May 2013


don_draperIn response to an earlier post, the outstanding blog Attempts at Living writes:

Couldn’t I also say that no one ever experienced vision, though everyone has experienced seeing and not seeing, that no one has ever felt a punch to the guts but that they have felt pain. This is just absolutising the separation of experience of the thing and the thing itself, as if it could ever be possible to experience the source of experience except as an experience. Sure, when I experience tiredness and wakefulness I don’t experience every single part of metabolism, but in order to experience metabolism it isn’t necessary that I experience all of it, only part of it. After all, I have been to Ypres in Belgium, so I experienced Belgium…but it would be ludicrous of me to claim that I experienced all of Belgium in all its possible modes of being experienced. But if I say “I have been to Belgium” or “I enjoyed visiting Belgium” I’m not really making a claim of that order of intensity.

Here’s the problem.  The claim is not that we don’t experience effects of our bodies or that consciousness isn’t embodied.  That’s all taken for granted.  The thesis is that consciousness gives us no reliable guide to causes of our lived states.  Let’s recall that phenomenology is a foundationalist discourse that more or less argues that all claims need to be grounded in the evidences of consciousness and experience.  If we find that consciousness is a pretty unreliable guide to its causes, this is a pretty serious problem for it as a methodology.  Before getting to that, I’ll note a couple things:

  1. The value and importance of phenomenological descriptions is not here being contested.  Phenomenology has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of ourselves, our own experience, and so on.  None of that should be abandoned.
  2. Nor am I disputing the thesis that we can’t have good cognitive science or neurology without good phenomenology.  A lot of cognitive science is nonsense on stilts because it has a thoroughly mistaken view of experience and mind arising out of a failure to engage in careful descriptive analysis.
  3. What is being disputed is the sovereign and foundationalist role that phenomenology tries to claim for itself.  Phenomenology might give us insight into what needs to be explained, but it does not explain.

Now back to the issue.  My thesis is that conscious states give no reliable insight into their causes and that therefore we risk completely misconstruing our mental life if we take phenomenological description at face value.  Let’s take an example I discussed on facebook this morning:  Heidegger’s discussion of anxiety.  Heidegger argues that anxiety arises out of our “being-in-the-world”, meaning, being-towards-death, and authenticity.  My state of anxiety, he argues, arises from awareness that only I can die my own death, that no one can die it for me, and leads to an awareness that all of our decisions are our own.  Above all, Heidegger argues that anxiety is a special attunement or affect pertaining to meaning.

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bodies-splitjpg-fbad928e64c4b110_largeElsewhere I wrote that “one of the greatest oxymorons is the idea of a lived body.  The body is never given to consciousness or lived experience”.  Some people have had trouble understanding this.  All I mean when I say this is that we never have direct experience of our bodies and the causes of our affective states.  In an earlier post on the opacity of affect, I articulated this in terms of nicotine fits.  In the midst of a nicotine fit I believe that my friend is the cause of my irritation, when, in fact, it is a mess going on with my neurotransmitters that is the cause of my nicotine fits.  My conscious mind casts about for an explanation of the displeasure of this situation and alights on my friend, when the cause has nothing to do with my friend and everything to do with bio-chemical processes.  If you think you’ve ever experienced a nicotine fit you’ve never understood phenomenology or its methodological requirements.  You experience the effects of nicotine fits, not the organic causes.  You can’t experience the organic causes of anything taking place in your body and never have.  Organic causes can only be understood in the natural attitude and from a third person perspective that correlates the descriptions of people with what’s chemically, and through the use of brain scans being detected in bodies.  No one has ever experienced their brain.

This is what Spinoza is getting at in 2p27 when he says that the body is affected in many ways of which we’re unaware.  We think that x, y, and z is the cause of why we’re feeling as we are, when it’s really p, q, and r.  This is where semiotic (symbolic) and (imaginary) discussions of the body will always fail to reach the real body.  The paradox is that I both am my body and have no privileged insight into the causes that animate the affective life of my experience.  They could be of the imaginary order (phenomenology) or they could be of the semiotic order (culture, the signifier) or they could be of the real order (organic, chemical, material).  First person experience can never decide these issues.  At best, it can give us a “pataphysics” of our bodies, never an ontological ground of embodied experience.  Descriptive analysis can only take us so far and certainly not give us reliable knowledge of causes where our bodies are concerned because our real bodies are withdrawn from us.  If we uncritically accept the descriptions of phenomenological approaches and semiological approaches, we risk misconstruing all sorts of issues.  Oddly only a third person approach coupled with first person descriptions can give us any insight into the real body (consider the distorted image of the body experienced by an anorexic or the more familiar experience of phantom limbs).

4.1alzheimersCatherine Malabou has done a wonderful job underlining these issues in works like The New Wounded, when discussing phenomena like strokes and Alzheimer’s.  These are phenomena that don’t fit with the semiological fetish of the Lacanians, nor the phenomenological prejudice of first-person experience.  They require a different analytic framework.  Jane Bennett made similar points about the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on cognition and lived experience in Vibrant Matter.  Were we to adopt, for example, a phenomenological mode of analysis for the impact of omega-3 fatty acids we would get things entirely wrong.  We’d be talking about the lived experience of students and prison inmates, their “horizon of meaning”, and so on, missing entirely what the causes of these changes are and how they had nothing to do with meanings, signifiers, lived experiences, horizons of significance, and the rest.

People get nervous when these things are mentioned.  Usually the first words that come out of the mouth of those of us in the humanities are “reductionism” and “scientism”.  Lord knows that Bennett got plenty of grief for what she wrote about omega-3 fatty acids.  There were calls to “burn the witch” or the polite academic equivalent.  In response, people should remember that the claim is not that these are the only causes, but that these types of material causes are excluded from the sorts of analysis we in the humanities and social sciences generally engage in.  The point is not to exclude all we’ve gained from phenomenology and semiotics, but to recognize that they’re limited and that there are other fields of causation that we don’t even begin to entertain or explore.  Us humanists really have nothing to say about strokes, Alzheimer’s, nicotine fits, and partial lobotomies.  It’s text, text, text and lived experience all the time.

We call ourselves materialists, yet exclude any materialist form of anlaysis a priori; so effectively that we don’t even recognize we’re doing so.  I suspect that part of the reason for this is that academics do not work with people who suffer from these things, and have generally led fairly privileged lives where material reality works (exactly what Heidegger described when discussing the withdrawal of tools when they’re working) and have seldom experienced poverty or homelessness as a result of coming from privileged backgrounds.  We just don’t see because we’ve never experienced broken material worlds and therefore reduce everything to first-person descriptive experience and texts to be interpreted (the things available in our offices when pondering issues about mind, culture, human behavior, meaning, etc).  The issue is one of recognizing our blind spots and making room for these other causal factors.  It’s a logic of both/and, not either/or.  It’s a question of multiplying sites of intervention, not abandoning sites of intervention.  I think that’s a good thing.  At any rate, our experience of our bodies is not identical to our bodies and how we narrate or experience our bodies is no reliable guide to what’s going on inside us.

corpse51033820In response to a a previous post, my good friend Michael and one of my most valued interlocutors cites Merleau-Ponty and writes:

“Everything I see is on principle within my reach, at least within reach of my sight, and is marked upon the map of the “I can.” Each of the two maps is complete. The visible world and the world of my motor projects are both total parts of the same Being.

“Immersed in the visible by his body, itself visible, the see-er does not appropriate what he sees; he merely approaches it by looking, he opens onto the world. And for its part, that world of which he is a part is not in itself, or matter. My movement is not a decision made by the mind, an absolute doing which would decree, from the depths of a subjective retreat, some change of place miraculously executed in extended space. It is the natural sequel to, and maturation of, vision. I say of a thing that it is moved; but my body moves itself; my movement is self-moved. It is not ignorance of self, blind to itself; it radiates from a self….

“The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the “other side” of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought—but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt—a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future….

“This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.3 Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies,4 are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things—in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and in the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution still present within crystal, the undividedness of the sensing and the sensed…

“A human body is present when, between the see-er and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand a kind of crossover occurs, when the spark of the sensing/sensible is lit, when the fire starts to burn that will not cease until some accident befalls the body, undoing what no accident would have sufficed to do…

“Once this strange system of exchanges is given, we find before us all the problems of painting. These problems illustrate the enigma of the body, which enigma in turn legitimates them. Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility. “Nature is on the inside,” says Cézanne. Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them.” [Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind’, p.3]

There is a “carnal formula” of presence. Things have a consistent presence in/through our bodies – beyond all thetic codings – which forces us to confront structural (material) consequences. Life and politics are no less than this.

penfieldhomunculusAmong the other things I wish to say in the post to which Michael is responding, is that phenomenology is constitutively unable to think the real of the body.  This is the root of my debate with Sara Ahmed, as well.  While phenomenology can certainly describe how we experience our bodies, it never manages to get at the fundamental opacity of body and affect.  The body, as real, is not something given to consciousness or lived experience.  Put differently, our bodies are something we never experience.  At most, we experience the effects of our bodies, never our bodies as such.

In an earlier post on the opacity of affect, I make this point in terms of Spinoza.  As Spinoza writes,  in the Ethics, “[t]he idea of any affection of the human body does not involve adequate knowledge of the human body” (2p27).  For Spinoza, the cause of any affect is never given to consciousness.  Is my depression the result of a neuro-chemical process, a bad diet, a lack of nicotine, or something else besides, or is it the result of something pertaining to my existential life project at the level of experience and lived consciousness?  This question can never be answered from the standpoint of lived experience.  Lived experience tells me of all sorts of affects that inhabit my embodied life, but tells me nothing of their causes.

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fvbdy8For Karl Steel:

Teen1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen1: I don’t even know anymore.

~The Simpsons, “Homerpalooza”

dimagesA lot of ink has been spilled discussing the differences between Anglo-American and Continental thought.  Are Anglo-American and Continental thought merely discussing things in different vocabularies and do they share far more in common than we normally think?  Can the divide be bridged?  Is there an irreconcilable difference in the questions and problems of these two traditions?  In other words, these discussions tend to be situated at the level of the discursive or content.

I really have nothing profound to add to this discussion.  Because of the idiosyncrasies of my professional career since getting my position, I haven’t had much of a stake in pledging allegiance to either of these traditions.  For that matter, I haven’t had much of a professional stake in having to restrict myself to philosophy, ignoring work in other disciplines such as literary theory, media studies, psychology, sociology, media studies, and so on.  This is one of the benefits of being a community college professor.  No one really cares whether I’m a Continentalist or an Anglo-American thinker, whether I’m bridging the divide, or whether I restrict myself to a canon strictly recognized by academia as philosophy.  As a consequence, I’m able to take up whatever theory, in whatever discipline, I find valuable without worrying about the networks of power that inhabit departments and professional organizations.  I doubt it would have been possible to write The Democracy of Objects in a department with a graduate program; at least, not at this point in my career.

WorldMapSetting all this aside, one thing I find interesting about the entire divide discussion is that it almost always seems to be approached at the level of the discursive or content.  In other words, I seldom see discussions of the so-called divide in terms of geography and sociology.  Oh sure, we all recognize that the divide has a geographical dimension.  Continental philosophy is primarily philosophy that arose out of Germany and France from the 19th century on, while Anglo-American philosophy arose during the 20th century out of Great Britain and the United States.

When I say that we don’t discuss this divide geographically and sociologically, what I mean is that we really don’t raise the question of the degree to which this divide might be an accident of both media networks of communication between different regions of the world, as well as linguistic barriers.  The lack of communicative connections between different regions of the world leads to geographical isolation or the formation of isolated linguistic/conceptual communities.  These isolated communities then develop along distinct conceptual routes.  I really have nothing to say in response to the questions with which I began this post, but I do suspect that as we become ever more globally connected we’ll see that it becomes more and more difficult to talk about something like distinctly Continental thought or distinctly Anglo-American thought.  This divide can only sustain itself in and through the isolation of social communities.  That implies the absence of communications media quickly linking these communities.  As that changes it will become more and more difficult to maintain those conceptual unities.

francis-baconThe last couple of years have felt like the gradual confession of a dirty and embarrassing secret.  My intellectual background is resolutely Continental.  The first philosophers I encountered in High School were the Sartre of Being and Nothingness, the Husserl of the Ideas, the Heidegger of Being and Time, Nietzsche, of course, and thinkers such as Whitehead, William James, Dewey, Saint Spinoza, and Kant.  As an undergraduate at the Ohio State University, I discovered Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and Lacan.  I chose to go to Loyola to study Heidegger with Thomas Sheehan and Levinas with Adriaan Peperzak.  There I encountered Andrew Cutrofello and Patria Huntington, both of whom drove me deeper into the French post-structuralists, Kant, and Heidegger.  There I went through a period where I was so intensely engaged with Husserlian and Merleau-Pontyian phenomenology that my friends would joke that my apartment was a permanent “transcendental epoche” zone.  Later I became obsessed with the structuralist and post-structuralist linguistic turn as a result of my encounter with Lacanian theory and practice, Freud, and spent years studying the semiotics of Peirce and Eco, structuralist semiology, and structuralist anthropology and literary criticism.  During this time it was “signs, signs, everywhere signs.”

Yet during this time I also had a deep naturalist streak.  As a child I had dreamed of being a marine biologists and I had spent many happy hours wading about in creeks pursuing tadpoles, frogs, turtles, and fish, and running barefoot through the local woods learning all about different mosses, ferns, and salamanders.  I could never accept the bracketing of the natural attitude proposed by the phenomenologists.  It wasn’t that I rejected the importance of phenomenological description and analysis.  Not at all.  Rather, it was that I couldn’t discount biology, neurology, physics, chemistry, neurology, and all the rest.  I couldn’t see the findings of these disciplines as instances of naivete.  Likewise, I couldn’t fully accept the semiotic constructivism, the linguistic turn, of the structuralists and the post-structuralists.  This was a point driven home all the moreso when I began suffering from depression and started taking medication to treat it.  Heidegger and Sartre had implied that attunements such as depression had to do with the existential meaning of my life.  Perhaps.  Yet I found that when I took the right SSRI, I found that I genuinely felt better, despite the fact that nothing in my existential project or “being-in-the-world” had really changed.  I reflected on the nicotine fits I would experience when I was quitting smoking.  In these moments, I would experience the world as a threatening and aggressive place, with people attacking me and starting fights.  Was my nicotine fit the result of my existential being-in-the-world?  Or was it rather simply that neurotransmitters my brain had come to rely on to engage in operations were not being produced as a result of the absence of nicotine and I was therefore experiencing irritation because I couldn’t properly filter the world?  If the latter, why couldn’t it be the same with depression?  Why did depression have to be bound up with my fundamental life meaning, my existential being-in-the-world, and not just the dynamics of neurotransmitters?  The case was the same with Lacanian psychoanalysis.  At the level of the “hermeneutic horizon” of my existence, I benefited tremendously from analysis.  However, I wouldn’t say that analysis was particularly effective in dealing with other maladies such as my depression.  I wondered how the phenomenologists and proponents of the linguistic turn could explain things like intoxication, nicotine fits, the sublime experiences of mushrooms, and all the rest.  I wondered how they could explain why white wine makes one person happy and gregarious, while tequila makes them mean and aggressive.

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ignorance_____by_ConinLuhmann argues that society consists entirely of communication.  In order for society to continue to exist it must produce new communications from moment to moment, for the ones that just took place fade away or disintegrate.  In order for new communications to be produced, someone must be ignorant.  If there were no one who didn’t know, then there would be no reason for communication to take place and society would cease to exist.  A communication that merely repeats what is already known has no reason to be communicated.  Communications that merely exchange existing knowledge therefore very quickly lead to the entropic decay of the social system.  Recall when John F. Kennedy, Jr’s plane crashed and the cable news networks reported on its nonstop.  People tuned out.

Academia is not merely distinguished by its disciplines, but is also a social system.  Like any other social system, academia must produce new communications in order to exist.  A good move in research is thus not one that produces knowledge, but one that produces new forms of ignorance.  For in producing new forms of ignorance, a good theory will ensure that new research and controversies can emerge.  We could even say that the aim of education is to create ignorance rather than knowledge.

I wonder if we could make the same claims about ethics.  If we treat ethics as a form of communication– rather than approaching it primarily as a theory of the right and wrong, the good and bad, and the good life –could we say that ethical theory has to produce new forms of evil and wickedness to ensure that communication about ethics continues as a social practice?

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