, particularly with regard to moral standing.6 As Butler puts it in Bodies in Alliance: “The body (and its immanent vulnerability) is defined by relations” (Butler 2014, 103; see also 2005, 81). However, in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, this togetherness is understood as being partly agonistic (but not necessarily antagonistic). Sociality and vulnerability are thus but two sides of the same coin (Butler 2009, 33). We are inevitably connected to others, and this turns out to be a mixed blessing. Butler considers sociality as the condition of the possibility of existence and as a “general predicament of unwilled proximity” (Ibid., 34) that makes us exposed to others; there is always a possibility of an exploitation of our vulnerability (Ibid., 55) through phenomena such as intrusive gazes, ignorance, or bodily violence, from slaps to rape and homicide (see also Bergoffen 2011). By the same token, it is once more clear that vulnerability cannot but be considered as normative, hence, as a moral claim.

0At first glance, a moral claim does seem implied a priori by the notion of vulnerability “as such”. However, the social ontology Butler develops is itself dependent on a historical a priori (Butler 2009, 6). There is no vulnerability per se, particularly because it is embedded in a hegemonial epistemology that determines our perspective on, as well as our access to, bodily vulnerability. It hinges on structures of recognition that serve as the prerequisite of recogni­tion in concrete situation. For these structures, Butler coins the term recognizability (Ibid., 4), which describes those “general conditions on the basis of which recognition can and does take place” (Ibid., 6).7 It precedes any dyadic act of recognition, sustains, but also limits it. Therefore it turns out to be inevitably selective and, thus, provides epistemological frames that allow us to recognize some lives as lives “in the full sense” (see Ibid., 3). Certain lives do not qualify as lives or are not conceivable as lives due to the selectivity of the underlying epistemological frames (Schippers 2014, 34). Some lives are “grieved if [they] were lost” (Butler 2009, 15), they are within the structure of a future anterior “grievable” before they are lost. Some lives are inconceivable as grievable and are thus not recognized, since grievability is constituted by selective epistemological frames that are ab ovo politically saturated (Ibid., 1). There is no ontology independent of an epistemological frame, and there is no epistemological frame independent of political power (Schippers 2014, 34).

0It is not entirely clear whether Butler interprets this structural precon­dition of grief as a binary (either a life is fully grievable – or not at all) or as a gradual matter. Since she takes the exclusion of the Arab population after 9/11 as a kind of paradigmatic case (Butler 2009, 58), Butler focuses on the culmination point of a total exclusion of beings that are conceived of as “mere” enemies. However, it appears more plausible to understand grieva­bility as a continuum; that is, as a matter that comes in different degrees. If we consider the differential moral and political consideration of living beings in political structures and institutions as well as in social contexts, it is obvious that there is a complex scale of “respectability”8 (Young 2004, 53) of individuals according to social roles and habitus, of more or less “deserved” support according to degrees of attributed responsibility for the own situation (as regards the example of addiction), or degrees of belonging to a certain social group (ethnic groups, gender, class identities, people with disabilities from learning disability to the marginal case etc.).

0Before we come to the actual synthesis of Merleau-Ponty’s and Butler’s approaches that seems promising for a mutual enrichment of their theories, we have to clarify our methodological presuppositions. One could indeed easily object that Butler’s “poststructural” approach (informed e.g. by Spinoza, Hegel, Freud, Klein, Foucault, Derrida; see also Schippers 2014, 19) is worlds away from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and its origins in Husserl, Heidegger, but also developmental psychology, Gestalt theory, etc.. The upcoming section is thus concerned with the conceptual and methodo­logical possibilities of the synthesis of both authors.

4 | How the Frame Shapes the Body

0In the following, I will take three fundamental (and closely intercon­nected) concepts that play a vital role in both authors as significant examples for the possibility of building bridges between them.9 This synopsis also serves as a prerequisite for the considerations of the incorporated recogniz­ability in the next section.

    The Body

    0One of the most crucial concepts that we find in both Frames of War and the Phenomenology of Perception is the “body”. In the following, I will shortly explain the dimensions of an ethics, or politics, of the body. This leads us in two directions: drawing from Merleau-Ponty, we can point to the incorpor­ation of habits that provide orientation and sense. Drawing from Butler, we can (i) see that this habitualization also comprises the incorporation of norms and (ii) conceive of the vulnerable body as the entity that raises a moral claim and constitutes the anchor of moral obligation and consideration. It will be shown that these two approaches to the status of the body are not in conflict but confirm and complement each other. However, whereas Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach remains within the field of experience (from a first-person-perspective) and its bodily prerequisites, Butler is concerned with the body as a matter of political structures and strategies.

    0We start off with the incorporation of norms. The body as primordial I can is the deep layer of our being-in-the-world. It is described as the “vehicle of our being in the world” (Ibid., 84) that sustains the supposedly distinct layers of “mere body” and “psyche”. Moreover, as has already been pointed out, it “sustains the edifice of our representations” (Lefort 2012, xix). It is the “provider” of operative intentionality that forms the basis of any conscious­ness and of any intelligibility. Moreover, this operative intentionality is socially co-determined, given that the body is a social being on the habitual as well as on the actual level. It “projects around us our past, our future, our human milieu, our physical situation, our ideological situation, and our moral situation; or rather, that ensures that we are situated within all these relationships.” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 137). However, this ideological and moral situation seems significantly underdeveloped in the Phenomenology of Perception.

    0This view is clearly confirmed by Butler. In her writings, she regularly points out that bodily beings are dependent beings that cannot but be under­stood as in and determined by relations. She indicates that relations precede the constitution of the ego (Butler 2005, 87) and that the constitution of the self and its self-relation is ab ovo social (ibid., 81). When Butler claims “that in its surface and in its depth, the body is a social phenomenon: it is exposed to others” (Butler 2009, 33) she is basically in line with Merleau-Ponty. However, “[h]er focus is a selective one, derived, overall, from her interest in questions of liveability, (state) violence and the responses on war, and the formation of global political practices under conditions of plurality and heterogeneity” (Schippers 2014, 4). Using Merleau-Ponty, we can transfer her ethical and political concerns to the level of the habitual body. Habituated concerns for vulnerability and incorporated patterns of recognition become visible as fundamental prerequisite of collective and individual everyday behavior. Basically, this is close to Butler’s consideration of the frames that tacitly organize our perceptions of others (Butler 2009, 3). However, her restricted scope tends to conceal the tacit and subtle abjection of populations in allegedly harmless and well-intentioned practices in allegedly pluralistic and open social contexts. A particularly telling example is the “everyday abjection” that has been analyzed by Iris Marion Young in her paper Five Faces of Oppression (Young 2004). Drawing from Nancy Fraser, Young points out that the implicit dominance of a social group (such as a majority) equips this very group with the primary access to means of interpretation and communication in society (Ibid., 54). The paradigmatic interpretation of needs and the connected allo­cation of support (in its quantity and quality) then could turn out as a tacit paternalism (for instance in the treatment of disabled people), even though the relevant institutions and experts intend to immunize themselves against patronizing views and practices. Then even measures of empowerment can turn out as domineering over a particular population. Even more problematically, the particular populations with specific needs could be deprived of support if their needs are overlooked or misinterpreted through the lens of a majority or a hegemonic group.

    0Coming to the second dimension of ethics and politics of the body, this being exposed to others is being “vulnerable by definition” (Butler 2009, 33). The body and its immanent desire for persistence is the presupposed onto­logical assumption that Butler makes (drawing from Spinoza; see Schippers 2014, 34) when she talks about this fundamental vulnerability. When she claims that the body has its own desires and a structure of seeking for persis­tence10 this shows clearly that she does not talk about mere bodily objects (in opposition to a res cogitans). Hence, in an analogy with Merleau-Ponty, it seems to be the movement of existence that underpins and carries our inten­tional life and our behavior. Following Schippers, we find an in nuce pheno­menological account of corporeal existence in Butler (ibid., 19). However, this alleged phenomenological orientation is significantly thwarted by the mentioned focus on state violence and global policies. In turn, in Merleau-Ponty, a focus on the vulnerability of the body is missing. The normative power of vulnerability and suffered violence is almost invisible in his texts.

  1. Perception
  2. 0It is trivial to point out that perception plays a significant role in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. It constitutes – as operative intentionality – the “lived world beneath the objective world” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 57). It is a “primordial operation that impregnates the sensible with a sense” (Ibid., 35). Since e.g. “vision is nothing without a certain use of the gaze” (Ibid., 232) perception is a sedimented, and as sedimented socially co-determined capacity. Although this notion of a structured and structuring perception is hardly analyzed with regard to ethical and political issues, it is easy to see that a socially co-determined perception shows normative implications with regard to the allocation of recognition and respectability. Hence, Butler’s reflections on frames of recognition can build a valuable complement for Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of perception.

    0Although Judith Butler is far less concerned with perception than the French phenomenologist, that concept plays for her an important role that might even be underestimated in the current reception. As Butler’s focus in recent texts is usually directed toward state violence and unjust global policies and politics (Butler 2004, xi), she rarely empasizes the determinations of our ordinary perceptions. However, one finds numerous indications that show the close connection between structural concerns of recognition and individual perception – one could even claim that she is arguing for a chiasm of perception and recognition. She points out that our (visual) perception is organized by the frames that sustain and limit the recognition of vulnerability (Butler 2009, e.g. 3), that e.g. racism is instituted at the level of perception (cf. Ibid., 24), and that the “differential distribution of precarity is at once a material and a perceptual issue” (Ibid., 25). The following quote expresses this point more generally with regard to the selectivity of frames that build recognizability: “Perception and policy are but two modalities of the same process whereby the ontological status of a targeted population is compro­mised and suspended.“ (Ibid., 29) Hence, perception plays a fundamental role in Butler’s analysis of politically saturated frames. It builds the manifes­tation of the frames themselves to develop the “operative” power that they wield on the level of concrete policies (Ibid., 24). For example, if a social context successfully causes “those who ‘appear’ to belong to suspect ethnic groups” (Ibid., 25) then exclusion has reached the status of being incorporated in our immediate perceptions. It is thus possible that the selectivity of the frames is tacitly sustained by their ongoing reproduction through allegedly individual perceptions of humans as suspects (for implicitly racial reasons). But if we want to understand properly how the organization of perceptions is possible we can draw on Merleau-Ponty’s similar insight regarding operative intentionality and the habitual body. This habitual body provides the bodily skills e.g. of the mentioned use of the gaze that provides a certain Gestalt invested with the given (normatively charged) sense that is co-constituted by the frames Butler alludes to.

  3. Affect, Solicitation, and Response
  4. 0Judith Butler and Maurice Merleau-Ponty agree clearly on one point: we do not perceive bare facts. First, they are fused with affects (Merleau-Ponty 2012, e.g. 30, 56; Butler 2009, e.g. 1, 11, 18). In Merleau-Ponty, the question of affectivity is obviously influenced by the Heideggerian notion that any manner of being-in-the-world is basically co-determined by an attu­nement, by a being in a mood (Heidegger 1996, 126f.). Generally speaking, sensing is not detachable from affectivity (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 56). In partial contrast, Butler is concerned with the affective dispositions that are “produced” by politically saturated frames (Butler 2009, 13); this affectivity determines morally imbued responses to Others such as sympathy and com­passion or antipathy and repulsion.

    0Second, closely connected to affectivity (as emotions motivate certain kinds of responsive behavior), any perception is to be considered as a solicitation. As already indicated, Merleau-Ponty usually treats this question as normatively neutral: a color patch is, indeed, a solicitation (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 13f., 218), but is there any moral obligation that grows out of the experience of a bit of red? Things look quite different when we consider the experience of an Other qua living being. The encounter with a vulnerable being inevitably constitutes a demand – which is co-determined by (selective) frames that are tacitly powerful on the level of operative intentionality.

    0Third, solicitations do not arise outside the chiasm of solicitation and response (cf. Waldenfels 1994). An affectively determined response is not restricted to an effect that is triggered by a thing or a living being; it is manifest in responsive behavior from subtle, pre-conscious gazes (like intrusive eyes or encouraging gazes), postures, and gestures to actions that follow explicit decisions. As visible bodies, we cannot but be responsive and, vice versa, we do not act purely spontaneously, that is without any kind of solicitation and motivation. Even if we “ignore” a homeless person on the street or turn away when an addict asks for money, we inevitably respond to them by our behavior. Hence, responsiveness and responsibility are inextricably connected to each other. As beings who cannot but be responsive we are “condemned” to take responsibilities for our responses. However, these responses are tacitly conditioned by frames of recognition and are thus not in our direct disposition. This is the case because not every response is a matter of act intentionality. On the contrary, initial bodily responses such as gazes (or the overlooking of a homeless person on the street) or postures often escape our direct control and reveal degradation or rejection that is not the outcome of deliberate decisions.

5 | Incoporated Recognizability

0In the following, the incorporated recognizability will be spelled out in terms of how operations of power, but also of norms that form the normative infrastructure of our lifeworld, are determinants of our perceptions, but also of our behavioral dispositions, and, further, of explicit judgments that grow out of and rely on bodily habits. Perception builds “the background against which all acts stand out and is thus presupposed by them” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, lxxiv). Hence, our responsibility for the treatment of others is pre-determined by a pre-conscious layer of existence that forms the scope of decisions and actions. The incorporation of recognizability is an immanent part of a being-in-the-world of an intrinsically social being whose perceptions and behaviors are never her or his own in a strict sense. Consequently, our responsibility for our own conduct is to be conceived of as conditioned by operative intentionality. How “one” responds to a homeless person or an addict (ignorance, turning away, intrusive eyes,…) deeply influences our initial responses to the relevant individuals. These initial responses regularly happen on the level of operative intentionality and thus escape or are prior to our explicit decisions.

0Any content of my perception is always already charged with a broader sense that is first and foremost implicit. There is a “habitual knowledge of the world” (Ibid., 247) that pre-determines our immediate perception (Ibid., 58) of something as something (or somebody as somebody) and is prior to judgment and freedom (Ibid., 465). The affectively charged horizon of knowledge comes immediately when we perceive a tree as a provider of shade, a car as a thing to ride, a doll as a thing to play with, a piece of filth a thing to keep in distance. “It is a certain field or a certain atmosphere offered to the power of my eyes and my entire body.” (Ibid., 218) This turns out to be a mixed blessing: On the one hand, we rely on a tacit know-how about the things and living beings we encounter in our world. This enacts our orientation in the world; it provides the basis of our being-in-the-world. Our sensing already represents a “living communication with the world that makes it present to us as a familiar place of our life” (Ibid., 53, my italics). We would need cascades of judgments to bring our perceptions into an adequate order and to inform our responses to the perceived things. In contrast, what is given in experience is a “physiognomy” (Ibid., 62) that is already finished. On the other hand, the tacit knowledge that sustains our perceptions and dispositions for actions is (necessarily) imbued with in part one-sided prejudices with normative significances; the “physiognomy” might also be the one of a suspect, of a disgusting appearance, of a being that should be kept in distance rather than cared for. If we perceive dice, houses, and ashtrays, we hardly associate connected ethical dilemmas or political concerns. Things look differently if we encounter living beings.11 We deal with different phenomena if our eyes meet an ashtray or another ones eyes, if we see ourselves seen by another bodily (and thus vulnerable) center of experiences.

0Butler provides a valuable support for understanding the bodily knowledge as ethically and politically imbued. According to her, the habitual knowledge of the world is fused with frames that “organize visual experience” (Butler 2009, 3) and that are furnished with norms (cf. Ibid., 8). When we encounter living beings it is inevitable that our habitual knowledge is fused with generalizations, prejudices, and stereotypes (also due to the inevitable perspectivity of our perceptions and connected conceptions). Like in the examples of walking, riding a bike or driving a car, we rely on bodily skills and “ready made” gestalts that allow us to be oriented in the situation. Someone appears as a woman or a man; as a child, an adult or an old person; as foreigner or as resident; as abled, disabled or as a marginal case; as a human or an animal. However, these “immediate” perceptions are saturated with cultural and normative implications concerning the Other’s rationality, reliability, and my obligations of care and support, but also of keeping distance or defense. Hence, recognizability constitutes an “unreasoned schism” (Ibid., 50) in our experiences of different human beings.

0A thorough analysis of the stereotyping that is at stake here is provided in Iris Marion Young’s Five Faces of Oppression (2004). The reflections in this text show impressively the efficacy of structural prerequisites of perception, affectability and affectivity, responsiveness, and inconspicuous (although discriminating) behavior towards others (Young 2004, 38). Young is concerned with the abjection of individuals and populations in Western societies on the subtle level of perceptions, everyday behavior and routines. Therefore, her approach represents a corrective to the afore-mentioned pitfalls of Butler’s scope restricted to structures of policies and (medial) representations and adds perfectly to the synthesis of Butler and Merleau-Ponty. In the following, I will summarize the five faces of oppression as particularly telling examples for ethically and politically imbued operative intentionality.

0To describe the nature of oppression, Young points to phenomena like exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence that represent typical features of recognizability. Exploitation is the exploitation of labor that appears in some cases as a matter of course and is, hence, not recognized and approved as labor. Young’s example is work performed by women who care for children and old people, who are often still mainly in charge to fulfill housework, and contribute to emotional balance in their families without being seen and valued as “working”. (ibid., 45-49). The expectations toward these individuals are inscribed in their “physiognomy”. They build the horizon of their appearance (and the evaluation of their actions) even though hardly anyone would nowadays explicitly judge in this way. There is a subtle prolongation of allegedly outdated social roles beneath explicit judgments. Marginalization is the tacit exclusion from participation beneath the level of explicit rights (ibid., 49-52). The individuals that are marginalized appear as persons that appear strange in the relevant context due to their language (or language skills), their appearance, their outfit, their affiliation to a certain ethnic group etc. Hence, they are not explicitly excluded from participation in cultural contexts but they are implicitly considered as persons that “do not fit”. Powerlessness represents the deprivation of opportunities to develop and exercise skills that could contribute to recognition (ibid., 52-54). The individuals concerned are considered as awkward, unintelligent or inexpert already in their “physiognomy”. Since they are affiliated to a certain group and, moreover, might have internalized their social role in their habitus, they immediately appear as hardly respectable. Cultural imperialism denotes the prerogative of interpretation from a hegemonial perspective (ibid., 54-56). Common sense and “ordinary” comport are often selective and tend to be considered as general normality everyone has to conform to (which might be difficult for ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, disabled and mentally ill individuals, etc.). Finally, (structural) violence can be described as the “normality” of violence against e.g. minorities that we are accustomed to and thus do not even recognize as violence (ibid., 56-58). Violence against certain populations becomes almost invisible due to the frequency and normality of violent acts. In some cases this even leads to the conclusion that the victims are to blame for the violence; a telling example is the recurring accusation that some women dress “too sexy” and thus provoke sexual harassment and rape. These “faces of oppression” are not behaviors that grow out of deliberation and conscious decisions but are tacit and unobtrusive. They emerge from “everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society” (ibid., 39) and develop their effectiveness as selective recognizability. They are particularly powerful because they are not obvious to the ones who enact this recognizability through their perceptions and ordinary behaviors towards others.

0Young uses the concept of respectability to address the question of more or less subtle discrimination in the normality of our lifeworld. “[D]ress, speech, tastes, demeanor, all connote repectability“ (Young 2004, 53). Since some individuals or populations are considered as deviant and inferior (cf. ibid., 54), they are perceived and conceived of as people who deserve a worse treatment or less care than the respectable ones. In contrast to Butler’s reflections, Young does not solely focus on official policies and structures of public representation. Instead, she points at the tacit incorporation of the differential allocation of respect: Different degrees of respectability are incorporated in both the one who perceives and the perceived individual (who considers herself as less respectable than others). As perceptions are invested with a sense (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 10), they also have a social sense (Bourdieu 1984, 170). We do not encounter humans and interpret them then as impregnated with a gender, a social habitus, a certain demeanor or a certain way of expression. On the contrary, the “primal” experience of an Other is given only in the way someone expresses in her behavior, her postures and gestures, her way of speaking etc. From a different angle, the individual who experiences a certain kind of recognition incorporates this knowledge in her habitual body that consolidates to a social habitus as famously analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu (see ibid., passim). Once more we see that the body is in its depth and in its surface a social being. The recognizability is incorporated as frame of perception, but also as a habitual (positive or negative) self-relation and in turn of self-presentation.12 Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the body as zone of indistinguishability of inward and outward is confirmed and extended by these reflections. Merleau-Ponty claims: “I must be my exterior, and the other body must be the other person.” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, lxxiv) This represents a socially co-determined style of existence because he conceives of the ”human body as the outward manifestation of a certain manner of being in the world” (Ibid., 55). For the context of recognizability, this also refers to the social habitus and its immanent relation of the self to itself that is internalized and visible at the same time.

0In a similar vein (although working in a different philosophical context), Miranda Fricker analyses – among other forms of injustice – so-called testimonial injustice (Fricker 2007) as a specific form of tacit exclusion of individuals and populations. According to Fricker, some individuals lack believability. They are considered as not or less reliable than others due to their demeanor (Fricker 2007, 18). For instance, this frequently applies to disabled individuals, people with psychiatric illness or members of a “suspect ethnic group”. Their testimonies are often tacitly considered as less credible than the ones of other social groups. This serves as another example for operative frames on a pre-conscious level beneath our explicit judgments. It is usually not the case that prejudices regarding the believability stem from intentional decision but are detectable in the organization of our immediate perception. Someone appears as an eccentric, a junkie, a mentally disabled person, or the like with implications in our tacit horizon of expectations. It is part of an incorporated common sense or common “knowledge” that is not drawn into question as long as this common horizon does not become conspicuous (in the Heideggerian sense, cf. Heidegger 1996, 68). Stereotypes and knowledge are merged to a level of indistinguishability: “Just as everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun, so everyone knows that gay people are promiscuous, that Indians are alcoholics, and that women are good with children.” (Young 2004, 55). When encountering an apparently gay man, someone who is suspected to be an alcoholic (Indian or of another ethnic group), or a woman, these stereotypes structure our notions, but also expectations, tacit judgments, and not the least our empathy, affects, and responses toward the Other.

0The examples mentioned in Young and Fricker are far from harmless and are important for respect and the connected self-respect that are at stake in recognition/recognizability. However, things can take an even more extreme form of disrespect – namely dehumanization. As the developments after the European immigration “crisis” and in connection to the terror attacks in France, Great Britain, Germany, and other European countries have shown, the frames of recognizability can also turn individual, particularly highly vulnerable living beings like refugees in “those who ‘appear’ to belong to suspect ethnic groups” (Butler 2009, 25). Just like after 9/11, the individual Other is potentially perceived as an enemy (or a potential enemy) with pertinent accompanying affects. This suspect Other is then to be treated with distance, rejection and with decreased empathy or even without the notion of vulnerability that calls primarily for beneficence and support. In some drastically formulated phrases Butler points at the phenomenon of dehumanization and of the neglect of lives as lives. The frames of recognition structure how we come to know and how we identify life (Ibid., 23) – and in extreme cases we fail to identify it as a life in the full sense of a vulnerable, mortal, and grievable existence (Ibid., 15).

0Perceptions, affects and dispositions of responsive behavior are inextricably linked to each other. The logos of the aesthetical world (cf. Merleau-Ponty 2012, 453) provides solicitations for the bodily being that cannot but respond to these solicitations (Waldenfels 1994, 247). On the one hand, perceptions are fused with affectivity. Affects can be described (among other issues that relate to affects) as the motor of responses. They motivate and pre-determine responsive behavior prior to any explicit judgment or decision (like intrusive eyes, encouraging smiles, turning against the Other, etc.). As Butler puts it: “[A] certain interpretive act implicitly takes hold at moments of primary affective responses” (Butler 2009, 34, italics M.H). Since affect does not arise simply in the individual but is dependent on social support for feelings (Ibid., 50) it is clear that the social structure of recognizability influences affective responses in fundamental ways. In our upbringing as well as in our everyday live, our affectability is influenced by the way “one” (affectively) responds to members of different social groups. We feel differently when we encounter a child that is injured, a junkie that is in an alarming bodily condition, a horrible appearance, and so forth. I even suspect that things would differ significantly if we encounter a woman or a man with comparable social habitus, age, belonging to an ethnic community etc. as women are tacitly regarded as “more needy” and male persons as “less vulnerable”.

0It has already been mentioned that according to Merleau-Ponty, “(…) I would have to say that one experiences in me” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 223). As habitual bodies, we are reliant on an upbringing that shapes our pre-conscious intentional arc. Individual biographies (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 62), but particularly the inherence of the subject in a specific historical situation (Ibid., 57) condition our responsiveness and, connected to that, our responsibility. Responsiveness is not only etymologically connected to responsibility. Similarly to the German Antwort, which is connected to Verantwortung (cf. Waldenfels 1994), we find a primordial chiasm of morality and responsiveness that is intrinsically connected to a socio-culturally determined affectivity. This is explicit in Butler’s statements that recognizability “is not a quality or potential of individual humans” (Butler 2009, 5) and “that our moral responses – responses that first take form as affect – are tacitly regulated by certain kinds of interpretive frameworks” (Ibid., 41). Against that backdrop, the subtle prolongation of flagrant discriminations in the normality of a life world becomes more understandable as a matter of inconspicuous normality (however, not justifiable); this has been exemplified with Young’s Five Faces of Oppression. Moreover, it opens the possibility of a more nuanced critique that does not blame individuals in an all too blatant manner for their conditioned, hence, limited, responsibility for their responsiveness to Others. From an ethical point of view, it is significant to reveal the nature and the availability of the behavior in question. However, to conceive of inequity regarding recognition or the allocation of vulnerability as a mere fact we can solely detect and accept would be the worst consequence from these reflections. What one has to acknowledge is the fact that an imbuement of our operative intentionality with an ethical and political infrastructure is only partly available. There are always normative significations that remain unconscious but tacitly powerful. (cf. Ibid., 61, 64). As Butler puts it: “[C]onsciousness can never completely cease being what is in perception, that is, a fact, nor fully take possession of its own operations” (Ibid., 51). And even (ethical or political) reflection is incapable of making all normatively relevant significations explicit. Once again: Reflection “only ever has a partial view and a limited power” (Ibid., 62).

6 | Breaking the Frames

0We must attempt to understand how vision can come about from somewhere without thereby being locked within its perspective. (Ibid., 69)

0We encounter Others under conditions that are not of our own making. However, these conditions are not necessarily determinant in a strict sense. On the first glance, it seems surprising that Butler introduces the distinction between recognition and apprehension in Frames of War (Butler 2009, 4). Against the backdrop of her assumption of a social ontology of the body that is fused with an epistemology of frames building a historical a priori, it might appear somehow counterintuitive to state that there is an experience that is outside or even breaking the frames of recognition. Nevertheless, she is more than clear regarding this issue: “[I]t would be a mistake to say that we are utterly limited by existing norms of recognition when we apprehend a life” (Ibid., 5). Hence, we must assume that recognizability as an immanent feature of the habitual body is potentially interrupted and suspended through the actual body. I suggest distinguishing three manners of suspension of the frames that basically organize our perception and pre-determine our behavior and decisions:

0First, frames are not distinct entities that exist in themselves. They exist particularly in their manifestation through the (interconnected) actual bodies that enact them. Hence, we have to take into account an ongoing repetition of the structural recognizability in actual situations that potentially affects this recognizability itself. Already at the beginning of Frames of War, Butler is concerned with the motif of reiteration (Ibid., 3f.). Drawing from Walter Benjamin’s famous The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, she emphasizes that the frames of perception break away from themselves through repetition and re-actualization in different contexts. In an analogy also to de Saussure’s structuralist theory of langue and parole, the system of recognition qua recognizability (here compared with the langue as system of language) is actualized and by the same token potentially changed by the enactment of itself (here compared with the parole as the actual act of speech). Hence, there is a historically contingent ontology (Ibid., 4) that can be easily brought into relation with Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the perception in statu nascendi. The reason for this changeability and collapsibility of structural norms of recognition (Ibid., 12) is the fact that frames do not entirely frame what they appear to frame. To put it in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, the perspectivity of experience comprises an inherence of the bodily self in a situation and in history (Merleau-Ponty 2012, 57) that opens and at the same time discloses possible horizons of sense. There is always a remainder of unframed living beings that exceeds the scope of recognizability. And basically, the unframed is not necessarily unintelligible: “We can apprehend, for instance, that something is not recognized by recognition.” (Butler 2009, 5) Frames are inevitably selective and exclusive, however, this selectivity and exclusivity is either gradual or radical. We can be very aware of the fact that addicts or homeless persons represent “disgusting appearances” that are repulsive and marginalized in policies and in perception, and yet we could be very aware of the fact that these are nevertheless vulnerable humans that actually impose an obligation for respect, care or support upon us. Then we can assume that the structural exclusion of these populations might be extensive, but it is not radical. They are still conceivable as vulnerable beings. What is marginalized is not necessarily entirely outside of the frames of recognition.

0Second, one might suspect that there are beings and experiences that are not ultimately frameable within a particular historical situation. Hence, there is a possible excess of the originally “unintelligible” due to the possibility of a radical selectiveness and exclusiveness of recognizability. In her famous book The Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva analyzes abjection in terms of a refusal of the experienced being to provide sense to the experience. Merleau-Ponty and Butler both are concerned with the immediate sense of the content of experiences. While Merleau-Ponty focuses on the horizon of significance in general that embraces any immediate perception, Butler points to the particularly normative horizon. One can assume that these powers of horror basically are in tension with an operative intentionality that is “condemned to sense” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, lxxxiv). If Merleau-Ponty is on the right track, we can conclude that a condemnation to sense has as its downside a condemnation to abjection due to the inevitable perspectivity of the constitution of sense. In cases that Kristeva subsumes under the concept of abjection, the experiences of, for instance, decay and disgust, stem themselves against a clear sense that provides the possibility of categorization. The author concludes that these experiences exceed the boundaries of understanding (Kristeva 1982, e.g. 2). Hence, beyond the dichotomy of apprehension and recognition, this encounter with the originally unframeable is neither open for recognition nor for apprehension.13 Nevertheless, since we cannot but be responsive, there is inevitably a response in our behavior, in our gazes, postures, and gestures to the beings that affect us. It is most likely that our affective responses do not consist of compassion or motivation for support but of rage, disgust, and possibly even hatred (see also Butler 2009, 34). In these cases, the vulnerability of a living being (this might apply to vermin or radically dehumanized people in genocidal violence) is radically invisible. Prima facie, neither recognition nor apprehension of vulnerability seems possible due to socio-historical dispositives and morally corrupt social atmospheres.14

0Third, there are singular encounters that present an experiential ex-cess over the frames that organize our perceptions; this experience of excess is possible also due to the potential of a radical selectiveness and exclusiveness of recognizabilty. “Hyperbolic experiences” (cf. Waldenfels 2012) do not only actualize or slightly shift the habitual body but they substantially interrupt the normative bodily infrastructure and emphatically call into question how we perceive and conceive of living beings (as analyzed in Levinas 1995, 85). It is probable that the reception of Emmanuel Levinas that starts with Precarious Life (2004) and Giving an Account of Oneself (2005) leads Butler to the notion of an experience that interrupts the frames that organize our perception, our affectability, and our immediate behavior toward others. One can call this kind of excess a singular demand for apprehension (and, as a consequence, for recognition) of the previously unframed and radically excluded. Hence, the singularity of a precarious life has the potential to tear off the grip of recognizability and calls the frame into question. Consequently, “to call a frame into question is to show that the frame never quite contained the scene it was meant to limn, that something was already outside, which made the very sense of the inside possible, recognizable” (Butler 2009, 9). Thus the conceivability of lives as lives is contingent and dependent not only on historical situations but also on singular events and encounters that have the power to interrupt recognizability. There is, to put it differently, a remainder of life “that limns and haunts every normative instance of life” (Butler 2009, 7). Its source is vulnerability that builds the core of this remainder of life that resists an ultimate framing (cf. also Levinas 1997, 139) but also an ultimate exclusion from dominant frames. Responsiveness and the connected responsibility that seem to be heavily dependent on structures of recognition show the potential of an excess that relocates the borders of the recognizable without being able to repeal them.

7 | Conclusion

0Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s famous analysis of operative intentionality has been brought in a connection to Butler’s theory of recognizability. It has been shown that both theories show overlapping features such as the assumption of a bodily existence, the relationality of the self, and the responsiveness that builds one basic element of behavior. Moreover, there are also possibilities of mutual enrichment. Merleau-Ponty’s broad neglect of ethics and politics in his Phenomenology of Perception can be complemented with Butler’s focus on a normativity that organizes our perceptions and tacit responses to Others. In turn, Merleau-Ponty can provide a thorough analysis of the habitual body as the incorporation of patterns of recognition. The outcome of a synthesis of both authors has been outlined in the fifth section of this paper – immediate affects, empathy, and behavioral responses in encounters are tacitly determined by general structures of recognizability. Hence, an unreasoned differential allocation of recognition can be detected that potentially determines the perspectivity of our perceptions. The normative significance of this differential allocation is a pernicious exclusion of certain (margin­alized) populations from respectful treatment and social support. This is neither a mere effect of normative infrastructures nor is it fully at our disposal since our operative intentionality can never become fully conscious (as both Butler and Merleau-Ponty would claim). Thus, responsibility for recognition seems to be conditioned and limited. However, as has been shown in the last section, this determination is not total.

0Frames can be selective and exclusive in a gradual or a radical manner. If they are gradually exclusive, there is always the possibility of reconsidering current notions of marginalized populations. If they are radically exclusive, we might be confronted with the (in a certain historical situation) unframeable (which leads to a potentially total neglect of vulnerability and an exclusion from moral responses and concerns) or with singular encounters with the Other that disrupts and thus shifts or widens the scope of the moral infrastructure.


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Publication details

Published in:

Stawarska Beata, Flack Patrick (2018) Merleau-Ponty and structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 2.

Pages: 119-145

DOI: 10.19079/actas.2018.s2.119

Full citation:

Huth Martin (2018) „Incorporated recognizability: A handshake between Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Judith Butler“. Acta Structuralica 2, 119–145.