This morning, while enjoying my cereal, blueberries and a dose of the virtual New York Times, I read an article in the Opinionater section “The Stone,” which features writing by contemporary philosophers on issues both “timely and timeless.” The article, by Nancy Bauer (associate professor of philosophy at Tufts) is called “Lady Power,” and its subject, ostensibly, is a feminist-philosophical analysis of the pop star Lady Gaga, which attempts to determine whether she should be viewed and understood as a powerful feminist figure and a liberator of women and the Queer community, or rather as a yet another example of the ways in which most powerful women (particularly those occupying a place in pop culture) exercise their power along patriarchally pre-determined lines, thus actually reinforcing the very stereotypes and unjust hierarchies they “appear” to be calling into question.
(The point of this post not being to respond to this article—there are plenty of comments on the NY Times website, if you’re interested in debating all things feminist and GaGa—I’ll only say I think it’s incredible how often those who work to create art or to fashion identities which bring attention to and challenge oppressive power structures are construed by their critics as “participating” in the very hierarchy they are attempting to bring attention to and destabilize is uncanny. It seems some people might want the world to think that to be an artist and to challenge norms was itself a norm-reinforcing activity. Oh the power of the reframe. But I ramble.)
Anyways: back on task now. Towards the end of her article, Bauer brings up Hegel, Sartre, and de Beauvoir (remember, she is a philosophy professor!) and discusses the notions of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself,” or more simply put (I hope), the idea of self as “object” and self as “subject,” and the resulting amalgamation that posits a self that is some combination of the two. Of Sartre, Bauer writes that he believed
“that what moves human beings to do things that don’t quite square with one another is that we are metaphysical amalgams…we’re bodily, we can’t control what happens around us, and we are constantly the objects of other people’s judgements…but at the same time we’re subjects…we make choices about what we do with our bodies and appetites, experience ourselves as the center of our worlds and judge the passing show and other people’s roles in it.”
For Sartre, Bauer writes, “at any given moment, a person is either an object or a subject:” never the two at once. This reminded me forcefully of a passage from Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince, which I read last spring. Towards the end of the book, Murdoch’s protagonist, reflecting upon the major events at the end of the novel, presents his own theory selfhood, writing that
There is thus an eternal discrepancy between the self-knowledge which we gain by observing ourselves objectively and the self-awareness which we have of ourselves subjectively: a discrepancy which probably makes it impossible for us ever to arrive at the truth.”
For Murdoch’s narrator—as perhaps, for Sartre—“being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” can never be reconciled into a single, coherent entity; and as a consequence of this, it is “probably…impossible” for us fractured beings to “ever…arrive at the truth.” Here it is not (necessarily) that truth does not exist, but simply that we, as constantly disparate object or subject, cannot perceive it.
Bauer doesn’t follow Hegel’s, Sartre’s or Murdoch’s thoughts about the “being-in-itself” and the “being-for-itself” to these truth-destroying conclusions (though perhaps she should). Instead, she turns to de Beauvoir, who “believed in the possibility of human beings encountering each other simultaneously as subjects and as objects.” Bauer’s phrasing of de Beauvoir’s argument that human beings can “encounter each other simultaneously as subjects and as objects” makes me wonder if this simultaneous subject-objecthood can be achieved without the encounter? Or at least, without an encounter that requires another person. Can we be both subject and object on our own, and in our own singular, isolated experience of ourselves?
Bauer goes on to say that de Beauvoir believed the work of an artist, a writer, or a philosopher, to be the re-description of “how things are in a way that competes with the status quo story and leaves us craving social justice and the truly wide berth for self-expression that only it can provide.” Bauer seems to be supporting this idea in her critique of Gaga, arguing essentially that Lady Gaga’s re-description of the world is ultimately not forwarding “social justice” in any admirable, enviable sense of the term. I guess my problem comes with wondering what exactly “social justice” means, and wondering, as Murdoch’s narrator wonders about truth, if it’s something we’re actually capable of creating, attaining, or even recognizing when we see it? It’s not that I think social justice isn’t worth pursuing. It’s just that reading this article confused me further about how to know you’re going in the right direction to begin with, and who it’s best to follow if you don’t want to go it alone.