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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

On Phenomenology and Abstraction, PART 001

This is a personal piece; don't let the title fool you into believing some extravagant academic lecture is about to take place.

“My memory of the past often takes me to places that seem odd; no matter how many times the memory comes back to me. I remember that during that desperate time, I wrote about a distant memory whose own absurd abstraction still makes me feel solitude and downright phobia of the surreal. Of course, I did not see that moment in that way at the time it took place. I was lost in my own world. It felt as if I had separated from the rest of the human race. The feeling was not unlike that of “The Little Prince.” I was in another world, at some exact time feeling fear and joy, elation and panic. Perhaps I am over-examining the memory of that place. As an adult, I can create all sorts of interpretations, recreating the event and giving it additional meanings. But the time and place—what really happened that day and the feeling of complete isolation were kept in some corner of my brain. Why do I still remember that day? Did I experience what Kitaro Nishida calls “Pure Experience?” Technically, the memory simply includes the setting, knowing that my parents nearby but not with me, the weather—I remember vividly that it was very cloudy and the air gave the distinctive feeling that it was about to rain. So where’s the absurdity? Where’s the surreal image? Perhaps the image is what stuck to my mind, waiting for me to reach adulthood and a have the intellectual capacity needed to defeat the symbols of that absurdity. That is not to say I needed to read Freud or Jung to make sense of this episode and scenery, but it does help to know the potential of this being a universal feeling or experience, one of those things that happen to people every day. It is not what happened, really, but the feeling that the moment was important and meaningful in a way I might never be able to explain. Of one thing I am certain: if I seek back far enough, I will find the appropriate, if not adequate theory to go with the interpretation I have formulated.

“I hope I am not giving the impression that this event has haunted me, rendering me incapable to defeat the fear/phobia and reach an understanding of it. What makes the memory come to life in picture? The weather, the fact that my parents were a few hundred yards away but I still felt incredibly lost, and, perhaps the most important or ridiculous part of the experience: I was on a skating rink with skates on. I forgot to mention that the beach was also a stone throw away; hence, my parents at a fishing pier not within eye sight but close enough. So, if I combine all of those things, and feel the experience was meaningful in some deep level of understanding, where do I begin to unravel its meaning, its significance, the real meaning behind all of those symbols? Of course, I hear myself loudly enough about how I am making more of this than I should. This is not as if I was trying to decipher a dream; that, I suppose, would be a little less complex. Could I look at it as it were a dream from long ago? Possibly, but I would not be able to do that without robbing it of something essential: the fact that I am looking at an actual event in my life and not some sort of activity in my brain while in the deep recesses of slumber. This happened on the outside; it was perceived and retained, and now meaning seems to be forcing itself on the memory. See, if it had been a dream, then it would go without saying that meaning would creep up on it by the fact that dreams, by default, seek meaning. Books have been written about it (Freud, again). Why tackle this now? Why not leave it at what I wrote about it back in 2005? Why? I’ve become a different person in the last five years. There are still many of the same emotions I had then in my “present-mindedness,” and I cannot overlook the fact that I am a more stable person today. And it is this stability that allows me to look at the past in this way. Would I be able to look at this very event in the same way? Suppose I return to it 20 years later, what would I say about the feeling of complete abstraction? I mean, we are not talking about an event that visually resembles a Guernica; it is simply what it is: a childhood memory.

“I suspect that there’s danger in going to opposite way and pretend that the memory means nothing. I do not subscribe to the idea of nothingness—even thoughts and memories embody substantiality. Millions of cells do “their thing” in order to bring the memory as a picture. That, even at the molecular level the picture/memories have substantial, matter-like meaning. I know that the memory means something, that the symbols embedded in it are there for a reason and that I need to interpret them in my own way. Nevertheless, I should try and avoid “trading” one interpretation for another as the years continue to pass. I know I said earlier that by default I create different interpretations with every year that passes, but the seductive power of the status quo can be strong—let’s just leave things the way they are. Jean Paul Sartre said as much, “Things are exactly what they are, and behind them there is nothing.” Of course, I have to steady the memory itself and the impact it continues to have on me by giving it its proper value, quality and characteristic. I mustn’t, however, seek for over-simplifications (Sartre was often accused of obfuscating the topic at hand if he did not know enough about it). The skating rink as a symbol of going around in circles and making the same mistakes again and again is a valid interpretation, but what if there’s much more than that and by accepting that I neglect other approaches, other theories? Could different interpretations of the same event survive side by side? What if they contradict each other? How do I select one over the other and know I am making the right choice? What I have neglected to say here is that all I have done with this memory/picture is to study it from a phenomenological stance, a manifestation within a manifestation. That is to say, above all different meanings behind the actual visual memory, the simple act of having experienced that moment in that place and at that time is textbook phenomenology. It also goes without saying that I could never experience that again, anymore than I could experience Marine Corps boot camp any other different way.

“Going back to the skating rink, were it to be different if I remembered the date of the occasion? For example, I remember the date and time of the first kiss I gave a girl in the seventh grade. The fact that I remember the date seems to solidify the memory; it seems to stabilize it but not in an ordinary way. The date and time give the experience a framework to depart from—so 29 years ago, when I took that girl in my arms and kissed her remains in my mind as “Pure Experience.” “Pure Experience,” as per Japanese rational philosopher Kitaro Nishida stipulates that experience can only be pure (its highest state) only when judgment of said experience is superseded the experience itself. For example, I see the color red. When did I see that color for the first time, and when was I told that the color red looked that way (in all its variations)? Well, the time I saw the color red before there was anyone there to explain it to me is, as per Nishida, “Pure Experience.” With the memory of the skating rink I would have to say no (because of the fact that I knew what the skating rink was, and what I was doing there was known to me). But a little more digging reveals the impossibility of “Pure Experience” interpretation. By remembering a date and time, we subscribe the memory/picture to a man-made concept: the Gregorian calendar, so that the experience becomes memory by means of a day of a month of a year at a specific time of that day, invalidating both “Pure Experience” and phenomenology. Another example of this is how people experience history. There is a large movement in the United States of people who gather to recreate Civil War battles. Is the experience of recreating an experience more real/valid than watching, say, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” on PBS the first time it aired? We can’t go back in time, so we engage in simulacra (not exactly play “pretend”) and call it experience.

“I still wonder what it was about the skating rink that burned the memory in my brain. Was it the weather that set the mood, the dark clouds gathering with the promise of a summer storm? In some way I believe it did. Would I remember and see that moment the same way if it had been clear outside, the sky so bright and sunny it hurt my eyes to look at it? I think I am making progress. My personality—from a very early age—has had the propensity for the melancholy. The process of that memory (visual and philosophically) was branded in my mind by means of a deep feeling of self-awareness (perhaps the first I ever had in regards to emotions). Self-awareness of one’s own physical existence happens much earlier. The memory of the skating rink is something I believe to be metaphysical. It gave me the first glimpse into the world of thought. It was impossible to realize what was happening at the time; these were issues beyond my maturity. It is only later that we can begin to ask, what are we suppose to remember? What do we do with a memory that is more than a glimpse to the past? Should we mold and shape our lives by the discoveries we make looking back and philosophizing the memory? What are these symbols? The skating rink, me going in circles, the weather threatening, my parents (far away as if in another world), and that split second of self-realization?

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