Subject/Object Problematization

Constitutive Inquiry
"Constitutive Inquiry" by wilson hurst 2014

Mind Matter Dualism

As a crucial dynamic intertextual source of philosophical debate, subjectivity is used as an explanation for what influences and informs judgments about objectivity. Defined as truth or reality liberated of any individual’s influence, objectivity is ostensibly the polar opposite of subjectivity. Analyzing an objective exteriority mentally situated and proceeding, subjectivity is the provision of being a sentient perceptive entity. However, what exactly is the relationship of the human mind to physical existence? A subject is a unique aware observer possessing experiences, perceptions, perspectives, beliefs, desires, emotions, agency, and cultural or personal understanding. An existing external object is an independent thing observed, free of any particular observational interpretation. Problematically, as the physicist Werner Heisenberg tells us, “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning” (43). Inherent in the properties of molecular wave-like systems, things become complicated at the quantum level, when objects are influenced by being observed. In addition, the theory of relativity specifies that no absolute frame exists from which observers can unequivocally agree on external phenomena.

Debates over the nature of the subject/object relationship became sharply bipolar in the philosophy of René Descartes. “But what then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels” (Descarts 11). Descartes formed a broad distinction between thought (subjectivity) as the essence of the mind, and extension (the occupation of space) as the essence of matter. The Kantian self-certain and self-contained subject endorsed and expanded on this position, by elucidating on what is knowable based on human faculties. Particularly germane are aesthetic judgments, or what Kant calls disinterested “judgments of taste” (67). When perceiving an object, subjective aesthetic gratification generates from the free play between the imagination and understanding. “The object is then called beautiful; and the faculty of judging by means of such a pleasure (and, consequently, with universal validity) is called Taste” (Kant 57). Although aesthetic judgment emanates from within biased subjective feelings, such judgments also maintain universal validity, allegedly because appreciation of beauty is purposeless (116).

Subsequent thinkers responded to Kant by subjectively considering the self as an object in the physical world. For Hegel, “the process of reflectively mediating itself with itself” (9) forms a subject. The historical dialectic permeated Hegel's philosophy, a continuum of synthesis transformation with the object interpenetrating the subject interpenetrating the object. “To say that Man is a free and historical Individual is to say that he "appears" in his empirical-existence as a dialectical entity, and that he is consequently dialectical both in his objective reality and in his very being” (Kojeve 241). In Hegel’s elaborate system, the subject only exists through its relationship with others: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (111). Thus, subjectivity is “a being-for-self which is for itself only through another” (Hegel 115). By way of interpretation, it is through interaction with the external world that self-conscious awareness manifests, constituted out of the temporal dialectical flow of sense impressions. Thus, the object plays an active role in the interpreting subject, constantly adjusting itself based on external reality interaction. The broad Cartesian distinction becomes narrower indeed.

Structure of Subject

Phenomenology, as developed by Brentano, Husserl, and Heidegger, is the study of structures of consciousness. This branch of thought can be construed as a philosophy of subjectivity itself, positioned from the first-person viewpoint. Husserl goes so far as to bracket-off objectivity as unnecessary in the subjectivity equation. Yet paradoxically any experience is essentially formed by intentionality, being directed toward something, an object or event. By virtue of subjectively internalizing an object’s content or meaning, together with associated enabling surroundings, representation accrues. With the concept of Dasein, Heidegger radically reformulated phenomenological self-consciousness, overturning accepted wisdom of the personal subject. This idea disposes the Cartesian “thing that thinks,” into the conceiving human subject as a “being-in-the-world.” Furthermore, Heidegger’s argument equates the being of Dasein as embeded in time. “The existential and ontological constitution of the totality of Dasein is grounded in temporality... time itself reveal[s] itself as the horizon of being” (437).

Subjective Durée

In dialog with Heidegger, Henri Bergson’s notion of time is implicit as a dynamically fractional internal awareness, neither a quantitative multiplicity nor a unified whole. Relatively apprehended through an intuition of imagination, subjective time may vary its speed of passage. “My mental state, as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing--rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow” (Bergson 10). The instant that time is measured, that moment is gone, empirically eluding arithmetic. Duration is inexpressible, revealed circuitously through images that fail to assemble into an absolute representation.

Virginia Woolf poetically describes this empathetic temporal condition in her essay, The Moment: Summer’s Night. In considering the essence of a monument, she acknowledges it is “comprised of visual and sense impressions” (3). Her intricate mind, willing to trust itself and function with critical freedom, recognized we filter-out most concurrent sensations to a stratum position below awareness. Nevertheless, every discrete moment is an assemblage of a multiplicity of diverse sensations. “One becomes aware that we are spectators and also passive participants in a pageant” (4) (figure 1). The aggregate temporal relationships of all these processed inputs comprise the organic human experience.

Fiqure 1
Fiqure 1 "Duration" by wilson hurst 2013

Deleuze and Guattari define the never complete subject as a temporal product of rhizomatic spatiality, responding to nodes of equivalency in becoming. “An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections” (8). Distinguishing between arborescent multiplicities and rhizomatic multiplicities, they directly reference Bergson’s “distinction between numerical or extended multiplicities and qualitative or durational multiplicities” (33). Similar to durée, the rhizomatic model is “libidinal, unconscious, molecular, intensive multiplicities composed of particles that do not divide without changing in nature, and distances that do not vary without entering another multiplicity and that constantly construct and dismantle themselves in the course of their communications” (33). As this course of development does not necessarily progress from something less differentiated to something more differentiated, but rather is an evolution between heterogeneous nodes, a better descriptive term would be “involution” (239). Progressing temporally, involution is a creative force.

The D&G model of “The Body without Organs” (4) is an involution, but always a contemporary, creative involution. An assemblage is any number of things, effects, or portions thereof, congregated into a distinct context, yet lacking organization. Since the sum assemblage has no underlying organization, it can accumulate into its composite entity any number and combination of distinct elements, and thus become a Body without Organs. “It is not at all a question of a fragmented, splintered body, of organs without the body (OwB). The BwO is exactly the opposite.... There is a distribution of intensive principles of organs, with their positive indefinite articles, within a collectivity or multiplicity, inside an assemblage, and according to machinic connections operating on a BwO” (164). Furthermore, as an invariable process of becoming, the assemblage has no limiting boundaries.

Translatability is another important D&G concept of subjectivity becoming in sequential progression. This relates to the symbolic order, “the temporal linearity of language expression” (6). Language is a “formal synthesis of succession in which time constitutes a process of linear overcoding and engenders a phenomenon unknown on the other strata: translation, translatability, as opposed to the previous inductions and transductions” (6). Language translation informs all actual strata territorialities into a deterritorialized symbolic system. Translation is possible because the same form can pass from one substance into another, generating indistinctness. “Each segment is underscored, rectified, and homogenized in its own right, but also in relation to the others. Not only does each have its own unit of measure, but there is an equivalence and translatability between units” (211). Language is not something we can see right through to the objective world. Language is itself a subjective problem.

Gendered Subject

So we see that Bergson establishes the subject in a state of becoming, always making but never made, while D&G builds on this idea, declaring all becomings as molecular assemblages. These collectives are not objects, forms, or molar subjects, known or identified externally and recognized from experience or habit. “Content (form and substance) is molecular, and expression (form and substance) is molar” (D&G 57). Applying such ideas to gender, there is a becoming-woman that does not resemble the conceptually contrived woman, defined by her form and assigned as a distinct molar subject. Becoming-woman is understood as a function of molecular assembly, the deeper reality underlying a fabricated whole constructed from fully functioning component parts. This is not imitating or presuming the female form, but rather emitting particles of a microfemininity creating the molecular woman.

“When Virginia Woolf was questioned about a specifically women's writing, she was appalled at the idea of writing ‘as a woman.’ Rather, writing should produce a becoming-woman as atoms of womanhood capable of crossing and impregnating an entire social field, and of contaminating men, of sweeping them up in that becoming” (Deleuze Guattari 276). The question is not one of subjective enunciation opposing masculine to feminine in a vast dualistic system. The question is fundamentally that of the body - “the body they steal from us in order to fabricate opposable organisms” (276). Exposing the limitations imposed by ideology, Woolf places successful male writers “upon a tower raised above” (138). This is “a tower of stucco - that is their middle-class birth: and of gold - that is their expensive education” (136). Woolf herself had a middle-class birth, but women of her milieu were excluded from universities. “The only way to get outside the dualisms is to ... pass between, the intermezzo - that is what Virginia Woolf lived with all her energies, in all of her work, never ceasing to become” (Deleuze Guattari 276). Only through awareness of social constraints can those constrictions be exceeded. Even with such alertness, however, transcendence of cultural strictures is governed.

In relation to becoming, Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? exposes that inherent capabilities will not manifest unless conditions are conducive for deployment of those aptitudes (Jones 230). Individuals select neither their biology nor the specific happenstance of their birth and subsequent developmental organization. Thus, the timeframe and associated cultural parameters of existence are stringently offered, and are not a function of individual free will. Successfully negotiating a specific environment will only transpire if an entity happens to encounter that circumstance. “Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position” (Jones 233). In the human condition, many environments are culturally constructed. These temporal cultural conditions restrict the available growth potential of all simultaneously concurrent social participants. Yet some specific individuals are rewarded by virtue of arbitrary characteristics better matching prevailing social convention. Similarly, Woolf recognizes that genius recognition manifests only in a social construct. Furthermore, for Woolf genius is not a guarantee of either success or happiness, but rather can be “violent in its symptoms and remorseless in its severity” (186). Genius will drive the possessed, “dancing to the strains of [their] own enchanted organ” (193), regardless of resulting acceptance, recognition, or other consequences.

Subjective Genius

Slavoj Zizek reiterates a modified Descartes subjective duality (87). The content of the self is transposed in his account, however, as the subject is not in complete control of its destiny. Zizek instead proposes that an ideological socio-symbolic Other (86) transparently informs the self, who must unconditionally obey the authoritarian demands of cultural rule. In this ideologically driven symbolic order, genius is a matter of happenstance, selectively enabled. “Ideological is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence” (Zizek 16). Thus, Kant’s claim that genius is endowed by nature to present “ideas” with exemplary originality (190) can freely work only provisionally, in accordance with an unquestioned authority. Ideology, by virtue of its very invisibility, profoundly influences achievable originality.

“We are all the time rewriting history, retroactively giving the elements their symbolic weight by including them in new textures” (Zizek 59). In explaining subjective time and its relation to genius potential, Zizek reviews William Tenn’s The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway. In this story, an art historian uses a time machine to research a famous painter genius. Arriving in the past, the historian finds not a genius but rather a scoundrel. The rogue steals his time machine, leaving the historian trapped in the past. From memory, the art historian then paints the recognized genius’s paintings, himself morphing into the future misrecognized genius of his quest. By exploring durée, in which linear time chronology progression is rendered out of order, subjective and objective rhizomatic nodes come together. As a subjective internal constituent of the objective process, “only through this additional detour does the past itself, the ‘objective’ state of things, become retroactively what it always was” (59). Genius can become its own self-filling prophecy.


Diverse theories of subjectivity are polyphonically represented across engaged dialectic thinkers, each specific position a node of equivalency entangled in the matrix of meaning. Predicated on processes, the relative position of a humanoid is unavoidably subjective, and the foundational essence of this condition is and will always be open for philosophical interpretation. One principle seems undeniably evident; reality exists beyond the bounds of experience. Yet our relationship to what actually exists cannot be separated from our internal perceptions.

The quotidian relationship of the objective to the subjective is operative as the biological sensory system of the body temporally interacts with the observable universe. Artists subjectively respond to existence by fabricating artworks as new entities inserted into the observable environment, which in turn become objects open for further interpretation. We function in an entangled condition dependent on other external states. Because of this dependency, it is a mistake to consider self and other in isolation. Rather we should consider the internal and external by combining components as an involving, intertwined, assembled state, with certain aspects originating from our own invention. There are no conclusive answers, but many questions.  

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri, and Arthur Mitchell. Creative Evolution. New York: Modern library, 1944. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.

Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Raleigh, N.C: Alex Catalogue, 1990. Internet resource.

Hegel, Georg W. F, and J B. Baillie. The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Humanities Press, 1964. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution of Modern Science. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Jones, Amelia. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Kant, Immanuel, and Nicholas Walker. Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Kojève, Alexandre, Alan Bloom, and James H. Nichols. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.

Woolf, Virginia, and Leonard Woolf. The Moment, and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 2008. Print.