Meet the Book Author: Subjectivity Transformed: The Cultural Foundation of Liberty in Modernity (Wiley 2023)

Professor Thomas Vesting, Goethe University Frankfurt

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Thomas Vesting, whose new book Subjectivity Transformed: The Cultural Foundation of Liberty in Modernity was published in December 2023 with Wiley.

What is the book about?

The book provides a historically informed reconstruction of the emergence and transformation of legal subjectivity in modernity. To this end, it draws on recent research in cultural studies and institutional theory and focuses on a dimension of the history of legal personhood that has received little attention to date: the practices of liberty instituted in society. Their legitimacy and binding force are based on a vital normativity, a normativity that arises out of the cultural fabric of modern society and not from an autonomous legal normativity. The aim here is to strengthen the argument that the history of legal subjectivity in modernity emerges from processes of self-empowerment, from a subjectivity that frees itself from the bonds of tradition in order to open itself up to the new. In contrast, formal legal protection, the legal person as the bearer of rights guaranteed in liberal declarations and constitutions, presupposes this history of social practices, the incremental processes of an “instituting power.” In other words, the book aims to show that the history of legal subjectivity cannot be separated from the history of subjectivity in modernity – of a subject shaping itself in an environment of liberal social practices.

How did I write it?

In order to illustrate the book’s argument, I focused on the relationships between three personality ideals of the modern creative man – the gentleman, the manager, and homo digitalis – on the one hand, and certain ruptures and upheavals in the developmental history of modernity on the other. Here focus is limited to ruptures and upheavals in the history of knowledge, technologies, and forms of economic organization. The basis of this genealogy is an analysis of the new technical attitude of man towards the world that prevailed in the early modern period. The book goes on to establish a link between the ideal type of gentleman and the British industrial revolution, then a link between the manager and the rise of large companies at the end of the 19th century, and finally between homo digitalis and the dissemination of intelligent computer networks into all areas of contemporary social life. All of these studies show that formal liberal law does not bring the personality and subjectivity of these ideals into being; on the contrary, they arise from the social and cultural conditions that they generate and reflect.

Why did I write it?

In earlier works, I was concerned with demonstrating correlations between the invention and use of new media (such as the technology of printing) and the resulting opportunities they opened up for the evolution of modern liberal law. This was also the point of reference for the reflections made on legal subjectivity. Subjectivity was always spoken of in connection with a culture that was also objectively asserting itself. These considerations ultimately led to a critical examination of the contemporary culture of the personalization of subjectivity: Here the subject frees itself from the constraints of existing forms of life and replaces them with the notion of a self-chosen identity. The latter includes, not least of all, a search for recognition and a demand for rights, the contents of which the individual intends to determine for itself.

The original plan of my project was to broaden the critique of this peculiar culture of introverted rights, but after some reflection I realized that a critique as such would be insufficient and that I needed to work on a counterproposal instead. This is how the new book came about. Using the example of three personality ideals of the modern creative man, it demonstrates that certain developmental dynamics of modernity are closely linked to specific socially practiced liberties, which permanently feed a self-organising network of social patterns of action, social rules, and conventions, a “living law” that liberal law cannot negate without becoming purely formalistic. Accordingly, the history of the formation and transformation of legal subjectivity in modernity is inextricably linked to the history and culture of Western nations. 

However, in order to recognize the creative power of legal subjectivity and its contribution to the formation of a liberal legal culture, one must be prepared to do one thing: Instead of tying the world of law entirely to the political domain, one must open it up to a transdisciplinary search for rewarding scholarly approaches to the social formation of normative structures. Indeed, law itself must be made the object of the evolution of a very specific “modern” culture that carries within itself the spirit of the new.