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

Steven Connor

Why Phenomenology, Of All Things?

Why phenomenology, of all things and at this time of day? Phenomenology is useful and attractive to me because of its resolve to undertake what Edmund Husserl famously and heart- stoppingly called `pure presuppositionless description'. At once calling for a return to `the things themselves' and bracketing out the real, or things in themselves, as unknowable, phenomenology begins and renews itself in the resolve to resist abstraction, reduction and ideal simplification. For phenomenology, one is always already in the kinds of situation of which one is attempting to take the measure. One of the most interesting and telling features of phenomenology is its intentionality or dependence upon objects. Just as, for phenomenology, there can be no pure consciousness, only consciousness of, so similarly, there can be no pure and essential phenomenology, only phenomenology of. Where most philosophies work towards the framing of propositions, phenomenology does the work of a preposition.

However, one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about trying to characterise a new form of cultural and critical work as a sort of cultural phenomenology is the mystical or neo-religious cast of some of the work practised in its name. This style of phenomenology aims to give us, in David Michael Levin's phrase, the `body's recollection of being'; its aim in investigating the embodiedness of being is actually to rediscover and reaffirm the condition of embodiedness as a mystical state. This neoromantic offer to restore unity of being is everywhere in phenomenology, and offshoots of it like the humanistic psychology of Abraham Marlow, Carl Rogers and Rollo May. ` "Returning to experience" without assuming anything in advance...means making explicit how man is essentially in communion with the world.' This kind of thing is good for what it is and does, which is to provide a poetic kind of religion, but it is not good for the kind of thing I presently have in mind, namely writing plausibly about cultural objects and experiences. I see no virtue in a form of reflection or enquiry which has made up its mind so comprehensively and in advance what its pay-off has got to be. By contrast, cultural phenomenology would nod its head at the account given by Emmanuel Levinas of philosophical phenomenology as

a radical reflection, obstinate about itself, a cogito which seeks and describes itself without being duped by a spontaneity or ready-made presence, in a major distrust toward what is thrust forward in knowledge...It is the presence of the philosopher near to things, without illusion or rhetoric, in their true status, precisely clarifying this status, the meaning of their objectivity and their being, not answering only to the question of knowing "What is?", but to the question "How is what is?", "What does it mean that it is?".

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |