Leyla Sophie Gleissner — Making One Body Out of Two? On Being-In-One-(an)-Other

The purpose of my research is to develop a useful phenomenological glossary to examine a specific mode of traumatic experience: situations of violence in which one out of two subjects attempts to appropriate the other’s body, expanding into the other, the latter thus being treated as a bodily-object rather than as a singular embodied subject. In my paper for the Irigaray seminar, I show how Luce Irigaray’s philosophy of difference carries out the task of thinking subjectivity as constitutively embodied – and therefore open to others –without risking a violent appropriation of one of the two bodies involved in a shared experience. I suggest that Irigaray opposes a fusing model of inter-corporeal relation by means of an ethics of what I call embodied between-ness in which embodied relationality is not confused or identified with a bodily state of, to use my terminology, being in-one-another.

Contrary to most works in the field of trauma studies, my project concentrates on the traumatized subject’s embodied perception of space rather than on the perception of time. The term “trauma” itself refers to a specific kind of spatial relationality – signifying ‘wound’ in ancient Greek. A wound can be broadly defined as an open and permeable space in which the inside and the outside are seamlessly and continuously mingling with one another. It can thus be described as two overlapping spheres with blurry limits. I suggest that this sort of intertwining of the inner and the outer spaces reveals the embodied character of the type of traumatic experiences mentioned above. Turning back to its original meaning of ‘wound’, ‘trauma’ might be described as a painful mode of embodied experience, rather than a solely psychic or solely somatic phenomenon.

A phenomenological spatial analysis of the wound can help us to understand our body as a place where the inner and the outside meet and intertwine: On the one hand, our embodied perception is singular, corresponding to the experience and the perspective of one person only. On the other hand, my body is fundamentally open to the world – it is always already in relation to other bodily subjects. The wound, therefore, is not merely an illustrative metaphor; it can be a signifier of both our bodily openness and the fundamentally vulnerable character of all embodied subjectivity. Being wounded implies a lack of protection, a being-exposed to the world, and the suffering of an affected embodied subject. Therefore, when I speak of embodied subjectivity or of embodiment, I do not refer to the body understood as an object amongst others in the world, e.g. the somatic body as, for example, a medical object. The body I refer to is the sensing, sensitive, and self-reflective flesh of a singular subject (French chair; German Leib).

Attempting to express this bodily enmeshment, this chiastic relation between the inside and the outside at an intersubjective level, my argument is based on the following claim: I assume that a certain space between two is indispensable for subjectivity. I call this space between-ness. As indicated in the etymological root of “inter,” inter-subjectivity terms the level of between-ness with regard to at least two subjects. Stated thusly, understanding inter-subjectivity as embodied experience implies that between-ness can be described as a space opening up between two bodies.

Following such assumptions, I will try to precise about what modes of subjective relatedness would be ethically permissible in keeping this irreducible distance. I consider that ignoring the latter is a violation of the other’s and of one’s own subjectivity – by attempting to reduce the two to one only. Furthermore, I argue that this failed form of bodily relatedness could be described at a spatial level, as a state of being in-one-an-other (germ. ineinander) – a term used in the phenomenological thinking of both Edmund Husserl (Hua 15, 1973: 367-368) and Merleau-Ponty (The Visible and the Invisible, 1968: 116, 180, 245). I consequently distinguish two modes of spatial intersubjective experiences of which I consider one to be potentially traumatizing (in-one-an-other), and the other potentially ethical (between-ness).

To develop these notions I compare two philosophical approaches, namely that of Maurice-Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and that of Luce Irigaray’s theory of sexual, or better, sexuate, difference. Both philosophers understand intersubjective relatedness as fundamentally embodied, but they do SO in contrasting ways. Whereas parts of Merleau-Ponty’s work seem to strive for a chiastic ideal of two bodies emerging into one another so that they would become one (see The Philosopher and his Shadow, 1964: 174; The Visible and the Invisible: 215, 263), Irigaray suggests that bodily fusion can be considered to be a patriarchal act of appropriation of the female’s body by striving for one-ness, notably in the name of sameness. She claims that, by erasing fundamental sexuate differences and attempting to make one body out of two prevents the two bodies involved in an experience from becoming subjects. Contrary to Merleau-Ponty, she therefore distinguishes intercorporeal and intersubjective modes of being in relation, claiming that the latter would arise only in ethical encounters in which both bodies involved continue to exist as two different singular fleshes (chairs).

Irigaray’s critiques of Merleau-Ponty (The Invisible of the Flesh, 1993: 151-184; To paint the Invisible, 2004: 389-405) are of particular relevance to this important contribution of her thought. For Irigaray, in phenomenology we risk taking “ourselves to be the centre of whatever perception: which would be according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the sign of access to humanity as such.” (To paint the Invisible: 397) She, furthermore, claims that, by privileging visibility over touch, Merleau-Ponty suggests a limitless visibility of the other. In other words, his prioritization of the visible is a manner of refusing the feminine subject’s difference – a difference which would entail her not being fully accessible to the appropriation by the masculine subject.

According to Luce Irigaray, it is by safeguarding a space between two differently sexuated subjects and by respecting the specific existence of each, that we ensure the condition necessary for any ethical encounter. Instead of cultivating the desire to incorporate the other, and therefor dismissing his or her difference, a true closeness can, paradoxically, only occur through maintaining a distance. By considering the latter to be irreducible, we attempt to respect the limits of both – limits, which can always be newly negotiated between two irreducibly singular subjects, or, in Irigaray’s terminology, two particular subjectivities.

In sum, Irigaray elaborates an ethics of embodiment which confronts the violence entailed by the striving of one for being in the other and for two to become one. Her ethics challenges the desire for appropriating the other by proposing A theory of inter-subjectivity which favors (1) difference over sameness and (2) closeness over fusion – in short – two-ness over one-ness. As my project seeks to show, a philosophy of difference can productively inform phenomenology of embodiment as well as trauma studies. Moreover, we can draw from it a notion of between-ness, both as a conception of space in the context of intersubjective experiences and as an ethical notion based on distance, which offers answers to questions from these two intersecting fields.