Elspeth Probyn. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications. 2003.
In his A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking writes that ‘when a body moves, it affects the curvature of space and time—and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act’ (1988: 36). There’s something so obvious about this learned comment. Obvious, that is, if we truly consider how we inhabit space. Can we ever conceive of ourselves outside the space we inhabit? Do we not at some level recognize the differing affects that play upon and within us as we move through different spaces? Profoundly, we experience our subjectivities, the ways in which we are positioned in regard to ourselves as subjects, in terms of both space and time. How can it be otherwise, given that our bodies and our sense of ourselves are in constant interaction with how and where we are placed?
In this chapter, I want to look more closely at how this happens. I will also argue that how we experience ourselves is deeply structured by historical processes that make us into subjects. I want to draw out theoretical models that help us to realize the complexity of the formation of subjectivity. What is it that drags upon us as we move through space? How are different spaces historically formulated as conducive to some subjectivities and not others?
To think about subjectivity in terms of space is evident yet relatively recent. Popular conceptions of our ‘selves’ commonly place them as somewhere deep within us. There is a long legacy in western thinking that places the core of ourselves as enclosed within. If subjectivity has been lodged away as a pristine entity untouched by the outward body, space too has a history of being conceptualized as bounded and contained. As Sue Best clearly argues, the pervasive metaphorization of space in terms of the feminine consolidates this ‘persistent desire to domesticate space, to bring it within a human horizon and, most importantly to “contain” it within this horizon’ (1995: 183). Much of the research in cultural theory over the last decades has been directed at rethinking such conceptualizations. Thinking about subjectivity in terms of space of necessity reworks any conception that subjectivity is hidden away in private recesses. What we hold most dear, as an individual intimate possession, is in fact a very public affair. Thinking about how space interacts with subjectivity entails rethinking both terms, and their relation to each other.
Much of the most exciting work on subjectivity has been influenced by feminist perspectives. Feminists have raised crucial questions about the relations of power that permeate how subjectivities are constructed and experienced. Contrary to a long history in western thought that saw the body as troublesome and as an impediment to reason, feminists have argued that the body provides us with key knowledge about the working of our subjectivities. The body then becomes a site for the production of knowledge, feelings, emotions and history, all of which are central to subjectivity. As we’ll see, the body cannot be thought of as a contained entity; it is in constant contact with others. This then provides the basis for considering subjectivity as a relational matter.
To start with a simple question: what is subjectivity? Often subjectivity and identity get used interchangeably. This is understandable because we think of ourselves as having an identity, or several. For the purposes of this chapter, however, I use the term subjectivity and rarely employ identity. This is because I want to outline the way subjectivity relates to the concept of the subject which, as we’ll see, is also associated with the idea of ideology. While ideology is no longer as central as it was in cultural theory, it is nonetheless key to how the subject and subjectivity have been theorized.
In the early 1970s following the publication of an article by the French philosopher Louis Althusser, new ways of exploring ideology emerged within Anglo-American cultural theory. Althusser’s theory was remarkable for the way in which it brought together a structural Marxist conception of society, and a Lacanian-influenced account of the structure of the psyche. Previously, ideology had been conceived of in the narrower sense of ‘false consciousness.’ This Marxist term referred to the ways that individuals were duped by ideology, and in vulgar terms, how we are brainwashed by capitalism. It is a simplification, yet we can say that ideology in this sense was seen as a force bearing down on passive individuals. Contrary to this tradition, Althusser advanced the question of how individuals are actively constituted as subjects through ideology. Crucially, Althusser laid the way for understanding ideology as sets of practices which engage us, and in which we are always engaged. And as I will describe in more detail, Althusser’s theory of the subject is an influential cornerstone in thinking about the spatial nature of subjectivity.
While it has become commonplace to speak of identities and subjectivities as performative, Althusser’s account of ideology compels us to consider closely the material contexts which allow and delimit our individual and collective performance of selves. Althusser may have fallen out of favour, but interestingly enough there is an increasing awareness in cultural theory of the need to instil some sense of the material within theorizations of the complex relations between individuals, selves, economic and structural forces, history and the present. This plays out in various directions but may be due to a collective turning away from some of the excesses of postmodernism and even poststructuralist thought which, it can be argued, diluted a clear sense of the constraints of context. It must be said that equally many of the theories grouped within these unwieldy categories have forcefully contributed to an expanded notion of what counts as material, or even as political. Nonetheless there is evidence of a return to something that might ground ‘theory,’ that ‘theory’ must be put to some use. In the terms of a recent book edited by Butler, Guillory and Thomas, the question is ‘what’s left of theory?’ Their introduction attests both to the need to make theory work in political contexts, and also to the unproductive divide that has operated in terms of who is seen as material and who is not:
If some of those who turn against theory in the name of politics do so by laying claim to referentiality and thematic criticism, then some of those who turn against politics in the name of theory do so by sacralizing the suspension of all reference to context. (2000: x)
While their concern is literary theory, a general rethinking of politics and theory can be seen across much of cultural theory. Equally it is interesting to note that the tide is turning against ‘identity,’ and especially ‘identity politics.’ While much of this has been of a conservative ilk—that somehow ‘identity’ took us away from the proper study of disciplinary objects—it can be argued that there is a need to reground identity. For these reasons, a return to the notion of subjectivity offers us a way of thinking through anew some of the important questions of the past several decades.
In this sense Althusser is of note for several reasons. First and foremost, the combination of structural Marxism and an attention to the production of subjectivity allows his theory to be used across a wide spectrum of analyses. For instance, in the heyday of ‘high theory’ Althusser was used to analyse the operations of the filmic apparatus. Yet his insights also provide ways of understanding the interrelation between societal structures, their history and spatiality, and how they are experienced and incorporated.
At a very basic level, Althusser was interested in why society continues to run so smoothly even in the face of considerable inequities and inequalities amongst individuals. It’s a question that in its simplicity continues to express some of the most pressing questions of our time. As we’ll see, his model allowed for contradiction, a key notion of 1970s and early 1980s cultural theory that is still germane. For instance in terms of ‘globalization’ the contradictory ways in which we are placed and experience ourselves as subjects quite rightfully hold much current theoretical attention. And they are, of course, the subject of overt political action in the western world, and increasingly beyond. In both cases, there is a clear sense of the need to come to grips with the imbrication of the economic (which may be experienced, as Althusser argued, only in ‘the final instance’), the cultural, ways of living and perceiving. In turn, and as I discuss later, this raises questions about how we are positioned in relation to each other: what are the relations of proximity that impinge on very differently experienced subjectivities?
Althusser’s response to why the world keeps turning in the face of dissent, and experienced inequality, was to remark on the fact that while there are instances where people are kept in line through violence (what he called ‘the repressive state apparatuses’), the main part of the work of getting us to accept our condition is through ideology. Althusser opens the term to what he called ‘the ideological State apparatuses.’ These include the family, education, religion and most of the legal procedures. Akin to Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) emphasis on class and education, Althusser’s point was that we are informed at an early age by the work of these ideological apparatuses.
One of his central arguments is that we are ‘interpellated’ or ‘hailed’ by ideology. The classic example is the following scenario: you are walking on the street and a cop calls out ‘hey, you’; seemingly we instinctively turn, ‘what, me?’ At that moment, says Althusser, we have gone from being an ordinary individual and have become a subject of and for the law. There are other scenarios that Althusser doesn’t mention. For instance, if you are walking on the street and someone wolf-whistles, and you turn, more likely than not you are being interpellated as a (‘pretty’) woman. In other words, we may be walking along unconcerned whether we are male or female, black or white, straight or gay, when something happens that forces recognition of the fact that we are gendered, raced and sexed. To go back to the example of the policeman who hails you on the street: if you are, say, young, black and male the chances are that the interpellation of the law will strike more deeply than if you are white and middle class. In the case of the latter, you may not even recognize that you are being hailed. You may think that the apparatus of the law is there to serve you, not that you are a likely subject of its force.
One of Althusser’s key points is that ideas about who is a good or a bad subject are always present in our society. Given the huge range of experiences it is surprising how limited are the choices in terms of good and bad subjects. These notions are not ephemeral but are stitched into us through our everyday practices. As Althusser states, ‘an ideology always exists in an apparatus and its practices. This existence is always material’ (1971: 155). In this way we can begin to understand that the ideas that a society has about what is feminine or masculine, what is ‘normal,’ etc. do not just seep into our heads; these ideas are reproduced over and over again through the practices defined by different apparatuses, and then in our own practices. This is a more nuanced and much more pervasive view than was evident in the ways in which ideology was previously theorized. We are subjected to the practices of different ideological apparatuses, and we become subjects in terms of them. This leads to Althusser’s argument that there is ‘no ideology except by and in an ideology; there is no ideology except by the subject and for the subject’ (1971: 160). Further, ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects.
Althusser also forcefully raised the fact that we are all informed by ideology. Indeed, we all are in ideology, and to a certain extent the very fact of being within ideology is comforting. Althusser uses the example of religion as a perfectly hermetic system which gives its believers absolution. In giving yourself to God you are not only assured of a place in the afterlife; here on earth you will know your position. In Althusser’s terms, you are a subject in as much as you are subjected to a higher subject, God. This higher subject guarantees your existence: ‘Peace be with you.’
This structure of subject formation is also common outside religion. For example, in 12-step programmes modelled on AA, individuals give themselves over to a ‘higher power’ which then secures a subjectivity as ‘a recovering alcoholic.’ The 12-step system is a very simple ideological structure which allows us to see the process of subjection and subjectivity. The individual says to the group, ‘Hi, my name is Fred, and I’m an alcoholic’ There is no last name because the system is not interested in other subjectivities you may bring to the group. The whole process is aimed at verbalizing, uttering and outing one subjectivity. This is secured by the promise that if you do articulate this subjectivity you can also give over to the higher subject all your other problems and worries. And that you will not drink. Ideological structures work on the concept of mutual recognition that by subjecting yourself to a higher subject, you exist.
- To recap the points of this system of ideological recognition, we can state:
- Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects.
- Through practices they enact their subjection to the higher subject.
- This entails that there is a mutual recognition of subjects and higher subject, the subjects’ recognition of each other, and finally the subject’s recognition of him/herself
- In turn, this provides the absolute guarantee that everything is so, and that on the condition that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be alright: ‘Amen, so be it.’
The result of this process is that most individuals enact themselves as ‘good’ subjects. What emerges from this argument is that the category of the subject is absolutely central at the same time that it is ambiguous. We are free and accepting of our submission; we subject ourselves. In so doing we are allowed to forget the reality of being subjected to different ideological systems. In Althusser’s terms, ideology represents ‘not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real conditions in which they live’ (1971: 165). Stuart Hall (1985) puts it more clearly when he argues that ‘the problem is how to account for the fact that in the realm of ideas and meaning men can “experience” themselves in ways which do not fully correspond to their real situation.’ In other words, what may seem intensely intimate and personal really is nothing more than a subject position we hold in relation to a larger system.
The important point is that the subjectivities that we build up in our practices of subjection are impotant to us as individuals. Another important consideration flowed from his theory. In Hall’s (1985) famous statement, Althusser lets us live with difference. While I won’t follow through on Hall’s intricate argument, what I want to draw out is the fact that Althusser’s theory can be used to think about how different spheres of subjectivity are enacted, more often than not by one individual. While it has become fashionable to talk about all subjectivity as fragmented, this can ignore the ways we are interpellated and inhabit sometimes quite conflicting subjectivities. For instance, if I am a gay male school teacher, my subjectivities will probably not be seamless. I will feel parts of my subjectivity in different contexts. Given the general homophobia of our culture, as a gay man I would be interpellated by the educational system as a ‘bad’ subject, even though I may be deeply invested in being a ‘good teacher.’ To return to the crucial point about the spatial configurations of subjectivities, we proceed from the basic idea that subjectivities are not abstract entities; they are always conducted in situ. They are also hard-won.
Teresa de Lauretis’ (1988) argument about ‘technologies of gender’ is one of the most useful takes on Althusser’s theory of ideology. Following Althusser, she also insists that ideology works fundamentally by means of its engagement of subjectivity. De Lauretis extends the scope of Althusser’s argument by replacing ‘ideology’ with ‘gender.’ Her objective is to conceive of a new kind of subject, one that operates through gender, as in fact we all do in ‘real life.’ De Lauretis’ proposal for thinking subjectivity centres on ‘a subject constituted in gender though not by sexual difference alone, but rather across languages and cultural representations; a subject engendered in the experiencing of race and class, as well as sexual, relations; a subject, therefore, not unified but multiple, and not so much divided as contradicted’ (1988: 1). Here again we hear the emphasis on subjectivity as the ‘product and process’ of practices. But contrary to Althusser’s subject in ideology who cannot recognize himself as within ideology, de Lauretis argues that feminism, or the critical study of the ideology of gender, produces a subject who is aware of the workings of ideology. The subject, she argues, ‘within feminism is one that is at the same time inside and outside the ideology of gender, and conscious of being so, conscious of that two-fold pull, of that division, of that doubled vision’ (1988: 10).
De Lauretis argues that this is an uncomfortable position, but a necessary one. If we recall that one of the contentions of Althusser’s description of ideology was that living within the system allowed for a sense that everything was alright, we can see that being inside and outside ideology would be disturbing. But precisely one of the important differences between Althusser and feminist arguments like de Lauretis’ is the acknowledgement that everyday life throws up moments that intrude upon our senses of ourselves. Simply put, Althusser describes at a theoretical level how ideology as a system might work. De Lauretis, on the other hand, shuttles between ‘life’ and theory.
‘Life’ provides us with a critical entrance into theorizing subjectivity. De Lauretis uses a cinematic term, the space-off, to describe aspects of life that are outside the frame of dominant discourses. Consider the following quotation where she describes ‘the space-off, ‘the space not visible in the frame but inferable from what the frame makes visible’ (1988: 26):
[I]t is here [in the space-off] that the terms of a different construction of gender can be posed—terms that do have effect and take hold at the level of subjectivity and self-representation: in the micro-political practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford both agency and sources of power or empowering investments. (1988: 25)
For de Lauretis those micro-practices can be as diverse as feminist cultural representations or political practices that bring together ‘the personal and the political.’ To return to Althusser’s description of being hailed or interpellated on the street by the police, we could also envision being interpellated by the sight of a woman on the street with a black eye, or a woman begging with her children. If we make the move to consider how these individual cases link to broader questions about domestic violence, or the poverty of large numbers of single mothers, we can understand what it means to be inside and outside the ideology of gender. At these moments, we may go from being ‘just’ an individual to recognizing ourselves as gendered subjects. To take another example, if you are not heterosexual (and maybe even if you are), the dominant representation of romance and family will at times irritate. At some level, the very fact of being at odds with culture is experienced like a visceral schism. In this case, chances are that your subjectivity will be keenly experienced as different from others. There is no doubt that this moment of misrecognition—when you do not feel hailed by dominant ideologies—can be painful. But it is also crucial to the production of another subjectivity, one that may be in the ‘spaces-off of mainstream culture.
De Lauretis provides us with a critical framework for thinking about subjectivities and space. She is very clear that when she speaks of the movement back and forth, she does ‘not mean a movement from one space to another beyond it, or outside’ (1988: 25). In other words, she does not want us to think that there is ideology and there is ‘reality,’ as if the latter were not inextricably caught with the former. Subjectivity is a process that is continually in play with ‘reality’ and ‘ideology,’ dominant representations and our own self-representations. And as de Lauretis puts it, we all live with, and indeed within, ‘the tension of contradiction, multiplicity, and heteronomy’ (1988: 26).
Clearly then, subjectivity is not a given but rather a process and a production. It is also undeniable that the sites and spaces of its production are central. In other words, the space and place we inhabit produce us. It follows too that how we inhabit those spaces is an interactive affair. A jointly authored article published a few years ago argued that ‘space is gendered and that space is sexed … The reverse has also been shown: gender, sex and sexuality are all “spaced”’ (Bell et al., 1994: 31-2). Their article presents a complex argument about sexual practices and space. In turn, the journal which published it (Gender, Place and Culture) asked several people to respond, including myself. I won’t rehash my argument more than I already have, but I want to replay an example I used in order to extend the idea about subjectivity and space as interactive.
Consider this scene: your average type of pub somewhere (for some reason, a place in Kitislano, Vancouver comes to mind), the men are propped up on the bar, shoulder to shoulder, presenting a solid front of space gendered as masculine; they are men’s men but certainly not gay. A single woman enters and she is checked over, chatted up or ignored. And if that space feels stultifying, it is because she is walking into strata upon discursive strata that produce masculine space as the ground of differentiation and the grounds for their appropriation of women as Woman (which is to say, a man-made gender). (Probyn, 1994: 80)
What I wanted to raise here were the ways in which space presses against our bodies, and of necessity touches at our subjectivities. One of the important implications of thinking in terms of subjectivity rather than identity is that even in banal examples like this, the denseness, historicity and structural complexity become clear. There are of course lots of spaces that seem to be naturally masculine or feminine. For instance, the kitchen is held to be the woman’s domain, and in our daily lives we may often experience this: from mothers cooking for families, to parties where the girls gather in the kitchen to talk. Historically, pubs have been designated as men’s places. In western cultures until recently women were excluded either by law or by custom from entering the pub. In Quebec there are signs on the doors of brasseries that state: ‘Women welcome.’ This is because by law they now have to let women in. But it is a powerful reminder of how recent that change is. In Australia, women did not go to bars, and Aboriginal Australians were prohibited until recently. Indeed there are stories about how, during the Vietnam War, black American soldiers were allowed into bars and pubs, whilst Aboriginals were not allowed. The idea that the pub is a male-gendered space is not a myth but an actual historical construction.
So when I ask what happens when a woman goes into a bar, it is clear that she must confront at some level the fact that ‘she does not belong here.’ She will occupy that space quite differently from the men who are ‘propped up on the bar.’ She will be made to feel her gender subjectivity, whereas men may be able to forget that their subjectivities are also constructed through the interpellation of gender. This is a small example, but it may help us examine more closely how as individuals we inhabit space, and how space inhabits us.
In the example of the pub, I also wanted to bring out the ways that sexuality is highlighted in certain spaces. If the space of the pub is gendered as masculine, in my example it was also structured by heterosexuality. We can again ask the question of what happens when a woman goes into a bar, and complicate it by adding the fact that she is going to meet her girlfriend. In this scenario, not only will the women feel their gender, but they will also be made to feel their difference: that they are not heterosexual. This space reveals that parts of their subjectivities are caught up in a relation of being different, e.g. of not being ‘like other women,’ of not being placed in a complementary opposition of man-woman, of being out of place. To an extent, they may make that space their own, but they are doing so across history and ideology. As Gill Valentine has clearly argued, ‘As a result of this expression and representation of heterosexual relations in space, heterosexuals as a group are allowed to appropriate and take up space’ (1993: 410).
It is hard to overemphasize the historical weight that the ideology of heterosexuality has had on defining space. However, we can also think about how straight men and women inhabit space that has been made queer. As David Bell has pointed out, geography and cultural theory were slow to get beyond the gender distinctions and ‘recognise that different (and especially “non-conforming”) men and women have different relations with space and that one element that conditions this is sexuality’ (1991: 327). The queering of space has a complexity and a history as dense as those gendered masculine or feminine. For instance, many have credited the riots that took place at the Stonewall bar as the beginning of a modern gay movement. It may be an overly large claim, but Stonewall is interesting. The bar in New York’s Greenwich Village was home to drag queen shows. In 1969 the police raided it, as they often did in regard to gay spaces. The riots that ensued were fuelled by courageous individuals who refused to hide their sexual preferences. Now all over the world there are bars named in Stonewall’s honour. In terms of outing subjectivity, we can understand how brave those early protesters were. We also need to recognize the ways in which past practices become imbricated within present subjectivities. This example also gestures to the ways in which there may be common elements that are replayed in their contextual and temporal specificity. In this manner, they are continually rearticulated both as a ground of individual subjectivity and as a mode of linkage between and amongst individuals.
If gays and lesbians have been made to hide their sexual desires, a significant aspect of their subjectivities was constructed ‘in the closet.’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has eloquently argued that the figure of the closet is central to western society’s construction of knowledge and secrecy. From the end of the nineteenth century, we begin to see a new way of understanding and categorizing individuals:
What was new from the turn of the century was the world-mapping by which every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo- or a hetero-sexuality, a binarized identity that was full of implications, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence. (1990: 2)
The closet is an interesting spatial expression, although it allows for only two options: in or out. Moreover, as Sedgwick’s argument indicates, as a figure it mandates that we be either homo- or heterosexual. In terms of Althusser’s theory of interpellation, we can appreciate the sheer effort of continually deflecting our culture’s ideology of heterosexuality. In de Lauretis’ terms, to be queer is to construct yourself in the space-off of our society. As an ideological current, heterosexuality or heteronormativity pervades all aspects of life. It is also central to the apparatuses of the family, education, religion, the law, the media, to name but a few. Of course none of our subjectivities is constituted solely in regard to one factor. We are never only women or men, straight or queer. Our subjectivities are always situated at the nexus of gender and sexuality as well as class, ethnicity, social position, etc. And at each point we are faced with a complex set of binaries: are you a girl or a boy? Are you normal or queer? If you’re not white, are you black?
Recently there have been interesting instances of straights inhabiting queer space. Of course this tends to be the case in urban and trendy places—the bars that line queer cores of cities and that sport signs with pink triangles declaring ‘safe space here.’ These relatively new queer spaces are therefore not the mainstream spaces of the family or the church. They are the result of manoeuvres and strategies. In some cases, parts of cities are claimed by queers and then become part of a generalized gentrification, quite often of inner city and previously working-class areas. They also attract commercial venues like cafés, delis, bars and clubs. In a gradual process, these areas become appealing to what might be called ‘gay friendly’ straights, normally a young and more adventurous set. In time however they become ‘normalized,’ and they cease to be seen as only gay.
This for instance has happened in Sydney’s downtown queer core of Darlinghurst which is now one of the premier sites for restaurants, bars and clubs. However during the Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras the streets are closed for the huge parade of fabulous floats. At that moment, the ‘gayness’ of the space is highlighted, and hundreds of thousands of straights come to look. While there is a definite queer feel to the area, straight women now frequently habituate the gay bars of Oxford Street which runs the length of the queer strip. As Beverley Skeggs’ (1999) research in Manchester’s gay village shows, the attraction for straight women is that they do not have to endure the pickup routines of straight bars. Also they appreciate the style of the gay male clientele.
In Skeggs’ research it became apparent that this straight invasion into queer space has repercussions on the queerness of identified queer space. In an interesting way, she argues that gender returns to trouble sexuality. This is especially so in regard to the relations between straight and gay women in queer space. Simply put, straight women may be attracted to gay men in terms of a non-threatening relationship that is still based in a gendered opposition of same-other. However, their relation to lesbians is quite different. To be blunt, lesbians are more threatening because they exist in a same-same yet different relationship to straight women. Heterosexual women may worry that they could be the object of desire for lesbians in ways that are impossible or at least less likely in their relationships with gay men. Conversely, Skeggs has also found that lesbians don’t like the ways in which straight women appropriate space. There is an erasure of the fact of lesbians within queer space, as the space gets structured in terms of gay men to gay men, and straight women to gay men. This plays out in little but significant ways: for instance, Skeggs’ lesbian informants complained that the toilets get filled with straight women doing their hair and makeup, and looking askance at the lesbians. Given the fact that lesbians have historically found it much more difficult than gay men to assert their sexuality outside of private spheres, this limits the free expression of sex in space. For instance, while public sex is accepted practice amongst gay men, what would the straight girls do if a couple of lesbians were having sex in the toilets?
This may seem like a trivial question but it does go to the heart of how space and subjectivity mutually interact. One of the defining divisions in our culture is that of private versus public space. In general, women have been only recently allowed to incorporate public space into their sense of self. Where one gets to do what with whom is therefore an important point. While it is often argued that the public penetrates more and more into the private, it is less common to hear how individuals’ subjectivities are affected by the movement into the public or conversely into the private. In Kathy Ferguson’s (1993) terms, this is why it is important to think about the mobility of subjects. She states that she has ‘chosen the term mobile rather than multiple to avoid the implication of movement from one stable resting place’ (1993: 158). In other words, we need to conceptualize subjectivities in terms of not just the multiple positions we all hold, but how they get configured across space and places. In terms of the above discussion of sexuality and space, it’s important not to conclude that there are hermetic spaces designated as queer and others as straight. There are places which act as nodes, or meeting points, but it’s not as if we take off an identity as lesbian once we venture beyond them. As Geraldine Pratt argues, ‘there is a deep suspicion about mapping cultures onto places, because multiple cultures and identities inevitably inhabit a single place (think of the multiple identities performed under the roof of a family home)’ (1998: 27).
One of the important aspects of Pratt’s work is the way she navigates between the excesses of seeing subjectivity as completely fragmented and errant, and a perspective that would place subjectivity as a side-effect of place. Pratt’s research has focused on how migrant workers in North America inhabit their working spaces. In this sense, the workplace ‘not only enable[s] but exact[s] the performance of particular gender, class, and racial identities’ (1998: 28). In other research Pratt studied women employed in so-called non-skilled white-collar jobs. She argues that ‘these women literally move through class locations during the day. At their jobs they are working class, at home they are middle class’ (1998: 34). What close ethnographic work reveals is the fact that most individuals seek to anchor their senses of themselves. The women in Pratt’s study obviously have an investment in both their jobs and their middle-class identities at home. Against much of the highly abstracted theoretical work on fragmentary, floating subjectivities, this returns us to the idea that we may be hailed by different ideological apparatuses, but we also seek some coherence even in the face of multiple interpellations. Speaking in terms of our increasingly multicultural and differentiated living conditions, Pratt states: ‘It seems to me that efforts… are not advanced by representations that conceive of cities as blurred, chaotic, borderless places.’ I would add that our efforts to understand subjectivities also need to avoid celebrating subjectivity and identity as amorphous and as essentially boundless. Rather, as Pratt puts it, ‘one must understand the multiple processes of boundary construction in order to disrupt them’ (1998: 44). At first sight this emphasis on boundaries seems to go against the prevalent direction in cultural geography that insists on the chaotic -on the fact that ‘there is always an element of “chaos” in space’ (Massey, 1999: 284). Doreen Massey, one of the more influential writers on space, defines this chaos as resulting
from those happenstance juxtapositions, those accidental separations, the often paradoxical character of geographical configurations in which—precisely—a number of distinct trajectories interweave and, sometimes, intersect. Space, then, as well as having loose ends, is also inherently disrupted. (1999: 284)
The emphasis on the looseness and the potential for disruption is for Massey central in rethinking the politics of space, or rather the role of spatial thinking in renewing how we think about politics. The goal is to instil in our conception of politics recognition of ‘the openness of the future, the interrelatedness of identities, and the nature of our relations with different others’ (Massey, 1999: 292).
As in many accounts, the idea of relations, interrelations and proximities to others is key. As Gillian Rose writes, the question is how to imagine a space of relation (1999: 252). She asks: ‘How are bodies positioned in relation to each other? What kinds of connection do these positions make possible, thinkable, visible, tangible?… what kinds of space articulate what kinds of corporealized relation?’ (1999: 252). While I agree with Massey that it is important to focus on the ‘happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other’ (1999: 282), we also need to bear in mind that we are produced in distinct ways because of how we are positioned, how we are interpellated.
To go back to an example I used in discussing Althusser’s ideas, a young black man will be interpellated on the street in overdetermined ways. To extend that point, I may be walking along the street where I live and have a ‘happenstance’ encounter with a young Aboriginal woman. To contextualize this encounter, let me add that I live in an inner city area of Sydney that has the highest urban population of Aboriginal Australians. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates, the highest crime, the highest poverty levels, and is renowned for drug selling and use (mainly heroin). It is heavily policed by white cops, and because the university where I teach is down the road there is a constant parade of relatively affluent, mainly white students who seem to proceed en masse through the Aboriginal section, oblivious to the ‘difference’ that surrounds them. Their behaviour may be motivated by many reasons, including a protective bodily comportment in order to deter muggers. As I walk along in much the same manner, I come across the young Aboriginal woman who is crying. ‘Are you OK?,’ I ask. ‘Ah sister, you wouldn’t believe what happened.’ She then details the death of an aunty and how she has come to Redfern to try to find her cousins. I try to offer consoling words, and wish her well as she continues on the street and I turn off to go home.
Now in terms of the questions raised above about the positions of bodies to bodies, what can we say of this brief encounter? Well in a fairly brutal manner, we’d have to say that the only way that such an encounter could occur would be in a happenstance way. We are relationally positioned as inhabiting different universes. In fact we could be seen as standing in binary opposition to each other: me white, she black; me affluent, she poor; me educated, she probably not; me the invader of her country, she the dispossessed. The list could go on and on. That our paths cross is also determined by the fact that Redfern is becoming gentrified, something that will not help her one jot and increases the pressures to remove all trace of the Aboriginal housing from this area. Further, our small encounter surely left her indifferent: she had more important things on her mind. For me, it registers because part of my evolving subjective processes involve the question of how to conduct myself as a white non-Australian within a geography of appalling racialized relations, and a history of violence. Bluntly put, I need her more than she needs me (Probyn, 2001).
This scenario captures for me some of the sheer difficulty of how to live in an interrelational framework. It also compels questions of how to think and conceptualize subjectivities in relation to others. In an early book, I posed the following question as one way to think connection:
In trying to speak within the tensions of ‘who is she? and who am I?’ I want to disrupt any certainty that we know the answers in advance, or that either a good or bad politics can be guaranteed by such a question. To engage our imaginations precisely opens us into a space where possibilities can be envisioned; a space where I may no longer recognise myself. (Probyn, 1993: 163)
Nice words, but I now think that this formulation relies too heavily on the optimism of openness. Quite simply, I’m not sure where that space would be in which I would no longer recognize myself. Nor do I see now why this is of necessity a ‘good thing.’ Even the guiding questions no longer satisfy. At the time, it allowed me a way to think through how we might put experience or, in the context of this chapter, our subjectivities to work. I envisioned a productive tension set up by the question of ‘Who is she and who am I?’ Equally I wanted to get away from a navel-gazing perspective on the question of subjectivity, which seemed to endlessly spiral around ‘me.’ In part, this may have been produced by an overly zealous insistence within some forms of feminism that white women should not attempt to speak for ‘the other.’ By now, hopefully, it is common sense that I cannot speak for an amorphous group, be it the other, or women, or whomsoever.
It also has to be said that I am no longer interested in the ins and outs of ‘Who am I?’ The broad brush depiction will do fine: white, female, relatively privileged, etc. I am, however, more than ever committed to thinking about how subjectivities can be thought of in terms of being both structured and porous, spatially determined, temporally heavy. This is why in this chapter I have returned to the basics of Althusser’s structural theory of ideology. I suppose I could have equally deployed theories such as Bourdieu’s who develops a notion of how social structures are incorporated. However there is something about the immediacy of Althusser’s descriptions that attract me. They point to the multidimensional nature of how we produce ourselves, as well as how we live with difference.
Subjectivity is a question of sameness and difference, the near and the far. My preferred way of thinking about a wide range of issues is in terms of ‘relations of proximity.’ Dictionaries define ‘proximity’ as closeness: ‘nearness in space, time, etc’ It is related to the Latin proximus, ‘nearest.’ Personally ‘relations of proximity’ bring to mind the near and the far, what cannot be rendered near, what is always produced as close. Furthermore, relations of proximity highlight the facts of connection or dis/connection. The term ‘connection’ has become widely used, and belongs in much the same frame as ‘interrelation’ or Massey’s notion of ‘arrangements-in-relation-to-each other.’ Clearly her use of the hyphen emphasizes the connection between each term, and refers to possible connections amongst individuals. For me, this remains an important point even if, as I mentioned, I now want more ground upon which to base ideas of the types of connection that are possible. But logically, if we agree that we need to think about possible connections, then we must also address the conditions that will make them impossible, or at least difficult to enact.
In adjoining connection and dis/connection, I want to render central the facts that disable or render connection hard. These are the hard ‘facts of life’: conditions of inequality and non-commensurability due to economic power, class, social privilege, history, etc. They also return us to the ways in which we are interpellated differently: that we are hailed by different ideologies in different ways, and that the institutions that maintain relations of how we are hailed pose blocks to possible connections. In other words, subjectivities are differentially informed. Emphasizing the absolute spatial nature of the processes of subjectivity should also remind us of where and how we are interpellated. Instead of plastering over those differences, we need to stop and address them. Sometimes that stopping will result in silence. And that slash between dis/ connection should indicate a pause—a moment of non-recognition that may be expressed as simply as ‘wow, you really are different from me.’
The point is not to stay caught in that moment of bewilderment or enchantment: that would only reinscribe difference as an exotic, fetishized or denied quality. In other words, this would be to replay the not-same as ‘the other,’ which is to posit a relation of dubious connection. Nor is it to legitimate turning away, closing down in the face of non-connection. That would be to replay the history of how racialized, classed and other relations have tended to produce hermetic subjects. In Susan Willis’ description, this would be a situation wherein ‘To some extent, all [whites] are reified subjects, against whom it is impossible for blacks to mount passionate, self-affirming resistance or retaliation’ (1989: 174). Conversely, it also renders it impossible for whites to have any connection to blacks except those of guilt, denial or retaliation. This is not the type of dis/connection I am thinking of, and cannot be because it is effectively no connection at all.
In terms of bringing together the different points of this chapter, in returning to Althusserian theory I have attempted to sketch out the ways in which space always informs, limits and produces subjectivity. Equally subjectivity connects with space, and it rearticulates certain historical definitions of space. In this sense, neither space nor subjectivity is free-floating: they are mutually interdependent and complexly structured entities. The interest in returning to the ideological underpinnings of the very notion of the subject is that it turns attention to the ways in which subjectivities are produced under very particular circumstances. This then can lead the way to rethinking the questions that press upon us: from the ways that globalization restructures every aspect of our lives, and interconnects us in visceral and symbolic ways with those ‘far off, to the ‘spaces-off in which we perform new modes of subjectivity and rearticulate the limits of gender, sex, race and class.
We need to think of subjectivity as an unwieldy, continually contestable and affirmable basis for living in the world. Subjectivities are then simply a changing ensemble of openings and closings, points of contact and points which repel contact. In space, we orient ourselves and are oriented. That is the spatial imperative of subjectivities.