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April 04, 2007


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I love this topic; confounding liberal friends and fellow students by temporarily 'siding' with a pessimistic, paternalistic and eventually classist point of view which mocks the potential of 'the people' to participate in the grand schemes of progress dreamt up by left intellectuals. The people as object is a very satisfying way of conceptualizing what is absolutely correct about that position which makes arguing it such a breeze.

But really, sincerely, individual contact with even the scummiest of individuals reveals profound, almost poetic (religious??--pulls out his not-worn-enough copy of Totality and Infinity) revelation about the human subject. For now I am naively content to trust that education, cultivation of spirit is all the average person needs to become exceptionally efficacious subject, political and otherwise. Simply to get someone started in a vaguely productive direction...what really scares me is rare evidence of apparent actual uneducability, or, true inequality of potential. It is difficult to prevent factual difference of a certain scale from constituting ontological categories--the people as subhuman even without touching the very sensitive topic of disability.

Jodi, I apologize if I am hijacking your comment threads as I am beginning to feel I am.


Fascinating post. Didn't Agamben first make this distinction between people-as poor and people -as subjects (in Man without content)?

Please excuse my untheoretical, unphilosophical language and thoughts--I am not an academic.

Isn't there a third way, a way of fragmenting? The Inoperative community? And why is identity talked about in terms of 'construction'? Isn't this already the language of late capitalism..whereas people think of identity as 'given'?

Are the only options identitification with the 'cold' state (simone weil) or with the creaturely warmth of identity politics?

I like your idea of how freedoms seem to be morphing into compulsions (gambling etc). It seems that behind the idea of 'the people' is always some abstraction, some 'dot or dream' (whitman).

I wonder if we will ever see, ever *be*, not a human subject or an object, but a human being..just human? Perhaps the only people to transcend the subject/object definitions will be refugees, exiles, and 'muslims'?



Thanks for the comment. I think that it relies on a variation of the identity politics argument I criticize above, combined with a liberal democratic hope in the power of education. So, in order to subjective the people, you first isolate and individualize an element. Second, you turn to the reliable enlightenment trope of education in order to rebuild and redeem this element to fit your political schemes and task.

The view I'm taking doesn't mock the the people's participation, it mocks the dreams of the intellectuals along the lines of: don't include me in your dreams, don't dream through me--your dreams are might nightmares.

The people, then, are like an indivisible remainder disrupting and distorting the dreams of intellectuals. They are doing their own things, thinking, eating, dreaming, making, organizing or whatever--but 'these own things' resist easy incorporation into political schemes; this very resistance is what I'm calling the people.

Khalid--I haven't read that Agamben, but now I will. I don't understand your paras on identity construction and options--are these critical points or variations on some of my themes?

Your Agambenian themes are interesting--I confess to not really knowing what to do with them. I can't theorize just being because I deal with politics, which involves law, the state, groups, representation, displacement, struggle. In all these arenas, there is not just being, there is being with and being as.



Speaking of the metaphysics of objects, I don't know whether you have yet seen k-punk's announcement of this lecture and workshop:


Graham Harman's essay on "weird realism" is available through the link Mark provides and another Harman essay (on Latour) is available here:



Jodi, I enjoyed this post, it brought Agamben to mind at a couple of points. First, on the people as object/people as subject, there was an interview conducted, in French, by the journal Vacarme (http://www.vacarme.eu.org/article255.html , or an English translation: http://rethinkingmarxism.org/rm/contents/rm16-2.html . The interviewer challenges Agamben at several points on his tendency to objectify potential political subjects – especially those catalogued in Homo Sacer. Why not, the interviewer wonders, develop a “minor biopolitics” where the objects of power that Agamben names can become subjects. Agamben basically concedes and tries to explain how this is the case already in his work. However, from this it seems that Zizek’s response – privileging the object over the subject – seems a little more interesting; or at least it would have made for a better interview response.

Second, on Agamben and the “people,” the point he makes explicitly in his essay “What is a People?” is, not that there is a distinction between the people as generic mass and the people as a name for a subset of humanity called “the poor,” but that the people is both and that there is an undecidability with respect to identity at the heart of the concept of the people. The people are more than the poor and less than the multitude at the same time. The task of elaborating a theory of democracy on the basis of such an undecidability is more than a little complicated. It comes up again in the Paul book when this impossibility of identity problematizes the distinction Jew/non-Jew (a distinction which Agamben makes more of than Paul). Paul, claims Agamben, introduces a division between this division and creates a “remnant” and a third possibility: a non-non-Jew.


The construction of the 'object-like' people sounds more like Schmitt's definition of liberal politics. It has much less to do with Agamben, I'm afraid. The interesting issue today in our 'post-political' horizon is to turn Schmitt against himself. Today in North America at least, there isn't so much the problem of civil war (as Schmitt feared). Rather, the biopolitics of the passified population has created the legitimation for American and Canadian imperialist policy in the name of 'security' for the 'us.' This is my concern when politicians speak on behalf of a population they constitute and attempt to completely passify.


How is this question any different--or is it--from the one about crowds? The crowd is anonymous, faceless, yet powerful when massed for events that evoke a shared purpose, ideal, consciousness. It was this that the Nazis and fascism appealed to, no? While the Leftists called their version the collective, in the later versions it differed how from the fascist one?

In dealing with the crowd or the object (as you put it) there must indeed be subjectivization, but this comes from appealing to the person, the self as separate and responsible before they lose themselves in the crowd, the object. Isn't this what many religions do? Separate out the individual first--appeal to the heart, the soul, the higher sense of being--and then from that raw material (on that foundation?) lay the basis for communal awareness?


Good point grammatophile. I was thinking about Canetti's 'Crowds and Power' as I read the post..


Jodi, my point was not meant as a criticism/critique -nor do I have the capacity or inclination to do such things...

I was only *suggesting* that one of the options you suggest(as far as I understod you)-identity politics-is already not a return to the pre-political (Hannah A.) but a turn to the post-political. No? to talk in terms of the *construction* of identity is already to talk in the language of becoming, of existence rather than essence or nature...

I'm so glad you cannot theorize my words! :) That was part of the intention.

As for being human this is not necessarily seen as the isolated individual. Perhaps, from a religious perspective, we would reformualte the cogito: I am therefore I think or, even better, we are, therefore I think. In both cases subjectivity is already "with" or passive to the other.

you must excuse plebs like me jodi,.. I don't understand what "being as" means. By 'being' I do not mean my existence prior to all actualizations in society and the political realm; I mean being in it without being defined by it: not a 'refusal of system' , but neither a belonging to it either..a 'third man' (whence the reference to the exile , the refugee, the 'muslim' who is at the limit, the 'dihliz,' and who is, what we might call the 'barzakh'.

subject/object: the point was really that instead of being 'subject to the state (and particiapting in its stories, its projects, its victories)) or objecting to it (struggle), perhaps we need to think another type of politics which is the '/' ....


Intellectuals are people too (in every way that the latter are defined in the post).

And the way the people think is not far from the intellectuals' thought.


The difference is that theories of the crowd or mob (Canetti, Le Bon) treat the mass as a subject--and thereby find it necessarily inadequate to what they think a political subject should be/do. The way I'm doing it, the people are that which resist/subvert the machinations/intentions of the politicians. So, not what Mussolini molds, but what exceeds, subverts his attempt to mold. So, again, not constructed as object-like, but the inert object that resists, exceeds, subverts construction.

Also, the object isn't struggling--that would make it a subject. It's insisting by its presence.

Also, Khalid, as you know, some are trying to think about this third position your mention in terms of Bartleby, who doesn't refuse, he would simply prefer not to. I don't know what dihilz and barazakh mean, but it sounds intriguing. I think that the refugee likely works as a figure for the sort of object I'm attempting to think about here. But, I also think that nearly everybody fits into the category.


Discard, I'm sorry but I have to disagree with you! Intellectuals speak and think mostly in jargon, in specialized languages and in abstract, theoretical ways. That may or may not be partly necessary but I don't think one can say, by any stretch of the imagination, that they think or speak like most people. ..as the great natural philosopher is wont to say: hearts *and * minds !:)

Which is , I guess, what I meant when I said 'human being': speaking and thinking like a human being. [please don't theorize that into an argument for ordinary language!]

Jodi: "nearly everybody". You may be right..I don't know. My tuppence is that in practical terms, at the ground level, I don;t think that that is the case. I think most people in "the west" have been defined by the nation-state or identify with it and the biggest problem in 'liquid modernity is: what is there to revolt against, object to? What politics is left for the Eloi? Perhaps only the administration of things. What happens when the shock of the new *is* the norm, when the shock doesn't shock any more?


I'm unsure what is to be gained in the reification (be it as subject or object) of human life in the (State) form of "the people." I'm also uncertain as to whether the putative dualism of a micropolitics vs. identity politics is productive beyond academic discourse.

And I mean I really don't know. It's not apparent to me. (I'm nothing like a political theorist.)

My understanding is that critical sociology (a kind of anti-sociological work that takes place within sociology depts.) has much to say about the construction of society or "the people" as an object of empowerment and justification (the hollow ontological core) of political (and social) theory and practice. Is there not even a kind of perverse "repressive desublimation" at work in (of all places) the first half of Thatcher’s dictum: "there is no such thing as society"? Setting aside the second half ("there are only individuals and families"), isn't the effect to suggest that the "society" that is named and studied, as such, constitutes a threat to capital and the state?

Herein lies the appeal of the "the multitude" as an alternate social ontology (but it is also a trap-door more or less nowhere).

The more I encounter discussions like this and think about how they're framed, the more I believe that (contra Hardt and Negri) a return to Gramsci is, if not what is needed, the best and most efficacious thing left-of-liberal intellectuals can take seriously (ie, do). Gramsci is our Strauss, our answer to Rove/HillarObama/Machiavelli/etc, no?

I don’t know.

I am also troubled by the weird dualism of Jodi's penultimate paragraph. This is mostly because I can't read the tone (can’t identity the degree of irony present there). Read straight, there is the construction of a people that is prior to and extricable from communication technologies. Whereas it is the inextricable yet irreducible relation—the constitutive dynamics or dialectic—between media(tion) (in all its material forms) and human subjects that is precisely what is at (yet must be put to) stake rather than taken as given.

The either/or of 'the people fuck up communication technologies' OR '(corporate) communication technologies fuck up the people' has to be seen as both/yet in my estimation. The the production and control of narrativization, spectacle, information, and knowledge remains paramount, I think, when calling into being a people which has yet to be/come.

I apologize if I'm missing the mark by miles, here. It's not my intention to waste anyone's time (let alone Jodi's).


But a crowd is supposed to objectify the individual--take them out of themselves and turn into a mass; or is this the type of subjectivization you mean?

OTOH I can see what you might mean were you to be speaking in terms of juristic statism, wherein groups are given the status of subject-hood.

But isn't it this type of subjectivization that might open up the possibility for alternatives to the monolithic state as we currently understand it, a la Althusius?


Jodi, okay, last comment becuase I can't follow the comments of most people here. I've put up some excerpts of Illuminati's Unrepresentable Citizenship on my blog. It's mixed up with my own polemical thoughts but maybe it's something you'd be interested in. Keep well.




Hi Jodi,

You propose that the people are object, not subject, and argue against one leftist move of saying "no, they're not an object, they're really a subject!" I'm somewhat sympathetic here - with the rejection of vulgar cult studies "it's all resistance" - but I don't think your argument holds. Against that one leftist move, you seek to attack their evidence of resistance, asking "why, if all these folks are so political, they are not efficacious". That's an important question, but I think there are two problems.

First, you propose in relation to the people as object another group - elites, theorists, etc - as subject(s). You give this subject qualities as making efforts which "come up against the lump of the people" and therefore fail, because "the people disturb [the] best efforts" of this subject. But, your question against that leftist move applies just as well to these subjects that fail: "why, if all these [elites and theorists] are so political, they are not efficacious"? If the failure of the people's activities to be effective makes the people not a subject then why doesn't the failure of the elites and theorists etc correspondingly make them also not a subject? This group could just as well be "n ideal political object" who "stain everything they touch."

Second, bracketing the first, "efficaciously political" or "efficaciously a subject" is not the same as "political" or "a subject." Politics and subjects can fail without failing to be politics or subjects.

take care,

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