The Production of Subjectivity: From Transindividuality to the Commons

By Read, Jason | New Formations, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Production of Subjectivity: From Transindividuality to the Commons


Read, Jason, New Formations


The current conjuncture is marked by a fundamental impasse in terms of how to engage the question of politics. This is in part due to the fact that the various figures through which one engages with politics--the citizen, worker, or militant--have become exhausted of their meaning; the citizen has been replaced by the interest group, the worker by the investor in his or her own human capital, and the militant by the terrorist. As Alain Badiou writes:

   This political subject has gone under various names. He used to be
   referred to as a 'citizen,' certainly not in the sense of the
   elector or town councillor, but in the sense of the Jacobin of
   1793. He used to be called 'professional revolutionary'. He used to
   be called 'grassroots militant'. We seem to be living in a time
   when his name is suspended, a time when we must find a new name for
   him. (1)

Rather than work in the direction that Badiou supposes, finding a new name for the political subject, I would like to focus in this essay on the 'production of subjectivity'. The 'production of subjectivity', the way in which human beings are constituted as subjects, through structures of language and power; to adopt such a concept is often seen as tantamount to a denial of political agency altogether, to the assertion that everything is an effect of power, that agency and action cannot exist. What I would like to propose is that far from being a theoretical dead end for politics the production of subjectivity is the condition for its renewal. It is only by examining the way in which subjectivity is produced that it is possible to understand how subjectivity might be produced otherwise, ultimately transforming itself, turning a passive condition into an active process. The connection between production and politics that lies at the root of the Marxist project remains as valid as ever, but production needs to be understood in the broadest sense, not just work, the efforts on the factory floor, but the myriad ways in which actions, habits, and language produce effects, including effects on subjectivity, ways of perceiving, understanding, and relating to the world.

As a philosophical perspective, or line of inquiry, 'the production of subjectivity' is fundamentally disorientating, primarily because it forces us to treat something that, in liberal individualistic society, is generally considered to be originary, the subject or individual, as produced, the cause and origin of actions as an effect of prior productions. The perspective cuts through the established binaries of philosophical thought, mingling effects with causes, material conditions with interior states, and objects with subjects. As an initial gesture of orientation I propose that the production of subjectivity can at least be provisionally defined along two axes that it cuts across: that of base and superstructure and that of structure and subject. Rather than understand the work of Marx through the oft-cited figure of base and superstructure, in which the production of things and the reproduction of subjectivity are each given their place and degree of effectivity according to a hierarchical structure, it is perhaps more interesting to view his work through the intersection of a mode of production and a mode of subjection. This assertion gets its textual support through the multiple places where Marx addresses the prehistory of capitalism, the breakdown of feudalism and previous modes of production. It is not enough for capitalism to constitute itself economically, to exploit the flows of wealth and labour, but it must constitute itself subjectively as well, develop the desires and habits necessary for it to perpetuate itself. (2) As Marx writes: 'The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education [Erziehung], tradition, and habit [Gewohneit] looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self evident natural laws'. (3) Thus the production of subjectivity demands that two facets of social reality, that of the constitution of ideas and desires and that of the production of things, must be thought of not as hierarchically structured with respect to each other, but fully immanent, taking place at the same time, and within the same sites. …

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