Althusserians Anonymous (1)

This post has been revised, here: http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/02/aa/

I am a recovering Althusserian. For decades now I have been Althusser-free, for the most part, but we all have our lapses. The first step to becoming a recovering Althusserian is to recognize that you have no control and are unconsciously always a little bit Althusserian whether you want to be or not.

Another of the steps to recovery is to make amends to thinkers one has wronged. And so I wrote two books on Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists, and another on Alexander Bogdanov and the Machists. These were both avenues of thought cut off to Althusserians, then as now. And now I’m teaching Western Marxism – for my sins.

Althusser is however not so much a poison as what Derrida and Stiegler call a pharmakon. That is, something that is undecidable, both poison and cure. It may well be that there are good reasons, in the twenty-first century, to be an Althusserian. I am not objectively in a position to say, and in any case: by their results shall we judge them. When there is a useful Althusserian response to the Anthropocene (or whatever you want to call the current ‘conjuncture’) consider the matter settled. As of yet there is no such response, perhaps for reasons to be elucidated later.

But as someone who lived through the tail end of the Althusser-boom in the Anglophone world, and saw what it wrought, I am now in Althusserians Anonymous. I find the results mostly to have been of their time and no longer of these times. Althusser was, in short, a gateway drug back into academic specialization within pre-given disciplines, and in particular for the notion that philosophy has some legislative role over both knowledge in the disciplines and praxis more broadly conceived.

Perhaps this is to judge too harshly. In what follows I want to read some essays by the master, with an eye to what might be living and what might be dead in them as instances of the Althusserian ‘problematic.’ This post deals with the essay ‘On the Young Marx.’

‘On the Young Marx’ is instructive, as it both sets up a method of reading Marx that we can also apply reflexively to Althusser, and also provides a useful answer to one of the key problems in Marxological thought: the relation of the young to the old (or mature) Marx.

Althusser neatly characterizes the two extant approaches of his time. In one, there are elements in the young Marx that anticipate the older one, and his thought can be read as a teleology, as always having tended towards this goal, this truth. Or: one can read the young Marx as announcing a broad, ethical program which is then either narrowed or even betrayed by the more economistic and social-scientific work of his later years. The former is a typical reading for orthodox communists of the time; the latter the characteristic program of Western Marxism and even of the New Left more broadly. Hence as Althusser wryly notes, such discussions are always political discussions.

Both these readings tend to focus on elements of the text, finding for example characteristically Hegelian or Feuerbachian elements in the young Marx, or themes submerged in the young Marx later brought out more fully in the latter. Althusser wants to dispense with ‘Hegelian’, or rather bog-Hegelian readings in particular, such as the proposition that the materialist core of Marx was present in the early works but in a still idealist form.

In a canny aside about the state in particular of orthodox communist discourse, Althusser says that “this method which is constantly judging cannot make the slightest judgment of any totality unlike itself.”

In place of this, another method: Ideologies have to be considered whole, as having an underlying problematic. Any particular ideology has to be thought in the ideological field in which it partakes. That field has to be understood as having determinants outside itself, in specific historical situations.

Althusser wants to claim that this is the beginning of a scientific method for treating the ideological, rather than for merely extending ideology. This is more asserted than demonstrated, however. At least for those inclined to the formal methods of literary analysis, this is however progress. Reading is to have its method.

The young Marx, Althusser candidly says, writes ideology. He writes it well, but it is just an extension or permutation of the ideological field of his time. Even devout Marxocologicalists should not be embarrassed by this. Althusser: “Early Works are as inevitable and as impossible as the singular object displayed by Jarry: the skull of the child Voltaire.”

One advantage of Althusser’s reference of young Marx to the ideological field is that is rules out another method, more common in our time: the Great Books of the Apostolic Succession. One reads Hegel, one then reads Feuerbach (extra-credit only, he is not quite canonic), then one reads Marx. But as Althusser rightly insists, the Hegel that Marx read was “not the library Hegel we can meditate on in the solitude of 1960,” – or 2014. The Hegel of Marx was the Hegel of the neo-Hegelian social movement.

In short, Marx came into a very particular ideological field, and his thought as a young writer was within a problematic determined by that field, particularly that of the left Hegelians, and even more particularly that of Feuerbach. A problematic, for Althusser is a kind of structural system through which other material can be processed. Hence Marx applied the Feuerbachian problematic to religion, as Feuerbach did, but also to political and economic ideologies, as he did not.

Interestingly, problematic is a way not to think the Hegelian totality for Althusser. It is a systematic structure with rules of composition, not a unity whose essence is expressed in all its particulars. A problematic, moreover is something that thinks through you, rather than being what you think. It is in a sense unconscious. It calls for special methods for determining how the problematic is at work in the text. Note how the path is open already for a kind of specialized labor of textual exegesis here. Althusser: “a problematic cannot generally be read like n open book, it must be dragged from the depths.” Henceforth truth claims about texts can come to rest on possession of a special method for revealing it.

So Marx unconsciously plays out certain permutations of a problematic. It’s a theory which neatly inverts Sartre’s notion of a writer’s necessary freedom to commit to a project. This presents then a special problem for accounting for how Marx broke with the ideological field of his time.

In backward Germany in Marx’s time, intellectuals put a special effort into thinking what was to be done but could not happen. They looked to the political revolutions of France and the industrial revolutions of England. Unable to actually produce either revolution – they theorized them. Most fully, in Althusser’s account, not so much in Hegel but the Hegelianism of the 1830s and 1840s.

Cunningly, Althusser says that Marx retreated from this ideological field, rather than overcoming or surmounting it. He went back to the texts of the political economists and political theorists who Hegel had claimed to synthesize into his own philosophy.

This is coupled with two discoveries that are extra-philosophical. This could be stressed even more than it is here in Althusser. It was Marx’s experience of political radicalism in Paris, and Engels’ first-hand ethnography of Manchester capitalism, that were the key to moving forward after this retreat from Hegel. Althusser: “In France, Marx discovered the organized working class; in England, Engels discovered developed capitalism and a class struggle obeying its own laws and ignoring philosophy and philosophers.”

The failure of German liberalism pushed Marx out of Germany. The bourgeois backers of his radical journalism for the most part melted away. And with that failure came the escape from the ideological field to which they belonged. Marx’s training in German idealism was not wasted, however. It provided the ability to think abstractly, which was only awaiting actual concrete things in the world that really needed to be thought.

What if this method were applied in turn to Althusser? What was the ideological field to which his work belonged? What was its underlying problematic? What historical situation gave rise to it? And closer to our own concerns, what historical situation led to the uptake of Althusser in the Anglophone world in the 1970s and 80s?

To tackle the last first: the defeat of the New Left in the 70s led, among other things to a kind of embedding in the cultural and educational apparatus of those who had dreamed of larger things. This was perhaps not unlike the situation of the left-Hegelians in Germany in the 1840s. And perhaps with not so different results. That which could no longer be enacted – this was just after the era of the Chinese, Cuban and Algerian revolutions, still the time of the Vietnam war, and of the rise and fall of New Left activism in the west – was to be thought as a theoretical revolution instead.

If Sartre had appealed to a more committed, activist time in the Anglophone countries, Althusser appealed to one of quietism, at least as far as he was read in the Anglophone world in the 70s and 80s. (The Althusserians of 1960s France were a different story). What was to be taken up was something already apparent in this brief essay on young Marx: specialized method. Althusser legitimated the scientific study of the ideological field, search for the unconscious problematic.

This had certain benefits, of course. It meant an insistence on certain standards and methods for accounting for how the ideological field is structured. It also implies a certain ‘relative autonomy’ and consistency of the ideological level. It led in practice, however, to a deepening of an academic division of labor, via which Marxist thought could accommodate itself to the disciplines, and the economic, political and ideological could be studied as separate objects, each in their own field, in increasingly diminishing contact with each other.

But what happened to the extra-philosophical turn which on Althusser’s account was so crucial to the break that led to his mature thought? What might be the analog of that today? Is it not the case that Althusser participates in a kind of production of Marxist discourse by means of Marxist discourse? Has it not become a genre or subset of academic discourse, indistinguishable from it in protocols and forms of mediation? This was what drove me to seek the help of Althusserians Anonymous…

But that is another story, to be taken up in Althusserians Anonymous, part 2.









McKenzie Wark

  • Michael Rectenwald

    Thank you for the succinct and spanking review of the Althusserian problematic and the impulse to apply it to Althusser himself. Looking forward to part 2.

    • mckenziewark

      Part 2 is up!

  • Sean_68

    Very interesting. I wonder if your application of the concept ‘unconscious’ is softening us up for Althusser’s later smiting of Lacan? I look foward to part 2

    • mckenziewark

      Not going to go there. Curiously, ‘unconscious’ appears in these texts before his public engagement with Lacan, from what i can tell.

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