The ‘Death of the Subject’

James Heartfield's new book shows how the attack on subjectivity in theory reflects the diminished role of the individual in society.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, by James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 2002

‘While this book is philosophical in its basic tenor, it is first and foremost an engaged political intervention, addressing the burning question of how we are to reformulate a leftist, anti-capitalist political project in our era of globalised capitalism and its ideological supplement, liberal-democratic multiculturalism.’

Though this is how the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes his own book, The Ticklish Subject (1), it serves even better as a characterisation of James Heartfield’s work.

No doubt Žižek’s study has a wider philosophical scope, and provides entertaining digressions into film criticism. But Heartfield offers a sharper focus on the links between philosophical and political trends, as well as being much more accessible to the non-academic reader. While Žižek introduces the degradation of subjectivity as ‘a spectre haunting Western academia’, Heartfield emphasises the ways in which the attack on subjectivity in theory reflects the diminished role of the individual in society.

The paradox of the new world order that emerged in the early 1990s was that, when the state had been rolled back and socialism crushed, the outcome was not a society of robust entrepreneurs but one of weak and vulnerable individuals. The demise of collective organisations of both left and right has increased insecurity rather than unleashing initiative.

At every level of society, in public and private life, there is a loss of nerve and people try to evade accountability and responsibility. Politicians seek an alibi in globalisation, businessmen in consultants and facilitators, scientists in ethical committees; everybody needs support and counselling. We now inhabit a culture of complaint and victimhood, in which everybody blames somebody or something – their genes, their hormones, their childhood, their parents, their education, their dysfunctional relationships, their adverse experiences – for whatever difficulties they face.

In a society in which survival is the highest ambition and self-pity the dominant sentiment, the values of safety are elevated over those of risk-taking, femininity over masculinity and childhood over adulthood.

Whereas for Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, the autonomous subject was the central presumption of civil society, contemporary thinkers have in various ways disparaged or disputed the concept of the sovereign individual. Heartfield begins by surveying the evolution of the French deconstructionist school, from its early structuralist origins to its apotheosis in post-modernism.

While concentrating on Althusser and Foucault, he also discusses the feminist and post-colonialist writers who emerged from this tradition (notably Kristeva, Pateman and Said). He also assesses ‘attempts to rescue the subject’ by Rorty, Rawls, Castoriadis and Taylor, though he judges these to be of a limited and defensive character.

Elements of this critique are familiar – not least from the work of Frank Furedi and Heartfield’s earlier writings in LM magazine. But they are usefully synthesised here. Some angles are strikingly original. For example, his use of Engels’ polemic against Duhring’s ‘force theory of history’ to attack Foucault’s notion of all-pervasive relations of power helps to expose this deeply pessimistic (and highly influential) thesis.

He also shows how Habermas’ attempt to displace subjectivity with the ideal of ‘inter-subjectivity’ amounts to placing a premium on the constraint of subjectivity and prepares the way for communitarian and ‘third way’ theorists such as Beck and Giddens. As he puts it, their concept of risk is little more than a ‘morbid version of Habermas’ intersubjectivity’.

In a section entitled ‘The common ruin of the contending classes’, the author traces the origin of the theoretical deconstruction of the subject in the exhaustion of politics through the latter decades of the twentieth century. Whereas other radical critics have one-sidedly located the roots of degraded subjectivity in the demise of the left, Heartfield points also to the collapse of the right in the 1990s as crucial to the emergence of both the post-modernist mindset and ‘third way’ politics.

Though there have been many accounts of the failures of the French left, over Algeria, in May 1968 and after, and of the relationships among the intellectuals, the Communist Party and the labour movement, the brief survey included here is by far the best I have read. Heartfield shows how the left’s inability to confront a French colonialism which sought to justify itself in terms of the universalist principles of the French revolution marked the beginning of the involution of the humanist tradition itself.

In turn, the Communist Party’s failure of nerve in May 1968 reflected a wider intellectual retreat from subjectivity. The shameful personal history of Louis Althusser symbolises the treachery of French Stalinism. He betrayed his own wife twice: first, when she was (wrongly) accused of wartime collaboration, and second, when in 1980 he strangled her. As Heartfield indicates, Althusser’s subsequent plea of insanity was the ultimate evasion of responsibility: ‘the evacuation of subjective agency from his life could not be more complete.’

In its disillusionment with the working class as an agency of social change, the left turned to what became known as ‘new social movements’. This began with the radical infatuation with third world national liberation movements, spread to students, black power groups, women’s liberation, and ultimately extended to ‘the boundless etcetera of difference’.

As Heartfield demonstrates, the real meaning of the ‘new social movements’ was ‘a move away from the idea of an agent of social transformation altogether’ and a ‘break with the idea of collective agency’. The evolution of these movements into vehicles of a conservative middle-class outlook in the 1990s – notably in relation to international issues – accelerated the disintegration of the left.

In his analysis of the 1980s, the decade of Thatcher and Reagan and of the slogan ‘there is no alternative’ (to the market), Heartfield exposes the contradictions of popular capitalism. The defeat of an already moribund left proved much easier than rolling back state support for a stagnant capitalist system deprived of its old enemies at home and abroad and obliged to discover new sources of legitimacy. The result was ‘a solipsistic individuation of society’, as people retreated from public life and social engagement, rather than the self-assertive individualism promised by Hayek and Popper.

The ultimate beneficiary of this process – one in which it had no direct part – was New Labour. As Heartfield indicates, the New Labour leadership emerged as a result of the demise of working class subjectivity, or more specifically, of the defeat of the labour movement. In this sense, the third way can be characterised as ‘a process without a subject’. Third way politics claims to transcend left and right, but it also transcends the activist formation of political will: ‘the realm of subjectivity that is politics is shrunken and diminished.’

In the final section of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Heartfield examines the consequences for society when ‘apathy becomes a material force’. As the Enlightenment philosophes well understood, the whole organisation of society, from the level of the state to the business enterprise to the family, depends on the way individuals constitute themselves as subjects. Hence the degradation of subjectivity has far reaching consequences, which Heartfield discusses under the heading ‘The Retreat of the Elite’.

This, historically unprecedented, phenomenon is manifested in the emergence of ‘elite anti-capitalism’ and the extraordinary indulgence (not to mention subsidy) the elite extends to environmentalism. Further consequences include the ‘dumbing down’ of education and culture and the influence of the precautionary principle in science. The infantilisation and feminisation of popular culture are further morbid symptoms. And the vast expansion in the both the range of diagnoses of psychological disorders and the numbers covered by them is perhaps the most morbid feature of all.

The particular danger at present is that, as a result of the therapeutic initiatives of New Labour, the retreat from subjectivity is assuming an increasingly institutionalised form.

Heartfield concludes on the theme that, though subjectivity is in a precarious condition, reports of its death are exaggerated. Despite the wilful denial of its existence and importance, the subjective factor remains the most powerful force in society. Clarifying the processes that are frustrating the emergence of a wider awareness of the potential of human subjectivity is the first step towards realising that potential.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained is available at £11.00, plus £1.00 p&p from Publications,, 8 College Close, Hackney, London, E9 6ER. Make cheques payable to ‘Audacity Ltd’.

(1) The Ticklish Subject, Slavoj Žižek, Verso, 1999, p4. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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