Posts Tagged ‘subjectivity’

Charles Guignon has written a lovely book called On Being Authentic. He draws on a number of philosophers and historians, and on examples from contemporary culture, to tell the story of where our modern notions of ‘being authentic’ and ‘being true to oneself’ really come from.

Broadly speaking, according to Guignon, we have seen three types of ‘self’ in the West. In pre-modern times, in the classical and medieval worlds, we had ‘the extended self’. Here, what makes me ‘me’ is that I belong to something bigger than me, something that comes before me, and extends beyond me. I don’t choose or define this larger whole – it defines me. As Guignon writes:

My identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole [p18].

It reflects the interwovenness of all reality. I am part of an overarching whole, a cosmic scheme. The meaning of my life is very clear, and it is not at all up to me. There is lots of identity and belonging; but very little freedom.

In modern times, over the last four or five centuries, the idea of individuality and subjectivity has become more prominent. I am a subject with my own experiences, feelings, desires and opinions. I relate to the outside world of course, but that relationship is partly determined by my own decisions about how to construe that relationship.

The key term here is ‘autonomy’, so that the modern self is not so much ‘extended’ as ‘nuclear’ or ‘punctiliar’ – meaning I am the centre, the nucleus, of my own world, and not just the periphery of a socially constructed world. I still have an identity, but it’s one that I have helped to create through my personal choices.

In a post-modern culture, according to Guignon’s summary, the very notion of the stable self or subject has been called into question. Human identity is fluid and contextual. We now have different selves and limited powers of choice. There is no stable centre to the self but multiple centres with different perspectives. We have different masks, different roles, different potentialities. Some we are responsible for and in control of, some not. We absorb the values and visions of others without acknowledging the process.

The nuclear or punctiliar self of modernity gives rise to the fragmented or decentred self of post-modernity.  There is at once a radical freedom, even to go beyond who you are and recreate yourself; and a radical impotence, because you never have the secure foundation of a self from which to move or make a decision.

This is all very familiar to philosophers, but Guignon is a good teacher, and he writes with great insight and wit. And what I find so interesting about today’s Western culture, at least in Britain, is that it is one huge pile up of conflicting notions of the self. It’s not actually post-modern. It’s pre-modern and modern and post-modern all at the same time (and maybe some people would say that this a very definition of post-modernism!). We are longing to belong, and to be true to our inner selves, and to set off in radically new directions – all at the same time. No wonder we are confused!


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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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“Estamos bien en el refugio los 33,” it read. “We are well in the refuge – the 33”. This is the phrase that was scribbled on a piece of paper, put into a plastic bag, and hoisted up to the surface as evidence that the trapped miners were alive and well.

Martin Fletcher and Laura Dixon write about how the copyright to these words has now been registered by their author:

The note brought joy to Chile but it can no longer be freely reproduced. It has been copyrighted on behalf of Jose Ricardo Ojeda Vidal, the miner who scribbled it in big red letters.

Pablo Huneeus, a well-known Chilean writer, was moved to act after President Pinera kept the note and flaunted it during his foreign travels.

In London on Monday he presented copies to Queen Elizabeth II and British PM David Cameron, and was expected to do the same in meetings with French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this week.

“I thought ‘That’s just too much’,” said Mr Huneeus, who went to the Civil Registry Office in Santiago, obtained copies of Mr Ojeda’s birth certificate and national insurance number, then paid pounds 5 to register the sentence as the intellectual property of Mr Ojeda at the Directorate of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

“My point is, Ojeda is owner of the phrase … According to our law, copyright for a creation, invention, song, a piece of art, belongs to the author at the moment he creates it,” Mr Huneeus told The Times. “There’s another aspect here. We have a man that was 625 metres below ground, and up above, a billionaire [Mr Pinera], takes his property and pockets it.

“As for the words themselves, I think they are amazing. I can only compare them to the first words of the Bible … It’s a beautiful sentence. As a writer I would love to have been able to write something so precise and concise as that. It’s the most perfect sentence.”

Having copyrighted the sentence and the image of the note, Mr Huneeus then called the miner to tell him that “now no one can use them without asking his permission”.

He said that Mr Ojeda was “very happy about it. He had seen the T-shirts, cups, the posters that have been cropping up all over the world. He is … very much aware of his rights. He knows what justice is.”

Mr Huneeus said that Mr Ojeda also wanted to recover the original note, which Mr Pinera keeps in his office and considers part of the national heritage. “It’s his property and he wants it back.”

The first of several books – Under the Earth: The 33 Miners that Moved the World – is about to be published. The first television re-enactment will be broadcast in December. Three applications have been made for the internet domain name los33mineros.cl and four for estamosbienenelrefugiolos33.cl.

Some people might feel snooty about this, as if the purity of the rescue had been sullied by this commercialisation. I’m not so sure. There is something very human about this – not the commercialisation in itself, but the fact that raw experiences very quickly become objectified. As soon as we experience something, we are able to reflect on it and question it.

We are never just trapped in the moment; we are always at a certain distance – even as something is taking place. This is part of the self-consciousness that characterises human beings. So it doesn’t surprise me that a spontaneous word very quickly becomes a possession and a commodity. What we then do with that possession is another question entirely.

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