Academic Citizen Subjects

By Cho, Lily | English Studies in Canada, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Academic Citizen Subjects


Cho, Lily, English Studies in Canada


In Annabel lyon's The Sweet Girl, Pythias, the daughter of Aristotle, cannot gain entry into her father's Lyceum. Even though she is brighter than her brother, she is barred from this place of higher learning because of her gender. Indeed, for Pythias, the Lyceum is a place of potential oppression. Upon Aristotle's death, she rejects the idea of seeking shelter at the school. Imagining being there under the care of the new head, Theophrastos, she thinks to herself, "And weave in my room for the rest of my life, obeying Theophrastos?" (116). Instead, Pythias navigates all the dangers of being a young woman alone with little power and even less money. For Pythias, crippling debt, the loss of house and home, and sexual threat are preferable to the care of the Lyceum.

What might Pythias's cynicism toward the Lyceum reveal about academic citizenship? Although Lyon's story unfolds in ancient Greece, Pythias's situation tells us that places of higher learning may offer a refuge from worldly cares, but they can also be places that are antithetical to freedom for those who do not have full access to the rights and privileges of that social world; that is, for those who are not citizens. Even though the Lyceum appears in this novel as a site of exclusion and potential oppression, I want to suggest that the novel offers a view into the risks of citizenship rather than those of the Lyceum. Although the school is where Pythias might lose her freedom, it is her place in Athens that is the condition of that potential loss. Let us turn our cynicism away from the academy and toward citizenship.

Citizenship depends upon exclusion. As Engin Isin argues, "citizenship and its alterity always emerged simultaneously in a dialogical manner and constituted each other. Women were not simply excluded from ancient Greek citizenship, but were constituted by it. Similarly, slaves were not simply excluded from citizenship, but made citizenship possible by their very formation" (4). Like citizenship in ancient Greece, contemporary citizenship also depends upon exclusions. One need only to consider the moves by the current Canadian Immigration Minister to strip thousands of people of Canadian citizenship (as of September 2012, the ministry has indicated its intention to investigate the revocation of citizenship for eleven thousand people) (1) to realize that citizenship continues to rely upon acts of exclusion in order for its consolidation.

Beyond its exclusions, and its constitution upon exclusion, contemporary citizenship is also a problem in terms of the contradictions of its constitution. In "Citizen Subject," Etienne Balibar points out that the contemporary use of the word "subject" holds within it both the idea of subjectum and that of subjectus. The former is substantive and the latter adjectival. It is the difference between being a representation of the people and being subjected. Balibar demonstrates that recovering this difference enables an understanding of the antinomies of freedom and equality in contemporary citizenship: "The idea of the rights of the citizen, at the very moment of his emergence, thus institutes an historical figure that is no longer the subjectus, and not yet the subjectum. But from the beginning, in the way it is formulated and put into practice, this figure exceeds its own institution" (46).

Prior to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, citizens were subjects of the king. They were subjectus. With the rise of the republic, the "citizen is the subject, the citizen is always a supposed subject" (Balibar 45). Balibar calls this transition the "citizen's becoming-a-subject (devenirsujet)" (45). The citizen is not yet subjectum. This process of becoming clarifies the contradictions of citizenship (man versus citizen, subject of legislative power versus legislative subject, and so on), as well as those of academic citizenship (promise of equality through collegiality versus intrinsic hierarchy of the institution, the academy as a sovereign intellectual space versus its reliance upon governmental support, and so on). …

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