Cultural phenomenology

From now on, I would have to take time off to find out how to write about magical objects like sweets, wires, bags, screens and cards, about the tender madness of mundane actions like counting, folding and falling over, about the secret life of substances. I was going to have to write amid things, rather than getting on top of them, especially the strangeness of intimate feelings and conditions, like embarrassment and fatigue and envy and itch and shame.

These are the words of Steven Connor. Connor seeks to move away from cultural history’s concerns with representations, discourses, and cultural politics, and to return to embodied experiences of the world. He argues that we have become so absorbed in what representations do to us, that we have neglected to see what we do to representations. Reacting to the prevalence of poststructuralism in cultural-historical criticism, Connor proposes a return to lived experience. He calls this proposed direction Cultural Phenomenology. The author of a cultural history of skin, Connor is interested in cultural histories of things such as shame, or folding, or forgetfulness (see his list of the kinds of things that might interest a cultural phenomenologist). In what is not quite a manifesto, but which does contain a number of cultural-phenomenological maxims, Connor explains his ideas. He writes, for example, that

“Modes of life – collective as well as individual modes – are more important and interesting […] than styles, texts, images, discourses, and other modes of collective representation, which become interesting and significant in the ways in which they are used, to make up the worldhood of our worlds.”

Connor draws on phenomenologists (and explains where he parts ways with them), cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, and his ideas also resemble the study of the everyday, such as De Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. What does he propose?

What do I mean by cultural phenomenology? Here, at least, is what I think it could do. Cultural phenomenology would aim to enlarge, diversify and particularise the study of culture. Instead of readings of abstract structures, functions and dynamics, cultural phenomenology would home in on substances, habits, organs, rituals, obsessions, pathologies, processes and patterns of feeling. Such interests would be at once philosophical and poetic, explanatory and exploratory, analytic and evocative. Above all, whatever interpreting and explication cultural phenomenology managed to pull off would be achieved in the manner in which it got amid a given subject or problem, not by the degree to which it got on top of it.

The essays on his website focus on subjects such as “wires” or “corridors” and explore various ways in which these have been experienced in historical and contemporary culture. I sometimes found myself asking — ‘but to what end?’ — but I think that Steven Connor would say that I am too much caught up in current modes of criticism. He proposes a different mode of writing, in which words such as “discourse”, “boundary”, or “marginality” are banned, because they are too abstract and intimidating. This mode of writing could break out of the narrow bandwidth of critical, analytical academic writing to express admiration, nostalgia, panic, or boredom.

Connors phenomenological turn from representation to notions of experience and embodiment seems to resonate with a trend in cultural historical research. I remember a lecture by the eminent American theoretician Hayden White in Groningen last year, in which he argued for the importance of lived experience. He proposed a mode of historical investigaton that based itself in descriptions of historical experience. A novel in which Virginia Woolf describes a walk through the streets of London can tell us more about early twentieth-century city life than any academic study can, he posited. Also, Connor’s notion of writing from “amid” resembles the Dutch philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit’s notion of “presence” as an alternative to representation.

I am puzzled, however, by the ways in which Connor proposes to write about historical experience from “amid”, rather than from a critical perspective. When Gail Kern Paster, for example, examines the early modern phenomenology of the passions, she explores the ways in which early modern men, women, children, and animals experienced their “being-in-the-world”. She examines early modern humoral tracts, plays, and emblem books to reconstruct this experience, and describes her findings in a clear and analytical way. How would Connor propose to write Paster’s books (or Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, for that matter)? If they were to express wonder, or perhaps boredom, about the ways in which historical subjects experienced their bodies, is this writing from “amid” the subject? Or is it writing from amid the writer’s own experience? And, how do you attain this perspective from “amid” the experience if the experience is in the past, and can only be reconstructed through textual traces?

I may have read too analytically for Connor’s liking, and perhaps my desire for a methodology of cultural phenomenology is hopelessly outdated in his view, but I can say that my experience of his website was one of wonder, amazement and puzzlement, and certainly not one of boredom.

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3 thoughts on “Cultural phenomenology

  1. Pingback: ClioWeb » Blog Archive » History Carnival Number 30

  2. Not to be too critical, but I’m not really clear on how this is different from a kind of diachronic mentalite study, less a turn from postmodernism as an extension of good old-fashioned Annales history?

  3. Thanks for the not-too-critical comment, Jonathan!

    Coincidentally, I wrote a small paragraph with a similar observation in an earlier draft of the post — Connor’s history of skin reminded me of an essay by the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga (of The Waning of the Middle Ages) who wrote somewhere that we should also be interested in the history of smaller cultural objects — he proposed a history of the hat, I remember. Also, Connor’s ideas reminded me of the recent work of Alain Corbin, who wrote a book on bells and the culture of the sense in nineteenth-century France. This kind of history of representations/ mentalities seems to come close to what Connor proposes.

    Perhaps all turns are in a sense re-turns, but with a difference? What makes Connor’s approach different, I think, is that he proposes a way of writing a history of experiences that situates itself “amid” the object, instead of descibing it from a critical distance. He describes the experience of objects, and explores their possibilities in a way that is different from Annales history. Here is his piece on corridors as an example of that style of writing. As I wrote in my post, the idea takes me some getting used to, but it interests me. This is no traditional history, it is an essayistic exploration of (historical) experiences of corridors.

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