Here is a copy of my conference paper The Impositions of Experience:


Paper prepared for Re-thinking the Human Sciences Conference

University of Windsor, March 11-12, 2010

by David Toews, dtoews@uwindsor.ca


The Impositions of Experience

Human reality is premissed upon what Paul Ricoeur calls the productive distanciation which separates, while holding together as belonging together, subjects and objects. A form of objectivity that sees as an asset rather than a liability the historicity of our ways of knowing, distanciation is what he calls “the condition of the scientific status of the sciences” in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (131). Through the media, for example, of textuality, structured work, and the projected worlds of our creativity, we dispell the illusion of a choice between simple, ahistorical experience and nihilism, between what he calls “participatory belonging” and the “alienating objectification” of science. One of the important implications of Ricoeur’s vision of the human sciences is thus his ability to maintain the validity of hermeneutics while rejecting the notion that in the last instance our analytics of the human condition play from the baseline assumption that in the final determination human beings can access some kind of unmediated, authentic experience. This was a key problem with a lot of hermeneutical models that were rooted in the religious traditions and Ricoeur’s advance is to be greatly appreciated. The hermeneutic function of distanciation is key to moving beyond the notion that truth and method are in a dichotomous relation. This opens up, for example, new possibilities for understanding the modern forms of sociality which influence the construction of meaning in the human sciences, a sociality that can be understood as far more complex than mere community, a term which of course is always problematically connected with notions of authentic experience. Arguably, the notion of experience in general also comes due for an overhaul as a result. We always need to scrutinize and update our ways of determining the part of experiences that are relevant to the human sciences. A somewhat ironic, perhaps, consequence of this new modern perspective in hermeneutics, where operative concepts such as the social and experience are problematizations rather than framing terms, is that we will arguably at some point have to turn back again, with our new critical tools, to face the historical notion of authentic experience. We have to acknowledge the continuing leverage of such a notion over subjects. Of course, it would be to do violence against these theoretical advances to go back to the old vocation in the human sciences of directly or indirectly validating claims to authentic experience, which are so often a root cause of unenlightened anti-modernity. However, merely to dismiss such claims as fallacies fails to address the problem of their virulence, for example their continued exploitation of globalized modern institutions such as telecommunications. Rather, the path that lays before us is clear: we must consider the notion of authentic experience from a position that does not dichotomize truth and method. The ‘why not’ is henceforth inextricably linked with the ‘how not’. The human sciences deploy ethical guidelines for research on human subjects without really being informed about these advances in philosophical anthropology which speak to the relation between the limitations of human inquiry and the limitations of human desires. I want to suggest that it is in terms of this kind of discussion that the notion of authentic experience might be apprehended symptomatically. Such claims to authentic experience are like impositions upon us. However, perhaps we can gain some theoretical insight from this phenomenon of imposition. While the claims might be nonsense, the impositions are real. As we in the human sciences work to distance ourselves from our old vocation of validating social norms, we may well discover that this very imposing aspect of the fallacious illusions of human beings is what had us in the first place, is what a source of the very motivation to understand human reality that is implied by the research methods we rush to circumscribe. Again, consider the question, how do we determine the most relevant aspect of human experience to the human sciences? Surely the important part of experience is not just the feeling of ongoing life, some kind of banal feeling of having ongoing practices, like Foucault’s image of gray, meticulous and patiently documentary genealogy, but rather the feeling that by a certain act or set of acts, a certain greatness or terribleness has been added to life. Ironically, Foucault’s image encourages a sense of objectivity that was more appropriate in an age that divorced truth and method. I will argue that primary in experiences is the element of wonder, as manifested for example in rhetorics of greatness, that it initiates the attitude of the human sciences, and that it is fundamentally linked with our perception that we are unable to control experience. It is this sense of experiences overstepping our boundaries and in doing so provoking us to contemplate our limitations and to define our human reality that I would term ‘the impositions of experience’.

A human experience is a moment of contact between subject and object. But the experience is always something more than merely this contact itself. It is always also an opportunity to become aware of the very conditions of possibility of subject and object relations, to become aware, for example, of power. Thus, subject-object relations cannot be reduced to a binary opposition of nothing versus something. Heidegger argues, I think correctly, that they involve humans and their worlds that often seem strangely ready to experience each other, a strange familiarity that itself calls for inquiry. Phenomenology, of course, proceeds from the insight, or problem, that our ways of encountering the world are considerably pre-structured but at the same time are by no means inevitable. This is because, while the subject and object call out certain responses from each other, which happens in relatively predictable ways, the larger experience of this calls out something more, a distinct kind of response, let me call it a contemplative attitude. The problem with phenomenology, however, is that it is rooted in a tradition that situates the subjects at the centre and the objects as revolving around the subjects, like masters bidding what they will of their slaves. Some have held that this particular form of inquiry pointlessly concentrates agency in subjects. Foucault, for example, has shown that power is much more distributed than that. I agree with Foucault on this point. However, I would add another kind of objection to phenomenology’s centering of the subject, namely, that it unnecessarily associates contemplative responses to the world with the purely subjective aspects of experiences. Heidegger attempted to destroy the straw man of this subjectivism, and following him Hannah Arendt assumed that henceforth it is possible to simply ignore what she termed the vita contemplativa. Heidegger had proceeded by arguing it is necessary to turn our attention away from our preoccupation with our own thoughts and toward what it is that calls for thinking. However, because he interpreted the necessity of destroying subjectivism as rooted in a need to clear his subjectivity, he got mired in what he felt was a virtuous repetition: what calls for thinking is merely that I am presently not thinking. Destroyed in the process of this clearing is what Ricoeur calls the objective ‘world of the work’, the projected world of our human creativity.

To be sure, Ricoeur is content to assert the importance of the world of the work as a key criteria of textuality. That was an important advance. However, the world of the work can further be understood as the virtual reality of meanings set up by a cultural production. In this light, I would argue, we can glimpse the possibility of a materialist interpretation of the world of the work that can draw upon Marx’s labour theory of value. When I pick up a book the first thing to do is to admit I am unfamiliar with its words, its constructions, its meanings, and as I learn more about them value and capacity is added to both myself and the book – I have learned something; just as importantly the book has had a reader. As Simmel put it, created is a subjective culture and an objective culture. Human reality, as mediated by culture, is all about our engagement or responsiveness as much or more to these added values, or added powers, than just strictly between narrowly defined subjects and objects.

Powers come into being where they didn’t exist before owing not to the will of a subject but to epistemic configurations and techniques. Foucault maintained these powers are distributed and discontinuous; and from the point of view of effects of power I think he was right when he adhered to his pre-sexuality position since from that point of view certain powers that even the marginalized can have, that go beyond simple domination, came into view in a way that could be reproduced using his methods. However, Foucault’s position is unsatisfactory from the point of view of a materialist dialectical hermeneutic. The values, capacities, and powers produced by the contact between the world and human beings form surplusses. These surplusses of value are the modus operandi of the impositions of experience. An imposition is something that I do, or produce, that creates something like a necessity that you now need to take a certain action, or reciprocate with some kind of production of your own. The objective culture in Simmel’s terms now stands before you and your contribution to culture now has become incrementally more challenging due to the imposition of my contribution. Your action is only what I called ‘something like a necessity’ because you always have agency in your response to an imposition. Indeed, by responding, in whatever way, active or reactive, that you do, you become implicated.

This then is the general concept of the impositions of experience as the formal cause of the human sciences. As I envision them, the impositions of experience are not the particular objects of the human sciences but are the key condition of possibility of their significance. If I go see the movie Avatar, that experience is an imposition upon me. I now feel the necessity of responding in some way, either actively or passively, to this experience. [I think Ben Stiller is often very funny for just this reason, for the sense you get that he feels imposed upon by the world and its culture – barking at James Cameron in the language of the Pandorans at the Oscars! Who wouldn’t love a chance to bark at James Cameron in a nonsense language!]. I respond first to the experience. Any formalized response that takes the movie as a specific object typically involves second thoughts that may well conceal my initial response. It is not that the initial experience is more vital or important; this is not a theory of impressions. Rather, what is significant about the initial experience is that it is therein that lies the imposition that we choose to engage or not engage with. The initial experience, as I put it, is not more or less authentic, it is more or less imposing.

One of the assumptions of this theory is that a materialist hermeneutics that can be useful in the human sciences has to be one that can identify a dialectic of stimulus and reponse at the center of the contact between the world and ourselves. The key theme of such a theory is that experience involves responses. Responses to stimuli are usually seen as reponses to particular stimuli. Particular stimuli are bounded and framed. What we need in order to understand the human experience is rather a theory of responses to the surplus of value which coheres and endures in the form of an imposition. Not a response merely to another vocal utterance or to a text but to the presumptousness of this world that I am being confronted with. When I read a book or listen to someone tell me a story I respond to the book or the story but I also respond to the very possibility of contact itself. This, in effect, is its imposition. This sense of imposition is not rooted in the ethical demands of face to face contact. It is between subject and object before it involves subjects communicating with other subjects. Moreover, if I put the book down and proceed to ignore it, I am choosing to extricate myself from the imposition of the feeling I have that I should read it; such a choice is not necessarily unethical or irresponsible. We have extricated ourselves from moral theories of culture. Wilful ignorance of culture constitutes simply one kind of response to the impositions of experience among many: the oppositions, inventions, adaptations, imitations, hesitations, not-doings, forms of patience, meditations, contemplations. Such responses are the stuff of experiences, constituting a temporary, stimulating play that exceeds mere image responses, or the boundaries and frames of particular stimuli.

Our responses to the impositions of experience, then, are varied, which begs the question of what, if anything, is universal in them. Experience in general I define as contact with the facts and events that occur in the course of our practices. However, the experiences that inform the objects, the methods, and the discursive contexts of the human sciences involve a surplus of meaning, they are typically enriched or as Geertz would say thickened in some way. The experiences that the human sciences are interested in are thick experiences because they are of human interest and are therefore subject to multiple perspectives.   Experiences generate interest and multiple perspectives because we wonder about them. It is the wonder that infuses some experiences which then appear as in contrast with a backdrop of banal, or ongoing, experience that creates the general field of the human sciences.   Wonder informs our motivations in the human sciences to study human life. Of course, it has become a truism that a modern population, ourselves as human scientists included, is largely disenchanted with the world. This may be so, but this does not mean that the reverse of disenchantment entails an emergence of wonder. For the wonder arising from experiences is not some pure, singular affect. It is not an abstract universal. It is an affect that is in a relationship with other affects, such as love or fear. We are to a considerable extent aware of the aims of capitalist, neoliberalist techniques of governmentality and cultural hegemony that operate by exploiting and managing human affects. A modern, materialist hermeneutics of wonder must distinguish between wonder and the chimera [kiy-MEER-ah] of enchantment which leads to docility. Wonder is connected with perspective and hence with perception as an alteration of one’s point of view. In contrast, enchantment describes an aspect of the subjectivity of those who participate, or at least claim to participate, in behavior that is accepted as normal; enchantment contrasts with disenchantment which involves alienation due to the breakdown of the norm. The subjectivity of enchantment is a speculative fiction, based on a projection of what might have been destroyed by the logic of modernity. The spurious notion of enchantment feeds the romantic divide between internal and external. Disenchantment, problematic though it may be, actually has more experiential substance and is in fact logically prior to its opposite. Yet there is a tendency to continue to imagine that resisters of modernity are bound up with an impulse to defend some kind of enchanted experience. Attacking this impulse, we humanists seek to refute the chimera [kiy-MEER-ah] of authentic experience, without really getting to the root of the problem. The problem with the chimera of enchantment as a version of so-called authentic experience is not so much that it is unreal. Rather, the problem is that it is partial to one version or aspect of reality. It works by fixing on one particular element of a certain social context or state of affairs which becomes the object of a wish for continuity. In contrast, wonder, and the contemplative and inquiring attitude that stems from it – the thriving, modern-day vita contemplativa in the human sciences – is mindful of the imposition of the experience, which typically involves a feeling of the greatness of its object or event, an appraisal of the whole from from the point of view only made possible by the quality of the experience as an imposition.