October 1, 2021 | OPINION | Star Goudriaan
As a Colorado College student, I’m discomforted by the creation of my subjectivity in relation to an “other” — a singularity of studied material, of people written about, of readings about places I’ve never been to, will never go to, and have no real connection to. I’m uncomfortable because I fear the harm I might cause to others through representation and because if I’m constructing myself out of the reflection of harmful misconceptions of others, my subjectivity is being constructed in violence, and the possibility of a redemptive humanity ever being found begins to recede.
In the dehumanization of another, the humanization of the self disintegrates. Of course, these processes are a matter of degree rather than absolutes, but power tends too strongly to reify itself.
I don’t think this is spoken enough about in classrooms. From what standpoint do I get to write and be graded on an essay about 18th-century Parisian suicides or the 1946 Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal? What role does my subjectivity — with the specificity of places, languages, and people that have shaped it, with its persistent discontinuity — play in the reading and interpretation of lived histories, and to what extent am I subsumed by the discipline of my major, by CC as an institution?
The kinds of knowledge that are considered legitimate are defined in terms of knowledges which are not, and the people who are involved in the processes which demarcate formality from informality from complete unintelligibility are conditioned by systems in ways that perpetuate existent hegemonic, often uncreative, sometimes destructive logics and relations.
My success as a student — the thing which I predicate my self-worth on, that gives me credibility not only in the job market, but in my personal life, that influences the way I view my body, gender, speech, the very place I live, eat, and move in — is reliant on the objectification of cultures I am not part of but which are granted access to me through my role at a neoliberal academic institution. I am concerned with the pursuit of knowledge that I have primarily capitalist connections to.
As a history major, I’ve tried to be cognizant of my subject position as I encounter and interpret readings created by people who are reflecting on the experiences of others. Nonetheless, the question of the harms of misrepresenting people continues, and will continue indefinitely, to haunt me. I chose my major in part because studying dead people seemed to be easier than misrepresenting living ones.
The historian does not have to contend with voices from beyond the grave in the way anthropologists might contend with someone in a social group reading a report that’s published in a journal about their group. Of course, many historians study past engagements of people who are still alive and many anthropologists study people who are long gone, but historical methodology tends to recognize greater discontinuity in subjectification across different places and temporalities than anthropology (in its most structuralist instantiations).
I’ve also primarily pursued intellectual history over other kinds of social histories because I do feel a kind of connection, through my role as a student, to the academy in both its concrete and more abstract sense. But intellectual history is, of course, notoriously elitist, which means it does not solve the problem of misrepresentation so much as shift its manifestation.
This article isn’t intended to be a condemnation of the humanities or social sciences. It’s rather an invitation to center the positionality of the student and the nature of the academic institution in more classes and discussions on campus. Who are you and in relation to what?