- The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject by Irving Goh
There is no better indication of the failure of the practice of critical theory than the extent to which those who claim to be theorists remain attached to “the subject” and “subjectivity.” Regardless of the ways and the extent to which poststructuralism and deconstruction have fundamentally put into question its status, the subject remains incredibly resilient to critique; it is central to queer and affect theory, as well as to disability, gender, and race studies; and it is present in the work of the most revered and cited of contemporary thinkers.
In The Reject, Irving Goh not only traces the persistent presence of the subject in the work of Badiou (“the faithful subject of the event”), Rancière (“the uncounted subject”), Balibar (“the citizen-subject”), Rosi Braidotti (“the critical post-human subject”), and Katherine Hayles (“the flickering post-human subject”), he also provides clear and reasonable arguments as to why this presence poses serious problems for their respective attempts to think community, democracy, religion, love, friendship, the post-secular, and the post-human in wholly new ways. More important, through his brilliant theoretical conceptualization of “the reject,” Goh offers one of the most rigorous and carefully articulated responses to the question “who comes after the subject.” Jean-Luc Nancy posed that question thirty years ago in a letter to fellow continental philosophers. Their responses were published two years later in the journal Topoi, and subsequently in Who Comes After the Subject? (1991). Over the past 25 years, I have been struck by how little known this book has become. Thus we owe Goh a debt of gratitude for returning us to this groundbreaking volume and the seismic critical theoretical question it inaugurated.
Goh structures his discussion according to three distinct valences or “turns” of the reject, which can be defined as follows: “passive rejects” are those who are rejected (e.g. refugees, sex workers, black bodies, the indigenous, et al.); “active rejects” are those who reject others; and “auto-rejects” are those who ‘self-reject,’ by rejecting the a priori subjective autonomous and hypostatized self. While the first two rejects will be familiar to any reader, the originality of Goh’s argument—and hence the potential un-familiarity of its figure or image—lies in his conceptualization of the auto-reject. Not to be confused with any form of auto-critique, de-subjectivation or the nihilism of the abject, the auto-reject is predicated upon the a priori abandonment that is the originary force of existence. Singularities are born out of this abandonment of being to existence, thereby becoming the rejects that they are in relation to others. In its rejection of self, the auto-reject sustains this infinite abandonment, perhaps right up to the point at which neither the auto- nor the reject can be sustained.
Without being immune to being a passive or active reject, according to Goh, the auto-reject breaks their dialectical cycle by “keeping in mind that there is always the possibility that one is a reject in the eyes of others” (8), and thus in doing so, at times “sidestep[s] to an adjacent space” as a way to abandon any asserted self-positioning and effectively ‘get over itself.’ However, lest this be confused with some liberal acquiescence toward the other, Goh further specifies that this “shift or sidestepping to an adjacent space further requires that the auto-reject respect the other’s desire to not fill the space left by the auto-reject.” Thus Goh has outlined what might be described as a non-imperative ethics, one that is without demand (or obligation, responsibility, mutuality), or even an ethics conceived as infinitely demanding.
For one of his scenes, Goh turns to contemporary digital-network technologies and social media platforms in order to underline the extent to which the reject is the exact opposite of the subjective self or “selfie” produced by Instagram, Facebook, and the like. As he notes, the selfie subject as inward-solipsistic-me is the subject...