Tag Archives: subjectivity

Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

Ongoing Post:

A curiously de-politicized Woolf, according to many. A novel that pushes the experiment of diffusive personality to such an extreme that “time and place” are obliterated almost completely. The title of the first draft was “The Life of Anybody,” pointing to the potentially formal qualities of art to wrench themselves from subjective content to the degree that any human can enter its structures. Yet the political reading has been offered by some: perhaps Woolf is toying with the idea of political collectivity, the potential for an individual to find meaning in larger wholes that are not immediately subsumed by identifiable institutions, or ossified into social groups with determinate programs. No matter how we read, it is clear that what binds the six characters together (it is a question whether this is critical or not) is their shared national, economic and racial coordinates. Perhaps Woolf is showing the sun set on the British Empire itself, as it self-destructs in and through its colonial enterprises. Rhoda does, after all, jump from the rock Gibraltar, the extreme edge of the british empire….

The opening lines disrupt traditional forms of representation: “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.” In the chorus-like interludes that punctuate the main narrative, these wrinkles, which grow into waves and  return to the vast ocean, take on a life that is meant to signify the “mirrors” tendency to move–i.e. the sea is not merely a reflection of the sky, but it has its own capacity to move: Despite the dispersal of identity, individual characters do take up different affective attitudes towards the interpenetration of subjectivity: Rhoda is inclined to resist any attempt to  shape her or overtake her…to her, the dinner party is a battle field of the social. She loves, envies, hates, etc. but she never “joins” her friends willingly. She “fears embraces.” Bernard, on the other hand, feels the violence of becoming separate, differentiated. He likes the formless.

The plurality of perspectives in The Waves gets subsumed under the single voice of Bernard in the final chapter. As the only straight British male in the group, he is the most conventional heir to literary authority. Further, he tells his story to an unnamed listener while on a boat to Africa, recalling the narrators of Conrad and Ford. This form of literary Imperialism counterpoints and imitates the political imperial project of Percival (who utters only the Everlasting “No” tied to destructive impulses, etc.). The argument could be made that the seemingly deracinated style of The Waves is only a stylistic effect of the suppression of plot and characters: the small-scale violence between consciousness, in language, etc. are connected to the political violence that make this sort of interpersonal dream possible at all. That is, we can read this text symptomatically because it seems to ask for it…. [Cf. Lacan, etc.]

That is to say, The Waves is not a poetic retreat, but something very much like Adorno’s Lyric, which in and through its attempt to express a utopian dream, dramatizes its impossibility.

TIME: Instead of the husk of time swallowing up Septimus, bernard experiences a “drop of time” on his head while shaving. Rather than shock precipitating time’s uninhibited victory, which obliterates psychological boundaries, the scene of Bernard’s shaving (shave, shave, shave) dramatizes habit’s uncanny ability to draw attention to those forms of time’s passing which escape habit’s ordering structures. “I have lost my youth,” he says to himself.

Samuel Beckett – Malone Dies (1951)

Malone, who is naked in bed, tells the story of Sapo, a student that spends some of his time time around the Lamberts, a farming family. When Sapo grows up, Malone changes name to Macmann, finding Sapo ridiculous. Macmann falls over and is taken to St. John’s hospital. He is taken care of by Moll, an old woman with whom he makes love. Moll dies and is replaced by Lemuel. Lemuel supervises a group of inmates on a short excursion. He kills a couple of people, steals a boat, and the text closes with Macmann and others stranded in the water.


More barren than Molloy. All that sustains life, it seems, are stories and possessions (system of elimination and nutrition)–Malone delays his death (equivalent to both the wearing away of his pencil and the filling of his exercise book) through these distractions. Some lines to remember:

“What tedium” (a refrain repeated whenever Malone goes into the details of his own life)

“Nothing is more real than nothing” (Stevens-style, but needs to be related to the conflicted idealism of Jackson’s parrot. See next…)

“Nihil in intellectu” (without the famous restriction given by Aquinas, who argued that God could be proved by way of the senses)

“Groping” (if there is a verb that sums up the actions of the Trilogy, it is this one, cf. Adorno on the work of art’s essential “blindness”)

REST – death, sleep, rest become equivalent in Beckett subject. See Moran crawling, and also “passing from toil to rest in a single unbroken moment.”

“Life perhaps, the struggle to love, to eat, to escape the redressers of wrongs.” (the assumption being that guilt is inherent to human life)

“A few lines to remind me that I two subsist.” (Interesting dialogue could be staged between Browning and Beckett here: the relationship between artici creativity and life-sustaining activity…one is only alive in so far as they can represent their aliveness, or something like that)

“Two is company” (looking forward to later work, in which company is turned into a fiction, one that is unavoidable but inscrutable all at once. Can think of this whole novel as Beckett’s most rigorous attempt (so far) to delineate the bounds of the subject. But even then, the subject is not bound clearly.)

Edmund Burke – “An Introduction on Taste,” in A Philosophic Enquiry (1759)

Page numbers refer to Oxford World’s Classics (2008)

The 1759 edition included an introductory section on the concept of Taste. Burke believes that we can derive a universal standard of taste by carefully observing the passions and the way external actions affect our bodies (the corporeal-erotic aspect of Burke is palpable). In the Preface to the second edition, he expresses hope that an analysis of taste will recur on the “severer sciences” and consequently inflect them with its graces, etc (6). Just curious because for Burke, taste becomes a very loss and usable term, accomplishing much of what Kant hoped it would, but by less complicated means.

TASTE: For Burke, taste is the faculty of mind that forms judgments about the works of imagination. Curiously, imagination will also be the thing that is affected, and he wants to bring together the imagination with reason. He begins by positing that everyone agrees about basic physical tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. And then moves to say that everyone agrees about their metaphorical applications (sweet and sour dispositions, bitter remark, etc.). In the biological sphere, someone claiming that honey is sour is considered wrong, but somehow “vitiated” or “mad” (14). The move to the metaphoric (a part from being the weak link in Burke’s argument) signals the move to the Imagination, for which he claims a congruence with the senses. In the imagination, our sensations get converted into representations. Yes, HUME is important here. And for this reason, Burke’s examples focus in differences in degree…how to judge a smoother or rougher table, while the relative beauty of these characteristics goes unquestioned.  Nevertheless, his tripartite definition of taste–immediate sensual pleasure, secondary representative pleasure of imagination, and the conclusions of reasoning faculty–point towards the sequences of both Kant and Schiller. The difference is that Kant will rigorously distinguish between the sensual and rational aspects of the human. For Burke, there is simply a process of degree. In Kant, there is chasm that needs to be bridged. Burke does offer his own curious categories: lack of sensibility leads to dull taste while lack of judgment leads to bad taste. Thus taste is not a faculty of judgment, but rather something which judgment, associated with reason, regulates (mark the difference with Kant). In fact, judgment can even impede taste, or what Burke sometime calls “the imagination.” But, paradoxically, the cultivation of taste can also recur on judgment, improving it.  The point here is that taste, in Burke, is not a separate faculty, but merely a mode or inflection of reason, understanding, or the imagination. Obviously Burke is less rigorous than Kant, but for this reason, he gets some good work done.




David Hume – Of the Standard of Taste (1757)

For the most part, Hume roles over his “subjectivism” into the world of taste, claiming that taste, existing in the realm os sentiment rather than in judgment, is relative and does not contain truth-value. However, he also makes some stronger claims: that taste can be improved with practice, that prejudice always hampers taste, that moral (mental) taste is inseparable from physical taste, that taste is involved in a process of discernment which can be rated according to its ability to recognize smaller and smaller objects.

One of the consequences is that “good sense” becomes a pre-requisite for good taste. He distinguishes between the vulgar and the refined. Strangely, the vulgar is the more capricious and varying, while the refined is that which is more common. This is the most counter-intuitive move in the essay, and it aligns processes of aesthetic judgment with sensus communis and all those forms of “reason” that were established in the treaty. Unfortunately, he does not extrapolate from the very curious observations on distance—Burke and Kant will do that.

Lastly, just to emphasize the difference with Kant, Hume is radically subjective in his description of how one comes to relate to something beautiful. For example, some people may like the sublime and others may not. In Kant, for the sublime to be recognized as sublime, the subject must undergo the mental process that condition the sublime’s emergence. Thus Hume seems less interested in the relation between subject and object than in the cultural disposition of the subject.

Martin Heidegger – Letter on Humanism (1947)

Page numbers are from Basic Writings (Harper, 2008)

An answer to the question: Comment redonner un sens au mot “Humansime?” Heidegger will question from the start whether we should maintain the word at all. He begins by explicating, more clearly than usual, the relationship between thinking and being. Thinking is an action. The essence of action is accomplishment of what already exists (not cause-effect) as unfolding. Thinking “accomplishes” the relationship between Being and man, because in thinking, Being comes to language. “Language is the house of being.” For thinking to be real thinking, it must stay in its “element,” and its element is Being.  The quiet power of the possible is Being itself: “to enable something here means to preserve its essence, to maintain it in its element” (220).Ok, so maintaining thinking within being preserves thinking as potential.if it goes out of its element (i.e., into the public realm), it becomes mere techne.

Now Heidegger dives into this element via the notions of CARE and EK-SISTENCE, both which characterize the ways in which man “stands-out” into the truth of being,  an ecstatic quality that differentiates him from animals and all other things. Man sustains Da-sein in that he takes the Da, the clearing of Being, into care (231). That is, Dasein’s positionedness in a world becomes an element with the care-structure that determines worldly relations. I’m not totally sure how this connects with the discourse of proximity, but I’m pretty sure that this clearing is space in which man becomes being’s neighbor, as Heidegger will famously write (245). Man is “more” than merely human, to the degree that more is not additive, but more “originally”:

Man, as the existing counter-throw of being, is more animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with man conceived from subjectivity. Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being. Man loses nothing in this “less”; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of Being. He gains the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being into the preservation of Being’s truth. (245)

Ok, this links up in all sort of interesting ways to Levinas’s notion of proximity. Determining the difference should take place via temporality (time of death v. time of the other). Heidegger is basically trying to articulate the essence of the human as neither the liberal subject nor the public man. “Humanism” should be thought in terms of nearness to being.

Heidegger believes that thinking in this manner–not overcoming but “climbing down” from the heights of metaphysics to the “nearest nearest”–is the “recollection of Being,” which exists before thought divides into practical and theoretical spheres. “Such thinking has no result. It has no effect. it satisfies its essence in that it is” (259). However, this mode of thought, that which attends itself to the clearing of Being (not solely to man as the ego cogito), as surpassing all praxis:

Thinking towers above action and production, not through the grandeur of its achievement and not as consequence of its effect, but through the humbleness of its inconsequential accomplishment. (262)

Indeed, the problem according to Heidegger is “quantitative.” We need to recognize the inconsequentiality of our “accomplishment” (as the unfolding of what already is) and the limits of philosophical thought: “less philosophy, but more attentiveness in thinking; less literature, but more cultivation of the letter” (265).



G.W.F. Hegel – The Philosophy of Nature (c.1820)

Page numbers refer to Miller translation (Oxford, 1970)

The second part of the Encyclopedia, sandwiched between the Logic and Spirit. It is divided into three sections: mechanics, physics, organics. The final section, in which I am most interested, is divided into terrestrial organ, the plant, and the animal. The animal section is subsequently divided into shape, assimilation, and the process of genus (or the relationship between individual and species). The move in each of these triadic moments is from universal to particular to concrete (unified) subjectivity. Life, which underwrites all of these movements, is perpetual return to the self: “it gives itself in the form of an object in order to return into itself and to be the accomplished return-into-self” (275).

Before getting to the animal, which is the fullest realization of this movement of life (it is in fact pure, self-determining negativity as such), it’s worth lingering with the plant. Hegel uses the plant to flesh out what could be called “immanent teleology,” similar to what Kant expounds in the second part of the third-critique, but rigorously without the imposition of the divine as guarantor of there teleologies. In short, the plant contains its own means and end. However, its relation to itself is immediately a relation to the outside world. Thus “the unification [of the moments] of self-preservation is not a union of the individual with itself but the production of a fresh plant-individual–the bud” (322). This illustrates what for Hegel is the primary motor of life–namely, a contradiction that compels a unification that always fails. The excess is life–both the life of nature and the life, one could argue, of Hegel’s system.

The animal differs from the plant in many ways–but the most important difference is that it has feeling, or “the existent ideality of being determined” (353). Or put otherwise, it has subjectivity, the self is for the self, it is not immediately related to externality like the plant. The process of determination is three-fold: 1. immediate, simply sensibility (nerves, brain, etc.); 2. particularity as the capacity for being stimulated and reaction, called irritability; 3. the negative return to the self which is the unity of the prior to movements–namely, reproduction, which includes the digestive system first and foremost.  The increasingly complexity of these processes–the means by which organisms divide inorganic material to be excreted and animalized matter ot be sublimated, for example–correlates with the complexity of the animal: “The simplest animals are merely an intestinal canal.”

These divisions are so rigorous and pervasive that they in fact begin to rebound on the very system of categorization that would contain them. So, for example, the mouth, while part of the system of sensibility…for it contains the tongue with which we taste (theoretical), also works to seize external objects and crunch them (practical); it is also the organ of the voice, thirst has its seat there; we laugh and kiss with the mouth: “thus the expressions of many sensations are unified in it” (374).

Assimilation is divided into the theoretical process, the practical process, and the Notional, which unifies the two previous. The animal stands in a state of tension without outside nature. By way of the five senses, the animal’s external relation is immediately reflected back into the self: this is the theoretical process, where appetite is checked. The practical process “begins with diremption of the organism within itself” (384)–that is, it is the feeling of lack and the urge to get rid of it. A being capable of containing this internal contradiction is the subject. The practical process if not free, since it is directed outwards, and freedom can only reside in the theoretical process of the sense, the reasonable will. Actin according to need (characterized as lack) is instinct. “Instinct is purposive activity acting unconsciously” (389). This very close to the aesthetic, it should be noted.

Assimilation works, first, by simple immediate transformation (infection), second, by mediation, which is digestion. Hegel does not want his theory of assimilation to be reducible either to mechanical (chomping) or chemical (saliva, gastric juices) processes. This process is not determined by an external teleology because it does not stop at the directing its activity against the out object but makes it into an object. In short, the animal, as “self-existnet Notion,” rids itself of it one-sided subjective anger towards the object, and finds the end and product of its activity to be “that which it already is at the beginning and originally” (397). In this way, Hegel writes, “the satisfaction conforms to reason…and the result is not the mere production of a means but of the end–union of the organism with itself.” Basically, the modes of external relation are always-already modes of internal self-realtion. Thus the explicit going outside of oneself of assimilation is an expression of the implicit return to oneself involved in every act of assimilation.

Now, this functions by a triple-determination. There is first the negation of the outside object (in anger), then the negation of the outward-turned activity (anger with the self), and then the positing of the self as self-identical, “but secondly, of reproducing itself in this self-preservation” (404). But the nature of the organism is to produce itself as external to itself (the production of the subject through determinate objects). It is in the very repelling of the self that the animal reproduces itself. And this is the final stage of animality, but it in turn takes three forms: simple repulsion, the constructivist instinct, and the propagation of the species. Hegel writes, “the highest and lowest parts in animal organization, are intimately connected: just as speech and kissing, on the one hand, and eating, drinking, and spitting, on the other, are all done with the mouth” (404).

Simple repulsion is excretion. It is the means by which “the organism gets rid of its entanglement with things” (405)–or, the discarding of the means after the end has been attained, which makes this purposive activity. For this reason, the Understanding, which attempts to reduce these mediations to mechanism and chemistry, are unable to comprehend vitality as such.

The constructive instinct, “that artistic impulse as instinct,” is the unity of the theoretical and practical processes of digestion. Like excretion, construction is a self-externaliztion, but one that builds an outside world:

The object is shaped in such a way in which it can satisfy the animal’s subjective need; but here there is not a mere hostile relationship to the outside world, but a peaceful attitude to outside existence. Appetite is thus at the same time satisfied and restrained; and the organism objectifies itself only by disposing of inorganic matter for it own purposes. Here, then, the practical and theoretical relationships are united. (406)

Hegel is here think of building nests, but also of relationships to the ground on which the animals lie, “which is not used up but merely fashioned and therefore preserved.” So in the constructive instinct the animal has reproduced itself as outer existence while remaining the same immediate creature: this is self-enjoyment. Up until now, the animal has only satisfied hunger or thirst, now it satisfies itself. (409) It cites the bird-song as the prime example of self-enjoyment.

T.S. Eliot – Non-fiction (1919-23)

Tradition and and the Individual Talent (1919)

Eliot is struggling to articulate how, once the “newness” of poetic expression has become cliché, someone can still make something new. He turns to tradition, which he claims is not passively inherited, but must be acquired with great labor. “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (38). What happens when an artist makes something new, happens simultaneously to every great work of art that has come before. Each new work of art alters the entire tradition, at least in some small way. “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” Thus in relation to this tradition, the work of the artist becomes that of self-sacrifice, “a continual extinction of personality.” He then says that the mind of the artist if like a “shred of platinum” that acts as a catalyst for two gases to become sulfurous acid. This chemical analogy bears a strange relation to Woolf’s “atomic” theory in “Modern Fiction.” He thus argues against a poetics of personality:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things. (43)

Metaphysical Poets (1919)

A book review that turns into a theory of literary history and poetics tout court. Eliot defends folks like Donne from critics like Johnson, who wrote disparagingly of them that, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Rather than think of them as a failed aberration from the heritage of English poetry (Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc.), Eliot wants to say that there is something valuable in this poetry that has been lost–namely, the coincidence of thought and feeling.

A thought in Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly quipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noises of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (64)

Since their time, Eliot believes, we have suffered and are still suffering from a dissociation of sensibility–an inability to unify sensibility with thought (Shelley almost does in Triumph of Life, but he dies, along with Keats). Thus poetry today must be “difficult,” as he famously writes, since it needs to deal with complexity and fragmentations heretofore not experienced.

Ulysses, Order and Myth (1923)

Opens by praising Larbaud’s review of Joyce, which calls attention to the Odyssey parallels, and by criticizing Aldingtion’s review, which accused Joyce’s method of being undisciplined and vulgar. Eliot first defines classicism (drawing from Hulme), as something which all good literature strives for within the possibilities of its space and time–that is, not a fixed historical term, but a living category undergoing transformation. Joyce’s ability to deal with living material in a classical matter, Eliot believes, has the importance of a scientific discovery. It is not a novel, because the novel was the product of an age that has not lost its form enough to feel the need for something stricter (177). Along with Lewis’ Tarr, Eliot foretells the death of the novel. James and Flaubert were the last.

Thus Joyce employs the mythical method, which is a way of “controlling, ordering, giving shape and significance to the anarchy and futility which is contemporary history.” He says that Yeats has also done this (look at Easter 1916 for one example, but probably best to look at Leda and the Swan). It is through this method, that Joyce helps makes “the modern world possible for art,” which means that art has a intervening power beyond mere description. It can create it material. Very interesting to think of Tarr as employing the mythical method. One wonders….