25 Nov

Professor Molly Rothenberg on her new book The Excessive Subject

Posted By Politybooks

On the Edge

RothenburgEdged in:  I decided to write this book when it became clear to me that a new theory of the social subject, with some powerful advantages for social change theory, had become sequestered within a small area in the academy simply because it was associated with psychoanalysis.  It turns out that the theory of the excessive subject, as I term it, depends on developments in the fields of symbolic logic, topology, and set theory that can be applied to the question of how to model causality in the social field.  Lacan was instrumental in bringing these developments into the discourse of the humanities, but they are not psychoanalytic per se.   Lacan picks up these developments because they enabled him to articulate a causal logic necessary for his sense of the way the subject emerges.  That logic, which I refer to as “extimate causality,” offers a significant alternative to the causal logics of Marxism and Foucaultianism, but the alternative became quarantined on account of attacks on psychoanalysis by prominent theorists in the latter quarter of the twentieth century.  I want to make this alternative available to a wider audience, especially to students.


Backing away from the edge:  The book tells the story of a number of theoretical attempts to find an alternative causal model of social effects in order to grapple with the fundamental problem of how subjects conditioned by ideology and cultural practices could become change agents.  This problem is the common link among a number of theorists who otherwise don’t seem to have much in common.  It is the central focus of Pierre Bourdieu’s efforts to split the difference between subjectivist and objectivist accounts of the subject, and it shapes Michel de Certeau’s response to Bourdieu.  Judith Butler has her own way of intervening in that discussion, by trying to cobble together a model from Bourdieu, Derrida, and Lacan.  Ernesto Laclau encounters this problem as he seeks to articulate a theory of the formation of politically effective groups from the concept of the split subject.  Slavoj Žižek takes it up in his accounts of revolutionary violence.  I follow this thread through these thinkers in some detail to develop a history of approaches to the problem and to highlight the ways that each thinker both relies on some version of extimate causality and then repudiates it when it compromises, or seems to compromise, some cherished political tenet.


Cutting edge:  The story’s central figure is the subject in its social dimension as excessive to itself.  I explain how the social subject comes to acquire this excess by giving my readers an accessible account of set theoretic principles and fundamental concepts from nonclassical logic that converge with Alain Badiou’s philosophical writings as well as Lacan’s theories.  I discuss the Möbius topology of the social field in terms that link up with Felix Guattari’s early work and Giorgio Agamben’s current investigations.  I explore the utility of the excessive subject for thinking politics and ethics that spotlights features of Jacques Rancière’s, Walter Benjamin’s, Theodor Adorno’s, and Emmanuel Levinas’s writings.   The excessive subject turns out to provide a means for assessing the degree to which a given theorist has an adequate model of social interaction to ground political and ethical proscriptions.  I argue that the model of the excessive subject is crucial for the most innovative work being done today in political and ethical philosophy.


The disappearing edge:  The Möbius strip, with its paradoxical two-in-one-sidedness—its edge between two sides that mysteriously disappear as you trace a path along one side only to find yourself on the other—serves as a useful analogue to the excess of the social subject.  The excess of the social subject both separates it from its fellow subject and links it to them:  the excess of the subject, which is a function of the subject’s emergence by way of the addition of a negation to its initial state of being, is irremediable and essential.  I argue that we must understand that this excess is not the impediment to the social field but rather the means of producing and sustaining the social field.  As Jean-Luc Nancy points out, dreams of absolute comm-unity or comm-union fantasize that the excess of the social subject can be eradicated, a fantasy that predominates in the literature on political and ethical theory. Theories of ethical action, for example, that rely on the subsumption of one subject to the demands of a radical other, fantasy the erasure of the excess requisite for the social/ethical relation in the first place.  But, in fact, attempts to eradicate excess risk the collapse of the social field itself and set in motion catastrophic pathological defenses to protect the social field, examples of which tragically abound in modern history.  The book explains the generation of this excess, how the excessive subject functions in the social field, and how the circulation of affect in the social field promotes or impedes political and ethical activity. 


Gaining an edge:  I wrote this book for students and for others who wish to understand why social change theory has taken certain paths and ignored others.  I want them to know that many of the most significant thinkers of our day have been using the model of the excessive subject without making it explicit.  I want to see what happens when that model becomes more widely available.  I want students to acquire an advantage by learning a new set of tools with which to think.  My hope is that this book provides the means for a new appraisal of the possibilities for social change.  I look forward to the work that will be done with these new tools.