I am the Subject

Today’s post in the Speculative Heresy/Inhumanities event comes from Mike Watson, author of the Logical Regression blog who has been critical of speculative realism, and has been doing some really interesting work on aesthetics. His piece today is a short and programmatic statement which argues for an irreducible aspect of the subject, over and above any scientific reductionist project.

I am the subject.
Mike Watson

  1. I am the subject and I exist.
  2. I am resistant to scientific inquiry as it is I who scientifically inquires.
  3. I am comprised, as thought, of chemical processes, but I am not reducible to chemical processes.
  4. I am material in base, but my objective complexion does not indicate the preponderance of the material over me.
  5. I am the object that is the subject. Definable by but not reducible to norms.
  6. I cannot be thought away for to think me away is to think of me, and this is not the same thing as to say that to think of me is to be thought by me.
  7. I inhere even in a non-dialectical objective thought system, as a shadow cast tellingly over the fallacy of such thought, for the thought which thinks such thought is the subject, insofar as subject = thought, even where that subject is composed of chemical processes.
  8. In a realm where all objects are accorded equivalence (even the human subject) I still exist.
  9. I am the sole common actor in all philosophical thought, which cannot proceed nor inquire into my honesty or accuracy without me.
  10. I am an object, and can admit of this without reneging on any of the above points.

15 thoughts on “I am the Subject

  1. As might be expected I have some issues here with point 5 – “I am the object that is the subject. Definable by but not reducible to norms.” In what sense is the subject definable by but not reducible to norms? In my piece I put forward the thesis that all it is to be a subject is to be bound by certain fundamental norms (i.e., the fundamental norms of rationality). This gives an account of the subject qua subject, an importantly, as I’ve tried to defend, I think this needn’t give the subject any kind of Being whatsoever. However, this doesn’t yet say anything about how it is that we individuate subjects, i.e., what, or who, this specific subject is beyond its character qua subject. Is this what the irreducibility consists in? That the individuality of each subject can’t be circumscribed by the norms that all subjects are bound by as subjects?

    If this is the case, then it still doesn’t seem that we’ve located the subject as some essential ontological remainder. What is needed is a specific account of what it is about subjects qua subjects that exceeds the normative characterisation.

    On point 10, I’m not sure that the claim that ‘I am an object’ necessarily has the weight you want it to. There is a weak concept of ‘object’ which simply holds an object to be anything which we think about, or, better, anything we can think something true about. It’s possible to maintain that we can think true thoughts about the subject and that nonetheless the subject isn’t real, in a similar way that we might want to say that we can think true thoughts about Harry Potter and nonetheless think that he isn’t real. I take it that this latter kind of unreal or pseudo-objects don’t have any proper ontological status. I’m happy to thus accept that the subject resists scientific analysis (in a certain specific sense), but not the implication that there is thereby something real, which ontology must take account of, which escapes science.

    Of course, it’s possible to reject this whole real/unreal distinction, and just treat the concept of ‘object’ as univocally strong, such that anything that we can think true thoughts about must be given an account of in ontology. However, I’d suggest that this isn’t a given, and that simply appealing to the fact that the subject is an object isn’t good enough, because there’s a sense in which we can intuitively agree (we take ourselves to make true claims about subjects), and nonetheless an intuitive implication that its possible to reject (that the subject is therefore a special kind of real thing which is nonetheless outside of the remit of science).

  2. “I am the subject and I exist.”

    There is a grammatical confusion here. Perhaps it should read…

    “I” is the subject and “I'” exists.

    The conflation of the “I” and the I is, well, a conflation.

  3. deontologistics… thank you for that response.

    I haven’t read your post, to which you refer. I mean by point 5 that it is possible to interpret norms in relation to the subject just as it’s possible to see underlaying mechanisms which make up the subject (chemical brain activity, for example), but that idenitfying such norms in no way reduces the subject.

    I think the subject is defined by its condition as bound by its objectivity, as both subject and subject-that-is-object. Yet that can only be said uniquely of the subject, and not of other objects, this being the subjects very subject-ness (to risk upsetting ‘kvond’ with some poor grammar use ;-D ) .

    By 10 I mean that the subject is quite literally an object… a material being with no ascribed status superior to other objects at all. The human subject, which does exist as distinct from other objects (both as individual objects and as a wider overarching ‘object’ that is nature and everything in it) is objectively construed and is part of the objective whole, though distinguishable from it for its identification of this fact. Scientific enquiry only further entrenches this facet of the subject’s knowing the basis of its condition: It is its knowing itself to be objectively construed that makes it an subject (that is object).

    I am not sure that is clear, but I can clarify my position, if you would like.

    kvond… I’m sorry but I do actually mean ‘I am the subject’… that being the thing about subjectivity that possibly most infuriates proponents of SR and OOP… it’s, well, subjective (even with the admission of its simultaneous objectivity) !

  4. LR,

    Where do you get this impression?

    that being the thing about subjectivity that possibly most infuriates proponents of SR and OOP… it’s, well, subjective (even with the admission of its simultaneous objectivity) !

    This might be true in the case of Brassier, but it’s certainly not true in the case of OOO. While OOO holds that nothing exists but objects, it certainly is not committed to the thesis that objects are all the same or that they don’t have object-specific properties. Among the objects that exist are self-reflexive objects. Subjects are an instance of self-reflexive objects. Moreover, in my own variant of OOO, at least, emergent strata are irreducible to that out of which they emerge. A subject or self-reflexive object is an emergent strata that cannot exist without brains, bodies, chemistry, physics, etc., but which is irreducible to those lower level strata.

    I’m curious about your apparent contrast between objectivity and subjectivity. When you read writings by OOO theorists are you working on the premise that they’re after “objectivity” and striving to eradicate “subjectivity”? From where I’m sitting this is an odd claim insofar as objectivity and subjectivity are epistemological categories (very vague and vulgar ones at that), not ontological categories. Insofar as OOO is an ontological thesis, it’s not clear why it would eradicate “subject-ivity” any more than it would eradicate “leafiness” when analzying plant-being.

    Finally, I’ve noticed that you’ve claimed that OOO has a hostility to aesthetics. This is odd once again. For a long time now I’ve been pushing the relationship between aesthetics and OOO, drawing on Whitehead, Kant’s Third Critique, and Deleuze. Harman develops an elaborate account of allure at the heart of his ontology. Shaviro makes aesthetics a central feature of being.

    • Hi Larval Subjects,

      well, I suppose it’s important that I note that my original post is not openly hositle to OOP or OOO, it merely makes some statements about the nature of subjectivity, which will sit uneasily with some proponents of OOP/OOO. Though I think it shouldn’t, and you’re right to point that out.

      In me supposing what most infuriates proponents of SR, OOP, and OOO, I was merely reacting to ‘kvonds’ point, which I believe was aimed not at correcting my grammar, but at criticising the highly subjective stance signalled by that use of grammar.

      I do understand that OOP does not seek to utterly eradicate the human subject in the sense that Brassier at points seesm to (though even he seems to stop short in the closing statements of Nihil Unbound), except in that I also understand that Harman does not see a split between subject and object, and in this sense I would have to differ, as subjects do exist for me, in the ways outlined in the post, although that is not a fully comprehensive description of how the subject exists, and for that my last comment is more useful.

      Regarding Harman’s system, I am yet to understand how a plane of existence upon which all objects are equivalent accounts philosophically for the advantaged position of the subject, in philosphical discourse. Though this is not to disregard Harman’s claims on the nature of interactions between objects, which I find interesting. It’s just that I can only picture his system as workable on his terms if subjective thought is pictured as an object, the seeming superiority of which – with regard to the vantage point it holds in philosophical discourse – being also objective in complexion. In this sense though, all hierarchies between objects, as construed by the human ‘subject’ (that is for Harman an object) are spirited back into the overall network of object interactions as existent entities, and so we again have a notion of a superior human ‘subject’ as the objective ‘thought’ which attests to that ‘fact’. But I am not sure about this as I haven’t fully fathomed Harman’s texts.

      Re; Aesthetics – I would like to read your observations on Kant’s Third Critique.

      To be honest my principle target is Brassier for his convincing disposal of the subject and for the fact that I haven’t yet seen an OOP that confidently maintains its objective position whilst deposing Brassier’s Nihilistic stance. Partly I feel this way as the practice of, for example, drawing an equivalence between all objects all too easily appears to suppose a Nihilism in that to reject a Nihilism might be seen to maintain a superiority of human-oriented concerns that would contradict that same equivalence of objects. In this sense OOP walks a tricky path that leaves open the necessity for unabashed Nihilism to be opposed, and unfortunately SR/OOP then stands in the firing line so far as it does not find a convincing ethical stance. But I think it soon will… but I also think that in so doing it may find it has greater parrallels with Post Kantianism than it might want to admit, and this would, indeed, knock something off its novelty value, and risk it losing its impetus towards generally original thought.

      For me, Aesthetics holds the key to achieving an ethical stance grounded in a philosphy that admits of the objectivity of the subject (though I would never call myself SR, OOP, OOO, because I feel that subjectivity is insurmountable)… but, that is not to say that no one is working or has worked on a similar such notion, and I’d be keen to read any such attempts, which I am sure would differ from my own and would teach me a lot.

      re; your “Moreover, in my own variant of OOO, at least, emergent strata are irreducible to that out of which they emerge. A subject or self-reflexive object is an emergent strata that cannot exist without brains, bodies, chemistry, physics, etc., but which is irreducible to those lower level strata.” … well, I can find no fault with that statement, and I look forward to reading up on your OOO, which I’ve sadly been little exposed to, having been in the midst of critiquing Brassier a lot of the time!


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    • “Mike Watson of Logical Regressions has a post up on the subject over at Speculative Heresy that sounds like he’s porting his commitments regarding the subject with the framework of OOO.”

      not quite, but then, it’s not a sentiment that I take particular issue with…

      Principally, I am at odds with the idea that systems which are sympathetic to Science need be seen as diminishing the subject. I don’t see yet that anyone has convincingly reversed the copernican turn… I just don’t feel that the base objectivity of the subject or the equal footing on which the subject and the object stand in the wider realm of nature are sufficient bases to overturn the philosophical vantage point that only the subject can enjoy.

      Again, that is with the concession that that subject is objectively construed, and in that sense I have sympathies with OOO, OOP, etc, yet I do not see the innovation here. It is mainstream knowledge that we are material constructs – a notion that wouldn’t have upset or even suprised my late Grandmother, who passed away long before Brassier even completed his doctoral thesis! What would be a truly great innovation would be the the ameliorisation of an ethical code to our objective existence, that could maintain an objective basis, without becoming hoplessly sentimental. If a proponent of OOP, OOO, SR or any other affiliated or non affiliated thinker could do that, then I’ll be porting my commitments to there’s!

      What I do feel is that I need have no negative issues with objects based philosophies in general as the polarisation, between them and existing Post-Kantian philosophy, that at first seemed so grand an occurence, has not proven to be so great as it seemed – at least, not in outcome.

      Both ends of the scale have something to offer and people would do well to desist from trying to knock the stuffing from out of each others theories, because they all fail in any case to rise to the demands of philosophy (and by that, I mean everyone fails: Kant, Brassier, Heidegger, Deleuze, Adorno, Harman, and so on). It’s not really a question of who is succeeding, but who is failing the best, and that entails an ability to admit failings and to identify constantly where the weakness lies in the bridge between where we are and where we want to be. For me, again, that weakness resides in the inability for us to comport ethics to science without weakening them both.

      • Mike,

        from both this reply and your comment to my response last week it seems to me that this concluding sentence of yours (where I assume you equate ethics/subjects and science/objects) represents your principal concern (and, in a different flavour perhaps, mine too). What do you mean by ‘weakening them *both*’? It seemed to me that you object to OOP (no pun intended) the excessive focus on subjects and to Brassier the explicit voiding of the human subject. But how would this weaken ‘science’? Are you saying that once we bar/reduce/ignore the human subjct *not even science* is possible?

        • Of course i meant: ‘It seemed to me that you object to OOP (no pun intended) the excessive focus on OBJECTS’

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  8. Fabio,

    re; “for me, again, that weakness resides in the inability for us to comport ethics to science without weakening them both”.

    no, I mean that ethics could weaken science, if science had to make room for it in any way other than necessary for the subject in the sense is a ‘Darwinistic’ necessity, which isn’t ethics but survival – ethics goes out the window when it has surpassed uesfulness, hence people are capable of heinous crimes at the point they ‘feel’ threatened or justified. Any attempt to surpass this unfortunate quirk of reality – via religion or a supposed common moral sense – seems daft in the light of scientific discovery. Hence science weakens ethics, and vice versa.

    I’m not sure if that is clear. Tell me if not.

  9. Yeah, this is clear. But I don’t understand what excludes, in your view, the possibility of a full, self-sufficient, scientific reductionism which is simply capable to openly claim independence –at its basic, reduced level of reality– from any ethics.

    Am I correct in supposing that your answer could be (to paraphrase your point 9) that:

    ‘I am the sole common actor in all *scientific* thought, which cannot proceed nor inquire into my honesty or accuracy *(or fundamental elements)* without me.’ ?

    [I am taking for granted that you don’t allow for a subjectless ethics]

  10. good question Fabio.

    I think science, in reducing people to mere objective impulses, can be seen to sanction the objectification that we arguably see happening socially and politically.

    That is not to say that science is in cahoots with the economic and industrial system, although one wonders whether it is in a position to ‘bite the hand that feeds’ it, it is just to say that there is a trajectory towards the objectification of man in science and such a trend might be abused, though could, more likely, be seen as supportive of social objectifying trends in light of science’s warranted silence on such matters.

    This is not an issue of science being in thrall to the subject, as it needs that subject in order to do science. I think that that would be a very unfair judgment. Science cannot proceed without the subject, but must be allowed this concession, for it offers valuable objective insights, so far as is possible.

    Science is independent of ethics. What I am saying is that if there is to be any reasonable ethical system (one not founded on appeals to religion or to ‘inherent’ common human understanding) there needs to be a way of concieiving of that objectively, but to the benefit of the subject. Ethics must be scientised, but without weakening ethics, or science. This does not mean science must become ethical as a basis of how it conducts itself (aside from ethical considerations such as not hurting participants of experiments or polluting communities, which is a different issue!)

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