SEMANTIC PLENITUDE AND THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL PROJECT: AN IN SITU ANALYSIS OF PSYCHOGEOGRAPHICAL SUBJECT / ENVIRONMENT RELATIONS

MOTIVATING LANGUAGE

            Back to the things themselves: this catchphrase, oft-quoted to encapsulate the undergirding principles of phenomenological research, was percolating through my mind on a flight between Detroit, Michigan and Dallas, Fort Worth. At the same time, on my lap was a copy of Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders, a compendium of untranslatable words from various languages. As is frequent with interdisciplinary work—an upshot to the sort of homelessness that plagues eclectic, vagrant academics—a beautiful moment of communion between text and lived experience occurred as our plane achieved the tail end of takeoff around 11:53 a.m. The word was mangata, a noun of Swedish origin: Sanders describes this phenomenon as the road-like reflection of the moon in the water (Sanders 5-6). Like with any word, however, this word is surrounded by a nebulous cloud of spiraling connotations and connections, and although it is one of the most concrete words under examination in this collection, its beautiful and unified imagery is also somehow as ephemeral and fragile as the very play of light and water that it signifies and puts into human conversation. The denotation of mangata is a thin skin, that—like the surface tension of water—is objectively real (evidenced by its acceptance into an ethnic lexicon), but that will, when probed, instantaneously plunge the briefest of contacts into immersion in an incomprehensibly vast pool of semantic nuances, ever-burgeoning at its linguistic seams. As Merleau-Ponty says, “speech is a gesture, and its signification is a world” (Merleau-Ponty 190), and language gives the body an “open and indefinite power of signifying” (Merleau-Ponty 200).

            What does this have to do with phenomenology? Certainly there are linguistic approaches to phenomenology that investigate, for example, the boundary meanings that cluster around our diction (e.g., the work of John Langshaw Austin). But the visceral reaction that I experienced as our altitude climbed steadily upward, akin somewhat to a particularly potent case of déjà vu, was not linguistic, it was only linguistically motivated. A recent article by The Guardian explained the consternation of a handful of authors regarding the recent decision on the part of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to modernize a vocabulary list for children, replacing words linked with natural phenomena (like acorn or buttercup) with more abstract, technological, and/or intangible substitutions (like download or chatroom) (Flood). There are meritorious arguments on both sides of the issue—it is difficult to decide whether to err on the side of proudly, materially situated Neo-Luddite or the side of the tech-savvy, forward-thinking quasi-extropian. Somewhere between these two responses, however, I had an interjection that is pertinent to the experience described earlier: the realization that—values aside and even withholding the contention that all technologies, as N. Katherine Hayles points out, are materially instantiated (Hayles 13)—the world is so vast and complex, and populated with so many situated, distinct consciousnesses, that we are always pressed up against the insufficiency of common parlance to keep up to speed with the diversity of experience to be embodied by it. The degree to which and the way in which we choose to don blinders against the peripheries of language certainly has pragmatic effects. The political ramifications cited in the previous case, linked to the health of children, are a perfect example of productive power. This being said, delineating this boundary is always, respectively, necessary from a cognitive standpoint and subjective from a cultural standpoint (arguably excepting signifiers linked to satisfying basic biological needs).

            To go back to the things themselves: we know that, in putting the world into brackets, we need not be constrained by the reality of things, only the reality of how they appear to us and what tentative universals we can siphon off of them and direct to our ever-amorphous database of human experience. But such a process, like the unfurling of an accordion, reveals not a definitive and totalizing approach to lived experience, but rather operates much like a lacuna engine, endlessly propagating gaps in language by feeding a constant incursion of material data laced with the trimmings of a unique lifeworld. Inversely, however, we might look to the languages of other cultures to consider that it is not just the gamut of phenomenological experience that reveals a lack in language, but the gamut of language that reveals a lack in phenomenological experience. That strange affective sense—not quite déjà vu—that confronted me as I pondered mangata was the result of a coalescence of perceptive sensations that united into a new phenomenological experience: all the doing of a single printed signifier.

            Merleau-Ponty stated it best when he commented that expression is the “ever-recreated opening in the fullness of being… that like a wave gathers itself together and steadies itself in order to once again throw itself beyond itself” (Merleau-Ponty 203). The road-like reflection of the moon on water is a beautiful thing. But it is as much a relational gesture as an object of thought. What of that hurried, impish scuttle of light—now sparkling brightly, now slipping beyond my vision—that dances like quicksilver below my plane, across the playful, winding forms of far-below rivers? Or the quick, jarring hop, less sinuous now, of this same light bouncing off of the reflective surfaces of towering human infrastructure, vertiginous in person but now with the minimizing effect, like a tilt-shift photograph, of a demi-god’s eye view? What of that particular layering of icy textures as you fly over a partially frozen lake, here a thin but densely-veined deepness with tight ribbons of silver, there a frosted, matte whiteness with the amazingly vast, intricate pattern of fine Venetian needle lace? Or the creamy, rolling whiteness of a densely and opaquely clouded sky, so soft that it looks like the visual manifestation of a whisper, but with the same gentle but defined folds as the contents of a flattened bag of candy floss? The domain of phenomenological thick description as a qualitative enterprise, to me, remains inextricably intertwined with its ethnographic roots, which are themselves an indefinite cluster of intention, interpretation, and context. Luigina Mortari and Massimiliano Tarozzi, I think, are right in claiming that “there is no place for phenomenological orthodoxy, or for so-called ‘purism.’ The ultimate book, one that defines phenomenological thought, can never be written” (9). This is echoed in Herbert Spiegelberg’s contention that there are as many styles of phenomenology as phenomenologists (2). But if we are concerned with the essences of things as they appear to our consciousness, as phenomenology is wont to claim, language serves as an excellent reminder that this plenitude makes phenomenology a study nearly as infinite as the variations of human experience.

            My aim, then, is to demonstrate two overarching points. First, I aim to articulate how language serves not only as a system of signifiers for material referents, but rather acts as a gateway to phenomenological experience. This is a methodological point that hopes to showcase the centrality of language in exposing the full scope of the phenomenological domain. My entry point here will be the zaguan, which I will use to explore how a signifier can encapsulate more than a mere structural feature, but carry within it the seeds of conscious experience. Secondly, I will use this exploration of the zaguan to further argue that these “things themselves” to which we return in phenomenology through language can assist us in developing more nuanced understandings of materiality and its centrality to human experience and meaning-creation. In the end, what I hope to establish is a phenomenological investigation, spurred by linguistic motivations, that ends on a note of psychogeographical weight: the problematization of the space/place binary.

 THROUGH THE MESQUITE THICKETS, HOTLY

            I will turn now to particular subject of my interest: the Sonoran homestead, by which I am speaking primarily of the pre-railroad Sonoran style adopted in Tucson, Arizona from the mid to late 19th century. I lack the intimate knowledge of the locals of the Sonoran region, since I myself come from a rural and quite frigid area of Canada; I am lucky enough, however, to have been welcomed as a guest of the southwest on several occasions, and I find that an outsider’s perspective sometimes has something valuable to lend. We might compare this to the biological phenomenon of retinal fatigue: just as, when one stares at a color for a time and glances away, the lingering image persists but in its opposite color, so too can an environment, experienced subjectively, come over time to exist as a translucent, off-hue simulacrum of itself. The Sonoran desert, thousands of miles from my birthplace, still remains something ineffable and beautiful to me.

            The first time I experienced the southwestern landscape, I was in a unique position. Bogged down with a persistent stomach flu, the dry desert heat in mid-February struck my fever-addled brain as something both healing and dangerous, like a hot steel blade that can both cut and cauterize. This fleeting sensation was not, however, at odds with my subsequent sensory experience. The next impression that I had was one of immense wonder. I remember telling my partner at the time that the sensations that I had were of a pungent but friendly kenophobia. The desert is an interesting place for discourse on spatial theory because it is a place (in the sense of a physical ‘milieu’ infused with memory, culture, and life) that is unusually evocative of the concept of ‘space’ (in the more generic sense of three-dimensional extension in abstracto, stripped of specificities). Even nestled within an urban setting, the landscape is an insistent if quiet presence. In the city, it manifests in a pale, pastel dirt: matte and fine as powdered brown egg shell rather than deep and dark and loamy, often coated in a fine layer of lightly-hued gravel that skitters under your soles. From behind chain fences, local flora bump elbows, but tangles of heavy vegetation are scarce. In more rural areas, it invites the eyes to traverse its planes with almost sublime expanse—not bare, and frequently heavily punctuated by saguaros and low-lying scrub plants, but lacking tall, leafy growth that would obscure the vision of vast distance and immense mountain landscape. The colour palate is everywhere understated, the greens of plants showing as washes against muted browns and oranges, creating a natural watercolour effect. The air smells thin and clean, sometimes perfumed with a faint herbal scent from nearby growth, and even as you breathe it in, you can feel it slowly evaporating the moisture from your body. Each even breath becomes a slight, faint burn.

            My experience with the region’s architecture was not entirely different. Living in an old part of town, my then-partner’s family lives in a simple, spare adobe dwelling: a single floor residence painted that particular shade of off-white that seems like a soft cream in the midday sun, but quickly warms to a soft clementine when the sun dulls to an orange glow in the early hours of the evening. Its stuccoed adobe walls, clearly maintained throughout their long existence, mimic the texture of smooth yet pebbled, silty ground, and their thickness is reassuring. The feeling of an abundance of space here, too, is present. The ceilings are high—lofty, by contemporary standards—and supported by traditional vigas, long poles of wood that retain their organic feeling. But of particular interest to me was a characteristic that can now primarily be thought of as skeuomorphic: a zaguan, which is a small, covered passage wide enough for carriages that leads from the outside of the residence into an inner courtyard, providing security for the inhabitants. The zaguan, though no longer used as a carriage entrance and less compelling as a security measure, still remains a part of southwestern architectural vernacular—likely in part from values related to tradition and familiarity in aesthetics, but likely also in part because of the experience of the zaguan. Passing through this entrance is more than a practical necessity, but carries some form of significance. In itself, it is adobe and timber–material only. But these materials, in this particular shape—an entry, a roof, and heavy doors preceded by public space and followed by the sanctity of an inner courtyard—take on a symbolic element to the extent to which their purpose becomes embroiled with socio-cultural practices—a sedimentation—and hence personal, affective experiences. The closeness of the walls of the entranceway in contrast to the radical sightlines beyond, the darkness of the shade in the hot and sunny climate: there is something in the nature of the zaguan that gives it the feeling of a portal back into the womb, back to the safety and security of the ultimate protective enclosure.

            What can we glean from this? A process of traditional eidetic reduction—the process whereby imaginative variation is employed by the phenomenologist to strip phenomena of inessential qualities—is of limited use here, since we have chosen a mental object (the Sonoran homestead) that is by its nature highly variable, encompassing as it does a broader mental object (the homestead) of which it is a discrete component. But I think that the basic premise of the reduction may still hold if we turn to an earlier question. Can we imagine such a dwelling divorced from its material surroundings? Certain themes have persisted in both forks of this analysis: a quality of sparseness; an airy grandness; muted colour that captures the feeling of camouflage; a sensation of comfort tinged with implicit threat. Certainly there are examples that could call into question the absolute legitimacy of each of these themes. An increase in ornateness, a low ceiling, the candy colours that sometimes adorn the exteriors walls of older homes, a place free from traces of external threat: none of these items can be said to be absolutely essential to this style of home, since architectural classification often operates within a system of chronology and a law of averages. But perhaps what all of these qualities, taken together, suggest, is this: that the essence or eidos of the Sonoran homestead is rooted—an apt word, I think—in its foundational relationship with the environmental conditions that both constrain and enable it. More than a simple relationship between resources and shelter, the relationship of the Sonoran homestead to its inhabitants is one of the fundamental entrenchedness of the psyche in its geographical milieu.

 THE THICKET THICKENS: THE LIMINAL SPACE OF (H)EARTH

            Of course, such an analysis invites a certain level of justifiable critique, since phenomenological experience can never be stripped clean of the intentional and experiential underpinnings of the body-subject. Unique qualia, in short, self-propagate. While the Sonoran homestead may appear to me as the organic unfurling of brute matter into socially significant architectural sites, it may appear otherwise to different eyes and minds. The Tohono O’Odham, referred to as the ‘desert people’ of the Sonoran region, have expressed dissatisfaction with ongoing efforts to provide their tribe with acceptable housing, pointing to the aesthetic adopted by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program as “inappropriate,” as these houses “didn’t look as though they belonged in the desert or to a Papago [member of the tribe]” (Brittain and Myhrman). For instance, counter-intuitive decisions that failed to uphold efficient heating/cooling systems that married climate specificities to architectural design and lifestyle necessities seemed to drive a wedge between the material setting and the constructed home environment. To the Tohono O’Odham, my organic homestead is an affront to the environmental character of the desert. Does this not raise the question of the legitimacy of my phenomenological approach?

            In short, I would respond thus: entirely, and not at all. This is a legitimate query that reaches into core questions about the lengths to which phenomenological inquiry can bring us, and whether or not critics are fair in assessing this approach as a simple formalization of radical introspectionism (Moran 14). Phenomenology seems to be both preoccupied with and fundamentally out of tune with the much-denigrated ‘view from nowhere,’ recognizing the critical role of subjectivity and consciousness to knowledge acquisition whilst simultaneously committing to a scientific rigor: seeing all objectivity as essentially “objectivity-for-subjectivity” (Moran 15). This tension comes to a head, for example, in contemporary debates between the relative merits of auto-phenomenology (disparagingly referred to by Daniel Dennett, for example, as “lone wolf phenomenology”) and heterophenomenology—debates that attempt to reconcile the immediacy and inherent honesty of first-person perceptual experience with its inevitable diversity. In terms of our current conversation, two points might be made. First, I would argue that, as with science, which phenomenology in turns honours and repudiates, disparate findings may only hint at a higher order of as-yet-unseen compatibility. This should not be seen as a methodological failing, but rather one of the challenging (yet rewarding!) features of an inductive approach. For the Tohono O’Odham, the Sonoran homestead may have failed to achieve an intuitive relationship with its landscape, but this could simply gesture toward a progenitor of our particular prototype that better embodies this land/home connection. Second, a related point: is there not a kind of implicit suggestion in the critiques by the Tohono O’Odham that undercuts the differences that they purport? In drawing attention to the failure of a homestead to fully harmonize with its landscape, the Tohono O’Odham are saying essentially this: the role of a home is to be in congruence with nature, and it is failing. Where our ears prick up at the mention of failure, perhaps they ought to prick up at the mention of a common telos.

 SPLICING SPACE, SPLICING PLACE, SPICING LIFE

            In his text Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, Christian Norberg-Schulz comments that “our everyday life-world consists of concrete ‘phenomena.’ It consists of people, of animals, of flowers, trees and forests, of stone, earth, wood and water, of towns, streets, and houses, doors, windows and furniture” (6). All of this, he notes, can be encapsulated in the notion of ‘place’. By this, “obviously we mean something more than abstract location. We mean a totality of concrete things having material substance, shape, texture and colour. Together these things determine an ‘environmental character’, which is the essence of a place. In general a place is given as such a character or ‘atmosphere’. A place is therefore a qualitative, ‘total’ phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its properties, such as spatial relationships, without losing its concrete nature out of sight [my emphases]” (Norberg-Schulz 7-8). His overarching point here I take to be the fact that, when considering a human-crafted element of the physical environment, its genesis as a construction borne of its material situation and concomitant material possibilities is a deeply relevant factor. This specifically relates to those distinctive features of the region that so preoccupy me. When walking through Barrio Libre, how can you rend the dwellings from the land that so clearly exerts a direct influence over their shapes, colours, and sizes?

            How does such an observation play into larger discourses within spatial theory? In her text For Space, Doreen Massey addresses one such intersection in her chapter titled “(Contrary to Popular Opinion) Space Cannot be Annihilated by Time.” In this chapter, Massey addresses a persistent characterization of space (material, in contrast to the virtual) as something to be denigrated, represented as “not only… merely distance, but also of it as always a burden” (Massey 94). Kevin Robins, for example, argues that “[t]he politics of optimism wants to be rid of the burden of geography (and along with it the burden of history), for it considers geographical determination and situation to have been fundamental sources of frustration and limitation in human and social life” (Robins 198). These perspectives draw attention to the natural constraints of geography, as a factor leading to social estrangement, agricultural limitation, and so on. They are not troubling out of a merely Romantic inclination toward ideals circumscribing sublime Nature. They also have environmental, and thus ethical, heft.

            If we look to the above analysis, we might see one route to contesting such a harsh indictment of geography. It is easy to simply cast off such a criticism as intellectually negligent, failing to appreciate the basic interdependence and bilateral nature of subject/environment co-constitution. Or, one might take up Massey’s own argument: transcending the constraints of physical space eliminates one of the most productive, if also disruptive, characteristics of lived spatiality—the possibility for “happenstance juxtaposition of previously unrelated trajectories, that business of walking round a corner and bumping into alterity” (Massey 94). What this analysis provides, however, is an alternative means to contest such a perspective. To do away with space would be to eradicate those infrastructures that depend upon space for their establishment, the homestead included. Physical spaces are not merely the only mode of existence available to a pre-singularity (i.e., enfleshed, undigitized) society. They forge meaningful links between the subject and its environment, which in turn leave an indelible impression on the culture that further shapes an individual’s Weltanschauung.

            When our lips say ‘home’, they are not simply referring to walls, a bed, and perhaps a number of instrumental appliances. They are invoking a sanctified space that speaks to us of our place in the world and the meaningful possibilities that it affords us. Perhaps Gaston Bachelard said this most eloquently: “[i]n this dynamic rivalry between house and universe, we are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms. A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” (Bachelard 47). If language has shown us the breadth of phenomenological study, then what phenomenology has lent us is a fuller appreciation for the meaningful, existential qualities of place: how who we are (psychically) always bears traces of where we are (geographically).

Sarah Warren
Western University
WORKS CITED

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. Print.

Brittain, Richard G., and Matts A. Myhrman. “Toward A Responsive Tohono O’Odham Dwelling.” Arid Lands Newsletter [Tucson] Spring 1989. Print.

Flood, Alison. “Oxford Junior Dictionary’s Replacement of ‘Natural’ Words with 21st-Century Terms Sparks Outcry.” The Guardian 13 Jan. 2015: N.p. The Guardian. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: SAGE, 2005. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Donald A. Landes. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1980. Print.

Robins, Kevin. “The New Communications Geography and the Politics of Optimism.” Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture 5 (1997): 191-202. Print.

Sanders, Ella Frances. Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2014. Print.

Spiegelberg, Herbert. The Phenomenological Movement. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. Print.

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