Power and the Subject in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

Liani Lochner


Drawing on Judith Butler’s politically promising notion of a critical desubjectivation, this essay examines the functioning of power in creating the subjects it needs to maintain itself within the state of exception and concomitant possibilities for individual ethics and responsibility as staged in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Even though he ostensibly occupies a position of power in Empire, the novel’s Magistrate-narrator finds himself subordinated by an objectionable law. This raises the question, if we cannot live life on our own terms, if as individuals we achieve social identity only through subjection to the dominant discourse, then what possibilities are there for opposing the workings of power? Moreover, to what extent are our individual ethics conditioned by dominant schemes of value that cast certain lives as ungrievable? While realizing his complicity with the torturers of the Third Bureau, unlike Colonel Joll, the Magistrate misrecognizes his interpellation, not seeing himself as the subject of a law that casts barbarian lives as not worth mourning. The novel thus functions as a literary model for resisting power’s normative horizons and inaugurating the ethical principles of a future democracy, one based on the recognition of a shared precariousness of life.


critical desubjectivation, individual agency and responsibility, biopolitics and precarity, Judith Butler, J. M. Coetzee


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The Johns Hopkins University Press

ISSN: 1920-1222

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