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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995
Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s review of my book Subjective Agency (LRB, 20 April) is so eager to make me a representative of academic complacencies that it ignores the book’s specific arguments – an ironic fate for a treatment of individual expression. Consider first his tone. Harpham claims that because I try to avoid depth models of subjective agency, I insist that ‘everything lies on the surface.’ He then adds: ‘At one point Altieri remarks casually: “I will ignore the many ways in which this model can go wrong.” ’ Harpham ignores the context:
I want to be clear from the start that no amount of theoretical analysis will be able to overcome the ways in which our uses of expressivity and claims for identities involve us in self-delusion and subject us to manipulation by others. However, since I suspect that such delusions and manipulations will find a place in any model of behaviour we develop, and since it will prove difficult enough to get the positive possibilities clear, I will ignore the many ways that this model can go wrong. All I can do in this regard is to try to make the positive look good enough to make pursuing this view of human values seem worth the risk.
Such cavalier dismissal of careful qualifications as ‘casual’ remarks suggests a reviewer more eager to develop his own self-heroising (and decidedly academic) critique of academic superficiality than he is to work his way through complicated arguments. Harpham even misrepresents the overall structure of my book, as well as its most fundamental arguments about ethics and politics. For example, Harpham bases my entire discussion of subjective agency on the claim that ‘we become who we are by virtue of the “style” that marks our acts.’ Even if I ignore his ignoring my repeated claims that who we are is a complex and shifting matter of identifications in relation to situations, I must protest his failure to heed the difference I claim between the first part of my book, which builds to style as the richest embodiment of a Wittgensteinian approach to subjective agency, and the subsequent parts, which insist that ethical and political concerns require our investigating how agents supplement style by presenting or implying reasons for specific actions. Expressivity in these domains depends on how agents blend first-person desires for recognition by others with the third-person frameworks allowing others the terms by which to attribute identities.
When Harpham gets to my ethical arguments he claims that because I treat identity only as ‘an afterthought or attribution’, ‘the subject is diminished and political rights imperilled.’ My case offers only ‘a monument to calculation’. He can arrive at these conclusions because for him ethics must be a heroic domain where life without theology is given an imposing tragic framework built on a crossing of Foucault’s care for self and Derrida’s idealisation of responsibility framed by fatality. But I want to avoid the entire theatre, in part by insisting that it makes as little sense to speak of identity as an ‘attribution’ as it does to rely on oppositions between surface and depth, and in part by demonstrating that Derrida’s version of responsibility cannot take an adequate public form. Instead I seek a model free of the opposition between substance and attribute by concentrating on the ways we find ourselves able to appeal to predicates about identity because of the negotiations we maintain with other people, real and imagined. Rather than worry about projected deep psyches, I concentrate on how we develop and manipulate cultural expectations so as to earn ways of speaking about ourselves. Ethics then becomes a realm limited to the concerns we display when we have to justify actions: ethical responsibility resides simply in the quality of our reasons in relation to our actions. There are other, nobler domains of love and care and heroic struggle, but they rely on quite different practices even harder to describe.
University of California, Berkeley
Vol. 17 No. 19 · 5 October 1995
A good sentence bears repetition, and since Charles Altieri repeats my quotation in his letter (Letters, 3 August) in response to my review, I can do no better than to repeat it once more: ‘I will ignore the many ways that this model can go wrong.’ Professor Altieri has attempted to write an account of ‘subjective agency’ – that is, of the ways in which people identify, articulate, establish and impose themselves in the world – that suspends such factors as ‘self-delusion’ and ‘manipulation by others’. By these terms I understand Altieri to refer to such things as error, the unconscious and pressure from the outside world. He writes as if ‘the subject’ could be described without these factors, as if these were incidental to our functioning and could be added on later. I take them to be the conditions of ‘subjective agency’ from the outset. To attempt to describe human behaviour without them is like trying to say what happens when a club strikes a golf ball without, for the moment, factoring in gravity.
Writing a book is an interesting test of the differences between Altieri’s views and mine. In some respects, it is an exercise made for people who believe as he does. One controls everything about one’s carefully revised monologue, and sends it out into the world as a presumably symptom-free ‘chain of arguments’, there to be received by similarly untroubled subjects who will assess its claims and find them worthy or not. But what actually happens next is always a disappointment. The book (let’s hope) falls into the hands of others, including in the first instance reviewers, who have their own priorities, projects and phobias; who are loaded down with motives; who see things differently, and sometimes wrongly. The first, and eminently understandable, response of someone who sees his book understood differently, placed in a context he does not control, is to charge the reviewer with being unqualified, an egotist with personal problems that inhibit a clean act of perception, even a deeply immoral man who does not honour the specificity of the arguments.
But to write – and, to return to my point, to be in the world as a ‘subjective agent’ at all – is necessarily to be enmeshed in and constituted by the ways in which models go wrong. Nor, I think, is it irrelevant to point out that respecting individual differences is supposedly what his book is all about. Where does this respecting begin? Is it, too, to be added on at a later date – after one’s book is received by an uncritically grateful world? In short, I stand by my review as a fair and accurate assessment of Altieri’s book – within the limitations imposed on me by the occasion, the genre, the medium, the editor, the audience and my own cognitive equipment.
Geoffrey Gait Harpham