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

Steven Connor

What Is So Bad About Phenomenology?

Phenomenology has of course been subject to various forms of attack and discrediting. It is sometimes said that phenomenology is too passive and normalising. Even in its mode of genial, slightly stoned amazement, phenomenology has seemed to many to many to place far too much trust in our apparent intuitions about the way things unalterably are, for us or for others, and to be not nearly self-conscious enough about the constitutive role of language, representation and ideology in making things the way they are. As a result, phenomenology cannot lead us anywhere but back into our own warmly wallowing-in-the-world selves, and does not offer us any prospect of transcending or transforming that in-the-worldness, not to say the world itself. To the degree that phenomenology may appear merely to accommodate us to the way things appear necessarily to be, reestablishing the continuity between man and world that metaphysics and modernity between them have viciously severed, it can be said to be quietist, naturalist, unhistorical and antihumanist. Depending on your choice, the attempt to yoke phenomenology and Marxism to be found in the work of Merleau-Ponty and Sartre is then brought forward as either a confirmation or a triumphant refutation of this claim. At any rate, I am wagering that there is another path for phenomenology to take, or be taken, than the forest path into mystified quietude.

As one might hope and expect, feminist scholars have been quick to object to the specifically masculinist forms of embodiment offered as general forms of corporeal entailment by certain phenomenologists.

Another line of attack on phenomenology concentrates upon its attempts to investigate the structures of consciousness. The terms of this objection are, roughly, that phenomenology assumes and sets out to recreate the transcendental authority of the ego. These are the terms in which foundational phenomenology is attacked by Foucault, Lacan and Derrida, as well as in the work of that great, and also hugely overrated, anti-phenomenological phenomenologist Levinas. But I do not feel rattled by, say, Derrida's attack on Edmund Husserl, largely because I do not feel implicated in it. I am not Edmund Husserl nor was I meant to be, least of all when I am supposing myself into being a cultural phenomenologist. But, even if it were important for me to defend my brand of imaginary phenomenology against such attack, resources would, I dream, be on hand to do so. Don Ihde, for example, a phenomenologist whom I admire considerably when he is saying the illuminating things he does about perception, as opposed to weaving daft reveries about the return of the gods to modern life, suggests that Derrida's attack on phenomenology is really only an attack on the transcendentalist and foundationalist brand of it practised by (early) Husserl. And anyway, what Derrida brings to bear on Husserl is, in part, a tradition of openness to the contingency and relatedness of being which derives from a post-Husserlian phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty). One of Ihde's telling examples is the prominence of the metaphors of margins, frames, spaces and spacing in Derrida's writing. Ihde sees this as an effect of a phenomenological refusal to edit out the experience of the physical or material conditions of reading - the fact that text is always presented to us against a background of whiteness or emptiness. He might have pointed to other phenomenological features of Derrida's writing, especially the extraordinary capacity to think through things (in the Sartrean sense) evidenced in his work: his odd obsession with legs and locomotion in his reading of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example; his willingness to derive a theory of sexuality and writing from a remark of Nietzsche's about an umbrella; or his readiness to allow a pair of boots to lead him into some far-reaching reflections on modernity and the Holocaust. This seems to me to be in a tradition of philosophical meditation through mundane objects that has analogies with Jean-Paul Sartre's mock-heroic discussions of skiing at the end of Being and Nothingness. I think that Ihde is right to suggest that what post-structuralism objects to is transcendental and not existential phenomenology, and that it objects to transcendental phenomenology largely with the arguments and procedures of existential phenomenology. Existential phenomenology in fact makes it much easier to insist on the primacy of the lived, rather than the primacy of the liver.

However, the biggest problem with taking phenomenology as a starting-point for writing about cultural phenomena is most likely not its vulnerability to contemporary objection, but rather its immense, muffling inviolability, the fact that phenomenology represents so strong, so self-conscious, and self-propelling a tradition. By calling oneself a cultural phenomenologist, one is at risk of seeming to sign up to this widespread and still hugely going philosophical concern. I share David Trotter's excitement at the possibilities for contemporary cultural work to be found in the early work of Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, and am puzzled that this work should have been so entirely forgotten by this current generation of writers about culture formed through post-structuralism. But I do not think of cultural phenomenology as an extension, or correction of the phenomenological project as it continues grandiosely to be conceived and inchingly to be prosecuted in books, journals and conferences around the world. For this reason, I think I may want more from cultural phenomenology, or I might just as well mean less, than `that surpassing towards and of ontology which can be understood to take place in historical event and historical utterance' of which David writes. There is no doubt that a lot of phenomenological categories could do with being historicised (just as a lot of history could do with a more phenomenological curiosity about what things might have been like as well as what made them happen and what they must have meant). But I don't aim to talk history or literary and cultural studies into a phenomenological make-over, such that we would all start discussing Entfernung, nausea, the il y a and the thinking of the body, in place of textuality, power, ideology and cultural identity. I can understand very well what Merleau-Ponty means when he writes, in the celebrated preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, that `phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that existed as a movement before arriving at a complete awareness of itself as a philosophy'. However, I would prefer to think of the philosophical responses to the phenomenological impulse, by Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Freud, Husserl and the rest, not as the making manifest of a pre-existing movement of thought, but as different scratchings of the phenomenological itch by philosophy, which are always, in the end, both premature and precipitate. It is the philosophical dissatisfaction with philosophy to which phenomenologists have severally responded that strikes me as a source of renewal, rather than the specific ambitions and accomplishments of phenomenology itself.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |