On Improvising the Self and Seyla Benhabib’s Self as Author/Character

In the context of analyzing a scholarly dialogue between Seyla Benhabib and Judith Bulter, David Stern makes a helpful distinction between a situated, rather than a displaced subject. Having discussed Seyla Benhabib’s articulation of weaker and stronger postmodern views of socially constructed subjectivities,[1] Stern adds, “[i]n the weaker version of the thesis, the subject is situated in a world, but remains a subject capable of intentional action and autonomy.”[2] In contrast, the strong view—held, for example, by Judith Butler—claims that the subject is socially constructed “all the way down.”[3] As Stern explains, Benhabib opts for the weaker postmodern thesis wherein a situated subject “is a subjectivity that is not merely a passive product of the ways it is affected by the world.”[4] For Benhabib, we are no doubt influenced and formed by various cultural narratives, “nevertheless we must still argue that we are not merely extensions of our histories, [but] vis-à-vis our own stories we are in the position of author and character at once.”[5] Particularly in light of Foucault’s later essays and interviews, one could make a strong case that Behabib’s situated subject is more or less equivalent to Foucault’s doubly-constructed subject.inEsharp_Romare Beardon

Following Benhabib’s author/character analogy, I propose the activity of jazz improvisation as way to think about the situated or doubly-constructed subject.  Jazz improvisers belong to a tradition, which they themselves shape and by which they are shaped. The particular melodic lines they utilize, the musicians they imitate and “quote,” the kinds of instruments they play—an electric rather than an acoustic guitar, a synthesizer rather than a piano—and even performance opportunities are all socially and historically conditioned.  Nonetheless, the various ways in which they take up, re-shape, innovate, and expand the givens of tradition/s, highlights the subject-pole of construction.  In other words, though the improviser-subject is embedded in a socio-historical milieu that forms her, she is able to contribute to and even radically alter her context.  As she willfully and intentionally works out these changes, innovations, and reconfigurations in dialogue with the tradition, her own subjectivity is likewise reconstituted.[6] Her musical voice, style, and signature come to be otherwise.  The ability to maneuver within and utilize the very structures, mechanisms, and discourses shaping us for emancipatory, re-creative purposes sits well with Foucault’s analyses of the subject.


[1]According to Banhabib’s interpretation, the stronger postmodern thesis ultimately fails to provide the kind of emancipatory resources needed for feminist as well as other social theories addressing oppression and related concerns.  See, for example, Benhabib, “Feminism and Postmodernism,” especially 23–24. “Postmodern” and “postmodernism” are, of course, polyvalent terms.  Banhabib appeals to Jane Flax’s description of the postmodern position as embracing the following three “deaths”:  the “Death of Man,” the “Death of History,” and the “Death of metaphysics” (Ibid., 18).

[2] Stern, “The Return of the Subject?,” 111.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid., 111.

[5] Benhabib, “Feminism and Postmodernism,” 21.

[6] For a more detailed discussion of the ways in which a musician is both shaped by and reshapes musical traditions, see Nielsen, “What Has Coltrane to Do With Mozart,” especially 67–8.

3 thoughts on “On Improvising the Self and Seyla Benhabib’s Self as Author/Character”

  1. I am all for weak or soft constructivism, especially in terms, for example, of race, gender, etc. However, when it comes to the (Cartesian) construal of the ontological status of the distinction between subject & object … It has always seemed to me that here precisely (if nowhere else) is where Butler has it exactly right.

  2. I think we’re on the same page, Matt. The book _Feminist Contentions_ is really worth checking. Butler’s notion of performing subjectivities is very, very interesting.

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