Advanced Studies:

Formations of the Modern Self

Core courses: The Body (Elliston), Language & Identity (staff), Kinship, Gender, & Sexuality (Elliston), Collecting (Smart), Sexuality Studies Seminar (Elliston)

The modernist theory of the sovereign subject as rational, autonomous and stable has been undermined in part by psychoanalytic accounts of the self as fundamentally built through conflicts and tensions. Scholars from feminist, postcolonial and other theoretical orientations have revealed that the presumably universal, generic features of the modernist subject turn out to be specific and circumscribed. For example, women in European societies historically were held to be irrational, and in ways that banished them from claims to full subjecthood or citizenship; colonized subjects were also believed by European colonials to lack key features of sovereign subjectivity and to need European colonial rule.

In recent years, challenges to the modernist theory of the subject have been complemented by theories of subjectivity that bring to the fore ideas of multiplicity and plurality to characterize identity — the subject as fluid, unstable, mobile, in process and even performative rather than fixed, secure, permanent or essential. Through such theories, context in all of its complexity emerges as vital for the understanding of subjectivity, encouraging ethnographic analyses of identity performances and processes of identification as contingent and situated, bound to and produced within specific social contexts.

Most sociocultural faculty in our department are engaged with questions of subjectivity that involve critical approaches to the modernist theory of the sovereign subject. Current faculty research includes study of how the practices of art collection and patronage become media for the subject-collector's self-constitution in relation to ideas about cosmopolitanism and primitivism, class aspirations and structures. There is a focus on social differences as sites of and vehicles for identification, interrogating how subjectivity is forged in relation to larger social formations of inequality (of race, sexuality, gender, and class, for example) yet revealing how subjects animate such identificatory processes of self-constitution. In these and other faculty research projects, a key part of the ethnographic study of subjectivity involves researching the complex social dynamics through which social differences are made into sites of identification and vehicles of social reproduction and of social change.

Last Updated: 6/23/15