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The Erasure of Subject: Postmodern Reflections

The whole history of social sciences—and even more of natural sciences—could be summed up as the elimination of the concept of the subject. – Alain Tourain

Postmodernist discursions are preoccupied with the creation of incipient epistemologies that would throw into relief tonalities of ruptures existing within human ‘self.’ One tonality within the postmodern requiem of Cartesian subject, a reference point for the world around, finds it a nebulous presence. Here the idea of a disembodied rationality, free from historical contingencies, gets replaced by a persistent enquiry about the possibility of this thinking subject. This narrative about the status of subject pans across different disciplinary spaces where discursive practices engage themselves with reconceptualizing the traditional, metaphysical positioning of the subject as a stable, regulating ‘presence’ imparting meaning to the objective world.

Another key inflection of the human ‘self’ is cued through the idea of post-enlightenment subjectivity, as a subject’s experience of the everyday world, and its encounter with the unknown/unknowable or the unrepresentable. Even though such encounters would finally end in the subject’s resistance to this unknown, they nevertheless provide insights into the nature of human ‘self’ through its shattering, split experiences. This thematic of subject and subjectivity becomes the dominant motif of twentieth century in the West across philosophy, painting (Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism), popular music (Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop), and literature (modernist and post-modernist fiction and poetry).With different pronounce and objectives this orientation gets reflected in the disciplines of Sociology, Anthropology, Critical Theory, Philosophy, Art, and Literature through the writings of thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida among others.

Within literature this project finds its footing through deliberations upon ‘forms’ and ‘modes of narration’ of the literary texts. Its articulation through the ‘form’ of literary texts, like the novel, begins as a celebration of freedom from the contingencies of history by the human subject in and through the agency of the picaresque, as the reconstruction of subject in the modernist shift to interiority, and the advent of a deconstructed subject within postmodern narratives. Beginning of this trajectory can be traced from Cervantes, through to the new forms of narratives in Kafka, and finally to the postmodern reconstructions of subject by re-conceptualizing body and mind through, say, Jeanette Winterson’s creation of the female body, Beckett’s experimental bodies, and even Pynchon’s cybernetic organisms.

Modes of narration—non linear time, open ended climax, multiple narratives—too configure and reconfigure the thematic of human subject from diverse perspectives employed within all genres of literature. These modes fork themselves into either foregrounding the fragmented, disjunctive nature of experience of a human subject, or arrive at a lack at the center of human subject itself which fashions it into a de-centered, de-constituted, and diffused being who is a mere effect of ideology or discourse/linguistic system. Such narrative strategies, while actualizing the dissolution of subject, also help reinterpret the fundamental constructs of freedom, morality, and knowledge.

Persistent enquiry into the thematic of the subject, thus undertaken within all disciplines, becomes the common denominator in the possibility of re-thinking any equivocal or delimiting notions about it. Loss of grand narratives of a unitary subject—whether as Cartesian cogito or as Husserlian totalitarian essence of consciousness—leaves postmodern narratives to ponder self-reflexively upon their ability to limn their projections of subject from multiple standpoints, inclusive of the subject’s resistance to its extermination upon reexamining its position as either limited to being an effect of discourse or a mere crossover amidst socio-political forces. Such resistance ensues wonder as to whether there is an irreducible residue of the subject.

Interested scholars can go through the series of sub topics provided to think over the issue without being limited to them:

  • Self as a presence
  • Autonomy of the self
  • Self and consciousness
  • The “Death of man”
  • Anti-humanist philosophy
  • The abandoned subject
  • Metaphysics of presence
  • Disjunctive subject in fiction
  • Body and subjectivity
  • Imagination: a disembodied power
  • Epistemological grounding of the subject
  • Return of the subject
  • Ontological opening of the subject
  • Who comes after the subject?
  • Fractured forms of narrative in literature

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