Re: [xmca] Subject and Self

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
Date: Fri Dec 21 2007 - 15:31:54 PST

The route by which "subject" came to mean (at least) two opposite things is
a long and complex story, and is nothing to do with the phenomenon you
mention. In I trace this
story, but unfortunately the etymological bits are not all in one place. A
lot of English words inverted their sense in the early modern period, BTW,
as the notion of individuality began to emerge.

I have a 1MB file copied from the Oxford English Dictionary On-line with
all the etymology, if you like.

At 11:08 AM 21/12/2007 -0800, you wrote:
>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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  Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435,
mobile 0409 358 651

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Received on Fri Dec 21 15:33 PST 2007

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