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

Steven Connor

Phenomenology and History

If I am looking for one kind of enlargement of phenomenology in the attention to the cultural, I am looking for another in a different form of historical attentiveness. Phenomenology has never been characterised by a particularly strong historical sense or curiosity, though it has had a strong and valuable interest in the lived conditions of temporality. Historians have handsomely repaid the noncompliment in their indifference to phenomenological perspectives and procedures. One can understand this reciprocal coolness. History has always operated in the end in the order of the `they'; with what is public, external, formalised. History has tended to focus on general, or representative or summarised experiences, as well as on the actual rather than the implicit. If phenomenology were to be a resource for me, it would have to be a phenomenology with a memory, a properly historical phenomenology. One could imagine, for example, a cultural phenomenology conducted simply in terms of a historicisation of some of the central categories and motifs of classical or systematic phenomenology: the experiences of elevation, uprightness, exposure, interiority, visibility, plurality, magnitude, height and weight. (Imagine it: a history of weight!) According to me, to historicise these experiences would be to cleave to rather than to swerve away from the phenomenological effort to grasp what the world is like (what it would be like to take the world to be like that) rather than how it is. Grasping what the world is like involves acknowledging what it is not like, yet or any more.

One plausible example of a cultural-historical phenomenology would be that broached by Walter Ong in the investigation of the historicity of reading, writing and speaking he conducts in his work beginning with The Presence of the Word in 1967 and the work on the history of orality that flows from this work. The huge abundance of contemporary writing on the history of technology, spurred clearly by our own curiosity, concern and intoxication with the fate of the body in the world of information technology, probably also belongs to a historicising mood concerning the body, which in itself may instance a kind of unconscious turn to the phenomenological disposition.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |