Aerial View of Brandeis UniversityMapping Subjectivity

A Few Thoughts about "Subjectivity"

"Subject" and "subjectivity" are perhaps the most difficult of the terms we've used in The Mapping Brandeis Project. Drawing on contemporary poststructuralist theory, participants in the Project use these terms a bit differently than you'll find them in a dictionary. To get at this, let me first give two familiar definitions of "subjectivity" as provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online:

1. a. Consciousness of one's perceived states.
2. a. The quality or condition of viewing things exclusively through the medium of one's own mind or individuality; the condition of being dominated by or absorbed in one's personal feelings, thoughts, concerns, etc.; hence, individuality, personality.

Both these definitions oppose the "subjective" to the "objective." Classical liberal thought has depended on this binary, for example, by opposing the claim of subjectivity to the claims made on the subject by an external (objective) social order—for example, to the subjection of the individual to the authority of the father, the sovereign, or the state. This is what many of us mean, in ordinary conversation, when we draw a distinction between the authenticity of our subjective experience and the constraints on or falsification of that experience presented by social norms and institutions. From being "subjected" to a political or governmental order, we become (we think) autonomous actors in the world, authors of ourselves and of the actions that express our motivations and choices.

In the Cartesian philosophical tradition, the "subject" names, in Peter Sedgwick's summation, "that which thinks and, in thinking, possesses certain essential properties which serve to define it" ("Subject/ivity," in Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts, ed. Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, 389). Considered in terms of the grammatical "subject," the doer of the action represented or performed by a speech act, we might say that we tend to consider the "subject" ("I") no longer as the mark of a social category or role (myself in my accountability to my "kind" as a woman or a man, a gentle or a laborer, a householder or a dependent on charity, and so on) but as the mark of a difference ("my" difference) from any and all social forms. The "I" expresses the author of a uniquely determined motivation and choice:

"I [. . .] / Used no ambition to commend my deeds; / The deeds themselves, though mute, spoke loud the doer."

"Sole author I, sole cause."
--Milton, Samson Agonistes, lines 246-48, 376

This is classical liberal thought.

But many strands of modern thought—structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonial theory, and so on—have shown instead that we are constructed as subjects by social forces and relationships. For example, our consciousness of ourselves as "gendered" can't precisely be said to come "exclusively through the medium of [our] own mind or individuality," because we have come to understand "gender" as a social construction and external to our own intentionality. Accordingly, our "inward" feelings about our genders must be said to have come from both "inside" and "outside" us. Our experience of ourselves as gendered enfolds both the objective and the subjective. Likewise, all forms of subjectivity, rather than being an inward authenticity opposed to objective social structures, are constituted within political, social, and cultural relations. For example, our subjectivity as citizens (our status as political subjects) is the consequence of our location within a particular socio-political order. Our subjectivity as "private" citizens of the United States in the 21st century is dependent on (among other factors) the particular division of the "private" from the "public" characterizing modernity and the crumbling of those distinctions in postmodernity. As the marxist theorist Louis Althusser forcefully argued, ideologies, embedded in various "ideological state apparatuses" (e.g., religious, legal, political, familial, and literary institutions), "interpellate" the individual, asking her to recognize herself within a pre-established "subject-position." The philosopher Michel Foucault located the subject as that which emerges as the effect and expression of power relations dispersed in capillary fashion across the heterogeneity of social and historical relations.

Among the most important of these external and determining apparatuses is language itself. Language is a structure of binary oppositions (male-female, yes-no, white-nonwhite, and so on) which provides the terms through which we can think about and experience ourselves as subjects of a particular sort. When we experience ourselves as subjects, we are recognizing our enmeshment in language—the way we emerge as perceiving, thinking, expressive subjects within a historically and culturally specific linguistic, or enunciative, field. As developed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the social and historical specificity of a language is the precondition of subjectivity. Mark Fortier summarizes: "Not only is the unconscious—in Lacan's famous formulation—structured as a [historically and culturally specific] language [. . .] but the subject becomes a chain of signifiers [. . .]" (Theory/Theatre: An Introduction, 56, bracketed material my own).

In sum, participants in The Mapping Brandeis Project use the term "subjectivity" to refer, not only to the "subjective" (the ostensible opposite of the "objective"), but, more complexly, to the individual's awareness of the "split" within her or his consciousness between intention and outcome, between self-determination and determination by external circumstances, between the humanistic impulse to fashion oneself and the realization that one is always shaped in advance by social structures and by the performativity of language itself.

In this sense, the term "subjectivity," as one's awareness of oneself as a subject in the world, both producing social reality and produced by social structures, enfolds the duality of "subjective perspective" and "objective" social reality.