5.28.2012

Nothing is Subjective

Here is a common belief, a philosophic cliche:  Everything's subjective. It's all in your head.

But what the heck does that even mean? What is it, precisely, that's in my head?

Well, this belief supposes that there is something — but it's not a thing, right? —  in each of us that has nothing to do with what's around us. There is a subject — a being of some sort — that lurks within that somehow has nothing to do with the air, with language, with other people or food or Nabokov or "American Idol" or the stench of that guy on the bus.

And not only is there this thing-that-is-not-a-thing that lurks within but there is an insurmountable distance between the world, with its filth and occasional beauty, and this subject that, presumably, is me.

But where and what is this pure me, this me that not only doesn't know the world but can't possibly know the world? Is it a piece of the eternal, pure god?  I hope so!

Now, if this subject is absolutely pure, untouched and untouchable, does it experience anything such as ideas or feelings or appetite? If not, what exactly does this subject do? How would I know what it even is? And if it can experience feelings or have ideas, where do those come from if not from the outside world?

I want to say that there is no such thing as subjectivity.  Everything I am — from my eyeballs to my colon to my concepts to my dreams and reveries and fetishes — is of this world. And everything I am not is of this world, too, including aliens and ideas and mosquitoes and your dreams and weird internal monologues.

And everything in this world runs up against other things in this world. When I see, breathe, touch, hear, smell, believe, think I am taking in pieces of the world — ideas, oxygen, chairs, cement, stars, love, grass.

Think about it: when you look at a chair, how does that chair enter your head? Is it really all in your head? Or is it that the chair, through its many aspects, actually enters your head (and belly and knee and aorta)? The world literally makes an impression on us. And we, in turn, make an impression on it. This is what we call perception. When we perceive, which we're doing all the time, we literally take in the world.

Our perceptions, then, are not subjective as if they were removed from the objects of the world. On the contrary, our perceptions are objective in that they are of objects (both visible and invisible). 

This is not to say that there is an objective truth that is monolithic, singular, and absolute. It is to say that there is an object that impresses us, makes a literal impression on us.

But as we're all different — the flesh of me is different than the flesh of you — the impression these objects make is different from body to body.  This doesn't make our experiences subjective; it makes them perspectival. I experience the world from my perspective — from this height, with these eyes, this huge ass nose, these fingers, this stomach, these knees, this skinny frame, these experiences, this cultural training.  And you do the same with you and all your stuff.

We each experience the world from our own perspective. Leibniz says that each monad expresses the entirety of the universe — but from its perspective. This perspective is not subjective.

Now, there is a wacky, surreal ongoing internal monologue we all have — all that non stop chatter in our heads expressing our fears, desires, and echoes of experiences.  This is a private space, perhaps even impenetrable by others. Perhaps even impenetrable to ourselves. Joyce tried depicting this explicitly in Ulysses and, in a way, again in Finnegan's Wake

And I love this voice. I don't love its anxieties but I love its oddity, its madness, its relentless particularity.

But this voice is not subjective.  It's still the perspective of me and my body and my experience with this world. Each of us is an eddy of the cosmos, a local swirl of universal becoming. Nothing is subjective.  Everything is perspective.

6 comments:

dustygravel said...

This contrasting of subjectivity with the perspectival is quite compelling. Is this a new development in your thinking? Or is it something you’ve always had in mind. Listening to your old lectures I get the impression that you are quite comfortable with subjectivity, as a concept, as a state, even as a being.

Most of the thinkers you write about seem to take for granted subjectivity, if not privileging it flat out. How do you distinguish your view of the perspectival from the subjective in the writing of say Merleau-Ponty? I understand that this view of the perspectival comes impart from him. What happens to Kierkegaard’s Subjectivity when you think of the perspectival? Does he become more solipsistic, or does his hero give way to the demand placed upon him from the other?

Do you ever find yourself annoyed when you read the word "subjective" in any of these writers?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Actually, this has been one of my main points for ages. I think I even lectured on it but I can't remember.

Kierkegaard's subjectivity is peculiar. On the one hand, yes, it's solipsistic. But there's something ahuman about it, too: it marks the madness that exceeds "you" but is you. Despite Adorno's critique, I think SK's subject is anti-bourgeois.

And I think most writers I love share the suspicion of the subject — Foucault, of course, who connects it with the panopticon; Deleuze and Guattari are post-subjective; Derrida, too, of course for whom the very terms of the subject is his undoing, etc.

Or are you referring to something else?

dustygravel said...

No no, that’s right on. What I mean is, when reading someone who has this "trans personal" or ahumen idea of the subject, like Merolow-Ponty, do you contrast that Subjective to the perspectival or do you conflate them?

I think what you said about Kierkegaard’s subject being solipsistic and ahumen is an answer to this question. I can see how the expansionistic, “madness” of Kierkegaard, could be a panopticon, all that anxiety, and while we’re talking about madness Guattari’s schizoid fits in pretty nicely as well. But is there something deconstructive about seeing the "post-subject" as a prison?

Certainly as you said the perspectival refers to the way one can be defined by their vantage-point, but is the subject always a study?.. Is the panopticon ever anything more than a study? "I think there for.."

Maybe the question is: when, when Kierkegaard makes the subject the site of fear and trembling, is he in any way standing in opposition to the perspectival, or when Merolow-Ponty carves out the flesh is there any remaining distinction between the perspectival and the subject? And is there a sense in which Foucault's panopticon is perspectival, in this fleshy way? I mean it is a perspective sitin’ up there in that ivory tower, isn't it. (the perspective of a supposed higher self) What about Sartre? Does existence precede essence for the ahuman, or the panopticon? I think it does, well in a way.

Or does this kind of comparative analysis dissolve the alterity of each of these thinkers? I mean, there’s not really a panopticon in the Flesh for Merolow-Ponty or Foucault, is there? Oh my! That’s frightening!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ah, yes, now I get your question, sorry: Is there a subject that predates experience? I am saying no — we are how we go, from the get go. We are little engines, as D&G say, taking in this and that and playing back this and that. This way of taking in and playing back IS who we are. There is no self that is not part of this process, constituted in and through this process.

I think, for SK, he is interested in the way the subject partakes of both the human (the social) and the ahuman — or, in his terms, the finite and the infinite. As D&G say, affect is the ahuman within the human. I think this is so for Sk, too, although he does not see the relationship between the two as either a chiasmus or a fold. The lines or harder for SK — leaps and bounds, not dancing and stuttering and sliding.

dustygravel said...

I really like that! "Affect is the ahuman within the human" for D&G as well as for SK, I'm going to remember that.

What does it mean that SK doesn't see the relationship between the human and the ahuman as chiasmus?

Also: if the subject is always predated by experience, then way do so many of these guys oppose it as, well, some kind of essentialism?

And in my above comment when I contrasted the perspectival as point-of-view with the subject as a study, I was trying to make some room between the two terms in order to form a new concept for the discussion. It's an experiment; what if Cartesian subjectivity could be conceived as a study, study being one of the definitions of subject. This would be yet another relationship between the subject and perspective. I think there for I exist, constitutes a perspective or study, that we call subjectivity, but perspective and study are not the same here, their two different modes, maybe the perspective is doubt in this case and the study, or topic is thought.

I don't know, I'm just be ezzing.
Not tryin' to waste time, but just trying to cause friction between these ideas. Get some energy out of them. I guess what I'm trying to do is find a destination between the subjective and the perspectival that doesn't assume that the subjective is solipsistic, a 3ed option that would make subjectivity distinct from both the perspectival and the solipsistic. But you know, I think you did that when you said, something like, the subjective is the untouched core, the remainder or residue of the (ahuman) affect, I think that makes sense. But also I'm trying to develop a style that holds terms lightly enough to run through these different thinkers without conflating them, and without privileging any of the definitions the terms might have, while at the same time revealing the different definitions, and producing something new, just an experiment. I want the Subject to shift with the thinker, without collapsing either of them. It’s like I said earlier can the subject be both the flash and the panopticon, and what is the subject that can only be one or the other? That’s the alterity of each definition, opposing signifieds that collapse into each other and then separate again. Ones again, I think you answered this question, when you said that the subject can leap like SK and dancing like D&G.

dustygravel said...

I keep coming back to this panopticon Flesh dialectic, isn’t it such an odd conception of Subjectivity.

What is the panopticon that "is not matter, (but is) the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible upon the touching body"?

Is it some weird idea of self-control, or something else?

How is such a thing possible?

How is such a thing as imposable as a Cogito?

How does it fall apart?

How does this conception betray both Foucault and Merolow-Ponty?

What does this do to related terms?

Is this all to deterministic and calculated?