Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation of our Being-on-the-Earth
By Matthew Segall
“Eco-phenomenology offers a methodological bridge between the natural world and our own, or rather the rediscovery of the bridge that we are and have always been but—thanks to our collective amnesia—have forgotten, almost irretrievably. It is not enough to disguise our forgetting; there is also a matter of remembering—remembering the earth.”
-Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine (“Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself,” p. xx).
Phenomenology was laid down by Edmund Husserl as a path for thinking deeper than the superficial thought of objective natural science. It could be said that thought opens the world to human consciousness; thought, when spoken, builds the home I dwell in. Naturalism, on the other hand, prevents the blossoming of thought as the flower of the mouth by alienating consciousness from the body, from the earth, from the sky, and from the divine.
Heidegger says, “Being-on-the-earth…remains for man’s everyday experience that which is from the outset habitual…we inhabit it…” (MHBW, p. 349). It is, in other words, as easy to forget one’s earthly situation as it is to forget one is breathing. Earth is often taken for granted, becoming the unthought background of daily life. Commonsense is therefore naturalistic, paying attention only to the surface while forgetting the hidden face that lies beyond the horizon. As technological “advancement” swallows more and more of the lifeworld, consciousness finds itself falling deeper into exile from Being. Naturalism is a framework that conceives of the world, including the human body, as “consisting entirely of extensional properties related to each other within a causal matrix,” (EP, p. 3). There is nowhere for me—for consciousness— in the nature of naturalism.
The early Husserl was as of yet unaware of his embodiment and being-on-the-earth and so concerned himself not so much with saving nature as such from naturalism, but with saving human consciousness from its nihilistic implications. As Brown and Toadvine put it, for many, Husserl’s phenomenology “is a reduction of the world to meaning, and of meaning to [human] subjectivity,” (ibid, p. xiv). While Husserl’s early work may be a noble attempt to preserve human freedom and values from the onslaught of scientism, it offers only a point of departure when it comes to bridging the gap between humanity and nature that lies at the root of the ecological crisis (perhaps his later work, explored below, goes further). It is clear that if a true eco-phenomenology is desired, it must reject naturalism not only to recover the meaning of human existence, but to recover the meaning of humanity’s being-on-the-earth.
I will attempt in this essay to uncover the roots of human consciousness in the earth—to recontextualize the human being as a being-on-the-earth. This excavation will require both a conceptual examination of the four most general categories of nature as conceived of by naturalism (space, time, matter, and energy), and an experiential exploration of how these abstractions are originally revealed to us as embodied earthlings. Before I actually begin, however, I must establish the possibility of the unearthing of experience by way of the phenomenological method by responding to an important criticism.
Phenomenology may be described, after Heidegger, as a mode of speech (logos) that lets things (phenomena) show themselves. Any return to the things themselves is thus always already in relation to language. Gregory Nixon (after Derrida) has argued, that “outside of language there is nothing to which we can directly refer, since all language is indicative only of itself,” (VFW, p. 258). If Nixon is correct, it would seem that all attempts to bridge the nature/culture gap in the service of alleviating the alienation of consciousness from earth must fail, as “knowledge outside of language [or culture] is literally unthinkable,” (ibid). Nixon’s view is that human conscious experience is the result of linguistic reflection, that “the consciousness we experience is possible only because we have culturally invented language and subsequently evolved to accommodate it,” (ibid, p. 257). He admits to the possibility of pre-linguistic, pre-cultural experience, but maintains that bringing it to consciousness has already changed it: to consciously experience anything, I must already have “drawn it into the inescapable web of the hermeneutic enclosure of language,” (ibid, p. 258).
Such a grim picture of language as “enclosed,” I believe, neglects its poetic potential to let things show themselves by opening us to an originary experience of our being-on-the-earth. Language need not be a sticky, solipsistic web of self-referential signs, but can, by re-establishing its relation to the body and what Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” of embodied meaning, become a bridge that carries us back to the earth itself. Gendlin argues that “bodily experience cannot be reduced to language and culture…[because] our bodily sense of situations is a concretely sensed interactional process that always exceeds culture, history, and language,” (UE). Experience is always more intricate than language, and while language can never contain the whole of our experience, it can aid in, as Gendlin puts it, “carrying forward” our meaning. Nixon’s sharp distinction between conscious human experience and unconscious pre-linguistic experience neglects the possibility of a liminal space in between, where a bodily feeling of what Gendlin calls the “responsive otherness” of implied meaning gives rise to the sentences we speak (NPCF). The implied meaning is never fully transformed into the words, but the words nonetheless carry it forward, thereby allowing meaning to develop and expand as new words come. In Gendlin’s view, “Words mean the change they make when they are said… The change happens implicitly in the situation,” (ibid.). Instead of reducing the meaning of a word to the other linguistic signifiers it points to, Gendlin’s way into language reveals that meaning arises out of the “implicit intricacy” of the bodily and inter-bodily situations in which words are spoken. Our knowledge of any given situation comes not from the words we use to describe it, but from the meanings these words imply for our sentient, situated bodies.
In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin,” (VI, p. 102). Philosophy must, if it hopes to remain alive in our dark age of amnesia, forego the habit of representing experience abstractly with arbitrary signs and instead rediscover a way of speaking poetically from experience, such that what is said sheds light on the subtleties of existence heretofore covered over by the sedimentary layers of language long dead.
Having thus established that language, despite the fact that its inauthentic and naturalistic use can and has obscured the life-world, nevertheless possesses the potential to become what Heidegger, after Hölderlin, called “the flower of the mouth” (thereby re-connecting human experience with the soil out of which it was born and will return), I can now proceed to uncover the earthly roots of consciousness by phenomenologically grounding the naturalistic abstractions of space, time, matter and energy in bodily (and earthly) experience. If I succeed, consciousness will no longer seem a transcendental ego precariously, if at all, related to an objective, external nature, but will have become a unique flower blossoming out of a living planet.
Rilke, speaking of those in poverty—of the homeless—writes:
“Has the earth, then, no room for them?
They need only, as a tree does,
a little space in which to grow.”
(RBH, p. 229).
If we follow a Cartesian (or early Husserlian) path of thought, pure consciousness “in here” comes to be directed toward extended objects “out there.” Consciousness is always of or about objects. The shortcoming of this way of thinking is that it covers over an original experience of the spatiality of our being-on-the-earth. As a Cartesian ego, extended space seems to be an object “out there.” Yet, as Kant realized, space cannot be conceived of objectively, but functions for the ego as a form of intuition pre-structuring all experienced objects. It might be said that Kant took the first steps toward a phenomenological account of space by showing how extension is not simply given to an entirely aloof subject; rather, the subject actively provides space as a form of intuition. But Kant’s account remains an abstract conception too tied up in the tired language of tradition to let space show itself originally in experience. While he reveals the necessity of space for experience, he fails to adequately account for the relationship between space, the body, and the earth.
Returning to immediate experience, space appears as the possibility for bodily movement. I do not at first encounter space, but rather sense the possibility of moving from here to there. Any such movement of my body from one place to another, before it is travel through empty space, is walking across stable ground. This ground is the earth. As David Abram says, paraphrasing the later Husserl, “the earth itself is not in space, since it is the earth that, from the first, provides space,” (SS, p. 42). So much is implicit in this most radical of statements that it would pay to dwell upon it, dwell in the double sense of think it deeply and live within it. How is our experience of space transformed by remembering the constitutive role played by the ground beneath our feet?
Before exploring the answer, it should be made clear just how radical Husserl’s claim is in comparison to the naturalistic attitude of science, which sees earth as one among many planetary objects suspended in the void. Since the Copernican Revolution, the centrality of earth has come into question and the lifeworld has given way to a concept of nature as independent of experience. No other scientific finding is more responsible than the heliocentric theory for creating the apparent disagreement between perception and reality. Descartes would, a century after Copernicus, reify this disagreement into an ontological chasm separating subject from object, rational intellect from experiencing body (SS, p. 43).
Returning again to the question posed above, it appears that the scientific conception of space as a container is groundless, the product of uprooted reflection. Space is not that which provides the possibility of extended matter; rather, the earth provides the “un-get-around-able” materiality that makes space a possibility (EP, p. 157). Space is not simply given, but is born out of the earth and our experience as earthlings dwelling on its spherical surface.
Husserl writes that, “the original ark, earth, does not move,” (SS, p. 42). By this, he seems to imply that earth, as the source of both space and life, provides the basis out of which later scientific abstractions are derived. The earth provides the unmoving mark (unmoving only because its movement carries us) that allows the body to perceive motion relative to itself. Though it is undoubtedly true that the earth orbits the sun, the ability to understand such a truth rests in a more primordial experience of being-on-the-earth. As our bodies are of the earth, so too is space of the body. As Heidegger says, “I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it,” (MHBW, p. 359). Distance depends on where we stand in relation to one another, and is not a function holding true of any “space” independent of our relation. The earth is not in space with the other planets and the sun, but participates with them in providing space for one another.
As an example of the relativistic space articulated here, it should be pointed out that the appearance of the sun and the other planets from the surface of the earth remains the same regardless of our conception of how they are actually related to earth. There is, therefore, no conflict between perception and reality so long as it is acknowledged that any explanation of experience arises out of that experience. The discovery of earth’s position in the solar system does not contradict our experience as earthlings; it merely deepens our experience of the dimensional possibilities of space as provided by earth. We say the sun rises as we say the eye sees, and neither is wrong even while both are incomplete. It must be added that the earth shows itself to the sun and that the eye is seen.
“You are the future,
the red sky before sunrise
over the fields of time.
You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days—
You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.”
-Rilke (RBH, p. 177)
Before moving on from space to time, it should be noted that each of the categories under examination are only separable in the abstract. Space and time form a single continuum in lived experience, and though space alone was considered in the prior section, time was implicated in every step.
Time is perhaps the most elemental of experiential elements, not easily covered over by the forgetfulness of the naturalistic attitude. The physical conception of time as a linear series of causally symmetrical instants entirely neglects what, after David Wood, may be called the “plexity,” or complex relationality, of our embodied experience (EP, p. 213). Time-as-lived is asymmetrical, meaning it flows irreversibly from past to future, unlike the equations of physics.
Lived time, when situated on the earth, becomes not only an irreversible unfolding, but an unfolding coordinated by a variety of interwoven planetary rhythms, such as the day/night cycle and seasonal shifts. The rhythms give time a certain experiential texture, such that it becomes tied up in the very substance of existence, rather than being an arbitrary measure of homogenous change.
Clocks measure, but it is not time that they catch—for the clock itself is aging, too embedded in the stuff of time to provide a fixed point of reference. Time knows no fixed points, as experience endures: the body moves not from one discrete moment to the next, but carries with it the events of the past into a present always opening to the possibilities of the future. The present is not a bare “now,” an instantaneous “here,” nor is it a rudderless raft pushed along by the current of the past. The present is endlessly pregnant with the past, perpetually giving birth to the future. What is born becomes again the seed for further unfolding.
Space and time reunite in our being-on-the-earth not through a spatialization of time, but a temporalization of space. Space finds its origin in place, and place in the temporality of an event. I am here, breathing with/as the rhythms of time, in what is always a place becoming, a happening. Never does my being here cease to become in time, as my situation is temporal before it is spatial. I arrive at a café as I have the same way on many a day, but because the past I carry with me today differs, so too does my experience of the café. Similarly, the earth as spherical place provides spatial depth only thanks to the tempo of time. The earth was once a cloud of dust, and only after time allowed it to take shape could it provide a place for space to surround.
Rilke writes, again of the homeless:
“Is there by the banks
of the pond’s deep dreaming
no where they can see their faces reflected?”
(RBH, p. 229).
The aforementioned formative influence of time in the shaping of the earth should not be taken to mean that the substance of the earth, matter, is merely a passive recipient of spherizing form. This conception of matter as raw stuff shaped by immaterial ideas has a long history in Western thought. The ordinary naturalistic attitude conceives of matter as inert and objective, something that exists extended in space. But as we saw above, matter is not “in” space, but when given time and present in sufficient mass (relative to sensate beings arising from its body), provides space. The formative influence of time should be understood as being of the same substance as the materiality of the earth itself. The spherical shape of the earth is an echo of the primordial “un-get-around-able” essence of materiality.
Materiality conceived naturalistically appears as the flat, extended surface of earth (at least until recently when a view of earth was revealed “from” space) and the closed surfaces of all the bodies upon it. The interior of surfaces (i.e., the sentience of bodies) is neglected by such a forgetful way of thinking (and dwelling in) the world.
Perceived via the self-sentience of the body, materiality is the weight of our own inner existence—that which embeds us in what would otherwise remain a world of mere surfaces but for the fold that is our face and the clearing it opens for us to behold and be held by the earth. The human body is not the whole of our mass, or even wholly our own, but a temporary gift from the mass of the mother earth to which we belong. The reason matter and mind, or the body and human consciousness, have been so opposed to one another for much of the history of philosophy may be uncovered in the precarious relationship between our identity (our face) and materiality conceived naturalistically (surfaces as such).
Jacques Lacan described the human ego as the human being’s internalized image of itself as reflected in a mirror. The ego is, in other words, my idea of what I look like from the outside, as a surface. But if it is true that matter is the “un-get-around-able,” then this egoic identity always remains a fantasy. I cannot fully identify with my skin-bounded body, because there is always a topological gap that prevents my internalizing it as a complete body. Materiality cannot be fully thought precisely because we are ourselves material.
Though Lacan’s mirror stage may be necessary for further development, our perspective on ourselves may become more authentic if the locus of identity widens from our individual body to the earth-body. Only recently have photographs of the earth from space given humanity the opportunity to inhabit it as our own body, just as the infant is given the opportunity to identify with its body after being placed before a mirror. The difference is that identification with the sphericality of the earth requires embracing the “un-get-around-able” materiality of our existence, unlike identification with a planar image reflected upon a mirror. The mirror image gives a false impression of wholeness, as its flat surface shows only as much as can be shown to it. The earth, on the other hand, provides a genuine face (not a surface) that more authentically grounds identification in a sense of wholeness not found in flattened images. In this way, my bodily identity can come primarily from the face of the earth, and only secondarily from my image of myself as an earthling living on its surface.
Questioning who I am is first a question of Being itself, and as such has an undisclosed origin that can never be fully articulated because it is always already assumed (the “is” in the question “what is Being?” must already be understood). But we are forgetful of this implicit understanding, and so we are lead, in answering the question, to settle on identifying with our own inverted image (an outside, made superficially because incompletely, inside). Objectifying nature alienates consciousness from its own naturalness, hampering its ability to fully be. But the very same naturalistic attitude that covered over our relationship to Being and lead to the false identification with the ego also ignited the rockets that took us beyond the senses to the stars, turning our eyes back upon the body of the earth for the first time so that we might rediscover the meaning of being home.
Being-on-the-earth is also being of the earth, identifying with its living materiality. Earth becomes Gaia when we become again as children, regaining our primordial attunement to the life of things, though now an attunement that is expressed through speech like flowers reaching from the soil to the sky. In this way, language becomes a bridge built to carry we mortals back to the earth, and from earth, with creative inspiration, to the divine. As Rilke says to the earth, “There is no image I could invent that your presence would not eclipse,” (RBH, p. 121).
“And weapons against all that breathes,
In an incessant pride, the human being carries;
In torment he consumes himself
And the flower of his peace,
The tender one, does not bloom long.”
– Hölderlin (from “Das Mench”)
Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because to think in terms of the naturalistic conception of energy already enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our ends.
Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such,” (MHBW, p. 320). Technology seems to be the means to this end. However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (ibid, p. 317). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature. The danger in relating to earth in such a way (as a “calculable coherence of forces,” ibid, p. 326) is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry, which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” (ibid, p. 321).
Energy becomes, for the naturalistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth is inhabited instrumentally. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.
We do not realize that our technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. We risk losing touch with our own poetic roots in the soil and with the inspiration that lifts our language to new heights. Ours is a crisis not only of the ecosystem, but of the humanity dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, the human being will become a mere battery for the machines that replace us, homeless upon a dead earth.
“This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.
-Rilke (RBH, p. 173).
Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” MHBW, p. 340), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger (as well as Husserl), scientific naturalism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought-forth technology. The great success of the scientific/naturalistic approaches is not the result of the metaphysical truth of their objectivism, but rather of the practical value of their methods. This method, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, has depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for our human existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given us the opportunity to truly stand watch over this earth as the only home we’ll ever have.
The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. We cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny had to be lived out—our process of maturation could not be prematurely reversed. But in a typical enantiodromic twist, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of either destroying or saving the earth. For the first time, we can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath our feet.
As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (MHBW, p. 351). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars, whose divine energies remain forever out of reach of we mere mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute,” (RBH, 167). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say, and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.
SS -Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage. 1997.
EP – Brown, Charles S. and Toadvine, Ted (Ed.). Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. SUNY Press: Albany. 2003.
NPCF – Gendlin, E.T. (2004). The new phenomenology of carrying forward. Continental Philosophy Review, 37(1), 127-151. From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2228.html
MHBW – Krell, David Farrel (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Harper: San Francisco. 1977.
RBH – Macy, Joanna and Barrows, Anita. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Penguin Group: New York. 1996.
VI – Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press: Chicago. 1969.
UE – Roger Frie (Ed.). Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, pp.100-115, Routledge. 2003
VFW – Varela, Francisco and Shear, Johnathan (Ed.). The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness. Imprint Academic: Bowling Green. 1999.