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Collective Subjectivity

Collective Subjectivity: The 'We'

Subjectivity is generally thought of as the interior of individual consciousness, with the emphasis on cognition or emotion, rationality or the irrational, etc. Yet those who have tried to approach this interior scientifically: the psychologists, have typically avoided subjectivity. It seems to involve the scientist in an intersubjective relationship that threatens her objectivity. The most influential attempt to build a science on a reflection of intersubjectivity was probably psychoanalysis; toward the end of the 20th century, this project fell apart, as its grounding in (a largely authoritarian) psychotherapy crumbled. As a result, the ‘interior’ appears now empty of subjectivity; in Nicolas Rose’s words, the psychological space has been flattened, and all we see if we look inside ourselves is the brain.

While some philosophers (such as Balibar or Taylor) seek to reconstruct how subjectivity came to be ‘interiorized’, others (like Wittgenstein, Foucault or Latour) have traced the emergence of subjectivity as practiced and as relational. This ‘other’ approach to subjectivity is trans-disciplinary, connecting with psychology only in its off-mainstream or critical versions (such as Vygotsky, James or Gibson), and drawing on psychoanalysis only loosely, if at all, as a philosophical repertoire (as Deleuze, Zizek or Butler).

Conceptual dimensions such as agency, submission, reflection, affect, embodiment and singularity are no longer attributed in any simple way to human individuals. For one thing, the endowment of the individual with subjectivity becomes itself a major problematic, investigated as subjectivation, interpellation, recognition etc. For another thing, subjectivity is sought or attributed elsewhere. The return to lay experience but decentered into everyday life, as in the social phenomenologies of Garfinkel or Holzkamp, is currently an influential move. Perhaps the most radical suggestions come from systemic and “new materialist” traditions for which any entity or process can acquire subjectivity (or at least some of its aspects), under certain circumstances.

Another obvious route to follow is the subjectivity of collectives. Perhaps participation provides a key to subjectification and thus basic parametres for education? Maybe the ‘we’ is more fundamental than the ‘I’? But then this ‘we’ should be elucidated.

With the fall of communism and the shaking of the nation state, with the redefinition of family and the ever more rapid reshuffling of institutions and organization - the problem of community has been widely revisited in recent philosophy and social theory (to mention just a few: Nancy, Esposito, Agamben, Levinas, Derrida - with Balibar’s Citizen Subject [2017] as the most recent).

Apart from trying to keep track of such challenges from history and philosophy, what we do with this issue is investigate and reflect its empirical expression and practical implications in current educational, clinical, managerial, penal and social work institutions and practices. Drawing on analytics from German-Scandinavian critical psychology and from interactionism, activity theory, ANT and discursive psychology, the singular ‘we’ is tracked as constituted as an aspect of what we do, and sometimes made explicit.

In one analysis, the recognition of ‘life’ is scrutinized in its different forms as played out in a small social work outreach facility and in an interview about it.

In a more recent work, the use of spaces in social work is regarded as ways of constituting collectives. An article submitted for review discusses organizational identity through unusual prototypes such as 12 step fellowships, a grass-roots based social work collective, and an internet site.