Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Subject vs. Subject Position

"Terada’s claim that emotion criticizes and is incompatible with the subject seems to rely on a very strong notion of the self-present, Cartesian subject, which could be seen as a straw man. Few contemporary advocates of the subject defend this notion, but instead have developed more sophisticated and less fundamentalist accounts of the subject (for example, Seyla Benhabib). Would Terada’s decentred, self-differential emotion challenge Benhabib’s notion of the situated self?" (Susan Brook, Textual Practice 17 [2003], 446-447).

I think I didn't convey very clearly why I was so interested in the Cartesian subject (and so generated good questions like this one). It wasn't so much because I wanted to disagree with the notion of strongly self-present subjectivity, though I do, nor because people still widely rely on this kind of subjectivity, though I think they do (they don't describe themselves as believing in it, but often act and write as though they did). It was because discussions of Cartesian and phenomenological subjectivity were closer to the point of confessing differential and decentering emotion than less fundamentalist notions of situated subjectivity and subjects made of positions. Cartesian-type thought about subjectivity gets concerned about the differences between "inner" experience and accounts of "inner" experience, so it can be used diagnostically to locate the problem of emotion, which is, among other things, the scandal of the uninterpretability of the self. Is that problem less disturbing for Benhabib, whose self isn't a universal subject, but one that always has to grapple with its concrete situations and others'? It ought to be, maybe, but Benhabib's mode attributes to norms and negotiation with norms an explanatory power that may not fully incorporate some senses of self-differentiality. If the self is in conflict because the norms that created it are themselves in conflict, the model is more rationalistic: the norms have different goals, and so their copresence naturally produces difference and instability. Of course, we're shaped by norms, and the copresence of norms does create difference and instability, and the analysis of their dynamics is important and not contradictory with self-differential emotion. If everything that might go into an account of experience isn't covered by that, it's not because any part of us is left over to adjudicate the norms, but because something is even less choate than the norms, a Nietzschean "phenomenality of the inner world" that pressures the entire structure from below and enables us to apprehend structure at all. There's a reason why few have felt tempted to refer to this world in the vocabulary of neo-subjectivity, whereas the transfer from "subject" to "subject position" is relatively easy. Nietzsche thought that because inner life is unknowable, it was pejoratively metaphysical and unworkable as a topic for our contemplation; but it does make itself known, not all at once or by direct observability but continually and implicitly. The "phenomenality of the inner world" isn't definitively unknowable; it isn't metaphysical in the way that idealities are metaphysical, and it's a mistake to think it has nothing to do with the social world. Some discussions of situated selves seem uncomfortable with this underlife and its potential recontextualizations of more structured forms of analysis; while others find it and its contact with the social world well worth working on (starting with Foucault, and present in Balibar's "other scene").

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