The Phenomenology of a Jim Beam Bourbon Firenado

The Phenomenology of a Jim Beam Bourbon Firenado September 5, 2015

Lake of Fire (David Howard Hitchcock, Lake of Fire, 1883; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-Before 1923).
(David Howard Hitchcock, Lake of Fire, 1883; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-Before 1923).

Life is full of surprises. Surprises, by definition, are one-off events that cannot be anticipated or repeated at will.

For this reason they escape the narrow limits imposed by some versions (not all) of “scientific facts“: the ability to be reproduced and rigorously tested. This doesn’t mean they are any less rational than the sorts of phenomena that can be tested in the lab.

Even though they do not obey the criteria of scientific facts, they are no less real. The French Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion calls such events “saturated phenomena” and develops his philosophy of them most thoroughly in two books In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena and Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness.

The place to look if your not sated with what I've said here about saturated phenomena.
The place to look if your not sated with what I’ve said here about saturated phenomena.

A saturated phenomenon is a phenomenon that goes against the general expectations of what is reasonable. It breaks open our categories, calling us to see the world differently. In this it goes against the general grain of rationality, which wants to see the world as more or less the same and always consistent with itself.

A saturated phenomenon is a challenge to our expectations and in some way stretches our rationality to reconfigure itself. It follows a call-and-response structure, that is, our response to the call of the new breaking in converts our way of seeing the world. A new world breaks in adding to our resources of what we might consider as rational. It’s not that objects of the world around us are any different, but we come to see them with new, if you will converted, eyes that are open to taking in more of what already is there.

David C. Schindler calls this the dramatic structure of truth in his groundbreaking book on von Balthasar’s contributions to philosophy.  And the shaking, breaking down, dissolution, and reconfiguration of our expectations is what the Greeks always had in mind when speaking of wonder (Schindler the Younger also has a book on Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason so he knows a thing or two about the Greeks). Wonder is not an “aww, gee, isn’t this a wonderful thing?” experience, but one of bewliderment, confusion, an event that causes a basic reorientation of our sense of the world and its real coordinates.

We are not the masters of being. Being frequently reconfigures our lives in unexpected ways.
We are not the masters of being. Being frequently reconfigures us, makes our reason run in new channels.

This brings me to the bourbon firenado in Kentucky. Reading about it filled me with wonder. The amount of things that needed to come together to make this event happen are astounding. My first reaction to the following account was to say it’s like the plot of some crazy Warner Bros. cartoon:

According to The Weather Channel, a firenado can grow up to 100 feet tall. After the warehouse was damaged, the bourbon flowed into a nearby lake, which was then struck by lightening. A small tornado passed over the scene, sucking up the flaming spirit and spreading the fire further. Despite being the victims of a lightning strike, Jim Beam are facing damages of $70,000 for polluting the nearby creek which led to major fish kills.

If this doesn’t expand your notions of what is possible in this world, then you are dead to philosophy, my friend. As one of my acquaintances noted:

If it’s not too disrespectful to say so, it looks almost as if God were trying to suck that bourbon into heaven.

And God, argues Marion following his readings of von Balthasar and Karl Barth, is the ultimate saturated phenomenon.

Now go and have some Jim Beam bourbon filled chocolates as you watch the following video and before the bourbon prices go through the roof:

UPDATE: I seem to have read somewhere that the firenado took place in 2003, not recently. This still doesn’t change its philosophical significance for the present. It only goes to show that possibilities reconfigure our ruts of actuality across time. BTW, Larry Chapp still owes me a bourbon and he can’t complain about the prices being too high.

You might want to read more about Jean-Luc Marion and the French-phenomenological revival of Catholic thought and about the Catholic pedigree of phenomenology.

You might remember that I’ve had a saturated phenomenon of my own on the job market. As a result, I am no longer empled and actively (frantically really) searching for work. But I do have a PayPal button on my homepage, so surprise me.





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