Ferrarello: Unnoticed Phenomena of the Italian CrisisJul 10th, 2012 | By Marc Applebaum | Category: Human Science
During the current global recession rising suicide rates have being witnessed across Europe; this is echoed by American data on increases in suicides and depression. I invited philosopher Susi Ferrarello to reflect upon the rash of suicides amid Italy’s social crisis. –Marc Applebaum
Phenomenology and the Representation of Personal Identity
I am writing and working in a language that is not mine, in a country that is still mine but does not reflect and respect my identity. I am Italian, I live in Rome and I use foreign words – like other colleagues and friends of mine – to claim who I am and shape my own existence. I feel lucky to work with American Universities and international students, to interact with more geographical areas than the one where I am living in but I wonder how much the words with which I live and the social context where I work affect my identities. How can politics practically affect our spiritual life? Do we have enough words to represent our identities, and a dignified image to reflect upon? What can the wave of suicides say to us about Italians’ personal identities in the midst of the economic crisis?
From a phenomenological point of view I’ve explored Merleau-Ponty and Husserl’s thought as a means of reflecting upon Italians and their life-world. I have decided to cite Merleau-Ponty because he defined phenomenology as “a manner or style of thinking” that is able to express life-worlds afresh, instead of insisting on the same established habits of thought that often choke off any new upsurge of existence. On the other hand, in Logical Investigations Husserl proposed phenomenology as a scientific method of inquiry capable of discovering the structure and meanings of consciousness as such. Therefore both philosophers can be taken as guides to shed light, philosophically, on the issue of the current Italian crisis.
Let us begin with some political data. Italy like other European countries is living through a rough political moment. An intense economic crisis is changing the lives of many Italians. Small business owners are committing suicide at an alarming rate, mostly because they cannot cope with debts. A broader network providing psychological assistance is needed, because Italian businesses are firing an increasing numbers of employees.
Unemployment has reached a record high of 9.3%. In Bologna, in central Italy, a 58-year-old building contractor died of self-inflicted burns after nine days of agony in the hospital, his self-immolation triggered by the pressure of unpaid taxes. A 53-year-old farmer and father of four children was found, having hanged himself in his farm because—as he had said to his relative—he was overwhelmed by financial troubles. In addition a recent magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck within 35km (22 miles) of the city of Bologna, destroying some of the most beautiful architectural treasures of northern Italy.
What do Italian politicians say about the present moment? Angelino Alfano, Italy’s conservative former Justice Minister, maintains that the wave of suicides is the result of economic difficulties. Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat, one of the Italy’s biggest private companies, describes recent human tragedies as the “reflection of an unsustainable situation.” Di Pietro, leader of the center left Italy of Values party, even blames Mario Monti, Italy’s Prime Minister, arguing: “these suicides are on his conscience”.
The Indignados protesters marched in the center of Rome on January 15, 2012 to voice their outrage regarding the systemic EU economic pressures that are impacting Italy, Spain, Greece and other European countries.
In Greece, the suicide rate among men increased more than 24% between 2007 and 2009. In Ireland during the same period, suicides among men rose more than 16%. In Italy, suicides motivated by economic difficulties have increased 52% between 2005 and 2010 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).
What does this empirical data say to us? How can we read them phenomenologically?
The Problem of Representation in Husserl’s Phenomenology
Reading this data through the lens of Husserl’s phenomenological method, we encounter the phenomenological issue of intentionality. As previously mentioned, in Logical Investigations Husserl defined phenomenology as a “science of consciousness”. To Husserl, phenomenology stands for a method and a science that discloses (enschliesst) the realm of lived-consciousness. The hallmark of lived-consciousness is intentionality, a technical phenomenological term which indicates the way in which consciousness “intends” or “reaches out toward” its objects.
Husserl borrowed the notion of intentionality from Franz Brentano and developed it in a way that reflects Husserl’s deep concerned with the experience of lived-subjectivity and intersubjectivity. In contrast to Brentano’s work, intentionality for Husserl does not represent the intentional in-existence of the object within the consciousness, but the property of the subject to purely refer to its objects.
The preceding statement regarding intentionality will not be immediately clear for non-phenomenologists. To explicate what this ‘purely’ means we might use the following example given by Husserl in his Logical Investigations, where he writes: “I can live the war of 1866 and that of 1870 in two different ways” (Husserl, 2001, 209). My lived can be focused only upon the external event, or it can also include reflection upon how the event is lived. It is possible to live the same experience as a memory, or to live the event more reflectively by exploring the event’s structure as embodied in the complex combination of perceptions, evaluations and acts of which it is lived in consciousness.
This means that we can in a certain way “re-live” our acts in a reflective or phenomenological way, and we can discover a deeper dimension the lived itself through this “reliving”. The pure essence of the intentional life of consciousness lies exactly in this “reliving”. Reflection upon the acts of consciousness, considered from a phenomenological point of view, are a sort of a second pure experience lived by the consciousness. “Pure” here does not mean eternal, immutable, or ahistorical—instead, it means a fresh re-encountering of the essential structure of what has been originarily lived by the conscious subject or subjects. The transcendental phenomenological perspective is “purified” in the sense that facticity has been set aside in order to seek an essential structure.
In Husserl’s example the intentional act reflectively grasps the facticity (i.e. the empirical dimension) of the wars lived in 1866 and 1870 in a network of new, conscious acts. In this way the sheer structure of consciousness consists of a flow of acts, which make present the objects already lived in an original lived-experience. The original, pre-reflective experience of the wars can be termed “psychological” in a particular sense of the word—from this perspective pre-reflective lived-experience is lived in a first-person way as the experience of self that Husserl termed “I-the-man” or the “personal ego-mind.” In other words, the “I” is lived in its facticity as the experience of a real, factual person that is me, the psychological ego. But once I reflect upon this experience phenomenologically using the transcendental phenomenological reduction, I bracket the facticity of what I’ve lived, and the facticity of the “me” who has lived it, and consider the data of consciousness as reflecting the experience of a consciousness as such, not in terms of facts for a factual self. So in this article I am contrasting a phenomenological perspective—by which I mean a perspective that seeks to explicate the essential structure of a phenomenon—with a psychological perspective, by which I mean a perspective that views experiences within the horizon of an individual person’s life, and is focused exclusively on the facts of that life.
Husserl (2001) writes:
“The conscious intentional relation of the ego to its objects means for me simply that intentional experiences whose intentional objects are the ego-body, the personal ego-mind and therefore the entire empirical ego-subject or human person, are included in the total phenomenological being of a unity of consciousness, and that such intentional experiences also constitutes an essential phenomenological kernel in the phenomenal ego” (p. 362).
Therefore we can distinguish two kinds of acts, respectively: the psychological or empirical and the phenomenological or pure acts. While Brentano considers intentionality as a mark of the psychological object, Husserl defines it as a characteristic of the pure consciousness. For it represents the movement of consciousness to mean or intend its objects.
Within this intentional pure movement of consciousness the concept of presentation (Vorstellung) plays an important role. In fact, Husserl (2001) claims that the “intentional essence is made up of the two aspects of matter and quality”(p. 251). Quality is the way by which a content is given and matter corresponds to the content of the act. He wrote: “Quality…has guided us since we formed the Idea of matter – while the same object remains differently present to consciousness. One may think, e.g., of equivalent positing presentations, which point by way of differing matters to the same object”(Husserl, 2001, p. 52).
Indeed we might evaluate, love or simply perceive the same matter once it is given us by a presentation. Consciousness’ pure life is intentional: the way by which it lives corresponds to the quality of its acts and what it lives corresponds to the matter of what it intends. Husserl calls its intentional acts “objectifying” acts, because through these acts objects made present to consciousness as objects.
“Objectifying acts,” Husserl (2001) writes “are signitive and intuitive acts – and, under the latter rubric, acts of perception and imagination” (p. 314). Every intuitive act is “objectifying” because it makes an object present to consciousness by grasping it within perception. Thus intentionality is mainly a ‘being of’ or ‘about’ something thanks to the device of presentation. The content or matter of the act is what makes the act an intentional act since it is the basis to which the act refers and it can be given to consciousness via a Vorstellung (presentation). Consequently the presentation looks to be the hallmark of any intentional objectifying activity. The Vorstellung is a required step for any process of objectification to be possible.
The intentional life of consciousness always needs the presentations of intellective acts, otherwise it could not be able to know what it is intending. All that cannot be actively intended belongs to the realm of passive intentions that are lived in a bodily way but not yet explicated they lack predicates or other signitive presentations. Consequently, all conscious contents that are not brought to reflective awareness are generally doomed to remain implicitly present yet veiled, until and unless the subject finds the right words to name them.
Do Italians have the words to “make present” and reveal the lived-dimensions of the social crisis they are currently living through? How strong is the pressure of these unrepresented lived experiences, especially in the cases of suicides due to economic pressure? How can we dig into this sphere?
Archeology and Unnoticed Phenomena
Those contents of consciousness that remain imminent and not yet reached by active intentionality—belonging to the realm of the ante-predicative or pre-predicative experience—cannot be sorted out or immediately known because they do not yet have a fitting presentation. Merleau-Ponty (1968) defines this realm as the field of unnoticed phenomena, and writes that phenomenology can dig into this realm to explore new meanings for consciousness.
Merleau-Ponty calls this exploration of the pre-theoretical or ante-predicative realm “archeology” in order to point out that the analysis of the past-that-is-still-implicitly-present has an impact upon our lives. For Merleau-Ponty, archeology is a regressive inquiry into the signs, forms, and sedimentations that call for interpretation and sense-giving (Sinngebung). This archeology is an investigation of the realm of consciousness in which a “simultaneous” or “synchronous” order” reigns.
Archeology digs into a sort of apriori realm in which time and space are completely annihilated in order to reach a point of origination or genesis that is ontologically prior to presentations and meanings. For Merleau-Ponty archeology is a specific way of doing phenomenology: a regressive inquiry through sedimentation into the “original soil” of corporeal experience.
This experiential recovery of the original soil is identified with Husserl’s “presencing” or “essencing” (Wesen) by Merleau-Ponty. This “presencing” or recovering of the essential ground of corporeal experience represents the bringing-to-consciousness of structures that are always implicitly present our lives and behaviors. Typically, however, these structures and their meanings remain trapped in what Husserl terms Fremderfahrung (experiencing something that is foreign to you, or experiencing an actual other) in the fifth Cartesian Meditation. In other words, the meaningful essence of what’s being lived is, in ordinary human experience, lived only implicitly: in everyday life these structures are rarely consciously explicated and therefore rarely represented.
The sense of strangeness that this kind of experience generates makes a personal economic crisis even more annihilating. The presencing and unrepresented essence that dwells within us needs to be deciphered and named. In this way it can be lived in a way that enriches our spirit instead of only burdening us. become instead of a burden, a richness for our spirit.
The Third Dimension of Phenomenon
In her beautiful book Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics after Antihumanism (2007) Diana Coole emphasizes that Merleau-Ponty seeks to make this strange realm more familiar to us. Merleau-Ponty defines this realm as a third dimension that can be disclosed (erschlossen) via an archeological phenomenology. In the Visible and Invisible (1968) Merleau-Ponty describes this return to radical subjectivity as an appropriation of “‘sensations’, ‘representations’, ‘thoughts’, ‘consciousness’, or even a deceiving being–in order to separate itself from all being” (p. 107). This radical subjectivity is a new kind of subjectivity because it comes in contact with all that has been already lived by the consciousness although in an unaware way. This being remained still separated from the subject since it needs to be named and appropriated by presentations, thoughts or other signitive acts.
This dimension is construed as a new level of being, examined by means of an ontological approach in which the subject-object distinction and rational subjectivity itself are problematized, in which “a subterranean history [of the] genesis of ideality” is pursued (Merleau-Ponty, 1963, p. 183). In this dimension ethics and politics cannot be separated or set aside as they are a part of our lived-identity that must be recovered and recognized. Experiences, whether pleasurable or terribly difficult to live through, leave their traces upon us, which we can return to and examine archeologically to understand ourselves and the experiences themselves more deeply.
“Flesh” (chair) is a Merleau-Ponty’s term for his ontological exploration of this third dimension comprised of imminent, embodied meanings that are not yet illuminated by reflection, in which meaning and materiality are inseparable (1976, p. 101). The flesh can be described as a realm of “negativity” or “absence” because it refers to that dimension of our meaningful existence that is embodied but not yet named, a bodily ground of immanent meaning that can provide new sense to our existence during moments in which all of our previously-known self-and-world understandings seem to collapse.
This dimension of our embodied existence, not yet explored or expressed, may become the cornerstone of a new way of being for us—a new sense of life—even in the midst of a massive economic and social failure. In uncovering these new meanings about our lives and our interrelationships with others we are absolute beginners; we have nothing in the way of a predetermined logic to provide us with norms to structure the new social world in which we find ourselves in the aftermath of socio-economic collapse.
This archeological exploration must be absolutely free from any previous logical structure. In “unearthing” these meanings we can do nothing but reflect and take care to avoid all prejudice or “alien influences” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 183). In this ante-predicative field Merleau-Ponty defines intentionality of consciousness as an operative intentionality. While Husserl recognizes this mode of intentionality as a passive activity of consciousness—in other words a passive (or receptive) intending of lived embodiment—Merleau-Ponty develops this aspect of intentionality further. He names it operative intentionality and defines it as a kind of intending that is able to serve as the ground for the discovery of new norms and thus of radically new manifestations of subjectivity.
This mode of intentionality is particularly fruitful within a “liquid” society. As Zygmunt Bauman remarks, we live in a condition of “liquid modernity” in which the social world is constantly changing and assuming new forms, in contrast to our social habits, codes, and goals, which remain almost the same. Consequently our inner-world ends up in a condition of constant displacement. Our lived-values are partially or largely unfit for what is required from us by our environing social world: in a sense, what we are actually living is always ahead of us.
In living a situation of rupture between our values and valued, on the one hand, and the social demands upon us on the other, we should be seeking new norms capable of helping us orient ourselves practically, ethically, and in terms of our sense of identity. In this disjunctive context it can be incredibly difficult to adapt the best of our societal inheritance to current conditions. What remains is a pervasive sense of frustration, failure, defeat and even a sense of shame that weighs upon our sense of identity and obstructs creative exploration.
I think the phenomenological method can provide us with “weapons” with which to confront and cope with this lived-burden. At its best, phenomenological inquiry frees us to an open-minded inquiry and analysis largely freed from prejudices, and able to disclose a new and more fruitful ways of being. Husserl (1970) proposes an “intuitively disclosing method” in which intuition is understood as the “original self-exhibition” of a new sphere of being (p.116). In accord with Husserl’s (1970) vision for phenomenology, this method could be applied fluidly in a way that seeks to keep pace with the multiple changes impacting our societies—for Husserl, this application of phenomenology would contribute to an existential transformation of the conditions of human being (p. 123).
Desperations as the Ethos of Existence
Kety Ceolin, a psychoanalyst practicing in Venice, reports that the business owners who undergo analysis with her are struggling with “shame” and have the feeling “that there is no one out there to ask for concrete help.” I think that this concrete help might come from an ongoing and open attending to the multiple unnoticed phenomenal dimensions of the current social crisis in Italy.
I think that the biggest obstacle we face in Italy, beyond the brute facts of our economical crisis, lies in our difficulty finding adequate words and a new language to articulate what we are living. Under “normal” conditions we might experience ourselves as possessing an enduring ethos that needs to be renewed and fulfilled from time to time, in the face of new events, with new meanings and sense, particularly when our lives become troubled and problematic. But the rupture we face now appears even starker than that—the old ethos itself appears out of synch with the objective conditions we’re living.
We are normally defined by our social and working roles: we are thoroughly embedded in our intersubjective world. We identify ourselves with the relationships we entertain with our family, we recognize ourselves in the eyes of our wives or children. What does it mean, then, when those eyes disappear, or when our witnesses lose the words to describe us?
I think that the desperation that leads people to commit suicide is directly linked to the erosion of our conventional and intersubjective social role. Once it collapses, we need to set in motion operative intentionality in order to plumb our unnoticed lived-worlds and elicit the names and words we need to represent anew what we are feeling and living. In the end, this may sound empty or terribly over-philosophical, not to say abstract! But the dimension of lived-consciousness that phenomenology indicates with the phrase “operative intentionality,” and the path indicated by the phenomenological tradition to shed light upon it, can help us in the necessary work of rebuilding shared meanings.
As Husserl (1970) wrote, “The life-world for us who wakingly live in it, is always already there, existing in advance for us, the ground of all praxis whether theoretical and extra-theoretical. The world is pregiven to us, that walking always somehow practically interested subjects, not occasionally but always and necessarily as the universal field of all actual and possible praxis, as horizon” (p. 142). Disclosing and thereby opening possible horizons is what an operative intentionality can do.
Bauman, Z. 2001. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Coole, D. 2007. Merleau-Ponty and Modern Politics after Anti-humanism,New York, Toronto, Plymouth, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Husserl, E. 1901. Logical Investigations Findlay, J.N.(trans.) Moran, D. (ed.) London: Routledge, 2001.
Husserl, E. 1970. The Crisis of the European Science and Transcendental Phenomenology, D. Carr (trans.), Evaston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1963. In Praise of Philosophy. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1976. “Philosophy and Non-Philosophy Since Hegel”, Telos 29.
Photo credits: Italian photos courtesy of Adil Mauro