‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 2: A Definition of ‘Subject’)

The term ‘subject’ – as I understand it – is far more complex and problematic than ‘self’. If the term ‘self’ (or ‘body-self’) refers to how one regards their sense of what it means to be an ‘I’, an ‘individual’ within his or her constellation of associated Macro (cosmological-ontological) and Micro (political-social) systems, ‘subject’ refers to the substance or consistency of that ‘I’ or ‘individual’.

When I ask about the ‘subject’ I am asking what the ‘I’ is, and what comprises my sense of individuality. I might formulate it thus: ‘self’ is concerned with the form of the ‘I’, ‘subject’ is concerned with the content of the ‘I’.

When one asks about ‘subject’ they are asking about the content, substance and consistency of the ‘self’. When one asks about ‘subjectivity’ they are asking about the properties of the content, substance and consistency of the ‘self’.

To clarify once more: if the discourse of the ‘subject’ is concerned with what comprises the ‘I’ that interacts with and experiences the world, the discourse of the ‘self’ is concerned with how that ‘I’ is integrated into its associated Macro and Micro systems.

Rather than asking, for example, how the ancient and modern conceptions of what it means to be an ‘I’ differ, the discourse of ‘subjectivity’ asks ‘what is Gilgamesh’s ‘I’?’ or ‘what is the modern ‘I’’? If the discourse of the ‘self’ asks ‘How does one experience and know as an ‘I’ in relation to their Micro and Macro systems?’, the discourse of the ‘subject’ asks ‘How does one regard their ‘I’ that experiences and knows?’.

This is not an argument that the ‘subject’ can exist a-priori. In fact, the discourses of ‘selfhood’ and ‘subjectivity’ must – at all times – be asked together. This is because the ‘subject’ is produced and/or affected by historically contingent Macro and Micro systems. The substance of the ‘self’ bears the stamp of these systems.

Without reference to these Macro and Micro systems one might be inclined to argue that a ‘subjective’ substance exists ex-nihilo. Without reference to the ‘subjective’ substance, one might fall into the error of believing that the ‘subject’ is, in a highly deterministic sense, a property of its Macro and Micro systems. But obviously neither position will do; there can be neither substance without form, nor form without substance.

But neither must I foreclose the possibility of there being some sort of fixed element, structure, or essence, to the human subject. While I might be suspicious of such a claim, I might begin by entertaining such a possibility and see where it takes us…

…It is on this topic of considering ‘fixity’, ‘structure’ and ‘essence’ that I might further elaborate the term the ‘subject’. Here lies a question: Can I say, with a sense of certainty, whether the ‘subject’ is a ‘thing’ that undergoes altercation and manipulation, or whether it remains static while its ‘thingness’ changes over time? In other words, has there always been a core ‘subject’ that, as historical paradigms shift, becomes described in new idioms and belief systems, or is a ‘subject’ itself a product of a certain paradigm? Is the ‘subject’ something continuous or discontinuous, something historical or a-historical?

Would it be possible to – simultaneously, and seemingly paradoxically – ask both of these questions: positing a ‘subject’ that is composed of historical circumstances, yet possessive of some structure irrespective of them. It would be wholly ludicrous to argue that the ‘subject’ remains entirely static – as I might imagine an unchanging soul – amidst something like the Micro-practices of the regime of flexible accumulation, a “notion that describes not only the structure and discipline of new work practices, but also the forms and lifespans of the individually tailored and rapidly obsolescent products that are created, and the new, more volatile modes of consumption that the system promotes” (see David Harvey). I need to consider whether structure ought to have any place at all? My task is, then, to ask a question of the ‘subject’ with regards to ‘essence’ and ‘contingency’.

Let’s think for a moment about our contemporary orientation to our ‘body-self’. I can make two very broad claims that co-respond to contemporary Micro and Macro systems. One, is that the ‘body-self’ has been impacted by patterns of work and labour that are often accompanied by terms such as ‘immaterial labour’, ‘knowledge-worker’, ‘flexible self’ etc… These refer to Micro-practices, or Techniques. Two, is that the ‘body-self’ has been, since the Copernican Revolution drifting further and further from the niche carved out for it by the Aristotelian cosmology (see his ‘On the Heavens’) where all bodies, by their very nature, were understood as having a natural way of moving. Whereas the ‘self’ was thought of as possessing a fixed place, and a fixed ‘nature’, we are increasingly loosing this sense of place. This change at the Macro level, refers to a change in world-view.

I then attempt to relate these claims to the question of the ‘subject’ and ‘subjectivity’. I want to think, with regards to these two broad claims, how the ‘I’ who knows and experiences has – in the present day – come to regard its constitution. We need to have some sense what we mean by ‘constitution’, ‘substance’, etc… This can be exceedingly tricky, as it has become all too common to read suggestions that advocate “…no longer asking ‘what is a subject’, but ‘what conditions and forces enable the ongoing production of the self’”.

It would be useful to raise the issue of the complicated and unclear binary between ‘contingency’ and ‘essence’. Without interrogating and problematizing this binary I am limited to concluding either (a) that the ‘subject’ is indeed being altered by its engagement with the communicative, spatial and temporal properties of interacting with something like virtual avatars (the claim for contingency of the subject), or (b) that a core or authentic ‘subject’ remains static amidst its engagement with these communicative, spatial and temporal properties of something like virtual avatars (the claim for some essence of the subject). The outcome of position (a) is that these emergent virtual techniques are capable of engendering wholly new ‘subjectivities’, while the outcome of position (b) leaves us searching for our lost, authentic sense of ‘subjectivity’. I am content with neither position as it stands. I am concerned with playing either futurist or pastoralist as there are worthwhile ideas to be gleaned from both positions. I yearn for a middle ground and ability to recite with the pre-Socratic Heraclitus his wise fragment: “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow”.

So, let us turn to the articulation of a theoretical space optimal for thinking the ‘subject’ as an amalgam of essence and contingency. The rethinking of what constitutes subjectivity depends on such an interrogative space, one suspicious of binarism itself, and open to the possibility of unorthodox couplings and networks. Such couplings and networks permit thinking contingency, exteriority and becoming alongside essence, interiority and being.

But why, before I articulate this space, am I so unhappy with playing futurist? Why must the old spectres of ‘essence’, ‘interiority’, and ‘being’ be considered? Rather than launching headfirst into a frenzied love-in with the new, it is wiser to first search for either what is very old or what might have always been present. Why should I take anyone’s word for it that there is no underground stream, for example, beneath a mountain I am about to demolish without investigating the terrain myself? Prior to renovating a building atop an existing structure one inspects its foundations – not only to ensure it is safe, but to garner a sense of what it is they are to work with, and what other, unrecognized, forces might be at play.

I seem to want to have my cake and eat it too. On one hand I want to understand new modalities of ‘self’ as conditioning and creating new ‘subjective’ assemblages, on the other hand, I want to understand new modalities of ‘self’ as interacting with an essential ‘subjective’ structure or essence. On the one hand, the ‘subjectivity’ of new media users would be understood as wholly novel, contingent, entirely subject-to, and without a core subject; on the other hand, the ‘subjectivity’ of new media users would be investigated as I might investigate the substance (or subject-of) that is the essential component for any subject-to relation.

…to be continued.


~ by dccohen on January 22, 2010.

One Response to “‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 2: A Definition of ‘Subject’)”

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