How object permanence underlies our experience of self

How object permanence underlies our experience of self
Photo by Alexander Andrews / Unsplash

What do we make of the human love affair with the visual realm?

As a species, we suffer from a fixation — a veritable obsession with — the world of images. Jean Piaget famously postulated that, early on in their life, a child develops what is called 'object permanence.' Object permanence is the notion that even if I'm not looking at an object at this moment, it's still there. It's the idea that the box under your bed does not stop existing when you stop looking at it. When you come back a month later, it's still going to be there, right where you left it.

The self doesn't seem to exhibit this same sort of object permanence though. The self is sporadic in its appearances. It comes and it goes, it appears and disappears, it alway seems a little too late or a little too early. It seems a little different every time it appears. It seems to have this reflexive, looking back, sort of quality about it. Nonetheless, we do manage to attribute object permanence to our selves. We take it that our self is still there even if we're not "selfing," even if we're not focusing on that focal point in our consciousness which we take to be "me."

So how does the self acquire this object permanence? The answer can be found in the name — object permanence. In order for the self to be chronologically durable, it has to become an object. We come to experience the self as having object permanence when we make of the self an object.

Here I think we find the beginnings of the human obsession with the visual field. We find in the image that which we lack — a unity from which flows all manner of other desirable properties, such as permanence, legibility, and durability.

The unity of the image contrasts sharply with our earliest experiences of our body. The child finds their own experience to be a chaos of drives, swellings, urges, needs, and demands. It's chaotic and scary. Think of the child who starts crying after suddenly jolting awake. They were terrified by an uncontrollable force in their body rousing them against their choice. Further, the child even lacks the mobility and motor skills to flee threats or find necessary sustenance. The infant can only lay there as wave after wave of powerful drives wash over its helpless little body, throwing its consciousness into disarray. The child thus experiences their body as a dis-unity, something it cannot fully control. From the start, humans feel like strangers in our own house.

I think that objects provide — or at least lure us with the offer of — what we lack. When a child sees an object, they see something which doesn't lack the way they do. The image presented to the human eye enjoys this static quality and structural coherence which everything about my experience of myself seems to be lacking. Objects have this durability that we just don't have as humans. There is something of an envy — an "object envy." This drive to objectify ourselves (and others) betrays an anxiety about what we lack as beings.

This drive to make objects, and especially to generate an identity (or identities) has important implications for how we understand human suffering. However, I want to leave off here with this simple idea – the need to develop an identity (a self) springs from a lack which we initially perceive in ourselves by comparing the chaos of our bodily experience to the seeming stability of objects in the visual field.

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