In Vilem Flusser’s phenomenological method, one of its key steps is to take something intuitive and everyday and then, in a sense, look at it from a perspective of strangeness and wonder. In other words, the method is primarily based on pushing aside our preconceptions, largely unconscious, which exist, so as to describe the world around us from this entirely new standpoint. This is a phenomenological method, whereby the familiar becomes unfamiliar. But this allows us a crucial new insight into what we observe, since we are no longer observing a gesture or an object or something familiar from our default perspective, but introducing a completely novel view on the matter that is studied, which, in consequence, can help us understand something new about what is mundane and everyday and thereby adding to our knowledge.
The gesture of breathing is something so fundamental and so constant in our life that to look at it from the phenomenological perspective of defamiliarization can produce an almost paranoid effect. On the one hand, if we focus on how we breathe, we sense the entirety of our body moving with the breath. The inhale and exhale movement, which we perform unconsciously, so as to survive almost becomes a labor and something arduous. When one breathes, from this phenomenological viewpoint, one can feel to a certain extent the different muscles and other parts of the body that are involved in this process. The breathing itself becomes dissipated and is not only involving what we may intuitively think it involves. We can feel the air going into our mouth then down towards our chest. If we concentrate fully enough, we can feel our chest muscles expanding. Even drawing in the air now seems like a task, something physical, as though we were moving an ashtray across the desk. We take notice of the body as almost a type of machine that is running in the background of our lives, but the function of this machine themselves are crucial to us, to our survival. However, it is also something different to us, since we are not in total control of this function. This reveals another type of mechanism that is operative in us and which we are not conscious of.
When we try to breathe in a deliberate manner, purposely taking in air into our body, there is something forced about this gesture. It is as though we are trying to control our own body, but our body can perform this task itself – it is like an alien organism or a parasite taking control of the breathing mechanism of the human body. This is because, arguably, this is such a clearly unconscious gesture that we perform our entire lives that to try and force and control breathing almost seems unnatural. From yet another viewpoint, by focusing on the gesture of breathing and trying to replicate it produces the feeling that we are divided from ourselves, as though our mind is divided from our body. We know that the body will perform this task without the mind: but the mind now interferes and creates something almost deviant from such a fundamental gesture of life.
In Flusser’s work, one of the key points of his phenomenological method is to question standard theories of causality. The most simple familiar form of causality involves a subject and an object. I, the subject, throw a ball, the object. In other words, I have consciously decided to life this ball and throw it – the ball is completely inanimate and has no impact on the situation. In the gesture of breathing we see, as Flusser claims, the sense in which such theories of causality may be inaccurate. For example, when I pay attention to my own breathing, when I defamiliarize myself and perceive it from this conscious perspective, who is doing the breathing? When I decide to inhale deliberately, I am controlling the mechanism. But, once again, this feels forced and unnatural. My own consciousness of my own self is in some way not my self – my body is more real than my own thoughts of my body. But then what is causing the breathing? It is an unconscious gesture, something I do not notice on an everyday basis. But now, when focusing on the gesture of breathing, I am conscious of that which is unconsciously performed. Does this mean that I now control the breathing, that my consciousness is now its cause? No, because I am merely following my body with regards to my breathing, instead of deliberately performing the gesture of inhaling and exhaling. The causal sequence here becomes something entirely counter-intuitive, as a single human body seems to be split into many different directions at the same time. This is arguably a classical phenomenological example of the self which thwarts intuitive definitions of what a self is – is it a body? Is it a mind? Is it consciousness? If it unconscious, to what extent is this unconscious still something that I can call myself?
Flusser’s work is not only about causality, but is also clearly an example of other crucial existential questions such as “what is the self?” The phenomenological description of breathing shows the difficulty of this question in a vivid form. By making the familiar unfamiliar, we overthrow our preconceptions, prejudices and are forced to consider the particular gesture – and, by extension, our own selves, from a new perspective.