the subject, Marko Jenko

narrator Marko Jenko
term the subject
published February 2015, Ljubljana
affiliated institution MG+MSUM

In 20th century philosophy, there are numerous theories, which cover the question of (political) subjectivisation or, generally speaking, the process in which an individual becomes a (political) subject. The abundance of these theories is in part due both to the growing impasses of capitalism and the failure of past → emancipatory projects, especially in terms of communism, the catastrophe of Stalinism and so-called really existing socialism. One could, as a starting point, take Louis Althusser’s theory of (successful or failed) ideological interpellation and consequently grasp other famous theories of political subjectivity, from Alain Badiou’s fidelity to the Truth-Event, Étienne Balibar’s égaliberté or “freedom-in-equality”, Jacques Rancière’s mésentente or “misapprehension”, to Ernesto Laclau’s take on hegemony, and many others.[1] In view of these well-known developments of 20th century philosophy, of what they reject, criticise or even obscure, including the turns of so-called structuralism, post-structuralism and/or the postmodern “death of the subject”, which saw the supposedly liberating proliferation, especially in political thought and Cultural Studies, of multiple, emphatically particularised forms of subjectivity, it is perhaps still rightly scandalous to take into account that Jacques Lacan, within the frame of his return to Freud, actually also returned, after his initial rejection of it[2], to the modern rationalist and ultimately → antihumanist notion of the subject, introducing a distinction between the subject and subjectivisation, thereby reasserting the Cartesian cogito, not only as the subject of the unconscious, and actually going beyond the unconscious, but also as the subject of modern science, which simply cannot be seen as just another narrative from any pluralist and ultimately historicist-relativist perspective. After the advent of modernity, which is nothing but a series of cuts and inaugurations, be it in science, art, etc., there simply is no way back, not even for the West. To claim otherwise – if we paraphrase Žižek – would mean succumbing to the cognitive suspension, typical of Cultural Studies and performative theories, and abandoning the consideration of the inherent truth-value of a certain theoretical practice under consideration, now focusing merely on unearthing its hidden patriarchal, Eurocentrist, identitarian, and so on, bias, thereby reducing everything to a historicist reflection upon conditions in which certain notions emerged as a result of historically specific power relations. So it is crucial to emphasise that for Lacan modern science is absolutely not one of the narratives comparable in principle to other modes of cognitive mapping – modern science touches the Real in a way that is totally absent from premodern discourses.[3] Of course, the joint question of modern science and the subject also bears on the topic of sexuality from Freud onwards.[4]


Lacan’s reassertion of the subject, or the Cartesian cogito as the birthplace of the modern subject, is far from being a return to a “pacifying image of the transparent Self” or the possibility of self-aggrandising mastery. What this reassertion returns to, or what it shows in a thorough Freudian rereading of Descartes, and then of Immanuel Kant, is the cogito’s unacknowledged kernel: the radical contraction or self-withdrawal, (Hegel’s) “the night of the world”, i.e., the subject as barred, decentred or, in other words, as the ontological gap that precedes any gesture of subjectivisation, → historicisation or symbolisation (in clear contrast to Badiou, Rancière et al.). To resume Žižek, what comes to the foreground here is the threat of madness, strictly constitutive of modern philosophy from Descartes onwards, and inherent to rationality as such. No wonder then that the unconscious too can be in part described as a thoroughly rational machine, following the logic of the signifier (metonymy, metaphor, as in the interpretation of dreams, jokes or → pathology of everyday life). The Cartesian subject is therefore, and obviously, not the self-transparent ego, nor is it simply man or the presupposed psychological inner wealth or depth of a person: “[…] the Cartesian subject emerges precisely out of the ‘death of man’ […] the Freudian unconscious emerges through the very reduction of the person’s substantial content to the evanescent punctuality of the cogito”[5]. The key “feature” of the subject, prior to any form of subjectivisation (namely that one is always already a subject, it is not simply about becoming one), is therefore, the reduction of all substantial features or history. It’s as if the subject survived its own death. Here, we are obliged to think utter desubstantialisation, so to speak, the zero point, “a subject bereft of subjectivity (of the self-experience of a historical agent embedded in a finite horizon of meaning)”. To quote Žižek again: “What kind of monster remains when we subtract from the subject the wealth of self-experience that constitutes subjectivity? […] the Cartesian subject is this monster that emerges precisely when we deprive the subject of all the wealth of the ‘human person’.”[6] Consequently, we are all already this “monster” or “horror of a human being”, if we thus dramatise the somewhat bleak view of “human nature” in psychoanalysis. The subject thus also stands for the primordial impossible forced (not free) choice by means of which we choose (or not, as psychotics prove) to be “in this world”, or in other, vice versa terms: the subject is the negative gesture of breaking out of the constraints of Being (context, particular life-world, circumstances, etc.), which actually opens up the space for future subjectivisation. The subject is thus from the very start “originally in discord with its contextualised situation”, inasmuch as something in it “resists full inclusion into the context”.


If we leave aside certain psychoanalytical aspects (subjective destitution, and the like) or some of the nuances of the knot between subject and subjectivisation (how the latter, in its circularity or as an emphatic engagement or assumption of fidelity to the Truth-Event, sustains, but also fills in the ontological gap that is the subject, as does the reterritorialising proliferation of particularised subjectivities and bodies), we should simply underline the obvious, namely, that the subject is nothing but pure negativity, an absolutely inherent obstacle, an internal, ontological limit and not an external, epistemological border. From this point of view, if we were to add that in psychoanalysis the subject is first and foremost hysterical (perceiving itself as out of joint, minimally excluded from the order of things or from the positive order of entities), it is perhaps no coincidence that Rancière’s description of the process of subjectivisation[7] begins with a denial of an identity, with hysterical non-recognition or disidentification, i.e., the impenetrability or non-transparency of oneself to oneself. (It is hysteria that is or can be most challenging, so it shouldn’t be surprising that in Lacan it is the hysteric’s discourse that actually produces knowledge.) Here, decenterment and Lacan’s term extimacy (the intimate is outside of you) also play a crucial role: one is robbed even of one’s innermost self, if you will, of one’s untarnished intimate self-experience, of how one really feels. This in turn completely rearranges what we deem subjective or objective. It will suffice to say that this opaque impenetrability, which does not imply depth, also points to the psychoanalytical question of the object (cause), which is not independent of the subject, but is the subject itself in the mode of objectivity. We first catch a glimpse of this enigmatic aspect of the objective-subjective, which also concerns the unconscious (inasmuch as the social too comes to lay itself down on the analyst’s couch), with Marx’s commodity fetishism[8], and then, undoubtedly even more harshly, with Lacan’s concept of fantasy, which ultimately, as a frame, teaches us how to desire.[9]


Clearly, we are far from the usual (mis)reading of the cogito as “the agency of manipulative domination responsible for all present woes”, from Western, Eurocentrist, colonial, patriarchal, capitalist oppression, “phallo-logo-ego-centrism”, to ecological catastrophes, etc.[10] In fact, one could argue that it is only now, after the atrocities of (not only) the 20th century (slavery, genocide, concentration camps, gulags, apartheid, and so on), after the emergence of the proletariat (of subjects selling their substance), and new, unprecedented modes of violence in the 21st century, that we can actually grasp the radical aspect of the notion of the subject and cogito, not simply as the looming fear or prospect of losing everything, even loss itself, but of a constitutive trauma that has always already happened: the birth of the subject itself. Furthermore, what we come to witness with the advent of neurosciences, epigenetics, especially the question of Alzheimer’s disease, of autism or, more generally, with the growing global phenomenon of utter indifference to the Other (almost as the other side of omnipresent activism), are so-called post-traumatic subjects, which after experiencing the brutal intrusion of a horrific trauma (wars, terminal illness, natural disasters, etc.) attest to the fact that “the subject cannot be identified (does not fully overlap) with the stories it tells itself about itself, with the narrative symbolic texture of its life: when all this is taken away, something (or, rather, nothing, but a form of nothing) remains. From this perspective, the question of the subject now starts to point toward one being deprived even of unconscious formations encapsulating a variety of libidinal investments. The cogito is therefore, a very real abstraction: the post-traumatic subject, as Žižek says, is the historical “realisation” of the cogito. For the brutal external intrusion to actually be experienced as traumatic, the original trauma must reverberate in it. No wonder there’s so much resistance to the cogito. It is precisely the universal common we all already share as speaking beings. Here, we find a clear way out of the thinking within the box of so-called democratic materialism or with contextualisations as our ultimate horizon, which amount to nothing but discursive historicism, where everything is just due to the particularity or locality of bodies, language, etc.


It would be wrong to think that all of this does not concern art, or that it never concerned it in the past, especially insofar as art, more than not, can also present us with a response to concrete circumstances or context, which never fully overlaps with itself in any given historical period. We can clearly see how art, in terms of → universality as a cut in the order of things (and therefore not as globality), maintains or simply shows, even in spite of itself, or this or that intention, this → fragile point of the subject, especially in the way it can distance ourselves from ourselves (feelings, emotions, affects, thoughts, habits, etc.) or starts from this very pre-existing disjointedness. (It suffices to say that the promise of art as a subjectivising power remains to be analysed.) To continue, we should say the same about art history or any theory of art, inasmuch as interpretation is concerned – or the sudden impossibility of interpretation as deciphering, now faced with nothing or the form of nothing. What is there to interpret? How about artworks, which truly come across or “function” as completely indifferent to spectators, not even in the frame of Michael Fried’s absorption? If we remain on a general level, within art history, we could say that the question of the subject first emerges with the emergence of the “I” or the “stuff of the I” (as the ego, but also the unconscious libidinal wealth of a particular person), namely, during the Renaissance, and quite unsurprisingly together with painting, or more precisely, with the advent of perspective and frame (quadro, tavola quadrata), which at the time could still hold or encompass the entirety of the human body. According to Gérard Wajcman, who actually sees art as the safeguard of the subject, it is exactly this “I” that will later lay itself down on Freud’s couch[11]. Not only does the modern age in painting bring about the fall of perspective, but also, and actually, a deframing, when a painting also ceases to be a window, so to speak. It is clear, from this point of view, that Malevich’s Black Square is no window, if not a window with a view of nothing or simply one of the forms of this nothing. Furthermore, as post WWII painting shows us, the deframing of painting has consequences for the body (deserving to be its own term), losing its ground/frame and returning with a vengeance (Bacon, Pollock et al.), and bearing upon the emergence of new art practices.[12] What we’re ultimately dealing with here is the simultaneous deflation of meaning (also narcissistic self-expression) and resemblance to the art of the 20th century, which also has its consequences for interpreting.[13] In fact, it is modern art itself that already reaches far beyond the usual handy historicist critiques of it supposedly being individualist and formalist, also in terms of the object, the question of which it actually completely redefines.[14] As far as interpretation is concerned, or its materialism, we can follow its vicissitudes in the (thoroughly modern) question, the details of which Daniel Arasse remains the key art-historical theorist. If by definition the marginal and subversive detail, at first, implies the possibility of interpreting as such, namely as deciphering, even of unearthing meaning (allegories, symbols, metaphors, etc., when the visual transforms itself into a text, even a story of a certain time, place or individual artist), it also quickly blocks it or redefines it as an → intervention of non-meaning. We are perhaps still inclined to think that interpreting artworks is akin to interpreting dreams. However, not everything is unconscious, and it is exactly here than the question of the subject and object step in with a vengeance. In terms of contextualisation, which has a long history, not only in art history’s more sociological veins, but already in iconography and iconology, what we are faced with here is again the suspicion that context is not the ultimate horizon, and that full immersion into context is not possible (funnily enough, even for the context itself), which also brings about the old Marxist question of artworks after their context has passed away (or if they indeed surpass it or create their own context). From this point of view, one can not only see the obvious struggles of art history, with art and with history, but ultimately its struggle with the subject, which it more or less, not always, of course, and now even with the help of cognitivism and brain sciences (which deny the autonomy of the psyche), fully immersed in different contexts, thereby reducing art to craft, so to speak, to a mere bearer of signs of a certain time, place, individual, and so on. Perhaps it is only this, namely the question of the subject, that could, in fact, be deemed as the “→ eternalcontemporary” in any given concrete time or space. Not ahistorical, not an abstract impossibility outside history, but a really existing abstraction, both the break in history and its actual precondition – as what created it.

[1] See, for example, Slavoj Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology.

[2] See his “The Mirror Stage” in Écrits.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion, 218–19.

[4] See Alenka Zupančič, “Sexual Difference and Ontology”, e-flux journal 32 (February 2012), (accessed 16 February 2015).

[5] See Žižek’s introduction to Cogito and the Unconscious, which includes Mladen Dolar’s “Cogito as the Subject of the Unconscious,” an overview of Lacan’s grappling with the Cartesian cogito, namely in Seminars XI and XIV, and of Lacan’s difference here in comparison to structuralists and post-structuralists.

[6] Cogito and the Unconscious.

[7] See his article “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivisation”.

[8] Capital; “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of commodities”.

[9] See Žižek’s The Plague of Fantasies.

[10] Again, cogito is anti-historicist: for a different, truly radical take on Eurocentrism, the West, enlightenment, and modernity, see Žižek’s Living in the End Times, 279 sqq.

[11] See his Fenêtre.

[12] Body art, performance art, and some later, quite dubious postmodernist practices of returning to the real of the flesh, etc. – see Laurence Dorléac’s L’Ordre sauvage: violence, dépense et sacré dans l’art des années 1950–1960, and Où va l’histoire de l’art contemporain?

[13] See Wajcman’s intriguing suggestion of materialist iconography in his brilliant L’objet du siècle.

[14] See, for instance, Yve-Alain Bois’s “Whose formalism?” in Art Bulletin.