– David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
Phenomenology is the study of direct experience. Edmund Husserl articulated that “unlike the mathematics-based sciences, phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience”. When trying to understand the lives of people in other times and places, and to draw any conclusions therefrom, we cannot simply make observations scientifically. The scientific method provides a vessel to understanding quantities, whereas the understanding of qualities requires something more nuanced: experience. Experience itself is beyond the quantitative, invisible through the lens of science. The feeling of gravity, the smell of a flower, and the overwhelming sensation of affection are all things that do not exist by measurement alone. Only when a theory is thought of, based on the quantitative evidence of its occurrence, does it gain credibility by conventional standards. Still, even scientific theory remains at its core faith-based, and the current faith of humans is representative of the structures their lives are built upon. In the hunter-gatherer context, we find animistic culture, which in itself is diverse and circumstantial to a peoples’ context – the belief in which reflects the values necessary to hunt and forage and exist in a place that is completely alive. In agricultural society, we find the religious institutions that honor capricious sky god who either grace or damn his subjects. Here we find guilt, the emergence of patriarchal social constructs, sin, repentance, etc. Lastly, in a fast-paced techno-industrial society, the faith is science, absolutely necessary in mercilessly excavating the lifeless “resources” of the earth. Only with a belief system that reduces the value of living beings to mere commodities can such runaway economic tendencies exist, that which drains all life without remorse. Still, the subjects of industrial society do not recognize their religion as such. Instead they believe they have transcended mere subjectivities for an all encompassing system of observation, flawless and complete, yet it is so quickly forgotten how the workings of hypotheses and experimentations find themselves based in total assumption. We can assume that what science calls gravity exists as we push ourselves against the ground, feel our bodies lift to the uppermost crest of our trajectory, then mercilessly fall back to the surface of the earth. Until the law of gravity becomes real to us via our experiences, what we feel and witness, we are relying on an abstraction that deduces from evidence in with controlled variables, isolating the experimented subject from its environment. Upon closer inspection, we discover that common knowledge itself remains a faith unless we sense it ourselves. The definitions declared by science constricts and hurts us, in ways people excluded, enslaved, or otherwise persecuted, subjugated, and tyrannized have been aware of for some time now. The fact that science has justified systems which have historically and to this day denigrated some groups of people below others, resulting in genocide and systematic exploitation, is revealing, and it is by no surprise that people have created their own definitions and truths based on their own lived experiences, often at odds with the regime of science.
There is an imperative need to not only think critically about every bit of information fed to us, but to avoid repressing our belief in the impossible and to acknowledge our contact with the phenomenal. To declare something impossible outright may actually preclude our ability to experience that which we refuse to even look for, and oftentimes, we do not discover that new something until we imagine it and search for it ourselves- otherwise it passes through our vision and our recognition, never becoming incorporated with our understanding of the world. With generations built upon this lack of acknowledgement, the possibility of lacking huge gaps of sensorial observation is not only likely, but guaranteed. From the understanding of the fluidity of experience and the constrained lens that science provides, David Abram begins his trek through The Spell of the Sensuous, a refreshing engagement with the human perceptual field of experience, and what it means to interact with the land and those who share it with us.
What we perceive is determined by our biology. Therefore, what potentialities lie hidden beneath our means of perception? The concept of synaesthesia provides us a hint, and even a feel, of the animistic qualities inseparably etched into our fibers. Synaesthesia is the overlap, or blend, of the senses. Neuroscientists claim that such a thing as “seeing sounds” and “hearing color” exists only as a rare and pathological experience amongst the few who are prone. To the contrary, “Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel.”
While taking a stroll through the forest near my house, I simultaneously feel the all-encompassing dampness of the fall season while my ears pick up the sound of the multitude of aural stimulations stemming from the rustling of other beings more in-tune than myself. Additionally, the distant flow of water is not simply a sound, but a spark of familiarity in my senses that initiates the images of the stream flowing between rocks and around the bank, yet totally out of my physical range of vision. I see the light and reflective color of the sunlight spread across the trees along with an inkling of heat on my skin. My initial experience cannot be separated; the feeling is an immediate and combined, indistinguishable whole sensation. It is only afterward when I am asked to describe what I felt that I rationalize the complete experience into bits of neatly packaged separate impressions.
One extreme affect to growing up in civilization, ruled by quantitative thought, is the inability to avoid the conditioned reflex of isolating the body into categories, along with the sensory information each part receives. Modern sensorial perception has therefore tragically undergone a process of degradation. The experience of being alive today is drastically different from that of pre-agricultural times. Why then are we here, and what about us made the horrors of today possible?
The separation of our senses is only part of the pathology modern humans share. We cannot speak of separated senses without also confronting the separation known as the mind/body split, and the separation of self and social/environmental context. Industrial society, characterized in part by the development of cities, must validate its existence through such isolation. Urban life thrives on generating an “other” out of the natural world. Thus the world of wild beings becomes Nature, a contained beauty; a peaceful and tranquil pureness only to be observed from afar, visited on the weekend, or regurgitated by art and made untouchable by modern religions. Or it is a dangerous and uncomfortable darkness, full of creatures and filth that will hurt, maim, or kill you. Either way, it is held in contrast with the city, justified as the logical and evolutionary home of humans. It is there, and never the forest, where our needs are met and our safety secured. Just as food comes from a grocery store, proper shelter can only be found in an apartment building, and potable water only from plastic bottles. Those still clinging to the rural towns and wasted agricultural mainstays have no better conception. Reduced to an otherness that requires domination or control, whether it be wild predators, wild plants, or rows of crops and their accompanying insects, Nature remains yet unknown. Those outside the city can’t even see the forest at their side from their 4-wheelers and mountain bike trails.
When we look back on our evolutionary conditions, the formation of our bodies makes sense, as well as our perceptual organs. These have helped us mostly, but has also been a point of vulnerability, as indicated by the way power has taken advantage of our biological traits. Paul Shepard, whose findings in human ecology remain foundational, left us with some important insight as to our biological susceptibilities. In Man in the Landscape, he focuses, in part, on the eye. He describes the eyes of our species as binocular, useful in particular to our primate ancestors for jumping limb to limb, and illustrates the functioning of two eyes, how their plane of sight overlap, and what this means to us:
An extraordinary effect of this convergence of the lines of vision of each eye is that all objects at greater or lesser distances than the point of fixation are out of focus. Focusing is accomplished in each eye by adjustment of the tension of the fibers holding the lens and allowing the lens to change shape so as to focus the image at exactly the right distance away from the retina. The amount an object is blurred depends on the distance it is short of or beyond the point of fixation. […] All other objects and points, short of and beyond the shell-like horopter, are blurred and are seen double. Our visual life is spent in the center of a nearly hemispheric transparent shell whose distance from us we fixate.
-Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape
This allowed us as primates to approximate distance, but the possible implications, according to Shepard, may include “our widespread philosophical tendency to see the world dichotomously, as infinite antinomies”. Biologically, when our vision is blurred, we see double. Socially, when our place is lost, our conceptions blur, creating boundaries that separate ourselves from others. At this point one cannot avoid the inherent possibilities for social control. Normally, such a philosophical tendency would support the storytelling mode of passing on ethics common in our ancestors, but within the context of post-agricultural mass society, such a tendency could prove disastrous. Instead of conceptualizing between respecting wild land and overhunting it, distinguishing what is before us via simple categorization, such a biological trait, at its worst, reveals a susceptibility to black and white thinking – the basis upon which, within the context of a value system that hierarchializes all beings, is the foundation separating some humans from others: man vs. woman, the patriot vs. terrorists, city vs. forest, Sky Gods vs. Earth demons, dark skin and light skin, and the essentializing of everything within the categories created, weighing against normative standards. This provided a pathway for power to utilize the human biology as a means for social control.
In addition, factory life, as in the life within the infrastructure of capital, where the factories effectively imprison its workers, such conditions are necessary to maintain the overall ebb and flow of production. Without such, abandonment, sabotage, and theft held for common would be the more human response: the intuitive desire to escape one’s cage. When the nature of our existence is blurred, the dichotomization of us and them provides a basis for understanding the spectrum of domination that humans are susceptible to in cage conditions: that of class society, work, resource withholding, rape, war between nation-states, etc.
Shepard suggests that we, as vision-strong animals, are particularly “interested in moving objects.” Whether food or predator, the human eye focuses on movement across a plane with relative ease. Aided by the body’s ability to twist in assistance, the plane extends beyond the already panoramic 180-degree plane of vision. This engages and seduces the human mind, in a flicker-like quality, taking in a series of uninterrupted snapshots, creating a “stillness” of the moving object and a blurred “activeness” of the surrounding foreground and background. The visual experience of movement itself is effectively transposed off of the object in focus and onto the remaining otherness in one’s field of vision.
We can utilize this concept to understand the effect of displays. A television screen for example displays movement at an average flicker rate of 60 Hz; the faster the flicker rate, the greater a feeling of anxiety is produced. Conversely, the slower it is, the more of an induced trance-like state is created, where higher brain functions essentially turn off. During the latter, the viewer’s ability to think critically about the information being displayed is stunted, and the response is one that is more emotion-driven. Seeing as computer screens and now the screen on many smart phones act in the same way, and with a greater capacity for varying flicker rates, we are more than ever subject to being totally absorbed and emotionally manipulated by the images displayed to us on a daily basis, removing us further and further from our immediate surroundings. The function of computers and phones being more interactive than television does not provide much relief, and perhaps the opposite may be the effect. If the passive display of images removes us from actively engaging in the world (and creates spectators of us), then the interactive mode that is the video game, the internet, and phone application, completes the transition from mere catatonic removal to being removed and effectively re-entered into the digital and abstract non-world that is the digital spectacle. The time in-between such experiences then exists in moments of mere nuisance. Transportation to the next station of display, whether it be driving to work, fetching dinner before the commercials end, and brief face-to-face interactions in between text messages are some of many experiences outside of the digital realm that act as stress points until the subject can re-enter the effortless comfort that is the more or less inert trance human animals experience in front of a flickering screen. The natural world becomes less of a place of desire, filled instead with things like work, waiting in lines and traffic, cleaning the stale enclosed space that is home, and completing whatever errands are required to maintain the steady silent chaos of our lives. Even sex is lost when it becomes just another job, an obligation, work and reward. For many, making connections at all with others is a daunting task, generating a widespread social anxiety leading most people to choose the screen over the touch. If we do venture outside, we are ultimately disappointed- we discover there is no one there but automatons.
Pertaining back to the categorizational tendency of the human eye and the downfall of such stereotyping by way of labeling, Shepard provides yet more insight:
Binding ourselves to visual signs is partly inevitable in the process of attaching meaning and of going about our daily business. The danger is the habit of seeing only a world full of labels. Practically useful objects especially become so labeled as ‘invisible,’ so stereotyped, that they become difficult to see in any other way because we never examine them closely; at this point we have betrayed our ape innocence and hard-won visual naïveté. This suggests that we may see better that which has no utilitarian value, which is just what the monkey discovered. There is another way of making things invisible; a kind of abstract vision which generalizes, finds species and categories and classes whose common properties may become all we see in an individual encounter.
Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape
If Shepard’s interpretation of our biology is accurate, our terror of living in a society of mass consumption full of labels is justified. Additionally, the appeal of expensive gadgets and high-class status symbols unreachable to the majority would then be a weakness to humans found in a world that is not their own (that is, not the Pleistocene). If we are attracted to the sight of a uniquely bright and lush fruit amongst a sea of green forest, then the nature of commodity value is not a mystery at all. The simple construction of expensive items only available to those who, according to the myth of Capitalism, work the hardest to obtain them, is enough to keep its citizens at bay.
This all comes back to the idea that humans today live as mere spectators, ultimately rendered passive by their own inability to have any agency in their daily life, let alone the matters of a mass industrial society. To live as a spectator is to live invariably through the Spectacle. The spectacle is the “inverted image of society” in which the relations between existing commodities have effectively supplanted the relations between people, in which “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord writes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” When focused on the spectacular (media frenzy, social networking, participating in activities as prescribed, through channels pre- determined and provided – sports, voting, shopping, eating rituals, holidays, etc.), our everyday life is caught in movement from spectacle to spectacle. But if life is so bombarded by activity, even prefigured activity, images, entertainment and the like, what’s missing? From where does this void originate? We can enjoy commodities by the thousands, but something yet leaves us unfulfilled…