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Fr. 408

October 6, 2013

Who comes after the subject in philosophy? Or, to put it somewhat more weakly, what comes after the subject?

It is first necessary to review briefly what became of the subject and subjectivity in the 20th century before determining what future might follow for it. In much of 20th century philosophy, both of the so-called continental and analytic strands, it is possible to observe an objectivizing trend at work in which the category of subject and subjectivity progressively gives way to object and objectivity in the form of language, history, economics, society, natural science, psychology and other forms of positivism.  If there have been on occasion attempts to reinstate a measure of subjectivity into these objective frameworks, the subjectivity therein introduced is always compromised in advance in virtue of that historical context from which it arises. Of these attempts to counter modern philosophy’s objectivizing project, Jameson’s Adorno in Late Marxism maintains their compromised character in noting: “since those various regressions and reversions to myth and to archaic forms of subjectivity are not political responses to the power and development of late capitalism, on the one hand; and since they are probably all marked and maimed by its objectifying tendencies on the other – being, in other words fully as much symptoms of that process as they are forms of resistance to it” (Late Marxism, p. 124).

If there is indeed still a place for subject and subjectivity in the work of a thinker such as Adorno, this place is of necessity both greatly diminished and qualified in a manner in stark contrast with philosophical tradition and the attempts to reinstate this tradition in whole or part. Although neither Adorno nor Jameson qualify the subject in such terms, it seems possible to view subjectivity as a local process embedded within a larger social process, such that one could maintain that this new subjectivity is processual, that of a process or a processual being. This leaves up in the air precisely how and in what terms this process is to be characterized precisely.

Although this characterization of subjectivity seems to be in line with both the pronouncement above and the exposition of Adorno’s view that is to follow, one might wonder whether, through means of subjectivity as processual being, it might be possible to advance beyond the current dilemma facing new theories of subjectivity, to incorporate Adorno’s critique of subject, subjectivity and subjectivism, and to propose a new, qualified kind of subject. In order to accomplish this, it is first necessary to understand more precisely the reasons for which previous attempts have failed. As seen in the excerpt above, Adorno’s reasoning on this is twofold. On one hand, maintaining a subjectivity flush with the qualities of the traditional subject does not prove to be a political response to the workings of late capitalism. More simply, previous attempts fail to note to what extent objective processes have infiltrated and replaced the inner workings of the subject. On the other, these same attempts cannot fail to be marked by those workings and infiltration of capitalism; any attempt is thus doomed in advance in virtue of the fatal flaw that it must carry within itself.

It is neither clear that Adorno is here playing fair nor that the two reasons are in fact two discrete arguments or theses. In fact, the first seems to fall out of the second as an internal requirement or analytic consequence. Insofar as every restitution of subjectivity is marked by the workings of late capitalism, there can be no political response to those workings. Thus, it seems plausible to hold the two reasons as equivalent. For, if the structures of late capitalism themselves exclude political response, there is then no reason to state this as a separate reason or consequence.

Yet Adorno’s having given them as separate reasons suggests in and of itself that the first reason, the nature of a political response, is something at which a sufficiently advanced theory of subjectivity might succeed. Otherwise, there is little to no reason to cite this failure as an indictment of earlier projects and their shortcomings. How might a new attempt be a political response to the power and development of late capitalism? One way might be through making explicit the role that this power and development have to play in the formation of individuality and subjectivity and, thus, in bringing to light all that which tends to compromise accounts of subjectivity in the current social settings. If these conditions are themselves inescapable, it does not thereby follow that their presentation and knowledge thereof are worthless. Although this knowledge does not liberate the knowing individual from that scheme, it does introduce a measure of distance or externality sufficient to create the conditions for that same knowledge. (Indeed, Adorno’s own project might be thus viewed and defined.) Coupled with an alternative presentation of subjectivity, this knowledge might constitute a political response in its own right, a supposition that does not seem overly presumptuous, at least at this early stage.

If the present account and Adorno’s might be classed together insofar as they advance a view of the subject as process, they should nonetheless be distinguished in their manners of characterizing that process. While a presentation of Adorno’s processual subject is to follow, the present’s account processual character will seek to introduce an element of chance into this process, an element that is not to be found on Adorno’s account. Indeed, this move might be thought to be not unlike Kant’s in the three critiques: making room for subjectivity as Kant once did for God.

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