How does a person snap out of inattentional blindness? You don’t need an argument to show you that a gorilla was in the scene, you just need someone to point it out to you. Both the demonstration of your inattentional blindness and the “cure,” as it were, is a simple re-orientation of perspective. Maybe you will need to watch the video again, or maybe the simple prompt, “Did you see the gorilla?” will be enough to make the missed phenomenon snap into place.
I want to suggest that there are forms of collective inattentional blindness, which are harder to discern and even harder to snap out of, but that a socially-engaged practice of phenomenology can help us with both. My example will be – not surprisingly for those who have read any of my previous blog posts – the invisibility of mass incarceration in the US.
Every chance I get, I remind people that the US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. It can get pretty annoying, actually, both for me and for them. But it’s a point that still seems to float, like a gorilla pounding its chest, into the middle of each and every scene of everyday life in the US, without being noticed.
Look at this image, for example. It’s a planner’s sketch for proposed developments in a part of Nashville that they are trying to get people to call “SoBro.” (You can click on the image to see more of the details.)
What would it take to see this sketch as a scene of mass incarceration?
Let’s assume you do this. Now you have to perform the phenomenological reduction. Shift your attention from the individual objects that appear in the scene (the condos, the people, the cars, the trees) to the relationships that constitute their meaning. In order to do this, you have to acknowledge your own perspective on the scene. What do you foreground, and what do you consign to the background as unimportant? What are the horizons (spatial, temporal, and social) that frame your perception of this scene? Where are the absences in relation to which certain things present themselves as given? How does your own personal history, and your own habits of perception, shape the way you look at this image?
Again, this process is complicated by the fact that we’re looking at a sketch (a “work of art,” however uninspiring), and also by the function of this sketch as an advertisement or enticement. It’s a developer’s vision of how Nashville could look someday, if we just built enough live/work environments and planted a few trees. The sketch invites you to insert yourself into this scene, to “catch” the vision, to want what you see depicted here.
This invitation is very different from the task of phenomenological epoche and reduction. It does not ask you to suspend the natural attitude, but rather to embrace a certain version of it. It asks you to suspend your capacity for critical reflection and become absorbed in the sketch, in a way that both gives you a ready-made fantasy of (sub)urban life, and also constitutes you as a particular kind of subject: a consumer, an investor, a city-dweller, even a citizen.
What’s wrong with this picture? This is where the social dimensions of phenomenology need to be expanded beyond the practice of classical phenomenology, narrowly-conceived. It’s where phenomenology must become critical, not only of the naïve positivism of the natural attitude but also of the ideological horizons that frame our perception of the world from different perspectives.
So whose perspective is missing from this picture, and whose presence remains invisible? The answer is both obvious and open-ended: no people of color, no poor people, no homeless people, no activists or protesters, no graffiti artists, no skateboarders… Not even street musicians, as you might have otherwise expected from “Music City.” The list of who is absent from this sketch could go on: basically, everyone except middle-class, vaguely hetero white people.
But in order to see who is actually, concretely excluded from this sketch of the “future” Nashville, we have to delve into the social history of the place that this sketch re-envisions. We have to look beyond the representational framework of the sketch itself to ask: How does this vision of the future relate to the past and present social and material landscape of this place? Who would have to be removed from this place, and who has already been removed, in order to realize this vision?
This is where phenomenology must become a practice of liberation. I’m borrowing the phrase – phenomenology as a practice of liberation – from participants in the Phenomenology Roundtable at Loyola University Chicago, which took place in May. The discussions at this meeting helped me to see the connections between the epoche, the reduction, and concrete practices of social transformation. I have not done justice to the idea here, but I will try to reflect more explicitly on what it means in the weeks to come.
For now, I want to complete my critical phenomenological analysis of the SoBro sketch with which I began, and to show, at least in broadstrokes, how this sketch could be understood as a scene of mass incarceration. The analysis that follows is indebted to the work of Brett Story, particularly her research on “million dollar blocks,” which was presented at the Rethinking Prisons conference in May of this year. I also want to thank Andrew Krinks for his scholarship and activism in the Nashville area, and for putting SoBro on my radar.
On Feb. 28, 2013, The Contributor, Nashville’s homeless newspaper, featured an article by Megan Pacella entitled "Pushed Out?" The article analyzes the possible effects of SoBro “revitalization” plans on the city’s homeless population. An estimated 4,000 people in Nashville are living without adequate shelter. Most of the services for people who are homeless are located in the area that developers would like to have us call SoBro. Just blocks away from the brand new Music City Center, a $623 million convention center, are the Nashville Rescue Mission and Room in the Inn, both of which are identified in the South of Broadway Strategic Master Plan as creating “an uncomfortable concentration of homeless men on the streets” (The Contributor, 5).
Right. Homeless shelters create an uncomfortable presence of homeless men on the streets. Okay…
Shift horizons, and the Gestalt changes: Urban revitalization plans that are focused on the (self-)enjoyment of white middle class people both intensify homelessness by gentrifying low-rent neighborhoods, and also displace the few services that are available to people living without shelter in the city center.
What will happen to these people if the developers have their way? Some will be arrested for sleeping in parks or under bridges; they will be punished for being homeless, and jail will become their most viable “housing option.” Some will die of exposure and/or untreated medical conditions. Some will be lucky enough to crash with family or friends, or to find their own form of housing.
Many will be displaced to other homeless shelters, many of which already function as de facto carceral spaces. The Nashville Rescue Mission is equipped with metal detectors and security cameras. One inhabitant says: “It’s like a prison in there… Too many beds crammed into one spot” (5). The mission provides a bed for 400-500 men a night and serves between 1800-2000 meals a day.
Any way you cut it, the SoBro is a scene of mass incarceration, displacement, and death – from the perspective of those who are already there, but who are not represented in the developer’s vision except as a threat to be managed, a blight to be removed, and a problem to be solved.
A critical phenomenological perspective may help others, who are not directly affected by mass incarceration and homelessness, to see this picture of happy, relaxed white people as a scene of mass incarceration. The next step is to act on what we see, to decarcerate both our vision and our world.