Between Shock and Awe

cd9ecf493588ebbc4bf5d00d0423670cAs we muddle through life most of us become quite articulate about the primordial importance authentic inter-human relations play in our lives. Some speak of finding their “other half”, others of their “soulmate”, and yet others “of the love of their life”. Often when pressed to defend the implied metaphysics of such romantic linguistic gestures a cloud amasses. Is there really only one person in the entire world for each of us? One person, and one person alone was created for me?! My that is a romantic and touching sentiment! Is my soul irrevocably bound to another? Are we fated to indeed find eachother? Is it also inevitable that we shall stay together forever?

Cynics and data collectors (or maybe they’re the same people!!!) have it easy. Or maybe we just make it easy for them. All they have to do is point to the divorce rates, ended affairs, heartbreak and heartache. But does the data do as much work as their collectors suggest? When were we ever in the history of matrimony put into that state of being suggestive of anything more than principled dutiful relations bourn out of social structures and human need? Even as these bonds loosened making room to marry for love it became an inevitably groundless love. We no longer have to stay together; we became free to marry or not marry, divorce or not divorce. Injected with this boundless freedom the metaphysical anchor that might have furnished such relations with the belief in a sentiment that transgresses a feeling was lost. Confusing a feeling of lustful attraction and attractiveness confounded any testimony for a connection more deeply penetrating and interwoven with the seemingly paradoxical experiences of pain, frustration, conflict and anguish being-alongside the other.

Is there but one soul for whom our hearts truly beat? I have my doubts. Doubt, self-doubt, the suspension in any imposing manifestation of its truth is, contra Sartre, its very possibility. Once certitude worms its way into, between, lovers, he becomes but the objectification of an ossified object of my adoration (Sartre would approve) and it is then that love dies.

noexitsticker1000_1024x1024Probably one of Sartre’s most memorable quotes is “hell is other people”. At least it’s memorable to those for whom other people are a living hell!!! Your mind may conjure all sorts of tragic stories of how your partner made your life miserable, but you’d have misunderstood Sartre in the process. For Sartre existence, human existence, is being and nothingness. The point is that human existence is not essentially determined; that literally “existence precedes essence” and, if you will, in effect, escapes it altogether. To understand this you need to think what it means to be anything at all. Since there is no existence without consciousness (Descartes was right about that much), but consciousness can’t be unconscious consciousness, it stands to reason that all consciousness is self-consciousness. To think of yourself as the thinking subject of a stream of consciousness is a reflective state that we certainly enter into regularly, but it is not primordial. That is, we are typically in a prereflective state as we motion our way through the world. (This is what he calls nonpositional consciousness of positional consciousness.) For instance, I am conscious of the computer scene in front of me and the keys I’m pressing, but I am not reflectively thinking of myself consciously engaging in this activity. Of course, there can be no consciousness without consciousness of something (this is called intentionality), which can’t be in consciousness itself in that it is separate and outside of consciousness as an object which is intended. In this sense, consciousness is nothing in itself. So on the one hand the essence of consciousness is its object and on the other hand it is not its object but separate from it. In and of itself consciousness is nothingness; it is not a self-contained thing or substance in the world. So it exists but it exists as a kind of lacking of the being it intends, and hence is a perpetually striving being.

Intended objects are what Sartre calls being-in-itself (or en soi) which are distinguished from the kinds of beings we are, namely being-for-itself (or pour soi). The interesting thing about this distinction is that being-in-itself shows up as self-contained or self-dependent whilst being-for-itself, not only depends on something other than itself for its existence, namely its intended object, but its existence is entirely parasitic on consciousness of self!  Of course, being-in-itself may be what it is and exist no matter what we do, but without consciousness there would, in effect, be no world for without it there would simply be an undifferentiated totality. Consciousness contrives this undifferentiated totality into a meaningful worldliness arranged and modified around our values, interests and activities. Since consciousness is being and nothingness in the manner just described, it also follows that there is no so-called “I” (this implies an enduring substance in the world) that is present to consciousness. For in prereflective consciousness I am immersed in the world; there is nothing I can identify with, there is only self-consciousness which is that self I am conscious of as nothing in itself. Now if human existence is self-consciousness, and not an entity of the kind one encounters in the world, human existence is also nonsubstantive and hence not subject to the laws of cause and effect that govern tangible, material objects. As such human existence is absolutely free!!! As any indeterminist argument will show, this brand of freedom is much like an unfreedom. For with no cause, there is nothing one can appeal to to ground judgment and thereby control the outcome of one’s life. As such this absolute freedom is an unfreedom. That we do anything at all can not therefore be explained (as the human sciences of old aim to do) by appealing to reasons for. With this realization, namely that there is no reason for, comes anguish. For not only are there no reasons for which I should tend towards one thing, state of affairs or actions than another, there is also no knowing what I, myself, might do! What I may do is utterly outside of my control! The unease of this state is too unbearable for most to endure and so we bury ourselves in all the concomitants of a substantive ego upon which one can hang personal identity, cause and effect, and more. Of course that is not to say that we are not situated in the wordliness of our own consciousness also constitutive of all of those entities encountered which are subject to the laws of nature. After all, sitting here writing as I am is only meaningful to me in my present state because of past activities (e.g. reading Sartre, teaching a class on existentialism and so on) but there is no causal link that in any way connects those events with the one’s that I am now, or could moments from now, engage in. Each moment I must ex nhilo recreate, reinvent myself. So there is a way in which I am not what I am and I am what I am.

Where then does that leave fellow conscious beings? All being-for-itself is a perpetually striving being that at once comprises all that is, and all that is not. It is the corpus of all that exists. Well until a fellow existent being shows up! Here is the first time that I encounter myself as an object. Since I am precisely the one for whom there is a world, I cannot not show up as an object unto self (even when I reflect upon my past consciousness I am not consciousness reflected upon – an object – but reflecting consciousness.). For myself I am always primordially at the centre of my world, master and creator of all that is. It is the Look of the other that makes me aware of myself as an object of their worldiness and as a result I have lost myself as a for-itself and discover myself as a being-in-the-world. With this also comes the loss of my freedom, of self-mastery, and a world constitutive of that freedom! And yet…and yet…I am nothing if I am not being for the Other. I would in effect be quite invisible were it not for the essentializing Look that the Other casts upon me (think of the Other as your mirror without which you’d never be visible to self or take stock of yourself as an object at all) and yet, I am also responsible in virtue of my freedom as transcendence to create and reaffirm myself over and against that Look through an act of reciprocity. Hell is other people not because of any moralized propensity to act in any particular way that is offensive, hurtful or degrading, therefore. Rather it is the inherent nature of being-with-other that is inescapably frustrating, and potentially annihilating!

To be continued in conversation with Kierkegaard and Buber…


3 thoughts on “Between Shock and Awe

  1. I think there has always been a “disconnect” between what we want and what we need when it comes to romantic love. When we manage the long shot of getting both our wants and needs met, we believe that is true love. But is it? I believe it is possible to find a true kindred soul, however, it may take a lifetime to find, if found at all. In the meantime, we usual choose what we think we want or what we think we need.


    1. Though you’ve already guessed that what will remain in question is if one ever finds “true” love and whether indeed this means forever. Still, the idea that I aim to develop in the sequel has little to do with what one ever thinks they need or want, but more to do with the mode in which its possibility is manifest.


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