Subject, Society and Culture


Roy Boyne

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University


    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Mike Hepworth, University of Aberdeen

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Pittsburgh

    Bryan S. Turner, University of Cambridge


    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

    Centre Administrator

    The TCS Centre, Room 175

    Faculty of Humanities

    Nottingham Trent University

    Clifton Lane, Nottingham, NG11 8NS, UK



    Recent volumes include:

    Feminist Imagination

    Genealogies in Feminist Theory

    Vikki Bell

    Michel de Certeau

    Cultural Theorist

    Ian Buchanan

    The Cultural Economy of Cities

    Allen J. Scott

    Body Modification

    edited by Mike Featherstone

    Paul Virilio

    From Modernism to Hypermodernism

    edited by John Armitage


    View Copyright Page

    List of Illustrations


    My colleagues in the Sociology Department of Durham University, in the European Studies Group at the University of Durham, Stockton Campus, and on the Editorial Board of Theory, Culture & Society, have provided continual stimulation and encouragement. John Hayward (who deserves a special word for his support, and for his superb work in developing the Stockton Campus of the University of Durham), Adrian Darnell and John Bancroft have provided cover, at critical moments, for my administrative duties in Durham, and I am in their debt. Ruediger Ahrens and the University of Wuerzburg were generous hosts during an extended research visit to Germany. Mike Featherstone, Bridget Fowler, Sarah Franklin, Steve Fuller, Ian Heywood, Scott Lash, John Myles, and Derek Robbins all read parts of the manuscript and made helpful comments for which I am grateful. The responsibility for what lies within is, of course, entirely my own. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, Georg Baselitz, the Prado, the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum, and DACS acting on behalf of the Tate Gallery and private collections, gave permission for the reproduction of the pictures which appear in the book. Faber and Faber gave permission for the extract from ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ to appear. Their help was invaluable.

    A version of Chapter 3 appeared in Symbolism: a Journal of Critical Aesthetics, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1999. A short version of Chapter 4 appeared in The History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1995 and in Chris Jenks (ed.), Visual Culture, London: Routledge, 1995. A short version of Chapter 6 appeared in Susanne Fendler and Ruth Wittlinger (eds), The Idea of Europe in Literature, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999. A version of Chapter 7 appeared in Angelaki, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1999.

    Finally, I would like to express my thanks to my wife, Nicola, my stepdaughter, Clare, and my son, Christopher, who have all been outstanding in their constant support.

    Preface: The Fate of the Subject

    The story of the subject in Western thought can be approached through Machiavelli's tale of Remirro de Orco. He was the man who forcibly pacified and unified the Romagna at the start of the sixteenth century. Cesare Borgia, known at the time as Duke Valentino, knew that while the inhabitants of the Romagna had been quietened, they were nevertheless liable to nurse resentment and hatred at the way that they had been quelled. He therefore came to the decision that it had become unnecessary to keep faith with Remirro de Orco, despite the fact that this man had been his loyal lieutenant and a fruitful and effective subject acting on his behalf:

    The Duke decided that there was no need for this excessive authority, which might grow intolerable, and he established in the centre of the province a civil tribunal, under an eminent president, on which every city had its own representative. Knowing also that the severities of the past had earned him a certain amount of hatred in the minds of the people and to win them over completely he determined to show that if cruelties had been inflicted they were not his doing but prompted by the harsh nature of his minister. This gave Cesare a pretext; then, one morning, Remirro's body was found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it.

    (Machiavelli 1961: 57–8)

    This death of the agent in 1502 exhibits the classic form of the critical paradigm. In abstract, there are six moments: first the subject as untrammelled power, second the emergence of a relatively autonomous agent of that subject; third rejection of the potential consequences of that autonomy, fourth the death of the agent, fifth affirmation of the power of the agent (not now Remirro, but the Civil Tribunal), and sixth the persistence of the subject. What Machiavelli teaches us is to look for the subject behind the agent.

    We need not however follow Machiavelli's (and, later, Sartre's) example here and define the subject in terms of the struggle for supremacy. While we do need to hold on to some notion of autonomy if we are to retain a notion of a subject, different forms of autonomy surely exist. In the fields of aesthetics, politics, economics, science, ethics, education, and one might even say, loosely, everyday life, it is not obvious that human actors are only agents acting on behalf of other forces. There will, of course, be plenty of occasions when that will be the case. There will, however, also be times when human subjects take considered actions when loyalties conflict, form critical judgements in the absence of clear rules, attempt innovations without prior approval, and take principled stands which lead them into apparently untenable positions. The ubiquity of such examples presents prima facie grounds for arguing that the simple replacement of the human subject by the sociological notion of the agent cannot be justified. Perhaps it will be a matter of seeing these two basic notions as alternatives. At times, even when we do not know it, thought or action may be other-directed, representational, vicarious. This is certainly true. At other times, however, human action is not the action of agents, whether conscious or unconscious, but is seen as an expression of autonomous selfhood. The situation is made difficult because all human action can be seen by others as either agential or subjective, and the actor, him or herself, can never be completely clear which it is or where the balance lies. If we add this hermeneutic indeterminacy to the strength and weight of the formative social forces around us, forces which lead us without realising it to act and think as we sometimes do, it becomes plain that as subjects our constitution is relatively weak. There is however a very great difference between acknowledging this weakness, and acceding to the wholesale critique of the subject that has been common currency within much of the social sciences and some of the humanities since the 1960s.

    Suppose, however, that we are living through the death of the subject. If this is the case, we are surely in dramatic and momentous times. Both the objective view of nature advanced especially within science and technology, and the subjective view of human beings as moral subjects, have been enormously productive. Apparatuses of knowledge, law and economy testify to this efflorescence. We might expect, then, that announcements of the transcendence of the objectivity–subjectivity divide will either enshrine a critique of such productivity itself (radical ecology springs to mind here) or offer an equally fecund potential (actor network theory, discussed in Chapter 2, below, may be the best example here). Thus far, however, as I will try to show in the course of this book, denials of either the subjectivity of subjects or the objectivity of objects rest within the general framework of subject and object which remains untranscended. This is not to say that the principles of science and morality (to take the two obvious instances) have not given rise to mistakes, false promises and, certainly, terrors. Nor is it to say that local vectors of the overall subject–object framework are immune to criticism and reformulation.

    This book is concerned with the subjective moment that, thus far, remains residual and obdurate even after the fiercest dilutions, deprivations and denials to be found within contemporary social science and postmodern practice within the humanities and the philosophy of culture. What do we mean by the subject? At its core is the idea of an autonomous principle of judgement. A prototype for this principle is based on the idea of single individual human beings who are able freely to decide upon the actions that they take within virtually all social and personal contexts. The site of the decision process, in this view, is the individual consciousness, and although it can be compromised by drugs, emotional turmoil, physical duress, and by the artful manipulations of others, and even though it can never be certain of the authenticity of its own condition, in its normal form it is sufficiently powerful to be autonomous, discerning and, therefore, responsible for its own actions. This view of the subject is a basis of the day-to-day understanding of the self within Western society. It is reflected in contemporary legal systems whether based on English common law, Roman law, or Islamic law. It is also contained in the very structure of our language, with its subjects and predicates, its nominative and accusative cases. The essence of this classical, post-Augustinian view of the subject is that the T is the first cause of its own intentional actions.

    There is a clear opposition between contemporary sociological thought and contemporary cultural theory with regard to the question of the subject. Both regard the classical post-Augustinian view as untenable. Sociologists have tended to hold that view in epistemological terms, finding that there is no aspect of human behaviour which can a priori be treated as outside the mechanisms of social cause and effect. Cultural theorists have tended to find that the classical view of the subject is an ideological construction, both in theory and in practice. In consequence, and in general, sociological thought repudiates the subject, while cultural theory seeks to understand how the subject is constructed and/or how and where it is placed. In the first chapter of this book, we will look at the first of two major currents within sociological theory: Bourdieu's reflexive field theory. In the second chapter, our topic will be actor network theory. I aim to show, in this first part of the book, that one of the things that unites these exemplars of structuralist and constructivist thought is a shared rejection, on epistemological grounds, of the subject, but that they both, as Machiavelli might lead us to expect, depend upon the principle of subjectivity, even as they have intimated its death.

    The second part of the book suggests that the pristine moment of refusal of the sociological consciousness that has defined the contemporary period is to be found in modern art. Paradigmatically, this takes the form of the artist's striving to express something of the subjective, human condition. One might say that the artist tries to puncture, even burn, the institutional layers which lie heavy, like so many sheets on a cold bed,1 on the subject made supine by the weight of social forces. While the sociologist holds that it is this weight which constitutes the subject, creating the very idea of a moral subject and casting grave doubt upon the artist's project, the artists we will consider try to excavate what is essential to the subject, finding qualities of the subject which are a-social, pre-social and supra-social. They do not aspire to a scientific description of a non-social subject, but rather try to crystallise out the qualities of the subject that endure despite the pressures of social construction and conformity that bear down upon us all.

    The varied affirmations of subjectivity that we find in Newman, Baselitz and Bacon give us limited insight into the cultural condition of the contemporary subject, into its modes of possibility as being-in-the-world. The cinema has no particular privilege over literature or philosophy in this regard, but, as the seventh art form, it is both the contemporary mode of leisure and a powerful medium of reflexivity for the subject in the world. This is not, of course, its generally understood function – far from it. So we have to be careful. There is, however, on the evidence of the body of work, accessible work for the most part, that has been produced over the last century, a continuing potential for anthropological analysis and investigation of subjective temporalities which goes far beyond the intentions of the profit seekers, and penetrates into the symptomatology of the contemporary subject.

    The cinematic subject cannot be strong, for it, like Superman sold for $65 in 1938, then has value only as parody and entertainment. In contrast to the case of sociology, however, the subject for cinema does not disappear entirely from view, nor is it too often made arcane as a result of the brilliant and obsessive hunt for clinching and exquisite essence. The very core of cinema as an art form is the fabulation and illustration of the strength and weakness of the contemporary subject. This subject is not strong enough to forgo accommodation: no matter what form the attempted repudiation of exterior forces might take, whether the attempt to deny one's past or the effort to dissolve oneself in a sealed narrative of private desire, the effort will fail. However, even in the case of a subject entirely overwhelmed by social forces, some element of its own does struggle to endure, an iconic counter-instance even if in death and failure.

    It is the overall argument of this book that the humanities and the social sciences are moving too far apart, that the social scientific repudiation of the subject has its counterpart in the Manichaean subjectivism of popular entertainment, and that both risk forgoing the moral narrative subtleties of contemporary life. We fail to appreciate and reinforce these intricacies at our peril, and art, whether on canvas or on the screen, can help with their reproduction.


    1. The work of Anselm Kiefer is instructive, not only for his 1974 picture, Painting = Burning. His 1992 installation, The Women of the Revolution, included fourteen steel beds with mattresses covered with lead sheets.

  • In Conclusion

    How should we now understand the subject? Within the framework of sociological analysis, whether ruled by an objectivist commitment to real structures or by the plastic scepticism of contingent constructionism, the subject is entirely resolved and dissolved into its component social parts. From birth to death, and at all points before, between and after, at every point on both its surface and in its interior, the subject is a social accomplishment. There is no level that is anterior to the social. This is the sociological position and it is unimpeachable. It does not mean that there is no morality or that the sense of the physical is bogus, merely that – just to take these two of many examples that could have been picked – the moral and the physical never escape sociological definition. Sociologically speaking, there has never been a history of the subject which was not first, foremost, and entirely a history of society. Thus, if conceptions of the subject have moved from Platonic replicas of the Gods through various stages to current conceptions of Freudian splitting or postmodern fragmentation, this narrative of the subject is a sociological phenomenon and its stages can be sociologically analysed. None of this, however, authorises the conclusion that the subject is therefore only an agent of wider social forces, or that it does not exist, or that the drive to give cultural expression to the ache and conscious persistence of the human is either inferior or without significance. It does not mean that the exploration of alienation to be found in, for example, the films of David Cronenberg or Robert Bresson does not catch something of the eternal condition of the subject, nor does it enable the refusal of contemporary lessons concerning the poor fit of the moral rags clothing the subject given to us by Maurice Blanchot or Krzysztof Kieślowski. In short, the inevitability of the social takes its place alongside the inevitability of the subject. Neither precludes the other. Sociological explanation is only one perspective on the human world, and even if it does account for the subject to the point of its dissolution, this is just not the case for other perspectives, such as the aesthetic, axiological or dramatic. These in their turn may exclude the sociological. This may be a lesson that sociologists still have to learn, that reflexivity will operate to relativise, that it will perform a function of de-domination.

    It was Barnett Newman's self-appointed task to attempt to portray the struggle of the subject without reducing that struggle to a narrative. He wanted to suggest the scale of the phenomenon: infinitely reproduced, infinitely varied, closely united but unspeakably separate, sociologically deniable yet existentially apodictic, beyond and within. Baselitz wished to show the subject uncontaminated, not now by the sociological perspective, but by his own. He was led in a number of directions: fragmentation, inversion, sculptural brutalism, and an obsessively myopic neo-romanticism. Between these artists, we see a contrast of sacred and profane: Newman trying to see and then to express what it is about the subject that is set apart, Baselitz attempting in different ways to approach, without the transport of his own subjectivity – an impossible task, of course – the sheer materiality of the subject. This contrast between Baselitz's figure and Newman's ground, between a dogged phenomenology and a rapturous idealism, is, needless to say, a fundamental alternation in the current of the subject itself. It was then for Francis Bacon to add a third term: a witness to the subject and a witness as subject, a line of inquiry into the conditions of the subject which has hardly begun, but which might suggest a third ontological category to be added to those of master and slave. That the twentieth century was the time of the witness, debarred from but close to the action, admitting both good and evil done to and by others, locked in a present circumscribed by alien histories and inaccessible futures, of great weight but without specific powers, is a thought that is already very familiar. It takes us, it might be thought, into the cinema.

    Kieślowski's trilogy suggests to us that there may be three basic ideal types of subject. The existential subject is caught in the night at that point when the only presence to consciousness is the sound of one's breathing and the slightly irregular pulse of the heart. From a base of unadorned bodily existence, unanswerable but insistent questions of meaning arise. This is not a willed condition. Nor is it pristine. It is accompanied by an emotional response: fear, disgust, self-pity, for example. The existential subject is crystallised out of an intersubjective existence, and experienced in language against a ground of significant macro- and micro-others. The Cartesian subject is a creature of instrumental reason. He or she is a construction well known to economists, military commanders, works managers and police forces, to name just some of the more obvious instances. Without elements of calculation, the human subject cannot survive within any context. However, an entirely Cartesian subject is not human, but robotic, controlled by the instructions of others. We are here within what has been called on many occasions the realm of means. The Kantian subject has an answer to the existentialist's question of meaning (an answer which is entirely lost sight of once inside the existentialist mode, but which, from the Kantian standpoint, never leaves one's side, as the musical expression of caritas never leaves Julie) and that answer, expressed as a set of shared values, a grammar of collective life, provides an overall framework for the subject's conduct, both instrumental and non-instrumental, vis-à-vis him- or herself and others. We are here, as will already be clear and familiar, within the realm of ends. To these three ideal types, it is now necessary to add a fourth: the subject as witness. The three imperatives above of being, doing and care are all of them underpinned, as each is by the others, by the inescapability of testimony. Perhaps this is where the power of sociology lies, as well as the characterisation of the twentieth century, but be that as it may, Bacon, Kieślowski, Ballard (tempted from observation into participation), and no doubt many others, affirm that it is time to give the witness its due, and to begin to work out its implications.


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