The Sacrifice of Subjectivity: A Plea for Rethinking Literature and the Humanities
March 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
Note: In a recent faculty meeting I was reminded of this essay I wrote a while back. I hadn’t yet read Charles Taylor or anything about Political Theology, but looking back I see where I was developing the same core ideas I have about literary study today.
Tzvetan Todorov, in his 1968 Introduction to Poetics, writes:
there is not one science of literature, since, apprehended from different points of view, literature becomes the object of every other human science […] on the other hand, there is not a science of literature exclusively, for the features characterizing literature are to be found outside it, even if they form different combinations. The first impossibility relates to the laws of the discourse of knowledge; the second, to the particularities of the object studied. (71)
Todorov then goes on to say, “today there is no longer any reason to confine to literature alone the type of studies crystallized in poetics: we must know ‘as such’ not only literary texts but all texts, not only verbal production but all symbolism.” Poetics unattached to the study of “literary works” alone thus takes on a “transitional role” which then requires “the investigation of the reasons that caused us to consider certain texts, at certain periods, as ‘literature’” (72). Poetics is called upon “to sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge.”
That Todorov chose to end his Introduction to Poetics with a statement about the contemporary nature of poetics itself speaks to a temporal engagement with discourse, as well as implying a stance for the student of his book to occupy. How does a discourse sacrifice itself? It must be through a kind of dissemination, otherwise it would merely be suicide. Can a discourse perform seppuku [ritual self-sacrifice]? Does it not need accolades and altar servers – adhvaryu, hotr and udgatr [in Vedic priesthood respectively: altar builder and land-surveyor; reciter of invocations; chanter of melodies from the samaveda]? Who performs the initiation for those servers and priests? And would not the “altar of general knowledge” be a kind of secularization? With hindsight, Todorov’s arguments were prescient for both poetics and literary study in the late twentieth century. Time has shown through the rise of Cultural Studies and the historical turn in Literary Studies that Todorov was on to something. In the disciplinary sphere of American universities, one wonders if English departments might do better to call themselves departments of poetics. For, increasingly, national literatures are not taught as such, and semiotics transcends traditional notions of language. This is highlighted by the increase in studies of visual rhetoric. In Communication Studies departments, graduate students teach “Performance Literature” courses, where students read and act out their interpretations of literary works – something perceived as being in-between Theatre Studies and drama classes in English Departments. This is, at least partly, a reaction to a page-based conception of literature that has dominated literature departments.
However, I tend to see this also as a move ignoring and discrediting professional knowledge too subtle for the politics of intellectual fads. While Todorov says, “it is not certain that this fate [of poetics] is to be regretted” (27) – and indeed the broadened conception of what is regarded as literature has accompanied more complex and diverse discursive ideologies – I believe there is something to be regretted by the view that literature has no “essence,” at least insofar as this relates to the study of literature. This is an apparently conservative statement; but it is a statement I make in political opposition to powers that would dismantle literature departments because of a perceived lack of an object of study, not because I disagree with the turns literary study has taken since Todorov. Without bemoaning the perpetual “crisis in the humanities,” I would like here to speculate on what I perceive to be larger issues which inform even Todorov’s study.
Todorov is one of many mid-twentieth century thinkers who articulate opinions on these issues. More than the content of his work, I am interested in the way he thinks. With this I would like to meditate on Todorov’s idea that poetics must “sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge” as a general questioning of subject-object relationships that is a recurring theme in twentieth-century theory. I am avoiding the term “nominalism” for the moment, but I at least want to invoke it. Instead of speculating on the origins of this tension here, I want to discuss key ways the tension appears and is challenged through a discussion of the disappearing ‘subject.’ The “sacrifice” of poetics which Todorov refers to is merely part of an ongoing sacrifice of the subject which accompanies the difficult problem of addressing theory and criticism outside the authority of any ‘subject.’
Continental thought has played a significant role in both the development and documentation of the disappearance of the subject. The “modern subject” is itself a figure within the western conception of history, occupying a certain role in cultural imaginary space. The term “modern” implies an historical shift, yet to make any claim about a shift in the “nature” of subjectivity implies a container for the concept of “subject,” as well as the ability to theoretically arrive at a vantage point for perceiving such a container. It implies an instantiation, which becomes documented in the Enlightenment. It implies a metaphysical understanding. And it is through the various Enlightenment projects’ documentation that the metaphysical stance apparently lost its invisibility. The positivistic claim for the “end” of metaphysics marks its own philosophical demise. The awakening from dogmatic slumber produces a neurotic insomnia. This led to the return to the question of first philosophy, as attempted by Heidegger.
How can one discuss the subject? What is “thrust-under”? How does one speak of the “ground” of being? The ontological argument gives way to an epistemological argument. What does it mean to be unless one “knows” one is? Yet even to discuss the knowing that one is evidences the dogma of modernism. For what is “thrust-under” the modern subject is the state, the estate, the status of the subject, and thus it may be that the disappearing subject coincides with the disappearing state.
Robert B. Pippin has argued that modernism is distinguished by a shift from the classical notion of “the peaceful contemplation of the order of the cosmos, and the human being within such a cosmos” to when, “starting roughly with Machiavelli, this notion was rejected in favor of a different conception of the end of human life – ‘lower,’ but given the right techne, achievable – the satisfaction of the passions” (5). Thus, for Pippin, the modern subject relies on autonomous self-determination, and the post-modern suggests the failure of freedom, self-determination, and autonomy – or, at least a more complex approach to that narrative.
The difficulty of even referring to something like a subject illustrates the current ‘state’ of theory that is radically bound to an historical narrative. “How does one think?” becomes an important question, not just as a method but as a possibility. Poetics remains useful given this ‘state of the subject’ because it is more useful to discuss the subject as a literary figure produced by a culturally imaginative space, rather than the essential container for being, which does not mean that the subject as a figure does not diminish its ability to produce effects in the world. The subject is itself a fiction, but fiction remains important. The modern subject is an extremely neurotic character. In contrast, the postmodern subject borderlines on psychotic behavior; it is a matter of locating reality.
Alasdair MacIntyre has characterized this problematic state in his Gifford Lectures: Three Rival Conceptions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Stepping aside from the jargon of postmodernism, MacIntyre says that these three modes of discourse in contest with each other must be addressed in order to deliberate on what might be salvageable in terms of theory. He discusses the Enlightenment-driven epistemology of the Encyclopedia Britannica as an outdated commitment to a narrow definition of rationality. Genealogy, beginning with Nietzsche, according to MacIntyre, “proposed an abandonment of theory” (49), for the gaze of theory relies on a centered perspective which is itself an impossibility.
The problem then for the genealogist is how to combine the fixity of particular stances, exhibited in the use of standard genres of speech and writing, with the mobility of transition from stance to stance, how to assume the contours of a given mask and then to discard it for another, without ever assenting to the metaphysical fiction of a face which has its own finally true and undiscardable representation, whether by Rembrandt or in a shaving-mirror. Can it be done? (47)
Certainly not with a fixed subject. Michel Foucault, MacIntyre says, takes up this task. But even in his counter-memory, there is a reliance on the “official” memory with which to counter. Countering displays the constructed nature of the “official” narrative, unfixing its central hold. Yet implied is the allegiance to some sort of liberated subject, itself oxymoronic.
According to MacIntyre, the “traditional” moral enquiry of Aquinas and Augustine is in tension with the encyclopedic and the genealogical. It builds, not from just an authority of God, but that there is an implicit agreement to external authority before a subject begins to learn. The pupil is already enculturated. The text reads the pupil as much as the pupil reads – and ultimately transforms – with the text. Encyclopedic knowledge, in the Kantian tradition sees the traditional enquiry as dogmatic. Similarly, “the genealogical accusation is not just that theism is false because it requires the truth of realism, but that realism is inherently theistic” (67). Thus, each version of moral enquiry is at odds with the other two.
MacIntyre reads the three rival positions in terms of narrative and suggests Dante may have had an answer: “narrative prevails over its rivals which is able to include its rivals within it, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its story, but to tell the story of the telling of the stories as episodes” (81). Thus again, temporality and its relationship to narrative becomes quite important. Not only is the question “How does one think?” but that ‘how’ suggests something temporal.
I, however, see the simultaneity of all three enquiries’ narratives, along with Todorov’s claims, as evidencing a disembodying of subjectivity itself, unfolding through history. It is not just that poetics must “sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge” (Todorov 72), but that the situating of literature as “the object of every other human science” (71) is itself a critical and theoretical disavowing of positionality to begin with. I do not claim that Todorov is wrong to disavow a critical stance; but that time ‘has shown’ he was right to do so – perhaps even fated to do so – in terms of the narrative of the disappearing subject.
A tension arises between a conception of narrative as a completed form versus narrative as an ongoing dialectic deliberating on fate. That is, narrative as politically motivated. The rapid growth in serial television shows and novels – especially Young Adult Novels – illustrates the cultural tendency to move toward the tales reminiscent of Scheherazade, as Foucault and others have suggested. Are these serializations attempts to preserve the life of the subject, as Scheherazade preserves her own life? Yet even Scheherazade is a sacrifice as she puts herself in the place of the last virgin.
In the western tradition, the subject sacrifices itself as well. One might go back to the public demands that Dickens rewrite the end to Great Expectations, and the author’s acquiescence as a political concession, itself a sacrifice of authority and subjectivity. Or one could read the radical empiricism of the phenomenologists similarly. Here, modernist aesthetics appear to be the aesthetics of failure. So, attributing the failure of an autonomous subject as a postmodern critique of modernism appears a bit unfounded, hence the claims similar to Bruno Latour’s that modernity itself never existed. Another way to think of this using Todorov’s terms would be to ask: Is the sacrifice of poetics the result of an aesthetics based on the un-makeable, or is it rather the failed attempt “to make”? For whether Latour is right to claim that nature, society and discourse are all intertwined, there is a fairly clear aesthetic documentation of modern works which should be understood even if only as misconceptions. What we would need is a history of the aesthetics of failure.
Artistic failure appears to be ‘product’ of liberalism. Bourgeois failure is present in European criticism, art, and literature as the disappearing subject. Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education argue that “in the universe from which the author has deleted himself but remains, like Spinoza’s god, immanent and co-extensive with his creation – it is here that we find Flaubert’s point of view” (211). Blanchot on Kafka in The Space of Literature, evidence this.
For art is linked, precisely as Kafka is, to what is “outside the world, and it expresses the profundity of this outside bereft of intimacy and of repose – this outside which appears even with ourselves, even with our death, we no longer have relations of possibility. Art is conscious of “this misfortune.” It describes the situation of one who has lost himself, who can no longer say “me,” who in the same movement has lost the world, the truth of the world, and belongs to exile, to the time of distress when, as Holderlin says, the gods are no longer and are not yet.” (75)
Gregor Samsa, no longer human, no longer able to care for his family, scurries away. Adorno’s Minima Moralia is similar: “what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will. Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people. Rilke’s prayer for ‘one’s own death’ is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out” (233). The subject ceases to matter.
Adorno shows his critical theory roots here, as he echoes Max Weber’s warning at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argues in his final chapter that a Protestant, and particularly Puritan mode of being, “favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important part, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life. It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man” (117). From this he argues that one of the most fundamental aspects of “the spirit of modern capitalism” and modern culture is “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, [which] was born […] from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (122-123). He ends his book lamenting “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” saying,
this order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born in this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. (123)
The technical rationality, or to use the term of his critical theorist descendants, instrumental reason, out-reasons the modern rational subject. But it also predicts the necessity for environmental conservation, which in 2011 is touted as the savior of the economically failing enlightenment project: The United States.
Critical theory after Weber thus attempted to refuse a kind of rationality and positivism that, in the theorist’s terms, erased the human subject. With the failure of critical theory is the failure of humanism. If the larger biological organism of the earth is then to determine the fate of humanity, indeed to survive humans must become superhuman. Humanity must, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, expand into the body of technology itself, where the wheels of the car become one’s feet. Critical theorists’ attempts parallel MacIntyre’s account of a genealogical enquiry into morals, with which Nietzsche had claimed the death of God. However, embracing irrationality here is a deliberative political move (even for Nietzsche), with its own consideration of human freedom. This grappling with the possibility of doing theory continued throughout the twentieth century. By the late 1960s, Adorno had become quite pessimistic about the ability to do critical theory; in 1963, Marcuse still had a little hope. In One Dimensional Man, he cites the following passage by Maurice Blanchot as he describes the Great Refusal against one-dimensional society.
What we refuse is not without value or importance. Precisely because of that, the refusal is necessary. There is a reason which we no longer accept, there is an appearance of wisdom that horrifies us, there is a plea for agreement and conciliation we will no longer heed. A break has occurred. (Blanchot in Marcuse 256)
Marcuse’s optimism comes from his belief in the power of a collective refusal, the “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” of Paddy Chayefski’s Network. The tension here pulls between refusal and failure, but it is still a rational refusal as well. There is a way that Blanchot’s statement as framed by Marcuse enacts something like Freud’s reality principle.
Read in this way, the refusal is a willed failure, or the will to power is perhaps its own sacrifice – the ingestion of the soma. The willed failure is the failure of Art pour l’art. For Flaubert, failure is a kind of refusal. Bourdieu argues:
During this period, the opposition between art and money, which structures the field of power, is reproduced in the literary field in the opposition between ‘pure’ art, symbolically dominant but economically dominated – poetry, that exemplary incarnation of ‘pure’ art is not saleable – and commercial art (185)
In Bourdieu’s analysis, art inverts the economy, creating symbolic capital in opposition to material capital. The modern artist is at once ultimately alienated from labor and disseminated through the work to the point of invisibility. It is this self-deletion of perspective that criticism itself follows with Todorov’s idea of the necessity for poetics to sacrifice poetics.
There is a narrative of erasure in modern art from the flaneur’s privileged and invisible position to the crumbling of European society which appears both in Artaud’s discussions of plague in The Theatre and Its Double and Camus’ Plague. European civilization is for them infested, and the plague brings with it an earlier, medieval worldview. This is especially true with Camus, whose plague anonymously brings an unconcerned fate to its characters. The device of the plague increases the characters’ anxiety and in a way situates the characters through a Heideggerrean existential care (Sorge). Homer’s gods are absurd to Heidegger because they care and desire, which for him is only a characteristic of a mortal who is being toward death. The device of the plague allows Camus to produce a cosmology where nature is the anonymous and unappeasable god, and human action must be taken up for other than religious reasons. In a sense this emphasis on action embodies French existentialism’s “last gasp” of humanism, the subject matters to Camus, and it’s possible to see this in his calling Mersault from The Stranger, “the only Christ we deserve.” This would appear then to be an instantiation of the subject rather than its erasure. However, in the larger narrative I am constructing, the French existential subjectivity merely attempts to disqualify religion as a governing force, which says more about French society in the twentieth century than anything else. Camus’ humanism is just the attempt to secularize politics.
French existentialists maintain a Cartesian subject-object duality both in their philosophy and their literature. Sartre’s Nausea disseminates the subject into the landscape, melts the prison of the body but absurdly keeps subjectivity throughout the melting. Still, he goes further than Camus in erasing subjectivity – and closer to Heidegger and Levinas. For Heidegger, the impossibility of subject-object splits is the crux of ontology. Heidegger developed this view from his early work on Duns Scotus, where he found that for people writing before the Renaissance, there was an inversion of meaning between subject and object. It was the exact opposite of the moderns’ characteristic of the duality. What this evidences is the internalizing of the world by modern humans. It is the development of a subjectivity where perception is a prison-house. This perception is itself built from humanism and then radicalized by liberalism during the Enlightenment. It is also a product of the sacrifice of the monotheistic deity.
The modern state was early on conceived as a body, and the first use of “the body politic” appears in late medieval English writing. Foucault has famously accounted for the way decentralized government structures are replaced by civic institutions which then govern liberal subjectivity through dynamic and discursive disciplinary power. Foucault’s lesson is partly that subjectivity is itself a sham if one is thinking of it in terms of the possibility of freedom. Subjectivity has rather been a device developed by certain societies to negotiate and channel power. Another example of this would be Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, in which he describes in detail the history of mathematical statistics during the 19th century, and how through the use of census techniques and statistics a behavioral normalcy was produced for western society for the first time, thus eroding an earlier sense of determinism. The social construct of behavioral normalcy now enforces a governing power over liberal subjects who see tamed indeterminacy as human freedom. Foucault’s late lectures produce the term “governmentality.” This term itself evidences a kind or erasing of subjectivity, and because Foucault’s thinking has been so influential in terms of how we study in the university, I will go into detail describing these lectures.
Foucault begins “Governmentality” by asserting that between the 16th century and the 18th century, a discourse developed on the art of governing. This discourse reveals tensions as state governments gradually began to replace monarchies, or, to use Foucault’s terms, the prince’s principality. The problem of how to govern oneself, children, a state, and how to be governed, both by state and by religious beliefs and institutions is complex. Foucault locates the problem of government
At the crossroads of two processes: the one which, shattering the structures of feudalism, leads to the establishment of the great territorial, administrative and colonial states; and that totally different movement which, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, raises the issue of how one must be spiritually ruled and led on this earth in order to achieve eternal salvation. (87-88)
As a way to simplify his explanation, Foucault focuses on the centrality of a text, Machiavelli’s The Prince, in the discourse on the art of governing up to the beginning of the 19th century. He notes that initial reception of the work was positive. There was then criticism of it in multiple ways: some criticizing the impossibility of an art of governing or a rationalized state, some completely rejected Machiavelli, others were able to validate parts of the work. Foucault then claims, “the essential thing is that they attempted to articulate a kind of rationality which was intrinsic to the art of government, without subordinating it to the problematic of the prince and of his relationship to the principality of which he is lord and master (89). This problematic of the prince’s relationship to his principality is partly the fact that, for Machiavelli, the prince transcends his own governance. He is above the law, and his role is to maintain his sovereignty against numerous outside threats at any cost. The knowledge of how to maintain this power is the “art” of governance.
Foucault then moves on to analyze some the works that react to The Prince. First, he discusses Guillame de La Perriere’s Miroir Politique, which defines governing not just in terms of politics, but also in terms of governing “a household, souls, children, a province, a convent, a religious order, a family” (90). There are thus multiple “lower” forms of government at play within the prince’s sovereignty that are different than the prince because of the prince’s ability to transcend his own sovereignty. Foucault then goes on to cite La Mothe Le Vayer in order to boil down these multiple forms of government into three essential categories: “the art of self-government, connected with morality; the art of properly governing a family, which belongs to economy; and finally the science of ruling the state, which concerns politics” (91). Politics represents a special place in this triad, again because of the prince’s ability to transcend principality.
Foucault uses the evidence he has provided to make a distinct claim between a juridical theory of sovereignty, where the prince must maintain an essential difference between all of his subjects, and the newly emerging art of governing which sought to create continuity rather than difference between the political and other forms of government. This continuity takes both an upwards and downwards direction. The upward continuity says an individual must be capable of self-governance and family economy before being able to govern well politically. Thus, there is a tradition (actually preceding the Renaissance in writers like Horace) of educating the prince in moral and artistic refinement. These pedagogies, essentially humanist – though Foucault doesn’t use this term – are important for the period. The downward continuity is characterized by the notion that an effectively run state will provide a stable familial hierarchy. A well run family is indicative of a well run state, and the essential term here is economy, with its Greek roots in the running of the household.
Foucault pivots on the term “economy” here toward a more developed argument. The art of government then, “is essentially concerned with answering the question of how to introduce economy – that is to say, the correct manner of managing individuals, goods and wealth within the family […] how to introduce the meticulous attention of the father towards his family into the management of the state” (92). Foucault then takes this idea of economy as related to family governance, which he traces to Rousseau, and then applies it to the state / political level, saying the art of government is “introduction of economy into political practice […] which means exercising toward its inhabitants, and the wealth and behavior of each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and goods.” The term economy becomes intimately tied to government over the next couple of hundred years. Foucault claims that while in the sixteenth century, economy was a type of government, by the eighteenth century it designated a “level of reality, a field of intervention, through a series of complex processes that I regard as absolutely fundamental to our history” (93).
Foucault then returns to La Perriere to discuss government as “the right disposition of things” (93). While for Machiavelli it is the prince’s control of the land and everything in it that precedes his sovereignty over his subjects, for La Pierre, “one governs things. But what does this mean? I do not think this is a matter of opposing things to men, but rather of showing that what government has to do with is not territory but rather a sort of complex composed of men and things.” Foucault uses a metaphor of a ship and the captain responsible for both the crew and cargo as well as for avoiding catastrophes such as weather and storms. Call Foucault Ishmael. Essentially, territory or property becomes one of many things to be governed, rather than the thing that is governed which makes everything in it subject to governance.
This leads Foucault to make a distinction between sovereignty and government. Whereas sovereignty is circular – the common good is maintained by obeying the law – government is defined in terms of a common good which “is ‘convenient’ for each of the things that are to be governed” (95). Laws lose precedence to tactics. Effective governance is done through management rather than force. He goes on to synthesize:
In the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the art of government first finds its form of crystallization, organized around the theme of reason of state, understood not in the negative and pejorative sense we give it today […] but in a full and positive sense: the state is governed according to the rational principles which are intrinsic to it and which cannot be derived solely from natural or divine laws or the principles of wisdom and prudence; the state, like nature, has its own proper form of rationality, albeit of a different sort. Conversely, the art of government, instead of seeking to found itself in transcendental rules, a cosmological model or a philosophic-moral ideal, must find the principles of its rationality in that which constitutes the specific reality of the state. (97)
He then claims that this “reason of state” was a problem in the development of the state until the eighteenth century, for many different reasons, mainly military, political and economic tensions during the seventeenth century. He also cites the development of “mental or institutional structures” developing during that century, simultaneously connecting his present work to works he was famous for such as Madness and Civilization. Mercantilism contained the seeds of the new art of government, but it was still controlled by the sovereign and acted by way of the sovereign’s laws, thus reinforcing the sovereign’s power and wealth rather than distributing “convenience.” Contract theory, i.e. Hobbes and Rousseau, was also an important step in moving away from strict sovereignty toward an art of government by emphasizing an agreement between sovereign and subjects, but according to Foucault the formulation of an art of government was still in its rudimentary stages (99).
The art of government was able to emerge through a combination of factors during the eighteenth century. Essential are the factors of agricultural expansion and population growth, both which contributed to the shift of the notion of economy away from its ties to family structure alone. In combination with the “rationality of the state” as determined by “statistics,” mercantilism moved away from financial support for the sovereign and upholding the sovereign’s law, merged with the science of economics in the broadened sense of the term, and eventually replaced juridical sovereignty. The notion of population replaced the notion of family as the model for economy. Family becomes an instrument of the state rather than a model (100). It is the elimination of family as model that solidifies the move toward an art of government. This is the birth of the science of Political Economy, and the role of the government becomes in all aspects the regulation of population, territory, and wealth – essentially economy.
At this point in his lecture, Foucault retouches on a previous lecture where he had mentioned that his next lecture would touch on the importance of the concept of population. Thus, while he started this lecture with the prince and government, we now see he has fulfilled an earlier promise. He also mentions that following lectures will more fully explore early forms of state rationality (99). He also emphasizes that sovereignty continues to play a significant role throughout the process of the emerging art of government. He claims “in reality, one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has as its primary target the population and its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security” (102).
Foucault concludes his lecture by asserting the wish to rename his entire lecture series with the term “governmentality,” which he goes on to define as an “ensemble” of “institutions, procedures, analyses, and reflections, the calculations and tactics which allow exercise of this very explicit albeit complex form of power,” the general tendency in the West to move toward this type of power over time, and the result of moving from the state of justice to an administrative state since the fifteenth century (103).
Foucault then moves on to comment on his own kairotic moment, saying that people have a tendency to think of the idea of a state as a unified structure which is essentially a myth: “the state is no more than a composite reality and a mythicized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think. Maybe what is really important for our modernity – that is, for our present – is not so much the etatisation of society, as the ‘governmentalization’ of the state” (103). Foucault calls for more explication of the formation of governmentality and leaves off by mentioning that further lectures will explore foundations in Christian pastoral life, diplomatic-military techniques, and the police.
Foucault’s work itself complicates the subject-object split I characterized earlier as Cartesian with the French existentialists. It also complicates the sovereign-subject, ruler-ruled disvision, and with it the notion that consciousness can be deterministic. After the trap of subjectivity here is the inescapable sociality. One cannot but be civic. This is an erasure of the myth of subjectivity. It is also a sacrifice of subjectivity.
There are two narratives at work here. There is the narrative of the sacrifice of the God, then King, then sovereign which disseminates into a populace of liberal individuals who set up social structures to govern themselves, allowing for the greatest pursuit of individual freedom. The social institutions themselves disseminate the centralized power of government, replacing it with a complex apparatus which completes the sacrifice of the government and ushers in deinstitutionalization. On the flipside, the liberal subject becomes objectified by the deinstitutionalized apparatus and governed by a rationalized normalcy imposed by a culture of statistics. Thus, Ian Hacking claims:
Ethics is in part the study of what we do. Probability cannot dictate values, but it now lies at the basis of all reasonable choice made by officials. No public decision, no risk analysis, no environmental impact, no military strategy can be conducted without decision theory couched in terms of probabilities. By covering opinion with a veneer of objectivity, we replace judgment by computation. (4)
The hypocrisy of liberal politics is the appeal to an outmoded myth of subjectivity: “Joe the plumber,” who must be reified as an “actual person” who is then disseminated into media culture like the women of the Real Housewives series. Or the construction of “main street” urban living spaces and Home Depots to reconstruct suburbia in the image of the myth of private property. These are not just pejorative myths, and I am not just descrying crass commercialism; they are the fables of our times and they speak to a resurgence of need for literary criticism and poetics – thus both the making of and the reception of literary works should be the business of literature departments.
Todorov was right that poetics sacrifices itself on the altar of general knowledge, but that discursive sacrifice is part of the sacrifice of subjectivity itself, and the character of the modern subject must be studied as a fictional character. Modern aesthetics, as I have argued, tell a narrative of failure, first with characters such as Frederick in A Sentimental Education or Pip in the first ending of Great Expectations; but later through the sacrifice of the author in Foucault and Barthes’ criticism. The death of the author, like the death of God, is merely the documentation of a poetics of failure. One does not “make” anymore; one attempts alchemy.
The avant-garde literature of the twentieth century performs the sacrifice of the subject. Consider the shift from Eliot’s deferential Prufrock to Zukofsky’s A, to Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and the processual nature of the New York School. Consider the rise of what is (stupidly) called “creative non-fiction” and memoir which positions the subject amid its kairotic moment to amplify a connection to culture, land, or history. Consider the growth of mythical and supernatural space in fiction during the latter half of the twentieth century, the replacement of the male hero with the female or in some way “other.” The politics of a feminism or gender theory that seeks to see a greater representation of females or “people of color” is the politics of the sacrifice of the modern subject, and thus those politics should recognize the reverence they inherently give to that sacrificial subject and that the substitution of the other in the narrative center is the substitution of Scheherazade for other virgins. Or, in another way, the sacrifice of the nuclear family accompanies the sacrifice of the state. That “civil unions” become a transitional epithet for same-sex marriage is laughable for its polite adherence to a nostalgia for a patriarchal state which has long-since been sacrificed and disseminated into a state of perpetual violence. Terrorism and infinite war are the perfect answer for a society hell-bent on sacrifice. The cutter, the anorexic and the suicidal perform the irony of violence toward an outmoded conception of subjectivity. Ghosts committing suicide.
Perhaps only a bit less hyperbolic is the French idea that writing itself is death. The writer or poet, imposing measure, performs his or her own death (Derrida 25; Blanchot 37) – at least in a liberal society. Writers such as Don Cupitt, in Mysticism after Modernity exalt French poststructural writers as the mystics of our time, claiming that intentionally passive mysticism is a postmodern answer to a corrupt and unjust society, invoking an anarchism of mysticism against outmoded liberal institutions. He claims that “in terms of the classic binary oppositions around which our culture was formerly constructed, the word spirituality is the opposite of temporality” (27). Cupitt’s reliance on text as writing perhaps displays a limited and essentially modern hermeneutics:
Mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not ‘immediate experience,’ that Modern fiction. Many or most mystics have been persecuted by the orthodox, but whoever heard of someone being persecuted for having heretical experiences? To get yourself persecuted, you have to publish heretical views; and at your trial for them your judges will need evidence of them in writing. Indeed, unless mysticism were a literary tradition of veiled protest, we’d never have heard of it. (62-3)
Cupitt’s reliance on writing as a visual text locates him in the modernist conception of document-based identity. He has not sufficiently considered Todorov’s claim that today “we must know ‘as such’ not only literary texts but all texts, not only verbal production but all symbolism” (71). If death is the result of signification, if the author erases self as he or she creates, then the author goes the way of the Judeo-Christian God.
This has become the western conception through its own hubris. The authentic gesture of the rational subject demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself. As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces Chronos, God as time. Modernity claims the “death of god,” but closely following is the “death of humanism.” These phrases annihilate the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors. We reify ourselves through writing ourselves online, in photographs, through the merging of plain people and celebrity. In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the western human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament. Post-colonial studies is itself a furthering of this sense of depravity, and as such has held a position in western universities. Even if we consider Derrida’s treatment of Rousseau’s rational writing in Of Grammatology or Foucault’s discussion in Madness and Civilization of madness replacing Death in the Renaissance, we see the same tendency.
Secularization maintains the necessity for sacrifice by disseminating the sacrifice of the goat to each civic individual. Contemporary society is perpetually violent because there is nothing sufficiently violent to ward-off violence, except maybe a nuclear attack or a “natural disaster.” It becomes increasingly hard to tell what the difference between a natural disaster and an unnatural one would be, as the recent tsunami in northern Japan has shown. Heidegger’s claim that “only a God can save us” is empty when human and God are the same and creative potential canceled out. This is the current state of the university.
Alasdair MacIntyre, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition argues for a new kind of university lecture, where rival versions are placed alongside each other. He claims the only way for the university to defend itself against the claim by outsiders that it is itself a failure is to present the university as a space for conflict (234). Ian Hacking has claimed, “Probability cannot dictate values, but it now lies at the basis of all reasonable choice made by officials” (4). It is the external gaze of these “officials,” themselves the product of a socially constructed gaze of normalcy which sees the incommensurable moral debates of the university as evidencing the institution’s failure. Failure, as I have discussed, has in some ways been the goal of modern aesthetics and therefore also of the study of those aesthetics and so the critics too. But failure need not be characterized as the end, but as the transference of energy and power itself; it is the transference of sacrifice. The necessity for the continued study of literature and the humanities is not necessarily to find the one intrinsic value, but to find ways of examining and documenting value itself, which after Foucault is conceived as inherently dynamic. So, while Todorov was certainly onto something when he suggested the sacrifice of poetics itself, we now have the opportunity to follow the blood and entrails of that sacrifice through a new form of divination. It is this divinatory aspect of hermeneutics, itself ancient, which has recently been neglected in literary study in favor of historicism, but it is birthed from that historicism itself. The difficulty will be one of coherency. It is not that theory is undoable or irrelevant. Theory can no longer be located by sight alone, nor is its object anything but the imaginary.
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Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln, U of Nebraska P, 1982.
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Cupitt, Don. Mysticism after Modernity. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.
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Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller. Great Britain: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
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MacIntyre, Alasdair. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 1990.
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