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

Steven Connor

Cultural Phenomenology Loses the Plot

One of the biggest problems with mother-ship phenomenology for a cultural phenomenologist is actually that it has got so good at acting surprised by the inherence of man and world (well fuck me, it looks like I've really got to die like all these other people), that it is always secretly and comfortably resigned to having to. Phenomenology wanes into amazement as into a friendly pair of slippers. This self-betrayal is one of the things that is so bad about phenomenology. Unfolding Husserl's work of 'pure, presuppositionless description', phenomenology has actually secreted and seated itself upon a reef of presuppositions regarding the ultimate nature and point of such work of description. Everyone knows what phenomenology is for; it is to overcome the split between body and mind, and to make out what George Steiner calls the 'modes of man's inherence in the world'. To sign up to phenomenology is to sign up to the project of overcoming alienation. Phenomenology knows without ever having to tell itself that the overcoming of alienation is both desirable (since one must come to coincide with what one is, and must of necessity unfold into the freedom which is one's destiny), and possible. Indeed, it is more than possible, since no amount of delusion or bad faith or privation can really alienate you from embodiment, temporality, and all the other equiprimordial givens. The trumping move is, of course, to include alienation as part of the package of predicaments, alienation being the way in which we live our most distinctive relation to things. Given all this, it is immaculately impossible that one should fail to achieve the overcoming of alienation by habituation to it, should fail to be unhappily at home in alienation.

But the conformity of most phenomenology to this kind of doxa means that, like psychoanalysis, it is actually at its best in embarrassed circumstances, and in its weaker, wilder, more delinquent forms; when it loses the plot, runs into trouble, comes up against limit, comedy, complication, mess. This is to say, often, when it goes undercover, or can be seen poking through the inner linings of the work of people who do not take themselves to be up to anything very phenomenological at all (poets and comedians and filmmakers as well as guild philosophers). By contrast, it is wearisome and authoritarian in its stiff, painted clothes of technical omnicompetence and stylistic petrifaction. Phenomenology is good when it puts the life back into philosophy; it is bad when its vitality cakes into vitalism. Nevertheless, I think that phenomenology, or the bits of it that I most like, still offers so many prospects for the loss of self-composure as to be the best hope for getting out from under phenomenology - certainly a better hope than the work of critique, deconstruction, analytic and deductive enquiry. (Not, of course, better for everything else: critique, deconstruction, analytic and deductive enquiry remain the best options for achieving the results and the pleasures that are their province.)

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |