…in a forthcoming issue of the journal L’Esprit Createur.
There is no better indication of the failure of the actual practice of critical theory in the academy today than the extent to which those who claim to be theorists remain wholly attached to “the subject” and “subjectivity.” Regardless of the ways and the extent to which poststructuralism and deconstruction have fundamentally put into question its ontological, political, and ethical status over the past fifty years, the subject remains incredibly resilient to critique; it is central to queer and affect theory; to disability, gender, and race studies, and it is undeniably present in the work of the most revered and cited of contemporary thinkers.
In The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject, Irving Goh not only traces the persistent presence of the subject in the work of Badiou (“the faithful subject of the event”), Rancière (“the uncounted subject”), Étienne Balibar (“the citizen-subject”), Rosi Braidotti (“the critical post-human subject”), and Katherine Hayles (“the flickering post-human subject”), he also provides clear and reasonable arguments as to why, in each case, this presence poses serious problems for their respective attempts to think community, democracy, religion, love, friendship, the post-secular, and the post-human in wholly new ways. More important, through his brilliant theoretical conceptualization of “the reject,” Goh offers one of the most rigorous and carefully articulated responses to the question “who comes after the subject.” Jean-Luc Nancy posed that question thirty years ago in a letter to fellow continental philosophers. Their responses were published two years later in the journal Topoi, and subsequently in Who Comes After the Subject (1991). Reading this book during my first year of graduate study, I distinctly remember the excitement I felt by the gauntlet thrown down by Nancy’s question. Over the past 25 years, I have consistently recommended the book, always a bit surprised to realize how little known it has become. Goh is thus owed a debt of gratitude for returning us to this groundbreaking volume and the seismic critical theoretical question it inaugurated.
Goh structures his discussion according to three distinct valences (or “turns” as he calls them) of the reject, which can be defined as follows: “passive rejects” are those who are rejected (e.g. refugees, sex workers, black bodies, the indigenous, et al.); “active rejects” are those who reject others; and “auto-rejects” are those who ‘self-reject,’ by rejecting the a priori subjective autonomous self and its hypostatization. While the first two rejects will be familiar to any reader, the originality of Goh’s argument – and hence the potential un-familiarity of its figure or image – lies in his conceptualization of the auto-reject. Not to be confused with any form of auto-critique, de-subjectivation or the nihilism of the abject, the auto-reject is predicated upon the a priori abandonment that is the originary force of existence. Singularities are born out of this abandonment of being to existence, thereby becoming the rejects that they are in relation to others. In its rejection of self, the auto-reject sustains this infinite abandonment, perhaps right up to the point at which neither the auto- nor the reject can be sustained, where they are abandoned and rejected, and some other unforeseeable form of being-in-common is generated.
Without being immune to being a passive or active reject, according to Goh, the auto-reject breaks their dialectical cycle of rejection by “keeping in mind that there is always the possibility that one is a reject in the eyes of others” (8), and thus in doing so, at times “sidestep[s] to an adjacent space” as a way to abandon any asserted self-positioning and effectively ‘getting over itself.’ However, lest this be confused with some liberal acquiescence toward the other, Goh further specifies that this “shift or sidestepping to an adjacent space further requires that the auto-reject respect the other’s desire to not fill the space left by the auto-reject.” In that respect, “the auto-reject rejects in itself the demand for the other to arrive. It recognizes that it is always possible that the other rejects coming to presence, that is to say, rejecting appearing in the presence of the auto-reject” (8). The auto-reject is the one that abandons itself to the possibility of the other’s non-response; of the other departing and walking away, and without explanation, rapprochement, reproach or even resentment. Indeed, the auto-reject is the rejection of these very responses and imperatives. Thus Goh has outlined what might be described as a non-imperative ethics, one that is without demand (or obligation, responsibility, mutuality), or even an ethics conceived as infinitely demanding.
For one of his scenes, Goh turns to contemporary digital-network technologies and social media platforms in order to underline the extent to which the reject is the exact opposite of the subjective self or “selfie” produced by Instagram, Facebook, and the like. As he notes, the selfie subject as inward-solipsistic-me is the subject that is in constant need of approval, exposure, notoriety, trackability, and the immediacy of connection, gratification and addictive ‘updating.’ In terms of queer theory, it is interesting to note how Goh’s conception of the ethics of the reject resembles the rejection at play in the impersonal erotics of cruising and anonymous sex spaces, where it is not assumed that others will always respond or be attracted, and where the art of the consummate cruise partly lies in the subtle and at times seductive techniques of the auto-reject.
Based upon his close reading of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, along with Catherine Clément and Luce Irigaray, Goh identifies the friend who leaves town, the syncopic lover, the nomadic war machine, the animal-messiah, and the becoming-animal as various figures and trajectories that traverse the inoperative community of the reject. In our reading of Goh, we might not only begin to acknowledge ourselves to be the rejects that we are, but, in doing so, share in the impossibility of a single totalizing social unity or community ever being possible – or desirable. It is this shared impossibility (or “incompossible” as he terms it, drawing from Deleuze) of any common measure or commensurability of incommensurables, that distinguishes Goh’s uncommonly ethical and political sense of community, friendship, and the post-human. At which point we are left to ask: what comes after the reject?