- Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations
This collection of essays — each of which was prepared originally for the “Friday Morning Seminar” of the pioneering Harvard program in medical anthropology — begins by describing itself as “an extended conversation about contemporary forms of human experience and subjectivity,” an examination of “what we consider to be the modern subject,” and an exploration of “disciplinary disagreements about how we think and write about human agency today.” Such hazardous aspirations run the risk of being thought so abstract as to allude our grasp, or else so grandiose as to remain beyond a mortal editor’s power to create out of an eclectic series of seminar presentations. The book’s title is also hazardous, in that the problematic of subjectivity (versus objectivity) has a deep and prominent place in the history of human reflection on the sources and nature of knowledge and on the distinction between mere opinion and true belief. As Thomas Nagel has famously observed: “There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality. But often what appears to a more subjective point of view cannot be accounted for this way. So either the objective conception of the world is incomplete, or the subjective involves illusions that should be rejected.” In a debate about those two alternative views of subjectivity, I have no doubt that the contributors to this book would argue that objective conceptions of the world are incomplete. Nevertheless, the standard set of epistemological and ontological questions associated with Nagel’s pair of alternatives is not really engaged in these essays. Amèlie Rorty’s piece, an overview of “the many faces of subjectivity,” is informative and a pleasure to read. Yet when other, less philosophically trained authors reveal their philosophical assumptions here, some pretty strange things get said — for example, about Descartes, whose project and method are poorly understood by many social, psychological, and medical scientists. Given that experience (including ethnographic experience) is inherently subjective, why should it be trusted as a source of valid knowledge? In what sense are those things that exist only by virtue of their dependency on a particular [End Page 504] point of view really real? Such questions are implicated in any invocation of “the modern subject” and the ethnographic investigation of human agency.
A more appropriate and revealing title for the book might have been “The Dark Side of Modernity: A Counter-Enlightenment View of Human Suffering.” For these essays — many of them moral, communitarian, and/or egalitarian in tone — are mainly concerned with the angst and misery that the authors associate with globalization and “the modern condition.” It is not subjectivity and experience per se or even the intellectual foundations of the modern self (liberated from community, tradition, and revealed truth) that link these essays, but rather the depiction and portrayal of personal accounts of contemporary poverty, loneliness, homelessness, displacement, madness, genocide, war, political oppression, inequality, and the growth and expansion of a reductive, dehumanizing, and technology-driven biomedical science. The book concerns things we have lost, including a humane understanding of the mental side of somatic experience, the aspects of human suffering related to social injustice, and acceptance of “the whole person” as a psychological and especially a political being. In covering the dark side of modernity, some of these essays shine.
Richard A. Shweder is Reavis Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development and professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include Why Do Men Barbeque? and Thinking through Cultures. He is a recipient of the Socio-Psychological Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science