Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Phenomenology Rules

(Long post)

At the beginning of October I went to a three-day conference in Melbourne called "Time, Transcendence, Performance". Not something that I would normally do, but my installation Cloud Drum was in the art show associated with the event. All the works dealt with some mixture of time and performance in some way, and since mine involves two time scales and is interactive it fitted in quite well.

The conference was organised by Stuart Grant, Jodie McNeilly and Caroline Vains, assisted by lots of people; Jeff Stewart looked after the art show, among other things. The conference took place at three locations: Monash University's Caulfield campus, Dancehouse in Carlton, and ACMI at Federation Square. There were also events in Second Life. At times it seemed that threre were three or four separate conferences going on, and I missed out on all the Federation Square events, including Stelarc's opening talk. Also at Caulfield there were multiple parallel sessions, so I only saw a fraction of the conference. It was certainly a large and complex event, with a sizeable international participation. Of the parts I saw, although the tight schedule became a bit frayed at times, as far as I can tell things ran pretty well.

I don't think I have met a card-carrying phenomenologist before, but there were quite a few around the conference. It was pretty clear that "time" in the conference title didn't have a lot to do with physics, but rather with personal experience. Heidegger and especially Husserl came up repeatedly. (I realise that there is an argument that time as conceived by physicists can be derived from phenomenology, but I don't know how it goes.) There is a whole language here that I don't speak - this is not a criticism, just a comment - so quite a few of the presentations went over my head. There was a sub-theme of comments on intense experience, described by one speaker as "moments of stillness".

As well as theory, there was practice. The main performing artform people were concerned with seemed to be dance, and there were performances at Dancehouse, some quite striking, in the evenings. I'll just mention "Zeno's Overcoat", performed by Peter Fraser (dancer) and Dale Gorfinkel (musician). There were also two talks I attended where the speakers described their personal experiences very vividly. One was by Ian Maxwell (Sydney), describing his baptism into the Greek Orthodox Church, which came about because he wished to marry a Greek woman; the other was the last paper of the conference, given by Alphonso Lingis (U.S.A), which consisted of a series of vignettes of various experiences he has had over the years, with appropriate music. Although both of these people were talking about specific experiences, they somehow managed to give them a universal character.

I'm not sure what I've taken away from the conference, though I found it enjoyable, and there were lots of interesting things. There is a whole world of phenomenology, it seems. Indeed, I did have a sense to some extent of two parallel worlds, with phenomenologists occupying one and cognitive scientists (who were not represented here) the other. From what I can work out, the phenomenologists opened up these questions first, but a lot has happened since. This isn't a criticism of Stuart Grant, as the conference already had an impressively wide scope. Also, I understand he has plans for bringing together phenomenologists and cognitive scientists at some time.

The conference also pointed out to me a specific difference between the humanities and the sciences. I saw somewhere (I don't remember where) a comment that in science, successful work becomes anonymous, in that it is absorbed into textbooks and nobody except the odd historian feels the need to go back to the original writings. This certainly fits in with my past experience in science. The conference was on the humanities; there were constant references back to the writings of Heidegger and Husserl, and other originary thinkers. Also, the history of science is a small sub-discipline, whereas it seems that many (most?) humanities scholars are part-time historians of their disciplines. Again, a Mathematics department is full of mathematicians; the parallel would be an English department full of novelists or poets. Not only is the history of science not much practised in science departments, but criticism or analysis as understood in the humanities is not much practised either. This isn't a question of wilful blindess; it must be a consequence of the different ways knowledge or understanding is secured in the different disciplines.

I'm not gong to rush in any further where angels fear to tread.