The Presence of Flesh: entangling Merleau-Ponty and Hortense Spillers through an Affirmative Shizophonia 

João Pereira de Matos


The notion of flesh in Merleau-Ponty (1968) addressed two ontological positivisms: of infinite distance (Sartre) and of absolute proximity (Bergson). The pure negativity that Merleau-Ponty attributed to flesh made it possible to go beyond them – revealing distance as an experience of presence-in-itself. Merleau-Ponty’s flesh folds the dualism of presence and absence into a common texture. However, criticisms of the shortcomings of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology have been mounting. Process Philosophy thinkers, such as Erin Manning (2009) and Brian Massumi (2002), have been criticizing the normative neurotypicality – that bypasses the radical alterity of neurodiverse perception – of phenomenological analyses. Simultaneously, feminist theorists such as Luce Irigaray (1993) have made explicit the absence of the enigma of sexual difference in Merleau-Ponty's enigma of flesh. In this context, Hortense Spillers’ (1987) reading of flesh is indispensable. Spillers describes flesh in the context of the plantation, as a space of ungendering and as a living laboratory of an indistinguishable mass of enslaved bodies. The present communication will thus attempt – recognizing the aforementioned criticism and Spillers’ challenging reading – to reconstruct the notion of flesh of Merleau-Ponty. To that end, this communication will focus on the groundbreaking work of ethnomusicologist Steven Feld. On the way to an affirmative schizophonia, Feld's acoustemology (2015) explores acoustic performativity as a relational ontology; envisioning a revaluation of presence and acoustic interaction in a time of referential absence and auditory passivity. Feld’s work, we will argue, allows a readaptation of Merleau-Ponty's flesh to the experiences of a corps sonore and to Spillers’ concrete amodality.


João Pereira de Matos is a Portuguese Ph.D. student and grantee at Nova University (Lisbon), fully funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Sciences and Technology and affiliated with the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, where he will be a visiting researcher, under the guidance of Professor James I. Porter, starting January 2023. His current research focuses on the concept of flesh through a constellation of space, inscription, senses, and race - juxtaposing ancient philosophical models and early modernity ideas on life with more contemporary subjects in biopolitics, cyberculture, and postcolonial/decolonial studies.