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

Slave Revolt Published in The Abolitionist 1802Although elsewhere I bring Douglass’s insights into conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, here I want to focus on how Douglass’s observations converge and resonate with Rieger’s thoughts on the myth of the (autonomous) individual. Rieger is in no way suggesting that the humanity, subjectivity, or agency of a marginalized or oppressed person is or can be totally eradicated by the dominant culture, narratives, or “master” subjectivities.  Rather, like Douglass, Rieger’s point, which presupposes and affirms human solidarity, is that we are both socially constructed and self-constructed.  Thus, on the one hand, Rieger emphasizes how under the current rule of Empire “subjectivity is being actively colonized at the level of the cultural, the emotional, and even the spiritual,” and those in the dominant position of privilege can “happily encourage others to take things into their own hands—to become active subjects, in other words—without having to be too worried that this will ever become a reality,” thus strengthening “the myth that the powerful have gained power by becoming active [autonomous] subjects themselves […] and putting blame on all others who fail.”[1] Yet, on the other hand, Rieger stresses the agency and creative possibilities of human beings, even when they find themselves in demoralizing, inhumane, and oppressive socio-political contexts like chattel slavery or colonialism.

The good news […] is that, despite all its efforts, Empire is never able to control and co-opt subjectivity and desire totally and absolutely. A first sense that subjectivity cannot be co-opted grows entirely out of an observation of the ambivalence of the status quo. The Empire’s power and influence may be substantial and all-encompassing, but are never absolute, never without ambivalence. Even subjectivity that has seemingly been erased by Empire keeps erupting, at times in unexpected places. It is a significant datum of history that even slaves—people who were not supposed to have any subjectivity at all—were able to reassert their subjectivity, rise up, and challenge the Empire. The Judeo-Christian traditions are founded on such a slave uprising in the Exodus and on many other stories of resistance by people who were considered lacking subjectivity in the ancient world.[2]South Carolina Slaves Unknown Artist

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and countless other “erupting” subjectivities refused the pre-scripted (racialized) narrative of the dominant culture and chose instead various paths of resistance, (re)scripting their identities, (re)asserting their humanity, and gifting us with living memorials of hope to encourage us in times of doubt and despair.  In light of the double construction of subjectivities—that is, our social and self-construction—there are no autonomous self-made subjects; yet, there is no reason to conclude that social construction and agency are mutually exclusive or that the former necessarily eradicates the latter.


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 138.

[2] Ibid.

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