Phenomenology [presentation response]

October 29, 2009

A few weeks ago at the history-theory faculty colloquium Bob Mugerauer presented on Heidegger, and (as usual, it seems) the discussion got cut off right when it became interesting. Ralph Stern, citing Christian Norberg-Shulz as an example of someone using phenomenology as a method to theorize architecture, raised an interesting question.

That is, Norberg-Shulz’s project was, at a certain level, pursing the universal – the theory of Architecture, singular and possibly with a capital “A” (this being at odds with Bob’s reading of Heidegger). Unfortunately time was up and that’s about where the discussion ended.

I won’t comment on Heidegger today (maybe ever!) but the more general issue, I think, has to do with how you think about embodied experience.  For all the attention to the specifics of a given situation, the phenomenological approach does find a certain common, fundamental reality in how the human body experiences the world.  On one hand things like the scale of the human body relative to other things, on the other hand perception –  of up and down, and of the sky being up and the ground being down.  These have obvious relevance to those of us thinking about the built environment and to design as well.

The problem is, Foucault showed convincingly the degree to which the body is socially constructed and produced.

A possible response would be that the phenomenological situation can be defined to include local conditions – climate, culture, whatever (if I understood correctly Bob was arguing that Heidegger actually did just that, but hasn’t been given credit for it).

I get the sense here of approaching the same thing from different starting points…but not quite.  Foucault’s focus on the operation of power matters, because (I think he would argue) any other starting point lies within the the existing mechanisms of power and can never achieve a real critique.


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