Reflections on Subjectivity from a Text by Agamben

Agamben uses the term assogetamento once in his essay, “What is an Apparatus?”

“Assoggettamento” is Italian for the French “assujettissement,” the Spanish “sujeción,” and the English “subjection” of the current translation of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. It should be translated as “subjectification.”

We have another term in the Italian text of “What is an Apparatus?”—soggettivazione. which is translated (bottom of page 20 and following pages) as “subjectification.” For the reasons that follow in this essay, I suggest that it be translated as “subjectivation.”

Readers familiar with Sheridan’s translation of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish may recall the use of subjection as the term used to characterize the simultaneous production of docility and autonomous subjectivity (assujettissement). The latter is autonomous because the mechanisms of power function through it. Subjectivity gives the law to itself but the law is the reason of the apparatus.

I think that neither “subjection” nor “submission” (nor “sujeción” in Spanish) expresses clearly the meaning of assoggettamento/assujettissement because “subjection” implies a subject already formed subjected to a power: the “objectification” of an already formed subjectivity. For example: The rape of the Carib woman by Michel de Cuneo when he wrote in his 1495 account of Columbus’ 2nd voyage about the woman Columbus “gave” to him during one of the voyages of “discovery.” Obviously the woman’s subjectivity was not being constituted by Cuneo when he was raping her and calling her a whore in his description of the event. Furthermore, Cuneo’s description of the violated woman as “whore” strikes me as the “pure experience of language” of which Agamben writes in “The Friend” when analyzing the meaning of the insult.

For Foucault and Agamben the power of the apparatus constitutes subjectivity at the same time it deploys its power through it: The simultaneous creation of docility and the self-image of freedom/autonomy. For example, the gun-toting white xenophobe who goes to the border with Mexico to assert his or her political freedom and maybe “kill a Mexican or two.” Here, as in the case of Cuneo 520 years earlier, it is more appropriate to use the term subjectification, not subjection, for the Donald Trump follower. The gun-toting xenophobe is not “subjected,” but rather “subjectified.” By contrast the threatened or killed immigrant is, like the woman raped by Cuneo, being “subjected,” not “subjectified.”

A question to consider as we read Agamben: Does “subjectification” in Foucault (which was translated as “subjection”) and subjectification in Agamben mean the same thing? Agamben uses assoggetamento only once in “What is an Apparatus?” The term subjectification is used to translate soggetivazione. There is in the latter another way of becoming a subject (or losing one’s subjectivity). Hence. I would use the term “subjectivation” to distinguish it from the illusions of autonomy we find in processes of subjectification.

Filippo Domenicali points to a distinction by bringing the two terms together while setting them apart: “In the relationship of assoggetamento/soggettivazione we find both imposition of identity and self-production” (Filippo Domenicali, “Come si esercita il potere?” conference presented in Genoa in 2012).

Domenicali’s distinction may however express an ambiguity similar to Agamben’s. I think we can move beyond the ambiguity and establish at least four categories concerning the subject:

Subjectification (“assoggettamento”): The process of simultaneous constitution of docile and illusorily free subjectivity.

Subjectivation (“soggettivazione”): The process of constitution of authentic or truly free subjectivity.

Desubjectivation (“desoggettivazione”): The process of “depoliticizing” (Agamben’s term, but also Habermas’s) and “one-dimensionalizing” subjectivity (Marcuse’s term but also present in Horkheimer’s notion of instrumentalization of subjectivity, and in Marx’s conception of living labor as nothing to capital unless it is used for the creation of value and surplus value).

Desubjectification (I would use here a fourth term, “desassoggettamento”): The process of resisting, rebelling, coming-to-consciousness against the internalization of oppressive forms of being human (Kristeva’s poetic imagination but also Butler’s example of parody present in cross-dressing).

Hence, I would distinguish between a subjectivity constituted by the apparatuses of power and a subjectivity free from those apparatuses.

By contrast to Foucault’s tenor of discussion in _Discipline and Punish_, you could think now of Foucault’s conception of the intersex, Herculine Barbin, as free from oppressive categories of sex and gender (before she was forced to accept the medical and Catholic definition of man) when she “evokes in her past… the happy limbo of non-identity” (Foucault, Introduction to _Herculine Barbin_ loc. 124): A turn of phrase that Butler considers to be “romanticizing” (_Gender Trouble_, 128) and, I take it, not sufficiently Foucauldian.

What Butler regards as a weakness in Foucault, I regard as a strength. This is one reason why I find Kristeva’s affirmation of a pre-symbolic space that is, well, pregnant with meaning to be “germinal” because it proposes two sources of meaning and subjectivity: The maternal body’s semiotic versus the patriarchal/cultural symbolic).

Therefore, I would make a distinction in Agamben between subjectification (assoggettamento) and subjectivation (soggettivazione). (The translators used the term “subjectification” for all instances and variations of the Italian “soggettivazione” in the original.) Hence, the former term, “subjectification,” includes subjection or submission as one of its meanings in addition to the notion of a subjectivity being constituted in the process (the French and the Italian terms do); however, the latter term, “subjectivation,” would not include subjection or submission as one of its meanings, but would be more akin to the notion of the authentic subject in Hegel, in Marx, and in Sartre:

1. The authentic and true subject in Hegel is the one that develops through the struggle for recognition and overcomes the dialectic of master and slave, culminating in the true self of the community of free selves.

2. The authentic and true subject in Marx is that of the proletarian who projects himself or herself towards the communist future. Those of you who are familiar with the argentine Ernesto “Ché” Guevara’s reflections on what he called “El hombre nuevo” (“the New Man”–using the sexist conventions of writing and speech common to many people at the time in the West, that “man” means both “man” and “human”) based on his experiences as Minister of Economics and Finance in Cuba during the first years of the Cuban Revolution and as a revolutionary in Cuba, Congo, Vietnam, and Bolivia.

3. The authentic and true subject in Sartre is the self who assumes fully her or his responsibility not only for her actions but also for the value she or he gives to those actions. Hence, Sartre talks of the absolute freedom of the human self (until the time when he decided to integrate Marxism to his existentialism).



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