What is the subject and why is it so important? Summary Descartes’ cogito is the basis of the subject – not as a substantial, transparent and fully self-conscious ‘i’, but as an empty space, what is left when the rest of the world is expelled from itself. The symbolic order is what substitutes for the loss of the immediacy of the world, and is where the void of the subject is filled in by subjectivization. The process of subjectivization is where the subject is given an identity and also where that identity is altered or changed by the self.
The cogito Advanced by philosopher rene descartes (1596-1650). The point of the procedure known as cartesian doubt is to establish what can really be known. Descartes concludes that his thought must exist, if it is to be deceived. (myers 32) This principle – ‘i think, therefore i am’ or ‘cogito, ergo sum’ is what the term ‘cogito’ designates. Post-structuralism (myers 33) The cogito and the post-structuralists Two way s of interpreting the cogito – the post-structuralist version and zizek’s version. For post-structuralists, the cogito is the basis of the centred subject, or the indivisible ‘individual’. . When descartes states ‘i who thought thus must be soemthing’, we udnerstnad that ‘i’, the ‘i’ of the cogito, to be an individual. It is the ‘i’ that does the thinking – the thoughts belong to him rather than him to the thougths. The ‘i’ of the cogito is the master of itself. An individual is therefore self-transparent – nothing impedes its understanding of itself because it is in total control and has total autonomy over its actions. Its main advantage is that nothing impinges upon the autonomy of the individual. Every person, as the saying goes, is an isalnd – self-sufficient, independent and free to do what it wills. The individual conceive in this way is uttterly subjective; everything remains within its dominion and subject to its control. There is no objecitvity at all.
Against the background of this rampant subjectivism, then, it is perhaps not surprising that philosophers (among them the post-structuralists) discerned the need for a corrective dose of objectivism. In creating the field of psychoanlaysis at the beginning the the twentieth century, freud’s disclosure of the unconscious demosntrated that much of our psychic life is inaccessible and beyond our control. All of these developments, along with others, help to breach the seemingly impervious usbjectivism of the individaul, showing it to be subject to forces outside of itself, or else that it belon to a world of which it was not the center.
Post-structuralists reject the notion of the cogito with its associated individualism and advance in its stead the idea of the decentred subject. This subject is not an autonomous being with the power of self-determiantion but rather an effect of the structure of disocurse where competing discourses intersect and speak through the subject. In this way, the meaning of the usubject is not inside or at the center of itself; instead the meaning of the subject is decentered or located outside of the subject in the competing discourses, in, for example, the discourse of the unconscious or ideology. The subject is therefore determined or impelled by these discourses. It cannot determine itself but is subject to (or in a ‘subject positon’ to) the domiannt ideologies.
“in ‘post-structuralism’, the subject is usually reduced to so-called subjectivation, he is conceived as an effect of a funamentally non-subjective process: the subject is always caught in, traversed by the pre-subjective 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.” (soi 174).
In other words, the post-structuralist subject is, as derrida argues, merely ‘a “function” of language’, a kind of symbolic automaton doomed to ventriloquize the discourse of the big other. Madness: the vanishing mediator between nature and culture The method of cartesian doubt affords us a telling insight into how we transform from being immersed in nature (or objectivity) to beings supported by culture (or subjectivity). How is it that at one moment we are just part of nature, part of an objective world, and in the next moment we are speaking beings able to adopt a subjective attitude towards the rest of the world? Where does this distance come from?
The missing link between nature and culture is to be found in the process of cartesian doubt. Zizek describes the process of cartesian doubt as a withdrawal into self – a withdrawal symbolized by descartes’s own physical withdrawal into the oven. Descartes cuts himself off from the world, systematically severing all links with his environs until all he is left with is the cogito. It is here, in the gesture of total withdrawal, that zizek locates the hidden passage from nature to culture. This gesture is, for zizek, one of madness – the specific madness of hegel’s ‘night of the world’: “this night, the inner of anture, that exists here – pure self – in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head – there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. On ecatchs sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye – into a night that becomes awful.” (catu 258) It is only when reality is eclipsed by this ‘night of the world’, when the world itself is experienced only as loss, as absolute negativity, that is becomes possibile, and indeed necessary (if we are to escape from madness), to construct a symbolic universe or a universe of culture. Descartes’s withdrawal-into-self is precisely such an experience of radical loss.
Descartes’s cogito is not the substantial ‘i’ of the individual, but an empty point of negativity. This empty point of negativity is not ‘nothing’ but the oppsotie of everything, or the negation of all determinancy. It is in this empty space devoid of all content, that zizek locates the subject. The subject is, in other words, a void.
It is this void that enables the transition from a state of nature to a state of culture. If there was no gap between a thing (or an object) and the representation of that thing (or word), then they would be identical and there would be no room for subjectivity. Words can only exist if we first ‘murder’ the thing, if we create a gap between them and the things they represent. This gap, the gap between nature and the beings immersed in it, is the subject. The subject, in other words, is the missing link, or ‘vanishing mediator’, between the state of nature and the state of culture. Rather, the withdrawal-into-self which culimiantes in the cogito has to be presupposed as the vanishing mediator between the two, the missing link around which the tranistion is organized. We have to ‘get rid’ of the real before we can construct a substitute for it in the symbolic. This vanishing mediator is a passage through madness Madness, therefore, is a prerequistie for sanity, that is, for the ‘normalcy’ of a civilized subject. The vanishing mediator (myers 37 -39) The birth of god: reading the cogito via schelling German philosopher fredrich wilhelm joseph von shelling (1775-1854). The second draft of schelling’s die weltalter (or ages of the world), the text in which schelling consideres nothing less than the genesis of god. The origin of god is known from the gospel according to st john: “in the beginning was the world’. Zizek designates this beginning with an upper case ‘b’ – it is the ‘beginning’. However, schelling’s philosophhy is all about the fact that the beginning is not at the beginning. Before the beginning ‘is the chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsating’ (tir 13). These drives are the ultimate ground (grund) of reality – the basis for everything. Nothing precedes them, except this ‘nothing’ itself, this abyss (or ungrund).
The nature of this abyss is one of unmitigated freedom. It is not a freedom that ‘belongs’ to anyone, it is not the predicate of a subject; it is, rather, ‘a pure impersonal willing (wollen) that wills nothing’ (taof 15), the brute contingent fact which, for schelling, must be presupposed to exist. In the beginning (which is prior the the beginning) god is part of this freedom – he is not yet the individual being; he is a pure nothingness enjoying the state of non-being. Such contentment, however, contains the seeds of an inherent discontent. This is because the blissful peace of pure freedom is based on the fact that it is an unassertive will which wants nothing. Nevertheless, wanting ‘nothing’ is an assertion in itself, as zizek explains: “the pure potentiality of the primordial freedom – this blissful tranquillity, this pure enjoyment, of an unassertive, netural will which wants nothing –actualizes itself in the guise of a will which actively, effectively, wants this ‘nothing’ – that is, the annihiltion of every positive, determinate content.” (tir 23) Wanting nothing and wanting ‘nothing’ are two sides of the same coin, contractions and expansions which constitue the rotary motion of drives which precede the beginning. The will that wants something is the positive, expansive will, while the will that wants precisely nothing is the negative, contracting will. The result is a recursive deadlock.
God, in other words, is merely part of the grund, of the basis of reality, but not yet an independent entity in his own right; for god to achieve his independence he has to disentangle himself from the grund. “in order to posit itself as an actual free entity disengaged from blind necessity – in short as a person – the absolute has to get thigns straightened out, to clear up the confusion in itself, by way of acquriing a distance towards what in it is not god himself but merely the ground of his existence – that is by ejecting the ground from himself.” (tir 36)
The only way that god can establsih the ground for his existence is, like decartes, by destroying all determinate content, by withdrawing from the world, as it were, ‘by ejecting the ground from himslf’. This act can be identified as analogous to the madness of hegel’s ‘night of the world’. ‘god himself was “out of his mind”’(taof 11); he has to risk madness before he can exist. It is this lunacy which constitutes the vanishing mediaotr between nothingness and god himself.
The subject (in this case god) is constituted by a loss, by the removal of itself from itself, by the expulsion of the very ground or essence from which it is made. The subject, in this sense, is always a nostalgic subject, forever trying to recover its loss. However, this ground must remain outside of the subject for the subject to retain its consistency as a subject; the subject, in other words, must externalize itself in order to be a subject at all. The subject is no longer opposed to the object, as it is in the other two models of subjectivity we have looked at; rather, subject and object are implicated in each other – the subject is the object outside of itself. The subject maintains a relation of extimacy towards itself; ‘extimacy’ is a mixture of the two words ‘external’ and ‘intimacy’; this external intimacy or extimacy designates the way in which the core of the subject’s being is outside itself.
If this sounds a little difficult to conceptualize, it is perhaps easiest to think of it in analogy to your eyeball; you can see everything except the part of you that does the seeing – your own eyeball. The only way you can see your eyeball isby looking in a mirror where it is outside of yourself. The subject is in an analogous positon to this: it is a perspective on reality which cannot be grasped in itself but only in the ‘mirror’ of reality. From subject to subjectivization The subject is externalized in the word, which announces the beginning: “how, precisely, does the word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contractive and the expansive force? The word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite, of an expansion – that is to say, in pronoucning a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself: he ‘coagulates’ the core of his being in an external sign. In ther (verbal) sign, i – as it were – find myself outside myself, i posit my unity outside myslef, in a signifier which represents me. (tir 43). If i find myself outside of myself, i am no longer self-identifical; the signifer which represents me is just that, a representation, but it is not actually me. If i am to be a subject at all, i cannot avoid this irretrievable loss, for it is only on account of this loss that i actually become something rather than remain as nothing.
The passage from the closed rotary motion of the drives to the pronunciation of the word is simply the passage from the real to the symbolic. The real is the world before it is carved up by language, the medium of the symbolic. God, at this stage, is a purely self-relating entity; he has no objective mooring for his being – everything is just subjective, or ‘inside’ him. “this god is not yet the creator, since in creation the being (the contraced reality) of an otherness is posited that possesses a minmal self-consistency and exists outside its creator – this, however, i shwat god in the furty of his egotism is not prone to tolerate. (taof 17). It is only with the pronunciation of the word (or a symbolic experience of the real), which introduces a cut into the real and stands in for it, that god can establish his distance from it. In susbtantially the same way, although we, as bodies, are sitllpart of the real, we, as symbolic subjects, are also differentiated from it. Although we are grounded in nature and can only survive within our bodies, simultaneously we are not merely our bodies; rather we have our bodies and can relate freely to them and it is language that enables us to do this.
The process of subjecting ourselves to language and to the rest of the symbolic orer is subjectivization. Subjectivization needs to be conceived as a two-way process. On the one hand, the symbolic order, or the big other, precedes us and speaks through us. For example, we might be born into a family and bear that family’s anme,occupy a specific socio-economic postion, follow a particualr religion, and so on. On the other hand, because the symbolic order is incomplete or constituted by a lack (a lack which is the subject) the way in which we integrate these elements of the symbolic and narrate them to ourselves is ours. For example, we might disown our family and change our name, invent a nw religion, and so on. The gap in the symbolic means that we are not reducible to mere functions of the symbolic or automatons: “despite the fact that their most intimate memories are not ‘true’ but only implanted, replicants subjectivize themselves by way of combining these memories into an individual myth, a narrative which allows them to construct their place in the symbolic universe.” (twtn 41) It is the replicants’ ability to create an individual story out of implanted memories that makes them seem human because that is exactly what we do too. We maintain our ability to integrate the elements of the symbolic in an individual way and it is the ‘self’ that does this, what he defines as the ‘centre of narrative gravity’ (catu 261). In other words, the self is what fills in the void of the subject, and while the subject never changes, the self is open to constant revision. Reading schelling via lacan Once you have grasped the basic lacanisnconepts of the imaginary, the symbolic and the real, ou will notice that in his philosophical writings, such as in his discussion of schelling, zizek always inerprets the work of other philosophers in terms of those concepts. This is because, as he admitson several occasions, ‘the core of my entire work is the endeavor to use lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize german idealism’ (tzr ix). This raises three related questions: what is german idealism, why does it need reactualizing, and what does ‘reactualizing’ mena? The term ‘german idealism’ designates the work of philosophers such as kant, fichte, schelling and heel. The reason that zizek believes german idealism nees reactualizing is that he thinks we are taught to understand it in one way, whereas he regards the turht of it to be soething else. The term ‘reactualizing’ refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret german idealism, and that zizek wishes to realize or make ‘actual’ one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized or ‘actualized’.
At its most basic, we tend to be taught that the german idealists though that the truth of something could be found in itself. For zizek, on the other hand, the fundamental insight of german idealism is that the truht of some thing is always outside itself. So, for example, the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the symbolic and the real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, we cannot gaze into our own nvels, because who we truly are is always elsewhere. Our navels, as it were, are somehwere else in the symbolic formaitons whch always precede us and in the real which wehave to disavow if we are to enter the symbolic in the first palce.
The reason that lacan occupies a privielges position for zizek is that the key to his work can be found in the proposition that self-identity is impossible. The identity of something, its singularity or ‘oneness’, is always split. To put this in another way, there is always too much of something, an indivisible remainder, or a bit left over whch means that it cannot be self-identical. For example, the meaning of a word can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other wrods. This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs zizek’s reading of all the german idealists, includingschelling.for instance, as we have seen, the beginning is not actually thebeginning at all – the truth of the beginninglies elsewhere; it is split or not identical to itself. The subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciated The subject of the enunciation is the ‘i’ who speaks, the individual doing the speaking; The subject of the enunciated is the ‘i’ of the sentence, the grammatical designation or pronoun used by all individuals. ‘i’ is not identical to itself – it is split between the individual ‘i’ (the subject of enunciation) and the grammatical ‘i’ (the subject of the enunciated). The subject can only eneter language by negating the real, ‘murder’ or substituting the blood-and-sinew reality of self for the concept of the self expressed in words – in anmes or pornouns, etc. It is partly in the light of this that lacna is boldy able to refashion descartes’ ‘i think, therefore, i am’ as ‘i think where i am not, therefore i am where i do not think’ (lacan 1977: 166). The ‘i think’ here is the subject of the enunciated (the symbolic subjct), whereas the ‘i am’ is the subject of the enunciation (the real subject). What lacan aims to disclose by rewriting the catesian cogito in this way is that the subject is irrevocaly split, torn asunder by language.