Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Anonymous Earth

Phenomenology, it has been empirically proven, has a special relation to the unmasking the strange underbelly of everyday life. Above all, “It is an unfamiliar world in which one is uncomfortable and which forbids all human effusiveness” (Merleau-Ponty, 2006, p. 66). Easy to overlook the titanic power of this gesture. Yet a question can be posed in the face of this strangeness: If phenomenology assists in us rediscovering the things of the world in their phenomenological givenness, then where does this place the phenomenologist? The speculative answer would be: as the alien visitor to Earth, describing the appearance of things without yet prescribing their cause or effect. One way in which phenomenology does this is by decentering the centrality of humans at the heart of the world, and by encouraging us to attend to the radical wilderness underlying all modes of givenness and self-presentation.

This mention of a de-centred human experience may sound odd, given that phenomenology is structured around lived experience, manifest in human beings. Phenomenology begins and ends with human experience, true. But the ego attending to phenomena in the world is not the ego of the personal self, but something far more impersonal. But we need not commit to the transcendental ego of Husserl to see this. What is given, at least initially, is anonymous in its spatio-temporal depth, yet to be registered as causing a particular affective response. We can talk, I think, of the anonymous earth: the earth that touches our bodies before self-reflection has had the opportunity to seize it as an idea. From this break in human depth, the world comes back to us as something wild in its anonymity. At once, both dense in texture but at the same time deprived of all its warmth. The tension between anonymity and depth is notable. We find ourselves in the world, and it is a world in which cultures have existed and vanished, some of those factors contributing to the identity of the self. At the same time, it is a world in human bodies visit before then departing.


…it may well seem strange that the spontaneous acts through which man has patterned his life should be deposited, like some sediment, outside himself and lead an anonymous existence as things. The civilization in which I play my part exists for me in a self-evident way in the implements with which it provides itself. If it is a question of an unknown or alien civilization, then several manners of being or of living can find their place in the ruins or the broken instruments which I discover, or in the landscape through which I roam (Merleau-Ponty, 2006, p. 405).

We have in this passage a clue concerning the rediscovery of things in the world. Merleau-Ponty draws our attention to the world we find ourselves in. Already it is a world that is a strewn with the marks and inscriptions of a former existence. All around us, the world contains traces of life-world, which have since disbanded. Although anonymous, these same inscriptions persist, only now divorced from their origins. The earth runs through this place but fails to come out the other end. Instead, an ontological marshland has been forged. The damaged terrain contains its own history, and the history protrudes through the surface. Thus the original strangeness of what phenomenology discerns—the world opened up is at once both familiar and unfamiliar, charted and uncharted, earthly and alien.

Is the “earth” a concept or a thing given to us in experience? Deleuze writes: “The earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace…” (Deleuze, 2006, p. 85). This sounds rather like the flesh of Merleau-Ponty, overlapping and entwining on itself, with each fold bringing in and releasing disparate aspects. Phrased another way: Is the “earth” a geological or metaphysical idea? While in the Husserl archives, Anthony Steinbock discovered a fragment dealing with “phenomenology as archaeology” (Steinbock, p. 89). Steinbock writes: “Phenomenological archaeology, [Husserl] writes, ‘digs up’ piecemeal the concealed constitutive structure that lie there ready-made for us as the world of experience” (Ibid.). (See also Steinbock’s excellent reading of Merleau-Ponty’s late “transcendental geology” note). If we augment the affective mode of this practice, then we can begin to speak legitimately about phenomenology as specialising in Xenoarchaeology—that branch of archaeology which concerns the past remnants of alien civilizations. Only now, the alien planet is the earth-world.

This Xenoarchaeological project has a question: what is to experience the materiality of things before those things are designated as “things” in the first place? The question is too big: it exceeds the sublime and the horrible, tearing asunder the body. Should we think, then, of the Levinasian “Il y a” or even the “apeiron” of Anaximander? The question of material monism hinges upon whether or not things ever really become “formless,” or, simply loses their familiarity of perception and drift into the realm of the uncanny. This is no simple question, since we cannot but helped but be placed by the Husserlian “zero-point” of the body. The body places us in the world. The body senses the world. The body is positioned. All of this underscores the transcendental reality of the “here.” The Earth is “here.” The “here.” “Here.”

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Rhapsody about Kancheli

Surprised I didn't see this before: a four-part documentary on the Georgian composer, Giya Kancheli. Of course, I have no idea what is being said, but the general atmosphere is strong enough to convey the broad sense. Having had the nerve to dedicate my Aesthetics of Decay to Kancheli in 2006 (which he warmly accepted), I was then fortunate enough to meet him in London a year later. The documentary reminds me of his warmth and disarming, melancholy presence.

See also this striking performance of his "Having Wept" by the Latvian cellist, Kristine Blaumane. When, though, are we going to see a Kancheli symphony cycle in London?