Taking Place by Jon Keppel
The idea of the world as an extended domain in which a variety of actors and entities intermingle is a worldview that has emerged over the course of centuries and from many different sources. The acquisition or reckoning of self-consciousness is something that has developed simultaneously with the idea of boundless objectivity. That is to say, as self-awareness and self-concern have grown more prominent so too has the consideration for that which is not the self, that by which the self is born and distinguishes itself. Along with this sense of existential autonomy, the idea of the individual mind has also gained a great amount of influence. It is generally thought that human beings have a kind of personal cache of intelligence that is conceived as being, before all else, housed in and around one’s head. To a lesser degree the mind is thought to branch out from this locus by means of one’s bodily senses, along with various fabricated instruments of detection and any of a number of technologies that let one perceive from a distance.
This definition of the individual as a part of the world that interacts with other parts of that same world in dynamic but irresolvable ways is tantamount to the principles that are at the core of the subject to object dichotomy. The idea of the world as a place brings about these roles: the here and the there, the now and the then, the self and the Other, the viewer and the viewed. At the same time, viewing the world in this way brings about a number of important considerations in regards to the nature and authenticity of what it means to inhabit an experiential world. It is fair to ponder whether this distinction is the result of an observation or a choice.
Essential to the subject to object dichotomy is the concept and perceived reality of space. Space both separates and connects the subject to the object and vice versa, similar to a how a referee operates in a sporting match. In this way of thinking, two distinct entities co-habiting a common objective realm are engaged by their disparity. This disparity is constantly being renegotiated, which in turn reconstitutes the appearance of the object and the perspectives available to the viewer. This act of resituating, no matter how subtle, exacerbates the available appearances to the extent that an object is never viewed in its entirety. In a sense, the concept and adjoining experience of an entire object becomes problematic, arguably approaching something unfathomable.
The depth and diversity of appearances radiating from any given object that lay at the subject’s disposal provide such a dense and contingent welter of information that one must not only cordon off other objects and phenomena that surround an intended object of focus, but one must also cordon off certain aspects of that object’s own appearances in order to establish a meaningful relationship with it. What is more, one must behold those chosen attributes in a certain way in order to facilitate correspondence. So it is not just the fact that the subject is limited to only certain faces of an object that inhibits the ability to perceive directly the totality of an object but also the incomprehensibly diverse and conditional nature of the face that the subject does see.
In the Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes clear the problematic nature of deciphering the normal state of any given thing. Trying to imagine an object in total isolation, such that its appearances are not affected by surrounding forces becomes inconceivable. Factors like humidity, quality of light (both natural and artificial) and shear spatial distance, to name a few, come to play pivotal roles in establishing the appearance of any given object. For example, an apple found on a tree in an orchard beneath the light of the sun would appear much differently if taken indoors and lit by a tungsten bulb. The nature of the light helps to establish the nature of the perceived object.
It is not however simply the object that one perceives. As Merleau-Ponty states, drawn from his mentor Franz Brentano, consciousness is an intentional act. Perception, therefore, is not only consciousness of something but it is a certain kind of consciousness directed at a particular aspect of that something. This observation extends to the related statement that the mind can take on only one thing at a time and in a sequential order. Likewise, it can take on only one aspect of that something and in a sequential order. Thinking about the apple again, consider walking into a dimly lit room. One must first bracket out all of the other objects contained in that room in order to peer directly at that which is perceived to be an apple sitting on a table. In looking at this placed object it may appear dull, smooth and crimson. Upon turning on the light, we may notice that there is in fact a good amount of green scattered throughout the skin. What is more, if we approach the apple and sit down at the table to inspect it further, placing our nose very close to the surface, we may notice a great many other shades of milky browns, burnt oranges and so on. Upon picking the apple up and turning it in our hand we may notice that the other side is almost entirely green and that the side that we had been peering at which seemed to be spherical is in fact more like an ellipse.
These are the types of experiences that one has when interacting with the apparent face of an object. What once appeared simple suddenly becomes complex, dynamic, articulate and sometimes strange. What was once wide becomes narrow; what staggered, pales. When we look into the face of another, we cannot see the back of their head, nor can we see our own. As we circumnavigate such things in the world as an apple, a table or a person we come to know them in the round. That is to say, as we survey such objects and move about we gather information from bifurcated moments in time that when recalled can be collected and dynamically displayed in the mind as mental impressions. We bare witness to that which, moments ago and from a certain perspective, was concealed. So too do we, through observation of the world, incrementally reveal parts of our own person, our own hidden totality, our own nature, that, only moments ago, were concealed.
The act of circumnavigation is an important aspect of our perceptual life, in that it unfolds that which is bound or obscured by space and time. This however is ancillary in regards to that which is chosen in the face that one does see; the one that we are given moment by moment. For this relationship is that which establishes the teeming sea of flickering memories and reflections, subtle and instantaneous determinations that pair, un-pair and pair again in the night of one’s mind. Before these constellations can take flight though, each unique cell of illumination must be birthed by the interplay between the mind and that which it takes as its object. If we imagine once again to be seated in front of the apple on the table, we stare for a moment taking in the fact that there is perhaps much more green than red. As we become more familiar and accepting of this, our past determinations and impressions begin to recede and fade until we acknowledge that we are in fact looking at a green apple not a red one and in so doing are now able to project, or extract as the case may be, any number of appropriate associations to that which we know to be a green apple in the world.
We may think of the paintings of Rene Magritte. We may think of that well-known Beatles’ album. We may consider whether the apple is a Granny Smith, a Golden Delicious or a yet-to-be-ripened Fuji. We might think about its taste, whether it is tart, sweet or sour. We might think about the word apple, its letters, its pronunciation or its etymology. We may think about the word apple written out in different fonts, with different kerning and in different languages. All the while, that which stands before us has not changed its physical makeup and yet it has changed its status as we project our own stocks of knowledge onto its face and mine, bit by bit, from its symbolic history and our own. Its presence informs our thoughts and our thoughts inform its presence producing new potential usages, messages, meanings, utilities and values. It transforms for us and in so doing, transforms its very appearance.
In order for this type of exchange to be possible though, the object of focus must, before all else, either naturally rise or intentionally be drawn to the surface of all other available phenomena, both externally and internally. In sitting down to peer at the apple, one has in a sense shooed away all other surrounding objects, phenomena and events in order to have the opportunity to consider it as a particular of the world, as an object. At the same time, one has also shooed away all other forms of extraneous inner considerations such as superfluous thoughts, unrelated memories, and imaginary fantasies in order to focus the mind directly at the object, like a gun to a target. The outer and inner horizons find a common vanishing point, aligning at a single physical location (in perceptual studies this is often referred to as the zero-point). Consciousness finds a way to anchor itself in the material world and to distinguish a coordinate by choosing a point of contact. The spectacle of the world is momentarily subordinated. One gives oneself to the object and in-so-doing, the object becomes a screen by which one’s own personal biography can join with one’s general knowledge of the world to produce an experience. The two can join in ways unique to the relationship formed between that particular subject and object, and yet, through language, signs and other social means of engagement, remain communicable to the world.
A physicist for example may envision the molecular makeup of the apple, the various sugars and pectin lying beneath its fiber-rich skin. A baker may devise the ways in which the apple can be prepared as a part of various dishes and desserts. An entrepreneur, on the other hand, may consider the apple in light of its market value thinking about the labor it takes to pick, package and ship the apple to have it sitting there on the table. Each person forges a unique relationship to the intended object of focus. Still, the apple, whatever an apple is, sits there before one in the world as a matter of fact. It can, at anytime, regardless of its perceived ontological character, be picked up and eaten. Our thoughts and interpretations, desires and intentions do not on their own change the materiality of an object. However, when paired correctly with appropriately calibrated acts, certain thoughts can be transferred into the substantive world and analogously transform what they find there.
For example, the physicist could have a theory about the subatomic makeup of an apple and decide to place the apple in an atom smasher in order to study its molecular structure. Its protons and electrons would literally be resituated in hopes of mirroring the hypothesis. The baker could set out to achieve a similar effect, though on a more macroscopic level. Perhaps a certain consistency in the apple’s flesh is desired for a particular type of dumpling, whereby it is placed into a heated oven and made to soften. Similarly, the entrepreneur could foresee a type of apple staying fresher, and therefore more likely to yield a return, when placed in a certain type of environment. The apple could be placed in a climate-controlled warehouse, whereby its physical qualities would be preserved and its shelf-life extended. In each case, the individual’s conceived interests transform the materiality of the apple in a way that reflects an intentional thought. The apple is transformed, yet not so much that it is no longer an apple.
In other words, it is not that one can in a sense think an apple into another piece of fruit such as an orange. However, if one can find a correct relationship between one’s intentions and the physical attributes of objects available, one can transform a chosen object towards a certain end by transferring a thought from the mind into the material, and thus perceivable, world. This applies not only to how individual objects are constituted and conferred with meaning (i.e. how different types of apples get their name and culinary reputation) but also to how objects gather meaning, both rhetorical and intentional, when juxtaposed alongside other objects in space and time (an apple set next to the bible could conjure up a very specific type of association). Fully developed thought then becomes in a sense the way in which the physical world is arranged by intentional acts. These acts find their impetus in those articulate images, mentioned earlier, that are strewn from dynamic, though ambiguous, impressions in the mind. This is how the inner life of the mind finds a way to take place in the world as we generally use the term.
We see however that this process remains a subtly two-way street. One’s perception of an object can be guided by one’s intentions, which are influenced by one’s interpretation of an object. These interpretations can be colored by one’s unique stock of knowledge, which has been gained from previous experiences with the perceivable world. The physicist may not notice that the apple is not spherical because he is not concerned with the dimensions of the apple. The baker however will notice this in deciding whether or not a certain apple will make a nice presentation for a dumpling. Likewise, the baker may not notice that a particular type of apple may yield certain striking images when placed under a microscope regardless of its outer shape. Depending on the circumstances, neither person may actually pick the apple up and do anything at all with it based on their own personal assessment of what an apple is, what it should be, what about it is important and what it should be use for.
An object’s potential to facilitate these meanings and achieve these usages however does not necessarily stem exclusively from its own material substance and structure but also its ability to connect with and separate from other material objects in both simple and complex ways. Objects, whether they emerge organically into the world or are manufactured there, are aggregates. That is to say, they are made up of parts. They each have constituents of their own and many times stand as constituents of greater unities and systems of which those unities are a part. An apple, for example, is that which is consistently made up of varying determinable parts. It has a skin, a stem, flesh, seeds and so on. These characteristics are after all how we know that it is an apple in the first place and recognize it as such. Conversely, an apple comes from a tree: a whole of which it formerly was a part. That which we know to be a tree in the world has its own set of varying determinable parts such as a root, a trunk, a branch, a leaf and in some cases a fruit. This observation offers an entry into how the mind discerns one attribute from another when scanning, or considering, the apparent face of an object, person or place. It also hints at how the mind creates schemas in order to relate wholes to parts and vice versa.
If we place the physicist, baker and entrepreneur all in the same exact spot, one after another, each will be faced with the same view of the apple. Each will have the same line of sight and surface to take in and yet each one’s mind will be prompted to search for and react to different characteristics of that face. Light reflected from the apple will enter the pupil of each at the exact same angle and intensity, stimulating and patterning the rods and cones that it finds there in similar fashion. Each one however will edit, pair and relate this raw sensory information in their own way. Their intentions and biases will tend to make their minds gravitate towards certain bits of incoming data and discard others. The baker may pick up on the smoothness of the apple’s skin, or the lack thereof, and make a judgment about its ripeness and therefore its taste. The entrepreneur may focus instead on a tiny localized sore spot that is superficial, not effecting the taste of the apple ultimately, yet lessening its visual appeal, and thus its potential to attract a buyer.
In the dichotomy of the subject to object worldview, consciousness erupts into the world as the mind and the body attain various positions in space and orient themselves in relationship to other people, objects and places. This process of orientation continues though even after a physical perspective has been determined. The body momentarily calms its endless locomotion and commits itself to a particular perspective of a given thing. The mind however continues surveying the object by assessing the face that that perspective yields. The mind, guided by the will, subdivides the various attributes of that thing’s apparent face to determine where certain elements begin and where they end. Also, it decides which ones are currently important and which ones are not.
This is how the mind can behold a tree (e.g. an apple tree) as an object and then for whatever reason, decide to focus on one of its attributes and consider that attribute as an object in its own right (e.g. an apple). The mind can toggle back and forth between seeing an apple tree at one moment and simply an apple the next. Likewise, it can resolve to behold an apple tree or it can from the same physical perspective choose to take in all of the other surrounding apple trees and consider the phenomenon of an orchard as the object of its thought, subjugating the tree as part of a yet greater determinable whole.
It is this critical and creative skill that enables the mind to draw meaning from an object and ultimately the world at large. One guides one’s thoughts towards certain attributes of that object’s available appearance and by relating those attributes to each other, makes the spectacle of the world articulate. The same way that we gather meaning by studying the relationship of objects to other objects, their unity and division, so too do we determine the meaning of a single object by studying the relationship between its various self-contained attributes. Consciousness is seemingly attracted and gathered by the gravity of one’s will into that which we understand to be the mind. It then coalesces and is directed towards a particular of the world in order to understand that particular object and by contrast itself. It is at this moment that the subject and object are produced. This is how the world occurs, for us and for our witnesses. It is the way in which we come to know the nature of experience.
It must be remembered though that central to the idea of occurrence is the idea and presence of motion. Nothing can occur without arriving in some way and departing in another. Motion, as has been noted by many others, is essential to perception itself. The conundrum though is that as subjects approach and engage with objects in the world the appearance of those objects are equally dependent on the mind of the individual which by definition does not move in that it is immaterial. The world may be made up of subjects and objects, parts that perceive and parts that are perceived, but the experience that one has as a result does not happen in the world at all.
1) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phenomenology of Perception. Paris: Gallimard.
2) Schutz, Alfred. 1973. The Structures of the Life-World. London: Northwestern University Press.
3) Husserl, Edmund. 1954. The Crisis in European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
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