The study of subjectivity is broadly concerned with what it means to be an experiencing subject in the world. When I touch the book, “I” am the subject doing unto an object, namely “the book.” This subjective “I” touches the book, reads the book, has the book fall on her head, absorbs the ideas in the book, discusses them with another human being. So, when studying subjectivity, we ask questions about who I am, how I experience the world, and what gives me meaning as a being in the world. It invites us to think about the way in which we relate to the world around us and how we understand our place in it.
There is a long tradition of western philosophy that talks about how we can never really know the things external to us. Sure, I may touch the book, but my sense perception filtered through my brain is all I really have access to. I could be living in the Matrix and the book may not even be real. The outside world is of course experienced, but in some ways, it is always a bit of a mystery. This tradition presupposes that subjects and objects are fundamentally distinct – that I can never know the “truth” of the external world. They suggest that the subject, that I, am reducible to my brain’s processing power of figuring out the external world.
This has always struck me a very disconnected an unsatisfying way to look at my place in the world. The few memories I do have of my childhood are characterized by that feeling of disconnectedness and inability to make contact with the “external world.” Like many, my adolescence was characterized by a chronic striving to “fit in” with the popular kids, with the ever-present anxiety that accompanied a lack of knowing what they really thought about me. Even now, I have very few memories of my childhood before the age of fourteen, which incidentally coincides with the age at which I discovered the ability of alcohol and drugs to manufacture a sense of connectedness to the world – a pastime which would temporarily cure that sense of longing, but ultimately exacerbate the feelings of disconnect and loneliness. Even as an adult I have few belongings that suggest I even existed more than a few years ago. And so, with a lack of history in terms of geographic location, memory and material possessions, save for the ephemeral sense of disconnect from the world around me, I stumbled into this philosophical tradition that reified every negative cognition and somatic discomfort about my lack of fitting into this world.
But there’s another way to think about our place in the world. Maybe we aren’t just minds functioning as detached observers. Part of what it means to be human is to have experiences in the world. To both contribute to shaping the world and to be shaped by it. To bring an amalgamation of life experiences to bear in our interactions with it. Everything we know, we know from a place that has been informed by a geographic, historic, and cultural context that we bring to the table when making sense of a situation or experience. Such an approach to understanding the subject or self means that we are fundamentally evolving, unfolding and growing with each encounter in the world. We are part of the world, connected intimately to it, and it is part of us.
So, what does this mean for the kid with no memories and a chronic sense of isolation from the world? What has it meant for the girl from nowhere? It means the way I understood myself has shifted over time away from the desire to figure out what others think of me and how I can access the inaccessible. Treating the world like an object to be figured out or analyzed as means to manufacturing a sense of connection with it, somehow only puts greater distance there. But in embracing my own unfolding story and honoring oneself as an evolving, growing, and emerging creature responding to the world around her, rather than trying to figure it out, has paradoxically resulted in a deeper sense of connection and intimacy in relationships and with the world at large. The ironic twist here, is that in my experience when I let go of striving to figure it all out and instead am mindful of my own experiences and responses to the world, I actually somehow become part of it rather than a detached observer.
Moreover, if in every interaction with the world I bring with me a history of experiences that help me to make sense of those interactions, then I also bring those experiences with me as I look back at my past. This means I get to look back at a childhood and adolescence that I don’t fully comprehend, that is missing large pieces, and characterized by a sense of not belonging with the wisdom of experiences and memories acquired later in life. For the girl from nowhere, understanding myself in hindsight with the full weight of the experiences I do have, means I get to weave together a new story and claim that history for myself – to rewrite my own narrative.
There is one last important consequence that results from understanding subjectivity as evolving in response to a world with which we are intimately related and in communion. An intimate connection with and sense of belonging to requires responsibility. If we are connected with the world and therefore one another, we are responsible for both validating one another’s unique experiences and histories and challenging one another to continue to grow and evolve. It is not enough to simply honor from whence we’ve come. Comfort with self, community and other, means we must continue to submit to new experiences that challenge us to discard old ideas that are no longer productive and avoid becoming stagnant.
Understanding subjectivity as the embrace of one’s unfolding story in response to the world about her sounds lovely. yet even as I write this, I am keenly aware that I don’t always live in this space of communion with the world. I would be lying if I said I never gave a damn about what you thought about me, or how even this piece of writing might be received. I want you to like it. I hope you do. But it’s not something I can figure out how to make happen. Even with the full recognition that my striving only feeds my discomfort, I readily admit I still fall into these patterns, defaulting to my analytic brain. I have a choice today about how I want to engage the world, and it’s not always an easy one as I slip into old ways of thinking. So if you see me on the street, feel free to remind me that my own history, experiences, and insights are worth honoring or perhaps need challenged so that I might continue to grow and feel a little more comfortable in this world, and I’ll try to do the same for you.
What makes something art? When we walk into an art museum, what do we see? Paintings, sculpture, perhaps some ancient pottery or baskets. They are shelved on glass-cased pedestals or housed in frames in a building surrounded by kept grounds and large parking lots. To experience these items is an event. Perhaps something undertaken as a Saturday afternoon treat. They exist outside of my everyday existence. Separated and categorized as products of “fine art” that are distinct from the things or experiences that populate my life the rest of the days of the week.
The invention of fine art is relatively new, with Charles Batteux coining the phrase “beaux arts” in 1746, grouping together what we now think of as “fine arts.” Certain forms of art such as painting, and sculpture became distinct from craftsmanship on the basis that the former exist only to inspire contemplation of beauty, while the latter had function and purpose. Over time these fine arts were gathered up and deposited in a museum. Even though much of what we see in museums doesn’t conform to this Enlightenment era idea that art is exclusively for the contemplation of beauty, Batteux’s legacy is intact, in that we often think of these things as fundamentally separate from our everyday experience. They are much more special and somehow distant from us. For me this has manifested in thoughts like, “I’m no artist,” or “I’m not a creative person.”
I couldn’t do what those artists were doing.
However, for most of history there hasn’t been a distinction between fine art and crafts. Rather, works of art were intimately tied to a historical period and existed in a cultural context. Music and poetry came from monasteries written for religious services, metal smiths forged incredible items in the name of wars, and detailed pottery was crafted for service in fine dinners. The artistic act has been intimately tied to daily life for most of human history, existing in a complex network of social, cultural, and historical conditions.
So, in order to understand what art is, we might first ask what constitutes human experience. A heady question, I know. Upon reflection of my own experiences it's a mishmash of anxiety, depression, joy, excitement, anticipation, gratitude, sorrow and more. Often, it is all of these things at the same time. It’s the tension between bringing the component feelings, people, places, and ideas together in resolution. It’s the integration of these moments of past regret and future anticipation into the present, when I’m most fully alive. When I find myself keenly aware of the way in which the past informs me and how the possibility of the future exists like a halo in the present moment, watching a sunset, or listening to the frogs jump in the pond, that is when I am most fully experiencing life in the moment. It’s what John Dewey calls an experience. It is the refined form of everyday experience, in which each component of that experience, whether its physical, emotional, or temporal are harmoniously interwoven and complimentary.
Art then, is concerned with living. It is the process of weaving thoughts, events, and feelings into that moment of integration. It encompasses the tension we feel in attempting to piece together what feel like disparate ideas and competing feelings, as they are brought together in the present moment. This is fundamentally what the artist does – she applies paint to the canvas, stands back and readjusts, picking up a new color or medium in response to what is felt from the canvas. It’s a process of interplay, adjustment, harmonizing, acting, and reacting until each component part comes together in just the right balance. The act of the artist is no different than the integration that occurs for each of us when we struggle through the tension to find the right balance in any given present moment.
At the end of the day, although our mediums may vary, we are all capable of being artists, because artistry is not about housing pieces in museums, it is about how we live our lives. The tension and resolution may occur for some in the studio, for others it may take place in the garden, or in listening to the frogs jump in the pond while reading John Dewey. Or it may take place while watching the sun set behind the mountains in northern Thailand while writing a blog, considering the events that led me to this moment, what it means for my future, the sounds of the crickets, and dinner being washed up beneath me in the stillness of the evening, punctuated by the chanting of monks in a nearby temple, in solitude and peace. Although I am surrounded by paints, canvases, ceramics, its these moments in which I am most fully alive, crafting life as a work of art.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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