Phenomenology and the Beyond as Intending Attention

This piece of text aims to arrive at a notion of a phenomenological beyond that ties in with Luhmann’s systems theory as well as with Husserl’s take on consciousness and intention. It does so by recognizing the potential link to ESP of the recently coined autonomous sensory meridian response (asmr). This phenomenon is commonly described as a tingling sensation that is triggered by watching or hearing certain relaxing interpersonal activities, such as scalp massages, nurse role playing or simply watching someone do an ordinary thing like ironing or folding clothes very slowly. The interpersonal component is, secondly, considered as a modern take on social grooming.

A Culture of Chillaxing

Asmr may not simply be there to make us relax more, or more relaxed. I agree that the scientific community busying itself with this sensation is in its infancy. This usually just means that there is still little known about a phenomenon and that it is impossible to see how it relates to other phenomena.

Over time, it may well turn out that asmr has connections with psychical research, or the obstinate attempt to think clearly about the functionality of ESP, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, and the search for adequate methodology for it. There could be so little known about asmr that no variations, categories or ranges within asmr can yet be established to distinguish qualitatively and quantitatively, between, for example, a soft and relaxing, tingling brain sensation and being in complete euphoric trance for hours. For example, asmr might not be a psychological phenomenon and for that reason inaccessible to most researchers who simply have no clue that one could seek a beyond to subjective experience.

When asmr set foot consciously in my life I was about ten years old and looking at someone making a tremendous effort to write a few words on paper. It seemed to require unintentional tapping into a different person’s concentrated energy towards a highly particular, trivial activity to experience asmr, which makes it a social phenomenon close to telepathy. However I wasn’t sure what caused it, if anything. I did connect it to what Dutch author Oek de Jong called the feeling of motionlessness in his novel Billowing Summer Dresses. The book describes it as a feeling of lightness or easygoingness caused by the flying up of his mom’s summer dress.

When it occurred I have preferred to remain within asmr as long as possible. At the same time I never took steps to prolong its effect. Daily matters usually took over and pulled out of asmr, although I have let it interrupt library reading for an hour once. It involves lower, alpha frequency brain waves, while reading and being alert requires beta waves. I have found it hard to concentrate on the feeling so as to make it last longer.

The purpose of asmr may well lie in sensitizing our brain to other-worldly phenomena. In my experience, to develop a sensitivity for asmr and other sensations, it takes a child with a typical perception of the world. A child who is often tired from being overwhelmed with life’s impressions, that frequently allows for daydreaming interludes that has a vast curiosity for answers to both big and weird questions, and that has been stimulated in an contributive, triggering manner by television and video-based media. I am inclined to say by non-thought inducing or non-strategy games, and rather by racing and being-in-the-flow games. Asmr therefore does not seem to happen to the alert, rational and pre-scientific mind, and does not contribute to children becoming part of the scientific community 2014, which still largely extends the Enlightenment era of soft positivism.

Since asmr may have purposes that far exceed the current goals and directions of the scientific institutions, we may not want to have too much focus for what science in the traditional sense has in store for asmr. It is fine to make use of this apparatus to make the phenomenon known to the manifold. But research, in my view, may benefit from an unorthodox, perhaps phenomenological, qualitative approach to asmr, rather than, for example, a neurophysiological, qualitative one. It has become clear from psychical research that tracing the nature of ESP requires the personal, idiosyncratic (non-nomothetic) approach, involving the very personal, emotional situatedness within particular life circumstances, such as a forgotten short-lived but intense love affair. If we can find ways in which asmr-experiences can be seen as guides or entrance ways to more rewarding ESP insights, the purpose of asmr may reach far beyond simple relaxation.

Collective grooming

The abundance of simply ridiculous Youtube entries attempting to get a viewership through inducing asmr is a sure sign of our retreat to the animal kingdom, in which mutual grooming played a decisive part in survival. Animals don’t know why they are doing it, and don’t have to either, because a larger common enemy awaits their full attention: being isolated and thus eaten by predators.

For humans predators are now imagined in the form of psychiatric disorders, without which there would be nothing to talk seriously about. Since we still generally claim to be self-aware we are granted the option of isolation if that benefits the whole of society including oneself. A good example is the coding culture that most clearly embodies this kind of being with yet without others.

Loneliness through isolation, as well as death, is only bad if it there cannot be found solutions. If that happens it can cause mental deficiency; we better get it ‘handled’ or end up without protection against our worst ‘sick’ thoughts. Obviously, seeking refuge for all ‘bad’ stuff in the hands of psychiatry is a sure sign of defeat before the game even started. This is why it is better to seek isolation and be aware of the all-pervasive grooming norm. Through Husserl, individual intention is put in a different light in which a way out of this flat turn-return perspective becomes apparent.

The one direction towards sanity and the betterment of humanity lies in giving our lives not to the hands of shrinks but to phenomenological scientists, among whom not in the least Edmund Husserl. I’m saying this because he is the philosopher of attention, next to intuition and intentionality. The one question that matters is: What (if anything) grabs our attention, and for how long? The direction, nature or essence of our attention makes us interested in the needs of others, leading to social grooming, but with a self-interested intentionality, as the other would return the favor. This intent is exactly what lies beneath normative attitudes in a networking, DIY-environment.

Husserl’s Prolegomena as well as his Logical Investigations have contributed to the differentiation between general and universal attention. The general is separated from the individual to describe what is specific to that individual, and what lies outside it. The universal is seen as All A’s are B’s, The A (in specie) is a B, or Any A is aB, etc. That is to say, as something referring to the generic state of affairs. The object at which the activity of meaning or presenting (which encompasses attention) is aimed, and which is commonly objectified in psychological reflection (the purpose of which is unknown), is furthermore described as “that which is seen by thought in this or that manner, which (…)[is] revealed to our insight when we perform such acts on such a foundation” (LI, p. 155).

Following Husserl, it is of importance to further distinguish the field of intuitive and cogitative reference (Meinens) from the field of presentation (Vorstellens). Here he defines attention to this or that (reference/presentation) as extending as far as the concept: Consciousness of something. 

“To talk distinctively of attention (…) takes account (…) of a certain difference which is not dependent (…) on the manner of our consciousness. (…) Attending is thus represented as a straightforward, not further describable way in which contents, otherwise lost in the undivided flow of consciousness, achieve separate consciousness, in which they are ’emphasized’ or ‘discovered’ by us. If (…) all differences in the manner of presentation are denied, attention is then seen as an illuminating and indicative function operating within this field. ” (p. 156)

Reading these lines intensively, it becomes clear that what we think of as attention turns out to be the undivided force making divisions possible in the first place. I believe this forms the base line from which to invade his notion of intending, which is some presence or consciousness that externalizes itself from its patron (‘me’ or self) by way of showing the object of which it becomes part as this externalization.

“(…)[A]n essentially single concept runs continuously: in all cases, whether we intuit in perceptual, fancying or remembering fashion, or whether we think in empirical and logico-mathematical forms, an intending, or reference (Vermeinen) is present, that aims at an object, a consciousness is present that is the consciousness of this object.”

This seems to imply that intention is both with self and object, in different stages of phenomenological analysis, if you will. And in such a way, one can see where Luhmann finds his ground for a theory of interpenetration.

Luhmann foresaw that in modern science this distinction – between what refers to the object of perception, and what not – would become even more blurry (see The Modernity of Science, 1992:). Not only had mainstream science stepped away from adhering to the subject-object norm, it would become increasingly clear that reality was “nothing more than an indicator of successful tests for consistency in the system”. He therefore referred to this distinction in terms of a more general systemic self-reference (or: reference) versus other-reference (or: encoding). He used a systems approach to carve out this system so it would show itself a little more; it would step out of the bushes somewhat. However, it remains questionable what exactly we should expect to appear from the bushes, as well as how to spot the bushes in the first place. In one of his statements Luhmann explained this problem thus:

“[T]he world cannot be observed externally, but only within itself; only according to its available physical, organic, psychic and social conditions” (1992: 75).
“[D]ie Welt kann nicht von außen beobachtet werden, sondern nur in ihr selbst, das heißt: nur nach Maßgabe von (zum Beispiel physischen, organischen, psychischen, sozialen) Bedingungen, die sie selbst bereitstellt” (1992: 75).

The systemic problem becomes one of overriding binary choices, to which Luhmann also alluded as the problem of interpenetration. Communication distinguishes between a social or societal realm and a psychic realm. The psychic realm is mistakenly taken to be me. A me taps into itself through language to become part of society. In this precise sense me can also not tap into society, leading to being acquitted of its individuality and to complete freedom (from society). Paradoxically, me needs to have this freedom present and actively think and speak of it to be a fully regarded and respected as me by society, since self-actualization begins with individuality.

Contrary to my earlier mere description of the problem of societal-psychic interpenetration I am now finally able to present a solution to this problem of the distiction between (self-)reference and (other-)encoding. I present the (self-)reference part as a selection from true/false, better/worse, affordable/unaffordable, inclusion/exclusion, dominant/subordinate, beautiful/ugly, healthy/sick and immanent/transcendent, and the (other-)encoding part as  a selection from individual/collective, this/that, future/past.

Reference thus refers to which viewpoint (1 of 8) is obtained for observing a situation, which determines what is the case. Encoding refers to the semantic categories of binary institutional distinctions in use to steer this situation (the case) to the next situation (i.e. to make a decision, to select that which is the case next). The difference between both can now be regarded as a process of differentiation between three and eight. This process can now be seen as taking place simultaneously within another or larger whole of processes; within the toroidal loop of the eight stages (whereby 0=8) the three levels are thus interoperational.

The distinction that any observation makes between reference and encoding – how perception selects this or that – objectifies this selection while hiding the process ofselecting (objectification). Technology stands for the extra layering enabled through this selection, a layering which has its malleability, but also its always-already there, its impossible-to-observe-all-at-once-je-ne-sais-quoi, inside which life now – with this extra layering – squarely instead of singularly unfolds. Our position in technology continues to alter ways of making sense. We increasingly co-create meaning instead of simply adopt and reproduce it.

Luhmann spoke of this invisible background as the environment. The environment, as cybernetician Heinz Von Foerster later noted, just “is as it is”, meaning it doesn’t contain any information; only the system does. By replacing the system/environment dichotomy with event/situation dichotomy, as Luhmann famously suggested in his 1982 The Autopoiesis of Social Systems, the system becomes operational as system/environment within a larger social, selective and/or temporal situation. The social contains the ethical, which is why a person must take account of all three kinds of situation at once.

If these kinds of situation function as the event horizon, as the basic level of reference – all three, two or just one – then the event itself can be observed as the encoding part, which has to reference one of the eight (or nine) featured dimensions in the 138 book series. This account of reference/encoding is important because it provides a possible answer to Luhmann’s challenge for a ‘New Epistemology’ that addresses how to combine autopoiesis/observation and inner observation/outer obsevation. The problem with this combination lies in autopoiesis being not an observation and inner observation being an observation of the system’s ‘self’ that has no contents; inner observation can either continue on the same route or abort the current process and therewith open up to other possibilities.

With the above description, it is important to note that inner observation does not assume the presence of multiple external parties, as does external observation. In a social event, for example, the observed communication partner cannot be observed as ‘self’; the precluded presence of the self of the other(s) is an other. The confusing bit lies in seeing autopoiesis as the unmarked space that inner observation still marks, but only by way of continuation. If continued, inner observation is not marked as such and thus remains unmarked and can be said to equal autopoiesis. If discontinued, inner observation marks the autopoiesis as ‘previous’ and has thereby replaced it with a different autopoiesis, which then builds the unmarked space. The ‘previous’ has thereby been catapulted out as external observation and becomes part of the infinite complexity of the environment, pertaining to no real information at all.

Selection is dependent on language, or any means man uses to verbalize life. In all cases, most people love to produce language, thereby delineating this or that, which relates more or less clearly to a fear or desire for the inclusive/exclusive social or self versus other people. Anyone enunciating a fourth possible dimension to life, is referring to this threefold itself as the storyline, the meaning. It was for this reason that meaning, for Luhmann, formed the perfect aggregate of abstraction.