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Bearing Witness to Epiphany: Persons, Things, and the Nature of Erotic Life

1 rating: 5.0
A book by John Russon

Makes the novel argument that erotic life is the real sphere of human freedom.--This text refers to theHardcoveredition.

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Author: John Russon
Publisher: State University of New York Press
1 review about Bearing Witness to Epiphany: Persons, Things,...

On the erotic roots of metaphysics - a highly original work of contemporary continental philosophy

  • Nov 17, 2009
"Bearing Witness to Epiphany" aims to clarify, bear witness to, and urge the recognition of the dynamic character of the experiential world. Russon begins by attending to rhythm and music, and develops out of our capacity to experience rhythm and be moved by music a very useful and vivid articulation of the structural and temporal dimensions of embodied experience. Music is not something "out there" apart from us, a mere "object" to which we can remain indifferent. To hear music as music is to be solicited to dance, to be called upon bodily. In general, Russon argues, experience is never a matter of subjects confronting objects, but of interaction, of reciprocity, of engagement that can perhaps best be described in musical terms. There is always an established and familiar repeating context (rhythm), that is given significance by the various ongoing projects that work with and against that background, defining the character of experience (harmony), and serving as background for the current and developing concerns (melody).

The things of our world are not detached realities, existing in their own right as "things in themselves," but appear only in relation to us and on our terms, against the backdrop of our developing character, and in terms of our capacities for interacting with and making sense of them. They appear, for us, only insofar as we are capable of making contact with them, only insofar as we have acquired the bodily capacity for interacting with and interpreting them. At the same time, we cannot be indifferent to things, as they solicit us to act upon and witness to them, since "we" are not anything at all within experience, or for ourselves, except the open potential realized through such interactions, through this interplay and dance.

Insofar as we tend to describe the world in terms of prevailing dualisms -- of subject and object, of mind and body, of self and world, of us and them, of private and public -- Russon argues that the world as we actually experience it is essentially ambiguous, incapable of being captured and described adequately in terms of one or the other poles of an opposition. Russon's manner of describing things may sometimes seem unconventional, but that is because he aims to find a vocabulary that incorporates, rather than obscures, this essential ambiguity. Rather than, for example, describing the self or the world as either active or passive, we could consider them as "interactive" or "reciprocal," terms that embrace the opposition of passivity and activity within themselves. At the same time, Russon emphasizes that under certain conditions and for certain purposes we find it necessary, even incumbent, to pursue or investigate the world in terms that fail to do justice to the rich and dynamic significance of experience - as in scientific experimentation, when we aim to consider the object in abstraction from the interests that draw it up into human significance. The results of such investigations, however, are abstractions from lived experience and should not be considered to stand alone.

The most significant experiences, that solicit and transform us and begin to shape us into individuals, are those that can be broadly (and narrowly) construed as erotic -- where I encounter the other as both object of desire and subject, where the object of desire is the very desire of the other, where what I want from her is for her to want me. The reciprocity that is the implicit element of all experience is here made explicit, that if experience in general is a matter of encountering the other in terms of my own capacities, what I encounter here directly is my own incapacity, my insufficiency to fulfill myself by myself, and my incapacity to touch the other without her permission, without her solicitation. At the same time what I encounter here is my own uniqueness, my irreplaceability, since it is not just anyone to whom she reciprocates but to me as a singular self. It is in our erotic encounters, notably those that mark the transition into maturity from a period in which our activities and attitudes in relation to the world have been shaped by our families, it is in our coming to learn of ourselves that we are, for another who we desire, also an object of desire, that we gain a sense of self as distinctive, as not just like any other member of a family or clan or community and not just another person, but as unique and also as responsive to the demands of the other. It is these two sides of developing selfhood, the singularity on the one hand, the sense that I stand alone and am irreplaceable, and, on the other hand, the responsible character of the self, that I can become and fulfill the singular self that I am only in collaboration with others and interaction with the world, that form the ambiguous poles of human existence, that challenge me to work out what it is I am by working on the world with others.

There are a number of themes explored here in powerful and original ways: myth, tragedy, art, the body, property, language, learning, sexuality, honesty, justice. What is most fascinating is how this book traces the connections between these themes in the ambiguously unfolding character of experiential reality. It is clearly a work in the existential and phenomenological tradition, that draws heavily upon insights from Beauvoir and Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, and Russon carefully lays out intriguing and provocative new ways to consider the structures that unfold within experience. It is also a fresh and compelling look at themes as old as Plato, such as the nature of the forms and their relation to things, and the importance of Eros and of the examined life. It even goes further, to suggest an important sense in which there are gods of the sort described in Greek myth, insofar as we must take for granted certain inescapable rhythms and patterns as the context within which we shape our lives.

This is, ultimately, a book of metaphysics. This should come as a surprise from the perspective of certain established prejudices in philosophy that treat the theoretical as utterly distinct from the practical and ethical matters of recognition and interaction. Reality, for Russon, is not an unambiguous given but a norm, an imperative. I am called upon to realize reality, to responsibly and honestly determine with others what our shared places and things are and are to be, and how we are to organize ourselves in ways that answer to the challenges we come to face in the process of this realization.

It is likely to be a challenging read for those who don't have a background in phenomenology or familiarity with the themes discussed here as they are handed down in the tradition of philosophy, and also for those whose thoughts are too strongly wedded to philosophical traditions and attitudes that this book aims to challenge. Russon does aim, however, to think through these issues in a fresh way, with a minimum of scholarly and technical baggage, and absolutely none of the "postmodern" gimmickry that all too often obscures what is useful in works of contemporary Continental philosophy. This is a provocative and insightful, but straightforward, investigation of a set of connected themes, that would reward careful reading by anyone who is willing to work seriously with the text. It should, especially, be accessible to those who have already worked through the companion piece to this book, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life, that confronts directly and works through many of the prejudices that this book considers and rejects more in passing. It is rare to come upon contemporary works in philosophy that are so startlingly original, and comprehensive in aim, and yet so attuned to the tradition of philosophy as this and its companion work. Not everyone will agree with the conclusions Russon develops here, but I think it would be impossible to read this work as a philosopher and be unmoved and unchallenged. Highly recommended.

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