Subjectivity is the ‘framework’ through which we look out onto the world and engage with it. ‘I’ am the framework through which I understand myself, view the world and practise in it. Yet it is very much a social category, through which I/we are bound to relatively common figurations of national or ethnic or sexual or familial identities, among others. For some thinkers on the matter of modern subjectivity, it is also embedded in our bodies, thus committing us profoundly to conforming identities and social practices. We don’t just think our subjectivity; we live it bodily, and project our visceral identifications in our dealings with others. The argument has typically been illustrated with examples of the Western gaze upon the East, the viciousness of nationalism, and heterosexual assumptions about both ‘Woman’ and ‘the homosexual’. In this view, typically, the burden of conforming subjectivity leads to the oppression of others and suppression of the diversity within ourselves: modern subjectivity involves the ‘free expression’ of individuality, yet we are subjected to the governing principles that set our individuality in place and which make it so hard to escape, should we ever want to.
The impact of this kind of late-twentieth-century thinking has been profound in the contemporaneous period of the rise of the New Left and post-Left, and rise of neoliberalism; and proponents of it have found fertile ground for popular support in pre-existing and emergent social conditions and philosophical outlooks. Not everyone has to have read the theory to believe in ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’, for instance (indeed these notions are prominent in the neoliberal institutions). Contemporary capitalism’s extreme individuation of persons as consumers and autonomous actors (at the expense of old communal identifications) readily makes possible elements of a commitment to diversity and escape from ‘conformity’. On the other hand, common sense commitments to liberal ideas of fairness and equality, and especially today, ‘human rights’, undergird extensions of liberalism into realms hardly imagined in earlier periods, for instance, surrogacy and gay marriage.
Intriguingly, then, in the West over the past thirty years, we have seen subjectivity very much in motion. There has been the emergence in general of ‘identity’ as a concern, in advertising and sociology courses alike; we see everywhere, perhaps in different terms, a concern with authentic subjectivity, one’s ‘personal journey’, for example; or obsession with the communications technologies that allow escape to multiple or avatar selves. We see it written on people’s bodies as they pierce and tattoo themselves like the ‘savages’ Protestant modernity once feared. More extreme, we see profound transgressions of not merely past social constraints on identity but the breeching of natural(-cultural) boundaries in theory and ideology that can only become reality through high-tech practices—the so-called wet technologies, or bio-tech.
On the ground the attempt in so many varied ways seems to be to break with the subject of modernity—that earlier ideal of self-governing responsibility within accepted social norms—and the instantiation of a form of the person over whose social and even natural boundaries the individual exercises autonomous judgement. Where in one, socially prescribed limitations, not to mention bodily ones, set the ethical parameters for action, in the other a more socially unanchored individual takes control of new possibilities once the contingent ‘nature’ of old ways is seen through.
Yet, perhaps oddly, the promise of a more self-reflexive individual—the subject minus subjection and unthought visceral commitments with consequences for others—has not generally come to populate our present world. Indeed, the message seems much more to have congealed in the advertising slogans of today’s universities, and within management practice generally, through their easy cooptation of the autonomy and diversity idea. Perhaps the truth is that for all the ethical aspiration in the ideal of the autonomous person and free intercourse between differences, resting on the hope of a world without social prescription, nothing such can ever quite exist. Indeed, the whole thrust of much of the theory in prioritising subjectivity and identity mystifies the very social characteristics of our present world which can be understood as ubiquitous in shaping the new subjective framework of autonomous self-definition. It may not feel like subjection to the many who espouse it: they don’t feel it as a governing idea but rather as their very own (successful modern subjects never much felt it as subjection either). And in this context, the oppression of others seems as ever before a part of a social-cultural deafness when what is at stake is one’s own apparent interests; in this case those of the contemporary autonomous subject.
In topsy-turvy times, when culture isn’t what it once was, ‘odd’ culture heroes emerge. ‘Odd’ because not the norm, past or present, in a statistical sense, though perhaps strongly in terms of some emergent ideal. One is certainly at present the male gay couple ‘striving’ to have babies via surrogacy, all the more poignant if the struggle involves cost, international travel or any setbacks for the Western couple involved. So often constructed in media stories as a journey (once again) to achieve something long desired (deep need? desire?) against the odds (social norms? an uncaring state?), we have the formulation of that ‘journey’ as a meaningful narrative for our times, intended for all of us. As with IVF in the 1980s, once marginal social identities are bold pioneers at the cutting edge of cultural change, and indeed they are, if also they are actually merely going with the flow. Of course, if the latter is true, then theirs is also a mundane story. Their actions are part of the implicit embedding of a new social order and creation of subjects who mistake their agency for free and independent action, and who are likely to experience their (newly structured) emotions as the basis of entitlement.
In the debate about surrogacy, such as it is, a sense of entitlement is evident and promoted with very little thinking about just this range of questions. On what basis is anyone entitled to a child? In what sense does anyone have a right to a child? Even putting such questions is typically given short shrift in the public realm, such is the knee-jerk agreement on the right of anyone who desires a child to have one, whatever their circumstances. In one recent newspaper story the ‘desire to experience the joy of holding a newborn’, we were told, should not be denied gay and infertile couples, and was given as a justification for commercial surrogacy. While rights may be understood variously in such depictions, discussion often lands with one foot in the ‘we are all human; therefore …’ argument, and the other in the related realm of contractual rights—the rights required by all subjects who are parties to matters of property and purchase. Difference, especially the bodily and embodied differences between men and women, are profoundly ignored at the level of thinking about what is occurring, even as infertile couples, but gay male couples more glaringly, must somehow have access to women’s bodies to produce their offspring. Only a deep sense of personal right and empowered identity can achieve such blindness, as it has in other times.
Noting the shift away from conformity to norms to some other ordering principle in social life, Zygmunt Bauman has proposed the alternative principle of ‘seduction’: how individuals may be drawn to images of themselves and seduced by the new apparatus of late-capitalist desire to commit to the commodity principle. In this view the state no longer needs to press down on persons or groups to keep them in conformity with the disciplines needed in an earlier stage of capitalist production. Indeed, if there is a switch in emphasis to consumption, then lack of the old conformist discipline is a plus; the new capitalism, with an emphasis on cultural production for the complement of identity, seeks out new commercial frontiers to attend exactly to this range of new needs and the emotional attachments that emerge with them. As Geoff Sharp has long pointed out, hi-tech science and its agents create conditions that allow commodity relations to expand into vast new areas, and in particular for this discussion, to create practical conditions (in the laboratory) that encourage a reconsideration of the nature of the body, and nature itself. In a world where it becomes normal to implant embryos created in vitro in Australia in poor women in Thailand, the meaning of the mother’s body, and of motherhood, if not the newborn, is set in motion. (Some of these meanings were discussed in Grazyna Zajdow’s article on surrogacy in the last issue of Arena Magazine). And as we have seen, new needs are constructed and felt, encouraged by calls for ‘responsible surrogacy industries’, in those who would not by nature be mothers.
Where an ethics fits into this picture of very loosely joined actors in the social whole pursuing their own stories, identities often empowered by high-tech science, is a moot point. As it stands, from the properly liberal arguments to the radical ones that argue for queer solutions to identity, and the unconscious mix and mélange of the two, ethics comes down to the highly individuated individual—but on what basis does s/he make her/his decisions? How do we know the right way to behave; the right course of action to take? If this version of the world really does come to pass in a full sense, then we would have lost the only sources of such judgement—which come down to us yet as remnants of right action and the good life inherited from, but likely not recognised as having roots in, other forms of society and subjectivity.
Entitlement is an unhelpful sentiment. Political demands, as a specific kind of discourse, have a legitimate place. They might be weak or strong, right or wrong; political demands can be argued and argued with. But a sense of entitlement has moved from the political arena into a psychological and emotional space where certainty and perhaps fragility of identification combine not to argue but to weigh upon those who would listen as a kind of emotional blackmail. If this is too strong, at the least, entitlement is an orientation that tends to close debate. The problem is that entitlement, like normativity, sits upon unspoken cultural commitments, and perhaps even forms of otherness that have been or will be turned into utility.