Among the most important and interesting interpreters of phenomenology today, that I know of, two are David Abram and Graham Harman. For all their differences--and they are many--what they have in common is a concern with what Abram calls a "more than human world." For Abram, this means the natural world, in which human beings are situated but which exceeds them and meets them as other. For Harman, this means the objects which meet us, or indeed each other, sensuously, but also withdraw ontologically.
(A third is D.G. Leahy, whose concern with the more-than-human world is with the "history of Being," in Heidegger's phrase, but schooled by Levinas and Altizer. Leahy's thought is in a class by itself, and more tangential to what I am addressing in this post, but if I'm mentioning the "most important interpreters of phenomenology," I can't not name him. I'll have more to say of him separately.)
[T]he senses...are divergent modalities of a single and unitary living body...complimentary powers evolved in complex interdependence with one another. Each sense is a unique modality of this body's existence, yet in the activity of perception these divergent modalities necessarily intercommunicate and overlap. It is thus that a raven soaring inthe distance is not, for me, a mere visual image; as I follow it with my eyes, I inevitably feel the stretch and flex of its wings with my own muscles, and its sudden swoop toward the enarby trees is a visceral as well as a visual experience for me. The raven's loud, guttural cry, as it swerves overhead, is not circumscribed within a strictly audible field--it echoes through the visible, immediately animating the visible landscape with the reckless style or mood proper to that jet black shape. My various senses, diverging as they do from a single, coherent body, coherently converge, as well, into the perceived thing....(The Spell of the Sensuous, pp 61-2.)Harman:
The sensual world is filled with..."feeling things," not with qualities bound together in some sort of bland substratum. We encounter horse, knife, mountain. None of them are merely tangible profiles of color and sound to which deeper properties are then subjectively affixed. Instead, the horse is immediately encountered in all its unity and all its power, including not just visible data in the narrow sense, but also all the features whatsoever that I may rightly or wrongly ascribe to its essential core. These features are mostly unspoken and unarticulated, but they are there anyway--the mountain-object may contain a foreboding sense of mystery and a suggested whiff of cold thin air, just as the horse-object may entail a facility for being ridden or brushed or treated to sugar cubes. All of these complicated features are combined into the horse, instantaneously and in a single stroke, as soon as we sincerely recognize the horse as standing before us.... (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p 207.)I found these passages more or less at random; many others could have been cited. Their obvious surface common features--an attention to the sensory detail and at the same time a concern with the perceived raven or horse as an immediate whole and not a collection of parts of characteristics to be synthesized--are part of their inheritance from having been labored in the school of those Harman names the "carnal phenomenologists," above all Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Alphoso Lingis.
From here, though, Harman and Abram diverge. Harman moves on to his ontology of objects that never really touch:
If theory and praxis both distort, caricature, or transform the hidden reality of things, then the same must be true of any relation whatever. When fire burns cotton, does it have access to the color or smell that we humans are able to detect in it? Inanimate objects do not make direct contact with one another any more than we do with them. The distortions that arise from relation are not the special burden or flaw of the human or animal psyche, but spring forth from any relationality at all. Inanimate objects are perhaps even more stupid than we are in reducing the richness of things to a small number of traits. ("Intentional Objects for Non-Humans.")For his part, Abram moves to his phenomenology of participation in a world that reaches out to us, and in which we are implicated. (To grasp this quote, it may be helpful to know that Abrams is also a sleight-of-hand magician):
From the magician's, or the phenomenologist's, perspective, that which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible. And yet such sensory anticipations and projections are not arbitrary; they regularly respond to suggestions offered by the sensible itself. (The Spell of the Sensuous, p 58.)I don't really want to do a full compare-&-contrast; I only want to underscore this one commonality, the critique of a certain form of humanism. Abram:
Magic is that astonishing experience of contact and conviviality between myself and another shape of existence, whether that be a person, or an aspen tree, or a gust of wind. It's that sense of wonderment that arises from the encounter with that which I cannot fathom, with something that I cannot ever fully plumb with my thoughts or understanding. Many of my most intense experiences of magic have been encounters in the wild with other species, other shapes of earthly intelligence. From the meeting and exchange that one might call interspecies communication….In our modern, technological civilization, the sense that the natural world is alive is considered a delusion or superstition. We conceive of nature--and indeed of the material world in general--as a set of basically inert or mechanical objects. Such a conception…closes our senses to the inexhaustible strangeness and wild otherness of the things around us....our ears begin to close down--we become deaf to the living voices all around us. And our eyes, too, begin to glaze over. If we speak of the world as a mechanically determined set of processes, then there's no real strangeness or mystery to engage the curiousity of our senses, and so our senses begin to shut down, and we come to live more and more in our heads. (David Abram interviewed by Derrick Jensen, July 2000)Harman:
In other words, all relations are on the same footing.... the real problem with philosophy since Kant.... does not lie in the endless dispute over whether there are real things-in-themselves beyond human access, or whether as soon as the Ding-an-sich is thought about it immediately collapses back into the phenomenal sphere, since the autonomous thing is thought as autonomous. No, the problem is that in both cases the it is this sole gap or non-gap between human and world that is taken to be fundamental....the relation between paint and a house, or rain and desert sand, are negotiations or translations no less than are the relations between sunlight and the moon or a scientist and the world. In any case, we now find a global dualism between the reality of objects and their more or less distorted or translated versions for other objects. ("Intentional Objects for Non-Humans".)What is important here is the way both Harman and Abram direct our attention away from human self-involvement and towards an interest in the world without us. Of course, they do not do this the same way. Harman is (so far) much more interested in the way objects evade each other; Abram in how objects have already given themselves to us. I suspect that Abram could be suspected of correlationism on this count, not that I'm sure this matters much in the final analysis. Both Harman and Abram could be the subject of a series of posts, but here I just want to point to this shared problematic, which they each engage in very different ways. I'll develop this a little more in my next post.