Andrianna Campbell

Photo courtesy:  Matthew Placek.

Photo courtesy:  Matthew Placek.

Subjektiv part II invites different artists, curators and thinkers to give us their recent critical perspectives on the issues at stake and on the status of the subjective as an artistic strategy in the current political climate. Today's statement from Andrianna Campbell: Subjectivity has been the concern of every serious student of philosophy for the last few millennia. Moreover, despite claims for subjectivity’s recent politicization, its politics has also run in tandem. In Aristotle’s Politics, he writes, “[That] man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech.” Speech is an indicator of the possession of subjectivity; speech conveys into the world the subjectivity of the subject, even when that subject is unaware of how one relates to oneself. The possession of speech, as an ancient form of discourse that we associate with the Greek Lyceum or the Chinese Apricot Altar (Xingtan), not only may convey one’s subjectivity but also one’s politics. Our sociability, how we assemble, is rigorously tied to the acceptable criteria for discussion. Today, affectivity has surpassed objectivity as the defining criteria of cultural dialogue in both public and private discussion platforms. Spaces of feeling have outgrown spaces of discourse (even those in isolated communities and groups). What is clear is that the technology of the digital era has interlinked communities across multiple platforms (Twitter, Facebook, other chat venues). Furthermore, unlike previous eras of social organizing, which produced radical leftist groups such as the Weather Underground or the German Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion or RAF) and radical right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Mussolini’s Blackshirts, today’s reinvigorated versions of these radicalized groups have adopted selective exposure and customization of their information feeds. This has led to widespread confirmation bias and a flagrant distrust of traditional sources. It has been good news for the isolated fashion blogger and good news for the white supremacist fringe group.

I begin with Aristotle because that is where I began to examine the self. I studied Aristotle in middle school in a magnet program for inner-city children in Hartford, CT. It was shortly after my family had immigrated to the United States and two years before we moved to the suburbs. In order to protect me from a violent school system, my mother enrolled me in a Classics program at Quirk Middle. I remember Mr. Callahan’s receding white hair. I was one of two students paying attention in his Philosophy 101 class. For most of the others, it seemed disconnected from daily reality. I liked the Greeks because I liked my worn copy of Edith Hamilton’s mythologies. The other alert student, Lara, seemed much more rigorous in her thinking, and less of a romantic. I don’t know her as an adult, but I know from social media that she went on to Princeton and then to law school. She was always perfectly dressed and pressed; she never had a hair out of place. I also remember that the day we studied “the unexamined life is not worth living,” a student had died a few hours earlier. He was stabbed in the courtyard before the morning bell. This was Hartford in the 1990s; when Dan Rather had visited for a nightly news segment, he had worn a flak jacket. It was a “war zone.”

I have never since seen anything like that attack in my life. Our family had no roots in the United States, so it was easier to leave. The horror of those events never became quotidian. I sometimes think about that day, our journey from Aristotle to the Cartesian model of the self, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). And in the years that followed, the shift to reading Jean Paul Sartre. All of this is a flood of visuals: he sees a man in a public park who he recognizes as a man and also as an object. He is seen by another. Thus seeing-the-other is the same as being-seen-by-other. One’s own subjectivity is the site of someone else’s objectivation. The self modified by this moment of cogito in reaction and awareness of an other in the park. That moment of sight also reminds me of Fanon on the train, of the moment in Black Skin, White Masks in which the black protagonist (Fanon) is a triple person. “I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. The real world challenged my claims. In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness.” Being black in himself, he does not experience his blackness among other blacks, but in encounter. Fanon draws on and is in contradistinction to both Sartre and Hegel; Fanon wants to escape the perceived dualism in their thinking and therefore deduces his theory of a third consciousness. 

I returned to the study of Aristotle in a college course on Western ethics, where our old, white—and often drunk—male professor would begin every class by denigrating diversity. He was even so emboldened, on occasion, as to blame the Jews for the Holocaust. His line of argumentation was that they should have tried harder to fit in to German society. He was often looking at me when he began some diatribe on multiculturalism eroding ethics. Following this, he couldn’t help himself not to comment on the sexual proclivities of the women in the class. This was our ancient philosophy and ethics course. It never blemished my love of Aristotle, but the fury of my response led me to file a formal complaint. My department head said that there was nothing that could be done except another note on his record. It wasn’t the first. These layers of hypocrisy were the very problem of the study of Western ethics as it has been replicated by so many abhorrent figures. Now, with technology, we have vanishing and highly invisible selves. We don’t have to be the people we pretend to be (Socrates) in real life; so much of our pretense happens online. There have been quite a few consequences: an emboldening of public displays of narcissism, and of trolling and bullying behind secretive masks; an attachment to terms such as post-truth and alternate-facts; a distrust of science and theory; a disregard for authority. What happened to values of introspection, honor, sincerity, duty, and ethics? Is there any place for these now, and have those values (in the post-modern sense) been the very means of oppression? Or, as Bruno Latour writes, “are they (as they came out of rationality) fixed in an age that we need variable values?” One can’t help but wonder if, in order to achieve a more democratic body, we must aim to include some of these traits into mutable models. 

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I am typing this now on my phone while I text my colleague Joanna Fiduccia. I am not looking inward or outward, nor neither or both. I am projecting into the technology an outward self: a self as an extension of mind, body, and spirit. I wonder whether, as in the case of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the self projects onto another, which brings about a move from the subjective to the objective. Or if technology brings about, in his words, an “end to the antithesis of subject and object.” I wonder if the subjective, when it is placed online, mimics the objective—and if there has never been any division between them. Is the self just a plane of information roaming from one polarity to another? Most information exists in the middle somewhere. The key question: if hierarchies of information become invisible, how we do know who is speaking and why? Remember, speech is a conveyance of subjectivity and a politics. If these mechanisms are invisible, their “enforcement mechanisms … are even harder to discern.” I think about this often because Joanna and I have begun a journal of art writing and art-historical scholarship called apricota. We envision it as subjectivities run amok; however, we were also taken aback by the election. We worry about the value of erudition after the rise of affect and the seeming diminution of truth. As scholars, we both aim for objective knowledge alongside other forms of knowing. We must attempt to get the facts, or get as close to them as possible. Of course, we must be transparent in our opinions. We can address other ways that information circulates—in conversations, in anecdotes, in details that seem personal or even juicy, yes—and try to judge whether it should be part of how we understand culture. We realize a key to so much of this is transparency: of our aims and desires (as much as we can know them). We wish to combat propaganda, to be clear when editorializing, and to promote journalistic integrity. These ideals rest on the long academic tradition of citing sources and giving credit. apricota draws its knowledge accumulation from both the outside, even the liminal, as well as from the inside: we’ll even make room for  ancient male philosophers in the Western tradition. If we can write/produce/present/generate this variegated history, then we political beings can create a model—one that trains new generations with the critical judgment to navigate the challenges of upcoming eras. apricota is a journal for a digital age (singular, so far as I understand it), for our age. Or, rather, it is a journal grasping for some dimension of subjectivity that earlier philosophical models could not obtain.

Andrianna Campbell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she specializes in American art in the modern and contemporary period. She is co-founder of the forthcoming journal apricota.