The Void of the Self and the Grace of Objectification: Cultivating Relational Selfhood and Vulnerability
Self care, mental health, body image, gender identity…
All these contemporary buzzwords and social concerns point to a certain deepening of subjectivity, an existential awareness of one’s own experience of one’s self, one’s valuation of the qualities of personal experience.
Great! I firmly believe greater awareness along these lines is necessary for contemporary subjects. But, on the other hand, subjectivity is a bottomless abyss. The deeper we dig into the self, the more we subjectify ourselves, the more we can get tangled in our own neuroses, and the more we can reify a notion of self as an atomized individual, as the most real aspect of our experience.
There is no salvation in the self — no matter what understandings or stories we may craft about who we are or the experiences we cultivate of our personhood. We may find ways to be healthier or more empowered along these lines, but I often feel that people get stuck in thinking that if only they finally attain some axiomatic revelation of who they are, or how their psyche operates, that somehow everything will fit together in life.
Yet, when we dive deeper and deeper into the self, we can create sharper and sharper boundaries between self and world or self and other.
Fundamentally, we are relational selves. We are in and of the world, and we have our being in and through the myriad other creatures of this cosmos. Most mundanely, our identity is given to us through things such as family, religion, culture, etc. These are not things we create as subjects, but things which are imposed on us as objects.
Being objectified is seen as a fundamentally negative experience in much of contemporary consciousness. To objectify is a sin, as this robs the other of their dignity and autonomy to be a creative, self-defined person. Most of us are on the same page that there is no salvation in pure objectification.
But, subjectification is equally poisonous without certain constraints. When we subjectify ourselves, we see ourselves more and more as atomized individuals, with force of will to exert our subjectivity on a world and others which come to be seen as fundamentally passive — a canvas which exists for our sake on which we can paint a life story.
So rather than a remedy to objectification, this ever-deepening of subjectivity is merely the flip side of this pathology.
However, so long as we are self-conscious agents we can never step outside of the paradigm of objectification/subjectification. Instead of recoiling from these messy realities, we can cultivate a view of these as a dynamic process of creation and encounter.
The logical end of pure subjectification is to become entirely cut off from all reality, existing only within oneself. Islamic cosmology recognizes the tragedy of such a situation, setting this as the impetus for the creation of the cosmos itself. God, speaking through Muhammad, says “I was a hidden treasure; I loved to be known. Hence I created the world so that I would be known.”
Objectification, from a psychological standpoint, is so often exciting for people precisely because it has the ability to make a person real. Objectification is essentially relational, requiring an other autonomous subject for the dynamic to even arise. To be truly related to the world we either become objectified by an other or objectify others.
Objectification is also scary and traumatic, however, due to the power of relationality. We lose the grip and ourselves and become mere objects.
In Kant’s famous ethical injunction, the word “merely” is often forgotten — never treat others as MERELY a means to an end. But we treat others as means to ends — objectifying them — all the time. When I go to the bank I certainly relate to the teller as a means to an end of facilitating some financial transaction. I reify a certain concept of identity for this person and objectify them through this. The ethically important move is not to somehow avoid this (impossible given the pragmatic demands of everyday life) but to retain a certain openness to the relation suddenly and spontaneously flipping.
Trauma from excessive objectification leads one to retreat into subjectivity, erecting thick walls around the self, but this is fundamentally isolating and stifles the essential vitality of life. To be alive is to have semi-permeable membranes. Death exists either if the organism becomes too open to its environment (eaten by other creatures, taking in toxic substances, etc) or too closed to it, restricting the necessary flow (starvation, malnutrition, loss of symbiotic relationships etc). This serves as an effective metaphor for the necessity of a dynamic flow between subjectification and objectification as the basis for a healthy life.
However, our relationship with both these poles is currently confused and frustrated. Too little healthy objectification leads to poor development of individual identity and a descent into nihility, often culminating in a violent reactive response. This is most clearly seen in the rise of extreme right politics in recent times — what is more objectifying than fascism, which forces a certain nationalistic and cultural identity onto individuals?
On the other hand, you see many folks of a much more progressive bent slipping deeper and deeper into subjectification. And this can be useful insofar as this self exploration opens up new or deeper avenues for relating with others and the world. But when it becomes an end in itself, as if some form of romanticized self-discovery has the ability to put one in contact with some “true self” that will then transfigure one’s experience — this can be deeply pathological.
Our “true selves” are empty and relational. Introspection is not an act of uncovering, where you cast off more and more incidental debris until you eventually encounter some essential “you” which is the wellspring of your life and identity. It’s actually exactly the opposite. Introspection is amassing ever-more perspectives, stories, and conceptions of oneself. And hey, collecting can be a great and useful hobby, but it’s not where you will find salvation or ultimate reality if that’s what you’re ultimately looking for.
Our “true selves” (if we even want to use such language) are not discovered by our own efforts within our subjectivity, but something revealed to ourselves in real relationship.
To open ourselves to this revelation, however, we must be vulnerable in both senses of the word. Vulnerable as in offering ourselves up to the world and other, and vulnerable as in being exposed to potential harm. These two meanings are in fact inseparable.
The central revelation of Christianity through Christ is that this vulnerability is the highest virtue. Jesus opened himself to the world to such a degree that he actually offered himself up to all.
Our age demands a rejection of both crude objectification (at the root of the climate crisis and gendered violence) as well as atomizing subjectification (at the root of dissolving community relations and unrestrained capitalism).
We must offer ourselves to the world and others, and if traumas result from this vulnerability (they will) then we have the opportunity to transfigure these traumas into something creative and conducive to delving deeper into a relational existence.
Buber, Martin. I And Thou. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Cheetham, Tom. All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2012.
Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. 1st Ed. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London: Pelican, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2018.
Miller, Adam S. Speculative grace: Bruno Latour and object-oriented theology. Fordham University Press, 2015.
Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Nanzan Studies in Religion and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.