Silent subjects: Silence in theories of subjectivity

Nikki Agee, University of Texas at El Paso


Postmodern theories describe human subjectivity as fragmented. (Faigley 12). Unlike Enlightenment thinkers, who theorized the Cartesian subject as an autonomous, stable, rational self with "privileged insight into its own processes" (111), postmodern theorists "decisively [reject] the primacy of consciousness and instead [have] consciousness originating in language, arguing that the subject is an effect rather than a cause of discourse" (Faigley 9). ^ The idea that language constructs who subjects are, how they are, and who they may and may not become is very powerful, for it suggests subjects cannot consciously know themselves apart from language. Self-knowledge results from social, institutional, and political discourses surrounding subjects and from discursive interactions with others. ^ As a result, postmodern theorists, especially in disciplines such as Rhetoric and Writing Studies, have posited different theories of ontology to describe the conditions in which postmodern subjects exist and to suggest how subjects might intervene in their own existence to create meaning and to develop a more critical consciousness of themselves, others, and the world around them. These theories, however, tacitly or explicitly privilege language's role in constructing subjectivities. ^ The idea that language, alone, constructs subjects, however, is problematic. Subjects exist in spaces of both discourse and silence, they use speech and silence to communicate intentions, and they come to know the world through both. ^ For this reason, this thesis argues theories of subjectivity must include both language and silence. It first examines the theories of Althusser, Foucault, and Foster. Then, it reviews theories of silence, and considers the ways in which silence is epistemological, ontological, rhetorical, and ideological. Finally, using Foster's theory of subjectivity, it suggests one way in which silence might be included in a theory of subjectivity before suggesting how silence might be studied in a first-year composition course.^

Subject Area

Language, Rhetoric and Composition

Recommended Citation

Agee, Nikki, "Silent subjects: Silence in theories of subjectivity" (2009). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1468283.