Immobile Permanent: On Ian Angus’s “Continuing Dispossession”

May 25, 2020

Dr. Gregory Cameron, Cultural Studies, Wilfred Laurier University

I would like to begin by thanking the organizers of this weekend’s events for having invited me to partake in what has been an excellent symposium. I would also like very much to thank Ian for having given me, for the second time in the past few months,[i] an impressive and indeed pleasurable text with which to engage. Having said that, I should also say that Ian has provided us with a remarkably dense text. As I understand it, my task is to begin to unpack some of the allusions, developments and analyses that Ian’s text, because of the necessary time restraints, has perhaps left unexplored. Nonetheless, I too have had to be highly restricted in my comments–I will not, for example, trace out the extraordinarily rich pre-history of these allusions and developments.[ii] I will in fact restrict my comments to the “concepts” of Clearances, dispossession, inhabitation and finally the poem by Al Purdy that opens Ian’s paper.

However, first I would like to draw attention to what I take to be an allusion to Husserl’s Crisis[iii] texts that becomes most explicit towards the end of the first section. The paper opens with an indication of crisis with respect to English Canadian cultural identity. But the first section ends with an indication of a more generalized crisis. Ian writes: “…what we most need to know here and now is air, water, food, tools–the nearness and particularity of a way of life that may be sustained. If there is something to this, inhabitation further suggests that there is an unacknowledged symbiosis between universality understood through distance and the dispossession of peoples that disrupts and prevents inhabitation–in other words, that discursive space constructed through prising apart particularity and universality is implicated in contemporary homelessness” (2). For Husserl, it was precisely the mathematization of space and time that occurred with modern natural science that constituted the conditions of possibility for the emergence of an irreducible gap between truth and lived human experience. Since the time of Husserl’s crisis this gap has widened with the increasing mathematization of lived experience in the form of economics. Increasingly it has been air, water, food, tools and indeed thought itself if our universities are anything to go by, that have been abstracted into the realm of a mathematized nature and society. The universal has become increasingly distant from day to day human life and concerns. As a consequence, experience itself has become increasingly disassociated from the very possibilities of communal being together measured in terms of statistics and GDP. As more and more aspects of our day to day life enter the realm of mathematics and statistics, lived experience becomes almost epiphenomenal. What matters are the numbers, and these numbers become not only the basis for our potential happiness, always of course measured statistically, but also for our concerns about thepolis or political unit itself. The oikos, the polis, the shaping of our common futures, lived experience or indeed justice itself, as Ian suggests, appear to drop from the picture formed of our individual and communal selves.

Within this context, it is not difficult to take on a cynical attitude towards anything that has to do with life or justice. What matters is the bottom line. The problem here is that this cynicism necessarily runs the risk of reducing all attempts to restore a sense of justice to manifestations of the same numbers game. The temptation at this point is to follow Lenin and ask “What is to be Done?”. Unfortunately, the answers to this question generally appear trite with respect to the problems that they are supposed to address. What is most convincing are not the responses, but the depth of the problems and this in turn fuels cynicism. Importantly, Ian does not take this route in responding to the present or on-going crisis. The goal of Ian’s paper, it seems to me, is to give us a sense of the present crisis so that we can understand what must happen if the crisis is to be averted. Not what we must do, but what must happen.

Importantly, then, Ian opens his paper with reference to the “secret alliance” between critique and hope. This alliance is secret, in part, because it may well be impossible to say what it is one hopes for either in itself or without falling victim to the cynical reasoning of the mathematizers. More importantly, however, it is also secret because the very notion of hope may well be anathema to the one who engages in critique. Hope lies hidden in our rejection of existing conditions, without our necessarily taking note of it. It may well be that in our affirmation of existing conditions, we in fact relinquish hope, but regardless our critique necessarily emerges from a place that insists that it does not have to be like this. Our critique then emerges from a place of dispossession or homelessness, but this non-place necessarily points towards other possible ways of being. And yet, dispossession is a complex term. By itself, without context, it contains both an active and a passive sense (we will come back to what Ian calls its locative sense). Dispossession says simultaneously to take something away and to have something taken away. And Ian makes clear that he wants to think dispossession in both senses and wants us to take on as our own both senses of the term. We are simultaneously the dispossessors and the dispossessed. We are in the condition of dispossession and we are precisely in a condition of dispossession with respect to the universal that is nonetheless the object of human thought and action or justice and life.

Dispossession, then, is a kind of ontological condition. What this means, however, is going to be different for each and every particularity, and the proliferation of particularities can prevent us from seeing the enormously complex relation we have to dispossesssion. Within the context of elaborating this condition Ian brings up the example of the Clearances, to which, by the way, my own family was subject. The Clearances refer us to a specific period in the history of Scotland, but while Ian does focus on this history it is also clear that he means by this focus to indicate the universality of the concept of Clearances. The story Ian tells of Scotland could be repeated over and over for many different parts of the world. Today perhaps we can think of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the United States or the various restructurings by the IMF and the World Bank. These constitute clearances in the sense that they move something out of the way, in order to open the way for new forms of being that precisely work to eliminate the old, traditional or exhausted manifestations of hope for justice and life. Since its origins, clearance has been part of the very nature of Capitalism. Land cleared for agribusiness, towns cleared for mining operations, people cleared off the land for cheap labour or cheap electricity, people cleared for market expansion or colonization, the clearance of small and local business by multinational box stores, etc.

But the term clearance also has other allusions. It is also a double pronged term. The negative allusions brought up by Ian do not prevent us from hearing the affirmation implicit in the term. Like dispossession, clearance has a certain ontological ring to it. Human life would be impossible without some degree of clearance. The space for our communal being and the materials for our communal dwelling require some clearance, but more importantly the opening onto new and unforeseeable possibilities whether of thought or action require that clearance itself remain an ever present possibility. Without clearance there is no human being, there is no justice or life. Indeed, in a certain sense the very notion of hope contains within in it a certain clearance. There are clearances and these clearances constitute the condition of our being in all its various manifestations.

Here, however, I want to draw attention to a certain deconstructive move that Ian appears to make amidst all the negation of negations, all these concepts whose valences shift hither and thither as they move from the particular to the universal from the empirical to the ontological, from their historical specificity to their anthropological generality. At the heart of all this movement lies the concept of inhabitation. Phenomenologically, prior to any clearance, any dispossession, any distinction between universal and particular, any crisis, is precisely an inhabitation.

According to the OED, the term “inhabitation” which appears to be somewhat rare after the 18th century, refers to both the act or fact of inhabiting a given place or time and the state of being inhabited and in particular in being inhabited by the grace of God. Of course, and the examples in the OED make this explicit, whether the term means the one or the other depends on its context, it does not mean both simultaneously, though ambiguities do emerge. I would however suggest that Ian desires us to hear both meanings at the same time. This is clearly the point of his initial critique of distance. To be in a condition of inhabitation is to be both inhabiting and to be inhabited. But it seems too that Ian is thinking the passive sense of inhabitation, not with respect to God, but with respect to the place and time and the communal world of which one is a part. Inhabitation then refers both to being here and now in this place and in this time with these people AND to being inhabited by this place and time and these people. There is a kind of relinquishing of the split between subject and object that has constituted the meaning of modern science and knowledge. There is also, however, a clear sense in which inhabitation is a condition that cannot be relinquished. In referring both to a place inhabited and to a condition of being inhabited there is always an implicit “from whence” in the condition of inhabitation. Not merely an active and a passive sense, but also a locative sense, a relation to place and no doubt time that is never merely a fact to be reported appears to haunt all of the concepts that Ian employs.

Perhaps the obvious point of reference and indeed allusion here is the work of Heidegger on dwelling,[iv] but I prefer to remain with Husserl. It seems to me that Heidegger’s notion of clearing, to which Ian alludes, is in many respects a reworking of Husserl’s transcendental reduction. The key to Husserl’s phenomenology is the working out of the details of what it means to say that consciousness is intentional.[v] That consciousness is intentional means that consciousness is always consciousness of something. But it must be understood that this formulation can be read in two distinct ways. First it could mean that there is no consciousness that is not conscious of something distinct from it. But it could also mean that consciousness just is the “of” of a relation between a subject and an object. This would suggest there is no “outside consciousness”, a point that needs to be thought phenomenologically and not metaphysically. The problem, however, is that due to processes of which mathematization is also a part, the relation between consciousness and its object has come to be naturalized such that consciousness has itself become an object to be considered distinct from and external to every other object or consciousness. This process of naturalization or externalization is the process that results in the distance or gap that is supposed to constitute the condition of possibility for knowledge. To this Husserl contrasts the transcendental reduction. Generally this is understood as a kind of movement to the transcendental sphere, the sphere of the transcendental Ego as opposed to the naturalized Ego of metaphysics and psychology, but it can also be understood as the movement to the sphere in which all transcendence has been eliminated. This is the phenomenological sphere of the correlation of subject and object. The transcendental Ego then is the after event of consciousness’s reflection on itself as primary correlation. Here it seems to me is a fundamental understanding of consciousness as inhabitation.

Thought phenomenologically, what is lost in the crisis, the radical distance between thought and its object, is not merely a proximity to what is closest and most needed in the constitution of a human life and human community, but also the primordiality of the day to day experience of absorption in the various aspects of human life and human communality. It is not only that we understand what is most serious by way of establishing a distance, but that we also discount those not rare moments of absorption in our day to day activities as insignificant or frivolous compared to the same thing thought about from a distance where, of course, it is irrevocably transformed if not lost altogether. We forget, in other words, that we remain despite everything for most of our lives like fish with respect to the water, in a condition of inhabitation. Perhaps, as Ian suggests, it is time to revalue precisely these primordial moments.

Even if it sounds like we have reached something of a conclusion, we cannot end here. Ian’s paper begins with a fragment from a poem by Al Purdy and even if this poem begins only a section I cannot shake the possibility that it stands before the entire essay. To stand before, of course, means that to some extent what comes after is organized and constrained by this before. We are inhabited by it as we proceed on our journey. This “before” constitutes what will become possible within the limits that have already been established. And this “before”, the particular “before” that Ian draws our attention to, clearly concerns the mortality of the one who speaks, even perhaps the mortality lying concealed within speaking itself. But peculiarly, it is a mortality that can only stand before or after the act of speaking and as such acts as a necessary distance, a distance between two points that can never enter the realm of conceptual thought or language, that renders all thought and language, indeed all action, nothing more than a mediation. But it also, according to Purdy, seems to produce nothing more than pictures that may or may not accompany one on the journey between a before and an after that can never enter consciousness or be conceptualized.  On the journey between before and after, in the course of a life that is necessarily a mediation, all there is are mediations, pictures in the process of slipping from our grasp. Mediations of mediations, an irrevocable distance, like fish precisely without water. And then of course, pictures, or more precisely the picture of the blue heron, there on the river that my dog and I saw moments after reading Ian’s essay which opens with a reference to a heron, but what was there precisely was me, my dog and the heron, not a picture but a correlation, something in which an I which is nothing but mediation was nonetheless immersed, precisely like a fish with respect to water, but which today can be nothing but a picture, a picture that will or will not accompany me for part of the rest of my way, but which can from this day forth only accompany me as part of the mediation that it and I am. The correlation is mediated, and therefore, it seems to me, the distance between the impossible fact of my existence and the possible promise of our, at least for a moment, being together. The way, being a distance, always a necessary distance, however short, I hope to carry this picture with me for most of the way.

Gregory Cameron is presently teaching in Communication Studies and Cultural studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.  He is also Secretary to the Society of Phenomenology and Media (SPM) and was General editor of the Newsletter for the Society of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture (EPTC).  He received his PhD in Social and Political Thought from York University, Toronto.

Works Cited

Angus, Ian. “Continuing Dispossession: Clearances as a Literary and Philosophical Theme”originally a lecture for Queen’s University, October 2011.

Angus, Ian. (Dis)figurations: Discourse/Critique/Ethics. London: Verso, 2000.

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking”. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. In Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans. David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. Trans. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.

Purdy, Al. “The Last Picture in the World”. In Beyond Remembering – The collected poems of Al Purdy. Madeira Park, B C: Harbour Press, 2000.

[i] The reference here is to Ian Angus’s “The Inter-cultural Horizon of Planetary Culture”, presented at EPTC 2012 in Waterloo, Ontario.
[ii] To work through all of Ian’s previously published work in order to justify the interpretation being presented here would not be possible, but for an excellent attempt at encapsulation and statement of fundamental views see his Disfigurations: Discourse/Critique/Ethics.
[iii] Most importantly “The Origin of Geometry”, in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 353-378.
[iv] The obvious reference here is “Building Dwelling Thinking”, but the reference to Heidegger is always fraught with political implications that are not necessarily entailed by the arguments. My sense is that “dispossession”, as an ontological condition, already works towards the undermining of Heideggerian “dwelling”. The, peculiarly, under-theorized relation between activation and sedimentation in Husserl’s phenomenology does allow for a kind of equi-primordiality of the two which would correspond with the dual reading I am giving to “dispossession” and “clearances”.
[v] The best general introduction to Husserlian phenomenology remains Cartesian Meditations. Husserl only published “introductions” to phenomenology, as such the works published during his lifetime contain significant differences, but are substantially coherent with a progressive unfolding of initial insights.