Samara Steele's Reviews > The Subject Steve

The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte
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's review
Mar 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites
Read in March, 2011

A few weeks ago, a musician friend of mine was strolling through San Francisco with a recording device in his pocket, occasionally turning it on to capture street noise to splice into electronic music.

Down the street, a woman and man were arguing loudly, attracting a crowd. "Jackpot," the musician thought, and turned on the recorder.

Listening to the rise and fall of the couple's fiery voices, he thought about how he would sync them with a beat, speed them up, slow them down, make them something easy to dance to.

Then he heard someone say, "It's sad those two are fighting in front of their kids."

Startled, the musician glanced over and sure enough, two small children stood in the shadow of the screaming couple.  The kids looked devastated, and suddenly my friend felt a complicated sense of remorse: in his eagerness to capture an audio track of the moment, he had failed to notice the human dynamic.

When my friend told me this story, I felt a glimmer of recognition: as a writer and photographer, I often catch myself looking at the world as something to be framed, to be recorded, to be interpreted, to be delivered to other people--and in my mania to record and remix, I sometimes lose touch with the underlying human aspects of my subjects.

This mania to transform human beings into subjects is the focus of Sam Lipsyte's first novel, 'Subject Steve',  with the protagonist, Steve, at the center of a hurricane of eyes, cameras, recording devices, probes, and stethoscopes.  This over-the-top comedy delightfully exaggerates the postmodern condition, a state of being forcibly interpreted while begging for interpretation.  The book's hellish (and sometimes nauseating) scenes are made palatable by the author's love of language.

The more Steve becomes a subject of interpretation, the more he loses sovereign rule over his body and identity.  First he encounters doctors who make him the subject of their analyses, convincing him that they understand his body, his fate, better than he, with Steve lead along by them, begging for answers.  Next comes the group of defunct spiritualists, who pull Steve into their mountainside collective, trapping him in a place where he doesn't have the right to call himself "me" until it is by their terms.  Then there is Steve's dysfunctional family, eager to videotape themselves saying nice things about him, eager to transform him into a character in their personal narratives, eager to turn even his attempted acts of rebellion into permissible symbols of their charity.  And finally comes the group of media-makers who kidnap Steve, hijacking his body and transforming it into the centerpiece of an evangelical reality TV show.  And amidst all of this is Steve, transforming himself into the subject of his own diary.

In our strange postmodern period, it is sometimes difficult to remember if there ever was a time we were more than mere subjects--when a human life actually meant something even if no one (neither God nor the Facebook audience) was watching.  Whether it's through prayers or feed posts or personal diaries, we fashion our lives so they can best be observed, placing ourselves at the center of self-constructed panopticons--as if, by believing that others are watching the recordable moments of our lives, we can shrug off the weight of being with ourselves for the raw, incommunicable moments of human existence.  

With human existence reduced as such, death becomes life's culminating moment, with the funeral as the reward for a life well-performed. There are three funerals in 'The Subject Steve', each less focused on the actual deceased individual than the last, with the final funeral performed with the person still alive, bound and gagged in an open grave.

...I like to believe that Steve found an escape from the hellish situation of perpetual subjectivity.  But I guess we can never know what happened to Steve, because if he escaped being a subject, the book would have to end.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by H (last edited Apr 20, 2011 04:58AM) (new)

H What you said about how humans are subjective is harsh, brutal, but completely true.

Once you give it some thought, everything we do is like a hot wired instinct to be something, a someone. Attention seekers. Almost everybody is, in different porportions.

It makes me feel like crap when I hear about something horrible and I start thinking, "Hey, what if?" Maybe art is just one way we handle all of the emotional turmoils we feel. I'm not sure myself.

Samara Steele I've been thinking a lot about subjectivity lately. It's a hard thing to wrap one's head around, both because it’s complicated and a bit depressing.

Right now I'm reading Judith Butler's "The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection." She speculates that "the subject is spawned as the ambivalent effect of power," and goes on to explain that the "inner life" of consciousness is dependent on its own subjection, and that we are in reflexive feedback loops with social power, and these feedback loops are vital in making us who we are.

If that’s the case, I think it would be impossible to escape subjection without going mad. But I do think it’s possible to create new systems of social power, altering the form subjection takes.

message 3: by H (new)

H I'm not sure I got what you said.

You mean we're subjective because of an unconcious need to satisfy society's demands?

Samara Steele Well, if I understand Butler correctly, it's more like we find ourselves dependent on power. Power "initiates and sustains our agency." So, I guess what that means is that, as much as it sucks to be a subject, we need to have some sort of power over us to have any sense at all of ourselves. Because of that, we cling to our own subjection and even fight to defend the powers that subjugate us.

That said, I'm not done with Butler's book yet, and I haven't yet gotten to the part where she discusses power and the "unconscious." If I come upon anything interesting, I'll be sure to post it.

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