Subject/Object

On page 55 of _Teaching to Transgress_ bell hooks explains how Paulo Friere’s writing influenced her thinking. He showed her how to think about herself as a subject, rather than an object, in the social and political environment. I think this point is an important reminder for all of us, especially as the American political process ramps up to another presidential election, but generally as well.

The media throws buckets of rhetoric at us about how the government and the economy leave us unprepared for retirement, or doesn’t pay us enough to live the American Dream. Take a look at the previous sentences, and you’ll notice that we are the object of that sentence. As objects, we have no agency: we can’t act. The government and the economy act on us. It’s possible to talk about religions and schools in the same manner: they do things to us, and our ability to change these processes is beyond our control. However, it’s not true. It takes away our rights and responsibilities, and it diminishes our roles as the leaders of our lives.

bell hooks’ point is that we ought to be the subjects of our social and political lives, not the objects of them. We ought to be active in shaping the world in which we want to live. Writers like N. N. Taleb, and Mr. Money Mustache also urge us to take active roles in our financial, social, and political lives. In other words, there’s always something you can do to influence your situation, whether it’s talking to someone, finding a job, leaving a job, moving to another place, finding a shelter or social service — there’s something you can do.

There’s a saying I repeat to myself when someone gets angry at my job: “Don’t go away mad, just go away.” However, this isn’t just a cynical quip: it shows that we have options. Getting mad at a situation doesn’t typically solve a problem: it just gets you upset. However, leaving a frustrating situation — temporarily or permanently — is a valid solution. You are a subject in this situation. Don’t let someone else take that from you: don’t let them make you an object they control.

A caveat to temper this sentiment is necessary: I understand that many situations are complicated, and this post reduces most situations to a simple binary distinction of subject and object. However, this subject/object distinction is a useful heuristic that lets us take back control when we feel powerless. If you don’t like your religious or spiritual situation, you can change it, like Scott of Skeptic Meditations did. If you don’t like your work situation, you can change it like Mr. Money Mustache or Jacob Fisker did. This heuristic doesn’t apply to all situations, but it applies to most situations you’ll find yourself in: if you think creatively, there’s usually something you can do to help yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Subject/Object

  1. SkepticMeditations

    These subject/object points are interesting to think about. If, as Bell Hooks, writes we are educated (for most if not all of our lives in U.S.) to think of ourselves as “object”, what does she advise us to do to uneducate our way out of the object-framework thinking?

    Wouldn’t it probably take time and effort to uneducate ourselves away from what we’ve been told and been telling ourselves our whole life?

    Thanks for your honorable mention of me and for your thoughtful post.

    Reply
    1. My Other Feet Post author

      @S.M — Generally, I think bell hooks’ solution to the subject/object problem is to view yourself as a subject in relation with other subjects. (She intentionally uses lower-case letters in her name.) Various types of power dynamics are important to hooks’ view of feminism and politics, and her suggestion is that these power dynamics often put teachers and students at a distance — socially, physically, and educationally. I think this idea relates to your post about social organization in monastic or ashram life and work. hooks tries to get students speaking from their experience, and then integrate or tie their experience to the concept or idea she’s attempting to teach. She does this, rather than lecturing from behind a podium for an hour, and then telling students they can talk to her during her office hours.

      You’re welcome for the mention, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my writing.
      -M.O.F.

      Reply

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