Today, in my Philosophy of Religion course, we discussed a piece from the anthology we’re using entitled “God is a Projection of Man”. Feuerbach opens with a preposterous statement: humanity is distinguished from all other animals in that it is conscious. This, of course, is the sort of statement that I love in my philosophy courses. If a philosopher says something this obviously absurd, it’s rarely– I think –because they’re idiots, but more often than not because they mean something different than the connotations we find in these words. If, by consciousness, Feuerbach meant awareness then he’s most certainly wrong. Dogs, dolphins, maybe cats, certain birds, chimpanzees, etc, all have awareness.
What Feuerbach meant– and he says this explicitly –is that humanity is the only animal that thinks of itself as a species. Since I was in a particularly Sartrean mood today, I rephrased this point as follows: “human is that animal that wonders what it means to be human or for whom its species-being is a question.” Now before the critical animal theorists and posthumanists jump all over me for anthropocentrism, I fully confess that I haven’t the faintest clue as to whether dolphins and dogs ask “what is dogness?” and “what is dolphiness?” I have no special need, nor desire, to argue that this is a special province of humans (whatever they might be). Perhaps a number of animals suffer from our special way of making ourselves miserable. I certainly hope not.
What strikes me– and it matters little whether it is humans or dogs or chimpanzees or androids or dolphins or lichens or institutions –is being that sort of being for whom ones being is a question. This, it seems, is the curse of being a subject. To be subject is not to be an identity or an ego. It is not to be a list of enumerable qualities like the list of properties we use to define a table, circle, or triangle. All too often we hear subject described this way in discourses on subjectivization where we’re led to the notion of incommensurable worlds because, after all, everyone is supposed to be their essence or what subject-position defines them. Yet subject seems to be something very different than this. Subject is not an identity, an essence, a list of enumerable properties, but rather the failure of properties to define ones being. Subject is that being for whom its being is a question. As Sartre so nicely put it, “consciousness is what it is not and is not what it is.”
Subject is, in this respect, an abyss. I can list all sorts of things about my-self, all sorts of characteristics about me: temperament, character, personality, past, ethnicity, gender, nationality, occupation, etc. Yet somehow I am still curiously detached from these things. Are they me? I don’t know. Somehow they are. Yet they’re also not. We are fascinated hearing others define us, say what we are– and perhaps even feel some sort of relief when we can be defined by an astrological sign or a Meyers-Briggs personality type or a disorder or an identity category –yet maybe we should take that satisfaction not as subject but as a symptom of subject: that for subject, subject’s being is in question and subject is not sure what it is and finds that every list of predicates– S(x) (Ix —> p1, p2, p3…) –rolls off its back like water off a duck. Subject is that for whom its being is open, a question, and for which predicates always fail. And for this reason subject experiences a sort of anxiety or homelessness even where it is most at home. “Am I being or doing it right?” subject wonders with respect to its gender or ethnicity or occupation or family or sex or nationality or class, because, as Hegel said, the mysteries of the Egyptians are mysteries to the Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians were just as mysterious to themselves, to each Egyptian, as they were to everyone else.
This would be the truth of identity: that we don’t have privileged access, a special secret knowledge, to even our own identity… That it is mysterious even to us. It is not the Levinasian Other that is an abyss– though she certainly is an abyss as well –but rather, above all, subject that is an abyss: an abyss to itself. Subject is not an identity, a subject-position, a subjectivization, an ego, nor an identification. Subject is the a priori failure of all these things; an ineradicable failure that we cannot escape. Indeed, perhaps we flee in to identity, subject-positions, subjectivizations, egos, and identifications to escape the yawning abyss that is subject and where all identities fail. Do we not swoon and sigh in relief when we think we can say who we are? And do we not yet experience a sort of minimal anxiety, disappointment, or failure in every attempt to say what we are, to categorize ourselves in a group, to say “I am x?” Does the “I am x?” not create again the question of whether we’ve managed to properly be that?
It is here that we might find true universality. We worry over the question of how incommensurable cultural universes can communicate with each other. What if it is not that communication is rendered possible by a universal sameness— which critical theory reveals to always be a veiled particularity –but rather by a universal failure of sameness: that first and most primordial failure, that failure being more originally than the origin, of being a failure to be identical with ourselves? What if it is our being as a question, as something for which all predicates fail, that is the condition that allows us to communicate across difference and incommensurate universes of meaning and identity precisely because identity is never successful. It is precisely because I don’t know what I am that I am able to communicate with another subject that doesn’t know what it is despite the fact that both of us come from such different universes. It is the gap, the non-identity, that allows us to communicate rather than the identity.