On becoming an object

by Terence MacNamee

Man is both subject and object, as modern French philosophers have emphasized. In the philosophical tradition, man is the subject of discourse, the world around him a series of objects he can know and talk about. However, Foucault described how Man went from being a subject to being an object of knowledge in the 19th century. This was the beginning of the sciences humaines: sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics. In particular, minorities and colonial peoples became objects of (at best) well-meaning study. They were never subjects. Today, in a world that goes beyond imperial domination, they need to be promoted to subjects. In other words, they need to be able to talk and speak for themselves.

As individuals existing separately from and yet with others, we are condemned to be both subjects and objects. In psychoanalysis, Lacan talked about le stade du miroir, the mirror stage of development. When the child looks in the mirror for the first time and sees himself, he realizes that he is an object to others, just as others can be objects to him.

We all prefer to be subjects rather than objects. We don’t like to be objects exposed to the critical gaze of others. Sartre talked about this experience of objectivisation. He saw it is one of the origins of the emotion of shame. For this reason, he concluded, l’enfer c’est les autres: hell is other people.

We want to be able to be subjects of discourse, talking to other people without them making us into objects and making judgements about us. The whole idea of writing is that we are absent when the reader reads, so we can be pure subjects. Writers like this. Actors and other performing artists, I think, long for it. When the actor goes on the stage for the first time, he thinks of himself as a subject: he, the actor, understands this role and is going to invest himself in playing it. But the audience sees him as an object. To be an actor, he has to learn to see himself with their eyes. He has to give up his absolute subjecthood and consent to become an object.

When you are a foreigner, you are always an object to some extent. This Julia Kristeva found listening to her recorded voice for the first time. A Bulgarian, she had thought she was completely integrated into French society, but suddenly she was hearing this voice of a foreigner. Françoise Kral perceptively comments that this is a kind of stade du miroir – in terms of sound, not vision.

When we venture into another culture or language, we become objects. We stick out like a sore thumb. We are conspicuous because we don’t quite belong, or don’t belong at all. This is a painful experience. But we have to do it. We have to dare to be objects if we are to have any chance of ever functioning as subjects in that culture.