” I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” – Fred Moten
If phenomenology is going to be ‘put to use,’ as Sara Ahmed would have us do, how are we to go about understanding the force of suffering? Phenomenology, situated as a post-Kantian enterprise, has wanted in its various guises to return to ‘the things themselves.” In Husserl at least, it has wanted to describe universal aspects of a transcendental consciousness in a scientific and universal matter, or the essences of the structure of consciousness. Here is where I think phenomenology actually offers a way out of essentializing experiences when trying to understand experience, especially of suffering.
How are we to think suffering? Suffering is essential to the thinking of Michel Henry. Henry, in his un-laconic way, describes suffering fundamentally in terms of a forced passivity, as “feeling experiences itself in its absolute passivity with regard to self.” This is not to say that suffering produces a passivity in the sense of a quietism, but that the nature of its suffering is a kind of experience that occurs in a passive experiencing of itself, where the self is “loaded with the weight of its own Being.” This may appear as by necessity abstract, and perhaps not a little Heideggerian. The lesson that we can take from phenomenology, and Henry in particular, is that suffering is entirely subjective. It is multifaceted, individualized occurrence that happens to particular people in their subjectivity existence. The ‘essence’ of suffering, in other words, is to have no discernible and re-describable essence. It is always and again the original experiencing of its own self-affection.
One of the problems with Husserl is the problem of solipsism. Such is the intensity that he explored Ego. The usual way to resolve this problem in Husserl is that we can know other Ego’s through analogy to our own: we experience ourselves and can only know other experience or existence only through a comparison to our own. But with Henry this cannot be the case. Suffering is something only individuals can experience qua their subjectivity. There is no way to understand suffering that is not ones own. If phenomenology can be put to use, it is that the only way to ‘know’ suffering is to listen and understand the people who have undergone suffering. If we are to return to the ‘things themselves,’ we must pay attention to the bodies – black, indigenous, GLBTQ* – that suffer and the singularity of their experiences. We cannot presume to know what we have no access to. (To put it more colloquially, there can be no whitesplaining).
I’m not arguing for a form of relationality, however novel. I think there can be few things more offensive that whites being all “lets suddenly be relational” or “hey, there you are!.” This can’t involve mere attention or belated recognition, especially a kind that needs some sort of reciprocation of gaze. It is something more along the lines of what Fred Moten writes, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker.”
*The title is taken from Fred Moten’s poem, Fugitivity is immanent to the thing but is manifest transversally