Monday, 26 January 2009

Toward a Phenomenology of Milly

She comes to me both day and night, her habits forming with my own. When I go to my armchair, she knows that it’s time to work her way into the groove of the armrest, so that she can rest her head on my leg. From behind her black fringe, she sniffs the cover of my book, glances toward me, and wags her tail. Similarly, when I lie down and stare at the high ceiling in order to channel my thoughts, her own thoughts appear to be directed toward lying on my chest. The pattern is repeated day-in-day-out. Do I imagine this reciprocity that exists between us, the shared correspondence that seems to occur through eye contact and bodily gestures? Or have I become a part of her lifeworld just as much as she has become part of mine?

How to approach this relation? I am wondering if a phenomenology of being-with-Milly can be constructed, such that the tension between a sentimental and human (alas, too human) anthropomorphism and a broadly dualistic framework can be reconciled/overcome. As part of my world, Milly nevertheless remains incommensurable with my own experience. For instance, it would be a disservice to try and argue for her interior life in terms of analogical evidence. To what extent we interact through habit cannot be asked in relation to human affairs. At the same time, I am prepared to say that the relation between us is more than mere materiality and far more than a coincidence of being together. There is a bond that is enduring and outlasts any given spatial environment.

If we pursue a strictly phenomenological account of being-with-animals, then the animal in question already becomes a part of my intersubjective lifeworld through being an object of intentionality. Of course, it was precisely this tactic that Heidegger pursued in his attempt to overcome the problem of other minds. But applied to Milly, Heidegger’s emphasis on the stretching-forth of consciousness risks assimilating the dog’s lifeworld into my own. We know already that Milly is “here” before she is spatially present. We know, too, that this proximity depends upon the varying circumstances in which we both find ourselves: our distance recedes and exceeds depending on each of our levels of attention. Her engagement with trying to prise the toy apart becomes my equivalent of reading, each of which affects our experience of the environment accordingly. But in what sense is ours a “shared” understanding? Of what things do we both co-inhabit simultaneously?

I return to the grooves of the armchair. To phrase this dual existence in terms of her employing the chair one way and me another seems to reduce our differences to something based in geometry alone. I can say that she has her “place” and I have mine, but this too simply seems to be extending a language of perceptual differences, in which we both find our way. There is only thing to do: I must turn to Milly. I must see the animative and dynamic dimension of body in relation to my own. For when she joins me in the chair or on the floor, our interaction is primarily an embodied one. Our shared language is taken up through our bodies: but does my body speak to her independently of cognition? Sometimes when greeting her it will be the case that I will place my forehead against hers. I will do this with my eyes shut, and more in a quasi-Buddhist way than to intimidate her. Something is bridged through that silence that has less to do with training and more to do with a fundamental sense of “being-with” this dog.

But this is too vague, too esoteric in its dealings with the “ineffable” bond between man and dog. Not that I wish to underplay the emphasis on compassion for animals, of which Schopenhauer was clearly the exemplar. But in order to straddle the line between materiality and a Romantic treatment of animals in the “wilderness,” I want to place Milly somewhere between an alien and a human. In the moments when I catch myself aware of this dark mass of hair and movement before me (although the same description could also apply to me), then something is triggered that returns the dog to her non-human status. I would not describe it as “wild being” in the manner of Merleau-Ponty, but more in line with the raw phenomenality of a being before a thing subsequently termed “Milly.” There is much to say here about “aliens” phenomenologically. Bernhard Waldenfels’ treatment of the alien in Husserl is excellent, as is the discussion of alienworld and homeworld in Anthony Steinbock’s Home and Beyond. Too much to take on this evening. But one lingering thought.

Husserl characterises the alien as “accessibility in genuine inaccessibility, in the mode of incomprehensibility” (cited in Waldenfels). It seems to me that this tension between openness and closeness is played out on the one hand in terms of a language of the body shared by human and animal. On the other hand, the non-commonality of human and animal is rooted precisely in a modification of this body language. Something is absent, yet something remains. The glance between Milly and I is both knowing and opaque simultaneously. Her own language does not conflate with mine, even though there is an ambiguous space set out in the world in which both of our gestures meet. Some kind of alien-home hybrid is the result.

(Milly on right, Rosie on left. Taken over Christmas.)

Friday, 16 January 2009

Horror, Lovecraft, Objects

This year I am teaching political philosophy. Because of the time needed to re-familiarise myself of the Aristotle’s concept of justice, let alone contend spending time with someone as antipodal to me as John Rawls, other things have been displaced. I have not, for instance, had the chance to digest the recent swarm of enthusiasm for “object-oriented philosophy,” the focus of which is Graham Harman’s enjoyable new blog. Perhaps a better place to begin would be with Harman's articles here.

Having said that, I very much enjoyed Harman’s article on Lovecraft and phenomenology in the also excellent Collapse IV. I had some vague and ill-formed thoughts about the relation between phenomenology and strangeness a while ago. Since then, I have pursued the connection more systematically in the revised version of my thesis. Key for me is a passage from Merleau-Ponty’s article on Cezanne, in which we are introduced to “a creature of another species,” where I have used this motif as an invitation to voyage toward a repressed wilderness, a chance to examine memory specifically in post-human terms. More on that later, though.

In Harman’s article on Lovecraft and phenomenology, however, nothing less than a philosophy of “weird realism” is at stake. Bringing Husserl into the sphere of Lovecraft, he writes:

Just as Lovecraft turns prosaic New England towns into the battleground of extradimensional friends, Husserl’s phenomenology converts simple chairs and mailboxes into elusive units that emit partial, contorted surfaces (Harman, 2008, p. 336).

Although the premise that Husserl “converts” objects is somewhat contentious—since it is surely the case that the elusive dimension of those objects is there all along—Harman touches on a fruitful relation between the prosaic and the otherworldly, which is implicit in the environment of the life-world itself. As Harman goes on to argue, unlike the enigma of the Kantian noumenal realm—which fundamentally precludes human understanding—Lovecraft’s world is terrifying precisely because of the incursion of “finite malignant beings” in a finite world (Ibid., p. 342). The reversal from a rational infinity to an irrational finitude draws Lovecraft’s own creatures into the everyday world, conferring upon them a spatio-temporal existence lacking in Kant’s noumenal sphere. The result of this invasion, for Harman, is “[h]umans cease to be masters in their own house,” while phenomenology itself becomes the breeding ground for horror (Ibid.).

Harman’s claim for phenomenology as horror hinges upon the inextricable bind between the reality of phenomenal objects and their aligning weirdness. As irreducible to a fixed set of properties, those “things” are thus constantly evading description, and instead give way to the yawning abyss that separates the phenomenality of things from their totality. Prising apart this unity is the disarming quality of intentionality, which, although firmly placing us in the world, nevertheless stands upon a precarious interplay between absence and presence (Ibid., p. 362). Citing Lovecraft, Harman writes:

Intentional object are everywhere and nowhere; they ‘bubble and blaspheme mindlessly’ at every point in the cosmos. Although vividly present as soon as we acknowledge them, intentional objects express their reality only by drawing neighbouring objects into their orbit, and these things in turn are only present by enslaving others (Ibid.)

Because of this excess in phenomenality, things in the world remain both elusive and insufficient, calling into question all modes of apprehending those things in an intelligible way. Harman’s own contribution to this abyss is to redirect the emphasis toward the “existential threat” at the heart of intentionality. In conferring an affective quality upon intentionality, he thematizes - successfully, I think - the brute weirdness unmasked through the phenomenological method.