Practical Phenomenology

In the conclusion to On Being Included, I offered a way of thinking about diversity work as a phenomenological practice. It is an idea I will come back to in Living a Feminist Life (though I will probably use different terms, because I do not want my terms to point so quickly back to a philosophical tradition). In talking about phenomenological practice, I was indebted to the many feminists who have used phenomenology as a resource to make sense of the lived bodily experiences of those who are not at home, especially Iris Marion Young (2005).

What do I mean by phenomenological practice? Edmund Husserl in his “The Vienna lecture” presented in 1935, and published in the appendix of The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology offers an important redescription of the phenomenological method. In this lecture Husserl suggests that phenomenology has its roots in classical Greek philosophy as theōria or theoretical attitude. A theoretical attitude is a reorientation of a previous attitude, defined as “a habitually fixed style of willing life comprising directions of will or interests that are prescribed by this style” (1970: 280).  An attitude is thus not simply a reflection on the world, but is worldly: an attitude could even be thought of as institutionality, in which a norm is also prescribed as a style of life. A norm is how we are immersed in a life. For Husserl phenomenology is defined as reorientation: “the theoretical attitude, in its newness, refers back to a previous attitude, one which was earlier the norm: [with reference to this] it is characterized as a reorientation” (280, emphasis mine). The phenomenological attitude in reflecting upon the previous attitudes is thus a new style, a theoretical attitude is new in relation to what already exists because in reflecting on what exists, it withdraws from an immersion, such that an existence is transformed. In this new attitude the world becomes thematic, as what consciousness is directed toward. Husserl argues very explicitly that such a new attitude is a theoretical one:  it must, at least in the first instance, be “totally unpractical” (282).[i]

Talking about a practical phenomenology is thus (again in the first instance) a reorientation of Husserl’s reorientation. I have been thinking back to when I stumbled on this idea of phenomenological practice. In 2010, I attended a phenomenology conference that I really enjoyed (if it is not obvious, I love phenomenology, especially Husserl’s work). In our conversations, something became very apparent to me.  It was not something I had encountered in the other intellectual worlds I inhabit: Women’s and Gender Studies, Sexuality Studies, and Race and Ethnicity Studies. That “something” was a political as well as intellectual confidence in philosophy, which became translated into an idea of what we should become.  There was a sense that: the moral and political imperative should be for us to become philosophical (as an attitude and not as an institution), and that to “become philosophical” would be a sign of an overcoming of the problems that exist because of our failure to be conscious of them. The becoming philosophical of the world, in other words, becomes a political vision.

It is not that I reject this confidence in becoming reflective or reflexive. I found it and still find it very compelling and engaging, and I learn from it. But I just don’t feel confident! It is a bit like not being confident about being confident: I just keep hesitating.

One reason for this hesitation might be how such confidence in reflexivity is deployed in critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness studies seems to rest on a confidence in reflection: by marking the unmarked, whiteness, it brings to the foreground what would otherwise remain in the background. But I think that social norms that tend to shape social forms and to disappear for those who have the right shape, cannot be simply brought into view by thinking about them or by reflecting upon them. To put this more strongly: when reflexivity becomes an ego ideal, it can bring certain kind of subjects to the foreground who catch themselves in their reflection on a  world as much as a world. Reflective whiteness might thus be no less occupying than unreflective whiteness.

Talking about diversity work as a practical phenomenology was a way of moving from this model of theoretical reflection. Before I move on let me explain that I am using diversity work in two senses. Firstly, diversity work can refer to work that has the explicit aim of transforming an institution; and secondly, diversity work can be what is required, or what we do, when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. These two senses often meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of the institution are often those given the task of transforming those norms.

Let me start with the first sense. By talking about diversity work as a practical phenomenology,  I wanted to show how diversity work does not simply generate knowledge about institutions (in which the institution becomes a thematic), but generates knowledge of institutions in the very process of attempting to transform them. We could also think of diversity as a form of praxis in a way that draws on a Marxist understanding of the point of intellectual labour: as Marx argued in Thesis on Feuerbach “philosophers have only interpreted the world differently but the point is to change it” ([1845] 2009: 97, my emphasis). Indeed, drawing on this radical tradition, Paul Freire defines praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” ([1970] 2000: 51, my emphasis).[ii] I But rather than suggesting knowledge leads (or should lead) to transformation, I offered a reversal that in my view preserves the point or aim of the argument: transformation, as a form of practical labour, leads to knowledge.

The very labour of transforming institutions, or at least aiming for transformation, is how we learn about institutions as formations.  It is not simply that diversity workers are philosophers- in the sense of being reflexive- in their attitude toward institutions (though they can be). It is not simply that they become conscious of what recedes from view. Rather diversity workers acquire a critical orientation to institutions in the very process of coming up against them. They become conscious of “the brick wall,” as that which keeps its place even when an official commitment to diversity has been given. It is only the practical labour of “coming up against” the institution that allows this wall to become apparent.

Diversity workers thus generate knowledge not only of what institutions are like, but how they can reproduce themselves, how they become like, and keep becoming alike. We come up against the force and weight of something when we attempt to alter the conditions of an existence. But we can also “come up against” something in our experience of an existence. Doing diversity work is institutional work, in the sense that it is an experience of encountering resistance and countering that resistance. Each new strategy or tactic for getting through the wall generates knowledge of what does or does not get across. Perhaps diversity workers aim to transform the wall into a table, turning the tangible object of institutional resistance into a tangible platform for institutional action.  Thinking of diversity work in this way allows us to understand how speaking in the happier languages of diversity does not necessarily mean an identification with the institution, but can be understood as a form of practical knowledge of the difficulty of getting through.

I want to share one of the examples from chapter 4 of On Being Included. It is a good example of an encounter with an institutional wall.

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up. (Ahmed 2002: 124-125).

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.  A decision does not need to be made for the action to be completed and a decision cannot easily intervene in its completion. In this case, the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect. Perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about.  An institutional wall is when a will, “a yes,” does not bring something about, “a yes” that conceals this “not bringing” under the sign of “having brought.”  Again it is the practical effort to bring about a change, that allows the wall to be apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is experienced as “yes” as open, committed and diverse.

To understand what is going on here, we might need a different model of the relationship between habit and will. So: we might assume an institutional will is necessary to bring something about.  When used in this way, an institutional will would be required to break an institutional habit.  I want to suggest an institutional habit could be understood as a continuation of will. Hegel suggests that human beings “stand upright” is an act of will that has been converted into habit: “a human being stands upright has become a habit through his own will” (2007: 156-157). A habit is thus a “continuation” of willing: “it is a continuous will that I stand but I no longer need to will standing as such.” (157). A habit is a continuation of willing what no longer needs to be willed.  This is an important way of reframing what we denote by habit as well as by will: a habit is not empty of intent or purpose; a will does not require an individual act of volition. An institutional will is what is continued precisely because it does not need to be willed. The wall is an institutional “no” that does not need to become the subject of an utterance; indeed you come up against the wall when a “yes” does not bring something about. Using Hegel’s terms, a wall could be described as an “institutional standing.” There is “a continuous will that [it] stand but [it] no longer need[s] to will standing” as such.

The wall: that which keeps standing. By talking to diversity workers I began to appreciate how the institution is a plumbing system: you have to work out where the blockage is, what prevents something from moving through the system. In this example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted as if this policy had not passed. We need to understand these social mechanisms; a practical phenomenology makes the impasse or the blockage the occasion for more thought. So for instance, we learn that the passing of something, the appearance of an agreement, can be how something is stopped.

And of course if we think of diversity work in the second sense (not quite inhabiting the norms of the institution), we can note the significance of “practical phenomenology,” as a kind of life-work. I have described social norms as rather like institutional brick walls:  you do not tend to notice them, unless you come up against them. Coming up against here can mean: being stopped, being held up, being made to feel you don’t belong or are stupid, being asked questions, or “being in question,” as I discussed in this earlier post.

Those who don’t come up against walls, might experience those who talk about walls as wall makers. And: we are back to the feminist killjoy. It is never long before she makes an appearance! The wall maker is someone who in exposing a problem creates a problem. Just recall the words of the diversity practitioner: “they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid.” We can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy, when she tries to say, to show, she has institutional support. How many times walls come up, we might call these walls “the walls of perception,” when we talk about walls! If anything, you become identified as the one who is blocked. A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as phantoms, as how we stop ourselves from being included.

I can hear voices saying: but isn’t the brick wall a metaphor? It is not that there “really” is a wall; it is not an actual wall. In some senses, this is right. The wall is a wall that might as well be there, because the effects of what is there are just like the effects of a wall. And yet not: if an actual wall was there, we would all be able to apprehend it. And it is this that makes the institutional brick wall so hard. You come up against what others do not see and (even harder) you come up against what others are often invested in not seeing.

To think about materiality through institutional brick walls is to offer a different way of thinking the connection between bodies and worlds. Materiality is about the real; it is something real that blocks movement, or that stops a progression. But this something is not always something that can be apprehended. It might be an arrangement of things, a social as well as physical arrangement, that stops something from happening or a body passing through. It might be the force of momentum that carries something forward, that picks up more and more things, so that more and more weight is acquired, so that things tend “that way,” bodies lean “that way,” almost independently of individual will. [You might the proximity between this description and how I account for sexism in citational practice: another institutional brick wall!]

This means that: what is real, what is in concrete terms the hardest, is not always available as an object that can be perceived (from some viewing points), or an object that can touched (even by those who are seated at the same table).

What is most material to some might not even exist for others.[iii] 

How quickly: history becomes concrete. When we think of concrete we might think of the cement used to build walls. But concrete has an older sense: deriving from Latin concretus “condensed, hardened, thick, hard, stiff, curdled, congealed, clotted,” figuratively “thick; dim,” literally “grown together.”  In Willful Subjects I describe the wall as will in concrete form to suggest that what has been willed can become hard or condensed; becoming part of the materiality of an institution. But this hardness is not perceived when an individual is in alignment with the institution (a willing alignment, an alignment of wills). What is experienced instead is something lighter; a flow. We can summarise this point as: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing.

Many of the recent arguments against intersectionality, identity politics etc. (this is not my etc, this is not my “sticking together” of words as a way of sticking together certain bodies, but one I have encountered in some recent writings by some Marxist writers, and by some I mean some) as being somehow less material than class are thus an enactment of privilege, the alignment of body to world. Race might seem immaterial or less material, if you are white; gender might seem immaterial or less material if you are a man, sexuality might seem immaterial or less material if you are straight; (dis)ability might seem immaterial or less material if you are able-bodied, and so on. Class too can be understood in these terms: class might seem to be immaterial or less material if you have benefited from class privilege, those networks, buffer zones; those ways a body is already “somehow” attuned to a bourgeois set of requirements.

The experience of things being lighter is a social as well as affective relation to things.  Perhaps things seem lighter when you are higher or above. The sense of being above can be related to what I have called “overing,” the argument that we should stop using social categories because they refer to histories that would otherwise be over. Social categories might be understood as reifications from the point of view of those who do not have to notice how blockages are distributed because they are not themselves blocked by that distribution.  Coming up against walls (say, you are brown, stop!) teaches us that social categories that pre-exist an encounter, that decide how a body appears, are where things get real (that this is not the only where, does not mean this is not where). And so: the emphasis on local encounters, molecular becomings, things that happen to happen (I love hap but to affirm the hap we have to understand the mechanisms of its elimination!), and indeed on fluidity and flows, might be an emphasis that makes sense from a body attuned to a world. To describe the world from the point of the body that is not attuned is to offer a different account of the world. [iiii]

We tend to notice what blocks movement, we often do not notice what eases our progression. We are too busy progressing. We are going because we are flowing. We can of course learn over time to notice what eases a progression. I think a better way of doing this noticing is not to become more philosophical, which I don’t think tends to bring some things into view. It is instead to become involved in diversity work in the first sense: to become involved in the practical work of transforming the world so it can accommodate different bodies. Perhaps then walls can be tables, what enables solidarity with difference, across difference. But how we do this work, does matter: to come to the diversity table, might require a willingness to be unseated.

[i]I indicate “in the first instance” as Husserl argues for an eventual synthesis between theoretical and practical, such that the former can be called upon “to serve….mankind in a new way, mankind which, in its concrete existence, lives first and always in the natural sphere” (1970: 283).

[ii]Freire draws on Husserl in developing his model of praxis: “That which had existed objectively had not been perceived in its deeper implications (if indeed it was perceived at all) begins to ‘stand out,’ assuming the character of a problem.” (2000: 83). Freire’s pedagogy could thus be described as a “practical phenomenology.”

[iii] Recently on facebook a philosopher said of my own work that it is “not materialist” because it is “just about lived experiences of the body.” This is a familiar to women of colour: when we give accounts, we are often assumed to be talking just about ourselves, always lodged in our own particulars. My account here of institutional brick walls also gives us the resources to challenge this kind of position.

[iiii]Some of the most important work doing this work of re-description is happening in critical disability studies. Take, for example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on “misfitting.” As she writes: “A misfit occurs when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it. The dynamism between body and world that produces fits or misfits comes at the spatial and temporal points of encounter between dynamic but relatively stable bodies and environments. The built and arranged space through which we navigate our lives tends to offer fits to majority bodies and create misfits with minority forms of embodiment, such as people with disabilities” (2014, np). It is the experience of miss fitting that might allow us to re-think how spaces are built to accommodate some bodies as well as to re-build those spaces to accommodate others.


Freire, Paulo [1970]  (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum Publishing: New York.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2014). “The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 34, 2.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1861).[1837]  Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree.  London: Henry G. Bohn.

Husserl, Edmund  [1936/54] (1970). The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental   Phenomenology: An  Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David  Carr, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Marx, Karl [1845] (2009). Theses on Feuerbach, trans. Austin Lewis. Ellicott City, MD: Mondial Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2005). On Female Body Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Practical Phenomenology

  1. Pingback: Hard | feministkilljoys

  2. Pingback: Feminist Hurt/Feminism Hurts | feministkilljoys

  3. Pingback: Atmospheric Walls | feministkilljoys

  4. Pingback: Living a Lesbian Life | feministkilljoys

  5. Pingback: A Campaign of Harassment | feministkilljoys

Leave a Reply