Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Subjectivity: Me, Myself and My Own Prison

Self vs. Subject

Critical and cultural theories have recently moved away from the word 'self' and replaced it with the term 'subject' instead. The word 'self' traditionally 'evokes the idea of identity as a private possession and a notion of the individual as unique and autonomous' (Cavallaro, p.86). Whereas the term 'subject' is ambiguous, and both active and passive.

With the advent of post-structuralism it has been emphasised that the subject is not a free conscious or a human essence that is stable, rather contrary it is a construction of language, politics and culture, and can only be understood by exploring the ways by which people and events are inscribed (or emplotted) within a culture's fashioned narrative.

Epistemologically Speaking

This branch of philosophy which is concerned with the nature and acquisition of knowledge sees subjectivity more often than not as designating individual experience and thought to the process defined with reference to the 'I'. Epistemology has nevertheless sought to figure whether it is possible to move from this inevitably limited perspective to objective knowledge.

Rene Descartes' Idealism: I Think Therefore I Am

According to Descartes the 'I' 'denotes a free consciousness that constitutes the very essence of being human' (Cavallaro, p.86). In Descartes' system subjectivity is associated with human powers such as perception, reasoning and free agency. Correlating to this is the philosophical tradition of Idealism whereby the universal 'I' or 'Self' brings reality into existence by perceiving and conceptualising it.

Anti-Rationalists and Anti-Idealists

Anti-Rationalists and Anti-Idealists reject that the subject is an autonomous consciousness, and believe instead in the determined character of subjectivity.

Soren Kierkegaard rejects that the subject is a self-governing consciousness and sees no evidence for the existence of a free thinking substance. On the contrary he sees the subject as a vulnerable and insecure creature 'compelled to define and redefine itself endlessly through actions and decisions whose validity can be rescinded anytime' (Cavallaro, p.87). So that any attempt by the subject to assert itself will only force itself to recognise its flimsiness and absurdity in the face of the creator's absolute infinity.

Arthur Schopenhauer likewise posits that the subject is 'neither free nor able to achieve objective knowledge. Knowledge is based on mere facades and the subject itself is knowable only in terms of appearance, as a physical body and as muscular activity' (Cavallaro, p.87). So that what defines subjectivity is the will, which accordingly is a blind, unconscious, and indomitable will-to-live. By that concept of the will, Schopenhauer denies intensely the idea of individual value: 'the will is an impersonal force that comes to be incarnated in a finite number of beings' (Cavallaro, p.88). By that, death of the subject is irrelevant because the will itself is immortal and indestructible.

Will is totally indifferent to the individual identity of the subject, and its prospects of self-realisation: so that 'the best a subject can do is endure the burden of its existence' (Cavallaro, p.88) endlessly moving between pain and boredom.

Conversely though, according to G. W. F. Hegel, the subject is free and gives expression to the universal Spirit, which forms the core of its unique identity.

Friedrich Nietzsche takes this a step further and sees subjectivity as the product of repressive value systems. He posits that individuals are trained to cherish abstract concepts such as truth or morality, to hide the fact that these ideas are actually functions of biology and of the structure of senses and bodies.

He also takes life as a will-to-power which requires the confrontation of danger and suffering at all times. But this will-to-power is not merely a desire to posit authority over other people, but actually entails the discovering and actualising of humans boundless potentials.

Nietzsche divides will-to-power into two energies: active (life asserting) and reactive (life denying). He also brings in the figure of the Ubermensch (or over-man) as 'the type of subject who, through unending creative efforts, is capable of reinventing existence and of accepting life's random contingency, in opposition to all forms of classification, dogmatism and hypocrisy' (Cavallaro, p.89). He also adds that the Ubermensch's energy has been continuously repressed throughout history. Indeed according to Nietzsche history is a trace of reactive forces bent on subjugating creative impulses to moral, religious or scientific laws established by the 'herd' of the weak in order to mask their own impotence. Thus, he sees the tradition of Western thought as a promotion of nihilism which in turn leads to a reduction and eventual negation of itself.

Nietzsche sees the status of the subject as 'an artefact of dominant ideologies systematically trained into a masochistic internalisation of constraining values' (Cavallaro, p.89). The subject is viewed as an incomplete biological entity, and with this feeling of not feeling at home in nature therefore needs 'the protective shield of cultural codes and institutions' (Cavallaro, p.89). Yet as Nietzsche notes, these only increase his feelings of subjection and alienation. Thus, the existence of thinking can't really be proved beyond doubt because there is no real and final evidence for the existence of 'I' as a stable substance.

Poststructuralist Approaches to Subjectivity: Foucalt and Lacan

Noted as two of the most prominent in this field Michel Foucalt and Jacques Lacan delve into the subject of subjectivity.

Foucalt primarily concerns his studies with the process through which the subject is constructed within certain historical and ideological contexts. He seeks to unearth significant historical changes which mainstream history left unattended. His theorising is based on the concept of episteme (Greek epistomai = 'to know' or 'to believe') which 'refers to the system of knowledge that dominates a particular historical period and establishes crucial distinctions between what is legitimate and what it illegitimate, what a culture should embrace and what it should exclude' (Cavallaro, p.90). This approach focuses on the material dimension of history to show that the subjects are not abstract entities but embodied beings.

From the mid-1970's he moves away from this archaeological approach to one which he calls the genealogy of knowledge/power. Using this approach he vows to show that 'knowledge and power are interdependent and mutually sustaining forms of control and means of organising subjectivity' (Cavallaro, p.90). He defines the eighteenth century as a very important era, for it is at that point of history that structures of knowledge and power began to systematically define the differences between what was normal and what was not, and used this distinction to govern behaviour. Also at that time many societies began to exclude and confine subjects which they deemed abnormal, for example the insane or the disabled, they also used their definition of 'normal' to against which to assert those who were not normal.

Termed by Foucalt the phrase discourses (from latin etymology dis: 'in different directions' + currere = 'to run') is known as the structures through which subjects are fashioned, both minds and bodies. A discourse can be used to describe a particular cultural object such as madness, criminality or sexuality, and provides the terms and concepts through which such subjects can be studied and discussed. In other words, discourses provide distinctions between what can or cannot be said about an object, and who has the right to say whatever can be said in that case. Foucalt therefore says that 'whatever we may call the truth is always embodied in historically contingent discourses' (Cavallaro, p.91). In fact, Foucalt denies existence of any reality outside or beyond discourse.

Pretty much at the centre of Foucalt's excavation of the extensive processes through which human beings are built by ideology and culture, is the human body. There are many strategies through which the subject's body is policed and monitored; in fact dividing practices play a very big role. These can take the following forms:

· Confinement of the mentally sick to asylums
· The subjection of medical patients to psychiatric probing and the ever-looming gazes of professionals equipped to penetrate bodies
· The solitary imprisonment of criminals

Foucalt also draws attention to the smooth move of social control based on public displays of pain and the spectacles of execution to the modern penalising system of imprisonment. For it cannot be helped but noticed that the same disciplinary strategies used by prison systems govern the everyday functioning of factories, hospitals, armies and even schools! All these rely on strict hierarchy, normalising judgements, repetitive tasks and minute control through rigid timetables. Whereby each subject has an appointed place, this character of nearly all social structures is highlighted by the architectural building of the Panopticon.

Derived from Jeremy Bentham, this concept of the Panopticon confers to an ideal prison where each subject is confined to a small cell and is continually observed by the invisible, yet all seeing eye of one single person. According to Foucalt, the Panopticon's main aim is 'to induce in the inmate a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the functioning of power whereby each subject becomes its own jailer' (Cavallaro, p.92).

In Foucalt's, The History of Sexuality, he addresses the different ways of disciplinary control concerned with the regulation of sexual activities, instincts and desires. He notes that since the Victorian era, there have been four main strategies used to regulate sexuality, they are:

· The hysterization of women's bodies: disciplining femininity by constructing women as thoroughly saturated with sexuality, and hence need rigorous control
· The pedagogization of children's sex: constructing children as sexual beings prone to indulge in sexual activities that are considered dangerous and immoral. This in turn legitimises parents, families, doctors and psychologists repression of children's sexuality
· The socialisation of procreative behaviour: policing fertility, conception and birth as instrumental to the functioning of the social body
· The psychiatrization of perverse pleasure: focusing on the sexual instinct so as to establish what is a normal drive and what isn't, and developing corrective technology for deviant behaviour

Psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud's Complexes

In the field of psychoanalysis, sexuality is ascribed major importance in the subject's development.

Sigmund Freud addresses the significance of sexual drives in the process through which children develop into adults. Accordingly, humans develop their gendered identities through two complexes:

· The Oedipus and castration complex: boys are supposed to feel a sexual desire for their mothers, and resentment towards their father. In order to renounce these feelings out of a fear of castration they translate a women's lack of penis as a sign that they have been castrated, and think that they may become castrated too
· The Electra complex: girls are supposed to be sexually attracted to their father, and jealous of their mother. Concurrently, women's sense of morality and the law tends to be weaker than men's for they cannot fear any injury or punishment

Jacques Lacan and The Order of the Child

Lacan posits that language is central to psychosexual development. He sees that subjectivity is the product of language and that nothing exits outside this frame of language. What the child is required to relinquish is not its complex but a realm of apparent fullness. Lacan comes up with the order of the child whereby a child goes through various stages:

· The Imaginary: early childhood prior to the acquisition of language, this stage is characterised by undifferentiation as there is no acknowledgment of separation between self and other
· The Mirror Phase: from six to eighteen months the child is physically uncoordinated and dependent on others for support and sustenance. It perceives its mirror reflected body image as autonomous and unified gratifying its illusion of wholeness and coherence
· The Symbolic: entry into the adult world of language, laws and institutions and the mark of advented sexual differences constructed by language and built around the arbitrary phallus which denotes absolute power, but entails general powerlessness to express our deepest fantasises, desires, needs or fears. Our integration into this phase allows us to only say what language allows us to say and to what conforms to a cultural set of codes and conventions, breeding in turn a sense of lack or loss; the loss of plenitude, and the lack of adequate means of self-expressions
· The Real: what neither language or culture are able to represent or name

The unity of self and other (child and its mother) is disrupted by the father figure. Mother in this sense is taken to accord any female figure the child feels physically and emotionally closest to in its early development stages; whereas the father connotes the social and cultural forces which adhere to develop into a subject.

The emergence of subjectivity within both the Imaginary and Symbolic are based on four factors:

· Division: this first occurs in the mirror phase in the form of a split between the 'I' that watches and the 'I' that’s watched
· Alienation: the image reflected in the mirror that the subject identifies with hinges on alienation and self-displacement
· Fiction: the image is fictional because it does not consist of actual flesh and bone, but is an apparition
· Misrecognition: the reflected image appears to be coherent when the real body is actually a bundle of disjointed drives

The emergence of subjectivity within the Symbolic also involves the four phases again.

· Division: a second division when the subject enters the world of laws and language. This takes place in the form between the 'I' that speaks and the 'I' that is spoken about
· Alienation: the subject is alienated from its physical roots by integrating itself in an impersonal set of abstract and disembodied signs
· Fiction: by entering language, the subject finds itself like a character in the narrative of language that has a disregard for individual aspirations or desires
· Misrecognition: the subject misrecognises itself as the independent author of its utterances because it is spoken by language

While there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is also the unconscious. The unconscious, described as 'the product of language, as the domain of the un-representable, the unspeakable, the unnameable' (Cavallaro, p. 95), the unconscious can be said to encompass all the materials which language allows no expressions, and the aspects of our beings refusing to be dominated or formalised according to repressive rules.

To Frued, the unconscious is both primitive and chaotic, but for Lacan the unconscious has its own language, is structured like one, and plays a vital role in the interpretation of reality. Nevertheless, the symbolic ultimately is where power is posited.

Free Yourself Only To Be Enslaved Again

Instrumental to the constitution of subjectivity, the Symbolic accordingly shouldn't be resisted on the one hand. On the other hand, absorption into the Symbolic both releases the subject to social intercourse and condemns them to a forever divided status. Hence, subjectivity simultaneously hinges our existence as social entities, and highlights our sense of instability.

Said like a true optimist, Lacan ends our discussion with subjectivity by saying that '[t]he idea of the unifying unity of the human condition has always had on me the effect of a scandalous lie' (Cavallaro, p.96).

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