A Phenomenological Enquiry

At the 20 April meeting of the Phenomenology and Imagination Research Group, Jane Bennett led the group through a brief look at the background and history of phenomenology, when it came in and out of ‘fashion’, and the events or social trends that prompted its resurgence. Referring to a video lecture by dancer/philosopher Susan Kozel for a Practice Based Research course, the group then performed a phenomenological enquiry. This article provides notes drawn from the seminar and commentaries from the participants: Jane Bennett, Bevis Fenner, Yvonne Jones, Yonat Nitzan-Green, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco and Cheng-Chu Weng.

Key texts referred to:

  • Peter Halley, ‘Nature and Culture’ in Art in Theory 1900-1990, V111b The Critique of Originality, Ed. C Harrison and P Wood, (Blackwell, Oxford, 1992), pp.1071-1074
  • Susan Kozel: Phenomenology – Practice Based Research in the Arts, Stanford University, A Phenomenology in 5 Acts, 2012

Jane Bennett: Rather appropriately, before the meeting began, we were all admiring a twisted metal object laying on the table in front of us. Bearing in mind where we were and before any explanation had been provided, most of us assumed it was a sculpture and took pleasure in its texture and complex shape. It transpired it had been found, just as it was, on the beach by Bev. It was a wonderful example of how context can influence reading, and the distinction of the physical experience – of being in the presence of an object – that precedes words.

We opened the discussion with an brief time-line of phenomenology, from its initial stages in the early twentieth century writings of Husserl as reaction against the Structuralists and romanticism, its resurgence in the 1940s after WWII through Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty leading to Existentialism, its application in the 1970s by Amedeo Giorgi to psychological qualitative research methods and by Max van Manen, amongst others, to education. The essay by Peter Halley ascribes the dehumanising effect of WWII, a time when all social codes were overturned, as the impetus for a philosophy that dealt with the experience of the moment and self-determinism. He describes it as an expression of anxiety not only about how we relate to other human beings but, in the later emergence in Abstract Expressionism, the fate of humanity in the atomic age. In the 1970s when phenomenology falls from fashion, Halley points out, the forefront of art is led by a generation that had no experience of WWII and which is fixated on rules (in language) and the opportunity to simulate. It would seem the very concept of nature had become obsolete. With the current potential prospect of the Posthuman body, subject of the last session led by Yvonne, it seems timely that we are focussing on phenomenology and its investment in lived experience.

Reflecting on our current sense of digital overload, is there such a thing as digital authenticity and how do we personalise knowledge and understanding. Whilst we turn something into the personal in order to understand it, how would that then operate in relationship to the Posthuman? One way of understanding is through direct contact with the objects/materials/people themselves. Examples included through the touch of making, by direct contact with people and in direct experience of a place through walking. Similarly, the accessibility of academic text can be cloaked in jargon and Michael Rosen complains that even poetry is now quantified for its observed mechanism in academic circles. Whilst it may be easier to use jargon or subject-specific codes when we are writing about complex ideas, the use of clear language to explore complex ideas is a skill to strive for.

Writing in 2008, with a background in dance and philosophy, Susan Kozel stated that her interest in phenomenology was as a reaction to 1980s cyber punk and the trend of ‘leaving the body behind’. It also provided a counterpoint to the notion that dancers are not expected to ‘talk back’ – performance was simply an aesthetic experience. As Kozel observes, ‘Fashions in thought and design reflect anxieties as well as pleasures.’ (Closer, Susan Kozel, MIT, 2008) Whilst phenomenology appeared lacking in rigor in the 1990s and was criticised as a male, subject-centred approach to transcendent meaning, it actually provided a means of addressing lived experience prior to the object/subject divide, and a reflective process that is open to pre-reflective experience. In a time when funding was increasingly difficult to obtain and arts based research was entering higher education establishments, it became necessary to demonstrate the value of creative arts research practice as a knowledge-producing process and hence to adopt or adapt existing scientific research methodologies. ‘A re-versioning of the studio process and its significant moments through the exegesis or research paper is a means of locating the work within the field of practice and theory. It is also part of the replication process that establishes the creative arts as a stable research discipline able to withstand peer and wider assessment and hence be validated alongside research in other fields.’ (Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts, E Barrett, B Bolt, 2009)

Kozel employs the methodology of phenomenology as a way to anchor practice in research, to overcome ‘unhelpful divides’ of theory/practice, mind/body and solitary/shared experience. Instead of trying to tie them together, it can allow them to be viewed in terms of motion and materiality, enfolded and entwined. In her video, A Phenomenology in 5 Acts, she describes the process of a phenomenological enquiry step by step. She advocates using phenomenology as a way to reflect on the process of performance and also as a means to create content. It is a methodology that returns to the lived experience, that respects informed ideas/thoughts/images and enables us to re-envisage the relationship between theory and practice as one of enfoldment/entwinement. She urges us to think of the body as a resonance chamber that allows us to sense the more subtle dynamic exchanges, for example in a public reflection – inside, outside, between people. Gaston Bachelard also talks of resonance as being a means to the ‘different planes of our life in the world’ and to the past through the poetic image. “In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own.” (The Poetics of Space, 1958)

Bearing in mind the four lifeworld ‘existentials’ identified by Max van Manen as categories that may help as guides for reflection in the research process – lived space (spatiality), lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality or communality) – the group embarked on following Kozel’s instructions for a Phenomenological Inquiry. The process appeared very similar to a guided visualisation, to mindfulness or a meditation. It allowed time for reflection, for making notes of the experience of reflection and for reviewing/discussing those responses. In a process that was perhaps somewhat challenging to some of us, it was gratifying that there was sufficient trust within the group for all present to take part and to share the outcomes. It was interesting to see how differently people approached both the reflection and the note-taking, and there were a number of observations that indicated the communality and connectedness of the group.

There were a few questions I wished to discuss following the process – how this approach might be valuable to our individual practices and possibly the group, how it can enhance our understanding of phenomenology, and how we can use it to integrate practice with theory, actions with writing? It was suggested that, as we are all engaged in art practice research, we already all use this process of reflection in making art-work. Perhaps we need a better understanding of the process, perhaps they are not the ‘right’ questions or perhaps, after allowing some time and space after the experience in order to reflect upon it, the answers may filter through. The following words from Max van Manen suggest there are no definitive answers when we are dealing with the lived experience:

It is also helpful to be reminded that phenomenological inquiry-writing is based on the idea that no text is ever perfect, no interpretation is ever complete, no explication of meaning is ever final, no insight is beyond challenge. It behooves us to remain as attentive as possible to the ways that all of us experience the world and to the infinite variety of possible human experiences and possible explications of those experiences. (Max van Manen, (2011), http://www.phenomenologyonline.com/inquiry/writing/)

Yonat Nitzan-Green: Reading Jane’s texts (including Susan Kozel’s video clip) has led me to read more about phenomenology (David Woodruff Smith, 2013), as well as return to Gaston Bachelard’s writing in order to widen my understanding of his particular approach to phenomenology.

In term of history, Woodruff Smith tells us that ‘phenomenology has been practiced, with or without the name, for many centuries… Still, the discipline of phenomenology … came to full flower in Husserl.’ (Woodruff Smith 2013).

Phenomenology as a branch in philosophy thrived at the first part of the 20th century and I think it will be useful to consider Gaston Bachelard’s thought in that historical context. I am curious about Bachelard’s choice to turn from philosophy of science to philosophy of imagination and wonder if this choice was affected by his experience of WWII.

Bachelard tells us: ‘… whereas philosophical reflection applied to scientific thinking elaborated over a long period of time requires any new idea to become integrated in a body of tested ideas, even though this body of ideas be subjected to profound change by the new idea … the philosophy of poetry must acknowledge that the poetic act has no past … in which its preparation and appearance could be followed.’ (GB, The Poetics of Space: xv). This makes me think about death. A person died, my neighbour, last Monday to be precise. He turned from ‘something’ to nothing. No present; no future; no past because it has passed already. Nothing. The poetic image is the opposite: no past, only present and future. Can I even comprehend such a thing? If an image has no past what kind of time zone does it inhabit? What kind of relationship is being formed between a person who has past, present and future and a poetic image? Does Bachelard’s choice to turn to the imagination hint, perhaps subconsciously, to a desire to eliminate the memory of the catastrophic past where millions of people lost their lives?

Bachelard asks: ‘how can an image, at times very unusual, appear to be a concentration of the entire psyche? How – with no preparation-can this singular, short-lived event constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought, content in their immobility?’ (GB: xviii-xix). How is this subjective ‘product’ able to communicate to another subjectivity? It depends on how we understand the concept of subjectivity. This question can be understood if we see subjectivity only as the difference between one person and another. Yet, Bachelard suggests that subjectivity may also be understood as the thing that is both, the difference and the element that connects all humans, which is the imagination. Bachelard proposes to by-pass this logical paradox by implementing Minkowski’s phenomenology of reverberation. It is not through a cause and effect that the poetic image can be explored, but through tuning to its reverberations as one encounters it.

Back to our session – Jane wrote: ‘although we have been using phenomenology as the core for our discussions over the past months, this has been on a theoretical basis and we have not actually taken our meetings into the ‘lived experience’, so to speak – into ‘something that happens’ in real time.’ It was exciting to follow Susan Kozel’s instructions and do a kind of group meditation; this may lead to other group actions. However, I argue that we have been practicing phenomenology through our use of conversation as a collaborative research method which I intend to talk about in the June session.

Bevis Fenner: Jane began her session with an exploration of the historical context in which phenomenology came into prominence in the 1940s and subsequently fell from fashion. Phenomenology can be seen as emerging out of a need to reconcile the rift between culture and nature that appeared with the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution and ultimately culminated in the mass devastation of the Second World War. In post-industrial society, changes in fashions of thought have led to phenomenological methods being seen as essentialist and a product of an individualistic desire to return to a more authentic subjective experience, which does not exist within structuralist or post-structuralist thought. Consequently, the study of structures, codes and signs became more relevant than the pursuit of a more direct reflection on human experience. Jane stated that in the light of recent shifts in favour of phenomenology, she wanted to clarify phenomenological method, and subsequent methodologies of reflection and application. So drawing upon the practice-based methods of Susan Kozel, we set about considering how, as a group, we might turn theory into praxis.

We had been given a YouTube video to watch before the seminar in which Kozel explained how to use her phenomenological practice methods. These seemed very different from the more theoretical and discussion-based way we had gone about exploring ideas in previous sessions and very similar to mindfulness practice. We discussed how we had tried to personalise this video or tried to make sense of how we might go about using these methods by drawing on previous experiences. Following on from Noriko’s suggestion – inspired by Tim Ingold – that knowledge occurs through creativity or via the act of making, someone in the group suggested that the only way of knowing how such methods could be used was by trying them. Yonat responded by suggesting that we all try to understanding difference through that which we know. For her the drive towards appropriation stems from an ontological need. In Heidegger’s terms appropriation enables dwelling. Therefore, the natural response from other members of the group upon seeing the twisted metal object that I had placed on the table before the start of the session was to assume it was art. We make sense of objects through context and the context in which the object had been placed was an art school! I suggested that this idea was closely linked with the notion of ontological authenticity and perhaps, by a further leap of the imagination, a way to humanise the post-human. Prompted by Cheng-Chu’s description of making sense of one urban shopping mall by comparing it with another from her home country, we discussed Augé’s Non Places and the importance of transient spaces in allowing for shared meanings, which enable many to make sense of the vast flows of information around us as we go about our day-to-day business. Indeed, it is perhaps in our ability to appropriate and dwell through our senses, that we are able to transform impersonal, standardised and supposedly alienating environments into make-shift homes. This pursuit of ontological authenticity is a highly individualistic perspective, yet it is counter to the technologies, which have been said to change the nature of what it means to be human. Foucault’s understanding of technology as hidden means of asserting class-dominance within everyday social life or Debord’s assertion that there are no direct experiences, only capitalist spectacle, reflect Moravec’s concerns about the post-human. The assertion of power structures through technologies of surveillance and cultural representations undoubtedly shapes experience at a social level. Yet in phenomenological terms, it may be possible to gain agency in resisting the effects of images and objects, bypassing wider sign systems or re-routing surface images towards the intimate and personal. As Dovey (2001), suggests, it is possible to represent a simulation and that authenticity can be found in our relations to even the most inauthentic images, objects and places. To a child, a waterfall in a shopping mall is as magical as the real thing!

And so we set about the process of using Kozel’s methods, rather than theorising as we as a group habitually tend have a tendency to do we focused on the pre-discursive. In meditation we opened ourselves out to four elements of phenomenological practice, which Kozel refers to as the four ‘existentials’ – lived space (spatiality), lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relation (relationality or communality). We were asked to focus predominantly on one of these. I chose ‘relationality’. My notes on the experience are as follows:

Warmth filling the space – an expanding cloud

The sound of machines – air conditioning, ventilation, lighting, other technologies – the breath and pulse of the building

Voices in next door space – transient, the passing of time, the march towards the summer, the empting out of the building, the light outside evokes memories of those spaces – echoes from my youth (my art foundation course was at WSA)

Daylight, eternal blue sky – a constant, the beckoning from other moments under the same sky (conversations never heard, activities never seen)

Group in space a home within a home – a shell within a shell. Deeper still the resonances inside my own shell

Resonances coming from others in group – feelings, vibrations, shapes:

Person 1: Unease, oscillation – between two planes (flat shadows)

Person 2: The breath of the group, eyes watching, guarding, gathering

Person 3: The heartbeat, warm, radiant, sonar, solar

Person 4: Air, cool breeze, soft and gentle, nurturing

Person 5: Strong, solid like a bronze sculpture, warm metal in the sunshine

Back to my shell, back to my subjectivity – how might I use these understandings? How might we share our experiences inter-subjectively, as a group, to generate what Kozel (2008) terms, ‘artistic content’?

Cheng-Chu Weng: Thanks Jane leads a reach seminar, there are include heavy theories, such as Heidegger’s phenomenology, Foucault’s Structuralism, and Sartre’s Existentialism. The information bombards me, yet it is helpful. To identify and broad my shortage of academic knowledge. Before attending the seminar, to skim the text, the context, this is illogical for me, especially the instruction of researching phenomenological enquiry, but this is giving food for thought! Does research of phenomenology have instruction? What value we could earn from the instruction?

From the varied materials to help us consider ‘Phenomenology’ seriously, In the Susan Kozel: Phenomenology video offers the sense of the phenomenology’s body, and puritanical method of phenomenology research. There are two parts, which Kozel mentions are similar with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concepts. Both of them believe phenomenology is practicable. Second, Kozel’s concept of the ‘body as a resonance chamber’ (Bennett, 2015) alike as Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the body as “[…]. The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, Phenomenology of Perception: 94) The requirement of understanding the body is through the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘other’. The relationship between ‘I’ and ‘others’ is contrasted with Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept. They do not deny others; they are interested in the phenomena between ‘I’ and ‘others’.

Furthermore, the phenomena provide the sense of being. To do the activity of Kozel’s ACT3 is the practice/ experience of the phenomena. It is interesting to experience rather than criticizing the theories. Although activity may similarly as meditation or art therapy, the practice of fundamental feeling, do condense our relationship.

Yvonne Jones: The session saw us reconsidering the history of Phenomenology, and partaking in a ‘Phenomenological Enquiry’ as prescribed by Suzan Kozel and led by Jane. The session was stimulating and a little disturbing.

Interest in and focus on notions of Phenomenology ebbs and flows, seemingly surfacing in periods of human anxiety, be it following direct experience and angst of war or as a response or reaction at times when there is a technology uprising. Our group interest in Imagination and Phenomenology has been organic in its development. We have widely different areas of expertise, never the less each of us have reported an enriching and expanding experience through dialogue, finding surprising commonalities previously unsuspected. We each have an innate sense of expecting and desiring, even seeking situations of direct experience, as a fundamental element to our individual practices.

Given comments by Stephen Hawking (Innovation and the Future), it is timely that the members of PIRG have come together and are developing conversations cross-referencing theorists in such an organic manner and forging a pathway of discourse around direct experiences and contact with objects/materials/people, to quote Jane. Through academic prowess we have built a tower of Babel, PIRG by intentionally setting out to create a safe-enough, non-competitive, supportive environment has opened doors to finding ways to new knowledge. By this I mean by leaving behind the cloak of jargon, members are free to state ‘I don’t understand what you are saying’ and to have the authentic foundational meaning of a theory or perspective spoken of in as many different ways as it takes. The group are all artists, all researchers; the Babel tower is being dismantled through conversation, through Phenomenology and Imagination. The academic speak, which is sometimes needed due to complexity, serves so often as a barrier to inter disciplinary and cross discipline research. I do hope that conviviality and trust demonstrated in PIRG can offer a model for the furtherance of new, shared knowledge and understanding.

It came as no real surprise to see that all group members subscribed to the view that we already use the model of Kozel, give or take a wriggle, in our practices. Art Practice Researches have to be shown as being rigorous, and have to withstand testing by peers. Historically artist research has been difficult to validate, given the hierarchy of the spoken and written word, denying the fundamental language of the visual. I experience my work as existing as field of Visual Philosophy, a term decried by numeric alphabet idealists. The balance is achievable. In the Extended-Body: Interview with Stelarc (1995) he states ‘The interest was really coupling the expression of an idea with the direct experience of it.’ What is noticeable is the extreme situation he is in, in order to experience the coupling of idea and direct experience. It brings to mind Moracec and his belief that there will be very few original (direct) experiences in the future, our data for an experience will come from a huge computer, somewhere out There, a sort of memory bank of data. Is Stelarc’s work indicative in part of the need for more extreme situations in order to have new and direct experiences?

For whatever reason, Bachelard shifted his emphasis into a grey area, from the ‘certainty’ and ‘clarity’ of science into the ‘swampy area’, behaving like a ‘Reflection-in-Action‘ Practitioner. Schon writes ‘reflection by the practitioner gives access to encompassing the uncertainty embedded in the swampy lowlands’ (The Reflective Practitioner 1983 Schon). Bachelard was excavating those swampy lowlands, seeing and returning to the anchor of the body. Without scaling the depths of human existence and experience, without awareness of the wonders of the evolved corporeal body, technology is cold and I suggest, as Hawkings states, can become dangerous to humanity.

The Phenomenology Enquiry was indeed a lived experience. In order to partake, my approach was to close my eyes, it did not occur to me to keep them open or circulate the space. Others did stay opened eyed, but on this occasion no one circulated. It was with interest that I realized a simple sound, reawakened parts of my history giving rise to connected emotions of the time. That the presence of the group was accepted and experienced as comfortable, so much so that relaxing I sensed them, the room the place, a sadness that the outside was behind a barrier…

It is quite appropriate and of its time to be reflecting on this age we are in, coming together under the heading of Phenomenology and Imagination and opening areas for examination that link with developments in art practice, theory, social sciences and technology.

This session led by Jane has questioned and reinforced for me the value and potential of PIRG.

Noriko Suzuki-Bosco: I find Phenomenology fascinating for its potential to connect and bridge other areas of philosophical thinking together with the realities of everyday lived experience. It seems to present a ‘real’ way of thinking about the human situatedness in the world.

Phenomenological enquiry, according to Max Van Manen, ‘explicate meanings that in some sense are implicit in our actions’. Van Manen points out that we, as human beings, know things through our bodies, through our relations with others and through interaction with the things of our world.
(Van Manen 1997 Researching Lived Experience: xiv)

Definition of phenomenological research (according to Van Manen):

  1. Phenomenological research is the study of lived experience
  2. Phenomenological research is the explication of phenomena as they present themselves to consciousness
  3. Phenomenological research is the study of essences
  4. Phenomenological research is the description of experiential meanings we live as we live them
  5. Phenomenological research is the human scientific study of phenomena
  6. Phenomenological is the attentive practice of thoughtfulness
  7. Phenomenological research is a search for what it means to be human
  8. Phenomenological research is a poetising activity.
    (Van Manen: 8-13)

Although phenomenological research provides rich grounds to investigate our being in the world, there are questions raised to the lack of ‘methods’ or procedural system in conducting the human scientific study of phenomena. Phenomenological enquiry asks people to be reflective, insightful, sensitive to language and constantly open to experience. This tendency to ward off any predetermined set of fixed procedures is one of the reasons why some think that phenomenology can be a bit ‘wishy-washy’, a bit mystical and overly poetic.

However, it does not mean that phenomenological enquiry happens in a haphazard way. Heidegger has talked about phenomenological reflection as following certain paths, ‘woodpaths’ towards a ‘clearing’, where something could be shown, revealed, or clarified in its essential nature.

Here is another list that Van Manen has created outlining the possible ‘paths’, a direction or a way, of navigating through a phenomenological enquiry:

  1. Turn to a phenomenon which seriously interests us and commits us to the world
  2. Investigate experience as we live it rather than as we conceptualise it
  3. Reflect on the essential themes which characterize the phenomenon
  4. Describe the phenomenon through the art of writing and rewriting
  5. Maintain a strong and oriented pedagogical relation to the phenomenon
  6. Balance the research context by considering parts and whole.
    (Van Manen: 30-31)

I am only scratching the surface here to try and understand what phenomenological enquiry can offer. I have no doubts that phenomenology can offer rich grounds to investigate how we experience the lifeworld, tapping into the body of knowledge, insights and history of the past thinkers, combined with the knowledge of one’s own lived experience. It also offers ways of connecting and sharing with others, as Jane’s experiential experiment during the PIRG session proved.


JB: finally, this says it all – The Muppets explain Phenomenology: