Notes on the Redeeming Features of Althusser

For all of my critique of the way Althusser has ideology defining the subject as a predicate of social relations not merely as a result of it, Althusser does have a few clarifying points if we jettison the over-determination of the subject, and simply return to a collective subjectivity. (A collective subjectivity, however, may invalidate the Lacanian thesis predicated on a notion of unconsciousness, but I won’t go there today.)

Althusser brilliance regardless of whether or not you think his subjectless history and trans-historical ideology is coherent–or if it is coherent, anti-emancipatory–his critique of ideology as manifested in social functions as a feedback loop of social practice is incredibly useful as it makes naive empiricism impossible.

For example, an ideological apparatus can function without belief in it if the a-political identity is assumed. You can empirically accept that an ideology is false, and it increases your alienation but if you function in your social relations to confirm those relationships then you are objectively sustaining that ideology. In otherwords, ideology, in religious terms, is not merely orthodoxic but orthopractic.  It justifies practics and beliefs about practices, it does not merely contain ones beliefs about them. Indeed beliefs about an ideology in the individual are, at times, irrelevant.

One does not have to accept Althussers next leap into trans-historical ideology and ideology preceding all human subjects to see the usefulness of this view. Naive empiricism can only deal with the world as it is, therefore cannot transcend it or rupture it in any meaningful way. It woud therefore being predicated on the current social relationships, and thus have a tendency to confirm the ideology of the present. Only when social relationships are completely disjointed from empirical facts would the empirical have any radical content.

In this way Althusser conceptions of apparatus do clarify even if his overdetermination of the base to the subject in an a-historical sense work against this clarification ultimately.  We see similar errors in Foucault who sees power dynamics as a determinant of history instead of historically determined.   This would be why for all of Foucault’s radicalization of Althusser’s framework, he still has a similar problem with explaining how one gets from historical epoch to another if the determination of subjects is based on a trans-historical view of ideology over-determining human relations.   This is an over-simplificaiton of Foucault whose work is varied and has its own  problematic elements, but the relationship to Althusser is clear.Foucault just makes this relationship more varied, instead of totalities, one has eternal puralities.

Still alienation of the subject is the alienation of the collective subject from the individual as a subject is created by consciousness by necessity since a consciousness must have an intentional object of which is is conscious, consciousness could be created as a subject reflected back on itself.  The subject is the dialectic of the indivdual to the collective, not an superposition within it.  The subject is then a collective creation of various social relationships: these relationships are predicated in the struggle between classes, classes alienated from their labor and their human relationshisp, not between ideologies manifesting.

The interesting thing is that when combined when Gramsci, whose theses about the historic character of individuals to rupture against the conditions of the economic base (a thesis that Althusser would have found impossible): this makes revolution replacing one hegemonic ideology to another.   This combination would be an idealism in the purest sense as it subjucates the consciousness to the idea forms of social relations.  Now this is ironic because this linkage generally betrays that one of Althusser’s main targets was Gramsci.  Indeed, Gramsci non-economic basis as the subject of the revolution, and often people seem to be assuming that ideology is co-terminus with hegemoy when it is not the case.

Now here is where Badiou can be illuminating with Althusser’s ideas in a way Althusser himself is not. Badiou has stated, “”For Althusser, all theory proceeds by way of concepts. But ‘subject’ is not a
concept. This theme is developed with utmost clarity in his work. For example: the concept ‘process’ is scientific, the concept ‘subject’ is ideological. ‘Subject’ is not the name of a concept, but that of a
notion, that is, the mark of an inexistence. There is no subject since there are only processes.” There can be no subject for Althusser as there is no object that is not merely positional in an ideological superstructure. The object of ideology is itself and emancipation is either historical contingency (as Cutrone reads both Badiou and Althusser) or historical over-determination.  There is nothing in this in reconciling the contradictions in the current conditions.  This is not a universal view of history: it is a universal structure outside of history. This is a vital difference.

Indeed, E.P Thompson is right when he states in the Poverty of Theory that ‘…evicts human agency from history, which then becomes a ‘process without a subject’. (p 89) and that ” Althusser’s structuralism is, like all structuralism, a system of closure.” (p.98) However, the structural analysis is useful if seen as a critical of the manifestations of a historical contigency: not a paranoid manifestation of a single underlying mechanism.  If accepted as such then the brilliant systems analysis itself becomes a reification that posts three problems that it doesn’t answer.  Chris Harman, in his review of Gregory Elliot’s “Althusser: the Detour of Theory” , makes this explicit:

The fact that Althusser diverged from Marx’s own position did not, of course, prove that his theory was mistaken. It failed because it contained theoretical problems he could not resolve.

First, there was the question of how we validate claims to truth—that is, how we test what we believe against the reality of the world around us. Althusser argues that we can only know the external world through our conceptions of it. However hard we try, we cannot escape from this conceptual prison house. Despite his attacks on Hegel, Althusser was in this repeating arguments made very well by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind10 to the effect that we cannot give any fixity to the fleeting impressions of the world that pass before our eyes without the use of concepts. This then raises the problem of how we know these concepts are correct. Hegel gave two answers. The first was that reason can eventually arrive at a total view of the world which provides proof of the truthfulness of the concepts that determine how we perceive things. This answer was inadequate because it assumed that thought alone could prove its own objectivity and provide a justification for the particular concepts we use.11 Hegel’s second answer, never fully developed, was to argue at various points in his writings that we can test the objectivity of our concepts not simply by “contemplative reason” but by “practical reason”—that is by action which, by attempting to mould the world around us, shows the reality or otherwise of the ideas we hold. We can grasp reality truthfully because we make and remake it.12 It is this notion of the role of human practical activity that Marx uses to go beyond the Hegelian approach, “putting it on its feet”, as he put it:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, ie, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question… All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.13

Althusser, by turning his back on practice as a test of theory, ends up with a schema very much like that put across by the conservative interpretation of Hegel, in which truth is arrived at simply by the application of reason to concepts—baptised “theoretical practice” by Althusser . . . .

The second was the French May of 1968. Althusser, sick at the time of the events, failed to rise to the occasion and remained within the Communist Party, providing a partial justification of its stance of trying to restore France to normality.30 It was the criticism he faced from the left, as well as the conservative leadership of the Communist Party, that led Althusser to make his u-turn, with its attempt to incorporate agency and change into his theory. . . .

Confronted by the collapse not only of his school but of the political hopes of 30 years, Althusser felt compelled to make one last theoretical stand, identifying a “crisis of Marxism” and trying to come to terms with it. He could not do so without for the first time coming out with a trenchant critique of the theory and practice of Stalinism. He denounced the “massacre and deportation of peasants denounced as Kulaks, the Gulag archipelago, the repression that still goes on 25 years after Stalin’s death” and the way “the bourgeois ideology of the omnipotence of ideas triumphed in the monstrous unity of state-party-state ideology”, where “the masses had only to submit themselves in the very name of their liberation”.34 The one time theorist of Marxism-Leninism now separated Marxism off from it and contradicted the basic premise of the original Althusserianism by asserting that Marxist theory grows out of the terrain of workers’ struggles.35 Yet the old notion that Stalinism was an heir to Marxism persisted, only now in a negative sense: the faults in Stalinism, he asserted, had their roots in “lacunae” in Marx’s own writings.

Althusser’s analysis of how ideology can manifest structurally without any beliefs does not lead to the other assumptions of ideologies absolute and transcends historical structure. This moves beyond the basic dialectical understanding and the historical understanding in Marx, but beyond this does not clarify so much as obscure.  It seems to clarify in its original manifestation of an critique of ideology as something more than bad faith in Sartrean sense or false belief or even false consciousness, but it is move to place systems analysis as some kind of underchanging eternal structure, it fails utterly and mystifies more than it clarifies. Althusser was a failure in this regard, but in some ways he was the best kind of failure: a failure whose mistakes clarify when acknowledged as mistakes and who has pieces which can be salvaged for our usage. Yet it is still a failure even on its own terms, much less on Marx’s.

(The first two parts of this series are here and here)


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