A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

An Epoch of Extimacy

I even have a hunch about why it is that a specifically cultural phenomenology might seem desirable for people like the ones we are becoming. It seems to me that the conditions of contemporary life may be understood as an intense exteriorisation of intimacy. We tend nowadays to experience the longings, anxieties, excitements and susceptibilities which would previously have been referred to the private self and its cultural accessories, in the public forms of the print and electronic media: TV, film, the internet. We thus get our sense of our interiority from the outside in, by appropriation, mimicry, purchase and exhibition: setting up web-cameras in our bedrooms for example to show people (and thus ourselves) our most intimate doings. To see this as alienation, or living life at one remove from ourselves, is to instate a distinction between the authenticity of the private self and the inauthenticity of the public world which contemporary conditions themselves make it worth wondering about. A cultural phenomenology which was trying to make sense of these kinds of experience might have to think up ways of describing things other than through the presumptuous generalisation of the experience of the `I' of the phenomenologist (you know the kind of thing: `Who has not felt a profound disappointment at not being able after his return from a long exile to realize that he "is in Paris." The objects are there and offer themselves familiarly, but I am only an absence, only the pure nothingness which is necessary in order that there may be a Paris.' But it would also have to learn to abstain from the abstention from the first-person that is so constitutive a feature of most writing about culture.

Making sense of this exteriorisation of the intimate (a condition which surely deserves a name of its own: extimacy is tempting) would mean bridging the striking antinomy bequeathed by phenomenology to contemporary thought between the individual experience of the world, and the collective world of representations. For phenomenologists of a traditional kind, experience, even of intersubjective relations, is something that only individuals can really have. Even those phenomenologists who have tried to insist on the importance of intersubjective as well as intrasubjective life have tended either to generalise intersubjective life as a kind of aggregated social ego (dreaded by Heidegger as the They, embraced by Merleau-Ponty), or have represented the self's relations with the other as a thrilling ordeal or catastrophe (Sartre, Levinas, Lacan). Indeed, one might account historically for phenomenology itself as a massive attempt to save the possibility of a `life-world' modelled on individual experience, in the face of modernity's invention of the generalised life. Jean-François Lyotard, writing in similar terms of Husserl's sense of the need to rescue humanity from the incursions of objectivist thought, suggests that, for phenomenology, `the fate of European humanity, which is also that of humanity in general, is linked to the possibility of converting philosophy to phenomenology.'

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |