Subjective Agency and Social Determination

Is the social determined by individuals, or is it the other way around? This has long been an important question for philosophy. Predominately in the tradition of critical theory it is the latter that is espoused. To that end, individuals are thought to be subjugated and somewhat determined by whatever reigning ideology currently holds sway. The inevitable outcome of such thinking is that individuals have little, if any, freedom to determine their own lives. More crucially, they lack agency to transform the social.

From a popular perspective, we might say the wisdom of structuralism—the linguistic theory that describes language by the differences between signs—fits this deterministic scenario. In other words, it neglects the subjective dimension of reality by creating a universal order of language; a truth that holds true for every symbolic order. Thus, since the speaking subject depends upon a particular language to re-present reality, the speaking subject is always-already implicated in pre-established speech patterns. So how does a speaking subject break out of the constraint imposed by language? This question is not too different from asking how an agent breaks with the status quo and modifies the social order.

The best answer, in my opinion, that critical theory or post-structuralism has to offer—as rudimentary as it may well be—is that individuals always have some room for using the same, conservative language in innovative ways; primarily by combining disparate themes and making different connections. Possible variants are always an option. We might distinguish these two types of social considerations as follows: (1) the synchronic, on the one hand, which is “unchanging” (outside of time) and influences the individual and, on the other hand, (2) the diachronic which is a specific substantiation of language in a specific time and place. So while we are determined by the synchronic implication of language, we have freedom in the diachronic dimension. Kristeva, in her Powers of Horror, exemplifies this distinction between subjective agency and social determination using the very terms described above.

Consequently, when I speak of symbolic order, I shall imply the dependence and articulation of the speaking subject in the order of language, such as they appear diachronically in the advent of each speaking being, and as analytic listening discovers them synchronically in the speech of analysands. I shall consider as an established fact the analytic finding that different subjective structures are possible within that symbolic order, even if the different types presently recorded seem subject to discussion and refinement, if not reevaluation (p. 67)

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