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.

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