Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A more-than-human world

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.)
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)
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.


  1. Skholiast,
    re Abram
    I read this,
    and it seemed to me the finest piece of prestidigitation that he ever did. He vanished the actual belief in the actual supernatural of the Balinese and turned it into the vapid ecovapours of the tree hugger. He has a special sense of nature and the being of the other but no amount of sleight of hand makes you an authority on the supernatural. He's not paying attention. The Balinese believe in supernatural power in the same way that Catholics and others believe in relics and intercession. That may be difficult for him to accept but he shouldn't dismiss it with a mystic pass.

  2. Ombhrbhuva

    I found that to be a beautiful and moving article by Abram. I've never been to Bali but I have spent some time practicing medicine in Papua-New Guinea and now I'm wishing I had read this piece before I did. I think it would have made me a better observer. Like Bali's influence by Hinduism, Papua-New Guinea has a strong Christian influence but the underlying beliefs if you leave the main towns is stone age animism. Abrams probably romanticizes it a bit: the cannibalism in Papua-New Guinea is hard to make sound so beautiful. But it's hard to watch a man go jungle by himself for months at a time in such an dangerous place and not suspect that they have awareness that we can only, perhaps as Abram does, imagine.

    I disagree that the animist belief in the supernatural is exactly equivalent to monotheistic superstition--even in its form of multiplying voices and icons. I think the rise of monotheism and the religions and philosophies it produced was a radical break with the past. If I had to venture a guess I would say the transition from "natural" to urban living was the deciding factor. It required a new type of perception, a street smarts perhaps, but cost us much of the relationship we had with our pre-urban environment.

    When I was a student and had occasion to study the interplay between early American settlers and the Indians I was struck by the language they used. Many times they urged that the natives must be *reduced* from their wild state. I don't think the prehistoric mind can be reduced to a monotheist interpretation any more than the monotheism's will ever be reduced to reason/science.

    To me it is more fruitful to see these conflicting narratives of the world as different epochs in human history. I would try, as Skholiast might say, to read them each in their own terms by a sort of metalepsis than try to read one in terms of the other.

  3. My (brief) take on what Abrams is doing is less disparaging than I take Omhurbhuva's to be, but I admit (as I am sure Abrams does) that it is problematic to try to read Bali's native modes of experience in any terms generated out of western vocabulary. Only, well, what can we do? We're westerners. I don't think Abram would contend that he has anything like a feel for "what it's like to be Balinese." But I also want to second what dy0genes says about the difference between animism and monotheism. I don't think "belief" is the right word for how such people relate to the "supernatural"--which is already a word imported into the situation by outsiders. (In fact, my suspicion is that "belief" or "faith" as used in the Bible--I'm thinking mainly of the Greek pistis, but the same might even apply, with some modification, to the Hebrew terms--is a kind of attempt to preserve, or jump-start, a stalled experience of participation, via conscious intervention (whereas participation had been more or less pre-conscious).

  4. Dy and Sk:
    In the world of comparative religion analogy is the chief form of transport. When we offer the opinion that practice A is like practice A1 the idea is that they occupy a similar space or have a similar function within their own domain. Sometimes however there are basic empirical claims. If an Indian yogi were to tell you that he levitated then that means that without any mechanical assistance he was off the ground and there was clear space between him and terra firma.

    But I've done that for my wife might Abram say and passed a ring around her too. The incredible lightness of being is a state I've touched in meditation.

    But that's not what they mean Abram and to attempt to 'save their beliefs' by occidental spiel is foolish.