Episode 53: Submerged in the social world

Remember Episode 51, when we made our way, blindfolded, around a room with nothing more than a cardboard tube to guide us? We delve deeper into the depths of phenomenology this week – almost literally – taking seriously Sara Ahmed’s description in her Queer Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, in which ‘bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit’ (Ahmed 2006, p. 53). Ahmed’s critique encourages us to reorient our phenomenologies, to understand the spaces in terms not only of what is oriented to, but also in terms of what is backgrounded, what is beyond reach for certain bodies.

My own perspective on phenomenology is this: yes, consciousness is always embodied, and bodies are always submerged. But let us not assume that consciousness is embodied in human bodies and that these bodies are submerged in the material world. My take on human bodies and the material world is that these are always just beyond our reach – that consciousness rarely attaches itself to the human body, and that the human body and the material world are both inevitably other.

My idea is that consciousness instead attaches itself to a social body. Whether we navigate a room blindfolded with a cardboard tube to guide us or manipulate the perceptual field with our gaze, it is almost always a social world we are submerged in, and it is almost always a social body that our consciousness affixes itself to.

Download Episode 53: Submerged in the social world.

Episode 52: I’m very grateful for you listening today

Today I celebrate 52 weeks of religiously produced Structured Visions episodes! Enjoy a glass of bubbly with me while I share with you some of the motivations behind making the podcast and what I find so enjoyable about it. I also express my gratitude some figures who have been inspirations for me along the way:

Tara Mohr, whose work on callings, and whose dedication to promoting women’s Playing Big made me recognise this way of honing my voice, exploring ideas on the public stage and ‘shipping’ my ideas (to use Seth Godin’s term).

Elizabeth Gilbert, whose ideas about creativity I’ve found to be remarkably helpful in my academic career. In Big Magic, her book on creativity, she writes ‘I’ve always found like this is so cruel to your work – to demand a regular paycheck from it, as it creativity were a government job, or a trust fund’. This podcast has been my attempt to serve creativity rather than asking it to serve me.

Caroline Casey of KPFA’s Visionary Activist Show, whose wisdom and enthusiasm are encapsulated in one oft-repeated quote: ‘Imagination lays the tracks for the reality train to follow.’ So many of my ideas are rooted in this principle – and I’m very grateful to Caroline Casey for giving such exuberant voice to her own ideas.

And speaking of religiously producing podcasts, I’m grateful to Rob Bell for his RobCast, and for his appreciation for the art form of the sermon. I reveal in this episode how my own love of the sermon nearly led me down the route of religious vocation.

Special thanks as well to Professor Sara Mills, Dr Liz Morrish, Dr Erika Darics and of course, my magnificent brother from the new world, Michael Clark – your retweets and comments are much appreciated!

Download Episode 52: I’m very grateful for you listening today.

Episode 51: A Message from the Emperor, Part 2

We return to Kafka’s tale this week – a tale of a distance that can never be breached. What if we understood the ‘you’ in Kafka’s ‘Message from the Emperor’ – that lowly subject at the edge of the empire – as a self that’s attached to the social body? And what if the emperor, intent upon sending ‘you’ a message, were the human body?

In this episode I invite listeners to imagine that between the social body and the human body is an insurmountable distance.

To explore this idea requires us to delve into philosophical inquiry about consciousness and human bodies. For that, I rely upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. For Merleau-Ponty, there’s no distance between the body and consciousness.

I’m proposing not only is there a distance, but that distance is insurmountable. And I wonder aloud: what if the human body has some meaning, or some ‘message’ beyond being an instrument of consciousness or perception? What if we understood the human body to be the ‘other’ that Levinas tells us we have a responsibility to?

Download Episode 51: A Message from the Emperor, Part 2.

Episode 50: A Message from the Emperor, Part 1


We’ve been building up to some exciting ideas in these podcasts, many of which came to a head in Episode 47. Here are some of the key points:

I’ve been recommending that when we think about social structure we draw upon a different binary than those that are often used. Rather than individual-society, or self-body, I’ve proposed human body and social body. Thinking in terms of these two elements as two types of body makes it possible to explore how they interact with each other. It also enables us to focus in on to what extent this relationship shows what Emmanuel Levinas calls a responsibility to the other. To what extent do the human body and social body interact responsibly (in Levinas’s terms)? To what extent do they acknowledge each other’s otherness? To what extent are they witnesses to the ungraspable ‘beyond’ that each other represents?

For Levinas, this witnessing of the alterity of the other comes about through an encounter with the face. And I’ve proposed that the ‘face’ of a social body is the grammatical construction of descriptions of the social world.

But the image of the face may be a bit misleading. Talking to someone face to face is often understood as a way of understanding the ‘true meaning’ behind what they’re saying. It’s certainly not used (in everyday parlance, anyway) to mean something like ‘apprehending that which goes beyond meaning’ or ‘witnessing that which can never be understood’.

What we need, I’ve decided, is a fable – one that will give us a felt understanding of otherness. I draw upon Malcolm Pasley’s (1992) translation of Kafka’s ‘Message from the Emperor’ in The Transformation and Other Stories. At first glance, it seems to be a story of a message that never arrives. Instead, it’s a story of a message that could never arrive. If circumstances were different, it might be able to. Did you notice that we’ve moved into the realm of the irrealis? It’s in the irrealis that we begin to understand the other – a world that moves just beyond our view whenever we look at it. And yet somehow the irrealis encourages us to keep looking.

Tune in again next week for more on Kafka’s ‘Emperor’!

Download Episode 50: A Message from the Emperor, Part 1.

Episode 49: Calling all ethnographers


What do you do when your social vision doesn’t match that of those around you? Or if you come from a planet where the social world is a lot more harmonious than the one you’re noticing on earth? You could try ethnography. Ethnography and the spirit of exploration in today’s episode.

Download Episode 49: Calling all ethnographers.

Episode 48: The magnificent brother from the new world

I reached into my mailbag during today’s podcast and found this letter from a faithful listener.

OK, it was my brother.

Or, as he likes to call himself, ‘the magnificent brother from the new world’.


I’m catching up on podcasts and am in the middle of listening to #47. I hope you don’t mind but I have a question. In regards to your concept that we try to figure out the problems by going beyond our own perceptions and experiences to solve social ills which takes a lot of work and intelligence. (If I interpreted that correctly). Have you thought about the idea that by the time we figure out a solution there is a whole new problem? Or that when we try to fix things they actually become worse. I think of the Arab Spring as an example. Any thoughts?

Hope you are well.



This episode is dedicated to my brother and to problem solvers everywhere.

Download Episode 48: The magnificent brother from the new world.

Episode 47: The grammatical face of the other

We go back to middle school this week, looking once more at the This American Life episode dedicated to the subject, and taking up once again Levinas’s notions of alterity and face. Here’s what I said last week about middle school:

Middle school is a social body that has a face. … I want us to be able to look at the face of that social body and see it as something completely other.

I also said this:

If I can interact with middle school face-to-face, then I have the possibility for opening into a world that I don’t know about yet.

But how do you look at the face of the social body? How do you find its eyes, ears, nose and mouth? I propose in this episode that grammatical analysis gives us access to the otherness of the social body. In other words, grammatical structure is the face of the social body.

For an example, consider what Ira Glass says in one segment of the middle school episode of This American Life. He’s talking about a seventh-grader’s experiences in the classroom. I’ve divided his comments into tone units, and underlined the noun phrases that serve as Themes (in some cases) and Subjects of clauses (in others):

a big problem for him

one reason that he was ostracized

he didn’t wash

kids would whisper about it

and when he would get mad

and then arguments would escalate

that is where it would go.

You’re dirty.’

You smell.’

The kids would say it right to his face.

Where are the grammatical selves in this text? Note that there are two selves here: the unique, individualised, embodied, singular ‘he’ and the collective, plural, non-embodied ‘kids’. ‘He’ is the one with the ‘big problem’ – and what is his ‘big problem’? His body. It’s dirty, it smells, he doesn’t wash it. If this non-individualised collective, the ‘kids’, is the social body here, the social body is doing something we see it do often: it’s bullying the individual human body.

What’s the possibility for transformation here? Well, seeing the social body configured in this way – that is, divided into the individual embodied self and the collective group self – opens the way for us to imagine a different configuration. What about one in which the collective were instead comprised of multiple unique, individual, embodied selves? And what if these human bodies were not seen as ‘problems’, but instead as singular, unique sites of new possibilities?

Download Episode 47: The grammatical face of the other.