Cultural Critique as Self-Inquiry
The distinction between subjectivity & objectivity is bogus, and the hierarchy it creates is harmful to our shared experience of what it’s like to exist.
Imagine a group of children in a round swimming pool, all swimming clockwise along the pool’s outer edge. Soon, their patterned behavior will begin stirring the water. The spinning water makes it easier to swim in circles faster, and so a self-perpetuating system of coordinated behavior emerges.
Now a child decides she no longer wants to play the game. She stops swimming in circles, preferring instead to float on her back and gaze into the blue sky above. But she’s in the same water, and it’s still spinning because everyone else is still circling. Her behavioral and experiential possibilities are subject to their shared environment. Despite her attempt to float calmly atop the water, she nevertheless spins around.
Patterned behaviors create emergent properties that propagate through shared mediums. Enough propagation will further codify those behaviors and experiential possibilities into the shared medium. Outside this pool, culture is our shared medium. It’s the substrate - both physical and memetic - across which patterned behaviors reify sets of circumstances and possibilities for all those inside the medium.
“Cultures are not matters of taste but systems of adaptation to specific circumstances…behavior is culturally programmed”
So when the girl lifts her head & looks around, she does what a number of us now do on the internet: she engages in a particular type of complaint, called cultural critique. She laments the behaviorally hegemonic environment they’re all co-creating, she dissects how their aggregated behavior reifies coercive currents, and she offers visions of a future where the swimming pool might support the emergence of diverse sets of autonomous, self-organizing collectives. Or something like that.
Cultural critique is a peculiar kind of complaint, in that we pretend they aren’t personal. We feign objectivity. But isn’t it likely that the girl’s vision is motivated precisely by her own desire to float peacefully on her back? Might all such critiques be thin veneers of objectivity layered upon personal experience?
Especially with critiques I agree with, I find myself assuming they operate like this:
We take what’s to the right of the dotted line without considering what’s to the left. We sever the motivating subjective experience from the exteriorized cultural opinion. We engage in cultural discourse with only what occurs from the eyeballs outwards.
This is an old habit; I wish it to end.
Doing so amputates subjective experience from cultural dialogue, thus reinforcing both a distinction and hierarchy between subjectivity and objectivity. This distinction is false, and the hierarchy it creates is harmful to our shared experience of what it’s like to exist.
Because subjectivity is precisely where that sensation of what it’s like to exist - what I think of as sentience - unfolds. It’s an experiential space of uncharted possibility, an evolutionary frontier we have the incredible luck - or misfortune - of exploring. Everything we do, everything we build and create, our network of cultural systems - from economics, technology, to social norms - all participate in the ongoing co-creation of sentience.
I do not wish to continue bungling it by further erecting cultural systems - with their behavioral and experiential affordances - that neglect their sway upon sentience.
I worry we’ve let our discourse fetishize objectivity to the detriment of sentience. I feel that sentience is, in the end, all that matters. The most rich and real thing available to me, to humans in the brief moment between birth and death.
I feel cultural discourse ought to ask what most emboldens and enriches sentience, and I’m not sure the current culturally programmed behaviors fit the bill any longer. So I’m trying to withdraw from ceaselessly swimming in circles to consider different methods.
But it feels like I’m trying to float on my back in a furiously spinning pool. I’m still spinning. Am I alone here?
Objectifying cultural discourse by shaving off its motivating subjective experience is a learned habit. It lingers in the background of our intellectual history from Descartes’ mind-body dualism. But each human relearns it anew in the style of writing, and therefore thinking, that’s conventionally taught in schools. Regard for subjectivity is schooled out of us, in favor of a feigned stylistic objectivity.
These ideologies of education are deteriorating, along with our allegiance to Descartes’ dualism, but they cannot end fast enough.
II.A. Descartes & Embodied Cognition
Descartes’ dualism believed that mind and body are two separate, distinct substances. The body receives sensory inputs, funnels them into the pineal gland, which beams them into the immaterial spirit, or mind.
This is where ‘pure reason’ occurs, the immaterial substrate of mind. Which is to say that thinking occurs somewhere other than the body. For Descartes, this is good. It prevents reason from being messed with by any emotional bias, any life experience that might be stored in bodily memory.
Among the most recent critiques of Descartes’ dualism is Sally Davies essay in Aeon Magazine. Davies contests the patriarchal roots of separating thought from bodies by exploring the growing field of embodied cognition:
“Within a broad church that can be called – not uncontentiously – embodied cognition, a growing number of psychologists, scientists and theorists are approaching mental life as something that is not just contingent on, but constituted by, the state of our bodies.”
Embodied cognition suggests, plainly: we think with our bodies. Mental life is not separate, but made of, our lived experience.
Pure reason and perfect objectivity are, therefore, illusions. Or at least inaccessible by body-bound (or constituted) humans.
This digs a spike into the plausibility of fundamentally objective opinions. Human cognition is increasingly suspected to be predictive, where expectations play a formative role in perceptions. Perception itself becomes, to some degree, a function of expectations.
“The embodied world, as each of us encounters it, is a product of such self-reinforcing causal loops”, writes Davies. Perception is not a disembodied capacity, not a uniform lens each human casts upon the universe. We each wear different glasses, and are in an ongoing process of recreating our glasses in tune with our experience.
Perception and experience intertwine into a continuing feedback loop where each transforms the other, in a realtime dance of co-creating the reality we encounter.
Perception of ‘reality’, then, and any further objective opinions we may have about it, cannot help but be influenced by the accumulation of subjective experience undergirding our perceptual feedback loops.
Writing is thinking, amplified and made manifest. If you overhear a faint whisper coming from a far off place, writing is cupping your ear, listening closer, making more sense of the distant sounds. Turned inward, writing is a pathway to cultivating greater intimacy with our own interiority - a variety of self-knowledge.
But school teaches the opposite. It directs writing outwards, turns its attention from interior experience to forming exterior judgments. School teaches a particular form of writing in which the underlying subjectivity is subordinated. Objectivity is valorized.
But this learned objectivity is hollow. Turning our attention away from interior experience lets it grow unchecked, unobserved, like a creeping vine that covers the exterior of a house unbeknownst to inhabitants inside. The sway of the unconscious over our objective opinions grows. The house is covered with vines, but we have no idea. What we repress is simply projected, and operates upon us from out of sight.
Christy Wampole writes in the New York Times of forced objective writing:
“…in which the author’s subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised…their self-conscious hiding of the ‘I’ under a shroud of objectivity. One has to pretend that one’s opinions or findings have emanated from some office of higher truth where right and science are the managers on duty.”
We’re schooled to believe that objectivity strengthens discourse on collective concerns. Are we so sure this does’t just amputate our dialogues at the waist, repressing and loading up for projection all the lived experience we aren’t permitting into view?
Are we so sure subordinating subjective experience to objectivity doesn’t simply render us agents of neurosis? Are we schooling habits of repression into our youth? At the very least, such schooling is a deterrent to the type of self-knowledge that undergirds wholesome, thoughtful opinions.
Yes, It’s Personal
To imagine what I mean by readmitting subjective experience into cultural discourse, let’s return to the girl in the swimming pool. Imagine she’s invited on a podcast to discuss the problems with everyone swimming in circles in the pool. She makes a sound, logical argument about the troubles with all swimming in circles, and presents a cultural blueprint for a vision of swimming pools supporting a diversity of self-organizing, autonomous collectives.
Generally, if we agree with a cultural critique, it sounds objective. It makes sense to us (perhaps because the underlying subjective experience maps well onto our own). If we disagree, we assume the person has ulterior motives, or a sub-par intelligence.
So the podcaster asks:
“But isn’t it true that you don’t enjoy swimming in circles, and would prefer floating on your back without spinning, and so this whole vision you’re laying it is really just an attempt to bend culture to how you want to live?”
Everything turns on her response. Listeners are tense, because this is the moment where the girl’s objectivity might be ‘exposed’ for some lesser form of subjective wish fulfillment.
What if the opposite were true? What if precisely by owning the personal roots of her cultural vision does she strengthen her critique? What if we can demonstrate and develop intellectual honesty and curiosity by owning the personal sources of our own exteriorized beliefs?
My hunch is that every opinion is subjective in origin - we’re simply divided into those who pretend they aren’t, and those curious enough to trace the roots of their opinions into their personal origins.
This is the pathway blazed by the prolific diarist Anaïs Nin. By tracing the roots of her own experience, writing with attention always looking inward, she discovered a universality underlying subjective experience:
“The theme of the diary is always the personal, but it does not mean only a personal story: it means a personal relationship to all things and people. The personal, if it is deep enough, becomes universal, mythical, symbolic; I never generalize, intellectualise. I see, I hear, I feel. These are my primitive elements of discovery.”
Mirrors for Self-Inquiry
Seen as projections of personal experience, cultural critiques can be used as mirrors to see into our own lives. We can better understand the places we experience distress by studying the elements of culture we problematize.
For example, my recent writing increasingly laments the centrality of uninteresting work in the organization of our lives. I feel that swathes of humans are stuck in jobs we don’t enjoy, that nevertheless command most of our waking hours, that dictate our schedules, habits, relationships, and possibilities.
Sometimes, I worry Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa wasn’t far off in saying of modern life:
“It all comes down to trying to experience tedium in a way that does not hurt.”
As a human living in a highly developed country, as the beneficiary of so much ‘progress’ - enduring tedium is my cultural inheritance? Anthropologist David Graeber adds:
“There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves. We have become a civilization based on work…as an end and meaning in itself…It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement.”
Graeber’s study concludes by suggesting Universal Basic Income as a potential step towards detaching livelihood from work, and gaining greater measures of autonomy over our lived experience.
But then I catch myself. I’m not talking about ‘swathes of humans’, I’m not talking about culture. Not exclusively, anyway. With a little introspection, it became clear I’m talking about myself, projecting my own discontents onto the cultural canvas.
This became clear to me because, coincidentally, during the period my writing has dug further into this perspective, I’ve grown increasingly bored & dissatisfied at my own day job. My thoughts also turns to UBI because, on one level, I think it could be the the most significant step we’ve taken in decades - if not ever - towards repurposing the economy for the enrichment of human life rather than its own growth.
On another level, UBI would alleviate my own personal predicament. I could decrease the amount of time I spend at my job, affording me to organize more of my life around things I’d rather be doing.
I suspect the same kind of tracing-back-to-myself analysis could be performed on most things I tend to yell at culture for.
Crucially, doing so needn’t invalidate the critique. A valid critique is not one devoid of all subjectivity. It draws deeply enough from lived experience, as Nin drew from her own, to uncover the shared currents operating upon the collective shape, possibilities, and patterns of personal experience.
A critique reveals the shared, imposed blueprints of experience set down by cultural systems. It brings to light cultural elements that program behavior without our knowledge, like spinning water that impels pool-goers to swim around in circles without end.
The girl from the pool’s critique will be successful if she inspires others to introspect into their own experience, and find the same conditioning cultural element. The same emergent property impelling them to keep swimming in circles.
What Are Things For?
The objectification of cultural discourse has stripped our cultural systems - like economics and technology - of regard for the subjectivity they afford. Like school’s English curriculums, these systems devalorize subjectivity.
Take economics, born in the moral philosophy department of Glasgow University. Economics evolved from a sociocultural vision for producing good human beings - how to lead good, moral lives - into a value-neutral tool severed from any grander vision of what it means to lead a good life or be a good human being.
This loss of a larger economic vision is what Robert Heilbroner laments in his wonderful book, The Worldly Philosophers.
“There are certainly a vast number of economists [today]…But are they worldly philosophers? Not if we mean by the term great prognosticators or great visionaries…in the main, economics has become a technical, often arcane calling, and ambitious projections of imagination into the future are no longer listed among its aims.”
The subjectivity of humans in the economy was booted from the scope of economic inquiry. Subjectivity, values, tastes, what it feels like to be a human being, or even what a human being is beyond a consumer; these questions were privatized, outsourced to individuals. Economics was left to develop along quantifiable lines, rid of the hazy qualitative elements of human life.
David Graeber writes that prior to the industrial revolution, the driving question behind cultural questions was: What kind of humans do we become through the assemblage of sociocultural frameworks in place?
But somewhere after the boom of machinery and production, the economic vision began using wealth as a proxy for improved human experience.
“…prior to the industrial revolution, it never seems to have occurred to anyone to write a book asking what conditions would create the most overall wealth. Many, however, wrote books about what conditions would create the best people – that is, how should society be best arranged to produce the sort of human beings one would like to have around, as friends, lovers, neighbors, relatives, or fellow citizens? This is the kind of question that concerned Aristotle, Confucius, and Ibn Khal-dun, and in the final analysis it’s still the only really important one. Human life is a process by which we, as humans, create one another; even the most extreme individualists only become individuals through the care and support of their fellows; and ‘the economy’ is ultimately just the way we provide ourselves with the necessary material provisions with which to do so.”
The fetishization of objectivity, encouraged by an exploding industrialization, shifted the vision of economics from creating frameworks that produce the best human beings to frameworks that produce the most wealth. The move relies on the hypothesis that increasing wealth is a good proxy for enriching the human condition.
Maybe it was, and maybe it still is in some respects. But this shifting vision led economic theory to disregard its inalienable role in producing human subjectivity. The psychic consequences of capitalism left unattended, like the house being overtaken by unseen vines, grew swiftly. So too, did cultures of critique against the sort of sterilized, hegemonic consciousness advanced capitalism produced.
Take the situationists, for example. A group of European thinkers who organized against what they perceived as the psychic afflictions of advanced capitalism. From their view, capitalism disguised the degradation of daily life it inflicted by selling spectacles that distract consumers from the deterioration of their lived experience.
The situationists were organized around the work of Guy Debord, who wrote in Society of the Spectacle:
“The society which rests on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle, which is the image of the ruling economy, the goal is nothing, development everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself…The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them.”
In the Situationist Manifesto, their declaration of intent, the group states:
“So what really is the situation? It’s the realization of a better game, which more exactly is provoked by the human presence.”
Here lies what economics forgot: the human presence. Subjectivity is neglected in favor of objective modes of discourse. But to neglect subjectivity is to neglect sentience, which is the seat of human experience. This critique occurred, and is still occurring, on varying timelines all across the spectrum of cultural institutions.
The late 20th century emergence of “Human-Centered Design” (HCD) in the technological sphere indicates a similar disregard of subjectivity from technological discourse.
The most startling aspect of HCD is its implication that we’d previously forgotten the human altogether.
Wikipedia writes of HCD: “Human-centered design is a design and management framework that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process.” Prior to HCD, what perspective were we involving if not the human? After an explosion of technology design evaluated solely in its objective dimensions, we’re finding that we don’t like the variety of humans it’s turning us into.
We realized we’d left the human behind. We neglected how technology enters into feedback loops that recreate our subjective experience of being alive. This is what media theorist Yves Citton calls the “electrification of perception”:
"...the programming of our perceptions by our technical devices necessarily leads to the programming of our behavior, because our attention is preconfigured…Electrification is in the process of reconfiguring our collective attention, at a global level, according to self-reinforcing dynamics that profoundly restructure the way in which we perceive and evaluate our lived experiences.”
Mike Cooley, who coined the term “human-centered systems”, writes:
“The central issue of our time is our overweening faith in science and in technological change. Science is a shallow and arid soil in which to transplant the sensitive and precious roots of our humanity.”
To continue the metaphor, how might we re-fertilize the singularly scientific soil of human experience? HCD attempts to enlarge the design considerations to include the human perspective, but a broadened vision of science may not be enough. Cooley certainly didn’t trust science on its own to nourish our sense of humanity.
Author Ursula K. Le Guin offers a vision that embraces science and poetry alongside one another. Not poetry as a collection of words, but as a mentality that revalorizes interior experience. That looks from the eyes inward:
“Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless ‘information’ that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.”
Technology, too, needs a form of poetry so that it might be actualized as a positive force in the cultivation of sentience.
Subjectifying Cultural Discourse
Cooley’s effort to inculcate the human perspective into design thinking is a microcosm of what Le Guin calls subjectifying the universe:
“I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.”
Subjectification is to break down the barrier between subjective & objective, to celebrate their continuity as a triumph of human possibility. It’s to recognize that consciousness is not something individuals ‘have’. Consciousness is more like a node of subjectivity that experiences localized relationships between interior and exterior dynamics. Like the relation of mental life to the body, consciousness is not contingent on, but constituted of, the ecological relations running through it.
If the situation is now for us to design the ecologies that in turn design us, we might consider dropping all pretensions of objectivity. I don’t want to further subordinate the immediacy of subjective experience.
I want middle school English students to write about what they actually feel, not awkwardly try to assemble a zombified argument that they feel no interior connection with. I want the electrification of perception to enter into feedback loops that make us more human. That amplify our most human capacities, rather than squeeze our attention for whatever it’s worth on the data market.
I want to talk about what kind of human beings our economy is producing, and what it feels like to work 40 hours a week and still be forced to choose between paying for healthcare or car insurance.
I want to live as if the sensation of existing is itself a miracle and a mystery that we behold at the center of both our individual and collective attention. I want a cultural environment that doesn’t spin me around in fucking circles until I die, where ‘progress’ means greater autonomy in choosing how I’d like to spend my brief time in the water. I want to cherish the moment-by-moment miracle of sentience while maintaining a critical eye upon the cultural landscape that co-constructs that same sentience.
I want a cultural discourse poised to serve the function Denise Levertov set out for poetry:
“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
A poetry that awakens us to the interiority culture is leaving behind as we slumber, adrift on currents going nowhere but in circles.
We will awaken together, or not at all. We will build rafts and tie them to one another as we set out in search of new currents of possibility, or we will remain adrift & asleep until a shock startles us painfully awake. Or worse, we may die without knowing wakefulness. I’d rather wake with prudence and grace.