If we want to ask how different technologies mediate our experience of the objects they present to us, what do we actually do?

We’ve already taken the first step. In my last entry, I quoted from Sam Rocha’s book on folk phenomenology, where he describes how a fig becomes “figly” through the culinary process of reduction. That description was a way to work through the first step in the mode of inquiry I’m encouraging — it should bring about a certain disposition toward figs (or other objects) by bracketing them off so we can pay attention to how we experience them. By “bracketing off,” I mean setting the object aside for the moment to focus on our senses as the way we come to know the object. (For what it’s worth, Edmund Husserl, in The Crisis of European Sciences calls this break the “epoche.”)

I describe the second step below. The first step is necessary so the second doesn’t become routinized. If our inquiry is to mean anything, we must be responsible to the object and our experience of it. We experience different objects differently, and we can’t simply go through the motions of inquiry — the second step — without being responsive to the object. If we perform these steps by rote, we risk missing what makes one object different from another. This disposition makes us responsive to the object and our experience of it.

In section 45 of The Crisis, Husserl talks about what we do after we’ve bracketed off the object. He writes:

[L]et us now take a first, naïve look around; our aim shall be, not to examine the world’s being and being-such, but to consider whatever has been valid and continues to be valid for us as being and being-such in respect to how it is subjectively valid, how it looks, etc.

For example, there are various individual things of experience at any given time; I focus on one of them. To perceive it, even if it is perceived as remaining completely unchanged, is something very complex: it is to see it, to touch it, to smell it, to hear it, etc.; and in each case I have something different. What is seen in seeing is in and for itself other than what is touched in touching. But in spite of this I say: it is the same thing; it is only the manners of its sensible exhibition, of course, that are different. If I remain purely within the realm of seeing, I find new differences, arising in very manifold form in the course of any normal seeing, which, after all, is a continuous process; each phase is itself a seeing, but actually what is seen in each one is something different. I express this somewhat in the following way: the pure thing seen, what is visible “of” the thing, is first of all a surface, and in the changing course of seeing I see it now from this “side,” now from that, continuously perceiving it from ever differing sides. But in them the surface exhibits itself to me in a continuous synthesis; each side is for consciousness a manner of exhibition of it. This implies that, while the surface is immediately given, I mean more than it offers. Indeed, I have ontic certainty of this thing [as that] to which all the sides at once belong, and in the mode in which I see it “best.” Each side gives me something of the seen thing. In the continuous alteration of seeing, the side just seen ceases being actually still seen, but it is “retained” and “taken” together with those retained from before; and thus I “get to know” the thing. […]

Even if I stop at perception, I still have the full consciousness of the thing, just as I already have it at the first glance when I see it as this thing. In seeing I always “mean” it will all the sides which are in no way given to me, not even in the form of intuitive, anticipatory presentifications. Thus every perception has, “for consciousness,” a horizon belonging to its object.

What is he saying? Let’s break it down step-by-step. First, we take take “a naïve look around.” We pretend we don’t know what we’ve got — that’s what makes our look around naïve. I pick up the fig (I have an actual dried California mission fig in front of me), feel its weight in my hand, observe its black, wrinkled skin, taste its sticky sweetness. I put each of these sensations together — it’s not like I think each sensation comes from a different fig. So when I’m looking at it, I can imagine tasting it. Even if the sensations are not all present simultaneously, I put the fig together an object whose different qualities are continuous with each other.

As a result, even when it’s not there, I can conjure it up. I just ate the fig I was holding, but I can still see it in my mind, if I choose. Husserl describes this as “meaning” or “intention.” I intend it by directing my attention toward it, in a way that anticipates what I will find. That anticipation results from my many experiences of figs. They have a regular set of qualities I have come to expect. My expectations constitute the “horizon” Husserl refers to.

But the qualities I anticipate might be different than those someone else expects. We hold each other in check — if I say a fig is this, and you say it’s that, it makes us examine it again. Our experiences are individual, but they’re also shared. Otherwise, we’d live in closed-off, solipsistic worlds, where we couldn’t understand another person’s experience. But we talk to people every day, and we negotiate an ongoing compromise about the world and what it means.

And the qualities might change. We can have new experiences. Maybe someone opens our eyes to some aspect we hadn’t seen before. (When I write “opens our eyes,” I’m speaking figuratively, but we should take the metaphor seriously. How are our senses heightened?) Or maybe we just eat a rotten fig.

The point, at least for now, is to recognize experience as stable, but only relatively so. It can be interrupted or reshaped. To get back to my original question — that of understanding media technologies’ effect on our perception of the world — will require a third step, which will be the subject of my next post.

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