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.