"Hello, I Say, It's Me": (Re)Constructions of Subjectivity

 in Contemporary Literature and Culture
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Alexander Dunst (Nottingham)

Post-Schizophrenia, Post-Postmodernism: Dialogical Subjectivity and the Return of the Other

Cultural appropriations of schizophrenia play a central role in reformulations of individual agency after World War II and react to widespread feelings of a so-called ‘crisis of the subject’. The integration of this originally medical term into theoretical and cultural discourses effects decisive reversals in the usage of psychopathology: from the diagnosis of the psychiatric patient and identification of the Other to the critical examination of Cartesian theories of subjectivity. Schizophrenia thus becomes a conceptual metaphor and narrative strategy for the theorization of new subject positions.

Such changes are reflected and perhaps most consistently expressed in Fredric Jameson’s famous work on postmodernism, which adapts earlier theorizations of subjectivity by Lacan and Deleuze/Guattari, and presents the culmination of a cultural symptomatology in critical theory. Jameson’s conception of a schizophrenic subject places psychosis at the heart of the human condition. The analysis in this paper of his writing from the 1970s to the new millennium will point briefly to several critical intersections: the importance of psychopathological discourses to concepts of postmodernism and postmodernity; the dilemmas of left theorizations of agency faced with a poststructuralist politics of desire, traditional Marxist notions of revolutionary agency, and contemporary ideas of intersubjectivity; and finally, the role of psychopathology for re-articulations of the subject in globalization and post-postmodernism.

This last aspect, already visible in Jameson’s recent writing, will be explored in more detail through Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical film Tarnation (2004). Caouette’s documentary will be read here as a paradoxical self-fashioning in line with a number of complex Otherings of psychosis in contemporary cultural production: a narrative re-construction of the self, it plays off current notions of a “dialogical subjectivity” (Cf., for instance, Zima 2000), themselves in many ways a reaction-formation to once pathologized “fragmented” subjective experience, against traditional images of schizophrenia as chaos and irrationality.


Eva Gruber (Konstanz)

Repositioning the Racialized Subject

Since the turn of the millennium, novels by authors as diverse as Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress Of Solitude), Adam Mansbach (Angry Black White Boy), Joyce Carol Oates (Black Girl, White Girl), Richard Powers (The Time Of Our Singing), or Denzy Senna (Caucasia) clearly capitalize on race as a determining – if complicating – factor in constituting and positioning the self. In what emerges as a metadiscourse of the concept of race as such, the texts appear to critically scrutinize the validity and test the limits of constructivist notions of race and identity which dominated critical discourse in the 1980s and 1990s. While certainly not heralding a return to essentialist paradigms, they nevertheless seem to progress beyond the (comforting liberal) notion of race as a cultural construct. Their characters severely struggle with terms such as "construct" or "choice" as opposed to "authenticity," as well as with the proclaimed fundamental "unreality" of race in a world which confronts them with race's palpably real consequences. Thus one of the Strom family's sons in Richard Powers's The Time Of Our Singing, boys envisioned to be "charter citizens of the postrace place," in retrospect reflects: "I'd been raised to believe in self-invention. But any self I might invent would be a lie." Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement, race as a (newly?) meaningful category – rather than an empty signifier – apparently cannot be left out of the equation. Frequently tied to a neorealist mode and partly in the form of fictionalized biography or family chronicle, the texts thus shed a new light on the racialized subject in contemporary America

Dennis Kersten (Nijmegen)

Life after the Death of the Author: The Adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson in Contemporary Biographical Fiction

Over the past two decades, biographical fiction about historical authors has acquired prestige as a serious alternative to literary biography. While biographical fiction as such can hardly be called a new development, many recent fictional portrayals of authors’ lives are typical products of the times in the sense that they thematise, if not incorporate within fiction, contemporary debates about the status of authors and texts. Without aiming to reverse the poststructuralist declaration of the Death of the Author, these texts investigate new ways in which the author’s life may return as a subject in the interpretation of his or her fiction.

Analysing two examples of the fictional portrayal of the nineteenth-century author Robert Louis Stevenson (one by Alex Capus, and one by Alberto Manguel), this presentation will shed more light on how these novels make a textualised Stevenson return as a character in rewritings of his work. Biographical fiction about the author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seems to both read Stevenson’s fiction biographically and, vice versa, read his life through the metaphors and themes found in his novels and stories. For my presentation, I am especially interested in the question of how fictional portrayals of Stevenson try to find a place for the author and the author's life in the reading of his work - accepting, or even taking their cue from Roland Barthes’ declaration of the Death of the Author. I will discuss how, possibly as a consequence of a disillusionment with scholarly researched and ‘objective’ literary biography, fiction about historical authors like Stevenson fully explores the possibilities created by the impossibility of objectivity in life-writing.


Sirkka Knuuttila (Helsinki)


The Postrational Subject and the Challenge of Expressing Traumatic Memory


Necessitated by our violent historical times, trauma narratives evoke the idea of a postrational subjectivity rooted in the historical referentiality of an embodied, dialogical mind. This breakthrough is enabled by two sequential historical developments. First, the textual prism of postmodern self-ironical metanarratives dismantled the Cartesian ego as the common dominator of knowledge and progress. Then, by virtue of new neurophysiological research of the human brain, a paradigmatic shift in understanding the functioning of human consciousness occurred during the past decade. In the light of brain plasticity due to continual gene expression, subjectivity is now not seen as fragmented, but constituted by an autobiographical self, which is gradually constructed upon a dialogical core self that gives the subject the feeling of historical continuity.


My paper explores the aspects of a postrational subject as capable of perceiving and reflecting the interaction of self/other in traumatic loss. Since mental functioning can never be equated with that of the brain itself, I understand the empathic subjectivity as continually reconstructed in human relationships and cultural contexts. From this starting point, I propose that non-verbal, multi-sensory cognition precedes our verbal constructions of the world. Moreover, I suggest that emotion ubiquitously pervades the cognitive activity of a socially competent, empathic subject. As an example, I will examine the sensitive power of figures of loss by using Friederike Mayröcker’s late poetry. I will interpret her metonymies as signs of the embodied mind of a subjectivity, which is capable of expressing the double affect of sorrow and love when bridging verbally the temporal delay typical of traumatic memory.


Hanna Meretoja (Turku)

From problematization to rehabilitation of subjectivity in the French postwar novel:

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth and Michel Tournier’s The Erl-King

In my paper, I would like to examine how the notion of the subject as the source of meaning and action was problematized in the most important French literary movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the nouveau roman, and how the active, meaning-giving subject was rehabilitated in the 1970s, in the work of the so-called new storytellers. Several critics have noted a return of the subject, narrative and ethics after the heyday of the nouveau roman. By analysing novels by two of the most important contemporary French novelists, Alain Robbe-Grillet, the leading figure of the nouveau roman, and Michel Tournier, one of the most important new storytellers, I argue that this return can be seen in terms of a hermeneutic reconceptualization of subjectivity, that is, as manifesting a shift towards a hermeneutic view of the narrative mediatedness of the subject’s interpretative relation to the world.


Robbe-Grillet wanted to cleanse the novel from stories and individual characters in order to disclose the fundamentally meaningless, fragmentary and chaotic nature of reality. In his In the Labyrinth (Dans le labyrinthe, 1959) this can be seen e.g. in the way in which its protagonist is reduced into a mere subject of anonymous visual perception: for him, the world is a labyrinthine series of disconnected images that he cannot mould into a meaningful continuum. I would like to suggest that underlying Robbe-Grillet’s conception of subjectivity there is a positivistic idea according to which only that which is independent of human meaning-giving processes is truly “real”. In contrast, from a hermeneutic perspective, endorsed by Tournier, also the human experience of the world is real, and largely narrative in form. Focusing on Tournier’s The Erl-King (Le Roi des Aulnes, 1970), I will analyse his view of humans as “mythological animals” whose manner of orienting in the world is mediated by cultural sense-making models; moreover, I will draw a parallel between Tournier’s and Paul Ricoeur’s views on the narrative constitution of subjectivity.

Markus M. Müller (Trier)

Adolescence Forever Lost or Regained? Aging Subjects in North American Novels

From the days of ancient cultures into our 21st century, the images and stereotypes around old age and aging – orginally based on accurate reflection – have become fossilized. In our young Millennium, however, we witness a changing scenario calling for more diversified representations: Across Western civilizations, populations are aging, while birth rates continue to decline and core families dissolve into patchwork patterns. If many cultures have been fostering a youth cult, and – especially in the 20th century – a parallel "ghettoization of old age" (Chris Gilleard), the fact that the older people are beginning to outnumber the younger ones has drastic consequences: More fit, socially functional and demanding than ever, but not (yet) exempt from the laws of biology, the growing number of aging individuals is gaining political ground – and simultaneously seen as mirroring a future human condition. Unprecedentedly visible, and audible, these aging subjects have begun to alter collective consciousnesses.

Current American and Canadian novels interrogate many implications of societal and personal aging. They do so in distinct narratives of loss and decline, rebellion and adventure, in often astonishing reconfigurations of the old(est) characters; they echo gerontological knowledge and concepts, depict dementia, incontinence, nursing homes, offer insights into the cultural constructions of race, gender, age. Comparing ten texts in this context, I would like to pursue questions such as the following: Can more traces of the myth of eternal youth – as national mythopoeisis would lead one to expect – be found in American samples, such as Philip Roth's The Human Stain? If yes, is the departure by some characters into fantastic, emancipatory journeys – cf. Suzette Mayr's The Widows – part of a Canadian equivalent? How instructive, realistic, upfront can these sometimes allegorizing fictionalizations be? Finally, if late life is indeed a second adolescence, as sociologists infer: Which existential qualities are regained, which lost, by these aging / maturing subjects?

Anja Müller-Wood (Mainz)

Being 'Me' and Being Dead: The New Materialism in Contemporary British Fiction

The term 'material' abounds in contemporary critical discourse; however, is it all too often exclusively applied to the world of (inanimate) objects and things. Critics have focused at length on clothes, jewellery, books, buildings, furniture, trinkets, tokens, vehicles, tools and machines as sites where human experience is alternatively expressed or challenged, yet in so doing they have avoided engaging with the materiality closest to home: that of our bodies. Even the most 'subversive' conceptualisations of subjectivity, with their underlying desire to transcend the material, hereby perpetuate an age-old division between body and spirit, one that only a thorough and consistent materialism may help to bridge. Materialism is not a new worldview, but it has gained renewed momentum over the past two decades thanks to the insights gained by the 'Life Sciences.' As we know from neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary psychology, subjectivity – the sense of 'me-ness' – is essentially the product of the body: there is no selfhood independent of the body, no epiphenomenal mind autonomous from the brain. Whether we like the thought or not, the infinitely variable and complex psychological experiences, social relationships and cultural products of which human beings are capable are the result of our bodies' intricate, almost instantaneous, and largely unconscious biochemical and –physical operations.

Literature, as I will illustrate in my paper, has provided a particularly lively forum for the exploration of this rapidly accumulating knowledge about ourselves, so much so that it is possible to speak of a 'new materialism' in British fiction. Jim Crace's Being Dead (1999) provides a particularly moving example for this literary trend – a novel which traces in minute and loving detail its brutally murdered protagonists' processes of decomposition and entwines this relentless process of decay with a backward-looking reconstruction of key events of their shared lives. However, despite its devastating premise, _Being Dead_ is far from a pessimistic novel. Already the title of Crace's book suggests that death possesses a vivid intricacy all its own; this is subsequently explored as the novel affirms the characters' place in a larger natural context whose harsh inevitability may be more dignifying than the cultural rituals that seek to deny death. An ultimate physical fact that cannot be transcended, death is nevertheless a powerful vehicle for the workings of the imagination. In the novel, it triggers not only a retrospective evaluation of two lives, it is also a source for their poetic re-imagining, and as such allows Crace to underline the function of art as a uniquely human answer to the devastating reality that he so unflinchingly faces.


Sascha Pöhlmann (München)


‘The Solipsist Errs’: Narrating I² in Shelley Jackson’s Half Life (2006)


Shelley Jackson’s first novel Half Life, published in 2006, creates a complex parallel world which is not quite this one; it is populated by “twofers”, siamese twins, who coexist with one-headed “singletons”. Using Boolean operators as a structuring device, this text is narrated from a unique first-person plural perspective, and it not only raises questions of personal and social identities, but also demands a classification that goes beyond the postmodern. One way of doing so would be to use McHale’s distinction of modernist and postmodernist fiction along lines of epistemology and ontology; in my presentation, I want to argue that Half Life employs a variety of narrative strategies that ultimately conflate the epistemological and ontological in a vast meditation on identities and selves, combining textual and visual devices to confront readers with a narrator whose unreliability is unprecedented in more than one way, and indicating one way in which to think beyond postmodernism.



Nicole Schröder (Paderborn)


Narrating (My) Self: Subjectivity in Recent American Novels


In recent years, questions of identity and subjectivity as well as ways of representing and constructing the self have become increasingly important and also, in a way, increasingly ‘popularized’ with virtual platforms such as MySpace, Second Life, Open BC or more generally the genre of the blog offering numerous possibilities (and reasons) to think about constructions and representations of ‘the self’. What lies at the heart of these media, one could say, is the ongoing construction of a self in a ‘textual’ form rather than in a direct, face-to-face situation. Such a concern with the ‘textual’ dimensions of the self, the textual production of subjectivity, can also be found in some of the more recent American novels. Here, too, the construction and representation of the self through the act of narration is a central concern so that acts of reading and writing as well as intertextual references, often in a self-referential manner, become important aspects of the novels and their plots. Signs, letters, books, manuscripts and other texts play significant roles as the characters attempt to decipher their multiple meanings. Hence, images of locks and keys, of losing, hiding, searching and finding abound. Looking at Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (2005), and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), I will discuss this interest in the textual dimension of the self arguing that there is a close relation between the narrative construction of subjectivity and the textual fabric and narrative structure of the novels.



Pieter Vermeulen (Leuven)


Beyond Melancholy: Lyric Subjectivity in Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker


My paper discusses Chang-Rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker as an example of a broader attempt in the contemporary novel to find formal means to move beyond the melancholy (de-)construction of subjectivity that dominated poststructuralist and postcolonial theory and literature. Where the early phase of poststructuralism considered the subject to be structurally melancholy because of its being-in-language, later forms of theory have been marked by an insistence on historical losses and on legacies of suffering as crucial components of subjectivity. I argue that one way to characterize the “post-postmodern” novel is by paying attention to the formal means through which it construes a model of subjectivity that is no longer determined by an investment in loss, but that instead affirms the continuation of life beyond a life marked by loss, and beyond the opposition between mourning and melancholy.

Chang-Rae Lee’s novel is at the same time an ethnic novel chronicling Korean American life in the late 20th century, a spy-thriller, and a first-person memoir of love lost. While all three of these generic indicators imply a certain melancholy refusal to let go of a lost object (or of shared legacies of loss), I show how the plot and the texture of the novel manipulate these investments in order to arrive at a subject-position that has survived its determination by loss. Taking my cue from Sara Guyer’s recent theorization of the relation between the lyric and the notion of witness, I designate this “lyric subjectivity,” which is sustained by lyrical elements in the novel’s composition, as a “life beyond life,” a subjectivity beyond consciousness, as a mode of life tied to neither redemption from loss nor a continued melancholy investment in loss.