We have ways in which we see our worlds (both the world at large and our version of it); ways in which we receive and make sense of our surroundings; ways in which we make our own versions of reality by receiving input from the various realities through which we move.
Phenomenology (from Greek phainómenon “that which appears” and lógos “study”) is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.
We create our truths through our day to day lives; through our consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgments, perceptions, and emotions.
I recently finished “What We See When We Read” by Peter Mendelsund, an exploration on the “phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature.” In it, Mendelsund discusses the way in which readers receive works of writing – the ways in which we read which means, more specifically, the ways in which we (often unknowingly) fill in the blanks.
And while I was reading, I couldn’t help but realize: this isn’t just how we read. This isn’t simply how we intepret works of writing, filling in the blanks between the black and white of what’s on paper. This is how we fundamentally move through life – perceiving snippets of things as we pass them, scanning over details, picking up what makes sense and stringing them together, creating our own versions of existence.
And to be fair, Mendelsund has already called out phenomenology – in writing this, he already assumed that his reader understood and appreciated the idea. But while Mendelsund’s isn’t the first writing on phenomenology, I actually thought his was one of the most accessible… and that if you take his assertions on reading and the reader and expand them out to the ways in which we live, there are some really beautiful, immediately tangible pieces of thought here.
This is the way in which things start; the moment when we first awaken or that virginal introduction to something new, each day.
“When you first open a book, you enter a liminal space. You are neither in this world, the world wherein you hold a book, nor in that world (the metaphysical space the words point toward.) To some extent this polydimensionality describes the feeling of reading general – one is in many places at once.”
When we first come upon something – a new experience, a new interaction, a new stimuli – we stand braced between the purely external world, with all of its infinite layers of stimuli and detail, and our internal selves; we lean out from a window and breathe it in. We recognize and take in the elements that appeal to our existing sense of selves; those things that relate somehow, even by contradiction. And in this moment, we are suspended, hovering in the framework between what is out there and what is inside ourselves, and our experience of this moment is defined by the confluence at which those two worlds come together.
Our lives are defined by time, and our moments and surroundings are highly defined by the rate at which we experience them. Life, in turn, is not a sequence of experienced “now’s”… each moment is fundamentally connected; it does not stand alone, but rather as part of a continual, fluid motion.
“Past, present, and future are interwoven in each conscious moment – and in the performative reading moment as well. Each fluid interval comprises in an admixture of: the memory of things (past), the experience of a consciousness ‘now’ (present), and the anticipation of thing to be (future).”
“I do not pass through a series of instances of now, the images of which I preserve and which, placed end to end, make a line. With the arrival of every moment, its predecessor undergoes a change: I still have it in hand and it is still there, but already it is sinking away below the level of presents; in order to retain it, I need to reach through a thin layer of time.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The same can be said for the way in which we live. We move through life with a critical eye and a degree of anticipation – even the least future-oriented among us have a basic instinct for the moment ahead, particularly when it comes to identifying the risk of danger. We have to do this – it is one of most basic instincts; one of the primal functions of a sentient being; something that distinguishes us from rocks.
And because we have the ability to anticipate, we also have the ability to charge ahead – we can rush around a blind corner because we can visualize the minimum of what’s on the other side: that, for example (in the very least), there will be footing; a floor. And that the pathway will continue (rather than, say, end abruptly by way of a wall.) And so we can move quickly through our surroundings, passing over things quickly, taking in fewer details, and instead stringing together a big picture. Though, in the event that something piques our interest, we also have the option of slowing down.
“In order to make sense of a book’s words and phrases we must think ahead when we read – we must anticipate. This is how we readers contend with the cul-de-sacs, hiccups, gaps, and enjambments of our linear, written language. We are picturing what we are told to see, but also we are picturing what we imagine we will be told to see, farther down the page. If a character rounds a corner, we predict what’s around the bend.”
“When we read, we take in whole eyefuls of words. We gulp them like water… We gulp words and phrases when we read quickly, but we also may choose to savor some texts, and roll them on our tongues.”
Our default pace through life is “fast,” and that’s for our own benefit. One could spend hours in a single position in a single setting and never exhaust the level of details it could offer. The time and natural evolution of the environment would create a change; a shift before us.
“Have you ever walked along the shoulder of a road upon which you normally drive? Details you hadn’t seen at high speed are suddenly revealed. You learn that a road is really two different roads – one for pedestrians and another for passengers.”
(If that – one might say its predominant existence is for cars, with countless details of its fabric going largely unnoticed.)
“These roads bear only a thin, cartographical relationship to each other. The experiences of these roads are utterly distinct.”
“Writers closely observe the world and record their observations. When we remark that a novel is ‘finely observed,’ we are praising the writer’s ability to bear witness. This bearing is composed of two acts: the author’s initial observation in the real world, and then the translation of that observation into prose. The more ‘finely observed’ the text, the better we readers recognize the thing or even in question.”
When we read, “we sink into the experience, [and] a performance of a sort begins… we are both the conductor and the orchestra, as well as the audience.”
Our lives, too, are both built by us and acted out by us – we are the director, the producer, the lead role, the target audience. We dictate the speed at which the story unfolds, the way in which it largely evolves, and whether it is a comedy or a tragedy.
Some say that we are each the hero of our own stories. And this is true. Not all of us recognize it, but we are indeed the star of our own shows and certainly should be our own heros – some of us appreciate this and some of us are a bit better at writing ourselves more promising stories, while some of us instead let ourselves down (we are, after all, also our own worst enemies.) But all of us are ultimately the creators of our own existence.
And so, if we are our own authors and actors, we can of course operate with a very high level of entitlement to our own lives. For those of us who understand, even subconsciously, the degree of our influence, “we make choices – we have agency.”
We want to co-create. We want to participate; and we want ownership.
“We colonize our experiences with our familiars; and we exile, repatriate the elements we like to lands we are more acquainted with.” We harvest our own realities. We actively build our own versions of reality.”
We naturally draw conclusions from the things we encounter, many of which are abstractions or partial versions of their full selves. And for the most part, we can make sense of partial; can draw conclusions from only bits and pieces. Sometimes, however, we expected (or even implicitly asked) to “not see.”
“I have had the experience of looking at the world in a nonallusive manner. This state of mind comes on me suddenly, and I’m aware of my topographic position, and am newly alert to geometry. Suddenly the world seems a purely optical phenomenon – it is reduced to light and its vectors – and I have become the camera, rather than the photographer. Chronology is rendered moot, and the constituent fragments of the world are no longer subservient to my psychology, and self-consciousness, but are startlingly present at hand. There is nothing cold or unnatural in this state of being, but rather something strangely preconscious.”
An intermingling of abstract relationships… catalyzes feeling in us. And sometimes the abstract is enough – sometimes the meaning is in the metaphorical, rather than the literal… and digging to the literal would mean sacrificing the richness intended by the figurative.
When we encounter something, we bump it up against our existing metrics and reality, and we categorize it according to our existing sense of the way things are.
“When we read about something – a place, a person – we separate if from the mass of entities that surround it. We distinguish it. We excise it from the undifferentiated… This thing is different from all other things… We then form some kind of mental representation of it… like this, and not like that. We form representations, so we can remember, and manipulate the memory… so the information can be reused. This representation is a model of some sort. So we are also model builders.”
THE PART AND THE WHOLE
We don’t actually need the whole thing. We can build out a whole from parts – and even if the whole is offered, we will skim over it, taking from it the parts that we think matter and filling in the rest for ourselves.
“Metonymy, like metaphor, is thought by some to be a part of our innate language facility – and an even greater foundational aspect of a human being’s natural cognitive abilities. (Our understanding of the part-for-whole relationship is an important tool by which we understand our world and communicate that understanding to others.) As embodied creatures, we consist of corporeal forms, physiques, which are in turn composed of parts. Being born with a body entails being born with some natural abstract sense of this relationship – of synecdoche.
(Look at your fingernail: You are, in some senses, this fingernail, but your fingernail is also part of you.)
This inborn ability to extrapolate a whole from a part is fundamental and reflexive, and understanding the part-whole structure enables us, somehow, to see characters, to see narrative, just as it enables us to function, mentally, physically, in the world.”
To make sense of it, and build our own versions of reality.
“Without such tools, the world would be presenting us, constantly, with occasions so abundantly and elaborately informative as to be crippling.”
From my post titled “Or(e):”
“I run my hand against the broad, flat surface of an iron beam, touching the same line that extends upward, over me, into the sky. It is so much larger than my own proportions and yet it is akin to it, and I stand in silence, my palm pressed there, feeling the heat and texture from so many weathers rise off of its skin into my own.
Breathe hot against the metal. And it breathes hot back onto you.
I own this moment – this is my own – because I own these emotions and this perspective and I have inscribed beauty onto this place. But I do not own this thing. And the way that I see it does not stand in solidarity. It also belongs to many others in same or similar or separate capacities. And perhaps, one might argue, it also exists to the earth and to itself as well.
And you can ask things about its validity: to what extent, for example, am I actually touching this? To what extent does this touch count? Scanning my eyes over the impossible proportions of this body, in the water and against the sky, I realize: I could probably never really touch this whole structure.
But I am touching this part of it and this part of it is a part of the whole and, if that’s true, then maybe touching it here is really enough to say that I have touched it at all. It has realness because it is real to me.”
Memory is perhaps one of the most interesting elements of our own curated reality. Not only do we create our own versions of the world in real time, but we harvest, as we move through life, an entire existence as defined by moments past – things we made, preserved in our own memories.
Simply put: memories are highly subjective. Moments are subjective even when we live them, through our own lens, but by the time we lodge them away in the cupboards and closets of our own psyches and come back from them, they are further changed, morphed to suit our needs.
Many people have accused me of “fabricating” – of recalling an “alternate” version of reality that does not match “the real one” (that being, of course, their own.) And though I will have long ago acquiesced to this and accepted that I do indeed create things, I will now contend: so does everyone else. And while I am willing to recall my memories with a degree of acceptance that they may be flawed, I also argue: all of us should do the same.
“Perhaps memory – being the fodder of imagination, and being intermingled with imagination – feels like imagination; and imagination feels like memory, being constructed of it as well. Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory.”
Moments are defined by filling in the blanks. All moments, therefore, are in some ways made-up. And memories, then, are defined by imagination.
IT IS BLURRED
“The world… is made of fragments. Discontinuous points – discrete and dispersed. (So are we. So too our coworkers; our spouses; parents; children; friends…) We know ourselves and those around us by our readings of them, by the epithets we have given them, by the metaphors, synecdoches, metonymies. Even those we love most in the world. We read them in their fragments and substitutions.
The world for us is a work in progress. And what we understand of it we understand by cobbling these pieces together – synthesizing them over time. It is the synthesis that we know. (It is all we know.) And all the while we are committed to believing in the totality – the fiction of seeing.”
Our world is fundamentally a Frankenstein monster, constructed of bits and pieces of what really happened, how we (instead) interpreted, and what we wholly made up.
The point, however, is that: so is everyone else’s. This is the way in which we live.
“We apprehend the world (the parts of it that are legible to us), we do so one piece at a time. These single pieces of the world are our conscious perceptions. What these conscious perceptions consist of, we don’t know, though we assume that our experience of the world is an admixture of that which is already present, and that which we ourselves contribute (our selves – our memories, opinions, proclivities, and so on.)”
We acquaint ourselves with the world by taking in as much of the world as we can, and mix this material with our own in the alembic of our minds, combing them to “achemize something unique.” Our interpretations and our conscious are partial, imperfect, and hazy.
“Authors are curators of experience. They filter the world’s noise, and out of that noise they make the purest signal they can – out of disorder they create narrative. They administer this narrative in the form of a book, and preside, in some ineffable way, over the reading experience. Yet no matter how pure the data set that authors provide to readers – no matter who diligently prefiltered and tightly reconstructed – readers’ brains will continue tin the prescribed assignment: to analyze, screen, and sort. Our brains will treat a book as if it were any other of the world’s many unfiltered, encrypted signals.”
So, too, are we the “authors” of our own lives. We are constantly filtering the world’s noise so that we distinguish a pure, recognizable signal – at least something that we can make sense of.
“Among the great mysteries of life is this fact: The world presents itself to us, and we take in the world. We don’t see the seams, the cracks, and the imperfections. We haven’t missed a thing… The brain itself is built to reduce, replace, emblemize… verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal. So we reduce. And it is not without reverence that we reduce. This is how we apprehend our world. This is what humans do.”
Understanding is making reductions. “Through reduction, we create meaning.”
“These reductions are the world as we see it – they are what we see when we read, and they are what we see when we read the world.”