The Production of Subjectivity: From Transindividuality to the Commons

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

The Production of Subjectivity: From Transindividuality to the Commons


Read, Jason, New Formations


Abstract Collectivity is increasingly difficult to conceptualize. This is perhaps due to a long philosophical cold war. Which has left us with concepts of social relations that start with an irreducible individual, figuring society as nothing other than the sum total of individual actions, as in social contract theory and various forms of methodological individualism, on the one hand, and spectres of organic or functionalist totality, on the other hand. Against both terms of this division this paper examines Gilbert Simondon's work on individuation to explore the transindividual production of subjectivity. The conditions of our subjectivity, language, knowledge, and habits, are neither individual nor part of any collective, but are the conditions of individual identity and collective belonging, remaining irreducible to each. These conditions have become increasingly important to the contemporary production process, becoming the source of new forms of wealth. They are the new commons that are increasingly becoming enclosed, privatized. Finally, following the work of Paolo Virno and Bernard Stiegler, I argue that these commons, the transindividual production of subjectivity, can become the basis of a new politics, a politics irreducible to individuality or totality.

Keywords subjectivity, real subsumption, transindividuality, the common, capitalism, politics, Gilbert Simondon, Paolo Virno, Karl Marx, Bernard Stiegler, Gilles Deleuze.

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one engages with politics - the citizen, worker, or militant - have become exhausted of their meaning; the citizen has been replaced by the interest group, the worker by the investor in his or her own human capital, and the militant by the terrorist.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. '

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. …

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