On Phenomenology and the Humanities
Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band got a really good song - Express Yourself. The groove is so bouncy. The takeaway? To speak your thoughts and feelings. Obviously. But to do it with flamboyance. Although whenever you try, there may be n different things holding you back. Or perhaps you a Leo.
But even lions feel unsure of themselves at times.
And when it comes to speaking our thoughts on politics, culture or history (let’s not forget philosophy), we all feel shy. Or defensive; hence aggressive. Or maybe some of us derive epicurean satisfaction from discussing and debating such affairs. Or maybe perverse satisfaction. Perhaps the exhausting emotional tinderbox of talking about the human condition has you fatigued and checked out.
Of course, you could be perfectly fine - wondering what the hell I’m on about.
My newsletter. I’m talking about The Trench Dispatch. The fictional stories/“lores” are one thing; the essays, op-ed/nonfiction articles, on the other hand, are a different beast altogether. Browse through all the (non-fic) literature I’ve littered around the internet since last year, tonal changes and confusion, mad switch-ups and all abound. Some read like submissions for some academic journal (dry af), some like amateur journalism, and a lot like my “dear diary” entries. And then over the past months, there appears to be some form developing, some style that feels like an organic synthesis of all the directions writing non-fic. keeps taking me.
But then it’s something nebulous. Keeps slipping through the fingers.
Now, the age-old argument of style vs substance, form vs content, it’s all contrived at some level. Because style dictates substance and vice versa. Likewise content and form. And when the substance you pig-headedly deal with is every damn sphere of the human condition, instead of wisely choosing a lane and cruising down it. Y’know…
Either way, the bottom line - when I’m trying to say something I think merits saying, how do I begin?
Philosophy is looked at as the mother of all knowledge. But rn it’s also looked at as superfluous and impractical. Erronueosly so, IMO. I figure it’s the price to pay for scientific specialization in academics. It split up into politics, economics, law, the natural sciences, literature, history and all that after all. More efficiency, more depth. But the glue that holds all the knowledge together in a composite coherent whole has kinda amortized.
Interdisciplinarity ofc exists at the higher level of academia, but the general nature of professional academia is stymied by a dysfunctional and bureaucratic academic journal and nonfiction publishing industry (Theo Seeds’ How academia became corrupt gives the lowdown of that hell very well); it is hampered by the political-economic pressures universities face to orient their teachings to the “job market”, instrumentalization and professionalization (I know, I did a whole bachelor’s thesis on the subject).
The writers often bunched together in the so-called existentialist tradition, although many would dispute such labelling, had some sort of sauce that other nonfiction writers just don’t. I think it is because of their emphasis on radical individualism and the subjective experience of the human condition; they enjoyed a kind of popular literary fame and engagement that’s not seen very often anymore. Now, in the humanities and social sciences, such works are pushed the the “heterodox”, to literary theory, a neat little box that “serious” scientific research on the Condition (the human condition) only cherry-picks from but mostly ignores.
And yet, works like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being & Nothingness, Simone De Beavouir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, or Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus have universal relevance. Timeless resonance. Case in point, the “indomitable human spirit” meme that took off as the 2020s kicked off. All the chaotic angst and suffering of late-stage neoliberal capitalism, climate change, the pandemic and politics. Or perhaps just the drill of everyday life. I figure these memes help soothe the turbulence. Seriously, go through some of them, you may be inspired to punch a wall or become a statesman or something.
Or in a more political direction, Hannah Arendts’ works like The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition are still relevant in the age of rising populism, inequality and political polarization. Excuse me, I may be going through a phase rn.
Existentialism translates from nonfiction to fiction very easily. Smooth like butter. Thus, Sarte wrote Nausea, Beauvoir She Came to Stay, and Camus The Stranger; works of fiction dealing with the same themes as their non-fic. work mentioned earlier. There is a particular bond between existentialism and literature; it shows also in the works of popular 20th-century authors like Franz Kafka, T.S. Elliot, Virginia Woolf, and even Beat writers like Jack Kerouac.
Arguments can be made even for the “postcolonial” literature of Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, or the “magical realism” of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and that is perhaps stretching the argument too far. The fact remains; there is an innate bond between existentialism and storytelling. Out of the 19th-century canon of Western literature, Soren Kierkegaard, Frederich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky were seen as the pioneers - in all their works it was the individual and their spirit against a brave new world where God had been slain, and scientific rationality and Modernity ruled. In Dostoevsky’s case, it was primarily through fiction.
But they were precursors. The form it took in the mid-20th century is indebted to a related school of philosophy that emerged a generation earlier. A generation when modern academia and mass media were consolidating into the institutions they became and stayed, more or less to this day.
In the early 20th century as the modern university system (which honestly should be like the 5th estate in democratic republics imHo) was being established and consolidated, Western academic philosophy had a bit of an intellectual dispute. Gottlob Frege sought to mathematize philosophy, mathematize it very hard. His background was in mathematics after all. He wanted axiomatic clarity in logic and language; his (intellectual) sons Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell ran with it, giving birth to the tradition of analytical philosophy. All about axioms, postulates, spartan language, dry logic and all that. To an extent, for them, all philosophical problems were language problems, and most of the problems would disappear if the language is made clear.
Phenomenology (and descendant traditions like existentialism) had a different starting point – the subjective experience of the individual. And while the world has moved on from this very early 20th-century schism, some after-effects linger; the general impulse and insecurity to be more “rational”, “logical”, and “scientific” in academia had led to more of the social sciences and humanities to adopt a logico-deductive method. Interdisciplinarity exists in professional academia, as do more textual, subjective and “phenomenological” traditions, but everybody knows which way the wind blows.
I remember high school; my classmates and I joked about phenomenology when we learnt about it in our sociology class. Such an emphasis on subjectivity, such as all things and feelings are valid kind of vibe, how could it be taken seriously in the age of “scientific temperament”? Aren’t feelings inferior to thoughts? Thinking, rationally and, would get us through anything, we thought.
Our prefrontal cortex wasn’t all there yet, y’know.
The place of phenomenology as envisaged by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th Century for the discipline of academic philosophy, offers a methodological and even ethical panacea for knowledge and even cultural production. For the trade of a social scientist, a writer, a journalist, or even a filmmaker or content creator, phenomenology offers a method, a guiding principle, to make sense of the madness in and around us.
A method that extends to people traversing life in general. A method I didn’t care to understand back in high school, on account of having discovered macho “objective rationality” or some such bullshit.
Very (and I mean very) broadly speaking phenomenology emphasized the “lived experience” of the author A radical individual subjectivity. Going against the idea of some kind of objective rationality. How does one experience politics, history and economics within their life, or experience gravity, biophysics or whatever? Far from being “unscientific”, it’s more like radical empiricism. Husserl wanted people to suspend their common sense and theoretical assumptions about things, and really focus on their conscious experience of a given phenomenon. And later perhaps the so-called bracketed assumptions and theories can be contemplated along with the insights distilled from the exhaustive scrutiny of one’s experience.
It was so radically empirical perhaps, and radically scientific, that it went a whole 180, and appeared more subjective than scientific. But that’s missing the point on purpose. To properly examine one’s own conscious experience, bracket all judgements and assumptions, and later return to them and synthesise them with said experience is tough work. It is a lot of work. Work we’re all condemned to do anyhow; after all, we move through life with our subjective experience, our objectification of reality, choices and actions, then the consequences; and then the cycle repeats.
And it can be done in a scientific spirit. Perhaps Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (that we can either only know the position or the speed of a particle, and never both together), the philosophical implications of Einstein’s relativity juxtaposed with the continued use of Newtonian mechanics in everyday practical physics, everyday parallax errors in experimenting and the dirty business of mental gymnastics done to create theoretical scientific models that are somehow always a little inadequate in describing reality give those militantly and masturbatorily “scientific” a pause.
Times change. The analytic tradition and generalized mathematical-scientific rationality may have dominated the discourse on human behaviour for a brief period but in recent times research in the philosophy of the mind (which includes psychology and even neurobiology to an extent) has taken to phenomenology. Why wouldn’t they? Phenomenology is obsessed with consciousness and subjective experience; something like Maurice Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception now finds great resonance in the larger field of philosophy of mind. Why wouldn’t it? The crux of the book was that as conscious beings straddling the universe are starting point is our perception.
But then again times do change. As the wave of writers concerned with existential themes waned, popular discourse about the human condition (about politics, sociology, economics, culture, etc) all became quite macro. Especially when it came to the work of those looked upon as “public intellectuals”. What Thomas Kuhn said about paradigm shifts in scientific research programmes holds for the humanities - new conditions beget new questions beget new answers.
Some of the biggest works of contemporary nonfiction - Sapiens and Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari), Capital in the 21st Century (Thomas Picketty), The Better Angels of Our Nature (Stephen Pinker), This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Naomi Klein), and all that. If you’ll notice, they take the macro-systemic view. The individual is irrelevant. Not because the question of the individual and the Condition was resolved, but because new questions arose about where the world was heading. The humanities had new concerns especially to do with the political economy, globalization, ever-increasing climate change and rapid technological changes.
And where the question of the individual, meaning-making and ethics do come in popular nonfiction, it’s stuff like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (Mark Manson). A lineage more from the Tony Robbins school of self-help and truisms rather than something like Camus’ The Myth of Sysiphus. A filthy inferior lineage imo.
Yeah, I said it.
Surely, the internet’s impact can be viewed as being at least on par in magnitude with the printing press. If the printing press took away knowledge production from the grasp of priests and clergymen, the internet took it away from academics. To be sure the institutional academia still has its appeal to authority, as does legacy media for journalism, but the internet housed all the upstarts.
The online newsletter/blogging world’s got Jessica Wildfire, Erik Hoel, Elle Griffin, et al expressing their views to the public. Or the more Leviathan-like world of video streaming; where you’ve got ContraPoints, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Petersen, BeerBiceps, Hasanabi, Alice Cappelle, F.D. Signifier, Broey Deschanel and the rest of the world making content. Content about the social, the political and the cultural – content about the Condition.
They may or may not claim to speak some “objective” truth, but their subjectivity is worn on their sleeves. It is their subjectivity that pulls the audience to their material, their subjective personas and ideas (no matter how contrived behind the scenes) are what makes them more enjoyable than reading through an academic journal - I doubt anyone reads them for fun. The unfair weight of being “objective” doesn’t exist in this world; more often than not it’s not authority they claim about a topic, as much as (cultivated) authenticity.
Joe Rogan’s crazy libertarian just-making-conversation defence, Hasanabi’s douchebag holier-than-thou left-liberalism or Jordan Petersen’s holier-than-thou conservative schtick all at first claim some authenticity and experience, and then they move to substantiate. Even the bete noir of the thoughtful, Andrew Tate plays the same game. They may claim to speak the “truth”, but just by virtue of them being existing in the postmodernist new mediatized/influencer paradigm of today.
I’m of the firm dialectical belief, that things don’t exist in silos; that they exist in relation to their opposition. And the truth is in the middle somewhere. So, to come back to the question, how do I deal with writing nonfiction?
There is no way I can claim that what I’m saying is God-given truth, that would be very unscientific. Nor can I trip too hard about whether I am being scientific and “objective”. The first step to recognise is that I’m subject to phenomena; phenomena I want to talk about, phenomena I want to run away from, and the ultimate phenomenon - the human condition. Everything else is just a subset for us anyway.
This is not to say phenomenology is the end-all of all approaches for when you want deep dive into something. I wish it were, that would make things simple. It’s just to locate yourself in the said phenomenon, in all your subjectivity. And then you may have read through volumes of encyclopaedic texts, create a regression model, conduct statistical research, learn impressionist art, or expressionist filmmaking, and whatever else it takes to get your point across.
I feel like Husserl when he envisaged such a perspective had some kind of democratic participation in mind; where, expert or imbecile, you could have a definite starting point in wanting to thoughtfully talk about the Condition. It gives us the freedom to engage authentically because it forces us to ask how we relate authentically to the given phenomenon, irrespective of everything else in the world.
So, how do I deal with the issue of expressing myself?