Home Bacheca Articoli e testi The flesh of the visual: an interview with Mauro Carbone




Sophie Koeller & Louis Cheng

Vassar College


This interview was originally published in the Vassar College Journal of PhilosophyIssue 2.

Mauro Carbone is Professor of Philosophy at Jean Moulin University-Lyon 3 where he directs the Master Program in Aesthetics and Visual Cultures. Since 2012, Professor Carbone has been a Senior Member of the Institut Universaire de France, an honor he shares with only 2% of French academics.

Professor Carbone holds a PhD from the University of Louvain, Belgium. Before moving to Lyon, from 1993 to 2009 he taught at the Università Statale di Milano, in Italy, where in 1999 he founded the journal Chiasmi International. Trilingual Studies Concerning Merleau-Ponty’s Thought. From 1998 to 2000, Carbone was a member of the board of directors of the International Symposium on Phenomenology. With Miguel de Beistegui (University of Warwick, UK), Arnold Davidson (University of Chicago), and Frédéric Worms (École Normale Supérieure, France), in 2008 he founded the European Network in Contemporary French Philosophy, which he co-directed until 2010. Professor Carbone’s international exposure is very impressive. In the past ten years, he has been a visiting professor at universities in Mexico, the New School in New York, the Beida Peking University in Beijing, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2005, Professor Carbone was awarded the “Viaggio a Siracusa Prize” for the best Italian philosophical essay published in 2004, and in 2009 he received the “Maurizio Grande International Prize” for his work on cinema.

Among Professor Carbone’s published works in English are, The Thinking of the Sensible. Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy (Northwestern University Press, 2004); An Unprecedented Deformation: Marcel Proust and the Sensible Ideas (SUNY Press, 2011); and the forthcoming The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty Between Painting and Cinema (SUNY Press). Among Professor Carbone’s many books in French, we want to recall Être Morts Ensemble: l’Evenement du 11 Septembre 2011 (Éditions Métis Presses, 2013), which is dedicated to the writings on the walls in New York City in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and mentioned in this interview. Among his books in Italian, La Carne e la Voce. In Dialogo tra Estetica ed Etica (Mimesis, 2003) and Sullo Schermo dell’Estetica. La Pittura, il Cinema e la Filosofia da Fare (Mimesis, 2008).

On April 1, 2015 Professor Carbone visited Vassar College and gave a lecture titled “The Flesh and the Thinking of the Visual Today.” The event was part of Philosopher’s Holiday, a series of talks that has been bringing both distinguished philosophers and young scholars to Vassar for more than fifty years. The topic of Professor Carbone’s lecture was an interpretation of one of the key concepts of Merleau-Ponty’s late work, the flesh, which Professor Carbone thinks affords us a privileged lens through which to understand the status of the image in contemporary culture.

In this interview, we continued to discuss the lecture’s main argument about the flesh as a key to understanding the status of the visual in contemporary culture, which has crucial political, ethical, and sociological implications. Suffice to think of the worldwide response to provocative cartoons in Paris and at the outskirts of Dallas, or the mobilizing power produced by the circulation of photographs of human rights abuses, in Tunisia or in Ferguson, to see the high stakes of the question Professor Carbone is tackling.

In Carbone’s reading, the mainstream philosophical tradition has conceived of images in the broadly defined Platonist perspective, which interprets them as copies of a model. Our conversation led to an interrogation of this dominant Western metaphysical conception that posits rigid demarcations between categories like subject and object, seer and seen, and of course human and nonhuman. In problematizing these oppositions Carbone presents an alternate conception of identity, heavily indebted to Merleau-Ponty’s late work: identity is for him something constantly becoming and endlessly re-defined by the new relations into which it enters.

Carbone’s visit took place at a delicate time on campus, as the mission of the College feels to many at odds with itself: facing the challenge of reconciling its place as a progressive institution of higher learning with disparities of access to opportunities, and, right at a time when we have a more diverse student body, a rising tendency toward the securitization of campus life.

The pitch of this delicate transition was the subject of a photography exhibition, entitled Haunting Legacies. Photography and the Invisible, curated by Professor Borradori along with the students in her class, “Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics,” which we, the interviewers, both took this semester. In curating this exhibition, students were able to use the very rich photography collection of Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center to examine the role of photography in the creation, and fabrication, of cultural memory. Through the combination of photography and text, the exhibition also sought to interrogate the photograph as political agent. During Professor Carbone’s visit, we took him to see the exhibition, which became another topic of our conversation.

Sophie Koeller and Louis Cheng: We will start with the theme of our journal this year: Nonhumans. One of the first questions we would like to ask is whether you think there is a meaningful distinction to be made between humans and nonhumans?

Mauro Carbone: Traditional Western thought is based on the idea that identities are something stable, something fixed, and the relationship is conceived of in terms of two identities — two already established identities — meeting one another. According to this way of thinking, identities are first and relationships are second. If we think Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh as a texture of differences, we are pushed to reverse this picture: differences, as a kind of relationships, are first, and the encounter between differences simultaneously establishes identities. Therefore, these identities are never fixed identities but keep becoming on the basis of the always- possible encounters with other identities. The differences between human and nonhuman are the poles of a relationship establishing mutual identities. In my view, there is no radical distinction between humans and nonhumans. We should not separate or oppose these terms, but rather think of them relationally. You perhaps remember the movie Her: it tells the story of a man who is deeply in love with the operating system of his computer. The difference between humans and nonhumans, between man and his or her virtual partner, is not a radical distinction, an ontological opposition, but rather a difference, which establishes their mutual identities. Many in French philosophy misunderstand Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh as denying difference and the possibility of conflict. In my opinion, it is just the reverse. To speak about the flesh is to focus solely on the differences themselves.

LC: In your new book, The Flesh of Images, you talk about the notion of visibility in relation to the flesh. Is your notion of visibility related to what you have just talked about, the co-constitution of these oppositional pairs?



Joaquin Phoenix in Her, 2013

MC: Yes. I propose to think of the flesh as visibility. Merleau- Ponty speaks about the flesh as visibility himself in a page of The Visible and the Invisible. He suggests that visibility is the texture of differences. I am fascinated by this term, visibility, because it avoids the reference to who sees and who is seen. Visibility avoids both the sharp separation and the opposition between subject and object, seer and seen.

SK: In the introduction of your book, you talk about how photographs and images take us back in time — their presentation of what is absent always brings back an experience of death. But you also say that the image is not a copy but a creation of its own, and thus also an experience of birth. Could one understand the relationship of birth and death that you talk about in relation to images as something akin to the relation of reversibility between the visible and the invisible?

MC: This is a very important point. Today I visited the exhibition that you helped curate, Haunting Legacies. Photography and the Invisible. In it, you quoted Roland Barthes, who still thinks about photography as having an irreducible tie with death. And implicitly too, the exhibition seems to suggest that an image is a presentation of something absent. If we think that an image is a presentation of something absent, we are thinking that the absent was prior to the image. That is to say, the absent, which we can call reality, is first and the image is second. If it is so, we are once again thinking in a Platonistic way: of the image as a copy of a model. This is what is implicit in the idea that images have something to do with death — the death of what is now absent. What I tried to suggest in my book, through Merleau-Ponty and other French thinkers, is the idea that actually the images do not refer to something prior to themselves but present something that didn’t exist as such before. In my view, I see images more as creations than acts of memory, celebrating something dead. In this sense, images are more linked to life than to death.

SK: When we were working on the exhibition, we also talked about Derrida and his interpretation of photography’s relation to death, which is different from Barthes’. For Derrida, photography relates to death not only because it refers back to something that is no more, but also because the photograph itself is a disruption in the temporal flow: in pulling this one moment out of a flow of becoming, it ruptures a sense of the continuity of time. In one sense, it is certainly true that the disruption of the temporal flow has something to do with death, but in pulling that moment out of the flow the photographer also makes it into something that it wasn’t before. That moment is thus a new life. This is what I mean by birth: the coming into life of something that never truly was as it is presented. One of the photographs from the exhibit portrays a bell pepper. The true bell pepper has rotted away. But that picture of the bell pepper constitutes a new sort of life for it.


Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930

MC: This is a great example of what I meant. If I can add something to what you said, I would mention that Merleau-Ponty writes that one does not see where a painting is but sees according to it or with it. It is a way of underlining precisely the passivity of our activity. The image gives an orientation to one’s way of meeting the world. In particular, Merleau-Ponty uses a word which is helpful to think differently about the relationship between images and what he calls the actual. This word is “precession.” He uses it just once in his published texts — precisely in the last text published before he died, The Eye and the Mind. In it, he writes that vision is the precession of what we see with respect to the actual. Precession means thus a kind of anticipation. Vision would then consist in a double anticipation: the anticipation of the image with respect to reality and the anticipation of reality with respect to the image. Seeing is this double and mutual anticipation. We cannot really establish what is first and what is second. On this basis we should say that images do not refer to something outside of themselves and thus are not second. This idea of precession is interesting because it suggests that what we see before us is not only mediated through previous images but also can change those images. This is precisely what you said. When I see the photograph of the pepper that you mention, I think that it is a naked woman. When I discover that it is a pepper there is a retrospective revision of the image I had before. In our relationship with images there are many different temporalities at work simultaneously. The traditional idea, let us call it Platonistic, that first comes reality and then comes the image suggests that there is just one kind of temporality at work in our relationship with images. On the contrary, what we discovered on the basis of our example is that what is second is the discovery of the pepper —retroaction on what was first, so the second irreducibly influences the first.


Konrad Cramer, Female Nude, 1939. Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30,

LC: How, if at all, do our temporal relationships with images change when the image itself has a duration? When it is a film instead of a photograph, for example?

MC: I think that film makes more evident this idea of a temporal reversibility that I see already present in our experience of photography. One of the texts in your exhibition mentions that, when I am photographed, there is at once something like a projection into the future, an experience of the present, and a reference to the past. We cannot think of these three dimensions as separate from one another because the experience we are speaking of is one in which these three temporal dimensions cohabit. Film does not only offer the possibility of re-watching the “same” film, but has an intrinsic flesh or texture of images. What I am saying is well illustrated by the Kuleshov effect. Alfred Hitchcock worked on this very phenomenon to show that the face of an actor takes on different meanings depending on the image that precedes it, so he made a montage of the same face with three different preceding images. Each time the expression of the face of the actor acquired a different expression.

SK: What kinds of movies do you like to watch?

MC: Any kind.

SK: Do you have a favorite director?

MC: No, I don’t have this kind of preference.

LC: How did you get interested in cinema? Is that related to your interest in Merleau-Ponty? Is there a philosophical story behind it?


Alfred Hitchcock, The Kuleshov Effect

MC: This is the first time I am asked about my relationship with cinema. I think that my interest in film is related to the feeling of a peculiar sort of peace, which I first experienced when I was 16 or 17. You are sitting down in a dark theatre and you can live things, feelings, emotions, space, time, as someone else has decided to present them to you. It’s peaceful condition in the sense that you do not have to decide anything or make any choices — you just have to abandon yourself. I found a way of linking this question to Merleau- Ponty. He is a thinker who tried to think what he called the passivity of our activity, a condition or an experience that is most fully articulated in his later work. In one of the working notes of The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty writes that we have to think not about passivity, but about the passivity of our activity. And this is another way of rejecting the idea of an opposition, or even a separation between activity and passivity, subject and object. If we think of visibility as a mutual blossoming of the seer and the seen, we have to think of them as belonging to the same fabric. The seer and the seen belong to the same ontological texture, the same texture of visibility, which is why they can reverse their roles. So the visible can become seer and the seer can become visible, and this is the notion of reversibility, which is central to Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy. In my opinion, reversibility is very important to be able to understand the role of images today. Images are not just surfaces but have a face. This is how W. J. T. Mitchell captures the so called pictorial turn. Being seen by images makes for a very uncanny condition. Maybe this uncanny condition is one of the reasons for the return of an iconoclastic violence, which is an important feature of our time as made evident by the attacks against the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Images do not just represent something absent. Images are perceived as dangerous because they create something new. What is perceived as dangerous was not there before.

SK: I am struck by this relationship between seer and seen — the possibility of a reversal between the two roles in modern culture. For example, certain social media rely heavily on photographs. On Facebook and Instagram, people frequently take pictures of themselves and people can choose an image that allows them to present themselves in the way they desire. How do you see the possibility of reversing relationships in the context of these social media?

MC: Let us take selfies as examples. Are they a way of “recording” oneself? I think selfies are a way of presenting, constructing, creating an image of ourselves that is new, an image according to which we want other people to see us. We give people an image of us that is not necessarily linked to who we actually are.

SK: But then you are invoking the possibility that who we actually are is something stable, as if I could say, “This is Sophie.”

MC: This is a good objection. To be more precise, I think that images on social networks become a way of giving proof of our existence. I put a selfie or a picture on my page, and, if I get a like, this is proof of my existence. So in this sense there is not a real, actual way in which I am, namely a real and stable identity. But there is rather a wish to have confirmation of the identity I would like to have, on the basis of a relationship with the image that I put online in order to provoke another’s reaction.

LC: On these social networks there are also texts, and these texts accompany the images. In a similar way, in our exhibition there were numerous texts accompanying pairs of photographs. How do you see the relationship between images and texts?

MC: Well, images add a different logic to texts. We can try to explain images through language but images entail an excess with regard to our language that escapes our possibility of defining them.

LC: Professor Borradori told me that you were especially interested in the pair of photographs in the exhibition entitled Justice. One of the photographs represents a scrap of paper on which someone warns people not to take photographs of what came to be known as Ground Zero. Can you tell us why you are interested in that pair?

MC: Yes, I wrote a book about September 11 in dialogue with the one that Giovanna Borradori wrote herself. The last chapter of my book is devoted to the pictures of jumpers, because, in my opinion, September 11 and in particular these pictures contributed in a decisive way to change our epoch: our relationship with the media and therefore our relationship with images. When I claim, with Mitchell, that images have a face, I am thinking of the images of those jumpers, which are images asking for a witness. This is, in my opinion, the ethical and political implication that this kind of image has. We are called to give a response to what these images ask and this response is one and the same with our responsibility. We can choose to give a response, or we can choose not to give a response. This is one of the crucial ethical and political freedoms of our time.


Mauro Carbone at Haunting Legacies. Photography and the Invisible, at Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. March 2015. Photograph by Jonah Bleckner

There was an article in the issue of Le Monde dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The article evoked the writings on the walls that plastered downtown Manhattan in theaftermath of the attacks and in which relatives and friends were denouncing the loss of their loved ones. I was very taken by those posts; it was these encounters with the missing people that formed my experience of that tragedy. It was in New York one week after the attacks, and I was coming from the airport. I arrived at Pennsylvania Station to take a train, and I was met by hundreds and hundreds of missing people’s signs. That experience was central to my writing about finding a philosophical answer to those pleas: a way to speak about the emotion, the encounter with those images, the way in which they called out for a response, and a witness.

LC: You mentioned witnessing, and you also mentioned seeing and being seen. The witness is obviously seeing, but is he or she also being seen?

SK: Can you have one without the other? Seen and being seen? Or are they co-emerging?

MC: I believe you are both right. They are co-emerging.

LC: What you say is then that ethics consists in giving a response. Is that what ethics is for Merleau-Ponty as well?

MC: The Visible and the Invisible, which is the last text Merleau- Ponty worked on, remains unfinished. So the ethical dimension of the flesh is not developed. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty wrote: “What am I proposing about the relationship between identity and difference? This one — that identity is the difference of difference, and I am the Other of the Other.” For example, when we arrived in New York a few days ago, our taxi driver was Bulgarian. If we had met a Bulgarian in Europe, we would be Italians and he would be Bulgarian. This difference would establish our mutual identities as Italian and as Bulgarian. But we met that man here in New York, so our relationship was totally different because we are all Europeans, projected against the background of New York and the United States. We perceived ourselves as Europeans. In this sense, the differences are constantly in flux. The difference between Italians and Bulgarians in another place becomes something different.

SK: In our class earlier on today, Professor Borradori talked about Merleau-Ponty as a philosopher of ambiguity. It seems like he is blurring the sharp borders between identities. This is similar to the blurring of the distinction between seeing and being seen, and between subject and object.

MC: The idea according to which the seer and the seen are taken from the same ontological fabric allows us to describe them as reversible, a feature that seems central in our epoch. The word “reversibility” is the word Merleau-Ponty uses in the last phase of his thought rather than ambiguity. However, in “ambiguity” there is the prefix “ambi” — both. It is this mutual referring which reversibility brings out. That said, Merleau-Ponty speaks of reversibility as always immanent and never realized in fact. We don’t need a sculpture with opening and blinking eyes in order to feel being watched by it.

SK: Are you familiar with the concept of the Uncanny Valley? As a robot gets closer and closer to looking like a human, our feeling of compassion towards it increases. But when it gets to look like a very well-made automaton, when it looks almost perfect, we stop feeling compassion towards it. In fact, we begin feeling absolutely repelled by it and we recoil from it, in horror and disgust. What do you make of the nonhuman that gets too close to being human?

MC: This is a very interesting example of the mutual differentiation between the human and nonhuman. In Blade Runner, there is a detective, in the sense of someone who has something to detect. He has to understand which bodies are human and which are nonhuman. He has thus to detect the uncanny factor: how the nonhuman is somehow unlike the human. This colony of nonhuman persons want to live more than the pre-established number of years that humans have decided for them, so they come back to earth from the planet in which they are working to organize a rebellion. What the detective has to detect is who is whom. In order to do so, he performs the Turing test. In some of my writings I have explored the idea that these people are like Platonic simulacra and of Socrates as a sort of blade runner, a detective who is supposed to be able to discriminate between the real philosopher and a copy of the philosopher, that is to say, the sophist. Of course, this discrimination turns out to be impossible to fix.


Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, 1982

LC: Do you think there is a flesh of language? Do you think different languages have a different flesh?

MC: I think that there is a flesh of language. I think that every language has a peculiar flesh, and I think that since flesh is a texture of differences, the different ways of being flesh of different languages can have mutual relationships. So that we cannot think about a language as an isolated piece of flesh.

SK: I noticed that you make references to many different texts in many different languages in your book. The languages you use are mostly French, Italian, German, ancient Greek. When working with these texts, how relevant is it to you that they are written in different languages? How much do those textures of differences influence the way you work with those texts?

MC: Once again, let’s go back to the idea of the passivity of our activity. In working with different languages I hope to allow each one of them to produce echoes and allow words in different languages to form new links. And this is certainly a problem for my translator!

LC: What is the experience of translating and traversing between these textures of differences?

MC: When I started reading Merleau-Ponty for my PhD, I had already read all of it in Italian, and then I re-read him in French. Only then did I get the impression of understanding deeply Merleau- Ponty’s way of thinking. The language is the flesh. If a certain word works, it is because of this flesh. In another language, you have to try to find another flesh, a flesh whose relationship is similar to the relationship that the original word had with other words in the original flesh. There is a scene from the movie A Fish Called Wanda that I really love, where John Cleese starts speaking these different languages, which turns on the lady. What I think fascinates the lady is that he becomes someone different with each language he starts to pronounce. The multiplicity of identities is in the language and in the different people that we become when we speak different languages.

LC: Do you ever notice a difference in yourself when you are working in Italian rather than in French or in English?

MC: It is very difficult to accept how we sound when speaking in another language. I have a question for you. What is your mother tongue?

LC: Chinese. I’m from Hong Kong.

MC: What is your feeling about your relationship with the different languages that you speak?

LC: I only came here when I started college. Whenever I think intellectually, English is my preferred medium. The philosophical vocabulary does not seem very compatible with the Chinese that I know. But perhaps this is because I learned everything about philosophy in English. On the contrary, when hanging out with friends, I cannot express what I want to say in English. It just feels like the categories that English offers are not fine-grained enough to capture what I want to say, and in an interesting way I am forced to morph myself a bit to adapt to those categories. So, there seems to be a divide — an “intellectual” self that is in English, and a more colloquial, casual self — I do not know whether it is more “original” — in Chinese. To go further in this reflection, I learned English from British teachers when I was young. Then I came here and I started to communicate in American English. That confused me a bit at first. I still spell words in British English. It is really quite fascinating: this distinction between British English and American English only becomes salient when I am here. Previously, I would have simply said that I spoke English. As you said, identity is the difference of difference.

MC: I taught for a month in Hong Kong in 2010. I taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

LC: Oh, what did you teach there?

MC: Phenomenology. I had PhD students coming from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, and they seem to hold the Western metaphysical categories much more tightly than myself! I was very surprised because, they often seem to go back to the very Western categories that I was teaching them to deconstruct. I told myself that if teaching phenomenology produces this kind of effect, we have to avoid to doing it.


Mauro Carbone, Louis Cheng, Sophie Koeller in conversation at the Alumni House, Vassar College. March 2015. Photograph by Marta Nijhuis.



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