Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon (eds.), 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2019; 369 pages. ISBN: 978-0810141155.

Reviewed by Kristin Rodier, Athabasca University.

Phenomenology has a long-running motto of “back to the things themselves!” (from Husserl’s introduction to the Logical Investigations). This motto can mean bracketing oneself from involvement and letting that which appears (the thing itself) show itself—potentially distancing us from the social and cultural meanings and understandings that shape our ties to the world, or it can be used to attend specifically to the immediate non-neutrality of bodily experiences revealing the socially constituted world of meaning. This second approach acts as a springboard for the field of critical phenomenology outlined in this volume. Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Lisa Guenther defines critical phenomenology:

Critical phenomenology goes beyond classical phenomenology by reflecting on the quasi-transcendental social structures that make our experience of the world possible and meaningful, and also by engaging in a material practice of ‘restructuring the world’ in order to generate new and liberatory possibilities for meaningful experience and existence. In this sense, critical phenomenology is both a way of doing philosophy and a way of approaching political activism. (15)

Weaving together phenomenological method and transformative description, critical phenomenology has gathered steam, such that 50 key concepts can be selected from so many more to shape a field. The emphasis on transformative description makes this volume a treasure chest for those of us working in phenomenology who understand method and socio-cultural context as intertwined.

Through the approaches of the interdisciplinary authors, the text answers the question “What is critical phenomenology?” by giving conceptual tools for doing, giving examples of what has been done, and framing questions within the field. Based on the contributors’ previous scholarship, citational practices, and the selection of concepts, it becomes clear that there is a strong theme within the volume that emerges from a Beauvoirian feminist phenomenological tradition. Concepts such as immanence and transcendence, imaginaries, corporeal generosity, and the eternal feminine draw strongly on her work. These entries highlight the important works by feminist phenomenologists such as Iris Marion Young, Sandra Bartky, Debra Bergoffen, Helen Fielding, and Dorothea Olkowski, as well as editor Gail Weiss. The volume is similarly strong on critical race engagements. Fanon’s enormous impact is revealed in a number of entries, such as the racial epidermal schema, racist love, and concepts in Latinx philosophy included on mestiza consciousness, world-travelling, and the decolonial imagination. The volume also tracks how critical phenomenology as a field has emerged from and beyond these intellectual predecessors to produce new and intellectually diverse work by Alia Al-Saji, Lisa Guenther, Gayle Salamon, and (not in the volume) Sara Ahmed and Cressida Heyes. Now more than ever, critical phenomenology stands on its own, with central concepts such as Lisa Guenther’s analysis of social death in her landmark Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (2013).

This volume appears to be encyclopedic, but each chapter goes beyond an explanation of concepts and offers critical evaluation of phenomenological concepts and methods. In this way, the volume itself might be said to do critical phenomenology. The volume has formative and framing entries such as “The phenomenological method” by Duane H. Davis and “Critical Phenomenology” by Lisa Guenther. What is surprising and unique about this volume is that it highlights the influence of concepts that don’t necessarily trace their intellectual influence back to a phenomenological tradition. These authors reflect on the relation between their concepts and critical phenomenology, offering short pieces that amount to new contributions to the field in their own right. Here, I’m referring to entries such as Robert McRuer’s on “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness,” “Controlling Images” by Patricia Hill Collins, George Nancy’s “Confiscated Bodies,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s on “Misfitting” and Talia Mae Bettcher’s entry, “Trans Phenomena.” These authors demonstrate the broad reach of critical phenomenology and its application to diverse scholarly problems. The volume also includes what might be called “primary” phenomenological concepts. There are entries on time/temporality (Dorothea Olkowski), the they (Nancy J. Holland), the look (William McBride), the natural attitude (Lanei M. Rodemeyer), horizons (David Morris), the habit body (Helen A. Fielding), and several entries on being(s) for and with others and ontological distinctions.

Important recurring questions in critical social theory emerge through the authors’ short essays on critical phenomenological approaches. For example, the tension between phenomenological and Foucauldian approaches to social stratification recurs in the volume. The importance of Foucault for areas such as critical race theory, disability studies, feminism, queer and trans philosophy cannot be underestimated. The volume demonstrates how close attention to the lived body can bolster understandings of operations of power, such as discipline and normalization. This development occurs in several entries including, “queer performativity” (Sarah Hansen), “Queer Orientations” (Lauren Guilmette), and Heteronormativity (Megan Burke). Through these and many other entries, the importance of Judith Butler on the field becomes clear. Emerging from and exceeding her philosophical influences (primarily Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault), Butler might be the most pre-eminent critical phenomenologist who never wore the label.

A strength of the volume is that it details how phenomenology serves and modifies structural and activist approaches to resisting oppression. There is a circle of understanding in the volume, tracking phenomenology’s influence outside its tradition, which then produces concepts that come back to influence critical phenomenology to produce deeper engagement. For example, a concept such as “model minority” might not seem to have a phenomenological dimension. Emily Lee describes how “model minority” is used to describe how Asian-Americans receive false praise for having “productive,” and properly patriarchal families with docile children, to prop up negative stereotypes of Black and Latinx families in the United States as lesser, thus fostering “intraminority conflict.” (232) As a technique of domination, political strategy, and explanation for fracturing within anti-racist political organizing, the “model minority” has a felt and lived dimension that also illuminates the larger structures at play. Turning our attention to the ambiguity of living within this structure, Lee describes a historico-racial schema of living within a so-called “positive” stereotype. Lee draws attention to living with the anxiety of primarily white Americans who work to position themselves as less advantaged (since, say, Asians are all excellent at math and become doctors) against a backdrop of Lee’s lived reality of intense racism and economic insecurity. As well, Lee details the experience of living in relation to stereotypes of Asian women’s docility (exoticized) and aggressiveness (tiger-like). There is an anxiety of failure in relation to an oppression that deploys “positive” stereotypes. Lee outlines the ambiguity of being an “honourary white person” and yet a “forever foreigner” as the terms of acceptance within dominant white supremacist society for Asian Americans are strict and booby-trapped. Lee’s work offers a transformative description of self-erasure through assimilation that brings our attention to larger structural effects in lived experience. The emphasis on describing anxiety, ambiguity, and negotiating dominant meanings, demonstrates that “model minority” is far from a disembodied concept about stereotypes—it is also a concept for doing critical phenomenology.

The volume demonstrates enormous depth of engagement with critical areas such as race, disability, gender, and sexuality. Yet, there are areas of scholarly literature in critical phenomenology that are not included, such as age and fatness. These are areas where there are phenomenological writings with transformative aims, and including these engagements in the volume would further legitimize their place in critical phenomenology. In addition, there is some concern that with the format of individual concepts, the structure doesn’t lend itself as easily to a multidimensional or intersectional approach to issues of oppression, which runs the risk of promoting an “additive analysis” of oppression (see Spelman). However, there is no sense in which these 50 are presented as the only concepts for a critical phenomenology, since the volume certainly points in the direction of work yet to be done. Despite these minor drawbacks, the volume offers outstanding breadth of topics and figures. It is useful for scholars in the area and nimble it is teaching application. It can be used for seminars that primarily focus on critical phenomenology, supplemented perhaps with primary readings. Or it can be used to tackle problems within critical phenomenology, as they would apply to particular embodied oppressions and theories of political organization and activisms.


Additional Works Cited

Elizabeth Spelman (1988), Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press).