Phenomenological Psychology

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On the Recondite Pleasures of Staring at the Wall

July 15th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

Lately I have taken to staring at the wall for extended periods of time, which must mean I find doing so enjoyable, or utility-promoting.  I have not become catatonic, or subject to a mood disorder.  Nor am I inclined to adopt new-age or pseudo-Buddhist descriptors, such as, “meditating,” “clearing my head,” “going into my spirit cave,” or similar locutions.  In fact, the process is much simpler: I can compress the experience of space, and the experience of temporality.

Space, because one’s perceived horizon shrinks dramatically.  All one sees, is wall.  One’s head has a limited range of axial movement as it perches on top of one’s neck.  But when one turns it, one sees wall.  Even peripheral vision reveals nothing but wall.  For some, this constriction of space might lead to a sense of claustrophobia.  I doubt I could acclimate myself to life in a monk’s cell, like those at the Church of San Marco in Florence, Italy (well, maybe that would be OK, especially since each contains an extraordinary painting by Fra Angelico).  But that is enclosed space, whereas the space I am describing is open, insofar as is practical, on three sides.

Time, because temporality becomes elastic.  Moments are grossly distended.  They either become shorter, or longer.  While there is no particular cause for either, it must have something to do with one’s orientation towards the space.  One does not “concentrate on,” or intentionally orient one’s sensory apparatus towards, the wall.  Rather, it becomes a moiré pattern of shifting images and perceptual textures.  They come to acquire a kaleidoscopic life of their own.  As one does so, one’s senses become all the more acute.  To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel (1966), one comes to hear the “Sounds of Silence.”

All of us are dispersed in time.  Life seems to be a series of “nows,”  and we think of ourselves as living moment-to-moment, at least, when we take the time to do so.  Since Aristotle, philosophers and psychologists have wrestled with the problem of continuity – that is, how connect a “personality” or the “self” to this sequence of living, streaming instants.  Without it, we are, or seem to be, disconnected from the world.

In The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness (1905), Edmund Husserl advocated the Cartesian view that there really is nothing more to it, than this forward march of succession.  Each instant incorporates aspects of its predecessor, occurs, and then projects itself into the future.  We retain certain key features of the previous moment, then experience it as the current moment, then anticipate the next.  This series of contemporaneous instants becomes accessible to us, only as we reflect on our inner experience of time.

In Being and Time (1927), Martin Heidegger critiques the Husserlian point of view, and provides a more persuasive account.  Heidegger distinguishes between Cartesian space/time and existential space/time.  The former are what actually exist in the world.  The latter comprise the framework around which one structures one’s life.  Heidegger isn’t particularly interested in the former.  He is, however, highly concerned with the latter.

According to Heidegger, it’s a mistake to think of existential time as a linear series of instantaneous moments, occurring one right after the other.  This is an ordinary or naïve view of how time progresses.  Heidegger calls this bewegung, or the movement of processes (and the things implicated by them) in Cartesian time.  Bewegung describes when one regards an object as such, in the present-at-hand.  To replace it, Heidegger offers an account of what he calls bewegtheit, or the kinetic motion of activity, in existential time.  Bewegtheit is the movement of involvement, of engagée, of life itself. 

Properly understood, for example, is not a series of discrete, temporally isolated events.  Rather, it is structured around the initiation and completion of activities, such as: picking up the hammer; grasping its sheath; positioning the nail; and driving it into the wood with a series of blows.  Any one of these may take more, or less, than a second (Cartesian time) to accomplish.  The proper descriptor is elastic, structured to the nature of the activity being performed.  However long (or short) it may be, that is the relevant measure of temporality – not Cartesian time.  Temporality is not a series of sequential events, but rather, existential ones.

Even more pervasively, time is a stance one takes towards one’s possibilities and prospects.  One undertakes activities to implement one’s goals and objectives.  One never actually achieves them, understood as a specific result.  For example, an aesthetic work by an artist may be a tangible thing.  However, for the artist, it’s the process of self-expression that’s important.  As one engages in these types of non-outcome-based but nonetheless-purposeful events, the experience of time becomes less structured. 

The best literary illustration I know of this is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus do not exist in Cartesian time.  Rather, they are firmly situated in existential time, as their thoughts glide and soar, unconcerned with the chronological succession of moments.  If there were a way to parse each one’s sequence of thoughts chronologically, the metric would not be seconds, minutes or hours.  Rather, it would be units of continuity.  Since none of them particularly “do” anything in the novel, these units of continuity are calibrated to the pacing and tempo of their associative thought processes.  

Another literary illustration is The Count of Monte Cristo (1846) by Alexandre Dumas.  He writes of the travails of Edmond Dantè and Abbe Faria, two inmates of the notorious Château d’If.  Also, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976).  The roles of Molina and Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman are considerably different than those of Dantè and Faria in The Count of Monte Cristo.  Spatially and temporally, though, they are identical.  The biggest event in their day might be when a spider crosses the wall.  They would analyze the spider’s every movement, anticipating its twists and turns, like a critic reviewing a ballet performance.  They would carefully tend to the spider and her web, knowing it is a primary source of contact with the world. 

This is closer to the sensation I am trying to describe.  The spider doesn’t “stand for,” or “represent” anything in the prisoner’s psyche.  It’s not the “projection” of some kind of a “repressed instinct,” originating in the “id” but mediated through the “ego.”  Nor does it take on any anthropomorphic characteristics.  Rather, it’s pure phenomenological data, with which the prisoner interacts in order to create an alternative fantasy world.  That existential world resembles the Cartesian world, in that it has spatial and temporal aspects.  It is inhabited by objects and people.  Those people assume roles, and undertake.  The prisoner’s imagined world even may have loose, tangential connections with the Cartesian world.  However, fundamentally, it is a creation of the prisoner’s imagination, prompted by and tethered to incidental events, such as the spider crossing the wall.  As Byron wrote in “The Prisoner of Chillon” (1816): “With spiders I had friendship made, And watch’d them in their sullen trade, Had seen the mice by moonlight play, And why should I feel less than they?”