The terms subject and subjectivity are employed in the humanities and social sciences in contradistinction to the notion of the self or selfhood. The latter terms traditionally suggest the idea of identity as a personal possession and of individuality as both unique and autonomous. The notion of the subject is more ambivalent in that the term at once denotes a person under the control or influence of other people or external forces—that is, a being literally or figuratively subjected to such forces and influences—and an individual agency that thinks, feels, perceives, intends, and acts in its interaction with other people and the outside world. In contrast to the self, regarded as a stable human essence and the controlling center of its own actions, the subject in contemporary critical theory is conceived as at once active and passive, and as the product of its inscription in language, politics, and culture. This so-called de-centered subject is the result of a thorough rethinking of the notion of subjectivity during the second half of the twentieth century. As such, it forms a radical break with some of the earlier theories of the subject in which it nonetheless finds its foundations.
The term subject in relation to human consciousness finds its origins in German idealism. Idealists, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), assume, albeit with considerable differences in their accentuations, that only mental entities are real. Physical things, therefore, exist only in the sense that they are perceived by the controlling center of the mind. Similarly, René Descartes (1596–1650), firmly rooted in the historical intellectual movement the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, posits that the only immediately and directly perceptible forms and objects of knowledge are those that are part of one’s state of mind. External realities merely exist as ideas or pictures in the mind. The only incontestable truth-claim pertains to one’s consciousness, hence Descartes’s famous dictum: Cogito, ergo sum —“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’s model forms the basis of all subsequent theories of the subject as an autonomous being that, in being aware of its capacity for thought, is conscious of its existence. Although there are considerable differences between Descartes’s position and idealist notions of the subject, they share in common an emphasis on the human powers of perception, rationality, and free agency—on the central position of human consciousness from which all forms of knowledge and meaning are suggested to spring.
While philosophers such as Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) were among the earliest contestants of idealist and rationalist notions of subjectivity, the most immediate precursors of the postmodern de-centering of the subject are three disruptive thinkers who can be jointly associated with the rise of modernism in mid–nineteenth-century western Europe: Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) took Schopenhauer’s notion of the subject as a figment of the philosophical imagination a step further by claiming that “subjectivity is the product of repressive value systems” (Cavallaro 2001, p. 88). Arguing that there is “no doer behind the deed,” Nietzsche attacks the subject in its foundations, exposing the Cartesian notion of its essential autonomy and rationality to be based on a questionable premise since the existence of thinking can never be fully proved. As a grammatical fiction, the subject has no existence as a stable substance or essence but is only the product of dominant ideologies.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) further undercut the presumed self-presence and unitary nature of subjectivity by introducing the notion of the unconscious and exploring its operations as among the most powerful forces in psychic life. The Freudian subject is split and divided against itself both because of the separation between conscious and unconscious psychic contents and because of the fundamentally contradictory and divisive drives that go into the subject’s making. Largely unknowable to itself and profoundly determined by its early experiences within the family situation, the psychoanalytic subject defies any form of self-determination and self-knowledge, explains Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen in The Freudian Subject (1988).
The political economist and socialist revolutionary Karl Marx (1818–1883) saw the Cartesian notion of the subject as an ideological ruse that merely served to sustain the liberal theory of the social contract. Instead of conceiving the subject’s consciousness of itself as the only verifiable reality, he argued that the material world is real and that people’s ideas about and perceptions of the world are the results, not the causes, of their experience of its realities.
Postmodern thinkers, however diverse in their emphases in approaching the problem of the subject, all take their cues from these three fundamental challengers of Enlightenment thought. Michel Foucault (1926– 1984), for example, follows in Nietzsche’s footsteps by investigating the processes through which the subject is produced within specific historical and ideological contexts. Ladelle McWhorter explains in Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization (1999) that Foucault takes structures of knowledge and power to be equally enabling as constraining forces to produce subjectivity. Foucault therefore focuses on the ways in which even the human body cannot be said to have any meaningful and socially intelligible existence outside the discourses—sets of statements that define a cultural object, thereby calling it into being—that produce it.
Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) builds on the Freudian notion of the subject by making language central to psychic development. The Lacanian subject is alienated from its physical reality and the plenitude of its initial indivisibility from the mother in two stages. The first comes when the subject (mis)recognizes itself in the mirror and begins to identify with this image, thus building up an essentially imaginary sense of itself. The second and even more decisive moment at which the Lacanian subject is split from the Real is when it enters the realm of language and can henceforth exclusively identify and know itself in symbolic terms (Grosz 1990).
Taking Marx’s analysis of class relations as his point of departure, Louis Althusser (1918–1990) locates the emergence of the subject in ideological structures—or belief systems—which, he maintains, “seduce” individuals to take up their socioculturally determined positions within the system of social relations (Hall 2004, p. 85). Constituted through the process of interpellation—the process by which ideology addresses the individual subject and therewith effectively produces him or her as an effect—the Althusserian subject likewise flies in the face of the classical definition of the subject as cause and substance.
Whether defined as the product of power/knowledge (Foucault), language (Lacan), or ideology (Althusser), the postmodern subject is essentially a social construction, the result or effect of systems of meaning and knowledge that always precede him or her, both individually and collectively. Since such systems are both multiple and sociohistorically specific, changing over time, and cross-culturally diverse, subjectivity can neither be seen as unitary nor as a universal phenomenon transcending historical and social boundaries. What is more, the location of the emergence of the subject in systems that precede it, and whose operations necessarily exceed any individual’s control, definitively puts paid to the Cartesian notion of human consciousness as the center of control over its own being. While postmodernists thus emphasize the subject’s subjugation to the structures that produce him or her, thereby privileging the passive aspects of the term, this is not to say that individual subjectivity is denied any possibility for activity. Since ideological systems and structures of meaning and knowledge can only operate through their bearers, even the de-centered, split subject of postmodernity can be considered potentially endowed with a certain form of agency. The ambivalence of the term subject is ultimately maintained by the fact that subjects, though variously produced by external forces and thus by no means masters of their selves, also actively function within their constitutive outsides, whether in conformity with prevailing norms and meanings or in deviation from or actual defiance of their regulatory operations. As a produced effect of discourse, language, or ideologies, the postmodern subject is constituted in a double bind.
SEE ALSO Althusser, Louis; Enlightenment; Foucault, Michel; Freud, Sigmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Humanism; Idealism; Intersubjectivity; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Objectivism; Rationalism; Social Constructs; Subject/Self
Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. 1988. The Freudian Subject . Trans. Catherine Porter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Cavallaro, Dani. 2001. Critical and Cultural Theory: Thematic Variations . New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone.
Hall, Donald E. 2004. Subjectivity . New York: Routledge.
McWhorter, Ladelle. 1999. Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
renée C. hoogland