How writing rescues us from being dull and blind

Of the experience in writing phenomenology, van Manen says, “it is like falling into a twilight zone, where things are no longer recognizably the same, where words are displaced, where I can lose my orientation, where anything can happen.” A partial loss of self is how van Manen describes his experience of writing. Yet, if we wish to discuss this as one’s relationship to oneself, I think it is not an experience of loss but of suspension and adaptation. We are somewhere other than our Körper place. We are in the space of our Leib self; sensing and animated without the threats of material life and death.

Below is an example from one of Behnke’s phenomenological experiments in perceiving kinaesthetic affectivity. In simple terms, it is an observation made from a practice that creates a space of bodily openness. In this space intersubjective empathetic responses to other bodies can move from being anonymous, or ignored, to being seen and observed. When you read this passage, imagine Behnke gently walking around parts of her urban environment with an awareness of her self as a body and the bodies of nearby ‘anothers’. We enter the description as she is pushing open a door in readiness of walking through the doorway.

“On closer examination, however, one can begin to sense, for instance, how one’s hand is already holding a door open rather than letting it go, in a way whose timing is already coordinated with the movement of others who are about to go through the same door. Or one can feel the pressure of the shopping cart’s handle against one’s hands as one is already checking its motion to make way for another shopper even before consciously ‘‘steering’’ one way or another. (Behnke)

The push of your hand on a shopping trolley, or door-knob, in a named consciousness towards other nearby bodies she calls “interkinaesthetic civility” which “weaves a fabric of reciprocity”. Even without the complicated back-of-house phenomenological theory this description is beautiful and stands with strength on its own. How did Behnke achieve this? How does she write such insightful passages?

In describing a phenomenon we may not know what needs to be chosen and highlighted from the infinitude of experience until the choice is made. Such selections are felt in the process of writing. As we scrawl, one sentence another follows; a sentence is not an idea or meaning but a metaphor (literally a carry-over). As Ingarden insightfully saw, when we describe an aspect of an object we do not describe the object.  “In fact, it is quite the opposite. If the aspects were described, then what is represented in the work would be, not the objectivity that is to appear in them, but the aspects themselves… and the corresponding object would either totally disappear… or would belong to the work only as something that is indirectly represented”. Phenomenology as a practice of writing description is our path around anonymity, dull consensus and predictability to the phenomena as it essentially appears. We can begin to see the truths of the world not through observation but through written description and that is the practice of phenomenology.

 

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Behnke, E. A., 2008. Interkinaesthetic Affectivity: A Phenomenological Approach. Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 41, pp. 143-161.

Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

van Manen, M., 2002. Writing in the Dark: Phenomenological Studies in Interpretive Inquiry. London(Ontario): University of Western Ontario.

 

Phenomenology & Description II

Writing a phenomenological description is ‘poem-ing’. The experience of poem-ing is evident in the act of writing down a phenomenological description. We must not confuse this experience with writing words, nor characterise it as words. We tend to over-emphasise the importance of words in a written work. Experientially, words play an important but slight role in the act of phenomenological writing compared to other characteristics of description.

Roman Ingarden, stratifies the place of words in his phenomenological investigations of literature. Ingarden’s broad project is to analyse the shared characteristics within a group of written works (“literary art”). He argues for essentially present properties that operate in relational strata within a given work. In this, the qualities of words are only one of four strata that constitute a written work.

Ingarden’s third stratum, schematised aspects, offers the interesting concept of ‘held-in-readiness’. Schematised aspects in a literary work are the qualities and actions that build an intentional object. The intentional object of a wickerman, for example, is built through the described coherent aspects such woven sticks, eerie bearing, vast height and inner cavity. We perceive aspects in a concrete way, as sensations within our body and imagination, in the absence of a corresponding material object.

Aspects, as complex descriptions, are held-in-readiness. It is as if they are prepared for the opportunity to be thought and imagined in consciousness. Waiting in the wings to be given over in intentionality. Aspects (appearances), held-in-readiness, move from possible to actual in a written work; however, it is not the “…actuality of a concretely experienced aspect, nor is it simple potentiality” (Ingarden). Holding-in-readiness has a peculiarly unreal-real quality. The unreal quality we easily understand: the written lacks a Körper aliveness but exhibits a Körper existence. Holding-in-readiness has an experience of non-material dimensionality felt materially.

Holding-in-readiness is the space for ‘from’. We are being in the holding, we are held as we write, until we achieve those moments where the writing is from, not of. Once we are writing from, we are there. Held in the space-process of poem-ing. Heidegger says poetry is the unconcelament of being – it is the ‘how’ of how we get to ‘there’ in our ‘here’. In an example of phenomenological writing from Langveld, we can begin to see the influence of this manifold of poem-ing.

In this extract, Langveld is reaching into the secret, still world of children by describing the magic and experience of certain types of solitary hiding.

“How deep is the stillness behind the heavy curtains even when the room is full of noise and conversation. All the more reason to keep oneself quiet and still. For just as the transparency of the window pane opens up both the outer and the inner world, so the curtain allows sounds to pass through. And just as through the window one sees and is seen, so behind the curtain one hears and is heard. So much more reason to be quiet and unobtrusive behind the curtain. All that this curtain shows us -its snake-like boundary at the floor, the unpredictability even of this shifting and easily moved border, its pliancy, which betrays one at the slightest movement-all of this urges us to remain quietly within our boundaries. Don’t move! Don’t touch the curtain!” (Langveld).

The held-in-readiness is clearly sensed in this slice of description. We can sense the held-in-readiness of each aspect as it meets us. We are then in that room where the writing-reading corridor leads; where the body can sense in material ways the aspects of non-material spaces.

 

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Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Langveld, M. J., 1983. The Stillness of the Secret Place. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1(1), pp. 11-17

 

Feeling-into art: Einfühlung as reading

Often, in a gallery, I am struck by the stupidity of what gets hung on a wall or housed in a cabinet. Many works seem absent of driving ideas and show no execution of process or skill. These attempts at art, warrant a shrug and the asking, “Why?” They force me to pursue the more harsh enquiry, “Would the world be any different if this did not exist?”

Shitty contemporary artworks are often culpable in this failure. But there is also a responsibility in us as readers of art. We are, historically speaking, diminished in our capacities to ‘see’ with more than our ocular capacities. We are blind to our ocularcentrism. We are numb to conscious-reading with more than eyes as we carry a corrupted picture of ourselves as an anatomy of eyes, nerves and brain.

German aesthetics of the 19th century were rich with the exploration of the idea of Einfühlung, literally an ‘in-going-feeling’. The inspiration in Einfühlung emerged from a proposition that the human and poetic nature of a work will reveal itself to a reader who is absorbed by ‘feeling-into’. As a process of criticism and epistemological investigation, Einfühlung is a significantly embodied, rather than cognitive, inquiry.

The idea and practice of Einfühlung befell inelegant translation and insipid psychologisation; it is now often likened to what we currently call ‘empathy’. Yet, if we can imagine ourselves back to ‘feeling-into’, and perhaps animate Goethe’s diary entries, where his looking into an artwork is a ‘groping around’ (umtastet), looking for the looking that will let him engage with Einfühlung, we may be able to understand the reason and life behind many impenetrable artworks created today.

We tend to read artwork with a handful of familiar and mild methods.  For example, we read a work as a product or outcome of a process: to illustrate, we read some instances of paint that have been poured, dripped, and flung as evidence of Jackson Pollock’s mood and corporeal movement. Another method of reading is to comprehend a work as a narrative; summon the story around Picasso and his blue period. The blue period, we narrate as reflecting his journey across both Spain and personal grief. For some works, however, our familiar methods of reading are inadequate. We must stretch into discomfort, perhaps engaging with processes such as feeling-into, to be able to enter the work.

A practice of Einfühlung demands an exchange of our standard reading habits for a range of more difficult, unfamiliar reading processes; we must stretch into discomfort and grasp for an embodied form of reading that may shun our languages of word and concept. As an art-doing—the work of the work—we must abandon the typical structure of standing outside the world of the work and peering in with a critical eye. In this atmosphere we are both (reader and work) subject to the dynamic process of being written upon.

 

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Touched and touching: beyond neural evidence models

Touch something. Reach.

Grasp. Grope.

Use the quality of your hand to surround something.

Possess it.

Touch is always with you.

Ready.

It is not experienced as a temporary state of sensorimotorism.

Most consciousness studies tend towards a positivist, deterministic model for research. They infer findings from non-material neural strata which is claimed to be representative of experience. This neural ‘evidence’, however, is only ever drawn from selective material data.

It is not my task to refute the consciousness corpus. I can only gesture towards a richer alternative that is already evidenced; does not need inventing.

Experience (the core of phenomenology) tells through written description. In this we can read structures that are already present; we do not need impose, nor ‘retro-fit’, structures that justify our per-existing narratives about things. Description from first-person experience shows the ‘how it is’ of our world.

A good example of this, in action, is Husserl’s phenomenological description of touch in §36, Ideen II. Husserl’s phenomenology does not specify the content of tactual perception. Husserl does not itemise what we perceive by the sense of touch. This is a very different method to our usual approach to touch. Representationists, for example, assume that “what needs to be explained is how we tactually perceive spatial properties” (Mattens 2009:118).

No. This is not “what needs to be explained”. In fact, there is nothing that “needs to be explained.” What we need is to perceive from a different stance, then we can be altered. I do not make this assertion in support of a mental determinism, but, instead, that if we structure the space of our body from an experiential perspective, we may find ourselves at the doorway of Janus with paths to modification, healing, alterity and understanding.

 

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**To complement the bibliographical resource “Phenomenology of Touch: An Ongoing Bibliography“, curated by Adam van Sertima, I offer these sources of phenomenological writing about touch; some are good, some are less so.

 

Al Saji, A., 2000. The Site of Affect in Husserl’s Phenomenology: Sensations and the Constitution of the Lived Body. Philosophy Today 44, pp. 51-59.

Al-Saji, A., 2010. Bodies and sensings: On the uses of Husserlian phenomenology for feminist theory. Continental Philosophy Review 43 (1), pp. 13-37.

Almog, M. 2016. From Husserl to Merleau-Ponty: On the Metamorphosis of a Philosophical Example. The European Legacy 21 (5-6), pp. 525-534.

Behnke, E. A., 2008. Interkinaesthetic Affectivity: A Phenomenological Approach. Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 41, pp. 143-161.

Bower, M. 2015. Developing open intersubjectivity: On the interpersonal shaping of experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14 (3), pp. 455-474.

Buytendik, F. J. J., 1973 [1961]. Pain. Westport(Connecticut): Greenwood.

Catena, M., 2005. Touch and the Constitution of the Thing in Husserl’ s Vorlesungen of 1907. Archivio di Storia Della Cultura 18.

Davila, M. E. A., 2013. From Hands to the Whole of the Body. Husserl’s Double Sensation in Thinking and Experience. Filozofia 68 (5), pp. 358-366.

Derrida, J., 2005. On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy. Standford: Standford University Press.

Gallagher, S., 1986. Hyletic Experience and the Lived Body. Husserl Studies, 3(2), pp. 131-166.

Gallagher, S., 2011. Embodiment and Phenomenal Qualities: An Enactive Interpretation. Philosophical Topics, 39(1), pp. 1-14.

Husserl, E., 2000 [1989]. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book. Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Landgrebe, L., 1982. Der Phänomenologische Begriff der Erfahrung. In: Faktizität und Individuation. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, pp. 58-70.

Landgrebe, L., 1982. Faktizität und Individuation. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Marcelle, D., 2011. The Phenomenological Problem of Sense Data in Perception: Aron Gurwitsch and Edmund Husserl on the Doctrine of Hyletic Data. Investigaciones Fenomenológicas: Anuario de la Sociedad Española de Fenomenología, Volume 8, pp. 61-76.

Mattens, F., 2009. Perception, Body, and the Sense of Touch: Phenomenology and Philosophy of Mind. Husserl Studies, Volume 25, pp. 97–120.

Moran, D., 2010. Husserl and Merleau-Ponty on Embodied Experience. In: T. Nenon & P. Blosser, eds. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 175-195.

Rabanaque, L. R., 2003. Hyle, Genesis and Noema. Husserl Studies, 19(3), pp. 205-215.

Richardson, L., 2013. Bodily Sensation and Tactile Perception. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 86 (1), pp. 134-154.

Sawicki, M., 1997. Body, text and science : The literacy of investigative practices and the phenomenology of Edith Stein. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Sevenant, A., 2002. Love for the Mediate: Derrida’s Philosophy of Touching. Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 64, pp. 231-252.

Sheets-Johnstone, M., 2015. Embodiment on trial: a phenomenological investigation. Continental Philosophy Review 48 (1), pp. 23-39.

Welton, D., 2000. Touching Hands. Veritas 45, pp. 83-102.

Welton, D., 2005. Soft Smooth Hands Husserl’s Phenomenology of the Lived Body. In: Bernet, ed. Edmund Husserl: The Nexus of Phenomena: Intentionality, Perception, and Temporality. London: Routledge, pp. 172-191.

Zahavi, D., 1994. Husserl’s Phenomenology of the Body. Études Phénoménologiques, 10(19), pp. 63-84

Zahavi, D., 2012. Empathy and mirroring: Husserl and Gallese. In: Life, Subjectivity & Art. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 217-254.

Writing description as ‘doing’

Phenomenological writing can be extraordinary, sumptuous and insightful. Listen to this taste of Lingis exploring lust,

“Encrusting one’s body with stones and silver or steel, saturating one’s skin with cream and lubricants till they glisten like mucous membrane, sinking into marble baths full of champagne bubbles or into the soft mud of rice paddies, feeling the grasses of the meadow or the algae tingling one’s flesh like nerves, dissolving into perfumed air and not flickering twilight, lust seeks the transubstantiations of matter with a body in transubstantiation (p64-5).

How do we we write good phenomenological description?

Let’s think of ourselves observing a pyramid, perhaps a desk ornament that sits upon our flat open palm. We hold the pyramid looking at the plane facing our null-point of ‘here’. We can see the drawn away-ness of the sides. We co-give the rear that we cannot directly perceive. After this, can we say that we have conducted a phenomenological investigation? Or is it only here, in these scratchings, these “black marks,” that phenomenology can be said to be done? Must we make a material ‘object’ of the perception? To an extent, to act phenomenologically is a process that incorporates recording, conveying, connecting. If we only ‘investigate’ through observation and do not write thereafter, we cannot claim that phenomenology has been ‘done’. Yet, phenomenology is also not a mere ‘report back’ from observation.

Typically, the object of classical phenomenological study is a written object. While there is much authored about writing as a general pursuit, this literature does not channel into a stream of practical writing about the creation of concrete phenomenology. Max van Manen is a practitioner in this field. Van Manen lists half a dozen verbs for describing what he calls “the act of phenomenological writing”. They include drawing, entering, gazing, seeking, touching, traversing. His description of phenomenological writing is not exceptionally phenomenological; it makes sense as a description but it does not capture, precisely, the phenomena of “the act of phenomenological writing”. Of interest for our purpose, however, is van Manen’s consistent use of verbs in categorising phenomenological writing. Van Manen is not using abstracted concepts or adjectives to describe the phenomenological writing process; he uses words that refer to an active state of being.

 

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Lingis, A., 1996. Sensation Intelligibility in Sensibility. New Jersey: Humanity Books.

van Manen, M., 2002. Writing in the Dark: Phenomenological Studies in Interpretive Inquiry. London(Ontario): University of Western Ontario.

Phenomenology & Description I

Writing is beautiful. The commitment, the invention, the body and occasion. Falling into a good piece of phenomenological description rivals any epic poem or classic novel. Writing is the flesh of phenomenology. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine phenomenology without it’s body of writing. From the start, Husserl tends to describe the written artefact of phenomenological investigation as “expression”. The written down phenomenological findings are not meant to ‘represent’ the observed phenomenological experience of the past but serve to be a “predictive form derived from it” (Husserl Ideas I p355).

We write for the future. We write phenomenological descriptions from observation not to capture the ended temporalities, but to open the future. From that starting point of Husserl and, more or less, onwards, there has been little attendance to the process and experience of writing phenomenological description.

There are many texts written on phenomenological method. Take for example Kersten’s Phenomenological Method: Theory and Practice. In these 433 pages is the familiar pattern of how we understand phenomenology in its two stages; one spoken, one silent.  First we observe; we then describe, thus producing a written text (which we can call a ‘phenomenological description’). What we find in this book, and many similar other texts, are careful and rigorous treatments of the standard methodological techniques for undertaking phenomenological observations (reduction, the noetic-noematic distinction, unbuilding, bracketing, orientation, critical reflection, etc.). What we do not find, are any discussions of what is involved in the process of writing phenomenology.

 

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Sketches from phenomenology: Writer’s Block

Phenomenology is a philosophy as well as a practice. Some of phenomenology seeks to know what a thing is at its core, at its essence.

 

Phenomenology also, in my reading of Husserl et al, demands exegetic writing align ‘content’ and ‘experience’ to be genuinely phenomenological. This piece, therefore, requires and recognises the experience of both reading and writing within a reflection on the nature of writer’s block.

 

***

 

Drill: Imagine peeling the skin from a Royal Gala apple

 

A man sets out on a journey to a place he has never been before. Another man comes back. A man comes to a place that has no name, that has no landmarks to tell him where he is.

Another man decides to come back. A man writes letters from nowhere, from the white space that has opened up in his mind. The letters are never received. The letters are never sent.

Another man sets out on a journey in search of the first man. This second man becomes more and more like the first man, until he, too, is swallowed up by the whiteness. A third man

sets out on a journey with no hope of ever getting anywhere. He wanders. He continues to wander. For as long as he remains in the realm of the naked eye, he continues to wander. (Auster 1980)

Auster, in this passage from White Spaces is talking about writer’s block. About setting out, trying to set out, coming back having been nowhere.

 

Drill: Feed a page into a typewriter. Type. Pull the sheet out.

 

What if writing is not as we think it? This is convention—the writer, adorned in accoutrements, tempts moments to ‘create’. We build. We attach symbols to a surface. We lay down black marks that create meaning. Writing is assumed an active role while the page is mere support. What if we take writing as a process, that is, not what is written but the movement of writing itself as an experience, as a phenomenon?

 

Drill: Speak the following paragraph while also walking

 

Writing then becomes a different beast to the mind-centred capture of idea, to the scribe wielding symbolic patterns. Flusser argues that the gesture of writing is carving, taking away; from the first writing in 3100BCE, we pressed pictograms into palm-cupped Mesopotamian clay tablets.

 

Drill: cup your palm

 

If writing is subtractive, carving—what is being carved?

In the experience of writing, the carved is The Page.

In one type of phenomenological reduction, to find the thing itself, we can experiment by removing primary qualities of the thing until we reach the tipping point—until we cross the line where are our object ceases to be what it is.

Can we take away red and still have an apple? Yes. Thus an apple is not essentially red.

 

Drill: Sit down, write on paper

 

Writing is movement and movement needs space. The one thing we cannot remove from the page without losing the phenomenon is space. The Page is space. White space, silence, emptiness without which we can never move, never write.

What if writing is sculpting, carving space?

What then becomes of writer’s block?

 

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Sources

Auster, P., 1980. White Spaces. New York: Station Hill.

Flusser, V., 1991. Gestures. In: A Note on ‘The Gesture of Writing’ by Vilém Flusser and The Gesture of Writing, trans. Nancy A. Roth. pp. 25-41.

Husserl, E., 1952. Ideen zu einer reinen Phanomenologie und phanomenologischen Philosophie II. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, E., 1969. Ideas. General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. First Book.. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Husserl, E., 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Second Book. Dordrecht: Kluwer.