Thursday, 7 February 2013

Alien Phenomenology


As far as I can see it, there are three ways in which an alien phenomenology can be formulated. The first usage is the notion of the alien as it appears in  classical phenomenology through figures such as Husserl, Anthony Steinbock, and Bernhard Waldenfels. Under this category, the alien is presented as a particular type of liminal experience, situated within what Husserl terms the “homeworld,” and to be distinguished from mere unfamiliarity or abnormality. 
For Steinbock, following Husserl, the question concerning the alien centres on the issue of explaining how the alien and home are co-constituted and co-existent, with neither preceding the other. In this sense, liminality refers to the intersection of alien with its other, an otherness that can also be found in Freud’s account of the alien as unhomely—or uncanny.

The problem of the alien, as it figures in Waldenfels, in the meantime, concerns how we can even broach the notion of the alien “without already neutralizing or denying its effects” (Waldenfels 2011, 5). To achieve this, Waldenfels presents the alien as a transgression of the order of boundaries, allowing him to develop an account of the alien that is of a different category to that of the Levinasian other. To be sure, alienness is not merely alterity or otherness. It refers, above all, to a self-referentiality which coincides with a self-withdrawal (15). The alien marks a crossing of borders or boundaries, as Waldenfels has it: “[the act of drawing a boundary]…can only be grasped as a trace of drawing a boundary” (15). Put another way, there is a sense of evasiveness to the alien that comes with self-reference. To speak of oneself as an “I” is already to exclude that which resists integration:  in Lacanian terms, the object a.

If this usage of the alien takes the concept as an abstraction to be understood in structural terms alone, then we can also approach the alien in material terms. The second possibility, in a more speculative guise, would align the alien with a cosmic origin. The turn toward the question of life takes the concept of the alien in its relation to origins literally. I have in mind here recent work in astrobiology concerning meteorites from Mars, which bear evidence of ancient fossilised life. Beyond psychoanalysis, the important point is that the alien assumes more than rhetorical or structural role and instead invites us to consider the materiality of the Earthly body as always already—to cite a classically phenomenological motif—beyond the Earth.

The third alien realm is to (re)turn to the ontology of the body as an anonymous mass of fossilised geology. This turn recognises the structural place of the alien as that which cannot be integrated into the subject; namely an original past that is outside of one’s own experience while nevertheless constituting that experience. At the same time, it moves beyond the classically phenomenological notion of the alien as privileging subjectivity and intersubjectivity. In the xenophenomenology I am developing, it is not only the body of the human that is structurally and thematically marked by an alien presence: it is materiality itself.

As ever, it is with Merleau-Ponty that the origins of this xenophenomenology are to be found. Already in the Phenomenology of Perception, the germs have been laid for what will later become a phenomenological realism in the form of transcendental flesh. In a chapter on the natural world, we find a discussion of the nature of “the thing” (2006, 336). After declaring in a direct rejoinder to the as yet unborn Quentin Meillassoux that “we have not exhausted the meaning of ‘the thing’ by defining it as the correlate of our body and our life,” he then goes on to discuss the “obscure mass” of the body (336). Under certain modes of perception, so he suggests, the familiar way in which we approach things in their human and relational context is breached by a recognition of the “non-human element which lies hidden” in all things, which is “unaware of us, it remains in-itself” (“la chose nous ignore, elle repose en soi”) (336). By turning to things with a “metaphysical attention,” the thing reveals itself as “hostile and alien, no longer an interlocutor, but a resolutely silent Other” (336).

The inclusion of “metaphysics” in this passage signals the birth of another phenomenology, a phenomenology that moves beyond the veneration placed on lived experience and now recognises the resistance of things that do not conform to experience. But not only is the non-human world hidden in all things, it is also alien and hostile, resistant the human desire for dialogue. Nowhere is this alien resistance clearer than in the materiality of the body, as much an organ of perception in the present moment as it a prehistory unknowable except as the trace left behind.

To approach the phenomena of the body from the perspective of a genuine alien phenomenology, it is not enough to describe how it is lived. More than this, an archaeological orientation will be required in order to truly return to the things themselves. Why? Because if the body withdraws from its own experiential boundaries, then what remains as excess matter in this non-experience has to be approached from an indirect route; namely that of xenoarchaeology.

Xenoarchaeology approaches materiality as being structured by remnants belonging to another order of time, as Merleau-Ponty has it in the lectures on nature: “It is to give this depth to the human body, this archaeology, this natal past…” (273). Phenomenology thus begins as recovery work, at all times revolving around a geological depth that manifests only by accident in the phenomenal realm.

A phenomenological xenoarchaeology recognises the antierioty of the material entity that we term, “the body.” It is a body divested of its human form, now returned to the origin—the arche—from where the contingency of life secretes into existence. More than this, xenoarchaeology presupposes nothing in advance other than there is a material entity that has emerged on the surface of a planet, and which has yet to devolve into a human form. At the same time, the succession of generations does nothing to dissolve this alienage. Neither birth nor death annihilate the prehistory of the alien, but only confirm its continued renewal in and through the human body.