On Phenomenology

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

“The body is our general medium for having a world.”
— Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception)

In a program as interdisciplinary as Communication, Culture and Technology, I find that one of our ongoing projects consists of finding and refining our method, or a way that we as academics choose to structure our research, which includes the processes that we use in order to discover, describe and answer our disparate, technology-related questions. As outlined in 505, the introduction to class to CCT, these methods generally fall along the lines of those that are post-positivistic or empirical in nature and those that are theoretical or critical. However, even within these two different forms of inquiry, there are a number of different approaches that an individual can take. In this, my first gnovis blog post, I would like to outline phenomenology as a theoretical method that particularly speaks to me and that I feel may be incredibly helpful in my area of research.

Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on actual, observable lived experience as opposed to the hypothetical or speculative. This includes the world of objects and focuses on both materiality (the physical, which we can orient ourselves towards and around) and temporality (the way that we act and engage both over time as well as on a daily basis).
Interestingly, I see an important connection between this approach to a study of the social, and documentary film, which has been a passion of mine and is what I ultimately see as the crux of my overall career path. Much of the impetus behind documentary film is a value for representations based on intimate observation and the idea that the detailed depiction of individuals and situations can ultimately express more intricacy and can have more of a lasting impact than the simple statement of statistics or the explanation of the results of studies or surveys and the “facts” that those results may suggest.

Now, obviously the representations depicted in documentary film are always ultimately based in the experiences and perspectives of the filmmaker or storyteller (which has interesting ramifications when it comes to the current trend in “participatory media, which I will save for another blog). This fact also has concurrent implications for the use of phenomenology as a theoretical method, and perhaps many other methods of inquiry as well. Indeed, another project of which I find CCT students in constant pursuit deals with this very issue: how do we situate and make transparent our relationship to the subject matter we are studying within that very study itself (or not)?

One thing that I find valuable about phenomenology and documentary film is that, at their best, they never pretend or assume to be the ultimate explanation for a given social issue or phenomenon. Within these methods there is a focus on exemplification, as opposed to attempts at description or explanation. I guess you could say that my interest in these forms of study lies both in my skepticism and my practicality. If we are pursuing study and as a way to extend knowledge and inform our ways of interacting in this world, I find it most useful if these methods of inquiry are both rooted in the material physicality of life and transparently situated in ones own ontological experience of the world.

For my thesis, I am studying the ways in which individuals interact with images of themselves, particularly when it comes to the curatorial nature of social networking websites like myspace and facebook. I am interested in the curation of self as a form of self-care and the relation of visual narration and story-telling to concepts of identity in the digital age. I see phenomenology as a powerful tool to explore these issues in a way that may both complicate perceptions of lived experience on a personal level and open up avenues for new modes of thought on a daily basis. Ultimately, I conceive of my work as a project towards both visual literacy and visual ethics. I look forward to working out some of these issues in my gnovis blog, and I encourage your feedback along the way!