Jorella Andrews is a senior lecturer in visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Having trained as a fine artist and as an art theorist, her academic work focuses on the relations between philosophical inquiry, the image-world, and art practice, with a particular emphasis on phenomenology (notably the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Her main concern is how we can learn to flourish within today’s diverse but often divisive and violent image- and information worlds. Her two monographs, Showing Off! A Philosophy of Image(Bloomsbury 2014) and her forthcoming The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty (Bloomsbury, September 2018) engage with these themes, as do the various talks and workshops she is currently devising and presenting. As a teacher, she is particularly interested in encouraging phenomenologically-based approaches to research, writing and pedagogy.
"Description and the cultivation of care"
The rationale for this paper was triggered by a recently published British Medical Journal article by Catharine Morgan and others at Manchester University which documents escalations in self-harm among young people in England and Wales, including a 68 per cent increase among girls (13–16) from 2011 to 2014. Indeed, the authors describe self-harm in children and adolescents, which is highly correlated with the presence of anxiety disorders and depression and often progresses to suicide, as ‘a major public health problem in many countries’. The aim of Morgan et al’s research was not to examine the social and cultural factors influencing these increases but to consider their clinical management. Inevitably though, reference was made to the potential role of social media activity in increased self-harm. We know social media as a terrain used by many individuals to curate and (overtly or vicariously) to validate their lives largely by collating, categorising and evaluating images of themselves and others. But particularly pertinent was the observation that for many young people today, online socialization means ‘becoming exposed to content that encourages or normalizes self-harm as a reaction to stressful events’. Unsurprisingly, dissatisfaction with appearance has been self-reported by teenagers as particularly problematic.
In this paper I argue that becoming skilled in apparently inconsequential phenomenologically-grounded practices of description ̶ practices that are best defined as pre-critical ̶ may effectively help young people reposition themselves in an image-world (in which they are immersed and which they may also actively disseminate) whose construction and content tend to undermine self-acceptance and respect of oneself and others. I also ask how the insights thus yielded might enable social media users to co-create image-worlds in which information, especially visual information, is not compiled, categorized and judged in accordance with protocols that favour rapid, cursory and non-reflexive acts of judgement but rather where personal iconographies and visual itineraries can be developed, and in which confidence and care for others and for oneself becomes preferential.
Phenomenological description ̶ understood, via Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as embodied thought-in-practice ̶ is strategic in this regard because it foregrounds perceptual attentiveness, opens up the complex structures of intentionality, teaches the phenomenological art of epoché (or bracketing), and champions both ideographic and intercorporeal realities as fundamental to how we communicate, learn and create. As such, it can empower individuals however and wherever they are positioned to eschew two intertwined conceptually- and critically-based obstacles to both learning and (self)respect: first, our propensity to pre-categorise (as it were) the phenomena which we are presented (to make assumptions based on existing systems of classification and indeed to make category errors) and second, our propensity to pre-judge (to make assumptions based on existing but inappropriate systems of valuation; indeed on systems of valuation that do harm). Phenomenological description repositions learners as engaged observers rather than largely pre-formatted critics or consumers of what-is-given-to-be-learned. It teaches visual discernment in that it opens up reflexive spaces between the (artificially separated-out or ‘orphaned’) domains of perception, thought, desire and action.