In Spivaks essay, can the Subaltern speak, she states that:

[the] contemporary invocations of the libidinal economy and desire as the determining interest, combined with practical politics of the oppressed - speaking for themselves - restore the category of the sovereign subject within the theory that seems most to question it.

and that this sovereign subject is through the theorising of Ideology by Althusser via the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan, lies concealed as we are immersed in language, and by Debords, also in spectacle.

Is it possible to unconceal or disclose this sovereign subject through mass surveillance of the digital economy? One might say, to construct the real subject by deconstructing the virtual economy.

Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, writes a useful counterpoint to this:

Rather, I want to suggest that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely, the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.

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    @rostomyan:by a mis-spent youth ;). Apr 23, 2014 at 9:48
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    Can you share a little more about what you would like in an answer -- what you might be expecting someone here to explain to you?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Apr 29, 2014 at 21:12
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    I submit that this post and many of your others, though nobody is brave enough to say it, are bullshit Now I can't tell if you believe the things you post because I am not privy to the inner workings of your mind. So I am going to take the most charitable reading of your posts. That is to say I think that you have been seduced by verbiage.
    – igravious
    May 22, 2016 at 2:04
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    You misunderstand me. I'm going further than saying that I didn't understand it; I'm saying that it's not amenable to understanding; and that it would be more effort than it's worth to try to take the time to disentangle and decode assuming that's even possible which I doubt.
    – igravious
    Jun 22, 2016 at 15:38
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    @igravious: I understood you - the word 'bullshit' and 'verbiage' is quite clear. You on the other hand have not understood me, which is a charitable reading of your snarky comment; and which is why I asked what concept were you stumbling over; are you perhaps scared of trying to think, of making an effort, or even of admitting ignorance - even when given the opportunity of going through the post, word by word? Jun 24, 2016 at 16:45

2 Answers 2


You say the sovereign subject is unable to be perceived because we are immersed in language and the spectacle, if I read you correctly. Could we then unmask the sovereign subject if we observed the web of the virtual economy, you go on to ask. I could take this in two senses:

  1. You think there is /actually/ a sovereign subject controlling this web of virtual economy whose identity we could uncover through a bit of conspiracy-theory-esque sleuthing.
  2. Or, as jobermark says, you mean the sovereign subject as the abstract embodiment of the 'group process'.

I'll attempt to answer first based on the second sense:
In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari discuss the difference between the law of molecular elements and the law of molar aggregates, and while their analysis had more to do with the psyche of the individual and how it embodies the whole socio-historical field in its unconscious, it would equally apply to the actual socio-historical field, the totality of which one could designate 'the sovereign subject'. Molecular elements, when bound up in a molar aggregate statistically tend towards the law of that aggregate -- tend is the key word here. If we take the molar aggregate as the group process, symbolically the sovereign subject, and the molecular elements as each individual, we can see that each individual never fully embodies the law of its culture, never fully behaves how you would expect them to going from an analysis of cultural norms, economic trends, and memetic behaviors. The law of the aggregate can be seen as evident because it holds some level of consistency over time, renders individuals somewhat purposive to its aims or adherent to its trends -- if you don't believe the 'group process' has aims -- but it cannot be said to be an absolutely determining force.

Now for the possibility of an /actual/ sovereign individual:
A molar aggregate, in the sense of a social structure, can be influenced; for example: one can attempt to create new consumer trends through advertising, moral trends through religious evangelizing, and intellectual trends through mandatory education wink wink, and of course, these means are utilized by individuals sitting atop hierarchical structures which allow them to move massive amounts of human and non-human capital.
But, it is important to keep in mind a couple things:

  • These sovereign individuals can never completely determine the 'whole' collective network of interpersonal ties as they are only one sovereign among many and individuals never completely adhere to the law of their culture -- or molecular elements to their aggregates.
  • These sovereign individuals are not unconditioned; they too are a product of the aggregate and thus, to some extent, only enact the programming they have received through it -- they aren't truly sovereign.

In short, no singular individual is truly individual and no collective absolute. One could theoretically, mathematically model all the various trends of an aggregate, counting highly influential corporations and individuals as 'trend forces' in themselves, and arrive at a representation of the sovereign subject, the group process given an abstract body, utilizing, as you say, mass surveillance, but it would not be 'real', only a statistical model.

The above would be my official answer but if I may be allowed to add some speculative post-script:
Fascism is the trend towards the consolidation of the group process to a hierarchy, to absolute determination, and a narrowing of the margin of variance in the molecular elements to a negligible level. If we were to create a model of our current social biosphere, we may very well see a trend towards one sovereign subject; in fact, many say they do see this trend, to their fear or their joy -- A Wrinkle in Time is a good literary example of a warning against this trend fictionalized. Deleuze and Guattari, in their process of Schizoanalysis, very much wanted molecular elements to break away from molar aggregate, for there never to be a sovereign subject or put another way, for every subject to be that sovereign subject. Perhaps some fruitful questions going forward in our turbulent political times would be:

  • 'Do we want there to be a sovereign individual?'
  • 'Where would we fall in its composition?'
  • This seems more like an exploration of the question rather than an answer. Actually what I thought was is there a way of testing empirically the hypothesis put forward by Spivak. My suggestion was to see whether web use correlated in some way to the exercise of power. Sep 27, 2018 at 6:00
  • I made some minor spelling changes which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. Welcome to this SE! Sep 27, 2018 at 11:37
  • Does Spivak mean "the sovereign subject" as the concept of absolute personal agency? @MoziburUllah
    – Ethan NOPE
    Sep 27, 2018 at 17:47
  • @EthanNOPE: I don't think she does. She's not talking about the self but about politics. The sovereign subject might be the international system, the West or its like. Sep 27, 2018 at 19:29
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    The issue is theoretical, not empirical, is the whole point. @MoziburUllah
    – Ethan NOPE
    Sep 28, 2018 at 1:09

As your obnoxious commentator points out, the territory here is dense and fluffy all at once, to the point that it always needs endless unpacking. So this is mostly unpacking, and I may or may not be approaching your intended points in getting to the bottom of what you said.

It is striking that as we become more interdependent objectively, and become basically incapable of accomplishing anything alone, many of us feel and speak of ourselves more and more like individual agents making effective decisions, and we become more focused on taking and holding intellectual territory, even if to do so we need to bizarrely reshape our personal context.

To stick with the forces you list, his latter reshaping shows up in: the phenomenon of the ideological echo chamber, the cycle of the 'global solecism' (where language acquires new coinages and offensive usages worldwide and then obsoletes them in favor of others), the overall impression that real news is fake and fake news is real, and the endless will-o-the-wisp chase for the most current viral meme.

Instead of becoming more temperate, given our growing awareness of our limited actual individual control and the illusory nature of our own personal will, and the fact that our real decisions are being made communally whether we like it or not, we are trending toward a sort of ephemeral narcissism built of high contrast events, focused on our own power over tiny things, but in an oddly complete way.

To me, food is a case study in this: as we approach the ability to meet our needs relatively easily, but face the threat that the culture as a whole might simply waste so much food we will end up impoverished, we have reversed the trend towards global 'gourmet' restraint and created more waste. We are becoming rampantly orthorexic and prevalently diabetic at the same time. It is somehow more important to share our choices than to make them reasonably and we are creating fad trends in picky eating alongside a direct indulgence in each culture's unhealthful emotional comfort foods, consumed in irrational quantities. This aligns our food choices into a simpler palette, but amplifies the illusion of choice.

To my mind, this is created by the evasion of awareness, and cannot be improved with better awareness. I take your suggestion to be that surveillance can make someone pay attention, so a closer focus would help. This seems to ignore, what are, to me, important lessons that this sort of psychoanalytic approach originally lifted from Nietzsche, and is constantly losing track of. We are aware that we are unlikely to have any real power, but we must spend the will to power. There is no real subject to be unmasked, the real subject is group process, and the Symbolic will not directly acknowledge the Real until it is played out in the Imaginary. Our group sentience cannot be experienced without backlash from our individual egos. The sovereign subject is coming forward as an artificial form of art that captures the forces of subjectivity and plays them out in ways that reformalize power in proxy moves that make us feel more individual. This is the correct anodyne for the hopelessness we necessarily feel in a mass society. It would be perfectly healthy if it could be reasonably grounded.

It is instead somewhat out of balance. The disconnection between physical reality and our abstract notions of ourselves make the field of play into something hazardous for our actual physical bodies and for our environment, and we are in response developing paranoid fake ways of trying to protect those things. But even in that realm, fake information outweighs real information to a ridiculous degree, because the focus is on capturing theoretical space and not necessarily on really staying healthy (witness gluten) or preserving real things.

(In other words in the end, I am a 'happy' interpersonalist, with the faith that intersubjective intelligence actually solves its own problems. All this doomsaying is necessary to our understanding of ourselves, but it is ultimately misleading in that it necessarily imposes the tendencies of consciousness to fear the unconscious process. So, you can write me off now....)

  • So an empirical study could disconfirm the "sovereign subject"? "...the hopelessness we necessarily feel in a mass society" isn't there other explanations for this "hopelessness"? Maybe the indirect influence of a hidden hegemony? - I wonder how many conspiracy theories were started by conspirators.
    – christo183
    Oct 23, 2018 at 10:56
  • @christo183 There is no sense in the first suggestion. It certainly does not arise from what I wrote. If you could dispose of the sovereign subject, the idea of empirical accuracy would go with it. Data needs an observer. And no, when there is actually such an agent, people are generally not hopeless, they are aligned for or against it and feel purpose, which gives them hope. Fascist movements do not beget hopelessness, even as they take away most peoples power.
    – user9166
    Oct 29, 2018 at 19:45

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