Objectivity demanded that the self split into active experimenter and passive observer.
Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison
The real is not given to us, but put to us in the form of a riddle.
The organism is equipped by its organs to play precisely the tune its milieu has composed for it, like an instrument playing in a larger instrument…the spider carries within its web a complex picture of the prey it is to capture—its web is a map of and a counterpoint to the fly.
Historians of science have taught us that the 21st century inherits a particular relation to the idea of a split self, inseparable from the emergence of experimental science and the concept of objectivity. This dyadic self has a corollary in something akin to cellular dialogue between effector cells and receptor cells. (Effector cells are the muscle, gland or organ cell capable of responding to a stimulus at the terminal end of an efferent neuron or motor neuron.) As Jacob Von Uexküll put it in A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men receptor cells “approach the animal in the form of questions,” and effector cells “the subject’s answers to the world.”
The characterization of cellular interactions as dialogues, as interviews, as, in a way, talk, evokes selves, subjects conversing. Even natural selection might be said to unfold in the interrogative mode, answering, in adaptation, mutation, or extinction, the ongoing question of how to survive. But we associate the posing of questions with “our” sort of consciousness. Henri Poincaré wrote of the unconscious that it is “not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since it succeeds where that has failed.” The participations of Poincaré’s “unconscious” seems related to the interactions of Uexküll’s conversant cells, immanent and alien, present and absent, intimate and remote.
To speak your mind, proverbially, is to know your mind. Or, our significations may go out ahead of us, knowing more than we thought.
We are haunted by metaphors of the autonomic and stories that say we might not be who we think we are, that we are living out a script we are unaware of—we might be a computer program, a battery, an amnesiac killer. We might be dreaming the world. The world might be dreaming us. We sense we are inhabited, if not possessed.
Fabulists give us contact with this plurality. We become unfamiliar to ourselves. The film ends, or we put down the book and make our way back to a knowing feeling.
Foucault wrote in The Care of the Self that Galen stipulated humans should be guided by animals in their self-care, and in their search for understanding. They should look to living animals, not imagery, which can “give rise in the soul to empty desires” having no “correlation with the needs of the body.” Foucault noted that, “In this context the animal example which so often served to disqualify the appetites of man, can on the contrary constitute a model for conduct.” For Elizabeth Grosz, all arts begin with the animal, art is always constituted within an ecology, never as an autonomous object. Artists are no more autonomous than art; the artist is neither monad nor an originator. Rather the artist and the scientist are dialogicians, workers in a lineage.
There is no common quality artworks must have, not even within any particular art form: but the capacity that all artworks have to be located within a milieu of other artworks—even as upheaval and innovation—means that they are constituted not through intentionality but through the work itself, through its capacity to be connected to, or severed from, other works.
Subject and object are dovetailed into one another, to constitute a systematic whole….All animals…are fitted into their…worlds with equal completeness.
As an example of this dovetailing, he describes a tick lying in wait for its blood meal:
What we are dealing with is not an exchange of forces between two objects, but the relations between a living subject and its object…the whole rich world around the tick shrinks and changes into a scanty framework consisting, in essence, of three receptor cues and three effector cues–her Umwelt [world]. But the very poverty of this world guarantees the unfailing certainty of her actions, and security is more important than wealth.
In these examples of the meal plans of ticks and spiders, of animal metabolism and animal arts, there is something nonliving, ‘object’ like, that conditions the lifework of animals. Similarly, for humans, there is a splitting, a doubling that occurs in acts of self-fashioning in milieus set aside for it, be it the gym, or the autobiography. Both take as their project the life (bios) of the self. Like gym, the autobiography cares for, molds the self, insofar as it trains the memory, the body, history, and experience.
Auto bio graphs split and divide the writer into active experimenter and passive observer, in order to discipline—unify—split, divided pasts and bodies.
The self disciplining entailed in writing fiction is of a different order. Fiction confects its truths while autobiography elides its artifices. Or, fiction-as-painting: reflexive; autobiography-as-mirror: reflective. What happens at the mirror? It is a site of utility, control, pleasure, mortal despair. The painting, as a made surface, entails a practice of seeing, whereas the mirror (seemingly such a passive surface) entails manipulating what is seen. The painting stimulates a meditative movement away from the self towards materiality. The mirror compels an anxious involvement in the bodied self, its surface. The mirror is where we paint our self; the painting is where we forget it. But somewhere between the surfaces, the mediums seem to switch roles, exchange properties. Just as we use a mirror, in which we almost always appear alone, to costume and cast appearance, so might we use the autobiographical mode.
We don’t invent the autobiography whole-cloth, but we do manipulate it. It is not (consciously anyway) an extended allegory. And yet it is often precisely by means of allegory that we can get at what is not self-evident about the autobiographical, what may be obscured by the autobiographical p(r)ose, where, all too often, we might protest, it is not only not true, it is not even art.
In Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism Lies Here,” Madame Realism is looking at art and suddenly finds herself being contemplated by and spoken for by art. She wonders, as this happens, if she could be “the temporary product of her own alien imagination,” an alien self-imagination engaging in the alienated labor of self-production. The sentence asks, where is the line between subject and object where commerce in the imagined, and perhaps imaginary, self is concerned? At the end of her similarly reflexive short story, “Come and Go,” a character named Charles may have cancer but then, doesn’t. The author suddenly intrudes: “Charles didn’t have cancer so I will never have it.” Through the interjecting authorial “I” the reader contacts an a-temporal premonition that writing is premonitory.
If the desire to discipline the past is part of the autobiographical impulse, perhaps the desire to discipline the future, to prophesy, is part of what underlies the fictive impulse, especially science fiction. Insofar as fiction has a placebo effect, we might mediate and navigate (cure?) our somewhat imaginary selves, by means of other imaginary selves. Is the related impulse in autobiography to “cure,” as in to heal—and as in to dry out—the past of its chaos? And/or to cure as in to ferment, to make palatable the un-digestible substances of our histories?
In “Madame Realism, A Fairy Tale,” Madame Realism conceives a desire to metamorphose into an object, specifically, a catalogue. She wants to be “cited, secure, helpful and clear.” Transformed by her wish into words, and by her words into her wish, she succeeds. The form fits. As a catalogue she can “overflow with questions,” “be difficult,” not be “easy to follow,” and “appear transparent but turn out to be opaque.” The self as a catalogue is the self as an object, orderly, usable, marked by history, made, belated, referential, a more or less organized record of time’s passage, the “temporary product” of an alien imagination, as well as history and time.
What of all the selves that become available, or are constructed and invented, made and/or made apparent, through the objectifications of certain trainings, science, metaphysics, dreams, activism, psychoanalysis, relationships, writing? Or, as Paul Grimstad asks in Experience and Experimental Writing, “What is the difference between thinking of experience as the squaring of inner and outer matters to thinking of experience as a process continued in composition?”
Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “State of Siege” shows the impossibility, for some, of doing otherwise. Squaring inner and outer matters will not be possible in states of siege, and composition is the only context in which to “continue”—find continuity—in experience, by showing radical discontinuity and dispossession. He addresses the paradox that on the one hand, bodies share ontological commonalities, are metaphysically arbitrary, imaginably interchangeable. But on the other, geo-politically, in mind, and in memory, bodies are fixed in place, most of all by displacement:
I’ll teach you waiting
on a stone bench, perhaps
we would exchange our names. You might see
an urgent simile between us:
you have a mother
and I have a mother
and we have one rain
and we have one moon
On my ruins the shadow sprouts green,
and the wolf dozes off on my sheep’s wool
and dreams as I do,
and as an angel does,
that life is here
The myths refuse to adjust their plot.
They may suffer a sudden malfunction
and some of the ships may drift to a dry unpopulated land
where the imaginary becomes afflicted with the real…
but they don’t change their plot.
Whenever they find a reality that doesn’t suit them
They alter it with a bulldozer,
because reality is an ongoing text, lovely
white, without malady…
In siege, time becomes place
petrified in its eternity.
In siege, place becomes time
late for its appointment
Place is the scent.
When I recall a land
I smell the blood of scent
And long for my displaced self
Darwish describes the colonizer’s (cognitive-terrestrial) map in which “nobody” is there prior to me, therefore whoever is, must be erased to make room for my state/self, linked through violence (states are always founded on violence). As Alexander Kluge imagines in Learning Processes With a Fatal Outcome, when the territory doesn’t fit the map, fascism doesn’t revise the map, it obliterates the territory.
If the autobiography (the self writing, the self written) is a way of organizing knowledge holistically, collaging experience into a particular shape to mold seemingly personal accidents of fate and memory into intended, cultural artifacts of remembrance, it is also made impossibly large by our imbrications, one way or another, with nationality, with global antagonisms, which precede and far exceed the duration of one’s bios. Given this, how could the autobiographer ever adequately bracket or historicize their experience? Fiction is a way out; it doesn’t claim fealties. Another possibility would be to find a way to take perspective itself impersonally, reflexively, seeing it as provisional, a condition for one set of possibilities that excludes any number of others.
In 1931 Siegfried Kracauer wrote:
Today the creative artist has once and for all lost faith in the objective meaning of any one individual system of reference. But when this fixed coordinate grid disappears, all the curves plotted on it lose their pictorial form as well. The writer can no more appeal to his self than he can depend on the world for support, because these two structures determine each other. The former is relativized, and the contents and figures of the latter have been thrown into an opaque orbit. It is no accident that one speaks of the “crisis” of the novel. The crisis resides in the fact that the reigning compositional model for the novel has been invalidated by the abolition of the contours of the individual and its antagonists.
The novel, he writes, might be resurrected through a “new form appropriate to the confused world.” Biographies were popular in his day, not, he speculated, “because there is a cult of hero worship but because there is a need for a legitimate literary form” that can represent history.
Juliana Spahr’s autobiographical The Transformation transpires in the quintessentially novelistic point of view, the third person. But in this book, they is the operative pronoun. They is one, two, three, any number of people; they is supervalent. This they creates novelistic, authorial distance and gender plurality while also referencing the author’s triadic primary relationship, which, collectively, constitutes the plural protagonist of the book. The third person also allows the author to point to the historical sameness of “they” as white North American inheritors of the disjunctive impasse, violent legacy, and cursed privilege of settler-colonial heritage. Their difficulty locating a satisfactory and legible description of their relationship is linked to geographic and historical senses of dislocation:
They avoided words to describe their relation because words felt wrong. And there were not any really….Instead they just avoided words even as they often found it necessary to use metaphors.
They tried to understand the balance of three-legged stools. The rules of triangles…they tried to think of their desks and their lives as universals and particulars, as boundaries and ties, as locals and globals, as individualisms and collectivisms. They pictured the interconnected hubs of migration in the sea of islands. They had after all arrived by plane. And so they identified with planes.
Later they undergo a transformation of perspective. Having been educated in graduate school to value, sanction, and enjoy formally radical, modernist, and predominantly white male poetry, they find themselves living in Hawaii and exposed to another vision of what constitutes radical poetics: poetry that seeks political change, poetry motivated by an anti-colonial sovereignty movement, poetry in which form is always political and bodies are always historical. They recognize that they have been unwittingly complicit in the extinctions of languages by rooting their lifework in an un-reflexive English. There is a change in their thinking both about themselves and about poetry:
They began to see poetry as a series of contiguous systems, systems that did not merge but that were still beside one another. They found themselves asking who they wrote with and why. They found themselves questioning ambiguity and its presumed neutrality in their work.
The Transformation suggests that instead of writing autobiographically to understand or explain ourselves as if what we are remains to be disclosed after the fact of experience, we may be syntax.
The paradox that Darwish and Spahr both point to is that our conceivable interchangeability with each other is inseparable from our inescapably situated, politically bodied selves. To write your own autobiography with this understanding is to write the intimate precision of imprecise being, to try to be exact about what is inchoate, using the ink of the history we live in and work through, towards what can never be fully known by us.
Darwish, Mahmoud. The Butterfly’s Burden. Translated by Fady Joudah. Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2007.
Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2010.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Grimstad, Paul. Experience and Experimental Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Boston: Harvard, 1995.
Poincaré, Henri. The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, the Value of Science. London: Forgotten Books, 2012.
Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. Chicago: Open Court, 1998.
Spahr, Juliana. The Transformation. Berkeley: Atelos, 2007.
Tillman, Lynne. The Madame Realism Complex. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1992.
Tillman, Lynne. This Is Not It. New York: D.A.P., 2002.
Von Uexküll, Jacob. A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men. In Instinctive Behavior. Edited by C. Schiller, 5-80.Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1957.