Vital spaces: A feminist re -reading of Merleau -Ponty's account of corporeality

Agnes Beatrice Curry, Fordham University


The dissertation explores Maurice Merleau-Ponty's model of corporeal subjectivity as articulated in the Phenomenology of Perception. I ask whether his reflective descriptions of perception, motility, libidinal attraction and gestural expressiveness are helpful for feminist thinking. I conclude that in spite of his neglect of the question of sexual difference, his ontological disclosing of our fundamental experience as a field of processive and progressive configurational meanings, as well as many specific descriptions of the modalities of corporeal subjectivity, remain true. His thought should be useful in feminist investigations of knowledge, interpersonal connection, political force and possibilities for social change. After sketching Merleau-Ponty's method and his revisioning of perception, I read his descriptions of corporeal spatiality, sexuality, and linguistic expression in light of three feminist critics. I explore Iris Marion Young's use of his framework to describe feminine modes of gross-motor movement, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone's suggestions that he neglects the tactile-kinesthetic dimensions of bodily spatiality, and Judith Butler's accusations that his description of sexuality remains masculinist and heterosexist. I find that each offers trenchant criticism while also perpetuating misreadings of Merleau-Ponty. I also attend to Butler's and Sheets-Johnstone's independent projects. Each develops aspects of Merleau-Ponty's thought and pushes to an extreme the constructionist and naturalist tendencies he attempts to balance. Butler's performative and melancholic models of gendered corporeality gain plausibility through surreptitious appeal to phenomenological evidence her post-structuralist perspective eschews. Sheets-Johnstone's articulation of the natural-historical dimensions of bodily subjectivity and her description of sexed power relations slighted in culturalist explanations remains intriguing, though her description of female embodiment turns out to be one where the significance of female embodiment is not disclosed by the subject herself, but described by others. I close by suggesting the timeliness of a corporeal-feminist critical-phenomenological perspective that exercises a preferential option for descriptions of experience of the hitherto marginalized, while remaining critically open to hermeneutic insights and explanatory resources. I suggest that phenomena in particular need of critical description include illness and sexual violence.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Curry, Agnes Beatrice, "Vital spaces: A feminist re -reading of Merleau -Ponty's account of corporeality" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9964561.