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self_and_subjectivity [2018/09/28 01:20] (current)
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 +As you move from HS to college classes, you may encounter some unfamiliar terms. A brief introduction to the terms "​subject"​ and "​subjectivity"​ may help orient you.
  
 +It seems every HS student has been asked to write an essay on the theme of the self versus society. Certainly, this theme of how individuals and larger groups relate is an important one, and it seems to be the preoccupation of many plays, novels, and poems. This framing -- these terms -- may bring to mind a picture not unlike Thoreau on the side of a pond standing at a distance from the village. Here the "​self"​ is considered something apart or, ideally, separable from society, which is sometimes seen as influencing,​ pressuring, even doing violence to the "​self." ​
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 +But what if selves aren't islands? ​
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 +What if society is not an amorphous mass "out there?"​
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 +In the last few decades, many academics have begun to use the terminology of the "​subject."​ In some ways, the subject is like the self, but the shift in terms may bring an important change in emphasis and perspective. Using a term familiar from grammar, the "​subject"​ can be seen as the "​I,"​ the proper noun that begins a sentence, and it is very much like the self, but with a difference. Using this term associated with grammars (or structures of language) allows us to look more closely at what makes the subject. The "​subject"​ is not delivered by the stork! It is born within a system (subject, verb, object), born with a history; this is how language works. Try to invent your own private language; not very useful in communicating with others. So, when I say something like "I believe politics has become corrupt"​ this only works within a system that defines belief and politics and which allows me to frame such sentences.
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 +In short, the "​I"​ only makes any sense within a framework that pre-dates me or is bigger than I am. So rather than seeing selves as distinct from and apart from society, the theory of subjectivity or subject-positioning looks at relationships.
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 +Academics who are interested in the framework of subjectivity (especially those in the humanities and social sciences who look at questions of race, gender, class, and sexuality) take the term from a French theorist named Louis Althusser. Althusser wrote that the subject gains its identity through a series of acts of recognition (called interpellation). I am walking down the street, someone calls my name .... or calls out "​professor"​ ... or calls out "Hey, man..."​ or etc. I have a certain amount of choice or agency; I can choose not to respond or ignore. But, I have to answer sometimes. And when I do so, this is a moment of interpellation. It is as if I am agreeing to wear a badge or accept a tattoo with the symbol of that identity position and it now becomes a part of me as a subject.
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 +Note, those categories exist outside of me. When people call out professor, I don't get to define what professor means to them. Is it a term of respect? Is it an ironic highlighting of how hierarchical the world is? The values and meanings of these categories shift over time; many political efforts can be seen as struggles over the meaning of such categories. But the categories as such won't go away or be erased.
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 +So, whereas in the framework of self v. society, we might have though of selves as being independent of society, and viewed these labels as cramping our style at best, or harmful stereotypes,​ at worst -- the framework of the subject and subjectivity holds that who we are at any minute is a network of the subject positions our society has offered/​imposed and which we have accepted or been forced to accept.
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 +Finally, it's important to recognize that subjectivity doesn'​t lock a person in place; nor does this framework suggest nothing every changes. In fact, the idea is that the subject is bounded by the "​rules"​ of various subject positions, but those rules can (and are) challenged, the boundaries can shift, and we retain some agency as to which badges we wear. Your subject position is renegotiated (in a small way) every day, with each encounter and conversation you enjoy. What we can't do (as much as we might like to do it), according to this view, is completely opt out of the system. If we opted out, we would no longer be able to speak or be recognized. Walking down the street, no one would call out -- we'd be socially invisible.
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 +In African American literature, it seems that almost every writer has a story of his or her interpellation as a racial subject -- from W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X to Ta-Nahesis Coates (whose _Between the World and Me_ is the most important book I've read this year). In these stories, often the elementary school child is first subjected to a racial slur. When the child comes home to ask her father, "why did they call me a N?" this is a moment of interpellation. And in this sense, the values and prejudices of the larger world are something we can be subjected to in even painful or traumatic ways. But it is also an opportunity for resistance and redefinition.
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 +In _Citizen_, I see Claudia Rankine working through many of these issues AND allowing us as readers (whatever our subject position: white, black, gay, straight) some experience and knowledge of the subjectivity of others.