States - F MD 5 3 9J.43 i 26 Ga The Phenomenological...

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Unformatted text preview: F! MD 5 3 9J .43 i 26 Ga The Phenomenological Attitude Bert O. States All thing);istggtbeyareiagfl‘fgfifilssaiéfllshfigfllfl.Ell?»' percipient. . . . But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be stfi‘ujeaea to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws iife’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. it makes usthe inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaosf It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight K the fiim of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our .being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine at that which we know. it creates anew the universe, after it has been ' annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.) wPercy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry This passage becomes iess dated when you consider that it was written nearly a century before Victor Shklovsky’s attempt to align the method of criticism and the functiOn of art in the now famous concept of perceptual ”defamiliarization.”1 If anything, Shelley’s language is even more "phe- nomenological" than Shklovsky’s, but what we learn from Shelley is that aphenomenologicaLatfiMde_®ya1‘d the world (or what Husserl calls the “phenomenological standpoint”) does not depend on knowing the "sciw ence” of phenomenology. It is rather an ability to see through _”_t_heg__film of “""n'""‘"‘"“ “‘“w- familiarity” that blunts “the scene of things itsreiteration. Those in whom {IiiS"att'itude'"‘exists-toeSEcess,“ Shelley goes on, are called poets; but they might also be called critics. Indeed, they could be any "inhabi— tanrts” of the world who have a natural gift for the epochs", or the capacity tofput into perceptual brackets “the accident of surrounding impressions” and to see what phenomenoiogists call "the things themselvesi’fllSo right off, when we speak of criticism in the phenomenological mode, we are re; fe.rril.1g...lesstq,e..1relentiess_methodology or a deepphilosophical concern for theifiatuieof consciousness thantqtanfittiflide.thatmanifests itself with varyingfidegieesofpurity and onethat may come and go in a given exer~ ciseascritical, objectives change. Ii would be nice if we had a less preten— tious (or at least shorter) term for t}: is kind. of commentary, if only to avoid. hints of “scientific” aspiration, but the best I have been able to manage is neoiiripressiouism, and that opens even more embarrassing risks in an age that seems bent on exposing the myth of a reliable self. Nevertheless, phenomenological criticism. is a form of impressionv ism—or, as Maurice Natanson calls it, “methodological solipsism.”2 it is some comfort to add, howeyer, that the iifi—pfiessionists "Were'yery good painters of phenomena, in the strict sense of that word. In their own way crii THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL ATTiTUDli 2'7 they were painting a perceptual critique of the real world, much as the critic of theater might try to show that the world of a play is opaque, geo- metrical, primordial, dense, sparse, and so on. To close the circle, criticism derived from thephenomenologicai attitude is higlilylirirflgtic in its meth— odology. That owing to the nature of its projeEt, phenomenological crit- icierr—imlike phenomenology itselfqteiids t0 relynstig nglywon some yaria~ tion ofVltigareléessripi.iQ¥1t._0.1'fP¥'OQf" bliifilflevtaphonj)“ this account it is proh'ably the most per "rat fhrm of critical commentary and hence is a usefui coufitétfié‘IsfiEé‘ to theyincreasinglyimpersonal methodology in so much of today’s criticism. I M I am not impiying..r.t~ha't we should all run out and buy a pair of philosophers brackets; but if one were looking for an alternative to the {radical skepticism of deconstruction and postmodernisniw—its "uninhibited questioning of everything,” as Eugene Goodheart puts it3-~—one can find it mOSt readily in the Pilenfllglglggigal attitude that uninhibitedly accepts everything it sees. Indeed, the aim of phenomenological criticism seems to be thereverse of the aim of deconstruction in that it seeks, as Mikel Dufrenne puts it, “the-being—at-the~end~of—oppositions in which idea and thing, subject and object, noesis and noeina, are dialectically united.”4 It is no contradiction of this claim to add that deconstructive philosophy is 111* timately connected with the phenomenological movement (especially with Heidegger and l-Iusserl) as to basic questions of being, meaning, and con— sciOusness. I am referring mainly to the practice of deconstruction as it de~ scends from philosophy into criticism—the species we encounter regularly in our journals (sometimes without a single mention of the D-word) where the aim is to show the paradox of presumed identity, the retreat of mean— ing before the finger of definition, 01' to demonstrate how a text “has al— ready dismantled itself” before the critic arrives.5 Phgngmgnglggical criti— cism, however, posits a stopping place, as it were, at the starting placeLngtw 'of atipossibiemeaniassias.etiaseiiessse.teeliagas metathesis direct encounter with _t_he art ohjegg A phenomenological approach offers a cri~ tique of what cosmological physics might cailfi’the first fourseconds” of the perceptual explosioth It is beside the point to claim that{ ' ‘ ' sh, seconds are always tainted by a lifetime 0 row cultural framehlt is only the moment _. ' j ‘ 7 i}: l"‘“"“““"""‘“‘“Tim‘s . ‘ _ ,. ...i_i___..,~H-»-r-r—----- f , hi; 1 k“; ":1 i" ‘ conditions the moment and what follows it are somebody else 3 busmess.) b ' L k “l. - v If .4 , . . u - _- _ “‘ 4‘1": \"" (I ‘II I I am not usmg the expressmn first four seconds in a strict du1a« ‘,\t+...t,h{, Mr“. V tional sense, as the physicist might speak, however literally or loosely, of c. at is the first four seconds of the "Big Bang.” Iintend it as referring to the "mo- ment"—:§Qgp_ or late—inwhich anobject or an image establishes i self in ouilrlfiéféeptionas something, as Shelley puts it, tliatu”cr_eateswfor us(a being Withiniggribgmgfl rind] “compels us to feel that which we perceiveffsuch 3 an experience is commonly deiayed or prevented by' all sorts of everyday . (jaw no sci-1’” significations that attend the appearance of any object or image. More- r? "ii-"sit Over, it is one thing to have such an experience (when one has it), another J to know what to do with it from an analytical standpoint. It turns out to be an immensely complex problem. \ 28 CRITICAL 'l‘l"ll£()lEY AND PERFORMANCE Adolf Reinach, for example, a student of Husserl, is said to have de~ voted an entire semester studying the ways in which one experiences a mailbox? This makes a nice joke on the philosopher, but there is more to a mailbox than meets the eye. No matter how much you fondle it, study it, turn it this way or that, or walk around it, a mailbox will always look you straight in the face, like a cat that wonft let you get behind it. Most people aren’t bothered by this problem, buéhe fact that you can never see all of a mailbox raises the imponderable question of. the frontality of ' everything in the world before the eye of consciousnessUfhiEls the form- dational problem of phenomenology. For this frontalclaal_i_ty_ofall experi- ence, as lflusserl says, is what keeps the world from being all me? if I couid see all sides ofl'a‘ mailbox at once, if I could perceive its interior, its com~ position, its angles and curves, its materiality, its field of world relation- ships, its functions, its vicissitudes, its history, and its deterioration in one grand cubistic glance, in what sense can it be said to be exterior to me, of the world rather than of myself? Such "vision" could only occur at what we may safely cal the “Divine [email protected], if inside the mail- " box we should discover a letter written by God containing a definitive de— scription of all that a phenomenologist could possibly—4 eallym—want to know about a mailbox, we would be no better off, becaus ‘ language itself contains an even more virulent form of frontalityi/‘ly‘t this frontality we per- ceive one word or phrase at a time and the rest hides or slides into a “backside” along with the mailbox we are ignoring as we read the divine description of what a mailbox is. In one way or another this problem takes us to the base of all our con- cerns with the problematics of meaning: the central terms of our critical disc0ursempresence, representation, repetition, deferral, drflerence, aporia, sup“ plementation, referentiellty, indetermination—mcan be treated as variations on the principle of frontality. For frontality is not simply the perception of the surface facing us; it carries with it what Husserl calls the “apperceptionf’ of theurest of the object that is, in "a kind..of” way, ”co«pi'eseiit” even though are???"aerate"the: perceptually motivates something eEse beingthel‘e ' It is easy to see why phenomenologists are drawn to the theater meta- phor so often. In what other art form is the frontality of experience more amply demonstrated? In what other art form do we apperceive so much rotundity in what we merely perceive ("the vasty fields of France,” etc)? Before the world, Sartre says, we are as spectators at a play.g Moreover, theater is the paradigmatic place for the display of the drama of presence and absence; for theater, unlike the mailbox, produces its effect precisely through a deliberate collaboration between its frontside ("011" stage) and its backside (“off”) whereby anticipation is created through acts of en- trance and exit (the recoil of the world beyond), and finally between the frontside illusion (character and scene) and the backside reality (the actor, the unseen stage brace that r’props” up the illusion). Beyond all thisé the- atergoing in itself is a kind of bracketing, or epoclre', in which we willingly, if not involuntarily, suspend our belief in the empirical worldend attend / THE Pl-IENOMBNOLOGICAL A'i"l"l"l‘UDl£ 29 jihave de~ to a hag—reality already “reduced” by the premeditations and manipula- eriences a tions of a series of prior and present artists. As a consequence, phenome- is more to nology cannot look at a theater stage in the way that it looks at the simple hit} StUdY mailbox, which has no such illusionary pretentious (unless it is placed lee-l" iVaYS 100k on a stage). What is required, then, is still another suspension that does jd it- M05“? not cancel the first or throw us altogether out of the illusion into reality, {he‘lel‘see or throw reality altogether out of the illusion, but brackets what each lfifimy 0f would convey exclusively and retains as “co-present” both what we lithe foun‘ have consented to disbelieve (reality) and the belief we have temporarily allfixperi‘ "willed" in its place (the illusion). Merieau-Ponty suggests that the mod- gfii could ern Phenomeflgbfiif’flP enstrives—te—showliligw.ill? world becomes ,5 worldwf" the phenomenological critic strives to show how theater be- llidafion' comes theater—-that is, how theater throws up the pretense that it is an- im in one other kind of reality than the one constituting the ground on which its lilo 1119, Of pretense is baSed. We see this most clearly in stage scenery. If one looks at the stage set- ting in the spell of the epochs“, one sees that it is the means of creating the illusion that there is no scenery there but only a world, a reality (of sorts). CScenery comes into existence in order to deny that it exists-5&1 duplicity at the heart of carpentry. You may ask: isn’t this really a description of natu— ralistic scenery? What about stylized scenery? obvious scenery? scenery in which trees and chairs are played by actors? It really makes no differ- ence. Even in these forms, in calling attention to itself, in seeming to say, “I exist. I am nothing but scenery!” scenery is lying, or speaking with the . _ permission of the mimesis. Even in Brecht’s tacky world where scenery \f'” l"*- critical ' deliberately remains scenery ("built to last three hours”), it is nevertheless la, sup- fabricated in such a way that its fabrication constitutes the illusion. "It 1 ' must be clear that the play is taking place in a theater,” the designer may have said to the carpenters. “Make the scenery look like badly designed scenery.” Whereupon the carpenters labor skillfully to bring about this slapdash failure, this nondisguise of bad art, this backside become frontside, this absence become presence, of which the neWSpaper critic (with luck) will write, "Y’s settings are brilliantly conceived to produce the illusion that the play is taking place in a theater.” . Th epoche‘ (roughly synonymous with bracketing and reduction)» bears some resemblance to Michelangelo’s notion that the sculptor re~ leases the statue from the stone in which it is imprisoned. That is, in order to appear as an essence that has its "being within our being," as Shelley Says, the phenomenon must be released from its perceptual bondage in the "natural" world—~01; indeed, from its collaboration with other phe- nomena in the same theatrical illusion. Since the case of stage scenery is a relatively simple one, let us apply the idea to one of the most immaterial, yet fundamental, phenomena in the theater experience: our perceptiOn of character. Is it possible to isolate an entity called character, the behavioral essence that characters in a play are said to possess? Immediately, we are faced with a perceptual problem expressed most succinctly in Henry lames’s famous definition of character and incident: "What is character CRITICAL THEORY AND l’l-SRFORMANCE 30 _x‘\\3-—“ m if the;staggag‘allhtimesthgt never changes orgtuieastirever.violates an invis- x“ - i t-J .‘ ‘: b b .J-snéa‘S'V‘. *"v "7'1" but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”11 So there is character, seemingly linked to incident (action) as indissolubly as Escher’s swimming fish are linked to the birds flying “through” them. And the problem is complicated still further by the fact that the character is being played by an actor who is not the character but who forms the entire perceptual ground from which any such essence as character can appear. So, it We are supposedly perceiving character as a persistent essence in individual behavior, in what way can we say that it is distinct from the person of the actor? How can we know it? How do we feel its being? Is its persistence not the simple persistence of, say, Olivier playing Othello? Fi- nally, there is the problem that any character: seems to undergo changes as the incidents lead to different moods and the display of different traits. As We say, character “develops.” So what is it in the character: phenomenon that persists? If character changes with every scene, or within single scenes, or even constantly, where do the eye and ear get the notion that something called character is iterating itseif, always being itself, in this chaos of different and differing phenomena in the stage world? l set up,_these resistances in the spirit of the epochs“ itself, for they are the kinds oiithings that must be chiseled away, or bracketed, before we \ can release the “figure” of character from the overall illusion and deter- mine that there is, indeed, an aspect of Othello that cannot be charged ex- ciusively to Olivier’s personal persistence and something that is phenom— enally distinct from incident and survives all changes and so-cailed development.) Othelio’s character is not my topic here, but, if one were pursuing an essense of Othello, it would be found through I-lusserl’s principle of co- presence. Or, to paraphrase another phenomenologist, thespresencehof one "sidgquf Othellowinagiven scene, and the absence of all_the other “sides” orare..oti{éiiai“t prey' satisfiesraggaf‘rtgsasjaési};that???id it Othello’s character accumulates ("changing” asit goes), it is accumulating according to an Othello "law" determined, in the first place, by Shakespeare’s sense of consistency in his creation and, in the second place, by Olivier’s inter- pretation of that consistency.“ s for Olivier lending his visible “weight” to Othello’s invisible character, this is obviously a strong factor: Othello’s character would be very different were John Gielgud playing him. But then Oiivier’s actor-character would be very different if he were playing Hamlet rather than Othello. Ingny’eventnflaereis an essence of Othello on ibiy“Eggurnspribedmfigldfloiffibehavroralpotentiality. (Othello, for example, would newer—like Iiamlehwiwoiideii'"li'éW'iong a man might lie in the earth ere he rot; nor would Othello “scan” his vengeance so scrupulously.) Othello is always a formation 0 0 presence and absence; his character is , _v__,h__ ,,..._......._......e.r_... never absent or present in the way thatoneof his traits (Say, anger) is pres- ent or absent. Othelio’s character mathsfilfisllfid to ausphmererevolving in space: it may reveal different sides or features as it turns, but it always re- mainsthesame sphere, it always continues around "the backside.” , K , _ I _ _ . ., ‘ ‘ . . . _ 'Wof} ad‘s '_'DN. nai 41‘ .has I has I 3 _' '- 'stre ten: .. of F clra - not: Res wet .mig self hav: . enoi ' .migl cism ' . --conc ' least 5am] the c _ --_usefl This i titude worth may r I : pend I It is m 'i‘l-lE PHENOMBNOLOGICAL A'i'TITUDE You may well ask what one can do with such information. Isn’t it fi~ naily rather obvious? Indeed it is. Pheno_n_i__ei:i__ol_r_)mgy, as Bruce Wilshire says, I'igwtllgsysteinatic attempt to unmask the obvious.”15 Like Sheiiey’s idea of poetry, plienoihenology-"is“an:effgigtjggreegvggwhat in our experience has been "annihiiated . . . byreiteration,” In order to gain a systematic idea‘of how theater-"affects us, We need (among other things) an aware- ness of character essence and the contribution of its persistence to the stream of radiCally changing events We call a plot. This is one of the basic tensions through which theater becomes theater. Still, it is only one kind of phenomenological problem. Another might involve an examination of character as a perceptuai locus of "hidden" cultural assumptions. It would be interesting, for example, to conduct a comparative phenome- nology of different kinds of character essense (Greek, Shakespearean, Restoration, “psychological,” naturalistic); or, to put it another way, what were playwrights in a given period making character of (what is its DNA?) that may have been beneath their own awareness? Such findings might serve very Well in the context of New Historical criticism, which it~ self involves a seeing of what absences may be co—present in artifacts we have heretofore regarded as things that are entirety present to the eye. Iwant to turn now to the question of how one recognizes a phenom— enological description. Earlier I said that the phenomenological attitude might be present in atmost any critical exercise. Reader-response criti- cism, for example, has a heavily phenomenological bent insofar as it is concerned with the transaction between consciousness and text. I detect it less often in semiotic discourse, but this may be a judgment based on my sampling of semiotic literature. In any case Umberto Eco’s description of the complementarity of semiotic and phenomenological practice offers a useful way of sorting the differences: A rereading . . . of Husserl’s discussions might induce us to state that semiotigvmegning is simply theusocialized codification of a percep- tual experience whiaa the piiéhoméfis‘iagtéaitfititiié should'restore teasL...
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