Subjects & Objects

The trouble with words is you never know whose mouths they’ve been in.

Social, economic, cultural, historical, and political differences find their way into the words we choose and the meanings they hold for us.

The varying meanings of the words “subject” and “object” flag radical differences in the way we understand ourselves as in the world and the world as in each of us. The common use of these words suggests a gap in the way we understand and educate our children.  

The potential contribution of the relational turn to education can be captured in the telling differences in meaning as we traverse three discursive fields: school systems (as reflected in common public understandings); curriculum studies (through which psychoanalysis finds its way into education); and object-relations theory (within psychoanalysis proper). 

Subjects & objects: In schools & everyday conversation

In schooling systems and among the general public, objects are physical things and subjects are topics. In particular, school subjects are broad conceptual categories of study and discipline, such as mathematics, history, and language arts.

School subject knowledge is accepted as drawn from either an empirically and objectively accessible world (in the sciences) or an interpersonally and subjectively accessible one (in the humanities). Here, objects and subjects have to do with both facts (truths believed about the world) and discursive traditions that govern ways of perceiving and thinking about those facts.

Together facts and traditions make up information that, in assemblage, is widely taken as knowledge. Such subject knowledge officially represents and re-presents, to a society’s newest inductees, the principal elements of a particular cultural stock of tacit agreements and understandings about the world. To be offered in schools, these agreements tend to have transitioned to acceptance as neutral, unquestionable, and assumed. They comprise the “objectives” to be learned, and then measured, to determine student achievement.

The interpretive elements that have gone into producing the school subjects are typically beyond the pale of the officially and consciously intended curriculum. 

The subjects & objects of sociopolitical systems: The different view of cultural studies & curriculum theory

In curriculum theory (as in cultural studies), objects comprise both the given material aspects of the world (things that humans encounter physically in the world – e.g., a chair, a baby, a tree) and what we make of these aspects (qualities that humans think of as conceptually real – e.g., love, understanding, depth). Subjects, on the other hand, are thinking beings and a designation commonly reserved for individual humans.

In these terms, to objectify another person is to wrongly dehumanise that person. In thinking about the subject as the person who interprets the world, we come to the problem of there being no observer-less observations. That is, we can never remove our own perceiving capacities and predispositions from the things we claim to perceive and know. Accordingly, the unavoidable limits of perception compose a rider on truth, placing it within those constraints and making unanimity in perceiving, for all practical purposes, the final arbiter on what’s real. And there’s the rub.

But we are not doomed to abject relativism (see, e.g., Richard Bernstein, 1983). Contrary to current populist culture, rejecting absolute truths about what’s actually real does not reduce us to admitting any number of alternative facts and truths – a misunderstanding become far too widespread. Not all claims to truth are of equal worth.

The subjects of object-relations in psychoanalytic theory

In the contemporary psychoanalytic theory we talk about object-relations. Here, internal objects refer to the enduring mental representations that come to mind when we think of particular beings and things. We construct them according to our experiences in the world and we revise them each time we recall and recount a memory (Panksepp & Biven, 2012). Importantly, internal objects also include self-objects: the mental self-representations that compose identity.

Taken together, our mental representations define and give meaning to who and what we know ourselves and the world to be. They also shape the limits and possibilities of how we can perceive and understand ourselves and others in that world.

But internal objects are not the same as the actual people (subjects) and actual things (external objects) for which they stand. Still, we need enduring representations in order to recognise anyone or anything and to organise our experience in the world. Moreover, because we cannot walk in the shoes of others, they will always be much more than we can know about them.

To the degree that we insist on understanding and treating others as the unchanging objects of our minds, we are objectifying them – treating them as the self-reinforced sum of our expectations of them. But we inevitably brush up against the difference between the “object” of a person in our mind and the “subject” of them in the flesh. In those moments we have an opportunity to take note and revise what we know. If we are not open to revision then we are more likely to try to manipulate or control that person into fitting our expectations. The violence of, for instance, racial injustices are rooted in our inabilities to see another in terms of their circumstances as opposed to ours.

In contrast, reciprocal subject-to-subject relating happens when participants are open to conceiving each other in terms that are not restricted to what they imagine that other to be. This means being able to hold to ones centre of being while allowing for and living well with the ongoing re-cognition of others as different centres of being. Developing this capacity is a primary developmental task, an ongoing humanistic one, and the crux of that which is most critical yet most neglected in education and schooling. 

Object-relations and the paradox of a world out there that we can only access except through our necessarily biased interpretation of it makes a falsity of objectivity (as typically understood) and makes deeply problematic the objectification of persons. Thus, from an object-relations perspective we return to the rudiments of a long-standing feud between the humanities and the sciences, the former acknowledging and respecting uncertainty and the latter believing that skilfully manoeuvred method can eradicate it. More specifically, it returns a tragic flaw of logic in the so-called evidence-based practices of education – that is, the folly of thinking that reductive scientific principles can deliver any directly applicable “truth” in the complex and situated matters of human relational being. 

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