Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Subjectivity’ derives from the Old French suget, from the Latin subjectivus, meaning ‘brought under’, and the past participle of subicere, from sub, ‘under’, and jacere, ‘throw’. This connotation is retained in the late Middle English sense of the term, as ‘characteristic of a political subject, submissive’ (Oxford Ad L's Dic), and it persists in the meaning ‘that is under the rule of power’ (Concise OD of EE). Since the early nineteenth century, ‘subjectivity’ has also pertained to the mind, as in ‘the fact of existing in the mind only’, ‘consciousness of one's states or actions’ and ‘a conscious being’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Related to these meanings, ‘subjective’ denotes the perception, perspective or expression of an individual person. The idea of ‘the subject’ is inherently ambiguous, as the term may be used to designate the passive subject to the actions of another, or the active subject of his/her own actions (Macey 2000, 369).
Until the late twentieth century, ideas about ‘the subject’ derived mainly from Descartes's proposition that the defining characteristic of humans is self-conscious thinking. Post-1968 European thinkers challenged Cartesian humanism, however, and its modern development in the idea that each person possesses a centred and unified ‘self’ with a deep interior life. These thinkers replaced the concept of the self with that of the subject, to designate the production of identity by pre-existing systems or structures. Key theorists in this tradition include Louis Althusser, who argued that the subject is a product of ideology; Michel Foucault, whose work explored subjectivity as an effect of discourse; and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who, revisiting Freud and drawing on the linguistic theory of structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure, showed how the subject, identified initially with the unconscious, comes into being as a social entity through interaction with the gaze and the language of the Other.
Travel writing often foregrounds the subjectivity of the traveller and the ways in which it is produced. Dennis Porter (1991), commenting on texts by European travel writers, proposes that unconscious desires and fantasies, formed in childhood, shape the travel writer's experience and representation of his/her journey. He argues, however, that the traveller's subjectivity is not produced only through the projection of pre-formed ideas or fantasies, which would amount to ‘cultural solipsism’ and the ‘obliteration of otherness’ but by ‘self-transformation through a dialogic engagement with alien modes of life’ (5).