Relational Materialism and Citizen X
In this blog entry, I will begin discussing the idea of and need for a phenomenological model of political philosophy. I will also begin explaining the structure of Citizen X, the politicized subjective agent, and the details of X’s relationship with the external world.
What is a phenomenological model of political philosophy? This is a good question. First, a few concepts and ideas:
- The core notion of Phenomenology is that it is the study (logos) of phenomena (appearance of things, things as they appear to us in our experience, the ways we experience them). Put simply, it is the study of experience and the structure of that experience.
- Importantly, Phenomenology studies experience from a subjective and first person point of view (I do, I see, to my left, beside me, etc.).
- Phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience including perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, volition to body awareness, embodied action, and social activity including linguistic activity.
- The structure of an experience involves its Intentionality, its being directed towards something, the simple fact that it is an experience of or about some object. In phenomenology, Intentionality is a technical term and should not be confused with the more standard idea we have of intention.
- Concerning Intentionality, Husserl claimed that our conscious experience is directed towards (represents, ‘intends’) objects/things only through particular concepts thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the ‘meaning’ or ‘content’ of a given experience and they are distinct from the things they present or mean. So, the tree you see in the park is distinct from the general concept of ‘tree’.
- The idea of ‘Lifeworld’: Intersubjectivity (relations between agents) forms the basis of the shared external lifeworld (as termed by Husserl). The lifeworld can be thought of in two ways. One, in the beliefs of the single agent, the rational structure underlying their everyday experience, the beliefs against which his/her everyday attitude towards him/her self, the objective world, and other agents receive their ultimate justification. Two, as the full realm of socially, culturally, or evolutionarily established concepts of general structure (motion, spatial shapes, causality) that groups or collectives of agents conceive of their world through. This includes language and the basic shared nature of a common external world that allows translation of languages and ideas between historically or culturally distinct lifeworlds.
- The two leading figures in the formation of the phenomenological method and discipline, Husserl and Heidegger, utilized distinct approaches. Briefly, the bulk of Husserl’s work concerned transcendental phenomenology and was epistemological in nature (concerning knowledge and the cogito), while Heidegger’s work concerned a more existential phenomenology that was ontological in nature (concerning being).
These ideas will be discussed in greater detail as we move forward in this blog series and they are presented here briefly to simply get us going. Please feel free to ask questions, add your own ideas, or whatever you want in the form of comments. I look forward to them.
My notion of Citizen X
To explain what I want to do by formalizing a systemic phenomenological account of political philosophy, I must first add the basics of my conception of Citizen X to the all-to-brief phenomenology primer given above.
Citizen X is the ‘politicized phenomenological agent.’ This description has three components, so let us look quickly at each with the promise of getting into greater depth and detail in the course of this multi-blog entry chapter.
I understand “agency” as the capacity to make and impose choices in the world; an agent is one who acts. This action, as fundamentally a capacity, is ontologically based in the phenomenological subject, the individual, the “agent” who may only act to the extent that she is able to with self-deliberation and empowerment. Ideally, an “agent” maintains the capacity to express her personal power with no limitations and with complete self-authored deliberation.
However, as described in Chapter Two of this blog series, practical limitations to “agency” exist in the simple fact of physical and social reality, and acknowledgement of these empirical conditions negates the usefulness of ideal theories, requiring practical theory to base itself in material paradigms.
A phenomenological agent is an experiencing agent, a subjective consciousness with a first person point of view of the external world around him/her, including other subjective agents.
Since the phenomenological experience is embodied, it occurs through a physical, living, existing conscious body, I feel the proper term to describe the embodied experience is through the concept of the "phenomenological agent."
Finally, the ‘Political’ refers to the processes of social relations: decision-making, state action, power structures, and the cultural habits, assumptions, and practices of distinct and diverse communities.
‘Politicized’ then means the action, process, or result of making something political. In this case, it is the action, process, or result of making the subjective phenomenological agent into a political being.
In my conception of a phenomenological system of political philosophy, I understand two main ideas. One, that an individual experience of the external world necessarily involves both transcendental (a priori, intangible) structure and materialistic (a posteriori, tangible) structure. Two, that both the transcendental and materialistic aspects of any experience are affected by and effect the politicization of the shared external world.
What is the need for a phenomenological system of political philosophy?
A limit has been reached in political philosophy, and this limit, I claim, is exposed in the growing body of research based in “relational” paradigms, examples of which I include, among others, Michel Foucault, Iris Young, Marina Oshana, and Judith Butler. I do not claim these authors necessarily agree or always share views, however I understand that the basic mechanism at work in each one’s general theory as “relation-based.” Further, in this relational model it is stressed that these relationships, in the sociopolitical context, fundamentally have become domineering and oppressive.
By emphasizing the material context of oppressive relationships of sociopolitical power, I understand that every exercise of power has three elements, the capacity to act, the actual exercised action, and some form or forms of resistance to the exercise. The capacity to act hinges on the phenomenology of the agent, how her experience is structured as a conscious “I.” This in turn hinges on the agent’s relation to the external world. The choices and actions an agent recognizes as open to her are deeply shaped by sociopolitical conditions, that is, the conditions concerning an agent’s social and political circumstances.
Based on what I understand as a fundamental phenomenological relationship between agents, as both individuals and groups, and the sociopolitical state, I argue that sociopolitical power is usefully conceived in an alternative “distributive” model, termed “relational materialism.” Distribution involves materially satisfying the needs and wants of a populace in any social arrangement. Two important mechanisms are involved in the action of distribution at the sociopolitical scale, control and valuation. I argue that these mechanisms are not necessarily oppressive. However, in the contemporary liberal state, the systemic abuse of these mechanisms by capital-based liberal ideology results in a deep and diverse normatively justified state of sociopolitical domination.
These ideas then will be the guiding motivations and directions future entries in this blog series will take, beginning with the upcoming Chapter Three Part Two where I discuss the concept and problems of Power. I will talk about personal and socio-political power as well as going into my conception of Citizen X in greater detail.
Please leave your comments, questions, or the like in the comment section. I look forward to starting a meaningful dialog with you all.