Against Phenomenology


The following is from Plato’s Phaedo, Book 1:

“The philosopher desires death–which the wicked world will insinuate that he also deserves: and perhaps he does, but not in any sense which they are capable of understanding. Enough of them: the real question is, What is the nature of that death which he desires? Death is the separation of soul and body–and the philosopher desires such a separation. He would like to be freed from the dominion of bodily pleasures and of the senses, which are always perturbing his mental vision. He wants to get rid of eyes and ears, and with the light of the mind only to behold the light of truth. All the evils and impurities and necessities of men come from the body. And death separates him from these corruptions, which in life he cannot wholly lay
aside. Why then should he repine when the hour of separation arrives? Why, if he is dead while he lives, should he fear that other death, through which alone he can behold wisdom in her purity?”

On first inspection it would appear that the oppositional stance to Plato’s position here (which smells of rampant universalism) would be one that is cognitive, analytical and ultimately phenomenological. Essentially, the body is all that there is and cognition becomes epiphenomenal – the mere byproduct of physical apparatuses. This view flourished at the turn of the century (Darwin’s Bulldog famously stated that mental experiences were like the train whistle on the train, and to say nothing of Pavlov’s experiments) then died out then flourished again with qualia obsessed scientists who argue that physical experiences determine and events and not thoughts – they dismiss that conscious thinking (which can be couched in terms of free will) have anything to do with subsequent (or any) action following an event or previous action.

We can then venture to more strictly philosophical territory. The phenomenological push, which still thrives in contemporary theory, can be readily traced to Husserl or, more likely, to the more familiar name, and student of Husserl, Heidegger. Heidegger’s reductionist metaphysics places the world into a kind of object based existence where things are tied to Dasein through their utility and to the world they invoke.

Heidegger, and his ilk, are fascinated by death – Blanchot, Artaud, Baitaille, Levinas and so forth. Death is, more than anything, an un-experiential act, the very limits of our subjectivity in psychoanalysis. It seems that death, as the final judgment, is a phenomenological fascination in that it seems to define the contours of existence as utility/objects/faces et cetera, negatively – the not deathly that we can only partially experience through the other as such. Death, it seems, has a utility in that it unbinds time and being, finally, to give a kind of rest.The complexities of time, as discussed by Zielinski, point towards a radical natural philosophy, towards a temporal, as well as spatial, perforation of the earth. What does this do to Heidegger’s world as such? Do we end up with a porus world, one in which the vile vorticies reek havoc on the stability of being?

In the aforementioned text Plato goes on to say:

“The hollows on the surface of the globe vary in size and shape from that which we inhabit: but all are connected by passages and perforations in the interior of the earth. And there is one huge chasm or opening called Tartarus, into which streams of fire and water and liquid mud are ever flowing; of these small portions find their way to the surface and form seas and rivers and volcanoes. There is a perpetual inhalation and exhalation of the air rising and falling as the waters pass into the depths of the earth and return again, in their course forming lakes and rivers, but never descending below the centre of the earth; for on either side the rivers flowing either way are stopped by a precipice. These rivers are many and mighty, and there are four principal ones, Oceanus, Acheron, Pyriphlegethon, and Cocytus. Oceanus is the river which encircles the earth; Acheron takes an opposite direction, and after flowing under the earth through desert places, at last reaches the Acherusian lake,–this is the river at which the souls of the dead await their return to earth. Pyriphlegethon is a stream of fire, which coils round the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus. The fourth river, Cocytus, is that which is called by the poets the Stygian river, and passes into and forms the lake Styx, from the waters of which it gains new and strange powers. This river, too, falls into Tartarus.”

There is (perhaps unplatonically or supraplatonically if one follows a perverse logic of the forms) a truth to Plato’s false description in that Plato’s description, though unscientific, explains the un-phenomenological grappling of the Earth’s interior. Going back to Zielinski, the work of Althanasius Kircher, in particular his investigation of the crater of Vesuvias, led him to propose a theory regarding Earth’s internal fires and a subterrain ocean. The same kind of thinking was adopted by Hutton who saw the interior of the earth as a massive heat engine. We should say, that in the wake of this massiveness, and against Plato, the philosopher’s most tantilizing escape would be that of death, of denying the wave of nihilism that washes over us when we are met, face to face, with the hollowness of the universe. As Mark Twain put it:

“There is nothing. There is no god and no universe. There is only empty space, and in it, a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible thought, and I am that thought. And god and the universe and time and life and death and joy and sorrow and pain only a grotesque and brutal dream evolved from the frantic imagination and that insane thought.”

Yet, in terms of quantum physics, and as Zizek stated, something went wrong and out of that negativity came something terrible – life as we know it. The attempts to go back and assign an order to the primordial chaos have, as any handful of contemporary theorists will tell you, has failed. And yet, in the hands of Derrideans and Heideggerians and some others, the great chain of being has been fused back together in the illusion of its very denial. There is a kind of mourning where thinkers have tried to give us back some kind of warmth culled from the dead of space. Derrida is most famous here – he tried the promise, friendship, the moment of archiving and so forth. Ray Brassier responds to this kind of thinking thusly:

“The disenchantment of the world understood as a consequence of the process whereby the Enlightenment shattered the ‘great chain of being’ and defaced the ‘book of the world’ is a necessary consequence of the coruscating potency of reason, and hence an invigorating vector of intellectual discovery, rather than a calamitous diminishment. Philosophy would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. It should strive to be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity” (Nihil Unbound, p. xi).

Baudrillard began a short chapter in Simulcra and Simulation with the phrase: “When you take everything away nothing is left. This is false.” And that is the truest kernel and, the difference between the phenomenologists and psychoanalysis. For Freud, when you take everything away there is something left – there is the stain of the real – this is clear in his discussions of Jewishness in Moses and Monotheism – there is always a remainder. That remainder is the gap of freedom – the kind of materially Cambrian explosion in which the phenomenological breaks down.

Phenomenology, at its roots, only has, as the ultimate reproach to the ‘rampant nihilism’, the cozy retreat to Heidegger’s cottage of Earth masquerading as a new way of being. The celebration of heterogenity as is advoated by the likes of Foucault, Zielinkski, Manuel De Landa, and others, must, whether they desire to or not, push is in a direction that is, begging for pained sighs, metaphyiscal. Even grasping at anti-transcendental straws such as Deleuze and Guattari’s BwO (Body without organs) – where the transcendental is smuggled under the blanket of the immanent – leaves one with the sense of nice but no cigar

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3 Responses to “Against Phenomenology”

  1. 1 Allan

    What psychoanalysis designates as the stain of the real is what Heidegger calls the Nothing. It is not the negation of Being, but Being holding sway as the absencing of beings as a whole.

    Here we encounter the problem with Zizek’s criticism of Heidegger’s notion of Ge-stell. It has an essentially different thrust than the Levinasian notion of egoistic reduction of the Other to the Same. Nihilism, as Heidegger understands it, involves a forgetting of the Nothing’s Being. He says this again and again: the Nothing *is*, though it is not anything like a being. Nihilism is the notion that when you get rid of beings there is no longer anything at issue in thinking. Heideggerian phenomenology involves a penetration through the technological predominance of beings to ask the question of their Being.

    A key difference between psychoanalysis and Heideggerianism is that Heidegger does not cease with the exceptional third (the Real, the Nothing) but asks the question of the belonging together of the three (Dasein/World/Nothing, Imaginary/Symbolic/Real). In the belonging together of the three, Being holds sway.

  2. 2 naughtthought


    Thanks for your comment – my understanding of Heidegger is limited as I’ve only read a handful of texts and I would be interested to hear more about the nothing in relation to the Real. As I understand it – the nothing that Heidegger discusses seems to be more of an active force than the real, acting as a kind of destructing force. I think the real comes closest to the nothing in relation to freedom – that for psychoanalysis freedom comes from our leaky finitude, where the real intervenes. Heidegger’s use of the nothing seems to fall somewhere between the Real and Benjamin’s notion of blasting, maybe?

    On your last comment I would say that psychoanalysis does not stop with the real but that the interacting of the three, paying serious attention to the function of time, comes close to the fourth category – that of being.

  3. 3 Allan

    That last point you made is very interesting. I think one might even be able to draw out some interesting parallels between the notion of trauma and the later Heidegger’s notion of decision (key to this concept: we don’t decide being, being decides upon us). Any time a de-cision occurs, it destines something like a period of autistic fixation for historical Dasein. Aristotle decides Being as ousia, the philosophical death drive kicks in, and for the next 2500 years we are destined to think around the central contradiction within the architectonic without ever returning to the object-a.

    Heideggerian deconstruction (as the attempt to return to the original experience of Being which initiates an epochal decision, the attempt to gather the beginning together with the end) would be interesting to juxtapose to psychoanalytic practice.

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