Subject as Society - Point 6


General Elaboration

The notions of self and fixed identity are even easier to attack because they have been less less securely fixed concepts.  Our identities change depending on the groups we are in, depending on the circumstances and depending how we grow.  Our identities then are anything but fixed and given and are instead shared and malleable.  Others including family members and mentors help form our identities and give them stable reference points.  Cultures also have a hand in shaping the types of responses and values we adopt.  Appropriate humor, dislikes, things to notice, assumptions are attributes of ourselves that we have adopted from our shared cultural legacies.  But equally we are shared by and dependent for our identities on physical aspects of life such as geography and climate, the houses we live in, the transportation systems we use and so on.

This Page, this Point:

General Elaboration



Statement of Point


Further Considerations

These aspects are just a few of the many ways that our very identities, both from others and to ourselves, are shaped by and with others and with things.  The dramas of our lives are often framed by the identities that we hold onto, the ones we aspire to, the ones assigned to us but that we reject, the ones we get away with for short joyous periods, the ones that we discover and so on.  As with objects the major point is that these identities can never be fixed.  The best than we can establish with someone's identity is continuity.  We can establish that there is continuity with from ourselves today with ourselves years ago and that Shakespeare had certain qualities in common with Marlowe and the plays associated with his name but not any definitive identity. 

If we are giving up fixed identity, what are we left with?  Freely constructed identities?  This would just be to change one problem, unworkable fixity, for another, an anything-goes concept.  But person as society avoids these extremes in acknowledging a multiplicity while addressing a wholeness and then trading the issue of definitiveness for one of choosing the framework, or interacting society, with which one views the person.  To the degree that we accept the validity of our own observing or interacting society in evaluation another person then to this degree we are able to give the position of another in our own common society of us plus the other.  Definitiveness about another is equally a statement about the definitiveness with which we accept our own connections with the world.  When we accept that there is no god position, privileged position, or perfect society, then we must also accept that our grip on another is a stronger or weaker but always imperfect community of connections.  Another is then always an imperfect collection of changing relationships.  Similarly, as therapy, meditation and many biographies have shown, this is the same relationship that we also have to ourselves.  Our awareness of ourselves is likewise an imperfect collection of changing relationships.  Our memories change, are edited to suit our visions, find new qualities and are ever different collections.


"... we must begin to face up to some rather puzzling (dare I say metaphysical?) questions. For starters, the nature and the bounds of the intelligent agent look increasingly fuzzy. Gone is the central executive in the brain--the real boss who organizes and integrates the activities of multiple special-purpose subsystems. And gone is the neat boundary between the thinker (the bodiless intellectual engine) and the thinker's world. In place of this comforting image we confront a vision of mind as a grab bag of inner agencies whose computation roles are often best described by including aspects of the local environment (both in complex control loops and in a variety of information transformations and manipulations). In light of all this, it may for some purposes be wise to consider the intelligent system as a spatio-temporally extended process not limited by the tenuous envelope of skin and skull. Less dramatically, the traditional divisions among perception, cognition, and action look increasingly unhelpful."  Clark, Andy. Being There: Putting brain, Body, and World Together Again. MIT Press. 1997. pps. 220-1.

"The preliminary processing of information through perceptual screens is a necessary but not sufficient condition of knowledge. Contrary to popular opinion and many philosophical epistemologies, knowledge does not involve the union or synthesis of an already existing subject and an independent object. To the contrary, knowing is an ongoing adaptive process in and through which subjectivity and objectivity actually emerge and continue to evolve. Knowledge is constituted when subject and object fit together.” Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. University of Chicago. 2001. p. 208.

“We can never come to subjectivity apart from our relations with others. The self always has an ‘intersubjective core.’ For another, we come to subjectivity by participating in language, or more broadly, in communication. It is only in making a normative claim to an unlimited communication community that I finally have self-coincidence as a ‘I.’ Moreover, Habermas recognizes that subjectivity is a contingent affair, that it arises in variable situations in which some potential subject accepts this contingent life it is living as its own and claims for itself an identity.” Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship. Noelle McAfee, Cornell U. Press. 2000. p. 35.

"The environment is not an ‘other’ to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. It is the locus of our existence and identity. We cannot and do not exist apart from it." Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. 1999. Basic Books. p. 566.

"Representation implies symbolic activity, an activity that is certainly at the center of our semantic and syntactical language skills. It is no wonder that in thinking about how the brain can repeat a performance–that it can, for example, call up what may appear to be an image already experienced–we are tempted to say that the brain represents. The flaws in yielding to this temptation, however, are obvious: There is no precoded message in the signal, no structures capable of the high-precision storage of a code, no judge in nature to provide decisions on alternative patterns, and no homunculus in the head to read a message. For these reasons, memory in the brain cannot be representation in the same way as it is in our devices.” Edelman, Gerald and Tononi, Giulio. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination. Basic Books. 2000. p. 94.

"There is no single, definitive 'stream of consciousness,' because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where 'it all comes together' for the perusal of a Central Meaner. Instead of such a single stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of 'narrative' play short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity of a virtual machine in the brain. The seriality of this machine (its 'von Neumannesque' character) is not a 'hard-wired' design feature, but rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists.

"The basic specialists are part of our animal heritage. They were not developed to perform peculiarly human actions, such as reading and writing, but ducking, predator-avoiding, face-recognizing, grasping, throwing, berry-picking, and other essential tasks. They are often opportunistically enlisted in new roles, for which their native talents more or less suit them. The result is not bedlam only because the trends that are imposed on all this activity are themselves the product of design. Some of this design is innate, and is shared with other animals. But it is augmented, and sometimes even overwhelmed in importance, by micro habits of thought that are developed in the individual, partly idiosyncratic results of self-exploration and partly the predesigned gifts of culture. Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless 'images' and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind." Dennett, Daniel.  Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown and Company, 1991, pps. 253-4.

"What I wanted to know was how the subject constituted himself, in such and such a determined form, as a mad subject or as a normal subject, through a certain number of practices which were games of truth, applications of power, etc. I had to reject a certain a priori theory of the subject in order to make this analysis of the relationships which can exist between the constitution of the subject or different forms of the subject and games of truth, practices of power and so forth.

"Question: That means that the subject is not a substance?

"It is not a substance; it is a form and this form is not above all or always identical to itself. You do not have towards yourself the same kind of relationships when you constitute yourself as political subject who goes and votes or speaks up in a meeting, and when you try to fulfill your desires in a sexual relationship. There are no doubt some relationships and some interferences between these different kinds of subject but we are not in the presence of the same kind of subject. In each case, we play, we establish with one's self some different form of relationship. And it is precisely the historical constitution of these different forms of subject relating to games of truth that interest me....  Interview with Michel Foucault, January, 1984, The Final Foucault, Bernauer and Rasmussen, MIT Press, 1988, p. 10.

“She [Kristeva] points to the Freudian notion of the unconscious, saying that the ultimate foreigner is the foreigner within each of us, our own internal strangeness, our unconscious. ‘Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder’ (Kristeva 1991, 1). It is because we have not come to terms with this internal strangeness that we project strangeness onto others. That is why the foreigner is so compelling and still so threatening: he reminds us of our own internal not-at-homeness. The only way to come to terms with the foreigners in our midst is to come to terms with the foreigner within. ‘The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.’”


“In other words, if we do not find ways to deal with internal foreignness–if we do not come to be at home with ourselves–we will not be at home with those others in our midst, those with whom we are struggling to share political community. Community itself will be difficult to achieve. It may well be that problems that affect modern political societies, such as problems of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, are at least in part a result of the psychic maladies affecting subjectivities today.” McAfee, Noelle.  Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship.  Cornell U. Press. 2000. p. 103-4.

“An unencumbered self, nimble enough to cope with an unpredictable econony and an insecure personal world, is deprived of fundamental sources of nurture. Defining dependence as a sign of weakness, believing that persons find real identity ‘on their own,’ rather than with others with whom they share a life; forming interpersonal ties that do not create a community of fate in which what happens to one is of fundamental importance to others–these experiences necessarily undermine the self.” Swidler, Ann. “Saving the Self: Endownment versus Depletion in American Institutions.” pp. 41-55. Madsen, Richard & William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven Tipton. Meaning and Modernity: Religion Polity and Self. University of California Press. 2002. p. 52.

“Thus our very identity, Kristeva writes, is ‘on trial.’ And our subjectivity, being heterogeneous, is constantly being reformed and remade. So there are at least two sources of heterogeneity and openness: the chora as the wellspring of desires and energy movements, which is manifest in the semiotic elements of signification, and the vulnerability of the subject as a system open to other systems. The subject-in-process is always a subject-in-relation, internally and externally. He or she is never constituted once and for all, but is always a provisional, tenuous, open system, hence alive in the fullest sense.” McAfee, Noelle.  Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship. Cornell U. Press. 2000. p. 71.

“After four centuries of advances in scientific knowledge, more than a century of psychological research, and roughly a half century of progress in the neurosciences, even most advocates of scientism acknowledge that science has yet to give any intelligible account of the nature of consciousness. Nevertheless, the extent of our ignorance concerning consciousness is often overlooked. This ignorance is like a retinal blind spot in the scientific vision of the world, of which modern society seems largely unaware.” The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. B. Alan Wallace. Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 145.

“However, we emphatically do not identify consciousness in its full range as arising solely in the brain, since we believe that higher brain functions require interactions both with the world and with other persons.” Edelman, Gerald and Tononi, Giulio. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination. Basic Books. 2000. p. xii.

"The fateful flaw of human semiotics is this: that of all the objects in the entire Cosmos which the sign-user can apprehend through the conjoining of signifier and signified (word uttered and thing beheld), there is one which forever escapes his comprehension--and that is the sign-user himself.

"Semiotically, the self is literally unspeakable to itself. One cannot speak or hear a word which signifies oneself, as one can speak or hear a word signifying anything else, e.g., apple, Canada, 7-Up.

"The self of the sign-user can never be grasped, because, once the self locates itself at the dead center of its world, there is no signified to which a signifier can be joined to make a sign. The self has no sign of itself. No signifier applies. All signifiers apply equally.

"You are Ralph to me and I am Walker to you, but you are not Ralph to you and I am not Walker to me....

"For me, certain signifiers fit you, and not others. For me, all signifiers fit me, one as well as another. I am rascal, hero, craven, brave, treacherous, loyal, at once the secret hero and asshole of the Cosmos.

"You are not a sign in your world. Unlike the other signifiers in your world which form more or less stable units with the perceived world-things they signify, the signifier of yourself is mobile, freed up, and operating on a sliding semiotic scale from -infinity to infinity.

"The signified of the self is semiotically loose and caroms around the Cosmos like an unguided missile.

"From the moment the signifying self turned inward and became conscious of itself, trouble began as the sparks flew up." Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy, Washington Square Press, 1983, p. 107.





Good examples for subjectivity as society come from anomalous situations.  Take the notion of a role for a person.  We are all familiar with how plastic role can be for any person where we watch a person in another role take on a different identity than we had seen before.  Even stranger a role such as devil's advocate for a person can be seen to be played from opposite positions on an argument when one person in different situations takes a counter position with different people.  Identities too are often seen to float easily depending on how agreements made between people and the group members who must cooperate with their attempted choices of identity.  Especially in fluid societies with low group structure people are continually negotiating their own identities and goading others into identities not of their own choosing.  In this regard there is the example of how classrooms of kids in schools usually adapt a spread of identities that is roughly the same distribution that might include the joker, the beauty, the gossip, the tough one, the smart one, etc. 

Another anomaly of subjects is that from a social perspective they exist before they are born or conceived as well as after they are dead.  Families often imagine a child and the role they will play.  This imagined existence of a yet-to-be person can already rearrange family relationships before the biological creature arrives.  Similarly, many people exist by reputation, influence and inspiration long after their demise.  Reputation itself is an aspect of ourselves that is spread beyond our material bodies and that is very important to us to develop during our lifetime.


Statement of Point

Every subject is grounded in the consuming, maintaining, opposing or transforming alliances it keeps with objects. A subject is not nowhere peering out at an external reality from some hypothetical god’s-eye-view but instead is a finitely distributed and active pattern of relationships.



Further Considerations




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Page updated 3/5/03