Dead White Whales: From Leviathanology to Subjectology, and Vice Versa

Marshal Sahlins
“A man of a thousand masks,” one of his biographers said of Michel Foucault, so how seriously can we take the guise he assumed to say that power arises in struggle, in war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. “Who fights whom?” he asked. “We all fight each other.” Critics and exegetes hardly notice Foucault’s connection to Hobbes except to mention the apparently radical disclaimer that his own notion of power is “the exact opposite of Hobbes’ project in Leviathan.” We have to give up our fascination with sovereignty, “cut off the king’s head,” free our attention from the repressive institutions of state. Power comes from below. It is invested in the structures and cleavages of everyday life, omnipresent in quotidian regimes of knowledge and truth. If in the Hobbesian contract subjects constitute the power, the Commonwealth that keeps them all in awe, in the Foucauldian schema power constitutes the subjects. All the same, the structuralism that Foucault abandoned for a sense of the poly-amorphous perverse, this structuralism taught that opposites are things alike in all significant respects but one. So when Foucault speaks of a war of each against all, and in the next breath even hints of a Christian divided self – “And there is always within each of us something that fights something else” – we are tempted to believe that he and Hobbes had more in common than the fact that, with the exception of Hobbes, both were bald. – Marshal Sahlins

The opposition between Man and the City, between private and polis interest, is already present in classical writings: in several dialogues of Plato as well as many passages of Thucydides. In Thucydides the opposition is notably grounded in a self-regarding human nature driven by desires of glory and gain. The simple-minded sociological dualism of this counterposition of individual and society, the sense of a transparent and unmediated relationship between them, was likewise destined to have a brilliant historical career. Individuals in particular and society in general confronted each other over an empty social space, as though there were no institutions, values and relationships of diverse character that at once connected and differentiated them. This ancient simplicity continues in the latest, most advanced notions of societal constraint, such as Althusserian interpellation or Foucauldian power. True these speak of mediating structures, but only to assign them the singular function of transmitting the larger order of society into the bodies of individuals.

Along the way to modernity, as it passed through early Christianity, the classical individual-society dualism had absorbed a heavy moral charge, making the conflict well nigh irreconcilable. Pericles might reasonably argue that individuals could best achieve their own happiness by submitting themselves to the public good. In the Christian version, however, the earthly city was no longer Athens but the residence of inherently sinful man; hence the absolute positive value of society as a providential instrument of repression. For St. Augustine, the social control of unruly bodies – of the child by the father, as of the citizen by the state – was a necessary condition of human survival in this contemptible world of Adamic self-pleasers. Otherwise, men would devour each other like beasts. For a mythico-philosophical translation of the same, see Hobbes. For a modern sociological version, Durkheim. Man is double, Durkheim said, double and divided: composed of a moral cum intellectual self, received from society, struggling to hold in check an egocentric and sensual self that is essentially pre-human. But Durkheim is not really modern. This idea of man as half angel, half beast is archaic.

Modern is the more imperialist philosophy that attempts to encompass one side of the ancient dualism in the other: subsuming the individual in the society or else assuming the society in the individual; such that in the end only one of the pair has any independent existence. Either society is no more than the sum of relations between enterprising individuals, as Jeremy Bentham and Margaret Thatcher would have it; or individuals are nothing more than personifications of the greater social and cultural order, as in certain progressive theories of the construction of subjectivity by power that amount to the death of the subject. The development of capitalism and its discontents gave the old anthropological dualism still another twist, specifically political and in some ways dialectical. Right and Left pushed each other into complementary and extreme arguments of individual and cultural determinism. On the Right, rational choice theory and other such brands of Radical Individualism: all content to resolve social totalities into the projects of self-fashioning individuals. On the Left, concepts of the cultural superorganic and other species of Leviathanology: draconian notions of autonomous cultural behemoths with the powers of fashioning individual subjects to their own purposes.

Radical Individualism is the everyday self-consciousness of bourgeois society; Leviathanology is its recurrent nightmare. Supposing that the values actually originating in the society are, as the means and ends of utilitarian action, attributes of the subject, Radical Individualism suppresses the social and cultural as such – ontologically, as Louis Dumont says. Conversely, Leviathanology dispenses with the subject as such, since he or she merely personifies the categories of the social-cultural totality, and shis actions carry out its independent laws of motion. The famous liberal ideology of the Invisible Hand already harbored these antithetical anthropologies in its obeisances to the great objective social mechanism that mysteriously transformed the good that people did for themselves into the well being of the nation. Laissez-faire thus included its negation. And if Adam Smith & Co. could argue for the freedom of individuals to indulge their natural propensity to truck and barter, on the ground that the social good would automatically follow, the critique of capitalism countered by rendering visible this self-subsisting Great Pumpkin with the power of encompassing and conjugating the behavior of individuals in ways beyond their power and control. Thus Marx, in the Preface to Capital:

Here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains, however much he may subjectively rise above them.
In the early 20th century, the “superorganic” Anthropology of Kroeber and White indeed envisioned a great cultural critter, with people as it were trapped in its belly as it proceeded on its own course. “Behold now the behemoth…he is a king over all the children of pride.” Here was a primary source of that ominous sense of culture as an authoritarian prescription of conduct: especially selfdefeating conduct, as in the so-called culture of poverty or the “traditional culture" that keeps “underdeveloped peoples” from becoming happy just like us. But even the advanced leviathanological discourses of Althusser and Foucault retained characteristics of the terrific ancestor, employing a pervasive sense of repression without contradiction in their constructions of subjectivity without agency.

Foucault especially. The most awesome transubstantiation of that old holy ghost, the Invisible Hand, into an all-controlling culture-at-large, would have to be Foucault’s pancratic vision of power. Here is power as irresistible as it is ubiquitous, power emanating from everywhere and invading everyone, saturating the everyday things, relations and institutions of human existence, and transmitted thence into people’s bodies, perceptions, knowledges and dispositions. The theoretical effect of this vision, many critics agree, is not merely “an overestimation of the efficacy of disciplinary power,” but “an impoverished understanding of the individual which cannot account for experiences that fall outside the realm of the ‘docile’ body” (L. McNay). Foucault rightly denies he is a structuralist, since all that is left of structuralism in his problematic is its avoidance of human agency. His position is indeed “post-structuralist,” inasmuch as it theoretically dissolves the structures – families, schools, hospitals, philanthropies, technologies, etc. – into their instrumental effects of discipline and control. It is the classic acid bath of functionalist wisdom, reducing the actual substance of the institution to its conjectured purposes and consequences. Also classic is the effective resolution of the problem to the simple society/individual dualism. Indeed, it all ends with the return of the repressed individual – Subjectology.

For with this dissolution of cultural orders into subjugation effects, the only thing left standing, the only thing substantively remaining to the analysis, is the subject into whom these totalities have been interpolated – or the subject thus interpellated. The effect is indeed ironic because the original project of Leviathanology, insofar as it was opposed to Radical Individualism, was to reduce the individual subject to nullity. But in the upshot, all the structures having been erased as such in favor of their instrumental effects, the subject is the only thing left with any attributes of agency or efficacy. Hence the return of the very metaphysics of the subject that the analysis had meant to deny. Suddenly the pages of the up-to-date journals are filled with all kinds of subjects, subjectivities and selves, thus with an Anthropology in the form of allegory, telling tales of cultural forms and forces in terms of abstract collective persons. Taking the place of the structures is a whole new cast of characters, featuring bourgeois subjects, national subjects, postmodern subjects, late capitalist subjects, colonial subjects, postcolonial subjects, postcolonial African subjects, not to forget “the easily recognized wounded subject of the modern liberal state.” Then too there are the Cartesian selves and the Melanesian selves, the neoliberal selves and the subaltern selves, plus a whole population of subjectivities: globalized, hybridized, creolized, modernized, commoditized and otherwized. It is a brave new world that has such people in it. Just as ancient mythologies could represent cosmic forces in anthropomorphic guises, so in the pages of scholarly journals these abstract personifications of cultural macrocosms now strut and fret their hour upon the stage doing…what, exactly?

Well, if not exactly nothing, not too much it seems. Occasionally there are inflated claims: as those made of a certain “late socialist subject,” who according to an article in Public Culture was the “source” and “inner logic” of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Or curious promises, as those of certain practitioners of “progressive social theory,” concerned “with the status and formulation of the subject, the implications of a theory of the subject for a theory of democracy.” But it is difficult to see how such concern for the subject can compensate for the historical formations and dynamics that have thus been anthropomorphized. All we get is postcolonial subjects who resist (but in what determinate way?); colonial subjects who are disciplined or repressed (again, in what way?); bourgeois subjects who are alienated or wounded (like you and me?) or else who commodify (what?) or consume (what?); national subjects who identify (with what?), or other such tautological people. If a cultural or historical analysis were really wanted, one would have to return to the structural conditions that had been lost in the translation to subjective terms.

Nor will the liturgical invocation of "multiple subject positions" do much good. Either the multiplicity is resolved into pure individualism, since in principle there are as many subject positions as there are individuals; or it replicates Leviathanology in general by generating a school of whales, a collection of essentialized, collective persons instead of the one giant one. Either way, Leviathanology ends up in the tautology with which Radical Individualism began: with an abstract and ideal subject possessing the whole kingdom of social ends in the form of his or her own private ends. In the theoretical event, all the evils that were supposed to belong to culture, essentialization, totalization and their ilk, also got transferred to this poor shnook.


from Waiting for Foucault, Still (pdf)