Degrees of Givenness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion

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The philosophical work of Jean-Luc Marion has opened new ways of speaking about religious convictions and experiences. In this exploration of Marion's philosophy and theology, Christina M. Gschwandtner presents a comprehensive and critical analysis of the ideas of saturated phenomena and the phenomenology of givenness. She claims that these phenomena do not always appear in the excessive mode that Marion describes and suggests instead that we consider degrees of saturation. Gschwandtner covers major themes in Marion's work-the historical event, art, nature, love, gift and sacrifice, prayer, and the Eucharist. She works within the phenomenology of givenness, but suggests that Marion himself has not considered important aspects of his philosophy.

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1. Historical Events and Historical Research

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Marion uses the term “event” in two different but closely connected senses in his work, especially in his presentation in Being Given. On the one hand, he speaks of the event as a characteristic of all given phenomena: phenomena give themselves as events, they are “being given.” He develops this in §17 of Being Given as the fifth characteristic of all phenomena alongside anamorphosis, arrival, incident, and fait accompli. Most prominently, however, the event is one type of saturated phenomenon, namely the phenomenon saturated according to quantity. The phenomenon of the historical or cultural event gives “too much” information, it can never be quantified, never be recreated. The event is overwhelming in quantity. This “giving too much” is, of course, to some extent also a characteristic of all saturated phenomena. Thus, although Marion draws distinctions between the four different types of saturated phenomena, depending on whether they saturate our sense of quantity, of quality, of relation, or of modality, at the same time all saturated phenomena give too much and are events in some sense.

 

2. Art and the Artist

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Marion has written fairly extensively on art, although this topic has not been discussed much in the secondary literature on his work.1 One of his early works, The Crossing of the Visible, is an extended reflection on the status of the image in art and contemporary culture. In his later writings, the work of art occupies a central place as the second type of saturated phenomenon, saturated according to quality. A “mediocre” Dutch painting and the practice of anamorphosis employed in painting is an element of the discussion of the given phenomenon in general in Being Given, and the chapter on the idol in In Excess discusses the work of Mark Rothko. Not only does “eventness” characterize all given phenomenon, but so does their bedazzling aesthetic quality.2 An article for a collection on “idol anxiety” again reflects explicitly on the artist and the work of art. A further book on art, focusing specifically on the artist Gustave Courbet, is due to appear shortly.3

 

3. Nature and Flesh

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Instead of examining a phenomenon that Marion already depicts as saturated, this chapter focuses on one he does not discuss. I will suggest that nature and various nonhuman beings can appear to us as saturated phenomena, both on Marion’s own terms and in the sense in which I have argued in respect to the first two types of phenomena examined: as displaying degrees and requiring hermeneutic context. Hence this chapter is not specifically about Marion’s discussion of the third saturated phenomenon, that of the human flesh. Yet, as we see later in this chapter, there might be some connections between “nature” and “flesh.” I use “nature” here loosely to refer to what are generally understood to be “natural phenomena”: the land, the weather, the habitat of species, and so forth, including nonhuman animal and plant life and perhaps even our own “animality.” Nature is distinguished, however, from what Marion calls “technical objects.” As emerges near the end of the chapter, technology often subverts and covers over nature, making us forget our intrinsic connection with it and dependence upon it, often even destroying it. While a discussion of nature need not necessarily have “environmental” or “ecological” concerns, such concerns are not excluded in this discussion.1

 

4. Love and Violence

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The lover “declares his love as one declares war” (EP, 79; PE, 129). So insists Marion repeatedly in his investigation into the nature of the erotic phenomenon. War, of course, is here “only” a metaphor illustrating the absolute commitment of the lover. Yet the fact that this analogy is used several times throughout The Erotic Phenomenon seems to indicate that it is not insignificant. Rather, it points to a problematic aspect of Marion’s treatment of eros, namely the extreme—if not almost militant—character of this love. And the careful reader finds the connotations of absoluteness exacerbated by another subtheme, stated even less obviously: the parallel between this phenomenological analysis of eros and Marion’s earlier theological analysis of charity. Combined, they lead to a troubling conclusion. The lover, on Marion’s account, will turn out to be like a God declaring war. In this chapter I (ab)use four of Marion’s comparisons of love to war in order to highlight the absolute character of his treatment and show how in each case the divine emerges surreptitiously. I maintain, instead, that the phenomena of the other in general and that of love in particular require, on the one hand, distinctions between types of love and between degrees of love, and, on the other hand, an account of the hermeneutic context that makes any relationship with the other, especially a loving relationship, possible. Before analyzing these comparisons more carefully, however, let me briefly provide some context for Marion’s exploration of love.

 

5. Gift and Sacrifice

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Marion is maybe most well-known as a philosopher of the gift. Already in a widely read article, titled “Sketch of a Phenomenological Concept of the Gift,” he attempted to illuminate the topic of the gift.1 His major phenomenological work, Being Given, explores phenomenology as fundamentally about “givenness” and includes an entire section titled “The Gift” (part 2). He engaged in extensive debates with Jacques Derrida on the gift and economy, especially in the highly publicized debate of the 1997 conference “Religion and Postmodernism I: God, the Gift, and Postmodernism.”2 In the English-speaking world, this debate (somewhat unfortunately) dominated the early secondary literature on Marion.3 Only slowly have other aspects of his work also been recognized. Yet in his 2010 books Certitudes négatives and Le croire pour le voir, Marion returns to the topic of the gift, indicating that this question continues to be important for his thought.4 The gift is central to Certitudes négatives, occupying two of the five chapters. In these chapters, as in Being Given, the gift figures as a significant phenomenological figure within the exposition of larger phenomenological claims. The theme of the gift also appears repeatedly in the more theological work, Le croire pour le voir, including one essay entirely devoted to the gift, with the title “La reconnaissance du Don” (“The Recognition of the Gift”). Finally, a 2011 English collection, edited and translated by Stephen Lewis, brings together four pieces on the gift under the title The Reason of the Gift.5 Three of the pieces in that book, which exists only in English, are now part of Marion’s 2012 Figures de Phénoménologie, while the final piece is an earlier version of one of the chapters in Certitudes négatives.

 

6. Prayer and Sainthood

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Prayer is a fairly prominent topic in Marion’s writings, although it is not a concern addressed much by the secondary literature on his work.1 Already the early distinction between idol and icon in God without Being is to a large extent about prayer or worship, about the human approach to the divine that can be expressed in idolatrous adoration or authentic prayer before an icon. The former is idolatrous for Marion because it becomes an invisible mirror that returns entirely upon the self, while the other is authentic because it is emptied of self and exposed to the divine gaze. This account is deepened and focused more fully on prayer in The Crossing of the Visible, where the final chapter examines explicitly what it means to pray before an icon. Somewhat surprisingly, the final chapter of In Excess, which really should examine the possibility of a phenomenon of revelation if it consistently followed the outline of the five kinds of saturated phenomena (event, idol, flesh, icon, revelation) as presented in Being Given and the first chapter of In Excess, instead examines the kind of language appropriate for the divine. This language turns out to be prayer or praise. In some sense, then, this simply continues the earlier distinction between an idolatrous and an iconic way to approach the divine. Yet, formulated as a response to Derrida on negative theology, it is a much more conscious articulation of the linguistic element in prayer.2

 

7. Eucharist and Sacrament

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Marion has explored sacraments and especially the Eucharist throughout his work, beginning with his rather controversial treatment in God without Being and culminating with two accounts in Le croire pour le voir. Why is the Eucharist so important for Marion? On the one hand, it is obviously a central liturgical rite that particularly defines Christian identity. It is therefore especially significant for a phenomenology that seeks to explore religious experience. One might say that the Eucharist is Christian religious experience par excellence. On the other hand, the Eucharist is believed to be a central place of God’s self-revelation. The Eucharist is said to be the “body of Christ” who is given to the ones who participate in the rite. Eucharist is hence not merely something religious people do, but it is something they receive: the eucharistic elements are given to us. It is hence above all a gift and, in fact, eucharistia means “thanksgiving.”

 

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