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.

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.

Rieger on the Production of Desire, Keeping Up With the Joneses, and a Riff on Girard’s “Mimetic Desire”

Beyond-the-Spirit-of-EmpireIn his book, Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key,  co-authored with Néstor Míguez and Jung Mo Sung, Joerg Rieger discusses how the production of a specific kind of desire functions within capitalistic Empires.  “Demand is infinite since, unlike needs, desires are infinite as well.  Thus, unlimited desire provides the basis for unlimited consumerism.  As a result, limited resources must be negotiated with potentially infinite desires” (58).  Rieger then turns to Girard’s notion of “mimetic desire.”  As its name indicates, mimetic desire is “not the ordinary desire of particular objects but the imitation of other people’s desire”[1] (58).  On this model, a “conflictual relation” emerges between the one who imitates another’s desire and the one whose desire is imitated.[2] This kind of struggle or conflict relation does not apply merely to individuals but to relations between larger social configurations.  As one can imagine, poorer nations often find their natural resources exploited, not to mention the exploitation of workers, that is, human beings de-valued and transformed into a cheap labor force so that desires of the wealthy can be satiated—not that they actually are satiated.  Such inhumane, instrumental treatment of course affects how the poor perceive themselves.  The poor, however, are not the only ones whose  subjectivities are shaped (internally and externally) by this never-ending-always-chasing-after-more social apparatus, the subjectivities of the wealthy are likewise constructed.  As Rieger explains,

Mimetic desire helps us to understand some of the deeper levels of human relationships and subjectivity under the current conditions of Empire, Subjectivity itself becomes what we might call ‘mimetic subjectivity’.  Competition is not simply based on the scarcity of desirable objects, as is often assumed, it is based on mimetic desire.  What drives economic progress, consumption, and the progress of the structures of Empire from this point of view, is that others want what the wealthy already have.  The result is the extraordinarily intense competition that has come to be accepted as the essence of free-market economies.  It is not hard to see that there is little room for [… ] an active subject, except at the very top of society.  But even there a constant battle ensues about who tops the lists, who is wealthier and more powerful, […] Mimetic desire can never be satisfied.  The problem is compounded, of course, for those who cannot keep up. When they are drawn into this system, they can only perceive themselves as failures, as theorists from the Southern Hemisphere have pointed out.  What makes this mimetic desire so effective in the pursuit of Empire is that it seems to have a snowball effect, and it seems that we are witnessing this effect in extreme forms today.  Moreover, there is a built-in reciprocity that leads to further escalation, since, in Girard’s words, “the model is likely to be mimetically affected by the desire of its imitator’ [Girard, “Mimesis and Violence,” 12] (48-49).


[1] See Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 146

[2] Ibid., 147.

The Well-Clad Emperor and the “Invisible Robes” of the Naked Many

In between dissertation reading and writing, I have been spending time with a wonderful book, Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key,  co-authored by Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, Jung Mo Sung.  (Professor Rieger, is, I am delighted to say, the third reader of my dissertation).  I hope to have at least some time this summer to devote a few substantive blog posts to this book, which I have found thoroughly refreshing and on the mark with its assessments of our market-driven way of being.  In the meantime, let me whet your appetite with this witty excerpt discussing the market as “financial games”  involved “virtual goods” and played for the benefit of the elite few at the expense of the exposed many.EmperorsNewClothes-Melilot

[I]n the economic jargon imposed by the businesses of hegemonic communication “the markets”, or even in the singular “the market”, does not refer any more to places for the exchange of goods, where producers and artisans sell and exchange their products.  It does not even refer to the most abstract derivations of the celebration of the buying and selling transaction.  Rather the market now refers to financial games.  The notion that the ‘market formulates prices’ within industrial capitalism has now given way to finances.  The great fortunes of today are not established by the possession of material goods but rather from bank accounts, financial wealth and other forms of “virtual goods” such as trademarks, patents, images, use of business ‘logos’ in the form of merchandizing, and so on.  Things virtual, fantasy or fetish, to use Marxist language, have replaced, scammed, and annulled what is real.  It is just like the story of the witty tailors who scammed the emperor by selling him a robe of non-existent cloth and telling the gullible crowd that only the wise can see it. So everyone refrained from telling the emperor that he did not have any clothes on, for then they would be considered stupid.  Today we all believe that things exist that others say exist, even though personally we do not see them. But in this case we have all been forced to wear these invisible robes and we all fear to discover that we are naked. African Children Starving The only one who is dressed is the emperor (“Empire, Religion, and the Political,” in Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key by Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, Jung Mo Sung, 11–12).