Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology

Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology

Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology

Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology


What can the universals of political philosophy offer to those who experience "the living paradox of an inegalitarian construction of egalitarian citizenship"? Citizen Subject is the summation of Étienne Balibar's career-long project to think the necessary and necessarily antagonistic relation between the categories of citizen and subject. In this magnum opus, the question of modernity is framed anew with special attention to the self-enunciation of the subject (in Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, and Derrida), the constitution of the community as "we" (in Hegel, Marx, and Tolstoy), and the aporia of the judgment of self and others (in Foucualt, Freud, Kelsen, and Blanchot).

After the "humanist controversy" that preoccupied twentieth-century philosophy, Citizen Subject proposes foundations for philosophical anthropology today, in terms of two contrary movements: the becoming-citizen of the subject and the becoming-subject of the citizen. The citizen-subject who is constituted in the claim to a "right to have rights" (Arendt) cannot exist without an underside that contests and defies it. He--or she, because Balibar is concerned throughout this volume with questions of sexual difference--figures not only the social relation but also the discontent or the uneasiness at the heart of this relation. The human can be instituted only if it betrays itself by upholding "anthropological differences" that impose normality and identity as conditions of belonging to the community.

The violence of "civil" bourgeois universality, Balibar argues, is greater (and less legitimate, therefore less stable) than that of theological or cosmological universality. Right is thus founded on insubordination, and emancipation derives its force from otherness.

Ultimately, Citizen Subject offers a revolutionary rewriting of the dialectic of universality and differences in the bourgeois epoch, revealing in the relationship between the common and the universal a political gap at the heart of the universal itself.


What is a citizen subject? A hyphenated subject, equal parts political citizen and subjected individual conscience? A freestanding agent capable of being federated with others? The ratifier of moral law, the self- punisher who dies by a thousand cuts at the hands of his or her own superego? The lead in a play about the psychic life of power in the era of weak states? The plebian legislator posed against the citizen king? A figure of possessive individualism reversed (which is to say, a self-dispossessed collectivist)? Or the Untertan, man of straw, anyone, “man without qualities,” figure of ressentiment, silently resisting uniform commands? To whom or to what is the citizen subject subject? What comes after the subject when, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Nancy, the concept of “the Political” has been retreated? And what is left of the subject discursively posited as an effect of grammar, or as the product of a political philology of sovereignty? Who comes after the subject if not a process of becoming-subject and becoming-citizen, rethought from the philological ground up and across languages?

The “citizen subject” comes (historically and politically) after the obedient or “submitted” subject emerging from this philology, but the critical faculty never rests in Balibar’s address of the problem of what a “citizen subject” might be. Each time the notion of “citizen” is called up, it recurs to “subject” and vice versa, in reciprocal, chiasmic, and dialectical relation. The doublet “citizen subject” emerges as a singular philosopheme, a calque on another, older doublet: the subjectum-subjectus, where subjectum referred in scholastic manner to an individual substance, a unity of body and soul, and subjectus (the “other name of the subditus”), was taken to refer to the human person, “subjected to” divine or princely authority. Reversing the latter and bracketing the former, Descartes defined as ego cogito or ego sum an antithesis to both of them, positing an “I” effect without foundation in a metaphysics of substance or a theology of incarnation. Much of this monumental book will be concerned with demonstrating the distortions produced, post Kant, by the imposition of a transcendental subject on the Cartesian ego, which fostered a projection of the subject as substantialized, self- prescribing of its freedom, guided by a teleology aligned with the construct of the “humanity” of man.

Balibar’s comprehensive genealogy of the “citizen subject” began its life as a response to Jean-Luc Nancy’s question “Who comes after the subject?” circulated in 1988–89 to a group of nineteen philosophers of different generations “in the spirit of eighteenth-century concourses and consultations” in order to “punctuate a theoretical moment and to highlight the formulations inherited from a recurring controversy.” The “moment” in question . . .

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