Somewhat overdetermined

Chris Burford cburford at
Sun Jan 15 02:43:59 MST 1995

Those closest to me, I know, regard me as something of an
over-determined personality.

So the world has gone round another half
revolution, I have read Wolff's late postings from the western hemisphere,
the Australians have sensibly relaxed  and here I sit
in London on a Sunday morning, with my lap top, peering intently into this
electronic  culture dish in which  various mutations of  Marx's ideas struggle
to survive and reproduce.
What a good thing that these ideas remain confined to the culture dish.
Or at least remain within the laboratory or the academic world. So
alarming if they were like that mutated bacillus transported by an
enemy who knew about biological warfare, in a sealed train in 1917.

I try to stay philosophical and calm. But strange things happen.
Ideas reverberate in the neurones in people's brains, as they are
with turbulent intensity in my own at the moment.  They may affect
what happens with the material in our limbs, or what people do with the
material of the external world. Appalling tragedies have been inflicted
as a result of ideas held by one enemy about another in this century.
Even  more tragic in a way, contradictions between friends, comrades or
allies have also led to death. Contradictions among the people which
should have been handled non-antagonistically, have become antagonistic.
The Purges,  the Great Leap Forward. The Sino-Soviet Split, The Cultural
Revolution, Althusser's own personal tragedy.

I have found "The Althusserian Legacy" ed Kaplan and Sprinker, Verso 1993
a conveniently sized and engaging point of entry, including Resnick and
Wolff's 13 page essay on "Althusser's Liberation of Marxian Theory.

I sympathise with everything Rick has said in the recent exchanges, and
feel that although we come from different philosophical traditions he is
like me a visually impaired person trying honestly to describe the same
elephant as I, with my partial sight, am also  feeling.

I accept his invitation, if the limited length of an e-mail letter permits, to
step over obstacles of terminology because "I am not particularly taken
with this term overdetemination" (Althusser's own words).
In essence now:
thanks to Rick, I have for the first time in my life read Althusser seriously.
I feel that his concerns are serious, committed and relevant concerns. I
feel that the late letters of Engels, he analysed in such determined detail
in "Contradiction and Overdetemination", are extremely valuable and fine
statements about the dynamic interaction between social and economic
reality. My difference is that if we are looking for the most relevant
terminology in the scientific world to link up to, as Marx and Engels always
tried to do, there are disadvantages in taking the term "overdetermination"
that Freud used in trying to negotiate space at the beginning of the century
from the suffocating influence of the paradigm of Mechanism, which  so
badly cramped  psychological, social, economic and political thinking this
century, including Freudian and Marxist thinking and practice.

Instead I feel there are many indications in Engels' later letters that are
fully compatible with contemporary dynamical systems theory in
maths, and the material sciences, in particular complexity theory.

(In place of "overdetermined" I would like to read "always psycho-socially
conditioned in multiple and complex ways")

This posting is already long enough, but I hope not as indigestibly
condensed as I think I made my last posting. I shall have to consider a
separate posting another time but I want to signal however one more point.

Having re-read his contribution several times, I think David Schwartz is
representing another important part of the situation when he expresses the
fear that,

all we can say is that _we_ don't like the way social life is
organized. It doesn't coincide with _our_ conception of _our_interests.
........................................... The other side will say, well
_we_ like things just fine. And that's it, end of debate. Now we fight.

I hear him as worried about conflict, in the first place conflict in the
outside world where the baddies hold more of the guns than the goodies. By
his posting he has also represented the problem of conflict among the people,
between comrades, in this culture dish.

I must merely suggest for brevity, that parallel with the social phenomena
which Rick describes, and side by side with the relativist tendencies that
Schwartz and Feldman see in his position, an emergent theory and practice
of conflict management, that God, had developed on this planet and this
helps to integrate the different but overlapping subjective perspectives of
pairs of comrades, of cultural groups, of nations. This morning troops are
off the streets of Belfast for the first time for can it really be twenty five
years.  The British government has refrained from sending in troops
forcibly to stop serious conflict by middle class people in the sleepy home
county of Sussex arising from their thoroughly subjective and
arbitrary views about the efficient and desirable way to rear animals to
ensure the necessary material reproduction of protein in our bodies. It is
not comic or trivial. 2 million pounds has had to be spent on policing, but
other methods of conflict management have come into play, not least an
alliance between the impassioned protesters and the giant supermarket
chains who started in turn to ban sales back from the continent.

Dare I suggest that the state is already finding it prudent to wither away
as a coercive force even before we have reached the nirvana of socialism?
Or would that cause another round of conflict in this tiny culture dish?

Chris Burford
Community Psychiatrist, specialising in schizophrenia.
Member of the Forum for Marxism, Philosophy and Science,
and the Southern Africa Economic Research Unit, SAERU.

London                                      "Only connect..."


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