WHY DID THE modern era become the era of the subject? Why, in the last few centuries, did the self become the focus of the most serious and esoteric theory? Why did this theory conclude that there was no spontaneous subjectivity, but only an obscure and shifting impersonal matrix of relationships, politics and bodies that determined our selfhood? It would be reassuring to find answers to these questions, even though Western intellectual life—like so much of the West's thrilling yet gruesome history—is littered with discredited ultimate answers, ridiculed total theories and murderous final solutions.As Lyotard points out in his work on postmodernism, we should beware of the destructiveness of big answers, even if we have to pay the price of uncertainty and open-endedness in our debates.
Yet the wrecked caravans and broken machines of those who have gone before may provide us with some partial answers. Caught up with the theory of subjectivity are other developments that it reflects and respects, that are perhaps not fully separate: the rise of capitalist individualism, for example, beckons to us as a possible root cause for the modern obsession with isolated interior life. A burgeoning free-market economy needed the autonomous individual as its fundamental social unit, separate from the communal and family identifications that could compromise the absolute freedom of movement of entrepreneurs, workers and capital itself (as a kind of free and autonomous inhuman subjectivity in its own right). Given this economic development, it was inevitable that Rousseau's free subject would appear.In turn, the dislocation, alienation and stress this subject would suffer because of forced migration, urbanisation and exploitation, would itself