Guide Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War

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Acknowledgments ix Introduction. Why Read Althusser Today? Structure 1. Subject 6. Marxism and Humanism 7.

Althusser: and His Contemporaries

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Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy's Perpetual War

Free Will. Mein Kampf. Historical materialism does not commence with an original abstract picture of man, or with a conception of human essence, as do theories of the social contract. Social relations, economic relations of exchange of wealth, of capital cannot be reduced to relations merely between subjects, since they involve relationships with many different kinds of thing in nature, technology, society, etc.

The idealist philosopher […] knows in advance both where the train he is climbing onto is coming from and where it is going: what is its station of departure and its station of destination. The materialist […] takes the train in motion […] He climbs onto a train of chance, of encounter, and discovers in it the factual installations of the coach and of whatever companions he is factually surrounded with. Like the experimental traveler described here, the contemporary materialist philosopher must endeavor to think practically and in the absence of conditions, begin with nothing and trust in no transcendent truth.

She must be ceaselessly inventive to give shape and form to the contingent, the unexpected, and the historically new. Her research and publications have focused on the question of subjectivity, as well as the politics and philosophy of Althusser and Spinoza.

By Louis Althusser. Rain in the Gallery.

ISBN 10: 0822353865

By Dariush M. Marxist Underground. By Richard Seymour. The Ideology of Localism. The relations between ideas are relations of force that make it so that some ideas are in power, while others remain subordinated to them. In part, Althusser showed that to neutralize or at least diminish the hold of the ideas that are in power required an operation whose success would be measured not by the validity of ones arguments alone which, after all, may fall on deaf ears or hardened hearts but by a demonstrable change in what is actually said and thought, by a breeching and a freeing up that permits something new to emerge.

But here Althussers meditations on theoretical practice take a surprising turn: What does it mean concretely to engage with other philosophies on a field of conflict? Let us begin with the phrase other philosophies. Althusser did not regard the history of philosophy as a succession of closed systems, each of which could be identified with an author who would serve as its center and principle of unity, of which Marxism or materialism would be one among others, relating to them, addressing them, criticizing them from the outside in a philosophical version of siege warfare or a war of position.

If we can speak of philosophical adversaries, the adversary is not a united body: the philosophical battlefield is thus not the reproduction of the simple rationalist opposition of truth and error in the form of opposing systems. There is not on the one side the homogeneous camp of the good, and on the other the camp of the bad.

If this were true, then the most effective defenses of Marxism might require a detour outside of it, to apparently forMarxist philosophies whose concepts might eign and even apparently anti- play an indispensable role in neutralizing these attacks or even in making Marxs thought intelligible. In this sense, the distinction between Marxist and non- Marxist or idealist and materialist systems of thought is thus rendered null and void. The perpetual war of tendencies rages within as well as between these systems.

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It was precisely with respect to Hegel, otherwise thought to be the main enemy from Althussers perspective, that he argued that to read en Introduction5. If all this sounds excessively Marxist, the attribute that would be precisely conferred upon Althusser, as distinct from most of his contemporaries, and the archaic status that would render him irrelevant to the present, let us recall that in Derrida, undoubtedly influenced by his friend and colleague, would describe his own philosophical activity in remarkably similar terms.

A grammatology, a science of the letter, of writing in its material existence, could only begin to undo or more old domination of the philosophy of the precisely, to deconstruct the age- logos and of ontotheology by first thinking through the struggle it was compelled to wage: The movements of deconstruction do not address [or perhaps shakeDerrida uses the verb solliciter] structures from the outside.

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They are only possible and effective, they only aim their blows by inhabiting these structures. By inhabiting them in a certain way, for one inhabits always and especially when one does not suspect it.

Stefano Pippa: Althusser’s Perpetual War / Radical Philosophy

Operating necessarily from the interior, borrowing from the former structure all the strategic and economic resources of subversion, borrowing them structurally, that is, without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of deconstruction is always in a certain way led astray by its own labor. In this sense, one must operate necessarily from the interior, and the manner in which one inhabits this interior determines whether one can undermine and destabilize the conceptual order.

To imagine the possibility of simply stepping outside or, as Althusser put it, of finding an empty corner of the forest, is to be condemned to repeat the very discourse with which one would break. Thus for Althusser, it was not a matter of choice: to realize his philosophical positions was to occupy a place in the already full world of philosophy and to 6Introduction. This is precisely what is so valuable in Althusser: the record of his thought is simultaneously a record of the way he inhabited or occupied a specific philosophical conjuncture, not only engaging with his contemporaries but intervening within them to make them speak, disengaging them from themselves, discovering their specific quantity of force.

Louis Althusser: The Crisis of Marxism (interview)

Waging a philosophical struggle, in other words, made him an incomparable reader: to read Althusser is thus to read him reading, sometimes incisively, but just as often struggling to grasp not the meaning of a text or body of work but precisely the contradictions around which it was constituted. Further, since there can be no philosophy that would not itself embody the very conflicts in which it seeks to intervene, insofar as philosophies attempt to master these conflicts by interiorizing them only to find themselves afflicted by what they cannot digest, Althussers position comes very close to Hegels.

Every philosophy is the realization of a contradiction that it necessarily lacks the means to resolve. Thus, it is not enough to read others, that is, to make visible their contradictions; one must constantly attempt after the fact to grasp the conflictuality proper to ones own thought, an attempt that produces new contradictions requiring new interventions ad infinitum.

Accordingly, if we take Althusser at his word, the power of his work, measured by the force of the reactions to it, cannot be explained by reference to the way in which it transcends its historical moment but precisely by what in it is most historical. Outside of the vicious circle of mimicry and rejection, a small but growing number of works have sought precisely to situate Althusser historically, without ceding to the temptation to declare the end of Althusser and any interest he might have for the present moment.

Such an approach to Althusser is hardly surprising: the vast majority of Althussers direct references especially in the work published during his lifetime to predecessors and contemporaries are to Marxists Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Gramsci, and Garaudy, among others , and the polemics in which he engaged nearly all involved his fellow Communists and Marxists, who mostly took him to task for incorrectly or even abusively interpreting the works of Marx and Lenin.

Gregory Elliots Althusser: the Detour of Introduction7. Goshgarians introductions to the English translations of Althussers posthumously published texts as well as Franois Matherons careful and thorough situating of the French originals , consider Althussers major works as the interventions that Althusser himself always insisted they were. Elliot, Lewis, and Goshgarian locate the texts in the debates within and around the French Communist Party in the s and s and read them as simultaneously commenting on Marx and advocating specific positions within the international Communist movement, as well as within the world of French and to some extent European communism and Maoism.

This work is absolutely necessary: it is no more possible to understand Althussers texts without reference to the political controversies of his period than it is to comprehend the works of Hobbes and Locke without a detailed knowledge of the political and social struggles of seventeenth- century England. I want, however, to pose a different question, even if it can only be addressed on the basis of the foregoing studies: How do we begin to understand what Althusser himself called his theoretical conjuncture?

For decades scholars in the Anglophone world have tended to view the major French philosophers of the sixties and the seventies as essentially separate from and often opposed to one another, each endeavoring to think, even if about remarkably similar questions, in a way that was fundamentally incompatible with their contemporaries. There was accordingly little room for conjunction of any kind. Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze of course all cultivated such a view, which in turn permitted the rise internationally of groups of Foucauldians, Derridians, Deleuzeans, as well as Althusserians, who sought to show how and why their philosopher was unique among his contemporaries, necessitating the magnification of differences and the suppression of similarities.

Each was supplied with a genealogy often with the philosophers explicit or tacit approval that showed the way in which an individual philosopher belonged not to the historical present but to a tradition: Foucault to French epistemology, Derrida to phenomenology and Heidegger, Deleuze to Bergsonianism, and, of course, Althusser to Marxism. In Althussers case, the effect was particularly unfortunate: those students of French philosophical theory not interested in Marxism believed they could safely ignore him, while Marxists, even those lacking any interest or competence in the questions Althusser discussed in his works, felt obliged to read and refute him, producing a mass of irrelevant critiques.

Althussers death altered all this forever; not only the reception of his own work but our understanding of French thought in the s and s has irrevocably changed. Shortly after his death an archive was established in which the manuscripts found in his possession or which he had given to others, together with as many letters as could be collected from his correspondents, would be cataloged and prepared for publication.

The results have been significant. First, there was the discovery that Althusser published only a small part of what he actually produced. A number of full- length manuscripts were found, in addition to dozens of more or less finished essays. Nearly three thousand pages of material from different periods of his career have now been published in French, not all of which have appeared in English. The posthumous publications not only necessitate a thorough reevaluation of Althussers project but, taken together with other materials in the archive unpublished manuscripts in various stages of completion, lecture notes, letters, and marginalia , demonstrate very clearly that Althusser regarded the task of understanding the theoretical conjuncture as one of his highest priorities.

He read and studied the work of the contemporaries named above and exhorted his students to do the same. The record of his seminars shows that at the very same moment that he and his young followers produced Reading Capital, they devoted courses to the study of structuralism and psychoanalysis, reading such contemporaries as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lacan with the same rigor with which they approached the texts of Marx, generating symptomatic readings of their illustrious contemporaries.

In fact, a number of documents show Althussers appraisal of the theoretical conjuncture clearly identified a number of his most prominent non- Marxist contemporaries especially Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze as objective allies in the struggle against idealism, while many of the official philosophers of Marxism particularly those engaged in the task of defining a Marxist humanism were, whatever their subjective commitments, among the most effective partisans of idealism and spiritualism. But it is the content of these encounters that is perhaps most surprising. While a few texts from the last decade of Althussers life show his interest in developing what he called an aleatory materialism, the contents of the archive reveal that by the early sixties at the latest Althusser sought to conceptualize a philosophy of the encounter.


In place of the Stalinist establishing the laws of historical development or the structuralist revealing order and unity beneath the appearance of disorder and diversity, there thus emerges an entirely unexpected Althusser, heir to the aleatory thought of Epicurus and Lucretius, as well as Spinozas absolute nominalism. What is perhaps most surprising about this current in Althussers thought is that, even if it was made explicit only at the end of his life, it was present, although nearly unnoticed, throughout his work, beginning with the essays that make up For Marx.

We should not make the mistake, though, of treating this underground current as the hidden truth of Althussers work that readers up to this point have simply failed to see. The persistent misreadings of Althusser are indices of the theoretical conflicts that animate it: many of these conflicts are based on countervailing tendencies that coexist with and in their antagonism, neutralize it, or at least render invisible the philosophy of the encounter.

We may thus begin to see the extent to which Althusser shared common philosophical concerns with some of his most notable contemporaries and why he would take interest in their work. I want to explore the ways in which, as we have noted, Althusser read or, more precisely, intervened in their work, drawing lines of demarcation to set free those elements that might lead to the recommencement of a materialism of the encounter, the only possible materialism from Althussers perspective.

Not very long ago, the commentary on Althusser focused on the theme of agency, on the opposition of science and ideology, on the meaning of his antihumanism, or on his critique of historicism. I do not intend here to supply new answers to the old questions. Instead, I want to examine the way that the encounters in which Althussers participation was decisive, encounters that constituted the specificity of this extraordinary period in French thought, can be understood as having occurred around three nodal points, sites of intensive overdetermination, which are also nodes in a network of discourses both internal and external to Althusser.

Structure Was Althussers a philosophy of order, as Rancire insisted? At the same 10Introduction.