Subject And Object

 
Quite soon after earliest infancy, we discover that there's a definite boundary between 'I' and 'not-I' - or, more to the point, that there is such a thing as 'not-I'. We're not the centre of the world, and certainly not its sole content: there is 'Other' out there. Yet we still want things to happen - or not happen - out there. Problem...

A weird problem... yet one that most people try to 'solve' by avoiding the weirdness - with the chaotic results that we see around us. There are two standard approaches: treat everything 'out there' as objects; or regard everything 'not-I' as subjects of 'I'. But for many purposes neither of these approaches works well: and if we try to use either of them - as most people do - as our primary or even our sole 'solution' to the problem, they can be immensely destructive, especially of our relationships with others. So understanding why these two approaches so easily go wrong, and how to find a balance between them by working with their inherent wyrdness, forms an important part of our interpersonal 'toolkit' - weird though some of it may seem at first!

One reason why achieving a balance can be difficult is that one side of the equation is well understood and much studied - and much complained about! - whilst the other is hardly known at all. So we'll start with the better-known 'object-centred' worldview - but whilst we're looking at that, keep in mind that there is another 'subject-centred' side to the story...

Everything's an object


"I am a rock, I am an island": I am I - individual, independent, unchanging, I defend my boundaries against all comers. Just occasionally I might notice that I feel a little isolated from others; but since everyone is the same - everyone is a rock, an independent island - there's no other choice anyway. And if I want something to happen out there - well, I'll make it happen! Action speaks louder than words: action! Do It Now: that's my motto!

Recognise this? Who do you know who takes an 'Action Man' or 'Superwoman' approach to life? What difficulties do you have in relating with them? If they acknowledge you as 'you' at all - which often such people don't, or can't - how do they relate with you?

How much do you follow this same approach yourself? Looking at it from the other side - so to speak - what difficulties might others have in relating with you?

I work from an 'object-centred' worldview: everything else 'out there' is an inanimate object - or may as well be inanimate, from my perspective. I'm a self-made man: I don't mess around waiting for things to happen, I take control. Whatever I want, I'll get for myself; anything that gets in my way, it won't be so for long. And if you get in my way, you won't be in my way for long either - so move!

It's easy to see why the object-centred worldview so easily becomes objectionable! But it has its validity and its advantages as well as its problems - as you'll see for yourself in a moment.

For this example, borrow a chair and a friend, and stand them in front of you; or just imagine them both in front of you. You now want them on the other side of the room. They're both objects: which means that if you want them to be moved, you move them yourself. Pick up the chair, and move it to the far side of the room. What problems - if any - do you have with making this happen? What complaints - if any - does the chair make to you about being treated as an object? What is your relationship with the chair-object as you do this? (If your response to those last two questions is 'Huh?', there is a reason for them, but it may not be clear until later!)

Pick up the other object - the person - and move it to the far side of the room. What problems - if any - do you have with making this happen? What complaints - if any - does the person make to you about being treated as an object? What is your relationship with the person-object as you do this?

In Jungian psychology this standard 'island-I' model forms part of the 'masculine' archetype: it's certainly stereotyped as 'male' in Western society. Much current feminist theory, borrowing - or rather mangling, in New Age style - Sartre's concept of 'the Other', places great emphasis on 'the male gaze', which somehow magically transforms everything 'Other' into an object: but in reality it's no more 'male' than 'female'. It's one way of working in - working with - the world: and that's all.

And it's not just the 'objectionable' types who live by this object-centred worldview, because it's also a good place to hide if you happen to have difficulty coping with people. Objects don't answer back; objects don't make demands; objects don't bully; they're always the same, they're predictable, practical, above all safe. Mostly... This reminds me of two engineers in a research establishment I once worked at: both in their early forties, one male, one female - in principle, that is, because they were both so withdrawn and so dowdily dressed that it would be difficult to tell. Another scientist there habitually analysed everything to such depth that he was too dangerous to be allowed to drive a car - he couldn't cope with more than one event at a time... And the programmers, of course, spent so much time in their virtual worlds that they hardly saw anything of the real one. Some wag described the place as "a sheltered workshop for the mentally abled", and he wasn't far wrong!

The object-centred worldview is well-understood because it works - or at least, produces concrete results - in the material world, if not necessarily anywhere else. It analyses, breaks into component parts, reduces to a formula - a set of mathematical or logical relationships rather than human ones - calculates, gets the numbers... it's quantitative rather than qualitative. And precisely because it is quantitative, it can prove that one solution is better than another - in quantitative terms, at any rate. It fully understands "bigger is better": but it has no way at all to grasp the qualitative notion that "small is beautiful"...

Which notion makes more sense to you: "bigger is better", or "small is beautiful"? In what ways are both true? Given that they seem to contradict each other, how can they both be true at the same time?

The downside of that worldview is that it only understands 'objects' - and bases all its values on that understanding, or lack of it. So a car is obviously better than a horse: it goes faster, it carries more load, it's much cheaper and simpler to refuel and maintain, it's far more predictable, and so on. But it's easy for this view to degenerate still further, and treat everything and everyone as inanimate objects - 'the peasants', 'the rabble', 'the staff', 'the workforce', items to be moved and manipulated in whatever way we choose, because it's assumed that they have no will of their own, no life of their own. And when there's a clash - when the childish fantasy of 'absolute control' meets up with Reality Department's insistence that there are others out there, and they do have lives and choices of their own - the object-centred worldview tends to roll up its sleeves, and resort to power-over. Not funny... not amusing at all...

Yet even these issues are fairly well understood: the advantages and disadvantages of the object-centred worldview are well-enough known by now. Not so its counterpart, the subject-centred worldview - partly because it's less obvious unless we know what we're looking for, and partly because some groups have been very careful to conceal its immensely destructive downside. And we need to understand both sides of this equation if we're to find a more practical, if wyrd, way to handle that weird boundary between 'I' and 'not-I'.

Everything's my subject


"I relate, therefore I am": everything is a sea of relationships, a sea of 'I', which - since it has no centre as such - must obviously revolve around me. "The personal is political" - whatever happens to me, happens to everyone; whatever happens to anyone, happens to me. I'm interested in everyone: and everyone should be interested in me. There are no 'objects', only subjects, people, relationship: everything is personal, and everything is part of me.

Recognise this? Who do you know who takes this 'subject-centred' approach to life? What difficulties do you have in relating with them? If they acknowledge you as 'you' at all - which often such people don't, or can't - how do they relate with you?

How much do you follow this same approach yourself? Looking at it from the other side - so to speak - what difficulties might others have in relating with you?

Everything 'out there' exists in relation to me - perhaps only in relation to me. Like every aware woman, I accept that if I want something, it'll happen if it's meant to happen. It's not in my hands to make it happen: nor is it ever my responsibility to do so. Instead, I suggest that things should change themselves: and they do, as part of their relationship with me, and because they know that I know what is best for us, best for We. And if they don't change, it's their fault, because they should want to change - for their own good.

Like the object-centred worldview, the subject-centred one has its validity and its advantages as well as its problems. So borrow the chair and the friend again - either in physical reality, or in imagination - and stand them in front of you. As before, you now want them on the other side of the room. They're both subjects, extensions of yourself and your will: which means that if you want them to be moved, you have to get them to move themselves.

Ask the friend to move themself to the far side of the room. Make it clear that this is your friend's responsibility: your friend ought to want to do this for you. What problems - if any - do you have with arranging this to happen? What complaints - if any - does the person make to you about being treated as your subject? What is your relationship with them as you do this?

Ask the chair to move itself to the far side of the room. Make it clear that this is the chair's responsibility: the chair ought to want to do this for you. What problems - if any - do you have with arranging this to happen? What complaints - if any - does the chair make to you about being treated as your subject? What is your relationship with the chair as you do this?

In Jungian psychology this standard 'sea-I' model forms part of the 'feminine' archetype: in Western society, it's as much stereotyped as 'female' as the 'island-I' model is supposedly 'male'. (If we really wanted to, we could call this 'the female gaze', which somehow magically transforms everything 'Other' into a subordinate subject of self: but it would really be no more valid than the feminist misconcept of 'the male gaze'.) Its whole focus is relationship, about the quality of feelings rather than numbers of things: since many relationships become all but impossible in large numbers, or large crowds, this worldview doubts that 'bigger' is ever 'better', and usually insists that "small is beautiful" - or even that "two's company, but three's a crowd"!

There is some validity in describing this as a female stereotype: it's certainly true that the so-called 'women's magazines' intrude on the private lives of 'public figures' in ways that can only be described as pornographic - but in a subject-centred way, rather than the objectification of the so-called 'men's magazines'. And a woman doctor, speaking from much experience, wrote to me about "women's tendency to react emotionally to situations rather than to discuss facts in a sensible practical way - I don't mean that women can't talk about facts sensibly but there will always be this emotional overlay, e.g. if [the] washing machine doesn't work it's doing it on purpose!"

Just how much this genuinely is 'female' - rather than the product of social conditioning - is open to debate: for example, I've seen many a male programmer behave in exactly the same irrational way, yelling at his computer "what the hell's wrong with you now? - you're doing this on purpose!", as it hangs up on yet another bug in his program... It is interesting, though, that in those standard gender-stereotypes, the supposedly 'male' object-centred view 'takes control', whilst the supposedly 'female' subject-centred view assigns all responsibility for action to the 'Other'; so in both cases only the male is deemed responsible, or to blame, for anything - which is in itself another common gender-stereotype.

The subject-centred world-view is also a good place to hide if you want to avoid responsibility, especially for the inevitable problems of the material world. Objects don't respond to being pleaded with, or cajoled, or bullied; but there's usually someone around who can be pleaded with, or cajoled, or bullied, into dealing with it instead... we really don't have to look far to find people - female or male - who make that a way of life. And this worldview is as characteristic of salesfolk as the object-centred worldview is of scientists: the salesman fabricates a semblance of relationship with his client, adapting his sales patter to match with - or override - the client's own 'cage'; the saleswoman carefully confuses sexuality and seriousness to slide through to the sale...

Yet it's also true that without that subject-centred notion - or more accurately feeling - that "I relate, therefore I am", there would be no relationship, no empathy with others: it dismantles the barriers, re-creates the links between people, everywhere and everywhen. It is true that "the personal is political"; it's also true that "the political is personal", in that arbitrary decisions made by unknown, unnamed people somewhere 'out there' may have enormous impacts on our individual lives. That's where this worldview works; that's where it matters - a lot.

It's easy to intellectualise about an abstract slogan such as "the personal is political": so, for a change, where do you feel it? It's easy to see inequality between the sexes, between the races, between North and South, or whatever; it's easy - too easy - to talk about it; but where do you feel it, within you?

Often the driving force behind a desire to remedy some perceived inequality or unfairness is a feeling of anger: if so, where, within you, do you feel this anger? Is it something that arises from others as such, or from your relationship with others? In what ways - if any - do you express this feeling in action?

The downside of the subject-centred 'sea-I' worldview is that it only understands 'subjects' - and bases all its values on that understanding, or lack of it. So my horse is obviously better than your nasty, smelly, noisy, dirty car: I don't have any relationship with your car, and no way to create a relationship with your car, so it must be worse than my horse. All too easily this descends into a habit of judging value or truth solely in terms of the closeness of relationship - leading directly on the one hand to favouritism, and on the other to racism, sexism and so on. When an object-centred system of law, which expects "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth", meets up with a subject-centred worldview where 'truth' depends entirely on who's saying it, life can get more than a little chaotic...

And it's easy for this view to degenerate further still, because it regards 'not-I' not as an independent 'Other', but as an extension of self, with no real existence other than in relation to 'I' - rather as the Red Queen, back in the garden, claimed that you existed only because the White King was dreaming about you. Almost by definition, the subject-centred worldview has difficulty in maintaining clear boundaries: so unless the internal relationship between self and ego is clear - which for most of us, most of the time, it usually isn't - we're likely to project our own inconsistencies onto others. Reality Department's feedback shows us that something isn't right, yet we're sure it can't possibly be us, so it must be happening 'out there'... without a clear understanding of the boundary between 'I' and 'not-I', that's a very easy - and convenient - mistake to make. In its worst forms - such as the shrill moralism of the 'God's Police' mindset - the subject-centred worldview regards all 'not-I' as wayward and insubordinate subjects of self which may be morally condemned and righteously punished for failing to conform to our expectations: "you don't feel that!", it says; "you can't feel that; you shouldn't feel that; you have no right to feel that!" And in the same way that the object-centred worldview may resort to power-over to get its way, the subject-centred worldview can be very skilled at using power-under - and also blames that exclusively on 'the Other'. It's no wonder things get into such a mess!

Given the destruction that both the object-centred and subject-centred worldviews can so easily cause, it's easy to forget that they do both have their own valid uses - and that, despite those habitual gender-stereotypes, they are both available to everyone. They can be used - or misused - by anyone, male or female: it's up to us. Each worldview is not so much 'the way things are', but a choice which has its own consequences, its own weird twists: and as we begin to grasp this, we begin to gain more choice within the weavings of our wyrd - and the wyrd we share with others.

Everything's wyrd


Both of those worldviews are 'true' - in the appropriate context. Neither is wrong as such: but they become wrong - sometimes very wrong - if they're used inappropriately, without awareness of context. So this is where we come back to the problem of paediarchy, the challenges posed by our own childishness: because without the more adult awareness of the reality of 'Other', we'll tend to fall back, by default, into treating others either as objects to be manipulated and controlled, or as subjects which ought to do what we want and which we're entitled to punish if they don't. It is hard to give up the childish delusion that we are, and should be, and have every right to be, the centre of the universe: and one of the central themes in our society's paediarchy is that it so clearly condones over-indulgence in either the object-centred or subject-centred worldview, regardless of the damage caused. But the wyrd, in its own weird way, can show us when and how to use each one appropriately - if we let it...

From a wyrd perspective, everything is both subject and object - at the same time. There is 'I', and there is 'Other', and there is a boundary between them, between every 'I'; yet there is also no boundary - at the same time. 'I' is not that which changes, 'I' is that which chooses: yet this is true for every 'I', every 'Other'. Every 'I' is a nexus in the threads of wyrd, a clustering of choices within every possibility; and whilst each nexus is the result of personal choices, the threads of possibility are affected by everyone's choices. And there's always a certain amount of feedback from the wyrd about our handling of those boundaries between 'I' and 'not-I': if we treat everyone as an object, we'll find ourself being treated the same way too; if we regard everyone else as our subjects, it won't be long before we meet up with someone else who does exactly the same - or who treats us as an object instead. Yet there are also times when it is appropriate to treat others as objects - in an emergency, for example, when the need to get those others out to safety now means there's simply no time for the niceties of relationship. And there are also many times - such as in almost every group-activity, every 'We' - when it is appropriate to regard others as extensions of 'I': though perhaps rarely, if ever, to the extent of punishing them for failing to do what we expect.

There've been many times when others have treated you as some kind of mindless object: looking back, in which circumstances was it appropriate for them to have done so? What was the difference in feeling between the times it was appropriate, and the (many) times when it wasn't?

There'll also have been many times when you've treated others as mindless objects: in what circumstances was it appropriate for you to have done so? (This one won't be comfortable to answer, but explore it anyway.) What was the difference in feeling between the times it was appropriate, and the times when it wasn't?

There've been many times when others have treated you as their subject, an extension of themselves: looking back, in which circumstances was it appropriate for them to have done so? What was the difference in feeling between the times it was appropriate, and the (many) times when it wasn't?

And, to complete the set, there'll also have been many times when you've treated others as your subjects, as extensions of yourself which should have been subject to your will: in what circumstances was it appropriate for you to have done so? (This one won't be comfortable to answer either, but explore it anyway.) What was the difference in feeling between the times it was appropriate, and the times when it wasn't?

In each case, what feedback did you get from the weavings of the wyrd? What did it tell you about your choices in each case? If you tried to ignore it, or 'forget' it, why did you do so? If you didn't, what action did you take in response to what it showed you?

Used inappropriately, the object-centred worldview assumes too much of a boundary between 'I' and 'not-I'; the subject-centred worldview sometimes doesn't even acknowledge that any such boundary exists. Paediarchy runs rampant almost everywhere in our society; and it's an easy habit to fall back into, because we can almost always make out that someone else is to blame... So creating a balance between object and subject isn't easy. It needs awareness and respect - both of self and of others - and a willingness to move beyond the comfort-zone of stereotypes. And it also needs something which most of us shy away from at the mere mention of the word - namely discipline.

But 'discipline' simply means 'education', in its literal sense of 'out-leading' - drawing out the student's inner knowing, rather than cramming in useless 'facts' to prop up the pointless prejudices of so-called 'educators'. Discipline depends on careful observation and a rigorous self-honesty: technology and science apply that observation to the 'objective' world of the shared reality; the 'soft sciences', spiritual disciplines and, more recently, feminist research methodology apply the same level of careful discipline to self-observation and the subjective world of personal reality. In principle, that is... because whilst the rules for object-centred disciplines - independent observation, instrumental data and logical proof, for example - are definable and known, those for subject-centred disciplines are neither definable nor, often, understood, or even known at all. So whilst it's relatively easy to identify pseudo-scientific indiscipline and scientific fraud, it's far more difficult to identify pseudo-spirituality, pseudo-psychology or pseudo-feminism. Because discipline is work - in the sense we've seen earlier - and because the childish notion that 'power is the ability to avoid work' pervades every so-called 'discipline', genuine New Age spirituality is far less common than 'newage' (it rhymes with 'sewage' - 'the discarded remnant of what was once nutritious') and disciplined feminist research is far less common than 'cuckoo feminism' (it looks like the real thing, but hatches out into a childish monster that destroys everything for which feminism once stood). Once we start to understand that 'power is the ability to do work', and that this work centres around awareness and self-honesty, we begin to have choice about subjects and objects: but as usual, we also need to be aware of the twists...

For example, weave your way past the weird contradictions of "bigger is better" and "small is beautiful", to create a context in which both are true. Look 'out there', to marshal the objective arguments for 'bigger is better': efficiencies from economies of scale, for example, or standardisation of results. What other evidence can you find? How do you assess its truth? What is 'truth' in this sense?

Then look inward, to explore the emotions and feelings that express the meaning of 'small is beautiful' - the sense of inclusion, perhaps, or the absence of anonymity. What other subjective evidence do you find, from within yourself? How do you assess its truth? What is 'truth' in this sense?

Now move sideways from the stereotypes: be subjective about the 'objective' world, and vice versa. What are the feelings that, for you, describe 'bigger is better'? What are the objective arguments for 'small is beautiful'?

Now merge all of these viewpoints into one whole, in which the contradictions of 'bigger is better' and 'small is beautiful' can be reconciled - if only in your own experience. How do you ensure that you apply the same level of discipline and care to all these ways of viewing the world? If this seems weird - which it probably does - how do you manage the 'weirdness'?

Sometimes we need a weird twist in our thinking to see what really works. From an object-centred perspective, for example, a light truck seems obviously better than a horse and cart: until we try to use that truck in the middle of the city... at which point a slightly weird approach can pay real dividends. A few English breweries still use horse-drawn wagons to deliver beer-barrels to nearby pubs, as they have done for centuries; but as the cities become ever more crowded, some companies are beginning a new 'tradition' of horse-drawn deliveries. For example, an office-equipment firm in this city recently switched back to using a horse and cart - or rather a fine pair of greys and a meticulously coach-worked dray - for its inner-city deliveries: it seems a little strange to see computers and boxes of copy-paper stacked on the back of a horse-wagon, but it works. It probably wouldn't work so well in the suburbs, but in that context it actually costs less to run than a light truck; no-one seems to mind if the wagon stops the traffic, whereas they'd curse like crazy if a truck was double-parked in the way that the horses do; and since everyone seems to want a relationship with the horses, it helps build their relationship with the company too. In what circumstances is a horse better than a car better than a horse? Answer: it all depends...

It's hard to break free from the 'senses taker' of habit: and particularly so with habits of thought, habitual ways of looking at the world. We need to be 'non-attached' to any one worldview, but also 'non-detached': and hence able, in this context, to use either the subject-centred or object-centred worldviews as tools - rather than being used by them - using awareness of context to assess their appropriacy in the moment. The crucial part is to be willing to listen to the feedback we get from the wyrd, from the interweavings of Reality Department - and act on those weird 'messages' that we get back. This is what the Taoists describe as 'doing no-thing', and it's not easy - not at first, at any rate, though it does get easier with practice.

Non-attachment is non-detachment - letting go without letting go. Someone once told me, accurately, if a little unkindly, "you're a bag of flab held together with fears - the moment you let go of control, you collapse in a puddle on the floor". It's taken me a lot of practice to be able to let go of my usual wild oscillation between subject-centred and object-centred worldviews, and become more able to use them as tools - 'doing no-thing' to make it happen. The real difficulty has been that a way of seeing, or feeling, doesn't usually let us look at the way of seeing itself - like trying to look inside my own eyes with those same eyes!

If you've read Positively Wyrd, you'll remember that we looked at non-attachment and non-detachment there: how well have you been able to put it into practice? How much does 'letting go without letting go' make practical sense to you now?

And this brings us back to that weird task of finding our 'Inner Adult': because we're most likely to get stuck in the childishness of either the object- or subject-centred worldview when we try to hide from the responsibilities of that task. The next stage of that task requires from us a deeper exploration of self-awareness and self-responsibility, in order to understand our own destructive selfishness; so the next part of our weird 'toolkit' involves a closer look at responsibility and blame.