Jan Spurk: Subjects

MatzWeidmann1985 oil+acrylic on canvas-sharpened-lores


The Futures That Subjects Could Want


Jan Spurk

Université Paris Descartes, France


After a long period of blackout, subjects and subjectivities are back in the sociological discussion. The theme of this ISA-Forum points out one of the most important aspects of the discussion: “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World.” However, sociologists rarely ask this question. Here the word “We” does not mean only the sociologists. I will present some general reflections on the development of the future in our contemporary globalized society, which is currently characterized as a global society in a global “crisis”.

The analysis of subjects and subjectivities must be situated in the contemporary society. The (autonomous or heteronomous) mobilization and conjunction of subjectivities in a given situation lead to the (self-) construction of subjectivity and objectivation. As the Call for Papers for this ISA Forum points out, we live in a very contradictory world. It is not what it pretends to be; it is non-identic (Adorno). For example, it is freer, but also more controlled and more oppressive; there is more wealth but also more poverty, more international or worldwide (economic, political, intellectual and public) integration but also strong regionalism, communalism and nationalism.  The acceleration of the production of this society is well known as well as the fact that the world governance tries to manage this world. People and citizens have no big influence, and they know it. Yet, this situation arose, inter alia, because people consent to this development.

Subjects did not choose it in a conscious and reasoned way but their subjectivities are highly mobilized. So they are alienated; future is uncertain, unpredictable and for these reasons, it is scary, particularly because this word is in an “erosion crisis” (Negt).

Crisis has become the normality and the “reality principle” (Freud) of the contemporary world. The experiences and the narratives of crisis are the experiences and the narratives of “damaged lives” (Adorno) in a universal and global crisis.  Reflections from the damaged life, the subtitle of Adorno’s minima moralia, could help to imagine possible futures and the way to realize them.

We will ask if the Weberian conception of “elective affinities” (borrowed from Goethe) can help us to overcome more philosophical or psychological interpretations of subjects and subjectivities in a sociological way and to understand the reasons for which these “affinities” grow up and form a symbiosis: a new collective subjectivity that can lead to new social relations, to a new future. Goethe calls “affinities” the attraction between two subjectivities, who “seek each other, attract each other, seize each other and then resurface from this intimate union in a renewed unexpected form.” The symbiosis of these affinities forms a new project for the future: “the future we want”. Nevertheless, there are in Goethe’s conception two possibilities: the heteronomous one (“in the chemist hand”) and the autonomous one.

The fight for “the future we want” could be the emergence of subjects disposing on a great and creative subjective autonomy. But it could also be a deeply heteronomous process mobilizing subjectivities towards their adaptation to an “objective reason”.


Jan Spurk is sociology professor at the Université Paris Descartes, Faculté Sciences Humaines et Sociales, Sorbonne, in Paris. Among his recent books is Avenirs possibles: Du bâtiment de la société, de sa façade et de ses habitants (Paris: Parangon, 2012).
Banner Image: Without Title, by Matthias Weidmann, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1985.

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