The Subject


This book is about ‘The Subject’. The title would be strange enough even without the fact that ‘subject’ is a term which can denote diametrically opposite meanings even within the same sentence, let alone in different times and different contexts.

When Immanuel Kant said in 1785 that ‘a person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him/her’ he meant a subject in the sense of the do-er of a verb, an active entity which was the source of its own actions and was morally responsible for those actions. When he went on to say that ‘a person was subject to no laws other than those he gives himself’, he meant ‘subject’ in the sense of being the recipient, target or object of the actions of others, like being the subject of a monarch or the subject of a poem or a murder plot.

The internal contrariness of this word is a legacy of a history in which, as we shall see, the subject has traversed a long journey from its entry into philosophical thinking in antiquity up to modern times. Its use today is liable to be contradictory, because even as it changed, it has still carried with it the residue of its earlier meanings.

The word ‘subject’ has changed its meaning in such a dramatic way because over the centuries we have very radically changed our ideas about the whole issue of who is responsible for social actions, about the capacity of individual persons to be real actors on the stage of history and the circumstances and kind of people who can be the writers of their own stories and those of others, and those who cannot. Changes in the conception of what it could mean to make choices about your own life or, on the contrary, to be the victim of circumstances, carried along on the tide of events, a prisoner of alien structures, fashions, and the spirit of the times, are often obscured by changes in the boundary between what is considered to be our life and what is the social or historical environment we live in, between processes in which we can participate and processes which happen to us. What may have been seen in past times as someone’s station in life, is more likely to be seen as a person ‘socio-economic background’ today. A person is not necessarily an individual; the Prime Minister or Chief Executive, or even the Purchasing Officer is a ‘corporate personality’ whose promises must be kept by their successor or supervisor. To a great extent, in ancient times, everyone was a corporate personality of sorts, and to be an individual person is something known only to modern times.

These differences in perspective and changes in the social ethos come down to the conception of who or what is the active, determining agent in human affairs, who or what does things, and deserves the blame or the credit for what happens, and that is what I mean, principally, by ‘subject’. The word ‘agency’ is sometimes used in this sense, so I will from time to time refer to this as the ‘agency-sense’ of subjectivity.

Tracing the history of the word ‘subject’ affords us an opportunity to better understand the word. We will investigate the genealogy of the word not to rescue its ‘original meaning’, but simply because the genealogy sheds light on changes of meaning associated with the concept, reflecting underlying changes in social attitudes and activity, and therefore allows us to better understand where the concept came from, where it’s going to, the conditions under which it took on its modern meaning, its connection with other concepts and so on.

A concept is what it is, whatever history it may have behind it. But learning about the background and history of a friend often adds new nuances to our understanding of them, particularly what may have been inexplicable contradictions in their character, and equally, discovering where a word has come from, its past lives, relations and transformations, often sheds light on current problems in ways that can be quite unexpected.

The concept of ‘subject’ performs an essential and foundational role in all social theory and philosophy. Even a person unschooled in social theory or philosophy nevertheless operates with some conception of subjectivity: when something bad happens, people turn maybe to institutions, maybe to individuals, maybe to God or their own foolishness, or the capitalist system, and in doing so they call upon their concept of subjectivity, of who it is that has moral responsibility for something that ‘happens’. Or, people may say simply that ‘stuff happens’ and specifically reject the idea that someone is to blame, specifically reject, that is, the relevance of any concept of subjectivity. The ethos of a people is often defined by what they value, but nothing more clearly provides us with a window into that than the cycle of fear, attribution and remedy by means of which a society constructs its risks. Subjectivity, or agency, is the key notion around which the subject of fear, the subject to whom blame is attributed and also the favoured remedy all depend on the concept of subjectivity. The conception of subjectivity is thus the key notion in the ethos of a people.

Distinguishing between the ‘meaning’ and ‘sense’ of a word, the meaning is the ‘question’ or definition of the word, while the sense is the kind of thing which can ‘answer’ to the definition. The changing relationship between the meaning of ‘subject’ and its sense gives us insight into changes in ethos and how people understood subjectivity in different times.

By the meaning of ‘subject’ I mean the question of what it is which does things in history or in society, creates works of art, can be charged with murder or blamed for society’s problems, praised for its achievements or criticised for its failure.

As we shall see, the subject in its agency-sense is inextricably linked to a second meaning of subject, which is the cogito or knowing subject, that which is the medium and container of ideas, that which knows things in science, perceives, imagines and has an artistic vision, solves problems, envisages a future and remembers how to play the Moonlight Sonata; this is the sense which we associate with consciousness and sometimes ‘mind’.

There is also a third meaning of subject, namely the identity-sense, or self-consciousness, the answer to the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are we?’ We know that people learn who they are by the recognition they receive of others, while at the same time people bind themselves by their investment in others as part of a ‘social subject’.

These are three different meanings of the word ‘subject’, and each may invoke the same or a different kind of answer, and may or may not be associated with one another in any given circumstances. The identification of these three sides is justified by the fact that a person is these three things: an active knowing individual. All three of these meanings are valid, so long as we remember that they are not necessarily identified at any given moment. But it is the agency-sense which I take as essential, and the knowing and identity senses I take as contingent.

The sense of ‘subject’ I take to mean the type of answer to the subject-question: ‘who does?’; the category of person or thing, which can be given in answer to or which are implied in the question of subjectivity. Such senses include people or groups of people of various kinds. For example, individuals commit crimes, win elections, discover stars and lead revolutions; in their role as corporate persons, people also pass laws, sentence people to prison, pay taxes and so on. Organisations such as companies, states, voluntary associations also do things, make promises, increase their membership, break laws and become liable for paying compensation, etc. But what about categories of people such as ‘men’ or ‘white people’? Can categories of people who all share some attribute associated with crimes or misdeeds be the subject of such misdeeds? Or whole countries and social classes? Under what circumstances does a person participate as a subject in a corporate act?

The answer to the question of subjectivity may also be qualified to allow some people but not others to be subjects. For example, the law rightfully holds that people under a certain age, which differs from country to country, cannot be charged with a crime, because at such a young age they are deemed not to be ‘responsible for their actions’. For the same kind of reasons, people judged criminally insane or acting under extreme provocation or under duress or while asleep, may be excluded from blame and therefore from agency or being a subject for the purposes of prosecution.

Subjectivity may also be taken to pertain only to parts of a person. For example, no person would be deemed responsible for a bit of their body which was not at the time under the command of their own will. In fact, although there can be no subject without a body, the subject is something other than a body.

Some maintain that there can be no sense in the word ‘subject’ at all, and that the very idea of attributing blame or credit, etc., manifests some kind of delusion. For example, to ask who caused the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami would be an absurdity for anyone who did not believe in an anthropomorphic interventionist God, but to ask who is responsible for the excessive loss of life is another question. Who is responsible for the continued ravages of malaria? Is this a sensible question? On the one hand, someone who is convinced that the large number of deaths caused by malaria every year is the result of a failure to invest in medical research, the production of vaccines, immunisation and so on, because of the fact that such work offers little prospect of returning a profit, because the victims of malaria are overwhelmingly poor. But such a person may still say that subjectivity is irrelevant because ‘it’s the capitalist system’, and it makes no sense to blame the capitalists for doing what the market dictates, and if any one capitalist failed to obey the laws of political economy, they would simply be separated from their capital, and someone else would be acting as the personification of that capital. In other words, according to this view, capitalism is a process without a subject, a train without a driver. Likewise, rather than blaming men for sexist behaviour, some say that it is patriarchy which is to blame. Even though it is men who gain from patriarchal practices, it is both young men and young women are raised and trained to fulfil their roles in a patriarchal society and some would say then, that it makes no sense to say there is a subject of patriarchy, that men are somehow deliberately oppressing women.

As carriers of a disease human beings are the agents for its spread, but they are not the agents in the sense we are speaking of here.

So, there are a whole class of theories, ways of looking at the world, whether or not they have the support of a systematically worked out theory, which see human affairs as governed by structures and by laws which have been legislated by no-one but are all the more binding for that. When blame was taken out of divorce law, this was a concession to this idea that ‘shit happens’ and blaming someone helps no-one. Likewise, when people in Cambodia, South Africa or Rwanda are trying to heal their wounds, the delicate balance between blame and understanding is crucial. There is a sense in which great human atrocities can be seen as belonging to the same category as epidemics. It can be someone’s fault, sometimes, for initiating a civil war or a famine, but once they get started, they ‘have a logic of their own’, and people are swept up in what can hardly be distinguished from a natural disaster like a flood or an epidemic. But nevertheless, things don’t happen except in so far as people do them.

But surely it is impossible to discuss any social issue without attributing, blaming, crediting, demanding, etc., someone, and equally, progressive social change is never going to happen unless some social agent fights for it, be that a party, some stratum of the population or a new messiah. So surely we have to use some concept of ‘the subject’, some concept of the kind of entity (be it a person or a company, or a social class or whatever) who can do things, be blamed for not doing something, be called upon to do something or be proved to have done something. Likewise, when facing a danger, be it a tsunami or typhoon, or depression, crime-wave or epidemic, whether or not we ascribe the cause to Nature, God or ‘society’ only someone can make a difference, only the timely action of the government or the young people of the world, or God (if you believe in Him) or the unions, or whatever, some human agency, some subject, has to do something about it or accept the responsibility for not doing something.

But very often it is by no means clear exactly what kind of things can answer to the name of ‘subject’ other than that they are surely human.

Who committed the official crimes of the past (stolen generation, genocide, theft of land), to be called to account for them today, and who made the glorious sacrifices of the past (gallantry in war, building of the economy), to be honoured and rewarded for them today; who is to be ashamed of their past crimes and be proud of their past glories? It may or may not be possible to list the names of the various government agents, soldiers, politicians and so on who actually did these things, but that is not the point is it? Just as the CEO of a company is ultimately responsible for a purchase order written out by the Purchasing Officer, the Government is responsible for wrongs committed in its name. Well not quite. The state is responsible; governments like CEOs come and go, but the state or company outlives its individual servants. The state bears responsibility for its crimes, but also, it rightfully enjoys glory for its achievements, its acts of magnanimity, its treaties of friendship and acts of war. And that State is not just the government, it is all of us, isn’t it? You can’t cheer when the Australia XI wins a test match and then turn your back when it comes to apologising for crime against Indigenous Australians or the crimes committed by US soldiers in Iraq with Australian support, can you? Does that apply to all of us? Surely children cannot be blamed for national crimes any more than they can be charged with murder. But why then do we think it is OK for children to march on ANZAC Day wearing their grandfathers’ medals?

Can a whole class of people (e.g. men) be sensibly blamed as the agents or subjects of some bad behaviour (such as sexism), or is it necessary to prove that there has been some kind of conspiracy to do harm, and that, for example, men who behave in a sexist way simply because they are men and know no better way of behaving, should not be regarded as subjects of sexism, while perhaps those political leaders, teachers and parents, purveyors of pornography, or whatever, by promoting and encouraging sexist behaviour, should be counted as the subjects (or agents) of sexist behaviour?

I raise these questions only to show that there are issues worth clarifying here. A moment’s reflection will demonstrate that our everyday conceptions of agency and moral responsibility include complex concepts of corporate personality, of identity and agency. We care for the dependents of war veterans; we feel pride in the achievement of past generations of soldiers, pioneers and social reformers; we apologise to the victims of state atrocities carried out before we were born and give our apologies to descendants of the victims. As citizens of our country and as owners of family property, we enjoy the fruits of wealth created by the labour of people now dead and gone, while having no sense of injustice about denying the unearned fruits of birthright to others. We even feel that we owe obligations to generations that have yet to be born.

Our identity is just as complex: we act not just as we see as right and proper for a human being, but as we ought as men or women, as citizens of a locality perhaps or as members of a profession and according to its codes; we act on behalf of our employers; as citizens, we obey the laws of the nation; we feel obligations to family, take counsel from churchpeople, identify with our generation, associate ourselves with causes, and feel responsible for the children of strangers. In short, we participate in a multiplicity of subjects with varying degrees and kinds of commitment. We routinely recognise that the powerful and responsible agents in this world are not just individuals and corporate persons, but complex entities defined by intricate combinations of social relations, history and personal disposition.

In addition to the problem of the subject as moral agent, is the problem of the cogito or knowing and perceiving subject. Quite apart from the fact that not only people, but institutions can have knowledge, and the fact that knowledge can be held in perfectly objective, material things like libraries, and all kinds of artefacts from road signage to computer memories, not to mention languages, art-forms and forms of objective cultural practice, the idea that knowledge is held inside people’s heads turns out to be not as simple and obvious as it first seems. The knowing-subject and the agency-sense of subjectivity are conceptually distinct and are therefore not necessarily identical. However, it is inconceivable that we could talk about an agent which was responsible for its actions separately from its status as a knowing subject, which is capable of acting on the basis of knowledge.

While knowledge held in language practices, books and signs is important enough, there can be no getting away from the fact that knowledge is meaningless outside of some particular system of social relations within which the material forms of knowledge are meaningful and of living, feeling, needy individual human beings who use the artefacts. But it is equally true, as we shall see, that knowledge as an aspect of consciousness is impossible without the use of such objective, material artefacts. The idea of an ego existing inside our heads, watching images transmitted from the eyes projected on a little screen and pulling files up from the memory bank as a voice-over commentates – this is an illusion reflective of current concepts of knowledge and perception.

This book is not about psychology, and the author is not qualified to talk about psychology. But it’s not really possible to talk about the subject without touching on some of the foundations of psychology, which are in any case, far from being a settled question even amongst professional psychologists, who disagree amongst each other about the nature of the psyche as much as anyone else.

The psyche is founded on physiological processes, but the nerve activity of its sense organs appear to it not as electrochemical impulses but rather as objects existing in the material world outside; the sensations of hunger, tiredness, anger, anxiety and so on, may be constituted as biochemical states, but even when the psyche cannot associate these states with objects, events or circumstances in the outside material world, it perceives them as its feelings directed towards conditions in the outside world, not as biochemical states.

We will not be dealing with these biochemical processes at all, mainly because understanding how they work would contribute next to nothing to the problems we are addressing. Astronomers need good telescopes, but they need only to know enough about optics to be sure that their instruments are working properly They will leave the optics to suitably qualified and experienced engineers; their interest is in the celestial bodies and their images. In the main, the psyche works properly and everything we will talking about here is based on the assumption that all the relevant psyches are ‘working properly’.

But leaving physics and chemistry aside, there is the whole science of psychology with which we will deal only tangentially. A couple of points need to be made about human needs however. Over and above a bark hut, a fire and a couple of potatoes a week which human beings need in order survive, our needs are very flexible and they are socially constructed. What counts as sufficient access to goods in order to be able to participate as an equal in general social life depends on conditions. And not only conditions; needs and desires are today the product not just of social conditions and the division of labour but of the work of advertising agencies and the mass media. ‘The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present’, said Marx in 1844; our sexual sense, and our taste for music are not something summoned up from within the individual organism, but constructed by people within the social process. So the question arises as to how free is the person who freely pursues needs and desires which have been fabricated in the studios of advertising agencies and public relations firms. How do we make sense of the concept of self-determination when the very aims we pursue are determined by others?

But I have no intention of plumbing the depth of Freudian psychology, partly because I have no confidence in its findings, but also because it lies outside our topic. I accept that the ‘unconscious’ is a valid concept and one indispensable to an understanding of the subject, but I do not accept that the unconscious has some kind of separate, subterranean existence, harbouring uncontrollable drives and throwing up impulses from some kind of nether region of the mind. I believe it is safe to assume that the individual person is a construct of the social subject just as much as the social subject is something performed by individual people, without getting involved in Oedipus complexes, Narcissism, and so on, which involve us in dealing with the pursuit of needs which are unknown to the actors themselves, being accessible only to the psychoanalyst.

The whole question of what constitutes ‘rational behaviour’ is highly contested. Millions of Australians voting for conservative political leaders because of a fear of foreigners arriving in flimsy boats and overrunning the country hardly seems rational. But we have no external standard against which to measure such actions other than the unfolding of history itself; the rationality of homo economus, who spends her time and energy maximising her utility, the kind of rationality known to economic science, is of no interest to us and we will not trouble ourselves too much on his/her account. We will be forced to borrow our concept of rationality from Hegel, who uttered the famous maxim: ‘What is rational is real; And what is real is rational’. No other standard of rationality is of interest to us other than that of history itself.

But in saying this I am by no means suggesting that human beings are necessarily determined or ‘governed’ in some way by ‘laws of history’, the market or any such structural entities. The concept of a social structure, for which it is possible to talk about laws and other forms of regularity, is not without merit. On the contrary, despite all the weaknesses of the ‘human sciences’, it would be foolhardy to deny that there exists any kind of regularity in social behaviour which could be a valid object of scientific reflection. Generally speaking where human subjectivity ends, social theory and economic science takes over.

It is self-evident that the scope for human agency, subjectivity, is vast under any circumstances. There is a line of formal argument which can be used to ‘prove’ that there is never any scope for voluntary action, that the best any person can do is correctly determine the optimum course of action which best meets their needs, and since people do not choose their needs, they are at best slaves of necessity. Even Hegel subscribes to a form of this dogma when he says ‘the truth of necessity is Freedom’.

I do not buy this argument. The question is only ever where to draw the line around the domain of freedom beyond which lies the domain of necessity, the radius of subjectivity, if you like, and who is the agent of that freedom. Nowadays people are confronted everyday with the spectacle of vastly superior powers determining their lives and circumscribing their choices in life. These great powers are in fact nothing more nor less than their own collective power, but commanded and expressed as powers alien to them and beyond their control. The last thing we need today is theoretical demonstrations of the powerlessness of human beings.

One of the tricks for making subjectivity disappear is the confusion of subject and ‘subject position’. If Henry is King, then King is a subject position which can be filled by any subject, but if Henry fills it, he will be expected to act in a certain way and will adopt attitudes, desires and beliefs corresponding in some way to his identity as King. The social process offers up any number of such ‘subject positions’, and one way or another people choose or are obliged to occupy this or that subject position; the expectations attached to any given subject position are realised in the behaviour of everyone else towards that person, and all the characteristics of that subject position become attached to the person, ingrained in them, overwhelm their psyche until ultimately no sensible distinction can be made between the subject and the socially constructed subject position they occupy.

The relation of subjects to social structures has varied over time. In ancient times, before the development of modern individualism, personality was more or less dominated by social station or ‘subject position’ in a society in which there was little space between the relations of kinship and the relations of state which merged with them. In postmodern capitalist society, young people are growing up with the expectation of ‘constructing their own biography’. While this situation may at first sight appear to be a blossoming of subjectivity, the point is that the individual’s agency only goes so far as casting themselves in roles which are constructed by social processes that have no author. I have serious concerns about theories which reduce subjectivity to the choice of subject position from a set of structurally determined alternatives, but it cannot be denied that it has provided us with a number of important insights into the modern condition. We will come this in its turn.

The attraction of structuralism and poststructuralism is that it claims to be scientific and objective. Throughout the genealogy of the subject we will see the play of subjectivism versus objectivism and subjectivity versus objectivity. This meaning of subjectivity arises from the cogito-sense of subject, from the concept of the subject as consciousness. In general, subjectivism means placing too much emphasis on the mind, feelings and ideas and on the scope of free agency, as opposed to objective, social and material processes; objectivism, on the other hand, means maintaining an excessive distance from things, underestimating the subjective factor in history and having a kind of amoralism. We will deal with these question in their turn, but I should just mention first an additional use I make of the word subjectivity.

I use the term subjectivity more or less synonymously with the subject, which as I have noted above may be internally at odds with itself due to the non-coincidence of the subject in its agency-sense, cogito-sense and identity-sense, but whereas ‘the subject’ signifies an individual or group of individuals such as a company, state or social movement, ‘subjectivity’ is used to cope with the multiple determinations of human beings in modern society. Although we will show that ‘the subject’ is clear enough as a concept, every person participates in a vast multiplicity of subjects; subjects are not mutually exclusive, mutually independent entities, but are manifested in social relations and collaboration of real, complex, human individuals. Thus the subject is realised through aspects, or modes of action of individuals and relations between them. It seems to me that ‘subjectivity’ more aptly expresses that idea.

Finally, the purpose for writing this book is quite straight forward. Today, in the first decade of the third millennium, we find ourselves in a world where the overwhelming majority of people, whether in the dominant postindustrial societies or in the ‘Third World’, lack any sense of control over their own lives, of ‘self-determination’, even as they enjoy ‘choice’ on an unprecedented scale.

The market is the paradigm of this proliferation of choice which turns out to be nothing but the form through which an ‘iron law’ manifests itself. Formal equality as agents engaged in exchange of equivalents, turns out to be the mechanism for the concentration of real power in the hands of a tiny minority.

Despite an enormous acceleration in material productivity, poverty continues to grow, not just because of the growing inequality and material deprivation, but more because of ‘spiritual poverty’ mostly characterised by the collapse of agency, by people’s loss of control over their own lives. People have their basic needs satisfied, but are unable to develop higher needs, and develop a kind of narcissism, manifested in eating disorders from obesity to bulimia, vulnerability to absurd fear campaigns and other postmodern social disorders.

At the same time, modern forms of organisation based on voluntary association and mutual aid, are collapsing under pressure from growing atomisation and fragmentation, and are being replaced by anonymous, abstract-general forms of communication and organisation. While subjectivity is withering away in real life outside the walls of the University, the dominant currents in political science and social theory inside the University are incorporating this collapse in subjectivity in their theoretical framework in the form of various kinds of objectivism.

Some have theorised this endangered capacity for self-determination through collectivism and cooperation as a form of capital, ‘social capital’. This literature is addressing a very real problem, and shedding new light on the nature of poverty and marginalisation, but in doing so, becomes yet another means of theorising out of existence human subjectivity.

In this social environment, leaders of a more and more socially conservative stamp dominate political institutions, cynically use the ‘politics of fear’ to manipulate a frightened and disorganised electorate. The grounds for the success of the politics of fear is precisely this collapse of subjectivity; further, the techniques used by conservatives to tap into these fears demonstrate a cynical understanding of the nature of subjectivity and how to manipulate it.

We face a crisis in subjectivity. If you want to do anything about it, then the first hurdle you will come across is the enormous difficulty in getting any kind of real organisation or campaign off the ground. A media campaign, sure, if you have the money or support in the media needed to conjure up the necessary images, but to get a real social movement going today that is really capable of changing things poses the problem of subjectivity: of consciousness, of agency and of identity.

So clarifying the nature of subjectivity is a key problem of social justice today.