Phenomenology — I Agree But I Don’t / by Erin King


This semester, I’m enrolled in Intermedia — a class cross-listed with the music school, intended for interdisciplinary, multi-sensory collaborative art experiences. One of our reading assignments for discussion this week was “The Reorganization of the Sensory World”, by Thomas Porcello, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa and David W. Samuels. The article talks about a new approach in the field of anthropology in which the senses are not spoken about in isolation from each other, but as a collective “sensorium” of simultaneous responses to stimuli.

One colleague’s response to the assigned readings categorized this article as rooted in phenomenology, to which another colleague expressed confusion in grasping the concept of “phenomenology”. As a result, the class watched “The Muppets Explain Phenomenology”, which you must read the subtitles if you want to actually “get” the title.

I’ve written down a slightly paraphrased version of the subtitles here:

Our sense take in phenomena all around us — constantly, continuously — it’s part of being alive (human existentialism). As phenomena arises, we try to make sense of it using language and abstract thought. We think we understand it, but we don’t.
Every single thought that you’ve ever had is just your brain trying to make sense out of the chaos of the universe. We try to make sense of the phenomena around us even though it’s unknowable chaos.
So if you feel you don’t understand what life’s about or what life has planned, remember that’s the only honest way to live: Confused.
Phenomena — it’s everywhere; unknowable, always arising…don’t try to understand it because you can’t.
So if you feel lost and can’t make sense of phenomena, of life — of your life — That’s life! It’s just random phenomena — always rising, always changing, unknowable, chaotic… Don’t try to understand life; just accept life as it is.

Now, I love this video, and I’m glad someone took the time to juxtapose this explanation with Mana-mana, because it makes that sketch so meta. And I can sort of get on board with phenomenology’s explanation of our search for making sense of things. I think it explains the general confusion I receive about my artwork, and explains the process of refining my art project. I hear philosophical undertones that align with John Cage’s own philosophy on life, chance, reality, nature, theatre and poetics.

Where I take issue with phenomenology (or at least the above summarization of phenomenology) is it’s pessimistic view of the act of seeking meaning. Rather than concluding “life’s just random, so don’t try to understand it” — which sounds like an absolute, definitive conclusion — I feel like the real argument should be “don’t look for an absolute or definitive answer”. I would argue that we should open our idea of “seeking answers” or “searching for meaning” to alter the definition of “meaning” to include “some revelation or lesson the individual gleans from the phenomenon”. Sometimes, the purpose is the act of seeking itself — that we care enough to want to know, process and understand phenomena, and make connections between seemingly disparate data. That is how we learn, adjust, and evolve.

I would like to conclude by including a quotation from the Indigo Girls’ song, Closer to Fine, as I believe these lyrics reflect my own experience in seeking meaning:

We go to the doctor, we go to the mountains/ we look to the children, we drink from the fountain/ Yeah we go to the Bible, we go through the workout/we read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout.
There’s more than one answer to these questions/ pointing me in a crooked line/ and the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.