Jean-Paul Sartre: What is Subjectivity?

What is Subjectivity? Book Cover What is Subjectivity?
Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by David Broder and Trista Selous
Verso Books
Hardback £40.00

Reviewed by: Mariam Thalos (University of Utah)

Jean-Paul Sartre was an intellectual powerhouse, even in his own time.  He moved people, both scholars and non-scholars alike, by the power of his ideas and his tremendously powerful way of expressing them.  He blurred all category boundaries and violated conventional mores. He even turned down a Nobel prize on principle. This book documents a philosophical exchange over a topic as big as the very significance of Sartre’s work in light of Sartre’s own commitment to Marxism. How can his Marxism make sense in the light of his existential philosophy?

The subject of experience, and the experience of that subject, are the primary topics of Sartre’s existential phenomenology, especially in Being and Nothingness. But Sartre also professed allegiance to Marxism. Marxism is, at least to a first approximation, the view that the material conditions of life—what someone in an earlier point in time might have called its political economy—is the primary determinant of all of social, cultural and intellectual life, all of human life and knowledge. Marxism is a dialectical materialism.  How can there be room in it for an independent contribution made by human freedom, or even by the human subject as such? How, then, are Sartrean existentialism and Marxism both to be embraced simultaneously?How is it possibly to put the two together into a single anthropology—an objective study of the forces acting in human societies? It would seem to be a difficult balancing act to be a Marxist follower of Sartre. Perhaps he, best of all, is able to resolve the tensions, and thereby to explain the marriage between his existential phenomenology and a Marxist politics. That question is one theme in a very large opus published in 1960 as The Critique of Dialectical Reason.

In 1961 Sartre delivered a guest lecture to the Gramsci Institute in Rome, where he sought to address the issues surrounding the marriage of Marxism and existentialism. In attendance were some of Italy’s leading Marxist thinkers, many of them profound admirers of Sartre’s philosophy and all of them very conversant with it. This book comprises Sartre’s lecture and the conversations pursuant thereto, involving many of those Marxists in attendance, and including as well Sartre’s reactions and responses to their interventions. Because it attempts to capture the real-time interactions of the participants, this book makes for a coherent and fascinating read, bringing to life a very lively controversy that foreshadows (and indeed still survives in) the controversies inherent in the contemporary projects of Critical Theory.

Another existential phenomenologist might have managed very well in uniting a Marxist anthropology to an existential phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty, for example, because his phenomenology was very much attuned to the way the body contributes to experience as such, might have had recourse to the body as a channel through which the Marxist dialectic was realized and actualized in subjectivity. Many passages in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre speaks of the body as such a site and conduit for a potential dialectical materialism of which a Marxist might be proud. But Sartre is not Merleau-Ponty; indeed Sartre is on record as not concerned with the contributions of the body. For Sartre, the ego is decidedly, even suspiciously, transcendent.

Sartre’s own route to realizing the Marxist dialectic within his particular existentialist vision is via a sort of imperative. He speaks here, as in the Critique, of subjectivity as an obligation or necessity—the necessity to be in our consciousness what we are in and to the world at large—to others, and toward nature. (Surprisingly, it reads very much like a Kantian imperative, and one that will not be denied—that is in some sense inviolable.) It is in some sense another way of speaking of authenticity. For Sartre, to respond authentically to the existential imperative, is to perform in one’s own subjectivity what one is to others, in effect to perform one’s material reality. So perhaps one performs one’s proletariat-ness, or one’s capitalist-ness.  It is, in Sartre’s words, not merely an imperative but a drive: we are “obliged to be the mediation between [ourselves] of forms of exteriority such as, for example, class being.” We are obliged to create a “singularization”—a performance, if you will—of the universal of our class. This description of things he refers to as the practico-inert. Thus for Sartre, the social reality is not to do with the machines, or materials more generally, that make of the worker’s life what it is, the social reality is instead the worker who in his own person internalizes the material reality. Thus Sartre internalizes in consciousness —he relocates to consciousness—the material conditions of social life. (These are the themes drawn here from The Critique of Dialectical Reason.)  Unwilling to join Durkheim in the idea of a collective social life that includes the material conditions, Sartre instead insists upon subjectivity as the fundament even of collective, anthropological life.

Throughout the conversations, the interlocutors press Sartre on points of intersection between his existentialism and a variety of Hegelian doctrines, especially those on which Marxist theories draw. Sartre’s interlocutors reiterate many of the same questions: if there is a Marxist or Hegelian dialectic, how does it manifest in the consciousness of a given subject? Moreover, does one or the other disappear at the “level of the dialectic”—in the final “totalization”? The clearest answer we receive from Sartre is in the response he makes to Valentini: “For me, the dialectic […] is not totality, but the ensemble of structures of a totalization in process…We are ourselves the beings who make the dialectic” (50-51). For Sartre, then, the forces of history are made flesh, because huan subjectivities actualize the larger conflicts in which human lives are embedded.

Does a Sartrean Marxism require the Kantian move Sartre makes in the practico-inert? This is a question with which the exchange leaves us. And perhaps more poignantly, is Sartre’s existentialism able to accommodate such a move?

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