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Film & Media Studies Joni Gutierrez Films Phenomenology

Part I, Phenomenological Analysis of Life-world Series (2017, 118 min): Daily Matrix

This section continues with a phenomenological analysis of the expansive (Study One) and multi-layered (Nine) life-world as discussed in the previous results and discussion section. The succeeding six analysis sections – (2) ‘internal currents’, (3) ‘immanent patterns’, (4) ‘eidetic formations’, (5) ‘insatiable curiosity’, (6) ‘conscious observation’, and (7) ‘call to action’ – in the manuscript will follow the same pattern. Before we proceed to the phenomenological analysis, the next paragraphs will briefly introduce the far-reaching points in Husserlian phenomenology that will be used throughout the succeeding sections.

Note: This is an excerpt from my PhD dissertation, ‘Investigating Kracauerian Cinematic Realism through Film Practice and Criticism: Life-world Series (2017) and Selected Films of Lino Brocka’ (2018), which is available for download from the institutional repository. In 2020, my book chapter — Cinematic Contemplation Online: The Art and Philosophy of Life-world Series (2017) — based on this dissertation was published in: Kung K.WS. (ed.) Reconceptualizing the Digital Humanities in Asia. Digital Culture and Humanities (Challenges and Developments in a Globalized Asia), vol 2: 31-52. Singapore: Springer.

The ‘founder of modern phenomenology’ (Meisenhelder, 1979, p. 65), Edmund Husserl, between 1890 and 1900, started referring to phenomenology as his specific approach to philosophy (Käufer & Chemero, 2015, p. 26). As generally used today, the term phenomenology is linked to Husserl who, ‘without a doubt, did more for the development of phenomenological philosophy than any other thinker’ (Wagner, 1983, p. 10). Divergent from the approaches by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre – proponents of what is usually called ‘existential phenomenology’ (Käufer & Chemero, 2015, p. 26) – transcendental phenomenology, Husserl hoped, would ‘lay the groundwork for a collaborative research project’ (Käufer & Chemero, 2015, p. 26) that would use the method he had defined ‘to complete phenomenological research in various domains’ (p. 26). In the current and subsequent analysis sections of this dissertation, the project applies Husserlian phenomenological research in the study of Kracauerian cinematic realism.

Figure 17. Hong Kong: Study One (2016)

A decisive fulcrum between Husserlian phenomenology and KCR is the life-world, a term ‘recognized by the philosophically educated as one used by Edmund Husserl in his Crisis in European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936)’ (Ihde, 1990, p. 21). Kracauerian notions, particularly the prevailing abstraction within the modern condition and the redemptive potential of the film medium, drew from this work; thus, before we expound on the Husserlian notion of the life-world further, let us first consider another key point, the natural attitude, as presented in Crisis. The Husserl of his early discussions of the natural attitude in Ideas I differed from the Husserl of the later work (Costelloe, 1996, p. 8). Originally, this ‘“natural attitude” toward everyday life’ (Meisenhelder, 1979, p. 76) was characterised as a ‘hybrid which contains the religious, theological, artistic, cultural, theoretical and practical understandings of the world in which human beings live’ (Hong, 2017, p. 76). In the works that Husserl wrote subsequent to the Logical Investigations, he observed that the human experience in ordinary life within the modern condition has been distorted by ‘practical concerns, folk assumptions, and smattering of scientific knowledge’ (Moran, 2000, p. 11) which ‘all got in the way of a pure consideration of experience as it is given to us’ (p. 11). Below these distortions lie ‘the Sachen selbst, the things themselves’ (Costelloe, 1996, p. 8); thus, ‘from the role assigned to it in earlier discussions of the natural attitude in Ideas I, the Husserl of Crisis adds to it a new dimension’ (p. 8). The original hybrid understandings from which human beings constituted their own beliefs and convictions of the prescientific world (Hong, 2017, p. 76) has been ‘replaced by the world that is regarded as the scientific object by scientists’ (p. 77). The result of this, Husserl believed, was ‘the crisis of European sciences, or the crisis of European humanity’ (p. 77). The natural attitude originally dealt with the concrete, that is, the ‘elements of the uninvestigated, assumed, hidden domain of the pre-given’ (Costelloe, 1996, p. 13); however, it has been transformed by the scientific world that deals with abstractions, particularly, positivism or objectivism which ‘replaces genuine scientific subject matter — “concrete facts” — with merely positivist “facts”’ (p. 13).

In view of the modern condition, wherein the natural attitude is abstracted by ‘a world already theorized’ (Costelloe, 1996, p. 12), Husserl intended philosophy, and ultimately, phenomenology to ‘replace the narrow “positivist” or “objectivist” sciences (p. 12) which proclaim to be the ‘ultimate and absolute expression of “reality”’ (p. 13). He affirmed that the original goal of philosophy was to be ‘an investigation of the world as it appears, of the Sachen selbst’ (p. 12) and assigned the discovery and investigation of the things themselves as the main task of ‘the new science of phenomenology’ (p. 8), which is a ‘“radical” investigation of the world as eidos [see footnote 1], to reveal universally valid knowledge’ (p. 12). To ‘isolate the central essential features of the phenomena under investigation’ (Moran, 2000, p. 11), Husserl proposed methodological reductions and alterations of viewpoint, most particularly the phenomenological epoché (or the suspension of the natural attitude), and the so-called ‘eidetic and ‘transcendental reductions’ to prevent the distorted – abstracted by positivism and instrumental rationality – natural attitude within the modern condition from compromising ‘the phenomenological viewing of phenomena’ (p. 11). This ‘bracketing meant that all scientific, philosophical, cultural, and everyday assumptions had to be put aside – not so much to be negated as to be put out of court’ (p. 11). Now, more than ever, in a post-truth world, philosophy ‘has to recall things that are obvious because people do in fact overlook or even deny them (e.g., Sophists’ claim that there are no perceptions or that time is illusory, or that there are no such things as truth and evidence)’ (Sokolowski, 2000, p. 181); indeed, ‘philosophy has to defend the true opinions of the natural attitude’ (p. 181) which upholds the original ‘hybrid understandings that human beings have lived in the prescientific world, and constituted their own beliefs or convictions to the world’ (Hong, 2017, p. 76).

Figure 18. Study Nine: Yard Life (2017)

Phenomenology tries to understand ‘consciousness from within, beginning with reflection on their experience of the life-world’ (Wagner, 1983, p. 11). Through the phenomenological reductions, Husserl intuited that consciousness is always wrapped up and ‘completely caught up in a world’ (Moran, 2000, p. 12) – this ‘worldliness of consciousness’ (p. 12) led to Husserl’s investigations of the environment and of the life-world (p. 12). Husserl defined the life-world as the ‘the encompassing world of our immediate experience which can be recovered from the world as given to scientific interpretation by a special type of reduction’ (Spiegelberg, 1984, p. 747). This method of reduction ‘permits controlled reflexiveness on the presuppositions of the method, of the evidence, and of their communication to others’ (Luckmann, 1983, p. 25). The phenomenological coming into view of the essences – ‘eidetic seeing’ (Husserl, 1982, p. 8) – like those of the life-world illuminates that ‘we can intuit, or make present to ourselves, not only individuals with their features, but also the essences that things have’ (Sokolowski, 2000, p. 177). This ‘insight into an essence is called eidetic intuition, because it is the grasp of an eidos or a form’ (p. 177). The dissertation, in its phenomenological analysis of the characteristics of the life-world as made present by the ten short films in the thesis project, engaged in the eidetic reduction as a means to ‘intuit an essence’ (p. 177) from particular cinematic renditions of the pro-filmic physical reality ‘to general “essences”’ (Hintikka, 1995, p. 79) of the life-world and cinematic realism. Because of the phenomenological epoché and methodological reductions, eidetic insight and ‘imaginative variation [see footnote 2]’ (Sokolowski, 2000, p. 184) can be conducted within the natural attitude (p. 184) in the contemporary context. Lastly, it should be noted that though phenomenology itself makes use of both transcendental – which ‘can be described by saying that in it one’s belief in factual existence is “bracketed”’ (Hintikka, 1995, p. 79) – and eidetic reductions (Sokolowski, 2000. p. 184), the dissertation, to manage its scope, principally used the latter type in its phenomenological analysis.

We are now ready to proceed with phenomenological analyses of Study One (Fig. 17) and Study Nine (Fig. 18) and their resultant characteristics of the life-world – expansive and multi-layered, respectively – that were identified as by-products of the combined processes of contemplative film-making and research on KCR theory and aesthetics.

Study One: Hong Kong (2016)
Study Nine: Yard Life (2017)

Both short films are positioned to uphold the concrete over the abstract which is dominated by positivism and instrumental rationality as modes of apprehending modern life. There is a considerable difference in the way that human experience is conditioned by the abstract and the concrete. When consciousness is chiefly directed towards the abstract, one’s place in society – another abstract concept that is constantly reinforced by ideological state apparatuses – becomes the main subject matter for the modern subject; on the other hand, when consciousness is directed towards the concrete, one’s place in the life-world becomes the main theme. The former is more limiting than the latter since abstract concepts such as socioeconomic status, level of education, and nationality, etc. – within the positivist/objectivist and instrumental purviews – claim to predict human behaviour and therefore condition social policy to deal with human beings who are ideally clustered into neat categories. The immediate experience of the concrete – as opposed to ideal notions that only attempt to apprehend reality – leads to an intuitive understanding of how the life-world works; thus, when Study One and Study Nine carry out the concrete, the spectator is significantly freer to contemplate the life-world since his or her cinematic experience is perceptually enriched by the things themselves and not by pre-packaged conceptual categories that are determined by the modern condition. The result of gravitating towards the concrete in this sort of realist film practice is an advancing for the spectator an intuitive understanding of his or her ability to reconfigure the objects around him or her – liberated from default conceptual associations – that phenomenologically come into view.

Ultimately, aside from one’s place within the modern life-world, critical insight on the power of abstract discourses to affect human experience of the modern condition is also contemplated. These main take-aways from the cinematic experience of Study One and Study Nine are vital features of the human experience of modern life. In these films, the objects are free to be (pro-filmic stimuli from physical reality) and to become (phenomenologically experienced by intentional consciousness); likewise, through this cinematic experience, spectators can reflect on what they can be or become. The life-world itself is expansive and multi-layered; indeed, the prevalence of abstraction is, or is supposed to be, merely one of the manifold layers of human experience. The following reflection of a spectator [see footnote 3] of Study One (Fig. 17) epitomises a result of one’s free – disinterested contemplation – cinematic experience of the concrete:

This video showcases the duality of life. If not a duality, then a spectrum. In the video, you could see the bustling busy streets of Hong Kong city life, but you could also see serenity and peace. The buses are full & crowded, but you could see a couple sitting side by side quietly, leaning on each other’s shoulders. You could see a large plaza with people dancing on one side, but on the other side there are those just sitting peacefully and talking. Where there are skyscrapers, highways, building lights and billboards, there are also establishments being torn down, signalling the end of the purpose they had previously served. Where there are trees, flowers, bees, and insects, there are taxis, manholes, and street signs. All of this, all these polar opposites, they are found in one place: Hong Kong. The spectrum of life that is Hong Kong is home to all of these things: the busy, overpopulated, dirty, dark, loud urban street life, but also the serene, peaceful, relaxing, breathable life that it offers. It is not a matter of whether or not one is better than the other, it just shows us that life & society encompasses so many aspects of this world, and when one can find all of this in Hong Kong alone, it is unthinkable the kind of life that many of us probably overlook every day. – Respondent 2895

(M. Andrada, personal communication, June 1, 2018)

As seen in the above response, the spectator’s contemplation of the physical reality of Hong Kong led him or her to come to terms with it not from the default associations of the city; instead, owing to the indeterminate nature of physical reality, the viewer was able to concentrate the cinematic experience to focus his or her intentionality towards an intuitive understanding of essential features of the everyday life-world, life, and the human experience of the modern condition. In phenomenological terms, the above spectatorial response illustrates a bracketing of default abstractions – scientific, philosophical, cultural, etc. that serve positivist and instrumental ends – on Hong Kong as a concept. The spectatorial reward was a cinematic experience that involved eidetic seeing; indeed, ‘it is humanly gratifying’ (Sokolowski, 2000, p. 181) to become aware of these essences and ‘it gives us pleasure to contemplate them’ (p. 181).  The following reflection by another spectator exhibits how Study Nine (Fig. 18) led him or her to contemplate his or her place within the life-world. In particular, the film’s focus on concrete objects became pertinent in the spectator’s reflection on his or her existential experience of the modern life-world (English translation from Filipino by the researcher):

Madalas ay hapong hapo na tayo sa pang-araw-araw na rutinang hindi matapos-tapos ngunit, kung pakiramdam ba nating mekanikal ang buhay natin, ay talaga bang buhay tayo? Nadama ko ang kapayaan. Napagtanto ko na laging may opsyon na huminga, pumikit at damhin ang kapayapaan sa paligid. Ang pinakamahalagang aral na napulot ko naman ay hindi kailanman magiging solusyon ang pagkitil ng sariling buhay upang tunay na maging payapa . . . Kung hindi na makahinga, ipikit ang mga mata at pakiramdaman ang hangin, na kahit hindi nakikita ay nandiyan, tulad ng pag-asa, tulad ng buhay, tulad ng bukas.

[Oftentimes our seemingly endless daily routines exhaust us. Are we truly alive in this mechanical world? The video gave me a sense of peace because it prompted me to realise that there is always an option to breathe, close my eyes, and feel the peace in the environment. The most important lesson that I have gathered is that suicide is never a solution to be truly peaceful . . . When we run out of breath, we should close our eyes and feel the wind which is invisible but present, like hope, like life, like tomorrow.] – Respondent 3954

(M. Andrada, personal communication, June 1, 2018)

As the above indicates, Study Nine veers away from the default purpose of the documentary film. It engages conventional documentary realism which‘aligns itself with an epistephilia, so to speak, a pleasure in knowing, that marks out a distinctive form of social engagement’ (Nichols, 1991, p. 178) in a different way. As a documentary, it uses found reality, but the knowledge that it involves is not strictly of engagement in a sociological sense. Its knowledge is a philosophical – particularly, phenomenological – one in the way that it contemplates notions of life, death, and redemption. It does this through the intentional subject’s contemplation of the things themselves and not through the domination of ideologies that are available for unmindful consumption in the modern world.

Ultimately, this kind of phenomenological reflection in which abstractions are bracketed is that of one’s place in the life-world, which was defined by Husserl as ‘everyday, pre-scientific life’ (McDuffie, 1992, p. 100). As we can see in this definition of the life-world, at the core of its essence is the everyday. The dissertation’s engagement with everyday life is not limited to the quotidian KCR trope [see footnote 4] and the current phenomenological analysis of ‘the daily matrix’; instead, it will continue to be considered in the subsequent analysis sections in the manuscript.


[1] Eidos (adjective: eidetic) is ‘Plato’s alternate term for Idea (Form) utilized by Husserl for designating universal essences’ (Spiegelberg, 1984, p. 742).

[2] This is another term for the ‘the variational method’ (Ihde, 1986, p. 39) that shaped the form and content of the ten short films in Life-world Series as mentioned earlier in this chapter.

[3] Prof. Mykel Andrada of the College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines-Diliman, on 14 May 2018, assigned Life-world Series as one of the online works to be critiqued for the final examination of one of his classes. The students were free to choose any of the ten short films from the collection. Prof. Andrada volunteered to send their responses to the researcher. In this manuscript, their names are anonymised by assigning them random four-digit numbers.

[4] On its webpage at the HKBU Heritage platform, Life-world Series is described as ‘a collection of cinematic meditations on everyday life’ – persistent link: https://heritage.lib.hkbu.edu.hk/routes/view/ids/HER-011179

References

  • Andrada, M. (2018, June 1). Personal communication. Note: Prof. Mykel Andrada of the College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines-Diliman, on 14 May 2018, assigned Life-world Series as one of the online works to be critiqued for the final examination of one of his classes. The students were free to choose any of the ten short films from the collection. Prof. Andrada volunteered to send their responses to the researcher. In this manuscript, their names are anonymised by assigning them random four-digit numbers.
  • Costelloe, T. (1996). Life-world and intersubjectivity: A study in the development of a phenomenological sociology [Thesis (Ph.D.) –Boston University, 1996]. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing: http://pqdt.calis.edu.cn.lib-ezproxy.hkbu.edu.hk/Detail.aspx?pid=5ECl%2bMimhSQ%3d
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