Temet Nosce, the Latin form of an ancient maxim, is the truncation of ‘Man, know thyself, and thou shalt know the gods,’ inscribed on the inner temple of Luxor in ancient Egypt. In order to attain access to the teachings of the inner temple, initiates had first to pass through the outer temple, wherein it was inscribed, ‘The body is the house of God.’ To know ones self was the sages’ path between the Earth and the heavens, the particular and the generic, the tiny and the infinitely great.
The fact that something is has been split from what that something is, even if the sense that what something is is, properly speaking, whatever it is we can say about how it appears to us.
Or so it seems – sewn together seeming.
Every model, articulation, or description of the world is always at the same time a carving up of the world. The biggest splitting of the world as we know it in the Western European tradition was performed by the Greeks. It is the splitting of creatures and things into two qualities: existence and essence. Every sentence exerts this separation. The subject is split from the predicate in the manner or attitude of the verb. The subject simply is; the predicate engenders the subject's suchness as to what is say-able about it – even if the predicate extols the divine virtue of the fact that the subject exists. The subject is, or is destined to become, an object of an apparatus: the law, the state, the economy, the image formed in a mirror or camera. The subject is also the captured thing that the predicate predicates.
Subjects are always captured – they are always the objects of an apparatus. We are thinking the sense of self, or the sense that you are sensing, as a sense of the fleeting nature of this sense of self. Syn-aesthesia is this fleeting sense of self that evades the capture of subjectivity. It is an attitude and a sense that we are sensing that is a site of an ethics, of a mode of creaturely being.
I sense therefore I am, and even more or less so, I seem to be.
‘Selfies,’ are auto-portrait photographs taken at arms length, by timer, or in a mirror, specifically to be posted on social media. There is some discourse claiming that ‘Selfies’ are a ‘democratised form of self-expression’1, but the dominant opinion is that the popularity of this type of self-portraiture is a symptom of escalating narcissism in the general populace, an accusation Van Gogh or Cindy Sherman wouldn’t have to defend themselves against. The prognosis of Narcissism is leveled at an entire generation of Selfie-producers, the Millenial, Y, or iGeneration of bloggers, tumblrs, tweeters and Facebook aficionados. Remember, Narcissus was in love with his image not himself. Diedrich Diederichsen has also directed this accusation against a generation of artists, locating narcissism as the dominant form psychological repression takes nowadays, replacing Oedipus in the super-ego seat to keep us in line2. Over 66 million photos tagged “#me” on Instagram alone forms a dramatic portrait of a social attitude, a widespread desire for self-exposure of a very particular kind.
Groys describes self-exposure as a willingness to become visible in the world, and suggests that the artist is a ‘professional subject’ who manifests ‘the inner contradictions of modern subjectivation in a paradigmatic way.’3 He opposes this figure to the ‘involuntary subject’ that describes ‘everybody else.’4 He gets here by identifying subjectivity with visibility, subjectivation with exposure: ‘Our bodies are submitted to permanent visualization; this is how they become subjects.’5 This split in the populous between artists and everybody else, or voluntary and involuntary subjects, is echoed in a recent text by blogger Rob Horning where he splits the social populous into gamblers and ‘ordinary fucking people,’ or those who engage in activities that generate expression as opposed to those who enjoy a well-regulated existence6. The kind of risky activity Horning addresses is that of online persona development, exposure through social media that is about wagering one’s reputation. What social media gamblers hazard is their social status, and the payoff of their bets is read through ‘likes’, re-blogs, re-tweets, views, hits and shares. The ‘action’ – as this intensity is called in the casino when a table is ‘hot,’ – that is sought by participants in the self-exposure field has been theorized by Erving Goffman as a means of setting a scene in which to prove our poise and composure, our good character, or in other words, the ability to act natural7. The more intense the action, the more contrived the situation, the greater the opportunity to display, in contrast, our selves at our most authentic.
Groys has posited that we are preoccupied with the production of sincerity and trust while pointing out that this is, and has been, the main occupation of art throughout the history of modernity: ‘The modern artist has always positioned himself or herself as the only honest person in a world of hypocrisy and corruption.’8
Figure 1: Kurt Cobain
This is a story about a video camera: a camera with a light who will digitally capture whatever reflects this light in front of its lens. And it is a story about a creature: a creature who is attracted to and captivated by light, and thus is drawn in front of the camera’s lens where its fleeting image is captured as it reflects the light. This is also a story about this brief moment of exchange between the camera, the creature, the light, the lens, and the digital retina. When we make it a story, we mean that it is also about desire, because I am voicing sounds that describe the resulting image as a Phantasm: an image not only on the screen but an economy played out in my imagination.
This is a story about the economy of representation: in this case overseen by a person who turns a camera on and waits for something or someone to enter its field of vision, about an artist who arranges the capture of an encounter, how the encounter becomes an artwork through its presentation, and about how this in turn produces, or captures, the artist.
When the artist and the creature become identical and fuse into a persona, the story becomes a tragedy.
Kurt Cobain flew too close to the flame, subjected, as he was, entirely to his public persona. Cobain’s persona relied on authenticity, and his suicide note indicates that he didn’t understand that he could perform this authentic character:
’I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music … for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things… The fact is I can't fool you, any one of you. It simply isn't fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100% fun.’9
Cobain feared he was a tragic narcissist who would slay his image to escape his own desire to coincide with it, but the real tragedy is that this image was inextricable from his sense of self. He didn’t have the option to sacrifice one to save the other.
He felt guilty for not enjoying his vocation, ‘guilty beyond words,’ he writes. And he felt a radical non-coincidence with his image; the worst crime he can think of is ‘faking it.’ For Cobain, the performance is daily life, or rather; it is not even a performance. Cobain is a perfect example of a tragic attitude to the performance of his character: for him, life and art should be inseparable from one another.
Figure 2: David Foster Wallace
Or, we can consider this tragic end in the way Jonathan Franzen describes David Foster Wallace’s suicide, as ‘the need for some last-ditch narcissistic validation of the self’s primacy, and then the voluptuously self-hating anticipation of the last grand score, and the final severing of contact with the world that would deny the enjoyment of self-involved pleasure.’10 – A kind of ultimate indulgence in and punishment by the self. Franzen also suggests that in the mode by which Wallace took his own life he also chose the public persona over the person Franzen knew as his friend where the suicide ‘took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.’11 Franzen’s anger at Wallace is founded on Wallace’s decision to tragically coincide with his artist-persona over being the person Franzen understood was his friend.
In Wallace’s final (unfinished) novel The Pale King, he describes the late mirror phase of a teenaged character:
Psycho-dynamically, he was, as a subject, coming to a late and therefore traumatic understanding of himself as also an object, a body among other bodies, something that could see and yet also be seen. It was the sort of binary self-concept that many children attain as early as age five, often thanks to some chance encounter with a mirror, a puddle, window, or photograph seen in just the right way. Despite the boy’s having the average ration of reflectors available to him in childhood, though, this developmental state was retarded in his case somehow. The understanding of himself as also an object for others was in his case deferred to the very cusp of adulthood – and, like most repressed truths, when it finally burst through, it came as something overwhelming and terrible, a winged thing breathing fire.’12
The trauma of being ‘an object for others’ manifests, for this character, in a kind of social anxiety or stage fright of every social moment; the mirror turns the world into a stage where he can never stop performing. What we want to suggest is that the stage fright of everyday performance occurs not because we know we’re also objects, but because of the unstable and continual becoming-subject of our existence – that we’re subject to continually changing predicates, and objects of the same shifting sentences.
We shiver, we sweat, we are shamed, and we laugh.
This is expressed with more ease by a less tragic but also unfinished character in another unfinished novel. The childhood epiphany that sets Ulrich, Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities, on his path, is that, ‘God creates the world and thinks while He is at it that it could just as well be done differently.’13 Imagine this in its reciprocal construction: ‘The world creates God, all the time thinking that this could just as well be someone different.’ This is the impressionable subject, reciprocally made by the art she produces, or the predicates she writes, which could just as easily have been some other way.
Figure 3: Avicenna’s Flying Man
In grammar and logic, to predicate means to state, affirm, or assert (something) about the subject of a sentence or an argument of proposition.
There are thought experiments in the Western tradition that have made a considerable impact on how we view subjectivity and its necessary relation to predication. Such experiments concern themselves with a curious form of knowledge: the need to prove the existence of one’s self.
Imagine that you are all at once fully developed but veiled from seeing external objects, floating in the air or in a void without feeling the resistance of the air. Your limbs are separated from one another so that they do not meet or touch each other. Consider whether you would affirm the existence of your essence or the existence of your self. There should be no doubt that your self exists, but you could not affirm of it as any length, breadth or depth. You would not affirm any one of your limbs or external parts, nor your heart, brain or any internal organs.14
What is proclaimed here in Avicenna’s medieval Flying Man is the existence of a transcendental subject even if everything corporeal is suspended and separated from it.15
This subject is predicated in the negative; what it is not.
We sense a grammar of the self at work here, like how a sentence posits a subject in the manner by which a predicate helps us make sense of this subject. For example, the flying man is horribly dismembered and perhaps no man at all. But there is something else at work in Avicenna’s thought experiment: in the end the self is positively predicated in the sense that it is merely proclaimed: “I exist.” The etymological breakdown of the word ‘predicate’ is prae beforehand, and dicere, to make known: beforehand to make known. Without the history of what comes beforehand, a statement like I exist, or I am, is pure mysticism.
Figure 4: Condillac’s Living Statue
Almost seven hundred years after Avicenna imagines a flying man, another adventurous thinker by the name of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac imagines a living stone statue.16 Rather than proclaiming what a subject is not and then that it exists and leaving us wondering what happened beforehand, he makes use of the hand to place the body in relation to the soul, so that the act of predication can furnish the subject with sensible qualities.
The problem Condillac wants to address is not simply that the figure comes to understand that it exists, but that it must discover that it has a body in general. If it had no sense of having a body, its sense of being would still be infinite and continuous, with no separation between an inside or outside. Even if one were to strike the stone figure all over its body, it would not help the figure to acquire a sense of movement. It does not know that it has limbs or that it occupies space, that it is whole or in parts.17
‘Might the hand possess a self, an “I” all its own? If it did it would be a self still to be linked to and distinguished from the other sensed regions of the body.18’Condillac doesn’t seem worried about the possibility that every region of the body could have a separate self; the movement is rooted so to speak from the ground up, from the bodily essential up to the existential and heavenly “I”.
Continuing to follow an intuition that our grammar reflects our metaphysical beliefs, physical aspects of human experience as predication raise the extended self into the “meta-” that is the subject, or the “I”. The “I” is always presupposed to exist because we need it to be generic, and therefore useful to everyone. Each sentence declares or proclaims something about the subject beforehand and reflects both the presupposition and the separation of the heavenly subject from the earthly predicate. Predication is an ongoing process of coming to know general things through proclaiming each instance in which they can be specific.
Condillac’s solution to the problem is to enter the body back into the process by giving the stone figure a hand. Here, a grammar is formed in the action of the sculpture touching itself. The already separated subject miraculously moves the hand to reach outside and touch another region of the sensitive body. The body registers the site of touch at the body and hand and sends the data to the soul. The sense of self is produced in this completed circuit of simultaneous touchings, from outside to inside, arriving together in the sensitive soul. Condillac testifies that the statue will cry out, ‘C’est moi!’19 It is me! It’s as though he suddenly speaks from the position of the possessed object, me, within the predicate, depersonalizing his subjectivity. The outside is possessed by the proclaiming subject when an unknown “it” is fused with the possessed object, a “me”.
The Cosmology of Predication:
The Subject is
We view it most quietly lying on our backs
But try to get a hold of it somehow ‘cause it’s out there
Teasing our mortal vulnerabilities and feeble words.
We reverse engineer it ‘cause we don’t remember learning
The first word–
It’s difficult to describe pure existence
because it is totally continuous.
As a species, we don’t want it to end
So we’re imagining something
Something like an empty throne
Because whatever or whomever sits there doesn’t matter so much
As the fact that we have access to something sovereign
We get a glimpse of this when we say, “I”–
And if we smell wet soil and sweaty sheets
for a moment we sense a META–
Above the PHYSIS
(in the rising and falling of our breaths,
your two heads upon my breast?)
And if we laugh or cry to bring the subject down to earth
The more senses
to what we can say about
the whatever subject,
the more concrete
the subject becomes.
The predicate of every sentence
Scatters the subject
Reflects the falling subject
like tracing the lines around the corners
of your eyes
So that we can make sense of our sensing
Something that is difficult to grasp.
But what a bore is predication
As if true and false
Could be better than what should be
Like action’s time for making sense
Like the sense under what is
This sense under every is that things itself
Fleeting by (ich fühl mich gut)
a curious look back
Self quietly passing by
(ass is too flat)
Something somebody said
What did you say!?
- 1. Nancy Wang Yuen quoted in Leal, Caroline. “Me, myself and my selfie,” World, April 30, 2013, http://www.worldmag.com/2013/04/me_myself_and_my_selfie (last referenced August 9, 2013)
- 2. Diederichsen, Diedrich. “Radicalism as Ego Ideal: Oedipus and Narcissus,” e-flux journal #25, 05/2011. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/radicalism-as-ego-ideal-oedipus-and-narcis... (last referenced August 5, 2013).
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Groys, Boris. “Artistic Self-Exposure,” Frieze d/e, issue 1, summer 2011. http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/features/kuenstlerische- (last referenced August 5, 2013). ((selbstenthuellung/?lang=en (last referenced August 5, 2013).
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Horning, Rob. ‘Serious Action,’ in The New Inquiry. November 7, 2012. http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/serious-action/ (last referenced August 5, 2013).
- 7. Goffman, Erving. ‘Where the Action is,’ in Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. (New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1967). As quoted in Horning, Rob. “Serious Action,” in The New Inquiry. November 7, 2012. http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/serious-action/ (last referenced August 5, 2013).
- 8. Groys, Boris. “Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility,” in e-flux Journal #7, 06/2009. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/self-design-and-aesthetic-responsibility/ (last referenced August 5, 2013).
- 9. Kurt Cobain’s suicide note transcription on The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/quotes/last-words/kurt-cobain.html (last referenced August 5, 2013).
- 10. Franzen, Jonathan. ‘Farther Away: “Robinson Crusoe,” David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,’ in The New Yorker, New York, April 18, 2011.
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King. p. 92.( New York:Little, Brown, and Company, 2011).
- 13. ‘...that God himself probably preferred to speak of His world in the subjunctive of possibility.’ Musil, Robert, The Man Without Qualities. p. 14. (London: Trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1995).
- 14. Based on Daniel Heller-Roazen’s rendition of Avicenna, Sextus de naturalibus 1.1, in The Inner Touch: Archeology of a Sensation. pp. 220-21 (New York: Zone Books, New York, 2007).
- 15. Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Inner Touch: Archeology of a Sensation. pp. 220-21 (New York: Zone Books, New York, 2007).
- 16. Ibid. pp. 221-236.
- 17. From Heller-Roazen’s interpretation of Condillac, Traité des sensations, book 2, chapter 2, pp.92-3, in Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Inner Touch: Archeology of a Sensation. p. 225 (New York: Zone Books,2007).
- 18. Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Inner Touch: Archeology of a Sensation. p. 227. (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
- 19. Heller-Roazen uses the translation “It is I!” and continues: “One cannot but wonder how the statue, unbeknownst to the observer, has learned to speak, not words but sentences, and to name itself by that simple but decisive term: “I.”” We have chosen the translation “It is me,” to maintain the direct-object sense of self in the predicate, and because we feel this to be a more accurate translation of the French, “moi.” Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Inner Touch: Archeology of a Sensation. p.227 (New York: Zone Books, 2007).