The Critique of the Subject and the Challenge of Fragmentation - Constructing the Narrative Subject

Narrative Psychology: Identity, Transformation and Ethics - Julia Vassilieva 2016

The Critique of the Subject and the Challenge of Fragmentation
Constructing the Narrative Subject

The various narrative conceptualizations of the subject critically examined in this chapter are formulated—implicitly or explicitly—in response to the debate concerning the “idea of a substantial self, including the sense that there is a creative force within”, which is generally characterized as the question defining the difference between the postmodern and modern view of the subject (Simon 1999: 57). It is therefore instructive to sketch briefly the broader context of philosophical and psychological discussion regarding the category of the subject in which specifically narrative formulations of the subject have emerged.

The critique of the subject has been one of the most significant lines of philosophical inquiry through the course of the twentieth century. The critique was articulated from a variety of perspectives such as Marxism and psychoanalysis and has been influenced by work in a range of disciplines, including linguistics and the social sciences in general. It was also intensified by the historical and political experience of the twentieth century: the wars, the totalitarian regimes, the camps, decolonization and the birth of new nations, the acceleration of cultural production and saturation of signs, to name the most obvious factors.

Such critique has found one of its most powerful expressions in the work of Michel Foucault, who, building on aspects of both Freudian and Marxist inquiry, argues “that the subject can”t pre-exist the social order, or be the source of meaning, because it is itself constituted by dominant social rules” (Danaher, Schirato and Webb 2000: 122). These rules vary historically and culturally and are bound up with specific configurations of power, which are instrumental in producing particular forms of subjectivity. From this, Foucault proceeds to formulate his famous prediction regarding “the death of the subject”:

One thing in any case is certain: man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. […] As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared […] then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea. (Foucault 1970: 386—387)

Foucault”s work on subjectivity and power as applied to such questions as madness, social discipline, body-image, truth and normative sexuality was instrumental in establishing the postmodern intellectual landscape, where anxiety regarding the “death of the subject” continues to reverberate powerfully. Towards the end of the last century this anxiety was poignantly expressed by Jean-Luc Nancy when he raised the question, “Who comes after the subject?” which he addressed to the leading philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, including, among others, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou and Emanuel Levinas. Their answers formed the much celebrated volume of the same title, which was published in 1991. The way Nancy formulated the question has lost none of its currency since then—we are still coming to terms with the difficult issue of, if not the death of the subject, then an altered character of subjectivity that emerged towards the end of the last century and brought us into the new one. I therefore believe it is appropriate to reproduce the passage from Nancy”s letter of invitation delineating various aspects of the problem:

Who comes after the subject? The question can be explained as follows: one of the major characteristics of contemporary thought is the putting into question of the instance of the “subject”, according to the structure, the meaning, and the value subsumed under this term in modern thought, from Descartes to Hegel, if not to Husserl. The inaugurating decisions of modern thought — whether they took place under the sign of a break with metaphysics and its poorly pitched questions, under the sign of “deconstruction” of this metaphysics, under that of a transference of the thinking of being to the thinking of life, or of the Other, or of language, etc. — have all involved putting subjectivity on trial. A wide spread discourse of recent date proclaimed the subject”s simple liquidation. Everything seems, however, to point to the necessity, not of a “return to the subject” (proclaimed by those who think that nothing has happened, and that there is nothing new to be thought, except maybe variations or modifications of the subject), but on the contrary, of a move forward towards someone — some one — else in its place (this last expression is obviously a mere convenience: “the place” could not be the same). Who would it be? How would s/he present him/herself? Can we name her/him? Is the question “who” suitable? (Nancy 1991: 5)

Derrida answers the question by linking “who” with an instance, highlighting the temporal and, in principle, interminable character of the work of defining “who”—first and foremost by a human being him/herself:

In the text or in writing, such as I have tried to analyze them at least, there is, I wouldn”t say a place (and this is the who question, this topology of a certain locatable non-place, at once necessary and undiscoverable) but an instance (without stance, a “without” without negativity) for the “who”, a “who” besieged by the problematic of the trace of différance, of affirmation, of the signature and of the so-called “proper” name, of the je[c]t (above all subject, object, project), as destinerring of missive. (Derrida 1991: 99—100)

Derrida insists that whatever is subsumed under the “who” implied in the question can only come into being by answering the question itself, which presupposes the relation to self as of différance, “that is to say alterity, or trace”. The question itself becomes re-inscribed into experience of “an “affirmation”, of a “yes” or of an “en-gage””. Derrida further adds that answering such a question always presupposes responsibility in a sense of responding to someone:

The singularity of the “who” is not an individuality of a thing that would be identical to itself, it is not an atom. It is a singularity that dislocates or divides itself in gathering itself together to answer to the other, whose call somehow precedes its own identification with itself, for to this call I can only answer, have already answered, even if I think I am answering “no”. (Derrida 1991: 100—101)

Not only the answer, but the question is performative in a very fundamental sense—it is only through this procedure that subjectivity emerges.

For Levinas too it is engagement with the other that ushers subjectivity into being:

The explication of the meaning that a self other than myself has for me — for my primordial self — describes the way in which the other tears me from my hypostasy, from the here, at the heart of being or at the centre of the world where, privileged and in this sense primordial, I posit myself. But, in this tearing, the ultimate meaning of my “me-ness” is revealed. In the collation of meaning between “me” and the other and also in my alterity to myself, an alterity through which I can confer on the other my meaning of myself, the here and there come to invert their respective meaning. (Levinas 1991: 213)

Moreover, anchoring his philosophy in the category of the other, Levinas not only posits the other as an ontological condition of the subject”s being, but inscribes an ethical dimension into his system: it is an ethical relation to the other that ruptures the “egological” primordial sense of being. In fact, it “awakens” subjectivity from egoism and egotism and pushes “I” to the second level: “it is I — however manifestly primordial and hegemonic, however identical to myself, in what is “proper” to me, however comfortable in my own skin, in my hic et nunc — who pass to the second level: I see myself on the basis of the other, I expose myself to the other, I have accounts to render” (Levinas 1991: 213).

The ethical dimension also plays an important, perhaps overriding, role in Alain Badiou”s definition of a radically decentred—in fact “objectless”—subject. Within his system rested on the categories of being and event Badiou speculates about the possibility to “de-objectify the space of the subject”. For Badiou the category of subject can only make sense if it is bound up with the category of truth: “I call subject the local or finite status of truth. A subject is what is locally born out” (Badiou 1991: 25). Truth for Badiou does not reside in “knowledge”, and his understanding of truth goes well beyond the critique of correspondence theories of truth and the hermeneutics of unveiling. Truth for Badiou rather “hangs” on the question of being, and, more accurately, depends on the “supplementation or exceeding-of-being” that he terms event. It is in departing from these assumptions that Badiou arrives at the following definition of the subject: “The subject is woven out of truth, it is what exists of truth in limited fragments. A subject is that which truth passes through, or this finite point through which, in its infinite being, truth itself passes. This transit excludes every interior moment” (Badiou 1991: 25).

Gilles Deleuze in his response highlights another shift in the emerging understanding of the subject—a tendency to focus on singularity, corresponding to the growing attention to singularization in various fields of knowledge. For Deleuze, singularity is not only something that is opposed to the universal, but also “some element that can be extended close to another, so as to obtain a connection”. He notes the tendency for knowledge or beliefs to be replaced by notions like “arrangements” or “contrivance”. He argues that the function of singularity replaces that of universality and philosophy becomes “a theory of multiplicities that refers to no subject as preliminary unity”. He concludes that “the notion of subject has lost much of its interest on behalf of pre-individual singularities and non-personal individuations” (Deleuze 1991: 95).

Disparate and unique as they are, these various philosophical positions insist on a need for a re-conceptualization of the category of the subject, while opposing a nihilistic position of rejecting the category tout court. They locate the problematics of the subject not within the oppositions of essence and presence and universal and particular, but singularity and multiplicity. Singularity is defined through the embeddedness of the individual within a particular environment, connectedness and extension. The subject can be further constructively defined through time—the instance of emerging—rather than tied to a particular structural position. The subject or subjectivity cannot be understood productively within the limits and boundaries of an individual—they are embedded in the real context of its existence, which is community. Such context broadly understood creates a condition for emerging subjectivity and calls it into being. Such contextual understanding of the subject also presupposes—explicitly or implicitly—a moral or ethical dimension.

The anxiety regarding the “death of the subject” resonated deeply through various areas of the humanities. To use the terminology of the key sociologist of postmodernism, Zigmund Bauman, life towards the end of the twentieth century became increasingly “liquid”:

Liquid life is consuming life. It casts the world and all its animate and inanimate fragments as objects of consumption: that is, objects that lose their usefulness (and so their lustre, attraction, seductive power and worth) in the course of being used. It shapes the judging and evaluating of all the animate and inanimate fragments of the world after the pattern of objects of consumption. (Bauman 2005: 9)

In this radically destabilized “liquid” world geared towards the consumer market, identity as a solid stable core ceases to be of value—it contradicts the dominant logic of the unfolding of life as a cycle of production/consumption through a multitude of short-lived choices, and becomes not only unattainable but undesirable. The “liquid” world needs as its counterpart a “liquid” identity:

The sole “identity core” which one can be sure will emerge from the continuous change not only unscathed but probably even reinforced is that of homo eligens — the “man choosing” (though not the “man who has chosen”!): a permanently impermanent self, completely incomplete, definitely indefinite — and authentically unauthentic. (Bauman 2005: 33)

Concurrently, theorizing of and research on the self in academic and practising psychology started to challenge the idea of a unified essential self. The 1980s witnessed the growth of studies focusing on the experience of fragmentation, disintegration and emptiness of self. Reported trends in psychopathology attested to a growing instability of self. Disorders that have “identity disturbance” among their core features, such as borderline personality disorder and eating disorders, which were once of peripheral importance in psychiatric diagnostic systems, reached almost epidemic proportions by the end of the twentieth century. Multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, has also been on the rise, demonstrating not only a dramatic increase in diagnoses but also the increase in the number of “alternative personalities”, at some extremes reaching hundreds (Putman 1989). The growing phenomenology of disintegration was reflected in a variety of terminological definitions such as “the empty self” (Cushman 1990), “the decentralized identity” (Sampson 1985), “the quantum self” (Zohar 1990), and “the saturated self” (Gergen 1991). Reflecting the value judgement of a particular researcher, the continuum stretched from “shattered self” on the negative pole to the “protean self” (Lifton 1993) on the positive one.

The latter entered into mainstream psychology discourse as a powerful presence after the American psychiatrist Robert Lifton published his book The Protean Self in 1993. Through the “protean” metaphor Lifton tried to capture the sense of fluidity and continuous psychic re-creation that has become definitive for the experience of self in the late twentieth century. It allowed him to highlight the blending of radical fluidity, functional wisdom and a quest for at least minimal form. According to Lifton, the release of proteanism was brought about by three main forces: “historical dislocation, the mass media revolution and the threat of extinction” (Lifton 1993: 14). Lifton”s “protean self” is thoroughly postmodern—with the author himself acknowledging the conceptual indebtedness. It is a self in a constant state of flux, made up of “odd combinations”, ushered into being by the sense of fatherlessness and homelessness, “lubricating” its everyday experience with irony and plagued by myriads of anxieties. At the same time the protean self is described by Lifton as constantly “shape searching”, demonstrating various forms that “human resilience” takes in the age of fragmentation. Thus Lifton strives to construct a differentiated but functioning self.

In Kenneth Gergen”s analysis of the postmodern form of self, saturation has become a leading theme. For Gergen the postmodern development represents a result of the accumulated technologies of the twentieth century that radically changed the ease, scope, intensity and speed of communication and, by implication, human interconnectedness. Gergen describes such technological advances as “the technologies of social saturation” and attributed to their operation the “postmodern erosion of self”. The process of social saturation “immerses us ever more deeply in the social world, and exposes us more and more to the opinions, values, and lifestyles of others” (Gergen 1991: 49). Within social saturation generally Gergen delineated two aspects: “a populating of the self” and “a multiphrenic condition”. A populating of the self results from our exposure to “an enormous range of persons, the new forms of relationship, unique circumstances and opportunity, and special intensities of feelings” and represents the infusion of partial identities. Multiphrenia represents partially an outcome of self-population, and partly stems “from the populated self”s efforts to exploit the potential of the technologies of relationship” (Gergen 1991: 74). Multiphrenia refers to the “splitting of the individual into a multiplicity of self-investments” with ensuing vertigo of unlimited possibilities. Yet a multiphrenic condition is not defined as pathological by Gergen. On the contrary, it is often suffused with a sense of expansiveness and adventure. It indicates a radically new parameter of the postmodern consciousness, which might with time become just a normal way of psychological operating. The general thrust of Gergen”s theorizing is that while a shift from the modern to the postmodern context does destabilize the individual bounded self, in its place a new sense of self develops:

In this era the self is redefined as no longer an essence in itself, but relational. In the postmodern world, selves may become the manifestation of relationship, thus placing relationships in the central position occupied by the individual self for the last several hundred years of Western history. (Gergen 1991: 147)

This shift from a unified view of self, identity and consciousness to a more heterogeneous and fragmented one was paralleled on a metatheoretical level by the growing compartmentalization of research in psychology at large, the fragmentation not only within but among theories, as Martin and Barresi show in their insightful and definitive analysis of the discourses addressing soul and self during the 2000 years from antiquity to the present day (Martin and Barresi 2006: 297). They highlight that late twentieth-century psychological theorizing and research tended to focus not on the self as such, but on one of its many hyphenated roles, such as self-image, self-perception, self-conception, self-discovery, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-reference, self-modelling, self-consciousness, self-interest, self-persistence, self-control, self-denial, self-deception and self-actualization. As Martin and Barresi note further, the ontological status of these various hyphenated notions of self was often unspecified and there has been no concerted attempt to unify these self-theories with one another.

Martin and Barresi conclude that “by the end of the twentieth century the unified self died the death if not of a thousand qualifications, then of a thousand hyphenations” (Martin and Barresi 2006: 297). They consequently ask, “Is fragmentation, then, the end of the story?” and outline two possible answers: one is that the theoretical fragmentation can be more constructively and optimistically characterized as “healthy pluralism” (Martin and Barresi 2006: 301). The second possibility would stem from the realization that “a unified self is not something that we once had and then lost sight of but, rather, something that we never had to begin with” (Martin and Barresi 2006: 301). From this point of view, “a better way of characterizing what happened as a consequence of the development of theory is not that we lost something valuable that we once had but that we became better positioned to shed an illusion and finally see what we had — and have — for what it truly is” (Martin and Barresi 2006: 301).

It is in this context that various strands of narrative psychology—the model of identity as life story, the dialogical self theory (DST) and narrative therapy—deliver their articulation of the categories of self, subjectivity and subject. Inevitably, thus, narrative theorists had to take their stand on a continuum stretching from “optimistically universalisable Kantian assumptions” and the self conceived as “capable of being autonomous, rational, and centred, and somehow free of any particular cultural, ethnic, or gendered characteristics” (Butler 2002: 59) to the view that the idea of a unified self is no more than an illusion. The critical question, thus, is what narrative psychology can offer in the way of conceptualization of the subject to respond to the challenges posed by the postmodern conception of self and subject: can narrative form maintain decentredness without disintegration, providing a solution to the problem of the fragmented self? Can narrative psychology offer a more promising way to address the problem of agency and coherence in light of increasing fragmentation?