Concept Note


Exploring Subjectivity: Mind, Body, Action


Baidik Bhattacharya, Udaya Kumar, V. Sanil

We encounter the words ‘subject’, ‘subjective’ and ‘subjectivity’ frequently in discussions of literature. ‘Subjective,’ is often used for describing an individual’s private experience or opinions as different from ‘objective,’ measurable or verifiable facts. Sometimes the word ‘subject’ is applied to those who perform actions; but the word is equally used for those who experience situations, emotions, or feelings. Many critics consider authors as the ‘subjects’ of literary works; some look at readers as the ‘subjects’ of literary experience; and readers of stories tend to regard characters as subjects. The aim of this workshop is to get a clearer sense of the varied uses of words clustered around the idea of ‘subjectivity’ and explore what questions we can ask with them, and what new perspectives or approaches they give rise to. To grasp the concept of the subject, it is useful to see how it is related to and different from other concepts in its neighbourhood—such as ‘person,’ ‘self,’ and ‘agent.’

There is a tendency to regard human subjectivity as mental, belonging to the inner domain of human life. The French philosopher Descartes was probably referring to something of this kind when he said “I think, therefore I am.” The inner lives of human beings are not only about thinking in a rational sense. Literature, as all of us know, is known for exploring many dimensions of this, like emotions, feelings, sensations, thoughts, dreams and fantasies. Many of these aspects of subjectivity do not even belong to our conscious life. How do each of these domains of inner life affect our conception of the subject?

The ‘Copernican turn’ in western enlightenment philosophy shifted the stand point of ‘thinking’ to that of the subject. Our knowledge of reality, according to this view, is dependent on our relationship with reality. In other words, the ‘I’ is an unsubstitutable perspective on the world. However, it is only one among many such perspectives. Still, we discover the laws of nature, enter into morally binding relationship with others, and express ourselves sincerely. How are these possible? Readers and students of literature are familiar with this question. The play of the ‘first person’ and ‘third person’ points of view in narratives and the tensions in lyric poetry between a preoccupation with the self and the address to the reader are marks of this.

What is subjectivity? Is it the experiential life that presupposes self consciousness? Can we understand this experience as self reflection and introspection? The irreducible subjective dimension of experience does not preclude the challenges to the notion of a unified self. Modernist writers such as Joyce, Woolf, Kafka and Beckett may be seen as trying to find a form of writing that works with such lack of unity. The embeddedness of the self in “one’s own body” and in social practices open up the horizon of intersubjectivity. Who is this Other: someone like me, another self?

Our knowledge of ourselves and others is not exhausted by inference or induction. A clear understanding of this knowledge seems to be necessary for giving an account of a spectrum of emotions ranging from love, empathy, hate to shame and humiliation. Self-understanding does not mean that we are present to ourselves as an object or fact in an immediate manner. The self could be thought of as an accomplishment. The narrative conception of the self provides a normative account of the self as an act. Is the idea of narrative adequate to render the intensity of our encounter with novelty in the world, the radical difference of the other, and the trauma and suffering experienced by the self? These questions enable us to look afresh at literary texts and forms of life writing that bear testimony to traumatic events that render narration impossibly difficult.

The idea of the subject has often been associated with action, as the ‘doer behind the deed.’ Philosophers like Nietzsche have questioned this approach. There are so many different kinds of actions, ranging from those that are consciously intended and planned to inadvertent or accidental ones and to things we do without reflecting, out of habit. Actions are not carried out in an empty world; they take shape in a world where desires, moral values, social norms and conventions, chance events and accidents exert their force. Literature from ancient times to our own—from the Mahabharata and Greek tragedies to science fiction and fantasy narratives—has explored ways in which human beings are implicated in chains of action and what this reveals about human subjectivity.

An area where the subject has been prominently studied in recent years is in relationship to structures of power. Traditionally power is seen as constraining human beings and limiting their freedom. Challenging this view, thinkers like Michel Foucault argued that power relations are everywhere, and that subjects are not outside this field; it would be more useful to see subjects as produced by power. Exploring this link allows us to analyze different forms of subjectivity in relation to history and location. For example, a woman subject in nineteenth century England or a gay subject in twenty-first century America or a Dalit subject in contemporary India may be understood in deep interrelationship with configurations of power that shape gender, sexuality and caste in these places and times. People do not always accept existing power relations and their effects; they also resist domination. Looking at various kinds of resistance is hugely useful and fascinating in the study of subjectivity.

Another way of thinking about subjectivity or the self is to anchor it in its most immediate locale—i.e. the human body. Building on a long tradition of European philosophy on subjectivity and the body—that is premised on the complex relationship between ‘having’ a body and ‘being’ that body—scholars in recent decades have shown how critical readings of the body can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the way subjects or selves are formed. The body is our primary opening to the world of objects, senses, and thoughts—as such, it is the experience of embodiment (being one’s body) that gives us access to our lifeworlds. However, the body itself is not an innocent or unmarked object/self, as it is often defined through various categories like gender/sexuality, class, caste, ethnicity, religion, disability and so on. Or, as in cultural studies and other disciplines, the body is often described as ‘enthralled’ to given power regimes and their specific cultural and social codifications. As a result, though we often stage certain identities on our bodies (think of caste markers, or use of tattoos or piercing, or even cross-dressing), we also need to be conscious of the imperceptible limits of our self-fashioning placed on us by different regimes of power. Literary texts, films, philosophical discourses, and political movements allow us to understand this essential duality of the body—you may think of classic novels like Robinson Crusoe or Frankenstein, or more recent texts like The Hunger Games or Disgrace; or political movements like Dalit movements, temple entry movements like Sabarimala, or even ‘pinjra tod.’ It is useful to explore these ideas around the body and subjectivity in conjunction with questions of power, affect, sexuality, and technology.

You will find below two lists of readings on these questions and themes. We would like all workshop participants to read all the essays listed as ‘Essential Readings.’ ‘Further Readings’ allow more in-depth and advanced exploration, and we strongly recommend them to those of you who are interested in the topics and areas they address. This note and the readings given below are aimed at helping you in formulating a topic for your essay. It is useful for the essay to have a specific and sharp focus, be that on literary texts or concepts or cultural phenomena, or an interweaving of the three. A very general theme or idea may make it difficult to develop your analysis and argument with clarity and precision. Hope you enjoy writing your essay and participating in the workshop.

Look forward to seeing you in March.