In contemporary social and political theory it is not unusual to hear questions as to how a subject is possible. By a subject, of course, one means a self-directing agency that is not a mere puppet of context or environment. In social and political theory, the subject does not refer to human individuals, but rather “the subject of history”, eg, the proletariat. It seems to me that we would do well to abandon this sort of talk. The term “subject” renders a number of things invisible, taking a number of questions off the table. This is because subject has connotations of an isolated individual. Sartre draws a valuable contrast between collectives and groups. A collective is a sort of anonymous social relation in which every individual is exchangeable with other individuals and roles are given. He gives the example of queuing for a bus. Everyone takes a ticket and hopes to get a seat on the bus. Each person is alloted a position that is exchangeable with that of any other position. Here we might think of the Lacanian symbolic and how it allots certain ego/social positions.
By contrast, a groups refers to relations where self-directing praxis Emerges among the members of the group. The members of a group are united around a common project, such as, for example, Lacan’s L’ecole. They aren’t merely passive beings defined by pre-existent social relations, but rather actively transcend the given of the social field and define a common project. As a consequence, groups are self-directing.
There are, in my view, a number of advantages to speaking about groups rather than subjects. First, of course, we can seek the conditions under which groups emerge out of collectives or come into being. Sartre has an exquisite analysis of all of the conditions that led to the storming of the Bastille and the invention of a new unity and the broader conditions that occasioned that invention. However, the concept of group rather than subject brings into relief other valuable questions. With the concept of group we get the question of how praxis is coordinated among diverse individuals. In other words, we get all sorts of practical questions pertaining to how individuals invent a group or themselves or mediate their differences. Likewise, we are afforded with the opportunity to analyze the microfacisms that emerge within groups, how groups ossify and become collectives, and how invention becomes self-defeating and alienating dogma.
The question of political theory is not a question of how subjects are possible, but of how groups are possible. The problem with the concept of subject in political theory is that it illicitly unifies that which must be produced or unified, foreclosing these sorts of questions. As a consequence, we should eradicate this term from our vocabulary when doing political theory, instead asking how a group is possible. It is groups, not individual subjects, that are the subject of political theory.