Accounts of Subjectivity: Hollway and Habermas


The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the adequacy of Hollway's account of subjectivity that links the unconscious with discourse through comparison with Habermas' account. Hollway claims that: '[S]ubjectivity can be theorized as a special case of signification . . . whereby the metonymic axis encapsulates the normative products of discourse/language and the metaphoric axis encapsulates the specific history of desire as it successively invades significations and invests them with the interests of the ego.' (1989: 84) This definition is from 'Subjectivtity and Method in Psychology' where Hollway draws upon Lacan and Klein to develop a feminist critique of psychology and gender. The focus of this essay however, is to assess of her definition of subjectivity.

The primary sources of this essay include the aforementioned text, a selection from Lacan's 'Écrits', Barthes' 'Mythologies' in the first instance. In comparing Hollway's account with Habermas, selections from both volumes of 'The Theory of Communicative Action' are utilised along with his essay 'On Systematically Distorted Communication', with supplements from Marcuse's 'Eros and Civilization'.

Initial differences that can be noted in the two accounts of subjectivity refer to their locations in academic schools of thought. Hollway's account is clearly placed in the realm of French structuralism and post-structuralism and is heavily influenced by the linguistic theories of Saussure. In comparison, Habermas is the intellectual inheritor of German critical theory as formalised by the Frankfurt School of Social Research. The former places emphasis on the conflict between individual agency and social structure, the later on free reason and the distortions of both ideology and material conditions.

It is also imperative that the similarities are stated as well. Both Hollway and Habermas accept the notion of the unconscious, and would be united in their rejection of voluntaristic schools of thought (e.g., some liberal and functional theories) that dispute either its existence or usefulness. Both seek to overcome traditional psychoanalytic theories of consciousness that either seek a version of free, idealistic subjectivity (e.g, Sartre's existential psychoanalysis in 'Being and Nothingness') or attempts to tie subjectivity to biological objectivity (e.g., behavioralist aspects of Freud). In both cases this is achieved by explicitly tying consciousness and language.

This essay will develop by initially stating Hollway's account by the definitions and elaborate example used in her study. This will follow with an analysis of the account and example utilising the alternative "Habermasian" approach. The essay will conclude with an attempt to evaluate the two approaches in a manner that provides both discrimination between their strengths and weakness and combines their common features.

Definitions and Example

Hollway's terms, as previously noted, are derived from Lacan, who combined Freud's concepts of the mind and consciousness with the structural linguistics of Saussure. From Freud, the notion of the unconscious and the ego are critical in this discussion. The unconscious consists of those conflicts that have been repressed from conscious decision making yet are highly influential, albeit irrational, in the subjective decision making and behaviour of the individual. Within the structure of the mind, the unconscious forms (along with the preconscious and environmental stresses and damages) a problematic locus between the ego and the id.

From Saussure, the key concept here is that of signification. This is differentiated from signs, being the language form, and the signifier, being what the sign refers to in literal meaning. Signification, as Barthes notes, is a second-order signifier that provides meaning other than literal meaning. When combined with Freud's concepts, subjectivity becomes a nexus between the unconsciously distorted expression of the individual through metaphor (representative) and discursively established metonymic (associative) norms along a continuum of social normativity. The graphic below, reproduced from Hollway (p52), illustrates this combination.

	signifier--------- (metonymic axis)-----
	(metaphoric axis)

In Hollway's main example she takes two references to sex sans contraception, one verbal and one written. In the first one, Beverley and Will, after knowing each other one month, decide they want to have a baby and so have unprotected sex. When Beverley learns she's pregnant she has an abortion. Later when asked why she had unprotected sex, she explains it as a symbol of commitment. For her and Will having a baby would mean they were committed to staying together for at least 15 years. In the second reference Hollway draws on her own diary. Even though she did not want a baby (not even subconsciously as her reaction to a pregnancy scare some months ago illustrated) she was excited by the thought of unprotected sex, and disappointed when she and her boyfriend decided to use contraception on an occasion when unprotected sex had seemed likely. Hollway attempts to theorise the seemingly illogical connection between sex sans contraception and securing commitment in a relationship.

In her example, sex sans contraception is linked to having a baby along the axis of metonomy; there is a relationship of association. Further, in the example, sex sans contraception is linked to increased commitment along the axis of metaphor; there is a relationship of representation. The metaphors are created by the ego desires distorted by the unconscious. The metonyms are created by the discourse norms. Finally, the metonymic axis equates with Lacan's notion of displacement whereby significance of an idea is detached and passed on to another image, and the metaphoric axis equates to the notion of condensation where multiple meanings are contained in one image.

Analysis and Comparison

The purpose of an analysis to a theory is to test the strength and consistency of the proposition. This can be carried out on two levels. The first is to utilise a deconstructive method whereby alternative combinations of the proposition are tested. The second level is to utilise an alternative proposition with the same content, in this instance an interpretation using Habermas' theory of subjectivity.

The deconstruction carried out here is to switch between the metonymic and the metaphoric axis that Hollway assumes. For if such a switch is possible then the proposed theory of subjectivity, whilst maintaining a combination of self and society in the construction of subjectivity, loses interpretive integrity and capacity for predictive or prescriptive psychoanalysis. Using Hollway's example the question then posed is whether sex sans contraception can be a metaphor for having a baby and a condensation of image. Equally, the question is posed whether commitment can be a metonym for the sexual act as a displacement of image.

Whilst it is difficult to consider such prepositions it is far from impossible as there is recognition of acquired knowledge held by those in modern scientific societies that have a norm to commitment, the sexual act and childbirth as both metaphor and metonym. Premodern cultures do not necessarily have such knowledge or hold to such cultural mores. Examples of metaphor and metonym for the sexual act include the Hopi Indians who insist that intercourse takes place indoors, the Witoto of South America who insist that it take place outside and the Masai who believe that intercourse during the day can be fatal (Beach 1965).

A case may be made to suggest that it is the content and not the structure that is specific to time and culture. However, this is not the case. As Habermas points out, using research from Durkheim, Levi-Strauss and Evan-Pritchard in pre-modern societies and in particular pre-state societies. The social continuum is a matter of mythic narrative established through metaphors and metonyms simultaneously: 'Through these contrast and similarity relations the multiplicity of observations is united in a totality' (Habermas 1981: 146).

An interpretation using Habermas' theory of subject and Hallway's examples thus begins with the social context of metaphorical and metonymic continuums. Such a preposition is clearly derived from Marx in his preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy: 'The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.' (Marx & Engels 1969 :503)

According to this theory of the subject the historical location and social class of the individual has far greater affect on their subjectivity than the individual attempts of ego expression and discourse norms as a universalised abstract individual. Further elaboration using Habermas' concept of ideology as systematically distortion of truth notes how the production and reproduction and distribution of socially available knowledge is not universal or equivalent throughout society but rather varied along class interests and the agencies of counter cultural and subculture lifestyles. These concepts of Habermas are a development from Marcuse's combination of Freud and Marx in Eros and Civilization and One Dimensional Man.

Whereas Hollway's concept of subjectivity presumes conflict between ego and id, and individual expression finding itself among the signifiers of discursive norms, Habermas' approach is more concerned with the range of possibilities as bounded by historical and cultural circumstance and social class. To put simply Hollways theory of subjectivity is that of psychology whereas Habermas' is one of sociology.

Evaluation and Conclusion

An initial evaluation of Hollway's theory of subjectivity is highly positive. It overcomes both the traps of voluntary agency and deterministic structures that have been common in twentieth century theories of consciousness. Developing a concept of the self that accounts for individual distortions of ego expression as it seeks establishment and affirmation in socially established discourse norms is both ingenious and provides a substantial degree of understanding individual expressions and behavior.

However as has been suggested such an individualistic approach has limitations. The social contract requires far greater consideration that what Hollway provides, not just on the level of culturally established discursive norms, as Hollway does provide some credence to, but to the very real and systematic effects of legal action and the distributions of wealth and power.

It is suggested therefore that Hollway's structural - or post structural - interpretation of identities in conflict is most useful in understanding the narrative of individual expression. It is no coincidence that the terms of 'metaphor' and 'metonym' are so prominent. However such interpretation of the subject necessitates the sort of concentration of the boundaries established not only by the material setting and the social system. For in the story of individual life, the narrative is not only shaped by their agency (whether conscious or unconscious) but by conditions independent of their will.

This inquiry of course can only provide the most brief examination of the main components of the two competing - and potentially - complementary - theories of the subject. However it also, in conclusion, raises one further possibility - if identities and subjectivity are in conflict through both systematic distortions and personal conflicts then the possibility also exists for subjectivity without distortion. It is in this interest that further inquiries should take place.


  • Barthes, R., Mythologies, Paladin, 1976
  • Beach, F., (ed), Sex and Behaviour, Wiley, 1965
  • Habermas, J., The Theory of Communicative Action (Two Volumes), Beacon Press, 1984 (first published 1981)>
  • Ibid., Excerpt from 'On Systematically Distorted Communication', in Cannerton, P. (ed), Critical Sociology, Penguin, 1976, first published 1970
  • Hollway, W., Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, 1989
  • Lacan, J., Écrits: A Selection, Tavistock, 1977. Translated by A. Sheridan
  • Marx, K., 'Preface to A Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy', in Marx, K., Engels, F., Selected Works Volume I, Progress Publishers, 1967, first published 1859
  • Marcuse, H., Eros and Civilisation, Abucus, 1969, first published 1955.