In The Micro-Politics of Capital, Jason Read describes the contradiction that is raised for the subject between “the total subjection of sociality and subjectivity to capital and the concomitant development of a subjective and social power irreducible to abstract labor” (119). Read points to a contradiction that gels into the problem of “thinking resistance” (11). I approach the problem of the production of subjectivity, in Read’s terms, of the “more than one” (Balibar’s transinidividual) from a different perspective, which is rooted in Arendt’s critical insight about how the “more than” of preference is not opposed to necessity, but rather, in its capacity to will or choose against the given, remains able to provoke necessity, to see the violence behind necessity. Preference, the “styles, desires, communities, and ways of communicating” (147), to use Read’s phrasing, that become productive in “real subsumption” do not represent a depature from the “necessities of “bare life’” (147), nor do they represent the shift or temporal progression from one mode of production to another; rather, these “preferences” are there from the beginning, first registered as qualities destroyed in “primitive accumulation,” by the “violence necessary to destroy precapitalist social relations” (14). The destruction of preferences is actually, however, the creation of “needs and wants,” the transformation of the oppressive violence of the master into the violence which is there is the force of necessity. Arendt’s interest in preference is linked to her abiding concern with “the beginning,” and with the potential for freedom that is created in this moment of expropriation, the unearthing of what appears as natural or necessary as man-made and political. Arendt describes this as Marx’s most explosive contribution, but following Hegelian turn, in which the recovery of the “ability to act,” which now places laborers under their “daily needs and wants” (53) makes action “irresistible,” not any longer from a feeling of “being violated,” but “by virtue of the very necessity under which emancipation had put the working class” (53).
Arendt’s critique of Marx in On Revolution and The Human Condition and her copious discussions of the thinking individual make her unpopular among theorists of the revolutionary subject. In fact, Arendt is often with the assumption of the liberal subject, but it is more accurate to say that Arendt hits upon the contradictions between the liberal subject and the revolutionary, proposing that the problem of this subject is not, as it has long been assumed, getting rid of the “responsible and isolated subject.” For Arendt, the illusion of the individual subject is necessary (or inevitable) and attempts to do away with it—to reveal how the singular “I” is a collective “We”—end up circling around the problems of agency invoked by this formulation. For Arendt, this illusion is a false problem (Scheinproblem), one whose calls for demystification end up contributing to a mystification that is far worthier of being demystified: the confusion of being at once spectators and actors and the tendency to mistake spectating for acting. It is this illusion, according to Arendt, that allows liberal and revolutionary subjects alike to develop a political morality grounded in the certainty of the self. Whereas this illusion can be disentangled from what appears as historical or economic necessity, the persistence of that other subjective illusion—of the “I”’s feeling that she is a singular one with wants and needs—reveals how “necessary” this articulation is to the concept of freedom.
Preference does not involve becoming free from this necessity, but continually unearths the violent, non-natural premises of necessity, developing the capacity to intervene in this necessity by foregrounding the role of the spectator—our role as spectators—even when it is more compelling to understand ourselves as actors. Arendt’s ideas about preference end up illuminating her discussion of how terror results when necessity replaces freedom, and these insights are significant—not only because of the implicit warning, but because the discussion makes an argument for a opposition of art and politics, based on the what has been seen to happen choices become mistaken as criterion for the endpoint of revolution. The opposition of art and politics is not, as first it may seem, an argument for an apolitical aesthetics. Quite the opposite: the aesthetic is unearthed as a political moment; this unearthing is what I will refer to as aesthetic activity, for it is—quite akin to discussion of the subject—about “recover[ing] its ability to act.” But in being read as political, this artistic “choice” does not, of course, become necessarily political or become a “criterion” for political activity.
picture: Marsha Cottrell,