Re: [xmca] Subject and Self

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Fri Dec 21 2007 - 11:08:53 PST

A couple of threads ago, we noticed that there are certain words which mean both themselves and their opposites: "agency", for example, has become aggrandized to the point where to have "agency" means to be empowered as a subject, instead of being a travel agent or a real estate agent for somebody else.
  "Subject" is another. To be the "subject" of the queen is to be subjected to her (my mother has recently given up US citizenship in order to become, technically anyway, the plaything of an absolute monarch), and of course an academic subject is really an object of study.
  One can think of many other examples at:
  a) the phrase level:
  Teachers bore students: teachers are boring, and students are bored. (My students are always getting these two mixed up, fortunately for my sense of self!)
  "Development" is something that children do, but it is also a description of something that happens to them.
  b) utterance length idioms:
  I could care less: do whatever you want.
  Whatever! Do anything you want. I couldn't care less.
  c) discourse: sarcasm and irony of all types. (In the British version of George W. Bush's Christmas video he has Tony Blair on at the end identifying with Bush's two Scottish terriers, and to a British mind this invariable conjures Blair's most uncomplimentary sobriquet, namely "Bush's poodle". Of course, one does not expect or even desire close friendship among war criminals, but like-minded crooks are supposed to have some kind of code of honor that would prevent this sort of not-so-subtle insult.)
  Here are THREE possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanations:
  a) The "(k)not": because negation can take place (in most languages) through the insertion of a single word, almost any word activates, or "interanimates", its opposite grammatically.
  b) The "bulge": the upper classes and lower classes use highly familiar language, but the "bulge" in the middle tends to use formal language. In the same way, words that indicate extremes (like the word "extreme" for example) can call to mind opposite concepts. All familiar expressions, for example, double as insults (c.f. obscenities).
  b) The "drift": In Thinking and Speech Vygotsky remarks upon the ability of one word to mean both an idea and an opposing idea as a sign of "primitive", i.e. complexive, thinking (I'm out in the woods somewhere and don't have a copy handy, but I think it's in the last chapter.)
  Volosinov rejects this last idea, pointing out that so called "primitive" societies have highly developed conceptual structures, just not in the same domains that we are accustomed to. His other argument is that polysemy, including BOTH extremes of a word, is the rule and not the exception: in that sense, "you" (not "I") is the archetypical word, because it means, alternately, speaker and hearer, speaking subject and speaking object.
  But of course what "you" NEVER means is "self". That's the problem: "self" is too monologic, too self-identical, too self-contained to mean very much. That's why I think "self" is basically a fiction; it's the adult version of the child's imaginary friend. Any child can tell you that needs and desires are real (they are rooted in the social environment, which is very real), but the "subject" of these needs and desires is a much more rootless, and altogether a more doubtful proposition.
  The problem is that it really does appear that this fiction can bring about facts, that this particular lie is a mover of truths, and that in this instance literature writes history instead of the other way around. This makes some sense to me if I remember that the self is not really a cause of our decisions, but merely a mental tool of tools, a means for their mediation, and ultimate subjecthood always lies with the social situation. But otherwise it makes no sense to me at all.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Fri Dec 21 11:11 PST 2007

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