The Production of the Subject in Late Benjamin

This article places Benjamin’s late work in dialogue with recent attempts in media theory and structuralism to think the subject and historical contingency together. It argues their apparent incompatibility is reflected in Benjamin’s writing in the form of a recurrent contradiction between historical materialism and transhistorical theology. Through a reconstruction of the theorist’s historicization of an earlier theological theory of the fall of language in his Marxian-inflected work of the 1930’s, it claims that Benjamin initiates a historicist reconceptualization of the impasse of the Kantian subject onto being as the product of a particular field of mediation arising with mass modernity. Yet following the rejection of his nascent version of the Arcades Project by Adorno and the Marxist Institute for Social Research in 1938, theology returns as an attempt to reconceive of an aesthetic-formal break with this impasse. Benjamin’s late theorization of his materialist historiography thus represents a dialectical attempt to think materialism and theology, history and being together, with the aim of mediating not only distraction, but a revolutionary destruction of the subject and the historical order producing it.

Continue reading →

The Legal Foundations of Individualism

The following paper was presented at the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.

As the final speaker after a fascinating day of talks, I’ll keep my comments brief. I’ll be addressing two questions about democracy raised by our conference description: first, “the reasons for its rarity and volatility”; and, second, “the factors that are essential for its stability.” For each question, I’ll try to provide a concise, mildly provocative answer from my perspective as a writer and scholar about constitutional law and comparative legal history.

So why is democracy so rare and volatile? I think one answer we could give to this question is that democracy is volatile because the modern self is a legal achievement. There is nothing outside of law, including individual subjectivity. Instead, the modern self that lies at the center of liberal democratic practice developed only after a long historical process of dialectical negation and synthesis. In that process, a handful of societies, beginning in western Europe, transcended what in my most recent book I call the “rule of the clan.”

Continue reading →

Jay Gupta on Pacifica Radio’s Against the Grain

Telos Editorial Associate Jay Gupta recently spoke with C.S. Soong on Pacifica Radio’s Against the Grain, a show about politics, society, and ideas. Their conversation turned to ethics, objective vs. subjective truth, and the manner in which war is reported in the media. Listen the full interview at the Against the Grain website here.

Continue reading →

Subjectivity After Wittgenstein by Chantal Bax

Chantal Bax’s Subjectivity After Wittgenstein: The Post-Cartesian Subject and the “Death of Man” is now available in paperback from Bloomsbury Academic. Although Wittgenstein is often held co-responsible for the so-called death of man as it was pronounced in the course of the previous century, no detailed description of his alternative to the traditional or Cartesian account of human being has so far been available. By consulting several parts of Wittgenstein’s later oeuvre, Subjectivity after Wittgenstein aims to fill this gap.

Continue reading →

After Hume: James and Husserl on Identity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Christian Kronsted looks at Lowell A. Dunlap’s “Hume, James, and Husserl on the Self,” from Telos 2 (Fall 1968).

With the publication of A Treatise Of Human Nature, David Hume turned the philosophical community of his time upside down with his provocative skepticism and denial of a cohesive self. Since its initial publication, Hume’s claim that the self is nothing but a bundle of perceptions has plagued philosophers and psychologists alike, and has inspired many to completely abandon the idea of a coherent self. Yet a central question remains largely unanswered: if there is not a self, what is doing the thinking, and how is it done? If a person does not have a “self,” how come human beings think of themselves as unique and separate entities that have subjective experiences? Lowell A. Dunlap’s article “Hume, James, and Husserl on the Self” investigates how William James and Edmund Husserl tackled the notion of personal identity in the aftermath of Hume’s philosophy.

Continue reading →

On Modernity and the Autonomous Individual

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J. F. Dorahy looks at Joel Whitebook’s “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” from Telos 50 (Winter 1981).

Autonomy is, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the discursive constellation of modernity. If it is apposite, and I believe it is, to think in terms of the differentiation between political, socio-economic, and cultural modernities, then it is clear that the concept of autonomy—either with reference to the autonomous individual or the autonomous work of art—is a constitutive force within each sphere. In “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” Joel Whitebook offers a historically nuanced overview of the difficulties involved in thinking the “autonomous individual” under the conditions of a dynamic and increasingly complex modernity. Whitebook’s piece is wide-ranging and fuses a deep psychoanalytic insight with a robust sociological consciousness: a fusion that accompanies, to my mind, the best critical theory. To be sure, the many subtleties and divergences that emerge from Whitebook’s dialectic are resistant to a full reconstruction within this preview. Rather, I would like to simplify Whitebook’s account by drawing out the three historical epochs examined by Whitebook and say a few things regarding the key aspects of Whitebook’s reading of Marx and Freud and Adorno and Habermas as thinkers who most significantly appreciate the problematic nature of the modern, autonomous individual. Finally, I conclude by arguing for the innovative character of Whitebook’s thoughts regarding the centrality of affective relationships in the formation of the autonomous individual.

Continue reading →