seed grant proposal 2008

Applied and Experimental Phenomenology: Memory, Identity and Place
Orienting Readings

David Morris, Sha Xin Wei, Concordia University, 2008

In this research project, which is funded by a seed grant from Concordia (see the summary appended below), we are going to be exploring the interrelation between memory, identity and place, including things in the places around us. We want to get a sense for how our experience of identity and memory is sedimented in places/things around us, rather than being ‘onboard’ us, such that places and things are interwoven with and buoy our memory and identity—and conversely memory and identity are woven into and buoy experienced things and places. To give an image: we might think of the snail as ‘carrying its home on its back’; we could think here of our identity and memory of ourselves—our sense of self and being at home in the world—not as being coiled into something that we carry along with us, but infiltrating places and things in our built and lived environment, and thence tying us up in tendrils with things and places. Hence phenomena such as homelessness, displacement and so on, of being lost, not ourselves—phenomena in which we can be disturbed as it were from the ‘outside’, which show that the outside is not quite outside. That is, much as we ‘come back to ourselves’ when reviving from a faint, we ‘come back to ourselves’ and are reminded of ourselves when we come home, or come back to our workspace, or finally become oriented in the ways and places of a new city. 

To get a sense for this connection between memory, identity and place, we are going to be developing experiments that vary and play on this connection. We want to do this to get results relevant for philosophy, comprehending human experience, and making art (for example, seeing how to make new sorts of things, perhaps textured, rhythmed, lit environments that call up new senses of memory, identity, or thinghood). 

The development of these experiments involves two axes of exploration: a substantive one, concerned with place, memory, identity, especially in relation to the body, movement and things; a methodological one, concerned with how to go about doing phenomenological experiments. Here we might note two things about phenomenological experiments: first, they would be more focused on enabling precise descriptions of experiences, from a first person point of view and tracking the dynamics of the individual experience, rather than quantifying over populations according to variables already specified by the experimenter; second, they would be more focused on arriving at the conceptual framework proper to the experience generated in the experiment, vs. constructing an experiment to fit an already given conceptual framework—or at least they would keep open this arrival. 

To prepare for these exploration, we are going to be holding an orienting seminar. Initially we had planned to this over several weeks in the summer 2009, but given scheduling matters, we think it better to have a compressed seminar in the beginning of fall 2009. What we give below are sets of reading that we think appropriate to getting the conceptual juices flowing. The idea is that participants would read these at their own pace over summer, taking notes, or writing up small observations, and then we would gather over a one or two days, say some Friday and/or Saturday in the earlier part of the fall term, for intensive discussion of at least the key texts. We’ve divided the texts into key texts, and complementary/supplemental texts which are given in []. They range from easily accessible texts that would make for fun summer reading, to more dense philosophical texts. Most of the text focus on the substantive axis of exploration. We think we’re going to be inventing a lot on the second one. Thoughts for readings here are welcome. We’re initially going to be using experiments suggested by DM’s paper about mirrors as a test bed for the methodological axis.

Reading list:

1) Introduction to phenomenological method and phenomenological interrelation of body memory, things and places:

Russon, John. Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Introduction and Part 1, “The form of human experience”, chapters on interpretation, embodiment, memory, pp 1-47 [This is a very accessible introduction to some of the relevant issues about phenomenological method, embodiment and memory, giving key ideas about our memory being in things, and the importance of movement.]

Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. chapters on “Body Memory” and “Place Memory,” pp 146-215 [An accessible, rich and perceptive study of the various ways that memory is embedded in the body and place.]

[Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: The Humanities Press, 1962. “Preface”. This introduces phenomenology and its method as embedded in our concrete existence, and anticipates the need for phenomenology to appeal to concrete experiences, including experimentally produced ones, to advance its investigations. Much denser reading.]

2) Studies of the importance of place and our moving interaction with to our making sense of where and who we are

Ellard, Colin. Where Am I? Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost in the Mall. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009. [DM is just starting to read this but it looks promising in talking about how we orient by moving amidst things that serve as anchors for meaningful narratives. Easily accessible, for a wide audience.] 

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press, 1964. [A classic account of how we relate to spaces around us as meaningful.]

[Casey, Edward S. Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993. A superb and substantial account of the importance of place in relation to our bodies and movement.]

3) A phenomenological account of space and our relation to things:

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. Chapter I.III, “The Worldhood of the World” [About 45 pages, skipping over section B. This is a crucial phenomenological study of what it means to be in the world, and how our being in it is not a matter of an abstract/geometrical spatial locatedness, but our meaningful relation and connection to things around us. Dense, but small—if it’s too technical and opaque, don’t get bogged down in it but leave it for our seminar.]

[Heidegger’s “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” and “Art and Space” can be read here to get his later views of the importance of place/space to us.]

4) Another phenomenological account of space, and an example of phenomenological strategies and motives for deploying experimental data:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: The Humanities Press, 1962. “Space”, about 60 pages. [Intricate but rich and insightful reading that shows how our sense of space depends on habitual bodily attitudes and interactions with things that establish a spatial ‘level’ that orients us. Includes a study of dream spaces.]

[If you find the above too dense, the following commentary/synopsis can be helpful: Kockelmans, Joseph J. "Merleau-Ponty on Space Perception and Space." In Phenomenology and the Natural Sciences: Essays and Translations, edited by Joseph J. Kockelmans and Theodore J. Kisiel. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1976.]

[Stratton, George M. "Some Preliminary Experiments on Vision without Inversion of the Retinal Image." Psychological Review III (1896): 611-15.
———. "Vision without Inversion of the Retinal Image." Psychological Review IV (1897): 341-60, 463-81. Stratton’s experiments are classic ones to which Merleau-Ponty refers, and well worth reading, because it consists in the experimenters own first person observations of the experiment on himself and gives us a very different relation to the phenomena than current psychological experiments.]

[You could also read Morris, David. The Sense of Space. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004. This is a further explorations of the interactions between body, movement and lived space, and examples of using experimental data.] 

5) A testbed for phenomenological experiment & methodological issues:

Morris, David. “The Other in the Mirror: On Mirror Reversals, Faces and Intercorporeality,” circulating draft. [This paper aims to show that our experience of left-right reversals in mirrors in fact depends on our relation to  other moving bodies as intersubjectively meaningful to us. So it also shows how our sense of identity is hooked into moving interactions with people, places and things around us. It leads to predictions about how TML manipulated mirror experiences might vary our experience of reversals, and we are going to use these predictions to design experiments to test out the very idea of phenomenological experiments.]

[We can think that there are at least two methodological issues for doing phenomenological experiments: 1) the problem of conceptualizing the phenomenon (without already prejudicing it by building assumptions into the conceptual framework), which in concrete terms is the problem of producing variations on experience—experiments—that give us insight without falling into the trap of producing variations that are already determined and framed by our presumptions; 2) the problem of designing a protocol for recording experience of the phenomenon without building prejudices into the protocol, or biasing the observer, etc. Roughly, these are the problems of producing and observing the phenomena without producing or observing artifacts of our own prejudices and anticipations. The following address some of these issues:  

Lutz, Antoine. "Toward a Neurophenomenology as an Account of Generative Passages: A First Empirical Case Study." Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1 (2002): 133-67.
Lutz, Antoine, Jean-Philippe Lachaux, Jacques Martinerie, and Francisco J. Varela. "Guiding the Study of Brain Dynamics by Using First-Person Data: Synchrony Patterns Correlate with Ongoing Conscious States During a Simple Visual Task." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99, no. 3 (2002): 1586-91. These two articles discuss or reflect on actual experiments in which phenomenological method was used in the sense that the subjects were given some training in first person reporting techniques.

Morris, David. "Bergsonian Intuition, Husserlian Variation, Peirceian Abduction: Toward a Relation between Method, Sense and Nature." Southern Journal of Philosophy 43 (2005): 267-98. A somewhat technical paper that might be useful for thinking about phenomenological experiments, insofar as it points out that the source of variation in experiments is important to what we can get out them: we bias experiments to the extent that we already decide on the parameters of variation or on the dimensions of measurement of the output experience, so we should look to ways in which experience itself, in its own dynamic, tells us how it varies.]

Grant Summary:

Philosophy analyzes our most basic conceptual frameworks. Phenomenology is a philosophy that does so by fitting conceptual frameworks to the phenomena, rather than fitting phenomena into pre-existing frameworks. Methodologically, phenomenology thereby seeks to dismantle conceptual prejudices that distort traditional frameworks, and to shed new light on the world of experience. E.g., it reconceptualizes experienced space not as a container, but as the dynamic place in which meanings engage us; and memory not as a mere storehouse of information ‘in the head’ but as a way of sedimenting meaning into our bodily engagements with places. In developing such paradigm shifts, phenomenology (a philosophy begun in the late 1800s) has strikingly anticipated recent psychological and neurological results, e.g., about close connections between emotion and thinking, or perception and action, or memory and places.
To shift paradigms, phenomenology, like art, often seeks phenomena disruptive of our usual experience and presumptions. We seek a two way exchange around this methodological point. Morris will develop phenomenological concepts and insights supportive of Sha’s existing practice of designing interactive environments that embody phenomenological experiments. Sha’s expertise and insights into the art and design of environments will be leveraged to construct phenomenological experiments that challenge our usual presumptions, and thereby test and generate conceptual insights in phenomenology.
This project is innovative in two ways. First, outside of artists appropriating phenomenological insights, phenomenology has not often been applied to solving problems arising in design and the built environment. Second, phenomenologists do not usually design experiments but depend on interpretation of data from existing experiments which are not designed to answer phenomenological questions.