Shifts in perspective within cultural and social scientific thought in recent decades have called the idea of a sovereign subject—one that exists prior to social practice (or the sociological revenant of such a subject, the actor) fundamentally into question as the starting point for all cognition, thought, feeling, and action. The focus has instead shifted to discourse and human practice as sites for the emergence of society and the subject. This de-centering of the subject also entails a de-centering of the subject’s motives, intentions, and actions. From this point of view, discourse and practices constitute a (normative) framework in which motives and intentions take shape and in which diverse activities are specified as meaningful actions. Thus, taking on the role of a researcher, athlete, or curator requires that the person master certain “bodily doings and sayings” (Theodore W. Schatzki) that have become established as identifiable and acknowledged practices, each with its own characteristic socio-material contexts, tools, and routines. Only by engaging in these practices do human beings reveal and constitute themselves as specific subjects with their own unique capacities to “play along in the game” and thus also to engage in reflection and critique.
We describe this process as one of performative self-making. By this, we mean that the emergence of the subject is bound to an identifiable performance in a recognizable context. From a performative perspective, engaging in an activity—“doing science”, for instance—is not an action in which a subject that exists prior to this practice expresses itself. Rather, it is the movements, gestures, and utterances performed in relation to the other participants in the game as “doing science” that take on the constitutive role. That which is conceived of performatively is not merely something that has an additional need to represent itself in performance. It is indeed only in performance that it can be recognized for what it is.
Examples of performative self-making can be found everywhere in everyday life. Likewise, praxeological approaches to this topic can be found in diverse research fields. Science and technology studies, actor-network theory, and diverse spatial theories among others have all offered compelling arguments for the co-constitutive role of artifacts, things, and spaces in social practices and thus also in practices of self-making. These are not merely props or preexisting, stable contexts for the enactment of social practices and the performances of a self; rather, they are described as “participants” (Hirschauer) that are endowed with their own agency. They play a significant role in subjectivation by prefiguring, provoking, affecting, and stimulating behavior, perceptions, and affects, thinking, and so on. Like the individuals who are involved in the performance, they acquire specific meanings through the performance itself. Similarly, research in phenomenology, pragmatism, and the sociology of the body and of sport has focused on the materiality and the corporeality of the social. Here, the body is no longer viewed as an interference factor or a medium that merely executes the mandates of a pure mind, but as capable of engaging in intelligent action, while also acting as a self-willed medium for the co-constructive formation of social orders and their subjects.
Despite this broad engagement with practices of self-making, up to now there has been no attempt to develop a praxeological approach from an interdisciplinary perspective. In light of this gap, the “Self-Making” Research Training Group has set itself the task of analyzing processes of self-making in the context of historically changing social practices, taking an explicitly interdisciplinary perspective. By way of Geertz’s “dense description” of concrete forms of subjectivity, the group will attempt to better understand how self-making takes place in general. At the same time, in line with the idea of a “theoretical empirics” and based on empirical case studies, it will seek to bring greater historical depth of focus to the instruments of praxeological analysis and to elaborate them further theoretically.
The interdisciplinary context of the research training group will make it possible, first, to shed light on the meaning of the diverse participants in social practices—(human) bodies, technical artifacts, images, language, historical ideals, and so on. Second, it will deploy theoretical and methodological approaches from the various disciplines represented in the group as a means of exploring, challenging, interrogating, and stimulating one another’s perspectives. And third, the historical perspective of the group will open up the possibility of developing a historical praxeology aimed first and foremost at making past practices employed in the self-formation of social orders and their subjects—which go largely unseen in everyday social practice—visible as events. On this basis, too, it will become possible to dissect, from a genealogical perspective, which past and present, bodily-material as well as linguistic-discursive components would have to coincide for particular practices and modes of subjectivation to become established.
This kind of historical, praxeological perspective will reveal the two possible directions in which self-making can develop: In the one direction, people form themselves as specific subjects to the extent that they enact and incorporate social practices. In the other direction, this process implies the formation of abilities for reflection, creativity, and critique that can lead to changes in social and cultural orders and in the corresponding forms of subjectivity.
By not merely understanding the subject as the effect of a given structure, but instead taking an interest in the emergence of (internally fractured) subjective competencies in diverse historical, cultural, and social contexts, our research training group will contribute to a better understanding of the tension-filled relationship between “doing subjectivity” and “doing culture.”