James Heartfield 2002
Source: Abstracted from The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Sheffield Hallam UP, 2002 and reproduced with the permission of the author.
In the 1960s and 1970s a number of different thinkers started to question the validity of the human Subject. Their ideas were ‘ahead’ of their time. A variety of different theories arose out of the philosophy called ‘phenomenology’ and the sociological outlook influenced by the linguistic theory ‘structuralism’. Together, these ideas coalesced into an outlook popularised as postmodernism. The origin of these ideas is mostly French, but postmodernism caught a mood amongst academics, and more broadly amongst opinion-formers, and the culturati to quickly gain a currency in intellectual life in the 1980s and 1990s. By the end of the Millennium the new papal encyclical found John Paul II embracing postmodern despair rather than giving a message of hope. Noting that postmodern ‘nihilism has been justified in a sense by the terrible experience of evil which has marked our age’, the pope asserts that ‘such a dramatic experience has ensured the collapse of rationalist optimism, which viewed history as the triumphant progress of reason, the source of all happiness and freedom’. His Holiness warns against ‘a certain positivist cast of mind’ which ‘continues to nurture the illusion that, thanks to scientific and technical progress, man and woman may live as a demiurge, single-handedly and completely taking charge of their destiny’.
The Pope is echoing the judgement of the postmodernists. It was Jean-François Lyotard who best summed up the assessment of the modern age and its overriding ideologies. ‘I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse ... making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working Subject, or the creation of wealth.’ Rejecting these defining narrative structures of modernity, Lyotard announced the post-modern age in the following way: ‘I define postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives.’  As is now well-known, postmodernism was defined as a time when we could do away with the ideologies upon which we had relied, as so many tall tales, designed to make the listener happy and satisfied, but with no greater significance. Socialism, the free market, Christianity, the nuclear family, scientific progress were ‘exposed’ as so many bedtime stories told to lull us children into sleep.
It was not immediately clear that the implications of the theory called first ‘post-structuralism’ and later postmodernism were hostile to subjectivity. Indeed the opposite appeared to be the case. The postmodernists were first and foremost charged with an excessive subjectivity that jeopardised objectivity. To scientists and conservatives the hallmark of these new ideas was their scepticism towards a singular objective truth. The charge of relativism was made against postmodernists. In a celebrated assault on the postmodernists, scientists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote: ‘A second target of our book is epistemic relativism, that modern science is nothing more than a “myth,” a “narration” or a “social construction.”’ To their critics it seemed as if subjective predilection had been elevated over objective fact in this new outlook. Moral philosopher Alain Finkielkraut parodies the postmodern reprobate as saying ‘Let me do what I want myself!’. Finkielkraut continues: ‘No transcendent or traditional authority, and not even a plain majoritarian one, can shape the preferences of your postmodern man or regulate his behaviour’. The shortcoming of the postmodernists, then, was that they resisted all authority, in a riot of subjective preference. The critics pointed to the promiscuous way that the postmodernists deconstructed each and every scientific and moral certainty as if these were no more than big stories, meta or grand narratives. But according to the postmodernists, such metanarratives tended to eradicate differences, imposing a lifeless uniformity. Where metanarratives reduced complexity to self-sameness, the method of deconstruction restored the fundamental difference of things. To the natural scientists and conservatives, such a singular elevation of difference suggested a thoroughgoing subjectivism, in which objectivity was sacrificed to personal subjective responses.
But the deconstruction was not only directed outward towards the objective world, as the critics feared. The very promiscuity of the postmodern deconstruction of all grand narratives meant that the grandest of all narratives, that of the Subject itself, would not remain untouched. Jacques Derrida, for example, insists that difference is so primordial that it cannot be kept outside of the Subject, but must call into question the Subject itself:
‘What differs? Who differs? What is différance?....if we accepted this form of the question, in its meaning and its syntax (“What is? “Who is?” “What is that?”), we would have to conclude that différance has been derived, has happened, is to be mastered and governed on the basis of the point of a present being as a Subject a who.’
Derrida’s style is wilfully demanding. (In Of Grammatology he insists that his intention is ‘to make enigmatic ... the very words with which we designate what is closest to us’.) But allowing for his specialised vocabulary, the meaning is clear enough. It is not that there are differences between Subjects, he is saying. That much would simply be a pluralistic outlook: ‘different strokes for different folks’. But that does not go far enough for Derrida. If we were just talking about differences between people, then we would have already assumed the existence of these unitary Subjects prior to difference. And then difference would only be a predicate of these previously existing Subjects. But for Derrida, difference, or différance, comes before the Subject. To ask what or who differs assumes the prior existence of Subjects who differ. Derrida is insisting on the priority of difference over the Subject. The implication is that the Subject, too, cannot be assumed to be a unitary whole without difference, but rather, must in turn, itself be deconstructed.
In Of Grammatology, Derrida makes it clear that his deconstruction of the claims of objectivity go hand in hand with the deconstruction of subjectivity. Just as claims to objective truth are a narrative that must be dispelled, so too is subjectivity a myth. In his book Of Spirit, he goes one step further in rejecting subjectivity. The book is a discussion of the philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger. In it Derrida indicates that Heidegger’s appeal to the Spirit of the West is a perverse outcome of the rational Subject of Enlightenment thinking. Derrida goes on to criticise ‘opposition to racism, totalitarianism, to Nazism, to fascism’ that is undertaken ‘in the name of the spirit, and even of the freedom of (the) spirit, in the name of an axiomatic — for example, that of democracy or “human rights” — which directly or not comes back to this metaphysics of Subjectivity.’ Here, the narratives of freedom and democracy are being criticised because they imply the emancipation of a Subject (in this case a people). In Derrida’s eyes, that appeal to the ‘metaphysics of Subjectivity’ puts them on a par with fascism, because fascism, as represented here by Martin Heidegger, also appeals to a Subject, the Spirit of the West.
The turn of Derrida’s argument is surprising. How readily he associates democracy and fascism! And that the common strand should be their shared commitment to subjectivity. It is tempting to think that Derrida is simply making an unduly formal abstraction, while carried away with a complex argument. Perhaps on some plane one could say that fascism and democracy are the same since both are political forms of organisation. In such a case it would simply be a rather forced parallel, like the insight that Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein all have moustaches. But Derrida means more than this. The common bond between fascism and democracy is not incidental, but a fatal flaw; and the specific bond that Derrida alights upon is subjectivity. Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, another philosopher, influenced by Derrida, makes the point more forcefully, when he writes that ‘Fascism is a humanism’:
‘in that it rests on a determination of humanitas, which is, in its eyes, more powerful, ie, more effective, that any other. The Subject of absolute self-creation, even if it transcends all the determinations of the modern Subject in an immediately natural position (the particularity of race), brings together and concretises these same determinations and sets itself up as the Subject, absolutely speaking.’
Lacoue-Labarthe makes explicit the meaning of the deconstruction of the metaphysics of the Subject. Self-creation, once a virtue, is here seen as fascistic. Humanism is a fascism, because humanism puts man at the centre, makes man’s activity the substance of history. The initial reaction against the poststructuralist thinkers was to protest at their extreme subjectivism and consequent dismissal of ‘objective truth’. But what that criticism missed was that the Subject was also the target of deconstruction, perhaps especially so. Implicit in this double movement is the possibility that Subject and object are not opposed, but mutually supporting terms. If the singular objective ground is called into question, then so too is the singular and unified Subject. And, perhaps more importantly, the degradation of the Subject destroys the basis of a sustained investigation of the objective. In prosaic terms, if we cannot be sure of the investigator, there can be no investigation.
‘Ideology interpellates individuals as Subjects’, Louis Althusser.
Louis Althusser was a theoretician of the French Communist Party in the sixties and seventies as well as a lecturer at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure with Foucault and Derrida. Like them he was concerned to dislodge the Subject from its exalted status. In the essay ‘Ideological state apparatuses’ of 1970 Althusser argues that ‘ideology has the function of “constituting” concrete individuals as subjects’. He means that the Subject is an effect of the ideology, not the other way around. Ordinary thinking would have it that persons — Subjects — have ideas, or perhaps more cynically that an ideology is crafted to deceive these Subjects about their true conditions. But Althusser goes further than that. He is saying that ideology does not only deceive you into thinking things like ‘this war is a just war’, or ‘wealthy people worked hard to get where they are’. Althusser argues that even the idea of oneself as a Subject, author of your own destiny, is an illusion fostered by ideology.
Althusser’s argument exemplifies the thinking that sees the Subject as socially bounded. In other words the Subject does not exist before society. Society is not a contract between fully formed Subjects. Rather the Subject owes its existence entirely to the social order. Furthermore, once the Subject is seen as the contingent effect of society, then subjectivity is revealed as partial rather than universal. Those that society deigns to ennoble as ‘Subjects’ turn out to be a narrow and particular caste of individuals, exclusive of other sections, such as the lower classes, women, non-Europeans, and others. Like the insight that the Subject is historically bounded, the view that the Subject is socially limited is unquestionably true. What is at issue is the conclusions to be drawn from that insight. Does it follow that since the Subject is a product of society that it is merely illusory, or that the Subject ought to be subordinate to society? Does it follow from the exclusion of some sections from the rights and status of subjectivity, that those grapes are sour, and that subjectivity itself should be abolished?
Althusser recalls ‘in Marxism and Marxist theory I discovered a system of thought which acknowledged the primacy of the bodily activity and labour’. ‘I at last discovered the primacy of the body and the hand as the agent of the transformation of all matter’. ‘I later took from it my description of history as a process without a subject’. For Althusser, then, Marx suggested a more or less biological process, of bodily activity. This would indeed be a process without a subject. But to make Marx the cloak of the historical process with no subject, Marx had to be tailored to fit. Unfortunately, Marx’s writing is imbued with a sense of the historical Subject, albeit one that is in the process of formation. Moreover, the fashion in Marxist circles at the time, heavily influenced by the official Marxist policy of the ‘Communist’ Soviet Union in the East, was too emphasise the ‘humanist’ Marx.
Althusser rightly intuited that the stress upon Marx’s humanism from official Soviet ideologues was shaped by the political imperatives of the Russian state. In particular the Soviet policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ sought to win time for Russia to build up its economy, and make friends amongst the Western intelligentsia, as a buffer to criticism. As a member of a party with fraternal links to the Soviet Union, Althusser had to frame his criticisms cautiously and in the judicious language of philosophical disagreement. With a note of sarcasm he wrote, ‘I wonder even whether socialist humanism is not such a reassuring and attractive theme that it will allow a dialogue between Communists and Social-Democrats, or even a wider exchange with those “men of good will” who are opposed to war and poverty. Today’, he continued ironically, ‘even the high road of Humanism seems to lead to socialism’.
And then, as a reprimand to the humanists, Althusser adds, ‘In fact the objective of the revolutionary struggle has always been the end of exploitation and hence the liberation of man, but, as Marx foresaw, in its historical phase, this struggle had to take the form of a struggle between classes’.  Althusser is arguing that for Marx, a humanism that embraces all humanity is a myth that only succeeds in papering over the urgent differences between classes, exploiters and exploited:
‘He [Marx] drove the philosophical categories of the Subject...etc from all the domains in which they had reigned supreme. Not only from political economy (rejection of the myth of homo economicus, that is of the individual with definite faculties and needs as the Subject of the classical economy); not just from history (rejection of social atomism and ethico-political idealism); not just from ethics (rejection of the Kantian ethical idea); but also from philosophy itself: for Marx’s materialism excludes the empiricism of the Subject (and its inverse: the transcendental Subject).’
Althusser finds in Marx a rejection of the ‘bourgeois’ Subject of economics, and liberal ethics. He rightly understands that it was Marx who explained that a humanism that pretended that Moneybags and Rent-roll were on the same plane as the wage-slave was a lie designed to cover up those differences. But Althusser puts more on Marx than he ought to bear. Marx criticised the bourgeois Subject for its limitations. He did not aim to abolish the historical Subject altogether. In particular Althusser’s characterisation ‘Marx’s theoretical anti-humanism’ is misplaced. As Althusser sees it Marx ‘replaced the old couple individuals/human essence in the theory of history by new’ and suitably impersonal ‘concepts (forces of production, relations of production, etc.)’. However Marx’s theoretical terminology was not intended to blot out the human agency, but to highlight the barriers to its full realisation. But then Althusser’s knowledge of Marxism, despite his reputation, was to say the least, sketchy, as he acknowledged in his memoirs. In fact Althusser’s underlying inspiration in the battle against the Subject was drawn from his contemporaries, in spite, not because of, the Marxist idiom he adopted.
Althusser’s account of ideological Subject formation is far from common sense. He is saying that the creation of the Subject is one of repression, not liberation. The example he gives in ‘Ideological state apparatuses’ is of a policeman, hailing ‘Hey You’, and so creating a ‘You’, to which, the passer-by answers, accepting the ascribed status. Identification here becomes a repressive act, rather than the recognition of a free Subject. Perversely, the very terms of Subjective recognition in Althusser’s account are an imposition from outside, that impose a given identity rather than liberating the Subject of the policeman’s address. The account of Subject formation as repression has been widely taken up. Michel Foucault gives an alarming historical telling of the formation of modern Subjects in his books The Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish. There modern institutions from the prison, through the schools and the hospitals are all involved in the disciplining of bodies through techniques of surveillance and interview. The all-pervasive gaze of these new authorities transfixes the individual, making him a Subject with guilt and conscience.
In her book The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Judith Butler develops the ‘paradoxical’ account of ‘subjection’. ‘If, following Foucault, we understand power as forming the subject’, she writes, ‘power imposes itself on us, and weakened by its force, we come to internalise or accept its terms’. ‘Power, that first appears as external, pressed upon the subject, pressing the subject into subordination, assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity.’ It is the internalisation of the ‘discourse’ of power that creates the Subject. ‘Subjection consists precisely in this fundamental dependency on a discourse’, leading Foucault to talk of the ‘discursive production of the subject’. In Butler’s telling the terrible burden of subjectivity seems more or less established until she checks herself to ask ‘how can it be that the subject, taken to be the condition for and instrument of agency, is at the same time the effect of subordination, understood as the deprivation of agency?’. How indeed?
The first answer is that the theory depends upon a play on words. The word ‘subject’ has two, related, meanings. It can mean the active party, the subject in the sentence, ‘He threw the ball’, which is related to the wider meaning of the rights-bearing Subject, who is a free agent. Otherwise, subject can be a verb meaning to impose, as in ‘I subject him to torture’. Or subject can be the noun for those under the King’s rule. All these different meanings are connected. The word comes from the latin jacere, to throw or cast, and its meaning was widened to mean ‘exercise power over’. The shifting meaning of Subject in Butler’s play on words, though, has its origin in social changes. Where few people exercised power, that power was for most, the experience of subjugation — hence (the Crown’s) subjects, ie, recipients of the exercise of power. The historical subjection of the sovereign power to democratic control gives us the more contemporary meaning of Subject as master of his own destiny. The modern meaning carries the older meaning within it, in the sense that the word still means something like subjugate, but now with the implication of a mastery over circumstances rather than people. But this lingering trace of the older meaning is a foothold for Butler.
The reversal of meanings whereby Subject formation becomes enslavement rather than liberation begins with the critique not of subjectification, but of objectification. Specifically, it was feminist thinkers who first showed how ideological representations of women could serve to render them as ‘objects of the male gaze’. In ‘slasher’ films, for example, camera shots made the audience ‘both voyeur and aggressor’. For Susanne Kappeler pornography ‘shows one and only one constant element of representational content: the woman-object. But there is another constant factor: the male-subject, producer and consumer of representation ... the viewer plays the imaginary hero in relation to the woman-"object"’. Here the objectification of woman divides the pornographic worldview into male subjects and female objects. The question arises, is objectification a necessary consequence of subjectification? Kappeler writes, ‘The woman objectified implies a subject, a hero of her degradation.’ Is the opposite also implied, that a Subject, a hero, implies objectification and degradation? If that were true then the entire project of subjective freedom is called into question. All subjectivity would be compromised as complicit in the degradation of others. Conversely, the critique of objectification would seem to imply that women demand to be treated as Subjects in their own right, though not all have seen it that way.
Maeve Cooke writes, for example, that ‘feminists have rejected the ideal of autonomy’ that defines the Subject. Judith Butler takes a similar view. ‘Do the exclusionary practices that ground feminist theory in a notion of “women” as subject paradoxically undercut feminist goals...?’, she asks. In this reading, women’s liberation is an ‘exclusionary practice’ because it implies a Subject, women, of liberation, excluding the possibility of a non-subjectively grounded feminism. ‘What sense does it make to extend representation to Subjects who are constructed through the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the Subject?...The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics.’ Butler means that a movement that sees women as Subjects reproduces the basic structure of the society that it is challenging. Feminism for Butler advances a critique of the Subject per se, not simply a reformist demand for the extension of the ‘normative requirements of the Subject’ to encompass women. The implication is clear: it is not the male monopoly over the rights of the Subject that is at fault, but the very ‘ideal of autonomy’ itself. Women in adapting the mantle of Subject, conform to these unspoken, normative requirements. At this point one has to wonder whether Butler is carried away with her own dialectical skills. What began as a criticism of the monopoly over freedom exercised by men has turned, paradoxically, into a criticism of freedom as such.
Seeing the individual as an effect of social forces, and an illusory one at that, Althusser completed the account of history as a process without a Subject. Althusser’s prioritisation of society over the Subject has its own particularities, but it also has antecedents in much sociology. The view that the individual is socialised into given roles was already part of the canon of Western sociology. Indeed it is an idea that goes back to the anti-Enlightenment reaction that sought to emphasise the priority of the social whole over individual rights. ‘Man’, wrote the arch-reactionary Joseph De Maistre, nearly two centuries before Althusser, ‘is sociable in his essence’. Conservatives, more than radicals, are associated with the argument of the priority of the social over the individual. So the Hegelian political philosopher TH Green would write dismissively of ‘the delusion of natural right’ in which ‘the Individual, it is thought, [has] a right, not derived from society’.
There is a kind of elan to the critique of Subjectivity. It moves tentatively first, like a child testing out some new profanity. But finding that there is little resistance it rushes forward, pushing at an open door. It is as if someone worked up the courage to say ‘The Subject has no clothes!’ and suddenly his nakedness is revealed. Such sudden shifts encourage the criticism. The assault on the Subject takes on the character of a revolt, like storming the Winter Palace. Those that demur are reactionary old fuddy-duddies. Quite quickly the fugitive outlook of yesterday becomes the establishment viewpoint of today. Postmodernism is now an intrinsic part of the syllabus throughout the humanities. Even the pope has gone pomo.
There is of course, a price to pay, and a heavy one. The theoretical degradation of the Subject is closer to reality than a naive reassertion of natural rights could be. But it is also an accomplice to the present. Whilst the first stirrings represented some considerable labour, groping towards something that was far from clear, the work today is just too easy. No sooner is a proposition made than it can be deconstructed. The question of whether the project of deconstruction is the right one is more and more difficult to ask. What is the degradation of the Subject in fact, and ought theory to be an accomplice to it? Thinking ought to pay attention to the world, but it does not necessarily have to celebrate the defeats of the human spirit.
1. Reason and Faith
2. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: University Press, 1989, pXXIV
3. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: University Press, 1989, pXXIV
4. Intellectual Impostures, London: Profile, 1999.
5. The Undoing of Thought, London: The Claridge Press, 1988, p116
6. Jacques Derrida indicates the intrinsic nature of difference with his own concept of différance indicating not only differentiation, but also the deferment of the moment of closure that is definition, and hence the perpetual play of difference. ‘Différance is the nonfull, nonsimple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.’ A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1991, p64
7. Jacques Derrida, A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1991, p65. My thanks to Kenan Malik for pointing this passage out.
8. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1991, pix
9. Of Grammatology, Maryland: John Hopkins UP, 1997, p16
10. Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, Chicago: University Press, 1991, p40
11. Quoted in Luc Ferry and Alain Renault Heidegger and Modernity, Chicago: University Press, 1990 p2. I have missed out a second parenthesis, a sideswipe at Stalinism, no doubt deserved, but not to our purpose.
12. ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’, in Slavoj Zizek (ed), Mapping
Ideology, London: Verso, 1994, p128
13. ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’, in Slavoj Zizek (ed), Mapping
Ideology, London: Verso, 1994, p129
14. The Future Lasts a Long Time, London: Vintage, 1994, p215
15. The Future Lasts a Long Time, London: Vintage, 1994, p218. Althusser’s italics.
16. For Marx, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p221
17. For Marx, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p221
18. For Marx, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p228. Althusser’s italics.
19. For Marx, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p229. Althusser’s italics.
20. For Marx, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p229.
21. ‘I became obsessed with the terrifying thought that these texts would expose me completely to the public at large as I really was, namely a trickster and a deceiver ... who knew almost nothing about ... Marx ... I had only seriously studied Book I of Capital in 1964’ The Future Lasts a Long Time, London: Vintage, 1994, p148
22. The Future Lasts a Long Time, London: Vintage, 1994, ‘I had read Heidegger’s Letter to Jean Beaufret on Humanism, which influenced my arguments concerning theoretical antihumanism in Marx.’ P176. ‘The letter on humanism’, in which Heidegger denounces Jean-Paul Sartre’s humanism is reproduced in the Basic Writings.
23. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: University Press, 1997, p2-3
24. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: University Press, 1997,p5
25. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: University Press, 1997,p10
26. The British Labour MP Tony Wright makes this play on words in the title of his book Citizens or Subjects without even realising what he is doing.
27. Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed CT Onions, Oxford: University Press, 1985
28. English philosopher TH Green suggests that the different meanings are national. ‘English writers commonly call that the subject of a right that Germans would call the object.’ , Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and other writings, Cambridge: University Press, 1986, p180
29. The word ‘sovereignty’ carries a similar history, where the original exercise of sovereignty was restricted to the Prince, its universalisation suggests to some, like Tony Wright in his Citizens or Subjects, that the sovereign power of the elected assembly is simply despotism to the nth power.
30. Beatrix Campbell and Anna Coote A, Sweet Freedom, p227
31. Vincent, Sally, The New Statesman, 19 December 1980
32. ‘Pornography: The Representation of Power’ in Catherine Itzin (ed), Pornography: Women, violence and civil liberties, a radical new view, p93
33. ‘Pornography: The Representation of Power’ in Catherine Itzin (ed), Pornography: Women, violence and civil liberties, a radical new view, p93
34. Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, Edited by Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley, London Routledge, 1999, p260
35. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London, 1990, p5
36. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London, 1990, p5-6
37. see Burkart Holzner, ‘The Construction of Social Actors: An essay on social identities’, in T Luckmann (ed) Phenomenology and Sociology, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, p291-310, for example.
38. TH Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and other writings, Cambridge: University Press, 1986, p79