A Blog by Virgilio Rivas

Homeless in Aesthetics


Reading Merleau-Ponty ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,’ one gets an impression that doubt is essential to creating a work of art, and not just a work of art in which, incidentally, and we may have to wander a bit, it may be relevant to infuse something known in physics—that any work is an outcome of how a body undergoes a certain form of displacement. The formula here is W= F x d., where W is work, F is force applied, and d. as displacement. We may take ‘art’ of which it is a work as that body displaced from some unlit region of space (or we should mean spatio-temporality, going by the most familiar description) which, in the case of physics, would be the subject of any scientific analysis to pursue whose technicality (for whatever it is worth) we may leave to science for now. For the aesthetic part of the ‘work’ we are tracing here in relation to art whose mere presence is always an evidence of something already displaced to begin with, we may take Merleau-Ponty’s description of this region as that very ‘facticity of the unreflected,”1 or in Husserl, that ‘vague morphological essence’ (described by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus). 2 Or, just as I wish to inflect my own voice, here in this caesura between physics and art, I may have to describe this space, rather ingenuously, as an outlying area of thought where one can perceive, outside the mediating technique of logic, a certain form of poetic conceit, a kind of ab/presencing (the play of absence and presence) if not of the immediate evidence of ‘without light,’ ‘without illumination,’ without the usual comforts of what we may call a ‘home’.

Such home is a place where philosophy settles itself comfortably—in reflective thought. Thought is understood here to be a well-lit space, like a set piece whose assumed totality is underlined by light, color, or the texture of that invisible feeling of being magnified by the aura of the visible, which is now at risk of becoming invisible in light of our present climate crisis—the visibility of the green (understood to be the dominant light property of Nature) threatened by the overcast of the grey (or the revenge of the inhuman, the climate, by any means, which can reduce the visible to the utter chaos of unbecoming, including the subject’s gaze which anytime can be returned to its inhuman origin, to its one true grey ecology). In the case of Cezanne’s technique or non-technique set against the standard of linear perspective, it comes with the task “to modify all the other colors in the picture so that they take away from the green background its characteristics of a real color.”3

Here, it is important to note the functionality of ‘light’. Cezanne’s doubt about his own work is an important intervention on the function of light which opens up here for a purpose—one has only to associate doubt with the absence of light or certainty, just as when thought faces its own alterity, or the ‘I’ suddenly called to its own vulnerability when the other fixes her gaze on him, or calls out his name, which makes him feel naked for the first time. It is the intention of the Cartesian to prevent such calling out, such noise to infract the self-sheltering silence of solipsism, such chance encounter with the world that doubt is employed to shelter thought from the elements. Doubt guarantees the Cartesian of the movement that he so aspired, the vitality that he truly lacked by mistaking the complex procedure of doubting with the simplicity of having a body to perform a work or a task. But it is here that the first housing or settlement issue finds its most primordial form—the question where reason has to settle. Notice here that reason is that which is without its true home. It must have doubted its own capability to find a home. Reason is homeless by any definition or simply because it resorts to definition that it lacks a proper home. And yet doubt will have to undergo its own displacement from the method of the Cartesian if reason must find a home—one has to give doubt its moment to shine, its own work, its own light without the usual application of force known to it. Just like intelligence which must have a body for it to function, or a continent the cooperation of a cluster of islands, an archipelago, reason will need a force behind it. Throughout known history, we know what obviously comes next—reason will deny the power that had borne it.

From that time on since reason found its home in the comfort of a definition, Man as animal rationale, to what Husserl called the ‘crisis of European sciences,’ reason has to deny its own creative power. It has to deny that very power that could unsettle its home, drag it back to where it used to belong—to the hinterland of thought, to the inhuman dimension, to that dimension of pre-personal, pre-reflective, prescientific ghetto but alive with what Merleau-Ponty would mean by “animistic communions,”4 or Cezanne by his curious displacement of movement onto “frozen objects [hesitating] as at the beginning of the world,”5 even more, where the difficulties of creation are always that of the aliveness of groping for the first word, for language humming, homing, honouring the unsayable, or this nameless art of reason. Reason hates the nameless for it is in it that creation dwells “undivided in several minds,”6 as Merleau-Ponty would care to add, “with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition,”7 like a work of art, like a true democracy. Art is democracy where art is not “becoming a pure consciousness,”8 but rather the real act of transforming the probable (by which modern homes are transformed into utilitarian designs, courtesy of the rational scientific age) to the less probable in which democracy functions best—a free housing settlement. Free settlement is the less probable that has been assigned to the functionality of a utopia.


Cezanne might have doubted this extension of art to the liberation of squatters, gypsies, informal settlers from around the world, even of the homeless in reason, deprived of education, of enhanced perspective, let alone, nutrition.  But it is enough that we can learn from his invocation of the less probable, of the impossibility of a “landscape [thinking] itself in [us].” Merleau-Ponty describes ‘depth’ to mean “the most existential dimension,”9 devoid of the illusion of a “linear third dimension,”10 which is exactly what we mean when we extend Cezanne to the schizophrenia of art in the outskirts of the infirmary of reason.


Image: The Large Bathers. Paul Cezanne

from http://www.cgfaonlineartmuseum.com/cezanne/p-cezanne19.htm



1 See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 62.

2 See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1987), 367.

3 See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cezanne’s Doubt,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans. Michael B. Smith. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 64.

4 Ibid., 66.


6 Ibid., 70.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 74.

9 See Galen A. Johnson, “Phenomenology and Painting: ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, 12.

10 Ibid.



One response

  1. dmfant

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero.

    February 21, 2015 at 10:29 pm

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