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  • Originary HumanicityLocating Anthropos
  • Vicki Kirby

First of all, I didn't say that there was no center, that we could get along without the center. I believe that the center is a function, not a being—a reality, but a function. And this function is absolutely indispensable. The subject is absolutely indispensable. I don't destroy the subject; I situate it. That is to say, I believe that at a certain level both of experience and of philosophical and scientific discourse one cannot get along without the notion of subject. It is a question of knowing where it comes from and how it functions.

—Jacques Derrida Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. Discussion

The need to understand human behavior will all too often make a quick appeal to individual intention and personal motivation as the explanatory cause of conduct. However, within certain areas of Western academic thinking, especially over the last forty years, the assumption that the individual authors his own life, or that "the agential subject" is, indeed, an autonomous individual whose decisions are properly her own, is significantly compromised. Close analysis of the agential subject through psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, various forms of discourse and media theories, or even classical sociological methodologies that focus on the problematic relationship between the individual and society, discover a subject whose identity is more conceded than [End Page 43] substantive. However, as this agent/subject has continued to function as an anchor for social and political analysis despite myriad revelations of its inherent fragility, and for some, impossibility, we need to ask what might be going on in its preservation. The mystery of agency—what it is, if it is, how and when it can be relied upon, why it fails, or even if it ever fails completely—exercises all of us because these are existential questions about what it means to be . . . oneself.

Given the vagaries and even failures of willpower, the common perception of the agential subject goes something like this: a subject-self can exert power over an object-self who, or is it which, appears powerless. This representation sits well with an everyday understanding of motivation lost or gained, as we see in self-help books that equate personal application with control and potential success in life. Such readings in popular culture assume that an individual possesses an enduring ability to express and realize an intention even when evidence to the contrary is in abundance: it seems that a sense of personal autonomy and a capacity for self-direction operate as organizational and judgmental touchstones in everyday experience and belief. But are more nuanced analyses of the subject that operate as a vernacular in critical and social theory so very different from quotidian understandings, and does the latter's reliance on the individual's foreclosed identity, and its corollary—the assumption that agency is an isolatable capacity, a self-possession—reappear surreptitiously as fact rather than analytical necessity in the former?

If we concede that the integrity of the subject and the very notion of agency are undeniably slippery in both everyday understandings as well as more theorized elaborations of the problematic, then the danger of the subject's dissolution is surely minimized if we represent the problem as one of splitting, division, or vacillation between two alternatives. There will be less risk that the self/individual is confounded if the constitutive disunity within the subject is read as a play between two different states of being (for example, passive or active, submissive or purposeful). Although the conundrum involves the subject being both, we content ourselves that if we could stop the clock and freeze-frame a particular moment then we would see that the subject is only ever one at a time. Unity restored. Importantly, to suggest that the subject is both at the same time undoes any sense of option or even splitting, for the difference between these states of being disappears, as does the identity of someone who chooses between them.1 In response to this terrifying prospect, an admission that the subject "wobbles," or vacillates, can effectively retain a conventional notion of agency as an authoring force: although...


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