Subjugation as a Tool for Agency

An artist's palette with many different colors of paint. The artist is dipping their paint brush into the blue paint.

Judith Butler’s introduction to The Psychic Life of Power presents the paradox that Foucault, Althusser and others continually come up against: in order to have agency, we must first be interpolated. While many prefer to define agency as the ability to completely reject subjection. However, as Foucault, Althusser and others argue, we are interpolated. There is no escaping subjection, and having agency must work in the bounds of this truth.

Phillips provides us with a method of agency within these bounds. Phillips shows us how we can use our very subjugation as tool for agency. The different subject forms that we learn to perform can be compared to colors on an artists’ palette: we have agency in the way that we creatively utilize multiple forms (colors) and even create new forms. Aside from the creativity this metaphor offers, I also like that it includes the notion of the subject form as something that is always in process: “the self may be conceived as a form – a rhetorical form – that exists only in its continual and aesthetic creation, in its indefinite becoming” (311). Viewing our subject forms in this way is far more empowering than viewing subject forms as a “trap”. I also now have a better understanding of how this contrasts with the humanist perspective.

From the humanist perspective, whenever we inhabit a form, we are disempowered. Performing a form means that we are not our core, authentic selves. I think prior to enter graduate school I would have leaned toward this humanistic perspective. I would tend to see working professionals, for instance, as farther away from their authentic selves. This probably stems from my fear of growing up (something I’ve had since I was about eight or nine for some odd reason). I used to think of growing up as moving away from our authentic childlike self – that we lose who we really are and become phony in a sense.

I now realize that growing up does not exclude this childlike self, but rather allows for expansion to include more selves. I think I most realized this when I was playing with my supervisors eight year-old kid. She said that I was not like most adults. I asked her what she meant, and she said, “You act like me!” At first I laughed…then I got paranoid – do I have the maturity level of an eight year-old all the time? I then realized that I should take it as a compliment, as well as reassurance. I still have the ability to be carefree and child-like, but I’ve also developed an ability to be a graduate student, a professional, citizen, etc. As I take up more roles, I am bound by more rules, but I also have more tools – just as Phillips describes.

Another important lesson that I learned from Phillips is that it is important to continually move from one role to the other. At first when I read about the way that this creates fluidity, I did not really explore its implications. Now I realize that it’s important to not invest too much into one particular role. I think there are certain roles that are very seductive (there’s that word again) in making us want to invest more energy in them. Being a professional, for instance, can become the sole purpose of one’s life to the extent of making ourselves sick with psychosomatic illnesses, or alienating ourselves from loved ones. In order to keep the fluidity of moving from one form to another, I think it is important to engage in the reflective process of Foucault’s objectification. We can create spaces of dissent by stepping back from the multiple roles in our lives, so that we don’t blindly inhabit them or give them too much energy or power.

Clifford similarly discusses the inescapability of ideology, and the numerous rules that we too easily take for granted. He further explains that we are seductively made to believe that we have choices, when in fact these choices are limited by established institutional ideals. Clifford explains that ignoring ideology only blindly reinforces it, and that only by becoming aware of this fact do we have any agency in creating ideologies that are more empowering. Only by reading this article a second time with the new context of Phillip’s article, do I realize the core common thread through these pieces – that it is important to recognize that ideologies and subjection exist, influence us, and the only way to be empowered is to fully recognize this truth.

This comes back to where I first started with Butler’s introduction: in order to have agency, we have to first be interpolated. While I’ve written in past papers about the way that I’ve been interpolated as a student (eagerly working for good grades), I think it might be valuable to take the time to journal the other ways that I am interpolated, as well as my different subject forms. I think I am less afraid to consider the ways that I’ve been interpolated than I was when I was first introduced to Foucault, because now I understand that this knowledge can be a source of empowerment.