Being Given, Book IV: Down with Impoverished Phenomena and Toward the Saturated Phenomenon

In book IV, Marion continues his deconstruction but now focuses on the “privilege of certainty” that metaphysics has given to what he calls “poor phenomena,” i.e., phenomena poor in intuition and which “claim only a formal intuition in mathematics or a categorical intuition in logic” (222). This abstract epistemological certainty is for Marion a radical phenomenological deficit. Instead of privileging such poor phenomena, Marion introduces his “saturated phenomena” and accords it paradigmatic status. “What metaphysics rules out as an exception (the saturated phenomenon), phenomenology here takes for its norm” (227).

So having challenged the traditional concepts of the paradigmatic yet impoverished phenomena, Marion presents the saturated phenomenon—that which fills the expectation and goes beyond it. Marion builds this concept in contradistinction to Kant and analyzes the saturated phenomenon in terms of four categories (quantity, quality, modality, relation), purposing to show that the saturated phenomenon explodes each of these categories. In terms of quantity, the saturated phenomenon is unforeseeable because it cannot be understood as being constituted by means of previous experience. As to quality, the saturated phenomenon is unbearable, i.e., it simply has a super-abundance of quality. Thirdly, in terms of relation the saturated phenomenon is absolute, i.e., it is given as something that does not stand in relation to other phenomena but rather stands on its own. Lastly, with regard to modality, Marion wants to express the idea of the movement from the “I” that constitutes the experience to the “witness.” This leads to the reduction of the subject—i.e., the subject takes on a receptive position in which he/she becomes the screen on which the saturated phenomenon appears.

Next, Marion proceeds to discuss the four types of saturated phenomena: the event, the idol, the flesh and the icon. First, the saturated phenomenon as event or historical phenomenon saturates the category of quantity. Secondly, the saturated phenomenon as idol is manifest in its bedazzlement, thus saturating the Kantian category of quality. As Marion explains, the idol bedazzles the subject to such an extent that she must come back to it again and again. In other words, the idol offers a kind of visibility that overflows the capacity of the subject to take it in. Thirdly, the flesh negates the Kantian category of relation. Here Marion speaks of the immediacy of the flesh in terms of auto-affection. So whether in agony and suffering or love and desire, the flesh always auto-affects itself first in and by itself—”all arise from the flesh and its own immanence” (231). Fourthly, the saturated phenomenon as icon explodes the category of modality as it is irregardable and irreducible. Interestingly, Marion says that the icon gathers together certain characteristics of the previous three types of saturated phenomena in that “it demands a summation of horizons and narrations,” “it opens a teleology,” “it begs to be seen and reseen,” “it exercises an individuation over the gaze that confronts it,” and lastly “it accomplishes this individuation by affecting the I so originally that it loses its function as a transcendental pole,” thus bringing it close to auto-affection (233).

Having discussed the various types of saturated phenomena, we arrive at the saturation of all saturations—the phenomenon of revelation. By concentrating the other four types of saturated phenomena in itself, the phenomenon of revelation takes saturation to its maximum. Here Marion is simply presenting the phenomenon of revelation as a “mere possibility” without presupposing its actuality (235). Though as Marion points out, “phenomenology cannot decide if a revelation can or should give itself,” yet in case it does, phenomenology (and it alone) can determine that “such a phenomenon of revelation should assume the figure of the paradox of paradoxes” (235). Here Marion is attempting to remain within the strict phenomenological bounds, as he describes the phenomenon of revelation in its pure possibility and in the reduced immanence of givenness. Moreover, he makes explicit that in the present work he does not have to “judge its actual manifestation or ontic status, which remain the business proper to revealed theology” (236). Of course, Marion does speak of Christ as the saturated phenomenon par excellence and goes on to speak about the various ways in which Christ explodes the Kantian categories. Though I will not discuss each of these “explosions” individually, I will mention Marion’s discussion of Christ in terms of modality. Here Christ appears as an irregardable and irreducible phenomenon because He transforms the “I” into his witness (240–241). With his concept of “witness”, Marion has moved beyond a strictly Kantian subject.