and the dialectic of humiliation (read the first post here): I’ve read on to the point where Sartre embarks on a critical evaluation of Martin Heidegger’s discussion of the possibility of mitsein – ‘we-being’ or ‘being-with’ – existing alongside individual being. Once again, Sartre points to humiliation as the root way in which we experience other individuals in the world:
We should note in the first place, that the we-object throws us into the world; we experience it through shame, as a communal alienation. This is illustrated by that significant episode in which the galley slaves are choked with anger and shame because a beautiful woman dressed in finery comes to visit their ship and sees their rags, their labor, and their wretchedness. This is clearly a case of collective shame and collective alienation.
This yields many questions:
- Say what? Did Sartre really believe this tableau was a typical snapshot of human interactions?
- why is it cast as “that significant episode”?
- why is it the female viewpoint that is enshrined as privileged? Couldn’t it have just as well been a fancy man walking through a mansion and looking disdainfully at the kitchen help? And, anyway, why does the woman’s beauty matter?
- isn’t Sartre’s example shot through with issues that may spring, not from universal sources, but from his personal humiliations? I have never really believed that philosophy is entirely autobiography, but here we have female v. male, riches v. poverty, designer outfits v. scavenged rags, independence v. servitude, leisure v. labor, beauty v. the beast. Don't all these dichotomies tell us the tale of a humiliated and bullied young man raised to believe appearance and money were everything and that women were an alien and judgmental species? Hasn’t Sartre engaged in bad faith by proffering his own bourgeois particularity as a false universal?
Sartre doesn't pause here. Rather, he bulldozes forward. Mitsein, he argues, cannot exist without a third party that recognizes it (this is what would give it reality as a being in the world) but that recognition simultaneously destroys it. If I, along with many others, change trains in the subway or wait on the platform for an oncoming local, I may see myself as allied and in solidarity with all my fellow straphangers. But, Sartre argues, the identity of this group can only be confirmed by a person looking at all of us – and to that person, I am simply part of a mass, equivalent and non-individual, and this perspective annuls the convivial ‘we,’ rendering it a dead collectivity. Our solidarity collapses, exposed as an emotion, not a being or even a state of consciousness. And this returns us to Sartre's original claim: that the 'we' feeling stems from “an experience of humiliation and powerlessness. In sum, he writes: The essence of relations between consciousnesses is not Mitsein; it is conflict.
How soft community must be if it can never recover from even the most trivial totalization. How feeble that every nascent social grouping can so easily be pulverized. Sartre's conception makes existence with others a wasteland of futility, not freedom. Perhaps Sartre really meant it when he wrote (in his play No Exit) hell is other people.
The Critique of Dialectical Reason, published in 1960, 17 years after Being and Nothingness, can be seen as Sartre’s attempt to retrieve his outlook from this shriveled prospect. The book, which unfortunately reads as if Sartre was talking it out to himself in a kind of private jargon, is an attempt to restore socially committed action to its rightful place as the redeeming feature of life. He writes:
everyone, even if he turns his back on the Others, and is unaware of their number and their appearance, knows that they exist as a finite indeterminate plurality of which he is a part.
In this analysis, Sartre gets a bit more specific about the assemblages created in the world -- and makes a fundamental distinction between collectives and groups:
the group is defined by its undertaking and by the constant movement of integration which tends to turn it into pure praxis [which he has earlier defined as free transcendence positing itself as an indeterminate possibility of transcending everything in the translucence of creative action] by trying to eliminate all forms of inertia from it; the collective is defined by its being, that is to say ... it is a material inorganic object in the practico-inert field ... a passive synthesis
He sees solidarity among people on the subway, for instance, as a serial collective, forged simply by the accident of doing the same thing in the same place at the same time. And he sets a new category – the fused group – to describe a greater form of solidarity: the 'we' consciousness melded through shared perspectives and the reciprocity and responsibility each member of the group feels for every other member.
This reciprocity and responsibility implies ethics. Yet, Sartre doesn’t discuss this in the text itself. Rather, he banishes it to lengthy footnote halfway through the book, in which he notes that praxis is the sole ethical relation between people. As the small print sprawls on, he takes the reader on the roller coaster journey involved in the construction of an ethical point of view:
Every system of values rests on exploitation and oppression; every system of values effectively negates exploitation and oppression (even aristocratic systems, if not explicitly at least in their internal logic); every system of values confirms exploitation and oppression (even systems constructed by oppressed classes, if not in intention, at least in so far as they are systems); every system of values, in so far as it is based on a social practices, contributes directly or indirectly to establishing devices and apparatuses which, when the time comes (for example, on the basis of a revolution in techniques and tools) will allow this particular oppression and exploitation to be negated; every system of values, at the moment of its revolutionary efficacity, ceases to be a system, and values cease to be values; their character was due to the fact that they could not be transcended; and circumstances, overthrowing structures, institutions and exigencies, transform them into transcended significations: systems are reabsorbed into the organizations which they have created and the organizations, transformed by the overthrow of the social field, integrate themselves into new collective actions, carried out in the context of the new exigencies; and they disclose new values.
The way forward in the world, he seems to be saying, the way to transcend the dialectic of humiliation he outlined in Being and Nothingness, is through collective struggle to create community in the face of third party pulverization. Struggle is ethics, struggle is morality, struggle is integrity.
Which may all be true. But then the crushing question emerges: is struggle enough?