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The obliteration of subjectivity

On the destruction of inwardness in noiseworld

In his 1958 essay Individuality and Modernity, the ever-astute Richard Weaver observes that much of our happiness is dependent upon our ability to maintain a delicate tension between our inner lives and the outer world. He assumes that our attention is, or at least can be, focused in two directions, towards our private thoughts and towards the public. A healthy mind should be able to separate these two domains, even as it remains integrated. Too much of a separation creates hypocrisy; too little creates confusion about personal and social roles.

To point out how this distinction was once present, Weaver uses the example of how people in the eighteenth century would write letters to newspapers and would sign them with the Latin word Publius, or something like it. This old practice nicely captures how people distinguished between their private and public existences. They protected their own inner worlds while still serving the common good. What was in the public eye, and so assumed to be in the public’s interest, was not one’s private life but one’s sense of duty to the political whole. A person was thought perfectly capable of fulfilling his duties to others without parading his feelings and experiences, including his various vices. But, as Weaver writes, “Whatever barrier made this delicacy possible has long since been broken down. It is now felt that the individual’s entire life is subject to public report and review. Any claim to privacy is viewed as a form of exclusiveness, to be denied in the interest of an onrushing democracy.”

Today, privacy is almost anathema. If not quite entirely gone, signs are that it is disappearing. The very addition of the word social to the word media, or perhaps the way that social media has in many ways replaced older mass media, is just one signal of how the private has been taken up not just as a part of the public but almost as its main form and content. It is not just celebrities who have been tabloidified. Unfamous people can now, through various channels, undertake to destroy their inner worlds in the name of publicity. You and I may be sharing images and thoughts within the confines of an intimate domain while simultaneously broadcasting them throughout the known universe.

It is astonishing to consider, however, that Weaver observed the above already sixty-five years ago, long before the advent of the internet and social media and trolling; well before the arrival of TikTokkers who, like so many celebrities and politicians before them, have so easily and unselfconsciously made a spectacle of themselves; well before it was possible, in other words, to publish the content of your own life without any access to a mainstream platform and without the mediation of some public relations expert. Again, the trend is not owed to the digitalisation of our lives but has simply become more apparent thanks to recent developments in diabolical electric circuitry.

For quite a while now, the attention economy has been an economy of self-publicity and self-commodification, which is to say that it prefers people to willingly offer themselves up to Hayekian market logic that allows atomised selves to become subject to whatever seemingly spontaneous order the market has for them. The problem identified by Weaver has deepened. The barrier between the inward and the outward is gone in this postliterate, narcissistic age of ours. But what we are witnessing are the effects and not the causes, although the causes are many and complex. The causes are bound up in the Lockean worldview that had Skinner turn rat psychology into something applicable to humans; that had him and other behaviourists believe that every child and every worker is a blank canvas on which you can paint any picture you like—as long as you externalise all motivations through incentives.

Nevertheless, it is not the causes I want to examine here, although I get to the main one and its remedy below. In bringing the above into the light, I mainly want to challenge the all-too-common view that our age is overly subjective and subjectivistic. I realise that evidence for the emphasis on subjectivity seems to be everywhere; claiming the opposite may therefore seem to be an example of some sort of outlandish Žižekian inversion. After all, self-help pop psych is huge and, with it, so are mental healthism, personal days, and emotivist rights protests, which mimic revolution even while they ultimately serve the extremely banal status quo. The managerial class is obsessed with incentives and almost every day I hear people mention incentives as if it is genuinely possible to motivate people by placing all motivation on the outside of those people.

Still, surely this age is all about the subjectivity of subjects? Various discourses in the humanities for a while now have been obsessed with so-called subjectivities. It is on the basis of subjectivity alone, apparently, that people can declare themselves to be the opposite sex or non-binary or even, in more extreme cases, some sort of edible confection. Is it not the reign of subjectivity that gets people to announce their pronouns in their bios and to puke out their largely undigested thoughts on social media? Didn’t Philip Rieff call this the age of psychological man? Are the various turns towards interpretation and hermeneutics and deconstruction and psychologisation not incontrovertible proof that subjectivity is alive and well? Is all the messaging around identitarian politics and conspiratorialism and fake news not evidence that objectivity is dead? Even following the science, after all, is less about the science than about the degree to which the social will has coagulated around some sort of objective agreement. That the philosophically illiterate American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson can claim, as a scientist, that what matters most is not the complex tensions and developments in scientific discovery and understanding but rather the “consensus” seems to be one sure sign that it’s all subjective. Isn’t it?

To all of the above questions, my answer is simple. No. If anything, the above proves that we have all but abandoned the realm of subjectivity and entered the world of artifice and artificiality. Perhaps people have given up on science but the social realm, and the degree to which people might agree upon neatly externalised values, seems to have replaced it as an alternate objectivity. Why else would everything need to be externalised and declared? What is apparent and shared and performed is what counts most. What recedes from consciousness is nearly irrelevant.

This is captured rather perfectly in a phrase I have heard some academics bandy about. Two words: performative subjectivity. The phrase is not meant to be oxymoronic but it is deeply, deeply oxymoronic. That modifier, performative, ultimately suggests not that people are coming out of some proverbial closet to reveal their inner lives in some outward fashion. It means something else. There is no subjectivity anymore, or nearly no subjectivity. There is only the performance of subjectivity. There is only larping. When someone announces that they are the opposite sex, for instance, it cannot be, as so many say, on the basis of a feeling that they are the opposite sex. A man cannot feel he is a woman any more than I can feel that I am right now driving a World War Two tank through the bloodied fields of my blighted enemies. One cannot feel what one has no access to feeling. If anyone claims to be someone else on the basis of a feeling, the feeling is not about the thing itself but about an external and often highly stereotyped image. We live in an unphenomenological age, in which it is possible to claim to have experienced what you have not experienced; and yet you can be believed. The age of all of this surface is also, it turns out, an age of lies.

How about a less controversial example of how subjectivity is nullified? At the time of my writing this, a new trend on X has been to name your most common deadly sins in the order in which you tend to commit them. How’s that for a sign of our times? What was once meant for the confessional booth, spoken in silence and shame and out of a desire for absolution to a priest, is now to be paraded for everyone to see and appreciate. Everyone applauds with tiny likes as if to say, “I see your sins; they are like mine. We are not absolved of anything but, in solidarity, we might feel better.” I wonder if anyone who fell for this trend did anything more than identify the surface of the problem. Was any real self-insight part of it? Unlikely.

The trend here is, or perhaps was, like the party game I Can’t Believe I Did That, which gives you points, as the box says, “for sharing awkward, awesome, and unforgettable moments.” Of course, anyone not willing to play the game of sharing and self-shaming would be a spoilsport. Even your shame can be commodified. Even your depression can be commodified. Even your sadness can be turned in for a profit.

The modern world has based its metaphysics on advertising. You can externalise your nihilism so easily now; but, having externalised it, you don’t have to feel it, to wallow in the horror of it, and so you can carry on doing whatever it is that you like doing, oblivious to the subjective consequences of living in a meaningless universe. Or maybe you do feel it, if only for a moment. Don’t worry, I’m sure someone with Advertising-style metaphysics will be there for you to help you to escape your inner pain. Even your mental health will be met with corporate attempts to address the problem of your mental health. Isn’t this what the transparency society is all about? You get to utter or outer what’s going on inside you. But this is less to confront it, to see it, to help you process it, rather than to get rid of it. Self-insight is not the aim.

Another concrete example of a widespread antagonism towards subjectivity is found in studies on how television and other screens affect people. It is easy to forget, since so many of us weren’t alive at the time, that when television first arrived on the world’s stage, many were thrilled at how that new technology was going to improve everyone’s imagination. Television was thought to be this magical inspiration machine, an objective hallucinogenic of a kind, something to enrich the inner worlds of people, especially children. The truth turned out to be otherwise. Where imagination was once, in some ways, unbounded by external expectations, it became increasingly clear that children and grownups alike felt compelled to imitate only what they saw and not what they experienced. Overwhelmingly, studies have shown a decline in imagination. And people with poor imaginations tend to prefer action and violence. Now let’s see what that does to our world.

Well, it’s only gotten worse as we have placed more screens around us, like shields against the world. They stimulate us without allowing us to feel the stimulus too deeply. Imagination is now no longer reflective of the rich complexity of human psychology, like the psychology we find in Dostoevsky’s work, for example, but is concerned with the entirely external. It is telling, I think, that storytelling advice now focuses so heavily on action. Pick up an old novel and look at the dialogue. Now pick up a new novel and do the same. Notice a difference? A character is only what they do, say the storytelling experts. Your ideology is what is entirely externalised, says Žižek, more or less. What you believe doesn’t matter, he says. All belief is outside of you. The university believes in education when you don’t. The church believes in God when you don’t. The television believes in imagination when you don’t. Is this how it has to be? Is this how it really is?

Well, of course not. But, in our time, inner qualities are increasingly chaotic and in the chaos we are easily tempted to seek the solace of externality. Self-regulation, emotional control, and a sense of autonomy even in our individuality are all threatened because what is beyond us is what often tends to count more. Some theorists suggest that a sort of displacement has occurred, where the inner worlds of people have been shoved out by external pressures. The example, mentioned above, of how imagination has been compromised is just one. Another one is the phenomenon so often discussed by young people whose brains have been rewired by pornography. One of my younger friends admitted to me recently that he has erectile dysfunction and he’s not even thirty because of all the porn he’s watched. He thought this was normal.

It’s no wonder to me that a certain kind of vitalism is making a comeback in our time, even if it is not yet sufficiently deep and reflective to mirror the vitalism of, say, Michel Henry. It’s impossible to feel the atrophy of desire without, in some way, wanting to restore it to its former glory. But doing so is far from easy. What Rieff calls the psychological man is the shallow man; the one-dimensional man; the man of personality but no character; the man who constantly relies on external stimulus because he has been emptied of the ability to connect with his inner world. The narcissism of our time is not, then, a narcissism of obsessive introversion; it is, rather, the exact opposite. It is a flight from the inner man.

Your authentic self, it may seem, is no longer you, doing good works in secret, as Jesus commands, but the publicly performed self; the publicly humiliated self; the self who shares his own cringe like it’s everybody’s business. Arguably, even the proliferation of self-help books is, at its best, an attempt—a rather feeble one, I’d say—to reclaim some vague sense of inwardness. It is arguably the result of the widespread failure to nurture resources within ourselves that would help us to overcome the pull towards externalising everything. The very terms and coordinates of such books, so many of which are overly technical and depthless, are not generally about inwardness at all. Compare any mainstream pop psyche book to the richness of Nietzsche’s insights into human psychology to get a sense of what I mean. Subjectivity is dead and we have killed it. Is that not one possible meaning of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God? The King is dead; long live publicity!

One example of this. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. The book, my goodness how I hated it, is fairly neatly and even well argued and deals with soft skills around persuading people. But it’s so very, very shallow. The overwhelming aim of the book is to get results—objective, measurable, tangible results—not to generate any measure of self-understanding. It did not at all surprise me that Voss notes, at the end of that book, how someone was speaking to him using his very own techniques to manipulate him. He was so taken in that he didn’t even notice at first how his own techniques—for technique is what subjectivity is often reduced to—were being used against him.

Human psychology commonly, although thankfully not always, becomes all about external incentives, whether the carrot or the stick. External aims and objectives. The inner man matters only insofar as those external aims and objectives can be achieved. But I need to sound a warning in all of this. As I’ve already hinted, none of this is because of the external world. This is because of a subjective unwillingness to tarry with our inwardness, to nurture it, to let it grow. The erasure of inwardness is owed to the neglect of inwardness. But it is a sign of our times and it needs to be noted and dealt with because it is so pervasive. The pressure to accept it as normal has been with us for as long as most of us have been alive. I have noticed, in the time I have worked in education, how it is just getting worse. I meet all kinds of sparky and interesting students in my work. But they are increasingly deaf to their own inner voice. So many of them have allowed the internet in all of its shallowness and hyperlinking to shape the destiny of their own souls.

Now, the question of what is true is replaced by questions of what is effective or whose interests are promoted. Philosophical and theological positions are easily subsumed under sociological allegiances, which is to say that what matters is less the nuances of any thoughtful position than the possibility that some sort of activism can be generated in its name. What anyone really thinks about anything is close to irrelevant while the side anyone picks is of utmost importance. Allyship triumphs over personality. The transformation of religion or any sort of faith into a matter of merely private concern and the extroversion of state or other political concerns is no new thing. But as the state or market pseudo-religion of diversity, inclusion and equality has become virulent even to the point of generating a kind of ideological cytokine storm, there has been a sense that even slight disagreement with the dominant ideology is deserving of the utmost derision. Public humiliations and cancellations are signs that independent, individual thought is not called for.

The old feminist phrase declaring that the personal is political may mean many things but among them, now, is the idea that what is personal is no longer really personal. What is personal must go for the sake of the political, even if the political is desperately sick. I have never fully agreed with any political side, and yet I am doomed, because we are in a transparency society, to have my own views conflated with and thus erased by what is most univocally self-evident. All of this is to say that there seems to be a widespread expectation that people should be one-dimensional. This may not be explicitly stated. In fact, when explicitly stated as I have done, people may recoil in horror. But the expectation is there nevertheless. It lines up rather well with various attempts to reduce reality to being equivalent to some or other abstraction.

“Possibly the worst result of this one-dimensional concept of the person,” says Weaver, “is that it makes self-knowledge deceptively easy. In spite of the popularity enjoyed by psychology in recent decades, it may be questioned whether men understand themselves any better today than they did when Socrates was exhorting the Athenians to examine themselves and to learn whether man is a creature mild and gentle by nature, or a monster more terrible than Typhon.” But then, it seems, even in so much modern psychology, that genuine insight into people  and ourselves is hardly the point. Helping people to understand themselves—in the way that, say, C. S. Lewis does in his still astonishingly perceptive Screwtape Letters—does not seem to be the aim. Helping them to “function” is often the goal. Just get people to modify their internal state sufficiently to help them to conform to patterns in the world, even if those worldly patterns are inhuman.

There’s something in this, I realise, of Ted Kaczynski’s rather exaggerated but still pertinent claim that society, given a somewhat odd degree of agency here, often creates conditions that make people unhappy and then, instead of changing those conditions to stop making people unhappy, offers that the best cure for unhappiness is some kind of antidepressant. People find other ways to alter their inner state so that they can tolerate the intolerable. Kaczynski mentions antidepressants and I take it he means these quite literally. But there’s a figurative dimension to his observation too: often we find ourselves adjusting inwardly, even if it means removing a sense of inwardness, to cope with external pressures. Often the cure really is worse than the disease. Arguably, we are left with some subjectivity but it is a shrunken subjectivity, so small and pathetic that it doesn’t even know how to fight back as the walls of a constructivist world keep closing in.

Very interestingly, Weaver notes that one way that inwardness is usurped by the objective is found in a widespread obsession with communication. “Communication is usurping the place formerly held by expression,” he says. “What used to be studied as an art, with some philosophical attention to the character and resources of the user, the truth of what was being expressed, and the character of the potential audience, is now being stripped down to a technique.” What was once meant to be the disclosure of being, and inseparable from being, has been replaced by mere sign exchange. This is evident everywhere in rapid-fire responses to immediate happenings in social media but it is also there in vapid chatter and content-creation.

Life is often reduced to being mere content, now, which is another way of saying that it has been increasingly dewilded, rendered empty of being and full of sign-value. “The word comunication,” writes Weaver, “presupposes the victory of the secularized society of means without ends.” Implied in this, although not explicitly stated by Weaver, is the idea that all you have to do to destroy inwardness is to destroy silence. If you want people to have no access to their inner life, just keep talking. This, it seems to me, is really the key cause for the destruction of inwardness. Haste. Busyness. Chatter. The buzz of the hive and the thrum of the hive-mind. Noise pollution and the often unconscious desire to fight fire with fire produce in us an unhealthy compulsion to extrovert everything.

A number of years ago, I saw a documentary series produced by the BBC called The Big Silence. In it, Benedictine Abbot Christopher Jamison invited five people to have a silent retreat. The dear Abbot said right at the start that he believed that all of the participants would find God if only they allowed themselves to be silent long enough to hear him. This, to my mind, is precisely the right way to find God. The intellect alone simply can’t do it. All it can do is clear away some hindrances and nudge us in the right direction. But any genuine experience of revelation would be the result of listening. And, really, you cannot listen when you’re caught in the chatter and while you’re trying to fight the chatter by adding to it. Well, the demands of the retreat, for those modern input-thirsty desubjectivised selves, were pretty steep. Total silence for close to a week. Initially and without exception, the five participants were like naughty children sneaking out of their bedrooms to have a chat in the way that some of my high school classmates used to bunk classes to go and have a smoke. They craved noise because it had become the norm. We can become addicted to normal even when it’s killing our spirits, and those five participants proved this.

But after a time, true enough, each and every single participant did, indeed, find God. One even quit his job and started a new venture because, in that encounter, he realised that he had been throwing his life away on big business. This, of course, is an echo of some very ancient wisdom. In the nineteenth chapter of the first book of Kings, the prophet Elijah was expectant to hear the voice of God. He stood in a cave on a mountain and waited. As God passed by, there was a great and terrible gust of wind that ripped into the rocky face of the mountain. But God was not in the wind. After that, there was an earthquake. But God wasn’t in the earthquake either. Then, there was a blazing fire, an eruption of luminescent power. But God wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there came a very small, quiet voice, nearly silent but still audible to anyone sufficiently present to it. Elijah heard it and he wrapped his face in his mantle and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. Because he knew that God was discernable in the silence as a very quiet voice, as power whittled down to something even a mortal man can take in.

I often wonder about those five people in that documentary. Already towards the end of it, when it showed all of them returning to their lives, they discovered again that the modern world is all wind and earthquakes and fire, and that silence was more and more difficult to find. It is not said explicitly in the documentary, as far as I can remember, but it was obvious to me that each of those people, in finding God, also found themselves. They had, in a very tangible way, denied their lives and, as a consequence, had found their lives. But when returning to the bustle of busy lives, it became nearly impossible to hear the still, small voice of Divinity. And it would not only have been God that would have been lost, then, but themselves.

Without genuine, deep inwardness, we cannot take a stand against the inauthenticity of the world. Fighting noise with more noise will not do. In doing so, inevitably the crowd becomes the measure, just as political chatter so easily becomes the content of our thinking. Commitment to The Discourse™ demands that we stay in touch with every insipid offering by pop culture. But one of the greatest powers we have is the power to exit all of that, even for a little time every day, to shut the hell up, to be silent and listen. Prayer is primarily this: silence and listening. It’s the best shot we have of connecting to Something—to Someone—Genuinely Transcendent. It’s the best shot we have of gathering up and healing all the pieces of ourselves that have been shattered and taken up and commodified by the tyrannical reign of objectivity. The obliteration of subjectivity does not have to have the last word. But we have to lose ourselves before the truth of our subjectivity can speak.