Monday, 28 July 2014

On Garrett Phelan’s Feral Phenomenology

Outside our Hoops of Red-Hot Iron: On Garrett Phelan’s Feral Phenomenology

“As so often on spring evenings, no birds sing near me, while all the distant trees and bushes ring with song. Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life. When I stand still, it cools, and slowly disappears.”
J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, (1968)

J.A. Baker’s little book, The Peregrine, still has the power to arrest, astonish and unsettle. From autumn to spring in coastal East Anglia the author followed, meticulously, fanatically a pair of peregrine falcons and constructed a bare narrative around the experience. What arrests is the breathless, addictive pursuit of the mark, continuing almost every day, without rest, from October to April. During this time he records 619 kills by the hawks, an ugly figure perhaps, but one that his own quest is in a sort of weird simpatico with. What astonishes are the descriptions which become almost too intense to bear, certainly in a single reading. Landscapes emerge from careful, patient acts of immersive observation. So, during an October evening: “the wet fields exhaled that indefinable autumnal smell, a sour-sweet rich aroma of cheese and beer, nostalgic, pervasive in the heavy air. I heard a dead leaf loosen and drift down to the shining surface of the lane with a light, hard sound;”  and on a partridge corpse: “Blood looked black in the dusk, bare bones white as a grin of teeth. A hawk’s kill is like the warm embers of a dying fire.”  And what unsettles is the total identification that Baker reaches with both the landscape and the animals. At points he seems unable to distinguish himself from either; and just as the bird is integrated into its environment through hunting so too Baker becomes integrated into them both. At one point we find him crouching over killed prey and “imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts… We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men.”  Another time he acknowledges the desire to dissolve into his surroundings:
“I share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head will sink into the winter land, and there be purified.”
In all of this mad pursuit the driving will is to overcome the human limits to his perception and thought. For, he says, “the hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.”

I re-read The Peregrine after a recent talk with GarrettPhelan about his work as it occurred to me that he and Baker share an obsessive sensibility and are hunting after the same goal. Both are searching for moments of pure experience and how to represent them. Both open up an occult space between those worlds that are human and those that are, for desperate want of better word, natural. During the conversation Phelan posed a question which appears, paradoxically, as both unanswerable yet necessary: “can an adult arrive at a point of totally detached consciousness; that is, full awareness, but independent of historical baggage or pre-conditioning be it religious or cultural?” Can we, in other words, have experiences free from symbol, language and meaning

Yet, crucially, this does not mean to fully escape thought in order to safari landscapes that lie outside and independent of the correlation of mind and world. This would, after all, be an inhuman thing to do. Phelan is not attempting to leave consciousness behind, but rather pursues it in its purest state as unpolluted phenomena, however impossible this task may be.

It occurs to me that Baker does something similar by struggling with something he’ll never be able to do: to live in the peregrine’s world. Yet this is an aesthetic act above all else. In the hunters’ world colour, movement and time are synthesised in strange new ways. A falcon doesn’t have the human co-ordinates of religion, or art or language, yet it does have its own ones. It inhabits a rich world teeming with presence. Things look different when you try to imagine them through the eyes of a hawk and live in the moment: “Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued [sic] axe cuts the heart of a tree… Direction has meaning and colour. 

Unlike Baker, Phelan uses the mediums of art. He’s taken on the challenge of thinking about how to represent what he calls the “absolute present” of phenomenon as they are experienced directly, before they are fettered and penned by symbol, habit and language. This “absolute present” is an experience, perhaps, of total abstraction, before all associations, symbols and meanings come crowding into our fields of experience. But it’s a profoundly human experience nonetheless. Voodoo, then, for Phelan seems to be a useful place-holder for naming all those forms of our messy human obsessive compulsions – habit, language, ritual, religion, thought – through which we try to sink our talons into the flesh of the world. Humans all too often stay within their hoops of red-hot iron. “Voodoo” hoops of modes, meanings and metaphors. Yet can they, Phelan asks, be transcended? Can there ever be Voodoo Free Phenomena?

This is perhaps why Phelan has been drawn to Menhirs. The Standing Stones present a paradox. On the one hand they are obviously made by fellow humans. They have been positioned to suggest a purpose and to declare their distinction from the surroundings. They are figures on the ground of the landscape of which they are part yet from which they are separate both materially and perceptually. Hence a domain of culture is brought forth which the stones occupy. We too, might enter this arena and participate in its world. On the other hand we’ll probably never be able to work out what these mute, inscrutable objects were made for, or what histories they’ve witnessed. They are, to all extents and purposes, useless, pointless, meaningless. They are man-made yet can now only baffle and elude meanings to present themselves in a state of almost total abstraction.

What’s at stake here is that when looked at in a certain way the Menhirs are like birds, twigs, sunsets and fog; they are inhuman. Yet despite this they offer up useful starting points for speculation. The point is that to treat everything as a phenomenal object flattens the differences between the natural and human worlds. Phenomenal objects whether they be woodpigeons, peregrines, monoliths, contemporary sculptures or even a walk on a sea wall as the early evening sun burnishes Dublin Bay – all bring into view the absolute present. Each is an instance when time slows, colours sharpen, contours tighten and unmediated phenomena flutter and glide in from the edges of perception.
Phelan is, of course, not alone in asking such questions; it is game that philosophers have also hunted under the name of Phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty’s description of his own phenomenological project was one of wonder in the face of pure phenomenon. “Reflection” he said:
“does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world’s basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical.”
The phenomenological project that Merleau-Ponty inherited from Husserl was to begin philosophy again, from the bottom up, as what is called a First Philosophy, a philosophy of origins. It meant going – in Husserl’s famous phrase – “to the things themselves!”, that is pure phenomenon as it is immediately present in consciousness. This required trying to put all other concerns, interests, preconceptions, prejudices and beliefs on hold and “bracketing” them out in order to focus on describing the pure operation of thought itself. He famously accepted that such a focus on pure thought was probably impossible and that: “the most important lesson which the [phenomenological] reduction [to pure consciousness] teaches us is the impossibility of a complete reduction.  But, he also argued that this was no reason to give up on the project. This is why, for Merleau-Ponty, artists are often engaged in the same endeavours as philosophers; they are searching for new ways to encounter, judge, describe and represent experience.

For Merleau-Ponty philosophy can be like art. Philosophy is super-natural in that it’s about nature rather than being merely part of it. It seeks to understand. But this understanding is always stalked by the shadow of a savage, untameable paradox, that we are part of the world yet can nevertheless think about it as if we’re detached from it. Or, to put it another way as a question: how can it be that little parts of the universe – odd, sticky bundles of hair, nerves and flesh – think? It seems like a simple question, a stupid one even, but any answer we come up with will need to rely on some form of “voodoo” be it ideas of souls, spirits, humanity, minds, zoe, emergence or whatever system is used to explain it.

Philosophy then, like art, is always pursuing a quarry it can never catch. Humans will always stumble in the face of the synesthetic and ontological riot of experience because being in the “absolute present” of the world is like hunting a swift, slippery quarry. It seems difficult if not impossible to catch as we can be weighed down with the baggage of culture, history, memory. Phelan’s response is to propose a type of feral phenomenology; of going back to pure, wild phenomenon. His call for Voodoo Free Phenomena offers up a chance, a hook to hang this baggage on and go hunting.
In 2005 David Foster Wallace opened a speech with the following parable:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
Just like the fish we often can’t see the water we swim in. Phenomena occur at a human scale because they occur in the human world. The challenge is to think beyond these limits; to think of voodoo free phenomenon. To be like an artist perhaps, or even a falcon.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Irritating Functional Fixedness

The objects of our world are so often secure in their place in a system of uses and meanings. They are “functionally fixed”. However, strategies can be learnt to think about objects differently by finding ways to uncouple them from these systems. Objects can irritate systems too.

In his article in Psychological Science (2012), “InnovationRelies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of FunctionalFixedness” Tony McCaffrey makes the following argument:

A recent analysis of real-world problems that led to historic inventions and insight problems that are used in psychology experiments suggests that during innovative problem solving, individuals discover at least one infrequently noticed or new (i.e., obscure) feature of the problem that can be used to reach a solution. This observation suggests that research uncovering aspects of the human semantic, perceptual, and motor systems that inhibit the noticing of obscure features would enable researchers to identify effective techniques to overcome those obstacles. As a critical step in this research program, this study showed that the generic-parts technique can help people unearth the types of obscure features that can be used to overcome functional fixedness, which is a classic inhibitor to problem solving. Subjects trained on this technique solved on average 67% more problems than a control group did. By devising techniques that facilitate the noticing of obscure features in order to overcome impediments to problem solving (e.g., design fixation), researchers can systematically create a tool kit of innovation-enhancing techniques.”

One example he gives is of what he calls the “two-rings” problem; a variation of the Candle Problem devised by Gestalt Psychologist Karl Dunker (1945). A subject is given the problem of fastening two metal rings together and supplied with two heavy rings, a candle, match, and a 2” steel cube. The match is a red herring in the assemblage because it points toward the wrong way to solve the problem through lighting the candle and melting the wax. The wax will not be strong enough to bond the rings. Instead, the solution is reached by recognising that the candle is comprised of a string and wax. On realising this, the cube can be used to scrape away the candle wax and the string used to tie the rings together.

McCaffrey’s strategy, then, is what he calls the “Generic Parts Technique” GPT. This involves thinking about an object independently from its normal use. To help in this he proposes concentrating on 4 aspects to an object which he claims are normally overlooked: (i) Parts (ii) Material (iii) Shape (iv) Size. Hence, by focusing on the generic and abstract features of objects participants are helped in finding their “obscure” elements. This helps in thinking creatively about how they may function in unusual ways.

The paper is clearly situated within the discourse of Cognitive Psychology and draws on the history of the problem of “Functional Fixedness” in Gestalt Psychology. Hence, it is couched in the vocabularies of: problem-solving; innovation; solutions and suchlike. However, the paper can be subjected to a version of the Generic Parts Technique itself and the implications of it rethought in aesthetic and philosophical terms.

The key to this lies in how McCaffrey identifies the inhibiting aspects of the normal functioning of the “human semantic, perceptual and motor systems.” It’s not too much of a step to move to recast these systems in the phenomenological vocabulary of intentional horizons. Then, the challenge to functional fixedness through a search for obscurity becomes an exercise in thinking outside of the “Natural Attitude” so familiar to Phenomenology.
Further, it seems that treating objects as “obscure” is precisely what artists and philosophers must do.
On the one had they might look at an object in terms of the medium through which they are re-presenting it – be that painting, or philosophical reflection. This is how Merleau-Ponty reads Cezanne’s paintings. Hence both the apple on a table and its painted counterpart become an interplay of its generic parts: parts, material, shape and size.

On the other both artists and philosophers will search out those often hidden metaphorical elements of things which are all too often overlooked. They are looking for the same thing as McCaffrey’s innovators, that is, to “create function free descriptions for each part” of objects and imagine new ways in which objects can be not useful; and discovered to be newly obscure.
And, to reiterate, the implications of this will extend beyond training ourselves in innovative approaches to solving discrete problems. Objects offer the potential to irritate social systems when they are allowed to drift free from their normal functional fixedness.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Alien Systems?

 Are we only a quarter percent human?

The following is from Marcus Chown’s popular science book What a Wonderful World, (Faber and Faber, 2013):

“The sheer number of alien bacteria in your body might actually underrate their importance. The Human Microbiome Project found that microorganisms that inhabit your body have a total of at least 8 million genes, each of which codes for a protein with a specific purpose. By contrast, the human genome contains a mere 23,000 genes.Consequently, there are about 400 times as many microbial genes exerting their effect on your body as human genes. In a sense, you are not even as much as 2.5 per cent human – you are merely 0.25 per cent human. Since the alien cells in your body are largely prokaryotes, which are much smaller than eukaryotes, they add up to a few kilograms or a mere 1–3 per cent of your mass. They are not encoded by your DNA but infected you after birth, via your mother’s milk or directly from the environment. They were pretty much all in place by the time you were three years old. It is fair to say that we are born 100 per cent human but die 97.5 per cent alien.” (pg. 17)

Yet, it seems that it’s actually exactly the other way round: the more “alien” then the more human we become. We’re born with only minimal elements of our humanity and only develop them as we become increasingly distributed throughout systems as we age. And, even if it is wrong to think of this distribution as negating our essential humanity, it does point to a key feature of this distribution, that is, it takes place across different systems: systems of matter; psychic systems of consciousness and social systems of inter-subjective meaning.

As is well known (not least through the examples given in Lacan and Merleau-Ponty) a child begins to differentiate itself from its environment from between 6 to 18 months. It becomes materially, psychically and socially independent. Quite obviously it doesn’t become more alien. On the contrary the child’s humanity develops as it becomes a self-reflexive system distributed throughout other systems. This development continues as the child enters into other systems: language; culture; technology; history; nature.

As Andy Clarke puts it in Supersizing the Mind (Oxford, 2011): “cognition leaks out into body and world.” And when it does so this leakage takes our humanity with it. As we become enmeshed in all of our world’s complex systems the more we can realise our human-ness.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Systems Seminar continues with 1000 Plateaus

The Systems Reading Group is starting up again.

This year we’ll focus on the single text: A Thousand Plateaus.

This blog can be used as a hub for activities in much the same way as before here, and here.

Running up to Christmas the meetings are on these Wednesdays:

16th Oct.; 6th Nov.; 27th Nov.; 18th Dec.. All at 6pm at NCAD.

For the 1st meeting we’ll discuss Introduction: Rhizome (pg. 1-27)

All welcome, email me for more details.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Collecting Dust

During a recent trip to Istanbul we found ourselves in the Sultanahmet Camii. It was one of those sticky, prickly days when your clothes and skin feel like they’re being laminated together. So it was a relief to be inside the cooling air of The Blue Mosque – as it is commonly known.

The famed blueness of the interior comes from a combination of the decorative schema of over 20,000 hand-made ceramic (Iznik) tiles; and the stained glass windows which modulate the light as it flows inside to give it the quality of a calming mist.

The space was, unsurprisingly, busy and filled with that admixture of the curious and the bored; the informed and the ignorant; initiates and onlookers which you’ll find in any popular tourist attraction. Yet, despite this, it was still and quiet. Almost completely, except for a constant, somewhat melodic drone. A sonorous hum damped down the harsh edges of any noises which didn’t belong in here. It was a meditative thrumming of the air which addressed itself to all the senses - not just the ears – and demanded contemplation.

Perched, as we were, on a platform of almost total ignorance we launched ourselves off into a sequence of speculations. My fellow visitor proposed that this was the reading of sacred texts. Perhaps, we wondered, there is always a reading taking place in here, no matter what time of day, as means by which to retain the sanctity of the place by filling it with words of devotion. Obviously, I argued, we were hearing the prayers of the devout. As I warmed to this theme I imagined that above us sincere acts of adoration were taking place as they had done for hours, days and generations before and which shamed my own irreligion and indiscipline. And how better to worship, we agreed, than through the physical, aesthetic act of giving a public voice to private faith? We weren’t sure what was going on but we knew that it was beautiful and significant.

It was only as we were leaving that a distracted glance caught the source of the sound. A small man was diligently and patiently wheeling a very large, antiquated vacuum cleaner over the elaborate carpets which adorned the mosque. The transcendent had begun with the quotidian; our reverie emerging from collecting dust.

Monday, 24 June 2013

OOO discussion at Nottingham Contemporary

Video of the whole discussion here

Thanks to Emma Moore for organising a great event in the context of the show, "The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things" curated by Mark Leckey.

19 Jun 2013, Nottingham Contemporary, 6pm - 8.30pm

Free, The Space
6pm Screening:
Elizabeth Price User Group Disco

6.30pm Discussion:
With Graham Harman, Michelle Kasprzak, Kevin Love, Andrew Goffey and Francis Halsall
What does it mean to imagine that everything exists equally in the world, and that human beings have no more status than atoms or alpacas? Object-oriented ontology (“OOO”) puts things (rather than human beings, science or social relations) at the heart of studying what it means to exist. It is a new philosophical movement that has had a decisive influence on the work of both artists and exhibition-makers. A discussion with philosopher Graham Harman, curator Michelle Kasprzak and lecturers Kevin Love and Francis Halsall will address implications for the artwork as object.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Mala and Blossomest Blossom

 “Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance ... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.” (Dennis Potter, CH4, 1994)

When Dennis Potter gave this interview to Melvin Bragg he casually sipped morphine directly from a bottle to mitigate the pain of the cancer that was killing him. The closeness to death had gifted Potter a great privilege; that of being able to attend to the aesthetic richness of living with the relish of a glutton and the meticulousness of an obessesive. The fullness of everything in the world, he seemed to be saying, was too much to be contained by words alone.  The experience of living life in the present tense causes language to become stuffed to bursting point. It begins to split at the seams and irruptions like “blossomest”  - a word that shouldn’t exist - spill out.

A few years ago I found myself in Beijing enjoying the hospitality of philosophy students at the university there. They invited us to a lavish lunch on campus and, inspired by a mixture of generosity and institutionally sanctioned greed, ordered plates and plates of food until there was no room left on the table. Some of the foods were familiar; other less so such as a fungus broth served in a log (as I remember it.) Our hosts took great delight in explaining what was in each dish and how we should eat it. But amidst the flavours and textures both familiar and strange there was a taste I couldn’t place. “What’s the ingredient in this?” I asked. I struggled to be more specific. In the end the best I could come up with was a face in which I pulled my lips back over my teeth: “the one that makes my mouth go sccchhh and tchkk” I said. Our hosts thought this hilarious, “How can you not have words for these tastes?” someone asked, puzzled that something so ordinary could fail to be named. I’ve since worked out that the flavour comes from Sichuan Pepper a common and popular ingredient in China. It provokes a particular and peculiar sensation in the mouth. It’s called málà in Chinese which roughly translate as numbing and spicy.

Quite obviously the world that I savour with my whole body is not one that can be limited to linguistic approximations of if. Wittgenstein was wrong: the limits of my language are not the limits of my world. The world is richer than the words I find in it. And I can taste as much. The numbing spiciness of blossoms will always exceed their descriptions.