Body Phenomenology, or The Guilt of the theoretical

In Body Phenomenology class today we were asked to write a description of the situation we were in. The situation was, broadly understood, the situation of the classroom, the graduate seminar. But specifically, we were each situated in it differently – it’s that situatedness which we were asked to write about. I wrote about how the situation was tense, much is at stake with this course for my thinking, and therefore with myself, as I identify strongly with the thinking that I do, or wish to do.  I wrote that despite this class being where I absolutely wanted to be, it was in no way pleasant to be there. I wrote about the difference between how I try to project myself (as knowledgable and thoughtful), and how I sense myself (error, petty concerns – guilt of the theoretical but I’ll get to that later).

After everyone had summerized what they had written, we found that the class could fairly easily be broken into 4 groups by the way they described their situation. For one group, the situation was of ambivalence, wafting in and out of paying-attention. Another felt distressed but because of the immediacy of the classroom, and felt affected in many negative ways by the physical and social forces which impose on us in classroom space, and had various ways of coping with those forces which when written about lost much of their protective force. Another group had planned to come to the class, but upon arriving it has not met their presupposed expectations, so they felt confused and out of place.

The group I fell into had in common a feeling of anxiety and distress, caused by the desire to live up to the self that one projects, and which want desires to be/become. Specifically, we all had extensive training in Phenomenology, so if we can’t cut it here (in a course on applied Phenomenology) we would be, in our own eyes failures.  More specifically, we had all written our “descriptions” of the situation in a very analytic style, which we felt guilty about, because we could see our own training preventing us from actually doing that which we are trained for.

The amazing thing about the excersize is each situation found itself to be associated with philosophically relavent questions. The ambivalence group came up with questions such as, “what does it mean to be present?”, “Are there benefits to being absent?”, “What triggers one’s mind to wander”, “What is dialogue/monologue?”. Presence and absence are crucial themes in philosophy because they move between questions of the meaning of being (ousia) and questions of consciousness, and reveal to what extent our everyday thinking about being is related to our notion of being conscious.

The contradicting-their-prior-experience group asked questions like “what is an ideal” in the sense of a concrete idea, your actual idea of something which an experience might confirm or deny. Also, “can we define the unknown”, and “can we stay open in the face of the unknown”. The group which perceived the class and the experience of writing the description as a series of threats against themselves, and against their mechanism for dealing with threats were the most insightful. They were able to ask questions about emotional affectiveness, trauma. They also asked a question about “Why is it the case that in our culture being affected in a visible manner is a sign of authenticity?”, which may have or may have not been related to Hilary Clinton.

My own group didn’t really ask any philosophical questions out of our description, because our description was already a philosophical question: “Are we (becoming) who we are (or ought to be)?” The implied questions, I suppose are “what is the human”, “what is self-propriety”, “what is the relation between authenticity and showing yourself up to others in the way that you sense yourself?”.

However, this is really just a long interlude to get to the question which is really causing the axiety for me: the guilt of the theoretical. To explain this guilt, I need to explain what “theoretical” means in phenomenology.

Phenomenology recognizes human consciousness as an event (evenement, or happening) in the world. In other words, consciousness is thing bodies do. Consciousness is intentional differentiation. Or, we can also call it “theoretical”. The theoretical is a structure, a semiotic-like structure, that makes thinking possible and also determines what is possible in thinking. It helps us live by describing things in the world, but the things it works with – concepts – fail to capture things in the world. They capture them only partially, the world is fuller and more organic than language.  Language is part of the world – the world is not just a specific part of language.

The guilt of the theoretical, then, is the recognition that every theoretical account you give of a situation, or an object, or an art-work, never lives up to the thing itself. It’s the recognition that while you are being more sensitive to the manner in which the thing is asking to be determined (you try to let concepts be determined by objects, rather than determining an object to have certain properties), your experience is wholly theoretical. Precisely, the experience of the object  seizing you,  is a theoretical experience. So, it is unclear in what sense the phenomenological method allows you to overcome the weaknesses of rationalism (determining everything according to concept).

So, the bar is set higher than one can grasp – we’re always set up for failure.

My hope was that, by writing this, the weakness in my account would show itself, and I would find a solution, or a silver lining of some sort. Here it is:

Merleau Ponty’s phenomenology, which is the method we are using in this class, does not endorse a simple theoretical/pre theoretical distinction. Or rather, he does (and calls it the reflective/pre reflective), but – he populates the pre-reflective with four kinds of consciousness – practical, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive. Only the cognitive bridges the gap to the reflective. Since we can know things about the pre-reflective, minimally that is organized in this 4fold of consciousness – we can reflect on pre-reflective life with cognition, and truly. This of course requires us to think “truth” not as correct and total correspondence of a concept and its object, but a partial revealing – truth is never total. The entirety of an object is never grasped because an object is not a mental entity but a real thing.

But still, it circles round again – how do we know that the pre-reflective has this fourfold structure? It’s just a theoretical/reflective way of talking about the pre-reflective. The theory of the pre-reflective can be evaluated on a radical-empiricist standard: does it work? Does it show things up?  How do you know when things have been shown up? If revealing is the meaning of truth, what is its criterion?


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