Re: [xmca] Blunden on Subjects

From: Steve Gabosch <sgabosch who-is-at>
Date: Tue Jan 01 2008 - 10:18:47 PST

This is a longish post on Andy's use of the term "subject."

On Dec 18, 2007, at 3:01 PM, Mike Cole wrote:
> I am unsure how to comment usefully yet on Andy's paper because I am
> struggling over the polysemy
> of "subject"
> The "idiographic/nomothetic" distinction appears seldom in our
> discussions
> What kind of subject is Andy's subject?
> mike

I too have been struggling with what is meant by the term "subject" in
the paper. It is a pivotal question because the paper argues that
CHAT should base a unit of analysis on "the subject." But what is it?

As I try to make sense of this term, I find myself wanting to use the
form "subjectivity" in its place to try to get to the heart of Andy's
meaning. For me, this substitution solves some grammar and word usage
problems posed by the way the term "subject" is used in the text. A
particular grammar problem I have is the term itself shows up in three
somewhat contradictory forms: "a subject" (indefinite article), "the
subject" (definite article), and with no article at all, just
"subject," which is a questionable use in English (but perhaps not
German). It seems like nit-picking, but these different grammatical
forms just plain confuse me as to what the term "subject" is precisely
referring to. In contrast, the term "subjectivity" does not seem to
have this problem. I include a number of examples of how these forms
appear in the paper below.

Another word usage problem that the term "subjectivity" solves for me
is that the term "subject" is hard to separate from its reference to a
single isolated individual, which is the very thing this unit of
analysis attempts to avoid. "Subjectivity," unlike a "subject," is an
entity that can be shared, developed, transformed, etc., and seems
more appropriate as a potential unit of analysis for a "social"
psychology based on human activity, culture, history, etc.

Of course, we must be clear on what kind of "subjectivity" we are
speaking of, and this is where Andy's trichotomy of agency, cogito
(knowledge) and self-consciousness helps us understand what kind of
subjectivity he is proposing to look for and analyze. Dementia, for
example, could be seen as a kind of subjectivity, but that isn't the
right kind for the purposes Andy is suggesting. Andy further
describes this trichotomy as coinciding with the "moments" (another
term I am not clear on) of the individual (individual psyche), the
particular (social relations) and the universal (cultural artifacts).
These are interesting insights into human subjectivity. Their obvious
affinity with certain CHAT concepts shows potential. May I also add
that I think Andy does CHAT a service by showing how some of the ideas
he discusses originate with Hegel, "the first person to theorize the
subject from the standpoint of cultural–historical activity."

Using the term "subjectivity" (or probably a specialized term based on
it like "interactive subjectivity" or something like that to describe
what kind of subjectivity is being referred to) in a number of places
where the paper uses "subject" helps the paper become more accessible
to me, to evaluate and build on - from a CHAT point of view, from the
point of view of developing a new psychology, and from a classical
Marxist perspective, three ways I tend to think about theory in terms

But this may not be a sensible suggestion - perhaps I am simply
entirely missing some key concepts in the paper, am not aware of a
specialized meaning of the term "subject," etc.

Below are some excerpts from the text that use various forms of
"subject," as well as spell out some of the paper's key ideas about
what I think in terms of as "subjectivity." Would substituting
"subjectivity" (or perhaps a specialized term like "interactive
subjectivity" or whatever) in various places possibly make the paper's
meaning more clear? In some places, the text already does just that.
See what you think.

Here is the .pdf for the paper again for quick reference.

- Steve

from pg 257:
By subject, I understand a self-conscious system of activity. A
subject is therefore the identity of agency (or moral responsibility,
the capacity to do something), “cogito” (knowledge or understanding),
and self-consciousness (or identity).

from pg 257:
The individual person is a limiting case of a subject, but in general,
the individual-as-subject can only be the endpoint of a long-drawn-
out, still-unfinished historical process. This trichotomy constitutes
the definition of subject and allows the development of subjectivity
to be traced through the independent development, reciprocal
transformation, intersection, relative unity, and contradictions
between its three components.

from pg 259:
A subject has three components: (a) The individual, simply understood
as a mortal individual human spirit or psyche, with whatever capacity
for moral responsibility, whatever knowledge, beliefs, and ideology
they hold and with a certain identity or self-consciousness; (b) the
ensemble of social relations and activities, including both
collaborative and conflictual relations, both production relations
and the entire range of activities, whether in the private domain,
the economy, the arts, or whatever; and (c) the Universal, material
products of culture, inclusive of language, the means of production,
technology and science, the land, buildings, and so on.

from pg 261-262:
The unit of analysis for a subject as conceived of by Vygotsky is
therefore an individual person, an element of culture, and an activity
or material practice. In the process of development, these elements,
which begin as distinct components of psychic activity, become
identified in the subject as a single unit of behavior. So Vygotsky’s
conception of subjectivity is consonant with the idea proposed here as
a conception of the subject.

from pg 263:
It was previously mentioned that the unit of analysis required for the
solution of the problem of subjectivity is not the interaction between
two domains or spheres of activity.

from pg 263:
… the appropriate unit of analysis is the subject, understood as a
self-conscious system of activity, necessarily embodying a relative
unity of agency, cogito, and self-consciousness, with individual,
particular, and universal moments.

from pg 265 (the final words of the paper):
… an individual cannot, at least in history up to the present, be a
subject, a sovereign power in their own right. Subjectivity can be
exercised only in concert with others, in definite social relations.
Such relations can be understood only through the concept of subject,
as a self-conscious system of activity, in which agency, cogito, and
self-consciousness relatively coincide, through the mediation of the
individual psyche, artifacts and definite social relations.

<end of quotes>

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