Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy's Perpetual War

Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy's Perpetual War

by Warren Montag


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Althusser and His Contemporaries alters and expands understanding of Louis Althusser and French philosophy of the 1960s and 1970s. Thousands of pages of previously unpublished work from different periods of Althusser's career have been made available in French since his death in 1990. Based on meticulous study of the philosopher's posthumous publications, as well as his unpublished manuscripts, lecture notes, letters, and marginalia, Warren Montag provides a thoroughgoing reevaluation of Althusser's philosophical project. Montag shows that the theorist was intensely engaged with the work of his contemporaries, particularly Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Lacan. Examining Althusser's philosophy as a series of encounters with his peers' thought, Montag contends that Althusser's major philosophical confrontations revolved around three themes: structure, subject, and beginnings and endings. Reading Althusser reading his contemporaries, Montag sheds new light on structuralism, poststructuralism, and the extraordinary moment of French thought in the 1960s and 1970s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822353867
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/01/2013
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Warren Montag is the Brown Family Professor in Literature, English and Comparative Literary Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the author of Louis Althusser; Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries; and The Unthinkable Swift. He is editor of Décalages: A Journal of Althusser Studies.

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Althusser and His Contemporaries


By Warren Montag

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5400-0



The Theoretical Conjuncture Structure, Structurality, Structuralism

Few questions in the area broadly designated as "theory" would seem less likely to arouse interest than the question of "structure" in Althusser's work and, to situate this question historically, Althusser's relation to structuralism. For those who know Althusser's texts well, the question recalls the critiques and commentaries of more than twenty years ago, which, whatever their merits, today appear dated. The passions that drove them have cooled considerably; many of his critics have adopted theoretical positions that they once would have criticized far more severely than even the most objectionable that they claimed to find in Althusser. To be blunt, for anyone who shares Althusser's theoretical antihumanism or who has simply read his work carefully, the vast majority, however important they may be for an understanding of the Anglo-American or French Marxist culture of the 1960s and 1970s, have nothing to tell us about Althusser.

For a wider audience, however, the question holds little interest precisely because it is not a question at all. After all, may we not read in dozens of handbooks, encyclopedias, anthologies, and historical accounts that Althusser was a nearly perfect specimen of that now-extinct species, the structuralist, and that his Marxism was, as one often cited account puts it, "a structural Marxism," that is, a Marxism that sought to legitimize itself in the eyes of an audience steeped in linguistics and anthropology by using the terms and concepts in vogue at the time? Did not Althusser employ the noun "structure" and the adjective "structural" in his best-known works, all of which were written during the high point of the structuralist enterprise? This view, however, is historicist in precisely the terms Althusser singled out for criticism: it assigns a meaning to Althusser's philosophy only by confining it to a period within which it alone possesses significance. Because this period has seen its "rise and fall" and now remains irrevocably past, we can contemplate its charms only from the perspective of our maturity. For it is well known (at least in the Anglophone world), according to a theoretical model that bears a stronger resemblance to Kuhn's notion of successive paradigms than to the notion of historical progress understood by Hegel or Marx, that structuralism, soon after 1968, was replaced by poststructuralism, which in turn begat postmodernism. From this perspective, Althusser's work, its significance and importance, lies outside of and prior to the historical present, being part of a moment the supersession of which constitutes the very meaning of the present.

Interestingly, recent developments have made it possible to argue a position diametrically opposed to that outlined above. The posthumous publication of volumes of material by Althusser, from a period that ranges from 1947 to the 1980s, has produced ample evidence to corroborate his exculpatory statement in Essays in Self-Criticism: "we were never structuralists" (a statement previously regarded as a disingenuous attempt to dissociate his work from the worldview whose demise would otherwise render it irrelevant). First, there have come to light very severe critiques of "structuralist ideology," the severest of which is reserved for Lévi-Strauss, whose "formalism" and "functionalism" Althusser dissects in some detail. He would go so far as to denounce what he himself called "structural Marxism" as mere ideology in 1967 (referring to Lucien Sebag's Marxisme et structuralism, a work unfamiliar to English language critics of Althusser, but which had some importance in France in the mid-sixties).

Even more importantly, however, the posthumous publications brought to light a previously unknown strain in Althusser's thought, a strain he called as early as 1966, "a theory of the encounter," whose presence is visible from the early sixties on. With his specification of the materialism of the encounter, it became possible, if not inevitable, to see in such works as "Contradiction and Overdetermination" (1962) and "Lenin and Philosophy" (1968) a philosophy of the conjuncture, according to which "history is a process without a subject or goals" and therefore the site of an infinity of encounters between heterogeneous forces the outcome of which could never be predicted. It was an Althusser inspired by Epicurus and Lucretius (both of whose works he read very closely in the original languages), as well as Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, for whom structure might be thought to be a reduction of real complexity and heterogeneity to an imaginary order.

Finally, there have emerged a number of texts in various stages of completion on philosophy itself, the forms of its material and historical existence, as well as the manner in which it is practiced. These works make explicit Althusser's conception of philosophy as the site of a perpetual war (a point made in detail in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, a book-length work first published in French in 1974 but almost universally ignored by Althusser's commentators) in which, as in all wars according to Hobbes (a familiar reference point for Althusser), "force and fraud are the cardinal virtues." These works also specify Althusser's sense of the theoretical conjuncture, the notion that philosophy at any given moment consisted of a disposition of forces that his interventions (like those of every philosopher—with or without their knowledge or consent) aimed to modify.

Althusser's analysis of his own theoretical conjuncture and the important if not dominant role of structuralism within it did not take the form of a coherent text or group of texts. At best, he presented brief, highly schematic outlines to his circle; the analysis that guided his intervention (and everything he wrote he considered an intervention) remained immanent in his work, existing in practical, but not theoretical, states. It must therefore be reconstructed from a few published pieces (notably on Lacan and now on Lévi-Strauss), fragments of published texts, unpublished manuscripts, lecture notes, and correspondence. Why undertake such a dubious task at all? I would argue that Althusser's conception of philosophy exists not as an ideal space, free from the pressures of power and interest, where competing claims would be adjudicated by reason, but as a constellation of conflicting forces, of ideas held in place by relations of force, in which no truth triumphs except the truth armed against its adversaries, gave his analysis a necessary exactitude and rigor. The disciple of Machiavelli and Lenin could settle for nothing less than an exact inventory of forces in play and an identification of friends as well as enemies. In theoretical terms, this translates into a very careful and informed survey of philosophical works, reading them "to the letter" and noting their effects on the theoretical conjuncture of which they are a part and their effects on the relations of dominance and subordination between the ideas that constitute it.

Such an approach to Althusser's reading of structuralist works may be effective, however, only if it is carried out with the following proviso: that we not regard Althusser as a rational actor in a game of strategy, as the absolute master of his words and deeds (even if not of their consequences, which can be "unintended"). To see Althusser as master of his work would, of course, contradict in the most flagrant way everything he himself wrote about subjects and texts. It was he who wrote that the "golden rule of materialism is not to judge a being by its self-consciousness." It was Althusser who judged Freud's greatness to be his decentering of the human subject by attributing the unconscious primacy over consciousness. Even more, it was Althusser who, following Hegel, insisted that the history of philosophy could only be understood on the basis of its constitutive contradictions, contradictions that, for Althusser, were always overdetermined. From his point of view, even the most rigorously argued philosophical text was necessarily a constellation of oversights, discrepancies, and disparities, requiring a reading attuned to the symptoms of the conflicts that animated it unawares. These ideas are well known, too well known to require further discussion; if they possess any validity at all, however, they must be as applicable to Althusser's texts as any others. Indeed, we would do well to heed Étienne Balibar's observation:

The letter of Althusser's texts is certainly very different from the self-interpretations (including his self-criticisms) that the author himself proposed. It is reasonable to expect that other readers, who are serious and accurate but who were not part of (if not untouched by) the intellectual adventure of the author, will be in a better position to clarify "what Althusser really thought" and to discuss how his work can possibly be transformed and carried on further today. What Althusser "thought" is of course not what he "wanted to think." It is what he actually wrote, with all the contradictions and aporias of the written text, which we may call its "unconscious": neither a subjective key to be unraveled, not a mystical secret behind the door but an objective meaning to be produced by means of a symptomatic reading.

Following Balibar's analysis, we might say that Althusser's struggle against structuralism was above all a struggle internal to his own work against the tendency to follow the slope of least resistance in defining and defending Marx's discovery.

Having said all that, our inquiry into Althusser's analysis of and relation to structuralism must begin by posing as a problem what is often taken as self-evident: the meaning and function of the term structuralism. To insist on problematizing what can be very easily defined and historically located might at first seem perverse, an example of a corrosive skepticism, often at tributed to Althusser and his contemporaries, that appears in the guise of a demand for rigor, when in fact it seeks only to undo and negate knowledge. Are there not dozens, even hundreds, of books alone devoted to this topic (the Library of Congress as of 2010 listed nine hundred books on structuralism)? That there exists a generally shared sense of what structuralism is or was cannot be denied. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences know the name of Saussure and can recite the list of conceptual pairs (the famous "binary oppositions") around which, it is generally agreed, all structuralist activity was unfailingly organized: the signifier and the signified, the synchronic and the diachronic, and perhaps, more recently, structure and agency. Of course, one can cite more elaborate versions of this narrative that vary according to academic discipline. Thus, in literary and cultural studies, structuralism is identified with formalism, an emphasis on the formal order of texts or other "signifying practices," the systems or codes that govern even the minutest details of a given work and whose function is independent of any historical determination. The best accounts of structuralism from this perspective construct a genealogy of structuralism that shows the way in which the immediate forbears of the movement, Russian formalism (Propp, Eichenbaum, and Shklovsky), the Prague school (Murakowsky), and the descendants of Saussure. In certain branches of the social sciences, this heritage is disavowed in favor of a more peculiarly French lineage: structuralism springs fully formed from the body of Durkheim's functionalism even if it later borrowed terminology from linguistics. In both cases, the most sophisticated accounts will speak of the foundational role of the "linguistic model" (the idea that a finite set of elements are combined according to a set of rules of which the human actors are for the most part unconscious) in the analysis of social phenomena. These descriptions of structuralism, taken in their totality and despite all the inconsistencies and incompatibilities that this totality exhibits, do not take the form of mere opinion; they comprise a sanctified knowledge, encoded in the rituals that determine one's progress through academia. It will not be easy, effectively at least, to call these narratives into question or even to think about them in a new way.

Such a task might begin merely by examining the historical boundaries of structuralism as it existed in France. When did it begin and when did it end, if indeed it has? It certainly did not begin in the 1960s. Two major conferences on the topic of structure, the proceedings of which were published, took place in 1959. Lévi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology as well as Georges Dumezil's L'ideologie tripartie des Indo-Européens both appeared in 1958 (while Lacan's "linguistic turn" took place even earlier), and the former consisted of essays that had been published several years earlier, occasioning lively debates. In fact, the essays themselves were responses to critiques directed at Lévi-Strauss's even earlier Elementary Structures of Kinship, published in 1947 and whose influence on Lacan is incontestable. This text might well qualify as a starting point, given that it was perhaps the first attempt to apply in a comprehensive way the linguistic model to a social reality other than language, were it not for the fact that the term structuralism in its broader sense as a program for the study of all sorts of social phenomena had already been proposed by members of the Prague circle in the 1930s. To make matters even more complicated, for these early structuralists, as well as for Lévi-Strauss himself in the 1950s, Saussure was far less important and cited a figure than Nicolas Troubetzkoy, whose name is completely absent from many accounts of structuralism. In fact, Troubetzkoy saw his work on phonology, especially in its antipsychologism and antisubjectivism, as a rejection of Saussure, who was regarded as a continuation of earlier "psychologistic" theories of language. Indeed, Roman Jakobson asserts that Husserl's early Logical Investigations (1900–1901) provided the inspiration for Troubetzkoy's revolution in phonology and the linguistic model more broadly. Thus, simply by following the chain of references in certain important structuralist works, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory bereft of the usual reference points.

Another index of the problem of specifying structuralism is the difficulty simply of determining which authors can be described as structuralists. While some, such as Lévi-Strauss, seem unambiguously to fit virtually any description of a structuralist, what is one to say about such figures as Barthes, Lacan, or Foucault, all of whom were designated in such venues as Magazine Littéraire as structuralists in the mid-sixties (and, it should be noted, did nothing at the time to dispute the designation)? It is possible to respond that these authors (whose contemporary partisans fiercely resist their definition as structuralists) at most had a structuralist period: it would be hard to deny that Barthes's Fashion System, published in 1967, is a textbook application of the linguistic model to fashion, while The Pleasure of the Text written a few years later abandons this model almost entirely. The case of Foucault is even more complicated: he himself repeatedly labeled his The Birth of the Clinic, published in 1963, as "a structural study" ("une étude structurale") (although the phrase disappears from the edition of 1972, the edition on which the English translation is based) whose aim was to "treat semantic elements ... as functional segments ... forming a system" (a phrase again omitted from the second edition published in 1972). A review of the debates surrounding the appearance of Les mots et les choses reveals that both his adversaries and his defenders, in France at least, regarded him as part of a structuralist movement. Deleuze, a philosopher seldom associated with structuralism, wrote a very positive overview of structuralism at the end of 1967, at the very moment he was writing the supposedly post-structuralist work Difference and Repetition. The point here is neither to criticize the dominant periodizations in order to propose another that would correspond more exactly to the supposed discontinuities actually discoverable in the writing of the period, nor to draw new boundaries, narrower or more restrictive. I raise these problems in order to suggest we know far less about this period than we think we do, and the received ideas concerning structuralism cannot bear up under scrutiny.

Excerpted from Althusser and His Contemporaries by Warren Montag. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Why Read Althusser Today? 1

Part I. Structure

1. The Theoretical Conjuncture: Structure, Structurality, Structuralism 15

2. Toward a Prehistory of Structuralism: From Montesquieu to Dilthey 23

3. Settling Accounts with Phenomenology: Husserl and His Critics 36

4. Lévi-Strauss: Ancestors and Descendants, Causes and Effects 53

5. Between Spinozists: The Function of Structure in Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze 73

Part II. Subject

6. Marxism and Humanism 103

7. Althusser and Lacan: Toward of Genealogy of the Concept of Interpellation 118

8. Althusser and Foucault: Apparatuses of Subjection 141

Part III. Origin/End

9. The Late Althusser: Materialism of the Encounter or Philosophy of Nothingness? 173

10. The End of Destiny: Althusser before Althusser 190

Afterword 209

Notes 213

Bibliography 231

Index 243

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