The Linguistic Turn And The Social Construction Of The Subject
Deep shifts in language philosophy are also among the converging intellectual currents that have fostered a rethinking of the subject as decentered and multiple. Wittgensteinian language philosophy, as well as the works of postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) and Michel Foucault (1926–1984), insist on the centrality of language as the necessary and primary medium of thought and action. With this in view, the formation of social relations and groups, cultural norms and practices, and ultimately the formation of subjectivity itself, is seen as a function of language-mediated processes. This linguistic turn has challenged past philosophical dependence on "universal truths" and "essential" or "natural" characteristics in favor of the ongoing social construction of the self and society as specificities in time and place.
In this way, the linguistic turn contributed significantly to the reconfiguration of the subject by casting it as something formed by, embedded in, and cogenerating of complex sets of language-mediated social dynamics. In turn, this view of subjectivity suggests, by extension, that where the subject and its identities are formed in and through multiple and diverse social dynamics, and that the subject will, likewise, become multiple and diverse in character. Still further, to argue that the subject is entirely and only a product of language-mediated social construction suggests that there is nothing else constitutive of subjectivity beyond what is socially given to it in and through the linguistic, and partially material, processes of social construction. So divergent from Western tradition is this last point that is has been, and at times remains, a matter of particular controversy.
Feminist, ethnic, and postcolonial formulations of multiple identity.
In addition to the philosophical traditions discussed above, the idea of a decentered and multiple subject enjoys wide currency in Ethnic Studies, as well as feminist and postcolonial thought. Collated here under the term "multiple identity," specific conceptualizations of a decentered and multiple subjectivity in these scholarly domains utilize a wide diversity of terminology and varying theoretical formulations, yet often display broad similarities. The tradition is long. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) first linked the experience of multiple identity to the history of interracial conflict in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Calling it a state of "double consciousness" Du Bois described black subjectivity as something in which "[o]ne ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (p. 17).
For Du Bois, this grappling with the identity contradictions of double consciousness replicate, within the microcosm of the subject, the large-scale societal and political struggles of blacks against their subordination by whites. Du Bois highlighted how these struggles profoundly shaped the formation of the black subject—the very souls of blacks—because in the social context of America, racial subordination barred black men and women from understanding themselves through the lens of their own ethnic group alone. Rather the subordination of blacks "only lets him [the black man or woman] see himself through the revelation of the other world" (p. 16); the "white world" with its norms of racial privilege and exclusion against which the "black world" is constructed. Du Bois wrote, "it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (pp. 16–17).
Du Bois's idea of double consciousness still resonates at times in the works of contemporary black thinkers and in writings on racism in America. In addition, postcolonial thinkers have extended similar logic to the formation of subjectivity in the context of colonial oppression. Developing conceptions of "hybridity," for example, postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha have focused on the way that colonial and postcolonial dynamics have contributed to the politicized and diverse social construction of specific subjectivities resulting in multiple and often contradictory forms of identification.
The idea of a decentered and multiple subject also finds favorable expression in a wide array of works by feminist thinkers. Over the past twenty years many feminist theorists working from various perspectives have stressed the "fragmentation" of the subject and the ability of subjects to live in "multiple subject positions." Among them, Latina feminist thinkers Gloria Anzaldúa (1924–2004) and María Lugones have developed the concept of "mestiza consciousness," which describes the conditions that forge multiple identities and the experiences of living them in everyday life. Their particular formulation has been taken up by other philosophers to help address the philosophical questions that yet remain with respect to decentered subjectivity.
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