Who’s Who

Geoffrey Galt Harpham

  • Subjective Agency: A Theory of First-Person Expressivity and its Social Implications by Charles Altieri
    Blackwell, 306 pp, £40.00, August 1994, ISBN 1 55786 129 3

Of all the pills presented to the incredulous common reader by Continental philosophy and literary theory over the past generation, the well publicised ‘death of the subject’ was surely the bitterest – the most perversa instance of theoretical arrogance it seemed possible to imagine. The dying subject was not, however, well served by its defenders, who disagreed among themselves as to why it should live on. For some of them, the subject – a psycho-social entity capable of self-awareness and purposeful agency – was a simple fact: start pretending it isn’t there, and you introduce a virulent strain of fictionality into the world. Others, however, made precisely the opposite point, that to insist on the death of the subject was not to create but to expose a deep fictionally in all moral and political institutions, a form of pretence that must be repressed if civil society is to function.

This second group of subjectivists recognised the subject as one of the mighty, if fragile, achievements of Western history. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that countless centuries of torture and punishment were required to induce a naturally self-forgetful animal to undertake even the most minimal legal acts: keeping a promise, say, or repaying a debt. For Nietzsche, the evolution of the ‘sovereign subject’ represented a deeply anti-natural development in the history of the species, one in constant danger of being undone because the legal or ethical imperatives the subject was supposed to obey were founded not in transcendental or natural laws but in blood and force. To reveal this violent history with an alarmingly triumphant indifference to the possible consequences, as so many have done since the Sixties, can seem even to some who were responsive to the arguments, a step on the road to the ascendancy of Nietzsche’s ‘blonde beasts’.

But one person’s slippery slope is another’s rigorous science; and the cavalier charm of some of its most prominent exponents notwithstanding, the dead-subject argument made its way by its appeal to the sense of fact. Simply and ubiquitously presumed by the modern world, the humanistic subject was in fact difficult to find and harder to describe. Many of those who tried to find it became convinced that what passed for the subject was actually a tangle of unconscious drives, on the one hand, and a mass of after-effects, on the other.

Nietzsche’s comparison of ‘that little changeling, the subject’ to the atom was prescient, for numerous thinkers since his time have attempted to split it, to discover beneath its apparent unity the actual, irreducible forces that comprise it. What Richard Rorty called the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, which was repealed subsequently in literary theory, was driven by the conviction that the only thing real in the subject was language, and that the only way for humanists to compete with scientists was for them to redirect their attention away from humanistic pseudo-entities such as beliefs and values, and the ‘inner’ selves that possess them, and towards what Saussure had called the ‘concrete entity’ of language.

As an object of research, Language had several advantages over Man. For one thing it had, or was believed to have, a knowable history and structure. Just as important, however, was the issue of power. The new discourse on language contained a largely unquestioned double belief: first, that an ‘inhuman’ language exercised a controlling force over people, directing their deepest, least conscious convictions (‘Men believe that their speech is their servant,’ Foucault wrote, ‘and do not realise that they are submitting themselves to its demands’); and second, that language was the instrument of those who wield power, and could therefore be brought into alignment with different, consciously chosen, values and beliefs, which it could then enforce. This totalitarian power could, it was presumed, be enlisted for liberal ends.

It may be significant that the argument for the intimacy between language and power germinated in France during the last decade of de Gaulle, and took root in the United States during the Reagan years. For the twin properties of language that seemed to be self-evident were precisely those with which many left-leaning academics were preoccupied – authoritarian power and the resistance to it. To direct attention away from subjects (and their subjection) and focus instead on language was one way in which they could engage with issues that seemed, in strictly political terms, intractable.

Thus for reasons both professional and political, the progressives and radicals of the volatile French and American academies were clustered around a single conviction: that the subject, aka humanistic Man, was no longer on the agenda. In 1991, a volume called Who Comes After the Subject? celebrated the triumph of this conviction. With essays by Derrida, Etienne Balibar, Luce Irigaray, Maurice Blanchot, Emmanuel Levinas and Gilles Deleuze, this book both established the distinctly French provenance of the dead-subject argument and, in characteristically French fashion, ‘put into question’ that argument itself by implying that another ‘who’, rather than a ‘what’, might be waiting in the wings.

It is easier now than it once was to see in the new discourse on language not a severely literal description but a dense mesh of metaphors of intentional agency that were necessarily drawn from the only possible model for such agency, the old-fashioned subject. Without anyone’s remarking on the fact, the ‘concrete entity’ of language had implicitly been described, not only by ambitious literary theorists but by linguists as well, as a ‘who’, making choices, guiding decisions, encouraging certain values, giving and taking orders. In retrospect, this may, paradoxically, have helped to account for the appeal of the whole antihumanist argument. But since it represented a theoretical impurity in a wouldbe scientific discourse, it also contributed to the death of the dead-subject argument, which began to implode. There was a general recognition that ‘language’ was not a concrete entity at all, simply a newly displaced, metaphorical form of the old-fashioned subject.

In Subjetive Agency, Charles Altieri tries to think his way out of this dilemma. Drawing on the resources of an ‘expressivist tradition’ in philosophy that is decidedly non-French – Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein – Altieri describes what it is that makes judgments, gets itself expressed, manages an identity and responds to ethical and political imperatives. He does not urge a simple return to the subject, nor does he seek to go ‘beyond’ it. Rather, he constructs ways of talking about such things as identity, ethics and politics which will circumvent the problems associated with the ‘subject’, yet give – as the emphasis on language does not – people reasons to feel justified in their values and decisions.

Who comes after the subject? According to Altieri, agency ‘performs itself’ as subjects will a consistent identity for themselves by ‘shaping substance in contexts that recur’. There is, he asserts, no question of an ‘inner life’, nor need we concern ourselves with the pathos of a ‘self’ struggling to get expressed; instead, subjective agency is ‘simply the aligning of conative energies with the world, so that they seem continuous with it and effective within it.’

The formidable abstraction of Altieri’s argument notwithstanding, the basic idea is simple, for everything lies on the surface. In the absence of an interior subjective core, we become who we are by virtue of the ‘style’ that marks our acts. Agency shapes itself aesthetically, and the styles we inhabit are best understood as artifacts, or ‘expressions’ – purposive structures shaped by understandable intentions. In Altieri’s way of thinking, the subject has no problematic ‘depth’, no layers, no fugitive energies creating opportunities for méconnaissance. Motives, values and intentions – all of which Altieri calls ‘first-person’ dispositions – are legible in the expressions they generate and become meaningful and valuable in the ‘third-person’ communities in which they function.

The advantage of this way of talking is that it apparently circumvents the entire issue of the subject, and thus simply skips over the recent debates. The dangers, however, are many. By describing subjects in such terms as ‘intentionally without interiority’, Altieri is urging us to think in ways which may place an attenuated first person at something of a disadvantage with respect to the communal norms and ideals that set the terms of intelligibility and value. If agency performs itself, if identity is an after-effect or an attribution, then the subject is diminished, and concepts such as ethical imperatives and political rights are imperilled.

If the strongest and most interesting part of Altieri’s book is the discussion of identity as ‘style’, the weakest and most disappointing is the subsequent discussion of ethical and political responsibility – notions that require a more robust model of identity than he wants to provide. Altieri sustains a vague belief that ‘the symbolic’ – a word he uses as a noun – ought to be made ‘more responsive to differences among practices’, so that agents become ‘more capable of manipulating what the symbolic order can provide them as powers and entitlements’, But the details are left unspecified.

Altieri does cite two ethico-political obligations: ‘that we foster institutions which keep continual pressure on us to present justifications appealing beyond the circle where we are secure in our assessments, and that we consider the fundamental political value to be the activity of responding to such pressures civilly and with a desire for justice.’ Yet he fails to explain the reasons for urging these bland obscurities on us. What’s wrong with our little circle? Are all limited communities equally defective? Why should ‘responding to pressures’ be ‘the fundamental political value’? And what is justice? The questions one wants to ask begin with requests for clarification, but rapidly fan out to the unanswerably grand.

Just as pertinently, one might ask Altieri – who in a rare moment of informality and candour projects a readership of ‘two hundred’ for his book – how these prescriptions themselves reach beyond the academic culture, in which they function virtually as pieties. Relentlessly theoretical as it is, and even somewhat phobic of examples (in his book there are lots of first, second and third persons, but very few people), Subjective Agency seems very much the product of a certain community. It is a community made uncomfortable by the élitism it cultivates, deferential towards ‘differences’, eager to be on the side of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, suspicious of ‘the governing élite’whose authority it would like to see weakened, but not especially keen to push its arguments or inquiries to the point where difficult choices would have to be made. Content to invoke ‘the politics most academics espouse’, Altieri seems to develop an expanding wish list as he goes on, until he finds himself at the end in a position that offends no one. We can keep ‘third-person measures of the good’, and community conventions, and ‘cultural grammars’, and ‘a dense, complex psychology’; nor do we need to choose between libertarianism and the ‘radical agonistic democracy that now replaces Marxism as the dominant leftist line in the academy’.

For a contrast to this system, in which we can have it all, compare Derrida’s insistence, in Who Comes after the Subject?, that ‘there is no responsibility, no ethico-political decision, that must not pass through the proofs of the incalculable or the undecidable.’ Derrida focuses on a moment of stark and radical privation, the moment of law, in which our needs, desires, self-images and communal supports vanish, and the question becomes one of rightness as such. Without such a moment, Derrida says, ‘everything would be reducible to calculation, programme, causality’. And ‘calculation’, he says simply, ‘is calculation’. Altieri, concentrating on the process of ‘negotiating for an identity’, argues altogether differently, and it would be interesting to hear his defence against the charge that he has produced a monument to calculation.

He has certainly produced a monument to consciousness. Nowhere in his long book has Altieri paused to consider seriously such phenomena as feelings, private thoughts, immediate responses, perceptions, that seem both involuntary and deeply personal, ephemera that interfere with the project of constructing a poltically useful, ethically respectable account of a masterful human being thoroughly in command of itself, negotiating with others whom it knows and recognises. Nor is there any gesture of recognition towards the cornerstone of the modern understanding of subjectivity: the unconscious. Involuntary feelings, thoughts and perceptions, one may infer, are not easily coordinated with a ‘third-person’ perspective, not being ‘articulate as purposive, and hence as capable of bearing responsibility’. At one point, Altieri remarks casually: ‘I will ignore the many ways in which this model can go wrong.’ With its disorderly symptoms, its deformations of judgment, its stubborn insistence on undercutting our best interests, the unconscious represents the most serious and constant threat to the regulatory functioning of Altieri’s model.

Altieri has tried to give an account of ‘subjective agency’ that will move contemporary thinking beyond what he sees as the ethical and political impasse of recent French thought. He is right to regard that thought as hostile to his project of providing a positive foundation for concepts of identity and ethico-political responsibility. But he is unwise to avoid direct confrontation with the work of Nietzsche, Freud, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Althusser and others, his relation to whom remains disturbingly unclear. By choosing to talk about agency rather than agents, about surfaces rather than depths, about ‘style’ rather than motives, deep values, prejudices, class consciousness, socio-historical determination and so forth, he seems even more ‘inhuman’ than his presumptive antagonists. It would have been good to see this debate fully played out. But the monological style of the book, which consists largely of sentences of considerable length, complexity and generality, works against such genuine conversation, as well as against the kind of dialectical rigour that Altieri would like to be seen as representing.

If Altieri wants to pursue the issues he raises here, there are two directions in which he might go. First, he might attempt a more detailed understanding of the ways in which we are determined as agents by the contexts in which we find ourselves, and which are not theorisable. Second, he might try to imagine a fourth person, an impersonal, even non-human entity, in which we might recognise both ourselves and some new imperative issuing from a technologically evolving ‘community’. Which is to leave out of account the trauma that may yet be inflicted on the philosophy of the subject – indeed, on philosophy as a whole – by new research in biochemistry, genetics and sociobiology. It may, in fact, be traditional philosophy, rather than the concept of the subject, that is dying.