Before we set out to investigate something as clinically distant as ‘intersubjectivity,’ we might ask ourselves the same question we asked of Walter White: who are we? More to the point: who am I?
An initial response probably reflects my ongoing sense of self—my fingers on the keyboard, my purposes and plans as I sit at my desk. And surely this consciousness of myself and the immediate (and wider) world that I inhabit is the source of my understanding of the world—and indeed the world as such. The self as a transcendent ego whose operations make the world manifest is the centerpiece of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological work; he claims, in a Cartesian mode, that we cannot doubt what we find in consciousness (my strokes on the keyboard, the pause for a sip of lukewarm coffee), but—unlike Descartes—Husserl will describe phenomena as they present themselves, rather than reason from them. This realm of subjective certainty involves a method of access; instead of merely taking for granted the contours of my office (and that now really unappealing half-cup of coffee), I am invited to abstain from epistemic judgments and observe what is available to me. This abstention, the so-called epoche, suspends the idea that a transcendent reality “explains” experience, and compels us to look at consciousness and its objects rather than the world and its objects. In other words, when we study phenomena we do not distinguish between mind and world, we merely attend to the “minded” objects in the world. The usual epistemic division of mind and world within the epoche disappears: within the epoche there isn’t mind in world, but a world in which objects are manifested in consciousness.3 As Merleau-Ponty (perhaps a better reader of Husserl than Husserl himself) says of the epoche: “it does not take us...from ‘objective’ to ‘subjective’; rather, its function is to unveil a third dimension in which this distinction becomes problematic.”4 What now becomes apparent is that I cannot doubt the realm of appearances; I may doubt that that is a coffee cup in front of me, but I cannot doubt that I am having a “coffee cup appearance.” Furthermore, consciousness is that which generates or manifests those appearances; they are created by consciousness. Evidently, in order to understand the constitution of appearances we must understand how consciousness works.
But here we should return to that intimate, important question: who am I? If the world, and its contents (and we’ve yet to speak of its other human inhabitants), is “manifested in consciousness”—namely, my consciousness—then it seems we have an immediate problem with other persons, who are also so constituting the world. Of course, this is one of the fundamental and enduring pleasures of cinema and television: we readily, happily give over to seeing the world and its contents through a character’s unique experience. Our eagerness to see Walter White’s environment solely through the lens of his ego (transcendental or otherwise) begins to consume that setting, its props, terrain, weather, traffic, and other persons (particularly his wife Skyler), in an effort to feed our sense of what things are like for him. Walter’s fellow human creatures become mere obstacles or opportunities, and we join together in so seeing them.
It is this sort of reductive solipsism that Husserl devoted much thought and a great deal of ink to defeating. The problem lies in the very place where our “who am I?” question began: if the analysis of the world—that is, our investigation of the phenomena—starts with an individual’s own consciousness, then it is hard to see how we can substantively retrieve another consciousness, the Other, in that analysis. As Dan Zahavi puts it, “If one is to speak meaningfully of a foreign subject, of an Other, it is evident that we are dealing with something that cannot be reduced to its mere givenness for me.”5 Indeed, Husserl consistently argues that the world, and our relations in it, are intersubjectively structured, and that this structure is the source of all that there is: “Concrete, full transcendental subjectivity is the totality of an open community of I’s. Transcendental intersubjectivity is the absolute and only self-sufficient ontological foundation [Seinsboden], out of which everything objective.draws its sense and validity.”6
So let us think more about an “open community of I’s,” and how that reality is forged. A first, most immediate, and undeniable intersubjective claim is that each person is shaped by, and shapes, others. The family—alembic of human identity, with all the struggle and turmoil that such primal relations entail—is a person’s entrance into the world, a place where one is, at the same time, inevitably formed, actively or reactively, by the encounter with the Other. Loved, or bullied; called “egghead,” deemed “lazy” or “athletic,” rejected as “worthless”—every human is embraced, taunted, nurtured, and scarred by those who tend and educate her as she grows into personhood; her response to the treatment of others—accepting or denying these characterizations—in turn alters her social environment. Furthermore, and more broadly, a person cannot be who she needs to be, or do what she needs to do without the work of others. I cannot be a professor without students, or other faculty and colleagues, nor can I do my work without classrooms (and their manifold of equipment), or without the entire institutional structure of higher education (and so forth). Walter White cannot entertain becoming a meth kingpin without the immediate help of Jesse and his network of contacts, and—to pan further out—the whole vast tangle of the criminal drug culture, one made both absurdly lucrative and dangerous (to its practitioners, and to everyone else caught in the “crossfire”—hardly a metaphor!) by its illicit status. A person’s projects do not stand alone: they are always already the projects of others.
So, family and the persons thus emerging into a wider world of shared projects and concerns constitute what we will call the “ethical” dimension of intersubjectivity, in that a person’s character and the choices that a person finds viable and appealing are the product of those early, potent bonds, and lay the groundwork for the relations a person will construct and share in a wider social setting. A person’s “location” in this cultural terrain depends on a vast, interconnected history of the choices of others, choices that build institutions, and choices that make particular ways of life possible.
We know very little about Walter White’s familial past, but Walt has much to say about his own family, and his role in protecting and “providing” for them. In Season One, Walt provides a blunt account of where his family lies in his own moral reckoning when he and Jesse are taken hostage by Emilio and Krazy-8. Walt and Jesse escape when Walt concocts phosphine gas in the RV lab; Emilio is killed but Krazy-8 survives and winds up a prisoner in Jesse’s basement. Now what does Walt do? Killing Emilio was an act of self-defense, but Krazy-8 is recovering, thanks to Walt’s ministrations. Krazy-8 must surely die, but Walt cannot bring himself to do it. Two moments tip the balance. First, Walt makes a “pro and con” list: the “let him live” list contains the usual fare: “it’s the moral thing to do,” “Judeo-Christian principles,” “You are not a murderer,” “He may listen to reason,” “Post-traumatic stress,” “Won’t be able to live with yourself,” and—finally—“Murder is wrong!” In the “kill him” column? One item only: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” Still Walt continues to feed and tentatively “befriend” Krazy-8; the decisive moment comes when Walt realizes that Krazy-8 has managed to hide a shard of a broken plate, clearly intended as a weapon to kill Walt. The “let him live” list—a sad jumble of moral placards and pragmatic considerations—is no match for the encounter with the Other, especially one who is determined to defeat his opponent and survive. Walt’s feeble attempts to soothe his own moral pangs are not in touch with the reality of a murderously angry prisoner; he is unable to imagine the view from Krazy-8’s perspective, and, to make the more important Husserlian point, to see his own complicity in the current unfolding moment (he could, of course, turn himself and Krazy-8 in to the police. He does not).
Walt may think—and he certainly tells himself, and the viewer—that what he is doing (which now includes murder) is for his family’s welfare. But how does he understand that family, and his place in it? When Walt collapses at the car wash, he is taken by ambulance to the hospital; on the way, the paramedic asks him if there is anyone he should contact. Walt instantly replies, “No, God, no.” Why not? Surely his wife Skyler needs to know what has happened. “Family,” for Walt, is both totem and emblem for his own will and self-rule. Walt understands himself as utterly autonomous—a term from the Greek meaning to establish the rule or law for oneself. Walt’s “family” is for him a thing—codified through sentimentality, nurtured with reliable patriarchal homilies—that he can work for the benefit of, but only in a discrete and distant way; he will not tell Skyler the entire truth about what he has done, ever, even when they meet for the last time (he lies to her about the money that will soon come to Walt Jr. through Gretchen and Elliott). Walt reliably makes a plan, takes actions that suit that plan, and calculates, as best he can, how his choices will impact others—and yet he has no sense that his plans necessarily have origins outside of himself: that who he is, and what he wants, or thinks that he wants, is deeply heteronomous. The dizzying trajectory of choice—to lie, to pass on in silence, to murder—begins long before action is called upon, and ramifies long after each choice to act is made.
Walt does not see his own existential debts to his wife and children, to his wife’s sister, to his brother-in-law, and indeed to the wider relational setting that has made him, and his work, possible. He may consider himself the sole, luminous point in a dark sky filled with other distant lights, but that view is intersubjectively false; it belies the “totality of an open community of I’s.” Walt can deny the ethical bonds that make him who he is, but the deeper chemical reality of the Other will always be made manifest.
In seeing one’s debt to “the Other,” one also sees a deeper ontological debt: I cannot be a person as such without what Hegel calls the “recognition” of my fellow creatures. In the Phenomenology of Spirit’s tour de force section, “Lordship and Bondage,” we see the encounter of two conscious beings who, in the presence of the other, become self-conscious: this is a primordial tale about the development of “selfhood,” of how a self can come to be in the first place. What indeed are the conceptual pieces necessary for understanding selfhood?
In Hegel’s telling, an individual consciousness—desirous, consuming, unreflectively altering its environment—becomes aware of itself in a new way when it encounters another like consciousness. Here is the fateful Hegelian announcement: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.. .Selfconsciousness is faced by another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself.”7 I am aware of myself as I struggle to get what I want; the more recalcitrant the object, the more I become aware of my self as consumer. The ultimate recalcitrant object is surely another person: and in that person’s resistance to my making use of him, manipulating him, bringing him under concepts, I become more aware of my own equally recalcitrant self; the consciousness has “come out of itself” and become a “self-consciousness.” In this primordial conflict, each consciousness attempts to prevail as the ultimate subject, leading to a “fight to the death.” For Hegel, our intersubjective condition is conceived in mortal conflict.
Here “recognition” isn’t the social convention of acknowledging and respecting fellow humans (although this is, in part, its terminus); rather, Hegel argues that humans only become fully human when they encounter a like creature, one who also has a profound sense of its own potency, and one who desires to control and consume what it can in its immediate environment. The primordial collision of human with human creates the reflexively self-aware creature that each of us is: I have my own desires and designs, but I am truly made human when I encounter another, one like myself, and thus realize that other persons like me are also determined to impose their will on the world around them. This tale of human self-awareness as born in an encounter with another is one of fundamental hostility: as the Hegelian story goes, this primordial human, accustomed to making use of its surroundings—eating, fending off wild animals, making a shelter—is suddenly faced with a like creature that it cannot consume in this way. Certainly, each can attempt to kill the other in a struggle for supremacy (“I’m the ultimate consciousness around here!”), but the death of one combatant leaves the other without what it truly craved: recognition, from a fellow consciousness, an acknowledgment that is the nascent beginning of self-consciousness.8
Sartre takes Hegel’s agonistic developmental account of human selfconsciousness much further: for Sartre, our intersubjective condition is not fundamentally one of human co-constitution, but rather confrontation and sustained conflict. The Other-as-subject, argues Sartre, takes the world from me: when I encounter the Other, particularly when her gaze reaches me, the world around me becomes hers, not mine: “.the Other’s look as the necessary condition of my objectivity is the destruction of all objectivity for me. The Other’s look touches me across the world and is not only a transformation of myself but a total metamorphosis of the world. I am looked at in a world which is looked-at.”9
The existence of other humans is, for Sartre, a contingent yet inescapable part of the world each person navigates: the encounter with the Other is always ontologically hostile. Of course, humans can, and typically do, work together as entities in choosing and establishing a common enterprise and goal. But how to explain this kind of cooperation in a way that both acknowledges this fundamental subjective hostility on the one hand, but steers away from an account of some “collective consciousness” from which we all emerge on the other? Sartre rejects Heidegger’s analysis of Mitsein, the primordial “being- with” that characterizes Dasein. The image that Sartre offers in his critique of Heidegger, however, is wonderfully useful for our purposes here: Sartre describes our intersubjective condition as a ship’s crew: “The original relation of the Other and my consciousness is not the you and me; it is the we. Heidegger’s being-with is not the clear and distinct position of an individual confronting another individual; it is not knowledge. It is the mute existence in common of one member of the crew with his fellows, that existence which the rhythm of the oars or the regular movement of the coxswain will render sensible to the rowers and which will be made manifest to them by the common goal to be attained, the boat or the yacht to be overtaken, and the entire world (spectators, performance, etc.) which is profiled on the horizon.”10 Everyone on the ship coordinates oars and motion in keeping with the coxswain, but that shared project emerges from the consciousness of each person, each endorsing and pursuing—for the moment—a mutual undertaking.
The many motley and lethal “crews” at work in the five seasons of Breaking Bad (Jack and his neo-Nazi skinheads, Don Eladio Vuente’s Mexican cartel, the DEA agents led, at times, by Hank) often operate as the “crew” of a farcically tragic version of this Sartrean ship. Perhaps the most jarring example of this kind of “teamwork” is in Season Five’s “Dead Freight,” when Walt plans to steal a freight tanker of methylamine. The skill and cooperation involved in such a heist demands the viewer’s attention, even admiration: the water replacing the methylamine must be carefully calibrated, and every member of the team must be ready for the Other, those feckless, accidental incursions into a shared and utterly time-sensitive operation. The first of these is comic: Walt’s crew manages to stop the train (and thus surreptitiously siphon off the chemical) by faking a breakdown of a dump truck on the railroad tracks, but a helpful passing driver offers to help them push the truck out of the train’s way. Walt recklessly urges his team to keep pumping, making their getaway dangerously close: Jesse ends up on the tracks, letting the train pass over him, while Todd must jump from the trestle. Walt and his men have pulled off a difficult feat, without anyone on the train being the wiser, or even getting hurt: the viewer might feel a frisson of glee about this breathtakingly risky yet successful mission.
But this undertaking is not a mission, or a quest—it is theft grandly writ, and that composition’s ugliness bursts on the scene when Todd kills a small boy on a dirt bike. The boy was out in the desert collecting insects, and he had seen the crew and waved at them; Todd decides that he must die, and cheerfully waves back at him before shooting him. Todd’s “crew logic” is impeccable: he was told that no one can ever know about this theft, and the boy’s existence potentially compromises their goal. Todd’s distinctive Boy-Scout brand of psychopathy is seen again when he executes Jesse’s girlfriend: as Andrea looks out of her front door for Jesse, Todd slips behind her and remarks, “Just so you know, this isn’t personal.”
This depraved calculus can only admit the shared purposes of the crew; for Todd, the killing of these innocents is not a slight against them—no personal grievance is involved—but impediments must be removed, and lessons meted out (Andrea is murdered to punish Jesse for trying to escape). Walter White is, of course, the chief adept of this “ship of (intersubjectivity-denier) fools” approach to human interrelations; his notions of “family” and “friend” are fluidly defined only by how they figure in Walt’s voyage. Even as he begs Jack to spare Hank’s life (with the cry “He’s family!”), Walt avoids the awful truth that he himself has brought his brother-in-law to this remote death in the desert. When Skyler confronts Walt about Hank—after all, Walt is supposed to be in DEA custody—Walt says that he “negotiated.” When Skyler asks, “What does that mean?” Walt tells her, “It means we’re fine, okay?” She accuses him of killing Hank, and Walt shouts his reply: “No, no, no! I tried to save him,” an “attempt” that even Hank, in his final moments of life, finds ridiculous.
Surely this kind of hostile and solipsistic intersubjective ontology is not what Vince Gilligan, at least by his own putative karmic lights, sets out to depict. Is there another story about our intersubjective relations here?