Oh, how the mind wanders.
As I have discussed, every social interaction is a negotiation of similarity and difference, overlap and excess. We find solidarity in the overlap of our beliefs, goals, and ideas, but more importantly, we find our freedom in the excessive nature of other selves. Our others are always more than we are, because we, as finite beings, can never ascertain all that another being is capable of. We are only limited insofar as we resist interacting with others. As soon as we open ourselves up, however, the bounds of possibility are extended and new projects, new ideas, and new meanings are made available to us. The infinite quality of the subjective self can only be located in the self’s relationships with other subjectivities.
Before I dive into something more practical (and I do want this to be practical, so apologies for not just talking about guinea fowl like a normal person), I would like to use an illustration that, for most, should be familiar. The intersubjective production of meaning and identity is much like a Venn Diagram. Imagine that two individuals are two circles, intersecting with one another. The intersection, the overlap, contains all of the shared content of the two individuals (beliefs, ideas, prejudices, desires, distastes, experiences, and so on). That which falls outside the intersection is the excessive, that which extends beyond the finite interrelation of the two selves. However, it is important in this illustration to approach from the perspective of one of the two selves. As readers and thinkers here, we imagine the model as a whole, we can see the total union of the two selves. But for the active subject in such a relation with another subject, all that he can know of the other is the shared space between them. Between friends, this shared space will be much larger, containing all the shared experiences they have had, their conversations, and everything else that we understand to constitute a “friendship.” Between strangers, this shared space will be smaller, but nevertheless, it exists, and is constituted instead by perceptions and discernment, those quick, unconscious appraisals that all people make of each other in first meetings. Regardless, it is impossible for one subject to ever fully apprehend the totality of another, because, as two people interact and their shared space expands, so too does each individuals’ potentiality expand, his excess over and above the intersection with other selves. The self in relation is never static, and it is for this reason that the self requires its others in order to be free.
There are, however, various aspects of our selfhood (a few of which were listed above) that we find difficult to convey to others without shared experience of them. Certain beliefs, understandings, or happenings are rooted in the individual’s own subjectivity and therefore, for another subject who interacts with the individual as an object (as all people do1), the individual’s subjective knowing is never fully comprehensible. The subject must believe the same thing, understand the same thing, experience the same thing, from his own subjective position, rather than through the doubled objectivity of another self’s belief, understanding, or experience of it, if he is to share in his other’s subjective knowing. Through the subjective experience of an external object, two subjects can find an overlap with each other. But without a mutual subjective experience, that knowing (I’ll use this for subjectively oriented knowledges like belief and experience) necessary for solidarity remains untranslatable.
In the previous essay, I talked about the untranslatable, the lacunas between selves, the unfilled spaces or gaps between my self and my others, or, in the terms laid out above, my unique, subjective knowings of the world that I cannot entirely explain or express to others who do not have the same. So, when I sat down to write a post about a remarkable meal that I had on Thursday (which this post was originally supposed to be—oops), I found, much to my frustration, that I could not write a simple review or anecdote about the experience. The meal was delectable—a cold melon soup with ham, guinea fowl with palenta, and caramel panna cotta for dessert—and I tried to describe my experience of it as Julia Child does in her memoir (which we read for class this week), but I could not. First of all, I have hardly the vocabulary to describe all the tastes and smells that overcame my senses, and second, as I struggled to do so, I found that, for myself, the project was meaningless. Only I had eaten that exact combination of foods. We shared a meal together, as a group, we shared the experience of the table, but in my specific choice of entrée, plat, et dessert, I was alone. And I realized that rather than ramble on about the glory of the meal, it would be more valuable to talk about that which was shared—the environment of the restaurant, the various conversations we drifted through, and ongoing, the simple fact that we are in France as a group experiencing an enormity of new things together. I only had to look up from the plate to see around me that which is really valuable.
There will always be the untranslatable between selves, but it is in the negotiation of these gaps and the relationships that form resolutely around them that new and surprising bonds can be made. The meal I had was exceptional, but it is not what makes this trip worth remembering. It is everything that happened around that meal—every interaction, good or bad, mundane or extraordinary—that is really worth something. I am not a different person because I ate guinea fowl. That meal did not change me. But through that meal, and the many others I have shared with my classmates, through the ambling walks and cups of coffee and minutes spent watching videos of goats screaming like humans, I have come to know, and am continuing to get to know better, a remarkable group of people through whom I have the privilege to see the world in new and brilliant ways.
I want to make clear what I mean by “object” in a psychological sense. I am saying that we “objectify” each other in the same way as when a woman is “objectified,” being reduced to her flesh, but rather, that we always encounter one another objectively, from the outside. Object is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “originally: something placed before or presented to the eyes or other senses. Now (more generally): a material thing that can be seen and touched.” Thus, every person we encounter through our senses is, simply, an “object,” as they exist outside of our selves. ↩