Assuming a Body, books, film, film studies, Gaston Bachelard, Gayle Salamon, Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce, media studies, phenomenology, queer, queer phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed, Stanley Cavell, The Poetics of Space, The World Viewed, transgender
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Enlarged Edition (1979) – Cavell is interested in how we experience a film and insists on a sort of starting-over in the process of discovering that experience. He makes little appeal to jargon or philosophical categories, instead referencing certain theorists and plenty of films, largely through memory, to discover the ways in which a film removes an image from its reference point in “reality” and creates a unique experience, or unique experiences. Whereas Bazin, for example, made shameless appeals to the real, Cavell takes a big step back and doesn’t assume anything like that. He foregrounds our experience in a pseudo-phenomenological mode of inquiry (particularly in the sense that he deliberately attempts to eschew methodology) of equipping readers to analyze their own experiences of film. This is almost entirely cognitive, however, one of the elements setting it apart from a more contemporary phenomenological approach. A film presents a world, but a world of its own, and films in general create the world of film, a world that we experience in diverse and fascinating ways that is its own “real.”
Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) - Butler refers to a “field of heterosexual objects,” a series of horizons of objects infused with heterosexual signification. Our experience of these objects needs to be stripped down and queered, Ahmed suggests, although her main interest in in how these objects both create and prevent queering. Culture and ideology orients subjects in a hetero-normative way, such that any experience or orientation that does not adhere to the popular one is in effect queered, even as queer perspectives and orientations are erased by the prevailing hetero-normative ideology. Ahmed notes that Husserl’s starting-point for phenomenological inquiry was his table, the first object in his field of perceptions that he used as an example. This choice reflects a certain type of experience, a male, hetero-normative, Western European, privileged, philosopher experience. To queer an orientation, in this case, might be to examine the perspective from behind the locus of orientation, from behind the philosopher. Husserl’s (and Heidegger’s) references to the table situate it in his house, the domicile of his wife and children. It also assumes a static and fixed rather than dynamic and moving object, an object comprised of singularity, monolithic, and concrete. Such an orientation, particularly when it is projected as normative, marginalizes diverse experiences and perspectives and indirectly queers them. Ahmed’s project is interested in queering not only our perspectives but phenomenology itself. Whereas phenomenology as a method assumes the starting point (locus of primary perception) as originating in the perceiving subject, Ahmed suggests that alternatives are possible.
Gayle Salamon, Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality (2010) – Salamon utilizes Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between body (physicality) and flesh (embodiedness as perceived) to correct the problem of inscribing gender at the bodily level. She suggests instead that gender difference takes place the relational space between bodies/persons through desire and proprioception. The corrective she offers removes the notion popular even among trans writers that gender is inscribed on the body and/or that the materiality of transgender is prediscursive, problematically privileging transgender. Her critique ranges, then, from feminist and queer scholars, to Jacques Lacan and restroom signs for “ladies” and “gentlemen,” noting the arbitrariness of language, policed legally, at the heart of gender dyads and distinctions.
Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (2000) – Sconce historically traces the development of various popular media over the last century-plus in order to establish the evolving ways in which subjectivity has been experienced and conceived, with emphasis on U.S. culture. Telegraphy’s advent in the 19th century contributed to a disembodied mode of the subject that negotiated a crisis in spatial alienation. With the intrusion of radio and then television into U.S. domestic spaces, and then the Internet another couple generations after that, subjectivity becomes not only disembodied but fundamentally fractured, divided spatially and pluralizing subjects. Further, something uncanny emerged in these technologies that contributed to the disembodied and fractured subjectivities. With voices rather inexplicably emanating from the telegraph and the radio, then images with the television, a popular mythology was activated (or perpetuated) that equated these different media with a ghostly or spiritual netherworld. Sconce’s account is anecdote-driven, but they are numerous and rich enough to attest to the paranoid reality of public perception toward new media technologies and the ways in which the public interpreted them as reflecting fissures and problems in their own identities.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958) – Here is a seminal work of mid-20th century phenomenology that is an excellent entry point into the so-called anti-methodology. Bachelard explores spaces and structures, architecture, foregrounding our experiences of these realms and setting strict divisions between spaces like the nest, the corner, the room, the hut, the drawer, and so forth. In part functioning as a didactic piece for architects, Bachelard draws attention to the ways in which enclosed and open spaces make us feel and perceive differently. Although the human body is one element among those that he examines, the body is not presented as central, even if it possesses an assumed centrality. Bachelard seems concerned with desire, pleasure, and tactility, interested as he is in the caress and the ways in which spaces and structures can caress us. So here is a pre-Merleau-Pontian phenomenologist who applies a semi-Husserlian phenomenology toward lived experiences and dwellings.