After the Subject

Anders Johansson


In the introduction to Minima Moralia (1951) Theodor Adorno reflects on the dubious choice to set out from the (bourgeois) subjective experience. Adorno defends his enterprise, arguing (with and against Hegel) that what is disappearing is historically essential. Today the subject is the obvious point of departure not only for aphoristic philosophy, but also for literature and art in general, and even academic research. Autobiographical fiction has become so frequent that it is hard to find counterexamples. In a trivial sense the subject has obviously all but dissolved, as Adorno feared it would. If there is still a need to defend it is thus debatable. In the theoretical discourse of today, the discussion is normally centred on processes of subjectivation, performativity, storytelling, recognition etc. In a way this can be seen as a consequence of postmodern thinking: the subject is no longer a ‘natural’, self-evident entity, but something constructed, something we are free to ‘do’. On the other hand there is a tendency that this constructed subjectivity becomes as natural, positive, simple and good-natured as any ‘pre-postmodern’ subjectivity. The question is, in other words, if we in reality have come any further than Adorno; if our historical situation really differs from his. How then should we understand subjectivity today, in a literary context? In my paper I will discuss this in relation to the theories of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Rancière. In the beginning of The Ticklish Subject Slavoj Zizek remarks that the Cartesian subject is a spectre that all philosophical schools are combating today – somehow this is an ironic indication of the vitality of the Cartesian subject. To a certain extent I believe Zizek is right; on the other hand the need to rethink the form of subjectivity Adorno (or Descartes) presupposes seems obvious. In a way I think this is what Rancière does when he focuses ‘an interval for political subjectivization’ between man and citizen, rather than a fixed individual subject. These questions are both aesthetically and politically relevant. F x one could ask if the amount of autofiction published during the last decade is an expression of the dissolved subject, or on the contrary of a kind of hyper-individualism. Or do those options in reality amount to the same powerlessness?

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