Sunday, December 28, 2008


I'm reading Patricia Fumerton's Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England now. It's fascinating; there's a lot of really interesting information, putting things together for me. She writes well, too; I enjoy working through her prose.

But, I always have difficulty with Fumerton's work on subjectivity. On the most basic level, Fumerton explains (regarding the mariner Edward Barlow)
that for all his unsettledness, Barlow has a very strong sense of himself as an enduring subject. He may not be a unified or consistent "I," but an "I" he is. This is evident in his prolific use in his narrative of the personal pronoun. (82)
That is, at base, one's ability to use "I" in a meaningful subject position to refer to oneself demonstrates one's subjectivity. I get that. It makes good sense to me.

But there's more to this quotation. In the second sentence, it's implicit that Fumerton sees a different kind or level of subjectivity, a subjectivity that involves a unified and consistent "I." And that's where I have difficulty, because I really don't feel like I have that on some level. Yes, sure, I recognize myself when I wake up in the morning, but I don't feel consistent or unified. And that makes me wonder what Fumerton is after, and what other peoples' experiences of self are. And the more I think about that, I think that Fumerton's unified and consistent subjectivity is a very western, humanist construct. I like humanism lots, but I don't think that a western, humanist construct really represents human experience in a full way. Instead, I think it represents a fantasy of human experience. For all I know, some people may live that fantasy, but mostly I think it's one of those masculinist, western constructs that doesn't really work even for most people in western cultures.

Further, Fumerton's use of the unified and consistent subjectivity seems to set it up as a goal; there's a sense in this short quotation that Barlow may not have it yet, but he's "on his way" towards something she'd recognize as that subjectivity (whether he'll get there or whether the next generation will isn't important). In other words, it looks like for Fumerton, there's a teleology of human development towards a unified and consistent "I." And that seems wrong to me, because I'm convinced that different human experiences at this time and over history aren't teleological; we're not progressing towards some sort of higher consciousness so much as continually organizing and re-organizing our brains and experiences through evolution. But evolution is unlikely to make big changes in our brains in a short time, certainly not over a couple hundred years, or even a thousand or two.

What would be interesting, I think, would be to learn about how linguistic usages organize our brains and contribute to evolutionary change. I need to ask a linguist for some help on that one, don't I?

For all my criticism, I think Fumerton's work is well worth reading, and (from my lowly position), would be a good place to start thinking about a seminar or something.

Fumerton, Patricia. Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.


  1. I haven't read Fumerton's work, but I interpreted the second sentence as a kind of throwaway... Or well maybe that's the wrong word. To me, I saw it as a way of qualifying her insistence on the possibility for individuals to see themselves as "enduring subjects" even if, in light of contemporary theory, we question the idea of unified or consistent subjectivity. In other words, I felt like that sentence was in there not to posit unified or consistent subjectivity as a goal but rather to say that some form of enduring or coherent subjectivity is possible even if the cogito is nothing more than a construct. Not sure if this makes sense, and, again, I've not read her work, so I could be completely off base. I'm just thinking that if one were to write about the "enduring subject" today without that sentence that somebody would come along and say that she was saying that Edward Barlow had a unified or consistent subject-position, which isn't what she's saying, and so this sentence is about preempting that criticism.

  2. Dr. C, Thanks, that adds a helpful perspective. She does criticize the work of others who've talked about developing subjectivities in early modern England, but mostly for working only with upper-class males. I'll have to reread some parts to check my interpretation.

    Thanks again!

  3. I guess, as a historian, this is one of those places I've always had trouble with literary work. I assume everyone had subjectivity and agency. . . constructed and limited in various ways, but still there. So while I understand the literary theory part, when I connect it to real people, I don't get it. I haven't read the book -- I heard Fumerton give an early piece on some of this and (like all the historians present) thought it was terrible, but the book sounds interesting.