The Subjective Frame
The concept of the Real is the notion of a self-conscious mind. The category of the object arises in subjective consciousness together with its polarity, the subject. The story of the Real, therefore, is bound up with that of the self, and begins with the fact that you and I are conscious beings aware of our own consciousness.
Cognition is an instrument for monitoring the world and shaping appropriate action upon it. The world must therefore figure prominently in experience. Yet we all know that much experience consists of sensations, thoughts and feelings that cannot be identified as elements of the external world. These incongruous elements appear to constitute a realm that is parallel to the objective one, if not quite on an equal footing. The outward orientation of mind tempts one to objectify this realm as a kind of rarefied mental substance awkwardly sharing the cosmos with its material counterpart. But subjective awareness is a mode, and not a content, of experience. Even when the content of awareness is the physical world, we may still have the sense of this awareness as experience happening in the mind, in much the way that news footage happens here and now, on the flat screen of your TV, even though it depicts three-dimensional events somewhere else.
Self-consciousness is the awareness of experience as subjective. It is precipitated by the presence of the subjective frame that bounds primary objective reality. This frame is some cue in the experiential field, an element of experience that does not appear to be part of the objective world. You are not normally aware of the outline of your visual field, for instance--the easiest part of which to see is your nose. But sometimes this jumps into awareness, reminding you that your own existence is as plain as the nose on your face! You may then have the self-conscious experience of looking out of your eye sockets at the panorama of the visible world-- which includes parts of your own body such as your hands. Alternately, you might become aware of some bodily sensation as a subjective artifact.
Irregularities or breakdowns in normal perception are cues that place a frame around experience in such a way as to identify it as subjective. Thus an inner realm of experience is implied by optical and other illusions, hallucinations with psychotropic drugs, various conditions of neurologically injured patients, normal imagination and memory, dreams, somatic sensations, after-images, etc. These diverse experiences all appear to be not perceptions of anything physical, even if caused by physical stimuli or referring indirectly to physical events. Perceptual anomalies betray the mediating presence of mind, just as the waviness of old glass in a window betrays the existence of the intervening pane.
Self-consciousness is a special instance of self-reference, the paradoxes of which are essentially boundary skirmishes between categories or logical levels. Just as death frames life, the subjective frame is the boundary of the primary objective world. Everything within this boundary is received as real, logically prior to the subjective frame, and no doubt historically prior to subjective consciousness. A border to the Real implies that the Real is not all that exists, that something else must lie beyond this frontier. Before the appearance of this boundary, there can be no subjectivity-- indeed, no self. But once a cognitive system can self-refer, it is bound to find an element within itself that is incongruous with the objective world. A limit to the objective world implies the subjective one that contains it, and the self that framed and found that border. One's consciousness itself becomes an element of an expanded domain of self-conscious experience. This development may be likened to the discovery of irrational numbers, which did not fit into the domain of rational numbers. In order to accept and use them as legitimate numbers, mathematicians were forced to expand the domain to include them in a broader definition of number. (The expanded continuum then included the rational numbers among all possible decimals). Similarly, the recognition of elements of experience, that cannot be considered part of the objective external world, led to an expansion of the human cognitive domain. The domain of the world was forced to include such elements in an expanded domain of experience. And the category of experience implies a subject, an experiencer conscious of its role in relationship to objects of experience, both physical and mental. This is the split of subject and object.
In the beginning was the world. Just as our eyes cannot see themselves without the aid of a mirror, the pre-subjective mind could not have figured within its own experience, or known its role in producing and regulating that experience, without the reflection of self-consciousness. All that we moderns call subjective would have appeared to it unquestionably real. The development of human consciousness, as inferred from ancient myths, seems to have passed through stages similar to those through which the consciousness of an individual develops. The earliest human psyche, like that of a newborn child merged in an undifferentiated unity with the world, would have distinguished poorly between inside and outside. From our current subjectified perspective, we call this projection. But from the perspective of the pre-subjective mind, everything we would presently describe as taking place within the self must be experienced as external objective events. Without a self, only the world exists.
Just as the maturing child is ambivalent about its dependency, the rise of subjective consciousness must also involve a conflicted struggle to break away from the garden of unreflective being. The child begins to assert its will beyond the sphere of voluntary bodily movement, through experimenting with objects and testing itself against other wills. The young ego begins to disengage its own identity and exercise itself through interaction with the world, rebelling against its helpless dependency. And like this budding identity and competence of the child, the subjective consciousness of mankind has learned through its interaction with the physical world-- an interaction including rebellion against mother Nature, against the instinctual body-mind, against controlling father and mother gods, and even against the concept of reality.
The development of subjective consciousness depends on the ability to observe and manipulate internal mental objects as well as objects in the environment. Conscious control of the mind means wresting oneself from possession by its contents. To this end the relation to instinct is loosened, distance is acquired, and something purely cognitive is distilled from compelling emotional contents. In our present subjective and over-mental society, it is difficult to appreciate what must have been the very different situation at the dawn of humanity. While we long to recapture some instinctual vitality, in pre-subjective times the great task must have been to tame the mind's terrors, to gain freedom from overwhelming perceptions and feelings experienced as apparent reality.
Subjective consciousness achieves a more flexible mental instrument-- yet always in the service of the body. Possession by a mental content means seeing the world through it, so that it is experienced as a feature of objective reality, absolute and imbued with self-evident meaning. Subjective consciousness is the capacity to take such contents back into the psyche where they can be directed by a conscious will, appropriated as palpable tools of the self. Through the awareness of awareness, the organism is able to change its internal structure, to voluntarily retool itself.
By experiencing its own experiencing, mind can transcend its rigidity, stepping beyond its habitual categories, perspectives and assumptions to see them as such. It is then in a position to modify them from a new foothold of relative detachment. Such a foothold is only relative-- a movement from lesser to greater objectivity, not a static quality or thing. The paradox of objectivity is that it is only attainable through subjective consciousness. As new truths are conjured from this vantage point, they in turn must be relativized.