Subjectivity and Citizenship: Habermas and Kristeva on Agency in the Public Sphere

Dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin (1998)

Abstract

I address the question of whether certain poststructuralist theories of subjectivity can contribute to Habermas's project of deliberative democracy--whether effective political agency requires that we be the kinds of individuals supposed by the modern liberal tradition or whether effective citizenship is possible under a poststructuralist theory of the subject as an "open system." I find that poststructuralist subjectivities can be effective political agents. ;In part one, I introduce two sometimes warring theories of subjectivity. One is the theory of Jurgen Habermas. I argue that Habermas's theory leads to a theory of subjectivity being transparent to itself, independently spontaneous, fixed, and individualistic. The other is the theory of Julia Kristeva, which holds that the subject is a tenuous effect of its relations with the others in its midst and its own internal otherness. In part two I show how their theories of subjectivity inform their views of citizenship and politics. As I argue, each orientation has its problems. Habermas mistakenly argues that the subject can act discretely and autonomously; conversely, Kristeva's view seems to foreclose the possibility of agency, since it considers the subject as fragmented, split, and at odds with itself. Where Habermas is overly optimistic about the possibility for individuals to know their own interests and act autonomously, Kristeva's view could be construed negatively: If subjectivity is dynamic and "in process," could anyone act as an agent in the public sphere? ;In part three I answer this question affirmatively by developing an alternative model of subjectivity and citizenship, namely that of subjectivities indebted to others and deeply interrelated, from the deepest ontological level up to the level of political community. Building on this, I develop a theory of political knowledge, choice and action that fits into current work in deliberative democracy. I conclude that the more we recognize our indebtedness and relationship with the others in our midst, the more likely we are to have effective political agency, practice, and communities.

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Noelle Claire McAfee
Emory University

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