Fredric Jameson and babies: or, how do you relate to someone who does not yet have a consciousness?

As one does, I have been reflecting on how I relate to my grandson, Zac, while reading Jameson’s The Hegel Variations. What fascinates me is the way Zac looks intently at me (all over my face, I’m told), responds and gurgles and chatters, knows my voice and smell and so on, and yet he is not conscious of being a person.

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I have seen him now four times in his first five weeks of existence, so we have become quite familiar. OK, so he’s a baby. But the fascinating catch is that what is happening now, absorbed in the sheer immediacy of encounter on a daily basis, constitutes the building blocks of an identity. It’s the most formative period of his life, precisely when he has no consciousness of being anyone. My youngest daughter, who is in her senior years of studying psychology, tells me that if a baby is neglected in these early days – left perhaps with a bottle in a crib – then it will never catch up for the rest of its life. No risk of missing out on attention for Zac.

So where does Jameson come in? Riffing off Kant and Hegel, he explores the paradox that “consciousness is one of those philosophical problems which human beings are structurally unfit to solve” (p. 32). We know it exists at some level, but it remains perpetually unknowable as a thing-in-itself. So Zac’s current state is really the situation of all of us, except that he has the advantage of not yet having a consciousness. When he constructs one, he won’t be able to know it anyway, since it will then be a constitutive part of his being. The only way to know a consciousness as a thing-in-itself is not to have one, but then you are unable to know it.

I might discuss this with him when we next meet (in a few days).


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