Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Theory of the Body is Already a Theory of Perception”
In Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith 1962 [1945]
Reprinted in Minimalism. Ed. James Meyer. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000.
annotation by Margo Miller (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

This article attempts to establish the object as a bodily experience and the relationship between the body and object as foundational for experience. Merleau-Ponty’s central example is the cube, and the process by which it is perceived and given meaning. The idea of the cube and the material presence of a cube are entirely different. The ‘cube’ is a “limiting idea” that allows us to express an object we see and touch, but the object itself is “perceptually self-evident”—“If there is, for me, a cube with six equal sides, and if I can link up with the object, this is not because I constitute it from the inside: it is because I delve into the thickness of the world by perceptual experience.” The author argues that an object’s unity is not conceptual, but actually experienced as the correlate of our body’s unity. The experience of our movement around the cube is not merely the psychological circumstance in which we must construct the object. Rather, the significance of the object is determined as a part of our “collection of lived-through correspondences” from bodily experience. The idea of a cube is not reconstructed in our mind after taking into account the perspective of each visible side, after stepping back for an objective or ‘bird’s-eye view’ and considering our movements around the object; we do not reconstitute the object as a true form from its literal appearance. These perceptual accounts are unnecessary because they are already taken—just as the appearance of the cube is already self-inscribed—by the “lived-through movement,” of the body with respect to the object. The author asserts: “The thing, and the world, are given to me along with the parts of my body, not by any ‘natural geometry’, but in a living connection comparable, or rather identical, with that existing between the parts of my body itself.”

In this theory, the orientation of the visual field and the awareness of one’s own body and its potential in that field are immediately equivalent. Perception occurs through the body and is mediated only by our experience of it as a whole, in relation to other whole objects. Our body is what keeps the “visible spectacle” of the world “constantly alive.” This piece was written two decades before minimalism became an established art movement, but its relevance and influence are obvious. Minimal work refers primarily, if not exclusively, to the literal presence of an object and its existence in the physical world, often with special attention to the spectator’s movement through gallery space and their positioning as subject in confrontation with the object work of art. Merleau-Ponty urges us to remake contact with the body and rediscover ourselves as the subject of perception by recognizing that we perceive the world with, and as we perceive, our bodies.