Tag Archives: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the Reason You Can’t Explain Why You Love Your Leica

 

This seems an appropriate photo for this discussion

I’ve just got done plowing my way through an important work of 20th-century French philosophy: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception, which reproduces a number of his works that first appeared in various publications from 1947 to 1961. I read it so you won’t have to; trust me, you don’t want to. Like much 20th century French philosophy, it’s turgid, bombastic, over-written – and fascinating in a WTF? sort of way…. but it has obvious implications for us as photographers, and particularly as “Leica photographers” who find a certain aesthetic value in the act of photographing itself. So bear with me. You might just learn something.

According to Merleau-Ponty, philosophy has long stressed thinking as opposed to doing as the way we understand things.  This is because western philosophy has always thought of the mind as something distinct from the world: there is the thinking self and then there are physical things, and it’s the mind, not the body, that is the site of thinking and learning. This is referred to in philosophy as “dualism,” the idea that your mind is something different than stuff out there, somehow roped off from that ‘out-there,’ sort of like a puppeteer pulling the strings of your physical body after first developing an intellectual understanding of how to do things.

According to Merleau-Ponty, however, this dualistic idea is wrong. He notes that we are in the habit of saying that we ‘have’ a body, which is not correct: you are not somehow outside your body… rather you are your body. Your mind is not somehow outside of time and space. Instead, it’s part of your body, a body that thinks, feels, desires, looks ahead, reflects. Thinking always emerges out of lived bodily experience, and what we do with our bodies profoundly shapes how and what we think.

Your body is the means by which you interact with the world, and, as such, it is the stuff of the world that is the necessary food for your thinking. Humans are thinking animals whose thinking is always infused with the physical, our minds not somehow apart from the rest of nature, but necessarily “embodied, ” indivisible from the physical,  and we learn not exclusively intellectually but when our embodied mind acts in the world.

*************

Take the example of a learned skill like dancing: Merleau-Ponty’s distinction explains why highly educated, self-conscious humans like me are usually terrible dancers, what I’ve heard referred to as suffering from the “honky pox” [for god’s sake, please do not ask me to dance]. To somebody like me who intellectualizes things, I’ll try to learn to dance by memorizing a sequence of steps, thinking my mind will then know how to move my body like a puppeteer pulls strings to move a puppet. For Merleau-Ponty, I’m an over-intellectualized idiot missing the obvious: the way to learn to dance is to move one’s physical body in space. The mind does not reflect and make a conscious decision before the body moves; the mind moves with the body.

In reply, you might say that this is true for physical activities like dancing but shouldn’t apply to all intellectual pursuits. Merleau-Ponty would respond that our body is our means of having a world. Everything we learn, think or know comes from our body. For example, walking through a meadow, rafting a river, or riding a bike in the country are how we understand geography, not by sitting in a room, looking at a map. There is no way for us to learn that bypasses the body: “the body is our anchorage in a world”.

This explains why a lot of what you know, what you’re certain about, can’t be put into words. People learn, think and value with every part of their bodies, and our bodies know things that we can never fully articulate. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, and capable of being known. That’s why you can’t explain with any specificity why you love your M4, even though you know you do and you know the experience is real. And it’s why the photographic philistines, the guys rocking their Sony A7r’s and posting at DPR review, smug in their technological sophistication, think you’re crazy to be going on and on about some ineffable magic thing your Leica possesses that you claim their digital imaging device doesn’t. But it’s the reason behind the oft-repeated claim of photographers who experience their photography as somehow more satisfying, more authentic, in winding a shutter, setting your aperture, focusing you lens, developing and handling a negative – in short, interacting with your camera’s functions and the act of photography itself – instead of the incoherent act of pushing a button and staring at a screen with a nested menu of commands to produce an intangible file that exists nowhere in particular.

One of the things you’ll hear again and again when photographers who use Leica try to articulate why they prefer it over a more technologically sophisticated device is that it just feels right, it “works.” When you say that, you’re trying to give words to body experience, to knowledge gained by doing, by interacting in a physical way with your tools, not by reading a spec sheet and internalizing the data. I think the main reason photographers continue to gravitate to old Leica’s is because they ‘work,’ they’re a perfect match between form and function. They feel right.*** That doesn’t quite get at it, but it’s as close as you can articulate it. Digital advocates sometimes seem to forget that we are animals that want to move and interact in the world, we need to do things and thereby learn, not sit back and passively watch from a screen as a device makes our decisions for us.


***Postscript: Shortly after publishing this piece, a reader named Lee Rust replied with his description of what I’m trying to get at, an articulation I’m including here on the face of the post because I think it’s gets close to the heart of that ineffable quality of using a Leica that one experiences via usage:

“The Leica M film cameras are a sensory delight. The shape, size, weight and surface textures have been consistent over many decades and are naturally suited to the hand. Just like a baseball, they are meant to be gripped and there’s nothing that sticks out and pokes. The controls are simple and clearly marked, and the buttons, dials, rings and tabs find the fingers with unambiguous tactility. The lenses are compact, the viewfinder bright and uncluttered and the rangefinder simple and direct. The shutter makes soft but complex sounds, especially when the slow speed gears add their springy little bounce. The winder advances the film and sets the shutter with a quiet creak and affirming click. The separate bottom plate and hinged back door make the loading of each new cassette a deliberate ritual of preparation and expectation.

For those who are attuned to it, a Leica M film camera makes the composition and exposure of each frame into a discrete physical experience that is quite separate from the resulting photographic image.”