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New Subjectivities?
Darian Leader

Many analysts have shared the enthusiasm of philosophers and social theorists in proclaiming the rise of new forms of subjectivity in the late twentieth and early twenty first century. With the pluralisation of the self celebrated by postmodern thought and the unravelling of subjectivity into the supposedly myriad forms offered by technological and cultural change, it might seem as if this plasticity is the source of new possibilities for transformation. Other analysts, however, have had a less positive view: the self in flux is simply a surface form which conceals a return to the most entrenched essentialist positions and even, in fact, new fundamentalisms.

The lack of unity of the self is, of course, a feature of modernism as such. Whether it is through the structural changes to literary form in fiction or the decentred perspectives of Cubist art, identity is seen as fluid and changing rather than fixed and stable. TV shows today allow paupers to become princes, wives to swap husbands, and the body to become periodically reconfigured through surgical intervention. The self, in other words, is perpetually open to change, and the apparent abandonment of the anchoring points of fixed social roles is given a relentlessly positive gloss. Less bemoaned as a tragedy, this flexibility becomes a source of new and hopeful prospects of transcendence.

Such images of social change pose a number of questions. First of all, we can ask if the widely documented lack of subjective unity is really such a novelty or whether it is simply society's ways of responding to fragmentation that are new. Secondly, we can ask what the social effects are of a discourse that insists on subjective plasticity. And thirdly, we can ask how these problems might affect the way in which we think about groups and communities.


Social historians have given many different accounts of the forging of new subjectivities, from the eighteenth century split between public and private self to the nineteenth century subject of constitution and character and the late twentieth century individual construed as the site of autonomous self-determination, choice and self-realisation (Sennett 1986, Rose 1999). The motors for such shifts have been ascribed variously: religious, economic, legal and cultural. Without focusing on the history of these debates, it is clear that a division is always present in the way that subjectivity has been described: between reason and passion, between instinct and education, between individual and social will, and so on. Although it is a commonplace to claim that it is only today that we have come to experience the self as fragmented, the contemporary Western ideology of selfhood indicates precisely the opposite: that what is new is the idea that there could be a coherent, unified self concealed behind it. Through documenting the loss of this self, it is, in fact, made to exist.

Psychoanalysis, in contrast, has only rarely appealed to the image of a unified self. Fragmentation has been seen more often as both ubiquitous and structural. From Freud's Oedipal theory to Klein's notion of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions and Balint's idea of the basic fault, a fundamental lack of attunement between the human infant and the world it is born into is posited. For Lacan, this is both physiological - the fact that infants are always born prematurely, unable to master their motor functions and at a biological level, unfinished - and linguistic, since the register of need is skewed by the demand for love present in linguistic exchange. Our early demand for love, according to all the above thinkers, introduces an out-of-jointness into our relations with others and with the world around us. The attachments dear to psychologists and evolutionary biologists become then, as Slavoj Zizek points out, less primary instincts of the infant than defensive measures that respond to our basic out-of-jointness (Zizek 1999).

The analytic thinkers we listed above all believed that subjectivity is less a given than the result of a process. The process in question would involve the setting into place of certain basic significations: primarily those of prohibition and loss. The negative space created by these limits would in turn produce the subject, and classically this was understood to be made possible by the introduction of a third party: most obviously, the father and the paternal ideal. This intervention would provide a relay to the socio-symbolic universe where symbolic places are firmly inscribed and identity is apparently stable.

If we now turn to our first question - is the lack of unity new or society's response to it? - it could be argued that it is not that the self is any more or less fragmented, but that the relay mechanisms responsible for providing mediation and inscribing it in the socio-symbolic space have been undone. The traditional explanation for this set of problems is to see it as a consequence of the collapse of the nuclear family. But as social historians have questioned the very concept of the nuclear family, another alternative becomes clearer. It is less the loss of the patriarchal father that matters here than the loss of the separate strands of the paternal function. Rather than the implicit separation of the two functions of the father - to prohibit and to encourage - the imperative today is for the father to unite both of these functions in himself. Since this is a tall order, the insufficiency it generates will then invite appeals to mythical figures of the father to do just that. And hence all the new figures of paternity that popular culture never tires of conjuring up.

Social theorists have observed a further problem here. If the paternal relay is no longer effective at allowing a conduit to the socio-symbolic universe, surely, they point out, the socio-symbolic universe is no longer effective either. The symbolic order, itself, they say, is no longer the same (Giddens 1991). Gone are the inherent vectors of trust and non-reflected commitment that allowed traditional forms of authority to function. The figures of the judge, the politician and the general, for example are no longer trusted, so instead we turn to Others of the Other. The Opus Dei of the Da Vinci Code and all the conspiracy theories that flood the bookshops and the internet are testimony to this multiplication of Others. The new decentred subject may have freed him or herself from traditional forms of authority but still seeks a new master to be subject to. If the symbolic order is being undone, as it were, 'from the inside', this does not lessen the call to the Other but, on the contrary, strengthens it.

We should still be cautious here in comparing today's devalued symbolic with the apparently robust symbolic of previous centuries. Any detailed study of a given historical period - say, the famous twelth century with its rise of supposedly new forms of subjectivity - reveals problems which recall in many ways today's so-called 'crisis of investiture'. The symbolic has never been easily incorporated and the Other has never been without its Others. Today, just as before, there is an appetite for subjection, and the offers of free choice that flood the marketplace quickly collapse in its shadow. A couple of years ago, I noticed that in the street adjacent to my office a new restaurant was being built. The street already had at least a dozen other restaurants, and I wondered how it would fare given the competitive market which had seen a couple of them close over the previous few months. Its advertising hoarding set out its agenda unambiguously: this restaurant would only serve one dish. Not a daily dish chosen by a chef, as we find in haute cuisine establishments, but just one dish all year round with no possibility of choice. When it finally opened, queues formed every evening stretching right round the block. Given the alternative between several restaurants with wide-ranging menus and hundreds of dishes, the public chose the one restaurant where, precisely, they would have their choice removed and pay handsomely for this privilege.

This appeal to what Slavoj Zizek has called new forms of subjection is echoed in many other phenomena. Much of the protest against the widening in use of surveillance technology like CCTV, phone tracking and computerised retail spending analysis is made in the name of the right to privacy. As authors of our own lives, we resist the intrusive gaze of the Other and its efforts to shape our habits and tastes. And yet beyond this surface protest, there is surely a far deeper anxiety lest this surveillance actually not take place. If being watched worries us, the possibility that we are not being watched is far more terrifying. The absence, rather than the presence, of the Other is a much greater risk. Those arguments that claim we are living more autonomously now in a society without any Other hardly do justice to these aspects of human subjectivity.

If we turn now to our second question - what effect does society's demand for plasticity have? - we could argue that it moves in the direction of consolidating subjective essentialism. The more that technological and cultural change open up pathways for the free choice of the individual and the more that basic human orientations are seen as an arena for a free process of selection, the more that the unconscious wish to have choice removed becomes powerful. Human life starts with an imbalance: we are helpless and dependent, and we always strive to recreate some form of this imbalance, particularly that inflected with our own, early libidinal choices. No social change can ever affect this early discordance. Yet the more that an emphasis is placed socially on the idea of free choice - backed up by an intrusively available technology - the more that we search for ways to make the Other visible in its discordance.

This imbalance is reflected in the implicit tension at play in modern ideologies of the self. As Nikolas Rose has observed, the modern decentred and nomadic self is also the self of autonomous choice and self-realisation. Regulatory practices today presuppose the self as an agent of choice and unified biography while at the same time a legion of philosophers and social theorists rob the self of exactly those qualities. The logic that lies beneath this confusion is that the self is actually a project to be realised rather than a point of internal consistency. As Rose has shown, the very capacities to shape our destinies in terms of the goals of self-determination, rational choice and autonomy are effectively rendered impossible by the same agencies that promote these goals (Rose 1996).

This deadlock opens up an important point of dialogue between psychoanalysis and social theory. The experience of impossibility is at the heart of analytic formulations of the self, and in particular, the notion of superego. Rather than the devilish figure inciting us to do bad things, the superego is conceptualised - at least in Lacanian psychoanalysis - as a structural consequence of the failure of the symbolic universe to unify itself. At the points where the symbolic universe is unable to negotiate its own origins or to generate any internal consistency, this structural flaw may then take on imaginary forms, to generate the figures of superego described by classical psychoanalysis. Since every society makes demands which cannot be fulfilled, principally through ideals and imperatives that are impossible to realize, these figures will appear in guises that may well vary from one place and time to another. At a structural level, their place is homologous, situated at the points where the symbolic fails to subsume or appropriate itself.

This suggests that although new subjectivities may conceal old ones, there may well be new figures of the superego, in the sense of new imaginary forms of the structural flaw at the heart of the symbolic world. Such figures can certainly be observed, and perhaps never more clearly, in the field of education. Emotional intelligence classes now take place in many schools in Britain and even infant nurseries have stringent lists of government imperatives that must be completed each day, to produce well-adapted children with social skills who will pose little threat to society at a later date. Staff spend time intended to be with the children in filling out forms, in front of the gaze of the children themselves. These daily reports, designed to lower future risk, become the very instrument of future risk, as the children understand that they are less important than the governmental Other that must be pleased and kept content at all costs. It is less a question of children being well-adapted here than of being well-adapted for the Other.

The vociferousness of these directives as to what a human being has to be is remarkable. Many earlier efforts in education were focused more on the idea that education had to suppress or abolish the unruly aspects of infancy and childhood. Today's vision, on the contrary, is less about governing than about allowing expression. It is not about suppressing the voice of the child, but allowing it to truly speak, yet this speaking is almost ventriloquised. It does not mean expressing the internal world of the child but creating this internal world through, for example, the language of emotional intelligence that is being taught. As several theorists have pointed out, subjective interiority is colonised and rendered external in today's ideologies of the self.

We see this not only in education but also in the clinical field. Here it is increasingly a question of teaching a new language to the patient as if it were their own true tongue. Interiority is spirited away, as we see in the following definition of the self coming from two contemporary psychoanalysts: "an authentic organic self image” with the self taken as "a rational agent with understandable desires and predictable beliefs who will act to further his goals in the light of these beliefs” (Bateman and Fonagy 2004). This definition could have been lifted word for word from a textbook on rational economics. What we see clearly is how so many of the disciplines which aimed traditionally to explore the interior life are becoming vehicles for market ideologies, where humans are depicted as more or less rational agents determined to increase their stock of goods and access to services.

What seem to be new subjectivities, then, are those emptied out of everything that psychoanalysis put there. The interior becomes the exterior. This means, in effect, a return to mental hygiene, in which exterior deviances are corrected to conform to an ideal of observable normality. Modern mental health doesn't want to know that symptoms involve questions about existence, and therapists are called upon to make specific localised interventions to correct unadapted behaviours. One of the consequences of the paradox of the self explored by Rose - forced to be free by the agencies that prevent this freedom - is that the malaise generated by the inability to satisfy such imperatives turns therapists into the new experts supposed to heal the wound of insufficiency and impossibility. Yet the very framework of their intervention forms a part of the same set of imperatives.

There is a certain irony here in that the only organised and powerful bodies able to resist such trends are the traditional enemies of psychoanalysis: religious groups. We witness here two different versions of the violence of the Ideal, that vehicled by the ideologies of the self derivative of market societies and that sanctioned by religion, although it seems clear that many areas of religious life are being reorganised along managerial lines. We could also observe how the violence involved in these visions of the self is disguised by the modern idea of community. Communities are often defined along symbolic lines, with key symbolic traits given priority as defining features. In addition, it is assumed that there is a shared form of enjoyment which binds the community together. Yet what we see in practice is that the notion of community is used precisely in order to cover over the divergence of both symbolic and libidinal anchoring points.

A curious parallel emerges here between cultural and sexual difference. It was widely hailed as progress when John Gray's book 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' became an international bestseller. At last, it seemed, men were able to understand that women were different from them. But this covered over the terrifying fact that women were not only different from men but different from each other. In other words, that they were not only from Mars, but Mars, Venus, Pluto, Neptune... In the same way, it could be observed that not only are Muslims different from Jews, but also different from each other.

A recognition of difference should, of course, encourage dialogue. Differences ought to be articulated and voiced, rather than stifled beneath rigid conceptions of community. But this recognition brings with it another threat. As Slavoj Zizek noticed, the ever-increasing specificity of difference claims serves ultimately to depoliticise social action. As each statement of diversity is reduced to a localised difference claim, these differences lose their value as metaphors for political antagonism itself. And subjectivity, in the end, cannot be equated with a set of difference claims, however minimal. As Zizek points out, subjectivity in the analytic sense is simply the refusal of any form of interpellation. The forms of this interpellation will change over time and in different cultures - from the emphasis on moral duties to today's imperatives to be autonomous and self-determining - and the forms of refusal of these imperatives will also change - from medieval acedia to the nineteenth century theatre of hysteria and today's so-called depressive illnesses. But the study of these forms should not obscure for us the difference between the self - construed as the locus of social imperatives and ideals - and the subject - defined as the point of refusal of all interpellation.

Anthony Bateman and Peter Fonagy, 'Psychotherapy for Borderline Personality Disorder', Oxford University Press, 2004.
Anthony Giddens, 'The Consequences of Modernity', Oxford, Polity, 1991.
Nikolas Rose, 'Governing the Soul', 2nd ed, London, Free Association Books, 1999.
Nikolas Rose, 'Inventing Our Selves', Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Richard Sennett, 'The Fall of Public Man', London, Faber, 1986.
Slavoj Zizek, 'The Ticklish Subject', London, Verso, 1999.

Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst and writer working in London.