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Review of Chantal Jaquet, Transclasses: A Theory of Social Non-reproduction

Pierre Macherey 7 September 2023

Review of Chantal Jaquet, Transclasses: A Theory of Social Non-reproduction

This review was originally published by Hypotheses.

Chantal Jaquet’s book is one of those that pose problems for booksellers, unsure on which shelf it belongs. Published outside of a collection, which is an uncommon practice for the Presses Universitaires de France, it combines several approaches, which it subtly ties together. Firstly, it confronts a problem, that of social reproduction, which is primarily of interest to sociologists (a problem posed by Bourdieu and Passeron in their seminal work Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture). Secondly, to shed light on the issues at stake and sketch a solution, it borrows conceptual schemes from the philosophy of Spinoza, on whom Chantal Jaquet is also a great specialist); finally, the material she works on consists in testimonies taken from autobiographical literature (Jack London, Annie Ernaux, and others) and from fiction (reference to Le Rouge et le Noir recurs throughout the book, offering a particularly stimulating reading). By intercalating these various themes, Chantal Jaquet weaves a discourse that falls within the singular, non-standard logic of the essay as an ‘open intellectual experience’, according to the characterisation proposed by Adorno in his study on ‘The Essay as Form’, taken up again in the collection of his Notes to Literature. Jaquet’s work, devoted to the phenomenon of ‘transclass’, is itself trans-disciplinary in nature; among other contributions, it demonstrates the capacity of philosophy to invest in domains that go beyond the framework generally assigned to it, and thus to descend from heaven to earth, becoming what Deleuze, precisely with regard to Spinoza, called ‘practical philosophy’, i.e. an attitude of thought that does not confront only problems of pure theory.

The practical problem addressed by Chantal Jaquet is that of the existence of transclass individuals. Who is a transclass? Someone whose personal history has followed a trajectory that defies, or seems to defy, the determinism of social reproduction, insofar as this proceeds, or is supposed to proceed, by the linear transmission of inheritance, whether of material goods, cultural goods or symbolic goods. An individual who does not follow the itinerary normally traced from their family origins, like Julien Sorel whose unforeseen social ascent left him uprooted, de-classed, thus contributing to making him the hero of a novel, a character in all respects apart, whose up-and-down itinerary leads to a fatal outcome. To be transclass is to claim, or to suffer, a singularity which, because of its offbeat character, challenges, subverts, or even breaks the ordinary norms that guarantee the perpetuation of the social order. How should such an exceptional case be treated? Does it invalidate or, on the contrary, reinforce the common rule, in the traditional formula that ‘the exception proves the rule’? And, to give this question a still wider cope, what status should be assigned, in general, to singularity? Should we think of it mainly in terms of default, as something that evades rationalisation, or is there, on the contrary, a rationality proper to the singular, of the type Spinoza defines when he posits the necessity of a third kind of knowledge, an ‘intuitive science’ that he defines as the grasp of singular essences? Didn’t Lucretius himself link the necessary movement of atoms to the possibility of a clinamen that disturbs the beautiful order of genera and makes for disorder, without however undermining the ‘nature of things’ – quite the contrary? By raising these questions, we begin to better understand how consideration of the case of transclasses is situated at the articulation of sociology and philosophy, whose generally separate threads it intertwines.

Before going any further in the examination of this problem, we should draw attention to the fact that it cannot be posed out of context, in a general, timeless, and ahistorical way. Society, in its present form, is not a caste society, locking everyone into their original category forever, but a class society: According to Marx, it was precisely the bourgeoisie, the very first ‘class’ in history, that invented social mobility, i.e. the possibility for individuals, viewed in formal terms as absolute legal masters of themselves and their destiny, to change their position within the global field that defines social relations, on condition that such change of position does not undermine the submission of this field to the principle of class domination, a domination to whose reproduction it contributes. Bourgeois society, to call it that, is a society that is not fixed but in the process of becoming, that overcomes the opposition between order and progress by making progress, in the guise of ‘growth’, the motor of its order: which is why, in this type of society, education, i.e. the system that manages individual apprenticeship and assesses performance, holds a central role, which justifies its functioning being a public responsibility, as a matter of general interest is at stake. Does this mean that in the new social order thus established, whose very nature encourages constant renewal, placing it in a state of permanent revolution, there is a complete anomie that dissolves all regularity? On the contrary, it proceeds from an original type of regularity, which is its own invention: regularity in change. In the framework of what Foucault called the ‘society of norms’, the system which he said was established in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, the main means of this innovation was the use of statistics, the result of which was the establishment of a system of governmentality or ‘biopower’. This system calculates the chances of a human existence reaching a certain status, not from the point of view of this being already given, but from the point of view of potentialities that have to be actualised, which is not only a personal business but also involves the whole community, in the framework set up by the implementation of a new regime of power. According to the parameters used in this calculation, it is possible to determine whether, depending on the position he or she occupies in society, such and such a person has a greater chance of remaining healthy, of becoming a delinquent or a university professor, without this forecast having any predictive value, since, as in a game of dice, it remains open whether the expected number will turn up or not. 

The problem raised by Bourdieu, whose approach can be placed in this analytical framework, was to understand how fortunes or misfortunes, which are rigorously determined at the level of the large masses at which they have explanatory value, work out on a day-to-day basis at the level of individual cases, insofar as these, while being subject to general rules, can very well fail to follow these, as happens on the board where dice are thrown. It was to this end that he introduced the concepts of habitus and practical reason, which make it possible to understand how individuals are socially conditioned, in the sense of being predisposed from birth, by the type of formation to which they are assigned, to orient themselves in the world and in thought, and thus to occupy such and such a social position, without this meaning, however, that they are forced to do so in the sense of an intangible obligation which they are never allowed to evade. The fact that habitus, and in particular family habitus, is not a rigid fatality, was demonstrated by Bourdieu in his own person, and he practised in this respect a good example of what can be called an ego-sociology – the little peasant from Béarn whom the national system of scholarships led to a course of academic excellence that eventually led him to occupy, without ever losing sight of where he came from, a chair at the Collège de France, thus renewing the feat accomplished in the nineteenth century by a Michelet or a Renan, other prestigious transclasses. And, of course, Bourdieu was not so naïve as to believe that it was only by his own efforts, by his free will and his strength alone, that he had gloriously deviated from the beaten track. He rather strove to find an explanation for his exceptional situation that could be inscribed in a collective framework, where general causes transcend individual wills. Seen from this angle, the case of transclasses presents a considerable significance beyond its particular singularity; it forces us to rethink on new bases, within the historical framework of present-day society, the way in which the determinism of social reproduction tends to play out, in statistically calculable forms which naturally leave room for exceptions.

The procedure of social reproduction based on habitus, which programs general tendencies, leads to interpreting the way these tendencies work out in particular cases in terms of success or failure, and thus to valuing or devaluing their effects, which overdetermines their meaning. Differences, which are unavoidable because it is, in any case, unthinkable that all members of the same category follow exactly the same life trajectory, then become deviations, which can be measured positively or negatively. It is on this level that what Chantal Jaquet calls ‘distinction within distinction’ takes place, that is to say, beyond the fact of being different, which is ultimately the case for everyone (the normal man whom Quêtelet speaks of is a statistician’s theoretical fiction), that of being felt and feeling oneself to be different, in the sense that one occupies a place that is not really one’s own, that to which one is objectively or normally assigned. On this level, where facts and values are closely intertwined, occupying a social position refers not only to an objective class being but to a class consciousness, that is to say, a subjective grasp of the phenomenon of difference, in the double sense of its internalisation and its spectacularisation, through the interplay of a double gaze, that which the individual turns on themselves and that which is turned on them or that they feel weighing on them (the gaze of the ‘impartial spectator’ whom Adam Smith speaks of, which combines the two dimensions of interiority and exteriority). In this way, the conditions are established for the affective tension that the transclass person is forced to undergo in exacerbated form; drawing on examples from literature that constitute the main material for her analyses, Chantal Jaquet describes with great subtlety the alternatives of glory and shame that tear apart the person who sees himself or herself, and at the same time is seen – or sees themselves being seen – as a defector, that is to say, in a certain way, as a betrayer of their class. This creates an imbalance: the person in the grip of this fluctuatio animi, as Spinoza calls it, no longer knows where he or she is, nor where they stand, being torn between several poles of reference which it is impossible to synthesise. As Pascal would put it, they are ‘on the wheel’ of their misery and greatness, deprived of fixed reference points that would allow them to stabilise their position. Now this awareness, which can be very painful, is hardly likely to occur among people who have remained in the majority line, simply because they have followed, most often mechanically and without being prey to any kind of doubt, the trajectory proposed to them as most probable by the calculation of chances; on the contrary, it remains the prerogative of minorities, in whom difference has taken the unpredictable, and, in this respect, scandalous, form of an unjustifiable deviation. The paradox is that, judged by other criteria, these people who do not belong or do not feel they belong (we could say in Deleuze’s language that they are deterritorialised) can be examples of great social success. The child of workers from a provincial town who has become a prominent Parisian journalist, the daughter of peasants from an underprivileged region who has become a professor at the Sorbonne, are not people to be pitied, as the everyday expression goes, which does not prevent them from having to carry the weight of several superimposed legacies, the burdens of which are not harmoniously adjusted to each other, and this poses a problem.

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Chantal Jaquet’s presentation of this problem could be compared to the theme of the stranger as developed by Alfred Schütz. In the background of the examination of this theme is the question of identity, generally posed as that of the identity of social actors who know themselves and are recognised through their membership of a group, with the whole system of self-evidence attached to this membership, which Schütz calls ‘natural attitude’. Schütz had personal reasons for his concern with this issue: having had to leave Austria, where he had defended in 1932 a thesis prepared under Husserl’s direction, Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt (‘The meaningful construction of the social world’), he had met with failure in New York. In order to present himself to the intellectual circle of the New School of Social Research, which during the Second World War welcomed Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others in transit, he gave a lecture entitled ‘The Stranger’, which surprisingly combines theoretical analysis and personal testimony. Under what conditions can one move from direct knowledge of one’s own situation as a stranger to knowledge of the status of the stranger viewed from the perspective of scholarship? Implicitly, Schütz was confronting this question when he gave his lecture on the stranger, a stranger who was also the stranger to himself that he had become as an immigrant. Schütz’s approach is therefore interesting in that it leads him to consider the stranger from the inside, from the stranger’s own point of view, facilitated by the fact that the position of the social analyst is precisely that occupied by his object of study: he himself is the stranger who arrives in a world where his place is not already marked and where he is not expected. According to Schütz, the person who seeks admission to a new social group, to enter an environment (Umwelt) different from the one with which they are familiar, finds him- or herself in the paradoxical situation of someone who, by virtue of the spontaneous tendency of each singular position to make itself the centre and reorder the world according to its own criteria, has to rearrange the world as they see it around them while knowing (and this is an obvious fact that they cannot escape because it never ceases to remind them of it) that they are in fact on the periphery of the system they are undertaking to penetrate: their centre is the periphery, which is untenable, concretely unliveable, and justifies all means being used to put an end to this unbearable experience of marginality and the psychic tensions that are its obligatory accompaniment, i.e. so that the periphery gradually ceases to be peripheral and gets closer to the centre of the system. This is the condition for this centre to become habitual, or more or less so, and therefore practicable without too many problems, which requires difficult work on the self. As a result, the stranger is haunted by a need to understand, which prompts him or her to expose the secret devices, the hidden arrangements of the way of life they are confronted with, which they need in order to gain control over its practice, a process that is not natural to them. From this point of view, the crisis in which they find themselves stimulates their need for knowledge, a need not generally felt by those who have the inherited sense of direction that they lack and for which they try, with the means at his disposal, to compensate. To do this, they have to reconstruct a worldview from scratch, from the ground up, something that is, in their mind, a real project of refounding. According to Schütz, by being engaged in such an enterprise, the stranger cultivates two dispositions that are specific to them and unknown to the ordinary or majority members of the group: a critical attitude and ambiguous loyalty. In fact, they approach the new habitual way of thinking whose customs they tend to assimilate in the state of mind of people who have had to give up their own habitual way of thinking, and have learned, on this occasion, that habits can be lost, which is why these are so difficult to acquire, at least when certain conditions are not met. They are therefore naturally led to have certain doubts as to the durability of customs, whatever these may be. Hence the consequence that, with regard to the new customs they must adopt, they will only be able to practice, in the best of cases, a distanced familiarity. Even if they are accepted and perfectly acclimatised, at the end of a difficult process of passage, they will not be able to erase the traces of the crisis they have undergone; which is why, having painfully acquired the models of a new culture, they will maintain at least a minimum distance from them, that is to say, a basically negative attitude. This may eventually translate into an excess of conformism: to erase the bad impression that their position as a cultural dilettante, who juggles with codes, may produce, they will then intensify these, in order to make people forget, and perhaps to make themselves forget, the persistent gap between them and others, which prevents them from practising, in exactly the same way as the latter, rituals whose precariousness they have every reason to feel. That is to say, it will be very difficult, even impossible, for them to be natural in performing gestures whose validity they will not have insensibly accepted following an apprenticeship begun at birth, in a family environment favourable to this inculcation, which, in such conditions, may, in retrospect, appear to have been happened all by itself, even though this was by no means the case. What others simply do without question, they must force themselves to do, as a necessity, but without illusions. And, even if they do everything possible to avoid betraying themselves and keep this disenchanted lucidity from coming to light, it will be very hard for them to conceal the fact that they come from elsewhere and that, having broken with their origins, they are in the position of people who have definitively cut themselves off from any form of origination or rootedness and can at most try to ‘pretend’ without really believing it. Hence a suspicion whose manifestations may remain imperceptible, but which pursues them: no, they are not really like the others, and they will never be, whatever their efforts and those of the host environment in which they are condemned to remain to the end, even if assimilated, a ‘foreigner’, a stranger, whose place is everywhere and nowhere. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that the stranger only perceives the new cultural configuration with which they are confronted in bits and pieces, from which they have to reconstruct the overall coherence by their own means, so that they have to discover the code for deciphering it, which can be difficult and painful. What, for the member of the group who belongs to it by right, constitutes a consistent and harmonious whole, presents itself to them in a fragmented form, whose elements they cannot connect to a previously assimilated tradition, with the consequence that it offers the characteristics of gratuitousness, even in the extreme case absurdity, in the manner of a spectacle that unfolds before their eyes without them holding the keys of interpretation. As if looking through a glass window, they see people behaving as if they have no difficulty in making sense of what they are doing; but this sense largely escapes the stranger. At the same time, the hesitations and uncertainties of their own behaviour, because they are constantly exposed to misbehaving, demonstrate in return the problematic nature of this meaning: for those who have mastered it, it has an obvious, and consequently universal, significance; but for those not really familiar with it, it only has a singular value, which means that it is not at all self-evident, and ultimately tips over into nonsense.

Chantal Jaquet develops reflections on the case of transclass individuals that are similar to those that Schütz presents on the case of the stranger, the stranger that he was himself at the time he delivered his lecture. In both cases, we are faced with the same discomfort, linked to the experience of living in an awkward position, being torn between several poles of reference. This discomfort is subjective, insofar as it is experienced by the person who is in the grip of it. But if they receive the full force of its impact, the cause is clearly external to them, dependent on an objective situation, which is why it cannot be reduced to a phenomenon occurring in consciousness; its subjective manifestations are the effects of a process that takes place on another level. Taking this into account, we are led to widen the field in which the problem of singularity is posed: a person is not singular alone, in their interior intimacy, but in context, in complex forms that tie together several types of determinations. To be transclass is not to be outside society, but to occupy an uncomfortable position with it, to be there without knowing where one is, because of being torn between several sites or criteria of identification whose synthesis is not obvious: ‘The transclass carries two worlds within them and is inhabited by a dialectic of opposites without being sure that the opposites can be reconciled and the oscillations lead to a balance... Condemned to the great gap between often incompatible universes, a transclass is necessarily torn by open or subterranean contradictions’ (p. 156).

The question is whether these contradictions are the prerogative of those in the transclass situation or whether they transcend this. In a crucial passage in her book, Chantal Jaquet writes:


Ultimately, in order to understand the affirmation of a singular trajectory at work in non-reproduction, it is not just a matter of grasping what ‘each person makes of what has been made of them’, as Sartre invites us to do, but necessary to analyse what has been made both of them and of others. The terms of the problem cannot be reduced to a face-to-face encounter between a singular being and their environment in an atomistic individualistic logic. They imply understanding the complex ways in which each individual makes a place in being by defining themselves through identification and differentiation in a given space, with and against others. Non-reproduction follows a pattern of interconnection in which the individual cannot be thought of as an isolated being who secedes from their own class. If they are an exception, they are not an island cut off from the main, an empire within an empire in Spinoza’s words. They are an exception only in an environment that allows it, so that an atypical path does not constitute a deviation: it takes place with the help of the environment, at the crossroads of its impulses and repulsions. It is not the result of a disruption, but of a combination of rules other than those which generally prevail (p. 95).


The difficulty of being experienced by the immigrant and the transclass is a symptom of a situation that goes beyond their personal case and, in the end, concerns society as a whole: society is itself directly concerned by their experience, which plays the role of a revealing factor.

The equivocal status of transclass thus invites us to rethink on new grounds both the nature of the subject’s identity and the mode of organisation and functioning of the social field within which this identification process takes place:


The fact that many individuals fix or are fixed on a label or in given conditions, like chameleons prevented from moving, should not make us forget that human existence can take on the colour of the places where it unfolds and that it is inscribed in the register of variation and variety. Under these conditions, what differentiates the transclass from their fellow human beings is not so much the absence of a substantial self or a true identity, for this is, after all, the common lot, but rather the experience of a radical change of state, the ordeal of moving from one world to another, which few human beings experience because of the immobility of societies (p. 118).


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We can conclude that this immobility, which serves as guarantee for the fiction of the social order, i.e. of the society-substance, an imaginary representation that parallels that of the ego-substance, hides in reality something quite different, namely a regime of variation and exchange whose principle lies, not in individual free will, but in the way that the unfolding of collective life is determined in practice, its nature being not substantial but processual. This is precisely what Georg Simmel tried to make clear in his book Sociology, with a view to introducing a dynamic perspective into sociological knowledge. Sociology as he conceives it is not satisfied with studying the institutional forms of a ready-made society, but something else entirely, the patterns of ‘sociation’ which, caught on the wing, correspond, as Mauss would say, to the moment when ‘society takes’. What is ‘social’, then, is not that which belongs to the order of society posited as existing independently in itself, but that which, one might say, makes society, or takes social form, and thus represents a movement of sociation completely immanent to its manifestation, society in the process of being made; which is why it is perfectly useless to suppose that underneath social facts there exists a substratum that would be the society of which they constitute various emanations. To speak of sociation, as Simmel does, is to refuse to admit that society exists in the manner of a thing standing on its own feet by its own virtue once it has been constituted: in reality, it is at all times, and in the most diverse forms, acts of sociation going on that actually make society, or rather, make men exist and act as social beings, which they are not by virtue of a prior natural datum of which their behaviours would be a secondary manifestation. From this perspective, to be socialised is to participate in one way or another in the complex process of sociation, which is in fact a process of processes: in other words, it is to lead a social existence, to perform acts that can, at a certain level, be qualified as ‘social’. This means, according to Simmel, that, in the final analysis, the question ‘How is society possible?’ does not refer to a theoretical problem, as it would to something natural, but is first and foremost a practical problem, and brings into play, as Bourdieu would say, a practical reason. Once again, society is self-made; and it is made not all at once and forever, but at every moment, on a daily basis, and by everyone; it is this ‘making society’, collectively carried out on a daily basis, that the sociological gaze must attempt to grasp.

Consequently, the sociological enterprise as Simmel redefines it is based on a fundamental concept, that of reciprocal action or interaction:

[S]ociety itself, in general, refers to this interaction among individuals. This interaction always arises on the basis of certain drives or for the sake of certain purposes. Erotic instincts, objective interests, religious impulses, and purposes of defence or attack, of play or gain, of aid or instruction, and countless others cause man to live with other men, to act for them, with them, against them, and thus to arrange their conditions reciprocally – in brief, to influence others and be influenced by them. The significance of these interactions lies in their causing the individuals who possess those instincts, interests, etc., to form a unit – precisely, a ‘society’... I designate as the content, as the material, as it were, of sociation. In themselves, these materials with which life is filled, the motivations by which it is propelled, are not social. Strictly speaking, neither hunger nor love, neither work nor religiosity, neither technology nor the functions and results of intelligence, are social. They are factors in sociation only when they transform the mere aggregation of isolate individuals into specific forms of being with and for one another – forms that are subsumed under the general concept of sociation. Sociation thus is the form (realised in innumerable, different ways) in which individuals grow together into units that satisfy their interests. These interests, whether they are sensuous or ideal, momentary or lasting, conscious or unconscious, causal or teleological, form the basis of human societies (The Sociology of George Simmel, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1950, pp. 40-1).

 To summarise this passage, which concentrates the essential issues of Simmel’s approach, it can be said that the sociological gaze sets itself the objective of detecting in the flow of ordinary human life the forms in which a ‘reciprocal action’ is exercised, the configurations in which several individuals, two or more, are involved – for example, card players, hotel guests, students in the same class or school, or members of a musical group – interact, relate to and influence each other to some degree, and thus form a society or sociate, on the hoof so to speak. From this point of view, reciprocal action can be said to be the common form of all forms of socialisation that sociology sets out to study. Therefore, to be a sociologist is to be interested in the aspects in which human behaviour presents a certain degree of reciprocity, whatever that degree may be, which justifies that the sociological gaze can be fixed on all manifestations of everyday life without exception.

The transclasses on whom Chantal Jaquet focuses her attention, also viewing them through a lens that blends the objective and the subjective, are individuals who make up society no less than those who, so to speak, fit comfortably in their class. By their singular way of making society, however, they demonstrate in action that the complex process of sociation through which society is made is also, in some respects, the process through which it is constantly unmade, in order to be made again, in different ways. The high-voltage history of transclass people betrays the fact that, hidden under the appearances of stability, the state of transit and anxiety is permanent in collective life, where, basically, nothing is ever set in stone from the outset: the foundations of the social order are illusory, or rather, they are engaged in a permanent movement of renegotiation that deprives them of the character of certainty and self-evidence that they wrongly claim. Hence, a complete reversal of perspective: it is the transclasses who are, one might say, fully in the norm, insofar as they are the ones who reveal the secret mechanism of its functioning, a regularity that is not guaranteed a priori. From this point of view, we could speak of ‘society games’ in a sense similar to that in which Wittgenstein speaks of ‘language games’: transclasses are in the best position to know that living in society means submitting to the necessity of ‘playing the game’, with the cards at one’s disposal, the distribution of which favours some while it disadvantages others.

In other words, if everything in social life is, as Simmel says, interaction, it is, according to Chantal Jaquet, because its game is basically supported by relationships of power:

The imaginary of social shame is the historical product of the division of society into classes, and as such it exceeds the particular framework of a given consciousness, whether that of the transclass or of another individual. It is one of the avatars of class struggle in the theoretical field and more precisely the result of ideological formations that express, underpin and perpetuate the social hierarchy on the terrain of ideas. The political hierarchy is metamorphosed into a natural order through education, culture, the press and all the media capable of shaping opinion, so that the dominated internalise the idea that they are inferior, lazy and ungifted beings, who belong to the ‘lower world’, made to obey and be ruled (p. 171).

The transclass person’s sense of unease thus expresses something that goes far beyond their personal position. Its content, both objective and subjective, is the effect of dynamics of sociation whose variations generally produce the common in forms that are always and everywhere singular:


No existence is pure reproduction, for the copy is never the model; it doubles and duplicates it, betrays or translates it. This is why there is necessarily margin and play, however small. Thus all human existence is defined by a practice of differential deviation, because it always oscillates between the two minimal and maximal figures of conformism and originality in relation to the given norms (p. 221).


The lived experience, as a phenomenologist would call it, that for anyone accompanies the fact of being swept up in the dynamics of sociation, is permanently subject to this oscillation, the manifestations of which are primarily affective. It is precisely this point that Chantal Jaquet highlights by drawing on her knowledge of Spinoza. For Spinoza, community behaviour, although it can be rationalised under certain conditions, is nonetheless in the final analysis passionate, i.e. linked to desire, joy and sadness. Desire is the effort to persevere in one’s being which, for every being, is the key to all of its behaviour. It is impossible to make this effort on one’s own, it can take shape only through exchanges with the external environment, both human and non-human. The affective life takes place at the articulation of the individual singular and the collective:

In the Spinozist tradition, affect is social par excellence. It covers all the bodily and mental modifications that affect our power to act, reinforcing or diminishing it. It is produced by the interference between a person’s causal power and that of external forces, and the expression of inter-human relations and exchanges with the surrounding environment. Affect relates the history of our relationship with the external world and is part of a determinism of the interactive link (p. 223).

This is why manifestations of vital power are accompanied by feelings of joy and sadness, which reflect the fact that, in the permanent interplay of these exchanges, without which this power would never be realised, one finds oneself more or less active or passive, i.e. driven in the direction of an expansion or, on the contrary, a restriction of the effort to persevere in one’s being. On these bases, Spinoza builds, in the third part of his Ethics, a detailed theory of affectivity which outlines the framework within which, in the following part of the book, he introduces a theory of sociality, i.e. of community life where the properly ethical project of liberation takes place, which concerns each person in his relationship with all others, and thus inevitably includes a political dimension.

From this Spinozist theory of affectivity, whose importance is crucial for understanding how the so-called ‘social games’ operate, Chantal Jaquet borrows a concept that she sees as particularly appropriate for explaining the phenomenon of transclasses: that of ‘ingenium’, which translates as ‘complexion’. The ingenium is the set of mental and bodily dispositions that define the position of each person within the global field in which he or she traces his or her personal trajectory; this set takes the form of a complexion because it is the result of an arrangement, and therefore does not present itself as a pre-constituted totality according to an immutable order: ‘The idea of ingenium emphasises the historical dimension of a person’s nature and its shaping by external causes, so that its distinctive singularity is less constitutive than constituted’ (p. 99).

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To have an ingenium, a complexion, is to find oneself, by force of circumstance, at the crossroads of several paths, and be subject to the obligation of coordinating the lessons of diverse experiences, which are not adjusted at the outset: this operation is carried out at every moment of life, piecemeal and without guarantees; the only continuity it has is that communicated to it by bodily and mental memory, which registers and adds up the traces left by these occasional encounters, which are not placed under the law of a single finality. Hence this consequence: ‘Complexion thinking implies a break with identity thinking and invites a deconstruction of the personal and social self’ (p. 9).

Transclass individuals are the privileged witnesses of this rupture; they receive its full effects. But they are not the cause of it, nor the only ones exposed to it, because, to varying degrees, it potentially affects all social actors, whose identity can be called into question at any moment. In the logic of this analysis, there is no reason to speak of a human nature: at most, there is a human condition which, qua condition, is conditioned by events, and consequently evades a project of essentialisation. The transclass shares this ‘human condition’ with all other members of the community, even if they experience it differently, as is the case for everyone in a world where singularity is everywhere and where forms of regularity are at best tendential and not determined on a case-by-case basis.

This is the same thesis that Judith Butler defends when she writes: ‘The “I” has no story of its own that is not also the story of a relation – or set of relations – to a set of norms.’

The identity of a subject is, on the one hand, relational and not posed in the absolute; on the other hand, it is constituted or constructed in relation, not to a single norm to which it would have the choice between adapting or failing to do so, but to ‘a set of norms’; finally, it does not put these norms to the test according to a pre-established order that would legitimise their arrangement. The history of a subject is that of its passage through the maze of norms and the various forms of existence they prescribe, a passage that often proves difficult. In his text On the Reproduction of Capitalism from which he extracted his article on the ideological state apparatuses, Althusser provides a personal example:

What do we mean when we say that ideology in general has always-already interpellated as subjects individuals who are always-already subjects? Apart from the limit case of the ‘prenatal child’, this means, concretely, the following. 

When religious ideology begins to function directly by interpellating the little child Louis as a subject, little Louis is already-subject – not yet religious-subject, but familial-subject. When legal ideology (later, let us suppose) begins to interpellate little Louis by talking to him, not about Mama and Papa now, or God and the Little Lord Jesus, but Justice, he was already a subject, familial, religious, scholastic, and so on. I shall skip the moral stage, aesthetic stage, and others. Finally, when, later, thanks to auto-heterobiographical circumstances of the type Popular Front, Spanish Civil War, Hitler, 1940 Defeat, captivity, encounter with a communist, and so on, political ideology (in its differential forms) begins to interpellate the now adult Louis as a subject, he has already long been, always-already been, a familial, religious, moral, scholastic and legal subject… and is now, lo and behold, a political subject! This political subject begins, once back from captivity, to make the tradition from traditional Catholic activism to advanced – semi-heretical – Catholic activism, then begins reading Marx, then joins the Communist Party, and so on. So life goes. Ideologies never stop interpellating subjects as subjects, never stop ‘recruiting’ individuals who are always-already subjects. The play of ideologies is superimposed, criss-crossed, contradicts itself on the same subject: the same individual always-already (several times) a subject. Let him figure things out, if he can...

This page, in which Althusser summarises his personal itinerary as a ‘subject’, shows how someone who was never given the time to exist by himself as a natural individual found himself exposed from the start to the play of instances – what Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses – whose interventions followed one another. This is what has made him a subject who is layered, multiple, fragmented, scarcely in tune with himself, from having been subjected to these accumulated practices of normation; these practices have turned ‘little Louis’, the child expected from the outset in the family setting, into ‘Louis’, a complex, contrasting and eventually crushed personality, torn between distinct and possibly antagonistic acculturation procedures which have combined to target him by focusing on him their occasional interventions, carried out in a scattered manner. The subject who has been made and, in every sense of the word, remade in the course of this confused history does not constitute its own source or guiding principle: its relation to itself as always-already subject is neither simple nor direct, and consequently is tainted with an ineffable opacity. Such a thing was made possible by the fact that Althusser was an always-already/and/future-subject, for whom the chips were down without being down, which is strikingly summed up by the heavy-handed formula: ‘Let him figure things out.’ Such a being, who has never experienced what a first nature could be, found himself thrown into the order, an order that is in reality a disorder or at least a muddle, of a second nature where his potentialities have been exposed even before they could be exploited, to be evaluated, catalogued and calibrated according to different scales of qualification whose overlapping measurements, by overprinting each other, have made him the being he has personally become, in the course of a difficult process, punctuated by antagonisms, and destined to end only on his death. Such a person can be said neither to be under constraint nor to be completely free to do as they please: in reality, placed under the gaze and the crossfire of the various ideological state apparatuses they have encountered along the way, they are both things at the same time, permanently at the crossroads, in a fixed and unstable position, obliged to make choices that are only partially within their own initiative.

One becomes a ‘subject’ not all at once but during one’s entire life, from beginning to end, through a succession of repetitions which reconfigure differently each time the complexion proper to the subject being. The formula ‘the day I became a subject’ is meaningless, because, on the one hand, one does not remain the same subject, the one that one supposedly ‘is’; and, on the other hand, even if certain moments of this journey are more memorable than others, and represent the crossing of a threshold, none of them has the definitive character of a complete reversal from pro to con, or of an advent taking on the decisive allure of a creation ex nihilo. The constitution of the subject takes place through an uninterrupted and uneven process, the end of which is not contained in its beginning; far from the irruption of a radical novelty, from which there would be no subsequent return, it presents itself as a slow maturation or emergence through which, revealing itself little by little, a specific nature develops. Neither completely other, nor completely the same, the subject is drawn into an incessant movement of transformation, which expresses its relationship to the world. This is why, if called upon to conform to the models that the norms propose rather than impose, it retains, precisely within the framework of action of the very particular norms and procedures that characterise this action, the possibility of departing from these models. All are confronted with the pressing demand to become ‘good subjects’, but nothing ensures they will comply with this demand without any margin of deviation, which will make them, and even tend to make them all, more or less bad subjects. The very nature of norms is that they shape good and bad subjects together, which is the condition for them to make a difference between these by praising and rewarding the former and stigmatising the latter. What norms produce is not normal people in particular, but normality in general. In this way, what makes them strong is also their fragility, combining power and powerlessness, success and failure, good and bad conscience, which are ultimately impossible to disentangle. Norms tend to produce consensus, but they only succeed in doing so by simultaneously producing dissensus: the forms of agreement they prescribe are only imposed through struggle, and this struggle introduces a permanent possibility of play into the order they strive to establish. For, if norms work on the possible, the results they achieve can be constantly revisited, by the very fact that they are inscribed in the field of the possible, where bets are never final but only anticipated and prepared.

To sum up: the transclasses studied by Chantal Jaquet are individuals who are not in tune with their norms. Their case is singular, but it is not exceptional; it is the symptom of a general situation that can be experienced in various configurations. Transclasses, insofar as they can be lumped together, which is far from obvious, represent one of these configurations, and nothing more. If we look at their situation, we understand that what we call identity is the result of a never-ending work whose outcome is not guaranteed. The struggle of transclasses to exist in the eyes of others and in their own eyes, far from isolating them, connects them to the common condition shared by all members of the community: their particular problem is the concern of everyone. This is why an ethic of liberation of the Spinozist type is led to take an interest in them, as Chantal Jaquet’s book provides an example, at the intersection of sociology and philosophy.

Translated by David Fernbach

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