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February 15, 2013


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Elisabeth Szanto/Tom Canel

I think that part of a Lacanian answer would lie in this: the subject's self-identification as an individual self is firstly based on the imaginary misrecognition inherent in the mirror phase, while identification of the subject with a collective entity would first of all be symbolically grounded. The mirror phase occurs before immersion into the symbolic; so individual identification (narcissism of the ego if you like) tends to feel more primordial and deeply rooted than identifications as a collective. This does not preclude the individual being interpreted symbolically as being a social individual, with claims on, and obligations to collective entities. But that would probably not satifsy true communists.

ps. Thanks Jodi for your really interesting writings. I learn so much from them, even if I sometimes disagree.


I think this is a very challenging discussion. But I wonder if you risk losing something important in dismissing the "happy story of modernity" to quickly? Specifically, one of the true accomplishments of modernity is the emphasis on individual autonomy, that one is not determined by tradition or one's place in society. Of course Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are among the "masters of suspicion" who have complicated this narrative, but they do not do away with it. It seems to me that a communism worthy of our allegiance is one that incorporates individual autonomy with a collective sense of a common good. And that this tension is not easily overcome by recognizing that neoliberalism over-emphasizes individual freedom.

Is there a sense in which the subject is both individual and collective?

Jodi Dean

Tom--I don't think that collective is less primordial. On the contrary, if we follow Freud (Totem and Taboo, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego) the group comes first. Narcissism is a weird kind of problem, which should be read as an account of the failure of individuation. Lacan takes separation to be a challenge, a problem insofar as the infant first experiences a primary unity with the mother.

Alain--that's what modernity says its achievement is (autonomy, non determination). But is that true? Or is a story of the desubjectification of the group, its fragmentation, the separation of people so that they are thrown up as independent sources of exploitable labor? I doesn't make sense to me to think that any one of us is autonomous in the sense of being able to determine our lives; everything is outside our control. Collectively, though, we can determine our conditions.


It seems to me that we only have a consciousness of what self determination might be because of the values of modernity. That this constellation also offers us up as exploitable labor is also true. That is in fact the paradox of being modern - the promise of autonomy inextricably linked to the reality of wage slavery. But I disagree that exploitable labor precludes the promise of freedom. In fact it is a prerequisite for the consciousness of real freedom. And it seems that communism has to address both individual liberty and our collective ability to determine the conditions for freedom. Ignoring individual liberty doesn't make any less essential.

Jodi Dean

Alain--the question is whether individual autonomy is the measure of freedom. It seems to me that anything that makes us want to balance individual and collective or reconcile individual and collective continues to think in terms of an opposition. This opposition is premised on the sense that something like individuality or individual personhood is clear, makes sense, doesn't rely on a fantasy. It's not the same, then, as beginning from a position where there are open collectivities with mobile and differentiated components.


I guess I don't assume that personhood or individuality is clear. In fact I think the individual is a contested concept just as the collective or the commons is contested. Whether it is a fantasy in the ordinary sense or a psychoanalytic sense - I don't know. But since we do not start from a position of multiple collectivities, at least as I understand the contemporary situation in the United States, I don't how you ignore the notion of an autonomous individual when engaging in politics, either theoretically or politically. I have read a great deal of your commentary on the Occupy movement, and among your criticisms is that its notion of consensus relied on a fetishizing of the individual. My experience with it confirms this. But it still doesn't makes sense that because the neoliberal suject is largely a fiction that you would dismiss the notion we have of ourselves as individuals, in this time and place. Its funny that we are having this disagreement at this moment. I really admire what your recent work has tried to sketch out - how to think communism at this moment, with all the risks and barriers it entails. I just don't think dismissing the fantasy of the autonomous subject eliminates the problem. Even from a strategic point of view, how do you convince people who conceive of themselves in this way to join or sympathize with a movement that tells them their sense of autonomy is a fiction. While it is obvious to everyone that we have no freedom in terms of the decisions that really matter in our economic lives, most of us (myself included) still believe that individual freedom is an essential part of our self consciousness. Even if this self understanding ends up being transitional, you can't ignore its reality. If you do I don't see how you can work toward anything that has an effect in the world.

As always, thanks for your willingness to engage.

Jodi Dean

Hi Alain -- I appreciate the exchange (it's very helpful as I work this out). We do begin from multiple collectivities--families, neighborhoods, religious groups, races, sexes, ethnicities, classes, professions, fan groups, states, etc. I'm not ignoring the autonomous individual: I'm trying to break the grip of the idea of one, to remind people of the way that we already experience it as fictitious, unstable, a failure, a blindspot that hinders us from acknowledging the way we are never complete or individuated but always deeply connected. So, I'm not dismissing the fantasy, I'm actually occupying it -- and pushing this line of argument is how I'm trying to break the hold of the fantasy on people's ways of thinking. It's not hard to realize how unfree any individual actually is.

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