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The Contingency Of Identity In Trainspotting Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 5453 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The perimeters of someone’s body are often thought to signify the enclosure of a stable perception of the world. For example, mainstream Western society perceives corporeal limits as the impenetrable barrier between subjectivity and external forces. This model emphasizes the subject as regulator over what external forces influence their subjectivity, and in turn implies that the subject is autonomous in choosing or being her own identity. Philosophical projects such as the Enlightenment and the American dream expound on the Cartesian I’si assertion that anyone has the agency to construct an original, autonomous identity. These philosophies have helped bind Western ontology to a concept of mind over matter.

However, 20th century thinkers have challenged this notion. Philosopher and sociologist

Michael Foucault posits the body is transformed into an instrument for political power, and that conceptualizing subjectivity as a stable construct is crucial to the preservation of the state For

Foucault, any notion of autonomy is an articulation of political agenda. Correspondingly,

Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva shows that restricting subjectivity to an epidermal container oppresses an entire means of understanding subjectivity. Kristeva asks the reader to consider a perception of subjectivity that contingently and provisionally fluctuates in its relation to the body’s “perceived” borders. She claims subjectivity and the body are entwined in an ontology based on the transgression of borders, not the establishment of them. Instead of agreeing with the

West’s claim that citizens conduct their selfhood within epidermal boundaries, Kristeva argues that subjectivity is unstable, fragmented, and dispersed across various relations with the body.

Therefore, subjectivity has the capacity to transform and be transformed through engagement with the body. Toward this end, I will investigate the ever-fluctuating bodies and identities in

Irvine Welsh’s multimedia text Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996; Welsh, 1996). The film and novel

epitomize the permeable, fluctuating nature of subjectivity as conceived by Kristeva, and thus

highlight the fact that selfhood depends on a transgression rather than an establishment of


Foucault and Doeile Bodies

Michael Foucault’s term “body politics” refers to the practices and policies through which

powers of society regulate the human body, as well as the struggle over the degree of individual

and social control of the body. Institutional power expressed in government and laws is the

power at play in body politics (Body Politics). Foucault says that Western society’s false

ontology makes citizens think they have stable identities because of the government’s regulation

of the physical body through institutions and laws. In short, citizens perceive themselves as

autonomous subjects because of the state’s emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness. Foucault says

this ontology is the effect of political power, and that any selfhood a proper citizen assumes is an

articulation of this power. Associate Professor Nick Mansfield, head of the cultural studies

department at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, specializes in Foucaultian theory, and

his book on subjectivity lends a nice segue as to how body politics and self-hood coincide:

Our philosophies of science, our theories of the organization of society, our sense of

morality, purpose and truth all partake of the same emphasis on the individual not only as

a social quantity, but as the point where all meaning and value can be judged. This

individuality is described as freedom, and we still direct our most serious political ambitions towards perfecting that freedom. It also operates as a duty, however. (60)

Foucault focuses on the implicit sense of duty that is entailed with citizenship. He sees civic duty

as the submission of one’s body to forces of political power. Critically acclaimed Italian political

philosopher Giorgio Agamben has stated that one of the most persistent features of Foucault’s work is its decisive abandonment of the traditional approach to the problem of power, which is

based on juridico-institutional models (the definition of sovereignty, the theory of the State), in

favor of an unprejudiced analysis of the concrete ways in which power penetrates subjects’ very

bodies and forms of life (5). Foucault’s critical studies of social institutions reveal that

institutional surveillance of the body-specifically in delineating what is the “clean and proper”

body-designates citizens’ corporal existence as a docile state. Foucault supports this claim with

his concept of processes of subjectivization, These processes under-thematize and universalize

the body until it can be treated as inert or disordered; in other words, until physicality obtains a

docile classification. Similarly, as cultural theorist Elizabeth Grosz argues, the body historically

has been conceived of as “a vehicle for the expression of an otherwise sealed and self-contained,

incommunicable psyche. It is through the body that [people] _ .. can receive, code, and translate

the inputs of the ‘external’ world” (9). Once I established how a favorable perception of the

docility is impressed upon populations, I will discuss how Trainspotting characters refute this

platform with their own counter-culture philosophies and behavior. The characters struggle with

the implications of properness and duty that Foucault sees as essential to the function of a

citizen. They are good examples of the insight that Julia Kristeva gleans from Foucault’s work: a society and state that glorifies corporeal purity is thus dependent on sources of misery and

degradation in order to have a standard to judge what is clean or unclean, appropriate or

unfitting. But first, I will establish how body hygiene becomes such an important factor for

citizens to view themselves as autonomous subjects. As mentioned, Foucault points to state

institutions that enact processes of subjectivization.

Processes of subjectivization refer to government programs that exemplify epidermal

perimeters as impenetrable borders that contain the supposed autonomous nature of citizens

These processes “bring the individual to bind himself to his own identity and consciousness, and,

at the same time, to an external power” (Agamben 5). Mansield elucidates, in our fantasy of autonomous selfhood, we normally imagine our subjectivity to be identified with the uniqueness and separateness of our individual bodies. We draw an imaginary line around the perimeters of our bodies and define our subjectivity as the unique density of matter contained within that line. When we operate in society as voters, taxpayers, welfare recipients and consumers, our identity seems to be married to this autonomy: we front up for interviews, check up’s and interrogations as the content of our bodies. (82)

The tangible presence bodies provide people with is taken to be absolute and final validation of

who they are. When someone appears for a doctor’s appointment or a cotut trial she ceases being

a name on a paper and appears as herself These processes of subjectivization imply not only the

notion that someone’s tangible borders give them a real identity, but also that that identity

maintains its own agency. When analyzing state systems from Foucault’s perspective, it becomes

apparent that citizenship designates citizens as autonomous. Foucault insists that when

institutions seek to control and know the subject, they manipulate the body, fixing it strictly in

place, watching and measuring it; this in turn gives citizens the sense that they are anything but a

carefully monitored, social denomination. But in reality, the state has a vested interest in its

citizens’ health that is expressed by institutional programs’ emphasis on autonomy. Through

subjectivization processes, an inherent notion of cleanliness is attached in the definition of

“citizen,” and the upkeep of clean borders is expected to entail some sort of autonomy. In

contrast, Foucault claims that institutions endorsing corporeal cleanliness ensures a specific type

of docility in the citizenry. If citizens believe that they are the agents merely because of their

hygiene, then the institutions have succeeded in transforming its citizens’ bodies into inert

entities that can be prescribed or delineating in any way the state sees fit. The sense of autonomy

is therefore revealed to preserve state power. Foucault’s second example of subjectivization processes, that of policing strategies, explains this more explicitly.

Foucault states that the laws of the penal system, which were once isolated in the form of

a public event (e.g.: a criminal dismembered in the marketplace), have become instilled into

normative ontology with the creation of prisons. Firstly, the prison does not simply incarcerate

people arbitrarily. It depends on a system of proper proceedings that in turn must be justified by

codes of law or legal precedent. When someone is convicted of a crime, she or he goes from

being a person to being a phenomenon. As a type, the individual becomes subject to analysis

according to scientific models. Questions begin to be asked, like, what personality traits make

this person a criminal? What social conditions lead to his or her crime? “Here, the individual’ is

not free and autonomous, but the focal point of larger forces, analyzed by systems of knowledge

in what they claim is impartial truth” (Lyon 7). Foucault uses the prison model of liberal

economist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) to help explain the casual yet

compulsory paranoid lifestyle that is instilled in prisons and reflected in society. According to

Foucault, the panopticon is typical of the processes of subjectivization that govern modern life. A panopticon is a circular prison with an empty area in the middle where a guard tower is placed.

All of the prisoner’s cell face inward, and one guard can effectively keep survelliance over all

the inmates at once. Furthermore, is an opaque sheet of one-way visible glass is installed in the

guard tower, the guard herself would not have to necessarily be present to enact a monitoring

system. Likewise, state power organizes the population into individual units that are then subject

to monitoring in a system of maximum visibility through implicit accountability. This works

most effectively in institutions where schools, hospitals, banks, and departments of social

security and tax all keep files on us. People forget about these records, or accept them as a

necessary and inevitable part of institutions’ operations (Lyon 8-9). However, these files are our effective social reality, and contain “truths” about us that can be manipulated outside of our

control. These files and the truth they contain are not our property, and they enhance the state of

docility imposed on citizens’ bodies.

Foucault believes that power and the knowledge coincide to ensure the state maintains its

docile influence, and in turn preserves its efficiency. Therefore, every institution operates

according to its own theories of people’s subjectivity: the unruly adolescent, the remedial reader,

the hysterical patient, the credit risk-these are all types of subjectivity that people may or may

not occupy, sometimes without even knowing it. Every institution has classes of persons into

which everyone who deals with them is distributed.

The apparently simple and necessary logic of this categorisation-it is not a conspiracy to

oppress us, our common sense says, how could these institutions operate otherwise?-

already separates us from one another, isolating us, opening up and closing off

opportunities, destining us for certain rewards and punishments. The system of truth on

which each institution depends is always already a power at work on us. (Mansfield 62)

Thus, individuality is not the highest expression of human life, but the thing social institutions

need people to feel they are, so that people remain vulnerable to the truths the state has contrived

for its own efficiency. As a result, the self constantly problematizes its place in the world and its

relationship to others and to inherited codes of behavior. Therefore, the subject does not simply

rely on some unknowable of pure natural subjectivity, but rather produces itself endlessly as a

response to its relationship to other and to its cultural and historical context (Mansfield 63).

Foucault’s ideas encourage an earnestly skeptical attitude towards subjectivity, one that is

embodied in Trainspotting’s main character, Mark Renton. Renton can be seen as “anti-

subjective” because he sees any statement that claims to speak the truth about human subjectivity as an imposition, a technique of power and social administration. Renton voices his reservations: Society invents spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s

behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah knew the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae hav a short life, am ay sotmd mind, etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use

smack? They won’t let ya dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign of

thair ain failure. The fact is ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer.

Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose

cars; choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows,

stufting fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing

yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve

produced. Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts can’t handle that,

it’s thair fuckin problem (Welsh 187-9).

Renton, like Foucault, sees subjectivity as a mode of social organization and administration. For

Renton, the state is inherently dependent on its citizens to cultivate a notion of sanctity regarding

their lives. Upon this foundation of natural life, the State builds concepts of morality and truth

that are articulations of power structures (Agamben 2). Therefore, Renton and his mates seek a

subjectivity that does not privilege the sanctity of life. As actor and critic Lewis MacLeod puts it,

“Welsh’s characters are not at all interested in the rule of ‘parasite politicians’ (Welsh 228).

Instead they operate on a highly idiosyncratic cultural logic that frequently inverts conventional

values” (90). The characters’ experimental subjectivity prioritizes desire and addiction as the

most important achievements in life, and the screenplay’s adaptation of the above quote ‘l

elucidates this point. ln the theatrical version, Renton explains:

Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment

tae the selfish, fucked up brats that you’ve spawned to replace yourselves …. But why

would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else.

And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

Renton has lost faith in any type of subjectivity, and considers a life on heroin just as pointless as

a life of gainful employment. From a Foucaultian perspective his reasoning can obtain some

credence in that institutions will inevitably wrest all agency away from its citizens. It is

interesting to note Welsh’s novel’s title describes a pointless exercise enacted within society’s

establishments. “Renton can clearly see the absurdity of society and the meaninglessness of his

life, yet his choice is ultimately self-defeating, for as the title of the book suggests, heroin addiction, like ‘trainspotting’ – grown men watching locomotives and noting their identification

numbers -is effectively a pointless exercise” (Bishop 221-22). Similarly, in Peter Corliss’

review of the cinematic adaptation of Trainspotting, Welsh and John Hodge explain the

importance of the metaphor:

“‘Trainspotting,” Welsh explains, “is the compulsive collection of locomotive engine

numbers from the British railway system. But you can’t do anything with the numbers

once you’ve collected them.” Says Hodge, who culled the brilliant screenplay from

Welsh’s anecdotal novel. ‘It’s a nice metaphor for doing something that gives your life a

bit of structure but it’s ultimately pointless.” So is the intravenous injection of drugs – a

palpable pleasure that wastes time, and often, life” (85).

In his PhD Doctorate entitled “The Diminished Subject,” Professor Geoffrey Bishop looks at the

T rainspotting texts to see how the characters attempt to exercise a new type of subjectivity.

Bishop writes, “For Renton, heroin use is a determinedly philosophical decision to adopt a

counter-discursive practice in order to retreat from a society that makes him an outsider, and

threatens his attempts to simplify his existence” (ZI9). As I shall show in the following analysis,

through the selfish pleasure of drug use Renton attempts to avoid the docility that Foucault talks

about In an interview with film critic Andrew O’Hagan, it is apparent that T rainspotting ‘s

director and screenwriter were not attempting to display Kristeva’s theories” in their film. But, as I will discuss, the filmic adaptation of the novel lends itself very well to Kristevian philosophy.

Kristeva, Posthumanist Practice, and Trainspotting

Julia Kristeva argues that subjectivity depends on someone’s relation to outside forces.

Kristeva’s ontology is based on a transgression, rather than an establishment, of borders.

Likewise, the bodies in Trainsporting illustrate a significant alternative to traditional conceptions of the body as stable and self-contained. I propose that the film calls for a critical approach that

attends to bodies as products and producers of posthuman discourses. Posthumanist practice questions the genealogy of moral norms rather than accepting and perpetuating them, and much

of Kristeva’s theory is an enactment of posthuman discourse. In critical theory, the posthuman is

a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived

of as human. Posthumanist criticism critically questions Renaissance humanism, which is a

branch of humanist philosophy that claims human nature is a universal state from which the

human being emerges, and it stresses that human nature is autonomous, rational, capable of free

will, and unified in itself as the apex of existence. Thus, the posthuman recognizes

imperfectability and disunity within him or herself Instead of a humanist perspective, a

posthuman perception understands the world through context and heterogeneous perspectives

while maintaining intellectual rigor and a dedication to objective observations of the world. Key

to this posthuman practice is the ability to fluidly change perspectives and manifest oneself

through different identities. “The posthuman, for critical theorists of the subject, has an emergent ontology rather than a stable one; in other words, the posthuman is not a singular, defined individual, but rather one who can ‘become’ or embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives” (Haraway 3). In what follows, I discuss how body fluids in the film illustrate the instability of corporeal limits as conceived by Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler. Through the lens of these theorists, the characters in Trainspotting can become producers of posthurnan discourses. But tirst, I will briefly discuss the critical reception of the film, inasmuch as responses to it characterize the kind of moralizing judgment that so often I denies another perception like Kristeva’s. _

In 1996, Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s bestselling novel became the

highest grossing British-made film in the United Kingdom in history (Callahan 39). Although

other films have addressed the subject of heroin addiction most have done so from a stance of such moral disdain that the characters became little more than exaggerations of an addicted

underclass that remains safely Other to mainstream film audiences. In contrast, Trainspotting,

even though it portrays the desperation and horrors of drug addiction, the film never grants its

audience the privilege of certain moral judgment. It invites audiences to engage with its

characters in their own world as they struggle between the desperate need and the always-

temporary satisfaction that characterizes life on heroin.

The cinematic release of Trainspozling came right after a controversial trend in the

fashion industry known as “heroin chic,” a trend that earned its name by popularizing images of

thin, glassy-eyed models who were apparently strung-out in dirty bathrooms or cheap, dingy

motels (Craik 19). President Clinton even raised the issue in a widely reported address to

magazine editors, charging that “the glorification of heroin” is not “creative It’s destructive. It’s

not beautiful. It is ugly. And this is not about art. It’s about life and death. And glorifying death

is not good for any society” (“Clinton”). Cultural critic Henry Giroux describes the images

associated with heroin chic as nothing more than inspiration for a type of “cultural slumming”

that produces attitudes and actions in which well-to-do yuppies aestheticize the pain and

suffering of underprivileged youths (27).

Some critics have made similar claims about Trainspotting. One reviewer, for example,

said the film belongs to an unoriginal, voyeuristic genre that caters to “an addiction to addiction-

watching” (Kauffmann 38). Other critics dismiss the film and other such films as “mere

slumfests for the bored upper classes, virtual petting zoos they can visit anytime they want to feel

like they’re down with the kids” (Callahan 39). Although the film’s graphic portrayal of self-

depravation and misery is at times difficult to watch, other critics claim that the film’s uncritical,

even sympathetic portrayal of junkies overtly glamorizes heroin use. Despite the fact that such arguments allude to possible real world dangers of drug culture and the celebration of its images,

they remain anchored in a discourse of negativity. They designate the rhetorical critic to the

psychoanalytic position of searching for a lack, whether it is of morals, health, or life. In other

words, such arguments can only analyze the ¬lm based on its failure to do something it

presumably should do: adhere to moral norms.

A’ moral argument based on whether Trainspotting does or does not glamorize heroin

use–and whether or not that is good or bad–neglects a compelling line of analysis: how the

pervasive physicality of the ¬lm functions rhetorically. The ¬lmmakers are careful to illustrate

both the pain and the pleasure of heroin use, but this evenhandedness seems less the depiction of

a moral judgment than an investigation or even a meditation on the transgression of boundaries.

Indeed, in an interview, director Damiy Boyle says that the ¬lm is “about being a transgressor

It’s about doing something that everybody says will kill you–you will kill yourself And the

thing that nobody understands is, it’s not that you don’t hear that message, it’s just that it’s

irrelevant. The ¬lm isn’t about heroin. It’s about an attitude, and that’s why we wanted the ¬lm

to pulse, to pulse like you do in your twenties” (Callahan 39). This pulsing, or this incessant

transgressing that Boyle refers to provides a key metaphor for this discussion of corporeality in

Trainspotting. A pulse is not characterized by stability or even an interplay between opposite

forces. Rather, a pulse is a constant ¬‚uctuation, what William Burroughs describes as an

interdependent relationship between systolic and diastolic movement (Naked Lunch iii). It is in

this sense that I conceive of “transgression” not as an eradication or a crossing of boundaries, but

as a recon¬guration that occurs through continual engagement and response. Bodies connecting

and expanding within an economy of bodily ¬‚uids enact the pulse of the ¬lm.

Bodily Refuse and Identity

Julia Kristeva’s theoretical work on the concept of abj ection has done much to trouble a

humanist conception of the discrete, autonomous individual. According to the Oxford Dictionary

and Thesaurus, abjection means a “state of misery or degradation.” Kristeva develops this

de¬nition of the abject by arguing that the signi¬cance of abj ection lies in its role as an operation

through which we continually distinguish ourselves as individuals. She describes abject as a

“jettisoned object” that is “opposed to 1” and is “radically excluded”; the abject “draws me

toward the place where meaning collapses” (Powers 1-2). For example, an image of the

emaciated body of a person living with AIDS may evoke sympathy, or in, in some cases, fear,

but it also ful¬lls the role of the abject, infected Other that enables the healthy to feel clean, vital,

and even morally superior. Similarly, the starving bodies of third-world countries serve as

boundaries or limits that contribute to this country’s sense of nationhood. According to this logic,

American identity depends on what America precisely is not (Debrix 1 158). Kristeva’s notion of

a disorganized, abject body challenging the concept of order itself aids to an understanding of

Trainspotting in which the characters experiment with a unique ontology based on the

transgression of corporeal terms. Rather than quietly remaining outside of the mainstream at

designated margins, the abject, as the heroin bodies exhibited in Trainspotting, breaks apart the

sanctity and homogeneity of rational public space.

Kristeva indicates that bodily boundaries are never ¬nal and neither are the identities that

depend on them. She argues that the self depends on the abject to constitute its border, to be that

which “lies outside, beyond the set” (Powers 2). But she also notes that “from its place of

banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master” (Powers 2). In this sense, the abject

Other never remains at the margins. The abject never remains stagnant, creating stable boundaries for the self. Kristeva thus introduces a dynamism into the concept of identity that

depends on a subject’s ability to recognize and reject the abject asit gets articulated and

rearticulated through the selfs interaction with the Other. In other words, the Cartesian “I”

becomes destabilized to the extent that the humanist emphasis on the mind/body split has been

sufficiently troubled with regard to how we construct or acquire a sense of self. Foucault shows

how someone’s perceived autonomy is often merely an extension of state power, and this is

important when observing how the characters in Trainspotting both celebrate and struggle for the

release of moral or hygienic ideologies that treat them as docile bodies. As Bishop has recently

noted, “Although Trainspotting was attacked for romanticising drug use, glamorising heroin

chic, and over the validity of Welsh’s description of heroin addiction, such literalist readings not

only failed to see past the subject matter, they ignored the possibility of political and

philosophical content” (219). Kristeva suggests an ontology that is grounded in relations to

others rather than in the conscious mind, and when her theories are used in an analysis of

Trainspotting they can certainly produce philosophical insight into the concept of subjectivity.

Judith Butler links much of her work in Bodies that Matter to Kristeva’s consideration of

the abject. Our self-identi¬cation, Butler argues, operates within what she calls an “exclusionary

matrix” that relates subjects and necessitates a “simultaneous production of a domain of abject

beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of

the subject” (3 ). She agrees with Kristeva that the abject “zone of uninhabitability” that de¬nes

the boundaries of the subject “will constitute that site of dreaded identi¬cation against which–

and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy

and to life” (3). However, Butler builds upon Kristeva’s argument with a point that is essential

for this discussion of the abject bodies in Trainspotting. According to Butler, the “abjected through abj ection instead of inherently possessing autonomy. “Therefore, Renton can be seen as

existential explorer of subjectivity, and there are no guarantees in this novel, no happy endings,

and no transcendence of the characters into holistic self-present subjects” (Bishop 223). g

Although Butler’s introduction of permeability is helpful, I want to offer another

important perspective before continuing. Butler posits a concept of subjectivity based on the

repudiation of abj ection. As I have suggested and will explore further throughout this discussion,

subjects in the ¬lm do not and cannot sufficiently negate the abject. Rather, the abject is integral

to pulsing-or, what William S. Burroughs might call a “constant state of kicking”-on which

subjectivity depends (Junky xvi).

Trainspotting ‘s Alternative Subjectivity

The cinematic adaptation of Trainspotting has some key scenes that should elucidate the

ontological force of abjection. Depictions of body ¬‚uids in the ¬lm illustrate the ¬‚uctuating,

permeable corporeality that Butler describes. The ¬lm seems to attack any trace of morality or

cleanliness inherent in Foucault’s analysis, as images abound of body ¬‚uids contaminating

spaces in the most inappropriate of manners. Film critic Andrew O’Hagan notes that for the

young characters “shi


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