- The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy by Eric L. Santner
Eric Santner's The Weight of All Flesh is an ambitious and thought-provoking work that stages new conversations between psychoanalytic, biopolitical, Marxian and political-theological theories of subjectivity and sovereignty in order to offer a powerful account of life under contemporary capitalism. Expanded from Santner's Tanner lectures, delivered at Berkeley in April 2014, the book lays the groundwork for a political theory of the "flesh"—a "jointure of the somatic and the normative" (24) that sutures human bodies to the structures that enable them to make sense of their being in the world and motivate them to action. In keeping with both psychoanalytic and certain poststructuralist discussions of the relationship between bodies and body politic, this process of suturing produces a surplus—a "virtually real supplement" that "summon[s] on the scene … forms and practices of knowledge, power and administration" (23) tasked with managing the surplus and ensuring the continued maintenance of the body's link to communal Law. This treatment of the flesh emerges directly from Santner's previous work (23), and a lucid editorial introduction by Kevis Goodman, as well as Santer's preface, make this volume a superb starting point for those looking for a way in to Santner's overall intellectual itinerary.
Beyond extending the concept of flesh from his previous work, Santner's lectures develop a specific claim about the status of the flesh under capitalism. In The Royal Remains, Santner charted the transition from a theologico-political regime in which surplus libidinal investments were "concentrated in, enjoyed and embodied by the sovereign person" (24), i.e. the monarch, to a political economy where flesh appears as "a social substance materially abstracted from the busy body of labor" (27) and enjoyed and embodied through capitalist markets, liberal-democratic political organizations, and the uncanny anxieties characteristic of modern literature and aesthetics. Now, Santner explores the terrain of life after the death of the King's immortal body, providing a new genealogy of psychoanalysis, Marxian political economy, and biopolitical thought as "science[s]" of the royal remains and their visisscitudes (23). Santner's reading of these disparate literatures leads him to rapproachment [End Page 325] between signification and materiality—flesh under capitalism has a material, somatic dimension, but it is a "peculiar and often unnerving" one (23). Flesh's status as "remainder of processes of subject-formation" renders it both part and in excess of the bodies of the subjects from which it extrudes (23), partaking of the somatic weight of bodies as well as the slippage commonly ascribed to language. Like the strange movement of commodities described in vol. 1 of Marx's Capital, flesh describes an animation of the body in excess of itself which attaches that body's sense of coherence as a subject to the normative "pressure that drives the pursuit of the wealth of nations, that first turns the rational pursuit of ends into a drive" (43). At its core, Santner's work thus provides one of the best contemporary arguments for reading psychoanalysis as a diagnostic of life under capitalism, neglecting neither somatic nor incorporeal dimensions of contemporary subject formation. In its account of capitalism as emergent from the decayed libidinal economy of sovereignty, Santner also offers a provocative (though hardly fully developed or exhaustive) theory of why capitalism emerges when, where and with the particular motive force it does on the world stage.
Santner's diagnosis of the pressures informing subjectivity under capitalism leads him to an equally wide-ranging account of capitalist power as management of flesh. Unmoored from stable investment in the body of the king, free flesh (in Marx's sense of free labor) comes to be characterized by a "manic frugality" that embraces its contingency while also creating new forms of busy-ness that drive bodies to constant excitement and vigilant self-surveillance (48). Santner finds historical roots for the breakdown between work and free time under neoliberalism in the figure of...