These "key words" suggest problems in modern thought and culture that connect in many ways with past phenomena, notably through secularization or displacement of religious notions such as "soul." "Self'' is often taken as the central if ambiguous term from which the others radiate; "subject" evokes internal or psychological processes; and "agent" signals the issues of practice and ethicopolitical intervention in history.
These initial gestures toward definition at best designate broad areas of inquiry, and raise the question of the use of crucial terms in contemporary discourse. While these terms are employed (and at times vigorously debated) in many disciplines, their permutations and combinations help us recognize the transgression of disciplinary boundaries, both in the present and over time. Their function in psychoanalysis and other psychologies is only the most obvious sign of their importance, and the recent emergence of the notion of "subject-position" is a prominent example of the desire to develop a cogent conception of the role of subjects in society. The terms also play diverse yet often related roles in fields such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literary criticism, musicology, and history; indeed, they highlight the possibilities and limits of interdisciplinary research.
In proposing "Self, Subject, Agent" as its focal theme, the Society for the Humanities invites the applications of scholars from various disciplines who are interested in investigating, interrogating, or critically transforming the use of these important terms in the study of social and textual processes.