In explaining the body in relation to objects, the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty asserts in his seminal work, Phenomenology of Perception “the outline of my body is a frontier which ordinary spatial relations do not cross.” In contrast, my frontier (the outline of my body in relation to an object) is blurred. I was born with a hydrocephalus (a bubble of cranial fluid—in my case, one about the size of a plum) in the parietal lobe in the right hemisphere of my brain. My brain matter reorganized itself around this bubble of fluid, losing some connections and creating compensatory ones. For example, I have a difficult time with concepts of time (the passage of time, how long an hour is for example) and spatial orientation (I have difficulty telling left from right and following maps or directions), as well as pretty extreme difficulties comprehending basic math and science.
With this in mind, I have a unique appreciation for how distrustful Merleau-Ponty is of the theoretical construction of our scientific understanding of perception. Merleau-Ponty based his life’s work on his belief that perception is as essential to our understanding of the world as it is inherently incalculable. Visual perception, how we relate to both objects and each other as we move through time and space, is a cognitive rendering of the world that requires a constant combination of internal assessment and external agreement in order to exist. As someone with a weakened right Parietal lobe, the part of the brain that assesses special and visual information, I live outside of this agreement.
Because of my condition, I am not a validating witness of traditional concepts of time. Instead, I remain suspicious of time. It is as though everyone around me has a tactile understanding of the passage of time that for me remains continually out of reach, on the horizon. I want to be able to reach out and grab onto the structure it imposes, as if it were a piece of physical architecture.
Since comparing experiential understandings of the body in time and space is impossible without reference, I can only measure my puzzlement with time and spatial relations against someone else’s relative clarity. It’s largely by comparing the natural expectations of others (that I have a given estimation of how long an hour is, for example) with my personal experience that I can confirm that I live outside of a neurotypical understanding of the world. Neurological examinations can validate my experience to a degree; still, it’s impossible to measure motor perception in units or award a decisive quantitative understanding of the internal landscape. For all of my life, I’ve collected information about my neurological discrepancies by comparison.
Since my concept of time is corrupted data my testimony is not validating to others, therefore rendering my impression largely useless in comparative situations. Humanity’s concept of time is made up largely of comparative situations; we all run by a clock because we all agree to ascribe to a unit of measurement. To me, these units of measurement (minutes, hours) are both an anchor that secures me to time and a weight that sinks me beneath it. While I appreciate having my time cut into units, I can never retain an internal grip on how quickly or slowly each unit passes. I choose to ascribe to this testimony of time in an attempt to stay “in synch” with the world at large, units, in order to remain part of a society that agrees to run in accordance to this understanding but it is not my testimony. My measurement of time is constructed by activities and how long they take, rather than hours. This is also faulty unit of measurement, however, since I have an especially difficult time estimating beforehand how long any given activity or task may take to complete.
The laws of how we navigate our bodies through space safely are related to the laws guiding our navigation of language. There is also a fragility of language not unlike the fragility of the body. Navigating the rules of language is a haven for me, as a writer, a place to rest from navigating the rules of the body. That said, Merleau-Ponty has taught me that the two are so deeply connected that there is no true way to find respite from one set of rules by engaging in another. Language is flesh, and flesh is language. My perception is linked to my testimony, which in turn is linked to my writing. Merleau-Ponty states, in the essay “Indirect Language And The Voices of Silence” (found in Phenomenology of Perception):
What is hazardous in literary communication, and ambiguous and irreducible to the theme in all the great works of art, is not a provisional weakness which we might hope to overcome. It is the price we must pay to have a literature, that is, a conquering language which introduces us to unfamiliar perspectives instead of confirming us in our own.
My condition is a breach of perceptual faith, or my perceptual faith is placed elsewhere; I pray to a different perceptual deity. I did not inherit the universal perceptual faith, however, in order to participate in society I try to believe in something that I can’t understand. Just as you can’t see the back of your head but you can touch it in order to know that it’s there, I can’t understand how long an hour is but I can still contain my time within it with studious attention to my digital watch. I look at a watch to acknowledge time, just as you may place yourself between two mirrors to acknowledge the back of your head.
I have an invisible disability—a disability that may become “visible,” or acknowledged, depending upon circumstances or environment. For example, when I am eating at a restaurant with someone else unless we split the check that the other person will never realize that I do not know how to calculate the tip.
My handwriting is also affected by condition—because my brain has a hard time processing what my eyes see, I have dysgraphia, a motor condition that renders my handwriting nearly illegible, especially to the uninitiated or the impatient. My handwriting is my own code, a letter to myself. It is also a testimony of my condition- my identity is embodied in my handwriting, just like anyone else. My motor skills and my spatial skills, the testimony of a failure to communicate, are translated via the work of my body from form to text. As Merleau-Ponty states, again in “Indirect language and the Voices of Silence”:
Our handwriting is recognizable whether we trace letters on paper with three fingers of our hand or in chalk on the blackboard at arm’s length; for it is not a purely mechanical movement of our body which is tied to certain muscles and destined to accomplish certain materially defined movements, but a general motor power of formulation capable of the transpositions which constitute the constancy of style.
Thinking is the language of the body; since there is no language without thinking there can be no thinking without language. Handwriting is only a gesture of thought.
In his essay “The Spatiality of One’s Own Body And Motility,” Merleau-Ponty uses language as a metaphor for a disabled body re-negotiating space. Speaking on the physical rehabilitation of Schneider, a trauma patient with damage to the occipital lobe (the lobe responsible for vision), he says “In looking for his body to perform the movement for him he is like a speaker who cannot utter a word without following a text written beforehand.” As someone with a brain that deviates from the agreed upon script of temporality, I have found that I am able to anchor myself temporally in language. Reading and writing anchor a person in the present via one’s inability to read or write more than a single word at a time.
I chose to write a memoir both as testimony of exception, of what it means to witness time lived outside of our agreed upon measurements of perception, and in to maybe help to validate the perception of others who may see the world as I do, though I don’t really know yet who that would be.
If, as Eric Mathews asserts in explaining Merleau-Ponty’s definition of perception in Merleau-Ponty A Guide for the Perplexed, “We can only attach meaning to an abstract idea by referring back to our own direct experience of things,” then my direct experience of things is lived outside of the understood rules of perception. I don’t drive because I cannot internally calculate how far and fast a car is headed towards me on a road. Unable to sense this, I am also operating outside of the laws of the road, a language that I will never be fluent in. The rules of the road, such as the amount of space between cars, are in place to govern our agreed upon rules of perception. Since I do not share this universal perception of time or speed, I find it difficult to follow laws that are founded in it.
That said, I am also dependent on the understanding of others and their agreement to abide by these laws. For example: even if I can’t tell how far or fast a car is headed towards me, if the car does not speed and stops at red lights, and if I agree to cross at cross walks only when the “walk” sign flashes, I am guaranteed safe passage to the other side of the street. In this manner, I do not need to fully understand the logic of common perception, how far or fast a car is going and when it may be safe for me to cross, in order to follow the rules grounded in it.
The singularity of my experience is insulated by he narcissism of perception, which inevitably echoes the narcissism of memoir. Merleau-Ponty states “…since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism to all vision.”
Memoir, as we know, is a written testimony of individual experience. Much of phenomenology is rooted in how people validate each other’s testimony of the boundaries of physicality. However, memoir, like perception, struggles to be inclusive as it remains forever exclusive. In the writing of a singular experience, the author must still validate the reader by emphasizing the commonalities of human experience. I write about my disability not only to testify and compare my individual experience, but as a reminder of my commonality and in the hopes of finding and building some form of community. Just as we all seek to validate our understanding of our own spatial perception by consulting others, we read about the singular, identifying experiences of others to better understand ourselves.
n my writing, I am also investigating the role of language about disability outside of the binary of “can” vs. “can’t.” How do I find a word that simultaneously communicates strength and weakness? A word that recognizes that they are not parallel traits but more like a double helix?
Merleau-Ponty uses the example of two hands clasped together, “When I press my two hands together, it is not a matter of two sensations felt together as one perceives two objects placed side by side, but of an ambiguous set-up in which both hands can alternate the roles of ‘touching’ and ‘being touched.’
When you shake one hand with your other hand, it is impossible to isolate the feeling of each hand individually clasping the other. You can see each hand touching the other, so you know it must be true, but you cannot feel the press of one palm independent from the press of your other palm. Ability and inability are two hands belonging to one person, each shaking the other.
In dissecting my neurological impairment thru the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s writing on phenomenology I am learning to sculpt a language for the body that articulates the intractable invisible link between weakness and strength, making it linguistically impossible for us to feel one without feeling the other.