Issue #3 · 2021-11-29

Problematic Subjects

by Owen Gilbride

It isn't my desire simply to think about life – I want to live it. I want to be in amongst it, to breathe it in, to swim through it. Is thought alone a valid mode of experiencing life? Can we keep life at a safe distance, as a spectacle which excites the imagination but not the sensibilities? Our mental model of how the world works may become more complex, but the felt sense of being in the world will never develop in an appreciable way. We can contemplate virtue, or power, or creativity - but this familiarizes us only with the process of contemplation. Alternative modes of being are known only in the form of abstract representations, rather than as what they truly are – vast experiential fields, each with their own distinct senses of what is possible.

Life in its totality is given as a pre-rational intuition. It's too big, too close. Thus, one must separate themselves from life in order to better appreciate it as an object of thought. In philosophizing, one should attempt to approach the pre-rational substratum of understanding, in an attempt to raise it to a higher level of conscious articulation. We must engage directly with intuitive being, in the hope of making explicit that which had been merely implicit. Our intention shouldn't be to render complex that which had been simple, rather to open up new possibilities of experience. But like anything new, you can't describe it ahead of time.At the outset there is only a vague compulsion which cannot be explained, a desire to embark on a journey that can only be understood once it is completed. Doing philosophy necessarily involves this leap of faith.

But who is this you who philosophizes? What is this journey to be completed? The subject who approaches the world is as much a mystery to conscious understanding as is the world itself (and indeed, as much a mystery as this thing called "approaching"). One does not construct his understanding from fresh cloth, with full conscious clarity of the process he is undertaking.Rather, one gradually becomes aware of the fact that he is already projecting a frame onto experience. At first this frame is largely unconscious and mistaken for experience in itself. It is only by way of conscious reflection that one comes to appreciate just how much of so-called "objective reality" is a product of his own subjective experience. Your physicality, your cultural heritage, your social milieu – these things inform your understanding of the world more than you could possibly imagine. The project of philosophy, then, is not so much one of creating understanding wholesale, but of becoming conscious of the particular forms of understanding one already holds. More often than not, the way in which you pose a question reveals more than whatever answers you settle upon.

I

To be a child of Modernity is to know ambiguity. You move through a world you don't understand, a bit part character in a story that started further back than anyone can remember. Even the being that you are appears to you as a mystery which can't be satisfactorily explained. Pluralism makes explicit the myriad ways in which one might interpret and orient themselves towards life, and thus allows one to call into question the traditions and modes of interpretation that they have inherited. No longer is one's individual identity fully subsumed under a particular mode of being (or so it seems). Rather, like a dancer who has become aware of the fact that he is being watched, one is all too conscious of their own identity as a participant choosing to carry on in a particular fashion. The mode of being that one is subsumed under then, is that of an isolated individual making arbitrary choices based on his own egoic sensibilities. The feeling of there being myriad alternative possibilities to any course of action (and the sense of hesitation that inevitably brings) is always ready at hand. This hesitation is conceptualized as free will – a shattering of a previously existing sense of pre-determination, which opens one up to a field of infinite potentialities. But free will is in fact not the affirmation of one's freedom to do anything; rather it is the negation of the immersive potential inherent in any particular act. Anything that one might choose to do is called into question. The unknown haunts us like an unresolved argument, a gnawing compulsion to understand that which we as yet are unable to articulate.

The mind observes the process of life unfolding, gradually accumulating a vast storehouse of experiential data. From this, it attempts to discern predictable patterns of cause and effect. Gradually a mental model is constructed, a symbolic representation of life as a cohesive system, which is projected onto the unfolding ambiguity of immediate experience. The mind does this in order to more effectively navigate being, to formalize desires, to anticipate changes, to actively determine that which one is to seek out or avoid. The mental model of understanding is at all times being developed in an experimental fashion, tested, expanded and revised as new experiences are had, and new patterns of recognition are incorporated.

The above is the point of view taken by the so called free-willed individual; the individual as explorer, as scientist, as pioneer. The subject of Free Will is a formless abstraction, a soul lacking corporeal form but tied to a particular time and place. These particularities (accidental in nature) are said to inform the individual's life experience, but are made secondary to one's supposed freedom to self-determine. Free Will denies that one's course of development is pre-ordained. It recognizes that irrational desires drive one's decision making process, but treats these desires as if they were something the individual had consciously chosen to pursue.

The Free Will perspective does not deny that to be human is to be party to a vast cultural inheritance. The "data" with which one is said to construct their intellectual understanding is not limited simply to that which is given via personal experience. Each individual is born into conditions which inform the course of action he is most likely to take. Each generation receives from its forebears the consolidated understandings of those who lived previously – in the form of art, literature, religious dogma, social institutions, etc. One engages with this cultural heritage (or is made to engage with it) in order to take on forms of understanding far richer than that which is typically revealed by immediate experience. These higher forms of understanding require prolonged effort to integrate, and may at first appear far removed from one's own intuitive sense of valuation. In traditional cultures, youth are typically disciplined into accepting their cultural inheritance. This is practiced out of an understanding (on the part of the elders) that this inheritance will only be fully appreciated after it has been successfully integrated. It is understood as well, that the culturally elevated ideal of the good life is more often than not something wholly distinct from that which is called for one's immediate impulses.

Tradition (and any sort of adherence to external codes) is framed as a process of self-discipline. Self-discipline then, is a negation of a negation. Free Will compels one to question the validity of any particular mode of being. Self-discipline allows one to adhere to a particular mode of being in spite of this. To obtain particular ends, one must engage in particular patterns of behaviour. No amount of positive thinking allows you to get past the fact that becoming an athlete necessitates not gorging yourself on pound cake five nights a week. The individual organizes their myriad desires into a hierarchy of values, and determines a distinct course of action based on that which appears most compelling. You could eat an entire box of cake mix, but you'd really rather go to the gym, and pursue the life-path associated with that.

Regardless of the ends you choose to pursue or the identity you choose to affirm, the fundamental presupposition remains; the subject as formless abstraction. The end is pursued as something drawn arbitrarily from an infinite field of equally valid options. It isn't just that one is faced with the possibility of abandoning, questioning, or redefining the particular ends they have chosen to pursue. Rather, one remains at all times haunted by a deeper existential ambiguity. What's the point of any of this? What is my ultimate nature? This thing that I'm doing isn't me – it's just a thing that I'm doing. All forms of lived experience are made secondary to this problem of the subject as formless abstraction, haunting itself wherever it goes.

Adherence to cultural inheritance (and any other system presented as a possible course of action) fails to address the concerns that a belief in Free Will illuminates. Every system that one might choose to engage with is all too easily called into question.One only has to spend time with a young child to appreciate just how easily even the most unseasoned ego can pose questions for which no answer can be readily provided. It isn't simply a matter of there not being enough time to try on every possible point of view like outfits in a clothing store. To truly inhabit a particular mode of being is by necessity, to not inhabit other modes of being. To know the experience of being a man is (amongst other things) to not know the experience of being a woman. The possibility of the individuated subject experiencing all things in their turn is rendered impossible from the outset, even if said individual were to live for a million years.

In light of this, the subject as free-willed individuality is made to acknowledge its limits. One's mental understanding of the material universe is merely the systematization of that which one has encountered thus far. It is understood that understanding (at best) approximates but a small sliver of the world as such. The mind requires a means of articulating this awareness of a known unknown, this feeling of there being untold layers of understanding still to discover and perhaps even forms of understanding which will remain forever beyond reach. The mental model is woefully incomplete, failing to produce satisfactory explanations regarding the nature of being. And yet, being itself seems to endure just fine. One inevitably reaches the conclusion that some ultimate explanation must be hidden in the field of unknowns, some self-justifying absolute (or at the very least, some foundational paradox which would render the absolute itself absolutely impossible). The will of the absolute must ultimately be mysterious. And yet, there it is.

II

Faith, within the logic of what we have described, is a conscious recognition of the fact that being endures, despite one's inability to articulate how or why it endures. Man seeks endlessly to understand the world around him, without ever arriving at a sense of completion. In the experience of faith, he comes to recognize that this subject who seeks is contained within a greater totality – a totality which requires no conscious explanation or justification, because it is the foundation upon which all explanations and justifications are constructed. In the experience of faith, the free-willed individual acknowledges that their subjectivity is not a formless abstraction that approaches the world. Rather, the subject is constructed out of the world. Your thoughts, feelings, and sense of individuality emerge out of all that which you perceive as Other. In faith, we come to recognize the continuity of the Self with the totality of Being as such.

Faith allows the recognition of the contingency of Free Will. The concept of the subject as a formless, individuated Self approaching the world-as-Other is merely one method of conceptualizing subjectivity. The notion that one freely chooses a course of action from an infinite number of equally valid possibilities is merely one way of interpreting causality. In recognizing this, we allow for the possibility that our subjectivity could be framed entirely differently. Furthermore, we allow for the possibility that subjectivity has been framed differently in different epochs, and that the Modern conception of Free Will is something that emerged by way of a historical process.

The difficulty in considering a radically different stage of human development is that one is at all times tempted to project his own understanding backward. It's hard enough to remember what a summer day feels like when there's snow on the ground; harder still to imagine how a subject not predicated on modern notions of Free Will might have experienced life. Thus so-called Prehistoric Man is all too easily understood as Modern Man in a loincloth. He speaks in grunts and growls, but still attempts to convey the same sense of self as someone speaking contemporary English. He understands the world in terms of crude superstitions, but maintains the same metaphysical relation to the world as someone living today. Clearly, this is not the case. Interiority is a culturally-mediated phenomenon, and culture is a product of history. The primitive subject engages with life not as an incorporeal ghost haunting experience, but as experience itself. There is no inner self who senses and feels, but only the process of sensing and feeling. There is no I who determines my own individual course of action, but only a universal unfolding of causality. Experience is revealed, there is not yet a for whom or a for what. At this stage, the fact that something occurs is explanation and justification enough. Even in attempting to determine what compelled primitive man to begin developing complex society, we adopt a historical time consciousness, and frame the past as a linear sequence progressing towards the present moment. Only modern man could think in such terms.

Experience isn't a process of quantitative accumulation, to which the present moment is an N+1 containing all prior moments. Rather, experience is a process of constant qualitative transformation. Events can radically transform our perception of the world, they do not simply encapsulate it in another layer of complexity like Russian nesting dolls. The present moment is a distinct totality, from which the idea of a past is constructed. You held certain notions as a child, and different notions as an adult. This can of course, be framed as a linear progression where the world of the child gradually evolved into that of the adult, with an abstract 'youness' enduring throughout. But this is merely a narrative. You recall the experience of being a child, but you do not retain it. The childself does not live on in your present form, as an eternal essence. You reconstruct your past out of the being that you are today. This applies both to individuals and cultures.

Consider the religious icon and the work of art, we perceive these things as symbolic representatives of higher meaning. If we take them to be nothing more than objects or processes through which one might discover meaning, we've already lost sight of the thing we were looking for. In perceiving the faded icon as something that was once charged with a divine essence which has now become absent, we find ourselves again mired in the fundamental problem of Modernity. The subject of Free Will engages with the world as a void which cannot be filled, forever seeking something beyond immediate experience. But a work of art does not convey meaning, it is meaning. One does not adhere to a tradition because it serves some higher purpose, the maintenance of the tradition is in itself a higher purpose. You resist immoral behaviour not because it has some degenerative consequence, but because you recognize the act itself as disobedience of a transcendent authority. In approaching artifacts as though they were former repositories of some divine essence which now fails to present itself, we turn them into the antithesis of that which we take them to be. Rather than illuminating your connection to the totality of all things, these faded icons serve only to emphasize the foundational disconnect which gives you no reprieve. This used to mean something, it should mean something, but I feel nothing.

Notions of faith and Divine will initially seem to offer a means of addressing the existential uncanniness of Modern life. One quickly comes to recognize that these things cannot be consciously called forth. One cannot simply talk themselves into experiencing awe. No amount of reasoning (and no amount of Queer Theory) can make you see beauty in that which you perceive as being ugly. You don't aspire to love, you fall into it. The spirit catches you and you fall down. Faith is ultimately a process of the outside coming in, of one's isolated ego being overwhelmed by the totality. You don't choose to experience it – that's the whole point. Thus, the tradition which presents itself as something you might choose to adopt or neglect at your leisure is nothing more than another game to play, another outfit to try on.

Existential ambiguity is not to be approached as a problem to solve, or as a loss of some vital essence which must be recovered. Existential ambiguity itself is nothing more than the act of viewing life as a problem, or as an absence of some indescribable force which ought to be there. Simply acknowledging this however, does not cause the feeling of uncanniness to dissipate. The feeling you feel is that of being unmoored from any concrete sense of identity. Of course, remarking "this too, is an illusion" only serves to complicate matters further. What then are we to do?

III

To be conservative is to maintain certain institutions out of a sense of obligation. You honour a tradition not because doing so offers you some practical advantage, (or so you tell yourself) but because you recognize the tradition as having inherent value. This recognition however, takes the form of a logical proposition. You approach the tradition not as a living quality that infuses your being, but as an artifact to be preserved. Perhaps you identify with it, recognizing it as a symbol of your people, nation or creed. But the felt sense of connection just isn't there, at least not in any appreciable amount. You tell yourself it is something akin to the hand that holds, when really it's just a thing you're holding onto. The further removed one gets from an imminent connection to the object of conservation, the more conservation takes on an air of mundane practicality. The tradition needs to be maintained, because that's what we've always done. If we lost our tradition, perhaps society as we know it would fall apart. In this way the conservative comes to be seen as disingenuous, as demanding the preservation of institutions whose only real purpose is to keep society in the fossilized configuration in order to secure his status.

Within the modern field of understanding, the conservative is always playing at a disadvantage. His position fails to justify itself on spiritual or on pragmatic grounds. The pragmatic materialist seeks to progress to something better, rather than to limit his horizons with holdovers from a bygone era. The self-proclaimed spiritualist in contrast, is searching for that which infuses her being with a distinct feeling rather than worn-out clichés which merely claim to do so. To that end she'll turn away from the conservative's offerings in favour of that which genuinely excites. Note that in each case the subject is put forward as nothing more than an individual concerned with their own personal experience. Those who truly grasp a tradition are those who as yet still hold faith. They recognize in the tradition a living aspect of their own subjectivity. This is something entirely different from conservatism. The conservative fails to grasp his tradition as anything other than an external institution, lacking divine imminence. Thus, the tradition begins to fall into disrepair. Faith, if it is anything at all, is an experience which overwhelms categorical understanding. Attempting to conserve objects of faith for the sake of pragmatism is a losing battle.

The youth in particular are typically at odds with the conservative position. Even in a culture which holds spiritual sway over its people, a child still requires initiation to fully appreciate that which he has been born into. When a tradition comes to be seen in strictly pragmatic terms, or as an artifact to be preserved, it begins to erode. Each subsequent generation becomes less invested in the process of maintaining and passing on the traditions because they are no longer perceived as a fundamental component of one's own being. The process of initiating youth into a particular worldview comes to be seen as an increasingly archaic and unnecessary holdover from another time. The youth fail to see their cultural inheritance as anything other than an unnatural imposition attempting to dissuade them from the kind of faith they more readily experience. If one understands faith as nothing more than the process of the individual ego being overwhelmed by pure experience, then this clearly cannot be facilitated by lifeless institutions. What they seek is experience which is intense or novel in character. For the youth of an advanced civilization, spiritual sensibility is more readily discovered through rebellion, ecstasis and the exotic. The kind of spirituality handed down to them by the older generations appears as nothing more than an attempt to hold back the transformative flow of life by those who have fallen out of touch. The flaws of the elders are projected onto everything that the elders claim to represent, and thus established conventions come to be seen as dehumanizing forces to be challenged directly.

An imperative which fails to evoke a sense of subjective identity tends to invite behaviours antagonistic to its intent. A cultural inheritance which one is invited to adopt as their primary identity but which lacks any sense of inherent meaning or spiritual validity. This for the youth comes to be seen more as a sort of challenge to overcome. Mass youth revolt against tradition therefore does not destroy tradition, it is a symptom of its prior weakening. Rebellion and the process of ritualistic self-undoing offers up an intensity of feeling which fails to present itself within the confines of established customs. For the subject who perceives themselves as a free-willed individuality beholden to a single short lifespan but not to any particular course of action, it matters little if these sorts of experiences are unsustainable. What matters is that one is alive, and seeks to feel something now. Ergo the romanticized image of the social malcontent engaging in dangerous and self-destructive behaviour for no other purpose than to satisfy his own libidinal impulse. Better to burn out than to fade away. No doubt many alleged forms of rebellion are in truth nothing more than commodified time-sinks, put forward by cynical industries aiming to profit from identity-seeking ghosts. But by the time you come to recognize this, you've already sacrificed your best years to the machine.

In modernism, the subject and object are alienated. No longer is experience given as a self-justifying totality, instead the subject understands itself as a formless void approaching experience. A Self forever searching for an unknowable something that lies beyond it. Life is no longer lived for its own sake, but always with reference to some abstract point one is trying to reach. This illusive point that distracts one from the flow of life is paradoxically, nothing more than the promise of a life lived fully.

IV

A logical consequence of modernist alienation is one's relation to the world no longer being perceived as an inner spark which desires to expand outward, but rather as that which is oppressed from every angle by an external force. The world is felt as something alien, beyond the control of an identity now wholly predicated upon the individual ego. The self is experienced as nothing more than a vector of despair, a victim weighed down by incessant demands and limitations (cultural, biological, etc.). Faith represents a conscious awareness of one's connection to the totality of all things. In despair then we see a kind of anti-faith – a feeling of becoming detached from Being as such as an absolute totality. The more one experiences despair, the more one creates conditions for further despair. Despairing-production is a self-perpetuating process. It seeks to uncreate that which it experiences as pain, but pain itself is the act of uncreating. One never attacks that which brings pain, but only the Self as pained. A subjectivity which has become wholly negative in constitution views life as an agitation to be settled, or as a disturbance against the peaceful emptiness of eternal slumber.

Despairing-production asks: You suffer, but why? The world is perceived only in terms of that which decays, and this recognition in itself only facilitates further decay. The institutions one maintains lack meaning, and stymie one's ability to seek novel forms of short term self-gratification. Self-gratification itself is a meaningless pursuit. Even the most degenerate forms of hedonism offer diminishing returns. Ultimately one seeks nothing more than to be freed from all of these external impositions – even those put forward by their own libido. Life no longer holds lustre. You would rather just relax. Established patterns break down. Energy spreads out in every possible direction, becoming undifferentiated. The tendency towards ironic detachment is an early stage of the decline. There is still an engagement with the world, but only in the form of active negation. The ironist mocks established institutions, not out of a revolutionary desire to replace them with something better, but as an expression of nihilistic frustration. Perhaps there is a hope that in making explicit this feeling of emptiness, the process of entropic decline will take on an affirmatory character. Misery loves company, and those who have become cast off from all coherent forms of identity would love nothing more than to know they are not alone. Regardless, negation of existing structures fails to coalesce into any sort of lasting positive identity. One's sense of meaning continues to diminish, and what was initially a world-weary cynicism slowly becomes a raw, animalistic cry of pain.

The communist emerges as an anti-traditionalist product of Modernity. The subject as despairing seeks release from the weight of difference, which the nihilist cannot perceive as anything but arbitrary. So it aims to unveil the hypocrisy of the existing order, to undermine its legitimacy and destroy it. In theory this is done in service of moving towards some newer, better order. In practice, it succeeds only in dismantling that which previously gave a sense of continuity. The communist regards any imposed discipline or hierarchical structure as at best, a bad deal to be renegotiated. Thus, any newer and better system it develops to replace some older, more problematic system in time comes to be seen as problematic itself. The communist worldview is predicated on an understanding of the subject as that which approaches the world, rather than as a product of the world itself. Freedom must therefore always be in spite of the world's limitations, and so no revolution can ever be the final revolution. The communist attacks any emergent form of order (even those it had itself previously erected) in the name of a utopian vision that grows ever more incoherent. To ensure the rights of every hypothetical individual, the rights of every actual individual are restricted. Every definable aspect of humanity is seen as a challenge to be overcome, the destruction of which is required for humanity's "liberation". Of course, the logical conclusion of this is death, for death is the only perfect equality.

V

The progressive mindset eventually causes one to abandon progress itself. In time, even science and rationality come to be seen as arbitrary impositions standing in the way of self-expression. Free Will taken to its logical conclusion necessitates no experience or point of view being off-limits, except limitation itself. You can be a man, or a woman, or a neon green fox. You can become healthy, or beautiful, or talented simply by deciding you already are these things. Fixed definitions are chains upon the free flow of desire. The world doesn't define you, you define it. The world is yours to reconfigure however you see fit. But in the end this gets you nowhere. You watch the game of life unfolding, telling yourself stories about how you've already won. That which you actually wanted, to participate in the great unfolding, remains forever beyond your reach.

Despair persists so long as one perceives themself as an extradimensional spectre haunting the material plane. But the world isn't something for you to figure out, you are the process of the world figuring itself out. Your corporeal being isn't an empty vessel which the mind fills up with experience. It is corporeality which gives rise to selfhood. You do not approach tradition – you are tradition, extending itself in this living moment. You are the song of life, writing its own particular melody. The subject is not some empty abstraction, it's full of its own particular vitality. You're just too close to see it. The intellect is a marvellous tool, but don't get it twisted. Your task was never to know all things, but to further develop that which flows through you.

The task of life is not to comprehend the objective rules of the game, but to play it. Too often we moderns face reality as some great difficulty we would like to free ourselves of. We seek freedom, for what? Life itself is the freedom we seek. To affirm life in its totality, in its particularity, ugliness and limitations – this is at the root of all meaning. To have faith is not to recognize some abstract essence which exists beyond corporeal forms. Rather, faith acknowledges what is unfolding right now in this moment in its uniqueness. Faith is a process. It is that which is developed through constant participation. It is that which one repeatedly affirms. To hold faith is not to seek some end destination, but to hold firm to life itself. To dance with it.