All or Nothing: Science Fiction, Law & The Subject

A while ago, I wrote an essay concerning Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and the Supreme Court’s curious decision to rule in favor of Citizens United. The essay is too long to post in fullness here, but given my recent discussions of the subject, I wanted to return to some of the arguments presented in that essay.

I really do suggest that anyone interested read the ruling, it is a fascinating document. What I found so striking about it was the way in which the Justices, particularly Justice Kennedy, took the subjectivity of the corporation for granted at the very outset. There is, of course, a strange contradiction here. When we think of the subject, of a person, we are inclined from the outset to think of something like us. However, is it absolutely necessary that this be the case? We work from the presumption that all subjects must appear like us. However, how do we actually judge the presence of another subject? This has, in various forms, been a fascination of science fiction nearly since its inception. The android, the robot, the alien are all basic challenges to our traditionally held views on subjectivity. All of these forms are more immediately recognized as subject when they more closely resemble the human, but frequently the tension within a work of science fiction arises when the encountered being resembles us less and less.

Let us consider a small handful of examples. Stanislaw Lem’s classic and frankly quite bizarre Solaris spawned two quite different films made almost thirty years apart, each dealing with the encountering of a vastly different and strange form of intelligence. The terror of the film develops out of the strange manner in which the titular phenomenon, Solaris, interacts with the crew of the space station sent to study it. The manner of interaction, the creation of eidolons out of the minds of the human crew, is so shocking that the nature of Solaris goes unrecognized until nearly the end of the story. The basic presumptions of the crew, that only that which resembles us can be a subject allows them to mistake the apparitions which appear to them as real people, as true beings, and not extensions of the subjectivity of the planet Solaris circling below them, even when the synthetic beings behave in ways utterly unlike humans (the miraculous resurrection of Hari/Rheya).

Star Trek: The Next Generation tackles the issue much more directly with the presentation of the character Data. Data is an entirely artificial humanoid robot who does not, apparently, experience human emotions. A great deal of his character arc deals with the tension between his synthetic nature and his subjectivity. The unspoken question which follows him around is quite simply, “Must a man be flesh to be a man?” Data resembles the human in manifold ways, but is clearly inhuman. Yet, despite his superhuman abilities, he is regarded by the vast majority of the people who interact with him as human. His struggle is largely, save in a few key episodes, presented as an internal one: the android wondering if he is human enough to be human. Star Trek answers the question of Data’s humanity quite succinctly and tacitly: all the outward signs signal that Data has an interior life, that he behaves as a subject in the proper sense. Data is as subject because he behaves like one.

Oddly enough, that seems to be the logic which guided the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Citizens United. Citizens United was granted the legal status of a subject (at least within the realm of campaign finance) because it acts like a subject. The decision was essentially a pragmatic one. If Citizens United was not considered a subject, what would it be considered, and what would the ramifications of such a decision be? Given that it displays all the outward signs of subjectivity, is it not then deserving of the recognition of such? More simply put, how do you sensibly define the subject so as to include all beings which we traditionally accept as subjects and exclude those which we do not without also removing the traditional subject from that definition? The idea that the subject must resemble the human form seems insufficient, for what, precisely, about the outward appearance of the human produces its subjectivity? If the recognition of the subject is reliant upon the recognition of the presence of internal states, then mere behavior becomes the only viable rubric for judging the human.

Now, of course, the comparison of Citizens United to Star Trek’s Data is insufficient. Despite is variance, Data is still recognizably humanoid. A much better analogy would be to the Borg. The Borg are the most well known presentation of a corporate subject within popular science fiction. The Borg are no longer quite human, though they look human, they realize a strange paradox, the human embodiment which no longer contains a human mind. The Borg reverse the traditional problem of the subject as expressed by science fiction (and, perhaps, return to an earlier, folk loreic conception of the problem of other minds), here the body is human and the mind is substantially other. While the Borg are, for various reasons, horrifying, the basis of their terror rests upon their inversion of the subject. The Borg subject is moved out of the singular body and into the mass of the population. The Borg are not subjects, but subject. Each component entity within the Borg acts as an extension of its bodily mass. The more entities which comprise it, the larger its field of action becomes. The mind of the Borg is elsewhere, the bodies which compose it are merely limbs.

Thus, Citizens United, or any corporation, functions similarly. The total mass behaves as a subject and so is recognized as such regardless of the particular embodiment of that subject. Of course, the analogy is loose and fails to meet the conditions of the corporation on one very important point. Within the corporation the component entities which compose it do not lose their individual characteristics in their incorporation (indeed, they gain another characteristic, that of incorporation). The horror of the Borg arises in the deletion of the individual in favor of the collective, the corporation does not, in fact, behave in that manner (despite the insistence of modern capitalism and its drive towards total homogeneity). If the corporation is to be recognized as subject, that recognition derives from the subjectivity of its constituent subjects.

The corporate subject, as recognized by the Supreme Court functions as a subject due to the powers of the subjects which compose it. Each subject functions autonomously yet cedes a certain realm of action to the corporation, and lends to the corporation the use of its subjective capacity. Thus, the corporate subject is the sum total of its constituent subjects acting in unity with the corporate identity. The corporation behaves as a subject do to its composition, in other words, the corporation’s embodiment is such that it is capable of producing a subject. The particular embodiment of the subject need not take any particular form, the only requirement for such an embodiment is that it be capable of producing a subject. The subject, judged from without, it recognized through its behaviors, and as such, the corporation, the corporate subject, can be recognized as a subject if its behaviors are sufficient to produce such a judgement.

Within the essay which I wrote I do not use the above analogies, though they seemed fitting for the present purposes. My primary argument, however, is the same: behavior is the only appropriate rubric against which to judge a being’s subjectivity. There are a great deal of ramifications for the recognition of the corporate subject, primarily the effects which such a subject would have on its constituent subjects. Due to the unique nature of the corporate subject and its embodiment, I believe that the only way in which the corporate subject is truly capable of maintaining its subjectivity is by allowing for the full expression of its constituent subjects’ subjectivity and that the negation of any individual subject’s rights compromises the subjectivity of the entire corporation. However, I think that is a long and complex argument which doesn’t have much place in the present discussion (though I may return to it later if there is sufficient interest).

I wanted to return the this set of ideas because I realized some time ago that the set of arguments that I developed in favor of the corporate subject were popping up in the project I’m currently engaged with Emjay in developing. If we are working towards an Ontological Subject and the Theology of the Subject, then the definition and exploration of the subject becomes the center out of which everything else expands. Essentially, we are working backwards to the center of experience so that we make work forwards to the world and the divine.

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7 thoughts on “All or Nothing: Science Fiction, Law & The Subject

  1. emjay says:

    So, Citizens United has to be acknowledged as a subject because it acts subjectively in its own interest. In many ways, in fact, it acts as selfishly as any person would, by looking out chiefly for its own (and its shareholders’) interests first, and dealing with all other concerns second (or third, or fourth, etc.). But the consequences of the choices of the CEO and governing boardmembers of Citizens United (which are made by subjects exercising their individual subjectivity) are so far reaching that almost no single subject could replicate them in scale and intensity. Moreover, these consequences also have a nasty habit of stripping tens of thousands (if not more) of subjects of their basic subjectivity, by restricting their ability to act independently of the corporation or damaging the subjects so severely that they are incapable of doing so.

    Does this come into play in the equation at all? This is why so many people have such a problem with the Citizens United ruling–giving such unrestricted freedom to a person is a net win, because a person has the good judgement and emotional investment to make choices based a variety of factors. Giving that unrestricted freedom to a corporate person, who only ever acts (like a sociopath) in its own best interest (which is usually to maximize profits at the expense of all else) seems to be recklessly dangerous to all other individual subjects. If this hasn’t factored into your conception of the corporate subject, maybe it should?

    • eidolos says:

      Oh no, all of that does factor, and I touch on it at done length in the essay I wrote, I just didn’t necessarily want to address it here. However, since you’ve brought it up…

      The corporate subject which the Supreme Court recognized is certainly an idealized subject, and, as you rightly comment, the corporate subject which actually exists appears to be supremely pathological.

      Really, the analogy of the Borg is more appropriate than I’m comfortable with when describing Citizens United. The modern corporation does, in fact, act to annihilate the individuality of its constituents in favor of the corporate subject. However, I believe that in doing so it essentially invalidates its own subjectivity. If the corporate subject derives its subjectivity from its constituents, then the full realization and maintenance of the constituents’ own subjectivity becomes absolutely necessary for the emergence of the corporate subject.

      In effect, what we have is a denatured, pathological subject being given the full status and rights as a healthy subject.

      • emjay says:

        So is there a way to somehow restrict the rights of a pathological corporate subject in light of its disproportionate influence and nearly unlimited resources? How does society shape itself around pathological corporate subjects with such power without eventually collapsing?

      • eidolos says:

        It doesn’t. I really do think that we’re witnessing the collapse presently. The current ongoing economic crises around the world are, I think, a result of the pathological corporate structure which you rightly deemed sociopathic.

        The only way to impose limitations would require a drastic reworking of the current economic system and I don’t foresee that occurring.

  2. emjay says:

    You know I agree with you regarding the current-ongoing collapse of society as we recognize it and the futility of preventing that, though I do think there are certain ways we can attempt to manage the collapse to mitigate at least some amount of human suffering.

    But you don’t think people/society/whatever would step up to assert their right to survive in the face of catastrophe? How bad will it have to get before you think people might be open to restructuring the economy from the current all-growth-all-the-time model to a stasis economy that provides more widely for needs vs wants?

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