Being & Death
Lecture: “Flesh as Limit-Experience”
I: PURE PRESENCE
SEBASTIAN HEIM: You stand amid the void. Directly in the center, if such a term can even make sense. Without difference, place is meaningless. Distance recedes infinitely in all directions. The room is edgeless, without shadow or crease. But there is color. You bask in a perfectly deep blue. This pure hue saturates your vision. It is absolutely complete, undifferentiated and uniform, like an endless ocean.
Then it appears to change. The color drains out like a storm. Grayscale. What is this? The signals in your eyes are malfunctioning. You’re losing your vision. Was it ever, truly cerulean, or was it only an azure dream hallucinated in the blackness of space? Have you gone blind? You look down. There are your hands, as before, painted in a gentle, cobalt light. You can see your feet on some sort of ground, or maybe floating above. Color returns, only to fade, and then return again.
This is the Ganzfeld effect. Your sensory apparatus is being starved of difference. This means: everything in a uniform field of color melts together over time. Like the loss of your ganglion cells, you enter a state of absolute indistinction, a state where everything becomes inconsistent multiplicity. Infinite connection. It’s a deathless death, incomprehensible and formless. This room has changed into an endless expanse of space, present before us.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The universe is open. Color is an outwards movement. Space is a field of light. Here, in the midst of Cai Turrell’s installation, vision becomes void.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: We are witnessing, through illusion, the state of existence as it was “before birth.” And this is where our project shall begin. As we can see, Turrell’s “Color Field” represents the pure presence of Being, the origin without beginning, the unknowable fullness of the void.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The world is always already there before reflection begins – as an inalienable presence. Everything exists; the world is given to us through intentionality. The very fact that our bodies are in a world and our perceptions are directed toward that world constitutes the world as “already there,” existing in pure presence, even before our cognition sets us in relation to it through reflection. This presence means that the world also sees us – we exist in the visible.
II: THE VISIBLE
SEBASTIAN HEIM: “Intentionality.” Let me describe what this means: we are beings within a world. Intentionality, then, is our irreducible ontological relation with this world. In other words, our consciousness comes into contact with something. Our bodies and our sensory organs prove this fact – experience has an “aboutness.” Every time we love, we love something; when we see, we see something.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Phenomenology, as a discipline, is the structural study of consciousness and its subjective experience. “Aboutness” is the perfect term for it. There is a materiality to phenomenology. It is through these “things” that we hope to grasp “Things.” Therefore, in regards to our project, we must posit a return to “the things themselves.” The very fact that we see, that we are part of the visible, means we already come into contact with these things.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: We see them and are seen by them. We’re part of the visible realm, which lies open before us. The fact of our perception is the actuality of the world. As beings within the visible, we are situated within a materially accessible universe of things. Simply put: we exist in the open.
Existence within the visible is exemplified by Jack Wallace’s “Faceplate” series. The artist, covered in white clay, photographs himself in almost identical poses in multiple locations throughout the Sun. The ashen clay on his skin calls back to primitive purity rituals. It undifferentiates his body, rendering him sculpturally primordial. The changing locations represent the vastness of the open. In each panel the figure looks through a thin glass “faceplate,” a mask of sorts. This mask embodies the fact of visibility. The seer sees, and is seen.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: When I perceive, I belong to the world as a whole. The faceplate says, “I am the window. Past, present, and future all merge before me.” This is the nature of light. Within the visible, I can recover a pre-personal form of existence. Like we saw earlier in Turrell’s “Color Field.” Pure presence surrounds us. Here, I can communicate with a world more ancient than thought. One in which all beings come together and unite with one another.
Following from this, Wallace’s work asks the viewer a question: “What, ultimately, am I?” The answer: “I am a field. I am part of the open; I belong to the open. I belong to the entire world.”
To “be conscious” is here nothing but “to belong to.”
SEBASTIAN HEIM: This notion of “belonging” is wildly important to our conception of the visible. As Badiou so eloquently stated in his set theory lecture, “To exist as a multiple is always to belong to a multiplicity. To exist is to be an element of.” Belonging is thus the only ontological verb of the visible. Consciousness is a vast intertwining. Existence belongs to the open.
However, this pure state of belonging never lasts – it is immediately broken by self-conscious reflection. The visible is inherently doubled, and then split by our knowing gaze.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me. Suddenly, I exist in a mirror. My reflection becomes my identity. And through that mirror I am able to articulate everything else that is not “me.”
Belonging then recedes into lack.
III: INTO THE LACK
SEBASTIAN HEIM: The mirror stage, as we’ve previously discussed, can be described as, “the process of becoming self-aware within the visible.” It signifies our entrance into language, and into the representational field as a whole. The mirror stage, if you remember, constructs our identities as coherent and isolated individuals by creating a subject/object split – this is the constitution of the subject as such. When an individual becomes an “I,” everything else becomes a “you.” This gesture is violently truncating, a cutting off of the world. But at what cost?
By achieving an identity, we lose the world. The subject is then marked by loss. We get separated from the visible, and the open, so to speak, closes. This split, like a stillbirth, sits in our hearts as irreconcilable lack.
This is the origin of alone.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Lack resides here, within the self-awareness of the subject. “We see ourselves seeing.” The subject constructs his or her self-image into an abstraction, as if in a mirror, in order to self-perceive the same way in which the other perceives. This goes to say – by becoming aware of the visible, we immediately separate ourselves from it. The world then becomes “an object” or “the other.”
This split walks hand in hand with our entrance into language. The subject/object divide, as Sebastian pointed out, is analogous to the separation of the pronoun “I” from all of the “you’s.” And this does something psychologically. Suddenly there are terms that can be used in a sentence. Objects that can be used as tools. We become relational within the visible. “Subjects” that can interact with “separate” others.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: The important thing to note here is that, not only does this split create a subject/object binary and separate the world from us, but also in doing so, it makes the world usable, as if it is there for us. Not only do we “use,” but we also “use up.” Nature becomes a mere stockpile of resources to be exhausted.
This does something tragic. Our “belonging” to the world becomes obscured. The lack widens into a ravenous sink. The subject is then placed in a technological stance toward the world.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Our use of the word “technology” should be defined. Here, it connotes a utilitarian vision. One that looks to use the world and other people as if they were tools, pieces of technology for its own ends. This is done in hopes to “re-fill” the hole in our psyches. As we have seen, when language separates us from the pure presence of the open, the resulting lack begins to gnaw at our psyches for more. Always wanting more.
This is a blind form of violence, one that is unaware of the visible, egotistically centered around the image of the subject alone. Therefore, the “technological stance,” as it stems from lack, is a desirous, destructive force.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: You mention desire. Here, the mathemes of Lacan, and the way in which they’re used in art, can help us illustrate this psychological structure. Let’s go on a tangent for a moment and explore some drawings that might illuminate the way in which the technological stance operates. We’ll start with a complete rectangle.
This shape represents the “field of existence.” Like Turrell’s installation, this matheme stands for pure presence. This complete form is open and fully visible. Life, as it is pre-birth. Then, narratively, the mirror stage occurs. With the introduction of language, a piece of this shape must be removed and separated out as “other,” as “you.”
This is the subject/object split. A section of the “totality” has been cut from its core to make an “outside.” Thus, on the left we have human life, which is shown as a shape with a missing center. And on the right we have the missing piece, the little, invisible object that structures identity via negative difference. As long as we are alive, that section of Being is gone, inaccessible to us. This removed piece thus becomes the symbol of our lack – the thing we strive for in life, the only thing that can “fill our emptiness.”
This is where desire comes in. Now that the “object” is gone, let’s focus on the left diagram, the image of life built around lack. At the outset, we have two ways to physiologically deal with lack. First, we can try to reclaim what was lost in hopes of becoming full again. In order to do this we must stretch a thin projection screen over the gaping hole in our heart. And then upon that screen we will project our wildest desires.
For example: why is it that a man thinks, “If I only get this job, or this car, or this woman, I will finally be complete?” And then, when he finally gets what he wanted, he realizes that he’s just as empty as before? This is because these “others” were only ever projections upon the desire-screen of lack. When he gets these “things” they fade away, revealing his gaping lack once more. Only the abyss remains.
This notion of desire as projection screen is illustrated by the work of Rachel Stern, who uses this rectangle-within-rectangle structure to make graphical video installations.
In this piece, Stern deals with the contextual separation of the human body from the earth. Desire, quite literally, is a screen on which video of skin is projected. Other works, like Cindy Torres’ “Evental Burn” and “Evental Field” deal with this matheme more directly. Using explosions of gunpowder, as in “Evental Burn,” she sears mathematical structures onto human flesh, enacting the narrative of how the human body is always already inscribed in and by language. “Evental Field” depicts the lack not as a screen or a hole, but rather as a tumultuous abyss of dark movement.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The drive must also be mentioned. The technological subject, as you said earlier, has two ways of dealing with lack. On the one hand, the subject can project across its surface, as does desire; or, on the other hand, the subject can simply circulate around lack’s gravitational field, as does the drive.
Drive is a complicated idea to grasp. It is never “for” something, but should rather be thought of as an abstract “orbit” around lack. Drive is structured like work, for instance, or like weightlifting. Artists who deal with the drive often use the language of athleticism to highlight this aim-based relationship. The same way in which a bodybuilder “reps” weights, the drive is an endless repetition of the structure of lack. This form of work is pure aim, never going for a goal or an endgame.
Hypertrophic development is a form of drive – building muscle through work. Matthew Björn’s “Restraint” series, for instance, depicts the production of art operating against systems of resistance. His pink wax weight sculptures blur the line between exercise machinery and bodily flesh. In an athletic performance done here in the library, entitled “climbSHAFT,” Björn scales the reading room walls like a rock climber leaving trails of wax “drawings” behind. All of his orifices are filled with equipment – he must take ice-climbing spikes from his anus to continue ascending. Thus, like a short-circuit, the artist’s “climbSHAFT” performance enacts the dream of a self-contained system of meaning production – pure drive.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: But it’s only ever a dream. Innocence has been lost. From the technological stance, it seems, the subject’s options for “completion” are limited. Must we always “deal with” the lack, never to truly be full again? How can we break the barrier that separates us from the world? Is there no way out for the individual?
Here, a grim thought crosses the artist’s mind – is death the only escape? If language and identity are the root causes of the subject/object split, then is an exit from this system the only way to transcend its binary? How can one “exit” identity anyways? And is death the only way to negate difference? The only way to become “complete” again, to bridge the lack and return to pure presence?
IV: THE PROJECT OF THE “/”
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Death haunts us at every turn. With ravenous hearts, we desire so much. And drive can only take us in circles. Every linguistic gesture we make is a trap. Each is a cell that ensnares us within identity; every word we speak reifies our separation. With tears in our eyes, we stare lack in its absent face. We are alone. Is there no way out? Is the rapturous call of death our only answer? Perhaps not.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: When we’re so ingrained in a system, like ideology, sometimes it’s near impossible to see a way out. Things are at their worst when every one of our options seems pre-chosen. When death seems like the only answer, as it did for everyone in 1939. Instead, it requires a radically new pair of eyes to see outside of the given structure entirely. In order to create a new world, what we need is a new vision.
The technological subject’s primary outlook was wrong – one mustn’t need to “transcend” the subject/object binary in order to bridge lack. That type of vision is blindly dualistic. The notion of “transcendence” itself even repeats the structure of separation. Perhaps we are “there” already? Perhaps we’ve been calling one thing by two different names all along? Separation, it seems, being a trick of language, is only ever a trick played on Being. The void, perhaps, has always been full.
There is a short gedankenexperiment that can help explicate this non-dualism. Picture a man locked in a room – this is his entire world. All he has to accompany him are two video screens, one in the left corner and one in the right. Each screen has a live video feed of a fish. One fish is pointed to the left, and the other straight ahead. When one fish turns ninety degrees, so does the other. When one fish turns up, so does the other. There seems to be communication between them, the man thinks. They seem to be dancing in a structured pattern.
Our man is a scientist. He wants to discover the true nature of these fish. So he begins to study them. Their vertical movement is perfectly mirrored. Their horizontal movement is coordinated, but offset by ninety degrees. When Lefty points left, Righty points straight ahead. The question becomes – how are these two fish communicating? Are Lefty/Righty sending signals back and forth? If so, what type of signal, since their communication seems instantaneous, like entangled particles? Are they sending messages faster than the speed of light? Our scientist gets excited. He thinks he can use the Lefty/Righty binary to prove light speed communication.
Then a door opens on the far wall. The man walks through the passage. There, in an annexed room, he sees a single fish tank. There is a videocamera on the front glass wall of the tank, and another camera on the left glass wall. Inside the tank there is only one fish. Suddenly, everything becomes clear. Our scientist built an entire field of knowledge around the Lefty/Righty split, yet, all the while, he was only viewing one fish from two different perspectives. There weren’t “two” things at all. Just one thing seen from two views.
The subject/object split is no different. Language is the video screens that create difference out of thin air. The single fish is the “body” of existence. Thus, the dualism of the subject/object split must also exist in something. There must be a “body” present on which these terms are inscribed, like the skin in Torres’ “Evental Burn.” What is this grammatical mark of Being? Where can we find it? We’ve spoken of “subjects” and we’ve spoken of “objects,” but we have not yet explored the “/” itself. Perhaps it is at the “/” where we shall find our single fish.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The phenomenological project can be seen as the passage through lack, not a bypassing of the subject/object split, but rather its very deconstruction, by existing on the “/” – on the thin membrane that is “both and yet neither.”
Our bodies are that body. Our immanence has always been a constant transcendence. So let’s focus our vision there – the body. Death is an exit only if we consider life and death to be separate states. Perhaps there is a deathless death? Perhaps we have always lived without being alive? Perhaps there has never been a life/death split at all, like Sebastian’s fish?
Such a radical thought clarifies our vision – we must exist on the “/,” at that limit, on the very threshold itself.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: From an artistic standpoint, the materiality of the body comes to represent this “suspended” position, this state between states.
Jack Wallace’s “ascent” performance, constructed in a barn within a warehouse in the Shade, mythologizes the compressed relationship the body has with the spirit. Here, we see the character of “The Wanderer” moving freely between states of immanence and transcendence, ascending and descending at will. He is an abyssal explorer, compressing depths and heights into one. This pliability has a material existence – the artist’s body is the medium (“medium” having both meanings: one as the artist’s material, and two as the psychic vessel through which the dead communicate with the living).
In this performance, the artist’s body is literally suspended between states, a gesture which becomes a metaphor for the superposition of art, the potentiality of the “/” that is “both and yet neither.”
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Returning to our rectangular diagram, we begin to see that the “/” is represented by the lines themselves, by the very borders of our drawing. When speaking of edges, the center becomes no different than the outside. A line is a line is a line. Both are limits to their respective frontiers.
We have been so focused on the hole in the center that we’ve missed the edge that surrounds our diagram. This line is not of the sphere of “subject,” of life, nor is it of the sphere of “other,” of death and the void. The “/” is the undifferentiated state between these two modes of existence. We mustn’t speak of sides. Dualism is illusory, like the fish. We must focus our new vision on this membrane itself, on the intertwining of bodies.
Henceforth, as the parts of my body together comprise a system, so my body and the other person’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: When you use the expression “two sides of one and the same phenomenon” I think immediately of de Saussure’s structural linguistics. He claims that thoughts and sounds don’t exist separately, but are rather two sides of the same sheet of paper. In his own words, “Neither are thoughts given material form nor are sounds transformed into mental entities; the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that ‘thought-sound’ implies division, and that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.”
Language, therefore, is not a naming process, but rather thought and speech are two sides of a piece of paper. By making a cut in one side, we also make a cut in the other. Thus, if language is constituted only by these “cuts” of difference through this sheet of paper, then the “/” we speak of now must be the paper itself.
This membrane, this “/,” must be a radical substance – one of paradoxical indistinction, one that exists outside the structure of difference altogether. This “/” must be a gesture of pure belonging, like the visible – both the “image maker and the image itself,” such as Carolee Schneemann so revolutionarily defined the feminist body in art.
“Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions” reclaims as feminist the body-as-brush aesthetic forged by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries,” Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, and Kazuo Shiraga’s “Challenging Mud” performance sculptures, and turns the artist’s body into an indistinct substance that is both brush and canvas, and yet neither. The feminist body, here, is thus transformed into a new visual territory, something Schneemann calls “vulvic space.” This is the serpent space, like werewolf, which can traverse both the visible and the invisible indiscriminately. The cave of the vagina becomes the symbol for “interior knowledge,” the unification of spirit and flesh.
Like Shigeko Kubota’s “Vagina Painting,” Schneemann’s naked body takes the terms “paintbrush” and “canvas” and exchanges them. Yet, somehow in the switch, they become one and the same, indistinguishable from one another. “Both, and yet neither.”
This is a radical deconstruction of the composition of being. Artists such as Schneemann have found the void’s thread and are pulling it free. This “/” is the umbilical cord itself. When loosed, everything unravels. The terms in the binary, such as subject/object or artist/canvas, switch chiasmically. Each contradictory term paradoxically combines into a new multiplicity. This chiasmic “vulvic space” is the place of superposition.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Let me briefly unpack the conceptual importance of the term “chiasm.” It starts with the Greek letter “Chi,” denoted by the symbol “X.” The term “chiasmus” means, quite literally, “to shape like the letter X.” Now, what does that mean?
Let’s look literally at the shape of the letter “X.” We have two upward facing lines. An “A” point on the left and a “B” point on the right. These two lines slope down toward each other, cross in the middle, and then switch places at the bottom. Now we have “B” on the left and “A” on the right. Used as a literary device, a “chiasmic structure” follows this reversal pattern to emphasize a point. For instance, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Here, we see a literal changing of position between our two terms in order to underline a drastic transformation in our narrative. This formal structure can be seen in literature all throughout history.
However, our interest here isn’t in the end result. Such a “switching of terms” can only repeat the dualistic structure we’re trying to overcome. Rather, the meaning we seek lies at the heart of the matter. There, at the very center of the “X,” we can see a single position emerge – the point of intersection between the “A” line and the “B” line. Here, at this singular node, there is no discernable difference between the two lines. For an instant they are one and the same. The switch has been frozen in time, and the two, opposite terms exist in pure superposition.
Such a non-dualistic understanding is immeasurably valuable for our phenomenological project. This state of chiasm is a “state between states,” a place of infinite potentiality where every arrangement of terms occurs simultaneously. The center of the “X” is, quite literally, “both and yet neither,” an expression we’ve been saying a lot recently. Why? Because this structure appears everywhere.
There is an “optic chiasm” in the human brain, for instance. Right below the hypothalamus, the optic nerves from either eye cross to opposite sides of the brain, combining in the middle to form an accurate image of the visible world. This crossing is essential to binocular vision. Chiasm, then, as both the rhetorical “inversion of phrases” and as the physiological “intertwining of optic nerves,” applies directly to the human body’s access to the open. Our body-world relation, we could say, is permanently, mutually intertwined. There is no “subject/object” split. By means of chiasm, there is only “/.”
Which is to say, by a sort of chiasm, we become the others and we become world.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: The mythological art narratives of Matthew Björn speak directly to the potentiality inherent in the chiasmic structure. His films and sculptures in the “Cremaster Series” deal with sexual differentiation in a similar way. Women have two ovaries, both of which extend upward into their bodies like the top of an “X.” Men have two testicles, both of which extend downward out of their bodies like the bottom of an “X.”
In the first few weeks of every human being’s life, when we were fetuses, that is, we existed somewhere between these two positions, at the very center of the “X.” We were sexually undifferentiated. It takes seven weeks before duality is forced upon the body. Until then, we have two indistinct gonads. They could go up and make us female, or they could go down and make us male.
During those first weeks, when they’re neither up nor down, when they’re chiasmically at the center of the “X,” the human body exists in a biological state of sexual undifferentiation, a state of pure potentiality. These glorious weeks can be seen as the initial “Dionysian” moments of the human body. During this time, the human body exists in a state of sexual superposition. Our flesh, in this instance, is universal.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Chiasmic intertwining exists, as we have shown, and, as we shall see, it has a material existence upon the human body. As Sebastian mentioned earlier, the “/” is structured like the sheet of paper in linguistics. Which is to say, our body is a being of two leaves, from one side a thing among things and otherwise what sees them and touches them; we say, because it is evident, that it unites these two properties within itself, and its double belongingness to the order of the “object” and to the order of the “subject” reveals to us quite unexpected relations between the two orders.
We can both touch and be touched. We feel the outside world with the same organ that is felt by that world. The precise boarder of our body, that which keeps our insides in, also provides our primary source of contact with the outside world. What is this ultimate limit? I’m speaking here about flesh.
Skin is both the immediate, paper-thin barrier between the subject and the object and the limit that stands as the site of intertwining between the two. This goes to say – flesh is chiasmically structured. As both the barrier and the sensory organ to the world, flesh is the center of the “X;” it is the point at which subject and object cross, the point at which they become indistinguishable from one another.
Flesh is in constant superposition. There is no subject/object split after all, but rather just two sides of the same thing. Flesh is the body and the world making a single system, where the subject and the object have become whole – two sides of the same phenomenon. This complex relationship has yet no term in philosophy. That is why we must name it “flesh.”
SEBASTIAN HEIM: Returning to the athleticism of Jack Wallace’s performance art pieces, we can see how bodily materiality might fuse binary opposites into a single ontological system, just as the heavens might be fused with the earth to form a single sphere.
In Wallace’s “OSSIFY” performances, all division between immanence and transcendence is obliterated. They are rather one, fused by sculptural action. Like bones reaching out from the void, a rope “umbilical cord” connects the animal realm with the heavens. It is important to note that the animal realm, here, is denoted by a zebra skin rug in the shape of the “rectangle-within-rectangle” diagram.
Done in the Shade library just a few weeks ago, Wallace climbs a rope from the zebra rectangle to an I-beam in the ceiling above. A bone is created by mixing plaster and water in a series of buckets, which are attached to his harness, and then smoothed onto the rope until it hardens. The athletic performance of climbing and plastering solidifies this field of truth within the body itself. Its connection is ossified. The bodily and the transcendental become inexorably linked, compressed, even, into one.
The main character, “The Climber,” is caked in white clay, an image that instantly calls to mind the aesthetic of Butoh dancers. In highly controlled form, the dancer must emancipate pure life from the flesh of the body by means of extreme, grotesque action.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Everything combines upon the skin. Flesh, as a from of presencing (which is to say, as a process of making existence reemerge into the open of pure presence), is inherently chiasmic, an immeasurable intertwining of infinite depth, combining both presence and absence, visibility and invisibility, even life and death into a new metaphysical doctrine that deconstructs both the subject and the object by focusing solely on the “/.”
Here, everything becomes one sole tissue: the chiasmic flesh, which is a universal flesh. It is a primordial assembly of Things. And, it is the place from which we shall gain a new vision.
We see artists such as Yoko Ono chiasmically deconstruct the relationship between viewer and art object in “Cut Piece.” Hermann Nitsch’s gory religious actions ecstatically combine the profane the holy into a single substance. And of course, Carolee Schnemann’s orgiastic happenings, such as “Meat Joy,” celebrate the flesh as material in a Dionysian chiasm of pleasure and pain, love and cruelty, and creation and annihilation, all into a single witches’ brew.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: There, Yoko and I merged in artistic chiasm. Flesh states: there is no subject or object independent of a relationship; they are rather two sides of the “/.” The technological stance, as we were previously discussing, is only constituted by cuts through the paper surface of language, by the establishment of arbitrary difference. We now know that this duality was only ever an illusion, like the fish. There were never “two things,” just one thing seen from two different perspectives. Our goal, then, is to eliminate this difference. Thus, true ontological reality can only be revealed upon the thin line of materiality between these two states, the place that is “both and yet neither.” Some day, we will meet there again.
This clarifies our phenomenological project – we must return to the flesh, to the uncut “/” itself. To approach the flesh (and eradicate all linguistic difference in doing so) means that we near some line of obliterating continuity, one that boarders both death and life in equal measure. This is an extreme experience, and one that must only exist at the furthest limit.
Therefore, flesh is a limit-experience.
VII: LIMIT-EXPERIENCE & THE VOID
SEBASTIAN HEIM: We must always seek experience at its furthest limit. We must push the boundaries of love and sex, of life and violence, of presence and vision. Only then can we touch the void. Only then can we break through lack and reemerge into the open. All beings are, by definition, in chiasmic contact with all of Being.
Flesh is a radically transformative experience. It changes us. It breaks down the walls of our isolated egos, it pushes our minds and bodies to their breaking points, and it chiasmically combines us with others, obliterating boundaries and opening us into the void, that universal nexus of unspeakable truth.
Such a “limit-experience” can be defined by quickly turning to mathematics. A “limit” is, quite simply, when one value approaches another value. In this case, we’re speaking about the technological subject approaching the void. That sounds poetic, but what does it mean? We can get some clarification by turning to another math term – the asymptote. As we mentioned earlier, we’re not talking about actual death. Yes, death is the purest experience of the void, to which we will all someday return. But that is not our point here. Our goal, while being alive, is to live.
In that case, via flesh, we must asymptotically approach death. An asymptote occurs when a curve gets infinitely close to a line. This happens when the distance between the two values becomes zero, infinitely so, but somehow they never touch, they never intersect. This should instantly remind you of set theory mathematics and the definition of “radical newness.” Remember, there we had two sets sharing nothing in common except for the void. Which is to say – the set of life and the set of death only touch at the void’s surface, the surface which we have named “flesh.”
In other words, an asymptote is when a line and a curve only tangent at infinity. Seen from the perspective of the body, this becomes an extreme form of passion. We see this type of “limit-experience” in intense states of revealing disassociation, like through drugs and radical spirituality, through intoxication and violent Dionysian abandon, we see it in the artist’s punishing language of ascetic practice and bodily exploration, we see it in the uninhibited performance of sado-masochistic eroticism with the body of a lover, and we see it here, in the Shade library, in the questioning minds of each other, our friends, our peers, our fellow revolutionaries, and at the mouths of Miner’s caves, those rhizomatic systems of communal existence, an unspeakable touch, and what it teaches us about Truth, however unknowable.
Flesh asymptotically breaches the boundaries separating reason and unreason, conscious and unconscious, pleasure and pain, and, at its most extreme limit, the very line that chiasmically combines life and death.
In this diagram, we can see how the limit-experience fits into our schema of existence. Asymptotically approaching the outside “/” stands as a limit-experience to death. This is because outside of the rectangle (which is to say, outside of language) lies pure presence – obliterating death. To approach the outside flesh is to gain a nearness to death.
However, we have another asymptotic option. We can approach the inside “/,” the flesh of our innards, the void at our very hearts. This is the lack. As we mentioned earlier, desire paints over the lack and drive orbits around it. Yet, here, at the extreme limit of experience, we can dive directly into the void. Such an experience would be a deep dive into ourselves, into the darkness at the depths of our cave-like hearts. Such an asymptote is the limit-experience to Truth.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: To dive within is an event of shadows. If the boarders around our diagram, the “/,” is flesh, then are we claiming that there are two types of flesh? Outward-facing flesh and inward-facing flesh?
Yes, we most certainly are. Our skin is the outside of our bodies. To breach that “real flesh,” we shall call it, is to die, since real flesh is the boarder between life and death. I am not being metaphorical here. To cut all your skin off is to be dead. Thus, the limit-experience of real flesh is death.
However, we must ask, what is the inward-facing flesh within our psyches? What is the boarder around our lack? What is the thin membrane that separates our technological selves from the thing within us that isuniversal? We have no name for this yet, even though we touch its limit every time we dive deep. I shall name this inward-facing boarder our “shadow flesh” to borrow a term from Carl Jung. This shadow flesh chiasmically connects both our personas with our shadows and our egos with the Self. Thus, the limit-experience of the shadow flesh is Truth.
In Yves Kline’s “Leap into the Void” we see the artist levitating between states of existence. “A man in space!” the caption read when Kline published this image in a one-day newspaper seven years ago. “The painter of space leaps into the void!” Chiasmically poised between states, Klein’s leap directly situates the body over the void.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: Let’s do the same. Let’s situate our rectangle diagram over the void and see what happens. In the way we had previously narrativized life, existence as pure presence had been a complete rectangle, and then the mirror stage had removed a piece as lack. Maybe this is the opposite way we should be looking at existence? Perhaps lack isn’t the missing section, but rather, life itself, the technological stance, is a donut-shaped screen laid across the primordial void?
What we now see is a depiction of the two types of flesh, as Maurice was outlining earlier. Outside of real flesh there is the void. This is death. Within shadow flesh there is also the void. This is Truth. This death/truth chiasm should be reminiscent of the cave-structure of existence. Perhaps this diagram was never two-dimensional? Let’s turn it on its side.
Now we can finally explain why the void was simultaneously outside the cave and deep within its recesses. The truth is – there is only void. The cave-structure-rectangle diagram of existence was only laid across the void. The chiasm of flesh thus combines both inside and outside into one cave-like labyrinth. Big death lies on the outside of real flesh, while evental Truth lies on the inside of shadow flesh. Our goal, then, as evental wanderers, as truth seekers, is to dive deep.
Since Maurice mentioned Jung earlier as inspiration for “the shadow,” I’m reminded of a dream he once recounted, one where he dove “deep into an abyss.” I think that his story can resonate here. He wrote, “I frequently imagined a steep descent. I even made several attempts to get to the very bottom. The first time I reached, as it were, a depth of about a thousand feet; the next time I found myself at the edge of a cosmic abyss. It was like a voyage to the moon, or a descent into empty space. First came the image of a crater, and I had the feeling that I was in the land of the dead. The atmosphere was that of the other world.”
Jung’s inward-seeking project of individuation, as we’ve just heard, has the same language as our outward celestial wandering. Themes of “diving deep” into “thousands of feet,” of “cosmic abysses,” of “empty space” and “the land of the dead.” Perhaps these two projects are the same, chiasmically combined by a single flesh? Human beings, it seems, are compelled to venture into the emptiness of space because going out is no different than going in.
We are always, only, searching for ourselves.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Let’s touch upon this “archetype of archetypes,” to use a Jungian phrase. As we’ve established, the limit of real flesh is death. But to die in death is Sun logic, as the rapture showed us. Our goal is not to die, no per say. Rather, when we dive inside the cave of ourselves, into the darkness that is the shadow flesh, we find a deathless death. This is the void as infinite paradox, as werewolf, as superposition, as chiasm, or, as Jung would say, as “Self” with a capitol “S.” This “Self” is the eternal archetype of our Being.
Our inward-facing spiritual journeys have taught us that “being” is inexorably linked to “Being.” Jung wrote that the Self (which is only his word for “the void”) has “no definable character at all – born, living, dead, everything in one, a total vision of life.” All of human existence, he claims, is contained within the body of the individual. This is because the individual is never actually a singular being. He posits that we all house the universal void within our core. This is the God within everyone, the cosmos within everyone, the Truth within us all.
As Jung once asked, “The decisive question for mankind is this: are we related to something infinite, or not?” Let us attempt to answer this question today. In hopes of doing so, I’d like to posit that “real flesh” and “shadow flesh” were never two separate things at all. Why would they be, after all we’ve learned over the past month? They were always “both and yet neither” from the outset, like our fish. The inside of the cave and the outside of the cave, Truth and death, must chiasmically combine into one flesh, which we must conceptualize as a “superposition of flesh,” all states at once.
We shall name this superposition “universal flesh.” This universal flesh shall become our new vision; it’s the true goal of our phenomenological project. This universal flesh would be radically attuned to prepersonal intercorporeality, to the pure presence of the visible, to openness itself.
Yet, how does this happen? How can the inside reach the outside?
Let flesh touch flesh, I say. Let’s open the caves. Let’s open ourselves. Not bridge the lack, but tear it open. Yes – the tear above our heads opens. When we enter it we entangle with it. It turns us into superposition. All of us within the void – that is universal flesh. We pull open shadow flesh until it touches real flesh. The two “/’s” become one and the same, Truth and death, like living without being alive, like a deathless form of dying. Flesh is the frontier.
Matthew Björn’s installation “Jouissance” begins with our familiar rectangle-within-rectangle structure. Yet, circulating around the plaster screen is a wax action painting, which looks milky-clear like semen. Referencing Pollock, this wax painting signifies ejaculation, which, as the end of the sexual act accompanied by orgasm, is the “little death” of eroticism. This outside symbolizes our real flesh.
Within the lack we see a video projection of the artist slowly working, with the heat of his hands, on a pink wax weight. Like an anus, the hole in the center of the weight is slowly opened, expanding the darkness of the orifice. This darkness is the shadow flesh within the individual’s psyche. This act of pulling open an anus is reminiscent of the obliterating pleasure of S/M – like extreme fisting. The goal here isn’t to “finish,” but to explore. This is a new possibility of pleasure, one that eroticizes the entire body, not just the genitalia. By desexualizing pleasure, the artist is staking a claim on the entire body as canvas for his act of creation.
By ripping open the weight, Björn is exploding the binary of flesh. He expands the hole in the center, the lack itself, in hopes of touching the outer edge with the inner edge, the two “/’s”. These two then become the same, as if death and Truth have entered superposition. The inside of the cave becomes indistinguishable from the outside of the cave. In short, the artist is enacting universal flesh.
When the two sides touch, something incredible happens. Something unspeakable at the limit of experience. This something is outside the realm of knowledge completely, since what we’re talking about is precisely a rupture in knowledge – evental Truth. Here, within the fissures of the tear, universal flesh collapses our entire structure of consciousness. Everything changes. Everything becomes the void.
SEBASTIAN HEIM: Thus, we find ourselves back within the visible. Within the open of pure presence. Only different, now. We’ve returned to where we began but with fresh perspective. After all, our phenomenological project was always about vision. It was always about seeing the void.
What does this mean? Let’s briefly look at the structure of light. Einstein and Tao helped show us that light’s experience of itself is chiasmically structured. That is to say, light is going light speed. This means that, for light, time dilation is at its infinite limit. All of history is compressed into a single moment, from past to present to future. Like axiom one of evental geometry, time becomes a single point in superposition. Also, distance contraction reaches its infinite limit. Relativity shows that, as a body approaches light speed, space contracts with time. Thus the expression, “space-time.” There, at light speed, all of the cosmos is compressed into a singularity. Light is everywhere all at once, like a field of inconsistent multiplicity. Thus, inside the cave of ourselves, once expanded to its limit, there is only becoming-light.
This is our new matheme for universal flesh, for the evental Truth process. Here we see the void of our shadow flesh expanding outwards in all directions. An outwards movement, indeed. As the “/” of shadow flesh opens, its limit reaches the limit of real flesh, the outward “/” of death. Thus, the two voids touch and become one – universal flesh.
With a blinding light, the void becomes our new vision.
MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: We must take literally what vision teaches us: namely, that through it we come into contact with the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere all at once.