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

Steven Connor

Be (Un)Prepared

The motto of too much contemporary cultural theory and analysis seems to be: be prepared. Cultural phenomenology would take care not to start out with problems, precomprehended as these are under rubrics such as power, identity, ideology, gender, sexuality, `race', ` "race" ', ethnicity, the body, or postmodernism, and would do what it could not to consent to the ordering and containing effects of those forms of thought. (Maxim number two: cultural phenomenology does not precomprehend problems.) What is this, I hear you (myself I mean) asking? Am I offering to sweep away the century or more of critical social thought of which these terms are the encapsulated offspring and expression? No, I am not. All I am saying is that there might be a different kind of cultural work (also) available to be done, at the same time, or at other times. If you are interested in the problems of power, identity, ideology, and so on, that form the stock-in-trade of contemporary critical theory, all well and good; but if you are exclusively, programmatically, institutionally interested in such things, you will not be able to do cultural phenomenology. Or not at the same time.

I happen to think that the sense of intellectual unpreparedness, of incomprehension, or non-precomprehension, is fostered much more readily by working historically than by working theoretically. By now, it ought to be clear that I do not mean by this working as an historian, with recognisably historical ways and means. By working historically, I mean accommodating and being accommodated to the indigestibility of what is no longer present to us. I also mean resisting the temptation to triumph over the past, by supplying it with the meaning, the voice, and the self-comprehension it never had. Our determination to make the past blurt out what we want it to say, in our terms and for our purposes, is, of course the twin of our anxiety about being waylaid and laid waste by the future. In both cases, we crave immunity from time, as the action of dilapidation of our self-command and self-recognition.

Nothing is more undesirable and really unimaginable for the arts and humanities than such a programme as the one I am indicating here. (So it is lucky that - maxim number three - cultural phenomenology is not a critical programme.) The point of writing this is not to tell you why cultural phenomenology is good for you, or good for the humanities, or good for carrying forward the Enlightenment project, or for derailing it, or for the reduction of cruelty and prejudice or for the emancipation of mankind. The point of writing this is to explain why I think the prospect of the as-yet inexistent kind of work I am describing with this increasingly irksome name is enlivening and for the time being irresistible for me.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |