January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
From the very first time I was introduced to the work of Jean-Luc Marion, I was captivated with his account of the passive self and saturated phenomenon. Being principally concerned with the human propensity for self-righteousness, Marion’s philosophy provided me with a way to think the Christian experience while steering clear of some of the naughtier habits of the autarkic self.
However, in continuing to interact with Marion’s work, I find myself questioning the absence of community therein. As a scholar working within the Christian tradition, community is not just a contingency, but a basic commitment. And, while the saturated phenomenon manifests itself through the conversion of a witness, Marion leaves largely unanswered the question of to whom, if anyone, this manifestation is made apparent.
In this article, I would like to discuss blank, but profitable space in Marion’s description of the witness leaves a blank, a space in which an answer to the question of community may possibly be written. The witness, in becoming dependent on the saturated phenomenon for identification, becomes equally dependent on an advocating party beyond the blow of the excess of the phenomenon who may discern the manifestation as such. To my mind, the deponent requires an exponent: another is necessary.
1. The saturated phenomenon and the passive witness
To review, the saturated phenomenon is a phenomenon of excess intuition and unreliable appearance. While, according to Marion every phenomenon “shows itself to the extent that it first gives itself,” the saturated phenomenon distinguishes itself in that the givenness of the phenomenon exceeds that which is shown. In this way, the saturated phenomenon does not appear in the manner of objects or within the conditions of objective experience. Instead, the saturated phenomenon disturbs the conditions of objective experience and the subject that imposes them. The saturated phenomenon, by means of its excess, converts the constituting subject to constituted witness.
In this conversion, the self-givenness of the saturated phenomenon assumes “the function and the role of the self” for itself. In enduring the saturated phenomenon, the subject surrenders the throne of self, admitting that its reign had only ever been a pretension and accepting the precedent claim of the saturated phenomenon as genuine. In so doing, the subject is remade a subject in the sense of a passive liege. While passive in one sense, the witness is defined by its continued active capacity to receive the phenomenon.
However, because the saturated phenomenon exceeds the conditions of experience, the witness does not receive himself from that which he receives as a set of finite concepts. Marion writes, “the witness, who knows what he saw and that he saw it, does not comprehend it by one or more adequate concepts.” The self in this instance is not received like a postcard message. Rather, the reception of the self that takes place is distinguished by two key characteristics: immediate registration and infinite hermeneutic. While essential in terms of reception, these two idiosyncrasies limit the ability of the witness to self-identify as such.
2. An inability to self-identify
Having been rendered (like wax or fat) to the passive reception of the saturated phenomenon, I think it is difficult to argue that the subject still retains the capability for self-awareness. Therefore, another party is required in order for the conversion to be pronounced apparent. For example, Marion uses the example of a light bulb to describe the immediate registration of the saturated phenomenon by the witness. The witness is enthralled and invested by the phenomenon to a degree that leaves him incapable of any reaction beyond immediate registration. This example suggests the inability of the subject, overthrown by the excessive advance of the saturated phenomenon, to perceive the identity as witness for itself. The light bulb, being the source of the emanating light, cannot at the same time behold that light.
The witness is also deprived of self-awareness through continual exposure to an infinite hermeneutic. In part, the witness is never afforded the opportunity to give a definitive account of his experience, because the experience is infinite. The witness must remain in the flow of the torrent of givenness, being remade always in its image. Marion writes, “Constituted as witness, the subject is still the worker of truth, but cannot claim to be its producer.” In addition, because the saturated phenomenon exceeds the conditions of experience, the witness is left without adequate concepts to communicate her conversion. Lost without the usual signifiers to mark the way, the witness wanders the long trail of her inability of conceptualize her experience.
I think Marion alludes to the need for a context beyond that of the encounter between the saturated phenomenon and witness. He writes that, while the witness “still does not ever succeed in saying, comprehending, or making us comprehend what he saw”  the witness has a “social function.” However, Marion’s description of what this social function might be is unclear. Further in the passage, Marion writes that the witness works the infinite hermeneutic by means of “writing the history of historians, but also constructing her own identity (or that of others) by the narrative of her individual story.” While the need for another perspective seems obvious, it is unclear why Marion assigns the role to “history.” In contrast to the intimate nature of the work of the witness to bring the phenomenon and itself into visibility, history seems too distant and ambiguous to steward this task effectively.
To conclude, the conversion of the witness is such that self-awareness of its identity remains out of reach. Left on his own, the witness is no more than a holy fool with bedazzled head and wounded heart. In order to effectively manifest that which she is given, the witness must be engaged by another. And the religious community, with its wealth of symbolic traditions in compliment to the conceptual poverty of the saturated phenomenon, suggests itself as a possible, necessary another.
 In a future article, I hope to discuss the way the religious community seems to fulfill this space particularly well.
 Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess, Translated by Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud, (NY: Fordham University Press, 2002), 30.
 Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, Translated by Jeffrey L. Kosky, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 216.
 Marion, Excess, 30-31.
 Marion, Given, 216.
 Marion, Excess, 45.
 Jean-Luc Marion, Visible and Revealed, Translated by Christina M. Gschwandtner and others, (NY: Fordham University Press, 2008), 143.
 Marion, Given, 217-218.
 Marion, Given, 217.
 Mairon, Visible, 143.
 Mairon, Visible, 142.
 Marion, Visible, 143.
bryne lewis allport