Caffeinated Phenomenology

Why is the walk home from a coffee shop so mentally productive? I asked myself the question this afternoon after realizing, mid-walk home, that I often intentionally bank the still unresolved questions that have accumulated from an afternoon of reading or writing in the presence of coffee, using the much shorter time it takes to return back to my apartment to retreat into my thoughts and, somehow it would seem, think more effectively, or at least more quickly.

The particular prompt was aided, in this case, by my having just been reading Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory at that coffee shop.  It occurred to me, then, that a phenomenological account of being caffeinated to enable intellectual labor made some sense (and has the added benefit of being a cheeky application of “theory” to the quotidian, as if that kind of incidental self-reflection certifies the worthiness of endless afternoons spent “using” coffee to read, write and think at an accelerated pace).

I’ve of course had occasion in the past to think aloud about the pairing of caffeine and graduate studies, usually in the form of comparing my intimacy with coffee to another person’s.  Oftentimes, such conversation tends toward an explanation through the associative: above and beyond any verifiable “chemical” effect of caffeine on the sharpness of the brain’s functions, I must have, in an almost crudely Pavlovian sense, most importantly come to associate the smell, taste and mere proximity to coffee with the various activities of intellectual labor that figure in the life of a student, a kind of memory built over years that, when recollected, helps spur the mind to work.  That kind of descriptive homology, however, seems only to establish the obvious.  I wonder, instead, how caffeine itself is mobilized precisely to alter the body’s relationship toward the world and, in so doing, enable a specific kind of state we might name “focus.”

Bergson, for his part, provides a helpful gloss of a closely relatable state, “attention.”  He begins by sketching its conventional definition: an intensification and narrowing of perception that multiplies the details of the world around the body in a linear progression.  If that bodily mode of acting upon the world is the process of attention, then Bergson notes its content would be, in this conventional view, “a certain magnifying of the intellectual state” (100).  The shortcoming of this point of view, however, is that it relies upon a weak idea of interiority; attention is produced from the inside, leaving the actual world toward which the body is extended an inert factor.  In contrast to this, Bergson avers that instead “we shall be led on to define attention as an adaptation of the body rather than of the mind and to see in this attitude of consciousness mainly the consciousness of an attitude” (100).  He here provides a circuit-model phenomenological account of the body, mind and the world, one he names as “reflective perception”: “every attentive perception truly involves a reflection…that is to say, the projection outside ourselves, of an actively created image, identical with, or similar to, the object on which it comes to mold itself” (102).

In other words, to be attentive to the something in the world– an object, or a thought (both are in Bergson’s treatment kinds of images)– means adapting the body to the world, merging the perception of the thing (the virtual) with the body’s capacity to be affected by and to affect it (the actual).  In that sense, the virtual allows the perception of and the modification of the actual, or rather, there is no way to untangle the two processes.  So focusing on something literally changes your perception of the world, subtracting that which you are not interested in to enable a more specialized contemplation of what does.

I want now, quickly, to caffeinate this general phenomenological account of contemplation.  Instead of thinking of the heightened attention to reading, writing, or thought that follows from coffee’s ingestion as a mere physical-chemical outcome, it makes more sense to me to see caffeine as used to intentionally affect the perception of the world to enable certain intellectual labors abstracted from the otherwise distracting ambiance of quotidian sensation and information.  Let me return to my example of walking home from the coffee shop.  Bergson helpfully points out that memory is crucial to the body’s navigation of the world; the first time you walk a specific route in the city, for example, you have to pay close attention to where you are going.  After a certain repetition, however, you can walk the same route almost without consciously thinking about it.  My route from the coffee shop to my apartment is a familiar one and thus already operates more autonomically in that fashion, to be sure.  Yet, I notice that coffee seems to amplify the effect itself: the feeling I identified earlier as sort of “retreating into” my thoughts is a subtraction of the physical world of the street around me from my conscious perception, leaving more space for thinking.

No doubt caffeine is not the only way to achieve such a feeling of narrowness; a similar kind of focus seems to characterize really “getting into” music you are listening to via headphones while walking the city.  But as opposed to the sort of evacuation of thought that is implied in focusing on “feeling” the music, I am describing an evacuation of non-thoughts, re-orientating consciousness toward thinking itself.  Feeling caffeinated, in other words, can temporarily create a stronger circuit between thought and perception, distancing the world in order to make room for the abstract (a wholly distinct degree of perception, in Bergson’s opinion).  It’s hardly an astounding contention, I admit, but breaking down the phenomenological modification of the body and world inherent to supposedly “altered” mental states seems like an interesting project to explore further.  I wonder, in particular, about some more intoxicated phenomenologies: what, exactly, is feeling drunk? Or high?

I’ll leave those aside, however.  My coffee has officially worn off.

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