The Problem of the Opaque Subject

In his recent book The Happiness Industry, Will Davies offers an interesting analysis of whiplash and its uneven growth across the world in recent years even as car safety standards have increased. He observes that the “bizarre philosophical status of whiplash as a form of entirely invisible pain makes it unusually amenable to fraudulent insurance claims” but that for the same reason “it is impossible to ever know how much fraud is really going on”.

In this sense I think whiplash is emblematic of a more primitive philosophical problem of the opaque subject. Across the full range of human activity, we find that first-person experience takes on an enduring significance. In many cases, this significance is ignored or denied, but we can’t ever quite get away from it. Even when we look for proxies, objective features of a person to measure which stand in for subjective characteristics, we affirm the importance of first-person experience even as we try and reduce it to the measurable.

This epistemological challenge can be seen as integral to human agency: we’re disposed to be concerned about a subjective reality which forever eludes our capacity to gain what is seen as reliable knowledge about it. The intellectually history of this problem is obviously extremely complex at the level of theory, methods and methodology. But I’ve been thinking recently about how the problem of the opaque subject is engaged with culturally. Consider the lie detector:

This technology is seen to help us overcome the problem of the opaque subject. It cuts through the ambivalence and uncertainty of interaction between subjects who are reciprocally opaque and helps us find the hidden truths behind the masks we wear. In reality it does little more than measure the relation between physiological arousal (blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing etc) and the questions being asked under bizarre and artificial circumstances. But we could see the ‘lie detector’, such a familiar trope of TV and film, as a fetish object which helps maintain an illusory belief in a world in which other people can in principle be rendered transparent. It props up a certain utopian sense of technological capacity and helps us avoid confrontation with the existential and ethical dilemmas which the problem of the opaque subject unavoidably poses for us.

Categories: Mediated Matters, Outflanking Platitudes

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