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  • Life After the Subject
  • Christian P. Haines (bio) and Sean Grattan (bio)

In the introduction to the collection Who Comes After the Subject? (1991), Jean-Luc Nancy suggests that "the inaugurating decisions of contemporary thought … have all involved putting subjectivity on trial" (5). The subject—understood as a modern synthesis of the transcendental and the phenomenal, as a subsumption of otherness in self-identity, or as a disciplinary technology rendering the atomized individual the naturalized subjectum of thought and practice—becomes in contemporary thought a limit, rather than a foundation, a stumbling block, rather than an unquestioned standard of validity. We might say that what comes to define the contemporaneity of thought in the twentieth century is that the subject becomes artificial, contingent, perishable. However, Nancy insists that what occurs is not a "simple liquidation" of the subject, nor for that matter any "return to the subject," but rather "a move forwards toward someone—some one—else in its place" (ibid.). If there is a death of the subject in theory, this withering away, more than a descent into nothingness, is the inauguration of something else. Nancy ends his call not with a decisive claim but with a question: "Who would it be?" (ibid.).

It is Nancy's insistence on a who of subjectivity that our collection "What Comes After the Subject?" calls into question. For as Jacques Derrida worries in his contribution to that prior volume, "I would not want to see the 'who' restricted to the grammar of what we call Western language, nor even limited by what we believe to be the very humanity of language" (111). What Derrida's judicious remark suggests is a risk endemic to the critique of the subject: a return of the repressed in which the "after" in "who comes after the subject" marks less a departure than a pursuit, a submission in advance to the placeholder that Nancy designates as some one. Within this some one, there lurk myriad specters: the conflation of liberal personhood with subjectivity tout [End Page 1] court, the delineation of the social in terms of possessive individualism, the opposition between man and animal, and the reduction of the political to a question of identity. Put differently, the "who" risks sliding into a latent anthropocentrism, one that causes the subject to be reborn from its own ashes. This is, of course, to recognize the close proximity in the philosophy and criticism of the twentieth century between breaking with the subject and breaking with humanism, a proximity attested to by any number of thinkers.1 The "who" of Nancy's call risks forgetting this dangerous proximity. Indeed, we might say that it tends to render invisible the historically constituted and complex "whatness" of modern subjectivity.

Derrida is not the only contributor to Who Comes After the Subject? to explicitly raise objections to the question posed by Nancy. In "After What," Jacques Rancière offers an incisive critique of the project on the grounds of its temporality and epistemological premises. Rancière writes: "Do the themes of the end or the probably interminable death of the subject not live off the identification of any subjective schema with the archetypes of the subjectum or of the substantia? Is this identification of the 'subject' with the wrong schema of presence (and thus with the presence of evil) not an only-too-convenient manner of getting rid of the question of the present, that is to say, eliminating the question of reason as well?" (249). The periodization of our time as an epoch, or perhaps more accurately, an interregnum, in which we find ourselves suspended between, on the one hand, the fact that the subject can no longer be assumed, that it is irreparably tainted by its association with historical evils (the World Wars, the Holocaust, imperialism, patriarchy, homophobia, capitalism) and, on the other hand, the absence of another figure for thought, another privileged bearer of critical power, is itself, according to Rancière, an ideologically loaded theoretical operation. It amounts to "the interminable capitalization of a misfortune whose resolution is indefinitely suspended" (247). This capitalization as a function of time divides the world into night watchmen—the intellectual guardians who are...


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