Notes on a Short History of the Self

Everything was lustrous and shimmering; everything gravitated passionately toward a kind of perfection whose definition was absence of friction. Reveling in all the temptations of the circle, life whirled to a state of such giddiness that the ground fell away and, stumbling, falling, weakened by nausea and languor—ought I to say it?—finding itself in a new dimension, as it were … Yes, matter has grown old and weary, and little has survived of those legendary days—a couple of machines, two or three fountains—and no one regrets the past, and even the very concept of “past” has changed.

-Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading


As regards ‘person,’ the ancient Greek term from which it originates explains the gap that separates it from the living body: just as a mask never fully adheres to the face that it covers, similarly the legal person does not coincide with the body of the human being to which it refers. In Roman legal doctrine, rather than indicating the human being as such, persona refers to the individual’s social role, whereas in Christian doctrine the person resides in a spiritual core that is irreducible to the bodily dimension. Strikingly, despite the internal metamorphoses of what we may well define as the ‘dispositif of the person,’ it never liberates itself from this original fracture. … But the same fracture was created by Christian doctrine in the distinction between body and soul, and by modern philosophy in the difference between thinking substance (res cogitans) and extended substance (res extensa). In all of these cases, the bios is variously sectioned into two areas that are valued differently, one of which is subordinated to the other. The result is a dialectic between personalization and depersonalization that has at various times been reworked into new forms.

-Robert Esposito, Person and Things: From the Body’s Point of View


From Zizek Dictionary:

In his recently published Less Than Nothing, Žižek analyses a well-known joke from American sitcoms. It involves one of the characters looking at a car being towed away and laughing, until they realize that it is actually their car. It is a “joke” repeated every time we catch an unfamiliar glimpse of ourselves in the bathroom mirror and are horrified before we remember it is us. In both cases, says Žižek, we do not recognize ourselves, but we are this misrecognition. It is in this delay between seeing and recognizing that the subject is experienced in its purest form and even in which the subject comes about. As Žižek writes: “The Lacanian thesis is that this delay is structural: there is no direct self-acquaintance; the self is empty” (LN: 145). The title Less Than Nothing is meant to refer to what allows appearance, but it can also be seen to refer to the subject. The “subject” is not “something” – some substantive, intact, really existing entity – but neither is it “nothing”. It is, rather, at once “more than something”, that for which appearance stands in, and “less than nothing”, able to be seen only through appearance. The self is “less than nothing” in so far as we are unable to match it with itself, in so far as what the experience of the subject reveals is not nothing but an endless drive towards nothing, “an obstinate repetitive fixation on a contingent object that subtracts the subject from its direct immersion in reality” (LN: 496).

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