Understand Postmodernism: A Teach Yourself Guide. Glenn Ward BA in fine art (painting), University of Plymouth, 1990; MA in Visual Culture, Bath Spa University, 1992; PhD in film studies, University of Sussex, 2011. p. 287

The notion of the subject has different meanings according to context. It sometimes refers to the individual person, conceived as a unified being with a private consciousness and a unique ‘self’ or identity. This model of the subject has been central to Western thought, and remains popular in everything from soap

p. 288

operas and love songs to liberal political thought. Most thinkers in the field of postmodernism (or at least those with some sympathy towards it) question this view of the subject, arguing instead that we have no ‘essence’: we are ‘in process’ and we are defined through discourse [my emboldening]. The term ‘subjectivity’ can refer to the way the self is structured by specific social situations; watching a film, for example, might offer us a voyeuristic subjectivity (a film theorist might say it positions us as voyeuristic subjects). ‘Subject’ is often seen as a better word than self because it hints at the notion of being subject to something.

. How have we “no ‘essence’”?

  1. What does ‘in process’ mean?
  • Essence is what is fundamental, immuatble, defining the identity of an entity. Being in process means continuous change: mutable, no stable identity. Sep 8 '18 at 18:58

Definition of 'essence': the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.

Postmodernism refers to the subject or 'self' as having no essence, no intrinsic nature determining one's character. Identity, rather than being unique or unified, is instead 'subject' to the discourse of social situation at any one time. I often identify myself by different characteristics in a nightclub, for instance, than I do when I'm at work. I probably wouldn't wear the same clothes or use the same language or behaviour, and my identity might even appear contradictory at times, if you were to compare the two 'versions' of me. The discourse of the nightclub offers me a different subjectivity to my work environment, positioning me as a 'sexual' subject in a way that is not available working in a school environment, for example.

The idea of being 'in process' rather than having an 'essence' suggests a state of continuous change. There is no sense of 'I' that remains static - it is the structure of society and our interaction with its various discourses that define the subject. We can conform, reject, challenge or subvert them, but we cannot define the self essentially, independent of the social discourse in which we operate.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.