On subject/ivity


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.


10 Responses to “On subject/ivity”

  1. Sam J Says:

    It seems to me (and I’m probably/possibly) following some strange, not entirely correct tangent, that a ‘subject’ is very broad, it can be all manner of things. Anything is a subject, can be a subject, was once a subject. But it is empty until we describe it, or explain it or extrapolate on what we mean this subject is doing/being. It is ‘without a soul’ as the lecturer was saying, until we endow it with a personality, such as the queer subject or the feminist subject. Even gramatically, (in ‘Astrid drinks tea ^^) we know little about the subject ‘Astrid’ until more detail is given, and at once an identity of the subject starts to grow. I think as soon as you make something/anything a subject, you give it power. Power over a sentence as its focus, or power to become known and be recognised (as in the feminist subject, queer subject, black subject). Anyway, these were just my thoughts, inspired by the blog.

  2. Jacob Says:

    Hey Astrid,
    had to read the Gagnier quotation from Wolfrey about 5 times, but it helped 🙂
    & thanks for concluding with a “why” we’re tackling this. Apart from recognising it (the idea of subjectivity) as being an interesting thing to study, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “who really cares?”. So a reminder that we’re all aiming to become creative producers of texts which will reflect or create discourses, using language to produce subjectivities, puts it into perspective.

  3. Jacob Says:

    oh christ, it made a goddamn emoticon…

  4. Tim Says:

    I won’t lie, most of that post frustrated me.

    I think a vital fact that the presentation of this course tempts me to lose sight of is that we are simply examining different ways of thinking.

    And any individual is entirely within their rights to look at these French people and their ways of thinking, and, with a calm and rational approach, decide to reject their ways of thinking. And this would not be ignorant of him, or arrogant, or intolerant or self-deluding, because it simply represents that individual coming to the decision that these ways of thinking do not accurately reflect his experience of the world.

    Foucault experienced the world as involving discourses, Barthes as involving myths, and Jameson as involving the birth of subjectivities in the 60s.

    But it entirely plausible that not one of these concepts actually exists, is actually part of reality.

    And for that reason I will admit to feeling slightly resentful when I am told that, for example, my writing as a profession will create subjectivities.

    A more open-minded statement would be that Jameson, along with all of those who share his experience of the world, THINKS that my professional writing will contribute to subjectivities, because these people have experienced the world and the process of writing in these terms.

    I think Post-modernism would be wise to take caution in its almost petulant obsession with messing with boundaries and definitions. It has a notion of liberation, freedom, and egalitarianism about it, certainly, but is it really very productive? Edifying to humanity’s current position? Is arriving at new ways of thinking really what writers and cultural critics are supposed to do, an end unto itself? Is it actually helping anyone?

    So many old ways of thinking find themselves getting slammed by Post-modernism, but I am often amused to consider what would happen if the original advocates of these old ways of thinking (Descartes, Formalists) were still around to defend themselves? Perhaps Descartes had a perfectly sound reason for rejecting the idea of a multiplicity of subjectivities? I don’t mean to say that we should leave their ideas unchallenged just because they’re dead, but neither should he be totally written off as a mere ‘contributor’ to contemporary thought. He should instead be considered an equally viable alternative to explaining the human experience of subjectivity.

    Sorry to rant, and I by no means intend any offense to the lovely Astrid or anyone else, I just thought I should vent 🙂

    I’ll no doubt wake up tomorrow, look at this and wonder what kind of alcohol-fuelled frenzy of insecurities inspired this post.

    So um, yeah. Thanks Astrid!

  5. Old Georgie Says:

    Tim, has the world found its only relativist? Certain ways of thinking are less valid than others depending on the framing context. Descartes is less valid than say, Derrida or Baudrillard because his experience of the world was fundamentally different to the ‘post-modern’ age we ostensibly find ourselves in, where – as Rick Roderick of Duke University likes to say – the computers have unplugged us, and not the other way ’round. Self-hood and the subject has been in flux (and some post-modern theorists would argue it doesn’t exist anymore – “the non-person”) before and especially within modernity. The whole idea of philosophy as truth itself is odd – I mean, an enduring truth at least – I see it more as “white mythology”

  6. Astrid Says:

    Hey Tim, I’m in Melb for the weekend so I don’t have the means to write a proper reply till next week. But just as a quick note: I should have been more careful with my language in this post. You are right that this course is simply designed to open-out ideas about ideas and to encourage thinking about thinking. That’s what it’s all about. I guess the main thrust is to make a space for the exploration of non-essentialist voices. When I say something like “We like…” or “We don’t like…” I am assuming a collective tone purely as a hypothetical and not without keen irony. I don’t intend to say “This is the way,” or “Foucault is right,” or anything of that kind because that would be completely paradoxical.

    And when I say that, as a practice, your writing will produce subjectivities, I mean that a text can be read from many lenses, can be read with certain notions in mind, can become meaningful for different reasons and in different dialogues. Know what I mean? I was getting carried away in my post because I was assuming a kind of “go get ’em” voice, not ’cause I’m attempting to rally troops for a ideological brigade!

    Anyway, there’s much more to be said but let’s talk on Monday. I’m sorry you were made to feel resentful!


  7. Astrid Says:

    PS, who’s Old Georgie?!

  8. Maru Maru! Says:

    haha I’m not gunna lie, old georgie (though why he chose to use an alias is beyond me?) is actually a friend of mine from school. he doesn’t start uni till end of the year (going to Oxford! freak!) and so he’s bored, so I said “how bout you read what I’m doing in my course (and also HELP ME WHEN I DON’T UNDERSTAND!) ” and so yes. obviously he was inspired and chose to comment? 🙂

  9. Emma Says:

    I like that quote at the end. It reminds me a little of Ginsberg’s ‘America’ (oh yes i’m ALWAYS talking about ginsberg haha, it’s an excellent poem though, them russians and them russians).
    I’m a fan of creating a subject out of non-humans as Ania has. If that is the correct way to use subject? Oh it’s confusing and i’m not sure i have it right.
    Same with subjective, i feel i get it but i also feel i don’t.
    I mean to say i think everything is subjective (which i very much do), is that to use it in the correct way as how it is mentioned here? It was mentioned that pre-cultural studies we view it as opposite of objective, but i still think this… so the post-cultural studies definition i don’t really think i get, well actually see, i don’t see it…
    This is definitely something i’m going to have to go over!! (and over and over and over and over and over and over and over…) But it’s something i’m interested in, though i am interested in almost anything, and will definitely get it soon. Maybe it’s because i’m reading it almost a week after the lecture/tute and it is one in the morning… my mind is not clear. quite fuzzy.

  10. textandcontext09 Says:

    o, cool! hi old georgie! welcome. & emma… i think you do get it, just trust your intuition & let yourself be moved!

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