10.22.2019

Why Phenomenology, or Transcendence without Asceticism



I like saying phenomenology. Among other reasons, it reminds me of manah manah, which brings me such joy for so many reasons — some personal, some more general.

Growing up in my house, we didn't watch a lot of TV. But one thing we all watched as a family was the brilliant, beautiful, hilarious "The Muppet Show." My siblings and I actually had Muppet Show action figures; mine was Statler. Of all the skits and characters manah manah stands out to this day. I assume I am not alone in this.

The delirium of it all! Put aside the music for a moment and consider the strange drama. After all, they're not just performing the song. There's this odd dynamic between the Animal-like singer and his alien back up singers, some burbling hostility from him that seems paranoid. How can we not be paranoid in the media age? But, in this case, his paranoia seems ill formed, a Hunter Thompson bad trip. What are these aliens doing??? And yet, despite his fear, he's still feeling it, man! What a beautiful drama. What a beautiful take on the "show must go on."

Then again, maybe it's the paranoia inherent to all assemble music. Everywhere I go, they go! 

And Sharkey says...."You know, I can see two tiny pictures of myself and there's one in each of your eyes. And they're doin' everything I do
Every time I light a cigarette, they light up theirs
I take a drink and I look in and they're drinkin' too
It's drivin' me crazy. It's drivin' me nuts."


In any case, manah manah is brilliant as a complex of factors intertwine in odd ways. The best sense is the sense that belies sense and hence has to create it. At the performance's end, we cut to Statler and Waldorf who provide their ever incisive critique:

Statler: The question is, what is a manah mahah?
Waldorf: The question is, who cares?

From phenomenology to manah manah to paranoia to Laurie Anderson and William Burroughs to the critical insight of Waldorf: this is how immanent reading works, how phenomenological critique functions. It follows emergent networks, follows threads that wind here then there, often taking us to surprising places as it stitches together new fabrics of the world. This is the world emerging before our eyes, genesis in action. This is the absolute.

And this, for me, is the pleasure and the promise of phenomenology: it offers a logic and a methodology of engaging the world that never settles for transient pleasures but rather miraculously manages to find the absolute, the cosmos itself, within experience.

Phenomenology, of course, comes from "phenomenon." It's a philosophy that begins with our experience of things, with phenomena, rather than with ideas or concepts. This runs against the grain of how many people imagine truth to function. Things, we tend to believe, are ephemera. What matters is what's eternal — the soul, truth, big ideas, things we can't touch, things that aren't things at all as they don't pass away.

For millennia, philosopher after philosopher along with theologian after theologian has argued that our senses can't be trusted. We can't know the world through the world, they maintain; we can only know it through the mind, through reason, through prayer, through a denial of the world. How bizarre! This prompts Nietzsche to argue that both religion and science are nihilistic: their methodologies for knowing the world are premised on a rejection of the world, a hatred for life.

Descartes, for instance, locked himself in a room and found himself doubting everything about his senses. The one thing he decided he couldn't doubt was that he was doubting which, in his mind, was thinking — hence his famous proclamation, his refutation of skepticism, cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. For Descartes, as for much of the Enlightenment that followed, the way to ascertain truth is through the operations of thinking, of the mind, of reason.

Not one to trust the senses either, Kant gets himself into some truly convoluted positions as he tries to make sense of the aesthetic experience. The beautiful, Kant argues, is indeed a claim about the thing one sees: that painting there is beautiful. And yet there is no universal concept of the beautiful to rely on such as Kant discovers in, say, morality. At the same time, the experience of beauty isn't purely subjective either because, in that case, you wouldn't be making a claim about the painting — you'd be making a claim about yourself: I think that painting is beautiful rather than that painting is beautiful

Kant's resolution is strange — all because he assumes the senses can't be trusted. Beauty, for Kant, doesn't reside in the painting per se but in the  universal effects of the painting on the faculties — sensibility, understanding, reason. Beauty, Kant maintains, puts the faculties into a state of proportional play without resolution into a category or concept: it is an experience, not a knowledge. But Kant distrusts the senses so much that the senses' experience of beauty is not relevant; what matters is the effects of the thing on the faculties of the mind. Nothing is more insane than reason.

As Nietzsche argues, science and religion share an asceticism as both deny the reliability of experience. Our bodies, they both argue, can't discover or deliver the truth. For science, only reason can bring forth truth — reason carried out in a lab as free of human experience as possible, ideally in a vacuum. Yes, science for centuries has believed that the truth of the world can only be known in a place that can't exist in the universe, a literal no place — a vacuum. This version of science is, alas, not empirical.

Meanwhile, religion has long enjoyed a disdain for the body, for the things of this world, preferring to focus on some nether region — heaven, the after life, the soul. This is as true of Catholicism which denies its priests the experience of sex as it is of Judaism and Islam with its women forced to cover themselves as it is for so much of Buddhism that focuses on monks who remove themselves from the everyday, refuse sex, and eat gruel day in and day out as they sweep the monastery steps.

Now, many throughout history have worked against these ascetic tendencies. There are writers of all sorts who relish the pleasures of the body — Rabelais' grotesque Gargantua, de Sade's museums of sexual torture, many anonymous Victorians' lusty affairs, Oscar Wilde's celebration of whimsy. The common approach to these varied and brilliant texts is to reduce them to hedonists privileging the senses over and against ideas and reason. They are, from such a vantage, immoral rather than amoral — outside of morality all together. (Needless to say, these all operate in more complex ways than I can explain here. For example, to read de Sade's "Justine" is to transcend the everyday and experience the sublime, the rupturing of order and boundary including the order of the body.)

We are left, then, with this false and crippling dichotomy: on the one hand, the pleasures, horrors, and inherent limitations of the flesh; on the other, the good, if at times demanding, truths of eternal ideas.

Ah, but phenomenology offers a radical alternative to such a reductive duality, a line of flight as Deleuze and Guattari might say — a new approach that at once supersedes and takes leave of such ascetic dualism. Experience, phenomenology claims, is not just the only way to experience the world, to know the world: it's the way to experience the truths of the world, its ecstasy, its abundance: experience as the way to touch the absolute. It's not by taking leave of the body that we transcend the limitations of our bodies; it is through our experience as a body, with our bodies, that we come to participate in the creation of the universe itself. We don't just witness the absolute. We become the absolute. 

In Creative Evolution, the great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Henri Bergson, argues that rather than facilitating knowledge of the world, the models of knowledge we have impede our understanding of the world. In fact, our models make knowing the world impossible! So he proffers another way that I consider phenomenological: "[A]n intellect bent upon the act to be performed and the reaction to follow, feeling its object so as to get its mobile impression at every instant, is an intellect that touches something of the absolute." He calls this methodology intuition.

Let me parse this. He asks us to bend our intellect to the thing at hand, the event, in order to feel that things' movement through the world. The senses make an impression: when we see, touch, feel, smell, hear the world, the world enters us, impresses itself upon us. As a later French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, to see the world is to be entwined with the world as seer and seen swap places at near infinite speed. And so Bergson has us feeling, with our senses and intellect, for the movement of things as they move and impress themselves upon us — and, in so doing, we participate in the genesis of the world: we touch something of the absolute. 

Note that the absolute here does not refer to an absolute truth or a fixed state but to the very phenomena of the world happening. This absolute is not the finality of scientific knowing nor of religious transcendence: it is the absolute of life itself in all its temporality. Bergson uses the word "absolute" to distinguish this mode of knowing from casual sensory experiences that are mired in layers of cultural nonsense, that are mere habit. This knowing transcends — but it doesn't transcend life itself: it transcends the bullshit of culture by enmeshing you in life, with life, as life.

The religious promise of transcendence is nihilistic, ascetic, disdaining this life for the spirit, the soul, for the swells of silence that refuse the banter of humanity. Phenomenological transcendence is of another order all together: through this methodology of intuition, we transcend but we don't transcend this world. On the contrary, we touch this world intimately, transcending the blindness of habit and idiocy by entwining ourselves with the the undulations and vibrations, the smells and textures, the endless emergence of the world.

Science, in an effort to know the world, leans back from it. Religion, in order to discover divinity, turns away from the flesh. But phenomenology goes the other direction — to know the world as the absolute, it leans into the way of things, feels the friction of becoming, taste the fumes of creation and loves it all. This knowing is neither categorical nor divine: it is worldly, winding every which way: manah manah to infinity. Manah manah as transcendence.

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