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Fr. 394

September 18, 2013

“…Konrad is supposed to have said, I serve no public function, I serve no function whatsoever, certainly not a public function, he even hated the word function, there was nothing he hated more bitterly than the word functionary, a word it nauseated him even to hear, because nowadays everybody was a functionary, all of them were functionaries now, they all functioned, there are no human beings left…” (Thomas Bernhard, The Lime Works, p. 19).


Bernhard’s literary description of subjectivity might be said to move up and down the sliding scale of the continuum of existence, from human being to functionary to function. The almost transitive quality of the prose aside, this passage is remarkable for the simple and effective way in which it brings to the fore the dissolution of the subject in modern and postmodern society. If objective economic forces and the relations of production can be admitted as having some determinative weight in the formation of the individual, it is not a far leap from conceiving the human-functionary as mere function rather than human. In other words, if Bernhard here sounds the knell of subjectivity and notions of interiority and personality, the question is then what remains and of what use such a view is to us.

Consider briefly the case in which such an argument is incontrovertibly true: as in Adorno, that which seems most subjective is objective, the personal is historical and social, and the subjective is eclipsed. One rather facile objection to this perspective has it that such an account of subjectivity’s eclipse would then have to arise from the objective machinery of society and history. As the objective is either incapable of formulating such an account or would simply have no reason to do so (for why disprove that which would never occur to the objective as a possibility in itself), then, as per the argument, there must exist some subjectivity sufficiently aware of the machine-like processes of the objective in order to give voice to these. If humans are mere formulae, it would remain to be seen just who or what is doing the calculating. In short, from this perspective, attributing this account to the total system and objective machine amounts to attributing a measure of interiority to the objective and subjectivizing it in turn.

Yet this argument relies on reductivism and simplifying the opposed position to an extreme, and it is not entirely clear that those thinkers in whom the desubjectivizing current is the strongest hold views quite so simple as this. To give but two examples, Adorno is clearly fascinated by the possibility of a negative subject or subject-position in Minima Moralia, and even Différence et répétition-era Deleuze maintains the existence of a larval subject with sensibility. Accordingly, supposing that one were a mere vessel for the expression of the social totality at a given moment, even for thinkers such as these, some small element of that vessel retains an interiority, a certain personality that is unlikely to be accounted for in terms of the outside and objective, the social and historical, even if this element never surpasses the indeterminate stage. In the end, the existence of a minimal and indeterminate subjectivity can still be upheld.

Having answered in negative fashion the first query (what remains?), attention can now shift to the second: of what use is such a view to the human individual? Were one to grant that mental life is mere appearance, its evanescent unfolding an algorithm to be worked out in some way by someone and capable of total explication in social, historical and economic terms, it is not clear what is to be done then on an individual basis. Such a determinative algorithm offers nothing in the way of outlooks or bearings to the one having worked out its own inner workings. Although its operations might be precisely worked out with regard to past actions and decisions, all now found to be involuntary, its hypothetical application to those future ones seems much less of a given and elicits a number of methodological questions, e.g. “should one continue to behave as before?”, “should one act in light of one’s findings and thereby introduce confirmation bias?”, etc. Thus, admitting such a deterministic system brings nothing to the subjective perspective, regardless of its truth-value, if perhaps not a certain disillusion and detachment from both inner life and outer world. Indeed, being “wise to the ways of the world” holds little utility or pragmatic value on such a view insofar as this same view rules out the possibility of anything being done about those ways.

It is in view of such inutility that additional room must be made on the subjective end of the spectrum, to both interiority and personality. That said, it must be clear that one cannot simply cast the above contentions aside with the aim of restoring pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment subjective credentials, as it were. No, the consequences of a highly deterministic, objective, economic system must be heard out and brought to bear, although not to the full extent that some might envision. Instead, a pragmatic, heuristic account must be given in order to provide a way forward that, while not being a way out, is at once well grounded and makes additional room within the objective circles here described. Perhaps, against the suggestion of Bernhard, there is something more to be made of functionaries, such that the functionaries’ function overflows the bounds of the mere objective function.

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