Promotion to subject (2)

by Terence MacNamee

At times, whole categories of people can be demoted from subject to object. The insane experienced this in European history. During the Middle Ages they were mythified, and even listened to as having something strange and other-worldly to say. In modern times, however, they were regarded as sick, as patients, and were not listened to; doctors treating them spoke in their place – about them, as objects. This was associated with confinement and loss of liberty. In the Middle Ages, the insane had roamed about freely, sometimes finding a livelihood as entertainers – court fools and clowns. In modern times, they were locked up in institutions.

My point is that many kinds of people have been demoted to objects who once were subjects. An obvious example would be colonized peoples. Once they spoke for themselves, but then they were conquered and their conquerors spoke in their place, about them. For many such peoples, all we know about their history is what we gather from the hostile accounts of their conquerors.

In more modern times, there was a benign variant of this: anthropology. This was a discourse in which white guys went to study exotic tribes. George Steiner, glorifying Western civilization, remarked: “no exotic tribes come to study us”. But they could not, because anthropology is a discourse that does not admit of exotic tribes being anything but the object of discourse, not the subject. In recent years, this fact has made some anthropologists uneasy. But anthropology is still largely a matter of “us” studying “them”.

My proposal is that objects of discourse in this sense should be promoted to subject, using the analogy with linguistics with which I began.

The big problem is language. Often the object of discourse, if he is very different, does not speak the language of the present subject he is trying to replace. He may be an exotic tribesman. But he may also be one of the inarticulate working classes in England identified (rightly or wrongly) by Basil Bernstein in the 1960s. When this object is promoted to subject, he can do one of two things: he can speak in the language of the former subject – assuming he is up to the job of learning it – or he can speak his own language. If he learns the former subject’s language, he is likely to lose his own authentic voice when he tries to talk. But if he speaks his own language, the former subject and the former subject’s audience will not understand him.

Promotion to subject is a laudable project for those who have been talked of as objects for too long – but it is fraught with challenges that cannot be glossed over.