One of the marks of theory in the last forty years is a conception of the subject such that the subject is determined and structured through history, structure, language, social context, or some other sort of field in which it is embedded or thrown. Thus in Althusser, for example, the subject is simply a puppet of ideology or an iteration of the total system in which it emerges. In early Lacan the subject falls under the signifier, such that the signifier functions like a prophecy in its unconscious, determining its destiny and the structure of desire. For Foucault and Butler, the subject is a discursive construction and product of power. The merit of these views is the manner in which they overcome abstraction by virtue of thinking entity in relation to its context or the world in which it emerges, rather than treating entity as a simple substance that is self-sufficient. Of course, these positions tend to suffer from another sort of abstraction, for they often treat social and cultural formations as the only determinative elements of context, ignoring the biological body, experience, and the natural world. In terms of the history of philosophy, we could see these paradigms of thought as reactions to the subject-centered systems of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, where– in his earlier work, at least –there was little attentiveness to what Heidegger referred to as “the worldhood of the world”. To put the matter crudely, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Where prior to this there was a focus on the supremacy of the subject or agent, on its self-determining freedom, there followed a shift towards the supremacy of what Burke refers to as the “scene” in his pentad. Scene (whether in the form of language, economics, power, social structure, etc) becomes determinative of entity, where before it was the agent, the subject, that was seen as determinative. Not surprisingly, we today find the pendulum swinging yet again in the other direction. Exhausted by decades of theory dominated by the primacy of the scene such that all agency seems to merely reinforce structure and power without realizing it, we now find the pendulum swinging once again in the other direction, seeking to enact a return to the agent or agency in the rather poorly developed and abstract accounts of events and truth-procedures in Badiou and the Act in Zizek.

Not unpredictably, these rejoinders suffer from the same abstraction, albeit in inverted form, as the abstraction to be found in Frankfurt school Critical Theory, hermeneutic orientations of thought, and French (Post)Structuralism. Where the former places everything on the side of either history, power, language, social structure, etc., effectively causing the agent to disappear, the latter places everything on the side of the agent, the Act and the truth-procedure, leading any meaningful discussion of socio-historical context and concrete understanding of the situation to disappear. It is difficult, for instance, not to guffaw when Badiou announces that the French Revolution was an event (I fully agree), but then goes on to say that this event marked a complete break with history, as if centuries of subterranian work hadn’t been done during the Rennaissance and early Enlightenment period, slowly transforming the social space, introducing the requisite concepts for a radically egalitarian republic, undermining confidence in governance by the Christian Church and the metaphysics that accompanied that view, and so on. Both solutions are poor. What is needed is an account that is both sensitive to what Burke calls scene, has a rich place for the agent, and, above all is capable of thinking the dialectical relation between these two without falling into abstraction by privileging one pole or the other, turning agent into a mere puppet of scene or ignoring scene altogether in favor of the fantasy of a completely sovereign subject free of any determinations save those it posits for itself.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about both of these orientations of theory is that they are so obviously. One wonders whether some thinkers ever pull their noses out of their books to look at the world about them. Those theorists that assert the primacy of scene (e.g., Althusser, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Butler, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, perhaps Adorno, etc) seem to miss the obvious point that context, scene, language, power, history, the social, etc., never functions so efficaciously as to smoothly reproduce itself in its agents. As Adam Kotsko points out in a recent post without using these exact terms, subjectivization never quite works as intended. The agents produced in and through structure are never perfect fractal iterations of that context, but always surprise us. There is something novel about each agent that appears in the world that such theories, when taken to their extreme, should exclude a priori as being impossible on theoretical grounds. Yet there it is, subjects going against the total environment in which they were raised, subjects introducing new trajectories into their social system, subjects that share little resemblance to where they came from. On the other hand, those theoretical orientations that assert the supremacy of the sovereign agent seem to fare even worse. Such theories perpetually miss the commonalities we find among populations and in the agent itself, thereby missing the manner in which the agent emerges and is individuated within a scene that it integrates, selects from, and makes its own. Inevitably such theories of the agent (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Zizek, Badiou, certain moments of Lacan), where the agent is prime and supreme, end up trapped within magical thinking, as they’re almost always led to assert a creation ex nihilo. Well, there are no creations ex nihilo for good materialists, whatever Badiou might like to say as he desperately strives to convince his readers that he maintains tied to the Marxist tradition.

What is needed is something entirely different. If we are not to fall into abstraction, we need a theory that both shows how entity arises from a scene, a context, a field (whatever you wish to call it), but, in its process of development, becomes transcendent to that field. That is, we require a conception of the agent that isn’t detached from the field, that isn’t above it and undetermined by it, but also which isn’t strictly determined by the manner in which it prehends the world about it. Rather, there must be something creative and novel in how the world about the agent is prehended, that progressively (not all at once), allows the agent to stand forth from the field and define its own vector of engagement and development… A vector that is no longer simply a fractal iteration of the organization of the field.

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