The New Subjective Body, #1–Introduction.

By Otto Paans

Yasujiro Ozu’s gravestone, bearing only the single character “mu”


This essay will be published in six installments.

The BIBLIOGRAPHY will be included in the sixth installment.


I. Introduction

I concluded an earlier essay (Paans, 2020) with an open-ended question: How can one, in a world so thoroughly shattered and torn by “the politics of fragmentation,” carve out a new subjective space? More specifically, is it possible to reclaim one’s autonomy in this all-enveloping culture of digital, ideological and visual suffocation? Is there a place outside the cycle of hyper-productive capitalism for different modes of thought that depart from the autonomy and irreducibly perspectivism of the subject?

After due reflection, I think such a new subjective space can be found. To discover and formulate it (which is essentially the same thing), we must leave the modern philosophical tradition that Nietzsche shaped behind for the time being, and regard it — even if only temporarily — as a dead end that we must make our way out of. In other words: we must re-orient our thinking towards a new philosophical doorway, the light of which guides us towards it.

But why should one rethink the very notion of one’s subjective stance in and towards the world? Why should we regard it as an existential point of departure to rethink the world as it opens up into us? And why should we think of it as a “body” in the first place?

There can only be one answer: to overcome the fatal modern predicament which Nietzsche correctly diagnosed but ultimately and heroically failed to overcome — a pervasive nihilism prevalent in our post-industrial, materialist culture.

We find a new subjective space in looking backward and sideways simultaneously: a Janus-faced attempt to take stock of where we became inevitably stuck in nihilism, and how we are to proceed in finding a way of overcoming it. A pair of earlier essays served to take stock of our current sociocultural predicament (Paans, 2019, 2020). This essay deals with how to proceed towards the beckoning light of the doorway out of (i) the aberrations of high modernism and its associated Existentialist nihilism and (ii) postmodern despair and its associated relativist nihilism. We must look backwards to a tradition that is theological in nature, and that has run as a parallel and often intertwined current alongside philosophy. Simultaneously, we must look sideways towards the East, where a well-developed and refined intellectual tradition of philosophy and religion provides us with the (anti)concepts and the frame of mind to think about issues that are otherwise hard to express discursively, if they can be expressed at all.

Due to the expressive difficulties involved in exploring the new subjective space, the rhetoric and style of this essay strike a searching, sometimes struggling balance between the evocative and the precise; the ruminative and the analytical; the societal and the personal; and the theological and the philosophical. As it stands, it can do no other: our very mode of thought has already become so accustomed to continuous fragmentation that it is hard not to slip back into the thought-shaping control to which our language is irrevocably subject.

First, I lay out my point of departure in a fairly concise manner, although the details of my view have been worked out in far more in the earlier essays I mentioned above (Paans, 2019, 2020). In particular, I distinguish between two forms of contemporary nihilism that I regard as pervasive cultural phenomena that permeate and destabilize our societies.[i]

Second, I introduce the notion of detachment, a notion that has, according to the view I’m presenting in this essay, nothing to do with “quietism” or “resignation” in the everyday senses of those terms.

Third, I examine some consequences of this detachment with reference to Keiji Nishitani’s concept of Nothingness, or what he calls “Emptiness,” and the concept of negativity as we find it in the Eastern Christian theological tradition of apophatic theology; this exposition segues into an examination of the notion of a “new subjective body,” in both its first-person and also its communal sense, with reference to the political philosophy of Alain Badiou.

Fourth and finally, I describe how I diverge from Nishitani and Badiou alike, with reference to dignitarian morality, and sketch the outlines of a thoroughly personalist, subjectivist position centered on the notions of expressivity and ecosystemic dignity.


[i] A hard-nosed critic might say that these two forms are not strictly separate, and that they collapse into one another. I’ll concede that this is a reasonable line of criticism, but also kindly request that the reader follow me in treating them for the purposes of argument as if they were two sharply different forms of nihilism.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 4 July 2022

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.