Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Out Now: "The Memory of Place"

It gives me a special sort of pleasure to announce that "The Memory of Place" is now out through all the usual outlets. As is customary with these things, it is invariably the author who is the last to receive a physical copy of the book. This publication is no different. (I would expect it to be stock in the Eurozone anyday now.) Luckily, Tim Morton has been able to verify the empirical existence of the book and has written a glowing first impression, my favourite part of which is:

"On a scale of 1 to Fucking Good, where would you put this book?

—Oh, Fucking Good, definitely. "

Big up to Tim for that. Now we just need to get Tim's scale adopted as the way to review academic books. I appreciate also that he picks up on the relation between place and the weird, which is a theme throughout the book, even - or especially - when the book is dealing with such innocuous places as Brooklyn supermarkets and motorway service stations.


I'm pleased to be able to confirm the material existence of the book. It arrived this morning and is a joy to behold. Christopher Saunder's fine painting on the cover has come out splendidly.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Alien Phenomenologies – Uncanny Bodies

“Corporeality and alienness,” so Bernhard Waldenfels begins the fourth chapter of his recently published The Phenomenology of the Alien, “are intimately connected.” Why? Because the body is perfectly aligned between presence and absence, it is both thing and spectre together. Precisely because the body necessarily belong to the living subject is its mass of materiality at the same time distant to the subject. Here is a body, it is alive: – the body is the world, it is the source from which life and perception unfold. And yet: it is also flesh. It barks and recoils from the world, it wants what it lacks and then grows tired with those things. All of this takes place quite apart from “our” experience of things. The body has a freedom that is untouched by history; it belongs to neither culture nor society, and instead lodges itself in a realm beyond phenomena.

But the body exerts its presence from this anonymous realm, it becomes personal and in turn a voice speaks from the flesh that is both singular and irreducible to its own materiality, as Waldenfels writes: “Our bodily experience would then exceed by far the experience of the body.” Waldenfels prepares the ground for an alien phenomenology. He does this by placing the body at the heart of alien phenomena, accenting the body’s strange relationship to intentionality. Long before Freud, Lovecraft, Merleau-Ponty, and Schopenhauer, Waldenfels identifies Plato as marking the origins of this uncanniness: “It was Plato who was the first to insist that it is not our eyes that see, but rather our soul that sees by means of our eyes.” Here, a fundamental truth has been articulated. The truth of the body is its anonymity, its captivity in another realm, of which our personal access is severely limited. The soul speaks through the eyes, but whose eyes are employed as the instrument of sensibility? Thus, a breakage occurs, whereby the body becomes more than its own materiality.

The critical question in this discussion can be formulated as such: is thingness necessarily alien and inversely, is alienness necessarily a thing? Applied to the human body, the question would be reformulated in the following way: does the fact that subjectivity is extended into the world entail a relation of anonymity to that materiality? Sartre will speak of nausea in this regard, while Merleau-Ponty will talk of ambiguity. Husserl meanwhile, will only make a distinction between the lived and the physical body without drawing an affective distinction between the two. Waldenfels, for his own part, is almost certainly right to introduce the body’s biological being into the question of its thingnness, remarking that “blood pressure, hormone balance, firing of neurons and last but not least the functioning of ‘my brain’” all become critical in the tension between corporeal and cognitive intentionality. Several years before Waldenfel, it is Richard Zaner who pre-empted the biological basis of the bodily uncanny in his work, The Context of Self.

For Zaner, the key to the alienness of the body lies in the uncanny. As with Waldenfels, he begins with the intentionality of the prepersonal body, he writes: “...whether I like it or not, there are some activities, postures, gestures, sensory encounters, and sensory refinements, etc, which are just not within my bodily scope...” This division between the agency of the body and the agency of the self sets in place an inescapable structure to the body, in Zaner’s terms. The body is a limit, it is a border, against which the self is both placed and displaced. Were one to entirely transform oneself from one body to another, then the same limitations and inescapable structure would reappear, only now in a different guise.

Coupled with this inescapable limit, the body for Zaner also implicates the subject. I remain at the “mercy” and “disposal” of the body. The body, being “more ancient than thought,” implicates me – quite by chance – in its immemorial existence. The body brings me into life, and will in time, prevent me from life. I like Zaner’s language of implication and disposal very much. What I especially like about his onus on the body as implicating the self is twofold.

First, if one is to speak of a tacit dualism in this thought, then the question is not: can the mind exist without the body, but instead: for how long has the body existed without the mind? We who have bodies – that is to say, all human subjects – remain delimited to a world into which we as personal subjects are transitory visitors. Whatever Gnostic implications this entails, the fundamental point is that the body is ontologically prior to the self.

The second aspect that I admire in this thought is Zaner’s inclusion of the affectivity of bodily implication. He writes: “Finding myself thus implicated in whatever can and does happen to my embodying organism, not only its contingency but also its tenuousness vis-à-vis the ways in which things can and do impact it, my embodying organism is experienced as a kind of ‘chill’”.

The chill. It seems to me, if I can put it rather hyperbolically, that every phenomenology of the body can be measured in terms of how successfully it engenders itself toward the this moment of self-alienation, this beckoning of the strange facticity of there being a body in the first place, without which the body would be taken for granted in its pre-reflected unity. The chill is emblematically uncanny insofar as it forces us into an ecstatic relation with our bodies. We stand outside the flesh and for a brief moment the flesh stares back at us.

The chill of the body, the shivers crawling upon one’s back, and the hairs that stand on their ends when the body is experienced in its material phenomenality attests to the distance between the subject and the body. The distance folds back into the homeostatic operation of the body, as a thing that presents itself in the world as having its own set of ends to accomplish. Heraclitus is right here: nature loves to hide. Nowhere is this clearer than in the body, whose secrets are resistant to all modes of empirical investigation. Of the biological automatism of the body, Zaner writes: “Deeply familiar (what is more familiar?), my own body is thus at the same time curiously veiled and obscure.” Becoming aware of the processes that run the body does nothing to hamper the effectiveness of those functions. Unlike the self-consciousness of subjectivity, the gaze of the other as experienced by the liver, heart, and lungs remain insulated by an agency that plays no part in intersubjective life. Put simply, the body goes on.

The body is an alien life. This alienness is predicated not on the incursion of a foreign force from the beyond, but instead through the mutual estranging of self and body. The alien is alien precisely through already establishing a relation with the non-alien, and then retaining that relation through its alienation. In this respect, to speak of an “alien phenomenology” means to speak of being a body, and as Waldenfels, Zaner, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre demonstrate, no alien phenomenology that is in fact a phenomenology can take place without the body. The things that surround bodies – feel free to compile your own list of arbitrary and disjoined objects here – have an alien quality only insofar as they conform or fail to conform to an already established relationship to the body, which precedes all things, even the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”