Monday, July 16, 2012

orientation, habituation, passivity

My favorite stuff Husserl wrote was about what he called "passivity," which is not as passive as it sounds -- it's about the basic receptivity we have through our sense perception. Our sense perceptions, Husserl contends, are not just a collection of data, but are already "given" in a unity -- a unity that we do not actively constitute, hence given by "passive synthesis." In other words, our sense perceptions give us a sort of whole world already, and our conscious, attentive, thinking egos root around in this given world and make judgments about it.

One big-time implication of this is that our perceptual orientations to the world -- what we tend to pay attention to, what we put together as "objects" of perception, what we return to again and again as objects we ought to pay attention to -- are also built up "passively." That is to suggest that we are, as it were, primally orientated to the world in certain ways.

To take this beyond Husserl, and to give a concrete example, I'll recall my first experience of eating Swiss chard. It was in a very strange social setting, and a friend was whipping up a (vegan) stir-fry that included Swiss chard as an ingredient. Never had it before. It was deep green, cooked up quickly, tossed with the rest of the stuff, tossed onto brown rice, and set in front of me.

From the first taste, I liked it. How? The taste attracted me. As we say, it tasted good. How? How did I undergo the experience of it tasting good? At first, I couldn't say what about it I liked, or even identify the Swiss chard itself very clearly out of the mishmash of stuff.

The second time I had it, I was able to start to taste it. There was a dark greeniness, an earthy taste, a rooty bitterness balanced with a clean sweetness. I was developing a taste for it, as we say. I was learning how Swiss chard tastes, learning how to taste Swiss chard, and -- most intriguingly for me -- learning how to enjoy it.

From Husserl's perspective, what's happening here is, I am forming predicative judgments ("I like Swiss chard"; "Swiss chard tastes earthy, and a little bitter if it's undercooked"; etc.), but at the same time, those predicative judgments are forming and shaping my perception of Swiss chard. It's way more complicated than saying that if I tell myself I like it, I'll start to like it. I already was predisposed to it, before I'd ever had it, without knowing it. My first taste revealed that I had a "tendency" toward it. The more I experienced it, the more I followed out this tendency, the more I developed my affinity, and my acknowledgment of my affinity, for chard.

This has by now led me to have a chard-orientation toward the world. If there's chard around, my eyes are drawn toward it instantly. I look at it, and I almost taste it. I want it. I don't even think about it. I have a Swiss chard habit.

In stages:

1. My passive receptivity toward Swiss chard (my being able to taste it) and passive tendency toward enjoying it.
2. My conscious attention to Swiss chard, and my repetition of experiences and alert, deliberate attention to the taste of it... leading to judgments about it (like, "Swiss chard is really good wilted, then steamed, then buttered and seasoned").
3. My orientation toward Swiss chard, my habit of desiring it.

The first and third stages are two stages of passivity, it turns out. This is the cool thing: habituation is a "secondary passivity," where conscious attention fades away. I don't think about it, I just do it.

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