Saturday, July 25, 2015

Degrees of Givenness and the Critique of Marion's Phenomenology

 I am both delighted and horrified that I have just now come to Christina M. Gschwandtner's Degrees of Givenness (Indiana: Indiana Univ. Pr., 2014). What a pleasure it would have been to have one of Marion's translators (The Visible and the Revealed) walk me through some of his challenging ideas, and what a pleasure (in retrospect) it was to have to unknot my own brow walking alone. Gschwandtner's study is a fine secondary source, and it beautifully, responsibly and comprehensively lays out some of the difficulties in Marion's extraordinarily ambitious project. She presents her own theory of possible refinements in the ideas of givenness and saturation, and identifies 'degrees' in the mode itself of the given, that the given gives itself incompletely (Marion might say inexhaustibly) to the recipient, responder, reader, observer. 

Despite the incalculable contribution of Degrees of Givenness to the study of Marion and to phenomenology in general, I can still sense an unresolved struggle with the interface between givenness and the self, both in her analysis and in critiques of those whom she presents. In my piece on Marion's In the Self's Place, I noted that when Marion heads straight into interpretation of  Augustine, he locates a self already in relation to the given. Gschwandtner identifies a conflict between hermeneutics and discernment that is simply absent from Marion's reading of Augustine. Clearly, Marion's posture is hermeneutic, not mystical.

Part of the problem here (in addition to the persistent problem with metaphysics, which Gschwandtner has elucidated definitively in her Reading Jean-Luc Marion, another gem read in tandem with Degrees) might very well be Christianity's view of formation, which tends to be conceived of as pluperfect. The formations of the self, spirit, morality etc., seem always to be actions already completed in the past; that certainly seems to be the Catholic view. But Catholicism is not grounded into a theology of the already-become-once-and-for-all. Catholic formation is not to be thought of as the perfection of the technique of a musical instrument: where a musician has, through years of practice and mastery, overcome every difficulty of getting around her instrument. Even in concepts of musicianship, practice never ends, and is always open to artistry and ever-increasing levels of effortlessness in technique.

In order to protect God from idolatry in which the religious responder has experiences of God but not from God (the essential difference between the idol and the icon), Marion, as a Catholic and religious thinker, tends to emphasize the side of the given against the self of the recipient. Some have interpreted this emphasis as a commitment to one term in the obvious binary opposition. But this I think is a fundamental misreading of Marion: certainly my reading of Marion does not look at the event of givenness as in danger of idolatry. As in the quantum reduction, the collapse of the waveform that allows the particle to appear, the problem of the observer is paramount. 

Metaphysical notions of causality undermine the appearance of phenomena. For Marion the individuation of the self follows givenness, which is anterior to it. In this sense, I find the closing remarks in Degrees of Givenness, troubling. There most certainly is, in my reading of Marion, a "back and forth between the phenomenon as it gives itself and one's reception of it" (203). That idea might not be so clear in Marion's work prior to his study of Augustine, but there the self emerges in synchronicity with givenness: degrees of the givenness of phenomena and the ever-forming of a growing self defy the metaphysical categories of cause and effect, of the appearance of the given and of the self. The anteriority of the given is all the protection saturated phenomena need, including the saturated phenomena of the icon and perhaps even of revelation. We must think of consciousness, being, time as collapsing into the reception of givenness, in a moment of Rahner's Schwebe, as they play out in the possibilities of the impossible in Keller's Cloud of the Impossible. It may very well turn out that the oscillations (i.e., schweben) demanded in Degrees of Givenness are already in the third reduction.

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