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Social Positions and Their Occupants

July 7, 2009

In Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society—which I’m currently enjoying—Max Gluckman argues that

we must continually differentiate between a society as a structure of social positions (titles) and as a structure of relationships between incumbents of these positions.

This seems to me to be a pretty important distinction: there is a difference between Barack Obama the person and the American presidency itself—they’re not the same thing. This is particularly important, first, insofar as someday Obama will no longer occupy the presidency, in which case he’ll cease to have the privileges and duties associated with that position, and, second, because he, as an individual, is not the president in all fields of interaction. He’s the president when he’s before congress, but probably not when he’s at his family reunion. His position at the family reunion may be as son, or cousin, or nephew, etc.

However, I think there is an important caveat to add. Gluckman seems to suggest that there is a social “position” on the one hand, and then there is the “person” on the other, but I’m unsure that the “person” is anything other than the intersection of a number of “positions.” So, while Barack Obama may not be “president” in all fields of interaction, he does, nevertheless, occupy some sort of social position in each field of interaction. If we take away “president,” “son,” “cousin,” “newphew,” “African-American,” “male,” and all of the other social positions he might occupy, I don’t think we we’ll be left with a person.

To put it otherwise, I agree that a person isn’t identical to any particular position she occupies, but she is, as a subject, made up of the intersection of a cluster of social positions. Again, if we take away all those positions, there won’t be a subject, there will just be a body.

(I can hear my dissertation advisor’s voice: “You’ve been reading Althusser again, haven’t you? He’s too structuralist.”)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 7, 2009 11:06 am

    I think I may agree with your dissertation advisor.

    I mean, surely it’s not inconceivable or impossible for a person to exist outside of any society – a hermit or, if the hermit is still in time-lapsed society with the people they knew before retreating, a feral child (not raised by wolves) or something. Or at least, surely there must be a point at which social relationships dwindle to negligibility.

    Now, such a person, it seems, is clearly still a person. They can at the very least see, feel, decide, act. They have experiences (depending on how strict ‘not in society’ is, they may be a prize-winning nuclear physicist who has retreated from all human contact – or perhaps wiped out the rest of humanity with a new discovery).

    But if they’re outside of society, they have no social positions. But they are more than a body, they still have a mental life. Hence mental life/personhood is more than the sum of social positions.

    To come from another angle, what is the infant mental life in which social positions become available? I guess you could stretch ‘social position’ to include ‘I am the thing that wants that other that produces milk’ but that seems a bit underwhelming.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 7, 2009 11:23 am

    Hi Alderson!

    Yes, the hermit, I would say, is already a subject because of previous social relationships. The feral child is better.

    I would say that the feral child isn’t a “person” or a “subject” (unless she is a subject in a community of wolves or something—I do think that animals can have some subjectivity).

    There have been children whose parents have not interacted with them, apparently other than to feed them, and as a result these children are practically like newborn infants—there’s practically no personhood or subjectivity there.

    Let’s take the infant: I think that Lacan is right when he suggests that infants don’t become subjects or persons until they develop some sense of self—but I don’t think a sense of self is sufficient to make one a subject. I don’t think a baby in the mirror stage is yet a subject. Children become subjects when they enter into a social relationship with their parents (or other guardians).

    You seem to be equating mental life with personhood or subjectivity, but I’m not sure that makes sense. I don’t think you’re a subject until you’re a subject FOR another.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 8, 2009 7:27 am

    Hmmmm. I am indeed equating mental life with subjectivity at least, if not personhood, and at least from my background in philosophy this seems like a very sensible thing to do. For me, what fixes the meaning of ‘subject’ is the idea that the basic structure of most (perhaps not all) consciousness is that of a subject/thinker that simultaneously distinguishes itself from and relates itself to an object (that ‘distinguishes itself’ is meant non-reflectively, i.e. the subject isn’t determined as having any specific features, just as the ‘something behind the eyes’, btw).

    If you’re using it a different way, and aren’t denying mental life to the non-socialised, why do you call them ‘bodies’?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 9, 2009 8:45 am

    “For me, what fixes the meaning of ’subject’ is the idea that the basic structure of most (perhaps not all) consciousness is that of a subject/thinker that simultaneously distinguishes itself from and relates itself to an object.”

    Hmm. I guess this is pretty close to what I think, except I would say in relation to another subject—in which case we’re probably into social positions territory.

    However, I see that this could devolve into an “argument by definition”: perhaps I’m loading “related to social positions” into the definition of subjectivity, and you’re defining the term differently.

    So, rather than try an a priori argument, let me try something else. What if you met someone who, upon asking her who she was (keeping in mind that who one is is always in relation to other subjects), had nothing to say? She doesn’t identify as a female, doesn’t identify as having a career position, doesn’t identify as a part of a family social structure, etc. If she didn’t identify herself as in relation to any other subject positions, what would you make of her? Could you even talk to her?

    In sum, take away all differential social relations, and what’s left?

    I can only imagine that what you would have left would be something like a non-human animal, and of a species that doesn’t have any social structures. So we’d have to cross off monkeys and apes, dolphins, canines, etc.

    I understand why people have social animals as pets–like dogs or cats–but not animals like lizards, which don’t respond to you as a subject. Maybe if we took away all differential social relations what we’d have left is a lizard?

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 9, 2009 9:55 am

    That’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure there’s a single answer. Even if such a person was like a lizard, I’d still call a lizard’s experience subjective, but like you say that seems like a definitional matter.

    But she might also be some kind of incredibly insightful mystic, convinced of her own non-selfhood or something. If asked ‘who are you’ she would refuse to respond because she doesn’t believe the question makes sense – or she would randomly mention some component of the universe.

    Conversely, she might be some kind of odd hermit, who consciously strove to set aside all connection to other people. She might answer the question with ‘I am nameless’ or with an unprecedented syllable, a name she’s given herself.

    Or she might be a super-psychopath, and not say anything because she sees no reason to – knowing that you’re asking a question seems to her totally unrelated to the idea of answering it.

    Obviously humans are hugely social (and obviously describing yourself *to someone else* is a social activity) but I don’t really see a fact beyond this that isn’t just defining ‘subject’ narrowly enough, or ‘social position’ broadly enough, to make them coincide.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 9, 2009 10:27 am

    “but I don’t really see a fact beyond this that isn’t just defining ’subject’ narrowly enough, or ’social position’ broadly enough, to make them coincide.”

    You might be right about this. I’m going to think about it. I have an interesting quote on this topic that I want to post on, so maybe our discussion will resurface …

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