Reading Notes: The Intertwining – The Chiasm


In June 2015 – thanks to a workshop organized by Judy Farquhar, Volker Scheid, and me, and funded by the Wellcome Trust and the University of Chicago and the Canada Research Chair program – a phenomenal group of doctors and anthropologists and artists and historians and others gathered in Croatia to create work together around the theme of “Translating Vitalities: Touch.” This became a kind of pop-up laboratory, a space to experiment and to make. As part of that workshop, four of us – a medical doctor, an anthropologist, an artist, and a historian – spent a week trying to read together. The text was Merleau-Ponty’s “The Intertwining-The Chiasm.” As we read, we began to wonder: what would it be to read in a way that honored the medium natural to each of us, but also pushed each of us to locate and extend our own limits? What might it be to read a difficult text together as a way of crafting a common language – a new language, for each of us – made of ideas and images, PowerPoint slides and memories, conjurings of loved ones, sound recordings and video, gestures and holdings of breath, fiction and music and bouquets of local wildflowers? What would it be to use that language to open up the text and also open up our notions of reading and of writing?

I’m the historian of the group, and my impulse when I read a text is to make stories with it, from it, into it. These are some reading notes born of my reading of this text, and inspired by our collective conversations about it. Begun in Croatia, they will continue until they reach something that feels like a conclusion. They form a community along with the other kinds and media of intervention created by our little community of four people who are still reading together, and still creating a language with which to do so. And so some of these may eventually take on a different life in other collaborative products of that ongoing collaborative making-together. In the meantime, they will live together here.

You will find reading experiments here: what would it look like to translate a text that seems so obsessed with parenthetical asides so all that remains is what’s buried inside of parentheses? You’ll also find translations of a different sort, attempts to linger over phrases and notions that stay with me, to dwell in them for a while, and to use them to open up little worlds. You can find them by clicking on the highlighted bits of fragments of the Merleau-Ponty that I’ve offered below. I’ll add and post more periodically as I write them. Feel free to read them as you wish: in conversation with Merleau-Ponty’s chiasm, in conversation just with each other, or as part of whatever you’d like to put them in conversation with. Thank you for adventuring with me!

– Carla Nappi, summer 2015, Vancouver via Istria

For Alexa, Barry, and Jens


From Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort & trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 130-155: “The Intertwining – The Chiasm.” Click on red text to go to translation/reading note.

“If it is true that as soon as philosophy declares itself to be reflection or coincidence it prejudges what it will find, then once again it must recommence everything, reject the instruments reflection and intuition had provided themselves, and install itself in a locus where they have not yet been distinguished, in experiences that have not yet been “worked over,” that offer us all at once, pell-mell, both “subject” and “object,” both existence and essence, and hence give philosophy resources to redefine them. Seeing, speaking, even thinking (with certain reservations, for as soon as we distinguish thought from speaking absolutely we are already in the order of reflection), are experiences of this kind, both irrecusable and enigmatic. They have a name in all languages, but a name which in all of them also conveys significations in tufts, thickets of proper meanings and figurative meanings, so that, unlike those of science, not one of these names clarifies by attributing to what is named a circumscribed signification…”

“The visible about us seems to rest in itself. It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand.”

“We must first understand that this red under my eyes is not, as is always said, a quale, a pellicle of being without thickness, a message at the same time indecipherable and evident, which one has or has not received, but of which, if one has received it, one knows all there is to know, and of which in the end there is nothing to say. It requires a focusing, however brief; it emerges from a less precise, more general redness, in which my gaze was caught, into which it sank, before – as we put it so aptly – fixing it.”

“And, now that I have fixed it, if my eyes penetrate into it, into its fixed structure, or if they start to wander round about again, the quale resumes its atmospheric existence. Its precise form is bound up with a certain wooly, metallic, or porous configuration or texture, and the quale itself counts for very little compared with these participations. Claudel has a phrase saying that a certain blue of the sea is so blue that only blood would be more red. The color is yet a variant in another dimension of variation, that of its relations with the surroundings: this red is what it is only by connecting up from its place with other reds about it, with which it forms a constellation, or with other colors it dominates or that dominate it, that it attracts or that attract it, that it repels or that repel it. In short, it is a certain node in the woof of the simultaneous and the successive.”

“It is a concretion of visibility, it is not an atom. The red dress a fortiori holds with all its fibers onto the fabric of the visible, and thereby onto a fabric of invisible being. A punctuation in the field of red things, which includes the tiles 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 2 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 literally is 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-Elysées. A certain red is also a fossil drawn up from the depths of imaginary worlds.”

“Between the massive sentiment I have of the sack in which I am enclosed, and the control from without that my hand exercises over my hand, there is as much difference as between the movements of my eyes and the changes they produce in the visible.”



in parentheses



all at once, pell-mell


this red under my eyes

a certain red is also a fossil drawn up from the depths of imaginary worlds

the red dress…holds with all its fibers onto the fabric of the visible

a punctuation in the field of red things

with which it forms a constellation: (1) Bailey’s Moonburn


the sack in which I am enclosed

an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand


in tufts, thickets