Part I: Joerg Rieger and Frederick Douglass on the “Myth of Individualism” and the Eruption of Alternative Subjectivities From the Underside

In the context of discussing Lacan’s distinction between “realism” as that which the dominant group takes as reality—master narratives, nationalisms etc. belong here—and the real, the underside of “realism,” Joerg Rieger highlights the “myth of individualism.”

Individualism is the sort of master narrative that those in power who share in the dominant subjectivity tell about themselves in order to cover up and repress the real—that is, all those who have contributed to their success and those on whose backs their success is ultimately built.  This repressed world of the individualist includes teachers, parents, and peers, but also housekeepers, workers who produce at low ages, and all the other service providers and subordinates in the command structure.[1]

Rieger continues, accenting the ways in which the narrative of individualism is intimately connected with the construction of dominant subjectivities.

The seemingly self-made dominant subject must tell realism’s story of individualism and repress the real; this is the only way to avoid being challenged by another kind of subjectivity that is part of the real.  The Lacanian notion of the repressed real helps us see that there is no autonomous subject.  Individualism is merely the myth of the powerful; even the dominant subjectivity cannot exist in isolation.  Oppressors who seek to safeguard their own subjectivity by perpetuating the master narrative of individualism simply fool themselves because their identity is invariably built in relation to others and, more specifically, on the back of others.[2]South Carolina Slaves Unknown Artist

Here Rieger highlights the fact that the so-called “self-made dominant subject” is always already in relation to others.  More to the point, such “self-made” individuals—particularly those quite content to live within rather than beyond the “spirit of the Empire”—constitute their subjectivities and identities in relation to those whom they script, oppress, exploit, marginalize, and confine to urban and (to borrow Glenn Loury’s term) other “nether” non-spaces of existence.

In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass captures our heteronomous (rather than autonomous) way of being in the world in his narration of the reciprocal nature of the master/slave relation.  Covey, a particularly merciless slave owner, was renowned for his “ability” to break slaves, and Douglass, unfortunately, became existentially acquainted with Covey’s “skills” in cruelty on a regular basis.  After one of Covey’s near-death beatings, Douglass decided to flee; however, feeling trapped, hungry, and having no permanent place to reside, he eventually returned to the plantation.  Recognizing that his return will result in some form of violent “discipline” at Covey’s hands, Douglass experiences a “conversion” of sorts.  That is, rather than remain a docile slave, he chooses the (active) path of resistance; when Covey attacked him with rope in hand, Douglass—at that time a teenager—defended himself and took his “master” to task.  “At this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.”[3] Douglass’s response caught Covey completely off-guard, and for the first time Douglass saw Covey tremble—the myth of the autonomous “self-made dominant” subject began to unravel.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.  Rather than hand Douglass over to the authorities or have him severely beaten or hung—all common and accepted practices in that day—Covey does nothing.  For the remainder of his “disciplinary training” on Covey’s plantation, Douglass receives no further violent treatment from his “master.”  How are we to understand Covey’s response?  As Douglass explains,

Slave Revolt Published in The Abolitionist 1802Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first-rate overseer and negro-breaker.  It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me—a boy about sixteen years old—to the public whipping-post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished.[4]

Covey, as a member of the elite slave-owning class, was in fact not an autonomous subject, whose supposed “success” might serve as an exemplar for other aspiring (white, male) members of society.  Instead, Covey’s identity, his sense of self, his subjectivity was deeply connected to those whom he sought to “break.” When the socio-political status of the underclass changes, the mythmakers tend to awaken from their contented slumber and new myths must be crafted to keep the public in a state of alarm and uneasiness, fearing the hegemonic-scripted “other,” who, after all, wants to take what rightfully belongs to them (i.e. the dominant class and those imbibing their myths).  (Does this story sound familiar?)[5] Stay tuned for Part II…


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 48.

[2] Ibid., 48.

[3] Frederick Douglass, In Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave/ My Bondage and My Freedom/ Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Library of America, 1994), 64.

[4] Ibid., 65-6.

[5] The forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod (July 2010) is one contemporary variation on this rather worn out theme. Consider, for example, the “chapters” in this story— the N.A.A.C.P. challenges the Tea Party leaders to expel the racist elements from among their ranks resulting in Tea Party member Mark Williams’ expulsion; Andrew Breitbart posts a highly edited video clip of Ms. Sherrod’s alleged “reverse racist” speech at a N.A.A.C.P. meeting, which was immediately aired on Fox News and later shown to be an excerpted clip from a speech in which Ms. Sherrod was recounting her own story of racial reconciliation.  These events (not to mention others) suggest that race (and, given the context, race relations in the United States in particular), race-baiting, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. (accessed  7/26/10).

* The first image, South Carolina Slaves, by an unknown artist was copied from this website:   The second image, Slave Revolt, was published in The Abolitionist in 1802 and was likewise copied from the same website.

3 thoughts on “Part I: Joerg Rieger and Frederick Douglass on the “Myth of Individualism” and the Eruption of Alternative Subjectivities From the Underside”

  1. terrific! – possibilities of subversive power lies within the very “strength” of the oppressor?

    I found both your blog and the Voice Education Project website to be informative and helpful.

  2. Hi Brenda,

    Thanks for your comment. I think that Foucault would say something similar regarding subversive possibilities. That is, because for Foucault (contra many misreadings) power and freedom and power and resistance are correlative notions, no one group can have “absolute” power; likewise, no one group/person is “absolutely” free. There is no “outside” to power relations because such relations form the very fabric of society. For Foucault, particularly in his later work, he notes explicitly that power relations presuppose free subjects and are relations that allow for some, even if extremely limited, “field of possibilities,” i.e. a range of actions in which one can engage as a genuine agent. For example, slaves in the antebellum period, though no doubt having very limited options could (and did) find creative ways to resist–they interrupted work routines, developed coded language expressed in spiritual songs for subversive purposes, organized abolitionist groups, etc. etc.

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