This essay draws on Judith Butler’s politically promising notion of a critical “desubjectivation” to examine the possibilities for agency and individual responsibility within the state of exception as staged in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Even though he ostensibly occupies a position of power in Empire, the novel’s Magistrate-narrator finds himself subordinated by an objectionable law. This raises a question: If, as individuals, we achieve social identity only through subjection to the dominant discourse, then what possibilities are there for opposing the workings of power? Moreover, to what extent are our individual ethics conditioned by dominant schemes of value that cast certain lives as ungrievable? Although the Magistrate, unlike Colonel Joll, realizes his complicity with the torturers of the Third Bureau, he misrecognises his interpellation and does not see himself as the subject of a law that casts barbarian lives as unworthy of mourning. The novel thus functions as a literary model for resisting power’s normative horizons and inaugurating the ethical principles of a future democracy based on the recognition of a shared precariousness of life.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 103-134
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.