Toward a Material Consciousness

Kant’s “free play” of cognition (421) marks the outer bound of his liberal human. The free-play of cognition acts as a black box beyond the bounds of which we have no conscious access. For Kant, the best that this subject can do is express the effect through abstraction, by calling beautiful that thing which inspires the impression. Later, Freud uses the abstraction of the dream to attempt the same, and Saussure and Lacan and Derrida read this absence in language.

The French theorists are also Kantian insofar as they grant our inaccess to the thing-in-itself, the signified. In Lacan, we reach the mirror stage quite early, well before we are able to make a choice in the matter, and the transformation is part of a one way process. Once we are embedded in language, we cannot become unstuck. Derrida uses Kant’s pererga to explain away the object d’art. They both seem to accept, as Kant, that there is a clearly-demarcated and unbridgeable gap between an “I” and an “it.” Further, their theory of language cuts us off from both. The subject remains for Lacan, but it has now become alienated from the object as well as itself.

Nietzsche is a great antidote to such positions, which is I guess ironic since he must also have been foundational in the work of the French theorists. He posits the dissolution of the unified subject, our immersion in the world of the thing. The emperor, he suggests in “On Truth and Lying,” has always been naked, and it is only through language (broadly construed—Nietzsche speaks in terms of metaphor) that we have found ourselves stuck in the first place.

Nietzsche distinguishes between the man of concepts, regularity and reason, and the man of pretense, myth and immediacy. Modern, enlightened man, he says, will “no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions,” but must rather “generalize all these impressions first, turning them into cooler, less colorful concepts in order to harness the vehicle” of his life to them (768).

Nietzsche offers a radical and unsettling world in which this unsticking might be possible. He turns to pre-Socratic Greek society for an example of man for whom, “thanks to the constantly effective miracle assumed by myth…anything is possible at any time, as it is in a dream, and the whole of nature cavorts around men as if it were just a masquerade of the gods” (772). Modern man rarely considers just how much of his life and society functions based on the assumptions that trees will not talk and things, when dropped, will fall to the ground. By calling to mind a people for whom these assumptions did not hold, for whom at best trees usually didn’t talk, Nietzsche challenges us not to start looking for talking trees, but to recognize our position within the construct so that we might realize our own embeddedness in Nature (and thus, perhaps, gain perspective on ourselves as a species). He reminds us of what the physicist or the brain-scientist might remind us: our minds work the same way as everything else, and are made up of everything that is the world. Any distinction between ourselves and our environment is possible only by the workings of the very universe we hope to examine.

The sort of nihilistic direction to take this would be to look inward, toward the absence of the subject center which we have been so interested in preserving for so long. The subject-object divide is really only important because of the first part anyways, right? And to be awakened to its absence might seem tantamount to declaring that life has no meaning, all is but opinion, and we might sit back and watch as the economically powerful and the rhetorically dominant arise. (To some extent, I feel like this is a huge social effect of the French theories that grow out of Nietzche: relativism abounds. Saussure and Foucault can’t but make advertisers better at their jobs.)

But we might instead look outward, and begin to see ourselves finally as a part of the integrated circuit, to discover ourselves as acting agents in the physical world. We can recognize ourselves as things in motion in a universe of things in motion, and might find a new center (or perhaps sidestep the need for one) in an understanding of how our actions work to change the physical world, and how we are acted upon by that world. Rather than dissolving the subject, we might better dissolve the object. We might interpret the object world as it works to extend our inner world into space and time.

This is an exercise in consciousness, but it is also a material process that must consider the human in the most physical terms. It is one best begun by extending the physical parameters by which we define the human body. Let the psychology present itself as an effect (a physical effect, no doubt) of the material processes, the things in motion.

(Parts of this post have appeared in earlier posts.)

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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