Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Phenomenology - What is it good for?

I've been using phenomenology for a few years now to provide me with a way into thinking about material culture. It comes somewhere between a method, a methodology and a theory but for me the good thing is that it problematises the empirical world, making it not reducible to being discoverable by a simple or single method. For example, I've used the phenomenology of perception in Merleau-Ponty's early work to think through how we perceive the material world and how we take it into account in how we act. For me, M-P's account of the whole body as engaged in perception rather than a series of individual senses, works very well for understanding material interaction - the interaction between human bodies and things. Rather than separate out the senses - sight, touch especially - M-P explains how what we see is from the body and how we move that body affects what we see. The distance of what we are looking at makes a difference too. If an object is brought close, within the reach of hands, its orientation to the body and its sense of touch and proprioception becomes part of the looking. And perception always involves the mind and its memory; what is seen and touched connects with what has been seen and touched before by that body.

More recently I've used some of Husserl's ideas about how we understand what other people perceive - apperception - to make sense of how we see the world and how our seeing images of it borrows from our understanding of how other people see the world. We can imagine what someone else is seeing, when we see them looking and when they tell us about it. When a still camera or a television camera shows us a scene we are not seeing it directly; it is reduced to two dimensions and has a frame that restricts what is available to view. But it is as if we have the opportunity to see something from someone else's point of view, that of the person who has pointed the camera and fired the shutter. We get something of the sense information that they get and have to go with it, give ourselves up to what we are shown, accept it as a view of the world. We imbue it with emotion and understanding that tunes in to what see. That is, if we don't turn away, move on or switch off - which is fine too. Sometimes we can be moved by what we are shown by someone else, sometimes it changes our view of the world that we see through our own eyes. Some of the fears about visual media (films, television, video games, computer screens) are that we can be taken over and influenced too much for our own good. But who knows what our own good is? Perhaps what we learn from an image or a screen is what we find abhorrent or disgusting, things that we are not exposed to in everyday life, things that we avoid but that we need to find abhorrent or disgusting.

If I take a phenomenological approach to the world I don't look for the 'objective' or 'scientific' account of what it contains, I follow the line of experience. Phenomenology is the most detailed account of the operation of consciousness that we have. It directs our attention to how consciousness works and how it makes the world present to us continuously. Husserl's early writing is particularly difficult and the procedure for doing phenomenological philosophy seems strange, mystical even. A bit like a meditative process of looking inwards, focussing the mind on its capacities and 'letting go' of the constantly intruding thoughts from the hurly burly of the outside world. He calls this process the epoché, bracketing, or the phenomenological reduction. It involves putting aside the 'natural standpoint' to notice how things are are given to consciousness and how consciousness takes them up. 'Things' here are both things in the world such as objects, animals and people and things in the mind such as memories, ideas, fantasies. Now, I can't buy into Husserl's epoché, it just doesn't seem possible to me. This is because if the natural standpoint is bracketed out, I can't see what can be left. The building blocks for sensory understanding is the experience we have of the world; what we know nothing of we cannot see or make sense of. There may be sensations but this does not mean that consciousness is able to do anything with them. What happens when we are exposed to unfamiliar experience is that we do our best to make sense of it by comparison with what we have experienced before. We draw on the accumulated knowledge of living in the world to understand what comes into consciousness; we can't separate out this prior experience from a 'pure' or experience of the essence of things. And if we do, or attempt it, we are looking for a spiritual type of inner experience, the sort that comes with meditation. Husserl's early phenomenology is known as transcendental phenomenology, not because he was writing about a mystical procedure - he is clear that he want to make phenomenology systematic and scientific - but because he wants to transcend the pre-determined nature of the ordinary flow of consciousness in the natural standpoint. But what gives meaning to what comes into consciousness is precisely the accumulation of what has flowed through that consciousness previously, including scientific knowledge, prejudice, stereotypes and imagined possibilities.

So, why bother with phenomenology? Well, I come at it backwards, via Merleau-Ponty, some things that are there in the work of Barthes and Derrida, some reading of Heidegger as an approach to the material world as well as other references including the work of Alfred Schutz and the writing of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann that impressed me as an undergraduate. It is only now that I am grappling with Husserl and although I find 'transcendental phenomenology' unconvincing I am still interested. This is because in his later work he develops the idea of the life-world, the everyday, habitual location of the flow of experience and the possibility of a phenomenology of it. If in his early work he is looking inward into the subject to study consciousness, his later work begins to look outward from the subject's consciousness and tries to grasp how it engages with the life-world. Here is where empathy, an emotional intuition of the experience of other people, is important for making the moral world of societies. What is more, I think there is critical potential in phenomenology, the possibility of challenging the 'status quo', the taken for granted, that-is-how-it-was-and-ever-shall-be, nature of habitual experience. I think phenomenology can be a route to persuading people that that their own experience should be the basis of judging what is right and wrong, what is good for them and for those around them. We've been dominated by 'experts', those who 'know best' for too long. Too often they are not the scientists but those who insist on trusting scientific and systematic knowledge which they select, take up and use for their own particular ends. Phenomenology can help us question the claims of others as well as question what we take for granted; we need to continually check our orientation to the life-world, to ensure that we are acting in our own best interests... that almost always means thinking of the best interests of others!

No comments:

Post a Comment