WP 4: Arousal

I am you, if I am: Notes for a Phenomenology of Narcissism

Domietta Torlasco


Light is a skin. I rub my eyes against the other. It is as if I had eyes instead of fingers, or fingers at the tips of my eyes. My vision trembles with desire.

There is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.

Several passages in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished, posthumously published book, The Visible and the Invisible, trace for us the contours of a new erotics of vision. The prose is open and fluid, and yet constantly turning upon itself, in a movement of internal articulation that diffuses oppositions by coiling over or interweaving their terms. The sentences unfurl as if in a sort of vibrant, pulsating calmness (this calmness, however, is not composure):

Thus since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision. And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity—which is the second and more profound sense of the narcissism: not to see in the outside, as the other sees it, the contour of a body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated through the phantom, so the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.1

The desire at work in Merleau-Ponty’s prose is the same desire that binds us to the visible world. Like the language interrogating it, vision incessantly folds upon itself, defining a circle without permanent closure or stable center. Indeed, vision comes into being as this folding or rolling back of the visible upon itself—as a reversibility between the seer and the seen which is, in a novel and eccentric sense, a relationship of narcissistic desire.

Vision is at this stage a kind of touch, a “palpation with the look,” and Bergman’s supple luminosity is for me the cipher of a distance born at the core of proximity. In its glow, her face possesses the density of velvet and its power of attraction is such that my eyes feel as if they were layers of the same fabric. They discover themselves capable of seeing “by confusion” rather than appropriation, which also means: capable of being seen in return, of receiving—by a sort of “folding back or invagination” of the visible—the other side of the look they project. It is easier, Merleau-Ponty suggests, to comprehend this elusive dynamics when we consider touch, and the fact that it is in one and the same movement that my right hand touches my left hand and is touched by it. As the body can touch only because it is also tangible, the body can only see because it is also visible—because it is embedded in the general visibility which Merleau-Ponty calls flesh. Neither mind nor matter, the flesh is an “element,” in the sense that water, air, earth, and fire were elements for the pre-Socratic philosophers: not things in themselves but “rhizomata,” the roots of all things. Being the stuff of which all visibles are made, the flesh itself is endowed with a paradoxical reflexivity, which characterizes every visible and which our body remarkably exemplifies: the reversibility between the seer and the seen, the touching and the touched.

Vision occurs in the encounter or friction between these “two lips,” the sensing and sensible leaves of which each visible is made (the deux lèvres that anticipate, but also exceed, Luce Irigaray’s image of the two lips touching each other). This intimacy, however, is not coincidence: “it is time to emphasize that it is a reversibility always imminent and never realized in fact. My left hand is always on the verge of touching my right hand touching things, but I never reach coincidence.”2 Narcissism emerges as a style of visibility that, while radically blurring the opposition between subject and object, activity and passivity, inside and outside, does not collapse its terms. In the texture of the flesh, reversibility is always ahead and always behind, inhabiting a time in excess of the simple present: not a lost possibility but the guarantee of our openness to the world, to “visions past and visions to come.” Like Barthes’ discreetly rebellious spectator in “Upon Leaving the Movie Theatre,” I do not need to choose between a narcissistic body and a perverse body, yet for the reason that I possess, indeed “I am,” both at once. Narcissism is of an irreducibly perverse nature.


What pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss.

I am you, if I am.

Merleau-Ponty’s chiasm is thus the name for desire’s enigmatic labor, the perpetual coming together and splitting apart of the seer and the seen through which vision is formed. Merleau-Ponty insists on the inerasable character of this divergence—there would be no vision without the separation (écart) that doubles every return to the self with dispossession, every recollection with dispersal. And yet a language of loss is strikingly absent from his prose, as if the tightly woven fabric of the flesh had the ultimate capacity to absorb or transform “the powers of death into poetic productivity.” The gaping open of the chiasm seems to be other than a tear; a folding that not only resists but also challenges the semantics of cutting. Is the erotics of the fold impermeable to injury and oblivion?

In the “Working Notes” to The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty speaks not of loss but of disappearance, of forgetting as “disarticulation” of perception. Visibility is ultimately bound to differentiation and the slipping away of the visible, its breaking up, constitutes part and parcel of its internal articulation. There is vision because there is intertwining of the visible and the invisible, because every visible joins in a double texture of which the visible and the invisible are like the obverse and the reverse. Yet, the invisible is not the opposite of the visible but its “secret counterpart” and, like “the finger of the glove that is turned inside out,”3 can be accessed each time one sees or touches the obverse side. So that even the perception of the natural world, what we call the “here and now,” is always secretly animated by the phantom of other times and other places (the “excess of life” about which writes Lou Andreas-Salomé): “the present, the visible counts so much for me and has an absolute prestige for me only by reason of this immense latent content of the past, the future, and the elsewhere, which it announces and which it conceals.”4

Montage itself, the editing “cut” (the difference between and within frames) could be thought as an instance of this perceptual folding. Less an incision than a torsion or turning around of the visible, the editing cut does not erase but hides the visible, folding it over into its invisible counterpart. What is removed is thus also preserved, committed to latency, and in principle available for further disclosure. Yet, certain reversals seem to produce too deep a distance, a disappearance which is closer to the loss, rather than the fading, of sight. As if the time of the folding, its rhythm, its velocity or slowness could transform the fold into a tear, a laceration that splits more than it can regenerate, causing the visible to vanish as if swallowed by an inaccessible depth. And often, as Barthes suggests, our pleasure resides in this very fault line, this rift which crosses and disperses me as I see.

If I prefer thinking of montage and its libidinal play in terms of folds, creases, pleats (rather than edges, cuts, seams), it is not to cover over violence or loss but to indicate that its modalities are not, so to speak, clear-cut. There is something drastic, a once-and-for-all quality in the language of cutting (and also a certain implication of instantaneity: only suturing takes time). Instead, when you lose by folding, and are folded in, you are never done. Folding thrives on repetition. (One does not need cuts to expose the layers: the skin is already marked, by furrows, wrinkles, pores, the skin as membrane of life and death, organ of breathing, and producer of dust. What is supposed to protect us from the world, to separate the inside from the outside, has already been turned inside out, and folded upon, an indefinite number of times.)

(So maybe folding is the play of death.)


Red is the color of blood.
Red is the color of pain.
Red is the color of violence.
Red is the color of danger.
Red is the color of blushing.
Red is the color of jealousy.
Red is the color of reproaches.
Red is the color of retention.
Red is the color of resentments.

The scene could hardly be more charged: Dorothy Malone dancing herself into a frenzy beside a burning fireplace, her bedroom filled with perfume bottles and exotic objects, while her father collapses on the marble staircase of their mansion. As if her last sexual escapade had turned his profound disappointment into deadly exhaustion. By the end of the film, her alcoholic brother, heir to the family fortune, will also be dead and Malone will find herself at her father’s executive desk, wearing a grey suit and holding in her hands the miniature replica of an oil tower. Behind her shoulders, like an uncanny double, there hangs a portrait of her father, sitting at the same desk and displaying the same conspicuous token of privilege. Written on the Windcloses upon this image of female empowerment, this deviant repetition of the model, and I have always enjoyed Malone’s ambiguous sensual composure. Yet the scene of the red dance, played back over and against itself, secretes the uncertain promise (or threat) of other orders.

Folding a film, whether literally or metaphorically, calls forth the depth of its surface. This mysterious depth, which Merleau-Ponty has named flesh, is of time as it is of perception: “past and present are…each enveloping-enveloped—and that itself is the flesh.”5 The intertwining of the visible and the invisible is also an intertwining of present and past, an interweaving of temporal dimensions that are neither autonomous nor coincident. By letting images touch each other, by loosening or disjoining the lock between them and their invisible counterpart, re-folding brings about a perturbation in the visible that is also a disturbance in the order of time. Indeed, it is time that I see at the edges of Malone’s vaporous gown, where the red becomes a little more solid, obstinately pushing against the border of the fabric. Time traverses me as I lose sense of my chronology.

Again in The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty writes that a certain visible—for instance a certain red—is not a thing which I either see or do not see, but the opening, within the field of my vision, of a myriad of connections. This red is interlocked with other invisible reds, with other colors I have once seen or imagined; it is part of a certain “constellation” of reds. Of a simple red dress, he writes:

A punctuation in the field of red things, which includes the tile of roof tops, the flags of gatekeepers and of the Revolution, certain terrains near Aix or in Madagascar, it is also a punctuation in the field of red garments, which includes, along with the dresses of women, robes of professors, bishops, and advocate generals, and also in the field of adornments and that of uniforms. And its red is literally not the same as it appears in one constellation or in the other, as the pure essence of the Revolution of 1917 precipitates in it, or that of the eternal feminine, or that of the public prosecutor, or that of the gypsies dressed like hussars who reigned twenty-five years ago over an inn on the Champs-Élysées.6

Sentence after sentence, his prose traces a spiral that attracts us to its center while also leading us away from it, a circle capable of simultaneously expanding and contracting. How close am I to Malone’s red gown? and to Louise Bourgeois’s red rooms (Parents and Child), Kim Novak’s red hair inVertigo, and also to the red of characters that were never invented as such, that never made it to the screen, or that were relegated to the background. To characters whose story could have been told otherwise. Or to no character at all, in the dramatic sense—to figures, shapes, or stains.

While latent, the invisible or past is not preformed. It is not simply there such as it was. If, in Malebranche’s words, “I can only feel that which touches me,” the tactility from which I emerge—the invisible, the flesh of time—is not set once and for all but (passively and performatively) rearticulated through the touch which it solicits or initiates. Unfolding, refolding makes visible a past that was never present, a time that, creatively rediscovered through the winding of perception, can allow for the release of forgotten or previously unimaginable futures. The erotics of the flesh is for me an erotics of potentiality.

(The red dance is dedicated to Loie Fuller.)


Domietta Torlasco works at the intersection of film theory and practice and is currently an Assistant Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. Her book, The Time of the Crime: Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis, Italian Film (Stanford University Press, 2008) interrogates the image of the “crime scene” and the radical revision it undergoes in postwar Italian cinema. Her film, Antigone’s Noir (U.S., 2009, 25 min., DV), which re-envisions classic film noir with the help of scenes shot in contemporary settings, documentary photographs, and footage from public archives, has played at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and the Block Cinema in Evanston.