FEMINIST STUDIES: Sexual Being in the Non-Mechanistic Body
In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty focuses a great deal on the self and how it relates to its surroundings and understands itself reflexively. He endeavors to orient his readers by undoing a wide array of assumptions about “the world” with which we have been inundated since birth. Many of these assumptions have to do with our own bodies– how they function, how they are constituted, and how corporeal forms relate to– or differ from– our “consciousness.” In this paper I intend to work with sections of Merleau-Ponty’s theory on “the body in its sexual being” while incorporating ideas from the section on “the body as object and mechanistic physiology” and attempting to determine what it means to exist as a sexual being in a body taken as a totality, rather than as separate moving parts which work together but exist independently.
Merleau-Ponty rejects the assumption that sexual attraction is a sequence of seeing, processing, and then enacting arousal based on a cognitive appraisal of what we have perceived, but is rather an instantaneous process which sometimes has nothing to do with the conscious intent of the gazer (157). This is just one of the myriad stories we tell ourselves about our bodily functions in order to make them more navigable in an objective world. He takes issue with the assumption that sexuality can be confined to a singular facet of our existence or that sexuality is inherently linked to genitalia or to engaging in what we traditionally categorize as “sexual” acts. He asserts that our complete existence is, in some fundamental way, sexual by nature, not because we are in a neverending state of arousal or want to copulate with every individual we encounter, but because it is our default manner of being in the world. In Merleau-Ponty’s words: “there is interfusion between sexuality and existence which means that existence permeates sexuality and vise versa… it is impossible to determine… the proportion of sexual to other motivations” (169). This idea is easier to grasp in conjunction with the theory presented in the earlier chapter on “the body as object and mechanistic physiology,” where he uses the example of reflexes, among others, to illustrate the limits of viewing the body as a machine of distinct parts with singular functions. The human reflex, Merleau-Ponty writes, “does not arise from objective stimuli, but moves back towards them, and invests them with a meaning they do not possess” (79). In other words, when we react reflexively we are not undertaking a step-by-step process of cognitively registering the stimuli and then making a decision to react in the manner of our choosing. This series of logical cause-and-effect events which we have accepted as fact is the result of our transforming our actual experience into the narrative of a mechanical sequence occurring and then transmitting to our brain, which we see as functioning as a kind of control center from which we command our bodily functions. In this understanding of physiology, organs are endowed with a singular purpose and function. Merleau-Ponty uses the example of a patient losing their sensitivity to color brightness across the entire spectrum, rather than losing a single color at a time, to illustrate that stimuli from our various senses vary less based on the organ used and more on “the way in which elementary stimuli are organized amongst themselves” (74). According to Merleau-Ponty, this idea of physiology is not our only option. If we make an effort to see the body not as an object, and focus on what we are actually experiencing at any given moment in time, we can understand that we cannot, as he puts it, “understand the function of the living body except by enacting myself, and except in so far as I am a body which rises towards the world” (Merleau-Ponty 75).
The radical idea of existence-as-inseparable-from-sexuality gave me pause at first, for several reasons. Feminine and/or female individuals in mainstream cultural narratives often (almost always, until recent years) occupy a sexually binary role. They are portrayed as either professional and intellectually valuable but entirely non-sexual or as having no other function than sexual gratification, usually for the male protagonist(s). I have observed that the dominant cultural reaction to women who are labeled as explicitly “sexual” is not to applaud them or to empower by realizing them as 3-dimensional individuals with sexual agency, but to imply that sexual desire renders them incapable in every other sphere, thus characterizing my existence as wholly sexual instinctually felt like a step in the wrong direction, but I eventually realized that this misgiving was based on the mainstream understanding of what it means to be “sexual,” which is extremely limited. The second reason I initially took issue with this passage was that I couldn’t help wondering… if our actuality is unavoidably sexual, regardless of gender/class/sexual orientation, doesn’t that presume a very narrow definition of existence which might exclude individuals on the asexual/aromantic spectrum or individuals who are unable to engage in sexual acts because of physical, mental, or emotional limitations? I was ultimately able to reconcile with the concept by realizing I was thinking in terms of mechanistic physiology, characterizing sexuality as being irrevocably linked with the genitals and with what I perceived as being a “sexual act,” namely one or more bodies engaging in an explicitly sexually motivated activity. After spending more time with the text, I began to adopt Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of sexuality as being motivated less by the pursuit of sexual gratification and more by the urge to experience the world in an up-close-and-personal manner. When we encounter the world in this way, we engage what he terms “erotic perception,” where whatever or whomever we are viewing is not endowed with significance because of its potentiality for bringing us any kind of pleasure through engagement with our so-called “sexual” organs, but it stimulates us nonetheless (157). I think Merleau-Ponty would characterize this as an instance of de-objectifying the body in relation to the world, since it only makes sense if we approach our study of the individual human not as a system of parts with assigned functions, but “in terms of his experience, that is to say, of his distinctive way of patterning the world” (170). Food is a prime example of this phenomenon. The sight, smell, or even verbal suggestion of food or drink can elicit an instantaneous response of desire, of wanting to touch, taste, and otherwise wholly experience the object in question. Another example from my own life which occurred to me is cigarettes, and the instinctual attraction to them I have always experienced, before I’d smoked or even smelled one. By accepting that cigarettes bore sexual significance to me despite not directly correlating to anything explicitly “sexual” in my experience at the time, I must also accept that no object or person needs to be directly or relationally involved with sexual acts or with the sexual organs to bear such significance. In this manner, I can begin to understand every facet of the human form, whether labeled as “sexual” or not, in the context of “the functional totality in which they play a part” and that our bodies’ manner of existence in the world is, indeed, inherently sexual (170).
I’m disappointed that Merleau-Ponty wasn’t active when queer theory was– at least compared to present day– extremely undeveloped in academia, and scholarly work on the subject was relatively scarce, since I would love to read his insights on binary and non-binary understandings of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Although monosexual orientations (homosexuality and heterosexuality) have been accepted in many spheres both within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream culture, asexual/aromantic or polysexual individuals like myself (those who fall on the bisexual or pansexual spectrum) continue to have their very existence denied daily. This can manifest in ways that aren’t obvious to the untrained eye, like the ongoing lack of representation for polysexual and asexual individuals in mainstream film and television, or in more direct ways, like conscious exclusion from many circles in the queer community itself. I strongly believe that Merleau-Ponty would attribute issues like asexual/pansexual/bisexual erasure to both the pervasiveness of mechanistic physiology and the delegation of sexuality into only one facet of our existence.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith.
Andesite Press, an imprint of Creative Mind Partners. 1962.
Dr. Hopkins: A-