“Subjectivity”—what is it?

I’ve been throwing this pretentious word around a lot and I ought to define it. The way I’m using it, “subjectivity” means “sense of self.” I’d argue that a colonial American has a different sense of self than a modern American, and to varying degrees women have a different “subjectivity” than men, and slaves have a different “subjectivity” than masters.

So why not just say “sense of self?” Well, “subjectivity” implies something about larger power relations. If you’re in the Army, you have a different sense of subjectivity than if you’re a civilian, because in the Army you’re “subject to” the Army’s rules and regulations. You are also the “subject of” its efforts to train you (the enemy is the object) and you are subject to the Army’s goals and structures. A farmer is subject to the weather and the cows: he’s the subject of political squabbling or policy debate. I have a different “subjectivity” as teacher than I do as a husband than I do as a parent then I do as a voter than I do as a taxpayer or a recipient of health care services. As an adult citizen I’m subject to the IRS and also the subject of the IRS’s interest. The IRS was invented in the early twentieth century: it made a new kind of subjectivity possible. To be a medical patient is to experience a different kind of subjectivity. You are subject to invasive medical procedures and also the subject of the medical profession’s interest. As a consumer, you’re subject to the advertising profession and to economics: they create an identity. “consumer,” which you then inhabit.

Think of it maybe this way: “drunkard” and “alcoholic” both concern the same basic problem, but a “drunkard” is a moral failure, a person of weak will. An “alcoholic” is a sick person, suffering from a disease. They are different “subjectivities.” In the 1830s, you’d be a drunkard: in the 1990s, you’d be an “alcoholic,” and the way people understood you, and you understood yourself, would be different in the two eras.

People use “subjectivity” to get at the way the sense of self is composed of social forces that bear on individuals. They also use it to describe the way the sense of self varies with circumstances: it isn’t static. Disciplines like psychology or criminology invent new kinds of subjectivities: in the gilded age, a whole bunch of new “subjectivities” were made available/forced on people. For example, you could be a kleptomaniac or a nymphomaniac: you could be “normal” or “perverse.” You cold be this new thing just invented, a “homosexual.” “Subjectivity” in this sense might be described as “a new way of thinking about people.”  and “a new set of possibilities or procedures for dealing with those people.”

So “subjectivity” implies not just the individuals sense of self, but the ways that sense of self is acted on and even made up by outside forces.