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About this book

Who do you think you are? In Subjectivity, Ruth Robbins explores some of the responses to this fundamental question. In readings of a number of autobiographical texts from the last three centuries, Robbins offers an approachable account of formations of the self which demonstrates that both psychology and material conditions - often in tension with one another - are the building blocks of modern notions of selfhood. Key texts studied include:
- William Wordsworth's Prelude
- Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater
- James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
- Oscar Wilde's De Profundis
- Jung Chang's Wild Swans

Robbins also argues that our subjectivity, far from being the secure possession of the individual, is potentially fragile and contingent. She shows that the versions of subjectivity authorized by the dominant culture are full of gaps and blindspots that undo any notion of universal human nature: subjectivity is culturally and historically specific - we are, in part, what the culture in which we live permits us to be.

Concise and easy-to-follow, this introduction to the concept of subjectivity, and the theories surrounding it, shows that, in spite of the insecurity of selfhood, there is still much to be gained from the textual encounter with other selves. It is essential reading for all those studying 'autobiography' or 'autobiographical writing'.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Who Do You Think You Are?

Abstract
Near the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, the painter Lily Briscoe asks Andrew Ramsay about the nature of his father’s philosophical work:
She asked him what his father’s books were about.’ subject and object and the nature of reality’, Andrew had said. And when she said, Heavens, she had no notion what that meant, ‘Think of a kitchen table’, he told her, ‘when you’re not there’. (Woolf 1992, 28)
Ruth Robbins

1. Pamela, Rousseau and Equiano: Trousseaux, Confessions and Tall Tales

Abstract
Subjectivity, as the Introduction suggests, is a very insecure possession. In this chapter, the three texts discussed are produced by writers who, in the words of Julia Kristeva, are sujets-en-procès (subjects in process/on trial). Kristeva argues, in fact, that all subjectivities are sujets-en-procès, that subjectivity is never complete, but is always in the process of being made and remade by the competing forces of the Symbolic order (the non du père) and the semiotic, a space made up of the demands of the body and of the non-signifying parts of language, such as speech rhythms, sounds, intonations and other non-semantic gestures. Additionally, she argues that it is a kind of trial — a trial for one’s life, one might say — in which laws made before one’s birth compete with the apparently autonomous self’s attempts to assert its individuality.1 In bringing these three very different texts together, I want to suggest a number of possible ideas about subjectivity, and I begin with Kristeva’s concept because the paired ideas of trial and process are more acutely felt in some of these texts than in other places. In part, subjectivity depends on pre-existing scripts — you are what you have the ability to say, and, by extension, you are what you have read. This is particularly the case for the two relatively underprivileged subjectivities discussed here, the fictional character Pamela Andrews brought to life in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, and the real-life historical personage, Ouladah Equiano. Their attempts to make themselves — to achieve self-possession, one might say — depend very heavily on the privileged models of self hood that they find in already-existing texts.
Ruth Robbins

2. Two Romantic Egos: Wordsworth’s Prelude and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Abstract
The stereotypical version of William Wordsworth is as the poet of Nature, a man who describes with enormous enthusiasm in many different places how wandering through rural landscapes has repeatedly provided him with the balm for his soul and the matter for his poetry. Nature taught him, in this version of the Romantic myth, everything he really needed to know. His subjectivity was created by intercourse with the landscape rather than socially constructed by intercourse with other people. The great political events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were the ones, which moved him to enormous enthusiasm at the time — ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!’ (X, 691–92)1 — became in retrospect a false dawn rather than the herald of a new world. The return from politics to nature is narrated in Book XI of the thirteen-book Prelude (1805), and it is clearly with a sense of reconstructed relief that Wordsworth turns away from both emotional and political turmoil back to the assuaging balm of the natural world.
Ruth Robbins

3. Victorian Individualisms and Their Limitations

Abstract
The prevailing definition of subjectivity in the mid-Victorian period was involved in the concept of individualism, which John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859 in his treatise On Liberty, defined in the following terms:
the end of man … is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole; … the object ‘towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow men must ever keep their eyes, is the individuality of power and development’; and … from union of these arise ‘individual vigour and manifold diversity’, which combine themselves in ‘originality’. (Mill 1993, 125)1
Ruth Robbins

4. James Joyce and Self-Portraiture

Abstract
Near the beginning of James Joyce’s 1916 novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, we come across the ‘artist’s’ first artistic production, a limited and repetitive poem which consists entirely of the words ‘Pull out his eyes / Apologise’ (Joyce 1992, 4). Towards the end of the novel, an apparently more sophisticated Stephen writes another repetitive poem, this time in the form of a villanelle (Joyce 1992, 242–3). The second poem, scrawled on the back of a cigarette packet, comes to Stephen Dedalus in a moment of inspiration, which he identifies as an annunciation (236), but the transcendent moment is fleeting, and the sordid space of his room reasserts itself. The villanelle form is a technically difficult form to write, especially in English, a language with a scarcity of easy rhyme words. It consists of nineteen lines, divided into five three-line and one four-line stanzas, with only two rhyming sounds. The first and third lines of the first stanza repeat as the ‘refrain’ of the poem, forming the last lines of succeeding stanzas and the last two lines of the poem as a whole. Its movement dramatizes repetition with difference, for in the different contexts of succeeding stanzas, the same words come to function differently. And to this extent, the later poem and the earlier poem share something quite important: repetition and difference reiterated across the pages of the novel constitute one of this novel’s major themes. They stand for the ways in which subjectivity is made: the child repeats the words and gestures of others, but his repetition is always a modification of what has gone before, refracted through his developing idiolect and increasing consciousness of his own subject position.
Ruth Robbins

5. In Prison and in Chains: Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling

Abstract
It is, of course, always the case that subjectivity is under pressure, powerfully subjected to influences outside itself and beyond its control, with the individual often reduced to an object in the plans of others. The narratives that arise from very extreme experiences, however, and the subjectivities that these narratives relate, are necessarily rather different from the autobiographical text produced as somehow typifying more general experience, even if that typicality is also a marker of the exceptional status of ‘genius’ or artistry. The two texts that make up the material for this chapter both narrate the extreme experience of imprisonment, though they do it rather differently, and from different perspectives in relation to that experience. For Wilde, the text we now call De Profundis was written in the very midst of his imprisonment following his trial on charges of gross indecency. Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling was written after the events it narrates, with the ‘benefit’ of hindsight, though the narrative itself recreates the confusions of the situation he found himself in, in which the experiencing subject did not know how his story would end. In this, it differs significantly not only from Wilde’s text, but also from the other narratives produced by the Beirut hostages, such as John McCarthy and Jill Morrell’s Some Other Rainbow and Terry Waite’s Taken on Trust. The latter examples dispel the atmosphere of claustrophobia that Keenan carefully recreates, presenting narrative structures that alternate between the experience of imprisonment and the more general autobiographical issues of the life before and outside kidnap experience.
Ruth Robbins

6. Talking Properly: Class Acts in Carolyn Steedman and Alan Bennett

Abstract
In Richard Hoggart’s 1957 tome, The Uses of Literacy, a foundational text for what is now called ‘cultural studies’, Hoggart investigates the meanings of working-class life in the early and middle years of the twentieth century in relation to the narrowed views available to people who were both only marginally literate, and who lived within a more or less subsistence economy — certainly not, that is, within a realm of material privilege and plenty. This is a world in which the menfolk work long hours for low pay in heavy, dirty industry, and where the women ‘get by’ on what their husbands can earn; a world of anonymous streets of identical red-brick terraced houses; the lives here are not understood as ‘individual lives’ at all, but are instead figured as typical, or even stereotypical — or, more crudely, as the life of the herd, hemmed in by both material circumstances and the limited vocabulary for emotions and thought that are the consequence of poor education. In setting out the working-class life that he himself experienced as a child, Hoggart was acting in good faith, I believe. He thought that he was telling a kind of truth about lives lived in scarcity, want, hardship and sorrow; these were also lives in which deprivation was not always experienced as deprivation. His analysis of this kind of life is one that associates it strongly with the lives of the non-literate peoples analysed by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. ‘Life’, for these people ‘is very much a week-by-week affair, with little likelihood of saving a lump sum to fall back on’, and no possibility of planning for — or even imagining — a better future (Hoggart 1992, 44). It is a life of monotony and sameness, week-in, week-out, with each day measured by the task it requires (wash day, ironing day, cleaning day, shopping day).
Ruth Robbins

7. China Women: Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

Abstract
In the attempt to work out who one is, one must also work out who one has been. In order to answer the question, ‘who am I?’ one is necessarily involved in the question ‘how did I get to be who I am?’ Who I am, in addition, is not merely a question of my personal past, the particularity of my own auto/biography. It is also implicated in the past as both wider history and culture: a context that is more collective than purely personal. If the cultural stories can exclude some subjectivities on the basis of class, then the strangeness of the past, figured by L. P. Hartley as a foreign land, is perhaps even more acutely realized by those subjectivities who have literally left their past behind, in foreign countries, as migrants, refugees and exiles. A central question in any discussion of subjectivity that suggests it is culturally derived rather than naturally occurring is about the extent to which subjectivity is therefore culturally specific. In other words, is the self-figuration that one finds in autobiographical writings dependent on a particularly western model of self-identity? Is autobiography itself a thoroughly western idea? In this chapter, through reading two very different autobiographies from ethnically Chinese women writing in the west, but with their ethnic identities always firmly in mind — with the presence of their personal and cultural pasts making the narratives what they are — I want to examine these questions. The two texts at issue are Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, first published in 1992 and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior first published in 1977.
Ruth Robbins

8. Death Sentences: The Sense of an Ending? Living with Dying in Narratives of Terminal Illness

Abstract
When Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, I think it is safe to assume that thanatography (death-writing, or writing about the process of one’s own dying) was not quite what he had in mind. It is perhaps ironic that the theoretical implications of his statement find one of their greatest challenges in narratives of terminal illness. Theory itself — a word that means ‘way of seeing’ — with its attendant implications of the distance, objectivity and perspective that will enable us to see things clearly, clashes with life and death with their intimacy, their messy contingency and their nonetheless urgent significance. Life/death and theory seem inappropriate partners in some ways because of what Paul de Man, writing of autobiography, has called life’s ‘incompatibility with the monumental dignity of aesthetic values’ (de Man 1984, 68). Autobiography traditionally makes sense of life, aestheticizes it and organizes it, explains it: but in giving a life something of the ‘monumental dignity’ of aesthetic value, it also turns into A Life.
Ruth Robbins
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