Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 1, Samantha Frost & Hina Nazar - Response by Wendy J. Truran

Monday, March 28, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. The first panel of the day featured Samantha Frost, Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women's Studies, and Hina Nazar, Associate Professor of English. Below is a response to this panel from Wendy J. Truran (English).]

The habit and habitus of subjectivity
Written by Wendy J. Truran (Department of English)

The first panel at the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, held on March 14 2016 brought two, seemingly very different, projects into conversation. Samantha Frost's project sought to shift our conception of the human animal. Hina Nazar’s project shifts assumptions regarding John Locke’s ideas on education from the long eighteenth century. Despite their projects’ apparent dissimilarity, both speakers focused on subjectivity. Both papers outlined forces which contribute to the creation of a political subject and addressed the limits of contemporary critical theory, offering ways to reconceive of its application in their respective fields.

Samantha Frost’s paper offered an ontological argument regarding the “it-ness of the body,” or what she called the “corporealization of culture.” Frost’s paper brought together the unlikely bedfellows of contemporary theory and life sciences in the service of creating a more nuanced, fleshy, multi-scalar idea of subject formation. Her discussion of the materiality of the subject was given in the form of ten theses, not all of which I’ll be able to cover here, but more information can be found in her upcoming book: Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human. Life Sciences are trying to account for social influence, or as Frost put it, ‘how the social gets under your skin.’ Life sciences are finding evidence for what feminist theorists and literary scholars have long known: culture and imagination changes you. Scientific findings are demonstrating that even if the event does not take place, even if it is imagined, the effect can still remake biological matter. The formation of self must be thought of as a corporeal, social, and subjective phenomenon. Frost therefore offered a conception of a “biocultural human” (thesis four), which insists that, even at a cellular or hormonal level, “meaning shapes matter.”

Frost began by exploding the commonplace belief that biology is a stable substance, a fleshy given, when in fact - at the level of cells or genes for example – biology is very responsive to a wide range of influences. Going further, Frost pointed out that biological processes do not exist before the environment in which the subject functions. The biocultural organism is a dynamic system, living is a process. Frost offered this new picture in thesis one, stating that “all living organisms, including humans, are porous.” In addition, thesis three offers that “a living body is a temporally particular configuration of processes of composing and decomposing.” There is influx and efflux of environmental influences, such as toxins, nutrients and air-quality. Indeed all organisms are influenced by their habitus, and can be affected all the way down to the biochemical or even molecular level. What is key for Frost is that culture forms an integral part of the habitus, and therefore living bodies are always influenced by culture. The fleshy materialization of norms within living creatures means that we must think of the ‘environment’ as mental, emotional, social, cultural, biological, material, and even imagined. In the act of “composing and decomposing and recomposing” the human is open to influence and change. Not infinite change, Frost cautions, but change nonetheless, and therefore she asks, how might corporeal change be affected by social, political, and material changes in the environment? Whilst this increases the complexity of how we conceive of the human, both biologically and culturally speaking, it also allows for a new conception of the ways living bodies “inhabit place, history, and time.”

Frost cautioned that we must stop thinking about bodies as “stuff” and begin thinking of them as processes. She points out in thesis six that there is a lag, “the responses of biocultural creatures to bio-culturing are non-contemporaneous with their current habitats” and in thesis seven adds that “living organisms, including humans, are distinct from the habitats that culture them.” Past responses to previous habitats prepare biocultural organisms for future habitats, so that responses now can have a multi-dimensional sense of time: they may have immediate effects but also a futurity, lingering for generations. Thesis nine brought Frost’s work most clearly into conversation with contemporary theory: “Material environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification, and social and representational environments shape biological processes as well as processes of identification.” She elucidated by suggesting that a living subject’s response to social norms or institutional inequalities have hormonal, neurochemical, immune-system consequences that then convert, for example, into habitual anger, or stress, or depression. So that to study subjectivity, Frost contends, means that we need to account for “all the biocultural constituents formative of living human subjects,” cultural and biological.

Something tremendously fascinating comes forth in Frost's theses: the idea that culture isn’t something ‘out there’ that may or may not affect the stability of the ‘in here’ of living bodies, but rather that the environment microbiologically shapes and reshapes the composition of the living creature, and the experience of inhabiting a body. Frost’s claims seem to extend the scope of responsibility for those who have the greatest influence on the habitus of each organism – which means each one of us. Depending on the scale by which we think of the habitus, we might think of influencing a biocultural organism’s environment as eating a nutritious meal, or ensuring that built environments have green spaces, or organizing politically for social justice for living bodies most at risk of permanent decomposition. Or as Frost put it in the Q&A: by thinking of humans as collectively responsible, thinking in terms of communities we might live in rather than the responsibility of the individual, we find the possibility of collective action at various scales of influence.

Hina Nazar’s paper “Locke, Education, and ‘Disciplinary Liberalism’” draws upon her book project entitled Educating for Freedom: Enlightenment Narratives of Autonomy, Gender, and Social Influence. Nazar focused on two discursive developments in the long eighteenth century – the rhetoric of education and the rhetoric of freedom, concentrating on the paradox of John Locke’s idea of “teaching freedom,” most explicitly discussed in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1693). Nazar positioned her argument against scholars that she labelled the “disciplinarians": those who draw on Michel Foucault’s work to levy criticism against Locke’s ideas on education and liberalism. The disciplinarians suggest that the Locke’s conception of family, community, and system of education produces a disciplined child who can only reproduce the inherited performance of freedom, rather than be truly free. Nazar, however, complicates this reading by drawing on all of Locke’s work on education including “Of the Conduct of the Understanding” (1706) and "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1689). Whilst she concedes that there are certainly authoritarian strains in “Thoughts,” taking his work on education as a whole means that such discipline can be “transformed in an autonomy-friendly direction.”

Nazar points out that Locke did not think that freedom was an instinctive feature of the will, but rather the cultivation of habits. In refusing the binary of habituation versus autonomy, Locke offers a complicated (and inconsistent) vision of education producing free, rational subjects. It is this inconsistency that allows Nazar to find a means to reconcile Locke’s liberalism and his thoughts on education. Locke claims that our character is formed through our habits, and this is why the right education is so important, because without it “habits will still be formed” but they will be formed “without due regard to the duty to exercise one’s power of freedom.” Nazar identifies a split in Locke’s thinking and thereby offers two ideas of education that emerge from Locke. The first she called “child-responsive,” which conceives of teaching as educating children to attain future freedom. Second, “adult-imitative” sees education as teaching children to imitate adult freedom. The first, Nazar argues, is the more compelling when looking at Locke’s ideas on education as a whole.

Given that a child lacks reason, or the self-command to be reasonable (in Locke’s conception), is it possible to teach the habit of free thinking? What habits, Nazar asks, are autonomy-friendly habits? Early in “Thoughts,” Locke claims that until children have mastered self-command, which is a necessary condition for freedom, they must submit to parental will. Through compliance to adult reason, they are cultivating their own reason. This is what Nazar calls the “adult-imitative” model. On the other hand, his “child-responsive” model demands that educators “respect the given talents and temperaments of their pupils” and be responsive to each child’s “habits of desiring.” Parents, he suggests, should talk to their children as rational beings and encourage them to participate in a community of rational adults, so that self-command and a love of reason will develop in the future.

These issues still filter into our classrooms today: how do we teach individuals to be critical thinkers without telling them what to think? Locke in his “child-responsive” form, Nazar suggests, suggests we should emphasize “how rather than what to think.” One means of creating a free thinking child is by engaging others in “dialogue, debate, and critical reading” in order to form a greater awareness of how ideas are put together in general. Nazar argues that Locke’s subject is a more complicated figure than the disciplinarians allow, and that ultimately Locke offers a modest scope for autonomy. Nazar suggests, however, that this is a more compelling and accurate picture of Locke and education, and “of the freedom of the socialized subject.” Indeed, Nazar’s conception of the subject, like Frost’s, is one that is porous; that is capable of change. A subject who through a change of habit, or Frost’s habitus, achieves the possibility of limited autonomy.


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