Though I do not find the reading pleasant, something about delving into Husserl’s Ideas 1 is akin to a religious investigation. For many of us, such religious investigation begins with a feeling, like that we have when we look up at the summer night sky and track Cygnus arcing down the Milky Way. It is a feeling of trying to stretch beyond our cognitive limits and really grasp that we live and breathe on a tiny planet hurdling around our sun in a backwater corner of one of billions of galaxies, a feeling of trying to match the perceptual data of small bright dots to what we ‘know’ about the universe from physics and astronomy. “What’s it all about?” we might ask, despondently or wonderingly (or both), as the stretch fails and we feel ourselves slough back into crude and infinitesimal finitude.
The question is massive and sublime, but here I’m mainly focused on the feeling. What does it feel like to try to think beyond perception, to think beyond the body? How does it feel to stretch toward God? How does the body feel the limits of its own thinking?
Reading Husserl’s Ideas 1 is unpleasant to me because it involves warping my head into a prolonged, cirque-du-soleil caliber stretch of this sort, and one that continually sloughs into glaring but unacknowledged, Marx-brothers caliber failings. Husserl doesn’t give a whiff about God, but he is trying to get to the unthought conditions of consciousness:
“consciousness considered in its ‘purity’ must be held to be a self-contained complex of being, a complex of absolute being into which nothing can penetrate and out of which nothing can slip, to which nothing is spatiotemporally external and which cannot be within any spatiotemporal complex, which cannot be affected by any physical thing….” (section 49; Kersten transl. p. 112)
The spatiotemporal world of human experience is posited by consciousness as “something identical belonging to motivated multiplicities of appearances,” Husserl maintains: “beyond that it is nothing.” (Ibid.) Such is the stretch toward purity, toward a pure consciousness detached from (not merely bracketed from) the somatic dimensions that dictate psychology.
Husserl’s failure lies in the fact that the body keeps showing up in Ideas 1, reminding me of that taunt aimed at elementary school children who don’t know the technical word for skin: “Your epidermis is showing!” I am not setting out to take down Husserlian phenomenology in 1000 words, but wish only to hold focus on what Ideas 1 presents so well, almost against itself: the vibrating edge of flesh desiring to escape fleshed finitude. Another way of animating his question, I think, is to bracket (ha!) his frustrating acrobatics and remain modestly on this side of purity and infinity. How does the body feel consciousness? How does the body feel itself sentient, that is, how does consciousness feel as it is in (and it always is in) a body? How does sentience evidence its own embodied matrix?
I visited Mass MoCA’s James Turrell and Sol LeWitt exhibits last weekend and it seemed to me that both artists were immersed in questions somewhat like these.
LeWitt’s large wall installations reduce you to vectors of affective exclamation. Each turn of the gallery leads to another squeak of pleasure. These large works are studies in color, in color juxtaposition, in pattern, in pattern juxtaposition, and in color and pattern juxtaposition. They stand over you and overwhelm you as you walk through the gallery. They draw your body in to see how these massive pieces have been constructed and they push you back to try to ‘take in’ the entire pattern or color spectrum. I would say the wall art is spectacle but it really is the opposite of spectacle; it is superbly logical and measured, pleasing in its symmetries and hues, pleasing by the way those hues and symmetries flood the body with a kind of rhythmic intensity. The intensity slows you down and stops you. It’s mesmerizing, not in a manner that yields hypnotism or loss of self, but in a manner that materializes the power of form and tone to shape bodily comfort, task and concentration; the power of form and tone to catalyze feeling and to reduce thought to the felt pulse of consciousness. This consciousness hovers somewhere between LeWitt’s art and my body, and is dependent on both.
James Turrell’s art is about light. Color is used, it seems to me, merely to call attention to the materiality and character of light. I saw this purple artwork (above), called “Wedgework”, I believe, and this green one (below).
I also joined about eight other bodies in a nine-minute exhibit called “Perfectly Clear”, which included two periods of strobing light and otherwise a series of changing colors in what felt like a dimensionless room. I felt an irrepressible attraction to these lit spaces, and also a profound disorientation. In the “Wedgework” room, I began to feel nauseated. Turrell’s presentation of the materiality of light is so unlike my own corporeal materiality that I lost cognitive orientation. I sat down and closed my eyes. I tried to shut out this enveloping ‘experience’ that refused my attempts to situate it around the axis of my body. The world went black.The weight of my joints and muscles was oddly noticeable after the weightlessness of light. After-images bounced on my retinas. I felt my breathing in my nose, esophagus and lungs. I felt my heartbeat in my chest. I felt the nausea subside.
LeWitt demonstrates that consciousness can feel like a spooling out from my body and an entangling in form and color. I am not “in” my body when I look at LeWitt, but I am not “beyond” it, either; I am somewhere in between. Turrell, on the other hand, uses the ethereal materiality of light to demonstrate the entanglement of consciousness with the minute particularities of physiology: the weight and jointedness and awkwardness of bodies, their greedy clamor for color to resolve into (with) form, their incessant dependence on the flows of air and blood. I feel the weight of finitude with Turrell, but also the desire for, the beauty of, depthless eternity.