The Uses of Subjectivity
Austin-Smith, Brenda, Canadian Dimension
To be involved in progressive movements is inevitably to wrestle with personal experience, or in other words, subjectivity, and its prickly value as a political instrument. The concept of the individual person or subject, possessing definite characteristics and abilities, is a cornerstone of Western liberal thought. It informs such basic political ideas as "one man [sic] one vote," as well as the cherished notion of "individual rights."
It's also given us a lot of grief. Marx had a problem with this, and suggested seeing individuals as effects of social relations that were outside of one person's direct control, but that could be changed through collective action. All liberatory movements which account for oppression in terms of unequal power relations implicitly criticize the liberal view of the subject as a person with total control over his [sic again] destiny, and final responsibility for his fate.
We've come to a pretty pass, though, for feminism and Marxism, to give two examples, have been faulted for their failure to address the particular 'social locations" of the socially-constructed beings they claim to represent. The false universals of Woman" or "Worker" do not usually evoke, when we close our eyes, a woman of colour, or a disabled worker.
What follows are the verities that men cannot "know" what it is to be a woman, and therefore cannot speak for women's concerns within a given movement for social change. Similarly, white women cannot know the oppression of women of colour, since white women do not share that oppression, and thus the personal experience that is formed from it. The basis for collective action is no longer shared social condition, since different lines of force intersect differently to form different experiences--which may also affect the goals that various movements strive for. The liberal feminist claim that women want the right to work outside the home is a sham when women of colour have never had the privilege not to work outside the home.
The liberal subject might be a goner, but "subjectivity," like the cat, has come back, though this time in permanent quotation marks. Subjectivity is not exactly the liberal subject, for it is a quality rather than a person, and its particularities vary according to the power lines that intersect to form it. …