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Article

Peter Hitchcock

For literary theory, discipline is caught tantalizingly between its meaning as a verb and as a noun. Since the work of Foucault, in particular, one is accustomed to thinking of discipline as a structure and process of power. Individual disciplines, of course, tell their own story, but their specific constellations in education offer a snapshot of priorities (social, economic, and cultural) that are symptomatic well beyond their putative subject matter. The idea of training in knowledge goes back to the ancient world, whose models still maintain an influence in the present, although this may well depend on cultural precedents within particular languages and histories. In general, disciplines emerged in modernity and are overdetermined in a number of ways, including but not limited to: transformations in thought (the Renaissance, for instance); formations of state (that can provide an institutional infrastructure); and economic imperatives (knowledge more literally as an accumulation axiom in capitalism, for instance). Disciplines remain indices in the production and maintenance of human subjects, but there are many kinds of challenges (within disciplines, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, etc.) that presage a rethinking of what disciplines are and can be in the present.

Article

Sidonie Smith

Ever since the Greek philosophers and fabulists pondered the question “What is man?,” inquiries into the concept of the subject have troubled humanists, eventuating in fierce debates and weighty tomes. In the wake of the Descartes’s cogito and Enlightenment thought, proposals for an ontology of the idealist subject’s rationality, autonomy, and individualism generated tenacious questions regarding the condition of pre-consciousness, the operation of feelings and intuitions, the subject-object relation, and the origin of moral and ethical principles. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Marx, and theorists he and Engels influenced, pursued the materialist bases of the subject, through analyses of economic determinism, self-alienation, and false consciousness. Through another lineage, Freud and theorists of psychic structures pursued explanations of the incoherence of a split subject, its multipartite psychodynamics, and its relationship to signifying systems. By the latter 20th century, theorizations of becoming a gendered woman by Beauvoir, of disciplining power and ideological interpellation by Foucault and Althusser, and of structuralist dynamics of the symbolic realm expounded by Lacan, energized a succession of poststructuralist, postmodern, feminist, queer, and new materialist theorists to advance one critique after another of the inherited concept of the liberal subject as individualist, disembodied (Western) Man. In doing so, they elaborated conditions through which subjects are gendered and racialized and offered explanatory frameworks for understanding subjectivity as an effect of positionality within larger formations of patriarchy, slavery, conquest, colonialism, and global neoliberalism. By the early decades of the 21st century, posthumanist theorists dislodged the subject as the center of agentic action and distributed its processual unfolding across trans-species companionship, trans-corporeality, algorithmic networks, and conjunctions of forcefields. Persistently, theorists of the subject referred to an entangled set of related but distinct terms, such as the human, person, self, ego, interiority, and personal identity. And across diverse humanities disciplines, they struggled to define and refine constitutive features of subject formation, most prominently relationality, agency, identity, and embodiment.

Article

Julian Murphet

Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.

Article

Salah El Moncef

As they developed their theory of minor literature in the mid-1970s, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari created more than a concept of literary criticism. Articulating minor thought as a theoretical mode of engagement that impels the minor author to evolve into an agent of transformative experimentation and collective awareness, Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka theorizes this radically reassessed function of the writer in terms of marginal subjectivity—the subject position of an “immigrant” whose task is to craft an innovative “minor language” on the margin of the “major language” of mainstream society, along with projecting new visions of diverse collectivities within the traditional nation-state that challenge and transform its identitarian definitions of gender, class, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic “standards.” It is around this paradigmatic conception of the minor subject as perpetual immigrant and “nomadic” other that Gloria Anzaldúa and Kathy Acker develop their own variations on the Deleuze–Guattarian minor mode: narrative presentations of the deterritorialized subjects that inhabit the pluralistic Borderlands (Borderlands/La Frontera) and the transnational Empire (Empire of the Senseless). Seeking to renew standard English in order to develop within it innovative esthetic, social, and global visions, the two authors confront their readers with the experiences of minority existence, endeavoring to develop, through the prototypical narrative agents at the center of their works, emergent modalities of hybrid transnational subjectivity—a new post-statist subject, in sum. By depicting their central narrative agents as transnational nomads confronted with the limitations and potentialities of their minority status, Acker and Anzaldúa engage in highly complex social and ontological explorations of the plural inflections of the minor subject as they are expressed in the hybrid idioms he or she adopts and the sociocultural choices they make. In presenting the reader with narrative agents who dwell on the margin of the general social norm, both authors posit the minor subject as the embodiment of a “borderline” existence in which the Borderlands and the Empire are not conceived as geopolitical spaces but rather as conceptual sites of social experimentation; collective realms governed by a universal desire to supersede all borders, imaginary or geopolitical. A central conclusion emerges from Acker’s and Anzaldúa’s visions of the transnational, hybrid subject and collectivity: the deterritorialized movements of groups and individuals envisioned by both authors are at the heart of the postmodern nomad’s aspirations—an inherently transnational quest for self-fulfillment through which she or he seeks unfamiliar horizons as she or he experiments with various elements of hybridity, allowing him/herself to apprehend the existential conditions of his/her exile as affirmative instruments toward asserting the global in relation to the local and the transnational in relation to the national.