Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Beneath the Mississippi

Here I am, in a small plane flying into Mississippi. The plane is empty save for one or two businessmen, inserted erratically into the cabin. We are flying at what feels like an unusually high altitude, the plane’s lithe body shivering in the world above the clouds.

Jackson airport is small, and unlike the interstitial movement of other airports, there is no committee of customs officers to meet me. I am greeted; we wait at the baggage claim until I am the last man standing. But nothing is emerging from this slowly moving baggage belt.

The loss of the baggage is more than physical, however, and more temporal. Connecting me from one place to another, I have to ask: can I be sure I have even travelled? This small, black bit of materiality is the only external proof that I originated in one world and arrived in another. We need to know what realm the luggage submitted to when it was carried along the waiting track. No answers are given, other than the baggage has a claim to reality independent of my sensory perception of it. We must leave this airport. Along the way to Starkville, I am told of the pine trees which do not cease in their presence, but rather form one continuous act of duration. I like this smell of pine with an intense passion. For me, it has an overpoweringly seductive texture to it.

But we must stop at Walmart. Until my baggage is return, claimed, or reclaimed, then I will need to fortify my well-being. I have not slept for over 48 hours—I am immune to all but the most exotic sleeping aid—but already I feel eased by this oceanic lighting in Walmart. I seek out a $12 shirt, some supplies, and make my way for the exit. The parking lot is humid and the air is balmy.

The Hotel Chester has been expecting me. Stairs have been stacked in one corner, and breakfast prepared in another. Starkville itself is glorious, a dream of America come alive.

At the conference venue. I dream of a different mode of presentation, other than this informal but efficient style that is so pervasive. In my schedule, I have written: “Standing with poise, thinking while slumped.” Many people have hands in their pockets, and casually approach the lectern and then walk around it, reaching out to the naked space between the lectern and the audience. One professor even has an officious graduate student follow him wherever he goes. In truth, my favourite conference moments happen when one delegate complains about the noise outside. A brief interval occurs and the window is closed. Those are magical moments, in which the waiting and delay constitute the real thought. It does not happen today, but there is warm rain outside that has trapped us inside the venue, which is some consolation.

Today is the 8th anniversary of September 11th, and a few papers make gentle, oblique allusions to this fact. Despite this, there is a danger of over saturation and I leave for some air. I descend upon the vacated football stadium. The sprinkler system has been left on but the team is nowhere to be found, and the place is empty.

Shortly after, having got lost in a cemetery, I am drinking a diet Pepsi in a nearby strip mall. These are great moments, moments of freedom, busting with a felicitous and genuinely memorable joy.

I leave for Alabama. Today, I am getting an Amtrak from Tousclassa to Baltimore. There is no reason for me to take this 24 hour train journey other than the pleasure of seeing this great country from the behind the screen of a window in the private room 007 of coach 2010. Myself and the other travellers wait keenly for the silver fox to appear on the horizon.

It is hard for me to conceptualise in formal terms the melancholy pleasure of being aboard the Amtrak Crescent, which travels from New Orleans to New York. As each anonymous, unknown place rapidly flashes before me as soon it then vanishes, I experience what Proust calls “the miracle of transport.”

When I made my way to the dining table at lunch, I was seated with Charles, a retired newspaper printer from San Francisco. Charles did not like the way the economy or politics was going. He had grave doubts about contemporary media, but was reassured by the impartiality of public radio. Charles had a British wife, from London. They were married in 1971, but soon after she began feeling a sense of nostalgia for her homeland. Such was the extent of her nostalgia, that Charles’ wife decided to return to Britain, leaving Charles in her wake. Several years ago, Charles tells me over catfish, she died of cancer. And now he travels alone, a “free agent,” catching up on all the reading he was unable to complete as working, married man.

Later that evening, I met Kathleen, an aspiring actress making her way to New York from Texas. Over fried chicken and rice, our conversation leapt from the phallic orientation of architecture to the tree lined streets of Brooklyn. When we stopped at Atlanta, the power went down, an indication that the Amtrak staff were changing the engine for the long journey ahead. So, Kathleen and I sat in the darkness of the dining car, she was finishing her ice tea and I was pushing my plate of fried chicken toward the upper left section of the table, as the rancorous smell was beginning to have an adverse effect on my cogency. Once the passengers from Atlanta began boarding and the lights came back on, the dining staff prompted us to leave, with Kathleen entering her cabin and me entering mine.

In the darkness of night, somewhere in South Carolina, I am sleeping with the curtains wide open. The thought of being asleep, while beyond the surface of the glass a stranger peers in to this room in motion, is enough to ensure I receive the first decent night of sleep in a long time. Here I am, lit by the reading lamp of room 007, sound asleep on my makeshift bed, an exhibition of intimacy for the American landscape to experience on this September night.

I woke in Orange, Virginia, a small town flanked by rolling hills and open fields. Breakfast, and I’m back in the dinning cart. Charles is seated about two rows away from me but is in discussion with someone else, though I sense he knows my presence is behind him. Later that morning, as I change trains, Charles emerges from his cabin. And here something strange happens. Although he makes his entrance appear to be an accident, my sense is that he was waiting, knowing I’d be getting off at Washington D.C. We exchange farewells in the tight space of the hallway, and I tell him that perhaps we’d see one another again on the Amtrak. He likes the thought, and reminds me that he’s a “free agent,” able to go where he wants.

I’m in Washington D.C, and the mood is very subdued. I cannot tell if this is the mood of Washington generally or just a blip in its atmosphere, as this is my first time. There are a few protest placards, some discarded in specially designed bins. They are written with a uniform vibrancy, which remind me less of political activism and more of a family day out.

From Baltimore, I must fly back to Charlotte, doubling over my train journey in the process. The return reinforces the gracelessness of flying, the sheer absurdity, and narcissism of human desire—and yet, a return that I will repeat next month.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

What is Phenomenology?

One of the questions that emerged at the Merleau-Ponty Circle events in Mississippi (glossy travelogue to follow upon my return) concerned the orientation of phenomenology. The question arose from the paper that I gave, which was divisive at best, “inflammatory” at worst (the latter term, not mine but another delegate’s). Either way, part of the resistance to the paper was due to the fact that its conclusions are unpalatable. Here, there is a tension far broader than that of the initial resistance to the paper. On the one hand, I was fully aware that the conclusion I had arrived at in this paper was unsatisfactory in terms of both being congenial to “humanist values” and contributing a unified account of experience. Indeed, the paper is flawed in its lack of resolution but successful in engineering a sense of awkwardness in its reception. To some extent this is deliberate, though not in a post-modernist sense of theory as ironic play, but in the sense of not discussing the pernicious aspects of the paper in advance, and instead allowing those tensions to interweave with the talk.

On the other hand, despite being aware of these points of division, it never occurred to me to modify the findings in order to fulfil a pregiven mission of what phenomenology ought to conclude. This kind of thought of sculpting a conclusion in order to contribute to a generalised ethos is totally foreign to me, and it is also foreign to my sense of doing phenomenology. What I discern in a particular reading or experience as disagreeable to my “self” as a human person in the world, is neither here nor there. Honesty must underscore phenomenological work, and personal psychology must be put to one side. In short, pleasure and pain ought to be totally indifferent to the work of phenomenology, with only the experience of strangeness as a guarantor of the fruits of inquiry.

To this end, I do not see why phenomenology necessarily has an obligation to construct a set of ethical values in light of its research. This is not to say that ethics is not desirable, of course. But privileging ethical discourse as a point of departure risks engineering a direction in advance, and it seems to me that there is some value in the idea of the phenomenological epoché, even if it is not that of Husserl’s.

Why do I point this out? Because after the talk, I was talking to an eminent scholar, and I was surprised that he more or less asserted a manifesto for how he conducts phenomenology at this particular event. For instance, I was told that this particular event was a “refugee” from the world, and the focus here is to reinforce and celebrate the unity of human life. I found this peculiar. At the same time, this same person gave a talk on the importance of resolving being “lost in space,” with some instances of architecture as un-ethical in their propensity to dislocate us from time (he also insisted he was right on “95%” of things). I also found such a claim very odd. To speak of either a “felicitous phenomenology” or a “dark phenomenology” seems absurd. Phenomenology has no obligation to appease the dignity/harmony/security/cultural values of the subject any more than the natural world does. Phenomenology is not the handmaid of our desire for a common humanity, even if a common humanity is found. As Merleau-Ponty points out, at the heart of lived experience is the anonymity of the body and an “inhuman nature,” which yields things that are “hostile and alien.” This side of Merleau-Ponty is overlooked in general.

Should phenomenology proceed irrespective of the nature of its findings? I realise that this presents the method as autonomous from the subject, which is certainly dubious. But this does not mean we have to fall back into the Nietzschean territory that all philosophy is side effect of one’s biography. After all, there is a world prior to ethics, prior to politics, and above all, prior to gender, in which, if phenomenology is to have an ethical duty, then it ought to be toward uncovering that prepersonal world.

[UPDATE: Tom Sparrow of Plastic Bodies has a thoughtful response to this post at his blog. As does Patrick Craig of Of the Event, each of whom are grad students at Duquesne, incidentally. Both good finds.]