I've been perplexed lately, wondering about the strange link between the individual and the subject. I use a couple of slogans to designate the problem. One is an inversion of Althusser: the subject is interpellated as an individual. The other comes from reading Federici (although she doesn't put it exactly this way): the individual is a form of enclosure.
It's clear enough that psychoanalysis is the study of failure, the specific failure of the individual form. The object of its discourse is nothing but this failure. Hence, the scandal of Lacan is to place nothing at all at the heart of the subject, to recognize that 'subject' names nothing but a gap or lack. Every component of the psychic apparatus, evey arrangement of the economies of desire and drive, every discourse that constitutes a social link works around, over, and through this emptiness, investing it with a charge or intensity such that it always seems more than itself.
And, why not, Marx and Nietzsche also give rise to the two other primary studies of failure inextricable from the waning of European modernity: the failure of capitalism and the failure of morality (Corey Robin is pursuing an exciting project that makes the operative term here "value," as he notes the convergence between the ungrounding of value in Hayek and in Nietzsche). In this vein, what becomes postmodernity or late-modernity is resignation, complacency, acquiescence, compromise, and melancholia. No grand narratives, no utopia, no ideals. Even that political form said to be the best, democracy, is acknowledged as unworkable, not so good, only viable because everything else is worse. Political maturity, political realism, is accepting this sorry state with good humor and irony.
The happy story left behind was one of modernity as a kind of triumph, the liberation of reason from dogma, of the individual from the collective, of creativity from stultification and determination within a realm of traditional culture that confined individuals within pregiven roles. And even as our discourses of failure have taught us, rightly, to critique and reject the happy story, how is it that its terms and suppositions persist? More specifically, how is it that some kind of individual free from the collective is so frequently turned to and invoked, the limit of any political project as if struggle were only and ever liberal?
How is it that the subject remains reduced to the individual, as if there were an individual who is subjected rather than a collective, exercising the power of its own self-determination, that becomes fragmented and desubjectified, pacified as it is divided up into ever smaller portions?
If we can think of such a prior collective subject, and Freud's discussion of the unconscious as a crowd suggests that we can, then the gap Lacan notes suggests the form that remains once it is emptied of the crowd, once everyone leaves, like an arena that one can never fill alone. Perhaps a better metaphor would be a field where the grass is left broken and flat after everyone is gone. Or perhaps an empty street or public square, the strewn paper and broken glass traces of the many who had been. Subject is gap in the structure not in the sense that subject designates a site of individual freedom, decision, or choice, and not in the sense of unconscious fantasies that fill in and direct the never complete structure, and not even in the sense of the twist or torsion of the real, but rather in the sense that structure becomes subject as collective. The collective body is the subject form of the structure, the gap that makes it not fully itself, or the gap between the ways it is active and the way it is passive.
How is it that subject and individual seem blurred and even equated in contemporary thought? I wonder if we might blame critiques of the transcendental subject that tried to give it a body in order to critique this body for its exclusions? I wonder as well about the effects of forty years of neoliberalism where the emphasis on the unique and creative individual is so incessant, so unavoidable, that we fall into it, unaware. And then I wonder, well, maybe it's just me, maybe it's just my mistake, my misunderstanding. Does this actually enact the very problem I'm trying to address? I personalize and individualize it, eliminating what is common before it can appear?
The Psychic Life of Power opens clearly enough: the paradox of subjection Butler investigates via Freud, Foucault, and Althusser is a formal problem, the problem of the subject form. She writes:
"The subject" is sometimes bandied about as if it were interchangeable with "the person" or "the individual." The geneaology of the subject as a critical category, however, suggests that the subject, rather than be identified strictly with the individual, ought to be designated as a linguistic category, a placeholder, a structure in formation. Individuals come to occupy the site of the subject (the subject simultaneously emerges as a 'site'), and to enjoy intelligibility only to the extent that they are, as it were, first established in language. The subject is the linguistic occasion for the individual to achieve and reproduce intelligibility, the linguistic condition of its existence and agency. No individual becomes a subject without first becoming subjected or undergoing subjectivation . . . It makes little sense to treat 'the individual' as an intelligible term if individuals are said to acquire their intelligibility by becoming subjects. Paradoxically, no intelligible reference to individuals or their becoming can take place without a prior reference to their status as subjects. The story by which subjection is told is, inevitably, circular, presupposing the very subject for which it seeks to give an account. On the one hand, the subject can refer to its own genesis only by taking a third-person perspective on itself, that is by dispossessing its own perspective in the act of narrating its genesis. On the other hand, the narration of how the subject is constituted presupposes that the constitution has already taken place, and thus arrives after the fact. 10-11
Can more than one individual occupy the place of the subject at the same time? If the function of the category subject is to hold a place, then it would seem absolutely necessary that more than one individual occupies the place. Individual is a specific occupation of the subject. And, that would mean that as a subject, the individual can't be individuated. It's just an occupant among other occupants. Subject designates what they are in common, their commonality. For Butler this occupation is subjection, a kind of repression and discipline that involves a relation to law, an attachment to law. As the individual is subjectified, it sacrificies something of itself. To be a subject is to be, in a way, bereft.
But in what way? It seems at times that Butler thinks that the subject is bereft of freedom, where freedom is a kind of authenticity, a freedom to love and desire as she chooses or as she could choose were she not beholden to a norm to which she is subjected. But I wonder if we might understand this differently. When the individual occupies the place of the subject, the individual is bereft of others, of the crowd, of the collective. The individual tries to do and be alone what she can only do and be with others. The place of the subject is a place for us, not for me. It's a crowded place.
It sometimes seems to me as if Butler presumes a link between individual and subject, as if individual preexisted subject and were separate from it, even if its separate pre-existence is inchoate, even abject. When she refers to subject as the condition for the individual's agency, it seems to me that she says this sadly or critically. For her, it's a problem that the individual has to be subjected to have agency.
But if subject is collective, then we recognize that agency can only be collective; it is always and only the agency of a group (and theorists like Jane Bennett encourage, even enjoin, us to note the multiple objects that must be part of this group). There is no agency by an individual, so it's no wonder that the subject is a condition for agency. This is simply another way of pointing to the fact of collectivity. It would make more sense, then, to say that no individual can become subject, which, it seems to me, is the insight of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, as well as Lacan.
And of the problem of narration? If subject refers to a collective (mass, class, party), then any telling of its story will be partial. It's story will always be open and in process. But this is not because of a dispossession (which Butler considers because she presumes the link between individual and subject) but because of plurality. The subject's story of itself doesn't present a paradox because there isn't a whole or complete story to tell.