Althusser

Nick Lawrence V121NQND at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
Fri Aug 12 15:05:11 MDT 1994


Though I share Jon's skepticism regarding Lacan, I don't see the feasability of
"excising all traces of Lacanianism" from Althusser's project. In order to
answer the question "How does (capitalist) society reproduce itself?" in a non-
economistic way (i.e. in a way that could take advantage of his freshly posited
notions of overdetermination and of the partial autonomy of superstructural
spheres) Althusser needed to account for the role ideology plays in ISAs like
the School (modern counterpart to the Church), and from thence was led willy-
nilly to a theory of ideology in general.

And this is where students from the gaggle of disciplines Pete Bratsis mentions
began to prick up their ears. Because Althusser remodeled his theory of ideology
(after dispensing with that contained in Marx's _German Ideology_) according to
a Lacan-derived understanding of the operations of the Freudian dreamwork. Thus
the oft-cited dictum "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of
individuals to their real conditions of existence," where the concept of a
(symbolically represented) imaginary relationship to the Real takes up Lacan's
terminology and neatly imports it into a correction of the "orthodox" (i.e.
crass, insufficiently mediated) Marxist theory of ideology. This recasting of
ideology promised wondrous things, especially when conjoined with Dictum Number
Two, "Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects," since here was a way to
understand subject formation as an integral part of the mechanisms of social
(especially institutional) reproduction. Borrowing again from Lacan, Althusser
conceives of us (individuals) as misrecognizing ourselves into the system, as
subjects (always-already, natch) of that system. Since *representation* and
*subjectivity* have been, to understate the case, key concerns of a wide
variety of critical approaches to language and culture over the past few
decades, it isn't surprising that Althusser's marriage of a Lacanian theory of
the subject--itself a crossing of Freudian psychoanalysis with Saussurean
linguistics--and an updated Marxist theory of ideology should prove as
tantalizing to theorists of all persuasions as catnip to cats.

Where did the dream fade? The subject, once decentered, went fleeing in all
directions. In my sketchy understanding of developments, British sociology
under Hindess and Hirst took their version of Althusserian theory down one road,
Macherey, Balibar, and Passeron took theirs down another, Eagleton et al down a
third. Zizek states provocatively that Marx anticipated Freud by inventing the
notion of the symptom. Etc.

But the question of if and where they come to grief has as much to do
with Althusser himself as it does with their own efforts. Although the ISA essay
doesn't concern itself specifically with "culture," the implications of
ideology-as-misrecognition extend far beyond the analysis of state institutions:
viz. the preparatory essays "A Letter on Art" and "Cremonini, Painter of the
Abstract" as well as the musings on theory's relation to practice in "Freud and
Lacan." Jon, aren't you in danger of instituting your own epistemological break
in your reading of Althusser?

A final point. Jon writes:

> Later the fact that he killed his wife didn't help old Louis'
> reputation--but again, this is no theoretical failure.

I wonder. Given what we know of Althusser's tortured ambivalence in his
relations with both his wife and the French Communist Party--and given his
nuanced understanding of the relations between theory, technique, and practice--
can we so quickly dismiss the significance this act of murder has for an
appraisal of this thought? I take it as axiomatic that the so-called failures of
provocative thinkers are at least as interesting as their successes, and I'd
argue that it's the gaps, elisions, and contradictions riddling Althusser's
best work--those gaps that he sees in the operations of ideology--that help his
readers become better readers generally. I fear the results of an overly linear,
overly scientistic conception of what's useful in bodies of thought declared
dead and hence ready for exhumation.

Nick
_____________________________
Nick Lawrence
v121nqnd.ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
_____________________________



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