The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

MAURY McCRILLIS III


18. Narrative Subjectivity and Narrative Distancing
in James I of Scotland’s
Kingis Quair

Implicit in any discussion of literary subjectivity is the question as to what constitutes the individual and what relationship exists between the individual and the way that it is constructed grammatically. The problem with attempting to articulate a theory of the individual is that any such theory is ultimately dependent upon language for its articulation and is thus, for the poststructuralist at least, always suspect. It might be argued, for example, that an essentialist theory of the individual must posit a priori a transcendental notion of self which language may be capable of pointing to but which it cannot define in absolute terms. Similarly, it might be said that a poststructuralist theory which would describe the individual as the ever-shifting nexus of various stabilising and destabilising forms of discourse intersecting with and dissecting one another in a continual process of self-redefinition is itself a theory that is invested with a truth value that proves to be just as elusive as that of the essentialist position. For this reason I will not attempt to articulate a theory of self except to say that it is possible to know oneself, if nothing else, without having to rely upon a theory of the individual at all.

The question as to what relationship exists between the individual and the way in which the individual is constructed linguistically is a far more difficult question to answer and one which perhaps demands the use of theory. However, a theory of the grammatically constructed subject-position in a work of literature need not and, I will argue, ought not invest too much faith in the assumption that what is true of the grammatically-constructed self must necessarily also be true of the author himself or herself.

What I think is important about the struggle between essentialist and deconstructionist/poststructuralist notions of self is that these competing ideas reflect the struggle of the individual author to articulate the self in spite of the polysemous nature of language. In the case of the The Kingis Quair, the author’s struggle to articulate the self is undertaken first by locating himself within literary tradition by appropriating the conventions of his predecessors for his own artistic purposes and second by synthesising those conventions into something which ultimately differentiates the work from that of his predecessors. The location of the subject within literary convention ultimately for the purpose of distinguishing the self from that convention is, in some respects, complimentary to Caroline Bynum’s notion that the rise of subjectivity in the Middle Ages results from the burgeoning of institutionalised forms of life from the 12th century on.

In her essay ‘Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?’ Bynum argues that the ‘intense competetiveness’ and the ‘growing sense of the positive value to

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The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993
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