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The phantom subject as it appears in physics

This is true of the changes that occurred fifty years ago in physics.  If we look at them closely, if we listen attentively to what the physicist has to say when he tries to express himself in human language, if we really understand what it is that he is trying to demonstrate, then we will be struck more than we can say by  the weakness of the arguments, and by the improbability of the representations employed.  We imagine that sensational discoveries have been made in microphysics as a result of the confusion into which the old classical figures have been thrown by the introduction of an agitation, sententiously called 'energy'.  But for whose benefits have these discoveries been made?  Could it be that they are there uniquely to serve the well-being of the atom  and of the electron, to which, it seems, the physicist ascribes the freedom of will that he should, properly, ascribe to himself?  The observer's observation has become more complicated simply because, without even noticing what he has done, he has changed his point of view.  It is impossible to be more subjective or more determined not to take account of that personal responsibility that is implicit in the very fact of our being, ourselves, present.  This is most obvious when the physicist declares that we can reasonably abandon the idea of 'mass' - which is the necessary consequence of our own corporeal reality, of the unquestionable, fundamental postulate 'I am'.

It is thus that the physicist resembles the painter who throws the subject away, replaces it with a nameless agitation, and then, having no idea of the value of words, proclaims that he has discovered unheard of properties of space.  And again the physicist is not far removed from the painter when he puts space and time on the same plane.  What a misuse of words!  And again, what perfect agreement there is between them on the subject of Naturalism, which, whether on a very large, macroscopic, or on a very small, microscopic, scale, is becoming ever further removed from nature.  Nature which is uniquely a property of Man.  Man - whether he is incarnate in space, fixed in a precise location, through extension, which is a characteristic of himself;  or whether he is moving in time - travelling, without any location, even though he may divide time up into periods for the purpose of drawing breath!  Nature, which will, when we come to know it, enable us by analogy to understand the real value of the objects, similar or various, which fill the world about us, while naturalistic observation can give us only symbols, subjective deformations.  

But to be fair.  Despite the barriers that have been raised between the different fields of specialised interest, this is a debate that concerns everyone, and there is more to it than just errors of understanding and mistakes of judgement.  There are also certain presentiments whose accuracy and whose grandeur of spirit will be revealed in the future when, at last, Humanism has been disavowed, and has given way in favour of the 'real man', the principle of the universe, nature in itself, total object, transcending in his unity the contradictory duality of immobile space and mobile time.(5)

(5) Some conclusions of present-day physics: ‘The Universe is an empty space and an empty time’. ‘The Universe is a thought which simultaneously looks upon the past, the present and the future.’ (Planck). ‘Nature does not know either space or time’ (Minkovsky). ‘Nature is such that there is no possible experiment by which absolute time may be determined’ (Einstein). Niels Bohr, father of the atomic bomb, has a very pessimistic opinion of the value of science. The physicist attaches only a very small value to mass; the one thing that he still recognises as certain is energy and the fact of its conservation. The mechanical theory based on the principle of causality has been abandoned in favour of the indeterminate and of the balance of probabilities (Planck). There was a physicist who declared not long ago: ‘Have I the right to consider an atom, a corpuscle, the particle-matter-light, as being something with a distinct unified existence of its own, with its own distinct action? I really don’t know.’ And since he was speaking to an audience of philosophers he asked them: ‘Do you have any better ideas?’ The reply was ‘We don’t know any more than you do.’ We can see in these admissions of impotence the necessary end of the naturalist attitude of Humanism, that way of thinking that takes the perception of the senses as being the foundation of experience. When we stop making the 'object’ we begin to observe it and all we can have in relation to it is an opinion, a point of view, a subjective effect whose immediate cause is the subject-observer. Whether it is a concept for the philosopher or a subject of analysis for the physicist or the mathematician. In the end there is nothing of it left in our hands. As professor Paul Langevin once said to me: ‘We have lost all sense of identity, there is nothing left to us but symbols’. Passive nature [la nature naturée] has been destroyed by analysis. She is only concerned with the object coming apart of its own accord or taken apart in an arbitrary manner by the observer, the maker of experiments - the radio activity given out by something that is dead and in a state of decomposition. In the end we will have to return to good sense and to active nature [la nature naturante]; even if we have to do it by a roundabout way [par la bande, tout au moins]. The signs of such a development can be seen in the timid hints of an ontological approach which we are hearing these days from physicists and philosophers. And, let us think about this: also in the intuitive aspirations that are shown by those artists who are abandoning the subject as the support of their work and trying to get back on the right tracks through the realisation of the object.

Each of us is, I repeat, the image and resemblance of a real man.  We go towards him through actions that are authentic to our own nature;  we aspire to the perfection of the model.  When the painters reject the subject, they are showing signs of a deeply hidden intuition of the existence of this Universal Man.  That much must be conceded to them.  They anticipate, and it would be wrong for those of us who, through long experience, know what difficulties have to be overcome before we can begin to see our way clear, to reproach them with being unable to de more than to express their good intentions.  

What is wrong is that, instead of simplifying the problem, it has been made much more complicated, as can be seen clearly enough in the terminologies that have been advanced, rather over-hastily - abstract, non-figurative, non-objective, etc. ...  all of which mean exactly the opposite of what they ought to mean.  And then, it is altogether strange that painting is hardly ever mentioned in these efforts to thrash out in words a doctrine that could justify the refusal of the subject.  In the end, we always came back  to the same old thing.  The rules of the classical subject were trampled on during the course of the nineteenth century in the name of the liberty of the artist.  So it is honestly believed that this liberty is a progress which must not be given up at any cost.  And the rejection of the subject is seen as just a further step in the progress towards ever greater liberty.  Alas, they  do not see that, by reasoning in this way, they are still playing the game of the subject, exaggerating it through their subjectivism and their individualism, interchangeable as cause and effect.  For a subject can only produce a subject, and  the individual is one who is subject to his subject and not to his object.  There is no fundamental difference in nature between a subject whose appearances can be identified by the whole collectivity of subjects, and a spectacle whose appearances have been pushed to the extreme limits of individualism.  

But one doesn't have to be a great historian to know that, if the myth of liberty a priori - a liberty that is intrinsic and not the result of the mastery of our means - was widespread throughout the nineteenth century, and if plenty of dupes were taken in by it, a strong opposition was, nonetheless, raised against its poison, its tendency towards disintegration.  The best artists of the century are the unquestionable proof.  They too were suspicious of the subject, but they recognised 'the object', so that, if we turn to them, we will find that they were pioneers worthy of being listened to, masters, well able to instruct the painters of the present day.  We should, then, pay attention to them if we are interested in order, and if our passion is sufficiently strong to enable us to break free from those little personal vanities through which we always end up losing the prey for the shadow.  Most importantly, we must have absolutely nothing to do with those flatterers and evil counsellors who, without any qualifications based on any relevant experience, pretend that they have the right to determine first principles. The decisive orientation of these principles is uniquely a matter for those who are responsible for putting them into practice.  The critics must be made to realise that this is not a matter of mere opinion, and that no pertinent criticism is possible where anarchy  is in control.