Saturday, April 21, 2012

A history of the Subject – Subject Theory Explained – part 2

Even before Kant philosophers have argued about the meaning of the subject. Is the subject autonomous? Does the subject have a stable essence? What conditions the subject? Does it abide by any laws? Is the subject rational? And what are the relations between the subject and society? Questions like these are all symptomatic of the philosophy since the Enlightenment began.

"Subject" is semantically related to "subjection", hinting that subject is something which is subjected to something else. The subjection of the subject was as source of interest for many critical thinkers who sought to explain how social and cultural forces condition subjective consciousness. The most fundamental example for this line of thought is that of Marx. These trends of relating to the subject subvert the modern perception of the subject as autonomous and independent.

According to the Marxist tradition the subject is subjected to material historical forces which determine his (false) consciousness. In psychoanalysis, the subject is subjected to hidden mental content which is hidden in the subconscious. In linguistics, de-Saussure points to the manner in which language conditions the subject's perception of reality. Structural theory, following de-Saussure, saw the subject is the product of social and cultural structures. Critical thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Louis Althusser all see the subject as the product of cultural systems which shape what is falsely perceived as sovereignty, free choice and self-consciousness.

Here we can see the process which has eventually led to the announcement about the "Death of Subject", or the fragmentation of subject in FredrickJameson's phrasing. The subject moved from being a "master of its own reality", as it were, for Kant to being site of social conditioning and control for post-modern thinkers. Thus we can see how the term subject is a contested one that was born as free, autonomous, intelligent and aware and that has metaphorically died as subaltern, conditioned, controlled and unaware.

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