know more

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What is Phenomenology?

Today we're going to talk about a concept you might already be fairly familiar with, even if you haven't had time for much critical thought on the subject before now. Phenomenology literally "the study of that which is apparent", is the study of experience established by Edmond Husserl in the early 20th century. Phenomena (that which appears or is apparent) was defined by Immanuel Kant in his 1781 "Critique of Pure Reason" by its contrast with noumena, a "thing-in-itself".

The History (Opaque & Dry... and skippable)
Husserl found his way to phenomenology amidst his analysis of the consciousness around the turn of the century. Husserl was investigating the intention of consciousness and mental acts as they had been presented to him by his professors Franz Brentano & Carl Stumpf: specifically, "intentionality," which specified that consciousness is always "consciousness of."

Consciousness or awareness always has a target or an object which we are "conscious of" or "aware of." It's a principle conceit of the Buddhist practice that ideal meditation should allow the practitioner to secede from his active role in consciousness; the quintessential struggle for a Buddhist student is then to overcome his consciousness of his own thoughts and that desire to secede from "consciousness of." Husserl studied the relationship between the subject and object here: what exactly do we do when we "are aware of" an object?

The Phenomenology
This classic example has availed itself to many of us in our youth when we're given too much time to think: do I see the same colors you do? Sure, this apple can be empirically confirmed to reflect light in the 620-740nm band, absorbing most other wavelengths, and we can confirm that cones of the same design and function are excited by that radiation in each of our eyes. We can even confirm that the same regions of the brain will be accessed to process this data, passing from one region to the next in a similar order. What we can't confirm is whether or not our experiential brains render the same image given this processed data: if my image processors were given to you to "look" through, would the world appear wildly distorted?

The example is a decidedly moot point, of course, but it begins to illustrate the difference between the noumenon "red" (radiation largely composed of the 620-740nm band) and the phenomenon "red," which we experience.

Of course, the sensory information we gather about our environment is hardly the most interesting data  we have to inform our experience of reality. At any given moment our analytic faculties complete our perception of the world: memory tells us that the apple might be cool to the touch, anticipation of geometry tells us how far we might throw the apple should we need to, and a pang of hunger might drive an emotional yearning for the apple. The phenomenological apple is composed of a great many more properties than the noumenological apple, properties which are significant only because the apple is being experienced.

Reaching back to the question Husserl reached studying the function of consciousness, we must consider that it's not, in fact, the noumenological apple which we experience. Although that apple noumenon (if it exists, but that's another discussion) provides visual, tactile, and other sensory stimulus to prompt the neurological processes which generate the full extent of the apple phenomenon, what we experience and are conscious of is the product of all that processing, the phenomenon.

Why do I care?
If we can accept this line of logic it allows us to begin to examine a broad range of phenomena and asses their origins as context evaluated by the psyche rather than dogging after the noumena. The music phenomenon, for example, is generated as even the most subtle implications of beat and chord progression pass through the mind's processing (we talked about one possible way the mind might have evolved to generate the music phenomenon earlier); narrative, even more fundamentally, is a phenomenon generated as a subject gathers just enough context to attempt to draw lines in the structure of events provided.

It behooves anyone whose employment hinges on human response phenomena (which should be everyone at some point) to understand that their work derives its meaning entirely from the context provided and the context at the point of delivery.

Any value we attribute to our work as noumenon, separate from its intended implementation, is strictly statistical; an "artist," likewise, has only statistical evidence to prove that his grasp of context is sufficient to reliably exact phenomena in a target audience.

So study up! I know for my part that I am always searching for context to inform the decisions I make in composition and lighting (how my department's work can affect the audience's sense of the narrative at large); luckily, the more I learn about context to inform my conscious decision making, the more accurate and effective my on-the-fly improvisations will be.

Know more!


  1. For the sake of argument, why bother? The noumena (if it exists at all) is by definition unattainable, and any phenomena that two people agree on to describe such a thing is by extension a coincidence; no third party could ever verify it, after all. Even statistics can't help you there.

    So why strive to better communicate what can not, fundamentally, be communicated?

  2. The more we learn about context for our audience the more likely our creative decisions will deliver the phenomena we have in mind to the audience.

    We try to deliver the phenomenon in the first place because rich, enrapturing phenomena is such a particular human joy to experience: music, movies, narrative in general light up our minds in such a satisfying way as long as they're presented with JUST enough context to accomplish the task.

  3. JUST enough context? What happens when we as story tellers provide too much context? I guess our frame becomes too obtuse to convey our intended message or meaning. I've always been told that the beauty is in the details, but so often I'm thrilled by what I don't see on screen, or by what's not said (IOW by the context I bring to the piece as an audience member).

    If you were trying to create a film intended to guide the watcher into a meditative state that "secedes his active role in consciousness", theoretically how would you go about it?

  4. well if you are assuming large and diverse audiences, as would be the case with most films, then the first task would be to stifle the consciousness in order to allow the subconscious to take hold. I think the best way to achieve this would be to supply simple and steady distraction for the conscious mind that supplies no context or experience save what each individuals subconscious should choose to bring up. This would be something like a solid white screen and a continuous single musical note. With no direction given but senses still being stimulated the mind will turn inwards and begin to create its own context, narrative, emotional resonance. The Buddhists would tell you to then strive even farther and to release the subconscious associations as well, but that takes decades...

    not to mention it would be a very dull film

  5. So close!

    Against a plain, unchanging blue screen, a densely interwoven soundtrack of voices, sound effects and music attempt to convey a portrait of Derek Jarman's experiences with AIDS, both literally and allegorically, together with an exploration of the meanings associated with the colour blue.

    It's actually fairly riveting, as far as I... watched?

  6. took me forever to get back to this lol, but just watched the first ten minutes of BLUE, and that was fantastic. you were right its so damn close to what i was thinking of.