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Experience is hot these days. Hot, hot, hot. But it’s had an upgrade. It’s now “lived experience.” The modifier is as infallible and as seemingly redundant as the “furious” that precedes “row” or the “explosive” that precedes “revelations” in middle-market journalism. If you’ve been following the recent twists and turns of liberal identity politics you’ll have come across it constantly. It enters conversations from the Black Lives Matter movement to the swerf ‘n’ terf wars over sex-work and trans rights, and the campus politics of “cultural appropriation.” The formulation has spilled from social media into the mainstream press. A recent Telegraph film review credited the female lead with making “every syllable feel like it springs from lived experience”; a Guardian piece on Rachel Dolezal argued the term “transracial” had been coined to describe the “lived experience of children raised in homes that are different from their birth.”
When you hear about “lived experience” (is there another kind?) it is implicitly touted as something giving the experiencer either a special or—in the strong case—an exclusive authority to speak on a given subject. It is routinely at risk of being “silenced” or “erased” by what in the old days we called hegemonic discourse. It has become a shibboleth—a linguistic gesture signifying familiarity with a particular ideological tribe. Where Marxists used to bang on about “revolutionary consciousness,” “alienation” and “dialectic,” liberals now bang on about “lived experience” and “silencing.” The reflex and automatic use of the phrase—as a set-phrase—has started to make it sound like cant.
This is not to sneer—or not exactly. On the one hand it makes obvious moral sense to privilege those voices that can tell us what something is actually like. It’s enraging to be told what your life is like by people who aren’t living it; particularly if in a system of inequality those people benefit from representing your life in the way that suits their interests.
When Bill O’Reilly, a white millionaire, announces from the bully-pulpit of Fox News and the safe distance of two centuries that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government,” there arises the desire to make him share the “lived experience” of those slaves for a bit, to see how he likes it.
On the other hand, the extreme of the position is that “lived experience” trumps any sort of abstract or systemic moral reasoning: that you literally have no locus standi from which to take a view on any number of human situations outside your own. That way lies solipsism—or, as Lionel Shriver argued in her controversial keynote at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, an end to the imaginative empathy that underpins fiction. That way also, more subtly, lies a larger pigeonholing: it implies (if those with lived experience are to speak on behalf of a group) a unitary experience, say, of blackness or femaleness or trans-ness or homosexuality that is at once homogenous and oddly isolated.
These are large debates. But from a purely sociolinguistic point of view, where does the phrase come from? It sounds odd, doesn’t it? It sounds, specifically, like a phrase that has been translated from another language. It has a whiff of the social sciences about it. And it made me wonder: is this, like “intersectionality” or (in the journalistic vulgarism) “deconstruct,” a fine-sounding phrase that has slipped from the academy into the wider public conversation?
Those I’ve consulted on the subject seem to suggest so—tracing it loosely back to Edmund Husserl’s idea of the Lebenswelt, or “life-world” of phenomenology. A philosopher friend wonders if it isn’t an attempt to capture the distinction in German between Erlebnis and Erfahrung—one denoting the texture of a moment-by-moment experience, and the other standing for a more generalised version of the same. (Erlebnis: you experienced being shot at and hiding in a shell-hole with rats gnawing your shoes; Erfahrung: you lived through the war.)
It’s theoretically top-heavy, then, for a Twitter catchphrase—but pleasingly so. Having started out frivolously wondering if Martin Amis needed to update the title of his memoir, Experience, I came away more rather than less convinced that it has a place in the public conversation. But my favourite response to my inquiries was from an English literature don. “Leavis’s repeated references to ‘felt life’,” he mused, “always had me thinking of Bagpuss and Button Moon.” The lived experience of an old pyjama-bag cat may butter no parsnips, mind you, in modern identity politics.