Theories of the Subject

We can see today that the centuries-long conflicts fought within science were ostensibly futile since their arguments focused on words and concepts that actually lost their meaning over time.

Stanislaw Lem, Summa Technologie once quipped of Science

That a certain form of linguistic nihilism pervades our scientific era in which the very tools we use, words and concepts no longer hold valency or traction, while on the other hand we are exposed within philosophy to a multitude of heuristic devices as mind-tools and road maps to the Real rather than the real itself is par for the course. Yet most of our problems in the sciences and philosophy at the moment seem to revolve around the notion of ‘intentionality and the subject’ – the message in the bottle that is reality is about something rather than that something itself. Wilfred Sellars was part of that older intentionalist world and tried to incorporate it into a new conceptual framework:

Thus the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. Thus the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living. We can, of course, as matters now stand, realize this direct incorporation of the scientific image into our way of life only in imagination. But to do so is, if only in imagination, to transcend the dualism of the manifest and scientific images of man-of-the-world.2

Within this Order of the Intentional he thought we could merge the folk wisdom of the past with the scientific truths of our sciences. But we have to begin at that point, and with that question:

Is a person a being that has intentions?

There are many who believe the intentional phase of philosophy is a dead end, that we are now moving out of it into a post-intentional world. The contemporary problems of a Theory of the Subject seem to hinge on that particular question. Levi R. Bryant in a new post Three Models of the Subject lays out nice aspects of this problem. He starts by asking a simple yet complex question:

As I think about the subject, the first question that occurs to me is that of why the category of the subject has recently become such a burning issue in the world of contemporary theory?

He doesn’t ask why a theory of the subject is at issue, but why the epistemic category of the subject is at issue in contemporary theory. If the Subject is to be seen in some respects as a fundamental category we would probably be wise to follow the base line. Those who focus on articulating category distinctions rather than on laying out complete systems of categories generally invoke categories not in hopes of providing answers to such basic metaphysical questions as ‘what exists’, but rather as a way of exposing, avoiding, or dissolving various presumed philosophical mistakes, confusions, and paradoxes. It’s in this sense that the category of the subject should be approached, and I believe this is just what Levi is doing in his present article.

He describes three models on the contemporary scene that have revolved around the category of the subject. He qualifies this by telling that a shift has taken place in our thinking about the subject and that the older epistemic category has now become a political category instead.

The first model is the ‘post-structuralist’ in which the subject is a sort of illusion to be overcome. He terms this the ‘negative mode of the subject’. He brings in the views of Foucault and Derrida for this model. For Foucault  the subject “isn’t an agent or sovereign, but an effect of impersonal and anonymous processes.” For Derrida “the alleged self-presence of subject and its status as an origin making it an agent erased and complicated by the play of difference”.  He mentions Heidegger as well in passing.

Ultimately he tells us “Everywhere during this time period we encounter accounts of how subject is not what it takes itself to be, how it is a sort of illusion, and how ultimately it is an effect of broader impersonal processes.” He goes into depth about the political aspect of this subject as illusion and how the subject in this deconstructive post-structuralist model is “both trapped in a prison of social forces it does not recognize and that actually contributes to the reinforcement of the iron threads of this spider web of power through enacting these impersonal “scripts””. He qualifies this as the social production of identity, saying that the subject is “produced by social forces that mistakes itself for being a seat of agency and believes that it has an essence as man, woman, white, black, straight, gay, etc.; when, in fact, this agency is an effect of an impersonal social agency of subjugation”.

The second model is base on philosophers such as Zizek, Badiou, Johnston, perhaps Ranciere and is seen in a positive mode: the “subject is now no longer an illusion and an effect, but is rather a site of “truth”, signifying the possibility of emancipation, functioning as the seat of agency, and marking the condition for the possibility of rupture with oppressive systems”. Against the deconstructive mode of the social production of identity this mode situates the subject in its intrinsic failure of producing any identity whatsoever.  And as he states it “for this reason, subject is a sort of void or nothingness, that nonetheless can be “marked” or that has a sort of quasi-being.  Subject would thus also be a name for the ineluctable failure of every technology of subjectivization precisely because predicates of subjugation necessarily fail”.

Yet, there are issues with this second model of the subject as no-thing and no-one. As he states it following R. Scott Bakker’s critique of Adrian Johnston’s new work Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism the subject is seen as something “magical” that defies the laws of physics (see Bakker). The central issue at stake is as he tells us “how to reconcile subject with a genuine naturalism and materialism”. His second issue is with this second model of the subject as Void or Nothing as in Zizek: ” it’s not at all clear– and maybe I’m just dense –how a void or emptiness can be a seat of agency”. While with Badiou and his  “decision criteria” the problem is more formal and circular:

The problem is that if we take Badiou at his word, we seem left with one of two options:  Either, we do have a decision criteria and this criteria arises from our “interpellation” or “subjectivization”, thereby returning us to the post-structuralist problem.  Or, the decision that decides to count the event is a sort of Kierkegaardian leap of faith and therefore magic, consequently leading us again to wonder how such a position can be consistent with materialism and naturalism (here some will bite the bullet and say materialism and naturalism must be wrong, but I just don’t think that’s acceptable). (ibid.)

Finally, the third model is seen as a way of conceiving subject as a particular type of system for resolving differential gradients. He calls this the Spinozist-Deleuzian-Thermodynamic concept of subject (or subject^t). As he tells us this model can be broken down in two ways:

First, it would be thoroughly consistent with materialism and magic, evoking no magic or idealist ruptures to explain itself.  Here is the core of my admiration for Bakker’s work (even though I hope he’s wrong):  First, he perpetually refuses any transcendental arguments (x is a condition for science and inquiry therefore x must exist) as a form of wishful thinking (though I don’t think he uses that term), instead requiring that we must give a materialist and naturalist account of agency if it does in fact exist (maybe it doesn’t and we’re really just like computers and have no intentionality after all).

Second, he seems to hold that we must give a nuts and bolts account of how something like agency is possible based on a genuine empirical knowledge of neurological systems, rather than a mere conceptual, transcendental, a prioristic account.  That’s the way to pose a genuine philosophical problem:  no cheating, no skyhooks, no metaphysical entities.  Such an approach to thinking requires courage that refuses to go with empty declarations that are appealing to how we would like things to be (wishful thinking) through the evocation of metaphysical chimera to save the day; for example, claims such as the idea that “science knows nothing of objects”, or rhetorical denunciations of something as “scientism” as a way of not having to think about that which makes us uncomfortable (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz wouldn’t have happened had they sought a strategy of explaining away what the new mathematics and science were showing).

This new model besides being based on the concept of the gradient is also shown to be differential. As he states it “a gradient based model is based on a non-identity or a differential.  This non-identity, in its turn, gives rise to yet another non-identity; namely a patterned organization.  Subjects would be particular processual patterned organizations that fail to correspond to a system of morphogenetic social forces and structures.  They would be a force of rupture”.

Levi sees this all within the political compass situated between the gradient and the differential. In the one we see a form of resistance that approximates “decision, choice, reflexivity, self-reflexivity, or, in short, agency”; while in the other “resistance might not occur” and decision is instead required. As he states it:  “This is the problem with the idea of a political physics.  It somehow misses the dimension of subjective engagement and decision.  I don’t know how to get this dimension into the framework I’m trying to think through…”

Levi is ultimately siding with a materialist and naturalist program that refuses any transcendental arguments as a form of wishful thinking, and requires us to give a materialist and naturalist account of agency. And as part of this program he affirms that we must provide an empirical account of these neurological systems, rather than a mere conceptual, transcendental, a prioristic account.

Against philosophical metaphysics of any stripe what we need is a terminological shift, a new set of scientific and philosophical theories and practices that allow us to work within a multivalent framework that incorporates what is left of our broken philosophical heritage. We need to situate it within the borderlands of the scientific community rather than as some antagonistic branch of knowledge which is lost on the outside.  Such a move might provide us not only the truth about agency, but offer a window on the actual workings of the neurocognitive systems that have for so long been bound to philosophical abstractions based on transcendental presuppositions and axioms rather than the physical sciences themselves. A new terminological framework for the sciences and philosophy based on a new empiricism that is materialist and up to date with the current sciences would provide a communicative tool that brings the best of both worlds into harmony. Otherwise philosophy will soon become a game played out in its own metaphysical playground, a circle devoid of content or meaning resolving nothing.

1. Lem, Stanislaw (2013-03-01). Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations) (Kindle Locations 4710-4718). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Sellars, Wilfrid (2012-10-02). Science, Perception, and Reality (Kindle Locations 900-909). Ridgeview Publishing Digital. Kindle Edition.

1. Lem’s Commentary in Polish.

4 thoughts on “Theories of the Subject

  1. I finally remembered to insert a note in the Perpetual Motion piece to tag my overhasty inclusion of Levi in my list. Thinking moves fast on the web, especially for guys who spend most of the day writing fantasy.

    I just want to say that this post and Levi’s do a wonderful job of showing the constructive side that tends to get blotted in maddog critical pieces such as my own.

    “A new terminological framework for the sciences and philosophy based on a new empiricism that is materialist and up to date with the current sciences would provide a communicative tool that brings the best of both worlds into harmony. Otherwise philosophy will soon become a game played out in its own metaphysical playground, a circle devoid of content or meaning resolving nothing.”

    This sums the stakes, positive and negative, as elegantly as I can imagine. Ingroupism is the real enemy here. Critiquing from mountaintops is as useless as bitching from holes. People have to understand that it is cultural triage time: there is no posterity left to redeem failures to communicate.


    • Made me want to go back to Jonathan Swift’s Tale of the Tub which of course was a parody of Western religion… our new satire would entail a satire of Western philosophy instead…

      Got to love those strange intellects, the satirists who have forever brought to their knees the forces of orthodoxy of whatever stripe…


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