Original Ar ticle

SUBJ ECTIVITY, SELF AND E V E RY DAY L I F E I N CONTEMP O RARY C AP I TAL I S M
I a n Bu r k i t t
University of Bradford, Bradford, UK
Correspondence: Ian Burkitt E-mail: i.burkitt@bradford.ac.uk

A b s t ra c t
In this piece, I make a distinction between the terms ‘‘subjectivity’’ and ‘‘self’’ in social science, arguing that the term subject – a being subject to others by control or dependence and subject to itself through reflexive domination – cannot be simply substituted for the term self. Talk of subjectivity helps critical psychologists understand how individuals are formed in power relations, but the term self helps us understand individuals in a more wellrounded way as having identities formed in more general social relations. However, I argue that the power relations shaping everyday lives today are those of neo-liberal capitalism, which is attempting to create individuals who are the subjects of work and consumerism. Yet to understand the agents who resist this form of power and subjection, we need a conception of selves that have the social bases from which to develop critical ideas and alternative lifestyles and values.

Ke y wo rds
subjectivity; self; neo-liberalism; capitalism; power; resistance Subjectivity (2008) 23, 236–245. doi:10.1057/sub.2008.13

I n tr oduc ti on

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ne of the key terms to have been used by critical social psychology over the last couple of decades has been that of ‘‘subjectivity’’, so it seems timely to investigate that concept here in a journal that bears

c Subjectivity, 2008, 23, (236–245) 2008 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1755-6341/08 $30.00

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in the process forming subjectivity. The problem created here is that of agency and how it could be possible for subjects to ever change relations of power – the very conditions that have formed them and the possibilities for their agency. Its strength is that it sets both the definition and understanding of subjectivity squarely within relations of power. 212). this is still an understanding of the subject couched in terms of domination. Yet as Couze Venn (2002) has remarked. Its weakness is that subjectivity is defined a priori in terms of domination alone. has its roots in French philosophy.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------237 that title and to contrast the concept with one that previously had more currency in social psychology – that of ‘‘self’’. While Foucault put the flesh and bone on this in his historical S u b j e c t i v i t y. so that subjectivity can no longer be theorized in critical psychology as somehow at a distance from power or from social relations more generally. as subjectivity is only seen to emerge in relations of control and dependence. What I want to argue here is that the use of the term subjectivity has had great benefits for critical work but also some costs. thereafter possessing a power of agency with the potential to go beyond the conditions set by the power that has created it. and tied to [our] own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’’ (Foucault. In the philosophy of both Foucault and Butler the subject is also lifted out of the intercorporeal and intersubjective relations of everyday life and understood as subject to discourses and norms in a more abstract sense. S e l f a n d E v e r y d a y L i f e . This concise definition reveals both the strength and the weakness of this conceptualization of subjectivity. The term subjectivity. the subject of bad conscience – in which one element of the self turns against others in a striving for power and control. and that the way in which it has been conceptualized has obscured key elements that have been shaping the everyday lives and self-identities of those who live in a world dominated by neo-liberal capitalism. particularly in the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser and in the Nietzschean influenced philosophy of Michel Foucault. Judith Butler takes up this mantle by trying to theorize subjectivity as both the subject and agent of power. In his later works. Foucault tried to get around this problem by talking about pluralistic forms of local knowledge that oppose power. 1982. That is to say power forms subjects in the process of the reflexive turn. law and the various branches of the sciences that seek to categorize. in which subjects turn to look at themselves through the normative categories in which they are interpellated. of course. p. as subject to itself and to others through control and dependence. but the difficulty he faced was that the weight of the corpus of his own work had been primarily focused on the official powers of medicine. It is a guilty subject – or as Nietzsche put it. yet at the same time subjects assume elements of the power that has formed them. both in respect of relations to others and in respect of the relation we have to our own self. In her recent book The Psychic Life of Power. divide and manage populations. I think that Foucault summarized this view of subjectivity best when he played on the word’s dual meaning of being both ‘‘subject to someone else by control and dependence.

Perhaps this is not so ironic after all: it is. How ironic that shortly after Margaret Thatcher declared there to be ‘‘no such thing as society’’ many academics. For example. the term subjectivity is distinct in this sense from the terms self or person. many believed. including Laclau and Mouffe. 2002).Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------238 work on institutions. thus changing the social. subjectivities formed by control and dependence. economic and material fabric of the world (Rose. At its best. the discursive turn became a purely epistemological critique that sought to deconstruct the concepts of the human sciences – and with it. the result of exactly the Ian Burkitt . In contrast to the official forms of power and control to be found in workplaces and schools. 2001). rather. playgrounds and homes. Selves are formed in all these contexts. and between things themselves within the institutions that partially order everyday life. which is to do with the way that subjectivity has been conceptualized within the ‘‘discursive’’ or ‘‘linguistic’’ turn. for example. these are only elements of the everyday lives of most people. are what Volosinov (1986) called the ‘‘unofficial’’ ˇ behaviours and ideologies of people in the streets. which above all else demands flexibility and fluidity from workers and acts as a corrosive influence against the type of social solidarities that might provide the conditions for more stable social identities? (Sennett. However. political. 1999. As Butler (1997) has said. but also as selves who can be reconstituted within and through their social relations. in works’ canteens. something that needs to be understood by any critical psychology that seeks to understand people not only as the subjects of control and dependence. At its worst. I want to go on to explore this a little more towards the end of this piece in terms of the way in which neo-liberal discourses have reshaped the everyday world and how selves have responded by forging new interconnections and identities to oppose this. I want to make one more critical remark about the concept of subjectivity as it has emerged from both structuralist and poststructuralist discourses. how do fluid selves that lack a core identity fit with the cultural logic of the ‘‘new capitalism’’. between people and things. such as the asylum and prison. I would argue that we get a more rounded view of individuals from a phenomenological understanding of the intercorporeal and intersubjective lives of selves. but as selves that emerge from the intercorporeal and intersubjective world of interactions and mutual interdependence. this turn in the social sciences has enabled critical psychologists to think beyond the old base and superstructure arguments of structural Marxists in order to understand how discourse shapes the very order of things – the relations between people. 1998). joined in the chorus (Elliott. Hook. freeing them from the straightjacket of normative conceptualization – with little understanding of how their own reconceptualizations mirrored what Jameson (1991) has called the post-modern cultural logic of late capitalism. before I do. Experience of institutional life does not exhaust the totality of the life experience of most modern individuals. one that is able to see individuals as not only the subjects of relations of control and dependence.

is still exemplary as a study of power and resistance). In this study. the dominance of neo-liberal. and. pluralistic (albeit exceptionally unequal) capitalist discourses and practices in the West and parts of the East. in his book The Corrosion of Character.P. I want to expand upon that position which I see as taking the best of the ‘‘discursive turn’’. the individualization and ‘‘autonomization’’ of selves. the collapse of the Soviet Union (and with it the influence of Marxism on many Western academics). Contempora ry capitalism: subjects. rather. I do not suggest for one minute that we go back to a structural Marxist view of the world and prescriptions for action (although I think the humanist Marxism of the likes of E. the growth of consumerism in which freedom is defined as an infinite series of individualized cultural and market choices. Thompson. especially in The Making of the English Working Class where the early workers’ movements were understood within the context of the rise of capitalist power.or medium-term within a short-term world where people constantly have to start their lives over again in new jobs or new geographical areas. In response to this. S e l f a n d E v e r y d a y L i f e . it also eats away at the networks of intercorporeal and intersubjective relations in which life narratives are embedded. Some of the effects of power relations in contemporary capitalism therefore seem to be the erosion of stable local networks of interaction. critical psychology has not always been engaged with the resurgence of neo-liberal capitalism and the ravages that can follow in its wake for both individuals and communities. it was also the professional classes who were affected by having to be constantly flexible and adaptable in both their work and in their social lives. Furthermore. with this. there is a form of economic rationalism now dominating many regions of the world that demands an autonomous subject that can cope with any conditions thrown at it. Richard Sennett has been an exception to this. Sennett (1998) notes the difficulty in maintaining life narratives over the long. having to cope with doing up to three different jobs each day. Not only does this threaten individual life narratives. but want to draw on some current thinking in social theory to indicate current and future possibilities for critical psychology. has looked at the damage done to individual lives by a contemporary form of capitalism in which the long-term disappears and is replaced by short-term contracts and flexible work routines.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------239 same social and cultural trends that have inspired neo-liberalism – the war against a Stalinist version of Marxism. I am not going here alone without guides. who. Those found to have been uprooted from social solidarities in such a way were not just the poor. steering it into the realm of everyday life within neo-liberal capitalism. s elves a nd agents of r es i s ta n c e As Valerie Walkerdine (2002) has recently remarked. Of course. in the recent past. and the demand that they S u b j e c t i v i t y.

changing them forever. the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1983) noted how freedom of choice is now largely posed as choice of consumer goods on the market. while the government has taken on board ideas from the social model of disability. retraining. forthcoming). while other life choices and activities – such as democratic choice of political parties or political activity through trade unions and other organizations – is narrowing. It is the very forced nature of a certain type of autonomy and flexibility that can be the focus of critical scrutiny in psychology. restyling the self. but also for the rest of society as well. it is also a blueprint for the remodelling of services. autonomous identity is seen to be achieved by way of individualized work and consumerism. recreating one’s life narrative or forming new social relationships. and help must be provided for individuals to become workers wherever possible (Partner. benefit payments. Furthermore. This can manifest itself in the form of learning new skills and capacities. Such changes will also have a profound impact on the way others see people with learning difficulties and. It could then be said that there are two main ways in which neo-liberal influenced market economies and governments are attempting to create modern subjectivities.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------240 be constantly open to flexibility and change as required by the market. showing how these individuals are now understood as both consumers of services and as potential workers in the job market. the White Paper is not just a textual representation of how things should be for those with learning difficulties. nothing is wrong with any of these things if they remain in the person’s own control. rather than through links with others within which a more spontaneous. 2001). In addition. In this way. constituting us primarily as workers and consumers. all barriers must be removed to individual consumer choices in a privatized market for services. These are two ways in which the power of modern neo-liberal capitalism could be said to constitute individuals as Ian Burkitt . it does not see their identity in connection with the more radical agendas of the disability movement. interactive identity might be formed alongside social solidarities. Rather. This is so not only for those directly reliant on government services and benefits. Thus. the way in which they view their own identity. Of course. For example. seeing social barriers as the main disabling factor for people with learning difficulties. Mat Partner has analysed the UK government’s White Paper (2001) on services for those with learning difficulties. in turn. using Rose’s notion of neo-liberal discourses of governmentality. Social surveys in the UK and other leading economies have found the number of hours people are working is growing. while at the same time benefits for individuals – such as unemployment. with the assistance of advocates. sickness and retirement pensions – are being curtailed so that more people will have to work for more of their life span (Hertz. and access to social facilities that will have major effects on the social and material conditions of the lives of individuals. it is when constant change is beyond the individual’s control that it can provoke anxiety and a sense of alienation.

possible agents of resistance? As Alberto Melucci (1989) has pointed out. Thus. which act to shape our subjective landscape of social meanings and values. for it is also the symbol of a global corporation that is tangibly present in everyday life to those who want to oppose multi-national capitalism and consumerism. An interesting project for critical psychology would be to investigate if new forms of social selves are emerging in these networks with a subjectivity that is not primarily subjected to domination and control. as such. such as the social networks among squatters or anarchists. or the relations and beliefs of those in trade unions or religious groups. our subjectivity is not one of pure subjection to others or to ourselves. instead acting to disperse power.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------241 subjects. (e. freeing us as selves from the more official ideologies. intersubjective influences and. where trade unionists struggling to improve working conditions are being violently intimidated. Naomi Klein (2001) has also illustrated how the very symbols of neo-liberal consumer capitalism. S e l f a n d E v e r y d a y L i f e . S u b j e c t i v i t y. the manifest aspect of political acts of resistance. can become points of resistance and organization for networks opposing the power of modern consumerism and multi-national corporations. Instead. but as the agent of its dispersal. which are the cultural networks in which people live according to alternative social values and norms.. Such a form of subjectivity would not relate to others or to itself solely as the subject of power. But are we the mere subjects of such powers? Are we not selves who are also open to other social. Because of the Internet. social relations with others can also bring us into contact with other unofficial social worlds. values and ideologies. lifestyles and forms of subjectivity based upon work and consumerism. so that squatters may practice living without property ownership and Quakers may practice non-violence in their relations with others. like anti-capitalist and anti-globalization public protests. through freedom of choice being limited to the market and by creating an imperative for everyone to work in more flexible and unlimited ways – a flexibility and lack of limits that suits the needs of globalized capitalism rather than the needs of workers.g. these global links and solidarities can develop with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy: it is thousands of movements linked together seeking to disperse power as widely and evenly as possible. Coca-Cola is no longer just part of a lifestyle choice for modern consumers. It is also a symbol to work against for those on low wages in the company’s South American bottling plants. These latent aspects of social movements are deep rooted in everyday life and interrelate with manifest social movements. In this way. For example. rest on the latent aspect of these movements. in that it is through the cultural networks of daily life that selves actually put into practice their alternative values and lifestyles. in the UK. the Quakers were always a social group that underpinned the peace movement). as social individuals with a deep-seated sense of subjective life. the symbols of multi-national corporations become targets for local groups of protesters and a point of contact between people across the globe in their very different everyday contexts.

made more accountable than either corporate or state institutions. The Ian Burkitt . pp. If this movement has an ideology it is democracy.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------242 The agent of resistance would then no longer be the Marxist ideal of the historical agent of labour. while the majority of people are seduced by consumer choices. In this context. [w]hat seems to be emerging organically is not a movement for a single global government but a vision of an increasingly connected international network of very local initiatives. selves. This conception of the agent of resistance paves the way for the possibility of more democratic forms of politics emerging from the opposition to the more curtailed democracy that currently exist in neo-liberal forms of capitalism. I think we can see some evidence for this in the episodic yet intense bursts of democratic political actions in opposition to global capitalism and in the recent anti-war protests against the war on Iraq. 456–457) How deep and wide such calls for participatory democracy go can be witnessed by the anti-war protests on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003. social networks and groups. formed in the relations of the everyday world. Nor would the agent of resistance be that of Nietzsche and Baudelaire.G. (Klein. or the post-structural notion of a deconstructed subject. tensions and fissures of language (understood. if always unfinalized. which aims to democratically spread power as widely and evenly as possible. more in Saussure’s sense of langue rather than parole or everyday speech). each built on reclaimed public spaces. embedded in the relational contexts of everyday life with its various cultures and sub-cultures. 2001. or to the influence of the values and beliefs of various ideologies. and. fragmented and decentred. A subject of power. fluid. through participatory forms of democracy. its powers of resistance seem to be given to it purely as an individual who. the agent of resistance could be understood as the social self of everyday life. one who turns themselves into a work of art. through exercising these powers. Naomi Klein has written that. but power that is heterogeneous. In terms of the loose interconnections between anti-capitalist protestors.) Instead of this. certainly. not only at the ballot box but woven into every aspect of our lives. for this agent of resistance is highly individualized in two sense: firstly. (Indeed. it seems. the West seems to be entering an era of ‘‘soft dictatorship’’ in which key decisions are taken by an economic and political elite. as J. out of which emerge fully-rounded. a conception of an agent of resistance would be a pure academic exercise were there not the glimmerings of the emergence of such selves. Nietzsche was scathing about ¨ democratic politics believing that the Ubermensch would re-enslave the common herd. formed in the slippages. both official and unofficial. a self that is a subject of power in some respects yet open to the possibility of immersion in alternative social worlds. Indeed. can rise above its social context: and secondly. this leaves in question the relation of this individual to those around him or her and thus calls into question the possibility of a more democratic politics. Ballard has recently remarked.

thus. It is not that society is the sole cause of ‘‘paranoia’’. 2005). Thus. In modern political mobilization. What comes across in reports of that day is the anger felt by people whose views were being ignored. which mediate social relations – through which this experience can be made sense of. S u b j e c t i v i t y. individualized and psychologized. This type of work is a form of resistance to the style of thinking in mainstream psychology. local initiatives have to be built on reclaimed public spaces. historical and material circumstances are one of the mediating relational factors that influence paranoid subjectivity. a speculative piece like this can start to sound highly idealistic in its view of the potential for political mobilization and the possibilities of the agents of resistance. 2001). the concept of subjectivity is bound to remain central to any critical psychology in the future and seems a highly appropriate title for this journal. in that. they are more about the exercise of political capacities. but an example of democracy in action where people came together to articulate their views and take action to try to stop a war going ahead in their name. The calm and ordered demonstration was not an outpouring of anger. A recent. As Klein said. excellent example of how this can be done is the study of ‘‘paranoia’’ by John Cromby and David Harper (forthcoming) that looks at the social relations – and the material conditions and social structures. S e l f a n d E v e r y d a y L i f e . Despite these fragments of evidence. such as social class and levels of deprivation. Thus. Certainly within critical psychology something like this has already started to happen in the work on the Hearing Voices Network. That is why I feel that critical psychology could perhaps focus more in future on studies of social movements and the selves who form them. rather than being outpourings of destructive anger.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------243 anti-war demonstration in London in February 2003 was the largest public protest in modern British history in which up to three million people of diverse backgrounds took to the streets because they felt that the Blair government was not taking note of their concerns over the war. but also a sense of exhilaration about being able to reclaim public space in order to express their views (Burkitt. in its social context. where ‘‘paranoid’’ subjectivity is understood as the result of individual sickness or problems rather than an understandable response to toxic social conditions. rather than relying solely on the ‘‘expert’’ classifications of psychiatry (Blackman. there may be some environments marked by high levels of material deprivation and crime in which degrees of suspicion and mistrust are completely understandable. setting ‘‘personal’’ or ‘‘mental’’ problems in the social milieu out of which they emerge. It signals what Hanna Arendt (1973) pointed out about the changed character of modern political mobilization. the aim of collective action is to establish a public space of civic freedom and participation for all people. more that social. something I think was evident in the anti-war demonstrations. In addition. which is a group of people trying to understand the experience of hearing voices by developing their own narratives in dialogue with each other. critical psychologists continue to understand types of experience previously classified as ‘‘pathological’’ and.

Identity Politics and Privatisation: Modern Fantasies. Z. (1982). pp. to varying degrees. M. 32–43. Re fe r e n ce s Arendt. Hearing Voices: Embodiment and Experience. J. His latest book is Social Selves: Theories of Self and Society (Second Edition) published by Sage. Consumerism and Power. H. In Walkerdine.) Challenging Subjects: Critical Psychology for a New Millennium. Knowledge. Foucault. Blackman. Postmodern AfterEffects. 208–226. Burkitt. I. London: Heinemann. H. (2005). It may be unhelpful to simply substitute the term subjectivity for that of self.L. D. as in a world of heterogeneous powers and multiple social influences individuals can emerge as fully rounded selves with varying degrees of critical awareness and powers of agency. (1973). J. A b o u t th e a u t h o r Ian Burkitt is Reader in Social Science in the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities. Butler. embodiment and emotions as understood within a social context. V. UK. pp. Paranoia: A Social Account. Elliott. Bauman. He teaches Sociology and Social Psychology and is the author of numerous works on self-identity. Culture and Society. 1(3). The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Ian Burkitt . (2001). Harmondsworth: Penguin. (1997). pp. (forthcoming). N. Hertz. Sociology. only partially the subjects of power. Theory and Psychology. In Dreyfus. London: Free Association Books. While the self who resists oppressive forms of power may be under-researched in some branches of critical psychology. A. It could be that we are.Subjectivity -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------244 Yet it has been my contention here that we need to remain critically aware of some of the antecedents and implications of the term subjectivity. (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. both to others and to its own conscious reflection and conscience. Discourse. and this needs to be set against that other term more common in social psychology – that of ‘‘self’’. so that it may not be appropriate to use in all contexts. and Harper. and Rabinow. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (2001). Theory and Psychology. 679–695. (2002). 521–547. L. Industrialism. Brighton: Harvester. this is a possibility for future work. Afterword: The Subject and Power. (ed. Powerful Emotions: Power. The term is synonymous with the subjugation of the self. 39(4). Government and Opposition in the ‘‘War on Terror’’. 11(4). pp. P. Theory. History: Foucault and Discourse Analysis. University of Bradford. (2001). On Revolution. (1983). D. Basingstoke: Palgrave. Materiality. Hook. Cromby. The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy.

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