The Phenomenology and Imagination Research Group held a seminar on 14 August 2020 led by Cheng-Chu Weng, with the title ‘Sensation in Practice and Phenomenology’. The seminar focused on one of Merleau-Ponty’s chapters in his Phenomenology of Perception (1962, originally published in 1945) – ‘Sensation Experience’. In examining how Merleau-Ponty yields the idea of body account in relation to art-making. Cheng-Chu provides a parallel relationship between practice and philosophy by introducing her doctoral research and practice. This article provides a reflection of the seminar and a few notes from the participants, Jane Bennett, Luisa Menano, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, Wenke Sun, Yvonne Jones.
As a visual artist and a scholar, I have been interested in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology account. His theory helps me to understand my works, for example, my interested in the ‘sense’ of painting space and the ambiguous relationship between one and others (subject, object and environment) in my works or what I called the structure of ambiguity. Therefore, my works are not somewhere to ‘look at’ but rather ‘experience’. The importance of body, sense and experience also can be seen in Merleau-Ponty’s writing ‘Sensation Experience’ (1958, origin published in 1945). How body experience structure the visual experience and how senses experience helps one to formulate the relationship in-between body and object/world. Following Merleau-Ponty’s complex account of sensation, one can see the optical is not a matter of seeing but unseen, moreover how it draws out one’s an awareness of being. These consideration of visual and issue had been discussed on the following questions that I brought out, how one ‘formulates’ the sensation experience and how one approach to colour and sound in the process of art-making.
My understanding of colour and sound are two elements that relate to one’s sensation experience. Moreover, they break the language field and human social structure and take one to a subjectivity state. In my practice, colour and sound are problems. They like the trigger of fire, too sensation and dramatic. In order to take one to a sense of painting space where allows one to contemplation and becoming aware of oneself within the surrounding, the colours of my works are almost white. Here, I cannot say I am using colour to create my works but rather working with the colours of the space. Since my expansion painting is working with the actual light and shadow, the colours of papers, fabrics and woods are alter constantly. On the other hand, the ‘bland’ views of my works can be understood as a critic of screen images, a contrast with the ‘noisy’ images that happen in modern life.
The physical dimension of my works, colour is no longer colour but phenomena that gather subject, object and space together, equally, Merleau-Ponty’s definition of sensation:
Sensation as it is brought to use by experience is no longer some inert substance or abstract moment, but one of our surface of contact with being, a structure of consciousness, and in place of one single space, as the universal condition of all qualities, we have with each one of the latter, a particular manner of being in space and, in a sense of making space. It is neither contradictory nor impossible that each sense should constitute a small world within the larger one, and it is even in virtue of its peculiarity that it is necessary to the whole and opens upon the whole (1958:257).
The idea of ‘being in space’ and ‘a sense of making space’ could be experienced in my works, as the effect of my works provides – the structure of ambiguity, an effect gathering the one and others, as well as an open space, allows one to contemplation.
Although I did not make many notes from the participants, I am grateful for their contributed their thoughts and advice.
Jane Bennet: Jane suggested my diagram (A Reflection of Merleau-Ponty’s in-between body and object) could puts in the elements of touch and space because those two are also mentioned in Merleau-Ponty’s text (The added in the diagram will look like as follow). Moreover, for her, colour is unnamable and it relates with one’s experience of it.
Jane also suggested the book Seeing is Forgetting the Name of Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler. The idea of seeing as forgetting the name fits in with Merleau-Ponty's account of phenomenology well.
Yvonne Jones: Yvonne made a connection between the elements (visual and sound) and cinema.
Noriko Suzuki-Bosco: For Noriko, colour also problematic in her art-making process. Colours are not only hard to define but also hard to ‘make’.
Luisa Menano: Luisa interested in what colour and sound for me as well as sharing her experience of colour. For Luisa, colour and shape are bound together. Luisa suggested clarifying how the terms, such as colour, sound and visual, relate to my practice as well as to read Six Memos for the New Millennium written by Italo Calvino.
Wenke Sun: For Wenke, both colour and sound are a matter of sensation. Wenke brought out interesting questions relate to Chinese aesthetic and theory of empty space. What the colour of empty space and time.
While we discussed the relationship between colour and shape, artists that we brought out Pat Steir, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin and James Turrell, James Turell’s works could be an excellent connection with Merleau-Ponty’s sensation experience account, science his works is a matter of one’s sensation experience of the colour and space.
Merleau-Ponty, M. translated by Routledge & Kean Paul (1958) Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge Classics: London.
Lambros Malafouris' text, 'Mind and Material Engagement' offered us much to reflect on our relationship with 'material matters' as artist researchers. Here are some responses made by the PIRG members in response to Malafouris' text.
The text and discussion from the session led by Jane is vital to our understanding of how ideas are being developed today, in new materialism and the several interpretations of notions of the posthuman.
Distributed Cognition so central to the posthuman of the roboticists offers insights to thinking, literally, outside the box. It begins to open up a new era in understanding, taking us into a new area of subjectivity, away from the patriarchal liberalism toward posthumanism. We are asking anew what we are, and where in the universe we are situated.
Thinging is a new word, it sits comfortably with the discussions we are having within the group. It begins to open up notions of self, of consciousness and life itself. Can a built object such as an android ever be alive or only imitate life however well it operates?
My image expresses something of my relationship with new materialism. I cannot pre-decide where elements will be sited in the works. The sites are multi chosen, tried and tested, juxtapositioned, waiting for a resonance from the work, a connection between the two of us.
Summary of the meeting on 17 July 2020.
By Jane Bennett
In response to Yvonne’s examination of the posthuman last month in our theme of thinking around ‘What it means to be human’, I introduced Lambros Malafouris’ essay, Mind and Material Engagement, in which he explains the concept of Material Engagement Theory (MET).
Malafouris proposes that the Cartesian mode of thinking has maintained the separation between persons and things (mind/matter) that creates a blind spot around the human engagement with tools, consequently inhibiting the acknowledgement of our reliance upon them. He suggests the human mind is a product of biological evolution as much as an artefact of our own making. MET re-thinks this duality with an approach that considers the co-constitution of people and things, the ‘constitutive intertwining of mind with matter’ (*section 5) and the processes of that engagement. As well as suggesting a way to define art research through practice, MET prompted ideas in our discussion that included ‘between’ space, Paul Klee’s thoughts about the line, poetic thinking, liu bai (Chinese concept of empty space) and what constitutes materiality.
MET presents a more holistic method of examining humanity that, rather than turning human cognition into an abstraction, extends it beyond skin and skull to include the surrounding environment. The value of MET to artist researchers is primarily in the way it brings together phenomenology, cognition, materiality and making through material engagement.
*Malafouris, L. Mind and material engagement. Phenom Cogn Sci 18, 1–17 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-018-9606-7
At the end of the June PIRG session we decided to collectively reflect on the question, what it means to be human. Here are the responses given by the PIRG members.
Being human is a mixed bag. The negatives of being human; sadness, anger, hatred, conflict, violence, disease, physical pain, the emotional pain in the hurt of rejection, isolation, depression, and death are very difficult. It is these negatives which the roboticists quote when suggesting human beings are worthless and that androids, with none of the above are preferred. I consider the positives of being human; caring, empathy, love, peace, compassion, comradeship, original thought, creativity, the ability to imagine, to abstract, to feel joy, excitement, fun, happiness, as gifts within humans and that man/ woman/ people / humankind is very worthwhile. I understand the horror of wars, the power struggles and greed that humans can invest in, however rather than wiping out the human race I find it preferable to engage with the gifts, and to alter the humans seeking conflict and power through the benefits of the better human qualities, by means of developing a society of posthuman subjects through Distributed Cognition held so dear by the Roboticists.…
Bringing together all information with
1) humans who bring together all the data from the across members of a social group,
2) co-ordination between internal and external (material or environment structures) data through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events;
3) the coming together of information from different sources.
(E. Hutchins. Distributed Cognition, online. Pub University of California)
Being human, for me, means experiencing inner conflicts, however the prize in being the best of human can take us creatively into the future maintaining a caring and exciting society.
What is being human is a big question. But thinking back the discussion, I believe instead to make a distinction between human and non-human. I am more interested in how to 'harmony' with nature, which means finding the centre of oneself and following the flow of the universe. However, what we discussed do help us to 'reflect' ourself within 'awareness' the surrounding.
Therefore, in the question of what is 'being' human, being is practised. On the other hand, the issues that we see today are what we made. Instead to blames others, 'how' to live with others, perhaps is the way to address the issues. The values of becoming empathy/sympathy, sensitive and awareness are what this section address.
P.S. The idea of nature could discuss further on by studying Daoist theory and Martin Heidegger's writings. As well as, the idea of flow and living together could link with Roland Barthes' writing on How to Live Together (2012).
Also see image below.
I think the drawing echoes the topic of empathy. It is a drawing while I visited England last year. I saw two of the ladies hugged. One shows empathy of the other. I also show my empathy for the lady by drawing the view.
As far as I concerned, empathy is divided into two aspects.
1. Feeling aspect, empathy is the fundamental emotion for people. I took the example, when we were child, we learn”empathy” from parents, peers or others. And then when we grow up, we have built up the certain “empathy” and then delivery it to our child or people around me. So I reckon empathy has the quality of delivery between human beings. This character allows me to recall that book I recommended.
2. Due to this character it is not hard to find that there is an “empathy” within the art practice. I take the example, briefly, when artists see the objects, the phenomenon of empathy happens, they will take the images that has already been “empathy-ed“ via experience, memories and abstract thinking onto the painting and other art forms, which is the one kind of empathy for artists.
And then viewers see the images that has been processed by artists thinking(experience, memories and abstract thinking). The viewers will begin to guess what happened in this image in terms of experience, memories etc. in here, empathy has already occurred. Such as sadness happiness, and other information about this images. But, to some degree, there will be some difference between artists and viewers because of different experience, which is similar to the story of Hamlet.
What does it mean to be human? This is such a complex question. Are we distinguishing ‘human’ as opposed to animals or plants? As science allows us to learn more about how these develop and communicate, we become aware of similarities (ie animals using tools, the co-operation of trees, the flower dance of bees). Does the category ‘human’ rely on the development of the brain or the upright body with articulated fingers, or the development of human culture? Or do we define human as experiencing feeling, emotions? If you live closely with animals you know they all have different personalities; if they lose one of their ‘family’, they demonstrate behaviours akin to mourning. What apparently distinguishes humans is self-awareness, the ability to think about thinking. Perhaps it is through our facility for empathy – seeing the world from another’s point of view – that we can learn to live with the other occupants of our planet before we destroy them – and ourselves.
“We are bodies that think” Damasio.
Human(beings)have an intricate ability to reason and solve complex and introspection problems. This ability is processed and developed in the brain through thoughts and feelings. Our emotions and feelings allow us to have the mental capacity to react, translate, and communicate these physical reactions. We communicate with advanced skills, using language, as a cognitive ability. We make choices, using morality and cultural experiences, with applied ethics and laws.
We could argue that there are other species that have similar patterns of emotions, feelings and ability to communicate choices. Other animals but also bacteria, in which has the capacity to find their own groups to move and respond (attack) within the ‘body’.
However, humans and their dependence on technology are increasingly growing and developing to the point that these machines are being advanced and created to own human’s image. Consequently, a new and valid argument raises: can these artificial intelligent (AI) machines/ androids replace humans?
 Damasio, A. (2017). The strange order of thing.
I am reading a wonderful book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She not only writes beautifully but she also makes you think about what it means to be human. Here is a list that I have started to compile that defines how we can live as humans:
the list carries on…
click on the file below
Following on from Yvonne's thought provoking session that made us reflect on notions of empathy and care in relation to the post-human conditions, the group has decided to write a short text each asking 'What does it mean to be human?'. The collected texts will be shared in July prior to the next session.
Next PIRG session: 17 July 2020 (session will be led by Jane Bennett)
posted by Noriko
(Session led by Yvonne Jones on 19th June 2020)
In light of previous sessions, I was keen to focus on the junction between empathy identified as a human phenomenon and the possibility of empathy being noted in androids and the implications of this.
Texts for the discussion can be found here. To see the wide range of areas that arose see Yonat’s summary.
The fictional situation in Blade Runner gave rise to discussing different angles of empathy and how it sits with issues of androids and the era of the posthuman. We considered the fundamental human attributes, of feelings, emotions and the imagination in relation to androids and to notions of the posthuman.
A shift in humanity could go unseen, one to being more adherent to timetables and data, a shift away from the fundamentals of gifting, empathy and caring, that have been discussed in our sessions, a move away from feelings. Luisa put forward that the Covid Hibernation period gave the opportunity to reflect and that this offered her the realization that we were indeed becoming posthuman in the respect of less human towards fellow humans. I have long considered this to be happening and that there is the opportunity to develop a different posthuman future that is not android focused, NOT less caring, less feeling or less human, one that is develops the posthuman subject, using distributed cognition so important to the Roboticists, in a different way, to enhance our world, to overcome inequality and poverty.
My hope to bring the human-machine relationship and the posthuman discussion into the wider public, in order that we can choose our future rather than be walked blindly into a future we would not want, took one step forward today, during this session.
posted by Yvonne
The June PIRG session will be lead by Yvonne. We will be reflecting on what it means to be human in light of post-human theory and notions of empathy.
Click here to access the texts which will be used for the session.
Our second group art activity, Empathetic Grid, involved each PIRG member creating a 4 x 4 grid that became filled by the other members as the grid was passed on. The last person on the list (the fifth person) was then allowed to complete the artwork by altering or transforming the filled in 4 x 4 grids. Below are the 5 separate grid artworks that resulted from this activity.
Image 1: Luisa - Jane - Yvonne - Noriko - Yonat
Image 2: Noriko - Yvonne - Jane - Yonat - Luisa
Image 3: Jane - Luisa - Yonat - Yvonne - Noriko
Image 4: Yonat - Noriko - Luisa - Jane - Yvonne
Image 5: Yvonne - Yonat - Noriko - Luisa - Jane
Empathy and care are meaningful topics to reflect on in the current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are made to think about others who may be more vulnerable, help your neighbours, re-engage with community values, appreciate key workers and also to 'look after oneself'. The conversation that developed around the notion of 'looking after oneself' was insightful as we all reflected on the what and how of 'taking care of oneself', particularly as mothers. We all agreed that it was actually quite a difficult thing to do. How do we become empathetic to yourself? I suggested we could listen to Elizabeth Day's podcast 'How to Fail'. In one particular recording, philosopher Alain de Botton talks to Day about vulnerability in the time of Coronavirus.
We also discussed about whether empathy could be connected with creative activities such as painting, drawing, sculpture and dancing.
Is it possible to empathise with materials?
Can we also see our group art activity (the previous one being the Gentle Act in Isolation) as a form of care?
So we decided to embark on a new art activity 'Empathetic Grid' to develop the notion of art as form of care. The activity involves each participant creating a 4 x 4 grid (of any size) then filling in 4 spaces before passing on to the next participant. By the time the drawing reaches the fifth person, all of the grids would be filled. The fifth person then responds to the images/texts/drawings that fill the grids in whatever way she likes to create a final artwork.
The final art works will be uploaded on this blog page before the next PIRG session (19 June) so watch this space.
Posted by Noriko.
Session led by Luisa Menano
Text: 'The Joys and Sorrow of Empathy' by Eagleman, D. The Brain - the story of you (2016). Canongate Books, pp. 157 - 163.
Following our previous session, when we discussed the subject of 'care as value', there were several relevant keywords that came to my attention, and I felt that it might need more thoughtfulness, such as: ‘gift-giving’; ‘care’, ‘exchange’, amid others.
Our brain connects with our own personal experience and therefore with the world we live in; therefore, I proposed a reflection on the way we perceive things, for instance: why does it matter to care? Is it for the ‘joy of empathy’? or is it for the “sorrow of empathy'? In sum, I brought to our discussion the subject of ‘empathy’, which is crucial in our emotions. This ‘control’ of empathy is located in our prefrontal cortex and other areas of our brain. ‘Empathy’ helps to clarify what makes us be more ‘humanising’ people and/ or ‘dehumanising’.
The text “The Joys and Sorrows of Empathy’ reflects on the subject of ‘empathy’ and helped us to discuss, to be more self-aware about ‘empathy’. Our senses are also an essential part of ‘empathy’ because it helps us to feel that we belong to a niche/ a group, makes us feel that we are accepted in the society, we live in. The strategy of propaganda, made by politicians and others, are very good at ‘manipulating’ our senses/ our vision, if and when we don’t have the capability to control and turn off our own our medial prefrontal cortex. “Empathy is, literally, feeling the other’s pain as if that were your pain.’(Eagleman)
Next session: 15 June 2020