The Fallout from the 20th Century Quarrel Over the Subject

Nietzsche, as is often the case, was ahead of his age by decades on the matter of the human being’s agency: “There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed.”[1] Or, as he argues in Beyond Good and Evil, the subject or the “I” is simply the glue we apply between our experiences and actions, the thing that we presume holds it all together. But in fact we are multiple, “a social structure composed of many souls.” Nietzsche presents the “I” as merely the coincidental residue of the personal social structure, yet an effect that thinks it is the cause or agent. Reworking Louis XIV’s declaration, “L’Etat c’est moi,” Nietzsche writes, “L'Effet c'est moi: what happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth, namely, that the governing class identifies itself with the successes of the commonwealth.”[2]

Nietzsche did not invent discontent with the modern subject, but he did put it more forcefully and, despite his unsystematic predilections, more consistently than those before him. Such discontent must have an impact. Betty Friedan in the late 1950s and Christopher Lasch in the 1970s identified one such effect: the emptiness of the modern self, engendering a “culture of narcissism.” Here we will treat postmodernism’s theoretical appropriation of the reality that Friedan and Lasch grasped more experientially and then argue that the secular framework is the ultimate cause of contemporary identity-loss. The argument in the philosopical part of this essay will rely on two contemporary French philosophers, Alain de Libera and Vincent Descombes,[3] while it will draw on Karol Wojtyła and Hans Urs von Balthasar in the more constructive sections.

How the Subject Died in Postmodernism

The debates about the subject in the twentieth century are designated comprehensively as la Querelle (the quarrel) by Descombes.[4] The querelle’s standard genealogy of the modern subject—given archetypically by Heidegger—has a clear-cut beginning: Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum. Medieval historian and philosopher Alain de Libera, along with his occasional co-authors Étienne Balibar and Barbara Cassin, all contest that origin-story.[5] Descartes comes either too early or too late in the story: too early, if one is looking for the modern subject as transcendental ground of consciousness and as autonomous agent; de Libera and company name Kant as the true originator of that narrative.[6] Or too late, if one is looking for the location of Augustinian self-reflection within an Aristotelian structure of substance and accident; de Libera calls attention to the late-thirteenth-century Franciscan Peter John Olivi for that accomplishment. In fact, as de Libera points out, Descartes did not naturally use the word “subject,” although he was quite clear that his “ego” or “I” was found in res cogitans. He was logically forced to ascribe subjectivity to both res cogitans and res extensa, to both his thinking I and to his body, uneasily united in a way that hearkens back to the early Christian heresy of Nestorianism.[7]

Regardless of its origins, subjectivity becomes a central philosophical theme, especially in the twentieth century, in which the querelle centered around deconstructing and providing alternatives to the subject. In 1988, a group of French philosophers were invited by Jean-Luc Nancy to answer the question “Who comes after the subject?” Published in the journal Topoi and then expanded, with additional respondents, in a book, the essays encapsulate the querelle. Among others, Jacques Rancière questioned if we should even be using the more personal interrogative “who,” rather than the impersonal “what,” foreshadowing a post-human and biopolitical trend that has recently accelerated.[8]

Gilles Deleuze’s 1988 contribution insightfully connects the rise of modern subjectivity with modernity’s rejection of formal causality and, concomitantly, of essential realities that can be abstracted as universals. The modern subject, he writes, served “a function of universalization, in a field where the universal was no longer represented by objective essentials but by deeds, noetic or linguistic.”[9] After the modern abandonment of essences, an ersatz universality is found in the modern subject, who may lack a human nature but is nevertheless well-equipped for doing, which has long outranked being in academic philosophy and in the wider culture.

How did we get to this new, pragmatic universal of “the modern subject”? De Libera and company provide a nuanced “archaeology” of the modern subject. Rousseau provided an important development, that of authenticity. With his autobiographical works, the similarity in French between “subject” (sujet) and “subjection” (l’assujettissement) becomes philosophically important for the first time. Rousseau writes:

There is not a day when I do not recall with joy and emotion that unique and brief time in my life when I was completely me, when nothing prevented me from being truly myself and when I could say that I was alive . . . I could not bear subjection [assujettissement], I was completely free, and more than free because I was subject [assujetti] only to my affections, and I did only what I wanted to do.[10]

The authentic subject is the one who is subject only to himself, in this account—but the relation between subjectivity and subjection would be reconceived in the twentieth-century querelle. By then, thinkers recombined “the problem of subjectivity with the problem of subjection, which will give a completely new meaning to the philosophical question of the subject (and at the same time our perception of its history).”[11]

This reworking is seen clearly in Michel Foucault. While best known as a genealogist of power-relations, he insisted at the end of his life that the question of power was subordinate to that of the subject. His goal, he argued, “has not been to analyze the phenomena of power, nor to elaborate the foundations of such an analysis. My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.”[12] The two are related, of course. As he said, “If I tell the truth about myself, as I am now doing, it is in part that I am constituted as a subject across a number of power relations which are exerted over me and which I exert over others.”[13] Put more concisely, using the Rousseauean terms, he maintained that “the subject is constituted through practices of subjection.”[14]

By the time Foucault emerged on the scene, the querelle was already presupposing that there is a caesura between being a living human and being a subject, as we can see in Foucault’s formulations of subject-constitution.[15] On this point, Descombes, in his response to Nancy’s question, commented that the difference between an everyday use of the word “subject” and the philosophical subject is that, for the latter, “we no longer expect a proper name (designating a person) in answer to the question concerning the subject.”[16] But for these philosophies to be plausible, the development from a living human being to a subject must be explained by some element that triggers the reaction.

Accordingly, each postmodern theorist had to identify some force that precipitated human beings into subjects. As we have seen, Foucault privileged power relations. Marxist thinkers, such as Louis Althusser, emphasized economic and ideological forces. Neo-Nietzscheans, such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, focused on desire. Psychoanalysts, in particular the influential Jacques Lacan, emphasized the role of language and the confrontation with the other’s desire. Judith Butler went maximalist and married performative engagement with desire to Foucaultian power that speaks through Lacanian discourse.

All the variations can be reduced to an equation containing both constants and variables:

To believe that the subject [and Z] exists prior to X is to be conned by Y.

In this equation, Y is the mystifying agent, while X is the real mechanism of subject-construction. And occasionally a thinker will add an additional variable Z to be deconstructed. Here are some examples:

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche: To believe that the subject exists prior to the will to power is to be conned by the ascetic priest.
  2. Michel Foucault: To believe that the subject [and sexuality] exists prior to technologies of the self is to be conned by disciplinary and biopolitical power.
  3. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: To believe that the subject [and formal organization] exists prior to the production of desire is to be conned by earlier codes of organized desire.
  4. Judith Butler: To believe that the subject [and the gendered body] exists prior to the performative subjection to power is to be conned by heteronormative discourses of power.

The subject—in good company alongside God—here becomes the ultimate, ghostly thing-in-itself. Various powers-that-be (the various Ys) tell us that the subject exists, but they are fooling us, just as our anti-humanist abnegation (according to Feuerbach) once distracted us into believing the existence of God.

Subjects Human and Divine

The comparison between the subject and God is apt, and it deserves more thought than de Libera’s archaeology of the subject gives it. In the post-Kantian nineteenth century, both the “thing-in-itself” that would be the human subject as well as the transcendent God are removed from the realm of thought. Thus, it makes sense that, following on the heels of the nineteenth-century debunking of God, the human subject in the twentieth became the ripest fruit for the scythe of genealogical demystification.

Deleuze provides some of the rationale for the shift from the “death of God” to the “death of man” (a Foucauldian theme). He argues that Foucault shows that “the component forces of man” were, in the pre-modern era, organized and applied to the divine (Feuerbach again). Then, in the rise of modern secularism, these “component forces” were rearranged to compose man, “but to the extent that they entered into relationship with another type of forces, obscure forces of organization of ‘life,’ ‘production’ of wealth.’”

At present, because of the exhaustion of previous organizing forms, “new compositions must arise, and the death of man connects to the death of God to make room for other ashes or other utterances. In short, man only exists on a stratum depending on the relationships of forces taking place on it.”[17] When God falls, eventually man will as well, to be (as Deleuze hoped) reorganized anew.

Or take Louis Althusser, famous for his theory of “interpellation,” the formation of the human subject through being “called” into being by power. He argues, based on the Old Testament, that God there

Defines himself as the Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself (“I am that I am”), and he who interpellates his subject, the individual subjected to him by his very interpellation, i.e., the individual named Moses. And Moses, interpellated . . . recognizes that he is a subject, a subject of God, a subject subjected to God, a subject through the Subject and subjected to the subject.[18]

Yet, if God, the Subject par excellence, is dislodged, so is man. Or as Nietzsche summarizes the whole illusion pithily, “The error of mind as cause confused with reality! And made into the measure of reality! And called God!—”[19]

Thus, the transition from the disappearing God to the disappearing subject was not merely an accident of history. Yet another aspect of nineteenth-century thought, the Marxist rejection of mediation, further created the conditions for both disappearances.

The Judeo-Christian God “is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). His reality can only be experienced through mediation. Karl Marx grasped most clearly the connection between God’s mediated reality and man’s alienation. Marx trusted what he could see and calculate—the price of rent, the theft of wood. In the British Library, he cracked the code and passed on the key to his disciples: meaning is not found beneath the surface but hidden in plain sight, in the figures that show the movement of capital through history. Meaning is read off the surface, not in the depths.

This is one reason why Communist art privileges the clear message, because the way of ideology and alienation is to claim subterranean complexity that requires a mediator for its interpretation. Hence Stalin could dismiss Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth” (and condemn the composer to live the rest of his life in terror) with the damning slogan “muddle instead of music.” Mediation muddles, while dialectic materialism clarifies.

Marx sees such alienating mediation in both money and Christ.[20] The pairing is not as surprising as one might think. Money claims to represent unseen value; Christ claims to represent the unseen God. Both exchange-value and God have to go, because they both alienate. What is left is the easily grasped use-value—not “what does this hammer cost” but “for what can I use this hammer.” What would inevitably emerge, Marx believed, would be new relations between men, no longer mediated by money or religion.

But man himself immediately became problematic, because he too had to be read off the surface. (Deleuze was deeply Marxist when he contended, “What is most deep is the skin.”[21]) Marx himself makes the connection in his Comments on James Mill: “Christ is alienated God and alienated man.” When Christ’s mediation is demystified, not only the unapproachable light of God but also the mysterious depth of man will be put into question. Post-Marx, the task of demystification is not merely one rooted in philosophical conviction, but also asserts itself as a praxis of resistance. It is a duty to demystify, to create that hiatus between the living human being and the subject by showing how the subject is constructed from the outside in rather than the other way.

Practically speaking, though, revolution requires some resignation to the new anthropology of being constituted by forces beyond one’s control. This melancholic passivity reached a height in Judith Butler. She provoked a backlash from politically-minded feminists who disliked being told that their activism was less potent than the performative irony of drag-queens queering gender roles. Martha Nussbaum called it “hip quietism.”[22] Another feminist complained that Butler’s reduction of political activism to performative gender resistance meant that “what was once ‘the personal is political’ has become ‘the political need only be personal.’”[23] Want to improve the world? Queer your pronouns! But given that Butler fully accepts that “subjection” is the formation of the subject through its subject-ion to power, one cannot expect from her a more hopeful anthropology or politics. With Butler, there is no escaping the matrix of power.[24]

More recently, there has been a move toward replacing—or, better, saturating—the ontological, minus its mysterious depths of substance, with the horizontal reality of the political. Whatever the insights of these thinkers, on this point at least this strategy continues in another mode the anti-mediation agenda of recent thought. Thus Étienne Balibar proposed, in answer to Nancy’s question, that the citizen-subject follows the subject. Others, as I have noted, disputed the interrogative: it is not “who” succeeds the subject but rather “what.” Deleuze straddles these options by repristinating Spinoza into an ontology that post-humanist-friendly, while also replacing the infinity of the divine with the immanent universality of a field of political actors. Even here, Nietzsche reigns: what acts is not the subject but forces of desire (Deleuze’s reworking of the will to power).

Postmoderns as Phenomenologists of the Empty Self

This picture of the querelle over the subject has highlighted some problematic aspects, such as its over-privileging of constructive forces and its inherent atheism. But it can perhaps be redeemed by reading the contributions not as much as ontological and ethical proposals as phenomenological descriptions of the contemporary empty self. The secular meaningless that Friedan and Lasch saw in the 1950s through 1970s was converted into theory by postmodernists in the 1960s and 1970s.

As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has observed, in modernity we are no longer born into an identity but are assigned the task of creating it for ourselves. This is the victory of the idea of “self-construction,” a trend that some claim to see even in the sixteenth century.[25] It wins out over the historical alternative, namely, finding identity in our social situation. Descombes states, “Only a modern individual can experience an ‘identity crisis’ and emerge from it by ‘constructing his identity.’”[26] In modernity, we are given no assistance with this task: not from an idea of “human nature,” which has been deconstructed; not from social roles, which have been liquefied; and not from moral codes, which have been relativized. As Descombes notes, following Charles Taylor and Louis Dumont, moderns have been “disembedded” and “desocialized,” not in the sense of no longer living in society, but in the sense of finding one’s identity primarily as an individual, “posit[ing] herself as independent of the social ties she might also happen to have.”[27]

While seemingly liberating, the modern task of identity-creation is actually quite stressful, because I am incapable of assigning a complete identity to myself. The very formulation is a tautology. As a result, I am tasked with the impossible, and I feel it.

Further, if I alone am responsible for my self, I alone am also to blame when I fail. Descombes argues, “The right of subjectivity . . . is transformed into a duty to be oneself.”[28] Thus the practical result is that the modern posture of enlightened critique is channeled, as Bauman notes, into the “compulsive self-critique born of perpetual self-disaffection.”[29] Adolescents in particular seem to feel this as anxious self-loathing.[30]

Given this generalized discontent, some philosophers, Descombes foremost among them, are calling for a recovery of “the subject.” Despite its misadventures, Descombes thinks the word captures an essential reality and that this reality is best understood through a philosophy of action.[31] But this philosophy of action must be accompanied by a metaphysics of the subject, and that requires giving the much-derided substance-ontology of Aristotle a second look.

Repristinating Substance-Metaphysics

Descombes undertakes this philosophy of action by returning to metaphysics. He argues that our ordinary language of subjectivity shows that the subject is not a question of self-consciousness (grammatically, not first-person language) but a question of agency (third-person language): “Who is it who did that?” we ask.[32] This centrality of agency leads him to argue that ethics, that is, “practical philosophy does not require a thinking of the (philosophical) subject” of consciousness but a thinking of the suppositum.[33] In his 2004 book, Le Complément de Sujet, he is even clearer about his Aristotelian stripes.

He asks if, among the various usages of “subject” by philosophy, there might be one that is intelligible and necessary:

I answer that there is one usage that fulfills this condition: namely, the subject as complement of the agent. Such a subject must have the traits needed to play the role of an agent: it must not only be identifiable as an individual but also present in the world as a causal power. This subject has therefore all the traits of a substance or, to use the technical and traditional term, of a suppositum. In other words, the subject that must be discovered by us is more Aristotelian than Cartesian.[34]

Thus, the philosophy of action that Descombes has in mind is not one that replaces the subject with action, as the querelle’s various formulations of subject-construction did. It is rather a philosophy that roots action in a subject—in, that is, a substance, because the Aristotelian substance or suppositum is what allows for this grounding.

This metaphysics means that the person is always and primordially a reality that exists in itself, before any performing, willing, desiring, and so forth. Karol Wojtyła, perhaps unbeknownst to Descombes, had already created such a philosophy of action rooted in the human substance. Wojtyła insisted that substance anchored the self in being, before acting. In fact, existence is the “first act (actus)” of every substance. “All of the dynamism” of the acting person “derives from that [first] dynamism: operari sequitur esse.”[35] By way of contrast, querelle participant Judith Butler thinks that performative action “endows ontology”; being follows upon acting.[36] If, instead, acting follows upon being, then there is a deep reality in every person that is insulated from the mechanisms of power, as I will elaborate shortly. Actions may be controlled, but the actus essendi cannot be. This means that subjectivity is released from the grip of subjection.[37]

In repristinating substance, Wojtyła and Descombes also repristinate mediation, because substance only appears in the accidents that inhere in it. Substance is mediated, that is, by its accidents. This means that the inner depth of the human person regains an ontological foothold, against the querelle’s insistence on legible, exterior processes of subject-construction. In fact, Wojtyła argued that subjectivity is not something that can be constructed from the outside in. “Human beings exist ‘in themselves,’” he argued, and so the interior reality of the person precedes its exterior expression.[38] While his philosophy of action conceded much to the formative reality of praxis, he still insisted on the priority of the personal interior to the active exterior.[39] “The body expresses the person,” he reiterated as Pope, meaning that the body is a cipher if it is cut off from the interior that it was made to express.[40]

As we have seen, postmoderns directly challenged such anthropologies of interior substance expressed by the exterior body and action. Here is Judith Butler: “I am suggesting that this self is not only irretrievably ‘outside,’ constituted in social discourse, but that the ascription of interiority is itself a publicly regulated and sanctioned form of essence fabrication.”[41] In this understanding, to argue that the self is an interior reality is to allow oneself to be regulated by power discourses. But John Paul II turns that objection on its head: in fact, without the interior anchor, one’s person can be completely colonized by power. “The greatness of work [or action] is inside man,” beyond the reach of all totalitarian intrusiveness.[42]

The Core of the Subject: Mission

But what is in this interior? Do Descombes and Wojtyła merely displace the problem to the empty depths of the person, that inaccessible thing-in-itself? Descombes, for one, does a superb job of debunking inadequate theories of the subject and of its identity, but he has a harder time proposing a substitute. As Descombes understands, identity in its most interesting sense is about answering the question, “Who am I?” But he winds up back at a variety of expressive self-construction, albeit one rewritten in an Aristotelian way.[43] His third-person approach also short-changes the first-person question, “Who am I?” His proposal is not so much wrong as incomplete; it remains vulnerable to the kinds of critiques he has leveled against other forms of subjective identity formation.

This is where Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological anthropology is so helpful. Balthasar observes that philosophy only gets us so far with the matter of identity. It can get us to the necessity of the person being an individual substance of a rational nature, from Boethius and reappropriated by Wojtyła and Descombes. But no one answers the existential question “Who am I?” by falling back on Boethius’s definition. On its own, the Boethian definition is necessary but not sufficient, because it still does not tell me what my identity is. Unlike other individuals of a species, human beings are also rational persons, who grapple with questions of meaning and differ significantly from all the other individuals of the human species. We have immortal souls. For what purpose does this particular person exist?[44]

Balthasar argues that that the individual person has a meaning, but the content of that meaning can only be received, not constructed. As Joseph Ratzinger put it, “Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.”[45]

Ultimately, the person is a God-relative reality, and Balthasar contended that the person’s content can only be defined by the mission each one is given by the Father. This mission is the temporal transposition of the eternal idea God has of each person—the “name” written on the “white stone” of Revelation 2:17, known only to “the one who receives it.” This name is then expressed in a life by means of a particular mission that participates in Christ’s mission from the Father.

This receptive approach is diametrically opposed to the self-construction of querelle philosophers. But it also nuances the social-tie version of premodern identity-formation, in which one finds identity in one’s family and social class. These are received realities that play an important role in understanding who one is, but they are the natural realities that are elevated and perfected in the supernatural grace of mission.

We can only receive our names, wonderingly like Mary before Gabriel or rebelliously like Saul on his horse heading to Damascus. Neither was self-created, nor did they bribe a mission-name from God by their deeds. Indeed, for Saul, it was rather the opposite. Instead, they were given a mission and only thereby equipped for deeds. Mary learned her name was “full of grace.” Saul learned his was “Paul.” The Pauline letters reveal that this new identity came as a gracious gift that he then spent the rest of his life working to fit. The mission that grants identity is, as Balthasar puts it, the magnet that aligns the scattered iron filings of a life.[46]

God speaks our names because he first and eternally speaks His Own. In speaking the Word, the Father says all there is to say. What Betty Friedan and Christopher Lasch, as well as the postmoderns, got right was to recognize, with no little courage, the disorder of the empty self in its various permutations. What none of us could possibly get right, without revelation, is the solution that comes undeservedly to us from the Creator. The God whose name is I Am Who Am is a God who bestows identity when he bestows being.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann, essay 1, §13.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §19 (New York: Penguin, 2003), cited in Étienne Balibar, Barbara Cassin, and Alain de Libera, “Subject,” Dictionary of Untranslateables: A Philosophical Lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin, translated (ironically enough) by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014), 1070-1091 at 1079. Elsewhere Alain de Libera breaks down Nietzsche’s reading of the Cartesian cogito thus: “M: Thinking is an activity. m: Every activity requires an agent that is acting (that is, a subject that is acting). C: Therefore, if there is thinking, there must be something (that is, a subject) that thinks” (“When Did the Modern Subject Emerge?” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 82, no. 2 (2008): 181-220 at 184). Nietzsche denies the minor and hence the conclusion.

[3] De Libera is an unusually well-equipped guide through this history: the first chair in the history of medieval philosophy at the research institute Collège de France since Gilson, some sixty years previously, de Libera also circulates comfortably in the creative theoretical world of contemporary French thinking. His multi-volume work on the history of the subject is titled Archaeology of the Subject, deploying a methodical term (“archaeology”) from Michel Foucault, while working in the institute at which Foucault worked (the Collège de France) until the latter’s death in 1984. Descombes is unique among French philosophers for being fully immersed in contemporary French thought while spending much time reading Anglo-American philosophy, especially the followers of Wittgenstein. He has taught at Johns Hopkins and Emory and is a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, in addition to his position at the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron in the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

[4] Vincent Descombes, Le Complément de Sujet: Enquête sur le fait d’agir de soi-même, NRF Essais (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 7 and following.

[5] In the following, I am relying on Balibar, Cassin, and de Libera, “Subject”; de Libera, “When Did the Modern Subject Emerge?”; and de Libera, L’invention du Sujet Moderne, Cours du Collège de France 2013-2014 (Paris: Vrin, 2015).

[6] Others also play a role: Leibniz (de Libera, “When Did the Modern Subject Emerge?” 216-218) and Locke (Étienne Balibar, Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology [New York: Fordham University Press, 2017], 74-91). For Kant, see also J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (New York: Cambridge, 1998), 429-530.

[7] De Libera concludes vis-à-vis Descartes: “Thus, there is no ‘Cartesian subject’ in Descartes, both because the Cartesian theory of mind and thought lacks a concept of subject—this was the core of Hobbes’s criticism—and, paradoxically, because there are too many subjects in his philosophy: mind and body, the two substances whose composition constitutes the composite entity called ‘man’” (“When Did the Modern Subject Emerge?” 202-203). On Cartesian Nestorianism, see Alain de Libera, “Subject Re-/decentered,” Radical Philosophy, vol. 167 (May/June 2011): 15-23 at 19-22.

[8] Jacques Rancière, “After What,” Topoi 7, no. 2 (Sept. 1988): 181-185. See Christian P. Haines and Sean Grattan, “Life After the Subject,” Cultural Critique 96 (Spring 2017): 1-36, introducing an issue dedicated, in conscious contrast with Nancy’s, to the question “What comes after the subject?”

[9] Gilles Deleuze, “’A Philosophical Concept …’” Topoi 7, no. 2 (Sept. 1988): 111-112 at 111.

[10] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (fourth promenade), translated and quoted in Balibar, Cassin, and de Libera, “Subject,” 1084. Cf. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Boston: Harvard, 1989), 350-390.

[11] Balibar, Cassin, and de Libera, “Subject,” 1084.

[12] Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 8, no. 4 (Summer, 1982): 777-795, at 777.

[13] Michel Foucault, “Critical Theory / Intellectual History,” trans. Jeremy Harding, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1990), 17-46 at 39.

[14] Michel Foucault, “An Aesthetics of Existence,” trans. Alan Sheridan,  in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984 (New York: Routledge, 1990), 47-53 at 50.

[15] See Vincent Descombes, “A Propos of the ‘Critique of the Subject’ and of the Critique of this Critique,” Topoi 7, no. 2 (Sept. 1988): 123-131 at 125.

[16] Descombes, “A Propos of the ‘Critique of the Subject,’” 127.

[17] Gilles Deleuze, “Michel Foucault’s Main Concepts,” reprinted in Between Deleuze and Foucault, ed. Nicolae Morar, Thomas Nail and Daniel W. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 59-74 at 67. Foucault’s thoughts can bee see as early as his “complementary thesis” for his doctorate: “Is not the death of God in effect manifest in a doubly murderous gesture which, by putting an end to the absolute, is at the same time the murder of man himself? For man, in his finitude, is not separable from the infinity of which is he both the negation and the herald” (“Thèse complementaire,” 126-127, cited in David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1993, 89).

[18] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 167, quoted in Balibar, Cassin, and de Libera, “Subject,” 1085.

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Four Great Errors,” §3, in Twilight of the Idols, Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer (Indianapolis, IN.: Hackett, 1997), 32.

[20] Karl Marx, Comments on James Mill, “Éléments d’économie politique” [1844] (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), pp. 211-238. I comment in “The Body, Alienation, and Gift in Marx and Wojtyła,” Proceedings of The Heart of Work, Oct. 19-20, 2017, in Pensando il Lavoro, edited by Giorgio Faro, vol. II/5 (Rome: Edizioni Università Santa Croce, 2017), pp. 223-237.

[21] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (New York: Columbia, 1990), 10. He is quoting Paul Valéry. For more on Deleuze’s aesthetics of the surface, in contrast to the Christian aesthetic of expressive depth, see my “Deleuze, Balthasar, and John Paul II on the Aesthetics of the Body,” Theological Studies, forthcoming.

[22] Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody: The Hip Quietism of Judith Butler,” The New Republic, Feb. 122, 1999, 37-43.

[23] Elisa Glick, “Sex Positive: Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression,” Feminist Review 64 (2000): 19-45, here 31.

[24] I treat Butler at more length in “A Wojtyłian Reading of Performativity and the Self in Judith Butler,” Christian Bioethics.

[25] See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Chicago, 2005). See also Taylor, Sources of the Self, for a sensitive and detailed history of this transition.

[26] Vincent Descombes, Puzzling Identities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 104.

[27] Descombes, Puzzling Identities, 105, 107.

[28] Descombes, Puzzling Identities, 109.

[29] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (New York: Wiley, 2008), 38.

[30] See in particular Donna Freitas, The Happiness Effect (Oxford: OUP, 2017).

[31] Vincent Descombes, “Vincent Descombes par lui-même,” Cités 58 (2014), 193-196 at 194.

[32] Descombes, “Vincent Descombes,” 195.

[33] Descombes, “A Propos of the ‘Critique of the Subject,’” 125, emphasis in the original.

[34] Descombes, Le Complément de Sujet, 15, translation mine, emphases in the original.

[35] My translation from the Italian edition of Karol Wojtyła, Persona et Atto (Person and Act [1969]), in Metafisica della Persona: Tutte le Opere Filosofiche e Saggi Integrativi (Milan: Bompiani, 2003), 831-1216 at 926-927.

[36] Judith Butler, “How Bodies Come to Matter: Interview with Irena Costera Meijer and Baukje Prins,” Signs 23 (1998): 275-286, here 280. Wojtyła allowed that, after this primary act of being, being may indeed follow upon action. This dynamic is described in, e.g., Aristotelian virtue ethics, in which the action of a person forms her as a certain kind of person. But this action is always dependent upon the primary reality of being a substance that exists.

[37] Precisely because of this dynamic of subjection and subjectivity, some Aristotelians have begun to argue for feminism to reclaim substance metaphysics. A “subject that is sufficiently unified and independent of social construction to act as a free and responsible moral agent” will be able to resist oppressive social and cultural forces, whereas the constructed subject has no ontological foundation for resistance (Melissa Moschella, “Personal Identity and Gender: A Revised Aristotelian Approach,” in Gender Identities in a Globalized World, ed. Ana Marta González and Victor J. Seidler [New York: Humanity, 2008], 75-108 at 78).

[38] Karol Wojtyła, “The Person: Subject and Community,” from Person and Community, 219-261 at 227.

[39] In Karol Wojtyła, “Teoria e Prassi nella Filosofia della Persona Humana,” Sapienza 29 (1977): 377-384; “Teoria – Prassi: Un Tema Umano e Christiano,” in vol. 1 of Teoria e Prassi: Atti del VI Congresso Internazionale, ed. Benedetto D’Amore and Agostino Giordano (Napoli: Edizione Dominicane Italiane, 1976): 31-41; and “The Problem of the Constitution of Culture through Human Praxis,” in Person and Community (NY: Peter Lang, 1993), 265-67. I comment in “A Body of Work: Labor and Culture in Karol Wojtyła,” excerpted here in Church Life Journal.

[40] Inter alia, John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 7:2, 154.

[41] In her early essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4 (Dec. 1988): 519-531, here 528.

[42] Karol Wojtyła, “Material,” 1, in The Quarry, from Collected Poems (London: Hutchinson, 1981), 80.

[43] See Descombes, Puzzling Identities, 129-134.

[44] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992) for Balthasar’s treatment of these questions, elaborated in Angela Franks, “The Mission and Person of Christ and the Christian in Hans Urs von Balthasar,” in The Center is Jesus Christ Himself (Washington, D.C.: Catholic, forthcoming).

[45] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 73. Ratzinger’s understanding of mission-identity is quite close to Balthasar’s, although less worked out, in his Introduction to Christianity, 184-228; Behold the Pierced One (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 13-46; and “On the Essence of the Priesthood,” in Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996), 105-131.

[46] Balthasar, Christian State of Life, 74.

Featured Image: Photo by HIOTA, no title, taken in Prague on 16 January 2019; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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