Plastic bodies

Tom Sparrow, ‘Introduction’, pp. 21-24, in:
Sparrow, T., Malabou, C., 2015. Plastic bodies: rebuilding sensation after phenomenology. Open Humanities Press, London.


[on this book]

While it draws liberally from the resources of phenomenology, the idea of embodiment assembled in its pages is quite often at odds with the first- person orientation of the phenomenological method. It is therefore as much about the limits of phenomenology as it is about the limits of the body.

In the last analysis it is really about how we might rebuild the somewhat unfashionable concept of sensation following the rescue attempts made by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas.

This is because sensation, as I understand it here, is unsuitable for proper phenomenological investigation. It does not present itself phenomenally as an object of consciousness, or as what Husserl calls an intentional object. Sensation is something that happens below the phenomenal level, so at best it is a mediated datum of consciousness.

How, then, can we speak of this non-phenomenal sensation? My contention is that we experience it primarily through its effects and can thereby think it on the basis of these effects. Perception, passion, cognition, consciousness, identity, and freedom are some of these effects. These are indeed accessed phenomenally, but as products of sensation.


To be clear: I am not attempting a phenomenology of sensation, and neither were Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. What I do is to take up their speculative remarks about sensation and develop these into a novel theory of embodiment, but one markedly more speculative than phenomenological.

Sensation is thus approached from two perspectives, the phenomenological and the speculative. A simple twofold argument is presented: sensation is the basic material of subjectivity; as such, sensation is responsible in a non-trivial way for the subject’s power to exist.


There are, however, more points of contact between phenomenology and, say, Deleuze and Spinoza, than usually acknowledged by partisan readings of the history of twentieth-century French philosophy.


Embodiment is now thoroughly incorporated into almost all the human sciences and phenomenology has been integral to this incorporation.

What is called for now, however, is a post-phenomenological perspective. By this I mean a perspective which is not simply anti-phenomenological, but one which has gone through phenomenology and retained its kernel of truth, even if this kernel proves to be non-phenomenological in nature. For me, this is the truth of plasticity.

But I also retrieve a pre-phenomenological, occasionally pre-critical perspective, one which draws liberally from the materialist and empiricist traditions to see what effects they can produce today. In this respect this book is a work of metaphysics. It does not claim to have invented a brand new theory of the body, but to have mobilized several philosophical traditions and rebuilt the body using a diverse team of thinkers.