The publication of The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings adds another installment to the posthumous reckoning with Louis Althusser that began after the theorist died on October 22, 1990. The initial reckoning was directed towards the treatment of what Slavoj Zizek diagnosed as a widespread “case of theoretical amnesia” (Zizek 1). However, the labour of treatment developed quickly into a project directed towards the revitalization of the Althusserian legacy tout court: a reinterpretation, under the sign of the posthumous bracketed “s” for Althusser(s)-Hegelian, Spinozist, Leninist, Lacanian, Machiavellian and aleatory Marxist. This shift has been affected largely by the sympathetic commentary of Warren Montag, Gregory Elliot, Antonio Callari, and Antonio Negri in special issues of Yale French Studies (1995), Rethinking Marxism (1998), books such as Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory (1996) and, most recently, Althusser (2003). It is also particularly important to highlight the contribution of Francois Matheron. The resurgence of interest in the thought of this once very unfashionable French Communist inside the Anglo-American academy would have been inconceivable without his editorial contribution vis-a-vis the publication of numerous English language volumes of Althusser=s forgotten, untranslated, and unpublished work: Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (1996), The Spectre of Hegel: Early Writings (1997), Machiavelli and Us (2001), and The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (2003).
What these ten years of academic labour demonstrate is that we should have no illusion as to the topicality of this collection. Today and tomorrow are no more “objectively ripe in the world” for a return to Althusser than the dreary days of the last decade. Instead, we might focus on the discernable outline of a certain tactical plan in development: first, produce a body of commentary that contextually reorients the theorist towards more palatable figures such as Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Guy Debord, etc; second, use the publication of “new” archival texts from the 1950s and 1980s as a means to disturb the “canon” upon which the dominant monolithic anti-structural and anti-Althusserian view rests. A third element now comes into play. In order for a new reading to really take wing, the project will have to move beyond the exercise of displacement and ensure that the “old” Althusser is exorcised completely. This is the difficult job given to G.M Goshgarian in the six essays comprising The Humanist Controversy. He is charged with both the labour of translation and the task of producing an introduction that will accomplish this exorcism precisely as it guides the reader “anew” through dangerously familiar theoretical material. The major obstacle in this case is that Althusser remained in the grip of two intolerable tendencies in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Pour Marx (1965) and Lire Le Capital (1965). His work continued to be closely wedded to the position that philosophy is the theory of theoretical practice; politically it continued to focus on the siege and capture of the “revisionist” PCF stronghold as a site from which an autonomous scientific-theoretical practice could intervene to purge widespread (un)Marxist elements: humanism, spiritualism, structuralism, idealism, historicism, etc.
How can the exhumed archival texts constituting The Humanist Controversy possibly contribute anything towards a new reading of Althusser? What Goshgarian provides us with in his introduction is an ingenious method that allows the reader to both remember the intolerable, apropos Zizek=s diagnosis of amnesia, while also providing a meta-narrative and framework that acts to repress any traumatic theoretical kernel as evidence in itself of Althusser=s unwitting, unaware, and resistant continuing break with himself. We really are dealing here with a plurality of Althusser(s): the witting, aware structural Marxist, and the unwitting, unaware aleatory Marxist who is struggling to break with himself. Read “correctly,” this collection can itself be made to evince a plurality of minor “epistemological breakages.” How does this work? Where does this fit into the larger schema of re-reading Althusser? Let=s take a look at a few examples and measure the implications of the process at work.
At the witting level, “The Philosophical Conjuncture of Marxist Theoretical Research,” sets out to define the structured singularity of French Philosophy in 1966. Utilizing a concrete and objective analysis possible only from inside “philosophy of a scientific character” it stakes out its particular anti-ideological position (11). The structure of this configuration is determined in the historical combination of different theoretical elements (religious-spiritualist, rationalist-idealist, and rationalist empirical philosophy) and their structured relationship (the defeat of reactionary-spiritualist philosophy by critical, rationalist idealism and the subsequent emergence of a project to displace these residual critical and rational idealist elements). The production of the structured whole of this conjuncture provides Marxist philosophers with a target: “to have it out not only with Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur (Front number 1), but also with Sartre and Gueroult (Front number 2), and to try to gain as clear a sense as possible of the work of those who… seek [to] challenge the critical-idealist problematic that we are struggling against on Front number 2” (11).
Doesn=t this constitute the battle plan of a “theoreticist” seeking to realize a “Stalinist” application in the liquidation of his revisionist enemies? After all, the scientific analysis of such a conjuncture and the correct tactical question of which enemies to pursue is wholly dependent on the findings provided by a general theory of ideological and non-ideological knowledge. This would indeed seem to present a problem. When we read this text it is impossible not to remember the very positions that obstruct those who seek in Althusser to “rediscover rivers still open and unexplored before us, perhaps leading to seas still to be found” (Montag 17). This is where Goshgarian=s introductory overview provides us with a route of portage vis-a-vis the symptomatic subject. An unwitting reading returns us to the text in order to note that Althusser really does offer us something of a corrective: his text acknowledges that “the science-ideology relationship constitutes a field of variations” (Althusser 14). And, on second look, we find that the text even expects to return to the (now unsettled) question of the status of dialectical materialism in a manner which “could open the door to a long string of related developments and questions” (12). From this perspective the essay actually becomes the map of a complex philosophical war of position waged on a tendential spectrum between idealism and materialism; the work becomes proleptic of a shift in the conception of philosophy as the theory of theories to the practice of philosophy as a fluid political intervention of the encounter. Here we have a general model for reading all of the problematic texts compiled in The Humanist Controversy: “Like everything Althusser wrote in 1966-67, `The Philosophical Conjuncture’ provides an illustration: it takes account of Althusser=s incipient break with the idealist tendencies in Althusserian Marxism in a critical discussion of the idealist philosophies dominating the philosophical conjuncture in France”(xxxix). In a brilliant twist, Althusser is positioned in person precisely within the anti-humanist problematic of the träger: “I was not acting on my own behalf….the decision was made for us by the effects of the theoretical conjuncture itself” (2).
In practice, latent content will garner more attention than the symptomatic. In order for Goshgarian to guarantee that the correct level of ambivalence is inscribed onto the corpus of Althusser=s own work he must repeat an exorcizing reading for each text in the volum
e. For instance, the latent reading cannot interpret “On Lévi-Strauss” beyond the level of an aggressive critique delivered in “deliberately limited fashion” (20). It appears merely as a denunciatory weapon mobilized on the anti-structuralist ideological front (structural anthropology is a poison to be purged because it lacks an adequate analysis of the specificity structuring any given social formation and provides a false method that fits together a functionalist jigsaw of possible formal variations). From this vantage we conclude that Althusser does not abandon the position that formalization is key to scientific thought: we read that “any body of thought qualifying as knowledge thinks in terms of forms, that is, relationships which combined determinate elements” (20). But, what if we re-read “On Lévi-Strauss” as a self-criticism unawares? Are not these attacks on the generality of structuralism as much applicable to the idea of the “structured whole” and the “formalized theory of modes of production in general”? Didn=t the criticism of Pierre Macherey on this point in 1965 lead to the editing out of the concept of latent content from subsequent editions of Reading Capital? What makes this route so believable is that so much goes unsaid; we are witnessing a silent confession precisely because it has not advanced beyond the proleptic. We cannot disprove that which has not arrived.
And yet, not all the texts in this collection offer themselves readily as objects for radical denegation. The “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourse,” part of the collaborative exchange between Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Yves Duroux, Pierre Macherey, Alain Badiou and Michel Tort, resists the template of the text which breaks with itself unawares. It is a text that unwittingly resists resisting itself because it proposes new research-it offers itself precisely in the wrong spirit of seas unfound. The “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourse,” which introduces the concept of interpellation in its discussion of the subject of ideology, focuses on the need for research on the relation between the status of unconscious discourse and its articulation with ideological discourse. This agenda is proposed within a “theoreticist” discussion of General and Regional Theory: psychoanalytic theory is allowed by Althusser to claim intellectual domain over the unconscious in general because it is circumscribed within the boundaries of its own regional object of knowledge. Put simply, the text offers to grant psychoanalytic theory legitimacy and freedom of research in return for its subjugation to a larger theory of theories that will decide the horizon of its scientific object, since “it is not in a position to provide objective proof of its scientificity” (41). The source of contradiction in this case is clear since the project of rehabilitation depends almost entirely on the readers ability to excise the intolerable legacy by remembering that the voyages down the river of scientific dialectical materialism, “however promising their beginnings, proved finally to be impassable” (Montag 17). At the same time, to complicate matters further, a route for interpretation of this work must be provided by Goshgarian which allows us to recognize it as both a “dead end” and a “condition of possibility” constituted unawares as Althusser=s break with himself. The cloud must have a silver lining. Goshgarian is able to find victory in defeat. In recognizing the scientificity of psychoanalysis, is not Althusser also recognizing its autonomy, abandoning his old dogmatism and suggesting a new ecumenical spirit in which he appears “to refute the charge he nurtures >hegemonic ambitions= in his theoreticism” (Althusser xivi)? Both “The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy” and “The Humanist Controversy” are worked upon in a similar manner. The reader is reminded that any material to be found is split and “already under attack from within Althusser=s own work” (Althusser li). Finally, we might note that even the organizational structure of the collection itself reproduces this symbolically loaded vantage by placing at the close the fragmentary, unfinished and abandoned title manuscript of “The Humanist Controversy.” We are left with an ambitious project that has collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions. This is the method by which Althusser=s writing can be transformed from “denunciations” and “dogma” into “flowers in bloom” and an internalized self-criticism: “just as we should wash our faces or sweep the floor every day to remove the dirt and keep them clean” (Mao 160).
I began this review by acknowledging the valuable collective labour that was largely responsible for today=s return of Althusser(s). In this spirit, it is worth putting to use perhaps the best new dictum made available by the publication of these previously inaccessible works: “What interests us is not the mushrooms – after all, most of them aren=t even edible – what interests us is the terrain” (Althusser 8).The fact that these essays by Althusser can appear and are made to appear as proleptic texts of crisis is something determined across the larger terrain of production (commentary, editorial, translated, graphical, and, no doubt, marketing effects). From this vantage it is clear that we are collectively reading these texts as proleptic of crisis solely in order to produce the discovery of another moment in Althusserian practice that can answer the crisis of our own conjuncture. This anxiety is understandable and seems, in the first instant, necessary if we are to imagine a new epoch of desire, praxis, inquiry and struggle. If we make a more systematic approach, though, we can see precisely why the idealist will to leap forward was condemned by Althusser until the bitter end as the “falsest path”: in Warren Montag’s words, “to read his work carefully, to the letter as he liked to say, is to retrace voyages on waterways that, however promising their beginnings, proved finally to be impassable; it is also, however, to rediscover rivers still open and unexplored before us, perhaps leading to seas still to be found” (Montag 17).
It is clear that these rivers run entirely through the continent of theory populated by the “pure spirits” of philosophy that Althusser spoke of in his “Reply to John Lewis” (1972). There is an alternate to the new road. If we return to study (and in turn to slowly and painfully produce additional knowledge of its objects) the philosophy of a scientific character practised in “The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy” and “The Humanist Controversy” we will come to understand at least one reason why the unexplored paths of Althusser will end in the same impasse as those Althusserian roads already traversed.
Dialectical materialism, in Althusser=s formulation, was qualitatively different from bourgeois philosophy only because it was able to recognize that it stood in concrete relation to history. In this respect one could argue that it remains, to this very day, both a stagnant and emergent project trapped within a shifting social and theoretical formation: Athis theory of the history of theories-ideological, scientific and philosophical-is still in its infancy” (232). To answer the question of why we have arrived at this impasse it is necessary to move beyond the realm of the idea as obstacle in and of itself. Instead we need to theorize uneven development in theory. It is precisely such an analysis of time lag-the constraints upon Marxist philosophy-that Althusser begins in “The Historical Task of Marxist Philosophy” and “The Humanist Controversy.” All disciplines seek to produce knowledge; however, Marxist intellectuals, and academics labouring in the humanities and social sciences are particularly vulnerable at this conjuncture, must also constantly intervene to disturb the reproduction of the dominant ideologies at work within the specific capitalist and state socialist formations they occupy. This is what Althusser labels as “Strategic task number 1: the defense of Marxist philosophy and science against bourgeois ideology” (183). There is a fu
rther complication: the means of production and raw materials that Marxists have at their disposal have been constituted entirely within capitalist class relations. Althusser saw that it was necessary to intervene at the organizational level on campus to dismantle the university as constituted through exploitive material and ideological relations: “Strategic task number 2: the development of historical materialism and the regional sciences that depend on it, by way of the reconquest and overhaul of the disciplines now dominated by bourgeois ideology” (183).
Read back through the prism of the larger theoretical projects outlined in “The Historical Task of Marxism” and “The Humanist Controversy” we can understand collectively the concrete historical conjunction into which the texts of The Humanist Controversy were designed to intervene. In the category of Strategic Task 1 would fit the ideological polemic against structuralism and hermeneutics along with the call for a policy of tactical alliances. In the category of Strategic Task 2 would fit the “Three Notes On the Theory of Discourses” with its call for a restructuring of the human and social sciences in terms of the analysis of possible linkages between Regional and General Theories.
Against the call to “break” Althusser into more manageable or palatable parts I will end only by pointing out the strong link between the texts published in this collection and such works as Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists (1967) and Lenin & Philosophy (1969). I would suggest that the shifts in position we see between 1965-1990 have less to do with an internal intellectual crisis than they do a shifting assessment of the conjuncture and the correct tactical priorities. Althusser remarks that “it is often necessary to wait a very long time for a favorable conjuncture to offer the theoretical tools adapted to the solution of a long-pending problem” (177). The university, site for the production of philosophy, and the disciplines, source of raw materials for academics, have no more taken the road of socialism than any of the other state and media apparati. This has obvious quantitative and qualitative implications on the ability of Marxists to produce new knowledge and new theoretical concepts. Instead of dreaming about the mystical fresh slate capitalism will deliver us, the real issue remains how to handle Marxist philosophy=s own continuing vacillation over its position as subject to capital and, as such, its uneven development. It is for insight into these problems that we should return to The Humanist Controversy.
Julian Holland is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at McMaster University.
Althusser, Louis. The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings. Ed. Francois Matheron. Trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
—. AReply to John Lewis.@ Essays in Self-Criticism. Trans. Grahame Locke. London: NLB, 1976: 33-94.
Mao Tse Tung. “On Coalition Government” (April 24, 1945). Selected Works, Vol. III: 316-17.
Montag, Warren. Louis Althusser. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.