Thursday, 25 January 2007

Phenomenology as Strangeness

In his essay on Cezanne, Merleau-Ponty makes reference to “the inhuman character of his paintings…his devotion to the visible world: all of these would then only represent a flight from the human world, the alienation of his humanity” (p. 61).Later still, we read about the strangeness of “Cezanne’s people…as if viewed by a creature of another species….It is an unfamiliar world in which one is uncomfortable and which forbids all human effusiveness” (p. 66). Inhumanity, alienation, strangeness, unfamiliarity, discomfort: Merleau-Ponty’s remarks bring to light the incisiveness of phenomenology as a whole: namely, its propensity toward both the otherness and interstitiality of appearances.

We find this already established in Husserl’s critique of Kant in the Crisis, then rendered explicit in his account of the unfolding lifeworld. The title of this section is “The Way into Phenomenological Transcendental Philosophy by Inquiring back from the Pregiven Life-World.” The twofold motion between coming-into and inquiring-back-to is central to Husserl’s methodology. For Husserl, this motion did not go far enough. Kant’s transcendental deduction promises to account for the a priori conditions of experience. Yet there is an omission, whereby Kant “[breaks] off again almost at once without arriving at the genuine problem of foundation…” (p. 104). Kant’s presupposition of “the everyday surrounding world of life” is problematic for Husserl (Ibid.). Husserl goes on to state the eidetic features of the life-world: namely, the body and its kinaesthetic apprehension of the world, which then allows the ego to “hold sway” within the world. Within the world also means within the world of other egos, “pregiven in this [world] ‘together’” (p. 109).

Ego, kinaesthesis, holding-sway, and inter-subjectivity all enter into Husserl’s pregiven, taken-for-granted apprehension of the world, of which “an infinite realm” of validates is open to question. This is Husserl’s point of departure, then: the motion between coming-into and inquiring-back-to is also from concealment to disclosure. Concerning Husserl’s famous adage, to the things themselves, the instruction is to re­-turn to those things, as though to see them again. To see again: what can this mean? Would we not have to consider disorientating the pregiven world in order to dislodge precisely what was so far familiar about it? But even then, in encountering the world-as-seen-again, unfamiliar and other, would there not be an assimilation into the previous mode? For phenomenology to succeed, the moment of catching sight of the world as an appearance needs to be sustained. How is this possible?

I have jumped ahead: there is yet the task of rescuing the “hidden truth” from Kant. Turning to section 32 of the Crisis, Husserl points out that the truth of Kant is only such that it depends on “the living spirit that had to remain hidden, because of very natural inhibitions, from humanity and even from the scientists of the ages” (p. 118). The hidden spirit of Kantian thought testifies to the distance between thinking and experience. We are faced with a “plane” of thought, immanent (for Husserl “latent”) but wholly concealed. The immanence of the living spirit spooks (to use Stirner’s wonderful term) the plane of thought from below. And indeed, the placement of the spirit below thought corroborates the view of Kant’s transcendental attack as encircling the truth from above. Kant breaks off while the twofold motion between coming-into and inquiring-back-to gains a vertical dimension. But there is more: faced with the cultural and historic prejudices which constitute a worldview, Husserl maps out a resistance in thought: “Nowhere else is it so frequent that the explorer is met by logical ghosts emerging out of the dark, formed in the old familiar and effective conceptual patterns, as paradoxical antinomies, logical absurdities” (p. 120). We are reunited with Merleau-Ponty’s image of “an unfamiliar world.” Only here, with Husserl – the ghosts are not those of the unconcealed and uncharted plane, but the sedimented shadows of the past.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Toward a Renewed Understanding of Starbucks

Readers may be interested to know that my paper on the phenomenology of Starbucks has been published at Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology. The paper is part of an on-going project to disassociate the relation between non-place and unmemorable place. The positive contribution to account for modes of altering place is forthcoming. In the meantime, enjoy.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Service Station as a Temporal Mutation

If place is said to cohere the self in time through its heterogeneous and qualitative properties, then where does this leave non-place/site? The answer is: as a threat to the particularity of place. Phenomenologically, place and non-place are said to differ in terms of their memorable attributes, involvement of body, and originality. Into this topography, non-place has come to be seen as homogeneous, isotropic, and complicit with the dispersing motion of time. I don’t find this convincing at all. It seems to me that the distinctly homogeneous experience of a site carries with it an opening in which self and world discover a new relation, freed from the dependency on plenitude and continuity. And one way in which this altered relationship is discovered is through the temporality of the site.

If place is such that it conserves time while also giving room for personal identity to cohere through that conservation, then owing to alliance with time, site is such that it retains a fundamentally untimely relationship with place, encouraging the dispersion of personal identity. We see this in how a site is able to reappear anywhere and at anytime. The lifeline of place, as having a particular history, is usually absent in the site. Instead, a site never diminishes as such, but rather reconstitutes its absence through reconfiguring its presence. The lack of heterogeneous features in the site—let us think here of a motorway service station—is an advantage: it creates temporal continuity through dispersing itself in space. That is, the hereness of a site is the hereness of every site.

In the case of the service station, this is particularly evident: instead of marking the distance travelled, as one would experience through passing in and out of heterogeneous places, their repeated reappearance along the motorway has the consequence of giving a cyclical appearance to time. The disorientation which emerges alongside stopping at the service station is no doubt because the eternal recurrence of the motorway has been disrupted. That the instant of stopping is not a respite but a second of anxiety is thus proof of the disturbing temporal affectivity which the service station invokes: a disturbance which attests to the apparent contradiction between the motionlessness of the site and the motion of the motorway. Now, we find ourselves in a spatial impasse: between place but outside of time.

The time of the service station is thus both suspended and dis-closing simultaneously: objectivity dis-closing, but subjectively suspended from that mode of dissolution. The middle of the afternoon and the middle of the might are swallowed up in the isotropic horizon: both reduced to the same murmuring presence. Indeed, given the presence of the site within the sphere of a broader environment, place itself seems to be colonised by the pervasive power of the site. References to particular places within the service station fail to reconcile: cities outside of the scope of the service station appear as spectres, otherworldly entities, both remote and inaccessible, like the frozen image of a destroyed civilization.

The site disembodies what place restores. But with this disembodying gesture, place and site fuse. Leaving the site, the site does not remain where it is. Instead, we carry it within us, down the motorway, and toward the city. This lingering affect means that the self’s relationship to the world takes in ambiguous gradients of place, and not only those which support the appearance of continuity. Yet it is an assimilation of otherness which saturates the immediate self. The memory of having been in a levelled-out zone disrupts the radical duality between place and non-place through bringing both realms into a third place: the altered place of the body, the receiver of both foreign and native places simultaneously, and thus, fundamentally a mutation.

Monday, 8 January 2007


I am happy that Fido is critically engaging with my book. Since I am in the middle of preparing for teaching, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to respond to his comments. However, let me just reply to two observations on silence and memory. Fido states: “I wonder if Trigg’s description isn’t consistent with the way we experience auditory phenomena–albeit silence is something we usually think of hearing rather than seeing.” What I am concerned with here is the possibility of silence being experienced in a spatialized and embodied form. This is my thesis for the temporally finite “reality” of nothingness. The point of departure for this formation is the invocation of dynamic stasis, which Luigi Nono’s describes as, “slow motion of musical material with sudden dynamic explosions” (I don’t think I cited this description in the book for some reason).

Fido questions: “Is this a more spectacular way of talking about attack and decay?” I am not entirely clear what he means by “attack” in its relation to decay. The question of “seeing” nothingness, however, becomes tenable if we apply the oppositional structure of aesthetic silence to particular forms of the built (or unbuilding) environment: a transition I turn to in the second part of the book. In its initial mode, however, the relationship between the peculiar presence of silence captured in dynamic stasis and the Nothing is preliminary, hence a possible confusion between seeing and hearing. Perhaps I rely a little too heavily on a Hegelian aesthetic framework to render this transition to embodiment complete, especially the idea that material is immanently vested with its subjective correlate. The question of essentialism and entropy, and identity and finitude, remains a significant problem here.

In his following post, Fido says the following:

…we could say that habit memory renders experience esemplastic while spontaneous recollection leads to fragmentation. However, Trigg does not explicitly make this equation, and even if he did, there is the question of why these two types of memory should represent gradients of a single faculty. So finally, how is it possible that my experience could be uncanny, and yet how could it be otherwise? How do we allow for silences?

The term “gradients” is important. The relationship between not only habit memory and duration, but layers within duration is a pressing issue (Bachelard’s critique of Bergson is impressive precisely because it destabilizes the unity of duration). My claim, however, is that spontaneous recollection leads to unhomliness through polarising habit memory as the other, rather than the everyday, tacit familiar. This is a relationship of estrangement and distance. The unity of habit memory is such only that it preserves a distance from the texture of altering gradients. Spontaneous recollection, which instils a dual consciousness, is temporal disruption. So the experience of silence becomes the preservation of opposing gradients “melting” (to use a Bergsonian term) into one another: time, memory, and place each testifies to this interpenetration. Only the morphological process does not result in the familiar, but in the conditions for which uncanniness and the otherwise fuse.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Phenomenological Geography (1)

What is the future of phenomenological geography, and why is this question even important? Until now, my commitment to this topic has focused on the role place plays in either cohering or dispersing identity, as held in time and memory. More specifically, I have been concerned with the temporal significance of what place discloses in its failure to contain memory. This has retained a fundamentally phenomenological structure, whereby place recedes and surges in time. Yet the emphasis on temporal discontinuity as ontologically prior to experience, together with a commitment to radical contingency, distances my position somewhat from the prevailing view in phenomenology, which holds place as a unity, and often a transcendental unity.

I point this out, not for anecdotal reasons, but because the tension between unity and discontinuity, and sameness and difference, marks a broader debate involving the post-structuralist critique of the phenomenology of place, and it is a debate which holds the legitimacy of phenomenological geography in question. There seem to be at least three critical issues at stake: (1). That the phenomenology of place fails to negotiate with otherness, and that, therefore, it retains a static and absolutist engagement with place. (2). That the phenomenology of place is solipsistic and introverted. (3). That the phenomenology of place is engaged in a fundamentally nostalgic reclamation of place. Before I consider the future of phenomenological geography in the following post, a brief word on its history.

I can only hint at the rich history of the phenomenology of place. For a detailed account, I highly recommend Edward Casey’s astounding work of scholarship, The Fate of Place (1998). I emphasise astounding because the history of place is largely a hidden history, and to have established a genealogical study of place from the pre-Socratics to post-structuralism is a great achievement. In a more condensed form, David Seamon, a professor of architecture who, along with a few others, was the first to really apply phenomenology to place in an explicit and rigorous fashion, has written a very informative essay on the history of phenomenological geography, found here. Much of this work, to characterise it in three broad stages, begins with Husserl’s lifeworld, passes through Heidegger’s existential emphasis space, before then applying Merleau-Ponty’s body-centric account of world.

Seamon’s early work (esp. Geography of the Lifeworld, 1979) testifies to the emergence of humanistic geography as a response to geographical positivism in the mid-1970s. Books such as Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan’s enduring Space and Place (1978) are pivotal here. Architects such as Christian Norberg-Schulz and Christopher Alexander explicitly associated themselves within this movement. Of the two Norberg-Schulz is the more interesting figure. His phenomenological writings on architecture rely heavily on an applied reading of Heidegger’s writings on dwelling. Retaining their origins in Bachelard, this early stage of phenomenological geography tended to view place as capable of having a distinct genius loci.

Casey’s work on place followed shortly after the initial formation. Essays, now collected in his very fine collection Spirit and Soul (2004), provide a history of Casey’s thinking on place. One particular essay in this collection, “The Memorability of Inhabited Space,” is remarkable for its insight and emphasis on the liminal undercurrent of place, but also the resistance to what Casey will term “site,” a notion later to flourish in AugĂ© and, to some extent, Deleuze. More of that later, though. Casey’s later Getting Back into Place (1993) is a wonderful applied treatment of phenomenology to both the natural and built environment. One other book worth mentioning, though not explicitly phenomenological, is J. Nicholas Entrikin’s Betweenness of Place (1991). I admire this book because it negotiates with the epistemic problems of place—normativity, positivism, casualty—with a kind of detachment which is sometimes absent in explicitly phenomenological works, where meaning takes precedence: a priority post-structuralism will reproach.

For further resources on phenomenology and place, Bruce Janz’s Research on Place and Space website is a feast, as is David Seamon’s Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology site.