I owe a great debt of gratitude to Clayton Crockett for recommending Eric Schneider and Dorian Sagan’s Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life in response to my recent talk at GCAS, where I sketched the cartography of United States higher education and discussed, among other things, the central place of entropy in my thought. Throughout their book, Schneider and Sagan explore the role non-equilibrium dynamics play in the production of organization in the universe. Working on the hypothesis that “nature abhors a gradient”, they try to show how forms of organization ranging from tornadoes to life, cities, societies, and economies arise from the way in which organization arises from the way in which being is drawn toward the production of equilibriums that resolve energetic disequilibriums that exist in the world. As they write, for example,
A barometric pressure gradient in the atmosphere, the difference between high- and low-pressure masses, leads to a tornado, a complex cycling system. The tornado’s function, its purpose, is to eliminate the gradient. (8)
In this example, we thus have a flow of energy constituted by a differential gradient (the differences in barometric pressure) that gives rise to a patterned organization (the tornado) that functions to resolve this disequilibrium or gradient. These processes will, of course, be different depending on the sorts of organization we’re investigating. Clearly the way in which life is a response to differential gradients– they suggest the differential here is the heat of the sun as it differs from the coolness of the surface of the planet –will be different than a tornado and far more complex, but the basic principle will be the same: open systems responding to energy differentials that produce a patterned organization. Readers familiar with the work of Simondon and Deleuze– and Crockett develops this nicely in a paper he gave on entropy, Brassier, and Deleuze sans the relation to Simondon –will recognize the parallels between Deleuze and Simondon’s accounts of individuation and the role played by intensive difference in processes of individuation (roughly individuation in this context refers to accounts of how entities are formed, not accounts of how they are cognitively identified or distinguished from one another).
For some reason, all of this– and I’m not going into nearly the detail the work of Schneider and Sagan deserves –has me thinking about the subject. Here my thoughts are incredibly rudimentary and inchoate, so I beg forgiveness. I hope that by beginning to outline them they might take on greater clarity and I might actually be able to develop something out of them.
As I think about the subject, the first question that occurs to me is that of why the category of the subject has recently become such a burning issue in the world of contemporary theory? The category of the subject has, of course, been around for quite a while. Perhaps we could date its appearance with Montaigne and Descartes. Throughout the Enlightenment period up through German Idealism and then later with its appearance in phenomenology, we could probably say that the category of the subject largely responds to epistemological questions or questions of knowledge. Subject largely names the seat of knowledge and experience and there are debates as to just how to conceive this “seat” (as Descartes does or Hume or Kant or Husserl?). There are, of course, exceptions to this, but this is generally what subject is thought in relation to (and indeed, in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy subject is still largely thought in the context of epistemological questions, I think).
During what might be called “the post-structuralist period”, subject seems to largely disappear (with the possible exception of Lacan); or more precisely, it becomes a sort of negative term. Here– drawing heavily on psychoanalysis, Saussurean linguistics, and certain variants of cultural Marxism –subject is a sort of illusion to be overcome. Thus, for example, we witness Althusser arguing that subject is not a seat of agency but rather the effect of an ideological interpellation that produces beings that reproduce the system of productive relations. In Foucault, we get both an account of knowledge under the title of “epistemes” as anonymous social structures (for lack of a better term) without a subject as the seat of knowledge and synthesis (The Order of Things), and an account of how various subjects are formed as a result of power and practices. Here too, there’s one reading of Foucault where subject is something of an effect in terms similar to Althusser but not resulting from a “hailing” and recognition of oneself as recipient of a call, though I think Foucault’s subjects are a bit more active than this. Under this reading, subject again isn’t an agent or sovereign, but an effect of impersonal and anonymous processes. Likewise, in Derrida we have the alleged self-presence of subject and its status as an origin making it an agent erased and complicated by the play of difference. Although not a post-structuralist, we could also speak of Heidegger’s critique of the subject in his lectures on Nietzsche as well as works like “The Question Concerning Technology”. Everywhere during this time period we encounter accounts of how subject is not what it takes itself to be, how it is a sort of illusion, and how ultimately it is an effect of broader impersonal processes. Katerina Kolozova chronicles this beautifully in her brilliant Cut of the Real: Subjectivity in Poststructuralist Philosophy.
In these discussions, it’s clear that the category of subject has shifted register. Subject is no longer thought primarily as an epistemological category, as a knower, but as a political category. The “negative thought of the subject”, the subject that must be “deconstructed”, is here a site of illusion where we mistake ourselves for sovereign agents possessed of an essence (as man or woman or African-American or straight or gay, etc) that fails to recognize how, even in the exercise of its alleged agency, it is in fact enslaved; an effect of power, a subjected being, that is both trapped in a prison of social forces it does not recognize and that actually contributes to the reinforcement of the iron threads of this spider web of power through enacting these impersonal “scripts”. Subject must here be deconstructed so as to reveal the real mechanisms of power so that genuine emancipation– rather than illusory emancipation –might be possible. Alternatively, following Heidegger, subject is a figure of mastery and domination that subjugates being and persons, “enframing” them so as to transform them into beings of “standing-reserve” available for further control and mastery. Subject here must be deconstructed to put an end to this nihilistic and destructive will to power premised on mastery.
In the contemporary wave of thought, subject is once again a political rather than epistemological category, but is now conceived in positive terms. Exemplified by the work of thinkers such as Zizek, Badiou, Johnston, perhaps Ranciere, and a number of others, subject is now no longer an illusion and an effect, but is rather a site of “truth”, signifying the possibility of emancipation, functioning as the seat of agency, and marking the condition for the possibility of rupture with oppressive systems. In the Enlightenment frame, subject is the site of the problem of knowledge. In the post-structuralist frame, subject is the site of the problem of the site of subjugation arising as a result of something akin to “ideological misrecognition”.
In the contemporary phase, subject is the site of the problem of emancipation. If our identities are formed through anonymous social forces that exceed any individual agency whether in the form of power as conceived by Foucault, ideology as conceived by Althusser, the cultural structures of language or economy or something else besides, then how as any emancipation possible? If the very stuff that we are is formed by these social forces, how does our “agency” do anything but reproduce these very structures of subjugation? I italicize “identities” above advisedly, for the desuturing of the equivalence between subject and identity is the key move of contemporary political thought regarding the subject. Subject will no longer denote an identity, a “substance”, but rather denotes that which breaks with any identity and which is therefore a capacity to break with technologies of subjectivization. Setting aside the Enlightenment conception of subject as seat of the problem of knowledge, we thus get two distinct concepts of subject:
1) The Post-Structuralist Concept of Subject: Subject is an identity, a series of different identities, produced by social forces that mistakes itself for being a seat of agency and believes that it has an essence as man, woman, white, black, straight, gay, etc.; when, in fact, this agency is an effect of an impersonal social agency of subjugation. Subject therefore must be deconstructed if we are to get at the real sources of subjugation and not merely reproduce these forces. But who does this if we are but an effect of these social forces. Ergo…
2) The Contemporary Concept of Subject: Subject names, like the “number” zero, that which is non-identical to itself– a sort of void, emptiness, or negativity –for which no predicates (of identity) ever fully lodge, for which every predicate of identity is a sort of dishonesty or lie. We could call this subject the “Lacano-Sartrean-Hegelian” concept of subject (I realize many will object to including Sartre in this series, but as my good friend Noah Horwitz once observed to me, there’s a way in which the Zizekian subject is a sort of crypto-Sartrean or existential subject). This is the subject for whom the epithet “I am what I am not and I am not what I am” holds. I am not the predicates with which I identify– e.g., if I say “I am depressed” there’s already a sort of bad faith or dishonesty in this self-description –yet I am also these very predicates. I am the perpetual inability to be what I take myself to be and to not be this. Subject then names something that is in excess of all predication, something off of which all predicates slide, and therefore something for which there is never any substantiality. In short, subject is the intrinsic failure of all identity as discussed by the post-structuralists. And for this reason, subject is a sort of void or nothingness, that nonetheless can be “marked” or that has a sort of quasi-being. Subject would thus also be a name for the ineluctable failure of every technology of subjectivization precisely because predicates of subjugation necessarily fail (as Miller tries to demonstrate in his own way in “Suture“).
In response to the post-structuralist question of who deconstructs the subject of identity (subject^i), the contemporary phase of thought seems to say no-thing and no-one. Yet this nothing and noone is nonetheless marked, is nonetheless an excess, that marks the ruin of any identity, interpellation, subjectivization, or predication opening a space of resistance and and contestation where emancipation might be possible. Subject as void (subject^v) becomes the site of freedom, resistance, agency. It marks the space of an agency that is not overdetermined by the field of social structure, social forces, or power, precisely because it is that which necessarily evades all of these forces and technologies; precisely because it is that which is in excess of all subjectivization.
There are nonetheless problems with this model. First, as Scott Bakker has recently noted in his review of Adrian Johnston’s Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, there seems to be something “magical” in this account of subject given the way in which it somehow violates the laws of physics (Bakker oddly suggests that I’m engaged in a project of grounding science and neurology, which I’ve never suggested and which is of no interest to me… I don’t think the role of philosophy is to function as “royal science” that grounds all other knowledge). I haven’t yet read Johnston’s book– and have the greatest admiration for his work and above all the questions he’s asking (not necessarily the solutions he’s giving; or Zizek for that matter) –but there is a real question of how to reconcile subject with a genuine naturalism and materialism (both of which I take to be the only credible ontological positions today). Second, it’s not at all clear– and maybe I’m just dense –how a void or emptiness can be a seat of agency. This, I think, is especially the case with the Lacanian subject which is a sort of empty square or circulating failure in a chain of signifiers that I can never fully identify with as me. Wouldn’t such a subject be purely algorithmic such that it’s quite different than what we have in mind by agency? Similarly, in the case of Badiou, it’s hard to see from whence the “decision criteria” emerge for deciding the undecidable event (notice how Badiou does a sort of philosophical judo move here, taking Derridean undecidability at its word and letter, and then saying “we must decide it!”… Gorgeous!). The problem is that if we take Badiou at his word, we seem left with one of two options: Either, we do have a decision criteria and this criteria arises from our “interpellation” or “subjectivization”, thereby returning us to the post-structuralist problem. Or, the decision that decides to count the event is a sort of Kierkegaardian leap of faith and therefore magic, consequently leading us again to wonder how such a position can be consistent with materialism and naturalism (here some will bite the bullet and say materialism and naturalism must be wrong, but I just don’t think that’s acceptable).
A third possibility– and here I’m running out of steam so I’ll only list it –would be to conceive subject as a particular type of system for resolving differential gradients. This would be the Spinozist-Deleuzian-Thermodynamic concept of subject (or subject^t). I realize how bizarre it is to evoke the category of subject in a Deleuzo-Spinozist framework, but so be it. Subject^t– and yes, the carrots are intentional; think superscripts –which I scarcely know how to conceive, would have a couple of advantages. First, it would be thoroughly consistent with materialism and magic, evoking no magic or idealist ruptures to explain itself. Here is the core of my admiration for Bakker’s work (even though I hope he’s wrong): First, he perpetually refuses any transcendental arguments (x is a condition for science and inquiry therefore x must exist) as a form of wishful thinking (though I don’t think he uses that term), instead requiring that we must give a materialist and naturalist account of agency if it does in fact exist (maybe it doesn’t and we’re really just like computers and have no intentionality after all). In this way, he poses the problem in the most forceful and honest way possible (and doesn’t like his answers– often saying to me in email that “it breaks his heart” –but knowing no way past the sort of causal determinism he thinks neurology among other things is demonstrating). Second, he seems to hold that we must give a nuts and bolts account of how something like agency is possible based on a genuine empirical knowledge of neurological systems, rather than a mere conceptual, transcendental, a prioristic account. That’s the way to pose a genuine philosophical problem: no cheating, no skyhooks, no metaphysical entities. Such an approach to thinking requires courage that refuses to go with empty declarations that are appealing to how we would like things to be (wishful thinking) through the evocation of metaphysical chimera to save the day; for example, claims such as the idea that “science knows nothing of objects”, or rhetorical denunciations of something as “scientism” as a way of not having to think about that which makes us uncomfortable (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz wouldn’t have happened had they sought a strategy of explaining away what the new mathematics and science were showing).
Second, such an account of subject would nonetheless be differential. A gradient is that which is non-identical to itself. It is a difference in a system of series. When we talk about subject^i or the negative subject of post-structuralism, we’re talking about a hylomorphic model where there is a mould or form that comes to structure human bodies and minds. In short, we’re thinking about a model of identity like the relation between a cookie cutter and dough. By contrast, a gradient based model is based on a non-identity or a differential. This non-identity, in its turn, gives rise to yet another non-identity; namely a patterned organization. Subjects would be particular processual patterned organizations that fail to correspond to a system of morphogenetic social forces and structures. They would be a force of rupture.
The problem arises, I think, along the lines outlined by Christian Thorne in his article “To the Political Ontologists“. When we talk about resistance we want something approximating decision, choice, reflexivity, self-reflexivity, or, in short, agency. Yet when we adopt an ontological perspective on these issues of political emancipation and resistance, we seem to embrace a perspective where things happen of their own accord. Tornadoes don’t choose to come into existence, they just do come into existence when the requisite gradients of barometric presence are present. This is exactly the sort of thing we don’t want to argue when we discuss subjugation because we acutely sense that resistance might not occur in these circumstances. Decision seems to be required. This is the problem with the idea of a political physics. It somehow misses the dimension of subjective engagement and decision. I don’t know how to get this dimension into the framework I’m trying to think through, but then again I’ve seen no other position that’s able to– though they all assert it –either.