• StreetlightX
    3.2k
    A note before reading: this post has nothing to do with 'consciousness'. Anyone expecting a discussion of that kind is welcome to post elsewhere. If I could avoid using the term 'subjectivity' in favour of something like 'way-of-being' or 'ethoi' (plural of ethos), I would, but the former is too messy and the latter is too strange, so I'm sticking to 'subjectivity' - which is what the literature on the subject calls it anyway. This also has nothing to do with boring debates about subjectivity vs. objectivity, so if one feels inclined to talk about that, kindly do so elsewhere.

    Tl;dr Forget consciousness, forget objects.

    --

    So: A common notion that is often discussed in philosophical literature is that of varying kinds of subjectivities. As I hinted in the note' above, these 'subjectivities' have nothing to do with 'consciousness' and have everything to do with one's range of capacities in a particular situation. A 'subject' here is one that can act or be acted upon in a range of ways, depending on the context at hand; so, for example, one can speak of a subject of street-walking: the subject of street walking is involved in traversing a certain terrain, in making a way to a destination, of admiring sights, of avoiding traffic, of waiting at traffic lights, and so on. There is a kind of subjectivity involved in being a walker of the streets, that is not the same as that involved in say, playing chess.

    The street walker is a limited example, but the concept can be expanded much further. For one, the 'subject' doesn't even have to be embodied: one can speak of the subjectivity of the internet browser: this subjectivity is largely disembodied, interacting with his or her computer though a mouse or keyboard, mostly passively absorbing words or pictures on the screen, while only sometimes actively involving themselves in the world they are exploring by, say, posting on an internet forum, or 'liking' a Youtube video. The subject of the internet browser is very different from the subject of the street walker. The subjectivities involved draw on different ranges of capacities, interests, attentions, limits, and approaches to creative action. One important thing that this should make clear is that a subject is not simply a correlate of an 'individual': an individual may traverse different subjectivities, first as a walker on the street, then as a browser of the internet - and so on.

    Now, of the various reasons why studying different subjectivities is important, chief among them are the political and ethical implications of these differing subjectivities: every kind of subject is bound, in some way or another, by the possibilities afforded by the environment of which that subject is (this is what it means to be a subject: to be subject-to-...): subjectivities, in other words, are contextual, and more than that, are produced by those very contexts in which they inhere. And as we've seen, various kinds of subjects have various types of limitations and opportunities, various ways of 'being a subject', in accordance with the contexts out of which they are born. These political and ethical implications become more obvious once we start speaking, for instance, of disabled subjectivities: in contrast to the street walker, the wheelchair-bound subject is afforded a different range of capacities, and, for the most part, a reduced range, in contrast to the walking subject.

    Attention to the varied ecology of subjectivities thus gives us a different angle on understanding the world: because all subjects are produced by a set of circumstances, to understand those subjectivities we must also understand those circumstances, which may be technological (in the case the case of the internet browser), historical, biological, institutional and so on - in fact pretty much always a mix of these. This is one of the reasons why subjectivities, as understood here, cannot be reduced to something as ephemeral and inscrutable as 'consciousness' - which would in any case be a category mistake. I don't have too much of a point to make here other than to introduce these ideas, of which a great deal has been written and debated on in philosophy, but which don't really get too much of an airing here. Perhaps an exhortation then: pay attention to subjectivities!
  • Dfpolis
    553
    Thank you for introducing subjectivities.

    I have a few questions. First, would it be a reasonable summary to say that a subjectivity is a role (say being a pedestrian) that a person can engage in? I mean, would it be a mistake to speak of subjectivities if we are not dealing with persons?

    Second, you say:
    Now, of the various reasons why studying different subjectivities is important, chief among them are the political and ethical implications of these differing subjectivities:StreetlightX
    Since you seem to be familiar with the literature, could you give a few examples of the implications being discussed so that we could see how this projection of human activity illuminates political philosophy and ethics?

    Thank you again.
  • StreetlightX
    3.2k
    First, would it be a reasonable summary to say that a subjectivity is a role (say being a pedestrian) that a person can engage in? I mean, would it be a mistake to speak of subjectivities if we are not dealing with persons?Dfpolis

    I don't think this would be the right way to put it: in a strong sense, the subjectivities we inhabit are constitutive of who we are as people: your ability to walk, as distinct from another who cannot, contributes to making you the person you are. To speak of 'roles' is a little too 'distant', as though people could swap and change roles as if costumes. Or, if we want to play etymological games, it's worth remembering that the word persona means mask: the person is the mask, and not some already-constituted agent standing behind it. Or, differently again, we could say that subjectivities are not roles that people engage in; rather they are roles that engage people in them.

    Could you give a few examples of the implications being discussed so that we could see how this projection of human activity illuminates political philosophy and ethics?Dfpolis

    Well, a basic question might be something like: what kind of subjectivity does this particular social and political arrangement foster? Which would translate to something like: what kind of capacities - opportunities, risks, limitations, powers - does this particular socio-political arrangement enable or disable? If we take the street-walker as a hopefully uncontentious example, one can track the history of how roads, which were initially made for people, gradually became car-orientated; this is actually a super interesting history, one not often told: of how, when cars started to occupy streets, it was considered something of a travesty -

    (Except from a Smithsonian article on this: "Things changed dramatically in 1908 when Henry Ford released the first Model T. Suddenly a car was affordable, and a fast one, too: The Model T could zoom up to 45 miles an hour. Middle-class families scooped them up, mostly in cities, and as they began to race through the streets, they ran headlong into pedestrians—with lethal results. By 1925, auto accidents accounted for two-thirds of the entire death toll in cities with populations over 25,000. An outcry arose, aimed squarely at drivers. The public regarded them as murderers. Walking in the streets? That was normal. Driving? Now that was aberrant—a crazy new form of selfish behavior.
    “Nation Roused Against Motor Killings” read the headline of a typical New York Times story, decrying “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.” 'When Pedestrians Rules the Streets)

    This change ramifies on the subjectivity of the street-walker: the road, no longer made for the walker, becomes engaged with in a very different way: one's walking is regulated like never before: traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, the shrinking of thoroughfares available for mingling. This has massive impacts on the ways cities are structured, which have effects that themselves ramify on the flows of capital, on distributions of class, power, educational opportunities, and so on (see, for example, the recent efforts of multiple cities around the world to keep cars out of the city centre in order to have more public space: eg1, eg2). These efforts can have effects on, as is well known, the quality of a democracy (eg1, eg2), or else the quality of a city's environment, and so on.

    These efforts and debates can all be seen as - although they are not simply reducible to - revolving around the question of what kind of subjectivity ought to be offered to the street-walker. What kind of opportunities should people have to claim the streets as their own, without cars everywhere? And what kind of ramifications do these considerations have on environments? Democracies? Urban planning? Populational well-being? These are all questions bound up in political and ethical considerations. What kind of society do we want? Who or what do we valorize on the streets? What scarifies and compromises do we make to ensure safety, efficient transport, and happiness? I'm not saying that all these questions are themselves reducible to questions of subjectivity: only that taking into account subjectivities offers another perceptive on things, something else to take into account: by making a certain change in how we approach our streets, do we diminish or enhance the subjectivity of the street-walker? Would this change be a good one? Balanced against what other considerations?

    Anyway, that's just one example, hardly exhaustive, but hopefully illustrative.
  • Dfpolis
    553
    Thank you. I will reflect on this perspective -- try it on as it were.
  • Pierre-Normand
    1.5k
    @StreetlightX Although I hadn't found the time to comment, I had very much enjoyed the OP. I just now finished reading a paper by Sebastjan Vörös and Michel Bitbol -- Enacting Enaction: A Dialectic Between Knowing and Being -- recently published in the journal Constructivist Foundation. (I love the format of this journal which, like Behavioral and Brain Science, publishes target articles followed by several peer commentaries and then a response by the original author(s))

    In the authors' response to the commentaries, they produced a quote from Varela that reminded me of your OP.

    'As Varela himself pointed out, “ideas appear as movements of historical
    networks in which individuals are formed, rather than vice versa,” and tracing a genesis of a given idea is like “making a fold in history where men and ideas live because we are points of accumulations among the social networks in which we live” (Varela 1996b: 408; our emphasis).'
  • StreetlightX
    3.2k
    Although I hadn't found the time to comment, I had very much enjoyed the OP.Pierre-Normand

    Thanks! It's really very introductory, and in fact so-called 'critical theory' and 'cultural theory' is full of this stuff: 'what kind of subjectivity does such and such a culture produce?', or 'what kind of subjectivity does such and such a technology foster?', together with questions like 'what limits and opportunities do these productions (of subjectivity) impose or enable?'. It's an approach that connects very deep questions of philosophy right to contemporary (or even historical ones), in a way that you get a feel for how philosophy can be pressing and not simply some detached reflection on eternal questions. Foucualt is probably the name that stands at the start of this approach, and I think it's very exciting that you can find resonances in authors like Varela and Bitbol.
  • Pattern-chaser
    655
    I am understanding these 'subjectivities' as human experiences, or interactions with the world we live in. "Subject" seems to be used in the sense that we studied subjects at school, meaning topics. I'm right so far, yes? :chin:
  • StreetlightX
    3.2k
    I am understanding these 'subjectivities' as human experiences, or interactions with the world we live inPattern-chaser

    I'm loathe to talk about subjectivities in terms of 'experiences', which reeks of a mentalistic vocabulary that I'd prefer to be expunged if at all possible. I'd say that subjectivities inform experiences, but are in no way reducible to them.
  • Pattern-chaser
    655
    I am understanding these 'subjectivities' as human experiences, or interactions with the world we live in.Pattern-chaser

    I'm loathe to talk about subjectivities in terms of 'experiences', which reeks of a mentalistic vocabulary that I'd prefer to be expunged if at all possible.StreetlightX

    "Experience" is one of those annoying terms we use to mean different but related things. If I witness an event, the event itself can be described as my 'experience'. So can the sensation I have while witnessing the event, and so can my thoughts and feelings that result from witnessing the event. :rage:

    You seem to be focussing strongly away from the 'experiencer', on the real world events that resulted in the 'experience'. But I'm still having problems seeing what 'subjectivities' are, and Google has not proved to be my friend in this. :fear:
  • Dfpolis
    553
    I'm loathe to talk about subjectivities in terms of 'experiences', which reeks of a mentalistic vocabulary that I'd prefer to be expunged if at all possible.StreetlightX

    I have no problem with adding new perspectives, such as that of subjectivities, to my repertoire. The exclusion of "mentalistic" language moves in the opposite direction. Like the deprecating usage of "supernatural," it seems designed to prejudice discussions without the need to address the relevant issues rationally.
  • Dfpolis
    553
    On further reflection, everyone is entitled to use language consistent with their positions. I certainly do.

    What is objectionable is damping down other perspectives on the basis of being "mentalistic." I would think the vast literature on experience offers the possibility of substantially enriching the concept of subjectivities. Cutting off or restricting this avenue of elaboration as "mentalistic," with no further justification, is what seems prejudicial.
  • StreetlightX
    3.2k
    I'm okay with prejudicial. Would even encourage more of it.
  • fdrake
    1.5k
    So: A common notion that is often discussed in philosophical literature is that of varying kinds of subjectivities. As I hinted in the note' above, these 'subjectivities' have nothing to do with 'consciousness' and have everything to do with one's range of capacities in a particular situation. A 'subject' here is one that can act or be acted upon in a range of ways, depending on the context at hand; so, for example, one can speak of a subject of street-walking: the subject of street walking is involved in traversing a certain terrain, in making a way to a destination, of admiring sights, of avoiding traffic, of waiting at traffic lights, and so on. There is a kind of subjectivity involved in being a walker of the streets, that is not the same as that involved in say, playing chess.StreetlightX

    I wanted to chime in with something that looks to me as an example, though I'm mostly thinking of subjectivities in the Badiou-ian sense of 'subject-to/of-event'; out of the vocabulary this is when something happens that reconfigures how people inhabit the world; which, interchangeably, changes who they are.

    Street's example of someone walking and there being a subjectivity associated with it does a good job of highlighting how pervasive subjectivity in the OP sense is, but I imagine it can be a difficult jump to go from something which is so mundane and 'experienced passively' during the business of living to thinking of walking as something which structures how you live your life.

    A more clearcut example might be someone with PTSD as a result of a childhood trauma. Let's imagine that a kid's hand was held onto a hot frying pan for punishment until they started screaming. They go through their childhood living in a state of confused fear, but otherwise coping. They finally have their 18th birthday and move out of the house, with some resentment for their parents for being the kind of assholes that would give second degree burns as punishment. They start making out with someone at university in a club, then this someone touches the sufferer's wrist.

    Boom, immediate panic attack and intrusive memories, the person holding their wrist becomes a threat, the once familiar club becomes a foreign and threatening land, and they need to escape. They break off their impromptu make out session and hurry home, breathing heavily in confused panic.

    Over the next year or so, they begin remembering more and more incidents which have been marked by shame and dread, some from their early childhood and some from later; maybe they always felt everyone hated them at school for no reason, maybe they always felt cripplingly lonely but afraid of people. It's all associated with the disgusting, abusive memories. The violence that was done to them, once invisible, becomes visible. They can't help but inhabit the world in this difficult way now their normal has been revealed as a mechanism of pain.

    Their friends, seeing someone behaving strangely, tell them to get a grip, but it's difficult for the victim; their mind sometimes works normally and sometimes is a torture house. They can't just become a passive experiencer of the wake of their trauma again. Their habits and personality were formed in the wake of their trauma, and only later did it catch up to them; when they felt things were normal, and suddenly they were not.

    I would suggest that similar things happen even with walking, seeing a child playing in traffic produces an involuntary response; run to help or freeze in terror. This is because we know the norms and know the dangers... But not just know or feel or experience, we only have those attitudes because we live in way which affords them.
  • Number2018
    170
    Their habits and personality were formed in the wake of their trauma, and only later did it catch up to them; when they felt things were normal, and suddenly they were not.

    I would suggest that similar things happen even with walking, seeing a child playing in traffic produces an involuntary response; run to help or freeze in terror. This is because we know the norms and know the dangers... But not just know or feel or experience, we only have those attitudes because we live in way which affords them.
    fdrake
    Is that possible to try to broaden farther the notion of trauma to explain child’s integration into pedagogical institutions? When a child for the first time brought to a kindergarten, she finds herself in the entirely new environment, has been forced to adjust her behavior and habits to a set of institutional norms and rules. Outside of her house and family, she has been learned new ways of talking and playing with her peers, as well as expressing her concerns and interacting with pedagogical staff. This transition is quite challenging, and a failure to adapt causes a series of corrective disciplinary interventions. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to attribute the notion of trauma a status of a general explanatory principle. Disciplinary and panoptic spaces and institutions do not play anymore a unique and privileged role in forming and in-forming subjectivities. There is no outer space or position, out of which one could isolate processes of subjectivization. If subjectivities are indiscernible from our social and living environments and actually proceed avoiding conscious representations, the new thought and philosophy are required.
  • fdrake
    1.5k
    Is that possible to try to broaden farther the notion of trauma to explain child’s integration into pedagogical institutions? When a child for the first time brought to a kindergarten, she finds herself in the entirely new environment, has been forced to adjust her behavior and habits to a set of institutional norms and rules.Number2018

    I don't think trauma does all the work of subjectivity as an idea, but I think it's a pretty good example of how a subjectivity works. I think it emphasises a few important things about subjectivity vs thinking about stuff in terms of consciousness and objects or subjects and roles/properties:


    • Subjectivities are more than roles, they become integrated capacities of a person which are exercised in how they live their life.
    • Subjectivities are more than the application of an on-off property to a subject, like 'disabled' or 'traumatised'; they can inform and transform people in different degrees of similar ways; like episodic flashbacks vs more mundane intrusive memories; or in much different ways; like generalised anxiety vs dissociative disorder as comorbidities of PTSD.
    • Subjectivities are to a large degree impersonal; they are composite patterns of behaviours, feelings and events which constrain individuals along a mode of variation. A person can be said to 'inhabit' the unfolding of PTSD just the same as they can inhabit walking; being a sufferer of PTSD or a walker respectively.
  • StreetlightX
    3.2k
    fdrake
    • Subjectivities are more than roles, they become integrated capacities of a person which are exercised in how they live their life.
    • Subjectivities are more than the application of an on-off property to a subject, like 'disabled' or 'traumatised'; they can inform and transform people in different degrees of similar ways; like episodic flashbacks vs more mundane intrusive memories; or in much different ways; like generalised anxiety vs dissociative disorder as comorbidities of PTSD.
    • Subjectivities are to a large degree impersonal; they are composite patterns of behaviours, feelings and events which constrain individuals along a mode of variation. A person can be said to 'inhabit' the unfolding of PTSD just the same as they can inhabit walking; being a sufferer of PTSD or a walker respectively.


    This is a great summary of the idea and helps alot to explain why thinking of subjectivities in terms of 'experiences' or consciousness is so wrong-headed - in fact perhaps the mistake to be avoided at all costs. Putting the idea in terms of a 'pattern', where what composes the pattern is behaviours, feelings, events, and capacities rightly strikes at the impersonality of subjectivity, in deep contrast to the first-person orientation of the vocabulary of experience. In fact one aspect of the non-overlap between experience and subjectivity is that our subjectivities are rarely grasped as such: we don't often (or at least, some of us are lucky enough not to have to) make our subjectivities the object explicit cognizance: in walking the street, I rarely grasp myself as a walker of the streets.

    Things might be different for the wheelchair-bound however, whose kind of subjectivity does not so neatly coincide with the environment she negotiates. Her subjectivity becomes a problem of explicit reference: "I am not the kind of being who can walk up those stairs - how then do I get to where I need to go?"; The walker, on the other hand, might encounter a set of closed stairs, and the question put to him is: "what other stairs can I use?": his being, the kind of subjectivity that he is at that moment, is not put into question (this another way in which the question of subjectivities is an ethical and political one).

    The PTSD example is another example where ones subjectivity becomes a problem for one: where the normal mode of operation (of living, as you say) intrudes upon the kind-of-being one is, historically and biologically informed. This may seem less political, but not necessarily; consider the questions: what kind of support is there for a PSTD sufferer in our society? What kind of educational and clinical resources are accessable for the sufferer so that he might know to better deal with his condition? Are there questions about the distribution of those resources along economic lines? (in which case class now becomes pertinant?). Is there a societal awareness of PSTD and efforts to destigmatize it? These very questions are inaccessable when approached from the angle of 'consciousness' and 'experience'; not so, I think, with suubjectivities.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    4.8k
    "Experience" is one of those annoying terms we use to mean different but related things. If I witness an event, the event itself can be described as my 'experience'. So can the sensation I have while witnessing the event, and so can my thoughts and feelings that result from witnessing the event.Pattern-chaser

    In this description, you have created a separation between the event, which is the object, and your witnessing of the event, your impressions, memories, etc., which if you were the "subject", would be subjective. But that is egotistical and you are not the subject. So I think that what StreetlightX is talking about is dissolving this artificial line of demarcation, this division between subject and object, such that your presence, and interaction with the world is the event itself. Your "witnessing", observing, or experiencing, is now seen as an activity in the world (an expression of one of your many capacities for action), and this activity, along with every other human activity, in general, is our subject. It appears that the capacity for a particular type of activity is thus called a subjectivity.
  • StreetlightX
    3.2k
    Now that I think about it, to drive the point home, one might even consider taking into account the subjectivity of a cooperation, or the subjectivity of a state: what is the range of action of a state? What kind of thing, or what kind of things, do states and cooperation take into account? Flows of money, logistical pathways, media interactions, environmental impacts, points of transactions (voting, paying), need for accountability, market forces, and so on, each of which serve, in any particular institutional environment, to determine the different subjectivities at play in both states and cooperation.
  • Number2018
    170
    Subjectivities are more than roles, they become integrated capacities of a person which are exercised in how they live their life.fdrake
    The “old,” personifying discourse (roles, subjects, objects, etc.) has not been appropriate today. Nevertheless, intersubjective, conscious relations have not entirely disappeared; they have been transformed and incorporated into contemporary subjectivities.
  • Number2018
    170

    Walking on the street
    is a good introductory example of an acting subjectivity. Next example could be driving a car, when a driver is not just interacting with external road conditions (in a similar way as a streetwalker does), but also composing a part with a variety of a car’s technological systems and mechanisms. There is no “individuated subject” that is in control of the driving. If one knows how to drive, one acts without thinking about it, without engaging reflexive consciousness. Her actions and subjective components (memory, attention, perception, etc.) are “automatized.” Driving mobilizes different processes of cognition and a driver’s engagement, one succeeding the next, superimposing one onto the other, connecting or disconnecting according to the current events of driving. To reflect on this situation and to shed light onto the nature of contemporaneity subjectivities, there was proposed the notion of machinic assemblage. One could ask a question if
    this notion can be successfully applied further. When our driver arrives at her destination, and (as a customer or employee) enters an office, hasn’t she taken up
    by another machinic environment? If for Tailor and his followers there were humans that had executed the optimized processes, today’s agents of execution
    have been split between entirely heterogenic levels, maintaining interdepending and mutually supportive relations.

    Now that I think about it, to drive the point home, one might even consider taking into account the subjectivity of a cooperation, or the subjectivity of a state: what is the range of action of a state?StreetlightX

    According to Manuel de Landa, the author of “Assemblage Theory,” it could be more productive to conceive they are assemblages of assemblages.
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