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From Lifeworld to Social World: Productive (Mis)understandings and Future (Mis)uses of the Phenomenological Method Across Disciplines

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Organizer: Bellamy Mitchell

Co-Organizer: Micol Bez

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There seems to be a contradiction between the proliferation of contemporary usages of phenomenology across disciplines in the literary humanities and social sciences, and its relative distress and isolation as a pure philosophical form: phenomenology is increasing in popularity, and also (some would argue) disappearing as such. This tension is made all the more striking when we remark that these fields are only minimally in conversation as they pursue their linked philosophical work.

Critical phenomenology developed qualified appropriations of phenomenological methods to particular ends: analysing the phenomena of oppression, racialization, whiteness, and disability. The productiveness of such critical projects is rooted in the possibilities opened up by the basic phenomenological gesture: moving to first person analysis and attending to the phenomena themselves and their modes of appearance, independently of their empirical status.

However, as Sarah Ahmed observes, the reduction is double-edged in that it can, and has, been used to submerge, bracket, and ignore the socio-political dynamics that are constitutive of phenomena. The distinction between the necessary transcendental structures of experience and the contingent social facts of the world—the fundamental question of what needs to be bracketed? (already posed by Husserl’s successors)—becomes all the more salient when phenomenology takes on the responsibility of serving as a critical tool for social and political projects. What is the cost of the reduction? What analytic ambitions does a strict phenomenological method force us to give up?

On the other hand, relinquishing the ambition to describe the necessary structure of subjectivity and phenomenality leaves behind a potent tool for understanding the specific ways in which social phenomena shape and co-constitute us. If bracketing is the suspension of the existential qualifier, can it also allow us to attend to the cultural horizon of meanings that lies in the background of our every experience? Could the epoché turn out to be necessary for this kind of reflective turn? What kind of epoché would that be? And could this be a fertile ground for dialogue?

We invite papers that reflect on methodology in the application of (or, as in Fred Moten’s work, the deliberate dissolution of) particular phenomenological concepts to descriptive critical, social, historical, and philosophical projects. Such papers might consider (but are not limited to) the distinctions and productive articulations between:

  • The phenomenological ‘I’ and first person narration

  • Lifeworld (Lebenswelt) and social world 

  • Embodiment, place, and sociological positionality

  • Phenomenological analyses of moods and feelings, and affect theory

  • Necessary conditions of experience and social apriori 

  • Orientation, intentionality and social normativities 

  • The epoché, bracketing and the critical attitude

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