Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Jacques Rancière’s contribution to Lire le Capital has been unfortunately maligned. Even Rancière himself quickly repudiated it. The essay, titled “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy” was not included in the second edition of the collection and thus like Macherey’s piece it was left out of the translation. It was, however, eventually translated in a book in the Economy and Society series.

In critiquing Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, Rancière proposes that Marx’s text is governed by a series of amphipologies in which the economic meaning of a term fluctuates with a larger anthropological meaning. For example, value at times refers to a economic sense of the term, but it also refers to a larger anthropological sense, to be devalued is to be impoverished. The same could be said of poverty, exchange, and wealth, all of which fluctuate between a specific economic meaning and a larger anthropological meaning. It is the latter which ultimately determines the former.

I have been thinking about this general critical strategy, rather than the specific philosophy and politics of Althusser’s Marxism, in light of recent writing on the concept of the subject by Etienne Balibar and Nina Power. What both Balibar and power stress is that the subject is a concept overdetermined by multiple meanings: grammatical, ontological, political, etc. Much of the critique of the subject has taken ontology or a particular philosophical understanding of the subjet as central: individual subject of knowledge and representation. This can be seen in the odd elevation of Descartes to the status of the first and primary philosopher of the subject despite the fact that he never uses the term or its related problems. What is assumed in this is that the philosophical meaning determines the political meaning. Thus, against the genealogy that makes Descartes the culprit, Balibar suggests Kant as the first philosopher of the subject. This is in part more accurate, Kant uses the term, but it also reflects the overdetermination of the problem: Kant’s subject is an attempt to think the problematic unity of ethics, knowledge, and politics.

What is lost in this “critique of the subject” is any sense of the political dimension of the subject. Or, to put it in Power’s terms, that the individual subject, the Cartesian subject, may itself be effacing the project to construct a collective subject. There is thus something oddly conservative in the critique of the subject: the assumption that ideas, not actions, determine history, that philosophy is always primary to politics.

Finally, this suggests a new critical strategy, not a critique of the subject, or a revalorization of the subject. As if it is meaningful to be for or against the subject, but an examination of the way in which the subject is always situated at the intersection of multiple meanings, one of which is determinant. Despite the fact that Althusser is often guilty of the philosophical reduction, his ISA essay pretty much tries to reduce ideology to a diffuse Cartesianism, other texts, such as Sur la Reproduction make a different argument. In that manuscript (which the famous piece on ISAs is an excerpt of) Althusser argues that what defines bourgeois ideology is the centrality of a particular juridical-moral ideology. It is the ideology of the contract, which identifies everyone as an individual formally identical to others: “Freedom, equality, and Bentham.”

The “critique of the subject” is a necessary first step, it severs the connection that naturalized the subject, identifying the subject with the human animal. The next step is not to dispense with the subject, to move on to “bodies and powers,” but to examine the specific practices of subjectification. For example: I would argue that it is the economic subject that is now dominant, the subject of interest, the subject that calculates. Thus,rather than remain prisoner to one particular amphibology, in which it is the philosophical sense of the term that is dominant, it would be possible examine the different amphipologies, the different attempts to suture the subject to one meaning.

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