‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 4: Two Aspects of Subjectivity – The Positive Network)

Consider self and subjectivity as the product of two networks, one Positive and the other Negative. In this post, I want to describe the Positive Network. To do so, let’s bring the conversation back to something concrete, and related to the theme of this blog: the use of avatars in virtual environments (what I call ‘avatarization’).

Avatar use, and avatarization, do not occur in a vacuum but as part of an intersecting network of ‘selves’, ‘techniques’ and ‘world-views’. None of these three elements, as well shall discuss, can exist in isolation of the others. One cannot, for example, consider their ‘world-view’, replete with its ontology of matter, as existing in abeyance of ‘self’ and ‘technique’. Consider this passage from Lynn White Jr’s Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, where the ‘medieval view of man and nature’ is clearly related to the reigning ‘technique(s)’ of the day:

“By the latter part of the 7th century after Christ, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. The friction of this plow with the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that cross-plowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.

In the days of the scratch-plow, fields were distributed generally in units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen: to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?

This same exploitive attitude appears slightly before A.D. 830 in Western illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world around them–plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master.

These novelties can be understood against the horizon of larger intellectual patterns. What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to world around them. In the big passage above we see new tilling machines (‘technique’) responsible for the human (‘self’) ‘becoming an exploiter of nature rather than a part of it’, and hence rendering intelligible an orientation to the world (‘world-view’), symbolized in White’s argument by the victory of Christianity over Paganism, whereby ‘man and nature are two things, and man is master’.

Without lapsing into a chicken-or-egg debate, let us begin by discussing ‘world-view’. We could, yes, have begun by discussing ‘technique’ or ‘self’, but if you attempt to do so you will arrive at the same conclusions. For example:

(a)   ‘World-view’ is premised on a given ontology of matter that does not exist in-and-of-itself, but only in relation to the ‘techniques’, the material practices, which render it intelligible. (i.e. consider how Kuhn’s paradigms are social)

(b)   ‘Technique’ renders intelligible ways of making, producing and manipulating matter.

(c)    ‘Self’ refers to how we situate our body-self (our sense of our bodies) in relation to the reigning ‘world-view’. But ‘world-view’, as (a) has alerted us, cannot be considered without a consideration of the (b) material practices ‘techniques’ that render it intelligible.

Now, ideas (‘world-views’) must never be thought of as autonomous and having an existence of their own. A revolutionary crisis [ such as the Copernican Revolution], stems not from the ‘revolutionary conceptual position’ itself – as if Ideas, in and of themselves, were autonomous – but from the ‘techniques’ (any form of political, economic, agricultural, etc… technique) that may have both: (i) led to the acceptance of the ‘revolutionary conceptual position’ in the first place and/or (ii) become the outcome of the adoption of what that ‘revolutionary conceptual position’ considers to be an acceptable and intelligible manner of acting in the world. That is: One always becomes ‘subject-to’ the different ‘techniques’ that both engender and are engendered by a ‘revolutionary conceptual position’, rather than the ‘revolutionary conceptual position’ itself.

The ‘self’, one’s orientation to the place of their body-self, is a mode of thinking conditioned by its historical conditions, conditions that render intelligible certain ways of being a ‘self’ and certain ‘subjectivities’ that allow it to stand out as an ‘I’ over and against the world. (This, briefly, is what Martin Heidegger’s ‘Age of the World Picture’ demonstrates – linking a scientific world view, modern technical practices and the Cartesian cogito.)

‘Technique’, ‘Self’ and ‘World-View’, the three major elements of the Positive network, are in constant and unyielding play with one another. One could not be a ‘(body-)self’ without a particular ‘world-view’ and ‘technique’, or way of acting, on the matter in the world. One could not consider ‘world-view’ without a particular ‘self’ for it to be intelligible to, and a particular mode of acting (‘technique’) for it to be intelligible with. One could not imagine acting without a ‘self’ whose ‘world-view’ permits/allows for such actions.

All possible permutations of the Positive Network (the relationship(s) between ‘self’-‘world-view’-‘technique’) are as follows:

S -> WV -> T                        WV -> S -> T                        T -> S -> WV

S -> T -> WV                        WV -> T -> S                        T -> WV -> S

If you begin with S you are forced to account for either T or WV. If you account for T you are forced to account for either S -> WV, or WV -> S, which ultimately means you must consider WV. If you account for WV you are forced to account for either S -> T, or T -> S, which ultimately means you must consider T. This example has, albeit briefly, demonstrated the type of interrelatedness between ‘technique’, ‘world-view’ and ‘subject’ .

In my next post I’ll discuss the Negative Network of Self and Subjectivity…


~ by dccohen on January 24, 2010.

4 Responses to “‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 4: Two Aspects of Subjectivity – The Positive Network)”

  1. […] but I think I’ll plough into more theoretical territory today: Aside from what I outlined in Part 4, there appears to be another aspect of ’subjectivity’ aside from how it is […]

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