Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8285
SOURCE: "Althusserian Materialism in England," in Studies in Anglo-French Relations: Imagining France, edited by Ceri Crossley and Ian Small, London: MacMillan Press, 1988, pp. 187-209.
[In the following essay, James discusses the influence Althusser's conception of materialism has had on other thinkers and points out some of the problems with his arguments.]
Hearing that I was about to write this essay, a friend recently remarked to me that he no longer felt ashamed at not knowing about the work of Louis Althusser—a reaction which has become, I think, quite common among English and American philosophers and social scientists. During the 1970s, when Althusser was a star of the kind that shines only from Paris, many intellectuals were excited by his brilliance, and ignorance was a source, if not of shame, at least of regret. Some people studied his views and others did not; but for all of them his reputation stood high, and he was acknowledged as the author of a serious and important contribution to the interpretation of Marxism. Now that the star has waned, however, the name of Althusser is no longer one to conjure with. In France and elsewhere his claims have been criticised on both philosophical and political grounds, so that his period of popular fame is sometimes represented as nothing but a season's fancy, without lasting consequences for either the theory or the practice of Marxism.
Twenty years on, it is of course true that Althusser's work is neither so fashionable nor intellectually novel as it was, and self-avowed Althusserians are hard to come by. Nevertheless, a dismissive response to this state of affairs, which looks only superficially at the contours of Althusser's public career, is deeply insensitive to the ways in which his views have moulded the character of much recent social theory and changed the direction of current debate. His startling claims about the emergence of Marx's ideas have provoked a rejuvenating, hermeneutic interest in Marx's own texts. And his insistence on the need for a materialist interpretation of these ideas, allied to an appreciation of their consequences for many of our everyday conceptions of society, has inspired a new fascination with the relation between 'structure' and 'agency' in social explanation, evident in the work of Marxists and non-Marxists alike. Althusser's significance as a social theorist is therefore not in doubt, and he has duly taken his place in the textbooks. But, to understand why his ideas have been at once so influential and so little accepted on their own terms in the English-speaking world, one must first learn a little about them.
Louis Althusser, who was born in Algeria in 1918, has spent his life as an academic. Trained as a philosopher, he taught until 1980 at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, from where he published a series of essays on Rousseau, Montesquieu and Hegel, and where he also pursued a deep interest in the work of Spinoza. In 1948 he joined the French Communist Party, and gradually became known as one of its most distinctive and outspoken intellectuals. His great reputation, however, is founded on two collections of essays which unite these scholarly and political commitments. The first—Pour Marx —appeared in 1965, signalling, among other things, the emergence of a comparatively relaxed attitude to intellectual debate on the part of the French Communist Party. For at a time when the Party officially expounded a 'humanist' brand of Marxism, Althusser began to outline a strongly contrasting materialism, at once stimulating and heretical. The dissonance between his position and the Party line grew still sharper later in the same year,...
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when Althusser gave a series of seminars with Etienne Balibar on the text ofDas Kapital; in these papers (which were published in 1968 as Lire le Capital) he laid out in detail a series of radical interpretative and philosophical claims about Marx's magnum opus, portraying Marx himself as the stumbling but triumphant discoverer of the science of historical materialism.
It may at first seem curious that Althusser chose to present his ideas in the form of a commentary on a particular text; yet this approach is in fact an integral part of his project. Only by cleansing our minds of Marxism, he suggests, and looking afresh at what Marx actually wrote, can we hope to appreciate his unprecedented but obscured originality, and understand the development of his thought. This last point is important to Althusser, as he uses his study of Capital to provide further support for an earlier claim, originally made in the essays in Pour Marx, that there is an epistemological break in Marx's writings, a particular point, marked by The German Ideology of 1845, when Marx shuffled off the coil of Hegelianism and started to formulate historical materialism proper. More generally, however, Althusser's reliance on the text also fulfils the function of underpinning his radical interpretation of this very theory.
Althusser offers an account of historical materialism which is designed to avoid two unsatisfactory extremes. On the one hand, he wishes to clear Marx of the charge of holding the crude and implausible belief that the base determines the superstructure; on the other he obviously eschews the non-Marxist view that the superstructure is no more dependent on the base than the base is on it. To steer between these dangers, Althusser attributes to Marx a sophisticated and flexible account of society as 'a complex whole, structured in dominance', made up of 'practices'. Practices, the basic building-blocks of Marx's theory, are themselves complex entities modelled on the analysis of the economic mode of production given in Capital. Like the economic mode of production, they are seen as processes comprising raw materials, means of production and products. But, in addition to economic practice, Althusser identifies politico-legal practice, ideological practice and—in his earlier work—theoretical practice. These ensembles are said to be found in all societies and, importantly, are invariably interdependent. For example, Althusser points out that among the relations of production of capitalist societies are the buying and selling of labour power by capitalists and workers. These relations, which are part of economic practice, can only exist in the context of a legal system which establishes individual agents as buyers and sellers. And this arrangement, in turn, may have to be maintained by political or ideological means. Certain aspects of economic practice therefore depend upon the so-called superstructure, as well as the other way round, and Althusser emphasises that it is a serious mistake to neglect this aspect of Marx's theory. 'The whole superstructure of the society considered is thus implicit and present in a specific way in the relations of production, i.e., in the fixed structure of the distribution of means of production and economic functions between determinate categories of production agents.
Societies are therefore to be seen as 'complex wholes' constructed out of interdependent practices; but, if Althusser's model is to be able to explain social change as well as social structure, some more elaborate account of the relations between practices will be needed. For this, Althusser relies on the notions of contradiction and non-contradiction, which are, he claims, in turn illuminated by the notion of the complex, structured whole. Contradiction and non-contradiction are themselves ideal types, standing at opposite ends of the spectrum of possible relations between practices, so that practices are contradictory when they grate on one another, so to speak, and non-contradictory when they are mutually supporting. Althusser is not in the least apologetic about describing these relations metaphorically. Philosophy, he believes, is bound to be metaphorical, since this is the only way of breaking the bounds of established usage and grasping ideas which are not already intuitively familiar. He does, however, throw a little more light on the notions of contradiction and non-contradiction, while at the same time doing obeisance to Lenin, by showing how they are incorporated into the latter's analysis of the Russian Revolution.
Lenin wished to explain why it was that, although the 'peaceable mask' of capitalism had been torn off in all the countries of Western Europe by the end of the nineteenth century and popular discontent was widespread, it was only in Russia that a successful revolution occurred. He suggests that this was due to the fact that Russia was the 'weak link' in a 'collection of imperialist states', by virtue of the fact that it contained 'all the contradictions which were then possible within a single state'. The explanation of the Revolution is consequently traced to two sets of circumstances. The first are conditions within Russia, such as large-scale exploitation in cities, suburbs, mining-districts, and so on; the disparity between urban industrialisation and the medieval condition of the countryside; and the lack of unity of the ruling class. The second deals with the relation of Russia to the rest of the world, and includes the existence of an elite of Russians, exiled by the Tsar, who had become sophisticated socialists, as well as those aspects of foreign policy which played into the hands of revolutionaries.
Althusser uses this case to support his claim that Marx held a complex view of social change, and did not regard it as the outcome of a single contradiction between the forces and relations of production. He appeals to the differences between events in Russia and those in Western Europe to show that, while a contradiction between the forces and relations of production may be a necessary condition of a situation in which revolution is 'the task of the day', it is clearly not sufficient to bring about a revolution proper:
If this contradiction is to become 'active' in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of 'circumstances' and 'currents' so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its 'direct opponents'), they 'fuse' into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend.
And then he claims that the list of circumstances above were among the factors needed to produce the revolution in Russia. Furthermore, these circumstances are said to be essentially heterogeneous, so that they cannot be seen as aspects of one large contradiction; each is a contradiction within a particular social totality:
If, as in this situation, a vast accumulation of 'contradictions' comes into play in the same court, some of which are radically heterogeneous—of different origins, different sense, different levels and points of application—but which nevertheless 'merge' into a ruptural unity, we can no longer talk of the sole, unique power of the general 'contradiction'.
Althusser therefore concludes that Marx's concept of contradiction is inseparable from that of a social whole, and borrows a Freudian term to describe the relations between various states of affairs. Changes in social structure are said to be overdetermined by numerous contradictions.
This reading, if it is correct, certainly demolishes the charge that Marx is a vulgar materialist. As it stands, however, it is equally destructive of the claim that he is any kind of materialist at all, since there is so far no suggestion that economic practice has any special role to play. To correct this impression, Althusser introduces the idea that the complex whole is 'structured in dominance'; one of its practices dominates the others, in the sense that it has more effect on them than they have on it, and therefore stands out as being of particular significance. This most prominent aspect of society (which is held to be religious in feudal formations and economic in capitalist ones) is called the 'dominant instance', and Althusser argues that it is in turn determined 'in the last instance' by the economy. That is to say, the economic practice of a society determines which other aspect of it dominates that society as a whole.
The idea of determination in the last instance is therefore vital to Althusser's analysis of historical materialism, but one may still wonder why there must always be a dominant instance determined by economic practice. The answer is to be found, I think, in the underlying belief that any mode of production which distributes wealth away from its producers will not survive unless it can somehow be made acceptable. The dominant instance of a society is then that aspect of it which sustains the existing economic system by controlling and justifying its allocation of income and resources. And, granted that particular modes of production will be more effectively legitimated by some practices than by others, the exact character of an economy will determine which instance is dominant.
According to Althusser, the analysis of society as a complex whole was one of Marx's greatest achievements. To appreciate its significance, however, it is not enough to regard it, as we have so far done, as a relatively straightforward account of social organisation and change; instead, one must look more deeply into the epistemological assumptions underlying it. For the extraordinary innovativeness of Marx's insights only becomes clear once we realise that he constructed a theory quite unlike those of his predecessors and of a kind of hitherto unknown, a science of historical materialism comparable in originality to the mathematics of Thales or the cosmology of Galileo.
Althusser's discussion of the birth of historical materialism and the analogy he draws between Marx and these mathematical and scientific geniuses owes a good deal to the work of one of his teachers, Gaston Bachelard. Himself an extremely eminent philosopher of science, Bachelard held that a scientific theory proper emerges out of a collection of pre-scientific techniques and beliefs, and incorporates its own epistemological standards—a set of criteria for testing and judging propositions, on the basis of which some are regarded as known to be true. These standards change with the theories of which they are a part: modern science, for instance, relies on mathematical techniques, and, as these develop, new ways of expressing and testing them have to be found. The epistemological criteria used to generate scientific knowledge are therefore not fixed, but are at any time a function of a particular set of theories.
When Althusser argues that Marx transcended the 'pre-scientific' assumptions of classical political economy to institute, in historical materialism, a science of history, he conceives this transition along roughly Bachelardian lines. As a new science, historical materialism will not merely be a modification of earlier economic theories. It will bring with it its own conception of knowledge and how to get it. This attempt to formulate the philosophical and methodological precepts on which Capital is founded is not in itself new. Korsch, Lukács, Marcuse, della Volpe, Sartre and Adorno had all pointed to the need to extract a method from Marx's works, which could then be applied and refined. Althusser's attempt to do this is unusual, however, in its scope and boldness, characteristics which have bred both intense excitement and genuine perplexity. The claim that Marx was a thorough-going materialist was a heady antidote to the prevailing humanism. Yet what was the vast epistemological change that Marx had wrought?
Althusser's reply to this central question begins by enumerating what Marx is not: he is not an empiricist, an idealist or a pragmatist. Of these demons, the most insinuating is empiricism (a term which Althusser employs in an unusually broad sense). The empiricist conception of knowledge, he says, presupposes the existence of a subject and an object, and regards the subject as gaining knowledge of the object by extracting its essential from its inessential properties. The function of knowledge is thus to 'separate, in the object, the two parts which exist in it, the essential and the inessential—by special procedures whose aim is to eliminate the inessential real … and to leave the knowing subject only the second part of the real which is its essence, itself real'. Once the problem is set up in this way, the task of epistemology is to offer some sort of guarantee that the object of knowledge corresponds to the real object, that its essence has been successfully extracted, and Althusser argues that the major traditions of modern philosophy, however disparate they appear, should all be seen in this light. Like the eighteenth-century tradition 'from Locke to Condillac', the idealist solution of identifying the real object with the thought object is 'in principle simply a variant of the confusion which characterises the problematic of empiricism', as is pragmatism when it offers practice as the criterion of knowledge. All these traditions make the same mistake: they address a 'problem of knowledge' which is presented as a genuine quest for enlightenment, but is actually limited by the need to maintain the pre-established categories of subject and object. Anything that is to count as a solution to the problem must leave these intact; yet this requirement may render it—in another sense—insoluble.
By the standards of most twentieth-century philosophy, this analysis appears monstrously unfair and shockingly ignorant. To flatten out the differences between opposed schools, to suggest that idealists and empiricists are both committed to the categories of subject and object, is enough to make one a laughingstock. Althusser is of course aware of this, and lumps such a broad spectrum of epistemological positions together the better to contrast them with Marxism. For the innovativeness of Marx's view is said to consist precisely in his break with the categories of subject and object, on the one hand, and with the idea of identifying some sort of process guaranteed to produce knowledge, on the other.
Of these two connected ideas, the abandonment of the notions of subject and object—the abolition of the subject, as Althusser calls it—is the most fundamental. What Marx means to transform here is our everyday conception of the human agent (the subject) whose desires, motives and beliefs are cited as the explanation for social events and states of affairs. Rather than being regarded as actors who make their own history, individuals are to be seen as the 'supports' of social practices which maintain and reproduce them. As Althusser puts it,
The structure of the relations of production determines the places and functions occupied and adopted by the agents of production, who are never anything more than the occupants of these places, insofar as they are the 'supports' (Träger) of these functions. The true 'subjects' (in the sense of constitutive subjects of the process) are therefore not these occupants or functionaries, are not, despite all appearances, the 'obviousness' of the 'given' of naïve anthropology, 'concrete individuals', 'real men'—but the definition and distribution of these places and functions.
This is not to deny, of course, that individuals are causal subjects: they fill various social roles, engage in the work of production, and thereby bring about changes in the social world. But their intentional properties are to be regarded as consequences, rather than causes, of social practice.
The view that individuals are determined by social practice is, of course, familiar enough, but it remains to see how Althusser fills it out. First of all, because conditions vary from society to society, the social practices in which particular individuals engage will depend on time and place. This much is uncontentious, and provides a defence of the claim that the properties of individuals are not constant, so that—as Althusser puts it—each class has 'its' individuals, whose beliefs and behaviour are founded upon their experiences. However, Althusser also argues that not only do the manifestations of subjecthood change from society to society, but the concept of subjecthood itself changes. What it is to be an individual subject fluctuates from ideology to ideology:
Where only a single subject (such and such an individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject…. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system:… ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, prescribing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.
A central part of our common-sense view of individual agents is our conviction that there is an explanatory link between belief and action. But Althusser argues that this, too, is the fruit of practice:
The ideological representation of ideology is itself forced to recognise that every 'subject' endowed with a 'consciousness' and believing in the 'ideas' that his 'consciousness' inspires in him and freely accepts, must 'act according to his ideas', must therefore inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice. If he does not do so, 'that is wicked'…. In every case, the ideology of ideology thus recognises, despite its imaginary distortion, that the 'ideas' of a human subject exist in his actions, or ought to exist in his actions, and if that is not the case, it lends him other ideas corresponding to the actions (however perverse) that he does perform.
Within bourgeois society the human individual is generally regarded as a subject with a certain range of properties, including that of being a self-conscious agent. However, people's capacity for perceiving themselves in this way is not innate; it is acquired within a framework of established social practices which impose on them the role (forme) of a subject. Each set of social practices not only determines the characteristics of the individuals who engage in it but also supplies them with a conception of the range of properties they can have, and of its limits. For example, individuals brought up in a truly Marxist society would presumably not regard themselves as the subjects of history, whereas those in bourgeois society believe that they are intentional agents.
Having established history as a process without a subject, Marx has, in Althusser's view, got free of empiricist epistemology and its search for guarantees. Instead, Marx asks what mechanism enables the process of knowledge, which takes place entirely in thought, to produce the cognitive appropriation of its real object, which exists outside thought in the real world? But how, one might ask, does this search for a mechanism differ from the old search for a guarantee? (Indeed, might not the discovery of a mechanism be such a guarantee?)
The difference between the two approaches is said to lie in the fact that Marx sees knowledge as the outcome of a production process which unites raw materials, means of production, and so on, instead of as a relation between a subject and an object. Knowledge therefore has to be seen as the product of a structure, and it is only by studying the characteristics of this structure that we can come to know what knowledge is. The change is from 'things as they are' (their essences) to things as they are produced.
Althusser originally argued that Marx's historical materialism had not only shaken off empiricist epistemology, but had at the same time got free of ideology and established a new science. Whereas ideologies were illusory representations, designed to sustain a particular theoretical account (as bourgeois epistemology sustains the categories of subject and object) and are thus arranged to produce an answer known in advance, scientific inquiry is genuinely open and critical. Sciences are also able, so Althusser originally argued, to tell you what the world is really like; historical materialism, as well as being revolutionary, is also true.
This distinction between realist science and illusory ideology is, needless to say, extremely crude, and it is unsurprising that Althusser later abandoned it in favour of a more complex analysis of the relations between science, ideology and the subject. Rather than being straightforwardly a source of illusions, ideological practice (itself composed of ideological state apparatuses or ISAs) has an important role to play in constituting subjects:
[It] 'acts' or 'functions' in such a way that it 'recruits' subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or 'transforms' the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: 'Hey, you there!'
The 'precision' of this mechanism leaves something to be desired. But Althusser elaborates it a little, using the example of Christianity, where the religious practice is said to 'hail' the individual and provide him with his status as a subject:
It [Christian religious ideology] says: I address myself to you, a human individual … in order to tell you that God exists and that you are answerable to Him … This is your origin, you were created by God for all eternity, although you were born in the 1920th year of Our Lord! This is your place in the world! This is what you must do!… God thus defines himself as the Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself ('I am that I am'), and he who interpellates his subject.
This case is supposed to show not only how Christianity works as an ideology, but how ideology works in general, and Althusser denies the need for a more detailed account on the grounds that, 'as the formal structure of all ideology is always the same, I shall restrict my analysis to a single example, one accessible to everyone, that of religious ideology, with the proviso that the same demonstration can be produced for ethical, legal, political, aesthetic ideology, etc.' With this reassurance he moves on.
Quite apart from the exegetical question of whether it is to be found in Marx's mature work, Althusser's interpretation of historical materialism has given rise to an enormous amount of philosophical debate among both Marxists and non-Marxists. In the English-speaking world (and particularly in Britain) his doctrine of the abolition of the subject and the epistemology associated with it have provoked a plethora of reactions, most of them strong: it has been heralded as the Truth, dismissed as risible, condemned as scandalous and welcomed as the rejuvenation of Marxist theory. On the whole, however, it is fair to say that hostile responses have come to outweight the friendly ones, so that it is easy to see the reception of Althusser's ideas as a flirtation, now firmly suppressed in the name of family values.
The reasons for this are far from simple—after all, the same trajectory has been followed in France. However, the tradition of Anglo-American social philosophy is peculiarly resistant to theses such as Althusser's, which challenge its deeply embedded individualism. It is therefore unsurprising that many people should have regarded his views as barely intelligible or downright dangerous, and examples of both are easy to find. On the one hand, a number of theorists accustomed to viewing society as the outcome of both actions and structural constraints had difficulty in grasping quite what Althusser was saying. They criticised him for overemphasising the role of structures and for failing to give due weight to the part played by agents in the construction of society, not fully realising that his view aimed to undercut the very dichotomy on which their objection rested. The individualist assumption that, whatever the constraints under which people labour, social organisation and change is still to be explained as the outcome of individual actions which are in some sense free, proved extremely durable. On the other hand, theorists who understood the implications of Althusser's view felt at once incredulous and—for a variety of reasons—threatened. In some cases the threat was primarily a political one. The idea of the abolition of the subject conjured up a picture of impersonal and uncontrollable practices embarked upon an inevitable historical process, which was thought tantamount to Stalinism. Although this objection was voiced by critics with various political allegiances, the most clamorous and hysterical was undoubtedly the historian E. P. Thompson, whose tract The Poverty of Theory alleges that 'Althusserianism is Stalinism reduced to the paradigm of Theory. It is Stalinism at last, theorised as ideology'. This charge provoked Perry Anderson to a stern, though also rather high-handed, reply, in which the supposed affinity between Althusser and Stalin is minutely investigated. In many ways, as Anderson shows, Thompson's allegation is grossly unjust: for example, Althusser was far from being a supporter of bureaucratic unity within the French Communist Party; his brand of materialism contrasts starkly with that of Stalin; and there is no evidence that he felt any sympathy for the ruthless repressive policies which give Stalin's name its dark evaluative load. Despite its unfairness, however, the charge does draw attention to a series of problems in Althusser's deterministic reading of Marx which remain to be confronted. Anderson tries to sweep these aside by valiantly asserting the compatibility of determinism and free will:
If Thompson had allowed a normal historical consciousness to inform his attention to Althusser, he would perhaps have recalled that in the history of philosophy there is no intrinsic relation between a causal determinism and a callous amoralism. If anything, the contrary is true. The most radical and implacable determinist of all, Baruch Spinoza, was known in his own lifetime as the noblest and gentlest of men, and was canonised by his successors as the 'saint of philosophers'.
But Spinoza's saintliness is not the point. First, while it is perfectly true that being a determinist does not entail having a nasty character, this reply does not capture the full weight of Thompson's charge; for when he accuses Althusser of being a Stalinist he is primarily condemning not Althusser himself, but his views. Second, while Anderson is also right to imply that the determinism defended by Althusser is true now if it is true at all and is therefore compatible with our current conception of ourselves as agents, he neglects the fact that Althusser does not propose to leave this comfortable state of affairs intact. If we were to come to believe that Marx's theory, as interpreted by Althusser, is true about us, we should presumably come to see ourselves, not as agents, but as the supports of social practices. It is the implications of this—the fact that, as one commentator puts it, Althusser presents 'human individuality as the fantasy of a creature constitutionally unable to apprehend its rigidly social location'—which many of his critics find threatening, and, while their nervousness may stand in the way of inquiry, they have at least seen what is at stake. For many of our current moral and political ideas are built around the assumption that individuals are agents. Why, after all, do we often regard citing somebody's action as a sufficient explanation for some state of affairs? Because, to put it roughly, we assume that their action was autonomous. We could go on to list various constraints which narrowed the range of available alternatives, but we believe, nevertheless, that within these constraints many actions are freely chosen. If we abandon this idea, as Althusser urges us to do, we obviously lose one commonplace form of explanation. But at the same time—and this is what worries many of Althusser's opponents—we lose our moral conception of individual responsibility. If there are no subjects, no autonomous agents, then there are, by the same token, no responsible agents, and we no longer have the ability to distinguish between states of affairs for which people are responsible and those for which they are not, and thus between states of affairs for which they can be blamed and those for which they can be praised. Much of our everyday morality, not to say legality, therefore disappears.
Faced with so radical a position, many of Althusser's English readers have simply retreated into their intuitively established individualist views. Such a crazy view, they think, just cannot be right, and does not require serious rebuttal and argument. I have argued elsewhere that the hegemonal position of individualism in English social theory has the consequence that it is assumed rather than argued for—a fact obviously disappointing to holists in general, and particularly to those as tenacious as Althusser. However, a number of theorists have taken Althusser's views seriously, and have produced a sustained discussion of the epistemological tenets he attributes to Marx.
Of the various criticisms levelled at Althusser's argument, some of the most serious are those aiming to convict it of begging the question. Paul Hirst raised the interesting objection that, in his account of the ISAs which are supposed to constitute subjects, Althusser illicitly presupposes that subjects exist. The individuals or groups who are interpellated by ISAs have to be able to perceive, listen, recognise and then internalise the discourses which these apparatuses convey; but in order to do this they must already be subjects. Something in this argument is absolutely right, but it is difficult to tell from Althusser's own discussion of interpellation whether he is really as vulnerable to it as his critics believe. To start with the kernel of truth, if people are to be constituted as subjects, they must be capable of forming beliefs about themselves as a result of being exposed to discourses. And, in order to form beliefs about themselves, it seems that they must already have some conception of 'self' as opposed to 'other'. This is what Hirst points out. Rather than being conclusive in themselves, however, his observations raise a series of further questions.
First, Althusser would presumably not deny that people acquire some sense of the difference between 'self' and 'other' early on in their lives. But, when he talks about 'the constitution of subjects', he has in mind, as we have seen, both the constitution of the occupants of particular roles, and the constitution of agents. The question of whether people can be constituted as agents (or whether, as Hirst argues, any account of this process is bound to presuppose they just are agents) obviously depends on what you understand by the notion of an agent. For Althusser, as I have already suggested, this seems to consist in the capacity to act autonomously: to decide, choose, change your mind, and so on. Exactly what this involves is the subject of continuing lively debate within all the traditions of European philosophy. But, for the charge brought by Hirst to stick, it would have to be shown that the idea of being constituted as a choosing, deciding subject, is incoherent. This is certainly not obvious. Babies, for example, might perhaps have a sense of themselves as the subjects of events (things that happen to them are distinguished from things that happen to others) whilst still lacking a conception of choice. Any serious attempt to grapple with this problem, however, requires a clearer conception of the 'subject' than any offered by Althusser, as well, no doubt, as a talent for developmental psychology.
Secondly, the widespread belief that many of our most fundamental ideas about ourselves as subjects are formed in early childhood gives rise to a further set of questions about interpellation. The ISAs which figure most prominently in Althusser's account are—relatively speaking—ones which enter into our lives quite late. By the time we are in a position to be interpellated by religious or educational practice we already have quite a developed sense of self—five-year-olds, for example, are perfectly good at making choices, and are in many ways established agents. So we need to be able to see the constitution of the subject as a historical process, in which certain ISAs—pre-eminently the family—play an overwhelmingly important part. For they presumably do much of the work of constituting the self as agent, preparing the ground for its later constitution as an agent of a certain sort—as a member of a particular class, as having a certain gender, as having a particular nationality.
Althusser's claim that all this is done by ISAs implies, of course, that the whole story could be different; different ideological discourses could and would constitute subjects who would not, by our standard, be subjects at all, since they would have a radically different sense of their own identities and capacities. Besides prompting the obvious inquiry 'What on earth would that be like?' and causing Kantians to hop up and down, this picture may be incompatible with others of Althusser's claims. I have argued, against Hirst, that Althusser may conceivably be able to give an account of the constitution of the subject which does not presuppose the existence of a subject in the relevant sense. But any such account must make some presuppositions and these may be more substantial than Althusser intends.
This doubt is pursued by another critic, who argues that Althusser begs the question in a different way, by assuming some fixed traits of human nature. By allotting such a major place to ideological practice, Althusser supposes that people must somehow be cajoled, duped or persuaded into roles which do not reflect their true interests. In order for a capitalist mode of production to perpetuate itself, for example, a majority of capitalists and workers alike must fail to comprehend it. But why should this be so? Only because it is assumed that if people understood the system in which they were involved they would not put up with it, and it would not go on. But this is to assume that humans have a natural capacity to recognise and reflect on their interests, and that they will only stand so much injustice.
As a rebuttal of Althusser's account of the relation between individuals and structured totalities, this objection is incomplete. Ideologies may be needed to neutralise 'natural' human characteristics which apply to all practices. But they might also serve to overcome properties of the individual members of a society which are themselves the result of other social practices. If this were so, the existence of ideologies could be explained without resorting to an 'anthropological dimension'. Furthermore, an Althusserian who faces this criticism directly will surely reply that there is no question of individuals who have 'real interests' being 'duped' by ideology; to talk in this way to revert to the very problematic Marx was striving to transcend. The function of ideological practice is not to 'deceive' ready-made subjects, but to constitute individuals as subjects. So, although a different totality might produce subjects who were neither exploiters nor exploited, such individuals cannot be produced within capitalist societies. For they would have to have escaped the very apparatuses which constitute subjects and thus would not be subjects at all.
This is a strong answer to the question in hand, but it releases a sea of epistemological troubles. First, as we have already noticed, Althusser's account must somehow explain the enormous variety of beliefs and judgements, many of them damaging to the status quo, that are found in capitalist societies (and others, for that matter). For example, if the only way to be a subject is to be constituted by the existing ISAs, how are we to explain the fact that many theorists are so convinced of the necessity of intentional subjecthood, while Althusser views it as a contingency? Did the ISAs slip up in Althusser's case? He might perhaps attribute the incompleteness of his account to the fact that he is bourgeois subject, who can only glimpse an alternative view of the individual; but this defence is still a problem, for even a glimpse suggests that the ISAs of the capitalist totality may be more or less effective and this variation will have to be explained. His reply, as I have imagined it, turns away the suggestion that ISAs somehow 'persuade' people into views and roles which do not reflect their real interest, on the grounds that these apparatuses constitute subjects rather than manipulating them. But social practices only need legitimating if there is some chance that they may be rejected. So it seems that this is a further reason for Althusser to allow that the process of constitution may be more or less successful.
On the face of it, two lines of defence are seen to be open to him. One alternative is to distinguish the constitution of individuals as intentional subjects who reason, choose and decide, from their constitution as capitalists, workers or Lumpenproletariat, and to argue that it is the particular roles of a society which give rise to the need for legitimation. But it is unlikely that Althusser would welcome such an option, because, as we have seen, he is anxious to reject this very distinction. The other alternative is to claim that the very constitution of individuals as intentional subjects serves to legitimate capitalist modes of production, for only if individuals perceive themselves as free agents will these alienating arrangements seem tolerable. The constitution of subjects, and the simultaneous constitution of the occupants of particular roles would then both be seen as forms of legitimation. This approach to the problem looks the more promising of the two, but breeds its own epistemological difficulties, which I shall mention presently.
As we have seen, Althusser presents his argument at a high level of abstraction, in outline rather than in detail, and, without a more precise idea of the subject and the practices that are supposed to constitute it, it is hard to know how to go on. For some readers this sketchiness has been a source of discouragement. Others, however, have found it a challenge, and the enthusiasm of a number of social theorists has resulted in a spate of work informed or inspired by Althusser's materialism. By asking a series of more specific questions about, for example, the analysis of over-determination, or the nature of political practice, writers such as Erik Olin Wright and Nicos Poulantzas have aimed to formulate claims and hypotheses ripe for investigation and development. At the same time, some of them have demonstrated the limits of our present ability to give Althusserian analyses of social organisation and change, thereby highlighting the extent to which Althusser's own work is programmatic. Poulantzas, for example, offers an elaborate account of the capitalist state, designed both to display the interconnections between political practice and the various other practices of the complex whole, and to show how the state responds to changing class relations. This latter ambition is dear to Althusser's heart, for he too is anxious to integrate his image of society as a whole with the role played by the class struggle. If Althusser's view is to remain true to the tenets of traditional Marxism, his belief that social change is to be explained by appealing to the practices which constitute subjects and constrain social affairs must be reconciled with the notion of social classes. On one account, these are simply to be seen as the outcome of structural constraints; their members see the world as existing ideological practices bid them see it, and act accordingly. But this thoroughgoing determinism is not easy to reconcile with the idea that the revolutionary working class may precisely be able to see through the ideological practice of capitalist society, and, taking matters into its own hands, bring about the revolution.
In trying to accommodate these two aspects of Marxist theory, both Althusser and Poulantzas encounter grave difficulties. For Althusser the problem takes an epistemological form. If we are constituted as subjects, including as class-members, how can we ever 'take matters into our own hands', as Marx seems to require? Furthermore, if our beliefs about society are the outcomes of ideological practices, which form us in ways of which we are unaware, how can we know that Althusser's claims about the relation between individuals and structural totalities are right? How can we be sure that they are not an ideological representation like all the others? Althusser's later work offers a reply to these questions: since we cannot expect to gain untainted knowledge of ourselves and our relation to social practices, the claims of a subjectless epistemology must be assessed, like their competitors, by the standards we habitually employ. But what standards are these? and has Althusser not slid into a relativism far removed from Marx's science of historical materialism?
Poulantzas' approach to the issue of class struggle suggests that he does not find Althusser's explanations by appeal to practices satisfactory. For him, it is not enough to explain social change by appealing to variations in social structures. In order to understand the history of capitalist societies one must look in addition at the balance of power between classes and the way this power is exercised. What actually happens depends to some extent on the strategies that classes pursue and on the unity with which they organise themselves and seize opportunities to strengthen their positions. How, though, is the class struggle to be analysed? In particular, can Poulantzas explain the shifting relations between classes without tacitly relying on some sort of voluntarism? Unfortunately, although he does not admit any difficulty of this kind, his appeals to class strategy are treacherous, and reintroduce the conception of the subject that both he and Althusser are so anxious to stamp out.
Scattered throughout Poulantzas' studies of the phases of capitalism are appeals to the strategies adopted by classes in order to realise their interests. At first glance these appear anachronistic, for our ordinary understanding of the term 'strategy' embodies the idea of intentional action. If a class is to lay plans there must be a strategist who assesses the circumstances, evaluates possible outcomes and decides what to do; and, while these properties can be attributed to groups as well as individuals, an agent (what Poulantzas would call a subject) is needed in both cases. Strategy, in this everyday sense, is incompatible with the abolition of the subject, and it is therefore reasonable to suppose that Poulantzas is not proposing to explain the course of the class struggle in terms of the ingenuity exercised by classes and class-members in realising their goals. But to avoid this return to voluntarism he must have in mind some further conception of strategy, and it is not surprising to find him talking about it in what might be called its objective sense: the strategy of a class—the course of action which will best enable it to gain power over other classes—is estimated in the light of its objective interests and its position in the formation, and is detached from the beliefs and aspirations of its members. In discussing the rise of fascism in Germany, for example, Poulantzas claims that, 'with the end of the First World War, a genuinely revolutionary period opened in Germany and Italy. Revolution was on the agenda, in the sense that there were conjunctions of objectively revolutionary situations. But the working class failed to take state power … and to secure its objectives in critical situations.' The strategy of the working class is therefore worked out in terms of the opportunities open to it in a particular situation—or rather in terms of the opportunities that Poulantzas claims would have been open to it had the class itself been different. But strategy of this sort, while it is a useful analytic tool, does not contribute much to historical explanation. For we still have to understand what makes the difference between situations where classes pursue their objective interests and situations where they stray from them.
Perhaps the most obvious course is to elucidate the strategy of classes by appealing to the constraints under which they labour. Given its position in the struggle and the structures of the capitalist formation, a class may not be left with many options. And, as long as its strategy conforms to one or some of these, the task of explanation is relatively well defined. Some of the explanations given by Poulantzas fit this pattern. Others, however, do not. He argues, for instance, that German National Socialism 'handled its main enemy, the working class and the latter's relation to other popular classes, by a calculated plan to divide it'. But calculation, in the ordinary sense, requires individuals to assess, judge, choose and decide. Since we are familiar with Poulantzas' rejection of voluntarism, we shall assume that this in turn is to be explained in a way that avoids treating either individuals or classes as subjects. The choices, assessments and selections which go into forming a strategy, and the ingenuity or crassness displayed in implementing it, must themselves be shown to be determined by factors other than intentions.
This, though, is where Poulantzas lets his readers down. For instead of taking the final explanatory step he leaves them with an unanalysed notion of class strategy. They know how not to analyse it, it is true, but are given no positive guidance which will enable them to get around the menace of voluntarism. If we now ask how we are able to get any grasp of the explanatory role of class strategy in Poulantzas' theory, the answer is that we rely on our everyday, voluntarist understanding of it. We use this to cast light on a metaphor of which we are given no other interpretation.
This inability to realise the aspirations which Althusser attributes to Marx undoubtedly constitutes a serious criticism of both theorists. It does not, however, destroy the significance of either, as the extent of Althusser's influence testifies. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the widespread current preoccupation with both materialism and ideology—preoccupations which extend far beyond the bounds of Marxism and embrace theorists of every political stamp. The problems posed by these phenomena may well elude any quick solution. But they are extremely interesting none the less.
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SOURCE: "Marx and murder: Althusser's demon and the flight from subjectivity," in TLS, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, pp. 3-4.
[In the following review, Lilla discusses the implications that details from Althusser's life have on his work.]
On a grey November morning in 1980, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his wife Hélène in their apartment at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Within hours he was whisked away by ambulance to a psychiatric hospital, where he was subsequently confined by court order after having been judged mentally unfit to stand trial for an act he said he could not remember. At the time, many in Paris suspected a plot by former normaliens to protect their former teacher and exculpate him. But soon it became known that Althusser had spent much of his adult life in states of severe depression and had divided his time almost equally between the École and various psychiatric clinics. This revelation ensured that the case did not become an "affair", and it soon fell from public attention. At most, the Althusser murder was remembered along with Nicos Poulantzas's suicidal leap from the Tour Montparnasse and Michel Foucault's death from AIDS as another morbid episode in the dénouement of la pensée 68.
For all intents and purposes, Althusser's act was a murdersuicide. He took no part in public or professional life after the event, spent most of the next ten years in clinics, and died quietly in 1990. By then he was nearly forgotten, and not only because of the murder. Althusser's moment on the French public stage was actually quite short. It began noisily in 1965, when he published two highly influential books: Pour Marx, a collection of his essays, and a collaborative work with his students titled Lire le Capital. These works earned him a reputation as the leading philosophical Marxist of his generation. But by the late 1970s, after the publication of Solzhenitsyn's gulag books and the butchery of Cambodia, the French largely abandoned Marx. Althusser was still widely read and discussed by Italian and Latin American communists, and also revered by left-wing academics in America and Great Britain. But to the few thousand Parisians who constitute le monde entier of every French intellectual, he had already ceased to exist.
It came as some surprise, then, to learn that Althusser, his writings and his "act" had been heatedly debated in France last spring. Behind the commotion was the publication of no less than two Althusser autobiographies. The first, a short one called Les Faits written in 1975, is a riveting document mixing lucidity with moments of wild delirium in which Althusser recounts imaginary meetings with Pope John XXIII and de Gaulle, fantasies about robbing a bank, and fears of being pursued by the Red Brigades. The second memoir is a longer one entitled L'Avenir dure longtemps, and was composed in 1985 to "explain" how his early psychological experiences set the stage for his crime. It is a cagier and far more equivocal work. It is also something of a public disrobing, in which Althusser presents himself as an intellectual faker who had read little Marx, less Freud, and no Nietzsche. Accompanying these two very different memoirs was the first volume of a massive biography written by one of his students, Yann Moulier Boutang, and which gives yet a third account of his early life. A number of polemical articles have now been published on the new Althusser case, and Clément Rosset's slight book on the matter will probably be followed by other, more substantial ones.
The prurient interest in these Marxist "Mémoires d'outretombe" is obvious. But whatever one's view of Althusser's Marxism, there is good reason to be sceptical about using such material to conduct yet another investigation into the biographical sources of a philosopher's thought. After the Heidegger case (where the stakes are high) and the de Man case (where they were pitifully low), one wonders whether anything can be learned by picking over the bones of a relatively minor thinker who was, by all accounts, profoundly sick and dangerous.
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Quite apart from their value as psychological documents—these are, after all, authentic diaries of an intelligent madman—the Althusser volumes permit a rare glimpse into the back-rooms of post-war French intellectual life. And like a number of recent biographies and memoirs, they confirm that the radical French philosophies of the period had less to do with grand history or our "postmodern" condition than with the shared obsessions of a small group of thinkers working in the highly centralized French context. Anyone interested in these thinkers will want to read the Althusser books, despite the atmosphere of scandal surrounding them, in order to familiarize himself with the intimate historical background to the way we think now.
Louis Althusser was born in his grandparents' Algerian home in 1918 and remained within the pied noir enclave there until 1930, when the family moved to Marseilles. As a young teenager he began to show signs of intellectual promise, and when the family moved to Lyons in 1936, he was able to enter one of the respectable provincial schools that prepare students for the École Normale. He did exceptionally well at Lyons, arriving near the top of his class and gaining the respectful friendship of his teachers. Foremost among these were the philosopher Jean Guitton and the conservative historian Jean Lacroix, strict Catholics both. Indeed, one of the revelations of Boutang's biography is the depth of Althusser's youthful attraction to monarchism and Catholicism, and the continuing presence of the latter in his private life until the early 1950s, well after his adherence to the Communist Party. By the time he left Lyons in 1939, he was like any other right-leaning, church-going boy of the period preparing to join the aristocracy of adolescence that has ruled France since the Third Republic.
Was Althusser's normal childhood? A great deal is made to rest on the question in these biographical writings, though they do surprisingly little to answer it persuasively. One reason is that Althusser himself paints two very different pictures of his early family life, the second under the burden of providing the psychological profile of a murderer. In the 1975 memoir, he portrays his parents as a stiff Catholic couple brought together almost by chance in a mistaken marriage and their family life as somewhat cold. Yet they were clearly devoted to him in their own awkward way, making the necessary sacrifices for his education and keeping up an unbroken correspondence after he left home. Excerpts from these letters collected by his biographer are not lacking in reciprocal affection.
As Boutang remarks, nothing on the surface of Althusser's childhood reflects an underlying Faulknerian chaos. So what is one to make of his 1985 memoir, which places most of the blame for his psychological distress—and, indirectly, for his criminal act—squarely on the shoulders of maman and papa? These pages are painful reading, combining as they do a reprehensible ingratitude with an utterly conventional analysis of his own sexual maturation (or lack thereof). It is astonishing to read a man famed for his intellectual sophistication and skepticism repeating the platitudes of his last psychoanalyst in the style of "Freud raconté aux jeunes filles". Perhaps Althusser, so steeped in Marxism, had lost the habit of considering human beings in any light other than that of class and ideology. He nearly says as much at the beginning of his second memoir, when he admits "surprise" at his inability to employ his earlier Marxist theoretical categories "pour comprendre ce qui m'est advenu". Such a confession by such a committed thinker is a troubling sign that vulgar Freudianism will outlast vulgar Marxism as an intellectual and cultural force in our time.
Whether Althusser's early family life was in fact the original source of his later psychological disintegration must remain forever in doubt. One important reason is that the natural course of his private and professional lives was abruptly altered by a singular historical event that neither Freudianism nor Marxism could explain: the Second World War. Although Althusser had been received into the École Normale for the fall of 1939, he was called into active military service before he could matriculate. By the spring of 1940, he had already been captured by the Germans and would remain in a Schleswig-Holstein prison camp until 1945. Althusser devotes surprisingly little reflection to this period in his memoirs, apart from noting his relative comfort and his first encounters with young men outside his class (including Communists). But Boutang finds evidence in letters and interviews that Althusser's depressions began here, and that he had already begun to withdraw into the care of doctors and the security of the hospital bed. It was during this period as well that he lost his religious faith, an event he passes over in silence.
Whatever the combination of causes may have been, it is clear that in late 1945 Althusser arrived in Paris a fragile, almost broken young man. And it was at this precise moment of psychological weakness that he entered into the three relationships that would define his adult existence. One of the virtues of Boutang's otherwise over-written biography is that he manages to establish the connections between these relations—with the École Normale, with his future wife Hélène Legotien, and with the Communist Party—and to show why they constituted a single, inseparable bloc in Althusser's mind.
Of the three, Althusser's dealings with the École were the most stable and satisfactory because they permitted him to fulfil his intellectual ambitions within strict psychological limitations. Those limitations already appeared midway through his second year at the École, when he fell into a menacing depression that required treatment. To their credit, the school authorities reacted quickly and placed him in a separate room in the infirmary, a room where he (like Michel Foucault after him) would frequently seek psychological refuge. Despite his mood swings, Althusser's brilliance soon made him a school favorite, and when the position of caïman in philosophy fell vacant in 1948, he received it without contest. Like everything else about the École Normale, the position of caïman is unique. It is not a professorship, since the École is not a university. Officially, its holder is simply responsible for supervising students' work in one field and preparing them for the national agrégation. The position demands only occasional teaching, and this schedule permitted Althusser to absent himself frequently for psychiatric treatment. Yet given the École's central place in French intellectual life, and the extreme importance placed on the philosophy agrégation, the philosophy caïman is by default one of the most powerful figures in the French intellectual establishment. This means that from 1948 until 1980, two generations of French philosophers and intellectuals passed under Althusser's manic-depressive tutelage.
Althusser was fortunate to have found an understanding "parent" in the École, for his relations with Hélène and the Communist Party were extremely rocky. As biographical writings attest, one is obliged to treat these two relationships together for reasons that are peculiar to Althusser's make-up. He and his future wife first met shortly after his arrival in Paris when he looked to be little more than a depressed, Catholic, conservative, and relatively unworldly young student. Hélène Legotien was his opposite in almost every respect—active, Jewish, Communist, and with more political experience than Althusser could ever hope to acquire. Several years his senior, she had been involved in left-wing politics since the 1930s, had worked for Jean Renoir, and had spent the war in the Resistance, where she befriended Albert Camus and Louis Aragon. Although the Liberation had left Hélène with more memories than prospects, she was the most exotic thing Althusser had ever encountered. Coup de foudre.
Althusser's relations with Hélène might have ended after she robbed him of his virginity in the École infirmary, had she not also (or so he thought) saved his life. When Althusser's depression was first diagnosed in Paris, he was nearly committed to an asylum, a prospect that understandably terrified him, since lifetime incarcerations were then not uncommon. Hélène refused to accept this diagnosis and secretly arranged a second examination with a doctor who recommended shock treatments, which seemed the lesser evil. These restored him to his senses, at least temporarily, and kept him a free man. After helping to liberate France, Hélène had, as it were, liberated Althusser. However sexually and ideologically promiscuous he would later become, Althusser would not forget these nearly simultaneous liberations, and in the following decades neither reason, common sense, nor an instinct for self-preservation could separate him from Hélène or the Party.
Who was Hélène Légotien? Boutang's portrait of her is anything but flattering. Very little can be confirmed about her past, except that she had abandoned her given name, Rytmann, in contempt of her Jewish roots. Boutang tells us repeatedly that she was physically unattractive, personally abrasive, and incapable of getting along with Althusser's students and friends. Althusser himself fought often and violently with her, and they were frequently separated. None the less, they always returned to his claustrophobic apartment at the École and continued to suffer there together until that November morning in 1980.
And suffer they did, both in private and public. Certainly the most historically significant chapters of the biography concern the Althussers' joint struggle with the PCF in the decade after the war, and in them Boutang does a good job of evoking the eerie Stalinist mentality of the period. The background to this little drama is still shrouded in mystery. It seems that immediately after the war the Party had refused Hélène admittance, charging her with involvement in gruesome "purification" murders in Lyons during the Liberation. Hélène steadfastly denied the charges, and Althusser of course believed her. (Boutang intimates that the Party may have known something.) For the rest of their lives together, the couple were engaged in the demeaning task of clearing her name and begging for admission. Letters were written, meetings held, but even Althusser's prestigious academic position failed to move the Party leaders. Humiliation followed humiliation. When, for example, a meeting of the local Communist cell was held on the question in 1950, Althusser actually voted against her out of Stalinist solidarity. ("Je le savais depuis longtemps, j'étais bien un lâche.") Later that year, Althusser himself was called before the cell of Communist students in the École to explain his liaison and was ordered to break with her. He agreed, only to recant the next day. (Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Michel Foucault were both cell members at the time.)
Boutang's first volume breaks off in early 1956, three years before Althusser published his first book. This is a sensible stopping-point, since both the political situation and Althusser's public profile would change radically thereafter. For the French Communist Party, 1956 was a watershed: Khrushchev's secret speech, the failed Hungarian uprising, and the PCF's hesitant embrace of something called Communist "humanism". Althusser opposed such a reorientation of the Party, and it was this opposition in the name of a theoretically pure, anti-humanistic Marxism that would make his reputation over the following decade. The next volume will no doubt pay closer attention to Althusser's intellectual development during this period, to his doctrinal quarrels with the PCF, his discovery of a coupure between the early and late Marx, his "theory of theoretical practice", and his flirtations with Leninism, Maoism, and liberation theology. In short, it should present an Althusser more familiar to us.
Whether Boutang will find a similar coupure between the early and late Althusser remains to be seen. It is possible that his second volume will restore some lustre to the later philosophical writings in this way, but it is difficult to imagine how they can survive the brutal psychological reduction to which Althusser himself subjects their author. If his first memoir is to be believed, Althusserian Marxism is defensible, but its author was mad. If the second is to be believed, Althusserian Marxism did not exist, since Althusser was not responsible for his actions—not for his writings, nor for Hélène's murder. Perhaps his illness means that neither memoir should be believed, but then where does that leave us? The paradox of Althusser, like that of the Cretan liar, looks insoluble.
And in the end it may not matter. Althusserian Marxism was an ephemeral philosophical development unimaginable—indeed inexplicable—outside the petit monde of Paris in the 1960s and that unique intellectual Petri dish, the École Normale Supérieure. Yet the morality lurking behind this philosophy persists and has proved remarkably adaptable, as Althusser's own case shows. His earliest political teaching, elaborated in his writings on Marx, was that man is not the "subject" of historical activity but only the "bearer" of a history which ideology and social structures produce through him. This became an article of faith in la pensée 68, which sought to drive "subjectivity" and "humanism" from every intellectual domain. When Althusser's anti-humanistic Marx failed to enlighten him about the murder, he had no trouble changing horses and adopting an anti-humanistic Freud to make the same moral point: man is not his own subject.
In fact, Louis Althusser was not the subject of himself. He was possessed by something he could not control, a demon that tormented him for over forty years and drove him to kill the only person he loved. No one reading these doleful confessions will reach any other conclusion. But are we all so possessed? Althusser's work today appears as one extended effort to make us share his condition, to persuade us not only that modern capitalism mesmerizes through the "Ideological Apparatuses of the State", but, as he later puts it in his last memoir, that "the most terrible, unbearable, and frightening of all Ideological Apparatuses of the State is the family". Biography now permits us to see what a profoundly intimate meaning the philosophical flight from subjectivity and the attack on humanism had for Althusser, as it did for Foucault. Why their quest for self-erasure then found resonance among an entire generation of Western intellectuals is a puzzle which historians must confront when they come to write about the time in which we live.
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SOURCE: A review of Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, in Science and Society, Vol. 57, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 240-43.
[In the following review, Wenger asserts that "If the reader follows the unfolding of Althusser's logic with care, it is evident that while he is not correct about everything he analyzes, most of what he says is powerful and compelling."]
An important set of questions might now be asked about Louis Althusser by current theorists of "what is left of the Left," with the least interesting being the empirical matter of the extent and character of his contemporary readership, and the more significant being: who should now read Louis Althusser, if anyone, and why? This collection, with Gregory Elliott's excellent introduction, is probably sufficient grounds to reach conclusions regarding the ongoing salience of Althusser in the current period of socialist retreat and theoretical disarray.
The various writings presented in this book in chronological order were either previously untranslated, had become unavailable in English, or were incomplete in their earlier versions. Thus, this assemblage of many of Althusser's explicitly "philosophical" arguments, that is, those done as an overt intervention in philosophical discourse, is of interest to "Althusserologists" (such as may currently exist), historians of ideas, and "Marxological" students of Marxist theory. However, taken by themselves, the further edification and gratification of the bibliophiliac and bibliographic desires of these small and continually diminishing constituencies would hardly be sufficient reason to announce the existence of this book. Indeed, if these were the sole raisons d'etre for this volume, its promulgation would probably have caused Althusser great pain. Happily, there is considerably more to recommend it, not the least being a lucidity sometimes foreign to many of Althusser's more widely disseminated works. This is likely due to the fact that almost all of these works had a didactic character, being uttered as lectures, defenses, conference presentations, self-clarifications, etc., and sometimes to non-Marxist but erudite audiences. This is not to say that this work will be easy even for those with more than a passing acquaintance with Althusser's major categories and his terminological conventions; rather, it is to assure the non-philosopher that with some effort, it is ultimately accessible.
Almost all of Althusser's main concepts and positions are revisited and made part of a structured whole in these essays: the assertion of the dual character of Marxist science, subdivided into historical and dialectical materialism; the notion of the epistemological break in science represented by an internal rupture in Marx's thought; the spirited denial of History with a Subject (any subject) and, corollary to this, the categorical rejection of the possibility of a Marxist humanism; overdetermination and underdetermination; the "relative" autonomy of the state and, more here than perhaps elsewhere in Althusser's ouevre, that of the sphere of ideology. What is most striking is the clarity with which the editor is able to systematically assemble these diverse conceptualizations into a coherent whole, particularly when it is understood that these writings were produced over more than a decade. The most significant thread that binds them is more than the common terminological-syllogistic schema they exhibit. Of far greater interest is the specific, ongoing development of Althusser's rejectionist view of philosophy in general and as it has hitherto existed in Marxism. This radical representation of the totality of philosophy is the common textual element in all these essays, and it is in order to highlight this stance that Elliott brought these works together.
Althusser's position on philosophy shifted and evolved over the course of the years these essays span (1965–1978), but his overarching goal is unswerving: to dissolve philosophy into a mode of ideology. He asserts in some of the middle points of his development that in its essence philosophy is the manifestation in theoretical practice of idealism, and thus a manifestation of the hegemonic and/or dominant ideology of ruling classes, which wishes to deny the material nature of existence so as to mask the class nature of society. At later points he presents philosophy as the process by which the internal contradictions of historically developed ruling ideologies are rendered internally consistent. Early on, he asserts that philosophy is politics in the realm of theory. For all this mutability, possibly evolution, in his views, Althusser is clear in his central thesis: the deployment of idealist categories in the philosophical act is a form of ideological domination. However, a sub-text which is foregrounded in the later essays is that the reduction of Marxist theory to a mode of philosophy by Marxists, such as Stalin, is as damaging to the objective interests of the proletariat as is the propagation of bourgeois ideology. By producing a dogmatic Marxism, some Marxists have not only violated the nature of Marxist science, but have produced specific disasters, primary among them the Stalin period in the Soviet Union and its aftermath, which is still with us, and which is still catastrophic when seen from the perspective of the proletariat.
It is when Althusser begins an auto-analysis of his own philosophical interventions, that the unity of his thought becomes most apparent. He situates his own theoretical/philosophical activities in the context of first demonstrating the "relatively autonomous" role of theory in the construction of post-revolutionary societies. He then embeds his ideas in the conjectural matrix of that which he labels a "leftist" critique of Stalinism, which tendency he feels was absent from the Twentieth Party Congress "rightist" analysis presented by Khrushchev. In this way he frames his belief in the ongoing developmental possibilities of a prophylactic Marxist theory. That is, for Althusser the practical failure of the now formerly existing socialist societies was a failure of theory and/or "line," and the possibility of any future revolutionary success depends on a rectification thereof. Althusser seeks to lift this position out of the realm of the partisan struggle over doctrine, and show the logical necessity of correct Marxist theorization, while simultaneously demonstrating the political necessity of his particular corrective. His ultimate aspiration, which accounts for much of the path he follows in his development as an intellectual, is to establish that there is no real difference between correct theory and correct line, even though he seems uncomfortable with such elisions in the earlier days.
It is in his belief that theoretical sufficiency equals political correctness that Althusser is perhaps most vulnerable. Although in the course of his magisterial syllogistic development he generates scores of remarkable theoretical and metatheoretical insights, he is forced by his theoretico-practical stance to rely on an extremely rationalistic model of human activity, wherein humans act on the basis of symbolico-material "values" and ideas which they receive from ideological "apparatuses." Although laudatory toward Freud in passing here, as in more detail elsewhere, Althusser fails to confront the insights of the Frankfurt School(s), not to ill effect in eschewing their subjectivism, but rather suffering some harm by ignoring the question of the actual material formation of the mechanisms of mental life which process sensation and "apply" ideology. In other words, he does not deal fully here with humans as real objects, even while frequently extolling the assertions of the German Ideology. Even sympathetic readers of Althusser might ask of his analysis whether its treatment of the relationship between theory, line, and revolutionary action is not itself noticeably tinged with idealism.
In closing, the answer to the implied question framed at the outset as to whether Marxists in 1992 should read Althusser in general or, more specifically, the Althusser found in this volume, is in the strong affirmative. Althusser's self-clarifications are simultaneously clarifications of many of the fundamental theoretical problems which all Marxist theoreticians face, and which any possible future Marxist politics must also confront. If the reader follows the unfolding of Althusser's logic with care, it is evident that while he is not correct about everything he analyzes, most of what he says is powerful and compelling. Therefore, entering into dialectic with this body of thought makes further clarification and development unavoidable on the part of any who confront it. Until the ideas propounded here have been negated in their own terms, which is an uncertain prospect, they cannot be laid to rest, no matter how much they may be consigned, in Engels' words, "to the gnawing criticism of the mice."
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SOURCE: "Invisible man," in New Statesman and Society, December 10, 1993, pp. 38-9.
[In the following review, Bright discusses Althusser's The Future Lasts a Long Time and asserts that "it is when he writes about his dreadful upbringing that he is at his most passionate."]
When the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, wrote his autobiography in 1985, he knew that it would not be published in his lifetime. Five years earlier, he had strangled his wife Hélène during a severe bout of depression. His state of mind at the time meant that he was never tried for the murder. Instead he was granted a non-lieu, a special dispensation for someone who is deemed unfit to stand trial. In return, all his civil liberties were removed.
So for ten years Althusser lived in total obscurity, mostly in the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital in Paris, unable to sign his own name on official documents and forbidden from publishing any of his writings. To all intents and purposes, Althusser ceased to exist after the murder, though in fact he did not die until 1990.
Perhaps this sounds like a good deal. But as Althusser points out at the beginning of The Future Lasts a Long Time, he did not even have the basic rights of a "normal" criminal. He was not allowed to repay his debt to society by serving a prison sentence, and until the publication of this book he was not even permitted to answer for his crime.
Individual identity in the public arena is somewhat less developed in Britain than it is in France. Recent resistance to John Major's identity card proposals and, before that, people's readiness to disappear from the electoral roll rather than pay the poll tax would seem to show that we rather like it that way. In France, where one's identity as a rational, responsible citizen is carefully controlled and monitored, what you are is fixed from a very early age by a rigid education system and a blithely interventionist state.
This proved to be a problem for Louis Althusser, whose sense of his own identity was pretty frail from the outset. He was named Louis after his uncle, a dashing airman who had been his mother's sweetheart before he was killed in the first world war. When people said his name, the effeminate young Althusser often imagined they were saying "lui" (him—referring to the uncle) and that he, the younger Louis, was invisible.
Even when Althusser became one of the most respected maitres à penser of French intellectual life, he was still haunted by the feeling that he was living in a void: "Since I did not really exist, I was simply a creature of artifice, a nonbeing, a dead person who could only love and be loved by means of artifice and deception."
In his autobiography, Althusser tries to come clean about this artifice and deception. He admits vast gaps in his reading: he knew nothing about Aristotle or Kant, had read only a little Hegel. He even says that he had only studied a few passages of Marx in detail. He also confesses that he invented quotations to score philosophical points.
At no point, however, does Althusser suggest that this duplicity undermined the concept at the heart of his work—that the ideological machinery of the modern state (the family, the church, the education system, political parties et al) encourages in us the acceptance of our own oppression. But then Althusser himself was the living proof. In The Future Lasts a Long Time, we see him being eaten up and spat out by each of the Ideological State Apparatuses, as he liked to call them.
Worst of all for Althusser was the family, "that most frightful and appalling and horrifying of the Ideological State Apparatuses". And it is when he writes about his dreadful upbringing that he is at his most passionate. In one passage where he tells of how his parents refused to let him play with other children, his fury is uncontainable: "They did it in order to instill in me as a small child the supreme values prevailing in the society in which I was growing up: absolute respect for authority and above all for the state, which since Marx and Lenin we have come to recognise, thank God, as a terrible 'machine'."
Much has been made of Althusser's madness and badness in relation to his politics. It was, to say the least, unfortunate for the European left that the most prominent modern reinterpreter of Marx turned out to be a deluded wife-killer. In the present political atmosphere it is hard to imagine the excitement that was once generated by books with titles such as For Marx and Reading Capital. But if Althusser could rework Marx's ideas for a whole generation in the 1960s, it was because he felt their truth so deeply in his own life.
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SOURCE: "Althusserian Theory: From Scientific Truth to Institutional History," in Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 15-26.
[In the following essay, Goldstein asserts that "[Tony] Bennett's account of literary studies gives Althusserian theory the Foucaldian history that its postmodern opponents deny it."]
The spectacular collapse of the USSR and other Communist states has only exacerbated the hostile relationship of Marxism and postmodern theory. On the one hand, Marxists complain that postmodern theorists refuse to see society as a whole or to preserve culture's autonomous ideals. On the other hand, postmodern theorists fear that Marxism cannot overcome its totalitarian nature or answer its poststructuralist opponents. Even the innovative theory of Louis Althusser suffers from this debilitating opposition. Scientific realists praise the Althusser who fears that liberal humanist beliefs destroy the objectivity of Marxist theory; theoretical rationalists esteem the Althusser who defends the autonomous norms of formal thought, but postmodern theorists complain that Althusser, along with the Marxist tradition, cannot assimilate the twentieth century world of discourse, media, and high-tech communications. I mean to show that, in addition to the scientific and the rationalist stance, Althusserian theory develops a postmodern stance that resists the totalitarian character of its predecessors and elaborates a Foucauldian account of knowledge. Moreover, the literary theory of Tony Bennett, who criticizes traditional and Marxist aesthetics in these Foucauldian terms, outlines the rich implications of this Althusser for cultural study.
Objective, scientific, but hardly postmodern, the first Althusser emerges in Pour Marx, which brings together his essays on the young Marx, dialectics, theater, science, and humanism. When he wrote these essays in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Marxism-Leninism, the French Communist party, and the French Left enjoyed a high prestige inconceivable in post-Communist America. At the same time, the ongoing revelations of Stalinist dogma and brutality led Althusser to fear that an intrusive, non-scientific humanism was corrupting Marxist theory.
To defend the integrity of a scientific Marxism, he critiques humanist accounts of Karl Marx. He grants that Feuerbach's humanism influenced the young Marx, but he argues that Marx repudiated this speculative humanism and adopted a scientific outlook. A critic of established religion, Feuerbach argued that by attributing society's powers to God, religion alienates human kind from its essential powers or "species-being." Even though a society's art, science, industry, government, or education produced impressive works, the established religion attributed these achievements to God's will, divine providence, or some equally mystical figure, not to humanity's social powers. A critic of Hegel, Feuerbach also argued that what Hegel called the "cunning of reason" mystified social forces in a similar way; they simply develop the pre-determined rationality of the world spirit, not the potentiality of their own powers. Althusser admits that this secular, humanist critique of religion and Hegel allowed Marx "to think the contradiction between the essence of the state [reason] and its existence [unreason]" (my translation). Still, Althusser insists that in The German Ideology Marx discovered the fault of Feuerbach's theory: it remains speculative. Like Hegel, Feuerbach does not abstract the theoretical concepts of the mind from the nature of empirical reality. He idly deduces empirical reality from the mind's concepts and denies, as a result, the authenticating force of what Marx calls "sensuous human activity." Marx recognizes that Feuerbach repudiates Hegel's alienated reconstruction of society's essential powers but not Hegel's speculative reconstruction of scientific concepts. Althusser suggests that, unlike Feuerbach, Marx rejects this speculative self-consciousness and goes on to develop a purely scientific Marxism. As Althusser says, the "rupture with … all philosophical humanism is not a secondary detail; it is one with the scientific discovery of Marx."
Some critics say that this account of Marx's rupture with Hegelian theory justifies the unjustifiable dogmas of Marxism-Leninism, the French Communist Party, or the Stalinist USSR. Other critics say that this account of a Marxist science rejects only Stalinist "humanism," not all Hegelian theory. These contrary views misconstrue Althusser's account of Marx's rupture with Feuerbach and, more generally, Hegelian humanism. Primarily philosophical, this account assumes that Marxist theory is a hermeneutic practice subverting the theoretical self-consciousness of Hegelian theory. In Reading Capital, Althusser, whose colleague at the École Normal Superieure was Jacques Derrida, says that Marxist philosophy is a circular hermeneutic, not a transcendent truth. Marxist philosophy construes knowledge in a phenomenological manner, as a circular application of the very beliefs which the traditional humanist expects the external world to betray. At the same time, Althusser denies that this metaphysical closure contains scientific theory. Scientific theory does not simply describe what lies outside the circle of western metaphysics; this theory escapes the hermeneutic circle because Marx's rupture with Hegelian humanism opens up a radically new space, the positive space of history.
Some critics complain that this account fails to identify the specific point at which Marx breaks with Hegelian humanism and develops this new scientific theory. This objection is well-known but misleading: a hermeneutic practice that deconstructs the metaphysical language of Hegelian theory does not divide Hegelian humanism and scientific theory so neatly. Other critics object that a phenomenological hermeneutics favors indeterminacy, free play, and difference. To retain scientific truth, especially the well-known, economic determination, is to repress the indeterminacy fostered by this hermeneutics. This objection is forceful but one-sided: Althusser's hermeneutics is rationalist, not Heideggerian nor Derridean. In a Cartesian manner Althusser allows the skeptical doubt of the phenomenologist but preserves the objective truths of the scientist.
The rationalist Althusser does not abandon the scientific objectivity of Marxist theory; he assimilates the science to the rationalist's theoretical norms. That is to say, he defines science in a formal, not in a dogmatic way: it can grasp reality only if it rigorously develops its concepts and its terms, not if it conforms with practice, fact, or truth. In these formal terms, scientific theory establishes its own criteria of truth. By contrast, what Althusser calls ideology imposes the familiar conformity of theory and practice or ideas and facts. This anti-humanist conformity is not altogether negative. It is well known that he endowed ideology with a positive role: it constructs ("interpellates") a subject. Ideology does not represent falsehood or misrepresentation; ideology explains the subject's role in a society's socio-economic structure—what Althusser calls the subject's relation to the relations of production. Nonetheless, because theory preserves its own criteria of validity, he claimed that theory resists this ideological interpellation and effectively grasps the nature of reality. As scholars have shown, Althusser believed that precise, scientific theory escapes the corrosive force of discourse and reflects the true nature of the real.
Some critics say that this account of a scientific theory betrays the rationalist's unduly optimistic belief that some preordained harmony brings nature and reason together. Other scholars object that this notion of theory renders it autonomous, if not neutral. As Dominick LaCapra says, Althusser favors a subtle "positivist" scientism that denies the ideological character of objective science. Still other scholars accept Althusser's account of a scientific theory but reject his account of the subject and its ideologies. These scholars complain that this account reduces "virtually any aspect of contemporary society" to "a symptom of 'bourgeois' ideology," fragments and fetishizes the subject and inflates and absolutizes language, or imposes a robotlike, "functionalist" conformity with established discourse.
Michèle Barrett suggests that while Foucault's account of discourse answers such objections well enough, they destroy not only Althusser's account of ideology and science but the broad Marxist account as well. I admit that Althusser does not answer them. Still, he does respond to them, and his responses outline a third, poststructuralist self-extending Marxist theory. In Pour Marx he clearly defends the rationalist belief that theory possesses formal criteria of validity enabling it to distinguish scientific from ideological claims. Still, in Reading Capital, where he distinguishes between philosophy and science, he repudiates the "foundational" rationalism of Pour Marx, vehemently insisting that he does not seek any such guarantees of a theory's truth. He does not give up the idea that theory grasps reality, but he denies that theory reduces practice to a slavish instrument of an autonomous mind. He argues that theory follows its own practices, and practice presupposes its own theory. Indeed, the widespread belief that theory and practice form a harmonious unity he considers a ridiculous myth perpetuated by Hegelian or Sartrian humanists.
Moreover, in his later works he repudiates the autonomous norms enabling theory to subvert ideology. He calls the defense of these norms the error of "theoreticism," and, rejecting the broad distinction between theory and ideology, he argues that economics, history, philosophy, mathematics, science, and other disciplines and practices establish their own "inner" criteria of validity and produce their own legitimate objects and discourses. These disciplines create what Althusser calls a "knowledge effect," not cognitive truths nor autonomous facts. He means that an authoritative exponent of a discipline considers a particular theory legitimate knowledge because the theory conforms with the discipline's conventions, languages, procedures, or protocols, not with an external reality. What Althusser terms a "problematic," which is this ensemble of a discipline's conventions and discourses, explains why the exponents of a discipline accept certain theories at one time and other theories at another time. Just as Foucault assumes that the episteme structuring a discipline explains the cognitive force of its discourses, so Althusser argues that the problematics of a discipline explain its "knowledge-effects."
I do not mean to imply that this Foucauldian account of knowledge resolves the difficulties of Althusser's scientific or rationalist stances. I mean to say that, even though this stance may not be consistent with the other stances, this Foucauldian stance gives Althusser the poststructuralist self that Barrett and others deny him. My reader may object that these scholars do not simply ignore his Foucauldian theory; they consider Marxism a closed, outmoded doctrine as viable and compelling as Ptolomaic astronomy and Greek divination. I grant this objection. In Foucault, Marxism and History, Mark Poster says that Marxism describes past eras, when production, factories, machines, and workers were central, whereas poststructuralists depict the modern era, in which communication, ideology, and discourse are central. Similarly, in The Politics of Truth Michèle Barrett, who defends the traditional humanist belief that political movements require agency, intention, and human nature, insists that Karl Marx's unwavering commitment to scientific truth and class struggle establishes the essentially anti-feminist, totalitarian nature of any and all Marxisms.
The work of Tony Bennett, who rejects the theoretical ideals of the scientists and the rationalists, challenges this belief in an unchanging, outdated Marxism. In literary terms, Bennett denies the aesthetic grounds of textual analyses and emphasizes the historical and institutional contexts of literary reception. In Outside Literature, Bennett says that literary theory cannot tell critics what correct readings must look like. Like Stanley Fish, who has argued that theory cannot produce valid interpretations or resolve critical disputes, Bennett insists that theoretical norms cannot regulate interpretive practices. Moreover, he claims that scholars who make theory such a criterion of truth accept what he calls bourgeois aesthetics, which requires a critic to show that his or her judgments of value possess universal validity. Bennett argues that this aesthetic theory does not successfully overcome the opposition between universal values and the critic's subjective taste. David Hume admits that different persons, cultures, and eras show a remarkable diversity of taste, but he still insists that humankind shows an equally remarkable uniformity of judgment. He argues that the distinct character of the authoritative critic ensures that his or her judgements are universally valid, yet he grants that even these authoritative critics differ. Bennett also says that in Kant's view, individual judgments of value must employ the universal terms "good" and "bad," even though these judgments are subjective and hypothetical. Critics talk as though everyone must share their taste, but only the hypothetical assumption of a common human nature or a common sense gives these judgments their universality.
Bennett also suggests that Marxist humanists imitate these "bourgeois" aestheticians. For example, he says that Hegelian Marxists like Georg Lukács and Lucien Goldmann explain canonical works in profound, socio-historical terms but ignore the canon's origins, reception, and exclusions. Adopting the established canon, these critics assume that the immanent value of canonical works will become clear and plain in the communist era, when a rational subject will finally emerge. Aesthetic judgments can escape the historical relativity of the established canon because Marxist theory ensures that when history ends, the universality of the texts' values will be self-evident.
Bennett says that scientific Althusserians also seek to overcome the traditional uneasiness with arbitrary or subjective judgments. However, the Althusserians argue that a scientific stance exposes the ideological incoherence, distortion, and gaps hidden by a text and, as a result, aesthetic judgments acquire the objectivity of socio-historical truths. Althusserian critics grant literary forms the quasi-scientific ability to expose ideology's incoherence and gaps, but the Althusserian faith in scientific theory preserves the rationalist belief that objective truth lies outside cultural discourse.
Bennett denies not only that aesthetic norms justify this ideological critique but also that totalizing, theoretical self-consciousness undermines institutions or produces historical change. However, while most postmodern scholars take this repudiation of theory to destroy ideological criticism, Bennett's Althusserian stance preserves it. For example, like Bennett, Richard Rorty insists that theory does not ground knowledge, but Rorty critiques traditional epistemology, not aesthetics. In The Consequences of Pragmatism, for example, he complains that while Platonists, empiricists, and Kantians fiercely oppose each other's views, they all defend epistemological criteria of truth. The Platonist argues that the unity and autonomy of Being justifies his belief that the rational mind can escape its subjective predispositions and grasp the objective nature of reality. The empiricist argues that sense data, raw feels, distinct impressions or strong intuitions can expose the metaphysical character of nonsense and ground the positive assertions of legitimate theory. The Kantian, who seeks a third way between Platonist and empiricism, argues that the presuppositions of knowledge represent universal rules enabling an individual to escape his or her subjectivity and to establish the universal framework of knowledge. Rorty complains that, despite these epistemological differences, the Platonist, the empiricist, and the Kantian all assume that epistemological criteria enable one to escape one's determinate historical context or "vocabularies" and to grasp certain, objective truth.
Like Bennett, Rorty forcefully debunks this traditional quest for epistemological certainty. However, an unredeemed liberal, he considers postmodern theorists like Derrida and Foucault self-conscious ironists, not public theorists. His argument is that these theorists do not make propositional kinds of argument; they critique our vocabularies, denying that any vocabulary and, hence, any rules or conventions are final. As a consequence, their "ironizing" does not escape their private subjectivity. In his view, "[i]ronist theorists like Hegel, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault seem to me invaluable in our attempt to form a private self-image, but pretty much useless when it comes to politics." Moreover, identifying literary criticism with this "ironizing," he claims that criticism too is "largely irrelevant to public life." Nancy Fraser rightly objects that Rorty would "require us to turn our backs on the last hundred years of social history."
By contrast, Bennett shows that postmodern theory undertakes valuable ideological criticism. In Bond and Beyond, he and Janet Woollacott argue that a literary text functions as a passive arena within which the proponents of different "intertextual" strategies make their views prevail. As Bennett and Woollacott say, "[t]exts constitute sites around which the pre-eminently social affair of the struggle for the production of meaning is conducted." The intentions of an author or the figures of a text do not reveal the objective truth or constrain the activity of readers. Rather, what Bennett and Woollacott call the "production of meaning" is a "pre-eminently social affair" because readers are situated within and constructed by subjective institutional structures or, to use his term, "reading formations." To interpret a text is to contest its terrain, to vindicate one's methods and ideologies, and, by implication if not by explicit assertion, to debunk opposed methods and ideologies.
Stanley Fish and Barbara Herrnstein Smith also favor a subjective account of literary criticism. They believe that the beliefs and the values of the reader explain his or her interpretation of a text. Smith argues that the traditional "axiology" of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and other modern aestheticians seeks but fails to impose absolute norms of universal value. She asserts that these aestheticians do not successfully overcome the subjectivity of individual taste and the relativity of individual beliefs. However, Smith emphasizes the individuality of the reader, whose interpretations express his or her personal "economy" of values. Fish argues that interpretive communities govern the practices of readers but not of individuals, who circulate among diverse communities. Bennett also says that the reading formations embedded in literary institutions govern the interpretations of individual readers, but, more Foucauldian than either Fish or Smith, Bennett claims that these reading formations enable schools and universities to discipline readers, ensuring that they constitute proper political/ethical subjects.
In other words, Bennett assumes that embedded in distinct institutions literary discourse produces its own social relations and does not simply mimic or distort them. In the nineteenth century, when the schools turned literature into what Bennett calls a "moral technology," the ideal teacher and, subsequently, the many-layered text, made the reader's interpretive activity the basis of his or her unending improvement. Bennett says that while traditional "bourgeois" criticism takes this technology to produce ethical improvement, Marxist criticism assumes that it provides ideological correction. However, both the bourgeois and the Marxist critic ignore the technology's power to constitute the subject.
Some opponents of this view might object that in a postmodern fashion it emphasizes the inescapable present, not theoretical critique, local academic interests, not the underlying social totality. Certainly Fredric Jameson, who dismisses the Foucauldian problematic of power as anti-Marxist, harshly condemns what he calls Bennett's "sinister variant" of a widespread "anti-intellectualism." As Jameson says, Bennett "does not seem to realize how obscene American readers are likely to find his proposals." In effect, Jameson reduces Bennett's theory to the "obscene" proposal that radicals ought to support Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, and the Democratic party. But Bennett's institutional history also bears on pedagogic issues, including the status of the Anglo-American canon, the place of cultural studies, the neglect of popular culture, the teacher-centered character of the classroom, and the gross inadequacies of state and federal funding. Jameson assumes, as does Theodor Adorno, that the instrumental rationality dominating modern society makes theoretical critique the only revolutionary force. But these pressing issues clearly require not only an engaged, institutional politics, but a historical analysis as well.
I have argued that Bennett's account of literary studies gives Althusserian theory the Foucauldian history that its postmodern opponents deny it, and yet, a skeptic could still refuse to believe that Althusserian theory is Foucauldian or postmodern. After all, without the social totality, theoretical critique, scientific truth, or class conflict very little of this Althusser looks or sounds like the Marxism that we know and love (or hate). Bennett suggests that our trying to answer this objection may not be worth the effort. Still, the objection is misleading. It assumes that we have defined once and for all the "true" nature of Marxism. The many scholars who consign Marxism to the dustbin of history accept this assumption, but Althusser, who insists that Marxism is a scientific field and not a set of doctrines, denies it. Bennett may not definitively establish the postmodern character of Althusserian theory, but he shows us what a poststructuralist Marxism might look like. This outline of the poststructuralist Althusser may be less conventional than the scientific or the rationalist Althusser, but this Althusser is not, on that account, the less important.
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SOURCE: "Ideology Takes a Day Off: Althusser and Mass Culture," in Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 39-54.
[In the following essay, Rhodes discusses Althusser's work on ideology and the aesthetic as it applies specifically to mass culture. In addition he analyzes the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off in relation to an Althusserian approach to mass culture.]
In the move within cultural studies toward the effacement of the distinction between high and low culture, the Althusserian theory of ideology has become something that one moves beyond. In this theory's implications many critics have detected the creeping specter of the culture industry's conception of popular texts, with its supposed vision of the masses as lambs led unwittingly to the slaughter. In its place, a variety of modes of "reading the popular" (in John Fiske's phrase) have gained popularity that focus on empowerment, use value, and utopian bribes and seek to bring what Fredric Jameson calls "dialectical criticism" into the study of mass culture.
It will be the argument of this paper that these two recognizable poles of cultural criticism—the conspiracy theories of massive interpellation of an essentially docile public, and the populist theories of a more savvy public that picks and chooses according to its needs and desires—represent a false choice between structuralism without agency and humanism with. In this reduction, Althusser's groundbreaking work on ideology, structural causality, relative autonomy and overdetermination is either ignored or misconstrued. Using these conceptual tools, this essay will attempt the following: first, to articulate an Althusserian approach to mass culture that draws on both Althusser's work on ideology and his less influential work on the aesthetic; second, to update much of what Althusser says specifically about the contours of ideology under capitalism, focusing in particular on the rise of mass culture.
I will begin with a discussion of a standard critique of Althusser and then move on to those alternative models that focus largely on struggle at the level of consumption. Then I will discuss a popular film (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) at length because it points in the direction that an elaboration of Althusser's work must go in order to deal with the increasingly dominant role played by mass culture within the ISAs [ideological state apparatuses] as a whole. More concretely, I hope to use the film to show how mass culture's widespread success in producing consumer desire in contemporary America requires a revamped Althusserian theory of ideological interpellation that includes the aesthetic. This project, again, need not import concepts from outside Althusserian Marxism. It is quite consistent with Althusser's model of ideology in general, even if it takes issue with some of its particulars. The ultimate goal is to produce knowledge about what he calls in Reading Capital the "mechanism of production of the society effect in the capitalist mode of production."
Criticisms of Althusser are not hard to find. They have come from post-structuralists and orthodox Marxists alike. Perry Anderson, who used Althusserian tools himself in Lineages of the Absolutist State, explains the ill-fated union of structuralism and Marxism this way: "Rather than resisting this move [the structuralist rejection of the humanist subject], Althusser radicalized it, with a version of Marxism in which subjects were abolished altogether, save as the illusory effects of ideological structures." Anderson's point is simple. The union was a mistake for Marxism from the start because its displacement of the constituting subject from the historical process necessarily precludes collective political action toward revolutionary change. In terms of the study of mass culture, the point is equally straightforward. The decentering of the subject denigrates the individual, turning her/him into little more than the "illusory effects of ideological structures," passive repositories without any capacity for resistance.
The either/or logic underpinning this now familiar critique of Althusser runs roughly as follows: either there are no constituting subjects, individual or collective, and we may as well let history and the class struggle take their course, or there are real possibilities of conscious intervention through organised political action. If the argument is formulated in this way (as it usually is by Marxist Humanists), then political action and its agents must be privileged. The fear of the loss of the subject (individual or collective) as the constituting historical agent is thus the underlying issue we must bear in mind in trying to make sense of the polarized debate over mass culture mentioned above. This fear is also largely responsible, I think, for the shift in emphasis from production to consumption. As Meaghan Morris has argued, the "banality" of culture studies today is its view of consumption as a separate sphere "rather than [as] one of the necessary, complex, variable phases of a productive process." Morris attributes this development to the facility with which struggle can be found in consumption and the difficulty finding it in an increasingly complicated, deindustrialized global economy.
Warren Montag has argued in a similar vein that Jameson's conception of postmodernism denies the possibility for struggle at the level of production. Jameson's approach to mass culture seems to follow logically from this dispiriting conclusion. Indeed, because conflict can no longer be found in production proper, Jameson seeks and finds it elsewhere in the subject's interaction with popular texts. However, both the denial of production and the affirmation of consumption can be traced to the same source. Both derive from a single theory of history. For Jameson, history is a totalization with a totalizer, a developmental narrative by which men caught in the realm of necessity yearn for the realm of freedom. In other words, history is a process with a subject—an idealist theory Althusser attributes to Hegel.
It should be pointed out up front that Jameson's approach to the popular and Althusser's are not diametrically opposed. Both agree that the practice of popular culture is not a univocal, but a contradictory one. The difference between these two theories lies in the complexion and complexity of this contradiction. Consider the logic underpinning this passage from Jameson's essay, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture":
[T]he hypothesis is that the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be so manipulated … the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity.
History, in this passage, is something of an unnatural ruse that thwarts and manipulates a collectivity that has sought throughout the course of time to realize its deepest desires, the purest pre-social expressions of human nature. Popular texts then articulate the repressed desires of the people, the real subjects of history. The public is consequently drawn to those popular texts that narrate its collective story.
However much sympathy we may feel for this as an ideology, it is just that: an ideology, and not an explanation of the structural practices that determine its shape and function. In its refusal to abandon the humanist subject, Jameson's formulation sacrifices its potential to make sense of the conflicts within the structures that determine that very subject. As Michel Pêcheux has indicated, there exist "relations of contradiction-unevenness-subordination" among and within these structures that can and often do produce resistance. But Jameson's subject-based discourse does not make the epistemological break that Althusser attributes to the later Marx, a break that allows for an understanding of history as a process without a subject.
An Althusserian approach to popular texts necessarily conceives of such texts as overdetermined. Texts, like subjects, are the product of intersecting (and conflicting) material practices. Instead of focusing on a utopian dimension as a bribe to a pre-existing subject, a strict Althusserian approach should conceive of texts and subjects both as the bearers of structures. Both are sites of a complex interplay among multileveled material practices that includes but is not reducible to economic practice. To operationalize this approach to the text, Althusser recommends what he calls symptomatic reading. This method decisively rejects Jameson's humanist ideology that affirms the existence of a subject that can be distinguished from its social context in favor of a discourse that reads the text for "specific structures of historicity" that are immanent in the text in their effect.
Terry Lovell has argued that such anti-humanist knowledge is ultimately disabling to political action because it sees the subject as constituted by ideology and not constitutive of history. Indeed, this too is a familiar criticism, and it is one that Althusser himself acknowledged in his later essays. It is true that Althusser did not fully formulate an account of how the working class might make history. But as Althusserians like Pêcheux, Goran Therborn and Catherine Belsey have shown, Althusser's work on ideology can provide the basis for a cultural politics that does. Pêcheux's work is particularly valuable for our purposes because it stresses the absolute necessity of hard empirical work to determine the balance of class forces and the structural features of capitalist society at any given historical moment. Only after this work has been done can the progressive or reactionary charge of any given popular artifact be determined.
When Althusser writes in "On the Materialist Dialectic" that contradiction is the motive force of history, he is suggesting (as any Marxist should) that each of the multiple contradictions that exists in the complex whole in dominance means "a real struggle, real confrontations, precisely located within the structure of the complex whole." Theories of mass culture like Jameson's and Lovell's imply that this motive force derives from the subject (instead of constituting it) because individuals will always and instinctively fight against exploitation. As a result, however, the specificity of any given conjuncture gets lost in the rush to treat the culture industry dialectically. The cultural critic finds this essential conflict time and again, and history becomes a continuous narrative produced by human intentionality. The Althusserian subject does indeed 'make history' too, but always in ways that exceed its intent. Montag puts it this way:
We act within a specific conjuncture only to see that conjuncture transformed beneath our feet, perhaps by our intervention itself, but always in ways that ultimately escape our intention or control, thereby requiring new interventions ad infinitum.
This need for on-going intervention presupposes a resisting subject, but not a humanist one. Moreover, it implies that the ideologically constituted subject is decentered because ideology is structured like language, a point that Michael Sprinker has made. This is why ideology is eternal and why the subject is constantly being hailed, constantly being interpellated by the ISAs. This is also why the subject is overdetermined, in process and thus always susceptible to interpellation by competing ideologies like communism.
Consequently, any investigation of mass culture must carefully situate it in relation to other ideological practices—ones like the family and the schools that have traditionally played a more crucial role in fulfilling ideology's function. The relations among these practices is not predetermined, but rather always shifting—and always possessing the potential for a reshuffling that operates to transform the productive relations. The fact that these relations cannot be known a priori is implicit in the ISA essay. In it, Althusser says that under capitalism the schools have replaced the church as the dominant apparatus. However, as we will see in a moment when we turn to Ferris Bueller, the schools no longer hold this privileged position, having relinquished it to mass culture.
Lovell and John Fiske find elitism in Marxist approaches to the popular that do not grant consumers the ability to decide for themselves. They point out that the consumer still determines whether a high-budget Hollywood film, for example, will be a blockbuster or a bust. Lovell turns to Marx's concept of use value to theorize the individual's ability to use the commodities foisted upon him or her for contrary purposes. In buying, in other words, the subject resists. In choosing to watch a particular television show or attend a particular film, the subject is asserting its ability to fight back against its oppressors. And yet, however much we may wish to stress the subversive potential of popular texts, we don't want to forget the overall social effect of mass culture. Although we may indeed struggle politically at the level of consumption, we are continually reminded that this struggle is not waged on a level playing field. In general, mass culture displaces antagonism far more often than it condenses or instigates it. Here surely Althusser's notion of "last instance determination" is a helpful (if sobering) reminder that these texts are commodities delimited by the economic interests that finance them and reap the profits. Theories of culture that dwell on empowerment and resistance too often read like apologies for the culture industry. The point isn't that no struggle goes on at this level, but that this struggle is only relatively autonomous. As such, it must always be studied as one among many phases of a complicated production process.
In a moment, I will concretize this investigation by turning to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a film that can be read as a critical allegory of Althusser's theory of ideology. More specifically, it takes as its subject matter the complex role of mass culture in subject interpellation. Our discussion of the particular function of mass culture must acknowledge that this apparatus was not sufficiently theorized by Althusser. While it is true that other apparatuses generally seek to construct producing subjects prepared to enter the work force without complaint, mass culture is tied so heavily to consumption that the subjects it seeks to construct are more consuming subjects characterized by classlessness. Here, it might be argued that in his broader assertions concerning ideology Althusser did not always adhere to his own caution to respect the relative autonomy of different material practices. While the cumulative effect of ideology as Althusser saw it in the ISAs essay was a "free" producing subject, a mass culture-dominated ideological matrix seems to form something very different: a nonproductive, "free" consuming subject. True, these two subjects are both first and foremost "misrecognizing" subjects, seeing themselves as their own cause—a process Pêcheux calls the "Münchhausen" effect after the immortal baron who lifted himself into the air by pulling his own hair. Moreover, it can be argued that the producing and consuming subjects are complementary. In order to acquire the consumer items that will express one's unique individuality, one must enter the work force to make the necessary capital. But if mass culture's ascendance comes at the expense of the schools' legitimacy (as indeed it does in Ferris Bueller) then an ideological crisis might be in the offing. If education is the ideological practice that teaches the skills needed to participate in the labor force, its denigration by mass culture jeopardizes ideology's overarching function.
Althusser did not provide for the radical alteration of the ideological terrain that mass culture's ascendance in the United States has brought about. I've already mentioned its denigration of the educational apparatus and complication of the production side of capitalism. But it has also swallowed up the aesthetic. Although Althusser always included the aesthetic among the ISAs, he saw it as a sort of second-order signifying system that "internally distantiates" ideology and allows the spectator/reader to "see, perceive and feel" the discrepancy between the imaginary relation of ideology and the real relation of the productive relations. This theory has been criticized often enough for its ostensible privileging of the avant-garde and its dismissal of classical realism. I will not rehash this argument. I only wish to suggest that it is no longer a particularly relevant one because mass culture itself has erased the dividing line between the two aesthetic modes. Ferris Bueller's Day Off confronts the Althusserian aesthetic with a mocking dilemma: it is a cynical, enormously popular film that appears to lay its own practice bare. It thus renders the Althusserian division between "real" art and mass culture meaningless. But it also points the way toward a revised Althusserian approach to cultural artifacts that is capable of making sense of mass culture in the postmodern age.
The choice of Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not an arbitrary one. The film speaks volumes about teen films in particular and mass culture in general because it takes as its very subject the ideological function of such discourses. It presents us with a literalization of the interpellative process that Althusser outlines in the ISA essay. Ferris Bueller—the consummate teenage trickster figure—doesn't merely outwit school administrators and parents; he also teaches his best friend Cameron and the audience how to be individuals in a capitalist society. His day of fun and frolic in Chicago is only a pretense to pass along this valuable lesson. Ferris is something of a filmic figure for the Absolute Subject in whose name individuals are interpellated as subjects by ideology. Cameron is a filmic figure for the "hailed" subject that only exists in and through ideology. To pursue this schematic outline, the relationship between Ferris and Cameron allegorizes two processes: first, transhistorically how what Althusser calls ideology in general functions, has always functioned, and always will function—even after class distinctions have been erased. Consequently, the self-originating subject of humanism is the determinate absence of the film. It is revealed instead to be the bearer of structures; and second, historically how the relations of contradiction-unevenness-subordinationamong the ideological apparatuses that serve to shape individuals as subjects have shifted. In the realigned relations that can be read symptomatically from the film, the schools (the apparatus Althusser argued was the dominant apparatus in capitalist society) and the family are subordinate to and in contradiction with the mass culture apparatus that has become increasingly hegemonic. This is particularly true in youth culture, the segment of the population that has yet to take up its position within the productive relations. This shift in the complex constellation of ideological practices parallels a shift in a subject defined by its identity as a producer to a subject defined as a consumer—a shift from a free wage laborer to a consumer expressing his/her freedom in the marketplace of leisure. This shift also suggests that the ISAs function in late capitalism no longer to fulfill ideology's role of reproducing the productive relations in the way Althusser envisioned when he wrote the ISA essay.
From the opening shot, the spectator is positioned as a sort of silent pupil quite explicitly by Ferris, who has just conned his parents into believing that he is too sick to go to school. As the door of Ferris' bedroom shuts behind them, Ferris turns directly to the camera (thus breaking the fourth wall so precious to classic realism) and says, "They bought it. The worst performance of my life and they never doubted it for a second." There is nothing shocking about this rupture of the diegetic space, however. No alienation effect is produced. Through a combination of exaggerated point of view shots from Ferris' perspective and aided by his unctuous overacting, the spectator is led to recognize that what she/he is witnessing is purely performative.
In the series of tableaux that follow, Ferris gives the camera a primer on how to bring off a similar deception. As we tag along, Ferris takes a shower during which he offers up what is supposed to be the film's message. Here, as elsewhere, director John Hughes gives his audience little credit, presenting this thematization as the filmic equivalent of the Cliff Notes they no doubt read instead of the books themselves:
I do have a test today. That wasn't bullshit. It's on European Socialism. I mean, really, what's the point? I'm not European. I don't plan on being European, so who gives a crap if they're Socialists? They could be fascist anarchists for all I care and it still wouldn't change the fact that I don't have a car. Not that I condone fascism. Or any ism for that matter. Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me."
Ferris seems to be saying that ideologies are not just uniformally bad, they're irrelevant. The subject who "believes in himself" is outside of the apparatus through which ideology realizes itself. Schools (in addition to the family, which is also not to be taken seriously judging by the case with which Ferris outsmarts his parents) here stand as the pre-eminent purveyors of the kind of "ism" Ferris deplores. Interspersed with this lesson on how to resist the dominant ideological apparatus, the viewer is treated to a series of shots from classrooms. The contrast is clear. While Ferris moves around the house freely, dancing to themes from MTV and "Bewitched" and then sipping a tropical drink by the family pool, his peers are staring glassy-eyed at unspeakably boring teachers droning on about the Great Depression and symbolism in some unspecified novel.
This segment erects the fundamental distinction upon which the film's ideological project depends: the distinction between the subject and the social structure that demands allegiance—between two spaces, the ideological and the nonideological. According to Ferris and the film, there are subjects who exist within ideology (like those who submit to school authority and take the test on European Socialism), and those who elude its grasp by believing in themselves. The spectator ends up in the interesting position, soon to taken up by Cameron within the film, of a student being taught how to be herself or himself. But as Althusser argues, such a distinction is the precondition for the practice of ideology. "What really takes place in ideology seems to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: ideology never says, 'I am ideological.'" So far, the film is keeping to Althusser's model of ideology in general. But we should recognize that Ferris' modes of expressing this vaguely articulated belief in oneself are (and will be throughout the film) all mass cultural, consumer-oriented activities. While the ideological work done in the formerly dominant schools is clearly at odds with the reality of the existence of its subjects, mass culture presents the "nonideological" liberation of leisure and consumption. Ferris chooses all these activities. Conversely, the apathy on the students' faces in the schools bespeaks the consequence of their refusal to exercise individual choice. A change in the dominant apparatus is figured here that in turn constructs a different subject. It is no longer a willing worker, but a consumer in the democratic marketplace. Of course, this is an imaginary relation inasmuch as it denies the reality of unequal distribution of the capital necessary to express this individuality. Thus the shift from a producer-oriented ideological matrix to a non-productive, consumer culture also seeks fictively to deny the reality of class (which emanates from the productive relations).
One point on ideology in general: the seductiveness of Ferris' monologue clearly is suggestive in some unexpected ways. If we accept Althusser's contention that there will always be ideology and thus subjects, then Ferris' manner of presentation could be used in very different ways. If, instead of reciting an ode to consumption, Ferris were to begin inculcating the beliefs of historical materialism and explaining the social construction of identity, might the film serve a more radical political aim? If, as Slajov Zizek has argued, you don't believe in communism because you understand Marx, but rather you understand Marx because you believe in communism, then might Ferris' example suggest an initial procedure for bringing subjects to internalize an ideological system? Of course, the film probably would not have been produced (let alone have been successful) if its ideological raw material hadn't been familiar and safe. The next crucial allegorical section of the film involves the introduction of Cameron, Ferris' best friend, who really is too sick to go to school. When we meet Cameron for the first time, he is lying motionless in bed, covered from head to toe by blankets. The phone rings and Cameron's voice is heard from under the bed covers moaning monotonously. We then hear Ferris' voice speaking through the answering machine, telling Cameron to pick up the receiver because Ferris knows he's there. It is only after several moments that Cameron picks up the phone, and even then the camera cannot make out his face beneath the blankets. All we can hear is Cameron's voice chanting, "Let my Cameron go," over and over. Read allegorically, this scene is a temporalization of the process of entry into subjectivity Althusser describes. Only when Ferris hails him does Cameron recognize that it is really he, Cameron, who is the subject of Ferris' hailing; only then does he accept his social existence.
Ferris's motives are two-fold. On the one hand, he claims to be rescuing Cameron from the malaise that has resulted from the contradictory effects of interpellation in the family and the schools. In both the family and the schools, the degraded position of subordination Cameron inhabits has produced alienation and cynicism. However, Cameron's apathy can also be read as the result of a disjunction between an ideology of a productive subject appropriate to an early phase of capitalism and the reality of a nonproductive, commodity-oriented economy. The latter is represented by the only employment options the film presents: real estate agent and advertising executive (held by Ferris' mother and father respectively). Both jobs are lucrative, but neither produces any value. This gap thus suggests the unevenness of the relations among ideological apparatuses. The schools and the family have lagged behind a shift in the U.S. economy that has thrown the fictiveness of ideology into relief and diminishes its effectiveness. Ferris is an agent of the now dominant ideology of free consumption more appropriate to this new phase. On the other hand, we must remember that Ferris has a particular reason for calling Cameron: he needs him, needs his car to turn his plan of a "day off" into a reality. Similarly, the ideology of consumption that mass culture legitimizes needs the capital that a constructed, desiring consumer will spend to perpetuate itself.
The structures that determine the subject thus become the very subject matter of Ferris Bueller. In the action that follows Ferris' phone call to Cameron, we see Cameron trying to decide whether or not to give in to Ferris' demand that he pick him up in his car. But much of the humor of this segment derives from the fact that Ferris and the camera guess—always correctly—what Cameron is thinking to himself. At one point, just as Cameron is about to drive to Ferris' house, he abruptly turns the car off, gets out and disappears back into the house. As the viewer watches Cameron through the back window storming away, the camera never leaves the car seat Cameron has abandoned. It waits patiently for Cameron to return and go get Ferris. Like Ferris, the camera knows what Cameron does not. What appears to be an internal dilemma that Cameron as an autonomous subject must resolve is determined by the ideological structure that dominates him. Evidence supporting this conclusion will accumulate through the course of the film until, at the very end, it serves to undermine Cameron's declarations of self-determination. Thus, while the viewer does indeed come to identify with Cameron, this identification includes the fact that human nature is the end product of a process of internalization, not the source of meaning. In this sense, the film clearly illustrates Pierre Macherey's thesis that the work of art does not so much express ideology as it endows it with aesthetic figuration that ends up enacting the latter's unmasking and self-criticism. Thus, a film that offers a developmental narrative of a character coming to terms with himself unmasks the very process that makes this mystification possible.
After Ferris bullies Cameron into letting him "borrow" Cameron's father's limited edition 1961 Ferrari to pick up Ferris' girlfriend Sloane from school, the three head into Chicago for the day. After parking the car in a garage, they go to an upscale restaurant at which Ferris impersonates A be Froman, the sausage king of Chicago. Then they go to a Cubs game, to the Art Institute and finally to a parade. What is worth noting about these scenes is that each takes place in an ideological space that is in no way innocent of the charge levelled explicitly at the schools and implicitly at the family. The presention of the school scenes and Cameron's description of his home life have figured ideology as a repressive force. At the school, boring teachers who pass on stale ideology share space with vindictive administrators like Principal Ed Rooney whose sole purpose appears punitive. At home, parents are either domineering like Cameron's commmodity-fetishizing father (he "loves this car more than life itself," says Cameron) and children are subordinate and fearful or parents are eminently gullible like Ferris' loving, cliché-spewing parents, and children get away with murder. In neither case is there any room for "free" expression and autonomy. The "day off" is the antidote to the alienation that characterizes the schools and the family. But the antidote costs money (especially the restaurant where Ferris even feels the need to slip some money to the snotty maître d'), and the process whereby money is made and distributed unequally falls outside the film's purview.
When Cameron finally appears to be letting go and actually enjoying himself in the way Ferris encourages, he stops worrying for the first time about the condition of his father's favorite fetishized commodity, the Ferrari. The car is literally that and figuratively a condensation point for the contradictions that traverse Cameron's subjectivity. As they are driving home, Cameron notices that the odometer reads over 100 miles higher than it should. The odometer presents inescapable proof of the principal contradiction that has run through the film—the incompatibility of the actions Ferris compels Cameron to undertake as a free subject and the actions expected of Cameron as a dutiful son by his father. Put another way, the odometer registers the contradiction between the imaginary relation to existence that represses class differences and the real relation to existence that is based upon a class-based power discrepancy. Ferris represents the former imaginary relation; the father as "absent cause" is the source of the latter real one. When this contradiction disrupts the forward movement of the narrative, Cameron's (and the viewer's) interpellation is also disrupted. As a result, Cameron lets out a blood-curdling scream, which is sustained as the camera disappears down his open throat. When it reemerges, Cameron is catatonic. For the moment, the contradiction that traverses the ideological apparatus of the social formation has made acting as a "free" subject impossible.
It seems fair to read this moment as an aporia of sorts. Read on its own terms, the film depicts Cameron's process of coming to understand and accept his status as a subject who "works by himself," in Althusser's words. But the film also generates a second reading that suggests that contradiction is a condition of narrative, a condition of ideology. It is the antagonistic relation between these two readings that leads to Cameron's momentary paralysis. From this point on, the film works to recuperate this rupture. And so, the problem of Cameron's subject formation is transformed into one of abstract, psychologized fear. Cameron thus decides to take the heat for the car debacle, despite Ferris' rather lackluster protests. When Cameron claims that he is responsible for his own actions and Ferris smiles, Cameron says, "it is possible to say no to Ferris Bueller, you know." This statement is a reiteration with a difference of Ferris' earlier claim that it is possible for the individual to get outside ideology in leisure activity and consumerism. Only now the invalidity of such a claim is evident. The statement is a false reconciliation of the contradiction that surfaced when Cameron saw the odometer.
Later, when the film proper is over and the credits have rolled, Ferris returns to the screen and tells the audience with feigned irritation that the film is over. "Go on, go home, it's over," he says with a dismissive wave. This suggests that the consumer subject thus constituted through mass culture is a desiring subject based on lack. It suggests that as long as mass culture reigns supreme among the ISAs, the subject will indeed act in the contradictory fashion of Cameron—denying her/his subordination in the productive relations and proving her/his freedom by spending money on leisure pursuits and films like Ferris Bueller.
The film in general and the last tableau in particular testify to Hughes' cynicism. Self-reflexivity, now a stock postmodern technique, increases the film's own smirky appeal. It also renders inescapable the erasure of Althusser's distinction between the aesthetic and plain ideology. Ferris Bueller produces no alienation effect. Nor does it distantiate the film's own ideology. Rather, it takes consumerism as a given and assumes an audience raised on television and Hollywood. Hughes reinforces this ideology by figuring it as nonideological and contrasting it to the now outmoded school and family that offer obviously subordinate subject positions.
The implication for further work in the Althusserian tradition should now be evident. We need to start with a theory of ideology that exists only in and through subjects, but we must be continually aware of the fact that the configuration of the ISAs is dynamic. While ideology in general is eternal, ideologies are always changing. Moreover, we should resist the trendy temptation to consider postmodernism as "the end of all crises, the end of all narratives, the end of resistance and revolutionary transformation," in Montag's words. The effect of any ideological practice on the spectator cannot be known ahead of time. It will vary according to the different overdetermined and contradictory, constructions of different audiences. Ferris Bueller will be most likely to contradict the imaginary and real relations of audience members who don't happen to be white, male and middle-class suburbanites—a contradiction that might potentially lead to spectator resistance to Ferris' "call." But the possibilities for resistance that any cultural artifact might elicit can't be determined solely with the help of theory. They can only be determined through the kind of empirical work necessary to comprehend the text's historical specificity. Althusser provides us with some of the tools for such work, but these alone will not determine what we may find.
Any text of mass culture like Ferris Bueller will necessarily bear the marks of contradiction and conflict that traverse the historical moment of its production even if it ends in mystification. These marks are not, however, the unavoidable result of the arbitrariness of language or the impossibility of achieving semantic closure. They are the mark of the history of multiple social struggles. Consumption marks one such social struggle, but only one. To focus exclusively on consumption obscures as much as it illuminates. The prominence of consumption in my reading of Ferris Bueller does not contradict this assertion. Consumption is the effect of ideological production, not the antidote. It is an ideology with a history (specifically, emerging at the turn of the century to meet increased industrial production). Shaped by the specific modality of filmic form, the consumer ideal of individuality that Ferris embodies narrates its own unmasking in Cameron's imminent punishment at the hands of his father (which is not shown, of course) and the underlying reality that he will have to get a job someday. The ideology of uninhibited consumerism is thus contradicted most fundamentally by the necessity of employment to make the money necessary to exercise it. It is a banal fact for much of the population, however, that even employment does not lead to free-wheeling spending. More often than not, it brings simple subsistence.
This is the primary contradiction in the film. But it is overdetermined by an educational system that seeks to establish the predispositions appropriate to the division of labor of the economic system and a domestic sphere that is built upon a "natural" and "legitimate" power disparity between adults and teenagers. From an Althusserian perspective, Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a cultural artifact that allows for the provisional construction of a model of its society. Such an approach to mass culture rejects belief in either the pure hegemony of the ruling classes or the heroic resistance of exploited men and women who "make their own history." For the key to this famous quotation from The 18th Brumaire lies in the next few words: "but they do not make it just as they please." The dialectic between acquiescence and resistance that characterizes mass culture in particular and the ISAs in general is the Marxist dialectic of history. This dialectic is driven forward continually by conflict and contradiction. In a Marxist theory of history, it could not be otherwise.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2596
SOURCE: "Stranglehold," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 1, February 21, 1994, pp. 115-19.
[In the following review, Steiner asserts that the scandal surrounding Althusser's life has overshadowed his work.]
There are moments when bad taste is the last refuge of common sense. Let me be in bad taste. Perhaps philosophers should strangle their wives. The name of Socrates' wife has passed into the language as that of an ignorant shrew. Philosophy is an unworldly, abstruse, often egomaniacal obsession. The body is an enemy to absolute logic or metaphysical speculation. The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon. Perhaps Louis Althusser was enacting a necessary axiom or logical proof when, on the morning of November 16, 1980, he throttled his wife.
But the master ironist, the joker, is life itself. It is likely that Althusser's writings on Hegel and Marx are already fading into cold dust. Paradoxically, what has vitality in his work is only his collapse into murder and derangement. It is this hideous coda which continues to fascinate, to inspire biography, and to motivate the publication—and, now, the translation into English—of Althusser's apologetic memoir. In French, the title is L'Avenir Dure Longtemps. The English title is a gross mistranslation, longtemps being, very precisely, not "forever." Either way, the title is more than a touch pretentious and vacuous, as is so much of Althusser's philosophic prose. The haunting marvel, and what will endure longtemps, is the initial two and a half pages. I know of no document like them. Ideally, they ought to be cited in full.
"I shall describe what happened—between two zones of darkness, the unknown one from which I was emerging and the one I was about to enter. Here is the scene of the murder just as I experienced it," they begin, and Althusser sets down his recollection with uncanny detail. Often he would massage the neck of his wife, Hélène, he explains. This time, he was massaging the front of her neck:
I pressed my thumbs into the hollow at the top of her breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both, one to the left, the other to the right, up towards her ears where the flesh was hard. I continued massaging her in a V-shape. The muscles in my forearms began to feel very tired; I was aware that they always did when I was massaging.
Hélène's face was calm and motionless; her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling.
Never before had Louis Althusser "looked into the face of someone who had been strangled." Utter terror seized him. He screamed "I've strangled Hélène!" and rushed into the empty courtyard (it was a Sunday) of the École Normale, France's hothouse of intellect, in which he made his almost legendary home. He roused the school doctor: "I kept on screaming that I had strangled Hélène and pulled him by the collar of his dressing-gown insisting he come and see her, otherwise I would burn the École down. Étienne did not believe me, saying 'It's impossible.'" Alone for a moment back in his apartment, Althusser took a strip from the tattered window curtains—the couple cultivated deprivation—and "placed it diagonally across Hélène's chest, from her right shoulder to her left breast." A curious gesture: part academic decoration—the hood of an honorary degree—and part pathetic valediction. The doctor came, and gave Althusser an injection. In Althusser's study "someone (I do not know who) was removing books I had borrowed from the École library." This is a Shakespearean touch, unendurably exact in its intimations of academic priorities. What is mere homicide compared with unreturned library books?
The assassin sank into darkness. He came to in Sainte-Anne's, the hospital for the mentally diseased, "I am not sure when." The French mandarinate had swung into action. Normaliens are the freemasonry of cultural politics. The Minister of Justice was, of course, an alumnus. By the time the police arrived, Althusser had been spirited to bleak safety. No warrant could be served on a man in a state of total mental collapse. Two months after the murder, legal proceedings were dropped. The philosopher stayed in mental hospitals until 1983. He was then allowed to live alone in the north of Paris, seeing a very few faithful friends and acolytes. Rumor has it that he would now and again stroll the gray streets and call out to passersby, "I am the great Althusser!" He died, of cardiac failure, in a clinic outside Paris on October 22, 1990; he was seventy-two. During the years of isolation and twilight, he composed voluminous autobiographical texts, this book among them. They qualify, correct, and embellish one another. But the same cry of questioning despair rings through them: "Why did I kill Hélène? I cannot find any coherent answer. Nor can the psychiatrists who are now my familiars and contact with reality. Reader, can you?" And it is that cry and the overwhelming truth of the narrative of the deed which compel attention.
Who was le grand Althusser, and what formed him? A conventional bourgeois background; fervent Catholicism during adolescence and early manhood; the characteristic Gallic reflex of seeking out confessors and "masters of thought" among his teachers. Captured in June of 1940, at the age of twenty-one, Althusser spent more than four and a half years as a prisoner of war in a Lager in Schleswig-Holstein. Material on this period is still to be published, but it may well have been during this long captivity that the first shadows fell. So far as is known, Althusser strove for neither repatriation nor escape. His attitude appears to have been one of resignation and inertia. The truth or the strategic legend of an enduring fatigue—a melancholy and miasma of the soul—caused by these years of impotence attached itself to the rest of Althusser's career. At the École Normale, which he entered after the war, Althusser found a cadre and a climate of sensibility uniquely fitted to his gifts. After completing his studies, he rapidly established himself as a tutor in philosophy and a master in residence. In each successive class, or promotion, many of the most brilliant students clustered around the young guru. His tutorials and seminars acquired an almost mystical aura. Some students, however, were repelled. In a recently published memoir by one of them, an incisive French metaphysician, we read, "It was obvious to me from the start that Louis Althusser was mad."
In a twofold motion emblematic of the later nineteen-forties and the nineteen-fifties in the Paris intelligentsia, Althusser joined the Communist Party and went into analysis. As a student at the École, he had undergone bouts of electroshock therapy. Black depressions alternated with periods of formidable, charismatic literary and pedagogic activity. A public debate in which Althusser pulverized Sartre (the detested father figure) established his celebrity at large. With the publication, in 1965, of Pour Marx and Lire "Le Capital," two tracts put together with members of his seminars, Althusser's influence was at its greatest. It declined rapidly, owing both to the derisive hostility of official French Communism and to Althusser's ambiguous—indeed, inert—role during the 1968 student uprising.
In 1946, during one of his periods of weariness and enervation, Althusser had met Hélène Rytmann, who in the Resistance had taken the name Légotien. The facts of this crucial relationship remain opaque despite—or, rather, because of—the volume of narrative and conjecture it has generated. Poignantly, Althusser tells of their shared misère, of the bruising needs that bound them. If one reads his recollections closely, it appears that she initiated him sexually and represented the only substantive eros in a life otherwise cloistered. Yann Moulier Boutang, the first volume of whose devoted but scrupulously penetrating biography of Althusser has already appeared, says otherwise. There were other and contrastively radiant women in Althusser's life, Moulier Boutang writes, but Hélène's insane suffering when she sensed or stumbled on these episodes only served to augment her devouring grip. Ugly, neurotic, obsessional in every way, Hélène was also fascinating in her asceticism, in her courage, in her uncompromising intellectuality. (Imagine trying to live with Simone Weil.) Althusser's dependence on her was that of an addict. She ruled his life. Around 1970, she simply moved into his quarters at the École. In what Althusser calls his "hypomanic states," he would turn fiercely on his guardian demon, only to come back to her in penitential despair. A long inferno out of Strindberg, but manifestly indispensable to both parties.
To make matters worse, Hélène had been excluded from the Party. The circumstances are murky in the extreme. (Moulier Boutang hints at fresh light in his second volume.) In any event, this anathema paralyzed Hélène. She demanded of Althusser that he sacrifice whatever time, energies, political pressures he could to her reinstatement. Did he himself know the facts? Gossip—and outside the Vatican there is none more venomous than that in the Communist Party labyrinths—hinted at some unauthorized, possibly sadistic vendetta in which Comrade Légotien had been critically implicated just before or just after the Liberation in Lyons. Whatever the facts, Althusser failed to obtain reparation or Party amnesty for her. This, in turn, aggravated his own sense of isolation and the hysterical litigations between them. Yet his worship remained unshaken. According to him, Hélène's language was more inventive than that of James Joyce. "The softness of her laugh was irresistible." (Others recall an acid cackle.) "Through her ability to listen, her understanding of the human heart, and her genius for understanding she was indeed the equal of the greatest who lived." A classic tale of the unreason of love sings through these pages:
But what moved me more than anything were her hands, which never changed. They had been fashioned by work and bore the marks of hard physical labour, yet her touch had a wonderful tenderness which betrayed her heartbreak and helplessness. They were the hands of a poor, wretched old woman who had nothing and no one to turn to yet who found it in her heart to go on giving. I was filled with such sorrow at the suffering engraved on them. I have often wept into these hands and they have often made me weep, though I never told her why. I feared it would cause her pain.
Hélène, my Hélène …
Here is an historical but genuine descendant of Augustine and Rousseau. If anything of Althusser persists, it will be passages such as this.
In his professional life, Althusser set out to prove that Marxism had been misread not only by the bureaucrats of Stalinism and by the French Communist Party but by philosophers everywhere. It was not an ideology at all, he maintained, but a rigorous scientific theory (in the sense in which econometrics may be held to be the rigorous scientific theory of our social structure and conduct): Marxism yielded laws of material and social evolution as predictive as those being discovered by Lévi-Strauss in structural anthropology, by Chomsky in generative grammar, by Lacan in psychoanalysis. What mattered more was that such laws entailed political actions—they underwrote a revolutionary praxis as systematic as that of thermodynamic reactions. Political adventurism, "spontaneism," libertarian rhetoric, and the hot air of "humanism" were the enemy. Althusser's disciples thrilled to the promise of a true science of revolution. Cannily, Althusser's style of exposition melds that spice of obscurity essential to recent French doctrines with a contemptuous harshness. His works are "little red books" on a magisterial, canonic level. The very fact that the Party poured derision on these "ivory tower vaporings" only increased their spell.
The misreading is, largely, Althusser's. Marxism is not, and has never been, a rigorous science. Its predictions and theoretical dogma have in the main turned out to be false. Marxism is, rather, a messianic dream of immanent justice. Its source is twofold: the Judaic prophetic vision of human redemption, and the millenarian promise of the French Revolution and European Romanticism. Marx's peers are not the exact scientists but the panoptic dreamers of historical progress and fulfillment, such as Hugo, Michelet, and Wagner. Pace Althusser, it is Marx's incensed humanism that has inspired millions of men and women even unto sacrificial death, and it is the recent collapse of that humanistic impulse that has left a black hole in the history of hope.
Did Althusser himself come to realize this? There is substantial testimony that during his late years of dishevelment he tried for some kind of arrangement with the Roman Catholicism of his youth. In 1979, he sought an audience with John Paul II. There is method in the madness. In their doctrinal absolutism, their organization, and their altruistic ideals, Catholicism and utopian Marxism are akin. But then there is hardly an issue on which Althusser did not exhibit divided, possibly schizophrenic sentiments. Various modes of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy punctuated his wretched state. He published a collection of turgid meditations on psychoanalysis, accompanied by letters exchanged with Lacan, and for a long time Lacan was a key presence. Yet in 1980 Althusser turned on the magus with public ferocity.
That Louis Althusser possessed intellectual and pedagogic powers of an unusual order is obvious. So is the role that he played, albeit briefly, in the life of the mind of a certain French élite during the nineteen-sixties. His writings on Montesquieu, on the continuities between the early and the mature Marx, on the perennial dilemma of the relations between Marxist theories of history and current political practice, especially in regard to the industrial working class, exercise a certain authority, even where they are arbitrary and wrong-headed. The claim that he was among the most influential of Western thinkers on Marxism was for a decade certainly arguable. Today, it has all but faded. And what subsists, as the mere fact of this translation for readers who will never have glanced at the theoretical works of Althusser makes plain, is the piteous scandal of the life.
Why did Althusser kill Hélène?
There can be, as he says over and over in wild desolation, no coherent, summarizing answer. Douglas Johnson, an old friend, reports in the book's informative introduction that Althusser was a sleepwalker, and may have acted wholly unaware, repeating, this time fatally, the massage he frequently used to relieve Hélène's nervous tension. Others whisper that Hélène had decided to end their hermetic coexistence, and Althusser felt he could never endure the break. Romantic conjecture has it that Althusser's love for Hélène had reached pathological excess—that, apprehensive of his own darkening condition, he made certain that they would be together, and singular to one another, always. A few disenchanted observers have hinted that Althusser could no longer stand his companion's crazed possessiveness and the incessant blame she heaped on him for his failure to obtain her reintegration into the Party. She clawed at him until he snapped.
I have no knowledge of the matter. Perhaps each of these hypotheses is partly right. Or could it be that a man inebriate with abstraction, with the elixir of naked thought, will come to perceive that for him the only viable marriage is that with solitude?
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SOURCE: "Breathless: Louis Althusser Loses His Grip," in Voice Literary Supplement, No. 123, March, 1994, p. 15.
[In the following review, McLemee discusses the implications of Althusser's memoir, The Future Lasts Forever, on the reading of his work.]
Marxism is dead, as everybody knows; so is Louis Althusser. And not for the first time, in either case. In 1978, after nearly two decades as the most provocative thinker in the French Communist Party, Althusser told a friend: "My universe of thought has been abolished. I can't think anymore." (No fate closer to death than that, for a philosopher.) The mind exhausted, his body lived on until 1990—collapsing sometime between the Berlin Wall and the Gorbachev regime.
In the interim, Althusser practically disappeared from public life. A popular book on "la pensée '68" relegated his ideas to the status of yesteryear's fad: Althusser's Marxism "irresistibly recalled a recent but evolved past, like the Beatles' music or the early films of Godard." The market in theoretical commodities was finished with him. And then, too, there had been that embarrassing incident, late in 1980, when Althusser strangled his wife to death.
Of the murder itself, Althusser remembered nothing. In The Future Lasts Forever, his memoir of the killing and its aftermath, he describes awakening from a blackout to find his fingers massaging Hélène Althusser's neck, her face "calm and motionless," the eyes "open and staring at the ceiling." The fog lifts from his mind. And when it clears, panic sets in: "I noticed the tip of her tongue was showing between her teeth and lips, strange and still."
This moment of unnerving lucidity fell, as Althusser writes, "between two zones of darkness, the unknown one from which I was emerging and the one I was about to enter." Friends would later reveal that Althusser had long suffered from manic depression and had been hospitalized numerous times. Injected with tranquilizers, hurried through the medical-legal process that declared him unfit to stand trial, transported to Sainte-Anne's Hospital, the philosopher then disappeared—or rather was transformed, in the eyes of the law and the press, into a madman.
Insanity, breaking into public space, is always a scandal. And all the more so in this case, for generations of the French cultural and political elites had studied under Althusser at the Ecole Normale, where his colleagues had for decades, it seemed, covered up the fact of his instability. For the French right, the speed with which Althusser was declared unfit for trial made the murder a political sensation. The political catcalls renewed in 1983 with Althusser's release from the hospital. A late photograph shows him with a pathetic, vacant look on his face. In the introduction to his old friend's memoir, Douglas Johnson describes Althusser during his final years, adrift in the streets of northern Paris, "a shabby, ageing figure [who] would startle passers-by as he shouted 'Je suis le grand Althusser.'"
Following his release, Althusser began to prepare the long memoir from which The Future Lasts Forever gets its title. It is in many senses a posthumous work, of almost indescribable morbidity. "I am neither alive nor dead …," Althusser writes. "I am simply missing, which was Foucault's splendid definition of madness." The memoir was his effort "to remove the weight of the tombstone which lies over me." Composition of this manuscript occupied Althusser from 1985 until his death. To it the editor has appended a much shorter autobiographical fragment from 1976, "The Facts." Reading them together is apt to be unsettling for anyone who knows Althusser primarily through his magna opera of 1965, For Marx and Reading "Capital."
Denied by law the chance to testify in public, Althusser seeks desperately, interminably, to chart the genesis and structure of his mental disorders and to find some meaning in the violent act that ended his companion's life. Gregory Elliott's superb intellectual and political biography, Althusser: The Detour of Theory, barely mentions its subject's depressions and the murder. In the autobiography, for some 360 pages, they are the prism through which his entire life and career are figured.
Althusser writes like someone long accustomed to the therapeutically induced habit of rummaging through the lumber room of the preconscious, of memory and half-repressed fantasy. The texts make an exhaustive trip through the details of his childhood and adolescence, and prepare a carefully annotated catalogue of obsessions: with VD and sexual inadequacy; with self-loathing and a persistent sense of being a fraud; with his mother and (strangest by far) General De Gaulle. There is a certain amount of do-it-yourself Lacanian analysis here. The fact that young Louis bore the name of a father dead before his birth proves not merely significant but decisive. So does the fact that in his surname lurk Alsatian puns: "Althusser" equals both "old teeth" and "old houses." Seldom has Karl Krauss's maxim that psychoanalysis is the very disease for which it pretends to offer a cure seemed more apt.
A tragic inevitability suffuses all details of Althusser's relationship with Hélène. As Althusser recounts it, he first suffered a depression requiring hospitalization after their initial love making. Their marriage was, to understate it, tempestuous. Althusser (and others) often characterized Hélène as "difficult," while he was, he admits, a philanderer and emotionally cold. "To all appearances, which are so readily accepted (because it is so much easier!), we were a sado-masochistic couple, incapable of breaking the vicious circle of our own dramatic anger, hatred, and mutual destructiveness." Yet, in spite of its dogged efforts, Althusser's memoir never reveals any truth that this "appearance" might belie.
The murder emerges, in the final pages of The Future Lasts Forever, as a sort of displaced suicide. Someone trained in the clinical practice of attending to the discourse of manic depression might read such a text with the distance needed to bracket out its enormous affective charge. For anyone else, I suspect, The Future Lasts Forever will prove harrowing—and infuriating. Althusser appears in it as such a monster of self-absorption that one scarcely gets a sense of Hélène, his wife and his victim. And the overwhelming sense of fate that propels the narrative seems to preclude much depth of regret. The murder becomes purely a manifestation of that self-destructiveness for which Althusser has been searching, throughout the memoir, to find a source and a meaning.
After finishing this long, depressive text, it is a jolt to read "The Facts"—a jocular essay from the mid 1970s composed, evidently, during a manic period. It covers much the same material discussed in portions of The Future Lasts Forever, with strange discrepancies, not the least of which concerns whether Althusser voted to expel his wife from the Communist Party. (In The Future, he claims he voted for expulsion; in "The Facts," against.) Althusser also claims to have had private channels to the Pope and De Gaulle and to have stolen a nuclear submarine.
In these memoirs, the cool, magisterial tone of his theoretical works all but disappears. Plainly Althusser was no master in the old house of the ego. And yet somehow he managed; only fairly late in his career did the delirium break wholly out of control. Bouts of severe depression were such a regular part of Althusser's life that he learned to work around them, between them, rushing to finish work before the next, inevitable crash. His writings and seminars from the 1960s and '70s had sought to transform Marx's ideas into a conceptual system as rigorous as mathematics, to purge them of any "humanist" or "historicist" taint. Now, in retrospect, the theorist's drive for precision seems like a desperate effort to contain, and to repress, that violence suffusing the memoirist's narratives.
The Future Lasts Forever unfortunately renders such overneat, "psychologistic" interpretation of Althusser's major writings almost irresistibly tempting—particularly (as I must admit in my own case) for someone already pretty dubious about their conceptual and philological rigor. Throughout the book, Althusser reveals a deep ambivalence about his own work: confidence about its contribution to Marxist thought mixed with the most self-lacerating admissions of how little of Hegel or Marx he had actually read. He claims to have read the first volume of Capital just in time to conduct a seminar on it—no crime for a minor professor, but rather pathetic coming from the Communist Party's great theoretical hope.
"Phrases I came across or picked up," Althusser explains, "were like 'philosophical core samples,' on the basis of which I was easily able to determine (using analytical methods) what the deeper levels of a particular philosophy were. Then, and only then, was I able to read the text from which the sample came. Thus I read a limited number of texts extremely closely, and naturally as rigorously as I could, without knowing in advance any semantic or syntagmatic details." Issuing a flow of discourse without knowledge of "semantic or syntagmatic details" is a practice familiar enough from the academic world, where it is sometimes called bullshitting.
Had The Future Lasts Forever appeared during the Cold War, one would have expected a sustained campaign around it in the right-wing press here: the Communist as murderer, the Marxist as lunatic. And in Britain—where his theoretical work left its stamp not only on the cultural-studies movement but also on some intellectuals in the Labour Party—Althusser's memoir received vicious attentiveness in the papers. His impact on the nonacademic left in the United States was slight, although it was debated in the pages of dissident communist journals such as Urgent Tasks, Theoretical Review, and Line of March some years ago. Today, of course, every theory junky knows his essays on the Ideological State Apparatuses, plus maybe a couple of others. If our Hilton Kramers and William Bennetts take notice of Althusser's memoirs at all, it will be to bait not U.S. communists but the multiculturati—our comrades in armchairs who pursue, as Althusser did in his prescient way, the long march through the institutions. A preemptive campaign may be in order. Hands off Althusser! Leave the poor, crazy, dead man in peace.
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SOURCE: "The Paris Strangler," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 10, March 7, 1994, pp. 33-7.
[In the following review, Judt states that in Althusser's The Future Lasts Forever "We are presented not only with a man who is on the edge of insanity, obsessed with sexual imagery … dreams of grandeur and his own psychoanalytical history, but also with a man who is quite remarkably ignorant."]
I was brought up a Marxist. Nowadays that is not much of a boast, but it had its advantages. Parents and grandparents were imbued with all of the assumptions and some of the faith that shaped the European Socialist movement in its heyday. Coming from that branch of East European Jewry that had embraced Social Democracy and the Bund (the Jewish Labor organization of early twentieth-century Russia and Poland), my own family was viscerally anti-Communist. In its eyes, Bolshevism was not only a dictatorship, it was also—and this, too, was a serious charge—a travesty of Marxism. By the time I went to university, I had been thoroughly inoculated with all the classical nineteenth-century texts; and as a result I was immune to the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which Marxist revelations were greeted by those of my freshmen peers who were discovering them for the first time.
Thus, when I arrived in Paris as a graduate student in the late '60s, I was skeptically curious to see and to hear Louis Althusser. In charge of the teaching of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the French elite academy for future teachers and leaders, Althusser was touted by everyone I met as a man of extraordinary gifts, who was transforming our understanding of Marx and reshaping revolutionary theory. His name, his ideas, his books were everywhere. Sitting in on his crowded and sycophantic seminar, I was utterly bemused. For Althusser's account of Marxism, to the extent that I could make any sense of it, bore no relation to anything I had ever heard. It chopped Marx into little bits, selected those texts or parts of texts that suited the master's interpretation and then proceeded to construct the most astonishingly abstruse, self-regarding and ahistorical version of Marxist philosophy imaginable. The exercise bore no discernible relationship to Marxism, to philosophy or to pedagogy. After a couple of painful attempts to adapt myself to the experience and to derive some benefit from it, I abandoned the seminar and never went back.
Returning to the subject many years later, and constrained for professional reasons to read Althusser's mercifully few published works, I understood a little better what had been going on, intellectually and sociologically. Althusser was engaged in what he and his acolytes called a "symptomatic reading" of Marx, which is to say that they took from him what they needed and ignored the rest. Where they wished Marx to have said or meant something that they could not find in his writings, they interpreted the "silences," thereby constructing an entity of their own imagination. This thing they called a science, one that Marx was said to have invented and that could be applied, gridlike, to all social phenomena.
Why invent a Marxist "science" when so much was already at hand, the Marxist "theory of history," "historical materialism," "dialectical materialism" and the rest? The answer is that Althusser, like so many others in the '60s, was trying to save Marxism from the two major threats to its credibility: the grim record of Stalinism and the failure of Marx's revolutionary forecasts. Althusser's special contribution was to remove Marxism altogether from the realm of history, politics and experience, and thereby to render it invulnerable to any criticism of the empirical sort.
In Althusser-speak, Marxism was a theory of structural practices: economic, ideological, political, theoretical. It had nothing to do with human volition or agency, and thus it was unaffected by human frailty or inadequacy. These "practices" determined history. Their respective importance, and their relationship to one another, varied with circumstances; the "dominant structure" was sometimes "economic practice" and sometimes "political practice," and so on. Of particular significance was the notion of "theoretical practice." This oxymoronic phrase, which came to be chanted, mantralike, all over Europe in those years, had the special charm of placing intellectuals and intellectual activity on the same plane as the economic organizations and the political strategies that had preoccupied earlier generations of Marxists.
This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin's crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. This was important to Althusser, who was a member of the French Communist Party and who sought to admit the embarrassing history of that organization without undermining whatever remained of its claim to revolutionary omniscience. The Party's leadership itself had responded to this conundrum by belatedly treating Stalin as an unfortunate but parenthetical episode in the otherwise unblemished record of communism. His crimes were a mere deviation born of the cult of personality. But Althusser went one better by showing that "Stalin" and his works constituted only a collective analytical error. This performed the double service of keeping personalities out of the matter and reiterating the centrality of concepts.
It is hard, now, to recapture the mood of the '60s in which this absurd dialectical joust seemed appealing. But Althusser unquestionably filled a crucial niche. He gave young Maoists an impressively high-flown language in which to be "anti-humanist" Communists, dismissive of the "Italian road" to socialism. At the time this was a matter of some importance: the early works of Marx, notably the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, had only recently entered the canon, having for many years languished unknown and untranslated. Placed alongside his other youthful writings, they suggested a rather different Marx from the conventional image passed down from Engels via the popularizers of the early European Socialist movements; a man more interested in Romantic-era philosophy than in classical economics, an idealist whose agenda was not simply social revolution but the moral transformation of mankind. The interest in this "humanist". Marx had been aroused both by the recent French rediscovery of Hegel and by a new generation of radical intellectuals seeking to locate Marx in something other than the lineage imposed upon the European left by the doctrinaire positivism of Leninism.
Taking his cue from the growing fashion for "structuralism" (initially confined to linguistics and anthropology, but by the early '60s seeping into sociology and philosophy), Althusser worked hard to excommunicate this humanist and understandably more appealing Marx as "unscientific." In his view, to emphasize the moral condition and responsibilities of individual men was to detract from an appreciation of the larger, impersonal forces at work in history, and thus to delude the workers, or anyone else, into believing they could act on their own behalf, instead of accepting the authority of those who spoke and thought for them. In his words, "only theoretical anti-humanism justifies general practical humanism."
To flesh out his structuralist account, Althusser invented something that he and his followers called "Ideological State Apparatuses." In his heyday these were confined to the public and political world. In his memoirs, however, his attention was diverted to more personal matters. Althusser informs us that "it is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful State Ideological Apparatus" (obligatory capitals), and in reflecting upon his experience in the mental hospital he wonders "what can now be done to free the mentally ill from the Hell created for them by the combined operations of all the Ideological State Apparatuses." In Althusserian dogma the presence of these repressive and all-embracing ogres was held particularly responsible for the inconvenient stability and durability of liberal democracy. Of special note was the announcement that the university was, of all of these, the dominant one for our era. "Theoretical practice" in the academic arena was thus the site of ideological battle; and philosophy was absolutely vital as the "class struggle in theory." Scholars in their seminars were on the front line, and need feel guilty no more.
Althusser borrowed a term from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard and announced that an "epistemological break" in Marx's writings had occurred somewhere in the mid-1840s. Everything he wrote before the break was neo-Hegelian humanist flannel and could be ignored. Henceforth left-wing students and lecturers were free to jettison those bits of (the early) Marx that seemed to speak of alienation, reconciliation, human agency and moral judgment. This was hard for many people in the '60s to swallow. In Italy and in the English-speaking world, most young left-wingers were more attracted to the idea of a gentler, kinder Marx. In France, however, where the sordid political compromises of the Socialists and Communists during the battle over decolonization had left a sour taste among some of their younger supporters, this static, structuralist Marx sounded analytically pure and politically uncompromising.
By the end of the '70s, however, Althusser's star was on the wane. He had been absent during the events of May 1968, and had showed little interest in the political developments of that year. His only direct comment on the "failed revolution" of 1968 was characteristic and revealing: "When revolt ends in defeat without the workers being massacred, it is not necessarily a good thing for the working class which has no martyrs to mourn or commemorate." Even his erst-while followers admitted that he had nothing new to offer, and his rigid stance in defense of Marxism, communism and "the revolution" made him appear irrelevant in a decade that saw the publication in France of The Gulag Archipelago, the tragedy in Cambodia, the eclipse of Mao and the steady loss of radical faith among a generation of French intellectuals. Had matters been left there, Althusser could have looked forward to a peaceful and obscure old age, a curious relic of a bizarre but forgotten era.
But then, on November 16, 1980, he murdered his wife Hélène in their apartment at the Ecole Normale. Or, as the jacket copy of The New Press's translation of his memoir coyly puts it, "while massaging his wife's neck [he] discovered he had strangled her." (To be fair, this is how Althusser himself explained the event; but it is curious to find the claim reproduced unattributed on the book.) Althusser was examined by doctors, found to be mentally unfit to stand trial and locked away in a psychiatric hospital. Three years later he was released and spent his last years in a dreary flat in north Paris, emerging occasionally to startle passers-by with "Je suis le grand Althusser!" It was in these years that he drafted two versions of an autobiography. They were found after his death in 1990, and first published in French, as a single book, in 1992.
These "memoirs" are curious. Althusser would have us read them as Rousseau-like confessions, but that is hard to do, and the comparison is embarrassingly unflattering to their author. They are clearly an attempt on Althusser's part to make sense of his madness, and to that extent they are indeed revealing; by his own account he wrote them "to free myself from the murder and above all from the dubious effects of having been declared unfit to plead" (it is ironic that their posthumous impact on any unprejudiced reader will surely be to confirm the original forensic diagnosis). As a genre, however, they really come closer to magical realism. The book, especially a short early draft incongruously titled "The Facts," is full of fantasies and imagined achievements, so much so that it is sometimes hard to disentangle the fictive Althusser from the rather mundane creature whose sad story emerges in these pages.
That story is soon told. Althusser was born in 1918, the eldest child of middle-class French parents in Algeria. His father was a banker whose career took him back to Marseilles in Louis's adolescent years. The young Althusser had an utterly uneventful early career. Academically promising, he was sent to the lycée in Lyons to prepare for the entrance exam to the Ecole Normale. He passed the exam, but had to postpone his higher education when he was drafted into the army in 1939. Like many French soldiers, he had a futile war; his company was rounded up by the Germans in 1940, and he spent the next five years in a prisoner of war camp. About the only interesting thing that seems to have happened to him there was that he learned, somewhat belatedly, the pleasures of masturbation. (He was not to make love for the first time until he was 29.)
Finally admitted to the Ecole upon his return to France, Althusser did well there, coming second in the national philosophy examinations. Having spent his adolescence and his youth as an active young Catholic, he discovered left-wing politics at the Ecole and joined the Communist Party in 1948, which was about the time when other young intellectuals, nauseated and shocked by its Stalinist culture and tactics, were beginning to leave it. Shortly after graduating, Althusser obtained a teaching post at the Ecole and settled into the quiet, secure life of an academic philosopher. He was to stay in the same post until being forcibly retired in the aftermath of the scandal that ended his career.
It was during his student years that Althusser met his future wife, Hélène Légotien (she had abandoned her family name, Rytmann, during the war), a woman nine years his senior who had played an active part in the Communist Resistance. As he acknowledges in his memoir, it was a troubled, even tormented relationship. They were held together by bonds of mutual destructiveness. By 1980, he writes, "the two of us were shut up together in our own private hell." Hélène seems to have been an unhappy woman, insecure, tormented and bitter—and with good reason. The Communist Party abandoned her after the war, falsely accusing her of some obscure act of betrayal during the Resistance. Uneasy with her own immigrant Jewish background, and desperate for the love and attention of her husband, she put up with his moods, his women-friends and his colleagues, most of whom looked down on her from the very great height of their own vaunted intellectual standing. She was clearly not a person comfortable with herself or others; and Althusser's own bizarre personality can only have made matters worse.
For what emerges clearly from his own account is that Althusser was always a deeply troubled person. This memoir is warped and curdled by his morbid self-pity, by his insecurity and the repeated invocation of Lacanian clichés to account for his troubles. Indeed, the book's main theme is his own psychological and social inadequacy, a defect for which he naturally holds his parents responsible, in equal parts. His mother's insistence on naming him for a dead uncle is blamed for his lifelong sense of "not existing": Louis being homonymic with the word "lui," meaning "him," the young Althusser's name rendered him impersonal and anonymous. (He seems not to have given much thought to the millions of happy Louis among his fellow countrymen.) According to Althusser, his mother "castrated" him with her excessive care and attention; hence his belated discovery of women and his inability to form satisfactory relations with them. And so it goes, for page after page. Small wonder that when Louis does away with his wife, after forty years of manic-depressive bouts, hospitalization, treatment and analysis, we learn that he was taking his revenge on the older woman who not only brought him to Communism but substituted, as he admits, for mother and father alike.
There is a human tragedy here, but it is presented in a breath-takingly narcissistic key. Althusser wrote this memoir not in order to comprehend why he killed his wife, but to show himself and others that he was sane. He had been, as he puts it, "deprived of his status as a philosopher" by being declared unfit to plead, and this final loss of identity, this fear that once again he would "not exist," seems to have been the driving compulsion behind his autobiography. (Other, less exalted murderers have suffered rather greater deprivations, of course, but this, too, our author overlooks.) If we take him at his word, this fear of "not existing" was the very engine that propelled his life's work. By elaborating a doctrine in which human volition and human action counted for nought, in which theoretical speculation was the supreme practice, Althusser could compensate for a life of gloomy, introspective inaction by asserting and legitimizing his existence in the arena of the text. As he says, "I … emerged as the victor, in the realm of pure thought."
This much, at least, we can learn from the memoir, and it casts interesting new light on the otherwise inexplicably murky and self-referential quality of the earlier philosophical writings. Althusser was reconstructing Marx to give his own life a shape with which he could live, and one that could stand respectable comparison with those of his father (a successful banker) and his wife (a Resistance fighter). We thus learn from this book that Althusser was conscious, in every sphere of his life, of "having practiced a great deception," though it never seems to have occurred to him that this insight bodes ill for the credibility of his intellectual legacy. Unfortunately for its author, however, the book reveals much more. We are presented not only with a man who is on the edge of insanity, obsessed with sexual imagery (a stick of asparagus is "stiff as a man's penis" and so on), dreams of grandeur and his own psychoanalytical history, but also with a man who is quite remarkably ignorant.
He seems to know nothing of recent history. (Among his howlers is an indictment of the "Polish fascist" Pilsudski for starting the Second World War.) He seems only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx's texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of "the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism"; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc ("cut off from their own people") and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for "putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag." Those words were written in 1985!
One puts down this depressing book with an overwhelming sense of bewilderment. How could it be that so many intelligent and educated people were taken in by this man? Even if we allow that his manic fancies met some widespread need in the '60s, how are we to account for the continuing fascination that he exercises in certain circles today? In France he is largely forgotten, though the jacket blurb by Didier Eribon describes the autobiography as "magnificent" and explains that "madness [is] the inevitable price of philosophy." It is a conclusion whose deductive logic and historical accuracy are truly in the Althusserian tradition; but Eribon is a French journalist who has made a career of playing the fawning hyena to the preening lions of Parisian intellectual life, and he is not representative.
In the United States, however, there are still university research centers that devote time and money to the study of Althusser's thought, and mount expensive conferences at which professors lecture one another earnestly about "Althusserianism" in everything from linguistics to hermeneutics. Meanwhile respectable English-language publishers continue to market books with titles like The Althusserian Legacy, Althusser and the Detour of Theory, Reading Althusser, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory and, inevitably, Althusser and Feminism, most of them unreadable excursions into the Higher Drivel.
Althusser was not a charlatan. He himself really believed that he had discovered something significant—or was about to discover something significant—when his illness struck. It is not because he was mad that he was a mediocre philosopher; indeed, the recognition of his own intellectual mediocrity may have contributed to his depressions, and thence to his loss of sanity. If there is something humiliating about the Althusserian episode in intellectual history, then, the humiliation is not his alone. He was a guru, complete with texts, a cult and true believers; and he showed occasional insight into the pathos of his followers, noting that they imitated his "smallest gestures and inflections."
Althusser's work and his life, with his drugs, his analysts, his self-pity, his illusions and his moods, take on a curiously hermetic quality. He comes to resemble some minor medieval scholastic, desperately scrabbling around in categories of his own imagining. But even the most obscure theological speculation usually had as its goal something of significance. From Althusser's musings, however, nothing followed. They were not subject to proof and they had no intelligible worldly application, except as abstruse political apologetics. What does it say about modern academic life that such a figure can have trapped teachers and students for so long in the cage of his insane fictions, and traps them still?
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SOURCE: "A Living Death," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 13, 1994, pp. 4, 8.
[In the following review, Kaplan asserts that "The lucidity of a man condemned by his madness to a living death is perhaps what gives [The Future Lasts Forever] its chilling edge."]
On Nov. 16, 1980, Louis Althusser, the leading philosophical and political theorist of French Marxism, strangled his wife, Hélène Rytman, in their suite at the Ecole Normale Superieure, an elite institute for the training of the French professoriate where he had lived, first as a student, then as a professor, for 34 years.
Many received the news of his crime as a symbol of the demise of European communism. Those who knew Althusser understood that whatever fit of madness induced him to strangle Hélène was not brought on by the world of politics. The elegant theorist, the man who redefined the concept of "ideology" as "our imaginary relationship to real conditions of existence" and who fought against a purely economistic interpretation of the works of Marx, had shuttled back and forth between the Ecole Normale and the psychiatric Hospital Sainte Anne at regular intervals for many, many years.
As a result of the murder of his wife, Louis Althusser was declared unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity—in French, this is called a non-lieu. This verdict preceded and pre-empted a trial. The non-lieu saved Althusser from the night-mare of a trial, and possible condemnation, but its consequences were enormous. As a person deemed unfit to plead, he lost his right to a trial—that is the right to testify and be held responsible for his actions; he lost his right to enter into contract (his affairs would be handled by a legal guardian) and hence by extension—at least symbolically—his signature, his authorship.
Althusser, calling himself a "missing person," claims to be writing his memoir from this "non-place." He writes not as some latter-day Chateaubriand, from beyond the grave: He writes buried alive.
Following the murder, Althusser was committed to psychiatric internment for a period of three years, after which he retired quietly to an apartment far from the Ecole Normale. There he wrote the second of the two memoirs published in this volume, which were donated after his death in 1990 to the IMEC, the Institute for the Memory of Contemporary Publishing in Paris. (The IMEC houses archives of a number of French writers, including Celine, Genet and Paulhan). Olivier Corpet, the director of the IMEC, prepared the Althusser manuscripts for posthumous publication along with Yann Moulier Boutang, Althusser's biographer.
Their editors' forward, like the introduction to a very good mystery tale, frames what follows with a statement of the basic facts and with provocative questions for the reader: "How is it that such a story can move into the realm of madness, yet its author remain so aware? How does one come to terms with the author of a book of this kind?"
Althusser's story, they argue, is both the work of a madman and of a philosopher, both a work of imagination and a document about contemporary French intellectual history. Part I, "The Future Lasts a Long Time," was written in 1985. It is structured as a flashback, beginning with the scene of crime—the night of the strangulation—and moving backward to Althusser's relationship with his mother, his upbringing, his relationship with Hélène, his intellectual formation and the escalating mental illness that would lead to the murder. Part II, "The Facts," written before the murder in 1976, is straightforward and condensed, reiterating the themes of part one in a lighter mode.
The lucidity of a man condemned by his madness to a living death is perhaps what gives this book its chilling edge. Althusser's sense, since childhood, of his own nonexistence is at its core. He was named after his mother's great love: When Louis died at Verdun in World War I, Althusser's mother would marry Louis' brother, Charles, and name their son for the dead love. Althusser is a brilliant close reader of his given name:
For a long time, Louis was a name I literally detested. It was too short … and ended in the sharp "ee" sound which offended me…. Doubtless it also said yes [oui] a little too readily on my behalf, and I rebelled against this "yes," which corresponded to my mother's desire rather than to mine. Above all, it contained the sound of the third person pronoun (lui) which deprived me of any personality of my own, summoning as it did an anonymous other. It referred to my uncle, the man who stood behind me: "Lui" [him] was Louis. It was him my mother loved, not me…. My mother's love, directed through me to someone who was dead, made it impossible for me to exist in my own right.
Douglas Johnson, a former student of Althusser's, argues in an introduction designed for readers outside France that one should not take Althusser too seriously when he insists that he was something of a fraud as a thinker. This is just the kind of joke, Johnson surmises, that brilliant Ecole Normale students like to make about never having to study. He's doubtless right on target about students at the Ecole, but not about Althusser.
The sensation of fraudulence was deeply bound up with Althusser's self-definition, his depression, his imagination. The passages where he explores his own success, and his concomitant feelings of being a fake (his ability to charm, to reduce things to a formula), are among the most critical moments in the book. He writes: "In fact my philosophical knowledge of texts was rather limited…. I felt (what an illusion!) that I was capable of working out, if not the specific ideas at least the general drift or direction of an author or a book I had not read, on the basis of a simple turn of phrase. I obviously had certain intuitive powers as well as a definite ability for seeing connections, or a capacity for establishing theoretical oppositions, which enabled me to reconstruct what I took to be an author's idea on the basis of the authors to whom he was opposed."
This confession does not lessen our sense of Althusser's contribution to the history of philosophy—his theories, by now, have taken on a life of their own, separate from his life—but it heightens our sense of his self-loathing. Each successful writing project would be followed by anguish, and a breakdown.
What Althusser proves in The Future Lasts Forever is that in addition to his talents for theoretical work, he had a real genius for storytelling. The feeling of having "gotten away with murder" all his life is what makes the literal murder of his wife make such terrifying good sense. His writing ranks with Gide's for narcissistic self-condemnation and with James M. Cain's for sheer creepiness and a sense of evil. The clarity of his French formulations are inevitably somewhat muted in English, but Richard Veasey's British translation works. I liked the choice of The Future Lasts Forever as the title for the two-part volume, instead of the original French, which would have translated literally as The Future Lasts a Long Time Followed by the Facts: Autobiographies.
The idea of a future lasting forever captures perfectly our sense that Althusser was condemned by his murder to a living death. As a reader I had the uncanny feeling of inhabiting Althusser's thoughts; repulsed and fascinated by him, as he was by himself, I was terrified and compelled to read on. Who, I kept asking myself, was Hélène, the woman portrayed on Page 1, already dead, the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth and lips?
I learned that after the first time Althusser made love to her (he was a virgin at age 30; she was 38) he vowed never to do it again and needed to be hospitalized for anguish; that she was purged from the French Communist Party on suspicion of betraying the Resistance and that Althusser didn't believe the charges but voted to purge her in a moment of cowardice; that he tortured her by seducing other women in her presence; that his friends resented her; that, with the pressure of taking care of him, she became every bit the witch they imagined. We may need to wait for the translation of Yann Moulier Boutang's biography to learn more about Hélène Rytman's own story. The way Althusser himself tells it, the real incentive for murder was all hers….
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SOURCE: "Murder, He Wrote," in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 16, May 25, 1994, pp. 566-68.
[In the following review, Mattick analyzes Althusser's attempt to understand his murder of his wife, but asserts that "Unfortunately, the book must be judged a failure as an effort at self-understanding."]
The publication of the English translation of Louis Althusser's memoir has provoked a lively response among the local intelligentsia. People are talking about it, and it has been widely reviewed. This interest is no doubt traceable in part at least to the sensational aspect of the French philosopher's story: his 1980 strangling of his wife, Hélène, in their apartment in the École Normale, the elite university where he had taught and lived since getting his degree there soon after World War II. This was not a matter of some unknown academic beating a prostitute to death with a hammer (as a Tufts professor did some years ago, inspiring interest mostly among true-crime devotees) but the burning fall of a world-class intellectual. It is not so often that someone moves like a comet from the Parisian heights of Theory into the tabloid domain of the Bobbitts and the Menendez brothers, and this is bound to excite.
Most commentary, however, has not stressed the lurid angle. Writing in The New Yorker, George Steiner suggested a high-toned defense, weirdly wondering whether all philosophers shouldn't strangle their wives—"There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon." How could a man "inebriated with abstraction" bear to live with … a woman? Scott McLemee pleads in The Village Voice with future commentators to "leave the poor, crazy, dead man in peace." Tony Judt, New York University expert on French intellectuals, devoted most of his New Republic review to the inanity of Althusser's version of Marxist theory, which amounted to no more than "abstruse … apologetics" for the Communist Party. The strangling, and the evidence of the memoir, only confirmed for Judt the diagnosis suggested by the theoretical works. For him the cas Althusser chiefly raises the question, "What does it say about modern academic life that such a figure can have trapped teachers and students for so long in the cage of his insane fictions, and traps them still?" (Judt doesn't, alas, try to answer this interesting question, which one might well extend to wonder about the mass acceptance of such theoretically and practically ineffective fields as economics, or the apologetic character—abstruse or crude—of most political science.)
Althusser was actually already disappearing from scholarly view by the end of 1980, when the murder took place. Foucault, and to a lesser degree Lacan, had decisively conquered the francophile center stage, and Bourdieu was waiting in the wings. This was quite a change: Just five years earlier, Althusser's name had decorated bibliographies throughout the humanities and the social sciences and was invoked by left-wingers even outside the professoriate. The decline of his renown is not to be traced to growing sophistication about Marxist theory generally or powerful critiques of Althusser's reading of Capital in particular (despite the splendid effort of E. P. Thompson in his The Poverty of Theory). It was due, rather, to the ebbing of social movements, in particular among students, in the course of the 1970s. This reflux brought a steady loss of interest in radical theory, especially when centered on the concept of class. As they withdrew deeper into the university system academics kept alive some sense of their earlier high spirits by dressing commonplaces of yesteryear in the new clothes of deconstruction and Lacanian theory, and by concentrating the force of discourse on sexuality and "the body," always exciting topics. Marxism-Leninism, even in its obscure Althusserian form, had to go.
The strangling seems in a manner of speaking to have brought Althusser back from the dead, even as it consigned his wife to the real thing and himself to the twilight zone of mental hospitals. He hadn't gone away; now like a zombie he haunted the groves of academe, the scandal of his act stirring some awareness of the scandal of the subjection of intellectual life to fashion. Perhaps after all he was a genius, too smart for this world; or he was a nut all along, and only the foolishness of the sixties let people who refused to accept the failures of Marxism be taken in.
Of course, the truth is more complex: Althusser was neither a genius nor just a nut. As he tells the story in his memoir, he was born in Algeria in 1918 to middle-class French parents, who returned to France as his father moved up the hierarchy in the bank he worked for. He passed the entrance examination for the École Normale, but was drafted into the army in 1939 and didn't enter the school until after the war, which he spent in a German P.O.W. camp. An active Catholic as a youth, he entered the Communist Party in 1948; around the same time he met Hélène, who was expelled from the party on dubious charges. (In The Future Lasts Forever he says he joined in the vote to expel; in a briefer memoir printed along with it he hints that he didn't.) This inevitably painful situation for the couple fitted all too easily into the tormented pattern of their relationship. Prone throughout his life to periods of severe depression, Althusser seems to have been both dependent on and cruel to a wife with serious troubles of her own. Nonetheless, he professes a lifetime of love on the way to killing her.
Meanwhile, he had become an academic star. In his 1965 volumes For Marx and Reading Capital, Althusser argued that Marxist philosophers should not elaborate a general worldview but provide a foundation for a science of history. For young Communists, this brought welcome relief from the French party's promotion of "proletarian science," long including Lysenkoist biology. While thus aiding de-Stalinization, Althusser's analysis aimed at modernizing Marxism-Leninism, reframing it in structuralist terms and borrowing the fashionable concept of the "epistemological break" from the philosophy of science to emphasize the discontinuities between Marxism and earlier theory (to relate this to American developments: Althusser spoke of "problematics" where Thomas Kuhn invoked "paradigms"). His opposition to "humanism" not only preserved the traditional insistence that Marxism is a science but established connections with the critique of human subjecthood being worked out in different frameworks by Foucault and others.
Althusser claims in The Future Lasts Forever that at the time he published those two books he "knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx." Whether he is bragging or confessing, it is true that in his writings insights lie side by side with striking errors, and his contribution to the understanding of Marx's work is finally a slight one. Nevertheless, his work was taken up by students, especially those attracted to Maoism by the myth of the Cultural Revolution. Disciplined by the party in 1966 for doctrinal independence, Althusser turned to a more conventional conception of Marxist-Leninist philosophy as "class struggle in theory." He also accepted the party's line in May-June 1968, when, as he says in his memoir, "out of fear of the masses and fear of losing control (reflecting its permanent obsession with the primacy of organization over popular movements), the Party did all it could to break the popular movement." He quit the organization only after he killed Hélène, because he "did not want to burden the Party with a dangerous 'murderer.'" Aside from the idea of reforming it from within—a conception he rightly describes as "megalomaniac"—he justifies his remaining in the party for so long with the curious argument that "as an active member it was possible to get an extremely clear idea of the Party's practices and of the obvious contradictions between those practices and its … principles." Whatever his reasoning, the decision to knuckle under, together with his absence from Paris while the young were in the streets (he spent the time in a mental hospital), certainly accelerated the decline of his stock among French students.
Politics and philosophy are not the center of The Future Lasts Forever. The book is primarily Althusser's attempt to make some sense of the murder of his wife, "to assume responsibility for what I was doing" when he found himself (as he reports things) with his fingers on his dead wife's neck. Judged unfit to plead, he could neither accept nor defend himself against the accusation of murder; he was confined for three years as an insane person, a status that indeed, as Althusser says, "raises a number of legal, penal, medical, analytical, institutional, and ultimately ideological and social questions." These questions are not explored; they are overwhelmed by Althusser's anguish over the mess he made of his life, not to mention his wife's, and the inadequacy of the conceptual and institutional means available to him to deal with it.
Unfortunately, the book must be judged a failure as an effort at self-understanding. It is quite clear that despite all his thirty years of psychoanalysis, Althusser had only the most formulaic grasp of his problems; his case might well do for Parisian analysis what Woody Allen's did for New York. Though there's no reason here to think that any of his analysts noticed it, the information he provides is highly suggestive of serious childhood trauma in the area of sexuality. An early memoir finds him sitting on his mother's knee as she awaits her husband's return; her "half-exposed breasts disgusted me and made me feel ashamed." As a psychologist specializing in child abuse observed to me, such a negative reaction on an infant's part seems a response to misplaced sexual behavior on his mother's part. This tallies with later experiences of her as "brutally intrusive" in sexual matters. For instance, when she congratulated him for his first wet dreams, she "had invaded my privacy, the most intimate part of my naked body … just as if she had looked into my pants or grabbed hold of my penis to show it off." One hesitates to make too much of a narrative that is often incoherent, studded with evident fantasy and marked by neo-Freudian clichés, but such thoughts are consistent with Althusser's lifelong sexual phobia toward women. The most striking example of this is the "profound state of anguish" and "violent and deep-seated feeling of repulsion" provoked in him by his first sexual experience, initiated by the ill-fated Hélène. While he comforts himself after the murder with the thought, suggested (he says) by a doctor friend, that he had fulfilled his own death wish "while at the same time doing her the immense service of killing her," it seems more plausible to find the roots of Althusser's act in the fear and repulsion he had experienced all his life with women, and with his wife to an apparently unbearable degree.
The Future Lasts Forever is the memoir of a frustrated, miserable man, whose craving for influence in the world was matched (he says) by a conviction of worthlessness. I never admired his work, and his life indeed makes a terrible tale, and yet I found myself moved by the pathos of his will to understand that tale. That he failed at this too makes the story all the sadder.
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SOURCE: "Althusser's Madness: Theory or Practice?" in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 514-17.
[In the following review, Kurzweil discusses Althusser's focus on his personal past as opposed to his philosophy in his The Future Lasts Forever.]
From this lucid and gripping memoir the average American reader would not realize that Louis Althusser, "the world-renowned French philosopher" who murdered his wife on November 16, 1980, was the preeminent theoretician of the Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s, or that he incited the French student revolts of 1968. Nor would anyone familiar with his distinctive and heavy theoretical prose have thought him capable of producing such a lyrical and allusive account of his lonely life. His allusions begin with the title, L'avenir dure longtemps, correctly translated as lasting "a long time" rather than "forever." Is he referring to his future without Hélène Rytman, the life-long companion he had killed, or to the ideal future he foresaw and that took so long in arriving—the dream of freedom in the communist world he had dedicated his life to bring about? (The book consists of the autobiography featured in the title  and another one, The Facts , both written before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.) Or has the fact that being declared insane saved him from the murder trial which might well have become a take-off on a Stalinist-type show trial and would at least have touched on the irreparable flaws in his theoretical enterprise? If ever we will get any answers to these questions, Althusser's memoirs do not provide them.
The casual reader will keep wondering whether Althusser was mad when he kept massaging his wife's neck until she stopped breathing, or whether the fact that his fingers left no mark on her is an indication that he had planned her death. But the reader familiar with Michel Foucault's publication of another memoir, I, Pierre Rivière, having killed my mother, my sister and my brother …, will wonder whether Althusser purposely emulated Rivière who, in confinement in 1831, wrote the tale of the murders he committed. (Rivière had confessed, but the jurors at his trial could not decide whether he had been mad or had committed a crime.) Althusser's doctors and intimates rushed him into a mental clinic even before the police arrived. Did he get such special treatment because he had been one of the foremost guides of France's left intelligentsia, or because some of its luminaries at the time of the murder had leading positions in government?
In any event, we now learn that Althusser had been in and out of mental institutions all his life—at least fifteen times, he states at one point—but maybe much more often if we were to add up the separate instances he recalls throughout the book. This fact in itself is not shocking. But it makes us wonder why his friends, and these included communists and fellow-travellers, insisted on keeping their theoretician's state of mind such a closely guarded state secret. (Because Althusser is so brutally honest he ought to be diagnosed as sane. And yet, when he tells us that this "succession of memories by association [includes] hallucinations … [as] facts," we have our doubts.)
In the first sentence to the introduction, his former fellow student and neighbor at the Ecole Normale, Douglas Johnson, calls Althusser "one of the most original and controversial of French intellectuals: with Antonio Gramsci he was the most influential of Western thinkers on Marxism." Although this statement is superficially correct, it leaves out that Althusser pitted himself against reformist, humanist and existential Marxists, social democrats and socialists, and that, with the help of a "structuralist" rereading, he promised to discover the "scientific" Marx by focusing on Marx's later works alone. Raymond Aron ranked him as the "second-best" imaginary Marxist, immediately after Sartre. Obviously, "Althusser usually aroused strong feelings," and more so after the killing. However, contrary to Althusser's and Johnson's assumption that the newspapers kept commenting on the killing because it provided food for scandal-mongering, they were inquiring why he seemed to be getting away with murder thanks to powerful friends and his position at the Ecole Normale. Although his general influence had declined, he retained enough of an international coterie which still believed that his allegedly subjectless "theoretical practice" might engender a new universal consciousness.
In 1968, the most radical students had followed Althusser's thought in initiating a revolutionary movement and, soon thereafter, had faced his silence rather than his support. Johnson calls that "the mistake of history," because Althusser "believed that the student movement [that] touched off the general strike should not cause one to imagine that … [it] was more important than the workers movement." He goes on to discuss this point in line with the position then taken by Hélène, and by the officials of the Communist Party—without ever differentiating between history as event and history as the making of the coming revolution, or referring to anything more than "difficulties in the theory." Still, Douglas is insightful when he locates the key to Althusser's impersonal philosophy in the conflicts he had within the Communist Party and those due to the emotional remnants of his early Catholicism.
Althusser begins the memoir by stating that the precise memory of that unforgettable November morning is forever engraved in his mind. It is a sort of plaidoyer, as well as explanation, wish for expiation, and psychoanalytic inquiry into his tortured psyche. His insights into his love and life with Hélène are replete with self-accusations, with reproaches to friends who saw her only as a difficult and abrasive person, as the older woman who induced him to join the Communist Party, who kept dominating him. He asserts throughout that this is far from true, that his victim loved him, helped him and made him emotionally whole, although he recounts the many difficulties in their relationship which could have led those who knew them as a couple to come away with the impression that she was a shrew. When they met, in 1946, they "were two extremely lonely people, both in the depths of despair … [and] kindred spirits, sharing the same sense of anguish, of suffering, of loneliness, and the same desperate longing." They also were poor. Althusser recounts that he was extremely unfaithful, that he flaunted his infidelities, made advances in front of Hélène, and often invited his mistresses to meet her. Yet even though they had many fights over these matters, she always forgave him. A few paragraphs later, he recalls, lovingly, their courtship: "How cheerful and proud I was listening to the sound of my footsteps echoing down the deserted rue Saint-Jacques [after visiting her]…. I would not have changed my supreme good fortune, my treasure, my love, my joy, for anything in the world." One is left to wonder about these mood swings and about whether his friends felt they had to protect him from such swings or from Hélène who, he states, "was infinitely superior to me and did me a favour by introducing me to a world (of communism) I did not know." But he had "phases of violent arguments with his analyst as well, especially around 1976–77," the period that coincides with his writing of The Facts and of his Essays in Self-Criticism; when he apparently revolted against Party discipline.
Althusser does not introduce philosophy, politics and his position within the Party until page 160 of the book. And then he does so parenthetically, with much emphasis on his student experiences with Bachelard, Desanti, Merleau-Ponty and many other luminaries among the French intellectual elite at the Ecole Normale. In this "'womblike' place, [he] felt warm and at home and was protected from the outside world." His doctor and psychiatrist were nearby, and so were such students as Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, Régis Debray, Robert Linhart and Dominique Lecourt—all names we are familiar with from the neo-Althusserian works they wrote. He mentions having been influenced by Georges Canguilhem, having appointed Jacques Derrida. Friend and foe alike crossed his path, leading us to marvel at how internal are the French jokes, intellectual deliberations and rhetoric which years later, outside Paris and shorn of their native idiom, were turned into the theories that have animated much of American academic life.
In the course of this self-analysis Althusser repeatedly states that he does not want to address the contradictions and overdetermination within his theories because he did so in his books. Instead, he "seek[s] to elucidate if possible the deep-seated, personal motives, both conscious and especially unconscious, which underpinned this whole undertaking." He has succeeded in this task. But that does not mean that, finally, we know whether he was sane or insane at the time of the murder. We do know, however, that he was a better autobiographer than philosopher, whether or not we believe that he wrote about Marx's economics without having read Das Kapital: although he was "not sure whether humanity will ever experience communism"—that is, "the absence of relationships based on the market, on class exploitation and the domination of the state"—he clung to Marx's dictum that "history is more imaginative than we are." Altogether, Althusser's memoir focuses on the personal past: on his literally life-long psychoanalysis; his identification with a patriarchal grandfather; his rejection of parents who were not made for each other; the unconscious reasons for his emotional ups and downs; and the depressive states that so frequently induced him to sign himself into mental clinics. But if the year 1979–80 looked promising because he "resisted the early stages of depression," why was he suicidal enough to enter yet another clinic in June 1980?
Ultimately, one gets the eerie feeling that not only Althusser's mental state before and after the murder, but his habits as well, were on a continuum. After Hélène no longer could come to see him, other women friends took her place; and his philosopher friends continued to give him emotional support. Whether or not they will continue to pursue his "scientific Marxism," or are inventing yet another variant of it, is a moot issue. But we should note that the memoir, in its unacknowledged subjectivity, refutes Althusser's theoretical endeavor; and that nevertheless some of its components and assumptions are inherent in the current theories of so-called postmodernism which, though passé in Paris, have found their home in our universities.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8520
SOURCE: "Second Reads: Althusser Reading Marx Reading Hegel (After 1989)," in Boundary 2, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 211-33.
[In the following essay, Block analyzes the relationships between the works of Althusser, Marx, and Hegel.]
The English translation of Louis Althusser's Le future dure longtemps presents a curiosity. Longtemps, for the most part, has been rendered as forever, as if, after 1989, the promise of Althusserian Marxism had been displaced into an irretrievable or unrealizable future. One need only refer to the many recent dismissive reviews of the book to note how such judgments extend to Althusser's thought in general. Martin Bright, for example, writes that "in the present political atmosphere it is hard to imagine the excitement that was once generated by books with titles such as For Marx and Reading Capital." George Steiner remarks that "it is likely that Althusser's writings on Hegel and Marx are already fading into cold dust." Similarly, Paul Mattick, Jr., notes that "Marxism-Leninism, even in its obscure Althusserian form, had to go." And Tony Judt summarizes these sentiments most succinctly when he describes Althusser's work as "abstruse apologetics for Communism."
In light of these reviews, it is perhaps time to revisit Althusser's instructions for reading Capital in the opening pages of Reading Capital, and to consider just what it is about the future that lasts a long time, or, as Althusser might remark, why the last instance never comes. A key to that riddle, with unexpected consequences for Marxism after 1989, is, I will argue, in the instructions themselves: "to read the text itself … line by line" and "to return ten times to the first chapters." As we will see, what Althusser insists upon is a reading that goes beyond exegesis to the "symptomatic" discourse hidden in the text's lacunae. For Althusser, the revolutionary break Marx made "to settle accounts with [his] erstwhile philosophical consciousness" remained incomplete, and it is left now to readers of Capital to construct the "Theory" of his theoretical practice. This emphasis on a practice of reading that does not merely collate materials and juxtapose them against a master text is, in fact, consistent with Marx's own call to resist mere interpretation and seek, instead, to change the world to which interpretation otherwise refers. In other words, the practice of reading, "its particular labor," in which that practice breaks away from an original text, assigns, for Althusser, this labor of reading a critical role, whereby reading's own relation (or nonrelation) to its text serves as a model for moving beyond sheer interpretive practices to "practical-critical" activities destined to alter the world.
Although numerous studies have been devoted to Althusser's thought, none, to date, has attended the central function that reading, as a productive practice, assumes in both For Marx and Reading Capital. More than providing a scientific basis, akin to a psychoanalytic one, for assessing critically the rather unscientific data that serve as a premise for materialist thought, the notion of reading practice resituates or locates those material markers within the theoretical or philosophical enterprise itself; it no longer divorces the theoretical project from considerations of its own materiality. Stated more broadly, the emphasis on reading as practicalcritical activity responds to the two most persistent challenges leveled against Althusserian Marxism: its apparent privileging of theory as an autonomous practice and the inability to account for traces of Hegel in Marx long after the 1844 Manuscripts.
The first of these objections was most convincingly argued by E. P. Thompson in "The Poverty of Theory." For Thompson, Althusserian Marxism is symptomatic of a "conceptual lethargy" that is "now bringing down upon our heads its necessary revenge." The role theory plays in Althusser is, according to Thompson, a product of a false mode of empiricism that fails to consider that one dialogue "out of which our knowledge is formed" is that between "the theoretical organization of evidence, on the one hand," and "the determinate character of its object, on the other." By pursuing Althusser's thought as it relates to his practice of reading, I intend to show how Althusser is, in fact, engaged in that very dialogue Thompson assures us his epistemology silences. Althusser simply locates the determinate character of the object in the text to be read. Attending to the material production inseparable from, but often suppressed in, "reading" is already underlined by Althusser in his reference to the psychoanalytic model shortly after the passage in Reading Capital cited above:
Only since Freud have we begun to suspect what listening, and hence, what speaking (and keeping silent mean [veut dire]); that this meaning [vouloir dire] of speaking and listening reveals beneath the innocence of speech and hearing the culpable depth of a second, quite different discourse, the discourse of the unconscious. I dare maintain that only since Marx have we had to begin to suspect what, in theory at least, reading and hence writing means [veut dire].
What Althusser emphasizes by invoking the psychoanalytic model so early in his argument is the requirement of enacting reading, of regarding it as a writing of its own text. Just as the psychoanalytic reading promises a break from the misprision of an original text, so too, does Marx's reading of history signal a break from the mystifications of bourgeois ideologies. Although the full importance of productive reading will become clear only once Althusser's entire reading of Marx has been reconstructed, the conditions he enunciates for that reading in no way conflict with what Marx presents in the postface to the second edition of Capital:
Of course the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyze its different forms of development and to track down their inner connection. Only after this work has been done can the real movement be appropriately presented. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is now reflected back in the ideas, then it may appear as if we have before us a priori construction.
More than merely reemphasizing the need to avoid a mimetic rendering of history, this passage underscores the importance not just of receiving the object but also of constructing it so as to provoke change. Therein lies the basis for disputing what Thompson presumes is Althusser's "conceptual lethargy."
The consequence of the second challenge leveled against Althusser, namely his inability to account for residues of Hegelian thought so evident, for example, in the opening chapter of Capital, seems to consign Althusserian Marxism to a pre-Hegelian mode of idealist thinking about the thingin-itself. Althusser's reading, to be sure, names, but ultimately fails to provide definitive knowledge about, the determinate instance, or "thing," in its system. This does not imply, however, an eternization of a capitalist mode of production. The unnamed "thing-in-itself" does not exist apart from the material transformations of Althusser's reading, nor does it structure forever the same appearances or manifestations. Moreover, upon investigation into the origins (if one can ever speak of origins in an Althusserian context) of a Marxist science of history and its break with the philosophical consciousness of the past, one comes to recognize that Marx, rather than abandoning Hegel, came to embrace him precisely in the manner Althusser insists one read Capital. In other words, Reading Capital might be another name for Reading Hegel.
For Althusser, Marx is essentially two Marxes; the one before 1845, and the radically different author of Capital and founder of the science of history. The latter is not to be understood as the product of a progressive development. Marx's revolution consists in a radical break from his youth, a change from ideology to science. The science Marx founded represents a radical discontinuity and rupture with previous systems of knowledge, "a massive leap and dislocation." What this leap constitutes is Marx's rejection of Hegel and Feuerbach, an abandonment of all attempts to explain history in terms of human history or an originary subject. What rises in its stead is an investigation into, and construction of, social formations and the mode of production. With this rupture from the past emerges "the reign of a new logic, which far from being a mere development, the truth or the inversion of the old one, literally takes its place." It is a complete departure from the "whole pattern and frame of reference" of the prescientific mode characteristic of the writings before 1845.
Why Althusser insists that the construction of this new science can be nothing other than a radical break from Marx's philosophical heritage is inextricably related to what, for him, is ideology. As pre-knowledge from which the new science severs itself, ideology masks the true character of the social formations that structure human existence. Ideology is the lived relation between human beings and the world, the system of "ideas or representations" that dominate society and serve to "reinforce or reproduce the existing set of social relations." As a system of mass representations, ideology is indispensable to any society if human subjects "are to be formed, transformed, and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of existence." In other words, unlike more traditional Marxisms that ascribe ideology only to class domination in capitalist society, ideology is, for Althusser, the necessary means by which individuals in all societies adapt to their social roles. Unlike science, which makes a revolutionary break from the prevailing ideology to render knowledge of how to change it, ideology privileges the "practico-social function" and relinquishes any concern with the "theoretical function (function as knowledge)." What this means is that Marxist science, to break from its own "practico-social" ideological interests, must establish and preserve a clear distinction between the object of knowledge and the real object. That is, if Marxist science merely abstracts from reality and posits these abstractions as truth, they become mere theoretical sublimations of ideology, unable to overcome or elude ideology's practical aims. For Marx, whose ideological heritage is German idealism, the practico-social interest is to root social formations and their history in man, to believe in the "omnipotence of man's liberty or of creative labor," which does nothing more than serve, in the final analysis, the interest of the ruling class. This, in fact, is the precise function the philosophies of Hegel and Feuerbach serve, albeit in different, but mutually reinforcing, ways. Both use the dialectic to mystify the social basis of capitalist production and to assert the primacy of human agency. Toward the practico-social ends of ideology, the two seek to render "transparent the opacity of social relations by relying on the phenomenal forms of those relations (whose form renders invisible the truth behind them)" and then by "relating those phenomenal forms to the subject, whether the terms be self-consciousness, man, or the concept of sensation." Existence is explained in terms of the appearance of existence, which, in turn, is explained in terms of the subject's alienated essence.
To trace Marx's break with the "mystical form" of the Hegelian dialectic, it is necessary to reconstruct that break according to two distinct moments. The mention of moments, however, should not seek to replace discontinuity with its opposite. Moreover, the first moment of the coming to terms with Hegel in the 1844 Manuscripts presents a Marx still beholden to Feuerbach. It is only the failure of the manuscripts, the insoluble contradiction they run up against, that allows Marx to settle all accounts of his "erstwhile philosophical consciousness."
In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx undertakes a critique of Hegel from the perspective of Feuerbach, seeking to employ the Hegelian dialectic in terms of "man" and the alienation of "his" labor. And it is this critique of Hegel that explains, at the same time, the failure of this marriage. By confusing thought and being, by assuming that the object of thought is, in effect, the real object, Hegel fails to see the real qualitative transformations of real existence (das Bestehende). Material life is merely a ruse of reason, whose otherness, as a negation of the self, is eventually negated as other and recognized as self. "It is the alienation of self-consciousness [that] establishes thingness." All this negation of the negation affirms, however, is the alienated essence of man. Religion and the state, for example, are affirmed as the alienated essence of the subject, in that the self recognizes itself in this other. "When, for example, Hegel conceives wealth, the power of the state, etc., as entities estranged from the being of man, he conceives them only in their thought form…. They are entities of thought…. The entire history of alienation is therefore nothing more than the history of the production of abstract, i.e., absolute, thought, of logical, speculative thought." In other words, Hegel's crime is one of abstraction, which allows the essence of the self to experience and affirm itself in a state of alienation, as abstraction. He mistakes the object of thought for the real object.
This critique of Hegel, from within Feuerbach, however, is not without its own problems. In affirming the real, or material, basis of existence, Marx, according to Althusser, comes to recognize the failure of his own position. His attempt to adopt Feuerbach's anthropological model and explain all of political economy in terms of the alienation of human labor comes against very real and material obstacles. In the Hegelian model, each moment of consciousness "lives and expresses its own essence through all the echoes of the essence it has previously been…. Because the past is never more than the internal essence of the future it encloses, the presence of the past is the present to consciousness of consciousness itself, and no true external determination." External determination, however, is precisely what frustrates Marx's attempts to employ Hegel in terms of Feuerbach. The social formations so work on and transform "alienated labor" that it becomes unthinkable that it could ever be returned to man. Any negation of this supposedly first negation of man's essence (or external determination) might return to or affirm something in that social formation of his alienated essence, but much more would remain unsublated to structure existence according to principles that do not reduce to man's essence. The underlying Hegelian model, even if we begin with "man," and not his abstract essence, is a simple contradiction. Hegel reduces "all the elements that make up the concrete life of a historical epoch (economic, social, political, and legal institutions, customs, ethics, art, religion, war, battles, defeats, and so on) to one principle of internal unity." But this is only possible "on the absolute condition of taking the whole concrete life of a people for the externalization-alienation (Entäusserung/Entfremdung) of an internal spiritual principle, which can never be anything but the most abstract form of that epoch's consciousness of itself"—that is to say, of its ideology. Whether that one principle of internal unity is the idea—as it is with Hegel—or "man" himself, the results are equally unsatisfactory. Historical materialism does not lend itself to such ideological descriptions premised on an internal unifying principle standing in simple contradiction to itself. When one takes up the materialist perspective, real constitutive conditions create equally constitutive transformations that render notions of a simple or dialectically "solved" contradiction a mere ruse of ideology.
This, Althusser insists, was precisely the problem Marx faced as he tried to complete the 1844 Manuscripts, using the concept of alienated labor as his starting point. To do so, Marx himself was forced to employ a "phenomenological" approach, accepting political economy "precisely as it present[ed] itself without questioning the content of its concepts or their systematicity." What he was forced to suppress was the non-sublatable contradiction between the impoverishment of the working class and the simultaneous enrichment of the capitalist class. The unresolved question became how, and where, could one locate man as the essence of these two class formations. Only an investigation of the many distinct concrete practices that mutually determine one another could explain it. The notion of a simple contradiction between subject and object, "man" and his alienated labor no longer held the explanatory power to account for the differences between classes. As a result, Marx would be forced to consider, as he states in the sixth thesis on Feuerbach, the "ensemble of social relations." The failure of the 1844 Manuscripts pointed to a need by Marx to abandon "man" as the center of his system and to seek a "new rigorous method of investigation, another method than that of a simple prospective or retrospective assimilation." Althusser's attribution of the failure of the manuscripts to their theoretical untenability thereby excludes the possibility of tying that failure and the ensuing shift in Marx's thought to the real failure of the revolution of 1848.
Another way to understand the problem implicit to the 1844 Manuscripts is to rethink, for example, Hegel's section on "Sense-certainty" in the Phenomenology. The "this" or "here," which leaves behind its immediate referent to move toward perception, cannot, nonetheless, erase the markers of that material immediacy, much less the very real transformation they undergo in exclusion of Hegel's emerging concept. Hegel's model may account for the internal movement of the concept, but it can neither bring to a halt nor explain the changes, formations, and relations occurring outside, or external, to it. Likewise, Feuerbach points out the fact of religious self-alienation, "of the duplication of the religious world and secular one," but he fails to pose, much less to address, the question as to why. He fails to recognize that all social life is essentially practice, a complex of material practices and activities of transformation. He is no better than Hegel in that he attempts to explain, or interpret, what is in terms of an abstract concept of man. He does not recognize "that the abstract individual which he analyzes belongs to a form of society, civil society," which, through ideology, gives the impression that the individual relates immediately to his/her social, or material, world. For example, he concedes sensuousness only in the form of an object, as an intuition without practice. He sees religion as the alienated essence of man but does not examine its social formation. As Althusser writes, even the concept of fruit is not the production of an operation of abstraction performed by a subject, but "the product of distinct concrete practices—dietary, agricultural, or even magical and religious and ideological practices—in its origins."
What the failure of the 1844 Manuscripts ultimately points to is the radical break toward a new science Marx outlines in the "Theses on Feuerbach" and delivers in Capital. He abandons the Hegelian and Feuerbachian model of abstraction and "inverts the dialectic" to "discover the rational kernel in its mystical shell. Once that shell is removed, the dialectic no longer is an internal unifying principle impervious to external factors and social and material transformations. The basic structures of the Hegelian dialectic, such as "negation, the negation of the negation, the identity of opposites, the supersession and the transformation of quantity into quality, [and] contradiction," are either abandoned or radically transformed. Instead of employing "alienated labor" as the key and unifying concept, Marx develops a new vocabulary to explore the mode of production and social relations. Instead of working with past ideologies that merely "register [and accept] the contradiction of the increasing pauperization of the workers and the remarkable wealth of the modern world it celebrates," Marx founds a new science that critically questions social formation and seeks to change it. Just how different that structure becomes for Marx is, according to Althusser, evident by his break from the theoretical pretensions of all humanism, from all attempts to explain society and history in terms of free human subjects, of labor, of human desire, or of moral and political action. As Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, "A society is not composed of individuals"; or, as he wrote later in Notes on Wagner's Textbook, "My analytic does not start from Man but from the economically given period of society." Simple inversion of the dialectic produced Hegel in the anthropological garb of Feuerbach; removal of its mystical shell produced a science of social relations, which no longer involved only "men," but also "things, the means of production, derived from material nature."
To understand fully the genealogy of Marx's new science of history and its radical departure from the premises of his earlier works, it is important not only to elucidate its theoretical basis but also to underline the tension and drama of class conflict that permeate the 1844 Manuscripts. Althusser's description of this conflict is critical: "They [working and capitalist classes] do not share the same world, they do not lead the same class struggle, and yet they do come into confrontation, and this certainly is a contradiction since the relation of confrontation reproduces the conditions of confrontation instead of transcending them in a beautiful Hegelian exaltation and reconciliation." The inability to suppress that conflict converts the manuscripts into a document "on the threshold,… as if, before the rupture, in order to achieve it, he [Marx] had to give philosophy every chance, its last, this absolute empire over its opposite, this boundless theoretical triumph that is, its defeat." By casting that confrontation in such dramatic terms, Althusser emphasizes the tension that leads to the rupture. Once the notion of a simple contradiction loses its ability to contain, account for, and suppress the ensemble of determinations underlying it, what follows is not a realignment or reconstruction of its terms but rather a complete separation from that framework. Without this complete break, the late Marx would have been unable to found his science; he would have remained chained to the ideological ground that, nonetheless, by dint of the pressure the 1844 Manuscripts had forced upon them, had already given way. While for Althusser, Marxist "humanism" of the sort represented by Sartre often attempted to repair the damage through a last-ditch effort to see "man" as the originary ground, Althusser reconstructs the tensions that force that ground to give way. And that, in effect, is Marx's supreme accomplishment, his revolutionary break.
The ramifications of Althusser's reading of the young Marx and his insistence on an epistemological rupture become clearer upon examination of so-called traditional Marxists and their attempt(s) to apply the notion of a simple contradiction to a materialist base. While no singular account of traditional Marxists can justify the vast differences that exist between them, the tendency is to lend primacy to the forces of production in society and the contradiction that grows out of these forces in the simultaneous production of use- and exchange-values. The relations of production, according to Simon Clark, should not be seen as separate from material production, "as an externally derived form imposed upon a pre-existent content"; rather, production is "indissolubly social and material." But the unity of these two products is not harmonious, rather contradictory. At the root of capitalist production is a contradiction between production of use-value and the simultaneous production of social relations, which forces "capital beyond the immediate process of production in order to accomplish its valorization." Social relations, therefore, are all subsumed under the rubric of relations of production or ultimately have their ground in them. While these relations appear in historically different forms, economically, ideologically, and politically they are all determinations of the relations of production, which are based on a dominant, simple contradiction implicit to production. Marxism, therefore, is concerned with the concrete historical configuration of this contradiction. In its totality, capitalist society can be seen as the expression of this fundamental contradiction at the root of its production. The example often cited is the falling rate of profit and the consequent increased exploitation of the working classes. Simply stated, competition forces profits downward, leading to lower wages, longer working hours, or new technologies to increase efficiency. Capital becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, as smaller capitalists lack the means to keep pace. Crisis necessarily ensues, as overproduction idles workers and factories, and concentration of capital impoverishes the many. This contradiction between labor and capital in the mode of production in capitalist society eventually reaches a breaking point, ushering in a new age. As Marx himself put it, "At a certain stage of their development the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into fetters. Thus begins the epoch of social revolution."
Althusser's break from this so-called traditional reading of Marx is nothing short of radical. Once he removes the mystical shell from Hegel's dialectic, what remains is no longer an organic unity whose dynamism is rooted in a contradiction introduced at the instant commencing production, rather a structured and self-compensating mechanism visible only in its overdetermined effects. Althusser relies heavily on this notion of overdetermination, a term he borrows from Freud, who used the term to show how "several simultaneous factors, each with some explanatory power, can contribute to the formation of a symptom." A dream, for example, typically has various determinant factors that render possible various, often contradictory, notions. Applied to historical materialism, overdetermination suggests that the economic is not the sole determinant; not only are the base and superstructure, forces and relations of production and social relations, mutually determining, they also have a considerable degree of autonomy. If more "traditional" Marxisms evoke the concept of a totality, whereby each part is an expression of an internal essence of that totality, Althusser's Marx argues for an "accumulation of radically heterogeneous contradictions—of different origins, different sense, different levels and points of application." Although these may "nevertheless merge into a ruptural unity, we can no longer talk of the sole unique power of the general 'contradiction.'"
In opposition to the organic explanation of the base and superstructure, Althusser therefore introduces four distinct levels of what he calls the social practice: economic, political, ideological, and theoretical. The economic "transforms nature by human labor into social products; the political transforms social relations, through revolutions, the ideological transforms men's consciousness, and theory transforms ideology into science." The mode of production is no longer the forces and relations of production, with the superstructure seen as epiphenomenal, rather it includes all levels of practice and their interaction. With each level of practice enjoying some amount of autonomy, contradiction necessarily ensues at several levels due to what Althusser calls the law of uneven development. That is, the structured whole of society consists of several levels of practice and production that stand in uneven development to each other but that mutually condition one another. What lends this uneven development a structured unity is essentially the hierarchic relationship in which they stand to one another. Society is divided into determinant, dominant, and subordinate instances, each with its own degree "of specific effectivity":
That one contradiction dominates the others presupposes that the complex in which it is featured is a structured unity, and that this structure implies the indicated domination-subordination of relations between contradictions…. Domination is not just an indifferent fact, it is a fact essential to the complexity itself. That is why complexity implies domination as one of its essentials; it is inscribed in the structure.
Althusser stresses that the whole is not a dominant contradiction, which serves as its essence with secondary contradictions as mere phenomena of that essence. On the contrary, the secondary contradictions are the conditions of the dominant one: "They constitute its condition of existence. The superstructure is not the pure phenomenon of the structure; it is also its condition of existence." In other words, each contradiction indicates in itself the structure of the complex whole, so when one speaks of the existing conditions of the whole, one speaks of its conditions of existence. If each contradiction indicates its relation to the unevenness of the whole, as well as to itself, it can no longer be said to be univocal. That is not to say it is equivocal; rather, as Smith points out, it is simply overdetermined. Since the structure in dominance exists only by virtue of these secondary or subordinate contradictions, which in turn reflect that structure, the determinate instance is missing. The mode of production, the structured whole in which these secondary contradictions are hierarchically ordered, is present only in its effects, in the ordering itself. The mode of production is an absent presence whose expression in actual production necessarily stands in overdetermined contradiction to the absence of the determinate moment to which it nonetheless refers. Each act of production is conditioned by the structure in which it occurs (without these acts of production, the structure would not exist), and, as an expression of that structure, it alters that structure by the very act of its production. It is always already a misreading or misrepresentation of the structure it seeks to prove. So, when Marx says there is "never production without society," without social relations, he is emphasizing, on the one hand, the pre-givenness of that structure. Production, in other words, is, among other things, the reproduction of the relations of production, which are always already present but are instantly altered by the facticity of the production that reproduces and reaffirms them. The "invariability" of the structure is known only by the "variability" of its effects. On the other hand, with that same statement, Marx also points to the lack of an originary ground, which, in turn, means that the ground of all contradiction is present only in its absence. That, in fact, is its contradiction, its overdetermination. It also explains the immense difficulty so many critics have had in trying to locate a precise source of the Althusserian notion of contradiction in the uneven development of the various levels of practice.
The psychoanalytical model also helps explain transition or change in Althusser's sense of a synchronic model of the mode of production. This, in fact, is, for many, the locus of the impasse of Althusser's reading of Marx, its apparent inability to account for transition from one mode of production to another. To be sure, Althusser presents an antihistorical model; history is nothing but a series of discontinuous permutations of the underlying structure. The impossibility of the "effects" ever fulfilling their debt to the absent-present to which they refer eliminates any achievable telos from the structure. There is no progression toward an end in sight, rather only an unlimited reconfiguration of capitalist relations of production, whose determinate moment by dint of its overdetermination cannot be located. As Marx writes,
The capitalist production process considered in its inner connection (Zusammenhang), or as reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but it also produces and eternalizes the social relation between the capitalist and the wage-earner.
Since the structure of these relations is not static, can never be static, Althusser adapts the psychoanalytic terms of displacement and condensation to describe the dynamic of its reconfigurations. Freud used these terms to explain the representations of thoughts in dream. Displacement was the transferral of psychic energy from one image to another, while condensation was the "compression" of a number of dream-thoughts into one image. For Althusser, displacement describes the uneven development of contradictions within and among each level of practice when the tension of contradiction is sufficiently diffused so as to be nonantagonistic. In condensation, the reverse occurs. Secondary contradictions so converge, or fuse, onto a single level that a realignment in the dominant structure ensues; the existing unity dissolves. The contradictions within the economic, political, and ideological meet in a "nodal strategic point," which, as the locus of confrontation, prompts a new hierarchy among the contradictions. While condensation fuels political change, the overdetermined condition of the complex whole remains unaltered; its self-correcting mechanism merely expresses itself in more or less volatile effects. The complex whole can never escape the condition of its overdetermination. The simple contradiction of the economic, which Marx tells us determines in the last instance, is irretrievably displaced into the future: "the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc.—are never seen to … scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the 'last instance' never comes."
The psychoanalytic model also serves to illuminate the strict theoretical antihumanism of Althusser's Marxism. For Althusser, any philosophy of the subject is an intrusion of ideology: "For the corollary of theoretical Marxist antihumanism is the recognition and knowledge of humanism itself: as an ideology." Freud himself noted in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis that man's "naïve self-love" has been progressively "humbled by advances in science," from Copernicus, to Darwin, to his own model, which ousts the ego as "master in its own house." For Althusser, this progressive de-centering of the subject makes "man" no longer the subject of history; its movements and mechanistic operations defy all attempts to spotlight man at the center of the historical stage.
The structure of the relations of production determines the places and functions occupied and adopted by the agents of production, who are never anything more than occupants of these places, insofar as they are the supports (Träger) of these functions. The true subjects … are therefore not these occupants or functionaries … but the definition and distribution of these places and functions. The true "subjects" are these definers and distributors: the relations of production (and political and ideological social relations).
The Freudian model, which assigns unconscious desires the power to undermine or erase conscious human intentionality, is clearly not far removed from Althusser's own model. In both instances, terms such as choice, intention, agency, and decision are virtually meaningless. Just as one is unable in Freud to locate a unified center, so, Althusser would agree, humans cannot locate themselves at the center of the critical or defining moments of social formation, or, for that matter, of their own lives.
In the final analysis, one might be forced to concede the limited explanatory power of the structured and complex whole Althusser presents. Just as the lonely hour of the last instance never arrives, so, too, is the moment in which the underlying structure of the social formation becomes transparent barred to us. What we observe in each instant is an effect of that structure, which, by reproducing the relations of that system, by mirroring its complex whole in the structure of its own contradiction, alters the very structure to which it refers. The need or inherent claim of the structure to seek its own reproduction may spawn an infinite number of effects or substitutions in a doomed quest to reach the last instance, but that instance will most surely never arrive. That problem has prompted many observers to charge Althusser with regressing to a pre-Hegelian mode of thought, of naming or finding a description for something that can never be known. What such critics seem to be seeking is a defining substrata of the structure, an originary or primary structure obscured only by its endless permutations. The notion of some originary form, however, ignores the consequences of Marx's restructuring of the Hegelian dialectic: once removed of its mystical shell, there is no kernel. There is no internal or ultimate ground of the referent. To assert otherwise is to convict Althusser of proposing the same organic, simple Hegelian unity he quite obviously repudiates. To be precise, the structure of overdetermination is the structure.
The more pertinent question, it seems, is how such an antihumanist, antihistorical model fulfills Marx's demand to change, and not merely to interpret, the world. Given the mechanistic displacement of man as an agent of history and the mercilessness with which structures in domination self-compensate and adjust, how is the class struggle to be overcome? Where is the vehicle for change? Not surprisingly, the riddle and its solution lie as much in the formation of the objection as they do in Althusser's presentation.
What Marxist science works on and presents is not merely a mimetic description of society; it is a particular construction of the ensemble of relations aimed at overcoming the class struggle and one that was only possible, Althusser remarks, after Marx had taken up the position of the proletariat. Capitalist ideology presents the illusion that man is center-stage, that he/she is the determinant agent. Such ideologies achieve an apparent reconciliation of the oppressed worker with the very structure responsible for his/her impoverishment. The worker imagines a univocal relation to his/her universe; conditions are an outcome of his/her actions. The very establishing of a relationship, however, is by its very nature reification, suppressing the otherness of that relation and blinding one to the (over)determinations that challenge the validity of that relation and the possibility of freeing oneself from its constrictions. So, when Steven Smith, for example, charges that the result of Althusser's reading of Marx is to "evacuate the term [mode of production] of all explanatory power, since what is used indifferently to explain everything must in the end explain nothing," he fails to recognize the perverse wisdom of his own critique. That is precisely the point—to reveal the absent ground of all relations and unground the ideological basis of capitalism. Althusser constructs a model that frees production, from the constraints of humanism, from the artificial ground of self-awareness and self-determination, from the German idealist notion of l=l—all of which are nothing but the motors of class oppression. There is no ground on which the self may look back at and see itself standing; its presence is only its absence.
Althusser's attempt to reconstruct a genealogy of Marxist scientific practice suppresses, however, a contradiction of its own—namely the one alluded to above between synchrony and diachrony. The productive moment in which science transforms an abstract ideological concept into a concrete one in thought cannot, it would seem, be very distinct or temporally dislocated from the moment of rupture itself. We know that all productive acts necessarily alter the complex whole from which they emanate, rendering them mere effects and, for scientific practice, a depiction, or representation, of a structure not quite what it was before the productive act. Moreover, once that science contextualizes itself, once it reestablishes a relationship with the structure in dominance, it is difficult to see how it can resist attaching itself and being subsumed under that structure. If Althusser denies history any continuity or progression, the same, not surprisingly, can be said of his science of history. That is, Marxist science, which quite clearly requires Althusser's reading of it, neither moves toward some teleological completion of itself nor does it subsume its results under some interpretive, eternally valid superstructure. Its status is precarious at best:
Finally … it was a question of recalling that knowledge of reality [Marxist science] changes something in reality because it adds to it precisely the fact that it is known, though everything makes it appear as if the addition canceled itself out in the result. Since knowledge of reality belongs in advance to reality,… it adds something to it only on the paradoxical condition of adding nothing to it, and once produced, reverts to it without need of sanction and disappears in it.
Scientific practice for Althusser is thus a continuous discontinuous practice. Knowledge is less a separate corpus of privileged insights adding continuously to its own truths, and more a practice dependent on, and visible only, in its break from a preexisting corpus. And while that knowledge is once again annulled or reabsorbed under the structure in dominance, it changes, in the process, what it broke from.
Althusser's charge, it seems, is to force ever anew the existing concepts, infected by the "truths" produced in the previous instance of scientific practice, to collapse under the weight of their determination, to dislodge from the ideological structure of univocal determinations. He is not offering, as Roy Edgley suggests, a map of reality to invoke as a blueprint to pinpoint the weak link in the structure in dominance. Marxist science is not a theoretical enterprise designed to render a telos or destination. That would reduce its execution to sheer interpretation—knowledge and practice subsumed under the rubric of a master script. Overdetermination, by its very definition, renders such strategies nugatory. Rather, Marxist theory is a theory of practice, an unending practice designed to defy conceptual reifications by rehearsing endlessly a break from the structure in dominance. This, in turn, is why Althusser was fond of noting Lenin's insistence on "the infinity of its object."
With that in mind it is now possible to understand the importance Althusser places on a productive reading of Capital. In its own moment of breaking with the text and thereby producing its own construction of the ensemble of social relations, that practice of reading produces a concrete in thought of such radical otherness that it defies "commodization"; no value can be assigned it. Since it severs, before its reabsorption and annulment, all conceptual relations, it can be exchanged for nothing. It has, to be sure, only use-value. And its (re)enactment not so much scripts for the proletariat the necessary moves to break from the structure of class domination as it does constitute a revolutionary break from the eternalized relations of the capitalist mode of production. Lenin was therefore entirely correct in asserting that without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolution, so long as theory is understood as practice, as a loosening of the foundation in expectation of the last instance, which may never come. Why it never arrives is not because the promise is false, rather because the "last instance" is always followed by another, one of reabsorption and annulment, by another structure in dominance. Nonetheless, the scientists of history must continue, as Althusser insists, to read Capital, to stage a productive reading of Capital and return, if necessary, to the opening passages ten times. But this reading, as his de-centering of the subject would imply, can have no author. It can refer to no center of its constellation nor seek to ground its determinations. Its meaning is its enactment, lest the reader fall prey to the ideological ruses of capitalism and project her-/himself as the agent of change:
Now we can recall that highly symptomatic term "Darstellung," compare it with this "machinery" and take it literally, as the very existence of this machinery in its effects: the mode of existence of the stage direction (mise en scene) of the theater which is simultaneously its own stage, its own scripts, its own actors, the theater whose spectators can, on occasion, be spectators only because they are first of all forced to be its actors, caught by the constraints of a script and parts whose authors they cannot be, since it is in essence an authorless theater.
In settling Marx's account with Kant, Althusser simultaneously opens another, with Hegel. Although, as I have shown, he devotes numerous passages in virtually all the major essays to explicate how the mystical shell of the Hegelian dialectic suppresses the real transformations of its material base, that critique is arguably directed at a reductivist Hegel seen through the eyes of Feuerbach. For what generates the whole movement of the Phenomenology of Spirit, it could be argued, is precisely a structure of overdetermination implicit to each stage of consciousness. The structure in dominance, or a moment of consciousness, is forced to move beyond itself, to readjust its hierarchic alignment or apprehension of its object precisely because an entire field of determinations condense or fuse in that object to force its restructuring. That is evident in the first moments of self-certainty, when the "this" or "here" breaks up into countless "thises" or "heres" and thereby forces the move to perception, which is prepared to take the "this" and "here" as universals.
Likewise, the section on "Force and Understanding" in the Phenomenology seems to point to unerased traces of Hegel in the mature Marx. Force is precisely that process in which dispersed or unrelated elements issue from a unity in which they were unexpressed or submerged only to lose themselves again in this unity. The independent, and now dispersed, elements are the manifestations of Force, while unexpressed Force is the unity out of which these manifestations emerge. The description of Force as expressing itself in appearing and then disappearing elements, as something known only in its appearance, cannot be far from the description Althusser offers of production or of productive forces. What is produced at each level of practice is an effect of the system, which bears witness to the forces and relations of production. And like the manifestations of force, these effects are nothing but the structure. Moreover, when Hegel asserts later in that same section that "the world of appearance" is the "essence of the supersensible beyond" and "its filling," he seems to anticipate Althusser's Marx, who asserts that production is only re-production and that the pre-given structure is known only in its effects. Just how close the two texts often are is apparent at the end of that section. Hegel posits a simple infinity—a unity that stands behind the infinite manifestations of apparent difference. It is infinite since it is bounded by no other thing, nothing from the outside delimits it. Difference is thus its self-diremption. Hegel goes on to assert that life is this simple infinity, which is known, of course, only in its infinite self-diremption. Life—or the production of difference that testifies to the simple infinity that is life—might therefore be as equally overdetermined for Hegel as it is for Althusser. For both a univocal schematic of determination is insufficient to explain appearance. (We must also not forget that critical to the Phenomenology is not merely transformation of the object of consciousness but also consciousness itself. The two mutually condition one another, just as in Marx's [for Althusser] ideology, the product of man's consciousness, reflects the complex whole and the complex whole reflects ideology. In both instances, uneven development might be used to describe the unequal relation between the two relata.)
This very brief sketch of Hegel's "Force and Understanding" is intended not to map out similarities between Hegel and Althusser but to establish a preliminary basis on which to validate posing the question of just how far apart the two are. Althusser's rejection of Hegel might, in fact, be better understood as a rejection of a dialectical structure that posits the beginning toward which the end aims as essential, somehow unchanged, and always awaiting self-realization. From the remarks on "Force" cited above, it seems certain that Hegel, as well, did not adhere to such a structure. The content of Force is indistinguishable from its manifestation; it is only in thought that its moments of "exteriorization" and "being driven back upon itself" are considered distinctly. Consciousness, as ideology is for Althusser, is only the result of a play of forces—no more or less essential than the forces themselves, whose play consciousness manifestly is. Might it not be more accurate to assert that what Althusser (and Marx) ultimately rejects is less Hegel and more a Lebensphilosophie, which mistakes life's essence or content as distinct from its manifestation? For Hegel, the essence is distinct only insofar as it is nothing; for Althusser, only insofar as it is absent. The heart of such an inquiry, it seems, might ultimately hinge on the role of the phenomenologist in Hegel and the scientist in Althusser. Despite Althusser's claim that Hegel is merely abstracting from the real, there is undoubtedly an element of construction or production associated with the phenomenologist who is not far removed from the role of the scientist in Althusser. Hegel's "science" of consciousness is itself not science; Bewußtsein cannot be equated with Wissen. In the third thesis on Feuerbach, Marx himself asserts the privileged consciousness or role of the educator, who, in his superior role in society, is charged with "the changing of circumstance and of human activity." Hegel, in turn, says "we," the phenomenologist, must "step into the place of [consciousness] and be the Notion which develops and fills out what is contained in the result." The phenomenologist's role, it would seem, is far greater than merely receiving and interpreting the object. That function is reserved for consciousness, or, in Althusserian terms, ideology. Moreover, as Smith points out, Althusser imports into Marx Hegel's doctrine of immanent critique. Knowledge for both provides its own criterion. As Hegel remarks, "consciousness tests and examines itself." In a virtual echo of Hegel, Althusser remarks, "Theoretical practice is indeed its own criterion and contains in itself definite protocol with which to validate the quality of its product."
To be sure, the Phenomenology and Capital are two very different texts. The question is, Wherein lies the critical difference? Without pursuing the argument I promised not to, and without repeating what has been stated above, I would suggest once again that the heart of the inquiry is in the role of the phenomenologist and the Marxist scientist; the critical difference, however, is in their reading. That is, Capital is a reading of the Phenomenology under the very conditions Althusser issues for a reading of Capital. In constructing the conditions of self-consciousness, Hegel was able to negate negation, to assert "that differences which arose were not differences," but, in fact, were "self-same." In reading the Phenomenology, Marx could not help but keep running up against the traces of those sublated differences. Whereas for Hegel, the "contents of the moment of change" remained the same, for Marx, change brought with it qualitative transformations. Sublation did not annul difference but produced difference anew.
The point, however, is better understood, as I have mentioned above, in the Althusserian context of reading. Marx read the Phenomenology Hegel wrote. With the production of the Phenomenology, the mode of production (of self-consciousness) was thereby altered. By the very fact it was read and became known, the Phenomenology, like the science of history, altered the complex whole of which it was already an effect. By the time Marx read that text, it needed to be rewritten, could not help but be rewritten. It had become a material fact reflecting the complex whole that no longer was the same by virtue of its being produced, or, for that matter, by its being read. What Marx did was simply read the Phenomenology to the letter and chart its mode of production in each of its moments. Only this time, the new author did not "phenomenologize" its production; rather, he produced a reading of phenomenology that, conscious of itself as activity or production, could not but celebrate the material transformations of that reading, its radical break from the original text. Whether Hegel was aware that the production of the concept, that self-consciousness coming to consciousness of itself as self-consciousness, would require it to continue to come to consciousness of what it has just brought to self-consciousness in each of its moments, is another matter. In any case, absolute knowledge would always be something just less than absolute. That Marx, on the other hand, took it upon himself to do just that, we know from the seemingly endless and certainly unfinished document, Capital.