On subject/ivity

March 17, 2009


Thoughts on the subject:

We can imagine that this word, ‘subject,’ across a number of discourses relevant to writing and cultural studies, very simply, refers to: self and/or other; or the ‘focus’ of one’s research or inquiry (as in – the subject of my study is recently-arrived refugee youth, or the subject of the film is a small group of Welsh miners.) In this second case—the subject as the focus of inquiry—the word ‘subject’ is acting as a signifier (remember last week!). It is moving meaning in certain ways. But let’s complicate things a bit!

It may seem frustrating that in this course we are constantly complicating ideas and referring ‘abstractly’ to concepts. But remember that in many cases, abstractions can actually be a way of thinking more specifically about things, in a way that simply ‘pointing’ to an object can’t be. As my friend Ben said today to me: ““The subject” (as an aggregate model) cannot be “you” or “me” any more than money is capital.” In other words, ‘subject’ doesn’t point to an object. It is not ‘I’ or ‘you’. It refers to an entire model of thinking about culture, just as we use the word ‘capital’ to refer to the complex relationships between labour, money, power structures, etc.

Julian Wolfrey, in his wonderful book Critical Keywords in Literary and Cultural Theory (a kind of cultural studies dictionary), says of the subject: “It is possible … to speak of the psychoanalytic subject, the subject before the law (and by which laws one becomes subjected), or the national, supposedly collective subject.” He goes on to complicate matters by noting that, within, for example, psychoanalysis, there is not one ‘agreed’ subject. ‘Subject’ is used as a term to denote the very basic concept of ‘person’ or ‘people’ who are engaged in a certain practice, who affect and are affected by a certain practice. Words like ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’ don’t work anymore when we are speaking conceptually or when we are engaging critically with unstable ideas. We need a term that is flexible, multiply meaningful, loose, elusive, changeable, mutable. So we use ‘subject’.

Wolfreys quotes this from Regenia Gagnier. Read it carefully, it’ll make sense:

First the subject is subject to itself, an ‘I’, however difficult it is or even impossible it may be for others to understand this ‘I’ from its own viewpoint, within its own experience. Simultaneously, the subject is a subject to, and of, others; in fact, it is often an ‘Other’ to others, which also affects its sense of its own subjectivity. This construction of self in opposition to others is as characteristic of groups, communities, classes, and nations as it is of individuals, as in the self-conception of Chartists, or ‘the working classes’, or schoolboys, or ladies, or, today, ‘Women’, or ‘the Third World’.

Gagnier goes on to add that subject can mean a body of knowledge, as we noted above (as in, the subject of your studies); a Cartesian notion as the ‘opposite’ of objectivity (which is how we generally use the word, pre-cultural studies); and in writing, as “self-representation … the I is the self-present subject of the sentence as well as the subject ‘subjected’ to the symbolic order of the language in which one is writing – the subject is subject to language, or intersubjectivity (i.e., culture).”

Wolfrey also quotes Sylviane Agacinski, who says that because the notion of the ‘subject’ is always attached to a notion of itself, it is always questioning itself: “The claim of subjective consciousness consists in believing that, essentially, it can question itself and answer itself.” This is interesting: the subject one the one hand, has some idea of its own subjecthood (“I am me!”) and on the other hand, has an ongoing interrogative relationship with this self-awareness (“How am I me? What am I doing? What is my relationship to self, other, world?”).

As Delia mentioned in her lecture, this sense of self and questioning of self dominates philosophy via Descartes, and the Cartesian subject (idea of ‘ego’, “I think therefore I am,” mind as separate from body, etc.). This Cartesian subject becomes the default subject of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment discourses. The individual, self-aware, confessional, human subject. Easy! Right?

No way!

We’re contemporary thinkers, remember? We don’t like things to easy, or assumed, or singular. We don’t like the idea of the autobiographical ‘I’ as the exact signifier of self. We don’t like the idea of the individual human subject as the basic unit of all social and cultural engagement. We understand and acknowledge the incredible influence of the Cartesian subject, and we inherit many of its ideas, but we want now to complicate it and to disturb its exact boundaries. We are interested in the ‘subject’ as a fluid construct: affected by and affecting its historical, cultural, social and political milieux; identifying as a self among others and a self as opposed to others, but always in dynamic relationships; aware of bodily reality and conscious/imaginative thought; moving through the world as an active agent of change.

In much contemporary thought, the ‘subject’ is read as a key concept in politics and in social theory. That is, the ‘subject’ becomes a central concern to any discourses of power, governance, social change, etc. (You see this in Judith Butler and Foucault, for example.) This is because of the reversible movements between self-other-world implicit in the word ‘subject’. Foucault notes that a “genealogy” of the subject in Western civilisation can be analysed in terms of “techniques of domination” and “techniques of self”, that is, ways that people organise other people, and ways that people organise themselves.

To mention the Jameson reading briefly: in this essay, Jameson traces a moment in contemporary history that has affected our notion and analysis of the subject. The 1960s, not literally as a decade, but as a social/political moment traced by Jameson, saw the emergence of many subjects that had previously, and let’s use a grammatical analogy, been treated as ‘objects’ (that is, passive). The disenfranchised subject, the colonised subject, the oppressed subject, the silenced subject, the marginalised subject, the feminine subject, the non-white subject, the queer subject, the working-class subject… We see from this period of time, the production of texts that assert non-normative subjecthoods. (NOTE: It is very important here that we don’t imply that there is one, collective ‘feminine subject’, or ‘queer subject’. To assume a singular subjectivity is as problematic as denying subjectivity in the first place! What we mean here is that the ideas of womanhood or queerness are in play, and that the emergence of these ideas in cultural practice contribute to shifts in thinking about the nature of the subject.)

Why do we bang on about ‘subject’ and ‘subjectivity’ (the state of being a subject, the experience of being a subject, the subject-ness of subjecthood)? Because it is the business of discourses to produce subjects and subjectivities, and it is the business of critical thinkers and creative producers (us!) to engage with these discourses as active participants. Because as writers, we use language in such a way that produce subjectivities, we enable them to exist and in doing so we contribute to cultural discussions of the subject-in-world

To finish, an excerpt from a prose poem called ‘Australia’, written by Ania Walwicz in 1989. (A far cry from Baz Lurhmann? What notion(s) of subject/ivity are at play here?):

You big ugly. You too empty. You desert with your nothing nothing nothing. You scorched suntanned. Old too quickly. Acres of suburbs watching the telly. You bore me. Freckle silly children. You nothing much. With your big sea. Beach beach beach. I’ve seen enough already. You dumb dirty city with bar stools. You’re ugly. You silly shoppingtown. You copy. You too far everywhere. You laugh at me. When I came this woman gave me a box of biscuits. You try to be friendly but you’re not very friendly.


Week 3: Representation and Myth

March 9, 2009


To start with, I’m going to go over Stuart Hall’s basic semiotic definitions. Bear in mind that these kinds of introductory explanations only ever fulfil a rudimentary role – that is, of opening-up or setting-in-motion more complex ideas about language, discourse, representation and identity. There is no single or simple definition, or even a set of definitions, that we can refer to generally. You will have noticed that the mode of inquiry of this class is to be constantly re-defining things, shifting meanings slightly, complicating ideas and interrogating preconceptions. Its endless work! For the sake of this week’s massive class discussion, let’s start with Hall’s basic explanation and work our way into Barthes.

Hall speaks about ‘representation’ as a central practice that produces culture. Culture, as we have now heard several times, is about ‘shared meanings,’ and language is the medium in which these meanings are produced and exchanged. The production and exchange of meanings occurs when language is used to negotiate an understanding of the world. In other words, we make meaning when we engage with our world, we exchange meaning when we engage with others in the world, and these processes of making/exchanging meaning through language is how we contribute to our cultural milieux.

Language, says Hall, “operates as a representational system” (1). Signs and symbols (eg text, a photographic image, a facial expression, a song) are used to represent (literally, re-present) ideas. This idea-exchange is happening constantly and has effect on every aspect of our lives. Cultural meanings “organise and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects” (3).

In semiotics, the idea is that things in themselves rarely have a single, unfixed or unchanging meaning. Meaning is something that is ‘given’ to a thing. Remember Hall’s example of a stone: the stone might be a boundary marker, or a piece of sculpture. To see the stone as a sculpture would be to give the stone a particular meaning as an artistic object with an aesthetic/compositional purpose. The stone would represent an idea of a sculptural artwork. Hall suggests that the practice of ‘giving’ meaning to things is key to culture. We give certain meanings to certain things and our relationship to those meanings, our engagement with them, is ‘culture’.

The meanings we give to things are not arbitrary – they say something about who we are and how we identify as cultural subjects. When a meat-eater looks at a steak, they might see the steak as a delicious meal or a nutritional unit of protein or a Sunday night ritual with their best mate at the pub. When a vegan looks at a steak, they might see the steak as a symbol of animal cruelty, as a representation of ecologically suspect land practice, or as a cute calf gambolling in a paddock. These different meaningful ways of engaging with a piece of steak represent different identities – an identity of ‘being’ a meat-eater and an identity of ‘being’ a vegan. Vegans share an identity that will look at steak in a certain set of ways. This identity marks a vegan as different from a meat-eater, and this difference becomes a key part of what defines the cultural particularity of ‘being’ vegan. ‘Markers of difference’ are evident in any cultural or subcultural identity.

“[T]he question of meaning arises in relation to all the different moments or practices in our ‘cultural circuit’ – in the construction of identity and the marking of difference, in production and consumption, as well as in the regulation of social conduct” (4).

So it is through language that cultural engagement occurs and meaning is shared and identity is represented. How? Language is a collaborative practice; it is a dialogue. Something is represented and something is understood. And yet, there are all manner of confusions, interruptions, misunderstandings and deviations that can occur in this collaboration, so we must always acknowledge straight away that ‘meaning’ is only ever partially transferred in language and that language is a representational system fraught with infinite possibilities and potentialities.

“Language,” says Hall, “provides one general model of how culture and representation work, especially in what has come to be known as the semiotic approach – semiotics being the study or ‘science of signs’ and their general role as vehicles of meaning in culture” (6). Hall makes a distinction between this semiotic approach and what is known as a ‘discursive’ approach to language analysis. The discursive approach is concerned more with the effects and consequences (the politics) of meaningful representation rather than how the meanings are produced initially (the poetics). Contemporary theory, moving away from more classic, straight-up semiotics and into poststructuralism, is concerned with an analysis that looks both semiotically and discursively at language. In other words, we want you to be critical thinkers with an awareness of both the ‘how’ and ‘what now?’ of language use, at the poetics and the politics of meaningful exchange, at the representation and its effects on cultural practice.

Now onto Barthes and the myth. For the sake of space, I am only going to look at the long Barthes reading in this piece of writing. So here goes:

We talked in class about the relationship, in semiotics, between the signifier, the signified and the sign. Let’s take the roses as an example again. The signifier is a bunch of flowers, twelve red roses. The signified is my desire for my lover. The sign is the dynamic interaction of signifier and signified – the romantic ritual of gifting a dozen roses. My lover understands this sign as the ‘representation’ of my desire. He engages accordingly.

OK: now to the myth. The myth is a language act in which the signifier is already a sign. It is known sign, a repeated trope or image that carries a certain cultural meaning. Let’s take a local example of the lifesaver. The lifesaver has long been an Australian myth. This is not to say that lifesavers do not ‘actually’ exist, of course this is not the case. But ‘the’ lifesaver, that is, the iconic or mythic representation of the lifesaver-as-national-idea is a powerful symbol that can play a persuasive role in sending a message about Australian nationalism. The lifesaver comes to represent a kind of national hero, typifying the good, the noble and the selfless of the ‘Australian character’. It naturalises a historical phenomenon, which is the central aim of the myth, according to Barthes: lifesavers became important in Australian culture when the beach became a tourist and leisure attraction. That is the ‘historical’ beginnings of lifesavers. But the myth suggests that the lifesaver is much more than simply a historical subject of Australian beach culture: the myth suggests that the lifesaver is a ‘natural’ or inherent character of Australianness. The lifesaver has powerful cultural currency because it is a myth attached to notions of safety and ‘goodness’.

We can see that the myth of the lifesaver became a powerful tool of the media in its reportage of the Cronulla riots. Rather than specific violence between specific people, the events were commonly referred to in media commentary as an attack on this notion of ‘Australianness’, because of the unthinkable violence towards the lifesaver. In many cases it was not the lifesaver as an individual whose victimhood was discussed, but the very idea of the lifesaver. Note also how this plays into a discourse of fear — those who protect and serve are under threat, therefore nothing is safe.

Does this make sense?

Now another example. Remember that it is easy in a modern, secular consumer-capitalist society (ie, ‘our’ culture) to assume that ‘myth’ only applies to rituals and rites of the ancient, religious or ‘primitive’. In fact, our culture relies on the myth just as much as any religion or ancient culture ever has. A commodity, for example, relies on myth, which in turn relies on the ‘naturalisation’ of desire, to sell. When you engage with a piece of advertising, often the myth (eg, that shoes will result in amazing sex) is immediately obvious. Yet it is still powerful, because it is a myth that plays with desire and longing, it repeats a certain understood sign of wealth, power and beauty that has currency in our consumer economy. In Barthian terms, the myth naturalises the historical circumstances of consumer capitalism so that commodity fetishism is considered a normal ‘fact’ of life.

OK. That’s enough for now. Discuss!

Week 2: Culture, Context, Materiality

March 2, 2009
Photo by Pat Armstrong

Photo by Pat Armstrong

This week’s tutorial was so lively and covered so much ground that it is hard to summarise in this space. I thought, instead, I would meditate on these three terms – culture, context and materiality. Please add some thoughts!

Culture: Culture is a set of practices, “the process of cultivation” (fermentation of yoghurt, a social engagement, togetherness, shared knowledge). It is the cultivation and tending of fertile soil. The lively collision of bacterium in a petri dish. Culture is a process of encounter. Culture is a “set of flows and relations” (Bennett), culture is the movements of self-and-world, self-and-self, self-and-other, other-and-world. Culture is the “site of the production of meanings” (Thwaites). When there is engagement there is meaning-making. Culture is a casual agent: by ‘causing’ things to occur, culture keeps things on-the-move. Think of the milk, in a certain environment, becoming yoghurt.

Context: Context refers to a set of circumstances. Context is the specific site of a meaningful encounter. The occasion and particularity of sociality. Everything happens ‘in context’ and everything is encountered ‘in context’. Yet context is not absolute, nor singular. Contexts can be effaced, altered. The context is the here-and-now: in what way is this happening and in what way am I engaging? How does my experience change if the context of my experience changes? Context is the variable. Context is the local details. The contextual environment affects the way something is understood. Context makes a text many things. Just as culture is always more-than-one, context is one-of-many. Attention to context can help us understand the basic conditions of a textual experience: what does it mean to read, to watch, to listen, to consume? What is happening around us?

Materiality: Materiality is thing-ness. Thingitude. Quiddity. It refers to the touchable, countable, tangible, sensual, textural. Materiality refers to matter, and ‘materialism’ suggests that everything is matter. What is matter? Matter is atoms. Matter is mass. Matter is energy. Materialism concerns the composition of things. Materiality can be the aesthetic conditions of a text – the way it feels in the hands, the way the ink looks against paper. Materiality is the atomic connection of letters in words in sentences. Materialism is things in a system of signification. Things with meanings. To consider materiality is to consider the ‘bodily functions’ of objecthood. The sensual nature of all matter, jostling together a felt, experienced world. Note that ‘materialism’, as a philosophy, has a strong history pre its consumer-capitalism meaning as having excess emphasis on the possession of commodities. Material, materiality, materialism.

Week 1: The personal essay

February 23, 2009
Photo by Pat Armstrong

Photo by Pat Armstrong

Though we didn’t talk thoroughly about this in class, the ‘personal essay’ is the textual form most central to this course’s assessments. You will be asked to write two personal essays, one brief and one of length.

A ‘personal essay’ does not necessarily mean an essay that simply divulges the personal, psychological or emotional self. Rather, it is an essay through which the self emerges, or is evident, and plays a role in the composition and form of the writing. The role of self (or selves) can move (or disrupt) the text in different ways. A self-awareness of writing-as-thinking and thinking-as-writing might reveal pleasurable or painful sensations of the compositional act itself (that is, the act of writing, with all ‘selves’ jostling in the imagination). Perhaps you will start the text with one idea and end with another. Perhaps you will confront what you think you know about something.

Remember that the idea of the ‘self’, is by definition, problematic. To what extent is the self ever known? How does the self, as an ‘I’ character, come to bear in language? What relationship does this psychological singular (perhaps designed only for shorthand reference or as a kind of ‘corner-cutting’) have to our messy, complex, multiple and paradoxical reality?

A personal essay is a place to practise playful interrogation: to question the habits and norms of your everyday life and to meditate on the small, banal rituals of experience. You can write a meditation on the 412 bus and its early-morning passengers. You can write about the chronic disease of boredom. You can open out a discussion of insomnia. You can unpack the feminist possibilities of anarchism. You can read tombstone inscriptions as haiku and write a poetical analysis of death-notices. The trick is to focus on the local, the specific, the particular, the minute and the unique, rather than on the general or the universal.

In Phillip Lopate’s introduction to the anthology ‘The Art of the Personal Essay’, he cites the hallmark of the personal essay as its intimacy. This intimacy not only refers to the intimate self and its affect on the composition of the work. It also refers to the intimate connections between words in syntax (the poetical qualities, cadences and melodic inflections of language) and the intimate relationships formed in the sensual practice of critical thinking. To be engaged, to be aware, to be attuned to the material and sensual properties of experience leads to a greater awareness of the very act of writing: composing, arranging, re-making and layering the data of experience in language. One idea exists intimately next to another. One sentence moves intimately against another. Lopate refers to the thinking-and-being at play in a personal essay as a form of experimentation: literally, a trial or attempt. In this sense, the essay becomes a space to ‘test out’ ideas about the world. The essay becomes an uncertain, in-time, dynamic and complex model of potentiality.

Remember what I read in class by DuPlessis:

But what unites essays, if it is possible to say, is probably a defining attentiveness to materiality, to the material world, including the matter of language. The essay is currently born (and borne) in some relation to a cultural moment centering on difference, on articulations of specific, local, and topographical being, on the stating of the material meanings of individual choices, practices, options, and needs, on political and social locations for identity taking shape within language as language, within form as form.