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Jason Farman's Phenomenological/Post-structuralist Model for Consciousness, Culture, Technology, and Revolution

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Nov 29, 2021Last updated Nov 29, 202115 min read

The twenty-page first chapter of Jason Farman's "Mobile Interface Theory" is one of the most exciting texts I've read this semester.

Concisely explaining the foundational intellectual threads of phenomenology (ref. Merleau-Ponty) and post-structuralism (ref. Derrida), Farman ties the two together with cognitive science research to create a model of "sensory-inscribed" embodiment.

In other words: by discussing embodiment (how we think about our own bodies and our relationships with the spaces around us) through mobile and internet technology, Farman comes up with a new theory for how technology and culture interact with our very consciousness and ways of experiencing ourselves and the world. And though grounded primarily in philosophy, Farman also draws from cognitive science research to add new nuance to prior doctrines.

Here's a summary/commentary on the text, primarily written for the purpose of me remembering it.

Embodiment and space

Farman opens the chapter by discussing how mobile phones changed how we think of the "spatiality of the internet". He traces the idea of the internet as a "space" to William Gibson's "cyberspace" in the 1980s, but reflects that, while once the internet was something only accessible from dedicated, anchored desktop computers, the modern ubiquity of computing has made the relationship between "cyberspace" and "real" space much more complicated.

Farman evokes Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space to characterize the idea of space itself. "Each living body is space and has space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space," Farman quotes Lefebvre. "Space is not a thing, but rather a set of relations between things."

In other words, though we think of spaces as pre-existing and to be occupied, before we can think of a space at all we must first construct it, to realize that it exists and assign it meaning in the first place. "Space needs to be considered as something that is produced through use. It exists as we interact with it," Farman writes.

Virtual space is as real as physical space

In this sense, "virtual" spaces can be just as "real" as physical ones, even if they are given to us one sense at a time and we must construct the rest. For example, when you call someone on a phone, you only hear the sound of their voice, but from it you construct their body, their mind state, and your direct relation to it. When you called to a landline, you were calling a specific physical space that you understand the speaker to be in; but when you call a mobile phone, this specific physical attachment is gone. you are creating a new space, defined by the relation of your body to your recipient's, that is separate from the physical ones either you or your recipient are in.

This is why video calls feel so different from voice calls (and, until FaceTime, fared so differently in the market even though the technology was available), Farman gives as an illustration. Voice calls, and the similarly limited communication method of texting, allow communicators to perform the act of constructing bodies from single sense stimuli provided. Video calls disrupt this action, and by pushing for them technologists fail to see that the constructive practice is desirable. "The assumption [of video call advocates] is that the more sensory information we are given about our connection with someone, the more intimate our communication will be...from this perspective, bodies aren't practiced but only experienced."

For a more up-to-date example, consider the pseudonymous Discord servers or forums that so many prefer to more "real-life" connected environments. Even servers for those who know each other in real life, i.e. those formed for friend groups or classmates or what have you, are often viewed as spaces separate from their IRL origins, with entirely different vibes and connotations.

On a cognitive level, Farman offers the example of talking on the phone while driving significantly distracting drivers from the world and activity at hand. In this circumstance the virtual space of the phone call competes with the material one of the car on the road, Farman analyzes. Farman stops here, but I'd be curious to know if, cognitively, there is a difference between talking with someone on the phone and talking with someone in the same car while driving. If so, that would further strengthen the idea of experiencing virtual spaces being comparable to physical ones, on a physiological and not just social/intellectual level.

"We create space as we create our bodies across digital media," Farman summarizes, further commenting: "we are indeed all too ready to practice embodiment across media spaces, so much so that we are often more embodied in a virtual space...than we are in material space."

The phenomenological understanding of body and space

Our common understanding of space and being is that of Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." Consequently, what you are not thinking is not you, but external to you: it is matter, your thoughts are mind.

Phenomenology, developed by Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty in the 19th and 20th centuries, argues against this split. In phenomenology, both thoughts and material things are perceived, rather than the former being privileged over the latter.

I like to explain it this way. Imagine meditating: sitting down, closing your eyes, and concentrating on your breathing. Imagine doing so until your mind clears and you stop feeling the passage of time. To phenomenologists, this meditative state -- without thought or sensation -- is the core state of being. Your thoughts, for example a sentence of words you prepare to say to someone, are not you any more than your perception of a chair in your room. You perceive them both, and thus both are external to you.

Or, pushing the line the other way, what's the difference between the chair you perceive and your hand? You are equally aware of them both as things within your field of perception. You are aware of both of them in a way that you are not of, say, the furniture in the room that I am writing this in, because you know nothing about the furniture in my room, or at least do not perceive them in this moment. Thus you can view everything you perceive to be internal and part of your "body" in a sense.

Farman brings up the physiological sense of proprioception, "the body's ability to position itself in relationship to the world around it", as a similar illustration. He quotes Merleau-Ponty's own examples of this:

A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and the things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is. If I am in the habit of driving a car, I enter a narrow opening and see that I can 'get through' without comparing the width of the opening with that of the wings, just as I go through a doorway without checking the width of the doorway against that of my body.

Consciousness arises from the recognition that your "body" (including all of its thoughts and perceptions) coexists with other "bodies", i.e. those of other people and beings. This is what Heidegger calls "being-in-the-world".

Phenomenology and digital media

Circling back to discussion of digital media, the perception-body and sense of being-in-the-world "can function across virtual spaces, including imagined spaces, such as being distant from a loved one yet connected to their space through an imagined proprioceptive engagement with their locale," Farman writes.

Specifically, technology extends our perception and therefore our bodies, "A good tool..is one that disappears when used," Farman writes. He returns to the example of a phone call:

Once connected to someone, the interface of the phone typically recedes, and you are moved into the space of conversation. If, however, there becomes an extended period of silence, the sense perceptions immediately pull focus from the other person to the device...you will move the phone away from your ear to look at the screen, determining if you are still connected, if your reception is strong, or if your battery has died.

Supporting the earlier discussion, we perceive virtual objects and interact with virtual beings just as we do physical ones, so phenomenologically virtual and physical spaces are both legitimate and real.

Derrida's post-structuralism

Post-structuralism is defined by 20th century philosopher Jacques Derrida's famous words: "there is nothing outside of the text."

What does this mean? When you think of an apple, you're not actually thinking about a real thing. The word apple comes from the English language, which you learned from parents or books or school. Its meaning comes from whoever looked at a bunch of similar-looking, similar-looking fruits and assigned them all the name "apple". There's no reason the things considered apples couldn't have been split into two different groups, or apples and oranges be considered one fruit. In Chinese, both broccoli and cauliflower are "菜花", for example. Therefore, when you think about or refer to an "apple", you cannot think about it as a thing, only a "text" with many authors and invisible dependencies.

In fact, even if you break down that specific apple to its molecular structure and define it in precise scientific terms, well, molecules and atoms are concepts that are invented too, so you're still looking at a text! Sure, all these texts may refer to some underlying "thing", and we might get closer and closer to it with more and more precise definitions and more intense science, but by virtue of only being able to keep a limited amount of information in our heads, we will never reach true reality.

Thus everything is a text. And Derrida emphasizes that, because of this, our perception is never objective, but influenced deterministically by everything we've consumed and learned before the present moment that shapes the way we perceive things. "There have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references," he writes.

Post-structuralism's pushback against the definition of spaces by phenomenological embodiment

This emphasis on culture complicates the act of perception. You don't simply perceive a chair on the same level as you perceive a thought: your perception of the chair can only happen through some sort of cultural-linguistic lens. In fact, your perception of yourself, the very act of embodiment and conceiving of space, is shaped by culture. "The body is not opposed to culture, a resistant throwback to a natural past; it is itself a cultural, the cultural product," Farman quotes Elizabeth Grosz.

To Derrida, spaces cannot straightforwardly be defined by embodiment because culture exists outside of both. When we perceive or interact with anybody, we are always considering "words, gestures, clothing, race, gender, sexuality, and the cultural signifiers that are inscribed onto the body," and thus "full embodied presence is always being deferred," Farman writes.

The cognitive framework that accounts for both phenomenology and post-structuralism

Everything until now has simply been explanations of existing philosophies. Now comes Farman's new theory. As he puts it:

I seek to bridge a gap between phenomenology and poststructuralism, pointing toward a theory that understands being-in-the-world as simultaneously about our sense perception and about ways we encounter the world as a reading process.

The grounding of this theory is in the idea that much unconscious processing underlies our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, beneath any awareness that is possible in the meditative nothing-space I described earlier. This is true of "preattentive perceptual processes and latent memory traces," Farman quotes psychologist James S. Uleman, but also of "higher mental processes."

The former are somewhat trivial examples of sensations that you are not consciously aware of, or are not consciously aware of shutting out, but that shape your reality: the existence of your toes, your ribcage; the beating of your heart, the rhythm of your breathing.

The latter, though, are things like the earlier discussed construction of a phone call as a phenomenological space. You don't consciously think about the phone being a piece of technology that transmits someone's voice over physical space to you every time you pick up a call, or deliberately understand the voice as representative of a body now with a relation to your body. This complex space-construction happens without "conscious" cognitive intelligence at all; conceivably, a non-"sentient" animal could form the same understanding of reality.

The implication of the fact that complex cognitive processing can happen without any cognitive awareness is that consciousness, as Farman quotes psychologist John Kilhstrom, "is an experiential quality" (emphasis mine) that "is not to be identified with any particular perceptual-cognitive functions."

The reading of the self and the world as a text, then, is a process that often happens before experienced consciousness, i.e. before phenomenological perception builds up to a sense of embodiment and space. Thus Derrida's continuous sign interpretation is one mechanism among many from which Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological consciousness emerges.

Put this way, Derrida's emphasis on the primacy of cultural interpretation doesn't pervade the experience of the present, but rather informs it as a prior step. Culture is indeed a key and necessary part of embodiment, but not in such a way that contradicts phenomenological consciousness.

The political implications of the unconsciousness of culture

Culture assigns meaning and value to that which is known. Assigning meaning and determining value are expressions of power, so culture can be political, and of course too embodiment. That's why these things are studied, and Farman was paid by some institution or another to come up with their theory and publish it.

Farman makes only a passing note of the political implications -- or at least, implications for the potential of usually political change change -- of his theory, but it's the passage that I find the most fascinating out of the entire chapter:

Often when the cognitive unconscious elements move from the background to the foreground, there is a cultural paradigm shift that accompanies the new understanding of the sensory world. This movement is what can be considered...the foundation of cultural revolution.

On first reading, I misread "accompanies the new understanding of the sensory world," and understood the message as: "often when the cognitive unconscious elements move from the background to the foreground, there is a cultural paradigm shift...that is what can be considered...the foundation of cultural revolution."

This means something different, but I think Farman would agree with its meaning too: what are the cultural lenses so powerfully enforced that they exist only in our cognitive unconscious? A key quality of hegemony, or the dominant ideology, is that it is invisible and we accept it as the true or natural way of things. To raise these ideologies out of our unconscious and question it in the realm of cognitive awareness is to resist the hegemonic power structure itself, and can absolutely be viewed as the catalyst for a "cultural paradigm shift" and forthcoming "cultural revolution." Ideas like critical race theory challenging the invisibility of white supremacy fit this model.

But the full quote takes a materialist, techno-optimist, and eventually Marxist bent. Discussion of "the new understanding of the sensory world" points to scientific and technological advancements as the drivers of change. This claim evokes those of historical materialism, and it makes sense: technological advancement opens up new frontiers of battle for cultural control, and at some point the conditions might just be more suited for a certain group of people -- a certain class of people, along past lines of power -- to take power and establish a new world order (or attempt to) through "cultural revolution."

To this end, I of course think about how increases in productivity caused the bourgeoisie to overthrow structures that kept the clergy and nobility in power through the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution that, for at least a few decades, did the same for the then-revolutionary proletariat.

In the context of digital media, I think about Korean pop culture (music, television, movies) being used as soft power, or more radically ideas like Balaji Srinivasan's network state. In each case, technology expands our phenomenological fields of perception, allowing us to connect with new bodies in new ways. This offers fertile ground for new powers to assert themselves via culture indirectly, or politics directly.


Ultimately, Farman's writing was useful to me for three reasons:

  1. It clarified for me the ideas of phenomenology of post-structuralism, both of which I'd read about before but not fully understood

  2. It provides a philosophical model for thinking about digital media and spaces (spaces are constructed through embodiment, so digital and physical spaces are both "real" and similar social theory can be applied across them)

  3. It provides a model connecting culture and consciousness, and the beginnings of a doctrine for how culture change happens at all, helping me make inroads into the biggest personal question on my mind: "Why do people believe the things that they do?"

There are tons of questions left. What are more concrete examples of cultural revolutions? What are the cultural revolutions ongoing or possible in the present? What are the concrete, not just theoretical, political or revolutionary implications of Farman's ideas? Does Farman have anything to say about the information economy more broadly?

For now, I'll add Farman to my personal repository of knowledge, move a post-it note from my project idea wall to my "done" wall, and keep reading and writing.

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Notes on Lenin and other revolutionary/critical/whatever social theory I stumble upon