More Thoughts on the Subject-Object Relationship

I was walking across the Charles river in Cambridge on Massachusetts avenue. It is a beautiful walk, the bridge is about half a mile long, with a panoramic view of Boston and Cambridge. While I was walking across, I found myself looking at some of the boats in the river. When I was doing that, I noticed the railing on the bridge because it was blocking my view of some of the boats. There was something intriguing about the shift of focus, that I decided to treat the railing as an “object” while walking. The rest of the walk (on the bridge) must have lasted about three minutes.

What I noticed was that if while in some sense the railing was one object, it definitely was experienced as many different objects depending on what I was doing. When I let my gaze rest on the portion of the railing immediately to my right there was no sense of it being an
object at all -it was just a flow of regularly shaped bars. It was such a hypnotic feeling that I was completely absorbed, losing any sense of subjectivity. In the next phase, I lifted my eyes a little to look at the railing at a distance of five or ten feet in front of me. Then the railing took on a different character. It was more of a solid object with a defined shape and I had some sense of being in a stable relationship with it as an object. While this railing-2 had more of a object like character to it, it was still a dynamic entity since it was coming into focus and receding behind me at a relatively rapid rate. In the third phase I looked all the way across to the end of the bridge and tried to take in the entire bridge at the same time. In this phase, railing-3 looked like a ladder with a rather rigid, object like character. I could actually feel my eye muscles contract to “objectify” the entire railing. At the same time there was a perceivable shift in my character as a subject was well — it felt like a classic case of “detached observation” that scientists are supposed to perform.

At this point, I suspended my observations and started thinking about the experiences. The question came to my mind -which one was the “real” railing? What did these three have to do with each other? I felt that treating the three experiences as being that of the same object was
not doing them justice. Only the last of the three felt like a clear object with me as a subject. After these thoughts, I started staring at the railing immediately next to me once again. When I established a flowing visual state my attention was captured by a piece of paper flying off the bridge. It was a powerful experience to watch that paper float down just after having connected with the railing. There was something intense about engaging with the floating itself than on the object that was floating (I am pretty sure that was able to focus more on the motion only because I was primed by the experience of staring at the railing). The paper lost its objecthood -it felt more like “just floating” than “piece of paper floating”.

When I started thinking about these events, I realized that apart from experiencing the world using different sensory modalities, it might be useful to look at the same object when you are still or moving. I feel that the subject-object dichotomy is greatly reduced while moving.

Leave a Reply