Subjects and Truth
What is the precise relationship between the subject and truth? This question is more complex than it may first appear, but let’s start with the basic concepts and build from the simple to the complex. So we begin with the two terms that together inspire our question: subjects and truth.
Subject is a term that comes to us with a long but pretty straightforward history that begins (at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in the Old French language around the 12th century. The term then was suget, soget, which comes into its present form “subject” in the 15-17th centuries. The term’s prefix “sub” comes from the Latin meaning “under” or “subordinate.” To be subject is to be subordinate to the power of a ruler. In Medieval times this meant to be under the rule and protection of a monarch or prince. When the nature of political power shifted away from monarchical rule (grounded in a theology called “Divine Right”) and into the form of a modern-nation state (grounded in a purely secular foundation debarred from transcendence) one would think that the very meaning of term “subject” too would shift.
But it is curious to explore why this term’s core nature remains constant while the structure of power that determines the very meaning of the term “subject” changes. In other words, I want to try to explain why something (in this case the “subject”) remains constant while that which defines the term “subject” changes. Again the political power structure shifts from a monarchical form to a secular state structure. In England this happens much sooner than elsewhere in the European mainland. Think of the two big revolutions in political power that happen nearly synonymously within a single historical epoch: The United States’ Revolution 1776 and The French Revolution in 1789. Although each revolution unfolded in terms of its own determinative logic, it can be said that despite their differences the ideas and philosophies that motivated these two great events were similar. Indeed the single philosophical trend responsible for animating the great revolutions was the Enlightenment at the core of which stood the twin stance of:
1- The Sovereignty of the Subject as Absolute
2- The Unchecked Power of Reason as an Ahistorical Universal Truth
And it was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who united these two Enlightenment Axioms into a singular indistinguishable unit that was at the same time a Universal ethical imperative. For all human action, according to Kant had to fold to the universal logic of reason itself under the banner of “duty.” Finally it is the duty of all reasonable persons “subjects” to perform that action which itself conforms to the ahistorical logic of Reason alone irrespective of one’s tradition or metanarrative truth-claims. To state this in its negative form would be to say that anyone who broke the Universal-Ethical-Law by not obeying the demand of duty must thus be irrational and contradictory and therefore not a “subject” at all.
Much of all this is very complicated, but if we take a step-back and look at the transformation from the Monarch to the Nation-State we see that philosophy via the Enlightenment greatly assisted in this transition—which at the same time—registered one of philosophies greatest contradictions—a contradiction embedded in the very name of Enlightenment “logical coherence.” Here then is my thesis:
The movement from the Monarch to the Nation-State did not free the subject from its subornation to political power it simply shifted the power-source itself. In other words—this is the very heart of the logic of equivocation! (saying one thing, but meaning an entirely different thing).
In this precise respect Monarchical rule and the Secular Nation-State simply function in the same way relative to the subject. But just as Monarchical rule has its mythos that grounded its authority in something external to itself (i.e., a theology) so too the Nation-State has its “story” grounded in falsehood. What is this duplicity of the Secular Nation-State form? It is the idea that the Subject is the ground of absolute authority as such—but really it is not the subject who has authority but rather a disembodied Universal Logic called Reason that places its absolute demand onto the human subject to OBEY! In other words, you are free to do as you please so long as you OBEY the demand of Universal Reason! This is the updated version of a theology that tells you to “Love God and do what you please!” And this precise demand to OBEY is the legal logic employed by the Nation-State in order to maintain peace (i.e., to maintain its own power).
Of course the logic of the modern Nation-State is much more controlling than a simple Kantian articulation of a Universal Law of Reason. But it is interesting to trace the logic of power via historic paradigm shifts—shifts that potentially are able to liberate the subject from oppressive power-relations. But in each case philosophy (or theology) is there to send out an equivocal message: You are free! Or Sapere aude! (Dare to know!), so long as you OBEY the superego! Thus, the subject is given a desire to fulfill the law even at the cost of undoing itself!
In this respect—the subject is sundered from truth—form liberation! The question we are left with then is not: Can the Subject be liberated from Obeying…but rather who or what are you going to obey? I would suggest to Obey the demands of an impersonal Universal Law is to surrender any possibility for any future freedom at all. Freedom in this case may be see not in obedience but in the disobedience to the logic of abstract enslavement.