Saturday, March 21, 2015

Review: Queer Phenomenology

[Sara Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2006.]

I have always approached understanding and writing the world in an eclectic sort of way. I'm not sure I could do otherwise, as someone whose formal training in these things is next to nil, and who has largely learned about the world and the writing of it through my own haphazard journey of reading, writing, and experimenting. The sensibility that has guided me has been to read widely, take up what feels useful, discard what doesn't, and bring things together even when they don't quite fit. It's not so much interdisciplinary as undisciplined, which I recognize has all sorts of weaknesses as well as some strengths.

In doing this, something that I have always valued but have come increasingly to emphasize as I've learned more is the importance of finding ways to connect things. (I would attribute this emphasis and its increase to the influence of both women of colour feminisms and heterodox marxist or marxist-ish social theory on how I think about things, not that I would claim to do justice to either of those traditions in my own writing.) This includes seeking possibilities for connection (or not) between different ways of understanding the world. But it also includes seeing and trying to understand connections between differently physical locations, between different moments, between different social locations, between differently organized phenomena and experiences, between different scales of the social world, and much else. Indeed, as I've mentioned in a number of posts in the last few months, the basic act of recognizing X, Y, and Z experiences and trying to figure out how they are connected has become pretty basic to how I think about how we can and do know the world.

For all that most of the bits and pieces that have influenced how I think are in one sense or another materialist (even if not everyone sees all of them that way), and for all the emphasis that the overall hodgepodge those influences have created places on experience, I've frequently been dissatisfied with the tools that seem to be available for thinking about how the messy, complex flow that is everyday embodied experience ties into the broader social world. Even just sticking to approaches that push against the common practice of reifying experience into categories that distort or even do violence to it, there's still a tendency to start from a tidied version of our everydays. Which isn't necessarily a problem -- simplification can be crucial to clear thinking and writing, and I'm not claiming that this starting from tidiness necessarily makes the work done invalid or even suspect. But there is still something unsatisfying about the relative lack of engagement across a broad range of traditions with the complexity and chaos from which this grounded tidiness emerges. My current active interest in thinking through how we know the world through encounter, relation, and movement -- I talk about it a bit more in the first couple of paragraphs of this post -- only sharpens my interest in dealing with this particular weakness.

I knew going in that this book would be a very useful one for me. It is an engagement by scholar Sara Ahmed (some of whose other work I've also read and really liked) with phenomenology, a philosophical tradition from the first half of the twentieth century that got taken in a variety of directions in a variety of contexts but that has generally involved paying very fine-grained attention to experience, often as a way of understanding the structures of experience and of consciousness. Moreover, she takes up phenomenology in a way that hooks it into other things that are already part of the hodgepodge of theory and analysis that I draw on -- things like the idea of performativity, like anti-reificatory readings of marxism, and like the shaping of experience and self that different traditions (though Ahmed doesn't necessarily use these terms much or at all, I don't think) talk about as "social organization" or "social regulation" or "moral regulation" or "discipline."

The book is organized very simply. The first chapter engages with phenomenology in general. The second applies Ahmed's queered version of phenomenology to sexuality. The third applies it to race. And then there is a brief conclusion.

I think it's really the first of those chapters that is the most directly useful to me, in that it lays out her approach, her queer phenomenology. I don't have enough of a background in more classical approaches to phenomenology to accurately capture what is drawn from there and what is innovation, so I won't try, but I'll at least touch on the elements that seem important and useful to me. One is, of course, what I already mentioned, that this uses phenomenological attention to experience in ways that connect it to analyses of the social that extend beyond the encounter being examined. This helps to get at the how of our social world, to connect what we actually experience to ways of thinking about the social organization and implications of that experience through ideas like performativity and sexual/moral/social regulation.

As well, I think there is something important in Ahmed's insistence on using an approach as she does that which moves away from our knee-jerk tendency to use visual metaphors in our efforts to describe the social world -- even when social processes are not directly about visibility, seeing, and being seen -- and towards more tactile ways of thinking about our presence in our immediate environment. Even in as deft a writing hand as hers, that can feel a little unfamiliar and awkward, and I'd bet it takes practice to write effectively, but I think it's worth exploring, if only to draw attention to exactly how dependent on visual metaphors our usual modes of social analysis are.

And it is super useful to my own thinking to see how the book begins from moments of encounter and then works through many of the things that we might want to think about in order to understand those moments. This includes, of course, the experience of the encounter itself, but it also places a great deal of importance on thinking about "background." This term gets used in multiple senses to get at how the importance of an encounter, the meaning, the implications, the basis, are not necessarily all present in the direct experience of that encounter. There is "background" in a marxist sense, where you recognize that the thing is made to stand in for the doing that produced the thing, and you recognize (even if you can't fully excavate) that the object you're encountering is present because of a flow of socially organized doing that made it present. But there's also a recognition that the very fact of you encountering what you encounter is a product of social organization in a number of senses. What you are in a physical position to encounter is a product of social organization. How that which is physically proximal differentially enters your field of attention and how it matters (or not) to you -- what is central, what is peripheral, what is absent despite being present -- is a product of social organization and how you yourself have been socially produced. And to capture the ways in which all of this sediments into who we are and how we are able to engage with the world, she talks about "orientations" -- repetitive patterns of proximity, attention, action, and experience that, in a manner analogous to Judith Butler's account of gender as performative, are constantly (re)producing those aspects of ourselves which shape our presence in the world and in encounters, and the position from which we are able to know the world through encounters. To me, this feels like a more materially grounded way of thinking about the cluster of things I've long grouped under the idea of "standpoint." But it's an improvement on how I've often used the shorthand of "standpoint" because it makes it harder to avoid attending to the how of it all.

It is not only human beings who become oriented through performative repetition, however, but also objects and environments. Of course objects and the physical arrangement of objects in space are not just physical but are social -- socially produced, socially organized, part of that social context which structures how and what we encounter. One of the advantages of the book's more tactile approach to talking about experience and about the world is that it makes objects and their physical arrangement more clearly already a part of the social world that we're seeking to understand, an instantiation of social relations that we actually touch and are touched by, whose very physicality shapes and orients us and the spaces we have available to us. We have orientations that are in part shaped by those physical/social environments, and those environments take on not just meaning but material shape and direction as part of our engagement with them and in the context of the socially directive whole. As part of this, she talks about the ways in which bodies that are marked in particular ways gain extension through space through engagement with objects and environments, whereas other bodies are not extended in those ways. This is an aspect of the material how of privilege -- whose bodily extension through space (and into action) is facilitated through the material felt experience of the local environment, and whose bodily extension into space (and into action) is blocked, frustrated, limited. And how this repeated experience of ease of augmentation, or of blockage, shapes what we encounter, how we encounter it, and what we can know about it.

All of this is useful for me because it suggests ways to think about the encounters that are the basis for how I plan to build knowledge about the world in my current work. Rather than encounters being (as I think they are in at least some classical phenomenology) analyzed by bracketing them off from the world and treated as isolated in order to derive meaning from them, Ahmed's queer phenomenology insists on thinking about them in the full rich context in which they are experienced, and recognizing that you cannot understand them by looking at the experience alone -- on thinking through the moment of encounter along with the conditions of possibility for it, the basis for the proximity that makes it possible, the orientations we bring to it, the orientations existing in the environment, the practices and relationships upon which it is built, the specifics of fit, ease, or friction that the particular body or bodies in the encounter have with that environment, and much more.

The chapters applying this approach to specific questions of sexual orientation and of racialization are certainly interesting and useful, though given my purpose in reading the book it is mostly as examples of the kinds of work that can be done with this queer phenomenology and less directly for their specifics. That said, the specifics are still interesting. In Chapter 2, for instance, it weighs in on a grab bag of questions related to sexuality. While at least some of its core points feel fairly familiar (for instance that sexual orientations, both straight and queer, are products of socially organized work), I do think there is interest and value in rethinking them through the very dense, local, tactile account of how, grounded in the conceptual repertoire developed in Chapter 1. As you might hope for phenomenological work, it succeeds in capturing experiential richness about important things -- from family-of-origin as scene in which sexual orientation plays out (and is regulated), to aspects of the how of compulsory heterosexuality, to the social wholes of the orientations that we describe as sexual, to some of the points of friction and ease in how spaces extend or fail to extend bodies based on sexual orientation. And of course it captures this experiential richness in a way that brings it into analysis of the social world, rather than the sort of individualized testimonial into which experiential writing in a more popular vein almost inevitably falls. (I think providing examples of ways to write the self that are also social is really important in its own right.) Anyway, not surprisingly, there are aspects of how the chapter is written that are specific to lesbian experiences, and I wonder how some of the details of the analysis -- nuance within the richness, as it were -- might change if it began from a nonmonosexual positioning.

The chapter on race is similarly full of good stuff that goes in a variety of directions, not all of which is directly applicable to my purposes but all of which is interesting. Again, it's the translation of abstracted ideas like privilege and oppression into more experiential, embodied, tactile notions that I think is most useful -- about how bodies are oriented, how they are facilitated or blocked in taking up and moving through space, and in extending themselves. "I want to consider racism as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they 'take up' space" (111). I also appreciated the book's discussion of how we are (re)produced as racialized beings -- from extending the idea of performativity to things like nation, to the discussion of horizontal versus vertical notions reproduction and the ways in which, say, whiteness is to a significant extent reproduced horizontally through proximity and contact (via the sort of tactile regulation that she writes about) rather than in the conventional vertically genealogical way we usually (biologistically) think of it. And I do have to say that some of this is actually very relevant to my own work -- the book convincingly argues that it has a tremendous impact on how we perceive the world, on what we encounter, on how we are oriented towards those encounters, if we are starting from experiences of being enabled and extended, versus if we are constantly blocked, diminished, and disoriented. As well, there are inevitably racialized differences in the moment of encounter itself that can only be explained by looking at all the forms of background (and more) I describe above in talking about Chapter 1. How can that be accounted for in trying to write about knowing the world through encounter, relation, and movement? I'm continuing to think about this.

In fact, I don't really know how I'm going to make use of the insights of this book more generally in my current work. It will, I think, have a pretty strong influence on what I'm doing, but I think there's a good chance that what I write won't look much at all like what's in this book. I won't be able to stay as attentive to the dense experiential immediacy that is the main focus of this book, in large part because the archive of encounters on which I will be drawing for at least a part of what I want to do simply won't allow it. But I would also choose not to anyway, I think, because part of what I want to do is make use of the connections this book discusses between the moment of encounter and less proximal aspects of the social world to produce knowledge about those less proximal aspects. Don't know if it's actually going to be possible in the way I'm envisioning, but reading this book is one helpful step along the way to figuring that out.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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