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Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology

ISSN: 0007-1773 (Print) 2332-0486 (Online) Journal homepage:

The Inner Experience of our Body

Alphonso Lingis
To cite this article: Alphonso Lingis (2009) The Inner Experience of our Body, Journal of the
British Society for Phenomenology, 40:1, 83-88, DOI: 10.1080/00071773.2009.11006667
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Published online: 21 Oct 2014.

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Date: 05 January 2016, At: 19:28

Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 40, No. 1, January 2009


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Our bodies are not material systems simply reacting to the impact of
chemical, physical, and electromagnetic stimuli; they execute organized and
integrated operations. Motor diagrams take form in them, organizing the
movements of the limbs, provoking adapted changes in respiration, blood
circulation, glandular operations. Kinaesthetic and affective sensations are part
of the formations of these motor diagrams. A kinaesthetic and affective
awareness gives our body a distinctive inner experience of itself.
Central to Maurice Merleau-Pontys analysis of the bodys awareness of
itself is the postural schema. This is a dynamic Gestalt that positions the parts
of a body in an integrated and equilibrated way; it generates a holistic
kinaesthetic sense of itself. On a stepladder, reaching for an object on the top
shelf, our body has a sense of how its legs are positioned, without having to
look at them, and a sense of the systematic shift each leg has to make to reach
further to the right or to the left without losing balance on the ladder.
Our bodys posture is oriented toward a task or an objective. Thus our
bodys sense of itself is simultaneously a perception of a layout in its
environment. Merleau-Ponty finds physical movement in the receptivity of the
senses: to see an object we have to focus our eyes upon it and circumscribe its
contours and to see its colours we have to move across a minimal area of it
with our look; to feel the rough, the bristly, and the sticky we have to move
across them with a certain pressure and pacing of our touch; to hear what the
clerk is saying in the noisy store we have to position our ears at a suitable
distance and angle. Every perception of things in our environment involves a
kinaesthetic sense of how our bodies are positioned before them. By turning
to stop the alarm ringing, then heading to the bathroom, then reaching for and
putting on our clothes, the postural schema of our body also centres its sensory
organs and surfaces upon a task or an objective. Its postural schema is the
agency of intersensorial integration.
Merleau-Ponty mentions, but does not explore, the affective sense our body
has of itself. A headache, a backache can fill out a zone of our bodys space

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with a throbbing opaque quality. We can add further that every objective our
body positions itself before and then advances toward has an affective charge:
it is attractive, alluring, appetizing. Just as, when we head for the door, the
doorknob is grasped in advance as we raise our hand and shape our fingers for
it, so its agreeable smoothness and easy manipulability are sensed in advance.
And the postural schema as a whole has an affective quality; there is
exhilaration in its tenseness or its speedy movement, dull fatigue or boredom
in its repetitious and wearisome labour, an airy euphoria in its relaxed sprawl.
Without looking at itself, our body has a body-image. This is a quasivisual sense of where its limbs are and how its volume is extended that is not
produced by a visualizing imagination, but instead generated by the postural
schema itself. As we stretch our legs beneath the table, we have a quasi-visual
sense of how they look; as we twist our way through the narrow passages in a
cave we have a quasi-visual sense of our bodys volume and how it could or
could not pass through that passage. Our body-image is a factor that goes
into our bodys organization and direction of its positions and movements.
Although the body-image is not produced by looking at our body but by
contracting a postural schema, the parts of our body we do look at or the image
of our body we see in a mirror more or less merge with that body-image. The
tip of our nose emerges into real visibility at the end of the virtual visibility of
our head; when we do look at our legs, we see them where they were in our
In bringing out these features of our bodys experience of itself, MerleauPonty is analyzing the human body in action, at work on tasks, what we can
call the competent body. But this purposive body, this competent body, this
practical intentional body, is, in Merleau-Ponty, our body as we experience it.
In a parallel way perception is, for Merleau-Ponty, perception of Gestalten,
object-objectives, and consciousness is consciousness of objects.
But there are also experiences our body has of itself essentially different
from the experience of the postural schema and the body-image. The notion
that a living body is distinguished from a material mass in that its movements
are intentional, purposive, leads us astray. The greater part of our bodys
movements are not pragmatic, goal-oriented. We move back and forth in the
kitchen, make the rounds of the room as we talk on the telephone, take an
aimless stroll when we have a quarter hour or half hour break, keep looking up
from our tasks at the table or on the assembly line, keep moving our feet
beneath the desk and finger our hair as we read, stroke our chin or our thighs
that are not itching. As we glance over the room or out the window, the
immense majority of things we see are not objectives, implements, objects, or
paths. There is a rhythmic periodicity in our motor system; from time to time
purposive, goal-oriented initiatives rise out of this fundamental rhythmic
periodicity and come to an end.

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These non-intentional movements are not spasmodic; they elaborate, as

they go, an internal organization and integration that Luria called a kinetic
melody. They are not oriented toward an objective, an end, but are essentially
repetitious. This repetitiousness continually engenders variations. The
variations may, like a musical composition, come to a resolution, which is not
the objective: after making the rounds of the house, the morning bathroom
ablutions, the kitchen and breakfast, checking the view from the living room
and the front window, we may settle into a chair on the deck. There bobbing
our hair, throwing back our head to breath in the morning air, stretching our
legs this way and that from time to time.
These non-teleological movements that are not initiatives to take hold of
objectives are activated from within, by the excess energies our body generates
over and above its intermittent needs. These excess energies have an affective
quality; they are euphoric, the happy sense of having energies to burn, and the
rhythmic, periodic movements are blissful, that feeling of it being good to be
These kinetic melodies that activate our bodies contain not only a euphoric
sense of themselves, but also a sense of the outlying environment. Not as a
layout of implements, paths, obstacles, and objectives, but as a free space, a
playing field or dance floor. This space is not empty, but filled with mellow or
brilliant light, languid warmth or brisk cold, damp or aridity, darkness filled
with mellow glows and insubstantial forms. And filled too with forest
murmurs or breaking waves, beats and rhythms, wandering melodies. The
rhythms and periodicities of our bodys kinetic melodies pick up, join with the
forest murmurs, the songs of the winds in the trees, the music of the spheres.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks has exhibited the fundamental nature of our
bodys generation of kinetic melodies within itself and of our bodys aptitude
to capture in its kinetic melodies the melodies of natures music and humanperformed music. He has observed the most striking cases of victims of stroke,
of Alzheimers or Parkinsons disease, or people deeply neurologically
damaged from birth or as a result of accidents, people with extreme tourettism,
whose bodies can be activated with movement, agility, skill, ease, and a sense
of happy integrity, by music.
Merleau-Pontys assertion that perception is perception of something, an
object, an organized Gestalt, is clearly wrong, unless we want to restrict the
term perception to that, and call with some other termsensibility, or
sensuous perception, maybethe contemplation of the sky, the sense of the
winds, the absorption with the blue of the lake, viewing the amber glow of
streetlights in the fog or the rain that pass by the car window, viewing with
abandon that streaming rain.
Merleau-Ponty, like Husserl before him, treats the background of the
perceived focal figure as a horizon of virtual objects, but he also finds that,

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besides figure and background, there are levels. We do not see, look at the
light, but look with it; we do not look at the levels but according to them. Like
the dominant in a melody, from which the notes acquire their pitch and volume
by the degree that they vary from the dominant, the colours of illuminated
things acquire their hue and intensity from the degree to which they diverge
from the level of the light. Our ears adjust to the level of babble in a room to
attend to the rise and fall of the voice of our partner in conversation. Our
feeling adjusts to the level of ambient cold or warmth, taking it as neutral, to
then feel as hot or cold the things we touch. In standing upright we align
ourselves with the walls and the trees that establish an up-down level in the
perceived field, and things are located relative to that level. Our bodys
postural schema is not only oriented toward an objective in the environment,
but also aligned to its spatial and sensory levels.
We also loosen our hold on any focal object and switch into a sensuous
attentiveness to the light itself, the fathomless blue of the sky across which
drift clouds whose shifting shapes we do not circumscribe, the tropical warmth
of a summer evening, the forest murmurs where we distinguish no particular
patterns. These are not things; we do not grasp them by surfaces or profiles,
they extend indefinitely in depth. They resonate within us, spreading a
looseness and ease within our bodies, which do not assume a posture or take
up positions before them. The experience of the environment as unshaped,
unbounded qualitative depths is sensory and also sensuous and affective; it
resonates as tranquillity, enjoyment, ease. Here we can also think of our
experience of the ground as indefinitely extending depth of support, whose
stability our bodies take up when they take a stand. But we also loosen and
relax that stand, settle into rest, no longer maintaining our position but lying
on the ground, giving over to the ground all responsibility for maintaining
ourselves there. Here too our body is experienced as an affective zone; the
release of tensions is felt as ease and contentment.
It is not true that we experience our bodies in and through movement only;
when we remain still we have a distinctive experience of our bodies. For
twenty-five years, starting in 1982, the sculptor Antony Gormley made plaster
casts of his body, then, when the cast was cut open, welded thick lead sheets
around the space vacated by his body. He knew hundreds of hours holding
himself immobile while the plaster hardened. Knowing that his wife would cut
him free of the cast when it had hardened, Gormley did not experience anxiety,
but instead experienced his body as a zone of unharnessed inner potentialities
and energies, and experienced his release from the cast each time as a birth. It
was an experience he had known as a young man practicing Vipassana
meditation for two years in India, and, he realized, as a child, remaining awake
in the dark in his bedroom. Gormley held himself in an inexpressive position
for these casts, hands at his side, feet together, and when he materialized the

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space left by his body with the lead sheets, he smoothed out the facial features
making them inexpressive and anonymous. The sculptures then are utterly
unlike the statues sculptors have made since ancient times for public places,
statues that stand in heroic poses and with rhetorical gestures. The viewer is
not held on the exterior, inexpressive, anonymous forms of Gormleys
sculptures, but gets a sense of the inner space of the body inside these lead
cases, gets a sense of that inner space of that body in his or her own body. This
experience by our body of its inner space is full, vibrant, can absorb one
completely, but it is devoid of the sense of postural schema and body-image
that Merleau-Ponty wrote of.
Finally, let us consider the intense experience of our body in lust and in
orgasm. As the aroused body becomes orgasmic, it loses its postural
integration, its limbs, dismembered, lie or roll freely, are moved with repetitive
movements and convulsions. Its stances and positions arrayed for objectives
dissolve, become dissolute, the hand that caresses moves aimlessly, not
knowing what it is seeking, not gathering information, not moving itself
intentionally but moved, agitated by the torments and pleasures that surface in
the other.
Lust is the posture become dissolute, the bones turning into gum. Sinews
and muscles become gland. Our body tenses up, hardens, gropes and grapples;
then it collapses, melts, gelatinizes, runs. The mouth loosens the chain of its
sentences, babbles, giggles; the tongue spreads its wet over the lips. There is
left the coursing of the trapped blood, the flush of heat, the spirit vaporizing in
exhalations. The supreme pleasure we can know, Freud said, and the model for
all pleasure, orgasmic pleasure, comes when an excess tension built up,
confined, compacted, is abruptly released; the pleasure consists in a passage
into the contentment and quiescence of death. Is not orgasm instead the
passage into the uncontainment and unrest of liquidity and vapourpleasure
in exudations, secretions, exhalations? Lust is the dissolute ecstasy by which
our bodys ligneous, ferric, coral state casts itself into a gelatinous, curdling,
dissolving, liquefying, vaporizing, radioactive, solar and nocturnal state.
These convulsions and transubstantiations are provoked by the body of
another divested of its socially coded uniforms, its body armour, its
performative posture, dissolving in musks and sighs and torments of pleasure.
It is provoked by the hard edges of reality radiating in twilight halos and
perfumes, landscapes flowing into mists and languor, leaves incarnating into
glands, rocks and sands liquefying and vaporizing, beams of sunlight
caressing like fingers. The communication with the other that is in lust is not
a communication with the idealized signals nor with the postures of things but
with their material states, a materiality freed from information and even from
the formation into states. A materiality not holding its own forms, undergoing
transubstantiations, suffering.

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Encrusting ones body with stones and silver or steel, saturating ones skin
with creams and lubricants till they glisten like mucous membrane, sinking
into marble baths full of champagne bubbles or into the soft mud of rice
paddies, feeling the grasses of the meadow or the algae tingling ones flesh
like nerves, dissolving into perfumed air and into flickering twilight, lust seeks
the transubstantiations of matter with a body in transubstantiation.
Maurice Merleau-Pontys phenomenology of perception is decisively
oriented toward establishing a truth to the perceived field upon which the
objective truth of the diverse natural sciences is built, and is also marked by a
Marxist emphasis on the practical character of the field of perception, where
things are discovered by action and manipulation. There are so many other
distinctive experiences of our bodies: the mobilization of skills not for tasks
that have objectives, but for the experience of speed, thrills, exhilarations,
terrors. These occur in pure form in extreme sports, but small movements in
these directions do occur in odd moments of our prosaic days. The kind of
abandon that leads us further and further into melancholy, ennui, cynicism.
The body tortured by torturers, or by disease, or by its own compulsions. The
body fascinated by, seeking out, the bungling, the inexplicable, the absurd, the
unknowable. Clinical psychologists have recorded on video and analyzed the
eye movements, gestures, body shifts that accompany thinking, questioning,
puzzlement, insight; these are external indices of distinctive inner body
experiences when we are thinking. Psychiatrists have recorded the body
symptoms that result from traumatic emotions, obsessive ideas, shamanist
healings, conversions. They have hardly begun to study the transformations of
body experience that result from major insights into the nature of the
environment, or illuminations of destiny. Nietzsche divided thoughts into
healthy and morbid, healing and sickening, and doctors and health care
workers do also. There is a distinctive experience of the body by itself when
thought, memory, and imagination are engaged in sublime pathways.
Exploring these different inner experiences of our body will lead us to break
up, broaden, and differentiate Merleau-Pontys account of the perceived
environment about our bodies.
Pennsylvania State University
1. See with respect to this essay my earlier The Body Postured and Dissolute, in: Veronique
Foti, ed., Merleau-Ponty Difference, Materiality, Writing, (New Jersey: Humanities Press
1996) pp.60-71.