In reading Patočka's discussion of embodiment according to Husserl, the questions of disability and difference posed by Wildly Paranthetical have been at the back of mind. I'd like to examine Patočka's take on the phenomenology of the body and the associated problems of freedom and history to see whether this approach is adequate to the task of understanding the body in its full dimensions.
In the first place, Husserl understands the body in relation to a volitional consciousness, and more exactly an awareness that "I can." "I can" is a bodily awareness (an awareness of semovience, if we can use that term before committing to any metaphysics of causality). Patočka takes up this idea of the "I can" and briefly considers the issue of disability:
The body-subject is basically what it "can," is able to, and, of course, the body-subject might also be incapable. However, this inability is something different from the absence of all dynamis of poiein and pashkein [paskein], it is a privative mode based on present potency. Should all ability to act disappear from the body, the body would cease to be a body: it would cease to be.
(Introduction, p. 143)
To say that disability is culturally constructed and that much of the suffering (paskein?) caused by disability is due to its cultural construction is not to say that disability isn't an affair of the body, or that it cannot involve an "I can't." It does imply that there is neither one human body nor one set of abilities which would define ability. When we think of disability as a privative mode, therefore, we need not see privation as essentially based on present potency (what could that mean?), but rather, we can also imagine it being based on a largely tacit construction of ability. We can further ask whether this tacit construction of ability has an "as if" quality, "as if" there really were one set of abilities that defined ability; and we might wonder how this "as if" is actually experienced, whether it has the weight and force of a reality, and what that could mean for our understanding of the body.
The corporeal "I can," as Patočka interprets Husserl, is rooted in a fertile soil of habitualities, habitualities that consist in mastering objects that enter into sensory fields. "The constitution of the body, " Patočka writes, "is a constitution of these constantly available habitualities" (p. 144). Are these habitualities available only to the individual subject, or does it makes sense to see habitualites as open to communities or societies, that is, does it make sense to see them in relation to patterns of life? If it does make sense to see habitualities as the soil or structure ("structure" is Patočka's word) of social life, then there is a question of their constant availability, and whether they are equally available. Now, in one sense we could see social structure as secondary to habitualities, and the issue of unequal access pertains only in the realm of social life; the body-subject has its own habitualities fullstop. That might represent an impoverished understanding of habitualities.
Let's take an example. Blind visitors to this blog will likely notice that the comments feature provided by Blogger does not accept the <abbr> or the <acronym> tags. Regardless of how fast or how well one can process text, if one uses a screen reader one is disadvantaged in reading the comments on this and other Blogger blogs. So this represents a socially constructed reading disadvantage rather than an innate disability that one becomes inured to. It is socially constructed in part because the use of <abbr> and <acronym> tags is not a habituality of the netizenry at large, including powerful software developers. Only recently did Microsoft's Internet Explorer begin to recognize the <abbr> tag, and widespread html editing interfaces designed to make online publishing easier frequently lack buttons for <abbr> and <acronym>. Habitualities exist in relation to technologies, or technological cultures which encompass not just ways of doing things and material artefacts but ways of looking at the world, and even the sense of a world's reality. If we say that there must be an "I can" who originally has power, we can also say that technology empowers, or augments power, though it does so unequally, engendering disability and disempowerment as a side effect. (I suppose there are political theorists who would say that the creation of disempowering "side effects" is the primary intention behind developing technologies.) Perhaps we need to speak of primary, secondary and tertiary empowerments and their effects, yet if such distinctions dissolve in experience, or become mutable, variable or interchangeable, it might be preferable to let experience suggest what needs to be said about power.
Just saying that we have constant access to our own habitualities obscures the ways habitualities impinge upon each other, augment and diminish social relations, and generate assonances and dissonances that pierce the flesh. Patočka recognizes the body as a medium of sociality, but he states dogmatically and I think wrongly that intersubjective communication takes place solely through the body as object (p. 160). In fact our bodily coexistence means that we immediately communicate with others through our habitualities, and these communicative habitualities are lived experiences involving "as if" realities that condition habitualities (in the sense that the "as if" ought to be said with "habitual" insofar as such relations are suggested by experience).
On his way to arguing that life is a process rather than event (though it may still have evenemential features), Patočka says something about experience that I believe is a key to understanding the phenomenological approach to historicity and to meaning. He says, emphatically, "An experience is a reference to a further experience" (p. 165). I would like to say that the question of reference is different from the question of repetition or reactivation. Patočka, however, immediately adds that experience "is a constant return to the same in ever new ways" (ibid.). I will have to depart from Patočka's thinking here to develop the idea suggested by "a reference to a further experience." If reference means "a bringing back" it becomes paradoxical to think of referring to a further experience.
Patočka proposes that the temporal horizon makes possible the reference of experience to further experience so it is worth taking a second look at his discussion on temporality to illuminate, if possible, the concept of a reference to further experience. "The paradox of retention," Patočka tells us, "is that, though it is automatic, as if given, it is yet a subjective accomplishment" (p. 117, my emphasis). This is in fact the "paradox" or duality of the habitual. However retention is only half the story, the other half being protention, which Patočka defines as an exposure of oneself to the world or a curiosity about the world. This too, it not the whole story of protention. Though Patočka recommends taking with a grain of salt the symmetry of retention and protention, I see the same duality that Patočka notes in retention. One exposes oneself to the world and at the same time one anticipates a world, horizons of realness that are usually not thematized and rely upon the ability to take things for granted. The future is both a project and a surprise. Protention requires both agency and passivity in the face of the "as if" given. What is the power of this "as if" given to which one cedes? Is it only the power one already has, or can it be augmented and diminished, and does something like a transfer of powers routinely happen in practice?
In place of a referential theory of meaning (which doesn't sit well with phenomenology) a pragmatic theory of meaning is needed to understand why the constitution of the body as the constitution of habitualities must necessarily be a question of reference to further experience. We must not by any means think that pragmatics is primarily about instants of communication, that usage isn't a historical process or a lifelong engagement. Usage is deeper than grammar, and at the same time more prevalent. In one sense the reference to further experience acts like a metaphor or an analogy. The meaning of the metaphor is not simply in the terms but in the passage between them, which is a practical achievement whose horizons extend far beyond the instant. Reference makes visible the blurred horizon of the retentional continuum, a limit of indefiniteness without which it and the field of presence to which it belongs would slide into infinity. Patočka says that each older impression in the retentional contiuum becomes a mere "et cetera" in its indefiteness (p. 114). As much as that makes sense, I challenge that notion on the same grounds that I challenge understanding a reference to further experience as a return to the same. Histories can be reconfigured, reconstituted, and, symmetrically, anticipated worlds can depart from the given. Furthermore, if references to further experiences might contain an element of surprise, that might seem to be paradoxical, but we have to imagine that surprise is an element of the whole of temporality, including the past. There must be a past which has never been past, never been an "et cetera" but a surprise.
Here I'd like to share one of Patočka's criticisms of Husserlian phenomenology.
Husserl does see that the teleology of history is not a teleology of predetermined and predefined goals, that it is, rather, a reinterpetation of the preconstituted, but he seeks to proclaim such an absolute goal nonetheless; he transcends a short-range finite teleology, but then tries to sneak it back in under a different guise. The problem of a positive bestowal of meaning upon the stream of history, if it is not simply an elimination of what is meaningless and contradictory, if it is not a mere manifestation of what is purely given and its overcoming in the project of pure rationality, that is, of clarity and justice, is not clearly posed in Husserl's thought because it is not clearly defined. Husserl restricts the possible global conceptions of life basically to science-philosophy; is this viewpoint really critically justified? Does it rest on sufficiently prodound illumination, on a philosophy of human possibilities? What if we encounter, at the base of human potentiality, an inevitable plurality, which might entail a plurality of goals as well? What does that mean for the historical self-formation of humanity? To these questions we no longer find answers in Husserl's work.
(p. 169, Patočka's emphasis)
I will begin to answer these questions. The history of life in the form of Homo sapiens cannot be justifiably solely refered to a paradigm of science-philosophy. There is indeed an inevitable plurality at the base of human potentiality, at and in the lived body constituted by habitualities which extend into the past and into the future. Though such extentions usually involve the taken as if given, or the preconstituted, they also imply an indefinite horizon which reveals more than a reduced "and so on." They imply a difference which is not merely a way of returning to the same, but simply a passage way that opens up on surprises as well as what we usually mean by the habitual. I don't doubt that the same has meaning for human embodiment. The same may sometimes be a theme or it may be something acceded to in practice. It does not therefore in any way constitute experience or ground the constitution of experience. Experience, I mean in particular bodily experience, may be profoundly ambivalent with respect to the same and the different, and it retains this ambivalence while in reference to further experiences despite any appearance to the contrary. There is ultimately no historical self-formation of humanity. There are only myriad ongoing projects of historical self-formation, and the capacity for reversals, restarts, and surprises is given with the "I can."