‘Selfhood’ and ‘Subjectivity’ (Part 7: The Political Subject and the Philosophical Subject)
The term ‘subject’ is complex and multifarious. As Nina Power writes: “What is surprising, given the term’s indispensability in discussions ranging from politics to philosophy of mind, is the scant conceptual analysis usually devoted to the term. It is as if theoretical, linguistic, and practical ambivalences were acknowledged to be too intricate to untangle”. As Nick Mansfield suggests, it is “probably impossible to produce an exhaustive list of the way the term subject defines our relationship to the world”. He outlines “the subject of grammar”, “the politico-legal subject”, “the philosophical subject”, and “the subject as human person”, as four broad usages of the term ‘subject’. The two that will concern us are ‘the philosophical subject’ and the ‘politico-legal subject’. Below is Mansfield’s distinction between the politico-legal subject and the philosophical subject:
“…politico-legal subject: In various ways, the laws and constitutions that define the limits of our social interaction, and ostensibly embody our most respectable values, understand us as recipients of, and actors within, fixed codes and powers: we are subject to and of the monarch, the State and the law…. [then]…there is the philosophical subject. Here the ‘I’ is both the object of analysis and the ground of truth and knowledge. In a defining contribution to Western philosophy…, Immanuel Kant outlined the issues that defined the the problem of the subject of philosophy: How can I know the world? How can I know how I should act in the world? And how can I judge the world? Here the subject is located at the centre of truth, morality, and meaning.”
Jane Flax discusses this distinction as well in her essay “Multiples: On the Contemporary Politics of Subjectivity“. She writes that Philosophically the ‘subject’ “grounds, represents or generates knowledge”. Politically, the subject, grounds the possibility of freedom – freedom from determination and domination, freedom to be self-determining and sovereign”.
“…the Latin (and subsequently French) rendering of hypokeimenon as subjectum (sujet) and as subjectus (also sujet) inaugurates an ambiguity in the term that precisely splits the term across its philosophical and political axes: ‘One gives rise to a lineage of logico-gramatical and ontological-transcendental meanings, and the other to a lineage of juridical, political and theological meanings’. The crucial point here is that ‘far from remaining independent of one another, they have constantly overdetermined one another, because, following Kant, the problematic articulation of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘subjugation’ came to be defined as a theory of the constituent subject’. Although the conception of subject as substance remains to some degree in Descartes (despite the claims of his epigones), Balibar is unusual in refusing to locate the origins of a modern, philosophical-political subject in Descartes, finding it instead in the interstices of Kant’s discussion of revolutionary politics in the speculative political, anthropological and historical texts, as well as the critical works: ‘It is…only with the Critique of Pure Reason that das Subject becomes the key concept in a philosophy of subjectivity … for all finite minds, that interplay [between the faculties of knowledge] constitutes ‘the world’.’ The subject, understood ontologically and logically as substance – as that which supports as well as underlies the sensible qualities it makes possible (as in Aristotle), and whose hypothetical existence must be supported in order to make possible to make a ‘double intelligibility’ of the sensible (as Henroit puts it) – seems absent, for the most part, from recent discussions of the term. It is the split between ‘subject’ understood logico-ontologically and ‘subject’ grasped as a political category that is fundamentally at stake here.”
Again here, we find two lineages of the term “Subject” (‘Sujet’).
1. Hypokeimenon (Subjectus) along the Political Axis. Juridical/Political/Theological Meaning. Political Category
2. Hypokeimenon (Subjectum) along the Philosophical Axis. Logico-Gramatical/Ontological-Transcendental Meaning. Substance.
Returning to an earlier post, I’ll point out again that in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek distinguishes “Subjectivation” from the “Subjective of the Lack”.
1. Post-Strucutrailst Subject (Subjectivation) “conceived as an effect of a fundamentally non-subjective process: the subject is always caught in, traversed by the pre-subjectival process (of ‘writing’, of ‘desire’, and so on), and the emphasis is on the individuals’ different modes of ‘experiencing’, ‘living’, their positions as ‘subjects’, ‘actors’, ‘agents’ of the historical process.”
2. Subject of the Lack (Void) “…an abstraction, if we subtract all the richness of the different modes of subjectivation, all the fullness of experience present in the way the individuals are ‘living’ the subject-positions, what remains is an empty place which was filled out with this richness; this original void, this lack of the symbolic structure, is the subject, the subject of signifier. The subject is therefore to be strictly opposed to the effect of subjectivation: what the subjectivation masks is not a pre- or trans-subjective process of writing but a lack in the structure, a lack which is the subject.
I think these distinctions between a Political and Philosophical ‘subject’ map onto what I have thus far been referring to as the ‘subject-to’ and the ‘subject-of’:
1. Subject-To —-> Positive —-> Political/Politico-Legal —> (Post-Structuralist) [domain of Technique/World-View/Self]
2. Subject-Of —-> Negative —-> Philosophical —> (Cartesian/Psychoanalytic) [domain of Lack/Death/Corporeality]
Furthermore, I believe these two forms of the “Subject” map onto the ancient figures:
Discussion: While the body-self is subject-to techniques (such as those of the capitalist mode of production) that endlessly re-negotiate its sense of ‘I’ or self, such techniques are not entirely responsible for the brute fact that the body is corporeal, that it will someday die, and that it has a psychoanalytic lack. While the meaning of our flesh might alter, or the meaning of our death might become radically different with the emergence of a new set of subjective practices, corporeality, lack and death stand partially outside the subject-to.
The ‘subject,’ is possessive of both a socially constructed meaning (i.e. the difference between Galen’s and Vesalius’ conceptions of the body) and a set of functions that can happen outside of any social constructions/definitions (i.e. the physiological processes that keep ‘blood’, or whatever we term that red ‘fluid’, pumping through our ‘organs’). So if corporeality, death and lack stand outside of the subject-to, where do they stand? Surely, they must have some immediate bearing on the subject.
Perhaps there is a clue here as to why the term ‘subject’ is so elusive and carries so many connotations. Why does it seem to be used in so many different ways, and for so many different purposes? Descartes’ ‘subject’ arises upon his reflecting on the inevitable death of his body and the question of the immortality of the soul. He proposes a subject-of without considering whether its nature is subject-to. The post-structuralists propose a subject-to without acknowledging the role that the inevitable death of the body plays on the very condition of being a subject-to! No wonder confusion surrounds the topic of subjectivity and the self.