Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Phenomenology of Human Interaction

In my last semester at Assumption I took a course called 20th Century Continental Philosophy (that's right, I heard those squees of excitement!), which was mostly a course on major thinkers in Phenomenology, with a side of Georges Bataille, who is mostly noted for being a crazy wackadoo but has some interesting thoughts on taboo and transgression. This was all vastly improved by my poor professor's thrown back, which meant he was teaching some fairly deep philosophy while wacked out on pain meds.

Phenomenology is interesting stuff, but I freely admit that I find it to be a little bit like That Stoner Kid You Know in that it thinks it's deeper than it is. The idea (at least from its founder, Husserl) is that everything is consciousness, and things appear to that consciousness. You then take a step further and stop thinking of them as appearing to YOUR consciousness and understanding yourself as a consciousness that is aware of itself as a consciousness (...yeah, I know). The idea was that racking everything back to a matter of consciousness would give a solid framework for considering all human knowledge, and it was supposed to make philosophy into a "real science," thus making Husserl one of like, three philosophers ever to give a shit about whether or not people thought philosophy was a hard science.

Anyway, I like many parts of phenomenology and if you're interested in reading more I'd recommend Robert Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology, which is a great, plain-English overview of the philosophy. There's lots more to it, but for the time being I'm mostly concerned with the idea of understanding our individual selves as phenomena appearing to the world even as we see other things appearing to us. I think there's value in applying this concept to your everyday life, even if you're not going to be walking around all "I AM NOW ENTERING THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL POSITION" all the time.

The key thing here is being aware that you are appearing to other people, and understanding how you appear.

It seems like appearance, gender and relationships have come up a lot lately. Two examples stand out to me. The first was a discussion with friends involving a local political candidate's oft-worn blazer (tweedy, but short sleeved; 100% mysterious), which lead into a discussion about fashion in politics. Franchie, who is awesome and always very well put together, was saying that if she was in politics, she would always be in a cute dress and heels, etc. I explained that though she might look fabulous, there's a very specific way to dress up for female political figures, and she'd have a hard time getting taken seriously. It's unfortunate, but true. Though she might generally appear well dressed and fashionable, she would also appear to people as an unserious political figure, because dowdiness is to a certain extent de rigeur on the Hill and in politics at large. She'd have to adjust her appearance with the understanding of those perceptions. In this case, the example happened to be politics, but this is true anywhere. It's just as easy to flip it around to Franchie's work clothing. She works at a jewelry store, so she would stick out and be less likely to sell as much as she does if she didn't wear fashionable, feminine clothing, to say nothing of her jewelry choices.

The other instance was a friend of mine who likes to make sure his friends get home okay. This is okay on the face of it, but it's a definite Check Your Appearance situation. I used to have a friend like this in DC, too, and though it came from a caring place, I eventually talked to him and pointed out that I felt fine going home on my own and would in fact prefer if he left me to my own devices. In any case, the current friend was telling me about how he had decided to follow a friend home to make sure she got there okay. They hadn't discussed it beforehand, and though it seemed like a nice gesture, she wound up driving a long way out of her way to get home, and included a buzz past the police station in her route. That to me said that she'd identified my friend as someone of concern, and was trying to send a message. Even though he intended to do something nice, it appeared creepy. Appearances matter.

Let me be clear, men of the world - unless you talk to a woman first about making sure she gets home all right, it's not okay. It might be coming from the most charitable, kind place in your heart, but unless you actually see someone or something menacing that she doesn't, following her home is going to come off as creepy. I was actually just talking with Celia about "privilege" and how frustrating it can be when in discussions about various "-isms," people will tell you that you need to understand that you are privileged and acknowledge their oppression, but when you ask about it to understand it better you get the "it's not my job to explain your privilege to you" response or - even more aggravating - the "you can't understand it" one. It's very frustrating to try and work through your privilege (or perspective; I think "privilege" gets slung around excessively) and have someone stonewall your attempts to do so, even though the "not my job" thing is totally accurate despite being counterproductive, and for all these reasons, I try not to pull the "you wouldn't understand" card, but...the vast majority of men simply cannot understand the latent threat it is possible to feel as a woman from a man. It encompasses such a broad array of personal and secondhand experiences, cultural norms, and other social flotsam that there's just too much that can't be relayed effectively. It's as simple as this: as a man, you can be threatening just by being a man, no matter what you look like. And yes, it's completely unfair, and it shouldn't be that way, but right now, the way gender relations stand, that's how it is. You have to be aware of it and you have to do what you can to offset it.

The great thing is that this is totally avoidable! Just have the conversation, and be aware of how you're appearing. It takes some practice, but it's certainly doable.

No comments:

Post a Comment