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“Is subjectivity derived from inter-subjectivity? Self-consciousness has no primacy over the awareness of others, since language – which is intrinsically public – is the means of access to both. Inter-subjectivity does not derive from subjectivity, but the other way around.”
(Anthony Giddens. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Society. Polity Press. 1993.)
Discuss with reference to one or more texts studied on the module.
This essay will ultimately contest Anthony Giddens’ statement that our sense of self, our identity, is not derived from our ‘subjectivity’ – “determined by one’s own mind or consciousness”1 – but instead comes about through ‘inter-subjectivity’, our relationships “between, among”2 others. In order to discuss Giddens’ aforementioned quote, I will make reference to the concept of the ‘mirror stage’ formulated by Jacques Lacan, a concept which stipulates that our “sense of self, then, comes from something external.”3 Following Lacan’s lead, I will provide examples from Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Helen Simpson’s Hey yeah right get a life that appear to provide support for the notion that it is our relationships among others which provides the basis for our sense of self. Closely examining Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, I will then proceed to deconstruct Giddens’ statement, showing how ‘inter-subjectivity’ cannot be the guarantor of one’s sense of self. The final step of this deconstruction will be to demonstrate that ‘subjectivity’ and ‘inter-subjectivity’ are not even categorically distinct concepts, and I shall highlight the inextricable interplay between the two terms, inherent in their definition, with an example from Jim Crace’s Being Dead.[^]
Jacques Lacan, an influential post-structuralist psychoanalytical philosopher, proposed that the world is constructed “according to three interlinked orders – the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real”4. The first of these concomitant orders that each child experiences is the Imaginary, during which time one experiences a pervasive feeling of completeness, of inseparability from the mother. In order to become separate from the mother – to become an individual in his or her own right – the child encounters the ‘mirror stage’, during which time the child “sees itself reflected, either literally or verbally, in a mirror”5. The image presented to the child forms the basis of the ego. Thus, Lacan concludes, it is through our relation with the external world that our sense of self is established; this position lends weight to Giddens’ statement.[^]
In Sarah Waters’ Affinity, Margaret can be seen as embodying Giddens’ belief that one’s sense of self is derived through one’s relationships among others. We learn through Margaret’s journal, by means of which – alongside Selina’s own diary – Affinity is narrated, that she had an extremely close relationship with her father, helping him with his studies, and that she was devastated when the nurses “first found the cancer in him”6 and he subsequently died. Having spent so much time in her father’s company, her sense of self had become dependent upon him and, when he died, Margaret attempted suicide:
At the conclusion of Affinity, after Margaret has established an intimate friendship with Selina which promises to lead to a new life for them both, Selina eschews Margaret’s company in favour of Vigers’. Margaret’s sense of self is still dependent upon the deceitful Selina, despite Selina choosing to elope with Vigers instead of the gaol-visiting friend she had promised herself to. The final lines of Margaret’s journal, through which the narrative is focalized, reveals the extent to which Margaret’s identity is bound up with Selina:
In a similar vein to Affinity‘s Margaret, Dorrie, the female protagonist through whom Helen Simpson’s shorter story Hey Yeah Right Get a Life is largely focalized, is desperately reliant upon others for her sense of self. Early on in the story we learn that Dorrie has willingly fragmented her ‘self’:
When Dorrie realizes that her children will soon be old enough to enable her to return to work, she secretly yearns for another baby; her sense of self is inextricably entwined with motherhood. Dorrie’s desire for another child is such that she weeps when her husband, Max, dismissively announces that Naomi, his “right-hand woman at the builder’s yard”10, is pregnant. The selfless energy that Dorrie puts into taking care of her children can be seen through Max’s harsh assessment of her physical appearance at their eight-year wedding anniversary meal; Dorrie has grown so accustomed to putting her offsprings’ needs first that she no longer knows how to make herself look attractive to her husband:
‘I’m sorry I didn’t manage to make myself look nice,’ said Dorrie. […] he [Max] appraised her worn face, free of make-up except for an unaccustomed and unflattering application of lipstick […] She was starting to get a double chin […].11[^]
In the discussion so far, it is clear that ‘inter-subjectivity’ has been the privileged concept of the structuralist binary opposition thus established in the form ‘inter-subjectivity’/ ‘subjectivity’, with regard to the question of how a sense of self is determined. From a post-structuralist perspective, this privileging of the importance of ‘inter-subjectivity’ is questionable, and I intend to reference Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil as the first deconstructive strategy aimed at “reversing the traditional hierarchy”12; both philosophers appear to favour the concept of ‘subjectivity’ over the notion of ‘inter-subjectivity’ in determining one’s sense of self.[^]
A recurrent theme of Rousseau’s Confessions is the happiness he finds in solitude, blissfully isolated from society. The violence with which Rousseau reacts against external influences on the construction of his sense of self is demonstrated by his retreat to the Hermitage, a retreat which offers a complete break from the imposition of social duties inherent in community life:
Rousseau’s position with regard to religion, videlicet he only adopts a certain faith when it will aid him in some way, highlights the fact that he believes his own, irreducible sense of self is unaffected by whichever cloak of piousness he dons. This is illustrated by his decision to embrace Calvinism in order to reclaim his rights as a Genevan citizen in 1754, following the submission of his ‘Second Discourse’:
Like Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche’s most intense period of creative energy came when he was living the life of “the solitary wanderer”15, after being forced to resign from university life in 1879. Nietzsche’s indisputable refusal to allow the expectations of others to dominate his sense of self is manifest throughout his literature, particularly in Beyond Good and Evil when he argues that in order to better oneself it is necessary to stand outside the mass of conformity prevalent within society. He was particularly scathing of the sheep-like meekness engendered by Christianity, believing that conformity to its religious ideals merely fostered mediocrity. In his view, man must stand alone and acknowledge his will to power in order to fulfil his true potential:
The ideas extolled by Rousseau and Nietzsche can be seen to refute Giddens’ statement, and provide support for a reversal of the ‘inter-subjectivity’/ ‘subjectivity’ binary opposition with regard to determining one’s sense of self. However, the final step in the deconstructive process that I intend to perform upon the statement quoted in the essay title is to illustrate the fact that ‘subjectivity’ and ‘inter-subjectivity’ are not distinct concepts that can be placed in an unequivocal structuralist binary opposition. The very definition of ‘subjectivity’ as “determined by one’s own mind or consciousness”17, means that – to use Jacques Derrida’s terminology – a trace of the “personal”18 will always contaminate the supposed ‘otherness’ of ‘inter-subjectivity’, and, therefore, a sense of ‘self’ will always invade one’s relations with ‘others’. Likewise, by definition, for something to be determined by one’s own mind or consciousness there must be the absence or rejection of others’ influence.[^]
This blurring of the boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, between ‘subjectivity’ and ‘inter-subjectivity’, means that the ‘two’ concepts will always be entwined, inseparable. Indeed, in the light of this logical inference, the texts discussed above can be read in a way that stresses the importance of the ‘opposite’ factor to that which was previously highlighted in determining one’s identity.[^]
In further unravelling this ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ dilemma, it is possible to question Lacan’s belief that one’s sense of self is necessarily conferred by an external source. Accepting the fact that, at one time or another, every child will encounter the literal or figurative ‘mirror’, it can obviously be stated that first of all there has to be a child, an ‘individual’, to stand [or be held] before the ‘mirror’. Secondly, the child can make an independent decision to shape the image reflected to him literally or verbally so that it conforms to his or her individual ideals. For example, the child can style its hair in a different manner to the way it was first presented in the mirror, thereby altering the sense of self that was conferred by the external source to match his or her internal wishes. Another example would be the fact that the child can decide to act in a way that changes the verbal sense of self conferred upon it by the external ‘mirror’; the child can decide to behave consistently well if it has been told that it is ‘bad’. Such an independent decision would alter the verbal sense of self conferred upon it by the ‘mirror’ figure. Therefore, the external source which bestows the basis of the ego upon the child is not fixed, but, like language, “continually in a state of slippage”19, because of the independent actions that can be performed upon it.[^]
Before allowing her friendship with Selina to become so tragically intimate, Margaret is faced with stiff opposition to her visits to Millbank. Miss Haxby, “‘the Argus of the gaol'”20, is informed by Miss Ridley that Margaret has become friendly with Selina, and Miss Haxby tells the Lady Visitor that:
Margaret later shows obedience to Selina’s requests as she prepares for her escape, and if her sense of self was governed solely by her relationships among others it would be logical to expect Margaret to accede to Miss Haxby’s wishes. The fact that she refuses to back down, successfully pleading her case with Mr Shillitoe, is an example of Margaret’s ‘self’ holding sway over the interdictions of others in her inter-personal relationships. Another textual example of the predominance of independent decisions, taken despite the advice of others, can be seen in the way Margaret tells her mother that the visits to Millbank have ceased when, in fact, they have not.[^]
[…] the start of that intense outlandish sensation that comes after protracted sleep; the feeling in a limb that has gone numb […] until after a long dormant while that limb is teeming again, tingling into life.22
Thus, despite the sorrow she initially feels at the prospect of being separated from the children upon whom she has bestowed such energy, and within whom her ‘self’ is bestrewn, Dorrie experiences a revitalising sensation as she realises that the world of work – and the opportunity to forge a meaningful, successful career – lies before her; her dormant, fragmented motherhood ‘self’ is set to become a more independent, personal, and wholesome self.[^]
A paradox is apparent with regard to Rousseau’s Confessions, in that he chooses to shun the company of his contemporaries and professes to be happiest when alone, yet writes “articles on music and political economy for Diderot’s Encyclopaedia, and an opera, The Village Soothsayer […] a polemical Letter to d’Alembert on Stage-performances“23 which have to be critically well-received, by the very society that he chooses to avoid, in order for him to gain personal recognition and satisfaction. In the final lines of his Confessions, we learn that Rousseau has conducted a reading of his autobiographical work in the company of the very society he earlier abjured:
The same basic paradox can be applied to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. After having stressed the importance of standing apart from the conforming mass of society, and of accepting and embracing one’s will to power, Nietzsche required the importance of his philosophical works to be acknowledged by the masses of whom he was so critical. The fact that, during his lifetime, the audience he reached only “numbered in the hundreds”25 has been recognized by most scholars as a determining factor in his later mental collapse:
Despairing over the poor sales of his books and his ever declining health, Nietzsche suffered an irreversible mental breakdown, collapsing on a street in Turin in 1889 […].26
Nietzsche’s failure to become an ‘overman’ in his own time was a major reason for his descent into madness; following his own mandate of living a unique, creative existence independent of others, he still needed these very ‘others’ to validate his existence.[^]
Following this deconstructive argument to its logical end, it seems a corollary to conclude that ‘inter-subjectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ are not categorically distinct concepts, but are, rather, terms which necessarily contaminate each other. There is an interplay between the terms, inherent in their very definition, but – to use a typically tenuous deconstructive pun in putting the point across – one cannot be said to precede the other (and vice versa) in determining the individual’s sense of self.[^]
This interplay of ‘inter-subjectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ is demonstrated in an exemplary fashion in Jim Crace’s Being Dead, with regard to the mature Celice’s position as a married woman. Celice’s husband, Joseph, initiates a nostalgic day-trip back to Baritone Bay, the location where they “had met as students almost thirty years before”27, and the place where they first made love together. Celice is aware that Joseph wants to copulate in the same spot as they did those many years ago, but is resigned to – rather than stimulated by – this prospect. When Joseph goes searching for the exact location, Celice reflects upon how her attitudes have changed since she was young, wild, and single, and, realizing that her husband no longer sexually excites her, she reminisces about her past partners:
The truth is that mature Celice would rather have her cigarettes returned […] than her old appetites. […] She was provoked not by her husband’s melting voice these days […] but by his radio, […] his acid hypochondria, […] his unselfconscious repetition of the facts.
[…] the five minutes that she’d spent, while he was absent, resuscitating her seven other men had already aroused her so much more. […] How giddy it would be again […] to be desired, just once, by someone other than her husband. There was, had been, a man […] her harmless fantasy for years. He could have been her number eight.28
The interplay of ‘inter-subjectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ can be seen in attempts to understand why Celice did not attempt to enact her ‘harmless fantasy’ with her colleague in reality, before his eventual suicide. Was it Celice’s inter-subjective position as a married woman, or an independent, subjective decision not to escalate their intimacy from the status of friendship, that stopped Celice violating her wedding vows? It can be inferred that, in all likelihood, it was the interplay of ‘inter-subjectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ that ensured she remained faithful to her husband and retained an unblemished, married sense of self.[^]
In conclusion, this essay has sought to contest Anthony Giddens’ contention that our sense of self is derived from our relationships among others, rather than being an identity that is unique and innate within us. Rather than simply reversing the primacy Giddens attributes to our relationships among others, I have performed a deconstruction of his statement with reference to Lacan’s concept of the ‘mirror stage’, Sarah Waters’ Affinity, Helen Simpson’s Hey yeah right get a life, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, which has shown that the terms ‘inter-subjectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ are not mutually exclusive concepts, but, rather, contaminate – and are inextricably linked with – each other. In order to illustrate the continual interplay between these two terms, I offered reasons to explain Celice’s failure to act upon her ‘harmless fantasy’ to exemplify the fact that there can be no clear-cut determinant of one’s sense of self; internal and external, ‘subjective’ and ‘inter-subjective’, influences and motives will always interact to ultimately determine one’s sense of self.[^]
ENDNOTES [click relevant endnote to return to appropriate place in essay]
1English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.412.
3David Rudd. Psychoanalytic Criticism – Jacques Lacan and ‘(Post)Structural psychoanalysis’. Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, 2005, p.1.
6Sarah Waters. Affinity. London: Virago Press, 2004, p.202.
9Helen Simpson. Hey yeah right get a life. London: Vintage UK, 2000, p.21.
12David Rudd. Post-structuralism & Deconstruction. Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, 2003, p.1.
13Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.394.
15Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1997, p.vi.
17English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.412. [my emphasis]
19David Rudd. Post-structuralism & Deconstruction. Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural & Creative Studies, 2003, p.1.
20Sarah Waters. Affinity. London: Virago Press, 2004, pp.10-11.
22Helen Simpson. Hey yeah right get a life. London: Vintage UK, 2000, p.58.
23Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.i.
25Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1997, p.v.
27Jim Crace. Being Dead. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1999, p.1.
Crace, Jim. Being Dead. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1999
English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1997
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
Rudd, David. Post-structuralism & Deconstruction. Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, 2003
Rudd, David. Psychoanalytic Criticism – Jacques Lacan and ‘(Post)Structural psychoanalysis’. Handout. Bolton: Department of Cultural and Creative Studies, 2005
Simpson, Helen. Hey yeah right get a life. London: Vintage UK, 2000
Waters, Sarah. Affinity. London: Virago Press, 2004