(i) The Age of Man

The Individual Subject

There are numerous accounts of the origins and development of the modern individual. This is not the place to either contest or support any particular account; there is, indeed, quite likely some truth in many of them.

Simplistically, the crucial break comes at the start of the seventeenth century with the fundamental Cartesian dualism which seperates mind and body, establishing a thinking thing independent of natural substances and of the body, a thinking thing which states: 'I think therefore I am.' As we have already seen, in our discussions of performativity, this 'grammatical determinism' was called into question by Nietzsche, but for the 17th century, language still held some of the weight of its mediaeval materiality, still carried a significance that allowed of such certainty.

Briefly, the Cartesian ratio begins with God, but then unfolds in strictly mechanical fashion, dealing with the primacy and independence of 'clear and distinct ideas,' and defining everything in terms of extension and motion.80 "Since we have such an idea of bodies, or extension, as he puts it, therefore they exist." He deems animals, devoid of souls, as mere automata, because they do not speak, and therefore must lack reason. The method of critical doubt, leading to a universal scepticism, is the primary feature of this rationality. Thoughts come first, everything else second, and the divorce of mind and body leads ultimately to materialism.

The Classical Age which follows, and lasts up until the end of the nineteenth century, is one in which nature, human nature, and the relations between the two, are definate and predictable. "Human beings as rational speaking animals are simply one more kind of creature whose nature could be read off from its proper definition so that it could be arranged in its proper place on the table of beings."81 Modernity proper, as we understand it today, follows, with the late 19th and twentieth centuries.

There has been much written of the links between the Individual Subject and such phenomena as the Reformation, the rise of capitalism and of the middle classes, the fragmentation and alienation of the former catholic unity, and of the shift of the power relations which achieve social control, from the soul to the body.

There are two distinct trends which Foucault isolates in his project of constructing an account of the place of the individual subject in history: the 'objectifying trend' and the 'subjectifying practices' of our culture. Without particular favour, but in the interests of a broad perspective upon the 'cultural alignment' that occurred at the time, (of which more, later,) I shall touch briefly on all of these.

The Reformation and the Rise Capitalism

Weber wrote extensively, in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,' (1930), of how modern industrial capitalist society was the historical product of the instrumental reason we have seen arose with Descartes. He saw that this instrumental rationality "had its cultural and psychological origins in the Protestant ascetism of the early Calvinistic sects which developed a specific calling in the world, a calling which involved discipline, self-restraint and world mastery."82

Briefly, and in stark contrast to the enveloping totality of the 'mother' church of the catholic tradition, the Calvinist believer was alone with God, with no church or magic rituals to support him. No great chain of being emanated from him to the furthest reaches of Creation, carrying the divine spark from the highest to the lowest rung and back unto God. There was a total uncertainty of salvation for the Calvinist believer. Over time, the quest for salvation became gradually redirected in practice and in theory towards "the more comforting view that those who were successful on earth (in business or the professions) could take this as a sign of their celestial security in the next world."83

The new Protestant creeds were closely associated with the burgeoning middle-classes, allies in the revolution against their Catholic-Aristocratic masters in the absolutist monarchies of the day. Parliamentary curbs on royal power went hand in hand with liberalist lifting of curbs upon free markets. The bourgeois gentleman, victorious revolutionary, was also the standard-bearer of the Individual Subject.

The bourgeoisie, the new urban merchant culture who had emerged from the midst of the feudal society of the middle ages, were the masters of commodity exchange. This (subjectifying) practice required individuals "to act and speak in new ways, ways drastically different from the aristocratic code of honour with its face-to-face encounters based on trust for one's word and its heirarchical bonds of interdependency."84 Interacting with total strangers sometimes at great distances, the merchants required written documents guaranteeing spoken promises and an 'arms length' attitude even when face to face with each other, giving them 'space' for calculations of self-interest. "A new identity was constructed, gradually and in a most circuitous path to be sure, among the merchants, in which a coherent, stable sense of individuality was grounded in independent, cognitive abilities."85

New cultural codes emerged - no doubt heavily laden with many from the past, yet nonetheless containing new and different cultural practices. Commerce was born.

The Perspectival and the Symbolic

But the fragmentation of the catholic unity of the mediaeval world which brought about this alienated monadic human, alone with God and at arms length from his fellows, has its roots in what might be called one of the 'objectifying trends' identified by Foucault. It takes place in the development during the Renaissance of the painter's technique of Perspective. Fillippo Brunelleschi is credited with creating, in the early fifteenth century, the first painting in 'true perspective.' What he did, in effect, was reduce reality to a single point, and draw straight lines away from it - making it into a 'vanishing point.' Onto the resulting grid reality was made to fit, with the effect that the human eye was deceived by a powerful illusion suggesting 'depth' in the pictorial representation. Here, if anywhere, is perhaps one of the single most powerful 'technological enframements' of the modern era (of which more later.) It is certainly hard to believe that before 1454 it didn't exist.

It is arguable, however, that Brunolleschi's innovation actually robbed pictorial art of its 'true' depth - its symbolic representation - in favour of a flat and largely meaningless world of points and lines and visual trickery. (The Trompe l'oiel of the baroque.) One only has to look at pre-fifteenth century pictorial art, as far back as the cave paintings at Lascaux, to see that figures and objects with symbolic meaning were placed in the foreground, (with a few landscape features in the background, maybe, if the artist saw fit,) and that true depth in these paintings was achieved through the relationships between symbols, resonant with human experience and meaning.

The great chain of resemblance was, however, becoming unravelled, the symbolic world faced with the doctrine of critical doubt, and the time for perspective had arrived. As psychologist R.L. Gregory asks, "Is persective a discovery, or an invention of the renaissance artists." Talbott answers: "Non-Westernised peoples frequently do not read perspectival images (including photographs) the way we do."86 He also cites examples of formerly blind individuals and those with renewed sight having great difficulty seeing in perspective, and reminds us that Euclid had produced his geometry and optics some 1700 years before Brunelleschi, and Western and Arabic culture had continued to pursue these topics in a sophisticated manner during the interim.

Mountains, as Talbott asserts, are experienced by the eye as much greater than the paltry versions 'perfect' perspective gives us in our photographs. "Through the effect known as 'size constancy scaling' we pick up on various cues about the distance of an object, and then compensate for great distance by seeing the object larger than geometry and optics would seem to allow."87 Perspective, in short, has more to do with cultural alignment (sic) than the revelation of the truth. It is a way of seeing, the geometry of which had been around for two millenia by the time Descartes came upon the scene, whose time had come.

The points and lines of perspective, of course, have their correlates in philosophy. The Individual Subject, the Calvinist alone with God, is an abstraction from the symbolic world, a monad around whom the rest of reality - including his body - was increasingly to become regimented into the straight lines emanating from his 'vanishing point' selfhood. It is no coincidence that the very same Individual Subject, as Weber noted, was also the capitalist who drove the engine of the industrial revolution, rationalising working practice into the regimented grid of the factory floor, and then modeling society upon the same layout.


Foucault goes into great detail concerning the development of a new science, or, more accurately, "a technology of the body as an object of power," which arose, principally during the eighteenth century, upon the foundations of the individual subject. Political thinking, once bounded by metaphysical considerations and the replication of a higher order, had, during the Renaissance and the age of absolutism, shifted toward the creation of types of state best suited to shoring up the power of the Prince (ala Machiavelli.) Louis XIV's France was concerned solely with Louis XIV's power, without the slightest consideration for the welfare of his subjects. But now, in the hands of the newly empowered bourgeois elites, the state became an end in itself, "freed from a larger ethical order and from the fate of particular princes."88The means by which this new political rationality was to pursue the state's own ends, were "by bringing the bodies of the state's subjects under tighter discipline."89

This discipline is clearly related to that of the Calvinist, alone with God and at arms length from his fellows, and the rationality of the points and lines of the perspectival arrangement of reality with the new individual selfhood at its vanishing-point centre.

There were two poles to this new 'bio-power.' The first concerned itself with the unprecedented political application of scientific categories to people - species, population, and others. Population control, demographics, and other related sciences were absorbed into policy. The historical construction of sexuality begins here, where the defining boundaries of the middle-class gentleman become inviolable both in deed and in word; while the practice of sodomy continued unabated - and unapposed - amongst the masses, the new merchant gentleman became impenetrable, so much so that one could even speak of it, as his sexual behaviour came to mark, in true performative sense, the perimeter of his selfhood.90 The social construction of the Individual Subject through the deployment of 'sexuality' was extremely powerful. This new technology of the body is analysed at great length by Foucault in the three volumes of his "History of Sexuality."

The second pole concerns the body not so much as the means for human reproduction, "but as an object to be manipulated."91 This 'disciplinary power' is analysed in detail by Foucault in his "Discipline and Punish," in which he describes how the technology of discipline "developed and was perfected in workshops, barracks, prisons, and hospitals," with the specific aim of learning how to produce docile, useful and productive individuals and populations.

Both these technologies of the body are linked closely with the rise of capitalism. By the eighteenth century, "sex became a police matter,"92 and while the humanist discourse of equality was setting off political movements all over Europe the disciplinary technologies of the body spread quietly and unobtrusively through "tighter discipline in manufacturing workshops, regimented corvees of vagabonds, and increased police surveillance of every member of...society."93

The Age of Man

A crucial epistemic shift occurs around the turn of the nineteenth century in which man as we know him today appears. The clarity of the Classical table of beings omitted the being for whom the table existed. Although man was represented in the table, man who reads and understands the table was not. "Once the order of the world was no longer God-given and representable in a table, then the continuous relation which had placed man with the other beings of the world was broken. Man, who was once himself a being among others, now is a subject among objects."94 Worse still, not only is he seeking now to understand the table of objects, but also himself. "Man becomes the subject and the object of his own understanding."

The first thing he understands in this new relation to the world is his own limitations. Language no longer represents the world to him so that he may know it. Language finally loses the very last of its mediaeval weight and floats free of reality altogether, becoming no longer the clear medium for knowledge, but a dense and tangled mess of signs with its own history. Man is finite, limited to the fundamentals of labour, life, and language, bounded by the mundanities of his existence, "a vehicle for words which exist before him."95

But limitation is immediately seized upon as the basis of knowledge. In this new world factual limitations are regarded as finitude, and finitude makes possible all facts. The limits of knowledge make possible the possibility of knowing. "Man emerges not merely as both subject and object of knowledge, but even more paradoxically, as organizer of the spectacle in which he appears."96 Total knowledge is won by virtue of the limitations which man has imposed upon himself. A strange paradox, but one which Modernity seemed to enjoy.

As evident most clearly in that prime early philosopher of the modern, Immanuel Kant, "Modernity begins with the incredible and ultimately unworkable idea of a being who is sovereign precisely by virtue of being enslaved, a being whose very finitude allows him to take the place of God."97 As Foucault identifies, this represents a philosophical state in which "finitude is conceived in an interminable cross-reference with itself."98 This, nonetheless, is the basis upon which Modernity is built; "Man is an invention of modern thought."99

Identity in the Age of Man is thus tantamount to an absurdist drama, in which the performative acts we cite in order to establish our 'independent' identities are more revealing of the limitations of our separation than the power or divinity of our 'rational' selfhoods. The working consensus of the average situation in which we meet, defining ourselves as we go, has become one in which we accept everyone as being consistently in competition, at arms length from one another desperately trying to 'score' in order to establish ourselves as somehow more autonomous than the other, inevitably undermining our supposed superior independence by reliance upon such mechanisms. Our alienation has become so complete that to become aware of and lament such separation requires us to establish it even more firmly by citing the processes of independent self-awareness bequeathed to us by the episteme of Modernity.

Beyond all considerations of the Protestant reformation and the economic and political liberalism which overcame the counter-reformation to establish the Classical Age, and finally Modernity, however, there is the paramount and perhaps in certain senses over-riding impact of the rise of capitalism as epitomised in the industrial revolution. The impact upon identity, upon the daily routines and cultural codes that maje up the social arena which defines identity, of the arrival of new technological enframements upon society, cannot be underestimated.