Navigazione – Mappa del sito

HomeNumeri79ArticoliLabour and Leviathan: Anish Kapoo...

Articoli

Labour and Leviathan: Anish Kapoor and the Idea of an Embodied Polity

Bert van Roermund
p. 103-120

Abstract

The argument starts out (section 1) from a description of the aesthetic encounter with Anish Kapoor’s installation Léviathan (Paris 2011), highlighting the importance of the body as the mediator of sense and senses. I take this sculpture to imagine the labour of polity-making. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of embodiment as the intertwinement of a self and its world or environment, i.e., as labour, I analyse three fault lines in the concept of labour, (section 2), indicating where Merleau-Ponty departs from Marx. I also indicate the relevance of these paradigm shifts for the idea of an embodied democratic polity, in particular its ecological commitment. In section 3 I return to Kapoor’s installation to establish in what respects it inspires such polity.

Torna su

Testo integrale

  • 1 Locke 2003: II, V, 27.

1Ever since Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), social contract theory has been criticized by a rivalling account of politico-legal ordering, an account that set off from the demands of labour. Indeed, even within social contract theory, Hobbes’ emphasis on the need to transfer all rights to a sovereign agent famously clashed with Locke’s plea to have state authority as a warrant of inalienable property rights. Such rights, says Locke, accrue to a man by the “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands.1

  • 2 “Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, though they have never (...)

2A century later, Hume rejected any social contract theory conceived of as an exchange of promises. The conventions underlying societal order, he said, are based on labour as joint action between parties who each find profit for themselves in alternately burdening and relieving each other.2 This he wrote quite a few years before he found personal reasons to bid Rousseau’s social contract a wholehearted farewell. I will not try and track any further the troublesome relationship between labour and contract theories of social order through the history of ideas. Instead, I would like to ask if the experience of one specific, contemporary work of art could free us from this conceptual clash and inspire both camps to rethink their antagonism in the face of dangers currently looming large for any politico-legal order. This work is Anish Kapoor’s installation Léviathan.

3Just one methodological comment in advance. I do not hold the belief that a work of art sends a message that one could receive also in a different clothing, in particular philosophical language, let alone that this message would constitute its “meaning”. What I do believe, however, is that a work of art, by its appeal to our senses, may draw us into another world (of colours, lines, sounds, etc., depending on very individualised and diversified sensitivity); and that this sensation may inspire some ways of doing philosophy, in particular conceptual analysis. By consequence, I will take Kapoor’s work neither as an “illustration” of Hobbes’ classical text, nor as a comment on the engraving that adorned its title page. By relating the sensation of entering Léviathan – my own, mixed with other people’s reports – I hope to find arguments for what I consider to be the labour of constituting a polity.

1. Kapoor’s Léviathan

4A sculpture is commonly seen as an object one can look at at will. This is not the case for Kapoor’s Léviathan. As an installation, the sculpture was an event, not just in the sense that it attracted massive attention from the public, but particularly in that it emerged, lasted, and vanished, there (Monumenta exhibition, Grand Palais, Paris) and then (summer 2011). Kapoor had four 35-metre-high interconnected ‘balloons’ inflated under the huge iron-and-glass canopy of the Grand Palais. For those who had to miss out on it, there are plenty of pictures and videos on the internet to give an idea of what it looked like. How should one recall the sensation of encountering this sculpture that has ceased to exist? Relating the memory of it requires, first and foremost, giving up the past tense. Let me therefore try and rephrase the memory of my experience in the present tense.

5By passing a revolving door one enters a translucent red interior. The ironwork of the palace ceiling is visible through the skin of the bulbs and casts blurred shadows on it, sunshine allowing. So do the vague shapes of visitors outside. Their hands touching the membrane are more neatly visible inside, while the materials of the nave’s ceiling seem to evaporate in the sky. Nevertheless, their shadows print slowly changing lines, grids, and geometrical shapes on the surface of the red bulbs. One feels not only absorbed by the red colour of the interior but also lulled by the movement of these imprints. In this ventricular space, light descends while depth withdraws. What comes closest to the sense of disorientation I feel, is a white-out I once was immersed in, walking on Lochnagar in the Scottish Highlands. Prior to any association with a belly, a womb, the stomach of an enormous beast, the interior of Léviathan feels like a red-out. Yet, the disorientation is somehow comforting, at least for a short while. Having lost one’s sense of direction, there is nothing left to do in order to ‘make’ sense. There is no possibility left to exercise pressure on anything, while exercising pressure is the beginning of all action.

6How different is the outside of Léviathan, and how alarming the transition, i.e., the crossing of the ‘border’ (in fact another door) separating and connecting them. Inside you are drawn into the red and involved in its movement. It’s mainly the temperature that drives you out. That and the crowdedness. The outside appears in a new light once you have been inside. You wonder how the fascinating entanglement with the dark red can have this reverse side of overwhelming proportions and concentrated sky light. Seen from the outside, the Léviathan sculpture has a dark purple skin. Its dimensions are so gigantic that one can only see parts of it, from whatever viewpoint in the Nave of the Grand Palais one looks at it. It is more or less possible to walk “around” the balloons, though not without feeling shrinked, as their proportions seem far beyond a human scale. However, depending on light conditions, at some places one sees oneself vaguely reflected in the outer surface. Enough to realise that you are really there, in front of this frightening presence. From the outside, Léviathan also looks much bigger than you remember from your stay inside, so big that you feel close to a negligible quantity. Perhaps it is this sense of being ignored, hence vulnerable, by the sheer size of the monster, that raises a desire to go back inside the spheres and find refuge. Yet, it is only the space outside that allows you to take some distance, to point to it, to realise that this monster is caged within an even bigger space, that of the Nave of the Grand Palais. Wondering perhaps how it got there, how it stays in its place, why it does not blow up the whole place together with you and all these fellow-spectators, you also feel assured that the comforting memory of the inside is not a complete fraud. You will be saved from utter angst by taking all the distance that the Nave (its steel staircase, in particular) allows you.

7Kapoor expert Sabin Bors captures all this in more comprehensive words when she writes about the body as the mediator between sense and senses:

  • 3 Bors 2011: at https://anti-utopias.com/art/anish-kapoor-leviathan/ [link non disponibile: 22/02/24]

The viewer apprehends the visual field as a contained, informing absence that comes to life along one’s movements; unchained, it disrupts the perception of space and time in a constant challenge of negativity. And as the light pours down along the wombs, the body loses its density to let our gaze hover beyond the form, within a deep lurid field. It is our body that turns into a living mechanism of interpretation, while it drifts intestinally and crosses the cavities of the installation in search for a momentum of understanding. It is this transitional phenomenology, of constant of expansion of and beyond emptiness, that visitors experience when crossing the space.3

2. Embodiment and labouring

8Admittedly, there are many other ways in which a viewer of Léviathan may describe her or his experience. Let mine suffice to conclude that, conceptually speaking, they crucially hinge on this idea of the body as – to use Bors’s words – ‘a living mechanism of interpretation.’ In various interviews in the margin of Monumenta 2011, Kapoor himself confirms this as the heartland of modern art:

(A)bstract art and sculpture in particular, has to deal with this idea that the viewer comes with his body, and of course memory. Memory and body come together in the act of looking. I’m really interested in what happens to meaning in that process: as memory and body walk through, take the passage through any given work, something happens, something changes.

9This applies to Léviathan in particular:

the sculpture is a total immersion in an unexplored physical and mental dimension. Once you are inside, in the giant 4-armed balloon, the involuted form reminds you of an organic outer space and inner self at the same time (…).4

10Note that also memory here must be a bodily process. Earlier “steps”, earlier touches, and earlier pushbacks of steps and touches, feed directly into every new one. There is no conscious retrieval of information, at least not necessarily, even though under some circumstances it may help to interject the support of consciousness.

  • 5 Cf. Waldenfels 2000.
  • 6 Van Roermund 2020: in particular ch. 5.

11Two core features of this bodily process deserve to be highlighted. The first is this relationship between outer space and inner self that Kapoor is talking about. Precisely in this regard is the body an interface, mediating between the two poles.5 Elsewhere6 I argued this, analysing examples from music and sports. In singing, for instance, I produce a sound touching the air by my breath while giving my vocal cords a certain tension, responding all the time to how the air, in turn, touches my auditive senses. This loop between touching and being touched is an oscillation between the self, intending to produce a certain tone, and the atmosphere of the environment that is quite as “agential” as I. Artists indeed report that, at work, they feel becoming “tone”, or “paint”, or “language”. Far from being a metaphor, these expressions speak to the intertwinement of Self and World. Similarly in sports, where it is often found that the energy needed for top results originates in the oscillation between what is pressing and what is pressed. Putting in more force does not help when the feedback does not register in terms of how to release force from what is “other” in relation to “us”. Opening up to this kind of feedback, working the intertwinement between self and the world around us, appears as the core of “being a body” rather than “having a body”. Merleau-Ponty is the philosopher who, in my view, has analysed this conception of the body in the most radical and precise sense possible.

  • 7 As is well-known, artist and artisan have a common pedigree both in language and in history.
  • 8 Cf. Merleau-Ponty 1945: 114ff.

12The second feature is that the process of embodiment is a process of making efforts, i.e., of trying to come to grips with the environment – in more general terms “the world” – one finds oneself in. The process of fine-tuning the entanglement is often a labourious one, a process of failing and failing better. To put it inversely, what we mean by labour, first and foremost, is this process of gradually “coming to grips” with whatever it is that we have to “negotiate”: a piece of wood, a wide river, a Monroe or a musical instrument. In this regard, art, making and appreciating art, is the paradigm of labour.7 Merleau-Ponty has delivered ample proof of how differently our body relates to space in pointing and in taking.8

  • 9 The remainder of this section overlaps to a great extent with parts of the chapter mentioned in the (...)
  • 10 Honneth 1980: 186f.
  • 11 As reflected, in particular, in his critique of Feuerbach. See Marx, Engels 1845/46 [1975], the fir (...)

13What arts may show us regarding labour are paradigm shifts rather than changing concepts. Yet, I consider it the task of philosophy to draw the conceptual fault lines of such shifts. This is what I aim to do in the remainder of the present section.9 As a starting point I propose the three “functions” which Honneth10 identified in Marx’ early, and classical, notion of labour.11 Labour has an epistemic function in disclosing the, often harsh, reality of the world to agents trying to come to grips with their surroundings. It also has the social function of gathering and distributing agents in the common (though not necessarily co-operative) pursuit of reproducing life of humankind as a species. Finally, there is a politico-moral function of labour, which links the issue of freedom to the normative question what kind of human life would be worth reproducing. I submit that these functions structure the key notion of embodiment in Merleau-Ponty’s work, too. Unsurprisingly, I add, for readers who accept that labour is the hallmark of embodiment in his main writings. However, as I will argue, these very functions are also the fault lines where Merleau-Ponty bid a determined farewell to Marx. Once we become aware of these shifts, Kapoor’s Léviathan appears in a new light, albeit a light in hindsight.

a. Labour as disclosure

  • 12 Supported by Merleau-Ponty himself. See, e.g., the essay “Marxisme et philosophie” in Merleau-Ponty (...)
  • 13 Marx, Engels, ibid., 23. Cf. the rather ad hominem argument adressing Feuerbach at p. 27: ‘So sehr (...)
  • 14 Rather than, for instance, the conventional character of “praxis”, put up-front in so many Anglo-Am (...)
  • 15 Merleau-Ponty 1953: 59 [my translation].
  • 16 For an elabourate argument of this mode of passivity with regard to law see Corrias 2011.
  • 17 This is the angle from which I read the explorations in the semiotics of law offered by Hyslop, Jac (...)
  • 18 Lefort 1978: 134ff. On “la parole divisée”. Corrias 2011: 73 uses the predicate “interval” for “éca (...)

14There is, first and foremost, the epistemic function of disclosing “reality” to agents. In a benevolent reading12 this is what Marx tried to capture in saying that “awareness does not determine life, rather life determines awareness”.13 However, Marx’s inversion, though understandable as a critique of the “spiritual” character of what he called “German ideology”, is arguably less sophisticated than Merleau-Ponty’s proposal to see life and awareness as intertwined, driving the differentiation (now gradual, now abrupt) between the two poles of the self and the world. In the early Marx the concept of labour is almost congruent with what, further on in his career, he prefers to call “praxis”. Indeed, for Merleau-Ponty, it is precisely the bodily quality of “praxis”14 that attracts him in Marx’s “materialism”. He summarised it in his inaugural lecture in the Collège de France as “a sense unveiled spontaneously at the intersection of actions through which man organizes their relationships with nature and with each other”.15 Crucially, however, “spontaneously” here means neither “automatically” nor “effortlessly”. It purports to convey, first and foremost, that “sense” is not the product of acts of pure thinking, least of all the pure mode of thinking we call “willing”. It is not even the product of pure action. There is an element of “passivity” in it, of yielding and giving in, of “non-doing” rather than “doing nothing”.16 Submerging in and emerging from our environment we ‘make’ sense only if we ‘take’ it. i.e., in the effort of developing grip.17 That “sense” is only captured in the intertwinement of self and world entails that it is contingent on an ineradicable separateness (écart) of the two poles in spite of all oscillation.18 The gap is to be crossed by iterative jumping rather than bridging; and such incessant effort means that labour is the hallmark of embodiment. More even, the jumping is a matter of taking turns, of alternating between activity and passivity, of a trade-off between agents gathering nearer to, or farther from, either side of the divide. This is what Merleau-Ponty’s famous notion of motricité (usually translated as “motor intentionality”) is about.

15This shift in the paradigm of labour has major implications for how we see the polity as ordered social gathering. Gathering of whom by who? Habitually, agency is ascribed to humans, while “behaviour” is predicated of non-humans. However, various scientific disciplines have no difficulty ascribing modes of agency to non-humans, without any inclination to play the metaphor card. They report experiments in which some animals show self-awareness, some machines prove able to learn, some groups of sophisticated robots are capable of reconfiguring themselves in communication with their neighbours19, some viruses are “targeting” the weak spot in an immunity system. In brief, important features of agency that we ascribe to ourselves as humans are in fact shared by other entities. This regards, in particular, their capacity to generate a “picture”of their environment; the capacity to “map” this environment on to their preferences; the capacity to intervene in the environment on the basis of these picturing and mapping capacities.20 Some of them even satisfy some minimal standards of “rationality”21 in the way they deal with their environment, with their neighbours, and with their own action. We should also note, by contrast, that in other experimental settings, some humans appear nearly unable to make any decision or plan, remain completely inert to their own addictions, have difficulty processing relatively simple information bearing on their own position in a certain field, or infer self-awareness from their immediate needs being satisfied or not – a dangerous bet if there ever was one. We might say, in brief, that the capacity for reflexive reference is precisely what is not necessarily present in human agents and absent in non-human agents.

16Only from this specific focus of embodiment it emerges that, when it comes to agency, nature and polity are less divided against each other than received ideologies suggest. And note that what comes in as a substitute for the action / behaviour binary is not an indistinctive amalgam of forces great and small, but a nitty-gritty web of more or less articulate forms of intentionality, more or less “wired” or “materialized”. This, then, constitutes a further implication of the paradigm shift of labour: from fighting against to working with a manifold of agents in our environment. Immediately, the relevance of an argument by Latour on political ecology becomes clear:

  • 22 Latour 2004: 85.

Artifice and reality are in the same positive column, whereas something entirely different from work is inscribed on the debit side: what we have there now is insensitivity. Thus, the dividing line does not pass between speech and reality through the fragile gulf of reference, as in the old polemical model of statements that are simply true or false, but between propositions capable of triggering arrangements that are sensitive to the smallest differences, and those that remain obtuse in the face of the greatest differences.22

  • 23 Cf. Waldenfels 2004: 34: “Ereignisse lassen aufmerken”.

17In Latour’s vocabulary, an earthquake (or, under different circumstances, a falling leaf) is a proposition, and a response to it is too. Or rather, an event like an earthquake is a proposition in virtue of our response to it, and this response is a proposition in virtue of the event taking us off guard.23 A person’s anticipating response to the risk of it by taking insurance or designing construction rules to control damage in the future, is another one. I submit that the only way to understand this peculiar vocabulary is from the phenomenological angle developed by Merleau-Ponty: the earthquake is not only a silent voice, but also a challenge put to both individual and collective agents by this voice, something they literally have to come to grips with. They may do so in very different ways. A mafia gang taking advantage of an earthquake for their own profit would incarnate a rather insensitive proposition (“business as usual”), over and against the more sensitive responses of others to rebuild their environment. As we have seen, ‘to come to grips’ with something is a two-way street, and this two-way street radicalises the Marxian view of labour.

  • 24 Which acquired fame since it appeared in Habermas’s D-principle in Habermas 1992: 138.

18Returning now to my own idiolect, saying that an earthquake performs labour in virtue of our responses to it may still be an awkward way of putting things. But it becomes less so if we realise that events do not just happen, but happen to some agent, transforming the agent into a kind of patient. Even as outsiders we speak of those who are affected by the event, indeed even of an “All (potentially) Affected Principle”24 as a loadstar in political deliberations on what to do in response to an event. This Pathos Principle speaks to the democratisation of the process of deliberation, i.e., to the distribution of speech as a primary form of labour. But it also speaks to the distribution of labour in a different sense. “Those affected” are not just “those who feel affected”. We will have to find a new vocabulary to express what it means to be affected as distinct from to feel affected, so as to avoid the subject-object divide. I would certainly overstate the point if I were to argue that earthquakes are agents similar to individual or plural subjects of intentional attitudes. They clearly are not. However, as phenomena intruding the order we call ‘ours’ they are part and parcel of the reflexive use of “we” that is described in Hobbesian terms as “author” rather than “actor”: the demos as the upshot of representation. The next subsection will argue that they are also included in the distribution of speech.

b. Labour as socio-political ordering

19Secondly, labour also has the social function of gathering and distributing agents in the common (though not necessarily co-operative) pursuit of reproducing life of humankind as a species. This aspect of “division of labour” is of course prominent in Marx, particularly in the Feuerbach critique of the Deutsche Ideologie. But, once more, we owe Merleau-Ponty for an in-depth understanding of its implications, in particular with regard to political order and ordering. In a lengthy footnote on the meaning of “historical materialism” the latter explains:

  • 25 Towards the end of the chapter on “the body in its sexual being” of Merleau-Ponty 1962: 199. It can (...)

When ‘materialist’ history identifies democracy as a ‘formal’ regime, and describes the conflicts with which such a regime is torn, the real subject of history, which it is trying to extract from beneath the juridical abstraction called the citizen, is not only the economic subject, man as a factor in production, but in more general terms the living subject, man as creativity, as a person trying to endow his life with form, loving, hating, creating or not creating works of art, having or not having children. Historical materialism is not a causality exclusive to economics. One is tempted to say that it does not base history and ways of thinking on production and ways of working, but more generally on ways of existing and co-existing, on human relationships.25

  • 26 Merleau-Ponty 1964: 184, “La chair n’est pas matière, n’est pas esprit, n’est pas substance (…)”. F (...)
  • 27 “Intercorporéité”; Merleau-Ponty 1964: 185.
  • 28 The expression is attributed to famous Dutch skating coach Henk Gemser. See https://www.dbnl.org/te (...)
  • 29 Until they appear to have disappeared from the land.

20From his later works it becomes increasingly clear that “human relationships” are not just relations between humans. Rather they include all fibres involved in the recurrent intertwinement of “touching” and “being touched” that incessantly links and divides self and world. Merleau-Ponty speaks of this intertwinement as “carnal”, and of “the flesh” of being, as it develops over time, i.e., of history.26 Embodiment, therefore, means “interembodiment”.27 Hence, division of labour means, first and foremost, this very oscillation by which the self feeds back into the world and the world into the self. Referring to my earlier example, I submit that singing, for instance, is a division of labour between “me” and “the air”, one pressing on the other and vice versa. Or again, skating is a division of labour, indeed a “conversation”,28 between ‘me’ and ‘the ice’. In a similar vein we may conceive of a division of labour between a plural self and the world. Farming is a division of labour between “us” and “the land”, with all sorts of “agencies” involved in the business of touching and being touched. In farming we are grateful for the help of neighbours, we are prepared to acknowledge the role of employed farm hands, we take care of the animals we put to work or keep as livestock, we negotiate advice and support from financial institutions, veterinary services, governmental authorities. Other modes of agency register less, even though they do not matter less. For instance, unless we are experts, we hardly have regard to the insects,29 let alone the microbes, the enzymes and the minerals that are as indispensable for a good harvest as our benevolent neighbour or our own meticulous planning.

  • 30 See Rousseau, CS II, 6, towards the end of the chapter. See also Waldenfels 2001: 139, quoting Benv (...)

21Once more, there are implications here for our understanding of what is arguably the most sophisticated division of labour, namely the distribution of speech. Habitually, speech is attributed to humans and denied to non-humans. We are prepared to concede that some species have “communication systems” (mammals, birds, ants). But this is far from what is meant here, namely that for all agents using “communication systems” it is the case that what they talk about, their environment, has voice. If and when they talk, they talk back, they respond. There is very little metaphoric here; and if there is at all, it works in a direction opposite of what we usually think. It seems safe to say, for instance, that while humans wrote poetry, the various mutations of the COVID-19 virus in 2020-21 did not. Note, however, that our concern was not with literary performance as a specific form of speech but with the distribution of speech as a primary and paradigmatic ordering of society, hence as a matter of politics. With regard to the distribution of speech one should recognise, first and foremost, that even the “we” referred to as the most prominent agent of a political gathering cannot speak. “We” may appear in performative language but the agent it refers to cannot perform such language. “We” cannot say “we”. Its use is dependent on spokespersons representing it.30 So are, in different ways, the COVID-19 viruses, the 2016 earthquakes in Umbria, El Niño, global warming, the plethora of cancers diagnosed all over the world, the livestock raised for the consumption of meat, etc. Each of such phenomena exists in virtue of their representation. A large part of this daily labour of representation is performed by what Latour calls “lab coats”, i.e., scientists assembling and manipulating DNA sequencing machines, microscopes, seismographs, glassware, computer programs, and their ilk. This is not to say that phenomena like earthquakes or pandemics are “social constructs” – which would reiterate the binary between nature and polity (or science and politics) – but that they register the way they do only as correlates of specific technologies. These technologies are part and parcel of a shared intertwinement with “the world”. Here we meet with a second paradigm shift: the plurality of agency as well as the division of tasks and the distribution of speech in labour is technologically mediated, and increasingly so.

22The ambiguity of this shift can hardly be overestimated. A telling example is perhaps the changing predicates for buyers of digitalised services and devices. In the traditional market of offer and demand they used to be called ‘customers’ and treated accordingly. For instance, as organised “bargaining power” they had to be reckoned with by manufacturers and sellers. In a market of digitalised services and devices, however, these same people are no longer customers but become “users”. This means that their role is defined by the technology that drives the service; or that they are absorbed by the device they use. To the extent that they cannot afford to reject these, they have to accept not only the conditions of the sales contract but also all the details of its algorithm. Even violating the contract or abusing it becomes virtually impossible. Also, one sees that ‘instructions’ addressing the buyer at least as an educated person become superfluous. Services, like apparatuses, come on the market “ready to use”. Also the “user” is simply part of the technology of a service, symbolically reflected in the many varieties of the “My [Railway; HealthCare; WaterSupply, etc.]” accounts.

  • 31 Cf. the first essay in Merleau-Ponty 1960: 63ff.
  • 32 Merleau-Ponty 1960: 71 – “L’absence de signe peut être un signe …”.
  • 33 Merleau-Ponty 1960: 95: “Husserl a employé le beau mot de Stiftung …”.
  • 34 Cf. Merleau-Ponty 1969: 66ff, “Le langage indirect”.

23Despite such changes, distribution of speech remains a two-way street running between a (plural) self and the world. In expressing oneself one hears to “the voices of silence”, as Merleau-Ponty says.31 Hence it is not at all metaphorical to say that speaking meaningfully is polyphone and that we hear “voices” in silence32, intonation, scenery, landscape. Meaning is not something we attribute to or encounter in “things” already “there” (vibrations of air, light, odour, etc.); we establish33 it in “things” already “here”, enveloped in ourselves already being “there”, and vice versa. Meaning has to be de-velopped from this envelopment, and this process of developing sense is what is characteristic of labour. In sum, language, or rather “saying something meaningful”, is always indirect – oratio obliqua.34 It is always “saying what is already said by others”, taking these other voices than our own voice into account, entangling ourselves in the movement of their visible, audible, palpable, etc. lines.

c. Labour as the pursuit of a better life

  • 35 Whiteside 1989: 69.
  • 36 I may be overstating the point: “[Merleau-Ponty] interroge, mais de telle manière qu’on ne peut pas (...)

24Thirdly, there is a directly politico-moral function of labour, which binds together the “practical” issue of freedom and the normative question what kind of human life would be worth reproducing. For “free action transforms pre-reflective choices, but never entirely transcends them”.35 As far as I can judge, this is the point where Merleau-Ponty most explicitly departs from Marx’s historical materialism.36 His main argument is that the latter betrays a genuine conception of history as a dialectic correlate of our being embodied, i.e., of labour in the sense explained above. In the Epilogue to (Merleau-Ponty 1977) he succinctly put his verdict thus:

  • 37 Quoted from the translation of the Epilogue by Joseph Bien, as it appears in Toadvine, Lawlor 2007: (...)

What then is obsolete is not the dialectic but the pretention of terminating it in an end of history [sc. like the Hegelians, Kojève first of all; BvR], in a permanent revolution [sc. like the Marxists, Sartre first of all; BvR] or in a regime which, being the contestation of itself, would no longer need to be contested from the outside and, in fact, would no longer have anything outside it. (…) There is no dialectic without opposition or freedom, and in a revolution opposition and freedom do not last for long. [Revolution] ‘betrays’ and ‘disfigures’ itself in accomplishing itself. Revolutions are true as movements and false as regimes.37

  • 38 The quote is attributed to Jacques Mallet du Pan, Considérations sur la revolution de France (1793) (...)

25As a movement, a revolution purports to express how people see “a better life” for themselves as “humans”; not an “ideal” life, but a life that would stand out as “better” over and against the conditions of oppression they experience and suffer from. Revolution is “true” (namely “true to the genuine character of history”) in that it preserves this relative, hence underdetermined, hence ambivalent, character. As soon as it becomes a “regime” it imposes a way of life, all the way to the point where it ends in “devouring its own children.”38 In a Marxian vein, one might say that at this point it loses its quality of genuine labour that it possessed as a movement.

  • 39 Merleau-Ponty prefers “institution” over “constitution” as his key term, since, for him, ‘constitut (...)
  • 40 Merleau-Ponty 2003: 37.
  • 41 See Lefort’s Preface to Merleau-Ponty 2003: 20ff.
  • 42 To anticipate is not just to grapple (Latin: capereI) for a moment in the future but also for a sit (...)
  • 43 At some point he, indeed, calls them labour Cf. Merleau-Ponty 2003: 101. See also Lindahl 2006 for (...)
  • 44 CS II, 7. Note that Rousseau’s treatise is an excerpt from a manuscript he burnt, entitled Institut (...)

26This normative mode of the intertwining between men and world can only be preserved, paradoxically enough, in what Merleau-Ponty calls institution.39 Indeed, he argues that the theory of historical materialism can only be re-conceptualised as a theory of institutions. There is, I submit, no reason to deviate here from the common understanding of an institution as a default way of sharing sense within a group. However, it is crucial to steer away from a conventionalist bias in this common understanding, as if a shared practice would necessarily be based on some form of social contract as an exchange of promises. “Making sense” is a shared practice that is much more intricate than the promissory picture of a contract would suggest.40 As in all cases of “making sense” this sense emerges from our bodily intertwinements with a specific environment: “accessing the world is the reverse side of withdrawing from it.”41 This to-and-from between anticipations and ‘retrocipations’ – two basic forms of “grappling for time” and “grappling for place”42 – is the hallmark of any institution in Merleau-Ponty’s sense. Thus, institutions are the fibres of the “flesh” of history. They live from the permanent metabolism of what is instituted and what is instituting.43 Art is the case in point here. Art is what artists make; but then art defines who is an artist. Indeed, in general, institutions require “people to be already prior to the practice what they have yet to become through the practice” (to modulate a famous phrase from the Social Contract).44

  • 45 In the famous words of Claude Lefort, Merleau-Ponty’s student, “the place of power is empty”. For i (...)
  • 46 Cf. Lindahl 2018.

27In this normative dimension the conceptual framework of labour turns away from an orientation towards an “ideal” world to be realised by a specific class, inspired by its historical vocation to set the alienated classes free. The idea of a privileged working class and its avant-garde (“the party”), who could legitimately claim the exclusive use of violence, has to be abolished. Instead, labour as shared, though not necessarily co-operative, action prepares the ground for a regime of democracy, in which every attribution of political power is provisory45, and every representation of political power premature despite its inevitability.46 This shift in the notion of labour defines the possibility of human freedom: from labour as the final permission of total power to labour as the final prohibition of total power.

28In a sense, however, these are negative characterisations. This discourse expresses the implications of denying the advocates of total power access to the polity. It does not entail an orientation of shared action. It is content to contain the struggle for political power within the confinements of a certain arena of consensus. As a consequence, the call for “identity politics” looms large over many a democratic regime. Merleau-Ponty’s conception of labour goes in a different normative direction, the intertwinement with the world as environment, i.e., the grappling for a better place and time rather than the reference to an ideal place and time. It challenges democracy to redefine the core of politics. What it leaves behind is the conception of politics as ordering society according to human will, hence as a struggle for power to realise such will, hence as a competition between ideologies undergirding the exercise of power. What it orients us to is ordering society according to the interdependencies with the environment, acknowledging that there are many more agents than humans and the proper way to give them voice is much more important than human preferences. In other words, for political ordering the margins of human preferences become much more relevant than the preferences themselves. This “ecological” commitment, I submit, is a positive orientation of the democratic polity. I call it an embodied polity.

3. Léviathan in hindsight

29Obviously, the title of Kapoor’s Monumenta work reminds one both of the biblical sea monster and of Thomas Hobbes’ treatise on what appropriately could be called “the Law of Nature and Nations”. Kapoor dismissed all too literal associations with Hobbes but acknowledged the biblical reference. From a philosophical point of view, this intuition should be taken seriously. Léviathan was neither the new adornment of Hobbesian views, nor a critique of these views, nor the idol of any competitive view. Yet it is crucial in opening our eyes to the preconditions of an embodied polity in a number of ways. Let me point to some of these, quite conscious of the fact that each of them has to be explored in greater detail.

  • 47 I deliberately refrain from discussing Schmitt (1938), 1982.
  • 48 The (male) land monster being Behemoth, whose name Hobbes used for a book on the civil wars of Engl (...)
  • 49 Even in the Bible, where Leviathan appears in Hiob, Psalms, and other places. Cf. also the interest (...)
  • 50 Cf. the mythical whale saving Jona from the tempest, spitting him ashore after three days.

30There is, firstly, the responsive character of Léviathan as a work of art. It responds, as Kapoor has affirmed at more than one occasion, to the already existing space of the Grand Palais. However, it does not take this space as a frame, i.e., as something pre-determined. Rather, it involves the Nave in a kind of dialogue that makes the existing space appear in a new light. In particular the roof of the Nave participates in the sculpture that is brought about. Secondly, let us acknowledge the association with one of the monsters in the Bible, Leviathan. Here Hobbes turns out to be an unreliable interpreter.47 Contrary to what the Hobbesian engraving suggests, Leviathan is a sea monster rather than a land monster. Moreover, the creature was considered (in most texts) to be female rather than male.48 As all mythical monsters, Leviathan appears under different guises and in various roles.49 They impersonate the variety of agents with whom humans have to deal. Such monsters may come to the detriment or to the rescue of humans.50 They remain fundamentally ambiguous in their roles, malign and benign, caring and indifferent. In any case, they expand the realm of agents beyond humankind, in particular the realm of potentially benign agents. Hobbes’ reference to Hiob, 42 is also misplaced. The point of the text is not that there is no power on earth comparable to Leviathan’s but, rather, that humans should not judge powers over earth to which even Leviathan’s does not compare. The encounter with such powers should raise awe rather than fear. Now, what Kapoor’s installation raises, first and foremost, is awe.

31It does so, thirdly, by the absorbing depth clues of its interior: the red, the shadows, the lulling movements of the light, are all suggestive of powers bigger than human life, indeed constitutive of human life. Thus, awe slowly begins to mix with what is potentially benign. The womb is often mentioned by viewers as the most adequate picture to relate their experience. Gradually, this interior becomes a place one wants to dwell in, which then soon turns out to be impossible. One is driven out, forced to see the bulb from the outside, take a distance as far as it goes within the confinements of the Grand Palais. Note that this is not “seeing Léviathan from the outside”, for precisely this possibility of transgressing the inside-outside boundary is part and parcel of the aesthetic experience of Léviathan. Viewers are enabled to gain an exteriority to their initial self-inclusion, surely on condition that they find themselves included within a bigger whole. And indeed, those who consider the polity as their comfort zone will ultimately profit from the forces that necessitate them to acknowledge that the polity itself is embedded in a bigger whole of which they are a part.

  • 51 See Rousseau (1762), 1964: II, 7.

32Fourthly, once outside the womb there is no escape from the experience of Léviathan as a work of art. It is not only an artifice but also an artifact, brought about by labour, division of labour among the members of a vast team (in fact, over 200 collaborators), and “state of the art” technology. At the origin of Léviathan is the imagination of the artist together with the ingenuity of the engineers, mutually tuning into each other. These are precisely the two capabilities that Rousseau ascribed to the mythical figure of constituent power for the polity, the Legislator.51 Note that this power is not legislative power in the strict sense. The latter belongs, inalienably, to the sovereign, i.e., the people. The legislator, however, is able to grasp the people in their very embodiment and perform the labour of constitution-making, not by convincing arguments but by persuasive images. Kapoor, I submit, is a legislator of our time.

Torna su

Bibliografia

Bors, S. 2011, Anish Kapoor Leviathan, at https://anti-utopias.com/art/anish-kapoor-leviathan/ [link non disponibile: 22/02/24]

Corrias, L. 2011, The Passivity of Law. Competence and Constitution in the European Court of Justice, Dordrecht, Springer.

Dastur, F. 2001, Chair et langage. La Versanne, Encre marine.

Fredona, R., Reinert, S.A. 2020, Leviathan and Kraken: States, Coroporations, and Political Economy, “History and Theory”, 59: 167-187.

Habermas, J. 1992, Faktizität und Geltung. Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats, (2nd ed). Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp.

Honneth, A. 1986, Arbeit und instrumentelles Handeln. Kategoriale Probleme einer kritischen Gesellschaftstheorie, in A. Honneth, U Jaeggi (eds), Arbeit, Handlung, Normativität. Theorien des historischen Materialismus, Bd. 2., Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp: 185-233.

Hume, D. 1972, A Treatise of Human Nature. Beings an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects, Bks II and III (1739-1740), London, Fontana - Collins.

Hyslop, A., Jackson, F.C. 1972, The Analogical Inference to Other Minds, “American Philosophical Quarterly”, 9: 168-178.

Latour, B. 2004 [1999], Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences Into Democracy, trans. by C. Porter , Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press.

Lefort, C. 1978, Sur une colonne absente: Écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty, Paris, Gallimard.

Lindahl, H.K. 2006, Give and Take. Arendt and the Nomos of Political Community, “Philosophy and Social Criticism”, 32: 881-901.

Lindahl, H.K. 2018, Authority and the Globalisation of Inclusion and Exclusion, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

List, C., Pettit, Ph. 2011, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Locke, J. 2003, Two Treatises of Government: And a Letter Concerning Toleration (1690), I. Shapiro (ed.), New Haven, Yale University Press.

Marx, K., Engels, F. 1845-1846 (1975). Die deutsche Ideologie, in H.-J. Lieber, P. Furth (eds), Karl Marx Frühe Schriften, Bd. 1., Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaf: 5-655.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1945, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1953, Éloge de la philosophie, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1960, Signes. Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1964, Le visible et l’invisible, Paris. Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1966 [1996], Sens et non-sense, Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1969, La prose du monde (Texte établi et présenté par Claude Lefort), Paris, Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 2003, L’institution dans l’histoire personelle et publique. Le problème de la passivité, le sommeil, l’inconscient, la mémoire, Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954-1955), ed. by D. Darmaillacq, C. Lefort, S. Ménasé), Paris, Belin.

Revault d’Alonnes 2001, Merleau-Ponty La chair du politique, Paris, Ëd. Michalon.

Rousseau, J.-J. 1964, Du contract social; ou principes du droit politique (1762), in R. Gagnebin, M. Raymond et al. (eds), Oeuvres complètes, t. III (Pléiade), Paris, Gallimard.

Schmitt, C. 1982, Der Leviathan in der Staatslehre des Thomas Hobbes. Sinn und Fehlschlag eines politischen Symbols (1938), Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta.

Toadvine, T., Lawlor, L. (eds) 2007, The Merleau-Ponty Reader, Evanston, Northwestern University Press.

Van Eikema Hommes, H.J. 1972, De elementaire grondbegrippen der rechtswetenschap, een juridische methodologie. Deventer, Kluwer.

Van Roermund, B. 2002, Constituerende macht, soevereiniteit en representatie, “Tijdschrift voor Filosofie”, 64: 509-532.

Van Roermund, B. 2013, Populismus und Demokratie: eine Kritik auf den Spuren Leforts, in A. Wagner (ed.), Am leeren Ort der Macht. Das Staats- und Politikverständnis Claude Leforts. Baden-Baden, Nomos: 143-163.

Van Roermund, B. 2020, Law in the First Person Plural. Roots, Concepts, Topics, Cheltenham - Northampton (MA), Edward Elgar.

Waldenfels, B. 2000, Das leibliche Selbst. Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des Leibes, R. Guiliani (ed.), Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp.

Waldenfels, B. 2001, Verfremdung der Moderne. Phänomenologische Grenzgänge, Göttingen, Wallstein.

Waldenfels, B. 2004, Phänomenologie der Aufmerksamkeit, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp.

Whiteside, K.H. 1989, Merleau-Ponty and the Foundation of an Existential Politics, Laurenceville, Princeton University Press.

Torna su

Note

1 Locke 2003: II, V, 27.

2 “Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, though they have never given promises to each other.” Hume 1972: III. Part. II, section 2, 221. See also III, part. II, section 5, 249: “Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. “Tis profitable for us both that I shou’d labour with you today, and that you shou’d aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know that you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains on your account; and should I labour with you on my account, I know I shou’d be disappointed, and that I shou’d in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone: You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.”

3 Bors 2011: at https://anti-utopias.com/art/anish-kapoor-leviathan/ [link non disponibile: 22/02/24].

4 Both quotes from an interview in designboom by Anita Hackethall, at https://www.designboom.com/art/anish-kapoor-monumenta-2011-leviathan/; accessed 27-04-2021.

5 Cf. Waldenfels 2000.

6 Van Roermund 2020: in particular ch. 5.

7 As is well-known, artist and artisan have a common pedigree both in language and in history.

8 Cf. Merleau-Ponty 1945: 114ff.

9 The remainder of this section overlaps to a great extent with parts of the chapter mentioned in the previous footnote, with many more references to Merleau-Ponty’s work than the limits of the present paper allow.

10 Honneth 1980: 186f.

11 As reflected, in particular, in his critique of Feuerbach. See Marx, Engels 1845/46 [1975], the first pages of the part on Feuerbach, which also put the first of the eleven theses on Feuerbach in perspective. I am not implying, though, that this is also Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Marx.

12 Supported by Merleau-Ponty himself. See, e.g., the essay “Marxisme et philosophie” in Merleau-Ponty 1966 [1996], drawing Marx into phenomenology: “On comprend donc qu’il’ait été réservé à Marx d’introduire la notion de l’objet humain [sc. ‘street’, ‘field’, ‘house’; BvR] que la phénoménologie a reprise et développée”. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “Merleau-Ponty ne traite donc pas le corpus des textes de Marx commen un ‘objet’ mais plutôt comme un medium”.Revault d‘Alonnes 2001: 46.

13 Marx, Engels, ibid., 23. Cf. the rather ad hominem argument adressing Feuerbach at p. 27: ‘So sehr ist diese Tätigkeit ….’.

14 Rather than, for instance, the conventional character of “praxis”, put up-front in so many Anglo-American philosophical treatises.

15 Merleau-Ponty 1953: 59 [my translation].

16 For an elabourate argument of this mode of passivity with regard to law see Corrias 2011.

17 This is the angle from which I read the explorations in the semiotics of law offered by Hyslop, Jackson 1972; Jackson 1995; 1996.

18 Lefort 1978: 134ff. On “la parole divisée”. Corrias 2011: 73 uses the predicate “interval” for “écart”.

19 https://www.nature.com/news/researchers-create-1-000-robot-swarm-1.15714, accessed 15-01-2020.

20 I am paraphrasing here List, Pettit 2011: 20.

21 Cf. also List, Pettit 2011: ch. 1, though they admit (63): “In practice, it seems difficult to achieve group-level reasoning through a functionally inexplicit organizational structure, given its rather mechanical nature”.

22 Latour 2004: 85.

23 Cf. Waldenfels 2004: 34: “Ereignisse lassen aufmerken”.

24 Which acquired fame since it appeared in Habermas’s D-principle in Habermas 1992: 138.

25 Towards the end of the chapter on “the body in its sexual being” of Merleau-Ponty 1962: 199. It can hardly be a coincidence that Marx, Engels [1845/46 (1975)]: 33 speaks of sexual intercourse as “the original division of labour.”

26 Merleau-Ponty 1964: 184, “La chair n’est pas matière, n’est pas esprit, n’est pas substance (…)”. For an elabourate analysis of the notion in relation to Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre, see Dastur 2001.

27 “Intercorporéité”; Merleau-Ponty 1964: 185.

28 The expression is attributed to famous Dutch skating coach Henk Gemser. See https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_taa014200501_01/_taa014200501_01_0041.php; accessed 03-05-2021.

29 Until they appear to have disappeared from the land.

30 See Rousseau, CS II, 6, towards the end of the chapter. See also Waldenfels 2001: 139, quoting Benveniste.

31 Cf. the first essay in Merleau-Ponty 1960: 63ff.

32 Merleau-Ponty 1960: 71 – “L’absence de signe peut être un signe …”.

33 Merleau-Ponty 1960: 95: “Husserl a employé le beau mot de Stiftung …”.

34 Cf. Merleau-Ponty 1969: 66ff, “Le langage indirect”.

35 Whiteside 1989: 69.

36 I may be overstating the point: “[Merleau-Ponty] interroge, mais de telle manière qu’on ne peut pas savoir dans quelle mesure ses questions le rapprochent ou l’éloignent de Marx”. Lefort 1978: 80.

37 Quoted from the translation of the Epilogue by Joseph Bien, as it appears in Toadvine, Lawlor 2007: 295, 296. Immediately after the Second World War, in his essay ‘Pour la vérité’, Merleau-Ponty had already proposed to be very reluctant to adorn a prudent and provisory political choice as ‘dialectic’. See Merleau-Ponty 1966 [1996]: 207. But this was certainly not his last word on the matter. Cf. Lefort 1978: 92.

38 The quote is attributed to Jacques Mallet du Pan, Considérations sur la revolution de France (1793). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Mallet_du_Pan, accessed 16-02-2020.

39 Merleau-Ponty prefers “institution” over “constitution” as his key term, since, for him, ‘constitution’ belongs to Kantian philosophy of (constituent) consciousness, which he rejects. This should not prevent us, however, from understanding the legal concept of a constitution along the lines of what Merleau-Ponty means by ‘institution’. See Van Roermund 2002. For an elabourated argument see Corrias 2011: 57ff; in particular his comment on the terms ‘institution’ with regard to law (the double bind between constituent and constitutional power) on p. 57.

40 Merleau-Ponty 2003: 37.

41 See Lefort’s Preface to Merleau-Ponty 2003: 20ff.

42 To anticipate is not just to grapple (Latin: capereI) for a moment in the future but also for a situation (Latin: situs) in that future. Idem for retrocipation with regard to (a situation in) the past. The neologism ‘retrocipation’ (as the mirror image of anticipation) I derive from Van Eikema Hommes 1972; see the index there.

43 At some point he, indeed, calls them labour Cf. Merleau-Ponty 2003: 101. See also Lindahl 2006 for a similar conclusion from premises offered by Arendt.

44 CS II, 7. Note that Rousseau’s treatise is an excerpt from a manuscript he burnt, entitled Institutions politiques. See Merleau-Ponty 2003: 92 – “En un sens le future [est] anticipé dans le telos de la première demarche, Urstiftung et Endstiftung. ”

45 In the famous words of Claude Lefort, Merleau-Ponty’s student, “the place of power is empty”. For interpretation and references see Van Roermund 2013.

46 Cf. Lindahl 2018.

47 I deliberately refrain from discussing Schmitt (1938), 1982.

48 The (male) land monster being Behemoth, whose name Hobbes used for a book on the civil wars of England, also known under the title The Long Parliament (1668; published posthumously 1681).

49 Even in the Bible, where Leviathan appears in Hiob, Psalms, and other places. Cf. also the interesting comparison with the Nordic Kraken in Fredona, Reinert 2020.

50 Cf. the mythical whale saving Jona from the tempest, spitting him ashore after three days.

51 See Rousseau (1762), 1964: II, 7.

Torna su

Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Bert van Roermund, «Labour and Leviathan: Anish Kapoor and the Idea of an Embodied Polity»Rivista di estetica, 79 | 2022, 103-120.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Bert van Roermund, «Labour and Leviathan: Anish Kapoor and the Idea of an Embodied Polity»Rivista di estetica [Online], 79 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/14244; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.14244

Torna su

Diritti d’autore

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

Solamente il testo è utilizzabile con licenza CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Salvo diversa indicazione, per tutti agli altri elementi (illustrazioni, allegati importati) la copia non è autorizzata ("Tutti i diritti riservati").

Torna su
Cerca su OpenEdition Search

Sarai reindirizzato su OpenEdition Search