Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.): Phenomenology as Performative Exercise

Phenomenology as Performative Exercise Book Cover Phenomenology as Performative Exercise
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 19
Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.)
Brill
2020
Hardback €121.00
x, 236

Reviewed by: Thomas Arnold (University of Heidelberg)

The book is a whole divided into three parts, with the first part concerned with the performativity of phenomenology, the second with the phenomenology of performativity and the third with exercises in phenomenology. In this review, first I briefly discuss the volume as a whole. Then I focus on individual entries present in the volume, since they differ by topic and in quality. I conclude with some remarks.

I. Overview

The aim of the book is “to establish the first systematic connection between phenomenology and performativity” (1), which concerns both the performativity of phenomenology as well as the phenomenology of performativity (2). The third part of it “aims to sketch out three phenomenological exercises devoted to the constitution of contemporary performative phenomena” (7). The label “exercises” is somewhat misleading since all phenomenological inquiries are exercises in phenomenology. Moreover, all three essays in the exercise-section of the book are themselves phenomenological investigations into specific performances (as opposed to performativity in general), which thematically justifies their inclusion.

While we do get a promised look into the different ways in which phenomenology can be considered “performative,” I hold that the “transformation of attitude [performance] effects through a number of parallels between phenomenology and the ancient understanding of philosophy as an exercise and a way of life” (2) does not get enough attention. The specifics of this transformation do not seem to be discussed thoroughly enough in the book. How is the subject transformed exactly? From which state to what other state? Is subject-transformation desirable? Then again, this collection is just that: a collection – and therefore it cannot be expected to provide the same encompassing systematic reach a monograph might achieve.

What I liked in this volume was the systematic engagement with both historically close (Foucault, Derrida, a lot of Butler) as well as distant theories (e.g., Plato), which shows that phenomenologists are still interested in theoretical (as opposed to merely exegetical) issues and that we read and talk outside the boundaries of the phenomenological tradition, thus preventing conceptual in-breeding.

As I highlight later in this review, almost all papers contain more or less implicit assumptions about what phenomenology is and what it is supposed to do. If we follow some of the authors in this collection, it ought to be critical, active, transformative, not too intellectual or detached; yet there is not much open discussion about the foundations and justifications of these conceptions and I think this is a debate still waiting to happen – and one which can never really come to an end as long as philosophy demands radical justification for, of and by itself.

As far as I am concerned, paying close attention to how things appear (including texts) should still be the fundamental tenet of phenomenology, because that is how we adequately grasp things instead of just dealing with our own presuppositions and projections. As simple as this sounds, neither close attention (i.e. attention without prejudice, readily available formulae or random associations) nor the focus on the how of appearing (as against the what) are very well developed in our societies. And as Guidi points out, phenomenology is – in one sense – already “critical” inasmuch as it “draws our attention” (2) to sundry phenomena and their (contingent, problematic) modes of appearing, which for example include our naturalistic conceptions and inauthentic tendencies.

My final question however targets the subject and the object of these reflective operations. If we as phenomenologists are supposed to draw “our attention,” does this refer only to us phenomenologists or to us as simple humans? Put in the vocabulary of the present volume, who is supposed to be the benefactor of these phenomenological performances and exercises? And consequently, how should these exercises look? Should they be more academic exercises? More tentative theoretical acrobatics, language games within the same tedious vernacular, or maybe the umpteenth reading of Husserl’s descriptions of inner time consciousness? Or could they be more public exercises in reflecting on presuppositions and attending how things appear?

These questions are not trivial. For example, Husserl famously envisioned a social renewal centred around transcendental phenomenology. While I do not wish to advocate another attempt at healing (or bettering) the world through philosophy, I think phenomenologists are not in a bad position to contribute to what one might call “public philosophy”; especially since phenomenology is not a set of theorems or arguments or a doctrine one can extol, but a way of living, a way of looking, something we do and something we can train others to do too, maybe even to their (and our) advantage – a “performative exercise” indeed.

II. Review of Individual Entries

Dahlstrom characterises Heidegger’s phenomenology as performative insofar as it is obviously something we perform (as in: do), but mainly because “the phenomenologist’s philosophical act of understanding certain experiences entails carrying out the experience herself” (14). This leads him to the language used to prompt these re-enactments of experience – and to Heidegger’s reflection on the performativity of (phenomenological) language. Dahlstrom thus notes several concordances between Austin’s analyses of performatives and Heidegger’s early thoughts on language, especially on everyday performative discourse. Dahlstrom also mentions Heidegger’s engagement with authentic and inauthentic discourse as something that goes beyond Austin’s work.

In section two Dahlstrom deals with the phenomenological re-enactment (Vollzug) of experience in the sense of truth-proclamations. This touches upon the problem that phenomenological description does not simply mimic what it describes, but gives it “shape” (24). This is an example of  “Gestaltgebung” (24).[1] From here, Dahlstrom links Heidegger’s account of formal indication and its “existential-disclosive aspect” (26) to Searle’s take on performatives as creating linguistic facts. Dahlstrom ends on the observation that Heidegger’s account of speech acts is embedded in a much larger framework, while the speech act theorists focus more on specific issues and thus bring out more details, such that both could profit from each other (28).

From Dahlstrom’s considerations in section two, one might further question the function of re-enactment: why is it even necessary to “perform” experiences in phenomenology? And to what end? The repetition of experiences is necessary for our adequate grasp of what is given in experiences. Asserting without experience, i.e., asserting without direct contact to the things themselves, merely verbally, is what Husserl calls “empty” or even “inauthentic” discourse. How we perform our assertive acts is important because “empty” speech is phenomenologically worthless – hence the insistence on first-hand experience or, as Husserl calls it, “intuition.” Dahlstrom hints at the necessity of unpacking the distinction between authentic and inauthentic in Heidegger in FN 48. The end of all these efforts is ontological for Heidegger, for he is never interested simply in understanding experiences or even types of experiences for their own sake or in service of practical, “critical” projects. For Heidegger, questioning aims at something deeper: i.e., understanding being.

Legrand asks “What does happen if one practices an epochê without reduction?”(33). To arrive firstly at the fact that the epochê itself “is a performance of the subject” and that “the subject is performed by practicing the epochê,” the epochê becomes something specific to a suspension of judgement, a “suspension of anything that would prevent to work with what gives itself, as it is given, in the very field in which it is given.” (33-4, 40). Legrand sees Barthes practising a kind of epochȇ by suspending “that which makes his experience of the photograph ‘banal’” thereby also “suspending any narcissistic identifications with one’s mundane identity and normative identification with social roles” (36-7). In performing this bracketing, the subject shows itself to be certain without employing categories like “real” or “fictional”.

This allows Barthes to experience the “singularity” of the photograph, a singularity apparent just for him. However, the singularity for one is also singularity of one, an encounter between two singularities: “I am singular for the other” (37). Moreover, “the structure of singularity is not reflexivity but: the address of one to another” (38).  Arguably, then, one could describe this whole structure comprising the two singularities as reflexivity, given that the other reflects me onto myself (and vice versa).But the point seems to be that singularity requires more than individual reflection.

At any rate, Legrand fleshes out some of the differences between phenomenology and psychoanalysis and finds that the latter is decidedly non-transcendental, but still operates with a form of epochê. The psychoanalytic epochê consists in suspending the categories of the “correct, appropriate, relevant, interesting, true, or embarrassing, shameful, false, stupid, ridiculous etc.” (47) so as to “consider speech as Saying” (48) without judging the adequacy of the spoken to reality. The analyst instead listens with the presumption “that who I hear is irreducibly singular” (48). Following Legrand, in this act one would perform themselves as a singularity as well as the other. She offers the takeaway or insight that there are either different species of epochê or different paths to take, springing from the one epochê and leading to very different subjects/situations, depending on the mode and aim of the performance of the bracketing.

Cimino argues for deep agreements between Husserl and Plato. He begins by pointing out that Plato and Husserl agree on the fundamental nature of philosophy in regard to the other sciences. He fleshes out this distinction by drawing on a distinction between “discursive thinking and intuitive thinking” (53) as well as the necessity of other sciences “to rely on assumptions” (53) which philosophy questions; he then focusses on the former difference (56). I obviously agree with the general idea that Husserl and Plato are in accordance on central systematic issues (whether Husserl is aware of it or not); I disagree with Cimino’s more specific claim that they both endorse “the specific method of philosophy as inuitive thinking” (50).

For what could this “intuitive method” (56) even be? Firstly, what is intuition? As Cimino points out, self-givenness of any thematic object is fundamental to Plato and Husserl and both criticise mere verbal, i.e. non-intuitive speech. For both it “is rather the familiarity with the thing itself that produces real philosophical knowledge” (58) and when Cimino speaks of the “dialectical method” (57) he claims that “it entails the direct, first-hand grasp of essences or ideas” (57). To explain one metaphor through two others: intuition (for Cimino as well as for Plato and Husserl) is familiarity is first-hand grasp. Now can this be a “method” in and of itself? As Cimino himself says, the “dialectical method” “entails” it, which means it is not identical to it. And I venture it entails it because dialegesthai, literally “talking it through”, leads to what we have described as seeing, i.e. first-hand grasping. But the method, the way to go, is logical, it proceeds through logoi, through speeches, through questioning presuppositions, drawing out implications, discussing (varying) examples etc. Therefore intuition might either be a result or even a presupposition of Plato’s (and Husserl’s) philosophical method, but not a method in and of itself.

This has bearing on another issue, namely the intersubjective dimension of philosophy. In regard to this, what I hod to be a mistranslation of a passage from Plato’s 7th Letter is noteworthy. According to Cimino it states that insight appears “as a result of continued application to the subject itself”; however this passage ought to read that insight appears “in joint pursuit of the subject” (as translated by Morrow), since “synousia” means “being-together” and refers to the intersubjective dimension of philosophy, similar to “syzên”, “living together” in the very same sentence (one line further in 341d1). This being-together necessitates the logos as medium of philosophy since we cannot share intuitions directly. It is the intersubjective and reflective giving and taking of reasons which is the “method” of Platonic philosophy.

It is here, as I have argued,[2] that Husserlian phenomenology could benefit from a little more Platonism, given that some of Husserl’s own methodological characterisation of phenomenology turn it into a rather private, even solipsistic enterprise of inner monologue rather than the intersubjective endeavour he clearly wants it to be.

D’Angelo aims at establishing “four principles of every performance of phenomenological reading” (63) by reading and expanding on Gadamer’s reading of Plato’s Lysis. He sets out with highlighting that “phenomenology seems to happen mostly through texts and the interpretation of texts” (64); interestingly, D’Angelo does not call us (us phenomenologists that is) out on this (which he very well could and which Husserl would surely do), but rather asks “whether there is a distinctly phenomenological way of reading texts” (64) and claims that reading Husserl (for example) can still be a genuinely phenomenological exercise.

D’Angelo takes a basic principle from Gadamer, employs it (again) to the Lysis and then develops “four central moments of Plato’s theory of friendship which are, in my interpretation, at the same time four central moments of philosophy in general” (66). In a sense he performs a phenomenological reading to establish what a phenomenological reading is. These are the principles he wants to establish. First principle: There needs to be a “conjunction” of word and deed or attention to “the peculiar performance of a text” (76). For example, in the Lysis, “Socrates does things (erga) with words (logoi), by obtaining Lysis friendship through discourse.” (76) Were we to only focus on the explicit logoi, we would miss Plato’s enactment (in the sense of staging) of friendship, like Vlastos does, as D’Angelo contends (FN 19). The second principle D’Angelo gains from the fact that we are creating a logos about something for someone, which he translates into a principle of reading charitably, but also attending to the topic of the text itself, as to be able to criticise the text on its own terms. The third principle derives from the fact that “ignorance is a necessary component of philosophy” (74) and is basically a call to stay open-minded. The fourth principle reads: “There must be co-belonging, but also distance”, which implies a search for “common ground” (77). D’Angelo admits to a “feeling of triviality” (78) in regard to the principles listed, but points out that the triviality of these norms rather cements their validity while they are still continuously violated.

In reading D’Angelo’s account, two questions sprang to my mind: a) Why should we consider these principles to be especially “phenomenological”? b) Even if I happen to fully agree with his principles, where does their normativity stem from? Why should Gadamer or Plato (or their accordance) justify any principle for phenomenological reading whatsoever? An answer to both questions might lie in the phenomenological motto, since if we want to attend to the things themselves or let them show themselves as they are (be they texts or things or the world or…), we need to focus both on their explicit and implicit dimensions, apply categories of description not foreign to the phenomenon, stay open-minded and while attending the things themselves keep the appropriate descriptive distance.

Delving once again into the platonica, I have only a small gripe with how D’Angelo presents a basic Socratic tenet. Socrates‘ principle is not “knowing only not to know” (69), as D’Angelo puts it, it is knowing when and if he does not know and abstaining from claiming such knowledge he does not possess (Apology 21d). In things of love and eidetic pregnancy, so to speak, Socrates always appears well-versed, indeed knowledgeable and proud of the fact. In the Symposium he even reveals his teacher in regard to these things, Diotima. Socrates knows that he knows of these things because he constantly proves to himself that he does, namely by performing his midwifery, i.e. dialectics. This does not however impede D’Angelo’s overall point that philosophy appears as the “in-between” (70) and as concerned with such.

Guidi focusses on the transformative dimension of phenomenology, which she then analyses in terms of the middle voice. Recalling the early Heidegger’s considerations about how understanding of formal indication requires a transformation on the side of the reader, Guidi concludes that phenomenological “speech is an enactment” (86), drawing the reader towards certain experiences, especially towards our thrown-ness: “Thus all phenomenological speech does is to indicate and address the very actual situation of the reader, by allowing her to experience the impossibility of founding that situation.” (85)

To conceptualise this enactment further, she draws on Benveniste’s analyses of the so called “middle voice”, which she claims opens “a topological perspective” (88), meaning that one can analyse actions as external or internal, the middle voice referring to a situation “where the agent is situated inside the process” (88), is “being affected” (89) in action. Guidi sees thinking according to Heidegger as exactly such an enactment, but denies its priority: “I claim that the ungrounded character of Dasein, the very same which phenomenology addresses in a performative way, opens up the ordinary and never fully accomplished task for every Dasein of transforming oneself and therefore relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity.” (90). Guidi then goes on to discuss four examples of middle-voice enactments, namely dialogue, expressing oneself, play and vulnerability, as analysed by Butler. She concludes with the conjecture that the “middle voice, by prompting the assumption of a topological perspective, may reveal the transformative potential of our ordinary comportments, and may further offer a new grammar for political action, one which is no longer founded on a sovereign account of subjectivity and agency” (96).

My main questions about Guidi’s account revolve around the notion of transformation. What transformation exactly are we talking about? And who has decided that it is to be the “task for every Dasein” (90)? The transformation involved in phenomenology is fairly specific and implies a shift away from “ordinary comportments”, not within or through it. This is why Husserl keeps writing introductions to phenomenology to explicate both the epochê as well as the reduction(s) in terms of a massive rupture with the natural attitude. Similarly for Heidegger; for while his philosophy certainly implies “acknowledging the ungrounded character of Dasein” (79), it also constitutes a radical break with the ordinary (even ordinary philosophy) towards fundamental ontology, the history of being or “thinking” in an eminent sense. Therefore I would be very interested in how exactly ordinary comportment transforms itself relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity without simply becoming philosophy, poetics or “thinking” – and how this transformation might be achieved. To be clear, this is not an ironic or rhetorical question, as I think it might really be better for everyone involved if more people acknowledged “the ungroundedness and the constitutive opacity” of our situation and acted accordingly. Could and should it be the “task” of philosophy to further this transformation?

Summa discusses the relation between performing and expressing, refuting Butler’s early claim that expression and performance are mutually exclusive, based on the assumptions that expression does not contribute to the constitution of what is expressed and presupposes a substantial subject (102). Instead, Summa offers a complementary account.

In the first section she sets out the false dichotomy between expression and performance. In the second section she discusses different notions of performance which inform current debates, namely Austin’s linguistic account of performatives and Turner’s cultural-anthroplogical account of ritual and the social drama. The common denominator Summa sees in “the accentuation of the productive and transformative power of the activity” (108) while pointing out that Turner’s concept is farther reaching, including the institution of norms and social identities through repetition – or their breaking. In the third section, Summa argues both that the “sincerity condition for the success of performative utterances” (112) cannot be understood apart from considerations of expression, and that expression itself is one way to exercise the power of institution as described by Merleau-Ponty. In each case, Summa shows that expression does not presuppose “the assumption of the subject as substance” (116). What is presupposed in but also formed by expression and acknowledgement, is experience. Moreover, any “expressive impulse emerges as a response to or a way to cope with some form of impasse within an already given order” and this presupposes an “embodied history of a style, which can itself become the object of modification, or écart, which will have an impact on our subsequent experience.” (118)

Summa’s contribution is both precisely argued and strategically interesting, as she, like Wehrle in her paper (see below), brings phenomenology systematically and critically into contact with concurrent theories, especially Butler’s. In doing so she disabuses us of certain common misconceptions about phenomenology, namely of being a subjectivist, pre-post-modern (i.e. modern) project. At the same time she actualises a transcendental line of questioning by elaborating on the conditions of possibility of expression and performance as well expression and performance as conditions of the possibility of subject-formation.

Wehrle contends “that Butler’s account of performativity as well as her ethics of precarity could profit from a phenomenologically-informed account of bodily performativity, which includes its passive and active aspects.” (126) She then explicates bodily performativity in terms of engagement: “as embodied, we are engaged with our environment and creative with regard to our relation with it. […] This relation, the performances of the body, so I want to argue here, have ontological relevance in that they can create real and lasting changes in situations, the environment and the bodies themselves.” (127) This “performative force of the body often goes unnoticed” (128), because it is usually anonymous.

While our bodies can actively perform, they can also be acted on, for example through bodily discipline, which Wehrle interprets as “forced or prefixed habituation” (130), be it through external forces or internalised norms. Thus bodies are normalised. Depending on the situation, the norms working on bodies and bodily behaviour are either experienced as comfortable (in case we conform to them) or uncomfortable (in case we do not conform to them) (132).

In dealing with these norms, Wehrle votes for a “pragmatic approach” according to which we do not simply abolish uncomfortable norms, but use the discomfort to enact the norms in “slighlty different ways”: changing their script so to speak, “thus integrating more possibilities and more possible subjects into it” (133). In fact, since no bodily act ever reproduces the underlying norms completely and since we (can) experience this discrepancy, Wehrle argues that we ought “regard embodied experience by itself as perfomative and, therefore, potentially subversive” (134) – like language. The starting point to any of these subversive acts is the “distance that is inherent to our very embodiment and experience”, namely that between being a body and having a body to which we can relate and which we ourselves can objectify, discovering “our ordinary ways of moving” (137) and lining them up for scrutiny – and consequently change through self-discipline, which Wehrle links with Foucault’s “care for the self”. She concludes: “In enacting norms, we thereby make them “real”, but always retain the capacity to transcend them.” (139)

As with parallel discussions in the realm of linguistic acts and norms, the next question – which can use Wehrle’s concise conceptual work as a starting point – would be how exactly this transcendence takes place, especially in extremis. For while it is easier to envisage how we can (bodily) transcend (bodily) norms in (more or less) free societies, it is harder to imagine how one can enact and subvert norms in, say, Guantanamo Bay or an Uighur internment camp. The enforced performances in such “Vocational Education and Training Centers” are exactly aimed at stopping any form of subversion, even to reduce fellow human beings to obedient bodies, collapsing the critical distinction between being and having a body.

Laner offers “(Post)Phenomenological Considerations of Contending Bodies” (140), taking Butler’s account of assembly and her criticism of Arendt’s perceived intellectualism as her starting point. She then goes on to develop a concept of “bodily forms of critique” (145), drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Ryle.

What then is “critique” and how can it be “bodily”, according to Laner? What are “performances of critique” (144) if not criticising? “Critique, as performed on a bodily level, […] means to question a situation not from a distanced perspective” (140), “critique” is about “altering” (142) a situation and attacking the norms inherent in it, indeed, critical “performances aim at transgressing such limitations” (143); “it is by means of bodily enactment that one takes a critical stance toward an existing system of norms” (146); “taking a critical stance on a bodily level can, in a very basic sense, be regarded as a form of bodily enactment that transgresses or subverts the existing norms.” (147) Bodily criticism is “a response to a given situation that does not affirm, but that questions the norms prefiguring our performances” (149). Such critical stances are performed by “[b]odies that claim to be recognized as free” (144) and it “it is the body that thinks and reflects” (151). Laner thus wants to overcome the “Dualistic characterisation” (144) of us humans as divided in body and mind.

In light of this aim it is odd that she a) constantly distinguishes between body and mind rather than focusing on the person as a whole but also b) keeps using mentalistic vocabulary to describe bodily actions. It is unclear why we should say that the body claims something, takes a stance or questions anything; surely it is the whole, embodied as well as minded person who performs all these acts? And does the difference between simply failing to properly enact a norm and subverting it reside in the body as opposed to the mind? Also having an “aim” (152) surely is something the person rather than the body ‚performs‘? Even “performing intelligently” (153) in Ryle’s sense does not justify the term “bodily criticism” as Ryle himself says of a person or the “agent” that he does or does not exercise “criticism”, not of the body (as quoted by Laner on p. 153). So does Merleau-Ponty: the artist “questions perceptual norms” (155), as Laner says, not the artist’s body. Discovery and analysis are feats of the person as a minded entity, so why go back to the harsh duality of body and mind to then misapply these activities?

I do not advocate a view according to which “bodies are not able to perform critically, since their performances are understood in terms of necessary reaction” (145), but a view according to which criticality is an attribute of activities and dispositions of the whole person rather than one aspect. That is not to say that bodily performance cannot subvert norms, as Summa and Wehrle both establish very clearly (see above), but both successfully avoid forcing mentalistic vocabulary or dualism into their spelling out of the subversive possibilities of bodily engagement. Humans can question norms bodily, even by performing (or failing to perform) certain movements, yes. But why call this “bodily criticism”?

Then again, Laner also sees herself “questioning a notion of critique that underlines its merely rational nature and the distanced attitude it presupposes” (147) – a notion of critique she characterises as “trivial” and traces back to Kant. “Trivial notions of critique often refer to the etymology of the concept krinein, stressing its original meaning of discriminating. If critical performances are regarded as performances that simply detect differences and discriminate, critique seems to loose its normative impact.” (148) According to Laner it is also “clear that only a small elite even qualifies for critical engagement” (148) in this sense, although she does not say in which way it is so “clear”.

Firstly, where does the imperative of “normative impact” of critique come from? Or is that “simply” a presupposition? Secondly, as to the triviality of critique: the main aspect of “krinein” is to differentiate adequately, to detect a difference that makes a difference in a given context and to conceptualise it aptly – to “carve nature at the joints” as Plato has it (Phaidros 265e), A judge for example “simply” has to judge (discriminate) whether someone is guilty or not and what punishment is adequate. Critical thinking thus is not a passive “becoming aware of differences” or a bodily response of “detecting differences” (155), but actively seeking out differences according to certain criteria, employing conceptual skills. The ability to differentiate properly does therefore not seem “trivial” to me; or if it is “trivial” in the sense of belonging to the “trivium”, i.e. to any form of halfway proper education, it is not very well received – it certainly is not widely spread even within academia.

It is also arguably different from the drive or wish to change something one has previously identified (and thus differentiated from what it is not) as defective, which can follow acts of criticism but does not have to.

Regarding Kant, his notion of “Kritik” is very specific and concerns the possibility of metaphysics and the range of valid conclusions reason is allowed to draw (Critique of Pure Reason, A-Vorrede) and which is supposed to answer the question “How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” – which is not what most people mean when they speak of the intellectual activity or disposition of being “critical”, presumably. Then again, in a more general understanding of a “critical” stance, Kant asks all of us (rather than a “small elite”, as Laner has it) to “dare to know”.

The connection between what Laner calls “trivial” as well as “non-bodily forms of critique” remains vague as she just says they are “somehow complementary”, since bodily critique relates “towards a matter from within”, whereas non-bodily critique supposedly operates “from outside the system” (156). Which is, again, highly problematic, given that the whole issue with Kant and post-Kantian idealism is the acute awareness that we are always “within”. There is no view from outside, no view from nowhere, no side-ways on view, no context-less context, no a-perspectival perspective etc. – pick your favourite “trivial” formula. Also, given that Kant talks mainly about theology, how is his critique not at least associated with “actual desires, affects and needs of the performer” (156)? Kant himself at least sees his critique as a matter of life and death after all – and lest we forget, with Plato, the proper critical, dialectical stance is the proper way to deal with death and the only worthy expression of Eros.

Laner’s divestment of critique from reflection is motivated by her concern about those unable to reflect as “they too deserve to be attributed the possibility of taking a critical stance.” (148) I am unsure who decides who is deserving, but surely the validity of attributions ought to rest on clean definitions rather than moral considerations?

Finally I think “postphenomenology” is an odd term in this context, since considerations about the “broader horizon of changing times, various cultures, political systems and power mechanisms shaping bodies as well as the diverse social roles attributed to them” (142) are well inside the range of phenomenological thought; after all, Husserl himself already conceives of a “historical apriori” (Krisis, 380) and takes the differences between “homeworld” and “otherworld” into account, as well as the cultural differences between say, Greek and non-Greek thought which sparked philosophy in the first place in his view. See Rentsch’s take on “situative contextuality” (164) in Husserl in the same volume (see below).[3]

Classical phenomenology always calls for a “Leitfaden” to any discussion, i.e. a given phenomenon from which the structure of interest can be lifted and analysed. This would have been very helpful in this case, since at least to me it is still very unclear what bodily critique is supposed to be.

Rentsch moves away from the body, towards the “transcendence of logos”, which refers to the “unavailability and withdrawal of the performative constitution of meaning, that is, its negativity”, i.e. “that which precedes and is outside of logos cannot be grasped or conceived of, except once again through linguistic forms.” (159) Rentsch situates this topic within the thematic range of the present volume by positing: “Linguistically, this transcending manifests in performativity” (167).

He proceeds from Wittgenstein’s silence at the end of the Tractatus and his subsequent practical turn, to Heidegger, Adorno’s constellation and Husserl’s passive synthesis, in all of which he sees attempts to conceptualise the unavailable performativity that constitutes meaning. Where Husserl is concerned, one might even go further than Rentsch in that not only the living present “does not exist as such, […] is unthinkable and unrepresentable” (166); the same holds for the ur-sphere and the “Urstand” therein, which is the form of subjectivity constituting all objects (Gegen-stand as opposed to Ur-stand) and which Husserl also considers to be no object in any way (cf. Bernauer Manuskripte 277) .

This line of thinking that certain structures are both “limits and ground” (167) of something can – again – be easily traced back to (at least) Plato, in whom the structuring principle always transcends whatever it structures, a thought that found its home at the heart of Neoplatonism, leading from Plotinus to Proclus on to the Florentine Academy, Cusanus and further. Rentsch can be read as analysing an instantiation of this very basic structure in its aspect concerning meaning and language, truth (161).

As with Platonic takes on the issue, one might ponder what exactly “inexplicability” (167) means in this context. After all, Rentsch asks us “to conceive of [the inexplicable conditions] as conditions of meaning” (167), thus conceptualising, explicating and expressing them, namely “as conditions”. The formerly non-thematic performance becomes thematic and thus loses its transcendence – otherwise it could not be object of inquiry.

In his conclusion he hints at ways in which “fundamental domains of the constitution of meaning on the life-world” (169) are affected by recent developments and mentions fake news, exchange trade, artificial intelligence in warfare and pornography. In all these cases he sees the irreducible and to some extent inexplicable basis of meaning-constitution under threat. The connection of these issues to his former elucidations of the performative withdrawal at the heart of meaning-constitution remains somewhat tentative however. He ends on an ethical note: “what is at stake is that we develop ways to take back […] and strengthen the critical faculty of judgement” (169) – and who would argue against that?

Slaby bridges a wide gap, “From Heidegger to Afro-Pessimism”. In this he aims at a “temporal account of affectivity” (173), specifically the “background affectivity” which permeats our being-in-the-world and which is shaped by “historical events” (174). Slaby wants to “revive” Heidegger’s take on the relation between affectivity and time “for the purpose of motivating and informing a critical phenomenology of affectivity” (174), where to be “in an affective state amounts to finding oneself “here”, at a particular juncture, confronted by what has been, what is factual, what has come to be so that we have no choice but to go on from here.” (175) Affectivity both discloses and occludes our situation, however. Slaby’s goal is thus partially critical, to “reveal layers of distrust, dishonesty and inauthenticity” (176).

He then draws on Fanon, Rankine and Coates (among others) to portray the affectivity of many black lives in the US, “constitutively placed on the brink of death” through the “violent appropriation of black lives” (179). He goes on to discuss Merleau-Ponty’s concept of social sedimentation as it impacts the body-schema, as well as Al-Saji’s and Ahmed’s contributions to phenomenology. It is here that the phenomenological meat of his approach lies as he establishes the connection between the historical (re-)embodiment of white privilege “in the spaces and operations of public institutions, and how it becomes manifest within affective modes of embodied being-in-the-world.” (186)

Slaby follows this with a look at Sharpe’s concept of the Wake (of the Middle Passage), which is both a factual condition as well as a mode of caring. He sees Wake work as similar to phenomenology in regard to the attention to the natural attitude (192; additionally he posits the condition of being in the Wake as a “Grundstimmung”, alongside the phenomenological favourites “anxiety” and “nausea” (192): “Living under the reign of capital is living in the Wake, still embodying, continuing, re-enacting this concrete history.” (192-3) – This is, of course, tricky terrain, since while capitalism affects non-black people as well, the Wake shapes black lives, especially in the USA, very differently from how it shapes the lives of white people; or – on average – white people are living in the Wake differently than black people.

The only point I do not quite understand in Slaby’s contribution is his criticism of aspiring to “evaluative” “detached neutrality” (194) as opposed to a stance which would “require practitioners to thoroughly situate their respective subject matters historically and to devise philosophical methods adequate to this task – methods that work performatively so as to crack open ossified formations of understanding and being.” (194) Again I am tempted to ask where the imperative to crack open anything stems from and why that cannot or should not be performed in a detached way. After all, even Husserl’s fairly detached way of philosophising always aimed at negating what he called ossification in order to get at the things themselves and renew society. And surely “neutrality” in this context simply means not to be unfair or prejudiced?

Kozel writes about her engagement with the works of the choreographer Margrét Guðjónsdóttir and states that “A phenomenology of affect affords a parallel between Guðjónsdóttir’s choreographic practices and Cambridge Analytica’s political manipulations”, namely as “choreographies of affect and somatic states”, in each case affective states being the “material” of the work in question. The difference for Kozel lies in the fact that in the former case, the “reflective process” is in play, while it is “missing from social media users‘ attitudes” (205), as the reflective process is part of the choreographer’s work. The paper also contains a detailed description of the experience of viewing a piece by Guðjónsdóttir.

In terms of theory I could not find a definition for what she calls “hyper-reflection” (205). In general, Kozel’s idea of how and why we “do a phenomenology” (206) seems to be more practical than theoretical. Her description of the steps involved in doing “a” phenomenology sounds more like a form of mindfulness-meditation followed by a written account; to me it certainly seems further removed from traditional philosophical theorising than the other contributions – which in itself is not a reason to evaluate it negatively, of course.

Buongiorno’s paper deals with “digital performativity” in the sense of the “ways we act ourselves out” and “construct ourselves by means of digital artefacts” (214) After briefly sketching the differences in self-constitution brought on by digitalisation, drawing on work by Belk, Buongiorno discusses three phenomenological concepts, which he thinks will help to understand these new forms of self-constitution: a) epochê: this constitutes the distance necessary to do phenomenology, as is the case with Husserl, b) variation: our digitalised mediated experience can be conceptualised as variations of non-digital experience – “we may understand digital experiences as a virtual transposition of the contents of real experience” (222) and c) the flesh, which serves to undercut the discussion about disembodiment through digitalisation and its dualist presuppositions, in order to better understand digital “reembodiment”.

“Phenomenology” for Buongiorno is supposedly “far from being just a theory resorting to reflection and analysis” (220) but rather a “form-of-life” (221) – something no traditional phenomenologist would doubt, presumably. However the specifics of this form-of-life seem to me to rest exactly in “reflection and analysis”, as phenomenology both as a stance and an activity is based on turning our attention back (reflectere) towards conditions of possibility, towards conceptual structures and frames of mind, towards our constituting activities, ill-grounded presuppositions etc. and then carefully taking them apart (analyein) and explicating them in order to foster understanding.

III. Conclusion

As can be gleaned from my remarks, I am rather taken aback by some of the implicit or explicit disavowals of the ideals of earlier phenomenology, namely to strive for a differentiated, analytic, reflexive, neutral, i.e. theoretical account of the things themselves (including ourselves). This striving is itself already a performative as well as a transformative exercise and thus a way of life,[4] one which is sorely in need of proponents in my mind, since it implies a thoughtfulness and an understanding of our own presuppositions and (epistemic) limits which in turn are the bedrock both for reasonable political action as well as fruitful research. Temporal philosophical disengagement neither implies global (political) inactivity or a general disembodiment, yet only reflection can curb some of our more unproductive reflexes.

This reflection also ought to include the “ought”, as quite a few papers in the present collection simply assume certain norms or directives without either arguing for or at least describing the sources of their validity, which ought to be a problem for any radical, self-critical philosophy – as phenomenology traditionally purported to be.

Despite my critical remarks, most of the contributions to the volume qualify as solid academic performances, some are outstanding in clarity and concision. The volume as a whole shows (again) that current phenomenology is divers, well suited to place itself in a wider context and able to engage with other traditions and new topics. As the Guidi states in the introduction, “We wish [to] bring to light the mutual relation between phenomenology and performativity and set the ground for further exercises” (10). This it accomplishes very well.


[1]   Cf. Florian Arnold, Logik des Entwerfens (Paderborn, 2018) for an account of the connection between philosophy and design.

[2]  Thomas Arnold. 2017. Phänomenologie als Platonismus. Berlin/New York, §§ 22.

[3] See also Aldea’s take on the criticality of Husserlian phenomenology in: Smaranda Aldea, „Making Sense of Husserl’s Notion of Teleology: Normativity, Reason, Progress and Phenomenology as ‘Critique from Within‘,“ Hegel Bulletin 38/1 (2017): 104–128 and „Phenomenology as Critique: Teleological-Historical Reflection and Husserl’s Transcendental Eidetics,“ Husserl Studies 31/1 (2016): 21–46.

[4] Cf. the locus classicus, Pierre Hadot. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Blackwell .

Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.): Phenomenology as Performative Exercise, Brill, 2020

Phenomenology as Performative Exercise Book Cover Phenomenology as Performative Exercise
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 19
Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.)
Brill
2020
x, 236

Petra Gehring: Über die Körperkraft von Sprache: Studien zum Sprechakt, Campus Verlag, 2019

Über die Körperkraft von Sprache: Studien zum Sprechakt Book Cover Über die Körperkraft von Sprache: Studien zum Sprechakt
Petra Gehring
campus verlag
2019
Paperback €24,95
201