It’s been a very very busy few weeks, for reasons I won’t go into here, but I’m hoping to be back in busy and productive form starting right now. Some of the titles I’m currently working my way through are really exciting: Nancy Eberhardt’s Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Tranformation in a Shan Buddhist Community, Reiko Ohnuma’s excellent-looking Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood, and a new reading of Paul Mus’ classic “India seen from the East.” A sudden glut of teaching responsibilities (expected and otherwise) have cut into my reading time, but here’s some of the stuff I’ve been getting through.

  • Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Redeker. 2001. The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ding-dang people! Everybody ought to read this book. An amazing and well-documented history of the importance of the transatlantic to the birth of the modern world, this book eschews the typical approach – looking at history from the perspective of constitutions, upper-class business concerns, and the passage of laws, and instead examines this period from the perspective of struggle. Truly astonishing. If you ever felt that your history books were not making sense, or that something important was being left out, it might be in this book. Best all-around ‘American’ history book I’ve read since Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

  • Blissett, Luther. 1999. Q.

Another book, this time an Umberto Eco-style novel written by 4 pseudonymous Italian authors (available for free download as well). Not a ‘beautiful’ novel, in terms of prose, etc. (not reading Italian, I can’t tell whether this is a function of the original or the translation), but the rush of history and ideas is compelling and very exciting. A story of an anabaptist radical who just happens to find himself in the middle of nearly every major religio-political battle in the first half of the sixteenth century, and his anonymous opponent, the mysterious Q, who supplies intelligence to the most oppressive and reactionary elements of the Vatican hierarchy.

  • Casey, Edward S. 1976. Imagining: a phenomenological study. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press.

This book qualifies as an amazing accomplishment: Casey’s breadth and depth of knowledge dazzle in combination throughout the book, and his facile and graceful exposition of the ideas, their differences and his resolutions make the book an ease and a pleasure to read. It is not, nevertheless, an ‘easy’ book to read: the ideas surrounding the imagination seem to be at the bleeding edge of theories about the mind, and indeed, to have been there since the very first formulation of the idea of imagination. Therefore, much of the writing deals with technical ideas and terminology, most of which is very well introduced and artfully deployed by Casey. As a description of the individual act of imagining I’m not sure it can be surpassed. As a description of the individual faculty of imagination – or, since he disavows the idea of a ‘faculty’ of imagination, we can refer here to the ‘possibility’ of individual imagination – he is less successful, though still quite generally convincing. The problem here comes from the limits contained within Casey’s approach to the imagination in general.

Casey’s approach to the imagination is very much rooted in the individual imagination, and as a individualist phenomenologist, he sees no other possibility. The fundamental problem with phenomenology, it seems to me, is, First, that it has constructed one of the most astonishingly refined vocabularies and system for discussing perception and experience, first by disavowing any knowledge of what the thing experienced “is” in favor of a detailed and laser-like focus on how it “appears.” Second, it refuses to consistently apply this form of thought to the question of what experiences or perceives. Although the phenomenology of the self appears to be a big field (any corrections out there?), many phenomenological studies seem to bypass this crucial point. It would be unfair to the thought of many phenomenologists, and especially venerable masters such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to say that they don’t take the question of the one-and-the-many seriously – that is often precisely the problem which drives many phenomenologists. What I am saying, rather, is that there is not a sufficient attention paid in the general trend of phenomenological studies to the issue of what it is that perceives and experiences. Instead, that thorny, fundamental problem is normally discarded as uninteresting, insoluble, or a distraction. An example might be the phenomenological study of religious experience.

Example – Against the casual phenomenologists

An imaginary opponent fitting that description has now entered the clean white room where you, the reader, and I, the writer, are having this discussion. She opens the door and walks in. We both notice that there is now a third plain wooden chair by the white table at which we are sitting. Without a word, she comes in and sits down. She lights her cigarette and asks us to repeat our objection to phenomenology:

“So, you see,” I say (are you nodding? I can’t tell), “I’m proposing that much phenomenology skips the essential problem of questioning what it is that is experiencing or perceiving a phenomenon, and thereby ends up assuming a function or type of subject.”

“Of course phenomenologists are interested in the question of the phenomenology of the self: it’s a big field, actually. But you can’t expect us all to concentrate on that one issue. I, for instance, am really interested in varieties of religious experience, not in the question of the self. What’s wrong with me focusing on a sub-branch of my field?”

“Nothing, I reply, except that, although a few casual denials are tossed out, most studies seem not only not to address the question of the phenomenon of the self, but to then assume the existence of a common-sense self to whom experience is limited and bound.” I pause, because I want her to really absorb that question. Don’t you have anything to say to her?

“Moreover,” I continue, “by writing about individual experience in such a way, studies like Casey’s reaffirm the notion of a bounded, isolated, liberal self, which is incapable of true sharing, co-experiencing, or exchange with another except through the mutual approximation of meaning through the use of highly restricted symbols.”

“Well, exactly!” She smiles, for that is indeed the brave notion she and her friends espouse, much of the time. There is a dualism in this attitude, which asserts two seemingly contradictory things at once: First, that there is no possibility of shared knowledge, perception, experience: we are in fact isolated and trapped in our solipsistic universes. Second, the positive side of this equation is the ability to more fully appreciate the experience of life itself, the fact of it from moment to moment. One doesn’t have to stretch one’s mind too far to see that a defeatist notion of the self is proposed here.

The application of the phenomenological method to the phenomenon of the self is in a way what much of Buddhist doctrine and meditation attempts to do. In Buddhist doctrine and the reports of Buddhist meditators, such analyses (“attempts to actually find the ‘self'”) always result in failure. The self, for Buddhism, does not exist. Being neither a Buddhist nor friendly to missionaries, I distrust ‘witness’ testimony regarding religious ‘truths.’ I won’t speak for the religious ‘truth’ of Buddhism, but I have engaged in a long and only rarely rigorous practice of meditation. I can report that I have never been able to actually identify a self with which I can fully identify or exists without change. In fact, it appears to me, in line with Buddhism, that the very idea of the self seems to refer to something that cannot be described as a phenomenon, since it is not perceived or experienced.

If experience and perception are phenomena, and since I do experience and perceive, then what is implied when we realize that the I that is experiencing and perceiving might not exist? In what are experience and perception bound, or to what could they possibly be limited? The phenomenology of the self retrieves the value of other phenomenologies, but returns us to what appears at first to be an even more isolated and impotent state. Except that if we take the insight of non-self (Pali: anatta) seriously, ‘we’ aren’t returned at all. Indeed, this double reduction (of external phenomena and the subject self) seems to unravel phenomenology: if there is no self, what can it possibly mean to ‘perceive’ or ‘experience’ something? Who is doing this perceiving or experiencing? It also doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘perceptions’ and ‘experiences,’ for the same reason. At this point, we are talking about a view of reality in which the world is both de-realized and truly existent.
And that’s my problem with Casey’s book. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a thorough and detailed discussion of the concept of the imagination, although that crowd might very well be content with the first chapter. For those interested in some of the more récherché theory in which the concept of the imagination is bound, and a phenomenological formulation, the rest of the book is also excellent. The shortfalls are not particular to Casey but to the tradition to which he belongs. Phenomenology does an excellent job, it seems to me, in describing how people feel about their experience and how it seems to happen to them, and an equally excellent job in insisting that the only relationship people can have to reality is through muddled direct experience, and never with each other.


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