Althusser’s Philosophical Disorder
By Jason BarkerMay 15, 2016
IN A SCENE from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Alvy Singer waits in line to see The Sorrow and the Pity as a fellow cinemagoer pontificates loudly on Federico Fellini, Samuel Beckett, and Marshall McLuhan. For Alvy — a professional comic subject to imaginary interpellation wherever he goes — this is the final straw. Incensed, he confronts the boorish upstart with Marshall McLuhan in person, who, to Alvy’s delight, flatly refutes the cinemagoer’s misguided interpretation of his philosophy. “Boy,” Alvy declares, addressing the camera, “if life were only like this.”
The scene, among other things, is a commentary on the questionable social utility of the philosopher. What’s amusing is the fact that Alvy becomes irritated by a dispute over something that could barely be more trivial: namely, the correct interpretation of a philosopher’s ideas, and to such an extent that his only salvation is an appeal to the wise old sage himself. In ancient Athens no one in the marketplace would have ever dreamed of asking Socrates’s opinion on anything, which would have invited more trouble than it was worth. The fact that Alvy needs McLuhan to win an argument therefore underscores a completely hollow victory. Not only do philosophers waffle on about abstract trivia with no bearing on reality, but there are people misguided enough, like Alvy, who actually believe that what they say is important.
Would the scene have had the same comic effect if it were written for a profession other than a philosopher? A sportsperson, perhaps? Or a less elevated profession like a taxi driver? One could imagine John McEnroe being brought on to refute ill-informed opinions about his serve. Or a taxi driver quashing some pernicious social stereotype about fare pricing, for instance. However, I think we can say that McLuhan’s profession is integral to the scene in a way that all the others aren’t. It’s no coincidence that in Alvy’s embittered worldview the philosopher should have the last word, because in the popular imagination this is precisely what philosophers do. Indeed, not only do philosophers come armed with the ultimate power of words; their words, when used, are gratuitous, needless in their hair-splitting detail, and therefore useless. This partly explains why — but of course I don’t pretend to be telling the whole story here — philosophers have always been targets of public ridicule and resentment. An ample combination of both contributed to Socrates’s eventual downfall. It’s become something of a tradition, itself narcissistic and neurotic, to castigate the philosopher as a public figure for the “abstractions” of his intellectual labor. What the philosopher does is not really work. How dare he do nothing!
Louis Althusser was hardly a stranger to such ridicule and resentment. His ivory tower reputation was publicly confirmed when, during the general strike of May 1968, graffiti appeared in the Latin Quarter of Paris demanding, “What use is Althusser?” The answer, perhaps courtesy of the same rhetorical questioner, was: “Althusser’s nothing” (“A quoi sert Althusser? Althusser-à-rien”).[i] One might even say that as a public figure Althusser actively encouraged ridicule and resentment (through self-parody?) by writing an autobiography that it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than a philosopher having the audacity to write — a posthumous autobiography, moreover, in which he vociferously ruminates on everything from his take on Hegelian and Marxist dialectics to how he murdered his wife (the fact that he was deemed unfit to stand trial for the murder obviously compounded the stereotype). But in what sense does “being a philosopher” explain what, in Althusser’s case, is a complex and overdetermined historical episode that says as much about French postwar society as it does about a society’s relation to the philosopher as such?
I think we can say that Althusser’s “case” not only serves to reinforce society’s prejudices against the philosopher as someone who is mad and ridiculous, but against philosophy itself as a historically outdated discourse or institution. Does this mean that today we are confronting what’s grandiloquently referred to as “the end of philosophy”? Not really, or at least no more so than in times past. However, reading Althusser may confirm that we have arrived at the end of a certain “practice” of philosophy, a certain way of doing philosophy, which naturally has its fair share of implications for the philosopher’s profession, and for his or her status as a public figure.
Althusser’s idea of practice is indebted to Karl Marx, for whom the philosopher, rather than a disinterested intellectual commentator, is an intellectual worker in a class struggle in which she must take sides. Whose side is the philosopher on? Will she stand with the system that ensures her prestige, not to mention her salary? Or with what for Marx were the historically progressive forces of unrest and social change, which will ensure neither her prestige nor salary?
There are several narratives that could explain why, in the aftermath of May 1968, Althusser apparently adopted a more “Marxist” vision of what philosophy’s “historical” role should be. This is an interesting question in the sense that Althusser’s posthumous writings continue to reveal an “aleatory” conception of philosophy that is — and indeed was for Althusser himself — difficult if not downright impossible to reconcile with being a Marxist.[ii] If the philosopher admits that the historical forces of unrest and social change are by no means progressive, or that there is no iron law of history, or that history, in Althusser’s view, is a process without a subject or a goal,[iii] then can she really claim to be a Marxist at the same time? No, she can’t — which according to Althusser is precisely what may reconcile her (although nothing’s certain!) to the singular novelty of Marx’s philosophical legacy; or rather to Marx’s practice of philosophy.[iv]
Here we arrive at Althusser’s most unexplored — by Althusser or anyone else — line of philosophical inquiry. And it also remains the most promising one despite or perhaps because of Althusser’s reputation as an inflexible and dogmatic Communist Party philosopher. Times change: this is the lesson that Althusser seems to be endorsing, in his rather unsystematic treatment of philosophy from the mid-1970s onward.[v] Marxism is undeniably a science of history. However, whereas in For Marx and Reading Capital, both published in 1965, Althusser held that philosophy was an unfinished Theory whose task was to prove Marxism’s scientific status, in 1967 he announced that philosophy’s “historical” task was already established: it was political.
“Philosophy,” as Althusser writes, “is, in the last instance, class struggle in the field of theory.”[vi] In other words, philosophy is never disinterested or objective. The philosopher enters into a war of ideas, between ideologically progressive and reactionary forces, that threatens to destroy not only his status as a philosopher, but also the institution of philosophy in its present form. This was confirmed only a few years later with the spectacle of the self-styled “new philosophers,” including Althusser’s former students Bernard Henri-Lévy and André Glucksmann, regularly holding court on primetime French television.
But from the mid-1970s Althusser also began to say something else. He shifted the tone, if not the substance of his ideas, from philosophy as class struggle “in theory,” to philosophy as an “objectless” discourse.[vii] Philosophy, Althusser will maintain, adheres to the principle of Epicurus, materialist through and through, that the world is the product of contingent encounters that provide no guarantee whatever for the persistence of any “state” whatever. In short, our knowledge of history, and of the events that went on “before,” provide the barest of clues as to what may come about in future.[viii] Philosophy therefore cannot provide the theoretical guarantee for a science of history. What philosophy may do instead is enable us to think such contingency in the realm of science. In so doing, the philosopher would be practicing philosophy in a new and progressive sense — as opposed to a conservative and idealist sense — which, moreover, according to Althusser remains consistent with Marx’s own novel philosophical practice.[ix]
Might this provide a historical explanation for why the philosopher is so often an object of ridicule and resentment? Perhaps because philosophers have often been compelled, for whatever reasons, to join the wrong side. “Wrong” in what sense? In the sense that they conflated logic with absolute truth, with sufficient reason “to the greater glory of God,” which they then used to uphold and justify the domination of their class privilege.[x] At the very least, philosophers deserve the people’s ridicule and resentment as payback for their misguided “intellectual” labor.
If philosophy is an objectless discourse, contingent and without logical guarantee, then philosophy is nothing, or depends upon nothing, save for the novelty of its practices. Such practices, or practices-in-the-making, may threaten philosophers with more than just resentment and ridicule. They may also threaten them with extinction. Should this give us cause for concern? Not in the sense that, as Antonio Gramsci remarks, “everyone is a philosopher,” i.e. everyone possesses an intellect and a potential for abstract reasoning. Indeed, this might make us optimistic for philosophy’s democratic future (although of course it might also compound Alvy’s sense of persecution in the cinema queue). On the other hand, there is good reason to be worried about the philosopher’s current predicament as an increasingly rare and endangered species. There are more than simply progressive reasons for seeking to transform the philosopher’s profession and its natural habitat, i.e. “the university” (admittedly not such an easy thing to define nowadays). Indeed, the argument that education should be “democratized” or “opened up” is little more than a coarse and distasteful euphemism for the neoliberal dismantlement of the entire public education system; and, needless to say, for doing away with the autonomy of philosophy, along with every other academic discipline besides.
Philosophers, regardless of how they define themselves, have the duty to fight for the dis-order of the system, and for the contingency of what’s called “philosophy,” wherever its creative experiments may lead, be they “theoretical” or “practical” in orientation. Who knows? Resentment and ridicule — and I dare say the “madness” of philosophers — may even serve as proof that they are winning the fight.
Jason Barker is professor of English at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is the editor with G. M. Goshgarian of Other Althussers (2015), a special issue of diacritics dedicated to Louis Althusser’s posthumous writings of the mid-1970s. As well as having published widely on philosophy, politics, literature and theory, he is a filmmaker, and the director of Films Noirs.
[i] The meaning of the insult is lost in English translation, since Althusser-à-rien is a homonym of Althusserien (spelt “-rien” rather than “-rian”) with the word rien meaning “nothing.”
[ii] See Louis Althusser, Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, transl. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Bloomsbury 2016; Althusser, Être marxiste en philosophie, ed. G. M. Goshgarian. Paris: Presses universitaires de France 2015.
[iii] See Althusser, “Marx’s Relation to Hegel,” in: Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx. London: Verso 2007.
[iv] See Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy,” transl. Ben Brewster, in: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press 2002.
[v] For a consideration of Althusser’s mid-1970s work see Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian, eds. Other Althussers: diacritics 43.2, 2015.
[vi] Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, transl. Grahame Lock. London: New Left Books 1976, p. 37; see also Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy.”
[vii] Althusser’s conviction that “philosophy strictly speaking has no object, in the sense that a science has an object,” dates from “Lenin and Philosophy,” a text of February 1968.
[viii] Althusser’s posthumous writings offer his thoughts on Epicurus and the ancient Greek atomists. See e.g. Être marxiste, pp. 233—39; translated as “The Stoics and Epicurus,” transl. G. M. Goshgarian in: Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian, eds. Other Althussers, pp. 10—14.
[ix] Elsewhere I have speculated that a philosophy of contingency is broadly compatible with the novel and ground-breaking work of Alan Turing on computable numbers, and with the digital philosophy of Gregory Chaitin. See Jason Barker, “Are We (Still) Living in a Computer Simulation? Althusser and Turing,” in: Other Althussers, pp. 93—121.
[x] Althusser, Être marxiste, p. 144; see also pp. 129—46. As well as “its complicity with the dominant classes’ politics” the “dominant philosophy” aids and abets the dominant classes by “denying” their domination; see G. M. Goshgarian, “A Marxist in Philosophy,” in: Other Althussers, p. 29.
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