14 Second thoughts – about subject and object

I have said, previously here, that subject (often the doer of an action) and object (often the focus of an action) look to be viable and effective terms and to pass all the criteria, listed here so far, for safe inclusion in a successful categorisation system. I think that is still true, but I have thought of an additional criterion for determining the success or failure of a category term. Let’s call it criterion x and define it in the form that a successful categorisation system needs to have:

x) no kind of mind control or, more importantly, mind abuse in any classificatory term it uses.

So, let’s take a step back here and look at this issue in more detail in relation to subject and object.

A problem with the grammatical notion of subject

I happened to be reading recently – thanks to my friend Hugh, who lent this book to me – Psychopolitics* by Byung-Chul Han. Right at the beginning of the book, the author makes the point that the word subject has an intriguing etymology. The word derives from the Latin components of ‘sub’ (= under) and ‘jactum’ (= thrown – the past participle of ‘jacere’ [= to throw]); so, a subject is someone/something ‘thrown under’, in its original use.**

The word subject, at least historically, has tended to be used in the world-related sense of someone (usually one of the vast majority of the populace) within a state who is subject to the authority of the monarch. So, in its etymology and in a frequent meaning of the word, a subject is not in control of his/her/its own destiny/existence, a subject is subject to external forces and is controlled by them.

Does this original, underlying meaning, however unconscious it may be to most of us, have an underlying impact on how we see the subject of a sentence – not as a doer but as a ‘done-upon’ a ‘done-to’? My thesis is that it does. The underlying origins and etymology of a word and its related uses in other contexts as a result of its etymology, is subconsciously significant for us and to some degree determines our relationship to the word/idea in almost any context. Many may disagree of course and object vehemently to such an outrageous/fanciful idea; but, it is just a thesis and largely unprovable or disprovable, I would imagine, but still potently possible. Do we want to run the risk of a term within the synthetic grammar which subtly indicates to us that we are pawns in our world, that everything we do, or are, is somehow conditioned into us, prompted, instigated, controlled into being? Is it healthy for a classification system to urge us somehow into seeing ourselves as largely subservient, subject, to the world we are in? I think not.

A problem with the grammatical notion of object

There is, of course, a wonderful and elegant and pleasing duality between object and subject. But, is the notion and term of the object also perhaps playing some mind tricks with us as well, through its own etymology and its own underlying ‘agenda’?

The word object, of course, derives also from Latin and from the components of ‘ob’ (= in the way of) and, again, ‘jactum’ (= thrown – the past participle of ‘jacere’ [= to throw]).*** So, an object is someone/something ‘thrown in the way of’ us, in its original use. An object is someone/something thrown in the way of, or presented in some way to, not just us but to the subject. So, objects are random things that are presented randomly to the subject. By further extension, the grammar of conventional synthetic categorisation seems to be saying – subconsciously largely perhaps but, still, actually in some way – that everything around us is uncontrolled and everything in us is controlled. The grammar is based on the premise that we are controlled beings living within an uncontrolled and randomly acting world. Maybe it’s true we are; but, if we weren’t being subconsciously led into that feeling, might we find that that became less and less likely to be our reality?

Are there alternative possibilities?

Yes, I think there are alternative possibilities. In place of subject, we could use the term ‘enactor’ and, in place of object, might we use the term ‘target’ or ‘focus’? Hmm, are there possible underlying flaws in terms of the underlying etymology of those words? And, is ‘target’ too militaristic or pugilistic, too goal-focused, too much an over-accepting reaction to aspects of our current world now? Let’s think on that.

Something further …

Of course, the subject is closely related to the notion of the subjective and the object to that of the objective, etymologically, formally and thence, perhaps, mentally. The objective is generally perceived as data that is somehow factual and reliable, whereas the subjective is somehow data that is seen as non-factual, personal, questionable. So, once again, has the language (of language) been used and developed to deny the validity of the individual, the validity of that which seeks to be aware of itself?

And here’s another thought: is it often the case, in our underlying thinking and feeling, that an object somehow is removed from the empathy and emotional engagement of the subject? That might seem an odd thing to say but what about the word objectify, where, in its use, it is readily understood that the subject is turning the object into just that, an object, and has no feelings for the object other than seeing in the object a scope for some form of exploitative use. Ah, but does the option of target, in place of object, get round this problem of connotations of exploitation or even of aggressivity? Possibly not. Let’s think on that.


* Psychopolitics, Neoliberalism and New technologies of Power, Byung-Chul Han, trans. Erik Butler, Verso, 2017

** In the OED, the first citation of the use of the word subject as a grammatical term in English shows its use by J Boys in 1615; this seems quite late; but, in the text above about the word’s etymology, the OED states that it was first used as a grammatical term in English in 1372, and states that it was used in Latin as a grammatical term in opposition to the predicate in the 5th century, long before English was a glint in the eye of any Norman or Anglo-Saxon.

*** In the OED, the first citation of the use of object as a grammatical term in English, describing the complement of a transitive verb, shows its use by E Chambers in 1728; again, this seems quite late; in this case, there is little indication in the OED of its having been used in this way in previous centuries.

David Lott

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