Thesis Chapter: Subjects and Books

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 2405

The age of printing is indeed the age of the subject… The subject sets itself up as a Book, and only this self-erection has ever secured the substance of a subject – whose frank dissimulation allows desire to be read like an open book: thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.[1]

The space-clearing motion of thought is the active accomplishment of a controlled and comprehending sensitivity to the affectation of the world. It clears a space at the same time as, and only in order that, the world fills this space once more with its presence. Welcoming that which infiltrates the permeable boundaries of its occurrence, it clears a space across which the world’s presence can be immediately sensed. Its attentive reception of the world is one with its action upon it. This thought operates both within and beyond the structures of the world that precede it. It is the space of desire accomplishing itself as present to itself. Its singular unity encompasses with a gracious hospitality the multitude of minute occurrences that compose it, welcoming them within the event of its occurrence (i.e. the gathering motion of its thought across which it senses itself as whole).

It is with the destinal inevitability of an ardent desire that this thought, in a motion of passionate excess, seeps beyond the boundaries of its singular expressive unity to surrender itself to the lasting embrace of that otherness which had inspired its own vitality. By means of this transgressive self-abandonment in which it enters into a transformative alliance with the exterior world, thought may gain the perspectival distance necessary to recognise the motion of its own occurrence within a worldly-temporal context. Through this zealous, excessive venture into the material beyond, thought inscribes itself, expressively, within the stability of enduring form and thus presents itself objectively to itself. It presents itself to itself in the form of something owned; a creative output, a mark upon the world. This redemptive recognition of its expressive action as that which is its own, draws it back from the distantiated realm of materiality. It is thus able to re-gather that creative motion in which it had formerly been inextricably engaged, as process, temporally situated. It is able to regard itself dispassionately through the medium of the world.

The identity of the subject is an ongoing project, written in and through the medium of interpretable action. Through the manifestation and repetitive accumulation of socially meaningful actions and gestures, we inscribe and continually re-inscribe our identities anew. It is only in their manifestation upon a socially constructed plane that the expressive gestures of elemental thought may be re-gathered as belonging to, and thereby constitutive of, a willful subject. It is only here, separated from the dynamic assembly of its conjunctive movement that thought gains the perspectival distance necessary from itself to become conscious. The subject recognises itself in its effects. That is to say, it is secured, retroactively in advance, by means of the conscious re-appropriation of those elements of its original desiring thought which escape this original movement. The subject takes its cue from its reflection within the world – the traces and imprints of its expressive action.[2]

The conscious subject is that which is recuperated from its own projections. It is the reclamation across the distance of world of that surfeit of its self-present desiring thought which lingers, transformed, within lasting or socially accessible form. Through this retroactive re-cognition, the subject continually locates itself within the world. It is also through this perpetual reconsolidation that it is able, at the same time, to direct its thought out into the world, willfully, as projection. By means of the re-assimilation into its being-structure of that which it may recognise of its expressive motion from within a foreign object, it resolves in advance the confrontation with alterity by being able to recover it in a useful form. That is to say that there is no true encounter with alterity − indeed there is no true alterity within the world − for the conscious subject because consciousness only recognises that which it sees of itself within it. True alterity is precisely that which cannot be comprehended, cannot be reassimilated. This self is decided in advance according to the action of its project. This is the dialectical subject:

The subject is one who reports to himself, as his own, his judgements and their contradiction, in order to constitute therefrom his proper being. The subject poses its own contradiction in order to report it to itself and to ‘maintain it in itself’.[3]

In the self-relational projections of the subject, the gathering expressive action of thought is recast, within the extended bounds of a temporal situatedness, as the productive output of a person. The cumulative assemblage of being through the reflective projection upon a world overrules as a mode of self-awareness that self-present affirmation of being, in its immediate and constant expressive self-effectuation that characterises original thought. It is still desire that drives this movement, but it is desire directed, managed and owned. Desire is re-written into the subject as possibility and project.

And yet the expressive action of original desiring thought continues to transgress the rule and direction of the subject that claims it authoritatively as its own. It exceeds it with the unruly and irrepressible ardour of desire as impulse and urge. It is that which, carried forth by an unstoppable momentum, spills disastrously beyond the moment of reportage, undisciplined and uncontainable. The disorder of this foundational desire continues to undo the work of the subject in its ongoing structural assemblage, constantly causing it to spill beyond its self-erected boundaries, breaking through its own barricades and exposing itself once more to that which cannot be safely reassimilated in advance. Such desire is beyond the reflective capacities of conscious recognition. Its arousal and excited self-sensing in direct proximity to an unknown alterity occur as shockwaves that reverberate throughout the structural relations of the subject, destabilising, disrupting, calling awareness from the distantiated central control point of conscious understanding to the farthest limits of its occurrence.

The object in its constructedness is written through in its being with that sentient-imaginative desiring motion which impels its creation. It embodies within its objectness an enduring sentient-awareness according to which it is able to reciprocate, by virtue of its construction as such, the thinking gesture of its founding creative action.[4] It is valued in this regard precisely for its capacity to endure. The object subsists as an autonomous worldly article upon a social plane. In this manner, it has the advantage of being able to reciprocate the gesture of its founding creative action repeatedly, perhaps over temporal breaks or in multiple directions. The construction of the worldly object occurs most fundamentally as an active creative expression of our elemental sentience. But as a created and now free-standing artefact within the world, the object is now valued and regarded according to its measure of social utility. The fact of the object’s social utility is equally a part of its being as enduring object. It is determined in accordance with its position within the world of meaning, of subjects and objects, of which it is a part. Its capacity for an autonomous subsistence as object enables it to form connections, to exist within that network of relations that configure it as a meaningful object of the world, and in this meaning as useful and socially accessible. The object is defined by, and presents itself according to a meaningful identity which determines it in its usefulness (a usefulness and meaning that is premised upon the concealed grounding impetus of its being constructed as sympathetic to human sentient being). In this way we know what to expect of and how to relate to the object in advance; which is to say that the object in its habitual worldly existence, is determined dialectically.

If the essential impetus of an object’s creation is the articulation and materialisation of a sentient desire, then in the vast majority of cases of object manufacture, this essence will be hidden or consumed within the dialectical configuration of the object according to its projected usefulness. The creation of the object generally takes place within a vast referential framework of worldly purpose and project – its movement is programmed by the object’s referentially-determined teleological attribution of use. The motivating sentience may be apparent to some degree within the creative process, but only as dialectically articulated idea; that is, it is already configured as or subsumed within the identity attribution of a thing. To borrow a (typical) scenario from Scarry, the manufacturer of a coat (‘Mildred Keats’ to be specific, or one of her contracted labourers) is not motivated by a pressing bodily desire for warmth. This desire may well be the essence of the coat as a thing, in its object-identity, and this is what essentially, and inexplicitly, drives the movement of its manufacture – but this essence is hidden within the object’s more manifest meaningful identity as coat. That this object-identity assignation is grounded upon the useful function of the coat as a means to keep warm may in this case be quite apparent. But the original sentient desire is nonetheless concealed within the immediate apparence of the object-identity. We know what coats are good for, but in our conscious apprehension of the coat as coat we do not always feel the original pressing urge for warmth – we do not see that sentience inscribed within the very material, the very substance and being of the coat as coat. The objective of the creation of this coat is to make a coat. The maker of the coat is motivated by this specified objective. This is the guiding impetus of her task. Thus even in the motion of the coat’s creation, its essence is concealed within its teleological determination.

Objects themselves embody within their objectness the capacity for connection with and an inclination towards other objects. The object is configured as such according to the projects, the intentions of the subject by means of the process of its manufacture or creation and by means of its being continually taken up within each encounter as useful. That we apprehend the object first and foremost by way of its meaning-identity simply reflects the constructedness of the object as useful. The object is recreated, is affirmed as object, each time it is apprehended by the subject as a tool. Each object is interdetermined as object through its configuration within social systems. Its determination according to its task invokes the qualitative similarities across each instantiation of the coat, of the book; the anticipatability of its function according to its meaning-identity. This is equally the object’s exchangeability; its extension across a network of use and meaning is that which enables it to participate within an economy of exchange. The object gains its usefulness as object only through its being part of an intelligible and socially accessible network of relation. As far as it is constructed as meaningful, within a network of relation, it implies other objects within its being and registers within its meaning-identity various social structures of project. Moreover, the freestanding object gains strength and security in its being as object through its connectability upon a plane of meaning. As much as we apprehend the object as useful, according to our projects, we may equally say that objects present themselves to us in this way.[5] As themselves bearers of project and intention, integrated within a network of interdependent meaning, implicatory of one another, objects are as influential within the construction of the subject as they are influenced by the subject in their own construction. It is by virtue of their social configuration that objects may start to dominate our perceptions of ourselves as individuals.

The book conceals within its worldly being that communicative gesture which saturates its pages, quietly bursting within its words. The book collects itself within the construct of its bookish identity, gathered under the unificatory authority of a title, enclosed within the reassuring boundaries of its covers. By virtue of its sturdiness, its solidity as book, the secure signification of its titling, the book may be referenced, sold, exchanged, and owned; it may enter into that meaningful circulation of worldly artefacts, of produced goods. As a public phenomenon, dweller of libraries, the book is encountered not as something that appeals to us for our engagement, but as an object of use: perhaps entertainment, perhaps knowledge, something from which we may access information. Its language is reproducible, printed for mass distribution, inscribed to endure. In the writing of the book one sees oneself reflected as an active subject, as creator. A name is configured as author, imprinted on the spine, collected in databases; it enters into the circulation of a meaning-economy. It becomes the object of others’ attention, of literary reviews.

Human being as it occurs in thought is fundamentally relational. The subject constitutes itself as individual through a distantiated movement of retroaction. But to write oneself as subject one must traverse an exterior and social plane of world. The subject regathers itself as whole from those disparate fragments of its being that it may perceive as objective within the world. This world is already implicated within its being. To write oneself as subject is to put oneself at a remove from that world with which one is already integrally bound.

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Exscription’, Yale French Studies, 78, 1990, p.53.

[2] On the construction of the subject as reflected from world, see Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Shattered Love’ in The Inoperative Community, ed. by Peter Connor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991).

[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, ibid., p.89.

[4] On the capacity of the object for reciprocation see Scarry, op cit., p.307.

[5] See Heidegger, Being and Time, I:III

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