‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 8: Why the ‘Subject’ Still Matters)

Has the ‘Subject’ reached the end of its conceptual life? I think that Slavoj Zizek’s reading of the Cartesian Cogito supplies a route other than the damaging anti-subjective one:

One of the first lines of the text that provides the foundation for what might be called the philosophical ‘subject’, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy in which the Existence of God and the Distinction of the Soul from the Body are Demonstrated, reads: “For although it suffices for us believers to believe by faith that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists, certainly no unbelievers seem capable of being persuaded of any religion or even of almost any moral virtue, until these two are first proven to them by natural reason”. What is this? Are we not used to hearing about Descartes’ Meditations, not the full title, simply Meditations, as a simple dictum: ‘Cogito ergo sum’? No wonder Descartes is cited so readily as the source of the world’s ills: today we blame the ‘cogito’ rather than taking it for what it is, thinking it in context and recognizing ‘how’ and ‘why’ Descartes thought it.

It is while reflecting on the death of his body and the possibility of the immortality of his soul that Descartes recites: ‘I think, therefore I am’. The methodology Descartes uses and the set of ‘proofs’ he concludes with are meant to locate something solid and coherent that opposes the ephemerality of the world. As such, Descartes divides the world into two substances: thinking and extended. The world becomes ‘extended substance’, and he calls the very ground of his self, the ability to meditate and ask the questions he does ‘thinking substance’. Thus, out of an encounter with the contingency of the world, Descartes is compelled to ‘freeze’ some aspect of himself. It so happens that what he ‘freezes’ is his intellectual-rational faculties. We find here the cogito, the Cartesian subject.

This is different from the way we often encounter the term ‘subject’ today, especially those connotations of ‘subject’ that stress the more politically oriented subject-to definition. (i.e. One is a subject insofar as they are subject-to the power of the monarch.) Descartes’ subject has very little to do with that political subject-to. Descartes subject is borne out of an attempt to confront the death of his body; it is not thought of by him as anything necessarily subject-to language, text, power etc… (It is, indeed, subject-to death, however death stands partially outside the realm of sociality.) The subject, for Descartes, is that which “grounds, represents, generates knowledge and our accounts of it”, the rational ground from which our knowledge of the world arises. And yes, this is universal for Descartes: the ‘I’, the ‘frozen’/’fixed’ thinking-substance of the cogito is a priori.

But, this Cartesian ‘I’, as Slavoj Zizek suggests in The Ticklish Subject, is located by Descartes when he withdraws into his self. Descartes cuts off the world, “systematically severing all links with his environs until all he is left with is the cogito” (Myers). This gesture, for Zizek, is one of madness, a madness where – having closed out the rest of the world – it becomes necessary to construct a symbolic universe or a universe of culture (Myers). Descartes went into seclusion, shut out the rest of the world and in a moment of madness recognized a ‘fixed’ or ‘frozen’ aspect of himself and called it the Cogito.

It was both Descartes’ radical doubt and his comprehension of death that are at the basis of the cogito. The madness, associated with his ‘destroying all determine content’, a ‘divine insanity’, is what constitutes the cogito. The subject is, for Zizek, this traumatic void, a void ‘devoid of all content’.

In his review of The Ticklish Subject, Matthew Bullimore explains:

“This subject is the subject of a Lacanian interpreted German Idealism, and not the transparent thinking self that has become the postmodern scapegoat for all our philosophical woes. This (yes, idiosyncratic) Cartesian subject is the condition for an authentic abyssal ‘act’ that might supplant a postmodern emphasis on constant, shifting rearticulations of discursively formed subjectivities that remain contingent upon the hidden backdrop of global capitalism.”

The subject, Zizek suggests in The Indivisible Remainder, is a void that becomes bounded in its engagement with the “chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsing’:

“To put it simply: if we make an abstraction, if we subtract all the richness of the different modes of subjectivation, all the fullness of experience present in the way the individuals are ‘living’ the subject-positions, what remains is an empty place which was filled out with this richness; this original void, this lack of the symbolic structure, is the subject, the subject of signifier. The subject is therefore to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectivation: what the subjectivation masks is not a pre- or trans-subjective process of writing but a lack in the structure, a lack which is the subject.” (For more see Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology)

We must have this traumatic void prior to subjectivation. In Lacanian terms, subjectivation is a process that occurs in the Symbolic Order. But there is no Symbolic Order until one has something to ‘lack’. Insofar as one is without ‘lack’ they would be – impossibly? – in the Real. The construction of the Symbolic is premised on some sense of distance from the world. This distance, gap, or void, an empty point of negativity, is what permits ‘subjectivity’.

The Lacanian Ego (a property of the Imaginary-order), which forms the possibility of the (Symbolic) Lacanian Subject, is constituted in a moment of similar madness to Zizek’s reading of Descartes’ cogito. Is not the fragmented-body (corporeality) of the mirror-stage what forces us to look for something solid and total and ushers us into the Imaginary-order. Is the fragmented body thus not responsible for the formation of the Ego in the first place?

The Lacanian Ego and the Cartesian Cogito (in Zizek’s reading) are indeed illusory constructs, or attempts to secure, or ‘fix’ a sense of ‘I’ness. In the Imaginary – and even more so in the Symbolic under the Name-of-the-Father – one increasingly becomes unified, coherent and solid in contrast to their sense of fragmentation prior to the ‘mirror stage’. For example, upon recognizing his cogito, Descartes feels ‘immortal’, having proven the immortality of the soul, in relation to his prior sense of ephemerality. Does not Nietzsche do the same in The Birth of Tragedy, when he claims that the greatness of the Greeks lay in their sense of tragedy, in their sense that the god Apollo (light/fixity) must oppose the god Dionysius (darkness/flux)? To become a social actor one must take an Apollonian mask, otherwise one is simply doomed to the hellish lethargy that accompanies facing the Dionysian without aesthetic protection.) Descartes’ ‘I’, his cogito, fits squarely in this tradition of grappling with something uncontrollable (i.e. the Dionysian, Death, the Fragmented-Body, the (m)Other) and recognizing that sociality, the subject-to, or subjectivation, depends on some foundational ‘gap’ or remove.

Zizek, in The Ticklish Subject, elucidates the similarities between the Cartesian subject and what Hegel recognizes to be a crucial ‘negative’ feature of the imagination. It is this “tarrying with the negative” that is responsible for disrupting the unity of the Real. By violently disrupting the unity of the Real we become able to think about the world. Before this violent disruption and dismembering of the Real we immediately experienced the world as an organic whole. In this condition we had not yet the ‘gap’ necessary to enter from nature into culture. Only after this moment of “madness” can we enter into the Symbolic. This madness, for Zizek, is a philosophical notion inherent in the very concept of subjectivity. It is the “founding gesture for humanization” and the end of being immediately in nature. Here we see that it is impossible to consider culture, sociality, and the Symbolic without a consideration of the original gesture of madness responsible for opening up that Symbolic space. We must, according to Zizek, bring to light the forgotten obverse, excessive, unacknowledged kernel of the Cogito, which is far from the pacifying image of the transparent self.

This aspect of the Cogito/Ego [Cogego?], this aspect of the subject, has little to do with the more politically oriented subject-to. That is not to say they are entirely incommensurate with one another. But it seems the prior dimension (of the negative subject-of) tends to be obscured or forgotten altogether. Certainly this is true, and purposefully so, in the work of post-stucturalists and anti-humanists like Foucault and Derrida. Zizek explains in Sublime Object of Ideology that,

…[i]n post-structuralism the subject is usually reduced to so-called subjectivation, he is conceived as an effect of a fundamentally non-subjective process: the subject is always caught in, traversed by the pre-subjectival process (of ‘writing’, of ‘desire’, and so on), and the emphasis is on the individuals’ different modes of ‘experiencing’, ‘living’, their positions as ‘subjects’, ‘actors’, ‘agents’ of the historical process.

The post-structuralist position holds that the subject is ‘decentered’ and an effect of discourse. The basis of the centered subject, the indivisible, individual ‘I’ actually produced by discourses that determine the subject as wholly subject-to. The subject is a function, or effect, of language. Descartes and Freud are often unfairly depicted as ‘dead white men who attempted to say we’re all the same’ by positing a transcendental subject or ego. This is because, the argument goes, they ignore issues of Race, Gender, you name it, etc… They have neglected to think the subject as subject-to.’ (that is, subject to power that creates ‘genders’ for example, ‘genders’ that determine our sense of who and what we are).

But what if we were to respond that one can accept the cogito or the ego, while recognizing that one is subject-to as well?

I acknowledge that the subject Freud, Descartes (and Lacan) articulate says nothing (or everything if one launches the claim of phallogocentrism) about race, gender etc… But the ego, the cogito and the Lacanian subject arise out of attempts to grapple with something outside, some primordial other, of an encounter with some NEGATIVITY (i.e. the fragmented state of the infant, the Lacanian real, death, etc…) This negativity causes one to ‘fix’ or ‘freeze’ something: they form a subject. That is, an negativity calls us to ‘grow some armour’: i.e. armour understood as the perceptual consciousness system, the ideal-ego, the Cartesian subject, the Imaginary-order, an Apollonian mask, Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis (principle of individuation), etc.  These all might be thought of as simply spaces, bounded and armored spaces. It is these armored spaces that allow for us to become subject-to.

The fact that the ‘armour’ we grow, that the ideal-ego (Imaginary ego) has tended to take a white masculine form, or that Descartes’ armour was that of Western rationality, does not disqualify the need to consider the subject. Why must the very form of some coherency, the idea of a subject, be ‘put to death’ [i.e. death of the subject] and understood as a text or a construction? Have we become confused between the Form of the Subject and the Content that provides the possibility for its Subject-to? Must we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

While it is the subject-to that we can indeed, and ought to, interrogate by reading it as a text, as performativly constructed by processes of subjectivation, these are issues concerning the way that the ego or the cogito interacts with and is interacted upon by the world. To confuse the subject-of with the processes whereby one performs as subject-to is to make a grave error. It would be to, say with Deleuze and Guatari that the ego is itself, in any guise, an example of the Fascism within us and that the Negativity, the Lack, that called us – according to Freud and Lacan – to become subjects is actually a positivity that we ought to embrace and give ourselves over to (i.e. becoming).

But why can we not think new formations of subject-to (‘becoming’) alongside the subject-of (‘negativity’/’lack’)?

Is this ‘negativity’ not – as I have suggested – the ground for the possibility of becoming a subject, and thus, a subject-to? Why do we presume that Descartes would have, reflecting on his cogito, not entertained the possibility of becoming cogito differently (as cogito-to)? Why do we presume that Lacan’s Subject, for instance, shuts down the possibility of becoming Subject differently (as subject-to)?

Deleuze and Guattari explain the subject as:

a strange subject, however, with no fixed identity, wandering about over the body without organs, but always remaining peripheral to the desiring–machines, being defined by the share of the product it takes for itself, garnering here, there, and everywhere a reward in the form of a becoming or an avatar, being born of the states that it consumes and being reborn with each new state (from Anti-Oedipus)

The Body without Organs is a space for new machinic combinations – it has no ordering or structuring principle. It is, in a way, the posthumanist and transhumanist wet-dream.

Apollo and Dionysius

While Deleuze and Guattari privilege Nietzschean ‘Becoming’, Nietzsche’s very first work – The Birth of Tragedy posits the Apollonian – essentially an ego! Despite that Nietzsche turns from Wagner to Bizet, from redemption to strife, this Dionysian-Apollonian element is never parted with. Nietzsche has no difficulty, throughout his career, squaring the Apollonian-Dionysian drama with Overcoming! Death remains a source of negativity, I allege, throughout Nietzsche’s work, no matter how much we want to call it positivity. It calls us to comprehend the new, but only insofar as novelty is premised on some defence against the negative. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes: “For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave:  thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.” We might argue: The Eagle is the possibility of overcoming (Positivity), the serpent is the inescapability of having to confront our eventual death, our lack, our corporeality, etc…, the eternal return (Negativity). A clue as to why culture develops as richly as it does despite having comprehended the entropic principles of the second law of thermodynamics.

The subject-of (borne as a response to Negativity) does not deny that new subjectivities are indeed unique and novel (or the possibility of being subject-to) – rather, the subject-of is like the ocean water that new and newer ships pass through, the means by which becoming becomes.  It is the Tartarus on which an everchanging world sits, or the black hole at the central region of every galaxy. [Which exists insofar as there is another galaxy on the other side. i.e. The Other. The central region of every galaxy is thought to contain a supermassive black hole, a region of space where the pull of gravity is so strong, the mass of several hundred thousand to over ten billion suns, that nothing can escape from it.] And yet, this pattern repeats itself throughout the universe. This primary region, like a fractal, spawns billions of repetitions, repetitions noticeable in the life of man. This pull, at the heart of the subject, toward a central dark spot, obliterates fixity – and destines them to a life of contingency and unfulfilled desire.

Subjectifying techniques (i.e. of the subject-to) can and do create new arrangements and assemblages of the ‘self’, however they do not do so in abeyance of the qualities (i.e. corporeality, death, lack), that are the precondition for that subject-to. What this discussion has tried to do is cautiously think together opposed concepts like Deleuzian ‘becoming’ and Lacanian ‘lack’. Could we actually claim that the un-teleological process of Darwinian natural-selection is not engendering unique creatures (i.e. becoming) because the molecules of hydrogen (i.e. lack) that creatures have relied upon for these unique arrangements since the Cambrian explosion over 500 million years ago are of the same nature as those the new unique creatures will (likely) breathe?  I’ll leave you with a rather elusive question: Is it possible to understand the subject as both a ‘thingless thing’, a ‘wind being …between jouissance, which longs for words, and the Name-Of-The-Father, which orders them’ (Romulo Lander) and the historically contingent articulations that this ‘thingless thing’ works in the service of?


~ by dccohen on February 1, 2010.

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