PHENOMENOLOGY, SELF-REFERENCE, AND BOHMIAN DIALOGUE
Steven M. Rosen, Ph.D.
College of Staten Island/City University of New York
Presentation for the 42nd Annual Conference of the Society for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences
Boston, November 2003
What a difference a letter can make. This is clear from the misprint in the conference program of the title of my presentation. It was listed as "Bohemian Dialogue" when it should have read "Bohmian Dialogue." But perhaps Bohmian Dialogue—the kind of Dialogue initiated by the philosopher/physicist David Bohm—is bohemian inasmuch as it runs counter to conventional expectations and cultural norms—as we will see shortly.
The other terms in the title of my presentation are "phenomenology" and "self-reference." Phenomenology—especially the kind that is closely linked with existentialism—tends to be self-referential or self-reflexive. That is, existentialist writers—directly, or indirectly through their fictional characters—tend to include themselves in their reflections on the nature of society, of the mind, individual existence, embodiment, and so forth. Just think of Dostoevsky’s "underground man" agonizing in self-disgust over his own failings, Kierkegaard’s reflections on the grief and desperation characterizing his "personal mode of existence," and Nietzsche’s self-aggrandizing yet anguished ruminations on "why I am so wise" and "why I write such excellent books"—to name just a few.
Of course, self-reference is pervasive in contemporary philosophy and culture at large, but much of it is of an abstract sort. This is especially evident in the poststructuralist or postmodern kind of self-reflection. Here, in looking at myself I become detached and distanced from myself, with the tendency for this to wind up slipping into an infinite regress: one such act of self-reflection leads to another, and another, like the endless sequence of reflections in a hall of mirrors. In the poststructuralist parlance of Lacan, this is called the "slippage of the signifier" (1977, p. 4ff), and Derrida names it the "game of the world" (1976, p. 50). These theoretical designations are matched by parallel expressions in postmodern popular culture. Simon and Garfunkel, for example, sing of "slip sliding away"—"the nearer your destination the more you’re slip sliding away." We can say that the final "destination" is the self, but, when I’m in the postmodern mode, the self keeps slipping away from me because of the way I approach it: I look at myself in the mirror and what I see is an object from which I am detached; the self I view in the mirror is split off from another self, the one that does the viewing, and this viewing self remains anonymous (see Rosen, 2004, p. 108–109).
By contrast, in the more concrete kind of self-reference found in existential phenomenology, I don’t hold myself off at a distance in reflecting on myself, thereby dispassionately turning myself into an object; instead the self-reflection occurs from within, on the embodied level of lived subjectivity. I feel into myself, obtain a bodily felt sense of myself (Gendlin, 1978; Rosen, 2004); in so doing, I become present to myself.
There is an important implication here for how we communicate with each other. If I am objectifying myself and am divided from myself, there is every chance that I’ll be doing the same in my relations with you (turning you into an object from which I am separate), whereas, if I can manage to be genuinely present to myself, this opens up the possibility of a new, unconventional or "bohemian" form of communication or dialogue in which I am genuinely present to you. Of the existential-phenomenological writers, Karl Jaspers seems most explicit about this possibility. Writing on the subject of communication, Jaspers says:
[T]he urge to achieve agreement with another human being was so hard to satisfy. I was shocked by the lack of understanding, paralyzed, as it were, by every reconciliation in which what had gone before was not fully cleared up….[A]gain and again I was perplexed by people’s rigid inaccessibility and their failure to listen to reasons, their disregard of facts, their indifference which prohibited discussion, their defensive attitude which kept you at a distance.…When ready assent occurred I remained unsatisfied, because it was not based on true insight but on yielding to persuasion; because it was the consequence of friendly cooperation, not a meeting of two selves….Not merely an exchange of words, nor friendliness and sociability, but only the constant urge towards total revelation reaches the path of communication.
…I myself was to blame for the insufficiency of communication. The insufficiency was indubitable fact. But the fault could not lie only with others. I, too, am human like them. The same sources of inhibition of communication exist in me as in them. The inner action, by which I train myself, had to illumine my self-concealment, arbitrariness and obstinacy, and to compel me to strive towards a revelation that can never be completed. (Jaspers, 1941/1975, pp. 172–173)
So Jaspers was evidently calling for an unprecedented form of communication, one in which participants penetrate defensive structures to make contact with each other at the core, by, in the first instance, honestly acknowledging their own defensiveness. Decades later, the physicist/philosopher David Bohm—without mentioning Jaspers as far as I know—proposed a similar form of concretely self-reflexive communication referred to simply as Dialogue.
The Dialogue process can generally be characterized as an experiment in "radical honesty" in which participants relate to one another on the basis of an awareness of and willingness to share their "hidden agendas": underlying assumptions and motives, feelings and projections, defensive maneuverings, etc. Personally, I see the experiment as potentially resulting in (1) lowering the barriers that obstruct healthy and creative relationships, and (2) providing an antidote to the destructive consequences of living in a monological world—a world in which people talk without listening to each other, and don't really even listen to themselves. It is true though that there are many possible ways to understand what such Dialogue involves. In fact, part of the Dialogue process is meta-dialogically exploring its meaning. Nevertheless, David Bohm, Donald Factor, and Peter Garrett (2002) offer an introduction to Dialogue that I believe is a good place to start. I will refer to it as we proceed.
In the time I have left, I want to convey some idea of the Dialogue process in concrete terms—by demonstrating it and possibly engaging in it with you, at least in a preliminary way. As a first step, it should be helpful to follow co-panelist Adair Nagata’s suggestion and attend to the rhythm of our breathing by way of slowing ourselves down a little. For this to happen, it would be good to have some moments of silence. Dialogue is in fact not all talk any more than silent meditation. In Dialogue, speech and silence blend dialectically to allow participants to become centered and present as they engage with each other.
[…A FEW MINUTES OF SILENCE…]
Now, for the kind of Dialogue of which Bohm spoke, it seems we need to relate to each other by moving in the "opposite direction" in which conventional discourse takes place. Rather than moving forward, moving out to you, authoritatively advancing my position on whatever we are discussing by simply and directly presenting it to you, it appears I must relate to you in a more circuitous, reflexive way, by going backward into myself. That is, in Dialogue, I relate to you through a bodily felt sense of my own process of relating as it is occurring in the moment. In this way, I am not just presenting an abstract content, a collection of finished thoughts. Instead I am disclosing—to myself and to you—the thinking and feeling and sensing process that lies behind the finished products. Presumably, if we can encourage each other to relate in this way, this would allow us to "see behind the scenes," to hear the subtext of our discourse, to make transparent underlying motives and hidden agendas that are normally invisible in the defensive posturing of ordinary discourse. Crucial to this process is our ability to suspend or slow down our own thinking to a great enough degree that we can be receptive to ourselves and to each other; to listen deeply, and mirror back to each other "a view of some of the assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided" (Bohm et al., 2002). Each participant then has an opportunity "to examine the preconceptions, prejudices, and the characteristic patterns that lie behind his or her thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and feelings, along with the roles he or she tends habitually to play." And there is an "opportunity to share these insights" with the group. By tapping into the dynamic—sometimes formless and chaotic—substrate that lies beneath the fixed positions we customarily hold, the Dialogue becomes a "process of creative participation between peers," a free-flowing exploration in which we can play together in the otherwise unconscious, unknown territory of the social psyche or "interactive field," as the Jungians call it.
Note that while Bohmian or "bohemian" Dialogue can be meaningful and rich, it is not necessarily rewarding or entertaining, since it requires that we tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity for extended periods. Rather than obtaining ready rewards, gaining fast closure on specific goals, and receiving food for our egos, we must be willing to stay suspended in an ever-changing, open-ended field of process and flux where the questions far outnumber the answers. This can be frustrating to say the least.
Finally, I note—as Bohm and his co-authors did, that perseverance is needed for effective Dialogue. Even with a clear introduction to the process, "when the group begins to talk together it will often experience confusion, frustration, and a self-conscious concern as to whether or not it is actually engaging in Dialogue. It would be very optimistic to assume that a Dialogue would begin to flow or move toward any great depth during its first meeting. It is important to point out that perseverance is necessary" (Bohm et al., 2002).
In sum, what seems most crucial to Dialogue is that we be able to "move backward," self-reflexively engage in what Bohm called proprioception. Just as I can obtain a proprioceptive sense of the vibration of my vocal cords as I speak to you, I should also be able to obtain—though not as easily, to be sure—a felt sense of my defensive "reactions, impulses, feelings and opinions" (Bohm et al., 2002). Seeing them and feeling them in this way, observing them as they are actually taking place within my own psyche, allows me to share them with you, and have them be reflected back to me by you.
It is now time to end my introductory remarks and launch our actual experiment with Boh(e)mian Dialogue. To begin, I will attempt to report my "subtext" at this present moment….
Bohm, David, Donald Factor, and Peter Garrett. "Dialogue: A Proposal." Retrieved 20 August 2002, fromhttp://www.muc.de/~heuvel/dialogue/dialogue_proposal.html.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing. New York: Bantam, 1978.
Jaspers, Karl. "On My Philosophy." In Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: New American Library, 1941/1975, pp. 158–185.
Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: A Selection, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridon. New York: Norton, 1977.
Rosen, Steven M. Dimensions of Apeiron. Amsterdam–New York: Editions Rodopi, 2004.