Monday, October 29, 2007

Habitualities

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."

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:57 AM.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Yusef said...

"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."

I've read this post a few times - it is a very good one.

I think it demands some response, and I am surprised I am the first to take a stab at that.

The above quote made me think of the construction industry - and the entry of women into the construction industry.

I think it is generally true that men are bigger and stronger than women, and when the construction trades relied mainly on raw muscle power, men had a real advantage.

Reliance on muscle power became much,much less important as technological advancement revolutionized the way construction was accomplished -- at some point no one used a shovel to move dirt -- it was all done with heavy equipment; muscle power couldn't compete with machine power, and muscle power became all but irrelevant. Muscle-power wielding men no longer had a "real" advantage.

At that point, a woman would have been as capable as a man in a construction industry except that construction machinery was not designed with the proportions of the average woman in mind -- a woman didn't have the capacity to operate heavy machinery, for example, because construction equipment wasn't designed to accommodate women-- a woman might not be able to see over the dash, or reach the pedals,etc. of heavy equipment because it wasn't designed with the proportions of a female body in mind.

This disability of women would have "reality" even though it was a function of the design of machinery, and the design of machinery is changeable...As soon as designers incorporated different dimensions, ideas, of the body of the equipment operators they were designing for into their designs, for example by designing adjustable seat heights, etc. this inability or disability was taken away, it was no longer meaningful,real.

November 02, 2007 2:46 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I wasn't quite expecting a response because so few people have read Patočka, but I'm happy you got something out of it.

That's an interesting example. Do you know about the construction industry first hand?

November 03, 2007 8:29 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Kind of.

You may know - I live in Alaska. I've lived here most of my life - I was born here. I was in high school when the trans-Alaska pipeline was built in the mid-70's. That had to have been the most peculiar negotiation of conflicting and contradictory social,political,cultural, and economic forces ever. Diverse interests were mangled, but not necessarily heedlessly trampled as in the past, and that was amazing. I have often worked on construction sites with construction workers even though my work is not specifically construction related. But I have direct experience of what it is like when women and other excluded groups pushed their way into this area where there was a lot of pressure still trying to keep them out on the alleged basis that they couldn't cut the mustard.

November 03, 2007 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Mr. Yak, maybe the flow of your blog has moved on, and perhaps your interest in this topic has flagged, and if so, please ignore my comments here.

In this post, you say,

"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:"

This "I can" of the body of which you speak - I wonder where you delimit the body and where, thereby, you delimit the "I can."

What I want to get at is whether you would consider a technological innovation, such as a pair of eye glasses, a telescope or a microscope, to be part of the body (literally or as literally as possible, as if a pair of glasses were "flesh and blood",) and a real addition to the awareness of "I can" or whether you would regard a pair of eye glasses and what the eye glasses enable as foreign to the body, and somehow illegitimating a claim of "I can", for example when someone says, with use of eye glasses, " I CAN see."

When we speak of disability we can speak of removal of disability through the use or application of prosthesetic treatments of various kinds...But there is this stigma attached to the notion of prosthesis as if a body aided by a prosthesis is not a natural, legitimate body, is an ugly undesirable body and its claims to ability are supported by a kind of cheating.

When you ask,

"...approach is adequate to the task of understanding the body in its full dimensions."

Are the dimensions supplied to a body by technology part of its full dimensions? Does the task of understanding the body in its full dimensions take these artifices into consideration, or not?

November 08, 2007 12:45 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"Are the dimensions supplied to a body by technology part of its full dimensions?"

Yes, they are, but perhaps they are not provided to a body as such. When I say any piece of technology is an extension of the body–eyeglasses, airplanes, the internet, interplanetary probes–I am speaking of the body abstractly, so it is good that you're asking me where I delimit it. I don't believe the relation to tools is simply that of an individual body to an individual tool, but of many bodies to a tool culture. In talking about tool cultures, I draw boundaries around hominids, Homo, and sapiens; and there is a boundary of the community, of the culture, which I'll define as a shared way of life, and any social formations above or in addition to the level of the community that may be involved. An assemblage of tools does not make a tool culture; instead a culture must be "living." For an assemblage of tools to constitute a culture there must be people (or apes, if you prefer) for whom the tools have meaning, that is, who know how to use them properly, in a certain way. However, although tools are given in cultures, it is not possible for the culture to exist without being embodied in individual organisms. (This might lead us to question whether culture exists as such, or whether it is merely a handy abstraction.) So there is a boundary around the body of the organism. The body gives a primitive ability, or most typically a suite of primitive abilities which enable the acquisition of further abilities. Primitive abilities may be movement, sensation, or the ability to acquire habits. We could think of these acquisitions as transcendences of the boundary of the body, but they are quite mundane, taken for granted, and in the process of being taken for granted, they inform the body in such a way that it doesn't live as if it were contained within the boundaries it was born into, though it may indeed live as if contained. In doing something one has learned bodily one typically forgets how it was learned. In that sense too the boundary of the body doesn't seem to mean much. The problem of drawing an a boundary around the individual body is obvious if we look at sex. We could say that the individual body is necessarily sexed. We might also say that the body is two, and from there we might say that the body is many. If we're speaking of the embodiment of culture, and the abilities that are afforded culturally, then it seems to make sense to speak of the body as many. On the other hand, the process of learning touches on the personal experience of the body, so. . . .

I don't know if my thinking is without contradiction, but I imagine that the dimensions of the human body are deep and vast, and of course the whole shebang is multifaceted.

I've also been thinking about domestic animals. Do we relate through domestic animals the way we relate through tools. If we think of domestic animals as an extension of the body, then what about other people? It seems immoral to think of others that way. Is empathy then immoral? Is help immoral? I wouldn't think so, so I might want to put some finer distinctions on "extension," or again, recognize "the body" more communitarianly. So, domestic animals? Well, we don't relate to them in just one way. Pluriferate.

November 11, 2007 7:43 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"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)."

and later,

"Yes,[the dimensions supplied to a body by technology are part of its full dimensions] they are, but perhaps they are not provided to a body as such. When I say any piece of technology is an extension of the body–eyeglasses, airplanes, the internet, interplanetary probes–I am speaking of the body abstractly, so it is good that you're asking me where I delimit it. I don't believe the relation to tools is simply that of an individual body to an individual tool, but of many bodies to a tool culture."

There's an interesting tension, I think,between the phenomenological-leaning interpretation and the more poststructuralist-leaning one.(I am assuming the first quote is phenomenologically influenced and the second quote is post-structuralist influenced.)

I think that the body understood in relation to a volitional consciousness presumes to be an understanding of a body as such. This body as such is understood as delimited naturally, by nature, but in my opinion there's nothing whatsoever natural about this delimitation of "a body as such" - it's purely cultural, purely artificial - phenomenologists refuse to recognize this...

What you call speaking of a body abstractly appears to me to be speaking of the body in a way more concretely because in those cases where you are speaking of it abstractly what you are really doing is just removing the artificial and tacit phenomenological delimitation of the body which really is an abstraction and reduction of the body.

November 12, 2007 2:29 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"I think that the body understood in relation to a volitional consciousness presumes to be an understanding of a body as such."

Such an understanding sounds like it could be the outcome of a phenomenology of the body. I personally wouldn't presume it.

"This body as such is understood as delimited naturally, by nature, but in my opinion there's nothing whatsoever natural about this delimitation of "a body as such" - it's purely cultural, purely artificial - phenomenologists refuse to recognize this..."

I find it hard to summarize phenomenologies of the body because they are divergent, but if we're talking about the as such phenomenologically it might be said that it, whatever it is as such, is given with phenomenality. There should be no initial determination whatsoever of whether something that might appear as such is delimited by nature or by culture. The as such is a creature of consciousness–even if we have to go behind the back of consciousness to understand consciousness (as such ;-). I think it has to do with a presumed inexaustibility of perception, and of course intentionality. I don't think the phenomenologist would want to cede the as such to either nature or culture. Could that be the source of what you identify as the refusal to recognize the cultural construction of the body?

I feel like I have more to say but I have to go cook dinner. Bye for now.

November 12, 2007 5:00 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I appreciate that phenomenologies of the body show variation, but don't they all utilize, as phenomenologies, a notion of a volitional consciousness?

If they do, I don't consider them truly divergent. They seem more like variations within a theme, a theme set by the volitional consciousness. There is a convergence onto this idea of a volitional consciousness.

Phenomenology couldn't overcome the idea of a cogito, and that idea of a cogito contains within it, it frames, the mind-body problem...In a way in which the mind-body problem can never be overcome.

November 13, 2007 12:05 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"I appreciate that phenomenologies of the body show variation, but don't they all utilize, as phenomenologies, a notion of a volitional consciousness?"

Perhaps we might say intentional consciousness. I haven't quite seen a consensus on what intentionality means, but you may see the different ideas about intentionality or about consciousness as variations on a theme.

In my opinion phenomenologists have made interesting attempts to overcome the limits of the cogito and also the ego, and though they are not all successful, it is too soon for me to say phenomenology has failed. Patočka has impressed me in the past as someone who takes good ideas without being limited by them. I wasn't struck by any mind-body dualism in his discussion of the body, the tool or the horizon in Body. Maybe you could elaborate, since it seems plainly evident to you, how phenomenologies of the body fail to overcome mind-body dualism.

November 13, 2007 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I don't have a conceit to know even 0.001% of what you know about phenomenology, so if there is something about phenomenology which seems plainly evident to me but is not at all evident to you, believe me, I know about how much my sense of the plainly evident is worth.

November 13, 2007 2:52 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I've been thinking about your criticism some more. As a first step I would break down the question of the body and intentional consciousness into two parts: (1) the body as such, the body as it appears to consciousness, and (2) the body as it intends, what we have been calling volitional consciousness, the "I can." I don't believe the bodily "I can" can be fairly described as either res cogitans or res extensa. Of course I can see in this "I can" a limitation of the ego cogito. I'm just not sure about the mind-body dualism.

November 14, 2007 4:56 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I want to clarify where I am coming from, a place of crudity and eccentricity.

There is a view of the unconscious as a kind of theater, featuring a drama, the familial drama. I see the 'volitional consciousness' as a crucial element of the theater, of the drama. It comes down to being THE locus of guilt and shame, the platform upon which these get installed in the psychic drama, which plays on interminably. "You can do something if you WILL to do it." Bullshit, in my opinion."You are conscious of what you are doing, of the forces that act on you, of what's behind your motivations and desires, etc. And being conscious, you can control this, you have choice." Massive BS. Then, as you relate in your post, there is a direct, causal link made between the volitional consciousness and the "I can." That entails, I think, a belief in the effectiveness of will, the effectiveness of consciousness. In this view, the consciousness must be taken as originary, authorial...It can't be revealed to be secondary, determined, an effect.

November 16, 2007 12:03 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I'm coming from a place of crudity and eccentricity myself, so...

"You can do something if you WILL to do it." That smells like bullshit, alright. As I'm taking another glance at Patočka's discussion, I see a problem in regarding the body as a "volitional organ." But it strikes me that consciousness has shifted and will with it so that willing something as it has to do with kinesthesia is not the same as having something like a thought image of a willed action that one can act upon to make actual. But sure, it's a problem.

I recently quit smoking by the way. It felt necessary for me to believe that I am not a slave to habits. (Drugs helped with the addiction.)

November 17, 2007 8:32 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"I recently quit smoking by the way. It felt necessary for me to believe that I am not a slave to habits. (Drugs helped with the addiction.)"

I am interested in this comment, which came almost as an aside. Are you using this as an example of "will" - you willed to quit smoking - and if you are using it as an example of "will" does it mean you endorse the common sensical interpretation of "will" - to what extent?

You slightly qualify your statement about quitting smoking (as an act of will, if that's what it is) by mentioning that drugs helped with the addiction...

You willed to quit and you willed to use all the help you could get, or you willed to quit but knew will by itself wasn't going to be enough...

I can't grasp it clearly, but there is a very intriguing conceptual difficulty in these simple statements (they're almost admissions,) you've made.

November 27, 2007 8:12 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Are you using this as an example of "will"?

Not exactly. I really meant to comment on habit, which is part of the problem with smoking, though of course there is nicotine addiction and for all I know a clove addiction as well. I took Chantix to help beat the addiction. Stopping smoking did take what common sense calls will power, but with the drug my nerves weren't quite screaming at me so it was relatively easy to muster the will and make myself conform to my wishes. (I've quit smoking before; this last time was by far the easiest.) It is very hard to break a habit though, and may be accomplished by doing as much as by willing.

You know, one might take a view, as a cultural anthropologist for instance, that habits are formed early in life and continue to the grave, never bent nor broken. I meant to challenge that view, and for myself, I felt I had a personal stake in challenging such a view.

Now, since you say it was an admission on my part, I think maybe my statement reveals something about my fears of losing my freedom, of being suffocated or of losing the ability to speak, not having a voice. (This is in fact a motif in my dreams.) Habit for me is ambivalent because on the one hand it is enabling and on the other hand it is suffocating. And if I really wanted to analyze myself I'd have to ask why I am so ambivalent about decisiveness, and whether I can make anything of that ambivalence, or whether I should try to let it go.

December 05, 2007 5:04 PM  

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