Dylan Trigg has announced on his blog that his new book, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, is set to be published by Ohio University Press in January 2012. The book has a glowing endorsement by Ed Casey (who has a new website, by the way), the leading figure in the phenomenology of place tradition that Trigg is working in.
Mark Changizi here suggests the locus of difference between the powers of ordinary speech and music.
This post stands as the first in a series of posts about the concept of sensation. Nothing like a history of the concept of sensation, save Daniel Heller-Roazen’s marvelous The Inner Touch (Zone 2007), exists. Unless I am mistaken. There is also the out-of-print Sensation and Perception: A History of the Philosophy of Perception, by D.W. Hamlyn. This book is something closer to a survey, less of a detailed conceptual history. Such a history should be written. Absent such a history, we are left to fashion an ad hoc story about the fate of sensation in the history of philosophy. It seems that after Kant sensation must remain relegated to the noumenal realm, and therefore off limits to our finite minds. On the other hand, sensations are often regarded as purely subjective, felt phenomena. They are never pure or without sense, or so we are told. This latter rendition of sensation neglects an essential feature of sensation, however, which is why I think we ought not subjectivize sensation: sensations are received. They come from elsewhere in many instances. In this way, they are objective and real in an important respect.
Then we are back to Kant. On this view, if sensations are objective, then they are unknowable. They are inferred from perception; they explain the variety of our perceptual experiences, but they never appear. It’s not satisfying to stop there. The Kantian framework calls for speculation. It is at this point that I see my own interest in sensation sympathizing with the speculative realist movement, which I first encountered reading and dialoguing with Graham Harman. Graham’s concern is with the reality and autonomy of objects, wholly apart from their dealings with humans. For my part, I want to say something about the reality and autonomy of sensations. If objects are objectively real, then the sensory content they emit must have a reality of its own. I’d like to give a quite strong sense to this reality, perhaps allowing sensations to have their own substance, even if this substance is constituted relationally.
Now, I’m not concerned with whether or not an object is really red or really blue. The point is that it has the capacity to produce a sensation of red or blue in me: it has a color power. This power is real and it is in charge of the sensations given off by the object. A phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty will argue against the reality of sensation by pointing out that we only ever encounter meaningful, sense-full, things. The atomistic impression conjured by the empiricists just doesn’t exist at the level of perception, which is our primary mode of engagement with the external world. On this view, perception will always be one step ahead of sensation; sensation remains outside the scope of normal possible experience. There might be limit cases. For instance, hallucinogenic drugs may allow us access to genuine sensations. We don’t have separate sensation and perception so strictly to get to sensation, even if there are advantages to doing so.
First, it’s not really necessary to infer the nonexistence of sensation just because perception is primary. Perception shouldn’t be seen as a wall between us and the sensory manifold. There is no reason to not regard the qualitative content of perception as the content of sensation given that the qualitative content provokes responses in us that are not ‘meaningful’ in the usual sense of that term, but are instead affective. If we take the affective to indicate something like emotional meaning, then the qualitative is meaning-laden. Merleau-Ponty talks about the repellent nature of red, which would seem to essentialize that color’s meaning for the body. I don’t know if we can go that far, but I think he is right to note that colors do things to bodies.
Second, it’s advantageous to keep sensation completely separate from perception, in which case sensation would belong to ‘a past which has never been present’, or an a priori sensuous realm of experience. Both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (the latter to a greater extent) acknowledge his realm. On this reading of sensation, the sensuous is constantly introducing a diachrony into what would otherwise be a synchronized relation between subject and object. This notion of synchrony is often at play in the phenomenological literature (which is the literature that I’m primarily drawing my reading from), and it gives a false sense of our material relations. This is really what’s motivating my interest in sensation, particularly the materiality of sensation. Because the phenomenological perspective is quite keen on finitude and the limits of knowledge, and because it confines itself in principle to ‘the things themselves’, it has trouble giving an adequate account of what is not ‘given’ to consciousness. Sensation is one of the great ungivens, the withheld elements of experience. But the autonomic systems of the body tell us a different story, a story which shows that sensation is not withheld from experience, just withheld from consciousness. Massumi’s first chapter in Parables for the Virtual, ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, is a good read on this.
A nonreductive account of the affective and effective dimensions of sensation is needed to qualify its autonomous functioning. Such an account will be metaphysical to the extent that it will be (a) speculative and (b) treat sensations as powers, where a power is understood as a real, nonphysical capacity to affect bodies. Given this view of sensation, we will be allowed to speak about the sensations undergone and possessed by inanimate objects. This is one of the non-anthropocentric payoffs. There are a handful of allies in this cause, including James and Dewey, Whitehead, Lingis, E. Straus, Levinas, Hippocrates, Spinoza, and Deleuze.
Be a Spinozist: ‘Children are Spinozists,” Deleuze and Guattari tell us in A Thousand Plateaus. This means, in part, that they tend to apprehend objects as assemblages, rather than as beings whose functions are specifically determined by nature (organic) or craftsmanship (inorganic). Objects are what their relations enable them to be; they are whatever they can link up with. This does not mean that objects are merely their relations. It implies that objects are imbued with more power than their substantial form contains. Is this power really possessed by the object or does its relations determine its power? Analytic metaphysicians debate this question, I have found out recently. This is a great question, a Spinozist question. In any case, the child more readily discerns possible connections, aggregates, and therefore thinks of the world of objects in terms of machines instead of organs. They don’t ask, What is the chair? They ask: What is a chair? The difference here is the difference between asking for the genus and specific difference of a chair or asking after the Form of chair, and asking what a chair can do. Not what is it made to do, but what can it do? For Spinoza this is understood as affective capacity–the capacity to affect and be affected by other objects/bodies. Children are especially adept at cataloguing the affective capacity of objects, and in virture of this their method of organization (their taxonomy) is more concrete, keyed into the imperceptible forces that join bodies into composites or tear bodies apart from one another. Children are neither Aristotelian nor phenomenologist.
Reading moral philosophy these days, I remain fascinated and perplexed–perhaps more so than with any other branch of philosophy–by the fact of ethics. That ethics exists. Now, I’m a complete skeptic about the possibility of resolving ethical disputes once and for all. To put it baldly, there is a deep, and maybe inescapable, truth about relativism. Apart from the problems with defending the coherence of his or her position, it seems inevitable that the relativist will be met with a curious revelation about themselves. This is revealed through outrage or amazement at the actions of another person, culture, etc. It is often the case that these kinds of responses are generated not by their dissonance with the relativist’s moral principles (the relativist is, after all, a relativist), but with the passionate attachments that we cultivate or maintain. Outrage is almost always emotional; rarely is it cool, cognitive righteous indignation. Amazement at the practices of an other involve a certain exoticism of the other, and that such an exoticism arises in the moral context says something about how the relativist remains caught up–despite themselves–in an an affective network which orients their lives and defines their ‘ethical stance’. It’s not so much that the foreigner’s actions are impossible to comprehend, but that the presence or absence of specific affects make them unintelligible or repulsive, and, when the act is sufficiently alien to us, condemnable. Criticism of relativism seems to be misdirected when it aims straight for the logical inconsistency of the position, which misses the real meaty part of ethical commitment: passionate attachments and the limitations they impose on the understanding.