Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Phenomenology - What is it good for?

I've been using phenomenology for a few years now to provide me with a way into thinking about material culture. It comes somewhere between a method, a methodology and a theory but for me the good thing is that it problematises the empirical world, making it not reducible to being discoverable by a simple or single method. For example, I've used the phenomenology of perception in Merleau-Ponty's early work to think through how we perceive the material world and how we take it into account in how we act. For me, M-P's account of the whole body as engaged in perception rather than a series of individual senses, works very well for understanding material interaction - the interaction between human bodies and things. Rather than separate out the senses - sight, touch especially - M-P explains how what we see is from the body and how we move that body affects what we see. The distance of what we are looking at makes a difference too. If an object is brought close, within the reach of hands, its orientation to the body and its sense of touch and proprioception becomes part of the looking. And perception always involves the mind and its memory; what is seen and touched connects with what has been seen and touched before by that body.

More recently I've used some of Husserl's ideas about how we understand what other people perceive - apperception - to make sense of how we see the world and how our seeing images of it borrows from our understanding of how other people see the world. We can imagine what someone else is seeing, when we see them looking and when they tell us about it. When a still camera or a television camera shows us a scene we are not seeing it directly; it is reduced to two dimensions and has a frame that restricts what is available to view. But it is as if we have the opportunity to see something from someone else's point of view, that of the person who has pointed the camera and fired the shutter. We get something of the sense information that they get and have to go with it, give ourselves up to what we are shown, accept it as a view of the world. We imbue it with emotion and understanding that tunes in to what see. That is, if we don't turn away, move on or switch off - which is fine too. Sometimes we can be moved by what we are shown by someone else, sometimes it changes our view of the world that we see through our own eyes. Some of the fears about visual media (films, television, video games, computer screens) are that we can be taken over and influenced too much for our own good. But who knows what our own good is? Perhaps what we learn from an image or a screen is what we find abhorrent or disgusting, things that we are not exposed to in everyday life, things that we avoid but that we need to find abhorrent or disgusting.

If I take a phenomenological approach to the world I don't look for the 'objective' or 'scientific' account of what it contains, I follow the line of experience. Phenomenology is the most detailed account of the operation of consciousness that we have. It directs our attention to how consciousness works and how it makes the world present to us continuously. Husserl's early writing is particularly difficult and the procedure for doing phenomenological philosophy seems strange, mystical even. A bit like a meditative process of looking inwards, focussing the mind on its capacities and 'letting go' of the constantly intruding thoughts from the hurly burly of the outside world. He calls this process the epoché, bracketing, or the phenomenological reduction. It involves putting aside the 'natural standpoint' to notice how things are are given to consciousness and how consciousness takes them up. 'Things' here are both things in the world such as objects, animals and people and things in the mind such as memories, ideas, fantasies. Now, I can't buy into Husserl's epoché, it just doesn't seem possible to me. This is because if the natural standpoint is bracketed out, I can't see what can be left. The building blocks for sensory understanding is the experience we have of the world; what we know nothing of we cannot see or make sense of. There may be sensations but this does not mean that consciousness is able to do anything with them. What happens when we are exposed to unfamiliar experience is that we do our best to make sense of it by comparison with what we have experienced before. We draw on the accumulated knowledge of living in the world to understand what comes into consciousness; we can't separate out this prior experience from a 'pure' or experience of the essence of things. And if we do, or attempt it, we are looking for a spiritual type of inner experience, the sort that comes with meditation. Husserl's early phenomenology is known as transcendental phenomenology, not because he was writing about a mystical procedure - he is clear that he want to make phenomenology systematic and scientific - but because he wants to transcend the pre-determined nature of the ordinary flow of consciousness in the natural standpoint. But what gives meaning to what comes into consciousness is precisely the accumulation of what has flowed through that consciousness previously, including scientific knowledge, prejudice, stereotypes and imagined possibilities.

So, why bother with phenomenology? Well, I come at it backwards, via Merleau-Ponty, some things that are there in the work of Barthes and Derrida, some reading of Heidegger as an approach to the material world as well as other references including the work of Alfred Schutz and the writing of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann that impressed me as an undergraduate. It is only now that I am grappling with Husserl and although I find 'transcendental phenomenology' unconvincing I am still interested. This is because in his later work he develops the idea of the life-world, the everyday, habitual location of the flow of experience and the possibility of a phenomenology of it. If in his early work he is looking inward into the subject to study consciousness, his later work begins to look outward from the subject's consciousness and tries to grasp how it engages with the life-world. Here is where empathy, an emotional intuition of the experience of other people, is important for making the moral world of societies. What is more, I think there is critical potential in phenomenology, the possibility of challenging the 'status quo', the taken for granted, that-is-how-it-was-and-ever-shall-be, nature of habitual experience. I think phenomenology can be a route to persuading people that that their own experience should be the basis of judging what is right and wrong, what is good for them and for those around them. We've been dominated by 'experts', those who 'know best' for too long. Too often they are not the scientists but those who insist on trusting scientific and systematic knowledge which they select, take up and use for their own particular ends. Phenomenology can help us question the claims of others as well as question what we take for granted; we need to continually check our orientation to the life-world, to ensure that we are acting in our own best interests... that almost always means thinking of the best interests of others!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Blogging elsewhere...

I've been blogging elsewhere so I thought I should add some links... I have interests in the sociology of culture around materiality, critical theory, visual media and television.

There was one on 'material interaction' - something I've been writing about for some time - that I did for Science Omega:
Why should sociology care about material interaction?

And another one on television that also went out on Science Omega:
What is Television Good For?

More recently I did one for Social Science Space:
A Sociology of Financialisation?

I've noticed a theme as I set out the titles... they are all questions that I am heroically trying to answer in a thousand words! 

Here's my University webpage with stuff about other books and research interests... I suspect eventually the blog will take over from the over-formalised university webpage:
Tim Dant profile

Thursday, 4 October 2012

SCAM - or Soc Cult?

What to call this blog? I want to write about the sociology of culture... but that sounds a bit too earnest. 'Soc Cult' was a possibility - the abbreviation is popular for courses on the sociology of culture. But SCAM was what two courses that I've taught has been called; the acronym stands for Sociology of Culture and Media. But it caught on as a label because both staff and students through it was a bit of a 'scam' to study for a degree course by watching television and talking about newspapers. So SCAM it is...

I've been teaching and writing about the sociology of culture for many years and have followed various themes. I began with a PhD on the sociology of knowledge and read quite a bit of Karl Mannheim's work including his essays on the sociology of culture. When I was a graduate student, Mannheim's interests seemed a bit distant; he was into sculpture and intergenerational history and the connections between classes and belief systems. What I was interested in was what was then still 'new media' - television, pop music, movies, magazines and videos. Cultural studies and media studies have taken on some of the approaches of the study of literature including its critical theory to study the modern channels of cultural stuff. But what has always interested me is how cultural products always connect back to the society that they emerge from and that uses them. Societies make culture for themselves.

We could say that culture to some degree reflects the society that it comes from; it gives some clues about its values, interests, they way lives are lived, what sociologists and anthropologists call the 'mores', the accepted ways of doing things. But it is not a simple mirror on a society, reflecting it as it is; it at least distorts what is going on and sometimes originates or extends a new idea or perspective. Nonetheless, I often found when I was teaching sociology in seminars that as I moved between small groups discussing, say, Marx's analysis of class relationships, I would get to the next group and they would be talking about something they had seen on television the night before. Perhaps they'd got stuck with what 'embourgeoisement' meant in the question on the board so they'd turned to social chat while waiting for me. But I liked to start with the television programme - perhaps a soap opera like Coronation Street - and work from the storyline back to the topic of class and embourgeoisement. It worked surprisingly well for a very wide variety of sociological topics and it got me interested in television and how it is related to society.

Television is a fascinating medium because it draws in all sorts of other media; novels get adapted for television, plays can be shown just as they are played on the stage or scripts can become screenplays that are filmed like a movie. Music can be shown as it is performed and whole cinema films can be fitted into the schedules on the small screen. What makes television famously different from most other media is that it can be live; we can watch Mo Farah win the 10,000 metres at the Olympics as it happens. We can join in the excitement of the crowd who are watching because none of us knows who will win the race until it happens. And when it does we can jump for joy simultaneously with all those people in the stadium, tens, hundreds or thousands of miles away from us. But unlike those who are actually there, we can watch it again and again because as well as 'live', television can do 'recorded'. Of course television has become so powerful a medium that it actually turns up at live events so that those at the back can also watch in close-up on a big screen - and the screen can give them the action replay too. At sports events and pop festivals - anywhere where there is a big crowd - television has become part of the live experience, amplifying the visual and capturing it for a second, later viewing, perhaps at a slower pace or from a different camera angle.

When television shows sports events it reflects something that is of interest and concern to lots of people in society (though far from everyone). An event like the Olympics is global and interests people in many different countries but interestingly the way in which it is shared through television still retains a national society perspective. Each country likes to send its own television crew to record the event in a way that will be of greatest interest to the viewers back home, with an emphasis on their team. Nonetheless, there are values and mores displayed in sports events that, for the most part, cross national boundaries - it is a part of the Olympic ethic, for example, that excellence in performance will be the dominating factor. But more than that, participants are not only expected to do their best as but also to be a 'good sport', to be graceful in defeat, to applaud the winner and to leave other issues - such as politics and economics - aside. In the reporting of 2012 Olympics there was great emphasis on women's achievements in a variety of sports and the Paralympics have attracted more interest and attention than ever before. It is reasonable to conclude that there has been a shift over successive Olympics in the way that women and those with bodily impairments are seen and valued by their society; the television reflects these changes to everyone who watches, including those who just catch a few moments on news or magazine programmes.

So television can reflect social values, mores and the morality of what is good and bad. It is a supreme means for distributing these ideas because it is not dependent on much in the way of prior knowledge - you don't have to be literate to get most of the messages. Television is not only a live medium, it is very good at remembering. The 'golden oldie' radio show that rediscovers the music that was popular a few years ago has provided a staple format for whole programmes that recall periods of recent television history; comedians and comedy shows, soap operas and variety shows as well as pop music. The television corporations have built up wonderful archives of previously broadcast material of every description that can be cut up and re-edited into new programmes. The past is also reconstructed to become a visual experience in costume dramas and 'reality' history programmes like BBC's Victorian Farm. These reflections of the past provide a comparison with contemporary life, showing how lives were lived, showing, the moral order as it was, such as, for example, the boundaries between women's and mens roles Of course we should be cautious about the exactitude of representations of both past and future society - things are always more complex than they appear on the small screen.

Television as it is broadcast has become a repository for ideas and values, a way that the members of a society remind themselves about what is important. And what is most import is how they live together, how they treat each other, what is acceptable and what isn't. Television isn't real - even the so-called 'reality' shows are constructed out of what is concocted in front of a camera and deemed worth showing - it is an imaginary experience that the audience consumes as two-dimensional moving images with synchronised sound through an electronic device. I think of television as being a 'moral imaginary', a continually changing and modifying repository of ideas, values, ways of being and doing, attitudes and emotions that is available to all those who wish to tune in. For all its flaws and limitations, television is a potent channel of communicating between all those in a society who can never meet each other face to face, just what it is that they share and that makes them a society. 

Tim Dant is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, UK, and is the author of Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society through the Small Screen, London, Palgrave, 2012.