Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Decoding the Subject

I’m having one of my periodic difficulties posting over at Larval Subjects, but wanted to respond to a particularly important post Sinthome has written, titled “Recoding the Social”. Since what I have pasted below was originally written as a comment, rather than as a self-contained piece, it’s best to read the original post first, and then this response.

My response, I should note, is not intended as a critique of Sinthome’s post (although my comment may well suffer from some significant misunderstandings, given that I am writing about a theoretical tradition with which I am relatively unfamiliar, and responding in this sense to content I’ve received second or third hand…). Instead, I am intending to draw attention to some elements of Sinthome’s recent work that I think are particularly important, and too often overlooked, in attempts to construct critical theories. Note that Sinthome’s post explores a number of important and substantial issues that I do not canvass in this response.


I’ll have to apologise in advance, as I don’t have the time to develop this point in proper detail. What I wanted to do was to pick up on a couple of small elements within your post, and try to think them together. You begin with, I think, a quite important point about the way in which theoretical work – whether in the context of analysis, or in the context of critique – involves essentially trying to make some sense of the phenomena with which we’re confronted, by asking, in your words:

What must the subject be like for this to be possible?

What I want to do here is draw attention to something about the subject – the critical subject – that seems often overlooked in social theoretic discussions, but that seems to me to bear a strong importance for another question you have asked here – a question I also think is vitally important:

what renders an individual susceptible to an event in the first place?

I think you are quite right to ask whether, given the hypothesis that social relations can be defined in ordinary time, so to speak, by what you have called the encyclopaedia (by what I might tend to call a particular network of concrete social relations), we are then in a very difficult position when it comes to explaining how individuals might possess the potential to become subjects – or, as you have expressed the point:

if the regime of the encyclopaedia is as total as Badiou and Ranciere suggest, if the encyclopaedia is organized precisely around disavowing the possibility of anything that isn’t counted, then what are the conditions of possibility under which a subject might be produced at all.

You then move on to discuss the notion that our situatedness in any context is never complete – I’ll come back to this point. What I wanted to point out first, not because I think it’s something that you have missed (I take your points as, in a sense, assuming my own – I just want to take the opportunity to spell something out very explicitly here), but because it seems to be something both glaringly visible, and yet often missed in formulations such as those you quote from Badiou and Ranciere: if the encyclopaedia were complete, surely we would not be able to name it as such. Surely the fact that we are engaged in critical discourse already gives the lie to claims – even if these claims understanding themselves to be critical – that, as you have paraphrased it:

The order of knowledge or the police presents itself as a natural order, as a world in which everything has a proper place, function, and identity.

If we can make such a comment, with critical intent, then the comment is itself a contradiction: we are already seeing through the false veneer of nature we are claiming characterises the encyclopaedia. We are, however, failing to ask ourselves what you have rightly defined as the motivating question of analysis – what also, I think, should be the motivating question of critique: What must the subject be like for this to be possible?

The existence of critique tells us something about the subject – something that critical theory needs, I think, to keep quite firmly in focus. If we are also operating from a standpoint of immanence, than the existence of critique also tells us something about the object – and here I can loop back to your point, which is that the object itself must possess “weak and symptomatic points within the symbolic edifice wherein which it might be possible to force an event and precipitate subjects in Badiou’s sense of the word”.

You have formulated your points in the context of a transcendental framework. I am open to the possibility that such a framework exists, but you also know that I am interested in the issue of why such critical thoughts – the ability to see past and to contest the naturalness of the encyclopaedia – emerge historically from a particular moment. To me, this historicity is another issue we must engage, when we ask “What must the subject be like for this to be possible?” – and, immanently, what must the object be like, as well…

But these points can’t be developed here, and in any event my goal with this comment was mainly to draw attention to this strange self-contradictory element within so many approaches to critique: that critique consists in criticising the doxic character of particular systems of social relations, without realising that the act of critique itself must mean that something more complicated than mere doxa is afoot… Somehow, the theorist has stepped outside of the frame – not in your approach, which I see as trying to think through these issues in a more self-reflexive way – but in the works perhaps of some of the theorists you cite.

I should note, of course, that I am interpreting these theorists at one (arguably more than one…) remove, so I am happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood their approaches (in a sense, nothing would be more likely). Certainly, though, in my own field and with work with which I am more familiar, such self-contradictions seem very common – enough to make it seem worthwhile to draw attention to how deceptively crucial is the question on which your post pivots: What must the subject be like for this to be possible?

Updated to add: this conversation continues over at Larval Subjects, where Sinthome has added a few thoughts in a new post, and where I now seem to be able to comment normally. Best to read the discussion over there, but I’ll still paste my response here, as a placeholder for something I should (at some point) pick up on this blog in more detail:

Just very quickly, I wanted to pick up on your formulation at the end:

Either critique is already itself a product of what I’m here calling the encyclopaedia (I’m more inclined to adopt N.Pepperell’s language of “concrete social networks”), or the subject is never completely interpellated by the system of social relations in which its enmeshed.

There is a third option: that our social context is not exhausted by concrete social networks, but should instead be conceptualised as something more like the movement of a more abstract, dynamic social context through a series of more concrete social institutions and practices (which we sometimes mistake for context as such).

This kind of complex context would also generate a situation in which, as you put it, “the subject is never completely enmeshed” in its concrete social networks (and also, for that matter, never completely enmeshed in its more abstract context) – without necessitating a transcendental leap outside of context…

But this is, of course, also a placemarker… 😉

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