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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Subjectivity - Notes of Anup Dhar's Lecture

Following is are the lecture-notes prepared by Nikita Naresh of II Yr JPEg based on Anup Dhar's interactive lecture on Subjectivity delivered on 8 January 2011 between 2 and 6 pm at Christ University. The lecture was organised by Padmakumar to orient the students and the faculty to forthcoming conference on Subjectivity in the University.

The session began with questions from the audience about the nature of subjectivity and various other concepts related to it. The most prominent ones were:
What is subjectivity?
What is inter-subjectivity?
What is agency and does the subject have it?
What is the self/identity/individual/body (as opposed to the subject)?
What is structure?
Who is a subject?
Is there a free subject?
What role does experience or personal narratives play in subjectivity?
Is subjectivity ideal-dependent?

Subjectivity in law
Can a judge be neutral? Can we legally take into account the subjectivity of the perpetrator? What is objective evidence?

In the case of rape, the law requires evidence of forced penetration and also resistance from the ‘victim’. But traces of penetration are virtually impossible to find, and the examination involved to find it could be regarded the second rape of the woman. There could also easily be situations where under duress she could not resist the attack. In such cases then, the court turns to the subjective narrations of the woman and her personal experience of the rape. A true ‘narrative’ is one which goes against all odds, one that comes with a strong emotional attachment. This narrative is understood by the judge by virtue of his comprehension of the language, or the ability to hear. Subjective narrations can only be known through inter-subjectivity.

If the woman was experienced in sex, or was a sex worker, what differentiates this experience from any other? If we combine this situation with an inability to resist the advances of the perpetrator and there is no evidence of penetration, then according to objective law, there was no rape.

But the subject (the woman) knows that she has in fact been raped. How does she know this? How does she distinguish her experiences and provide her narrative? She must have had some prior knowledge of sexual violence. How does she identify herself with the role of victim?

Another case of rape was mentioned where the woman claimed that she did not resist the attack because the very act of been stripped of her clothes was indignity enough. She claimed that she knew that she had been raped even before there was penetration, there was no need for her to resist after this initial ‘rape’ had already been committed? Her experience then is different from that of other women, by cracking the basic ‘ideal’ of rape which is penetration. But if her experience of being stripped is in fact the same as that of a woman being penetrated forcefully, then should that qualify as rape? Her consciousness of sexual violence comes before that of the court (which ruled against her). Her agency ended when she was stripped and her free-subject essentially died at the point when she was subjected to rape.

Understanding this from an I/me/mine position of this woman,
I was raped.
My me was raped.
My mine was not in my genitals but in my clothes.

The mix of subjective and objective in law is a difficult one. Neutrality of a court is impossible, because there is no way of eliminating the subjectivity of the judge. Law itself is framed on the pervading morals of society. The court can only ever pretend to be objective, but cannot at any point provide a judgement which is not influenced by subjectivity. On the other hand the subjectivity of the defendant and prosecutor are never taken into consideration. The subjectively created constitution is upheld objectively regardless of the specific experience or narrative of the subjects involved.

Subjectivity and the body
In the case of a dead person, whom does the body belong to? The body exists without the subject, or without an ‘I’. We all have two bodies-the live body with the I and the dead body without it.

Our many subject positions all share one anatomical body of which we are not consciously aware of. We cannot feel our internal organs, the firing of neurons, the chemical reactions taking place within us. Only if there is injury or or a malfunctioning of the organ, can we sense its presence-through the subjective experience of pain. The depths of our anatomical body is known to us through pain, while the surface is known through pleasure.

The anatomical body is universal to all people (with a structuralist understanding), the lived body however is subjective to each of us. They do not arise on their own, but only through their relationship with others and the sensorial world. These relationships determine our own life-worlds, our choices and individual ‘destinies’.

The woman mentioned earlier faced an indignity at the surface of her body itself, before it reached the depths. At the moment she felt she was raped, it was her subjective body that had been attacked, not her anatomical one, which is why the court could not recognize it for rape.

At this point, the mind-body relationship was brought up as an erroneous western idea. One cannot exist without the other. When we discuss subjectivity, we are discussing both the mind and the body. There is no/can’t be any distinction between the two, because at any point there are several bodies which could be referred to. The mind is in a way transcendental over each of these bodies, brought together by human anatomy. There is a mental pole and a bodily pole which coexist in the lived body in a sort of continuum. A dead brain means a dead body.

In the case of phantom limbs (a sensation experienced by someone who has had a limb amputated that the limb is still there), the subjective body experiences and is conscious of the missing limb, even though the anatomical body or the objective body is not. The limb then is on the cusp of real-unreal.

In an ideal-driven world and a structural world, subjectivity will cause disruptions. Knowledge systems are wary of subjectivity because it contests their basic principles. But if we give free reign to it, there would be a proliferation of subjectivities which would not be compatible with each other and a functioning world would not be possible.

The thermometer (Subjectivity of beliefs)
If A claims to have a fever and B wants to verify this, then how would s/he do so?
Through her senses of touch, vision (of symptoms), hearing (A’s narration), by use of a thermometer and relating these findings to her own experience of fever.

After this analysis, if B agrees that A has a fever, there is a common inter-subjective result. If B comes to the conclusion that A does not actually have a fever then how do we reach a consensus?

The thermometer provides an objective measure of temperature, but at what temperature one is said to have a fever is again a subjective decision. These are the objective standards that we have today. before thermometers however, people measured fevers in different ways, the standards used change over time (as the notion of rape changes over time) which is why subjective understandings across cultures are so different.

There are only two possibilities in the earlier scenario. A either has a fever or doesn’t. In a Newtonian world, there are always only two options. The world is divided into binaries and the subject must choose between them. Good and bad, right and wrong etc. are conundrums, which cannot likely be solved because Dharma is uncanny.

The story of Mahabharata is essentially about the violation of Draupadi. But we often forget Duryodhana’s earlier humiliation, when Draupadi laughed at him. His order to strip her in the court was intended to humiliate her in return. In Ramayana, Ravan kidnaps Sita but treats her unlike any other woman in his life, with kindness and respect with the hope that she would eventually fall in love with him and would then turn down Ram’s hand in the same way that Ram turned down Soorpanika. An eye for an eye seems fair, in the sort of the objective world that we have created today, but right and wrong in these stories is difficult to clearly pin down. To understand subjectivity or the conundrums of right and wrong, we need to abandon Newton’s world and go inwards or antharmukhi according to Hindu philosophy.

It is difficult to deliberate over objective universals, especially when we acknowledge subjectivity. Universals of the thermometer kind may not always suffice. Then what do we do?

After reading A’s temperature, the mark on the thermometer will remain for millions of years, unchanged until an external subject shakes it back to normal. The thermometer requires human agency to revert back. The reading is created from A, but exists thereafter without any need of the world.

Coming back to A and B, the dialogue between them takes place in 3 stages:
I A has fever and a thermometer measure her temperature
II B says that A doesn’t have fever
III A says that she does in fact have fever, it’s her experience of fever.

The first stage is that of a third person and therefore objective. The second stage is one of inter-subjectivity with a need for a hyphen between the two. The third is one of intra-subjectivity and one of loneliness. This point, of acknowledging your own experience is the point of creation. It is the primal loneliness of god, which is present in all of us. This loneliness exists despite the fact that at any given time a subject is both speaker and listener within his/her own mind, because language functions in such a way that speaker and listener are always coexistent. The subject then is never ‘alone’ but lonely.

Newton and Identities
Western cultures were impoverished cultures because they were incapable of abstract thought, especially in numbers. The idea of 10, with a zero after one to depict a higher number required an immense amount of abstract thought and inter-subjectivity to symbolically represent 10 in this way.

Newton began as a lover of alchemy and with a secret affair with a great alchemist at the time. He stifled these passions with the aim of getting into the Royal Society and since then could only think straight and mechanistic, ignoring the subjective, as opposed to Einstein’s bent space and relativity.

Newton’s world is a billiards table, with a hard, even surface, solid balls and definite pockets. Einstein messed up this table by imagining the table made of a rubber sheet, that would bend under the weight of the balls and rock them of its own accord. Heisenberg messed this up even further by imagining each ball to be as small as an electron, so small that any attempt to look at it, would shift its position.

Today quantum theory still does not know if electrons exist, because it is impossible to see them. They believe that they exist because the physics involved suggests that there is a particle of negative charge present in the orbits around the nucleus of an atom. The structure of logic in a newtonian world is + and -, binary opposites.
It is a numerical world of 9 and 10, but our subjective mind can create a platform 9 3/4 between them.”
The electron in quantum physics lies somewhere between this 9 and 10.

The Jains in contrast believed in a 7-fold world of logic (positively negative, really unreal, cause as well as effect etc.) It went between the binaries and beyond them. This is where subjectivity lies.

The subjective world is an intimate world. A pen is bent in water. This information may not be true, but it is still relevant. Lifting it out of water is like lifting it out of context/history/society. It is a phenomenal experience.

Who am I?
Answering this question requires self-reflection/ knowledge. In Hinduism to answer this question would again call upon antharmukhi.

Kunti was giving Karna an identity by telling him that he was a Pandava. But he could not just pick himself out of his ‘water’ and join a new context. His life and struggles had brought him to Duryodhana and he chose to fight alongside him even though it meant death. it is based on what you see inwards that tells you how to live your life. Karna chose death.

There is always an other or mirror upon which you ‘bounce off’ your reflections. Arjun had Krishna through the pages of the Bhagavad Gita. This is subjectivity, a dialogue. A dialogue cannot have morals or Newtonian logic. Definite identity frames cannot cater to the real identity. This universal world cannot be enough as it tries to label and categorize us. It attempts an objectivity which is not compatible with our multiple subjective bodies.

Dhar, Anup. 'Subjectivity'. Bangalore: Christ University. 8 Jan. 2011. Lecture.


Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathil said...

Subjectivity suddenly reminded me of the identity cards of Nandan Nilekhani... of India Government. Now You cannot say who you are! Only the government can say who you are.... Your identity is given by the Government irrespective of your subjective experiences....

Anil Pinto said...

I agree with you, Jijo.