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A Hyperbolic Proposition


The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 produces a truth effect that marks a rupture. It is nevertheless an intrinsically equivocal text, as is indicated by the dualities of its title and of its first line: rights of man and of the citizen, are born and remain, free and equal. Each of these dualities, and particularly the first, which divides the origin, harbor the possibility of antithetical readings: Is the founding notion that of man, or of the citizen? Are the rights declared those of the citizen as man, or those of man as citizen? In the interpretation sketched out here, it is the second reading that must take precedence: The stated rights are those of the citizen, the objective is the constitution of citizenship—in a radically new sense. In fact neither the idea of humanity nor its equivalence with freedom are new. Nor, as we have seen, are they incompatible with a theory of originary subjection: the Christian is essentially free and subject, the subject of the Prince is “franc.” What is new is the sovereignty of the citizen, which entails a completely different conception (and a completely different practical determination) of freedom. But this sovereignty must be founded retroactively on a certain concept of man, or, better, in a new concept of man that contradicts what the term previously connoted.

Why is this foundation necessary? I do not believe it is, as is often said, because of a symmetry with the way the sovereignty of the Prince was founded in the idea of God, because the sovereignty of the people (or of the “nation”) would need a human foundation in the same way that imperial or monarchical sovereignty needed a divine foundation, or, to put it another way, by virtue of a necessity inherent in the idea of sovereignty, which leads to putting Man in the place of God. On the contrary, it is because of the dissymmetry that is introduced into the idea of sovereignty from the moment that it has devolved to the “citizens”: until then, the idea of sovereignty had always been inseparable from a hierarchy, from an eminence; from this point forward the paradox of sovereign equality, something radically new, must be thought. What must be explained (at the same time as it is declared) is how the concept of sovereignty and equality can be noncontradictory. The reference to man, or the inscription of equality in human nature as equality “of birth,” which is not at all evident and even improbable, is the means of explaining this paradox. This is what I will call a hyperbolic proposition.

It is also the sudden appearance of a new problem. One paradox (the equality of birth) explains another (sovereignty as equality). The political tradition of antiquity, to which the revolutionaries never cease to refer (Rome and Sparta rather than Athens), thought civic equality to be founded on freedom and exercised in the determinate conditions of this freedom (which is a hereditary or quasi-hereditary status). It is now a matter of thinking the inverse: a freedom founded on equality, engendered by the movement of equality. Thus an unlimited or, more precisely, self-limited freedom: having no limits other than those it assigns to itself in order to respect the rule of equality, that is, to remain in conformity with its principle. In other terms, it is a matter of answering the question: Who is the citizen? and not the question: Who is a citizen? (or: Who are citizens?). The answer is: the citizen is a man in enjoyment of all his “natural” rights, completely realizing his individual humanity, a free man simply because he is equal to every other man. This answer (or this new question in the form of an answer) will also be stated, after the fact: the citizen is the subject, the citizen is always a supposed subject (legal subject, psychological subject, transcendental subject).

I will call this new development the citizen’s becoming a subject (devenir sujet): a development that is doubtless prepared by a whole labor of definition of the juridical, moral, and intellectual individual; that goes back to the “nominalism” of the late Middle Ages, is invested in institutional and cultural practices, and reflected by philosophy, but that can find its name and its cultural position only after the emergence of the revolutionary citizen, for it rests upon the reversal of what was previously the subjectus. In the Declaration of Rights, and in all the discourses and practices that reiterate its effect, we must read both the presentation of the citizen and the marks of his becoming-a-subject. This is all the more difficult in that it is practically impossible for the citizen(s) to be presented without being determined as subject(s). But it was only by way of the citizen that universality could come to the subject. An eighteenth-century dictionary had stated: “In France, other than the king, all are citizens.” The revolution will say: if anyone is not a citizen, then no one is a citizen. “All distinction ceases. All are citizens, or must be, and whoever is not must be excluded.”

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