Some Questions About the Theory of the Subject: the Discursive Politics of Psychoanalytic Theories

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Williams, Peter
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Hunter, Ian
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For the disciplines grouped, under the sign of 'the Humanities' the category of the subject has been and, for most, remains the more or less stable site in which the various investigations and reconstitutions of philosophy around the problems of 'truth value' and the 'meaning of meaning' are undertaken, and to which these adjacent disciplines have recourse for their theoretical foundations. In the last decade the critical reformulation of the category of the subject through the articulation of psycho-analytic theory, structuralist linguistics, and Marxist theory of ideology, has shifted it from a stable foundational site of knowledges to the problematic effect and conditions of power and knowiedge practices. For the readership of jourrfals such as Screen, Cine-Tracts and Yale French Studies, a quite particular knowledge of 'the subject', drawing on the work of the psychoanalyst Lacan, was made primary to an understanding of the production and consumption of texts occurring within a network of power relations. While this shift in the category of the subject will engage our attention it does not exhaust the work of the thesis. The argument of the thesis is that despite its multiple transformations in classical epistemologies, Marxist epistemologies and psychoanalytic theories, a 'theory of the subject' maintains a philosophical anthropologism as the basis of all our enterprises. That is, it brings into force an imperative that all knowledge functions to extend our understanding of 'the human', and that it is only when referred to this domain that knowledges achieve their truth-value. Emerging within a particular organization of knowledge around the themes of truth and liberation (that the value of knowledges resides in their truth, that truth is essential and free and that, in turn, truth frees), this anthropologism returns questions relating to the production and consumption of texts (e.g., how to transform current writing and reading practices) and questions relating to wider political strategies, to the correlates of those themes - consciousness-raising, the liberation of essences or rehearsal of origins, the endorsement of a general theory of repression; in short, it returns political questions to the available specigications of what is seen as their fundamental reference point - the subject. Theories of the (individual or social) subject impose on all our questions and analyses the same homogenizing teleology, which is unacceptable to a materialist critical practice which seeks to attend to historically shifting, institutionally differentiated power and knowledge relations. Accordingly, the thesis provides the conditions for a different account of the effect of 'subjectivity'. The argument is targeted at the Lacanian theory of the subject which has been read, following Althusser's essays, as clarifying the ideological nature of the subject by demonstrating the mechanism of its formation. The theory re-routes Freudian psychoanalysis through Saussurian linguistics. This corresponds with other current theories of the centrality of language to 'the human' (Ricoeur's phenomenology, Kristevan semiology). This thesis argues that theories of language as a unitary system generated from primary mechanisms in which the subject is founded may provide detours for, but ultimately further support this anthropological teleology. This teleology is challenged by a reformulation of the theories of language which promise to unravel the unity' of the subject, but fail. This reformulation is provided in the Foucauldian problematic's concept of discourse. This specification of discourse removes the term from the philosophical dichotomy 'ideal-real' in which the historical material 'events' of language are treated as the contextual correlates of a text that is formed from general rules located interior to the text. Challenging accounts of the production of language articulated on a hierarchization of 'ideal' (consciousness, general grammar) and 'realq sites (social moment of enunciation, experience of language), the concept of a discourse runs counter to expressivist theories of language and general theories of representation. An analysis of the discursive formations of the Lacanian texts and the forms of their appropriation into other discourses is thus relieved from the task of considering them in terms of the fidelity of their represen- tations (of the psyche, male/female desires, apparatuses of cognition, etc.) to a general order of 'truth'. Instead, analysis can be redirected to the discursive relations in which these objects (psyche, desire) emerge and which constitute an apparatus of truth that governs what we are able and not able to say about consciousness, the unconscious, reading and writing practices, the formation of society and of families, and so on. An analysis of the Lacanian texts in terms of their discursive mechanisms and which also demonstrates their position in a larger discursive ensemble, has the limited aim of providing a different reading of the conditions of production and consumption of this apparatus of truth from those readings of psychoanalytic theory as the true, or mistaken, recognition of the subject.

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Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
School of Humanities
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Truth value
Theory of the subject
Psychoanalytic theories
Lacanian texts
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