Subjectivity has contested meanings. As formulated by Enlightenment thinkers, to become a subject is to become an autonomous agent. It means breaking free from the shackles of inherited structures and modes of thought. In this modern sense, “subjectivity” connotes what has been hard won by the individual over the group. Despite its universalizing language, classical liberalism bequeathed this sort of self-emancipation only to rational agents, defined as white, propertied men. Later, especially among marginalized individuals and groups, the quest for this kind of subjectivity became a signature element in the struggle for empowerment; liberation from inherited structures meant also liberation from the elites who defined the standard for autonomous agency itself.
But “subjectivity” contains a second, almost opposite meaning as well: that of being limited by forces and conditions beyond our own immediate control. This meaning draws upon the old monarchic idea of the individual as a subject of the throne. We speak today of being “subject to” our desires or to the whims of an employer. Subjectivity, in this sense, is not wrapped up in autonomy or authority, but in the opposite. As postmodern people, we are increasingly aware that we are not the sole proprietors over what we may think of as the most private aspects of ourselves. Indeed, our social, cognitive, genetic, and evolutionary sciences push us increasingly toward recognition of ourselves as subject to rather than masters of: We are creatures of our neurochemistry, our genes, our social environments.
I find myself oscillating between these two perspectives on subjectivity both in my life and in my research as the connection between the two has deepened in recent years. Several years ago, after publishing the book that grew out of my dissertation and giving birth to my second child, none of the big questions in my field of specialization, modern Jewish thought, pulled at me. My life was wrapped up in the overwhelming, brutal, fascinating, frustrating, transformative work of child-rearing. I was working to acclimate myself to a tenure-track job while also managing young children who were quite literally pulling at me, and I found it hard to get excited about writing an article, much less a book, about one of the traditional topics of my field.
Over time, and with the encouragement of some trusted colleagues, I began to consider the possibility that the experience of being in close, daily contact with children — perhaps, especially, children for whom one has responsibility — could be considered philosophically and theologically interesting. I began to do a bit of research, and I discovered that other people thought so, too. I soon launched my project, an exploration of keywords in maternal experience and of how this experience might be put into fruitful conversation with Jewish thought.
The project is fraught with both perspectives on subjectivity: To what extent can I separate the vagaries and contingencies of my own maternal situation from what others experience, and, conversely, to what extent can I assume that my experience extends to others? Even the very enterprise of articulating maternal subjectivity is symptomatic of a particular historical moment, an age in which “parenting” is a verb, a “self-conscious practice of cultivation,” as historian Kathryn Lofton has put it. My work thus requires a constant negotiation between the truth I have wrested from my own experience, on the one hand, and a critique of that experience as a product of particular historical and social circumstances, on the other.
In the midst of undertaking this research, I have returned to my field of research with new interest. I have found the “boys,” as I affectionately think of the usual suspects of modern Jewish thought — Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Lévinas — even more intriguing, even as they have become more vexing. These 20th-century bourgeois European Jewish men, thinkers who could not imagine the I and the Thou or the Self and the Other of their famous dyads to apply to mother and child, nonetheless articulate a claim that the work of childrearing makes plain: The self comes into existence and self-knowledge in the crucible of intense relationships that are themselves limited and shaped by a larger world. What is most our own always bears the traces of others. This concept, which had seemed abstract and paradoxical when I first encountered it, suddenly became obvious to me — as did key problems in these thinkers’ formulations. That Buber, Rosenzweig, and Lévinas saw neither the full potential nor the limitations of their own thought does not render their work useless. On the contrary, their contribution to Jewish thought just requires the elaboration that only later readers, working from within their own, equally limited perspectives, can bring.