ALTHUSSER, LATE IN HIS LIFE, wrote about rain. A flurry of rain and among the drops one of them deviates from the vertical path, swerves, and encounters another drop. Althusser’s aim in his late text is to highlight “the existence of an almost completely unknown materialist tradition in the history of philosophy: the ‘materialism’ […] of the rain, the swerve, the encounter, the take [prise].”[i] These lines, dating from 1982-’83, open a projected book that was posthumously published in essay form as “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter.”[ii] In it, Althusser develops a theory inspired by the atomist tradition, by Democritus and Epicurus — a theory of contingency as the aleatory trigger of any causal chain of events, one which cannot exclude a renewal of encounters, like the throw of the dice that never abolishes the possibility of new throws, as the oft-cited title of Mallarmé’s famous poem has it.
Encountering the Work of Art
Can this theory of rain be read in relation to the arts? To answer this question, we first need to know what an encounter is. Certainly, this encounter is not to be found in the final and exhibited representational reality of an artwork. Nor does it depend on the institutional space that surrounds it.
An encounter makes the space surrounding the work reappear as the occasion for unexpectedly catching sight of an old acquaintance whom you never knew existed. When it takes place, it may serve as a reference point for the act of remembering, which is an endeavor distinct from anecdotal memories and public commemorations. This can happen to anyone. Standing, for instance, in front of Kazimir Malevich’s Eight Red Rectangles or walking around a Donald Judd installation, something like an encounter may or may not take hold of you. If it does, it marks you for some inexplicable reason. What was shown was not only what was seen, and, as a result, the glaring evidence of the space in which the work is embedded becomes questionable.
The work of art as encounter, like the crafting of something that reveals the bare bones of another encounter (the artist’s), opens up to the possibility of a renewed swerve, a new encounter. An unsettling sensation, like a drop of water that falls from nowhere and hits the palm of your hand, runs like an underground stream through the conjuncture of historical conditions and the preestablished order of space (the symbolic position of the exhibition space in the urban landscape, the sociologically defined processes that crisscross that space). For those who remain unmoved by this intimate act, the sight of a painting on the wall or the installation in a room is merely added to one’s pile of memories and other mnemonic data. But there are always others who become hooked on the encounter, so triggering a new practice.
One may wonder if this Althusserian theory of the encounter is not in actual fact a theory of love. Jacques Lacan, another major figure from the same exceptional period of Parisian intellectual production, developed his theory based on the amorous encounter: “How does a man love a woman? By chance [par hasard].”[iii] Like Dante’s encounter with Beatrice, or reading a poem with that peculiar taste of a word that makes you momentarily succumb and the poem unfold within you, as if the table had always already been set for that sound, and that only the seat was vacant until now.
Althusser doesn’t deal with the arts directly in his late writing, but in those atoms of rain hovering in the air or showering down from the vast empty sky, in the contingent encounters of atoms and their slight, almost playful deviations from straight lines, there is a real theory of artistic practice that embraces the craft and the spectator, the hand and the eye. It stretches beyond the analytical tools of traditional aesthetics without reducing the work of art to a model of subjective experience poised before a world of objects or any dialectical reconciliation of the two. Nor does it have recourse to the sterile notion of art as knowledge production. It is a serious theory of playfulness.
A work of art, “a conclusion without premises” as Althusser called it in 1964,[iv] is the conclusive and ephemeral eternity of a swerve. The swerve, the encounter, may or may not set its stamp on your trajectory for the rest of your life. There are no guarantees, they need to be crafted. That barely perceptible lapse of time can be the onset of an incessant movement between obsession and vocation. There is something similar to this in Jean Dubuffet’s observation of how a young child sinks into a self-oblivious state when she draws rings, lines, and adds colors on a sheet of paper. She becomes almost one with the act of drawing, submerged in that which the hand wordlessly shows for the eye. An automatism that engenders dissemblance (between eye and hand, surface and color, a single object and the world) and is fascinated by it: a serious playfulness.
All of this appears quite at odds with the standard interpretations of Althusser’s work of the early 1970s. Wasn’t his philosophy most strongly associated with the analysis of ideologies that permeate modern society, implicating the individual in the social reproduction of subordination? Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”[v] introduced a number of crucial new concepts. Ideology was an apparatus, a machine that produced identities. We are always caught up in a web of notions that define our self-image, and that satisfy our search for identity, notions that exclude other possible courses of action, other modes of interaction with others. Laws, school, media, and visual representations all address everyone and call on each of us to behave in a way that proves we already know how to be ruled. Capitalism cannot function without its ideological apparatuses, Althusser argued.
Gallery space is an ideological apparatus whose functioning can be analyzed in terms of how we are addressed and to what position in a predefined space we are destined through that very act of being addressed. Polysemous nomenclature, ambiguous taste criteria, and curatorial machinery are parts of the same ideological machine.
Ideological apparatuses secure the reproduction of labor-power and goods: circulate but stay within the frame, stay visible! The frame or structure allows a number of positions and has its own internal rules for legitimate and thinkable permutations, inner transformation. This theoretical insight was embraced by a broad range of critical thinkers who, beginning in the late 1950s and continuing throughout the 1960s, confronted the emergence of the society of the spectacle, or the flow of images and their grip on our mode of being in the world. From the collective text “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln” (1970) written by the editors of the legendary Cahiers du Cinéma, to studies carried out by authors such as Jean-Louis Comolli or Jean-Louis Baudry, the study of visual representation shifted the focus from narrative structure to studies of the mechanisms of positioning the spectator within a given ideological apparatus.
This shift, which to a great extent was indebted to Althusser’s works, reached the United States by the late 1970s. A range of journals, including Film Quarterly, Screen, and October, became the organs for new critical studies. We can also mention in this context the pivotal and pioneering works of Fredric Jameson, notably The Political Unconscious (1981).
But is the scope and tone in the “early” Althusser toward ideology critique at odds with his later materialism of the encounter? I tend to agree with G. M. Goshgarian, the editor and English translator of Althusser’s posthumous writings, that the “late” Althusser in fact elaborates on tendencies and themes already present in earlier works.[vi] It’s as if those tendencies were separate atoms raining down prior to any encounter.
In philosophical terms, an attentive reading of Althusser’s essays, including his famous text on ideology, reveals the prevalence of Spinozian and Machiavellian concepts rather than Hegelian dialectics. The concept of the encounter can be found as early as the first chapter of his book on Montesquieu from 1959.[vii] To this we should add his critique of philosophy, which broadly speaking follows Marx in the latter’s Theses on Feuerbach. On closer inspection, what we uncover throughout Althusser’s work is the conjuncture of, or encounter between, elements that have always existed in parallel.
In 1966, in reply to questions posed by the French literary critic André Daspre, Althusser laid out a preliminary schema starting from the concepts of donner à voir and donner à percevoir: “making see” and “making perceive.” These concepts can be traced back to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and were taken over and repurposed by Lacan in his seminars of the 1950s. But Althusser gives them a different sense. Art makes us see the ideology from which it arises and from which it detaches itself. But art does not produce any concept, any specific form of knowledge vying with a conceptual discourse.[viii]
Was this detachment a rudimentary formulation of what Althusser would later define as a fortuitous encounter? An encounter is then the potential realization of the detachment from the ideologically defined space surrounding the work of art. This detachment is equally the willingness to recognize the other atoms and other collisions. In a letter from August 18, 1977, Althusser wrote about visiting a Wifredo Lam exhibition, the Cuban avant-garde painter who had returned to Cuba after the revolution. He remarked: “When I saw Lam’s painting for the first time it was as if I’d always known it. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was already part of me.”[ix]
The present historical conjuncture is marked perilously by new ideological notions that redefine the functioning of gallery space — suffice it to mention, among other things, the rise and popularity of curatorial studies, or the prevalence of “artistic research programmes” and “creativity training” at the European universities during the past decade. The drive toward intelligibility in the arts pushes artistic practices toward communicative rationale, which obliterates their intrinsic sensibility, eclipses the tension between thought and image, and replaces the artistic questions with an ideal of knowledge production. Unsurprisingly the resulting works fail to live up to the required standard of intelligibility, and become all ornament and reproduction instead. And yet nevertheless, in spite of the growing predictability of the new thematic arrangements of exhibition spaces, and in spite of the rain that hammers down — or rather because it does — some errant collision of raindrops in an otherwise tightly monitored cultural landscape will give rise to new artistic practices.
Dariush M. Doust is visiting professor of Contemporary and Continental Philosophy at Beijing Normal University, China. He has taught art theory at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and is a psychoanalyst and accredited psychotherapist. He has published on politics, contemporary art, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is a member of the art collective ARC, has curated exhibitions for Gothenburg Museum of Art, and is founder of Kurrents, a nonprofit organization that has staged international conferences on capitalism and cognitive capital.
[i] Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter, Later Writings 1978-1982, transl. with an intro. by G. M. Goshgarian, London and New York: Verso 2006, p.167.
[ii] Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” in: Philosophy of the Encounter, pp. 163—207.
[iii] Jacques Lacan, Les non-dupes errant, unedited seminar, 18 décembre 1973.
[iv] Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, transl. Ben Brewster, New York and London: Monthly Review Press 1971, p. 224.
[v] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” transl. Ben Brewster, in Essays on Ideology, London: Verso 1984, pp. 1—60.
[vi] In the recent special issue of diacritics devoted to Althusser’s posthumous writings of the mid-1970s, G. M. Goshgarian draws our attention to the relative continuity of Althusser’s work, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and to the fact that, “by 1957 at the latest, [Althusser’s] flirtation with anti-philosophy was beginning to resemble an affair likely to last.” G. M. Goshgarian, “A Marxist in Philosophy,” in: Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian, eds. Other Althussers: diacritics 43.2, 2015, p. 27.
[vii] Althusser, “Montesquieu: Politics and History,” transl. by Ben Brewster, in: Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, London: Verso 2007, p. 21.
[viii] Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, p. 221—29.
[ix] Althusser qtd. in: Wilfredo Lam, 1902-1982, Amis du musée de l’art moderne de la ville de Paris: Paris 1983.