Taking Our Minds Off Our Existence

September 19, 2021

"The I Is Not an Object" by Eric Rennie

We can only exist by taking our minds off the fact we exist.
— Thomas Bernhard 

“The ‘I’ is not an object,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote.  Wittgenstein was famous for turning overblown philosophical abstractions into bare facts and exposing them as essentially nonsensical.  He advised his peers to stop thinking and to start looking.  On most subjects, the less said, the better.  As far as the self— or the “I”—was concerned, there was really nothing to discuss, since the self tangibly existed only as subjective awareness and not as the object of one’s awareness. Or as Wittgenstein put it,  “I can objectively confront every object. But not the I.” 
Wittgenstein, an avid photographer, might have appreciated this illustration.  It is impossible to take a self-portrait where you are looking at yourself through the viewfinder of a camera.  You can photograph your reflection in a mirror or set up your camera on a tripod to take a picture using a timer and automatic focus.  But you cannot be on both ends of the camera at the same time.  If you are looking through the viewfinder, your actual face can’t also be in the frame.

Wittgenstein's point is that we often think of ourselves as if there were two of us, the “me” that thinks thoughts and perceives the world and the “me” that is the object of those thoughts and perceptions. You can trace this strange bifurcation of self to what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan first identified as the “mirror stage” of child development, when toddlers fall in love with their reflections in a mirror, signaling the emergence of self-awareness.  This is the point at which the self becomes both the subject and object of one’s awareness – a condition that the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer regarded as “the most monstrous contradiction ever thought of.” 

“How I wish I could separate myself from my body,” Narcissus sighed upon seeing his own reflection in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  In a sense, that is exactly what we do when we become self-aware.  We turn ourselves inside out, simultaneously seeing the world from the inside and yet viewing ourselves as if from the outside.  And if you want to make people feel self-conscious, just point a camera at them.  Most people reflexively put on a “camera face” whenever a camera is pointed in their direction, a faintly pained expression that passes for a grin in photographs.  I find this to be true even when I am trying to take my own picture.  There seems to be no way to avoid viewing myself as if from the outside. 

As a photographer, I much prefer shooting people when they are just being themselves, which is usually when they are not aware I am taking pictures, if only in the moment when I am pressing the shutter.  Their features may be the same either way. But there is always some essential quality that is absent when they pose for a picture. Actors or models learn to present a convincing impersonation of themselves; still, it is a mask. The soul is eclipsed by our self-consciousness.

The paradox is that you can only truly be yourself when you are not self-conscious.  In Buddhist terms, the person I think of as “the real me” is an illusion.  This does not mean I don’t exist.  It just means that the thoughts I have about myself are just that: thoughts. The “I” I think I am is “a mirage that perceives itself,” to borrow a phrase from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.  Even as a serious photographer, I find that I cannot take my own picture without reflexively striking poses. 




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