On phenomenon. An exploratory essay as written text

Exploratory essay writing as an aesthetic practice


I conceived, practice and further develop exploratory essay writing as a practice of very slow aesthetic observation. In order to clarify this generic term, I begin this text by briefly outlying the concept of aesthetics I am operating with. 


Rooting my work in the concept of aisthesis [1] and in Baumgarten’s idea of aesthetics as a variety of thinking, [2] I specify the concept of aesthetics in the framework of the theories of embodied and situated cognition [3] and more particularly according to the enactive approach. [4] I understand, thus, aesthetics as a variety of cognition. In the enactivist framework, cognition is understood as a continuous process of transformation of the environment of the living beings—the network of human and non-human actors surrounding living beings—into the environment for the living beings, that is, into their worlds. [5] This transformation occurs simultaneously and in a constitutive relation of mutual conditioning with the emergence of the own selves of and for the living beings. Cognition, thus, is understood as a continuous, emergent process of sense-making enabled by the structural coupling [6] between living systems—as autopoietic and autonomous systems—and their surroundings. Selves and worlds are intertwined, temporary crystallizations of this process. Accordingly, cognition is the process of transformative interaction between living and non-living beings immanent in and constitutive for the process of live. [7] The concept of aesthetics I am conceiving is a specification of this enactivist concept of cognition. This implies to understand aesthetics, fundamentally, as a particular variety of interaction between living beings and their surroundings.


Aesthetics, as a form of interaction, is basically characterized by the leading performance of sensorimotor and emotional skills, not mobilized by target-oriented will but by the affordant agencies of the environment. The primacy of the living beings’ sensorimotor and emotional skills in aesthetic action leads to increasing their receptivity—to enhancing the porosity and permeability of their self-framing membranes [8]—and consequently to developing the ongoing interactions in a dynamic of shared agencies. Aesthetic cognition, that is, the realization of the process of sense-making through aesthetic action, is realized neither exclusively nor predominantly by living beings—they are not the unique and individual thinkers—but rather emerges out of a non-hierarchic intertwinement of all agencies at work. Consequently, the aesthetic practitioner is merely one of the enabling conditions for the performance of aesthetic practices.


On this basis, exploratory essay writing is understood as a set of aesthetic actions systemically connected to one another—and therefore, as an aesthetic practice—realized in the medium of written language, that is, interacting with agencies of the graphic, syntactic and semantic organization of signs and of the technologies and material surroundings that make possible to realize such organization. In this sense, this practice is performed as the intertwined actualization of the agencies of an aesthetically writing body—that is, a body performing writing as an specification of aesthetic action—the agencies of its specific surroundings, the agencies of particular writing technologies, the semantic, syntactic and morphologic agencies of signs and the agency of the distribution of these signs on a surface.

[1] For an exhaustive account on this concept see: Wolfgang Welsch, Aisthesis: Grundzüge und Perspektiven der Aristotelischen Sinneslehre (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987).

[2] Alexander G. Baumgarten, Ästhetik (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2007).


[3]  For a general overview on this concept, see: Lawrence Shapiro, ed., The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition (London: Routledge, 2014).


[4]  For the first definition of this approach see: Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Min. Cognitive Science and the Human Experience (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991). For an exhaustive description, see: Evan Thompson, Mind in Life. Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).


[5]  I take this formulations from: Francisco Varela, “Organism: A Meshwork of Slefless Selves,” in Organism and the Origins of Self, ed. Alfred I. Tauber (Berlin: Springer, 1991).


[6]  For a grounded outline of the concepts of “structure” and “structural coupling” in this contest, see: Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge. The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. (Boulder CO: Shambhala, 1998). 


[7]  As a sample of thecontinuity of mind and life in this context: “Varela also has in mind such existential continuity when he reformulates Maturana’s proposition, ‘living is a process of cognition’, as the proposition ‘living is sense-making’.” (Thompson, Mind in Life,157)

  I use the term “membrane” here not necessarily in a physiological sense, but rather for denominating any instance of the self that constitutes its boundaries.

Exploratory essay writing as an aesthetic-phenomenological research practice


The focus of this practice—the focus of very slow aesthetic observation through writing an exploratory essay—is a concept. Each process of exploratory essay writing is focused on one single concept. The starting point is always a disposition of not-knowing [9] in relation to the concept to be observed. Not-knowing is not to be understood here as ignorance or, simply, as a lack of knowledge. Instead, not-knowing means a willingly adopted approach to the concept to be observed, achieved through a suspension of the meanings this concept might previously have for the practitioner, and a neutralization of her knowledge about it. Not-knowing allows the concept’s own phenomenal agency, which arises from the morphology of the term that expresses the concept and the senses and meaning that may emerge for the practitioner through practicing, to structure spontaneously the intertwined actualization of all agencies at work.The commonalities between not-knowing, or more precisely, the act of achieving a condition of not-knowing, and the epoché [10] are evident at this point. In fact, not-knowing can be considered as an aesthetic epoché. The difference between the aesthetic specification of this concept and its original meaning in the framework of phenomenology is to be found in the terms of the transition that is fulfilled in each case. Whereas the epoché realizes a transition from a natural to a phenomenological attitude, not-knowing implies a passage from self-centered, will-based and target-oriented modes of action to aesthetic action.


The concept of aesthetic action allows also for a specification of the notion of “observation.” Aesthetic observation is understood here as a mobilization of the heightened receptivity enabled by aesthetic action in order to becoming aware (and maintaining this awareness) of the open trajectories of sense transited by the concept in focus. Observation, thus, is not understood here as the “production” or “construction” of meaning but as a subtle registration—an intertwinement of the acts of “noticing” and “notating” [11]—of the senses of the observed concept that emerge conditioned by writing an exploratory essay. Through aesthetic writing, the meaningless concept—the concept addressed as not-known, the concept whose meanings has been suspended or bracketed—is available for itself to acquire progressively new significances. Aesthetic observation reflects the emerging senses on and through the written text. It “gives back” to the world the world expressed through the observed concept. 


Accordingly, aesthetic observation is in a twofold sense primary reflection. On the one hand, in regard to a primary meaning of the term “reflection:” bending or throwing back, giving back or returning what reaches a surface, in this case, the organic membrane of a body. Correspondingly, reflection here excludes interpretation, although, making explicit use of the mirror metaphor, the reflecting surface is not ideally level and uniform—or, using an electrotechnical simile, it is not a perfect transducer whose output equals its input. On the other hand, aesthetic observation is primary reflection due to the incipient and inceptive quality of the reflected: the senses that the concept itself adopts, the senses as which itself appears through the encounter with the reflecting body. Aesthetic observation, thus, contributes efficiently to provide access to the “primary consciousness,” to the “core of primary meaning” to which Merleau-Ponty refers as the promised land of phenomenology: the phenomenon showing itself, principally by its own agency, under the favorable conditions provided by the agencies of the situation, the medium and the aesthetic actions of the embodied self to whom it appears.


On this basis, I consider exploratory essay writing as a radical phenomenological practice in the medium of written language. Unlike other phenomenological writing practices, it refrains from performing any logical operation and therefore from formulating any conclusions. The insights that this practice may enable to emerge are not constructed but re-vealed [12]  un-veiled, dis-closed, dis-covered. In this sense, exploratory essay writing is a presentational

practice: it aims at presenting, without any elaboration, what spontaneously—although facilitated by the practice—“comes to the light,” or “can be seen.” I suggest the term “spontaneity” here as alternative to the usually used “passivity.” On the one hand, the new insights into the observed phenomenon are not produced. On the other hand, they do not arise from the absence of action. On the contrary, they result—according to the etymological roots of this term: they “spring forward”—from the unforced actualization of the interacting, distributed agencies at work. In this sense, “spontaneous emergence” might be considered as an alternative to “passive synthesis” and can be realized, according to Husserl’s intuition [13], in the field of aesthetics, and more precisely enabled by aesthetic practices as systematized forms of aesthetic action.      

[9]  Emma Cocker, “Tactics for Not Knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected,” in On Not Knowing: How Artists Think, eds. Elizabeth Fisher and Rebecca Fortnum (London: Black Dog Publishing,  2013), 126-135.


[10] For an exhaustive explanation of the concept of epoché see (among many others): Max van Manen, Phenomenology of Practice (London: Routledge, 2016); Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, The Phenomenological Mind (London: Routledge, 2008).


[11] For an outline of this two concepts and their mutual relationship, see: Alex Arteaga, “Researching aesthetically the roots of aesthetics,” in Choreo-graphic figures: Deviations from the Line, eds. Nikolaus Gansterer, Emma Cocker and Mariella Greil (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007), 255 - 263. The ideas expressed in this text are further developed in the research project Contingent Agencies. See: https://www.contingentagencies.net/ (accessed June 15)


[12] According to its etymology, “re-“ here is not to be understood in the sense of “back” or “again” but rather indicating “opposite of” or “transition to an opposite state” (see: https://www.etymonline.com/ , accessed June 15) . Accordingly, the Spanish word “revelar” is the term use to designate the process of developing a photography.   

[13] See: Edmund Husserl, Analysis concerning passive and active synthesis: lectures on transcendental logic. (Dordrecht:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001)

Steps to an aesthetic phenomenology


Through the evidence of the practice itself possibly emerging out of the reading and/or listening to one specific outcome—one exploratory essay on phenomenon—and through the argumentations formulated in the precedent short texts, I hope to have exemplarily substantiated the plausibility of an aesthetic phenomenology. With this term I mean fundamentally a field of research practices that investigate objects and states of affairs through phenomena, that is, through the way they are given in—and hidden by—experience, though interacting with them, with the surroundings in which the research takes place and with the media and technologies that allow the research practices to be conceived and performed, aesthetically. Aesthetic phenomenology is phenomenological research realized through aesthetic actions systematized as aesthetic practices. 


A second, non-constitutive aspect of an aesthetic phenomenology is media diversity and consequently, media sensitivity. These concepts indicate the possibility of realizing aesthetic-phenomenological research practices in any media and the necessity to be coherent with the agencies of the media at work. In this senses, an aesthetic phenomenology opens up the possibility to develop phenomenological research in other media than language. 


Regarding both cases—the performance of phenomenological research acting aesthetically and through practices realized in different media—aesthetic phenomenology means an expansion of research resources and a potential increase of research efficiency. Aesthetic-phenomenological practices lead—subtly, indirectly, obliquely, tangentially—to the slow silence in which phenomena themselves resonate.

list of exploratory essays 

on practice, in: …Through Practices, eds. Alex Arteaga and Heike Langsdorf. Ghent: APE (in print).

Aesthetic Research, in: Architectures of Embodiment: Disclosing Fields of Intelligibility, ed, Alex Arteaga. Zurich/Berlin: Diaphanes, 2020.

Auditory diagraming as an aesthetic/poetic practice?, third section of “Auditory Diagramming: a research/design practice,” in: The Bloomsbury Sonic Methods, eds. Michael Bull and Marcel Cobussen. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Disclosing an architectural object. Settlement 14”, unpublished, performed in PERFORMATIK 19 at KANAL - Centre Pompidou. Brussels, March 22-23, 2019.

On conditioning—through practices, in: Thinking Conditioning through Practice, eds. Alex Arteaga and Heike Langsdorf,. Ghent: APE, 2018.

decide, acousmatic lecture performed in Errant Sound. Berlin October 8, 2017

two, in: transient senses, Arteaga, Alex. Barcelona: RM. 2016.

one, in: transient senses, Arteaga, Alex. Barcelona: RM. 2016.