Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Merleau-Ponty and Marx on Nature and Art, by Gianna Maria Gatti (translated by Alan N. Shapiro)

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by Gianna Maria Gatti

(translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro)

Man is part of Nature. His origin comes from it, formed from the same material as all other beings. In the vision of the pre-Socratic Empedocles: “When they have been mixed in the form of a man and come to the air, or in the form of the race of wild animals, or of plants, or of birds, then people say that this is to be born, and when they separate they call this again ill-fated death;… of all mortal things no one has birth, or any end in pernicious death, but there is only mixing, and separating of what has been mixed, and to these men give the name  ‘nature’.”1

Interrogating Western philosophical thought, Maurice Merleau-Ponty pinpoints the original meaning of the concept of Nature. “In Greek, the word ‘nature’ comes from the verb φύω, which alludes to the vegetative; the Latin word comes from nascor, ‘to be born’, ‘to live’; it is drawn from the first, more fundamental meaning. There is nature wherever there is a life that has meaning, but where, however, there is not thought; hence the kinship with the vegetative. Nature is what has a meaning, without this meaning being posited by thought: it is the autoproduction of a meaning. Nature is thus different from a simple thing. It has an interior, is determined from within; hence the opposition of ‘natural’ to ‘accidental’. Yet nature is different from man: it is not instituted by him and is opposed to custom, to discourse. Nature is the primordial – that is, the nonconstructed, the noninstituted; hence the idea of an eternity of nature (the eternal return), of a solidity. Nature is an enigmatic object, an object that is not an object at all; it is not really set out in front of us. It is our soil – not what is in front of us, facing us, but rather, that which carries us.”2

But man distances himself from his origin, places between himself and nature those signs which are useful to him to denote it and represent it, sanctioning therefore the beginning of the autonomous differentiation of the phenomenal world which surrounds him. Going back to the Upper Paleolithic, the figurations of wild animals drawn on the walls of caves, already carriers of a meaning between magic and the practice dictated by the satisfaction of vital needs, divulging the inclination of man to exercize control over nature. A control that is also symbolic, expressed and fixed in reproductions of nature. These are the first testimonies of images produced by man, the first example of an elaboration intended to recreate nature, also indicating a sign of the possible first beginning of an artistic activity.3 Nature is the inevitable reference for man, and not only on an existential level. It is for him the object of comparison, of action and of modification, model of transfer via mimesis in his artistic expressions, becoming a subject through them.

Art can be seen as man’s continuous relationship with nature, as one of the ways that man has to reflect on nature – to know it and investigate it, to interpret it and recreate it according to his vision and his intentions, adopting different approaches and using the materials and tools that he chooses over the course of time, to grasp nature in its external appearances and in its internal, biological, evolutionary dynamics.4 In the diversification of the trajectory undertaken by art, in relation to the other spheres of human knowledge, influenced by cultural, economic, social and political changes, in the life of man in various historical epochs, nature is always the background to each of art’s expressions. Behind cultural stratifications, nature is the more or less hidden root of art. Such stratifications have produced the estrangement of man from nature, as well as the loss within himself of the awareness of being a part of it.5

1 – Empedocles: The Extant Fragments (edited with Introduction, Commentary, Concordance and New Bibliography by M.R. Wright) (first published in 1981 by Yale University Press) (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1995); Fragment 13(9), p. 176; “The fragment comes, with 12(8), 104(11), and 106(15), in Plutarch’s defense of Empedocles against the charge put forward by Coletes, that Empedoces, in abolishing generation, abolished life itself.” (Wright; p.176); Fragment 12(8), pp. 174-175. “The fragment is quoted by Aetius from the first book of the Physics.” (Wright; p. 175) (Note by Alan N. Shapiro:) M.R. Wright translates the final phrase of Fragment 12(8) as “and to these men give the name ‘birth’.” I have changed ‘birth’ to ‘nature’ to be consistent with Gianna Maria Gatti’s intention and context. Gatti cites an Italian translation of the two fragments reported in Antonio Capizzi, I presocratici (“The Presocratics”) (Florence: La Nuova Italia Editrice, 1972) (second edition 1984); p. 64.

2 – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France (compiled and with notes by Dominique Séglard) (translated from the French by Robert Vallier) (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy, 2003); pp. 3-4.

3 – The interpretation of the figurations offered by Weissberg calls into question the concept of simulation: “The first representations were already active media in the proper sense. The drawings of animals in prehistoric grottoes were not images in the modern sense of the term. They transferred the animal in flesh and blood onto the surfaces of rock, inaugurating in that way the history of representation via simulation. ‘To make appear as real that which is not’: the generic definition of simulation was therefore instituted as an almost natural practice… To make the animal live through the image means placing evidence ahead of the visible form,  separating the appearance from the object. And ‘that which is not real’ is not entirely illusory. It is simply not in the present. To place (and not to represent) the animal at the disposal of the gaze is thus an efficacious act to the degree that one conceives it within a chain that extends from the drawing to the hunt.” Jean-Louis Weissberg, “Le compact reél/virtuel,” in Jean-Louis Weissberg, ed., Les Chemins du virtuel. Simulation informatique et création industrielle (The Paths of the Virtual: Computer Simulation and Industrial Creation) (Paris: Numéro spécial des Cahiers du CCI, Centre de Création Industrielle, Éditions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989); p. 7.

4 – “The work is taken to have a subject which, directly or deviously, is derived from existing things – to be about, or signify, or reflect something which either is, or bears some relation to, an objective state of affairs. This third element, whether held to consist of people and actions, ideas and feelings, material things and events, or super-sensible essences, has frequently been denoted by that word-of-all-work, ‘nature’.” M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1953); p. 6.

5 – (Note by Alan N. Shapiro:) “What you are doing in these sentences is echoing what Karl Marx wrote in his early writings, like the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which then influenced the later development of his writings, so we should a bit think about the history of interpretations and controversy about these concepts and say it in the best way. You are presenting a version of ‘economic determinism’ of what brings about ‘un allontanamento dell’uomo della natura’, although you rightly expand economic to the 4 dimensions of the social, the cultural, the economic, and the political. So the next thing to be careful about is the ‘verb’ that we use to express this ‘determinism’. If we say ‘have produced’, I think that sounds too crude, the kind of simplified Marxism that we want to avoid. Marx has been criticized for having too much of a ‘productivist’ worldview. So ‘ultimately responsible’ makes the ‘determinism’ more sophisticated, as in theorists like Althusser and Poulantzas, who talked about a determinism ‘in the last instance’.” E-mail from Alan N. Shapiro to Gianna Maria Gatti, December 1, 2008.

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