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Encountering Althusser
Politics and Materialism in Contemporary Radical Thought
Edited by

Katja Diefenbach Sara R. Farris Gal Kirn and Peter D. Thomas


Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 175 Fifth Avenue 50 Bedford Square New York London NY 10010 WC1B 3DP USA UK www.bloomsbury.com www.janvaneyck.nl First published 2013 This publication was made possible by the generous support of the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht. Katja Diefenbach, Sara R. Farris, Gal Kirn, and Peter D. Thomas All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury Academic or the author. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Encountering Althusser: politics and materialism in contemporary radical thought / edited by Katja Diefenbach ... [et al.]. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-4411-5213-8 (pbk : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-1-4411-4636-6 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Althusser, Louis, 1918-1990--Political and social views. 2. Political science--Philosophy. I. Diefenbach, Katja. JC261.A45E63 2013 320.53--dc23 2012021316 ISBN: 978-1-4411-1915-5 Typeset by Fakenham Prepress Solutions, Fakenham, Norfolk NR21 8NN

Notes on Contributors viii Introduction: Encountering Althusser xiii

Part I Aleatory materialism and the philosophy of the encounter1

1 The hazards of aleatory materialism in the late philosophy of Louis Althusser

Andr Tosel 3
2 Rethinking aleatory materialism

Panagiotis Sotiris 27
3 An immense aspiration to being: the causality and temporality of the aleatory

Giorgos Fourtounis 43
4 History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact:

Machiavelli in the last Althusser Vittorio Morfino 61

5 The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy

Katja Kolek 75
6 The very essence of the object, the soul of Marxism and other singular things:

Spinoza in Althusser 195967 G. M. Goshgarian 89

Part II Althussers non-contemporaries113

7 Althusser, Machiavelli and us: between philosophy and politics

Mikko Lahtinen 115

vi Contents

8 Conjuncture, conflict, war: Machiavelli between Althusser and Foucault (19756)

Warren Montag 127

9 Althussers last encounter: Gramsci

Peter D. Thomas 137

10 Althusser and Spinoza: the enigma of the subject

Caroline Williams 153

11 Althusser with Deleuze: how to think Spinozas immanent cause

Katja Diefenbach 165

12 Althusser and Tronti: the primacy of politics versus the autonomy of the political

Sara R. Farris 185

Part III Thinking production and reproduction205

13 Louis Althusser and the concept of economy

Ceren zseluk 207

14 Althusser and the critique of political economy

Michele Cangiani 225

15 The problem of reproduction: probing the lacunae of Althussers theoretical

investigations of ideology and ideological state apparatuses Frieder Otto Wolf 247
16 To think the new in the absence of its conditions:

Althusser and Negri and the philosophy of primitive accumulation Jason Read 261

Part IV The materiality of ideology, the primacy of politics273

17 The impossible break: ideology in movement between philosophy and politics

Isabelle Garo 275



18 The theory of ideology and the theory of the unconscious

Pascale Gillot 289

19 Ideological interpellation: identification and subjectivation

Rastko Moc nik 307

20 Es kmmt drauf an: notes on Althussers critique of the subject

Ozren Pupovac 323

21 Between the tenth and eleventh theses on Feuerbach:

Althussers return to new materialism Gal Kirn 335

Bibliography 352 Index of Works 368 Index of Names 370 Index of Concepts 374

Notes on Contributors
Michele Cangiani is Associate Professor, in the Dipartimento di Filosofia e Beni Culturali, Universit Ca Foscari Venezia (Italy). He is a member of the Board of Directors, Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy. Recent publications include: Freedom to plan: on Kapps institutional outlook, in Social Costs and Public Action in Modern Capitalism, ed. by W. Elsner, P . Frigato, P . Ramazzotti (Routledge 2006); From Menger to Polanyi: The Institutional Way, in Austrian Economics in Transition, ed. by H. Hagemann, Y. Ikeda, T. Nishizawa (Palgrave Macmillan 2010); Karl Polanyis Institutional Theory: Market Society and Its Disembedded Economy, Journal of Economic Issues, XLV, 1, 2011. Katja Diefenbach is Advising Researcher at the Theory Department, Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, where she directs a research project on the notion of politics in post-Marxism. She has taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Arts, Berlin, and the Faculty of Philosophy III, Humboldt University, Berlin. Her research interests are the relationship between Marxism and post-structuralism, in particular the readings of Spinoza in Althusser, Deleuze, Agamben and Negri. Recent publications include texts on post-structuralism and post-workerism in Inventionen, ed. by I. Lorey et al. (Diaphanes 2011), Becoming Major, Becoming Minor, ed. by V. Brito et al. (JVE 2011); Virtualitt und Kontrolle, ed. by H.J. Lenger et.al. (Textem 2010); Andersheit, Fremdheit, Exklusion, ed. by B. Heiter et.al. (Parados 2009). Sara R. Farris is Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science in Princeton (201213) and an Associated Researcher at Kings College, London. She is a sociologist and political theorist. Her main interests include classical and contemporary social and political theory, migration studies, gender studies, intersectionality, critical discourse theory. She is the author of Politics Enchanted. Religion, Subjectivity and Nationalism in Max Weber (Brill 2013) and co-editor of La Straniera. Informazioni, sito-bibliografie e ragionamenti su razzismo e sessismo (Alegre 2009). She is the author of numerous articles on sociological and political theory, international migrations and gender studies. She is member of the Editorial Board of Critical Sociology and Corresponding Editor for Historical Materialism. Giorgos Fourtounis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Political Science and History, Panteion University (Athens). One of his major research interests is French post-war philosophy, especially (post)structuralism and historical epistemology, particularly in the works of Althusser, Foucault and Canguilhem. He publishes regularly on these topics and is co-author (with A. Baltas) of Louis Althusser and the End of Classical Marxism: the Precarious Immortality of a Null Philosophy (Athens 1994, in Greek).

Notes on Contributors


Isabelle Garo is co-director of the Seminar Marx au XXIe sicle, lesprit et la lettre at the Sorbonne and co-editor of the journal Contretemps. She is the author of numerous articles and books on philosophy and Marxism, including Marx et linvention historique (Syllepse 2012); L idologie ou la pense embarque (La Fabrique 2009); Marx, une critique de la philosophie (Seuil 2000), and editor of Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser, lecteurs de Marx: La politique dans la philosophie (Dmopolis 2011). Pascale Gillot is Member of the research team Institut dHistoire de la Pense Classique at the cole Normale Suprieure in Lyon. Her work concerns the relationship between early modern theories of mind and subjectivity, and contemporary approaches in the analytic philosophy of mind as well as in the French tradition. She is the author of L esprit. Figures classiques et contemporaines (CNRS Editions 2007) and Althusser et la psychanalyse (PUF 2009). She has co-edited, with Pierre Cassou-Nogus, Le concept, le sujet et la science (Vrin 2009). G. M. Goshgarian taught American literature and civilisation for 11 years at the University of Burgundy in Dijon before becoming a fulltime freelance translator from French, German and Armenian into English in 2000. He has translated three collections of Louis Althussers posthumous writings into English for Verso Books, including introductions. He is currently working towards the publication in English translation of a number of unpublished books and other texts by Althusser. Gal Kirn is currently Research Fellow at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. He completed his dissertation in philosophy at the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences (Ljubljana), where he combines contemporary French philosophy (especially Louis Althusser) with the history of the emergence of revolutionary Yugoslavia and its tragic break-up. He is a co-editor of Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (JVE 2012); editor of Postfordism and its discontents (JVE, B-Books and Mirovni Intitut 2010) and co-editor of New Public Spaces. Dissensual political and artistic practices in the postYugoslav context (JVE and Moderna Galerija 2009). He comments on politics in the Slovenian weekly Objektiv. In his hometown Ljubljana he participates in the Workers-Punks University. Katja Kolek is Research Fellow at the Jan van Eyck Academie, the Science and Research Centre of Koper (Primorska, Slovenia) and Assistant Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies of the Faculty of Humanities (Primorska, Slovenia). Her research interests include theories of ideology, problems of contemporary philosophy of politics, dialectics and materialism, work of Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancire. Her current research focuses on the questions of Chinese dialectics and Alain Badious Maoism. She also translates modern and contemporary Chinese fiction into Slovenian. Recent publications include: Philosophy of the Late Althusser as the Science of the Void (Problemi 2007); Economy as the Ideological Superstructure of the Contemporary State: the Neoliberal Attack on Public School (Problemi 2010, in Slovenian); Democracy as the Philosophical Concept (Filozofski vestnik 2010, in Slovenian) and The Other of Democracy: Problems of Immanence and Otherness in Contemporary Theories Of Democracy (Koper 2011, in Slovenian).

x Notes on Contributors

Mikko Lahtinen is a Senior Lecturer in political science in the University of Tampere (Finland). His research interests include the history of political philosophy, the history of ideas and theories of political action. His several publications on Althusser and on materialist politics include Politics and Philosophy. Niccol Machiavelli and Louis Althussers Aleatory Materialism (Brill 2009). He has also contributed Althusserian entries to the Historisch-kritisches Wrterbuch des Marxismus (Argument). Rastko Monik is Professor of Theory of Discourse and Epistemology of the Humanities in the Philosophy of Arts, University of Ljubljana. He has published extensively in the fields of literary theory, the critique of political economy, history of socialism, cultural theory and sociology. His major books include: Three Theories: ideology, nation, institution (Ljubljana: zaloba 1999, in Slovenian); Global Economy and Revolutionary Politics (Ljubljana: zaloba 2006, in Slovenian). He also contributed an article on Ideology and Fantasy to The Althusserian Legacy (Verso 1993). Warren Montag is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He has published widely on Marxism, contemporary French philosophy and the history of philosophy. He is the author of Louis Althusser (Palgrave 2002); Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries (Verso 1999) and The Unthinkable Swift: the Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man (Verso 1994). He is co-editor of Masses, Classes and The Public Sphere (Verso 2001) and The New Spinoza (Minnesota Press 1997). He is the editor of Dcalages: An Althusser Studies Journal. Vittorio Morfino is a Senior Researcher in the History of Philosophy at the Universit di Milano-Bicocca. He is the author of Substantia sive Organismus (Guerini 1997), Sulla violenza. Una lettura di Hegel (Ibis 2000); Il tempo e loccasione. L incontro Spinoza Machiavelli (LED 2002); Incursioni spinoziste (Mimesis 2002) Il tempo della moltitudine (Manifestolibri 2005) and Spinoza e il non contemporaneo (Ombre corte 2009). He has edited Spinoza contra Leibniz (Unicopli 1994); La Spinoza Renaissance nella Germania di fine Settecento (Unicopli 2000); L abisso dellunica sostanza (Quodlibet 2009), as well as the Italian edition of the late writings of Louis Althusser (Mimesis 2000). He is an editor of Quaderni materialisti and of Dcalages. Ceren zseluk is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, Boazii University, Istanbul. Her research intersects the fields of post-Althusserian thought, Marxian political economy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. She is a member of the editorial board of the journal Rethinking Marxism. She has published and co-authored essays in edited book volumes and a number of academic journals in English and Turkish, such as Rethinking Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Subjectivity and Toplum ve Bilim. She is currently finishing a book entitled, Economic Necessity, Political Contingency and the Limits of Post-Marxism (forthcoming in Routledge, New Political Economy Book Series). Ozren Pupovac is a philosopher and social theorist based in Berlin. He studied In Zagreb, Warsaw and London. He was a researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht and the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedrich Schiller Universitt in Jena. He has published on Marxist philosophy and the (post)-Yugoslav

Notes on Contributors


political context, and translated works of Badiou, Rancire and Althusser into Serbo-Croatian. His work focuses on contemporary French thought, German idealism, Marxism and the question of the subject. Since 2008, he runs, together with Bruno Besana, the Versus Laboratory research platform. Jason Read is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (SUNY 2003) as well as numerous articles on Althusser, Negri, Spinoza, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. He is currently completing a manuscript entitled Relations of Production: Transindividuality between Economics and Politics for the Historical Materialism book series. Among his publications on Althusser are: The Althusser Effect: Philosophy, History, and Temporality (Borderlands 2005) and Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism (Rethinking Marxism 2002). Panagiotis Sotiris is Adjunct Lecturer in Political and Social Philosophy in the Department of Sociology, University of the Aegean, in Mytilene. His research interests include Marxist philosophy, the work of Louis Althusser, post-Marxist theory, and the theory of imperialism. He is the author of Communism and Philosophy. The Theoretical Adventure of Louis Althusser (2004, in Greek). Peter D. Thomas is Lecturer in the History of Political Thought at Brunel University, London. His research interests include Marxist theory and philosophy, the history of modern political thought and theories of the political. He is the author of The Gramscian Moment. Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Brill 2009). He is also the translator of Antonio Negris Goodbye Mr Socialism, (Seven Stories Press 2008); (with Alberto Toscano) Alain Badiou and Slavoj ieks, Philosophy in the Present (Polity 2009) and (with Sara R. Farris) Mario Trontis The Autonomy of the Political (forthcoming 2013). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism: research in critical Marxist theory. Andr Tosel is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nice. His research interests include political philosophy, the history of Marxism and philosophies of globalisation. His publications include Marx et sa critique de la politique (Cesare Luporini and Etienne Balibar (Maspero 1979); Praxis: Vers une refondation en philosophie marxiste, (Editions Sociales 1984) and Le marxisme du 20e sicle (Syllepse 2009). Caroline Williams is Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. She is author of Contemporary French Philosophy: Modernity and the Persistence of the Subject (Athlone Press 2001) as well as articles on Spinoza, Althusser, Lacan, Castoriadis, poststructuralism and subjectivity. She is currently completing a monograph entitled Spinoza and Political Critique: Thinking the Political in the Wake of Althusser. Frieder Otto Wolf is Professor for Philosophy at the Freie Universitt Berlin and a former member of the European Parliament. He is the translator and editor of the complete works of Louis Althusser in German. He is a co-Initiator of the German network Forum for a New Politics of Labour and currently president of the German Humanist Association (HVD). He is a member

xii Notes on Contributors

of Advisory Editorial Boards of Das Argument, Historical Materialism, Cosmopolitiques and cologie et Politique. His books include Die Neue Wissenschaft des Thomas Hobbes (Frommann-Holzboog 1969); Radikale Philosophie (Westflisches Dampfboot 2002) and (as co-author) Europes Green Alternative: A Manifesto For a New World (Black Rose Books 1992 and 1996).

Introduction: Encountering Althusser

A detour of theory
he work of Louis Althusser and his associates in the 1960s and 1970s attempted to rethink the philosophical and political potential of Marxs thought. The publication in 1965 of For Marx and Reading Capital quickly took on the dimensions of a genuine event, both for Marxist theory and in the wider critical intellectual culture, not only in France, but internationally. On the one hand, those two volumes proposed a renewal of Marxism by means of its elaboration as a rigorous theoretical research programme in critical dialogue with, but possessing its own relative autonomy from, left-wing political practice and organisation; on the other hand, these interventions combatively declared the emergence of a current of Marxist theory with ambitions to measure itself against the most advanced theoretical developments that had occurred outside the Marxist tradition in the twentieth century, as a mode of immanent politicisation. This operation aimed to strengthen the materialist tendency within Marxism, detaching it from economistic and evolutionist deformations and all idealising figures of reconciliation. Althussers attempt to write a philosophy for Marx purified of onto-theological remainders began as a search for a non-Hegelian dialectic without guarantees, but soon led him to undertake a series of theoretical detours, passing by way of limit-readings of Marx with political philosophers of the eighteenth century (Montesquieu, Rousseau) and, subsequently, those belonging to what he would come to call a forgotten underground current of materialist thought (Epicurus, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, later supplemented with Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein and Deleuze). What emerged from this line of research was a differential and topological analysis of societies within the capitalist mode of production and a radically renewed theory of ideology, inspired in part by another long theoretical detour he continuously made throughout his intellectual life, via Lacans return to Freud. The style of thought and sometimes contradictory substantive theses that came to be known as Althusserianism rapidly developed into one of the most influential intellectual paradigms that defined the politico-theoretical conjuncture of pre- and post-1968. It gave rise to a wide variety of new initiatives in many disciplinary fields, on an international scale. Equally as significantly, the prominence of Althusserian themes and approaches stimulated a series of vigorous debates in which the main coordinates of the contemporary radical thought of those years were delineated. Yet the theoretical dimension of Althussers work was always directed toward political ends. Althussers attempt to reinvent Marxism as a sophisticated theoretical paradigm was never an end in itself. Rather, his detour of theory aimed to stimulate political renewal in the French

xiv Introduction: Encountering Althusser

and international communist movements in the long decade straddling 1968. His fidelity to the French Communist Party (PCF) and the model of party organisation as such was not without ambivalence. On the one hand, Althussers criticism of economistic, evolutionist and revisionist positions from within the PCF had the effect of convincing many young activists to stay within a party from which they may otherwise have departed. On the other hand, his interventions were also taken as providing support, albeit not without contradictions, for breaks with communist party orthodoxy, particularly by those attracted to Maoism. While remaining within the PCF , and keeping his distance from traditions to the left of it, Althusser issued increasingly stronger criticisms of his party from the 1960s onwards, until he sought open conflict in the late 1970s, claiming that the party leadership attributed to itself the ideological guarantee of a kind of Absolute Knowledge, even to the extent of reproducing in the Party itself, in the difference between its leaders and its militants, the structure of the bourgeois State.1 Changes in the political conjuncture in the 1980s coinciding with personal tragedy in Althussers own life, when he killed his wife Hlne Rytman in an act inexplicable to himself2 saw an increasing marginalisation of his work and the debates associated with them. Many of the themes explored in Althussers work, such as the critique of essentialism, humanism, teleology and philosophies of the subject, remained important reference points for philosophical discussions. However, the Althusserian initiatives distinctive articulation of theoretical practice with a specifically Marxist form of political engagement increasingly appeared to many to be unable to confront the new challenges of the crisis of Marxism (ironically, announced by Althusser himself), and a new politico-philosophical conjuncture marked by the rise of various post-socialisms and post-Marxisms. The moment of Althusser, it seemed, had definitively passed; as a transitional formation, the product of a very specific theoretical and political conjuncture whose mutation helps to explain its fate,3 Althussers thought was consigned to the past, a remnant, to which one could seemingly only return in a nostalgic way.

Recent years, however, have witnessed a renewed interest in Althussers thought, as a younger generation of researchers interpret it in very different forms.4 In the first instance, this is due to the prominence of some of Althussers former students and those influenced by him in contemporary critical thought, such as Balibar, Rancire, Macherey, Badiou, iek, Laclau and Butler. The themes developed by these authors, also and perhaps even most significantly in their criticisms of and departures from classical Althusserian positions, have allowed hitherto neglected elements of the original Althusserian synthesis to become visible. Among the most significant of these themes, one could mention the problematic status of theoretical anti-humanism in a period of the return of the subject, notions of ideological subjection and interpellation, of over- and underdetermination and articulation, and the relationship between structure and conjuncture. These discussions have indicated the extent to which seemingly settled debates of the past still have the potential to engage critical energies in unforeseen and productive ways. Perhaps even more importantly, the posthumous publication of some of Althussers writings from different stages in his intellectual development, published in English under the

Introduction: Encountering Althusser


titles of the Humanist Controversy and Other Writings and particularly the so-called late writings collected in the Philosophy of the Encounter,5 has encouraged an intense international discussion and debate of Althusserianisms old and new. The central topics of these debates have ranged from the reformulation of conflicting notions of materialism, of the encounter as both philosophical concept and political construction, of the nature of politics and the political, to the internal cleavages in Althussers thought itself. The late Althussers variously entitled materialism of the encounter or aleatory materialism can be regarded as a deepening of some of the most productive perspectives of the original Althusserian moment, particularly in the way it offers many points of contact for a dialogue with thinkers associated with contemporary radical thought in its different affiliations, ranging from post-structuralism to post-workerism, deconstruction, left-Heideggerianism, among many others. At the same time, Althussers formulation of these themes arguably maintains a stronger connection to the Marxist tradition than many recent post-Marxisms, particularly in terms of his continuing affirmation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the primacy of politics and the articulation of economics and politics in a theory of the social whole. Representing a novel philosophical position in its own right, the untimely arrival of the late Althussers thought has thus intersected with and strengthened a widespread revival of interest in the history of Marxism and its possible contemporary forms of inheritance.

Returning to Althusser
In his later years, Althusser explored what he called an underground current in the philosophical tradition, the materialism of the encounter, attempting to free it from its historical repression. Concepts such as the encounter, the swerve and the take [prise] became for him a type of golden thread linking such diverse thinkers as Spinoza, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Heidegger and Derrida in their search of a materialism freed from necessity and teleology. Even more importantly, Althussers specific encounter with these authors and problematics enabled him to open up new and unexplored trajectories within his own work. The encounter with Althusser that we propose in this volume is motivated by a similar need: namely, the need to free the thought of Althusser from the repression to which it was subjected until recently, in the long decades of post-Marxisms and the pense unique. Yet given Althussers subterranean influence on so much of contemporary radical thought, this encounter today can only take place in the form of a return, understood in the specific sense in which his own work was conducted as a return to, or ongoing encounter with, Marx and Marxism. For Althusser, a return to a thinker and the way one reads an intellectual source is never innocent or obvious. With reference to Spinoza, Althusser ceaselessly emphasised that one can read neither a text nor the world in the transparency of their givenness; on the contrary, their internal dislocations reveal any immediate reading to be a religious myth, a yearning for a reading at sight.6 Consequently, at stake in any return is not simply the repetition of a theoretical formula or its application in such a way one would forever circulate in the fictive immediacy of an originary text, but rather, the reinvention of a philosophical and political wager. Thus, in his return to Marx, Althussers principal aim was to think Marx in his historical context, thereby enabling readers to put Marxism into effect in their own times.

xvi Introduction: Encountering Althusser

At the same time, by grasping the theoretical repetition of an author as his or her differentiation in short, by knowing that to do it again is to do it differently Althusser turned to one of the great theoretical problematics of French critical thought in the second half of the twentieth century: namely, the return to a tradition in order to undo it from within, intensifying its productive contradictions in the act of seeking to efface them. One need only think of Lacans return to Freud, in order to analyse repetition as return of enjoyment, as its surplus stepping over the limits of the pleasure principle and seeking an excess over life; Deleuzes return to Nietzsche, pinpointing the torsion immanent to repetition that makes nothing but difference recur; or Derridas return to Heideggers formula of being as ecstatic difference to itself, in order to understand the disseminating deferral of difference. Althussers texts on Marxs philosophy reverberate with similarly diverging formulas of a repeating reinvention. Both the originality and aporia of Althussers return to Marx can be partially traced back to a very peculiar combination of an epistemological with a deconstructive strategy of reading. While Bachelard presupposed that a new scientific approach occurs unreservedly, by destroying the entire metaphorical texture of errors characterising previous positions in a theoretical field, a deconstructive understanding of symptomal reading finds in the old problematic the trace of the new one. The tension generated by this double understanding of the potential of a symptomal study of an author made Althusser constantly repeat his return to Marx, until he finally encountered in him a finite and heterogeneous body of ideas that cannot be reduced to the purity of a theoretical rupture. Rather, it can only be comprehended in the complex construction of an unfinished concatenation of concepts, each opening a specific field of problematisation, each supplementing and differing from the other, across and within their breaks; in other words, in the ongoing encounter that is the permanent revocation of the accomplished fact of Marxism itself as an unfinished project.7

Encountering Althusser
The most recent volumes of critical commentaries on Althusser in English date from the early to mid-1990s, prior to the widespread availability of the late Althussers texts in the Anglophone world in the last decade.8 This volume seeks to fill this significant gap. The texts collected in this volume originated in contributions to an international conference hosted by the Theory Department at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht in October 2009. Additionally, a number of other authors were invited to contribute texts in order to compose a representative volume of contemporary Althusserian scholarship in different fields, in an international (admittedly, largely European) perspective. The division of the texts in four different sections aims to provide a survey of a significant dimension of Althussers thought, while also representing an intervention into the existing forms of discussion of the Althusserian legacy.

Aleatory materialism and the philosophy of the encounter

The late Althussers proposal of the philosophy of the encounter or an aleatory materialism has constituted one of the most fertile fields of investigation in Althusserian scholarship in recent years, giving rise to divergent and sometimes opposed readings regarding supposed continuities

Introduction: Encountering Althusser


and discontinuities in the development of Althussers thought. Following the publication in French of Althussers late writings in the 1990s, one interpretative current attempted to argue for a break or even Kehre in Althussers thinking, which abandoned the theoretical structure of For Marx and Reading Capital. More recently, another interpretation has emphasised continuities and attempted to demonstrate an on-going break in Althussers thought, within and against itself, in an act of self-critical redefinition. Many of the texts in this section subject these readings to philological scrutiny, seeking to delineate the internal coherence of the late Althussers incomplete texts, comparing them to his earlier positions, and identifying productive research fields that emerge from these encounters. Their unifying concern is to measure the extent to which aleatory materialism or the philosophy of the encounter can be interpreted and proposed as an intervention into the Kampfplatz of contemporary radical thought. Andr Tosels chapter considers the strengths and limitations of aleatory materialism. On the one hand, for Tosel the late Althusser successfully criticised the logocentric presuppositions of conventional materialisms. On the other hand, Tosel questions whether the new concept enabled Althusser to think the contingent relationship between ideology and class struggle and whether his heterodox genealogy of materialism ultimately ends up imitating traditional forms of philosophy. In a similar way, Panagiotis Sotiriss text focuses on aleatory materialism both in terms of its points of originality as well as in its contradictions. While Sotiris notes continuities with Althussers earlier texts, for instance, in the insistence on non-historicism and on the need for a transformation of philosophical practice, he ultimately argues that the late writingss emphasis upon the importance of contingent encounters is a source of contradictions. The texts by Giorgos Fourtounis and Vittorio Morfino, on the other hand, offer examinations of the importance of Machiavelli for Althussers definition of aleatory materialism. While Fortounis reads the Florentine Secretarys influence on Althusser through the lenses of the homology between the notions of aleatory encounter and that of an absolute beginning (both understood as notions of the radical emergence of a structured singularity or aleatory structuralism), Morfino reads Althussers Machiavelli through Darwin. For Morfino, it is the latter author who enables us to pose in a correct way the thesis of the primacy of the encounter over the form and to refute Schmittian interpretations of the role played by Machiavelli in the late Althussers aleatory materialism. The last two chapters of this section address the question of the thesis of the discontinuity, or even rupture, between the early and the later Althusser. Katja Koleks text argues that the relation between the epistemology of Althussers earlier materialist philosophy and the supposed ontology of his later period consists in the void as the object of the parallax view, between overdetermination and aleatoriness. Finally, G. M. Goshgarian demonstrates the continuity between early and late Althusser by showing how Althussers theory of the encounter, in which Spinozas Ethics in particular played a pivotal role, is prefigured in work from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Albeit distinct from the materialism of the encounter he elaborated from 1972 onwards, Goshgarians notion of an early late Althusser sets out to indicate the existence of similar problematics throughout the period between 1959 and 1967 .

Althussers non-contemporaries
Althussers theoretical production, in all of its phases, was marked by a series of encounters with significant others, from both within and outside the Marxist tradition. Simultaneously his

xviii Introduction: Encountering Althusser

contemporaries and non-contemporaries, not simply in the sense of chronological proximity or distance but also in the sense of uniting and dividing concerns, Althussers distinctive readings of these authors helped to define his own project to a much greater extent, and included a much wider range of authors, than is commonly recognised in existing critical commentary. Furthermore, particularly in Althussers late writings, we can retrospectively discern subterranean currents of influence of which even and especially Althusser was unaware, overdetermining his texts and opening them up to their productive incompletion. The contributions to this section of the volume trace the extraordinary conflictual richness of Althussers practice of reading Marx by means of and through his non-contemporaries, who were at the same time Althussers own unheimlich interlocutors. Mikko Lahtinens chapter introduces Machiavelli as an author occupying a solitary key position in Althussers philosophical topology. As the first theoretician of the political conjuncture, Machiavelli is important for Althusser due to his analysis of the conflictual relations of forces that compose a conjuncture and the occasions it discloses for intervention. However, in comparison with Gramsci, Lahtinen argues, Althusser evades any concrete analyses regarding the political relationship of intellectuals and masses and the question of organisation. Similar themes are explored in Warren Montags chapter, which approaches Althussers Machiavelli through one of his encounters with Foucault, the marks of which are only legible in the margins of both authors texts. Machiavelli, Montag claims, allowed Althusser to return to the problem of multiple temporalities posed in Reading Capital, in order to emphasise the production of the new over that of reproduction. Montag not only highlights the Althusserian resonances of Foucaults Machiavelli, but also discerns a tension in Foucault, oscillating between the idea that the prince is an impersonal integration of a conflictual field of forces and the figure of the princes reintegration into a paradigm of sovereignty. Peter D. Thomas continues this effort to complexify Althussers reading of different authors by revisiting his encounter with Gramsci. Thomas deconstructs Althussers early criticism of Gramsci, claiming that rather than the Hegelianising model of the social totality attributed to him by Althusser, Gramsci instead presupposes the non-contemporaneity of the present and an anti-essentialist theory of translatability of politics, philosophy and history a position to which the late Althusser seemingly comes close, in the interval of a distance taken, in his considerations of a non-philosophy to come. In their respective chapters, Caroline Williams and Katja Diefenbach discuss the enduring presence of Spinoza throughout Althussers work. Mapping the internal cleavages in Althussers reading of Spinoza, Williams specifies the different usages made of his thought, in order to tackle epistemological, topological and ideological problematics. By highlighting the difference that Althusser introduces between the subject (subjected through interpellation) and the subject of the unconscious (subverting the first position), Williams emphasises in Althusser the concept of a subjectivity without a subject, which Alain Badiou has characterised as Althussers intra-philosophical mark of politics. Diefenbach, in a different perspective, refers to Deleuze in order to problematise the residual Hegelianism and instabilities in the idea of immanent causality in the early and late Althusser. Focussing on the category of intensive infinity in Deleuze, Diefenbach questions the extent to which traces of Lacans causality of the impossible and the Heideggerian influences in the meta-ontological concept of the encounter developed by the late Althusser can be reconciled with Spinozas idea of positive determination and dissimilar expression.

Introduction: Encountering Althusser


Finally, Sara R. Farris provides a comparative analysis of Tronti and Althussers reflections on the state in the 1970s. In their proximity both declared the crisis of Marxism and the insufficiency of Marxs theory of politics and state, criticised determinism and economism, and found Lenins reflections on the nature of the state to be superior to Marxs Farris detects a major cleavage. While Tronti affirmed state mediation as the only possible level of political confrontation, Althusser asserted in the late 1970s the primary role of the masses for a politics aiming to disable the state machinery.

Thinking production and reproduction

One of the central aims of Reading Capital was to contribute to the revival of a philosophically informed Marxist critique of political economy. At the same time, chapters in that book and many of the essays collected in For Marx explored themes related to different forms of political struggle and, in particular, the tradition of ideology theory. Classical Althusserianism was constituted by a productive tension between these dimensions of production and reproduction, without ever being able to offer a wholly satisfactory answer regarding the conditions of their relationship or, even more crucially, their transformation. The texts in this section of the collection draw upon both classical Althusserianism and the late Althusser in order to think production and reproduction at the same time, in their distinction and unity, as integral elements of the capitalist mode of production. In particular, they aim to explore the resources that Althusser provides for reunifying perspectives from the critique of political economy and the critique of politics that are often divided in much contemporary postMarxist thought. This section of the collection thus explores the extent to which Althussers renovation of a Marxist critique of political economy has the capacity to interact productively with contemporary themes such as political anthropology, necessity versus contingency, class constitution and primitive accumulation. The section opens with an analysis by Ceren zseluk focusing on Althussers treatment of the concept of economy, which is scrutinised both in terms of the role Althusser ascribed to it in the development of Marxs critique of political economy and in terms of the tensions that the concept itself creates within Althussers own work. Still remaining within the horizon opened by Reading Capital, Michele Cangianis text analyses Althussers problematic approach to the structure of the first volume of Capital in its productive frictions, that is, as a fruitful misinterpretation which allows a deeper understanding of the Marxian problematic. Moving to Althussers texts of the late 1960s and 1970s, Frieder Otto Wolf highlights the problem of reproduction, emphasising in particular the anti-functionalist dimensions of Althussers conjugation of the problem of the reproduction of the relations of production and the critique of domination. Finally, Jason Reads chapter considers Althussers aleatory materialist phase through the lenses of the category of primitive accumulation. Placing his thought at the crossroad of traditions which include Deleuze, Badiou and Negri, Read attempts to re-read primitive accumulation not just through an engagement with Marx, but with and against the dominant and underground currents within the history of philosophy.

xx Introduction: Encountering Althusser

The materiality of ideology, the primacy of politics

Althussers work in the 1960s opened the way towards an exploration of the materiality of ideology, particularly in texts such as Marxism and Humanism and the famous Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses essay. Positing ideology in terms irreducible to the consciousness of a subject or a class, Althusser provided elements for theory of the subject as a material effect of ideology, centred on the concept of interpellation. However, this line of research on ideology was linked to the problem of thinking the state and its abolition in terms of the primacy of politics as a transformative instance that immanently ruptures the relations of production and reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. Subsequently some of the debates, criticisms and attempted inheritances of Althussers thought have tended to assume a binary opposition in terms of thinking about Althussers conceptualisation of the relationship between ideology and politics. The texts in the last section aim to reunite the theorisation of ideology and politics in Althussers thought, even and especially in its most problematic dimensions. The first text of Isabelle Garo provides a critical synthesis of recent discussions and a general theoretical introduction to Althussers continual movement between ideology and politics. Pascale Gillot focuses on the question of ideological interpellation by means of a close reading and encounter with Spinoza and Lacan, arguing for a specific understanding of Althussers concept of the subject. Rastko Monik, on the other hand, attempts to supplement Althussers work with concepts drawn from discourse-analysis that were absent or under-theorized in his theory of ideology. He also attempts to answer the question regarding the possibility of a theory of interpellation outside psychoanalysis and its potential articulation with a theory of politics. The last two chapters focus on Althussers oscillating conceptions of philosophy and its relations to science and politics. Ozren Pupovacs chapter revisits Althussers critique of the subject, stressing the importance of the eleventh of the Theses on Feuerbach, whereas Gal Kirn attempts to defend a reading that moves between the tenth and eleventh theses, in the perspective of the project of a new materialism. Taken together, these contributions emphasise the extent to which Althussers famous theses on ideology can only be adequately comprehended in a perspective that foregrounds question of the political constitution of the social formation and class struggle.

Between return and encounter

Taken in its totality, this collection presents novel perspectives on the potentials, limits and contradictions of Althussers thought, in its various phases. Combining philological studies of recently published texts with re-examinations of classical theses, alongside engagement with the key themes of broader contemporary philosophical and political debates, this volume aims to contribute to the growing recognition that Althussers work represents not merely one of the most important historical sources of contemporary radical thought, but also one of its unresolved challenges. Ultimately, returning to Althusser today does not mean to repeat his return to Marx or other thinkers, but to understand how such a strategy of a return to the past can function as a theoretical laboratory for encountering the forms of a possible intervention in the present.

Introduction: Encountering Althusser


1 Marxism Today (Althusser 1990a), p. 278. See also What Must Change in the Party, (Althusser 1978b). 2 See the autobiography The Future lasts a Long Time and The Facts (Althusser 1993d) for Althusser's attempt to give an account of his act. 3 Elliott, 1992, p. 34. Elliott further argued that Althussers work, occupied a unique and precarious place in modern intellectual history between a tradition of Marxism, which he radically criticized and sought to reconstruct, and a post-Marxism , which has submerged its predecessor, and in which the class of 68 has found its self-image (pp. 334). 4 Monographs dedicated to parts or the entirety of Althussers thought that have been published in recent years include Warren Montag's Althusser (Palgrave Macmillan 2002); Luke Ferretters Louis Althusser (Routledge 2005); a new edition of Gregory Elliotts now classic study Althusser: The Detour of Theory (Brill/Haymarket, 2007) and Mikko Lahtinens Politics and Philosophy: Niccol Machiavelli and Louis Althussers Aleatory Materialism (Brill 2009). The first issue of the international Althusser studies Journal Dcalages, under the editorship of Warren Montag, was published in 2012. 5 Both published at Verso (2003 and 2006, respectively). 6 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 16. 7 Althusser 2006a, p. 174. 8 The three most recent collected volumes in English date from 1993 (The Althusserian Legacy, edited by Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker), 1994 (Althusser: A Critical Reader, edited by Gregory Elliott) and 1995 (Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Tradition, edited by Antonio Callari and David Ruccio), though the journal Borderlands dedicated an entire issue to the late Althussers thought in 2005, edited by David McInerney. In France, shortly after Althussers death, Sylvain Lazarus edited Politique et philosophie dans loeuvre de Louis Althusser (PUF: Paris 1993). Sartre, Lukcs, Althusser. Des marxistes en philosophie, edited by Kouvelakis and Charbonnier (Paris: PUF 2005) is partly dedicated to Althusser. Jean-Claude Bourdin has more recently edited the collection Althusser: une lecture de Marx (Paris: PUF 2008). In Italy, papers from the international Althusser studies conference in Venice in 2006 were published in two volumes, in Rileggere il Capitale (2007) and La lezione di Louis Althusser (2009), both edited by Maria Turchetto.

Part One

Aleatory materialism and the philosophy of the encounter

The hazards of aleatory materialism in the late philosophy of Louis Althusser1
Andr Tosel

... [T]he philosophy of the encounter whose existence, cause and fecundity I will be pleading has nothing at all speculative about it. It is, rather, the key to what we have read of Marx and, as it were, understood of what is thrust upon us: this world, torn between powers in collusion and the crisis which unites them in its circle, diabolical because it is almost entirely unknown ... This detour via theory ... is there only to enable us to understand politics, that politics in which we are engaged, that politics in which we are lost and without bearings.2

Towards a philosophical reading of the late Althusser

ouis Althusser (191890) is in danger of fading into posterity because of the tragedy which, on 16 November 1980, made of him the murderer of his wife. The figure cut by this philosopher who renewed Marxist thought in France, and who enjoyed international influence from 1964 to 1978, is now threatened with erasure. The part played in his thought by the psychiatric troubles from which he suffered and from which he sought to cure himself is a legitimate object of study. We are not qualified to pursue this path, but we appreciate the unbearable character of the figure of the criminal philosopher. We choose to retain the image of a liberal and attentive master. We wish especially to interrogate the philosophers late thought, that which was sketched out in the 1970s, and which was given public expression in the 1978 text Solitude de Machiavel [Machiavellis Solitude] itself a summary of previous seminars given at the cole normale suprieure. It is encapsulated in the sibylline formula materialism of the encounter, or aleatory materialism. Its explication can be traced throughout the manuscripts devoted to an autobiography which was intended as a defence of philosophy had he not been

Encountering Althusser

deemed insane at the moment of the murderous event. The editors of Louis Althussers unpublished works have now published his 1992 autobiography, The Future Lasts Forever;3 they have also collected, in the first tome of crits philosophiques et politiques,4 the theoretical texts composed in 1982 under the title The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter.5 It so happens that Althusser himself used the themes of certain of these texts as material for an interview with the Mexican academic, Fernanda Navarro (published in Spanish in 1985). This interview, his last public text, was published posthumously in French in the collection Sur la philosophie.6 He himself presents, in these few lines, the essential argument: ... instead of thinking contingency as a modality of necessity, or an exception to it, we must think necessity as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies. My intention, here, is to insist on the existence of a materialist tradition that has not been recognized by the history of philosophy. That of Democritus, Epicurus, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau (the Rousseau of the second Discourse), Marx and Heidegger, together with the categories that they defended: the void, the limit, the margin, the absence of a centre, the displacement of the centre to the margin (and vice versa), and freedom. A materialism of the encounter, of contingency in sum, of the aleatory, which is opposed even to the materialisms that have been recognized as such, including that commonly attributed to Marx, Engels and Lenin, which, like every other materialism of the rationalist tradition, is a materialism of necessity and teleology, that is, a disguised form of idealism. It is clearly because it represented a danger that the philosophical tradition has interpreted it and deflected it towards an idealism of freedom ...7

Against the rationalist tradition of materialism. Elements of a geneaology

A surprising genealogy
Althusserian research initially presents itself as the genealogy of the underground current, or, rather, as the revelation of discontinuous moments in this karstic river along with the revelation of philosophical theses which are held to be pertinent, and all this without the least historical analysis of this discontinuity or of its causes. The unpublished version of the text does not always coincide with the elements retained for the interview, Philosophy and Marxism, since this eliminates Spinoza from the presentation of the whole. The current of this materialism thus includes Democritus, Epicurus (and therefore Lucretius), Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, the Rousseau of the second Discourse, Marx, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida. Let us examine the significant characteristics.

He is in many ways the eponymous hero. He offers the basic model which is indissolubly physical and ontological. Epicurus is the first philosopher whom Marx studied in his doctoral thesis, and whose originality he stresses as lying in the process of decomposition of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics through the development of a theory of the clinamen of atoms, a

The hazards of aleatory materialism

theory he singles out as an anticipation of free subjectivity. Althusser does not evoke this Marx. It is the contingency of things which interests him. At the beginning of Epicurean philosophy: rain. The rain of atoms falling through the void, propelled by their own weight. Yet almost instantaneously we do not know precisely when or where an infinitesimal deviation occurs from the predicted trajectory: an atom, instead of continuing to fall indefinitely in its series, in parallel with other series, collides [choque] with another atom, which then collides with others. It produces a pile-up which follows an immanent order of exponential reproduction. The physical properties of atoms (size, speed, weight) are of less import than that which enables their reciprocal collisions, that of linking themselves together, attaching themselves to each other to form provisional aggregates. Thus is born a world which is neither necessary nor the only possible one, which is not the result of an intention, nor of an end, nor of any other reason, but the causal-contingent fact of being there; and yet it can be enlarged to other atoms which encounter it and which it links to itself. It is only thus that this relatively stabilised world can develop its own laws (of a physico-materialist kind). An infinity of worlds of this kind is born: none of them is assured it will last, each of them can disaggregate and die as it is born by chance, a mere case. No logos, no pronoia, nothing guarantees the eternity of such a singular world. It can undergo accidit ruptures of linkages, as delinked atoms return to their parallel trajectories in the void. Only the atoms and the void are eternal; worlds are born and die continuously. Worlds are transitory. Thus we have the nucleus of the model which will constitute the materialism of the aleatory encounter: subjectless, without end(s), and which succeeds the homonymous process. As Jean-Claude Bourdin remarks, in a suggestive study,8 Epicurus is decisive in that he enables the conjunction of a critique of the principle of reason, dear to the whole rationalist tradition, with a rational explanation. A mode is always a given organisation, a singular combination of atoms. Only this organisation, its singular form, distinguishes one world from another world. It is possible to render intelligible the laws that define it, laws proper to it, and which are therefore singular and transitory. But no reason, no meaning,9 no principle presides over, commands, or desires prior to the alogical fact of the clinamen the possibility of such a world. Before this determinate world, with its meanings, its reasons, its principles, its determinate laws, there is nothing; there is a nothingness of meaning, of reason, of principle. There is the void, there is no world, because the rain of parallel series of atoms in the void does not constitute a world. It does not confer the meaning of a world on the atoms whose existence is merely virtual. It is the deviation that makes a world [fait monde] and that gives the atoms the minimal necessary movement for a world to take, for meaning to be produced, for it to make itself mean [pour quil se fasse (du) sens]. Only the encounter is cosmo-genetic and productive of meaning, of reasons, and this meaning and these reasons are determinate they have no universal and eternal meaning: they are the meanings and reasons of this world alone. They are all the meaning and all the reasons of this world. The existence of the rain of atoms in the void is the ontological nothingness, the nothingness of world [le nant de monde]. This nothingness is not the paradoxical negative matter from which the Judaeo-Christian God draws out the world to create it ex nihilo. It is the condition of possibility for the world as such and it is subtracted from the action of a principle of creation which combines intelligence and volition, cause and reason of the highest. Nothingness remains a condition through the assumption of world [la prise de monde]. Deviation unjustifiable, without reason, without law is itself an evanescent, unpredictable, impredicable limit; it is itself the aleatory, and if we accord it

Encountering Althusser

the status of a principle, it is a principle which erases itself, denies itself, a principle beyond principles, a principle without arch, an anarchic principle, a non-principle. This reading radically devalues all materialisms to come including the diverse forms of Marxist materialism: the dialectical materialism of Engels or Lenin, Gramscis materialism of praxis, or (the last) Lukcs materialism of social being. It criticises them as so many metaphysical rationalisms obsessed with the question of meaning and reason. Aleatory materialism uncouples the materialist enunciation from the principle of reason with which it is traditionally associated and which is manifested by an unstable mixture of necessity and finality as attributes of the process of the real. There, where the materialist tradition declares that nothing is born of nothing and that nothing is without determining, if not inclining, reason, the Epicurean materialism of the encounter affirms that nothing justifies the fact of the world. This nothing is a neutral space, void of worldness, void of principle and of reason, of meaning and of law. The thematic that connects an origin, a subject and an end is discredited; it is this thematic that defines the idea. Thus, the question of knowing which is primary thought or being, matter or spirit is the primordial (ursprngliche) philosophical question according to Engels (in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy), according to Lenin (in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism), and according to Louis Althusser himself in the 1970s; but this question now loses all pertinence because of its rationalist a priori that of primordiality or originarity. From now on, no first or last instance reason can be invoked. Materialism remains the mirror image of idealism; it is a reversed idealism. Idealism and materialism (including the Marxist variant) result from the rationalist economy of the same hypothetical Grundfrage to which they intend to offer opposed responses. It is the question that must be abandoned.10

His presence is no surprise, we know. Althusser, indeed, accords him a decisive importance in that Machiavelli is the first to give aleatory materialism its political dimension and it is his own conceptuality that seems to have led Althusser recurrently to seek in Epicurus a pure philosophical equivalent. The problem of Machiavelli is that of the foundation of a new political world, a popular and national Italian state (to take up here the Gramscian reading). This creation is to be effected with those atoms known as Italian populations assembled in infra-state political unities, under the domination of foreign armies. These populations fall through the void of sixteenthcentury Italy, and yet they all aspire to unity. The problem is how to produce the deviation that will be constituted by the intervention [survenance] of a man endowed with political virt, capable of ensuring the encounter of these separate conditions (the plurality of political forms, the aspiration towards national unity). Everything hangs on the existence of the Prince, that nameless man who does not pre-exist his own action, who is confronted with the task of using fortune, the unpredictable contingency of an indifferent temporality, in order somewhere in Italy, at some atomic point, to join together the Italians around some grand project. A man of nothing who has started out from nothing starting out from an unassignable place.11 The Machiavellian version of the aleatory model is unique in that the encounter of elements increases [dmultiplie], splits up into several levels. It is a system of encounters commanding one another. Indeed, as Federico Dinucci explains in his substantial work,12 with the encounter of Prince and place is combined the encounter through the Princes action of fortune and virt, this latter being the encounter of a human element (the capacity to produce and to respect laws) with an animal element, which is itself already doubled (the lions force and the

The hazards of aleatory materialism

foxs cunning). The totality is overdetermined by a final encounter, that between the regional level, the national level and the international level. No law of historical necessity governs each of these levels; it is rather chance, hazards, an always precarious possibility that the encounters may or may not occur, may or may not endure. This model implies a dissociation between elements and subjects. Each subject is de facto constituted at a given level, with the possibility of linking itself to other subjects, and can be considered as the result of a link which, at a subjacent level, has already occurred. The aggregatory point of the new Prince induces shifts in the subject function. The model also has repercussions for the determination of historical causality: we do not reason according to the necessity proper to the logic of the fact considered as accomplished and according to its laws of synchronic constitution (the spirit of the laws dear to Montesquieu, Louis Althussers other author), but according to the contingency of the fact to be accomplished.13 Laws are constructed, so to speak, under the jurisdiction of the fulfilled. There is no law of the act of fulfilment which is identical to its fulfilled fact [ son fait mme]. No law of this kind organises the process which must be fulfilled in a conjuncture, the latter opening its always impossible possibility. Fulfilment arises from the effectivity of a practice-under-way which nothing predetermines or guarantees. The laws of fulfilment are immanent to the process which is realising itself and can only ever be thought ex post, from the point of view of the accomplished or non-accomplished act. They are not travel itineraries.

He is analysed in the 1982 text. The hypothetical and unfinished character of the account perhaps explains why this analysis would disappear in 1987 . Althusser gives an unexpected reading (perhaps inspired by certain developments in the work of Alain Badiou) based on a central thesis: the object of Spinozist philosophy God-Nature is identified with the void. Essentially, Spinoza would go back over the whole of Western philosophy in order to make the void his central philosopheme, God. To begin with God, who is the unique substance of all modes under all of their attributes, is effectively to say that one begins with nothing. The all-principle is translated into the nothing-principle, into nothing principal [en rien de principe]. The all is none of its determinations; they fall within it into a plenitude which is that of the void. From this borderline neo-Platonic thesis follows a reinterpretation of the infinity of attributes which fall like rain, parallel to one another without ever meeting. But it just so happens that in man there occurs it is a fact that one can but state an encounter without interaction, without dualism, of the two attributes which constitute him: extension and thought. Man is indeed the . . [an] assignable but minute parallelism of thought and case of an exceptional parallelism . the body ... In sum, a parallelism without encounter, yet a parallelism that is already, in itself, encounter thanks to the very structure of the relationship between the different elements of each attribute.14 A final consequence: if there is nothing to say of God, who is but nature, then there is also nothing to say of knowledge. It is a fact, homo cogitat; and thought is simply the succession of the modes of the attribute thought, which refers us, not to a Subject, but, as good parallelism requires, to the succession of the modes of the attribute extension.15 What is important is the de facto constitution of thought in man. The majority of men and of peoples, and therefore history and politics, remain at the level of the first kind of knowledge, that is, the imaginary, the illusion of thinking without actually thinking, as Machiavelli well understood.

Encountering Althusser

Yet the imagination is not so much a kind of knowledge, a faculty, as the only world itself in its givenness.16 The imaginary as world is a unique totality that is not totalized, but experienced in its dispersion, and experienced as the given into which we are thrown and on the basis of which we forge all our illusions [fabricae].17 Thus we can return to the second kind of knowledge. If this world is that-beyond-which-there-is-nothing, this nothing is that of nature and its attributes, of which philosophy alone can know, by common notions, those of which man is the case: that is, the world itself thought according to common notions. Which is as much as to say that by its ontological condition the world remains given before them [the common notions, Tr.], as that prior to which there is nothing.18 Knowledge of the third kind is nothing other than knowledge of historical singularities, of their history and of their necessary imaginary structuration (as in those studied by the Theological-political Treatise, the history of a Hebrew people under Moses), philosophy contenting itself with deconstructing the values of morality and of religion as ends in themselves. If, by its work of deconstruction, philosophy enables the emergence and construction of other possibilities of worlds, these latter will be equally and differently as imaginary, and other encounters will ensue. Spinoza thus realises a complex model of aleatory materialism, constructed from the double encounter of the more theoretical Epicurean model and the political Machiavellian model; he then unifies these models in his conception of knowledge as simple fact there where the appropriation of the given world differentiates itself [se diffrencie].

Contrary to the order of historical succession, Althusser presents Hobbes after Spinoza so as to effect a transition from Spinoza to Rousseau. This choice is a paradoxical one. In his classes devoted to modern natural law at the cole normale suprieure, Althusser criticised as the original form of bourgeois juridical ideology that whole current of thought which projects onto the state of nature a foundational anthropology and this in a time of revolutionary upheaval the better to assure its ideological and political objectives: the realisation of a legally constituted state [tat de droit] endowed with an absolute power, enabling the free activity of its subjects, understood as economic agents. Althusser attempts to make up for the unjust readings of Hobbes by recognising that he was able to think the radicalism of a genesis of power starting from the encounter of desiring and calculating atoms driving the void before them [faisant le vide devant eux], but forced to cede to the necessity of authorising this sovereign power in order to prevent their self-destruction. As it stands, this development would be contradictory if it were to rehabilitate the transcendental contractualism alien to Machiavelli and the Spinoza of the Political Treatise (inspired by Machiavelli). In any case, it remains incomplete, since Hobbess absolute state is presented in its capacity to produce peace and the free development of individual activities, that is, to absorb itself in this task whilst rendering useless the demonstration of its power of constraint. In this sense, it could even be defined as a presupposition of the Marxist theory of the withering away of the state. This, indeed, leads one to rethink beyond the preceding critique of natural law the relation between liberal anarchism and Marxist anarchism.

The Rousseau of the Discourse on Inequality leads us back to those same classes on modern natural law of 19634 and to the texts published in the Cahiers pour lanalyse on the Social

The hazards of aleatory materialism

Contract. It is the distinction between the state of pure nature and the state of nature that enables him to move beyond Hobbes and to present the materialism of the encounter thought not through a physical ontology, nor a politics, nor a political ontology, but through a theory of history. In the state of pure nature, men roam in the void of the forest without encountering one another until the clinamen constituted by a climactic and geological modification forces them to associate with one another and, after several discontinuous attempts, to engender a social world, resulting in a heretofore unsuspected perfectibility, the pure expectation of a becoming that might not have been [un devenir qui aurait pu ne pas advenir]. The nothingness of society is thus the condition for all society. And the movement of society is not a teleology ruled by the necessity of its end. History is made behind mens backs, without their conscious cooperation, as a function of the contingent change in conjunctures as proved by the leap from the youthful state of the world to the state of society, founded on private property, the division of labour and the dialectic of inequalities which henceforth becomes necessary right up to a state of war and the first contract, the dupes contract by which the rich promise juridical protection (which is nothing but domination) to the poor, who exchange their voluntary servitude in return for an illusory peace. Rousseau makes of history a process without a subject, one whose rhythms are set by the transformations issuing from aleatory encounters where socialised human nature is constructed within determinate conjunctures. The profundity of Rousseaus theory of history effects in advance a critique of teleological and necessitarist [ncessitariste] philosophies of history obsessed with their end in the revolution (French or otherwise). It consists in the fact that Rousseau thinks the contingency of necessity as an effect of the necessity of contingency.19 The historical materialism of the encounter proper to Rousseau is superior to that of Marx, who was constrained to think within a horizon torn between the aleatory of the Encounter and the necessity of the Revolution.20

The Heidegger constellation

For now, let us skip the moment of Marx, who belongs to this history only on account of his suffering its lessons and providing its radical reformulation. The final moment of this discontinuous genealogy is Heidegger, or rather what we prefer to call the Heidegger constellation, inasmuch as the Heidegger who interests Althusser is not so much the thinker of the forgetting of Being and of the inspection of being by technique, as the Heidegger interpreted by Derrida, accomplishing the critique of western metaphysics initiated by Nietzsche, and continued in a rather cavalier manner by Deleuze and Wittgenstein. It would be vain to ask of these pages a rigour to which they do not aspire. It is more a matter of translating, to give it a solid base, the common foundation shared by all these philosophers: namely, a critique of the rationalism of the entire philosophical tradition and of its principle of reason. From this perspective, the 1985 interview is more explicit. Heidegger is presented as he who makes the end of the history of western philosophy correspond with its beginning: Epicurus. The latter inaugurates aleatory materialism; Heidegger gives an ultimate version of it. The repetition of Epicuruss gesture to refuse the question of the origin and of the end is realised in the perspective of a deconstruction of philosophy as dominated by idealism, non-aleatory materialisms included. It is effected in full consciousness of what is at stake: the calling into question of the principle of reason. Althussers reference to Leibniz seems to suggest that he had read the essay of Heidegger devoted to the principle of reason. Heidegger would say that idealism, just like materialism, obeys the principle of reason , that is, the principle according


Encountering Althusser

to which everything that exists, whether ideal [idel] or material, is subject to the question of the reason for its existence.21 Idealism is haunted by a single question which divides into two, since the principle of reason bears not only on the origin, but also on the end: indeed, the Origin always, and very naturally, refers to the End. We can go further still: the question of the Origin is a question that arises on the basis of the question of the End. Anticipating itself, the End (the meaning of the world, the meaning of its history, the ultimate purpose of the world and history) projects itself back on to and into the question of the Origin. The question of the Origin of anything whatsoever is always posed as a function of what one imagines to be its end. The question of the radical origin of things (Leibniz) is always posed as a function of what one imagines to be their final destination, their End, whether it is a question of the Ends of Providence or of Utopia.22 It is in this context that Althusser refers to the Heideggerian es gibt as a unique proposition of the materialism of the encounter in its defining feature [sa pointe aigu] which is a refusal of order whether it be rational, moral, religious, political or aesthetic. The notion of order is that which conjoins the origin and the end. The materialism of the encounter, in rejecting the Whole and every Order, rejects the Whole and order in favour of dispersion (Derrida would say, in his terminology, dissemination) and disorder.23 [T]here is = there is nothing; there is = there has always-already been nothing , that is to say, something , the always-already ... of each thing over itself, hence over every kind of origin.24 Or again: A philosophy of the es gibt, of the this is what is given ... opens up a prospect that restores a kind of transcendental contingency of the world, into which we are thrown , and of the meaning of the world, which in turn points to the opening up of Being, the original urge of Being, its destining , beyond which there is nothing to seek or to think. Thus the world is a gift that we have been given.25 We must note the equivocation of this reading: it fails to take into account that for Heidegger something is lost in this passive-active giving [donne] namely, the harmonious relation [juste rapport] of Being and that this loss is the motor of the history of metaphysics, the forgetting of the gift of Being. The problematic of the gift and of donation risks inflecting with a negative onto-theology the pure fact of occurrence [le pur fait du constat de la survenance] or accidence which itself presupposes no such ontological loss. That, perhaps, is the reason why in the 1985 text it is Wittgenstein who is identified as having given the best formulation of the unique proposition of aleatory materialism with the superb sentence from the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus: die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist ... hard to translate. We might try to render it as follows: the world is everything that happens; or, more literally, the world is everything that befalls us [tombe dessus]. There exists yet another translation, which has been proposed by Russells school: the world is everything that is the case [the world is what the case is].26 If Wittgensteins formulation lacks the history of the underground current of the new materialism which functions as if veiled, covered up [au voilement, au recouvrement] it has the merit of no longer thinking the given starting from an act of crypto-religious donation, and of keeping itself as closely as possible to the faktum, to the casus. This superb sentence says everything, for, in this world, there exists nothing but . . singular individuals wholly distinct cases, situations, things that befall us without warning . 27 from one another. Wittgenstein loses historicity in order the better to think the opening of

The hazards of aleatory materialism


the world towards the event in its non-subjectable neutrality. Heidegger thinks the historicity of the givens give [la donne du donn] whilst running the risk of gearing this give in giving [cette donne en donation] towards a theological connotation.

Aleatory materialism between deconstruction of the rationalist tradition and construction of a new conceptuality
Henceforth it is possible to regroup in a synthetic manner the fundamental premises of the materialism of the encounter based on its genealogy. These premises form a minor Tractatus Logico-politicus which is divided into two parts: one deconstructive, the other constructive.

The pars destruens

This part is not limited to the critique of idealism, understood as that dominant mode of philosophising ruled by the principle of reason. This principle is intrinsically logico-political; it refers to a political power of domination. The principle is Prince and the Prince is principle. It is a power of imposition and of subjection that philosophy denies by presenting it as the power of truth. At this point aleatory materialism integrates Marx, his conception of practice and of ideologies, to make it known to philosophy that it always has an outside that it cannot see, a behind that it does not wish to see (as Mauriac has it), and whose existence it imagines. Aleatory materialism is not speculative, but operative or performative. It always intervenes remotely in the transformation of the habitual relations between theory and practice to the extent that it criticises that kind of theory which aims to guide practice without genuinely appreciating its irreducibility. The philosophical tradition, hegemonised by the idealism of freedom, desires to portray itself as the principle which subjects practice and imposes on it its moral, political, religious, aesthetic, or rational values, under the recurrence of truth. Philosophy is not totally oblivious to the outside world; it comes to an arrangement with it, at once violent and biased. It forces all practices into the domain of its thought and seeks to impose itself on them with the objective of telling them their truth which is the truth of philosophy. Philosophy cheats when it assimilates them and reworks them in accordance with its own philosophical form, it hardly does so with scrupulous respect for the reality the particular nature of such social practices and ideas. Quite the contrary: in order to affirm its power of truth over them, . . The philosophers of philosophy must first subject them to a veritable transformation . philosophy who set out to master the world by means of thought have always exercised the violence of the concept, of the Begriff, of seizure [de la mainmise]. They assert their power by bringing under the sway of the law of Truth (their truth) all the social practices of men, who continue to toil and to dwell in darkness.28 The materialism of the encounter encounters practice, or rather practices, according to a different relation than that of the mastery of the concept and the violence of an imposed truth. This relation is the opening of the event [louverture de lvnement], of its recognition


Encountering Althusser

and of its knowledge; it lowers itself to a relation of experimentation, interminable, beyond all fantasy of definitive domination. Practice is not a substitute for Truth for the purposes of an unshakeable philosophy; on the contrary, it is what shakes philosophy to its foundations; it is that other thing whether in the form of the variable cause of matter or in that of class struggle which philosophy has never been able to master. It is that other thing which alone makes it possible not merely to shake philosophy to its foundations, but also to begin to see clearly just what philosophy is.29 It is in this sense that we must understand the specificity of the deconstruction of the idealist tradition and of its principle-prince of reason. It does not merely take up again the Heideggerian destruction of logocentrism, reinterpreted by Derrida. The entire criticism of philosophical categories is an experiment attempting to liberate the philosophical and historical field from the power of imposition and submission that these categories exert over social practices, these latter being understood from the point of view of the mass of men who live the imaginary of their world in darkness and continue to toil. The deconstruction operated by aleatory materialism empties [fait le vide] the idealist mode of thinking so as to liberate positive theoretical elements that it can recover and transform into atomic points for other encounters within other combinations. The materialism of the encounter thus prepares the possibility for worlds. It is a laboratory which enables the dismantling of the nuclear constellation which obstructs as the invariant of its variations the opening of the event. This constellation has as its fixed star, as its sun, the principle of reason, the concept-truth, and as its stars the notions of meaning [Sens], subject and origin-end.

On meaning
It is the onto-theological and metaphysical idea that there exists a meaning [une signification], a logos, a reason which precedes the world or reveals itself there in any case, which founds it. The true world is the world of the principle-power realised. It is the fabric of the principle, idea, form, reason, humanity, communism. Here, Althusser refines somewhat the Nietzschean and Heideggerian vulgate via subtle references to the negative ontology of Derrida or to the negative theology of one who, until his death, remained a faithful friend through thick and thin Stanislas Breton, who, in his work Du principe, opposed to the principle-eminence and principle-all the principle-nothing of neo-Platonism and of Eckhartien mysticism. The void of Meaning frees us from order and opens out onto the disorder of the event.

On substance
It is the idea of a unitary substratum that is supposed to guarantee the stability and homogeneity of all accidents that arise from it. Hume and empiricism, Nietzsche, all reread by Deleuze, are also called upon. Substance is the product of a procedure which blocks all thought of definite things and all material complexes. It prevents us from grasping that materiality is not limited to that which is studied by the physical or biological sciences, or by economics. There also exists, as Derrida has shown, a scriptural materiality: the trace, an element of all written tissue which imposes the primacy of absence over presence and logocentric representation.

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On the subject
An old acquaintance. It remains ever the central category of idealism, especially the idealism of freedom from which even Marx never entirely delivered himself, nor Marxism at its best (see Gramsci and the praxis subject). It is the idea of a stable individuality, present to itself, which aims at realising itself in the continuity of its projects, in the name of its freedom and of its proper rights, all the while oblivious to the ideological mechanisms which interpellate it as such and direct it. It cannot see its own back. [T]he materialism of the encounter is the materialism, not of a subject (be it God or the proletariat), but of a process, a process that has no subject, yet imposes on the subjects (individuals or others) which it dominates the order of its development, with no assignable end.30 The thesis of anti-humanism is thus taken up again, but inflected. Indeed, the subject is no longer simply included in the structures of interpellation, but is a composition of unities of diverse levels in a sort of fractal geometry of orders of transindividual encounters.

On the origin-and-the-end
Another old acquaintance. It is the category which completes the structure of the idealism of freedom. The origin is merely the anticipation of the end internal to a primordial order. We always hypothesise a good, desirable, unitary origin that has been driven to fall [dchoir] by corruption, division, alienation into an alterity, an other. But this alterity reveals itself to be susceptible to integration and overcoming. The origin, reestablished and enriched by its development, is the end. There we have a well-known theological matrix according to which the absolute is the unity of three operations: the identitarian operation of remaining in-itself; the transitive operation of exteriorisation in the other, the object, outside of itself; and finally the converse operation of the return-to-itself from the other into an in-itself/for-itself. The deconstruction of this operative system which, at the same time, Stanislas Breton placed at the centre of his negative theology is crucial in opening up a theory of history and politics beyond the mythology of philosophies of history. It is henceforth impossible to tell oneself stories about history in its practice. History [lhistoire]: Practice is a process of transformation which is always subject to its own conditions of existence and produces, not the Truth, but, rather, truths, or some truth [de la vrit]: the truth, let us say, of results or of knowledge, all within the field of its own conditions of existence. And while practice has agents, it nevertheless does not have a subject as the transcendental or ontological origin of its intention or project; nor does it have a Goal as the truth of its process. It is a process without a subject or Goal (taking subject to mean an ahistorical element).31

The pars construens

The deconstruction complete, it becomes possible to reorder the conceptual atoms which will subdivide [dcliner] and form the schema of the construction of a new philosophical world. They are pure concepts, in the sense of lacking concrete objects: void, limits and margins, freedom-power and struggle, and contingency-conjuncture.


Encountering Althusser

On the void
The void is at once nothingness, the nothingness of antecedent reason, and the instance of annihilation [nantification]. Like the Being of Heidegger which differs from beings and the totality of beings, the void which precedes the birth of a world, like the Heideggerian nothing, is the horizon which makes beings possible. It is not absolute nothingness but the non-world, absence, the condition of possibility of any possible world. The nothing of nothingness [Le Rien du nant] is Being, and not being [est tre, en non tant]. [A] philosophy of the void: not only the philosophy which says that the void pre-exists the atoms that fall in it, but a philosophy which creates the philosophical void [fait le vide philosophique] in order to endow itself with existence: a philosophy which, rather than setting out from the famous philosophical problems (why is there something rather than nothing?), begins by evacuating all philosophical problems, hence by refusing to assign itself any object whatever .. We have then the primacy of (philosophy has no object) in order to set out from nothing . nothingness over all form, the primacy of absence (there is no Origin) over presence.32 No form, no world can be guaranteed against its being voided [son videment] by an encounter which will empty it of its structural law, by driving it back into the void, in order to liberate the unforeseen and unpredictable possibilities of another world.

On limits and margins

Margins designate the absence of a firm centre and thus the displacement towards the margins of that which in a conjuncture, a state of the world, is given as central and, inversely, of what is marginal towards the centre. Things thus contain in their interior their margins, and vice-versa all things find themselves on the margins, in the margins. A world always lacks a univocal centre to settle its drift [drive]; it is without teleological orientation. It is like writing according to Derrida: a process of dissemination, a mobile cluster of differential margins, without ever being under the control of a sovereign I who would see himself master. A world can have laws but it is worked at the margin and comes up against the limits it produces which an encounter can destroy.

On freedom-power and struggle

If the freedom-subject, with its sovereign/ interpellated polarity, is dismissed, room is made for a freedom-power which is intrinsically defined by its capacity to support and initiate struggles. All freedom is a quantum of power which wins its relative autonomy in its world and its worlds laws, and which undergoes a continual variation in its degree of autonomy in line with other forces. Paradoxically for a given world, an unstable hierarchy of powers is constituted. A given world is a dynamic manifested as a conflictual network of forces.

On contingency-conjuncture
The principle of reason ultimately gives way to a rule: the thought of contingency. [I]nstead of thinking contingency as a modality of necessity, or an exception to it, we must think necessity

The hazards of aleatory materialism


as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies.33 Every being (animal, man, society) is nothing but a conjuncture which has been produced through a series of contingent encounters, consecutions [conscutions] which are not the (onto-)logical consequences of a principle-order. Every conjuncture-structure is the aleatory result of a conjunction-event. Henceforth the primacy of the structure heralded since Reading Capital gives way to the primacy of the genesis-conjunction, to the event [lvnement] which is not an occurrence [avnement]. Philosophy, redefined as aleatory materialism, renounces its pretensions to autonomy; it no longer considers itself a science, let alone the science of sciences. Yet it does not renounce a classic materialist thesis: Philosophy of a materialist tendency recognizes the existence of objective external reality, as well as its independence of the subject who perceives or knows this reality. It recognizes that being or the real exists and is anterior to its discovery, to the fact of being thought or known.34 Nevertheless, voided of its idealist dependence on the principle of reason, philosophy thinks being as the there is [il y a] of the conjunction-conjuncture. It is experimental: our philosopher can conduct experiments on the consecutions [conscutions] of aleatory sequences that he has been able to observe, and can (like Hume) work out laws of consecution, customary laws or constants35 in the case of phenomena which are repeated. But in the case of historical phenomena those aleatory singular cases this philosophy can only single out general constants among the encounters he has observed, the variations of which are capable of accounting for the singularity of the cases under consideration, and thus produce knowledge of the clinical sort as well as ideological, political and social effects.36 We must therefore give up on the idea of laws of history or of social practices. Every state of the world can be transformed, in an unpredictable way, according to addition, subtraction, or the modification of an element. Since this singular element conforms only to the case of its deviation, no one can foresee how the structure-conjuncture will be transformed. This state of the world has stability only for a certain indeterminate duration, exposed to the conjunction of elements which will produce another, equally aleatory, conjuncture. It is no longer a question of establishing the laws of the continent of history. We can merely single out constants and trends for a given world and for each of its modified states. These constants and trends are relative to each world, and it is only with caution that we can speak of laws for each conjuncture. Yet there exist no laws ruling conjunctions, which are unpredictable facts; we can merely recognise their accomplished status [leur fait accompli]. The eventconjunction is alone eternal in its empty formality and its taking [prise], which is sur-prise, into conjuncture. The idea of a logic of history should no longer even be proposed. The task of knowing the accomplished fact goes on forever. The same holds for the practice the virt of the disposition of welcoming chance, the surprise of the encounter that can exploit theoretical and political virtue. Even the worst is not assured.

Marx and the fine-toothed comb of aleatory materialism37

It is only now, after this long detour, that we can situate Marx with regard to aleatory materialism. Marx belongs to this genealogy; he is a moment of the underground current. But from


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now on he is especially an element that must be transformed according to the requisites of this materialism. It is no longer a matter of deconstructing the philosophy of history which affects the structural theory of the mode of production and its indisputable contributions. Marx does not belong to aleatory materialism because of this theory taken as a whole and of the discovery of the primacy of the reproduction of the relations of production (and therefore of exploitation). It is the theory of the mode of production itself which is internally contaminated by idealism and the freedom of its categories, and it is this which must be deconstructed. Althusser effectively distinguishes between two conceptions of the mode of production, a totalitarian, teleological and philosophical conception and another which is historical, aleatory, and true (even if he does not use the word) accurate, in any case.

The idealism of freedom and the teleological-essentialist conception of the mode of production
The first conception consists in constructing the capitalist mode of production as a combination of elements of which the most important are labour-power, freed from relations of direct dependence, and the capitalist owner [sic] of the means of production. The structure imposing its unity upon the series of elements is a determinate one: the exploitation of the forces of production and of impoverished [dmunis] workers. Althusser does not deny the accomplished fact of a mode of domination of the structure over its elements. He merely questions the modality under which Marx thinks this mode; more precisely, the modality of existence of the elements of the combination. Marx presupposes that these elements, our friend the money-owner [lhomme aux cus] and bare man [lhomme nu], were produced by the decomposition of the feudal mode of production. These products are very much distinct, but so thought and ordered as to suggest that they were from all eternity destined to enter into combination, harmonize with one another, and reciprocally produce each other as their own ends, conditions and/or complements.38 This predestination comes up against the question of the bourgeoisie, posed as the dialectical opposite of its opposite, the dominant feudal class. Supposedly, the beneficiaries of commercial and financial capital, the bourgeoisie is that strange class, capitalist by virtue of its future, but formed well before any kind of capitalism, under feudalism.39 The bourgeoisie is understood to be an essence that has become the origin and subject of its own development, whose end is to cede the place of origin-subject to the proletarian class, which it also forms as its contrary and which will negate it in the dialectical production of another negation of the negation. [T]he bourgeoisie is indeed nothing other than the element predestined to unify all the other elements of the mode of production, the one that will transform it into another combination, that of the capitalist mode of production. It is the dimension of the whole and of the teleology that assigns each element its role and position in the whole, reproducing it in its existence and role.40 This essentialist conception replaces the genesis or production of the mode of production with its reproduction. It necessitates the essentialist conception of the other element, the antagonist class which is doomed mimetically to reproduce the destiny of its other. Althusser does not say so in this particular text, but the conclusion nonetheless suggests itself. It is another version of the same dialectical logic, that of the mythical decomposition of a class, at once the culminating and grave-digging moment of the mode of production that produces

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it as a logical consequence, as an antithesis called to become, in turn, a thesis. This essentialist conception of the reproduction of the mode of production according to the structure combining its elements constitutes an obstacle to our understanding of the real genesis of this mode of production. The conjuncture is idealised into an autoreferential structure; it denies that it is the result, the consecution of the conjunction of elements which are not essences ruled by the philosophical law of the passage from potentiality to act [passage de la puissance lacte]. Althusser thus reverses the structuralist primacy of reproduction over genesis (supposedly historicist) which he had never ceased to support throughout the preceding years. Reproduction thinks under the recurrence of the accomplished fact that which is the result of a genesis of elements that have taken and formed a structure which is a conjuncture. It substantialises these elements into products predestined to unite according to their end, and in the same vein fails to account for the conjuncture as a result of a real conjunction. The question of the genesis of elements and of their encounter has been hidden by the structural a priori which surreptitiously maintains an internal finality of the structure as a goal aimed for by its elements. The self-sufficiency of the reproduction of the structure implies the idealist prejudice of self-reproduction in its mechanisms. Historicisms criticism of this prejudice, justified from a certain point of view, was excessive; it lacked the historicity of the conjunction, of the aleatory production of the mode of production. Aleatory materialism purifies Marx of what can only be called his idealist materialism, which is, conversely, an idealism of freedom the bourgeoisie dialectically making way for another class predestined to unite the mode of production according to its own aim. Considered thus, the communism guiding the theory of the mode of production is a new avatar of the reason of the dominant metaphysics.

The aleatory-historical conception of the mode of production

Yet, contradictorily, Marx develops a second, historical and aleatory, conception which we can turn against him. Marx against Marx. He develops it most notably in Chapter 24 of Volume I of Capital, which is devoted to historical accumulation, and which is normally read merely as a moving historical intermezzo devoid of any real theoretical import. There he poses, in all its clarity, the problem of the effective encounter between two elements of the capitalist mode of production: our friend the money-owner [lhomme aux cus] and the worker, stripped of everything except his labour-power. There are multiple reasons why money ends up in the pocket of the bourgeois, why the worker ends up forced to sell his labour-power, and which explain differing levels of technical prowess. What counts is the realisation a singular event which never existed in societies which nonetheless possessed certain of these elements of a stable encounter between them, combining them into a world. This fact [fait] took place in Europe, and nowhere else at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The fact to be accomplished [fait accomplir] was produced and, without any prior assurance, it became the accomplished fact [fait accompli] which constituted an epoch and a structure. The aleatory conjunction or combination became a conjuncture; the latter made a structure, imposing its relative necessity and its laws which are merely tendential. The capitalist mode of production is not inscribed in any historical necessity destined to develop from its own essence a providential teleology of freedom. It might well not have been, the encounter between its elements not achieving realisation or not enduring. The fact


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to be accomplished might well not have been accomplished (contingency), but the fact is that it was accomplished and was able to impose its structure and its constraints of reproduction (necessity). It is not a whole which precedes and commands the encounter; it is its simple historical result become world. Necessity of contingency and contingency of necessity: the chapter on primitive accumulation is the Marxist version of Rousseaus second Discourse. For what is a mode of production? We provided an answer to this question, following Marx: it is a particular combination of elements. These elements are an accumulation of money (by the owners of money), an accumulation of the technical means of production (tools, machines, an experience of production on the part of the workers), an accumulation of the raw materials of production (nature) and an accumulation of producers (proletarians divested of all means of production). The elements do not exist in history so that a mode of production may exist, they exist in history in a floating state prior to their accumulation and combination, each being the product of its own history, and none being the teleological product of the others or their history.41 The clinamen is a fact, that of a process, the process of the violent dispossession of English peasants who, thrown off their land now enclosures by sheep-raisers, are reduced to a state of misery and are drawn to the money-owners as a workforce. There is [Il y a] this fact of the money-owners diversion [dtournement] of the process of peasant expropriation. The fact is that this process took place, culminating in a result that was promptly diverted from its possible, presumed end by owners of money looking for impoverished manpower. This diversion is the mark of the non-teleology of the process and of the incorporation of its result into a process that both made it possible and was wholly foreign to it.42 Capitalism today still remains the aleatory repetition of this diversion. The structure is the conjuncture of a repeated diversion. It remains an event and its laws of reproduction enjoy no eternity. They depend on the repetition of the encounter under modified forms. Thus, what is transformed is the entire conception of the relation of the structure to the conjuncture, since the conjuncture is no longer a case preordained by the structural matrix and reproducing it in its identity. It is the fact always to be accomplished of the conjuncture, always exposed to the risk of another encounter of other elements, or of elements otherwise disposed. The becoming conjuncture-structure of the conjunction forces one to think structure under the conjuncture and the conjuncture under the conjunction. The classic Marxist question of the passage from one mode of production to another is disrupted: it cannot be understood as the liberation of possibles pending actualisation, this latter consisting in reconnecting, in the fullness of a line, the points of the possibles through gradual reform or revolutionary leap. In any case, at the most profound level of domination of the capitalist mode of production, no selfreproduction of its structure as an end in itself is established. The future is unpredictable. Other encounters are not excluded, not even good encounters for the men who toil in darkness. The formal thought of other diversions must be maintained in its enigmatic openness. And with them, the empty figure of another Prince neither a new Prince la Machiavelli, nor a modern party prince la Gramsci, nor a prince-principle a Prince capable of the sole political virtue of diversion. Marx against Marx, we said. And yet, the reflection now complete, it is about more than that. What Althusser is seeking in Marx is not merely the philosophy in its practical state that Capital

The hazards of aleatory materialism


would contain in its theory of the capitalist mode of production and its structural causality, and which would contradict the reference to Hegels teleological logic. Henceforth it is this theory itself that is submitted to critique as the product of a tenacious metaphysical rationalism and that is purged of that which linked it to the principle of reason. The critique is carried out by the themes of the underground current of the materialism of the encounter, by a new philosophy, elaborated independently of Marx by Epicurus, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Rousseau and Heidegger, and which becomes the norm for critique of Marxs rationalist idealism. What, then, is Marxs originality in this current to which he belongs, partially and contradictorily? Marxs contribution consists in two interconnected discoveries: a) the discovery of the modern class struggle as outside of philosophy, this struggle effecting the conjunction of elements of the capitalist mode of production, b) the theory of ideologies which inform this struggle and which are themselves involved in a struggle for hegemony. The first implies the assumption of the point of view of the men who continue to toil in darkness; the second obliges us to deconstruct the necessary illusions under which these men live out their subjection and struggle against it, illusions proper to the idealist materialism of Marx himself, to that idealism of freedom that he shares with both the Enlightenment tradition and the dialectical Hegelian tradition.

On certain hazards of Althusserian aleatory materialism

Which is as good as saying that, here, we come up against problems of coherence, theoretical incertitudes, the hazards [alas] of aleatory materialism. Nothing proves that these two elements the practice of class struggle and the repetition of its capitalist diversion, the constitutive imaginary under which the struggle is played out can encounter one another in order to form the conjuncture of a rupture of the mode of production, a taking [prise] that forms an event, an event-world. The aleatory character in the sense of aporetic of this encounter appears in the function that Althusser always assigns to materialist philosophy, albeit redefined, against the principle of reason.

The aporetic hazard of the philosophical operation defined as ideological hegemony

Indeed, especially in the text published in 1985, in the second part entitled Philosophieideologie-politique, Althusser reformulates his conception of philosophy as in the last instance class struggle in theory. Althusser maintains a communist theoretical and political position: philosophy does indeed represent class positions in theory, that is to say, in the relations it maintains with the most theoretical forms of the human practices and, through them, the most concrete forms of the human practices, class struggle included ....43 Aleatory materialism receives from Marx-Althusser an explicitly theoretico-political function that renders it a practical and historical operation that sees itself as such an element of the conjuncture. In this last text we have not seen enough of it Althusser crosses his own theory of the philosophical operation with the theory of hegemony elaborated by that other solitary reader of Machiavelli, Gramsci, but in some way redeemed of its long-ago criticised historicism. Philosophy acts at . . And, to the a distance; it operates by way of the ideologies, on real, concrete practices .


Encountering Althusser

extent that it transforms the ideologies, which reflect the practices even while orientating them in a certain direction, these practices can be transformed in their turn, depending on the variations or revolutions in social relations.44 How do we go about defining this transformation of ideologies if these latter are mechanisms that produce effects of recognition by which certain notions are recognised as true by subjects who are thus interpellated and who recognise themselves in these notions, hence being forced to constitute themselves as free subjects capable of recognising truth? Since aleatory materialism is based on the deconstruction of notions of a free subject and of ends, the effects of deconstruction will be to break the determinate mechanisms of interpellation but then to form others recognised as more true. Althusser assigns to aleatory materialism the task of contributing to the critique of the dominant ideology and of elaborating an authentic materialist ideology and of a philosophy that is correct, accurate [juste, correct], in order to facilitate the emergence of a progressive ideology.45 And yet, aleatory materialism is invited to constitute itself into a philosophy that reproduces the traditional operation of philosophy. In carrying out the task of unifying the diversity of the practices and their ideologies which it experiences as an internal necessity, although this task is assigned it by the great class conflicts and historical events what does philosophy do? It produces a whole array of categories that serve to think and situate the different social practices under the ideologies. Philosophy produces a general problematic: that is, a manner of posing, and therefore resolving, any problem that may arise. Lastly, philosophy produces theoretical schemas ... that serve as a means of overcoming contradiction, and as links for connecting the various elements of ideology. Moreover, it guarantees the Truth of this order, stated in a form that offers all the guarantees of a rational discourse.46 This definition does not allow us to define how progressive ideology would distinguish itself from all other ideology, nor to measure how aleatory materialism would unify its deconstructive and its constructive functions, especially if this latter operates according to the procedures of deconstructed philosophy [la philosophie dconstruite]. Gramsci, invoked as the theoretician of ideology unified around the essential interests of the dominant class,47 was unable to encounter this aporia. Indeed, he defines philosophy as a conception of the world which includes diverse levels, ranging from the common sense of the masses to good sense, all the way to a specialised conceptual structure. The question of the critique of truth as an ideological form of interpellation and as a religious myth does not come up in Gramsci, truth being whatever is the object of a controlled intersubjective recognition. Progressive ideology, which aleatory materialism is invited strategically to produce, cannot escape the criticism it addresses to philosophical ideology, not least since the notion of progress is inscribed in the rationalist teleology of idealism. The becoming progressive ideology of aleatory materialism is indeterminate [inassignable], since the latter must immediately deconstruct as ideology what it is supposed to have constructed. The force of aleatory materialism is to change terrain whilst opening itself to the alterity of the encounter of practices and this alterity implies the re-interrogation of all constituted order and its expression in the dominant ideology. The 1985 text juxtaposes two problematics without proposing the conditions for their coherence [leur mise en coherence].

The hazards of aleatory materialism


The aporetic hazard of the conception of practice

The same difficulty is displaced. The philosophical operation is susceptible to producing itself according to two modalities: the idealist-ideological modality and the (aleatory) materialist modality which produces knowledge-effects. And this from the two perspectives from which the production of the philosophy-effect can be envisaged: that of its efficacy over ideologies and that of its aptitude at transforming social practices.

The first perspective: efficacy over ideologies


Either: idealism including its materialist version transforms ideologies by manipulating them; it unifies them under a dominant ideology by assuming the form of a rational discourse and by reconnecting truth to the principle of reason, that truth which it announces and which interpellates subjects so that they recognise themselves therein. This recognition is that of an order which attempts to render unthinkable its reality as a conjuncture [sa ralit de conjoncture], as the result of an aleatory conjunction. This order is intrinsically ideologico-political and it is materialised in institutions of power [pouvoir], dominating and exploiting the force [puissance] of the masses within a hegemonic social relation. Or: aleatory materialism disaggregates this dominant ideology by making it appear for what it is and by unveiling the contingent will-to-power which structures the conjuncture by imagining, and by making others imagine, that it realises order. Aleatory materialism frees, and makes free-floating, those ideological elements that represent emergent political forces that can encounter one another [se rencontrer] and constitute a conjuncture free of apologetic and teleological representations.


The second perspective: the transformation of social practices


Either: idealism dominates the representation of practices and constitutes itself as an instrument, but also a symbolic form. As a philosophical practice, it reinforces the social practices connected to the social domination of the class which holds political power. In the same way, it weakens, virtualises or dematerialises the antagonistic forms inscribed in these practices. Or: aleatory materialism weakens or breaks representations of practices, and gives access to the alterity of their antagonistic elements by identifying the masses, not as subjects, but as agents of resistance to order and as forces capable of acting towards an order which would no longer be order. We have not advanced: the ideology of the resistance of the masses can only constitute these latter as agents by recourse to the subject-function and to the representation of ends. How do we bring into play the critical difference between subject and agent, between ends and objectives, without presupposing a thought proper to the masses [une pense de masse] that is refused on principle? How do we call the masses to a wild freedom that deconstructs all order as a product of the principle of reason at the same time as trying to make way for a conjuncture which remains, as a structure, a (relative) order?



Encountering Althusser

More generally, the construction of a progressive ideological hegemony presupposes a conception of political practice as intervention and as a change in order that of articulated practices, an order which is not necessarily given but which could intervene. The construction of this order supposes the continuity of social forces, that is, the action of significant trends. The ideology of resistance to be produced cannot but rely on these forces and trends. Yet this conception of practice is opposed to that which defines it as alterity, as an instance of resistance or challenge to the existent order; for Althusser, this is the deaf resistance of the masses. It is the aleatory element which brings about variation in the forms and conditions of hegemony throughout the struggles. Aleatory materialism takes account of this conception but, despite the ultimate return to Gramsci, it cannot integrate in a coherent manner the notion of significant trends, the basis of all ideology. This aporia seems to be definitive.

The hazard of the genealogy of aleatory materialism

There remains a final difficulty. Aleatory materialism was formulated in the course of a genealogy of which Althusser is at once a moment and the provisional terminus, but also the thinking moment, that of self-reflection. Yet the idea of an underground current cannot be separated from that of a tradition broken, but effective. The tradition of the dissolution of the tradition dominated by figures of western rationalism. Althusser here takes up the classic formulations of Engels all the while criticising the specular relation between idealism and a materialism still in thrall to idealism (Engels included). The latter spoke of a struggle between two tendencies, coextensive with the entire history of philosophy. Althusser especially stresses the minority, dominated, hidden character, not only of materialism, but particularly of aleatory materialism. These, aleatory materialisms modalities of historical existence, demand explanation. Althusser suggests several of them: from Epicurus to Marx, there had always subsisted even if it was covered over (by its very discovery, by forgetfulness, and, especially, by denial and repression, when it was not by condemnations that cost some their lives) the discovery of a profound tradition that sought its materialist anchorage in a philosophy of the encounter.48 Forgetfulness, cover-up, repression: these are certainly not equivalent terms, as Federico Dinucci shows,49 and whom we follow on this point:

Forgetfulness and condemnation to death return us to the register of the classical history of materialism (such as it is being developed today by Olivier Bloch). Materialism had to confront intolerance and religious and political persecution which sought to destroy it and which often succeeded in doing so. The cover-up, the discovery that conceals, pertains to strategies other than those of politics; it evokes ontological, impersonal strategies, such as the dynamic of Being according to Heidegger. The history of metaphysics as aletheia, the unveiling of being [de ltant], is actually that of the veiling of the onto-theological difference. One must think together the originary veiling and the inauthentic unveiling which, blind in its very self-evidence, prevents one from grasping the truth. What is covered over and forgotten is the apparatus [dispositif] of the opening of Being as a complex which brings together elements, void and encounter.


The hazards of aleatory materialism



Repression and misrecognition are still-other strategies, this time originating in Freudian psychoanalysis. Repression is the destiny undergone by an unconscious drive; it is displaced through its collision with another drive and transformed into an element which has lost all manifest connection with that which at the origin remains unconscious, repressed, all the while leaving in its place a representative, a symptom. In this sense, the materialism of the encounter could be seen as a repressed philosophical tendency that demands it be interpreted as a return of the repressed based on traces or symptoms of this completed repression.

Althusser does not question himself over these modalities that open out into a complexity whose ultimate coherence remains to be specified. In particular he uses, by combining them, the schemes of theologico-political cover-up and repression, both of which imply relations of force and displacements. He would have us think forms of compromise, in that neither idealism nor materialism are given in a philosophy in a pure form. Indeed, every dominant current must represent in its bosom the very demands of the dominated current whilst deforming them or depotentialising them. Every great idealism (Descartes, Kant, Hegel) allows itself to be transformed, affected by elements of materialism that subsist as traces of struggle and censorship. Every materialism, likewise, allows itself to be affected by the idealism that it fights. It is the fate of the materialism of Marxists, and of Marx himself, who remains an idealist of freedom even in his structural theory of the mode of production, the heart of Capital. No matter what the genealogical scheme upheld, the status of aleatory materialism as a result remains to be seen. And yet, it would seem that Althusser is claiming that the formulation of the conceptuality of his aleatory materialism is without contamination by its other. At the end of this underground history, he repeats these concepts doubtlessly without objects, being the concepts of nothing according to the form, the simplest and purest, which they took in the history of philosophy, in Democritus and, especially, Epicurus.50 From one purity to another. The end repeats the beginning, but the repetition is enriched by the underground labour, by clear possibilities to criticise western rationalism in an increasingly radically manner. The obvious risk is that of making this genesis of aleatory materialism into an orthogenesis which is still teleological, and thus subtracted from the conditions which, according to aleatory materialism itself, define history. Idealism would then approach aleatory materialism in that its process of development involves both the slippage of the contingency of its beginning into a pure origin and the mutation of its actual terminus, there where it finds enriched this pure end form projecting onto its genealogy the great shadow of truth. Aleatory materialism would still be philosophy [de la philosophie] in this circle of beginning and end, a critical mimesis of philosophy. It would be unfair to attribute this circle to Althusser without a more in-depth examination. The incompletion of his research must be taken into account. And Derridas reading, which is sensitive to logocentric closure erasure could have been used to think the return of idealism into aleatory materialism itself. The critique of the principle of reason, in its very execution, reestablishes this very principle itself: Aristotelian banality against skepticism. Nonetheless, this ultimate uncertainty is a problem.


Encountering Althusser

Of an impossible conclusion
Until his death, Althusser remained a communist philosopher, committed to an aporetic communism since, like no other communist philosopher before him, he never ceased to deconstruct communism, in its Marxist form, as imaginary, as the triple myth of origin, subject and end. Notably, aleatory materialism voided this communism at the very moment when the mass movement was undergoing its most terrible historical defeat, becoming almost invisible; in doing so, Althusser also emptied himself out into the active nothing of the restoration of a wild and globalised capitalism. In his aporiai, in the impossibility of constructing after its deconstruction a determinate connection between the masses of men who toil in darkness and the new practice of materialist philosophy, Althusser hoped in the possibility of an encounter, be it reduced to the purity of a formal outline [pure formelle], between those men whose darkness and conditions of engagement [mise en mouvement] he tragically shared. Of course, the materialist philosopher is the traveller who boards a train in whatever station, not knowing where the train has come from or where it is heading; he tells himself no stories [Histoire].51 He boards the train in motion and experiences the history into which he is thrown. But he can record sequences of events, experiment, whilst keeping himself ready to be taken, emptily awaiting the encounter, the conjunction which will constitute a world, the sur-prise that could be that of another disaster [dsastre], but also that of a felicitous conjunction of stars [astres]. We just dont know. Translated from the French by Daniel Hartley.

1 A first version of this text appeared in 2000 in Cahiers philosophiques 84. [The original title is Les alas du matrialisme alatoire dans la dernire philosophie de Louis Althusser. The word ala literally means hazard, with the dual sense of chance and dangerous risk. The pun on alas and alatoire is impossible to render into English. All footnotes are Tosels, except for the explanatory material placed in square brackets.] 2 Althusser 2006a, p. 166. [The second half of this epigraph is taken from a section of Althussers original French volume, which appears not to have been included in the Verso translation; see Althusser 19945 Volume 1, p. 537 .] For a substantial clarification, see Raymond 1997 , pp. 16779. It would be worth taking into account Raymonds entire development, from Raymond 1973 and Raymond 1975 up to Raymond 1982. In doing so, we could assess what Althusserian thought owes to these works and the ways in which it inflects them towards its own ultimate deconstructionism. That way, we could do justice to the important work of Pierre Raymond, which Althusser at once recognised and denied. 3 [The French version was published in 1992, the English translation in 1994a]. 4 Althusser 19945 Volume 1. 5 [As noted above, the English translation of Althusser 19945 Volume 1 is Althusser 2006a, but this latter work differs in contents: it contains only pp. 341582 of the former work. See the translators Note on the French Texts in Althusser 2006a]. 6 [Parts of this book have been translated into English as Althusser 1990a. Other parts are included in Althusser 2006a]. 7 [Althusser 2006a, pp. 2612].

The hazards of aleatory materialism 8 See Bourdin 2000. 9 [I have translated sens throughout as meaning, though it also means sense or sometimes direction]. 10 Althusser 2006a, pp. 2723. 11 Althusser 2006a, p. 173. 12 Dinucci 1998.


13 [In this paragraph, the French verb accomplir is translated as accomplish and fulfil depending on the context]. 14 Althusser 2006a, p. 177 . 15 Althusser 2006a, p. 178. 16 Althusser 2006a, p. 179. 17 Althusser 2006a, p. 179. 18 Althusser 2006a, p. 179. 19 Althusser 2006a, p. 187 . 20 Althusser 2006a, p. 187 . 21 Althusser 2006a, p. 272. 22 Althusser 2006a, pp. 2723. 23 Althusser 2006a, p. 188. 24 Althusser 2006a, p. 189. 25 Althusser 2006a, p. 170. 26 Althusser 2006a, p. 265. [The final formulation included in square brackets is in English in Althussers original]. 27 Althusser 2006a, p. 265. 28 Althusser 2006a, p. 276. 29 Althusser 2006a, p. 275. 30 Althusser 2006a, p. 190. 31 Althusser 2006a, pp. 2745. 32 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1745, 262. [The citation in Tosel appears to be one continuous whole, whereas the English translation contains the final sentence only in the Philosophy and Marxism chapter later in the book]. 33 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1934. 34 Althusser 2006a, p. 274. 35 Althusser 2006a, p. 278. 36 Althusser 2006a, p. 278. 37 [The section title in French is Marx au crible du matrialisme alatoire. Crible usually means either riddle or sieve, but there exists an idiomatic French expression, passer au crible, literally to pass something through the sieve, which means to submit something to a thorough investigation or critical selection. I chose the image of the fine-toothed comb to communicate at least some of this idiomatic nuance]. 38 Althusser 2006a, p. 200. 39 Althusser 2006a, p. 202. 40 Althusser 2006a, p. 202 41 Althusser 2006a, p. 198.


Encountering Althusser

42 Althusser 2006a, p. 199. 43 Althusser 2006a, p. 270. 44 Althusser 2006a, p. 280. 45 Althusser 2006a, p. 288. 46 Althusser 2006a, p. 287 . 47 Althusser 2006a, p. 286. 48 Althusser 2006a, p. 188. 49 Dinucci 1998. 50 Althusser 2006a, p. 190. 51 Althusser 2006a, pp. 2778.

Rethinking aleatory materialism
Panagiotis Sotiris

fter the tragic events of 1980, during a period of isolation and public silence, Louis Althusser tried to define a new conception of materialism, which he called aleatory materialism or materialism of the encounter. Although these texts, most of them published after Althussers death in 1990, bear the mark of a difficult personal situation, as he was tormented by serious health problems and periodic relapses of depression, they have nevertheless provoked an ongoing debate concerning both their significance and their position within the totality of Althussers work. The aim of this paper is to discuss some of the interpretations that have been proposed and also to critically read Althussers writings on aleatory materialism.

Readings of Althussers later writings

An Althusserian Kehre?
Antonio Negri has suggested that Althussers later writings represent a major theoretical turn, an Althusserian Kehre, describing these texts as indications of Althussers endorsement of a postmodern and post-communist perspective.1 According to Negri, Althusser moved away from his previous structuralism and embarked in the quest for a new philosophical and political subjectivity refusing all forms of dialectics. Postmodern totalisation of power leaves no room for dialectical contradictions in social reality, only the possibility of new social and productive forms emerging at the margins and interstices of existing social order. Negri insists that these new social forms necessarily take the form of aleatory ruptures, and instead of a negative philosophy of structures and processes without subjects, we need a positive philosophy of the resistance and creativity of singular social bodies, with Negri projecting onto Althusser his own ontology of the creative potentiality of the multitude. Similarly, Yann Moulier Boutang has insisted that Althusser, faced with the crisis of Marxism in the 1970s, chose to abandon the theoretical apparatus of historical materialism and any conception of a science of history dealing with modes of production and their succession and forms of transition, in favour of a logic of the singular case and of a notion of the political


Encountering Althusser

practice as aleatory encounter.2 Ichida and Matheron3 think that the notion of the aleatory which Althusser introduced in his later writings has to be interpreted as the non-dialectic, in the sense of the abandonment of a conception of politics based on the relation between a dialectical order of exposition and the order of things. Callari and Ruccio link aleatory materialism and the possibility of a postmodern Marxism and postmodern politics of the multiple and heterogeneous subjects and identities,4 presenting Althussers work as a clear break with classical Marxism and modernism. Modernist Marxism is presented as plagued by essentialism and teleology, with production being the causal centre of social reality and the proletariat as the historical subject of social change. For Callari and Ruccio, there is the possibility of an other Marxism, exemplified in the work of Althusser, that counters these essentialist, systemicist and teleological tendencies and offers the possibility to think the heterogeneity, complexity and multiplicity of social struggles and to reject classical Marxisms premises such as the primacy of the struggles in production or the determination in the last instance by the economic. This postmodern Althusser is also a post-communist one, refusing the basic tenets of communist politics, such as the political centrality of the labour movement. But this reading also has epistemological consequences: Althussers insistence on the possibility of treating Marxism as a science and as an attempt towards scientific explanation is discarded.5

Materialist readings
On the contrary, G. M. Goshgarians Introduction to the Philosophy of the Encounter6 stresses the element of continuity in Althussers work, tracing the notion of the encounter in all of Althussers mature work, beginning with the book on Montesquieu,7 which is represented as a first clear break with historicism and teleology, and later in the reformulation of materialist dialectics in the 1960s, until its emergence as part of the new practice of philosophy, envisaged as an integral part of a political and theoretical strategy to counter right-wing tendencies and the crisis in the communist movement. According to Goshgarian, Althussers rethinking in the 1970s of the crisis of communist politics and the non-accomplishment of socialism in the USSR already included the basic premise of aleatory materialism that an encounter might not take place, or that it might not last. Similarly, he treats Althussers insistence on the primacy of class struggle over the contending classes, a basic premise of his works in the 1970s, as analogous to his later insistence on the primacy of the encounter over the forms to which it gives birth.8 Consequently, Goshgarian insists that only by reading the texts on aleatory materialism can we understand the philosophical perspective of Althussers political battles in the 1970s. Wal Suchting also provided, shortly before his death, a very interesting reading of Althussers later writings,9 in which he suggested that one possible way to understand these texts is though the conceptual strategy introduced by Wittgenstein, and especially the distinction between facts and things. He also insisted on the usefulness of aleatory materialism as a way to dissolve philosophical problems, especially those having to do with the relation of materialism to the development of modern science. Andr Tosel chooses a more balanced position, at the same time trying to stress an element of continuity in Althusser, basically in his effort to think communism in a non-ideological mode remaining until his death a communist philosopher,10 also stressing the open questions that mark the formulations of aleatory materialism.

Rethinking aleatory materialism


Mikko Lahtinen has also offered a very interesting reading of the later writings and especially Althussers preoccupation with Machiavelli,11 insisting that aleatory materialism is basically a way to theorise the exigencies of political practise and action in the unpredictable terrain of singular historical conjunctures. Vittorio Morfinos writings on aleatory materialism12 represent an original attempt at a materialist reading of the later writings and they draw clear lines of demarcation with more idealist readings, since Morfino insists on Althussers radically anti-teleological and antihistoricist position. Especially interesting is Morfinos careful reading of Althussers theoretical sources and his insistence that certain references by Althusser (for example the imagery of the rain or the void) must be treated more like rhetorical strategies and not like proper philosophical concepts or ontological positions. But the question remains: while one can be in agreement with readings such as those proposed by Goshgarian or Morfino, offering the possibility to treat Althussers materialism of the encounter as something opposed to an idealism of the aleatory and as a set of theoretical positions that are in a continuity with Althussers earlier formulations, the problem is that there has been a great number of interpretations that insist on a possible idealist reading. Is this a problem of the interpretations proposed, or is it an actual theoretical contradiction in Althussers writings themselves? In my opinion, it is not enough to limit ourselves to an effort to salvage the later texts from post-Marxist and postmodernist readings and to present an unbroken continuity in Althussers work. Such a reading would be in sharp violation of the protocols that Althusser himself introduced for the reading of any theoretical problematic. Instead, the contradictions in Althussers conception of aleatory materialism must be brought to the fore.

The difficulties of being a materialist in philosophy: assessing aleatory materialism

A new attempt to think the possibility of a communist practice of philosophy
The answer to the question of the continuity of aleatory materialism in relation to Althussers previous positions depends upon how one interprets his later writings. I think that the main element of continuity is that they remain inscribed in the politically inspired quest for a materialist practice of philosophy. Despite Althussers refusal (and inability) in the 1980s to make any form of public political intervention, it is obvious that he remained a communist in philosophy, in sharp contrast to the theoretical and political anti-communism that marked other conceptions of the crisis of Marxism, from the nouveaux philosophes onwards. Althussers effort to rethink materialism does not originate from a general disillusionment with working-class politics and Marxism, but on the contrary from an effort to provide a left-wing alternative to communist politics, based on the centrality of the class struggle and the continuing relevance of the communist project.13 Althussers successive redefinitions of philosophy after the abandonment of any possibility of a theory of theoretical practice, the importance attached to the political character of


Encountering Althusser

philosophical intervention,14 the distinction between scientific propositions and philosophical positions and in general the emphasis on philosophy not having an object in the sense of the sciences,15 the linking of philosophy, ideology and the class struggle in the definition of philosophy as class struggle in theory in the last instance,16 all attest to a theoretical effort to think philosophy as both inescapable (the interconnection of ideological class struggle and theoretical practices leads inevitably to philosophical conflicts) and necessary (we have to intervene in a specifically philosophical way if we want to battle the influences of dominant ideologies both in the theoretical and the political field). And the same goes for his insistence on the recurring opposition between idealism and materialism, internalised in any philosophical intervention, as the specific form of the effects of class antagonism on the theoretical plane. In light of the above, Althussers references to a new materialist practice of philosophy,17 radically incommensurable with traditional idealist philosophy, a practice that can only work as an intervention, an effort to change the balance of force in the theoretical and political practices, and in no way as a philosophical system, have to be considered as the starting points for any critical evaluation of the possibility of a materialist philosophy.18

Materialism as anti-teleology
Equally important is Althussers further elaboration in his later writings of his original strongly anti-teleological stance, through the introduction of the notion of encounter.19 I think that the notion of the encounter can indeed be really useful as an attempt to theorise the transition from one mode of production to the other in non-essentialist and non-teleological terms. Transition remains an open question and there have been many efforts to theorise it, from Soviet Marxisms insistence on the forces of production as the principal aspect of historical development, to more recent attempts to present the emergence of specifically capitalist social property relations in England as the essential aspect of the transition to capitalism,20 all tending to view a certain aspect or element as playing the part of the self-development of an essence that marks the emergence of capitalism as the solution of the historical contradictions of feudalism. The problem is that it is very difficult to bring all the elements present in the expanded reproduction of the capitalist mode of production into the same essentialist historical narrative and treat them as aspects of the relation between an essence and its expressions. The emergence of English agrarian capitalism,21 the first truly capitalist form of production, the development of Italian banking and credit practices (themselves having to do more with risktaking and handling of foreign-trade costs than with a demand to obtain some part of the total capitalistically extracted surplus-value), the emergence of the absolutist state and the unified, centralised territorial state (as opposed to the feudal fragmentation of territory and political authority), the emergence of bourgeois culture and mentality as a result of the development of cities as administrative centres, were not predestined to be part of the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production, even though this is what effectively took place. The notion of the encounter can help us see the crucial theoretical difference between the transition to a mode of production and its reproduction. In this reading the notion of the encounter marks the break with any form of historical metaphysics and does not preclude the structured character of the social whole. There is nothing contingent in the articulation of these elements as aspects of the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. On the contrary, the only way to account for this reproduction

Rethinking aleatory materialism


is the emergence of capitalist relations of production as a structure in dominance.22 This causal primacy of the relations of production holds also for the transition itself: only under the dynamics of the emerging capitalist forms of exploitation and the social forces that came along could this combination have taken place. To Althussers warning against any form of historical teleology that the encounter might not have taken place, we must add the materialist insistence on the possibility of historical explanation: the encounter could not have taken place without the emergence of capitalist social forms.

Contradictions of aleatory materialism

There also contradictory aspects in the whole conception of aleatory materialism. First of all, we must deal with the problems at the centre of the notion of the encounter introduced by Althusser in the later writings. As Morfino and Pinzolo have stressed,23 there is an oscillation in Althussers conception of the encounter. On the one hand it refers to a relational conception of social reality, to the ontology of the relation,24 exemplified by Marxs notion of Verbindung.25 We can say that this is the materialist instance of the notion of the encounter. On the other hand, we can say that the notion of the encounter (and the contingent swerve at its beginning) refers to a possible theory of the energetic character of singularities and it is close to the idealism of freedom that Althusser himself tried to distinguish from aleatory materialism. Consequently, it is necessary to pay particular attention to the open questions related to the notion of the encounter. What is primary: the atoms or the deviation that forms worlds; the parallel rain or the swerve; the rain of atoms in a pre-existing world or state of affairs or the absence of any world and in this sense reality? It is obvious that from a theory of the non-teleological character of the encounter to a theory of the swerve as radical origin and beginning the distance is small. If we have to remain within the limits of the encounter metaphor, and bring to the fore its materialist potential, then it is necessary to stress that what pre-exists any possible new encounter is not the original rain (an image consistent with a conception of the swerve as origin), but rather other encounters (pre-existing modes and forms of production). In this reading, the centrality of the encounter would not imply a theory of the radical origin but an attempt to theorise the constant repetition of both the encounter and the deviation.26 Only if we break from any reading of Althussers texts that focuses on the openly contingent character of social forms and of the energetic character of social atoms/singularities is it possible to treat the theoretical couple encounter/deviation as a materialist conception of the conjuncture in the open space of the articulation of social forms and relations, as a new, non-teleological and non-mechanistic way to think the reproduction of social forms and relations. In this sense, encounter is not freedom materialised, nor is deviation the trait of an emerging subjectivity, but the necessary dialectic of social reproduction. That is why it necessary to see more carefully the whole metaphor of the rain (as an image of the parallel movement of atoms before the original swerve) and the problems related to its theoretical position and functioning. To take one example: Althussers treatment of Spinozas parallelism27 as an example of the rain is a rather strange theoretical choice, since parallelism in Spinoza is not an ontological proposition on the emergence of the world (such as Epicuruss rain of the atoms) and has much more to do with the relation between thought and extension (in fact, the relation between thought and extension as part of the same ontological level, and


Encountering Althusser

the rejection of any form of dualism) and with the fact that the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.28 In fact, the very notion of parallelism comes from Leibniz, who tried to incorporate Spinoza into his own dualist perspective.29 It seems as if Althusser is at this point trying to fit Spinoza into the whole imagery of the encounter, something made evident by his linking of the formation of common notions30 to the notion of the encounter. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Althusser takes a rather ambiguous position concerning imagination as the first kind of knowledge. Instead of considering it the prototype of a theory of ideology, as he emphatically did elsewhere,31 he tends to view it as the only way to come in terms with the world in its dispersed and non-totalised character.32 This effort to include Spinoza in the genealogy of a philosophy of the aleatory and the contingent comes in sharp contrast to Spinozas rejection of the notion of contingency, and his insistence that things appear as contingent because of inadequate knowledge.33 Althussers use of the notion of the void is also contradictory.34 On the one hand, Althusser tends to treat the notion of the void as a reference to the absence of any philosophical object: [a philosophy of the void] begins by evacuating all philosophical problems, hence by refusing to assign itself any object whatever.35 This brings us back to Althussers redefinition of philosophy as having no object36 and to his reference to the void of the distance taken in Lenin and Philosophy,37 as the description of the way philosophical interventions, although deprived of an object in the sense of the sciences, can have real effects because of their retracing of the line of demarcation between materialism and idealism. Then, there is the possibility of reading the recurrence of void in Althussers writings as a metaphor for a relational conception of social reality according to which what exists are fundamentally relations,38 a conception that was at the basis of Althussers theoretical innovations of the 1960s (social totality as a decentred whole, structural causality, absent cause) and his search for a way to theorise historical causality in a way that would not be transitive-mechanical or expressive. On the other hand, a more ontological conception of the void emerges in these texts, revealed by Althussers understanding of the void pre-existing the formation of worlds in Epicurus, by his reading of Machiavelli and the possibility of the Italian national unity, by his return to Pascals effort to elevate the void to the status of philosophical concept,39 by his position that the void must be at the centre of any materialist philosophy.40 This notion of the void can be related to another important part of later Althussers imagery, the margin or the interstice,41 which according to Althusser is exactly where the possibility of alternatives and new social and political forms arises,42 with communist relations existing in the interstices of imperialism. The margin and the interstice is also where theoretical and social forms exist which are not conditioned by class struggle: not everything in life is class struggle.43 But this image of the void has more to do with an Epicurean rain of atoms, where new forms emerge only as swerves ex nihilo, and less with an historical materialist conception of social emancipation being possible because social relations and structures are inherently contradictory, always amidst uneven processes of reproduction and transformation, and therefore constantly open to change. In this sense, we can talk about a fundamentally unresolved tension that runs through the theoretical core of the later writings. On the one hand, it is obvious that the notion of the encounter is a new attempt by Althusser to think the (non-)ontology of a relational conception of social reality in the sense of an absence of both a teleology of social forms and any form of social substance. This is, indeed, a major question of any materialist social

Rethinking aleatory materialism


theory: how to think the effectivity of social relations, the way they combine social practices and their agents and reproduce themselves, while at the same time acknowledging that there is no deeper social substance that guaranties this process and its reproduction. This also leads to another important conclusion: modes of production and social forms are open to change, open to historical transformation, not because of any historical tendency towards progress (and necessary historical stages) but because of their inherent instability. On the other hand, we also have the linking of the encounter not only with chance, a certain randomisation of history, but also with a conception of a constant rearranging of the world through the endless movement of energetic social atoms. As a result, the void acquires a new meaning: it refers to a necessary open space for this movement of social atoms, or the need to create this necessary free space. It is here that the notion of radical beginning and commencement emerges. There has to be nothing in order for something radically new to emerge. The reason why Althusser, at a time of major personal, political and philosophical crisis opts for this image is more than obvious: unable to confront the reality of both the extent of the crisis of the communist movement, a crisis that for many years he recognised and denounced, at the same time refusing to acknowledge its full extent (thus his insistence on a more or less imaginary communist movement to which he addressed his pleas for theoretical and political correction), he fantasises about a radically new beginning. But, as we all know the fantasy of a new beginning for instance, in personal relations usually reflects a denial to actually face reality.44 As a result, the void acquires a new significance. It is as if Althusser is insisting that for something new to exist, there has to be a radical absence. But this is also another form of historicism and a philosophy of the origin, as if it were only from nothing that something could emerge. It is exactly here, in this conception of radical absence as a prerequisite for something new to emerge that the encounter/deviation couple tends more towards a notion of the chance and the random.45 There is no doubt that the question of historical novelty, of the possibility of new social and political configurations is crucial for any philosophical position attached to political projects of social emancipation. In order to challenge theoretically the existing social conditions one must insist on the possibility of radical historical novelty. This also has been the line of demarcation between reformist and revolutionary conceptions of politics. Social and political change requires radically novel solutions. Answers to social contradictions must take the form of ruptures. That is why any truly materialist philosophy of history must be a philosophy of events, of the possibility of events. But any attempt to theorise the possibility of new events has to confront two theoretical temptations. The first one is the temptation of teleology in the sense of treating the new as always-already incorporated in the present situation as its inner truth or telos. The other is to treat the new as miracle, 46 as something that was in no way precluded in the contours of the situation and somehow just happens by a radically novel intervention. The question is, therefore, how to theorise the possibility of radically new configurations emerging through the existing conditions. In this sense, one might say that a materialist position insists on radical novelty and beginning but not on absolute beginnings in a metaphysical sense. What is missing in this second conception is that new social forms do not emerge ex nihilo. There is no void in history, some form of societal configuration (or an articulation of modes and forms of production) is always already there. What is radically new is exactly the possibility of new social forms and encounters. The void in this sense must not be thought in terms of nothingness but of this absence of any essentialist, historicist form of an intrinsic


Encountering Althusser

link between the preceding social forms and the ones that follow then, this absence of any Historical Design or prefigured Progress. And this brings us to another contradictory aspect of Althussers later writings, namely his turn towards the singular case, event and fact, a turn that comes close to a kind of atomistic empiricism, leading even to a positive appraisal of Hume. 47 There is the possibility of treating these references as an expression of Althussers conception of materialism as nominalism a recurring theme in the later writings48 both in the sense of a radical distinction between real objects and theoretical objects, and on an emphasis on singularity. But even though in the strict sense only singular historical formations and conjunctures exist, these must be viewed, to use Spinozas terms, as singular essences, as complex relations not atomistic facts or solitary cases, something that implies that we need a nominalism of relations not things.49 It is true that Althusser also speaks about constants and sequences and lasting encounters and tries to bring this atomistic conception close to the Marxist notion of the tendential law,50 but the latter refers to the contradictory co-existence of tendencies and countertendencies as a manifestation of the contradictory nature of social reality51 and not to the perception of sequences of relations between singular facts as a result of human imagination and reasoning,52 a position quite far from the original conception of Althussers materialism as anti-empiricism par excellence. It is this search for some tangible form of facticity that is at the basis of Althussers inability to think, in these later writings, in terms of social forms. Although Althussers insistence on the primacy of productive relations over productive forces and on the antagonistic character of class relations was very important and helped the theoretical break with forms of economism and technological determinism and facilitated the recognition of the importance of struggles and movements against the capitalist organisation of production, at the same time it tended to underestimate the importance of social forms, exemplified in his rejection of the theory of fetishism.53 This emphasis on the antagonistic character of social practices tended to underestimate the fact that class struggle does not take place only within antagonistic class relations, but also under the weight of historical social forms that exert their own effects on the class struggle. In this sense, capitalism must be defined not only in terms of capitalist relations of production, but also in terms of the importance of the value form (as an historically specific result of the hegemony of capitalist relations of production without reference to some form of simple commodity production) and all the forms of social (mis)recognition and fetishistic representations it brings along, which is exactly the reason for the contradictory complexity of the first volume of Marxs Capital, 54 an aspect missed by Althusser.55 Althusser not only chooses to ignore this dimension of social reality, but also tends to reject any form of dialectics. And this leads to the problems concerning Althussers effort in his later writings to rethink the possibility of transformative and emancipatory political practice. Althusser for the most part does not turn to his original formulations of a materialist conception of the conjuncture in a structured and over-determined social whole as the starting point of a theory of the political practice, conceived as a complex combination of knowledge of the field and the balance of force and of transformative intervention. Althusser seems as tending towards a conception of the solitary and unstable political gesture that more often than not fails to bring around the desired encounter and leaves no other choice apart from either some form of voluntarist decisionism or just waiting for the unexpected (which can be the inverse version of a messianic or millenarian conception of revolutionary politics). Compared to the theoretical and political

Rethinking aleatory materialism


challenge posed by Marxs introduction (in the third of the Theses on Feuerbach) of the notion of revolutionre praxis, it can be considered a theoretical retreat to a pre-Marxist conception of practice.

Is a materialism of the conjuncture enough?

tienne Balibar has suggested that from the beginning there was a certain tension in Althussers conception of the dialectic, depending on whether the emphasis was on conjuncture or structure, a tension Balibar describes as the tension between the more Leninist or Machiavellian emphasis on the singularity of conjunctures and the more structuralist critique of simple and expressive conceptions of the totality,56 a difference that Balibar thinks marks the two articles that introduced Althussers conception of the dialectic, Contradiction and Overdetermination and On the materialist dialectic.57 However, I think that Balibar offers a rather schematic distinction, implying an unbridgeable gap between these two conceptions. That is why this distinction must be problematised. Althussers use of the notion of structure had less to do with Althusser embracing structuralism but more with an attempt towards a theorisation of the relational character of social reality (in the sense of the ontological primacy of the relation over its elements) and of the tendency of social forms and apparatuses to reproduce themselves, despite being transversed by social antagonism, a crucial question for critical social theory. Structural causality offers the possibility to negate at the same time a mechanical, one-dimensional conception of structural imperatives and an equally one-dimensional conception of a multitude of conjunctural determinations. That is why instead of treating the structure/conjuncture tension as tragically unresolved, as Balibar does, it is better to treat it as a dialectical contradiction inherent to Marxism as historical materialism. Therefore, the question is not what side to choose, but how to deal with it. But even if we treat the notion of the encounter as an elaboration by Althusser on a materialist conception of the notion of the conjuncture, there is still the open problem of the relation between structure and conjuncture. There is the theoretical danger of reading Althussers later writings as the abandonment of any possibility to theorise structural determinations (in the sense of social relations and forms reproduced in the longue dure) in favour of a theorisation of the conjunctural interplay and rearrangement of the elements of social reality. We cannot simply replace the notion of the structure by the notion of the conjuncture as con-junction, as has been suggested by Vittorio Morfino,58 even if this could be in line with Althussers own references to lasting encounters instead of structures. Even if we choose to treat structures as stabilised durable conjunctures, this durability is not simply a matter of lasting repetitive encounters; it also has to do, as Althusser himself tried to show, with the intervention of material practices and apparatuses that make possible the reproduction of social relations but also of ideological (mis)recognitions and social forms that create the conditions of this durability.59 As a result, different temporalities co-exist in the particular singularity of each conjuncture60 which is exactly the manifestation of the distinction and dialectic between structural and conjunctural determinations that Althusser described through the notion of over-determination.61 That is why it is worth going back to Althussers Machiavelli and Us, a text written mainly in the 1970s but reworked in the 1980s. In this text, Althusser offers a much more balanced and


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dialectical conception to this relation, stressing especially the political stimulus necessary for any materialist theorisation of historical and social reality. Thus, Althusser writes of Machiavelli: We are no longer dealing with the mythical pure objectivity of the laws of history and politics. Not that they have disappeared from Machiavellis discourse. Quite the reverse: he does not cease to invoke them, and track them in their infinite variations, so as to make them declare themselves. . .. But the theoretical truths thus produced are produced under the stimulus of the conjuncture; and no sooner are they produced than they are affected in their modality by their intervention in a conjuncture fully dominated by the political problem it poses, and the political practice required the objective it proposes.62 It is obvious that in this formulation there is no abandonment of any notion of structural determinations and/or laws (as historical tendencies). What is implied is that their only possible materialisation, their only form of existence is in singular historical conjunctures and that the only possible way at arriving at any possible theorisation of them is through the exigencies and open questions that these singular conjunctures pose. And it is here that Althussers own self-critical conception of philosophy as intervention can be most fruitful. If historical materialism can never be a closed, rigidified scientific system, but is instead a constant struggle with the complexity and conflictuality of social reality that necessarily leads to such tensions, then there is also a constant need for philosophical interventions as (self)corrections in the form of constantly bending of the stick to the opposite side. Against the tendency to treat social structures as systems and self-reproducing totalities an emphasis on the conjunctural and aleatory aspect is always a necessary correction, but the same goes for the emphasis on the tendency of social forms and modes of production to reproduce themselves against any atomised conception of social reality.

Contingent encounter or materialist dialectic?

Perhaps the most important contradiction of Althussers later writings is his rejection of any notion of dialectics, not only in the sense of a choice of theoretical vocabulary but also in a more profound sense: Althussers use of the notion of the encounter (in its more general ontological sense) seems to reject the dialectical character of social contradictions. By dialectical character, we mean that the primacy of the relation over its elements (and of the contradiction over its poles) implies that the contradiction is internalised in each element of the contradiction in a complex process of mutual determination, each pole of the contradiction being in a sense the result of the contradiction itself.63 This leads to an underestimation of the labour of the negative, not as the self-development of an historical essence or Weltgeist, but as the recognition of the constant effectivity of social antagonism, which constantly prevents social reality from becoming a closed system and creates possibilities of social change. It also leads to the underestimation of the complex and uneven character of social contradictions and the way they are articulated and overdetermined. And this is important since, as Althusser himself showed, it is exactly this contradictory, uneven and overdetermined character of social reality that also makes possible a labour on the labour of the negative, that is, revolutionary politics as transformative social practice.

Rethinking aleatory materialism


Althussers rejection of dialectics marks a theoretical retreat compared to his path-breaking earlier effort to rethink, in a non-metaphysical way, contradiction as the basis of a materialist conception of social causality. Althusser seems to be haunted by a very particular conception of the contradiction as the internal self-alienation and new unity of a substance and considers this to be the main problem of Marxs work.64 As a result, Althusser abandons his own effort to think contradiction in a non-metaphysical way, that is, to think at the same time the priority of antagonism and contradiction over structure and the fact that social relations as antagonistic class strategies are also historically realised as internal contradictions of forces of production, of social forms, of forms of hegemony.65 And though Althusser tries to distinguish between the aleatory and the contingent, in many cases he seems to opt for a conception of the chance encounter, an emphasis on historical contingency and surprise, a wait for the unexpected. But in his return to the contingent Althusser in a way forgets a basic theoretical premise of both Marx and Spinoza, namely their conception of the dialectics of freedom and necessity, of freedom as necessity.66 Social change and the emergence of a just society are not the outcome of a chance encounter, but presuppose the intelligibility of social reality. It is the result of the society being determined and us being able to have a knowledge of this determination (especially if we view determinism in the open sense of the contradiction being the basis of social causality) and not indeterminate. In Spinozas terms, freedom is a consequence of an intelligible necessity67, and in Marxs terms it is knowledge of the objective conditions of the class struggle that makes possible the political direction of the class struggle. That the process of knowledge is itself part of the social reality to be known, or that it is not possible to assume a neutral position presents the difficult and dialectically contradictory nature of this process, not its negation or impossibility. This is why we must say, using Althussers own metaphors, that although a materialist philosopher does indeed jump on a moving train,68 and he/she is always-already within a particular historical conjuncture, he/she does not simply travel along: on the contrary, he/she tries not only to discern which way the train is going, but how the train moves, what other routes are possible, and finally tries to turn the train towards the direction he/she thinks best, something that Althusser, faced with a profound political, theoretical and personal crisis, thinks impossible. But, in order to do justice to Althusser we can also say that his oscillations are a result of a contradiction that transverses any attempt to formulate a materialist practice of philosophy. On the one hand, we have the effort to bring to the fore the materiality of the social practices themselves as a rejection of any form of ontological dualism and any metaphysical beyond, an effort that runs the risk of empiricism, positivism and misrecognition of the mechanisms which produce social phenomena. On the other hand, there is the need to criticise ideological misrecognitions, to produce theoretically the real as opposed to the obvious of the ideological surface, an effort that runs the risk of theoreticism and a foundationalist approach to knowledge. In a sense, there is no exit from this oscillation, only the successive bending of the stick to the opposite side. But the question is: towards which side? It is obvious that in the 1980s Althusser thought that the main theoretical danger came from a metaphysical conception of the historical possibility of communism. However, today the main danger comes from neoliberal ideologys pre-emptive denial of any form of intelligibility of history apart from social reality as an aggregation of individual choices and atomised social transactions. That is why it is imperative today to rethink dialectics.


Encountering Althusser

Conclusion: the necessary return to Althusser

It is true that various versions of current radical philosophical theorising focus on forms of immanent materialism, on the effectivity of social antagonism, on a sharp distinction between liberalism and democracy, and on the possibility of events as ruptures and historical singularities. Surely aspects of Althussers work resonate with these questions, especially in his later writings. However, there are other aspects of his work that are different and represent Althussers anomaly, to borrow the term used by Negri for Spinoza.69 These are Althussers insistence on the possibility to treat historical materialism and psychoanalysis as sciences aiming at the same time at interpreting and changing social (and psychic) reality; his insistence on some form of dialectics (in the form of the necessarily contradictory character both of social reality and the knowledge process); and of course his reference to the communist movement, in the sense of both the historicity of the workers movement and the actuality of communism as the real movement which abolishes the present state of things (in The German Ideology). A necessary return to Althusser today would mean to go beyond simply reconstructing a materialist conception of singular resistances and refusals, or searching for a politics of the contingent encounter, in order to face the challenge of rearticulating the relation of Marxist theory and philosophy and projects of revolutionary social change.70

1 Negri 1996a. 2 Moulier Boutang 1997 , pp. 1001. 3 Ichida and Matheron 2005. 4 Callari and Ruccio 1996. 5 Of course, Althusser himself did not help matters by invoking such terms as science, society effect, structural causality, reproduction and so on terms that a allude to a sense of closure for the objects and methods of Marxist discourse (Callari and Ruccio 1996, p. 35). 6 Goshgarian 2006. 7 Althusser 1959. For Goshgarians reading of the book on Montesquieu as the emergence of the philosophy of the encounter see especially Goshgarian 2006, pp. xxxxxxv. 8 Goshgarian 2006, p. xlv. 9 Suchting 2004. 10 Tosel 2006, p. 195. 11 Lahtinen 2009. 12 Morfino 2005; Morfino 2007; Morfino and Pinzolo 2005. 13 On this see Althusser 1994a, pp. 25369 and 50826. 14 Althusser 1971a. 15 Althusser 1990a. 16 Reply to John Lewis in Althusser 1976a. 17 Althusser 2006a, pp. 27480. It is worth noting that in the later writings, Althusser mainly repeats the points about the materialist practice of philosophy introduced in the 1976 lecture on the Transformation of Philosophy (Althusser 1990a).

Rethinking aleatory materialism


18 It is worth noting that Fredric Jameson has also suggested a similar description of philosophical materialism: Rather than conceiving of materialism as a systematic philosophy it would seem possible and perhaps more desirable to think of it as a polemic stance, designed to organize various anti-idealist campaigns, (Jameson 1997 , p. 36). On the same point of the materialist philosophy being possible only as a materialist practice of philosophy and not as a materialist philosophical system see Macherey 1999, pp. 3573. 19 1. For a being (a body, an animal, a man, state or Prince) to be, an encounter has to have taken place ... There are encounters only between series ... of beings that are the results of several series of causes ... 3. Every encounter is aleatory, not only in its origins ... but also in its effects ... no determination of these elements can be assigned except by working backwards from the result to its becoming in its retroaction ... [I]nstead of thinking contingency as a modality of necessity or an exception to it, we must think necessity as the becoming necessary of the encounter of contingencies (Althusser 2006a, pp. 1923). 20 See for example Wood 1991; 1995; 2002; 2003. 21 Brenner 1976; 1982. 22 Althusser 1969a, pp. 20016. 23 Morfino and Pinzolo 2005. 24 Balibar 1993a, p. 32. 25 Welches immer die gesellschaftlichen Formen der Produktion, Arbeiter und Produktionsmittel bleiben stets ihre Faktoren. Aber die einen und die andern sind dies nur der Mglichkeit nach im Zustand ihrer Trennung voneinander. Damit berhaupt produziert werde, mssen sie sich verbinden. Die besondre Art und Weise, worin diese Verbindung bewerkstelligt wird, unterscheidet die verschiednen konomischen Epochen der Gesellschaftsstruktur (Marx 1963). Whatever the social form of production, labourers and means of production always remain factors of it. But in a state of separation from each other either of these factors can be such only potentially. For production to go on at all they must unite. The specific manner in which this union is accomplished distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society from one another (Marx 1974, pp. 367). Although traditionally translated as union, the French translation combination makes the relational character of the notion of Verbindung more evident. 26 On this, see the reading in Morfino and Pinzolo 2005. 27 The fact that [the attributes] are parallel, that here is an effect of parallelism, recalls Epicuruss rain (Althusser 2006a), p. 177 . 28 Spinoza 2002, p. 247 (Ethics, Part II, proposition VII). , pp. 7181. See also Gueroult 1974, p. 64. 29 Macherey 1997 30 An important aspect of Spinozas second kind of knowledge (Spinoza 2002, pp. 2668, Ethics, Part II, proposition XL, scholia I and II). 31 Elements of Self-Criticism in Althusser 1976a, pp. 1356. 32 [Spinoza] not only turns his back on all theories of knowledge, but also clears a path ... for the recognition of the world as unique totality that is not totalized, but experienced in its dispersion, and experienced as a given into which we are thrown (Althusser 2006a, p. 179). 33 Spinoza 2002, pp. 234, 236 (Ethics, Part I, proposition XXIX and proposition XXXIII, scholium 1). On this point, and in order to do some justice to Althusser, we must say that some of his comments have great theoretical merit, such as his insistence on the gap separating Spinoza and any traditional theory of knowledge or traditional metaphysics in general and on Spinozas rejection of any theory of the cogito. See Althusser 1994a, pp. 46787; Althusser 1997a. 34 On the importance of the void in Althussers theoretical trajectory, see Matheron 1997 . 35 Althusser 2006a, p. 174.


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36 Althusser 1990a. 37 Althusser 1971a, p. 62 (the original translation uses emptiness instead of void). 38 A position also expressed in Macherey 1979, p. 218. 39 Contrary to traditional philosophical historiography Althusser also considers Spinoza to be a thinker of the void (Althusser 2006a, p. 178). Franois Matheron, in an editorial note (Althusser 2006a, p. 204) refers to a 1982 paper by Macherey (included in Macherey 1992) as supporting the same paradoxical position. I think that Macherey is in fact more cautious and also stresses the differences between Pascal and Spinoza in what concerns the notion of the void. 40 On this notion of the void as the centre of any grand philosophy, see Althusser 2005. 41 This reminds one of Marxs references to trading nations of ancient times living in the intermediate worlds of the universe (Marx 1959, p. 225) or usury living in the space between worlds (Marx 1959, p. 412). 42 Althusser 1994a p. 4901; Althusser 2005. 43 Althusser 2005, p. 191. 44 That is why Ichida and Matherons emphasis in the notion of beginning [commencement] in Althusser later writings is a reading which is in sharp contrast to Althussers rejection both of a teleological End and an equally teleological Origin and Beginning. The following extract exemplifies the idealism of their position: This non originary nature of the originary , which is for Logic its sure beginning can we call it, despite whatever Althusser says here, otherwise than pure beginning? In its proper inaugural version, immediately discovered by the althusserian systematisation, the process without subject nor end(s), which has always begun, presents itself like the very problem of a beginning from nothing: the process exists only in the pure beginning. Ichida and Matheron 2005. 45 On such a reading of Althussers reference to the aleatory, see Moulier Boutang 2005. 46 On this, see Bensad 2004. 47 Althusser 2006a, p. 278. 48 See for example Althusser 2006a, p. 265. On Althussers nominalism, see Montag 1998a. 49 The elements constituting an individual are themselves complex realities, composed by different parts that coexist in them and are themselves conditioned outside of this relation (rapport) and so then in the infinite, because the analysis of reality is, according to Spinoza, without end and can never lead to absolutely simple beings, from which we could then edify the complex system of their combinations. Properly speaking only relations exist: that is why singular essences, which they are determined themselves, they are not affected by the external chaining of existences. That is why they cannot be reached by an analysis that would discover the simple at the bottom of the complex like a terminal element, an irreducible unity (Macherey 1979, p. 218). On the importance of the reference to Spinozas singular essences for Althussers self-correction of earlier theoreticist deviations see Goshgarian 2003, p. xliii. . 50 Althusser 2006a, p. 197 51 Marx 1959. 52 This is the difference between a materialist position and Humes empiricism (Hume 1964). 53 Althusser 2006a, pp. 12635. 54 On this reading see Milios, Dimoulis and Economakis 2002. And although a great part of recent and important work on the theory of the value-form has been rather Hegelian in its philosophical debts (for example Arthur 2002), I think that only a reworking of these questions in terms of a non-metaphysical and non-historicist materialism such as Althussers can help bring to the fore Marxs immense theoretical revolution.

Rethinking aleatory materialism


55 This had consequences for theoretical trends influenced by him. The Regulation Schools option of a middle range descriptive theory of social forms is an example of such an empiricist approach. On the relation of the Regulation School to Althusser, see Lipietz 1993. This does not mean that Althusser is to be blamed for the Regulation Schools shortcomings as some critics of Regulation do (see, for example, Mavroudeas 1999). 56 See Balibars L objet dAlthusser in Lazarus 1993, p. 94. 57 Both in Althusser 1969a. 58 Morfino 2005. 59 Althusser 1995a. Althussers turn towards the materiality of practices and apparatuses that ensure social reproduction represents in my opinion his self-critical attempt to avoid the danger of treating social structures as a form of a deeper social substance. 60 [I]t is only possible to give a content to the concept of historical time by defining historical time as the specific form of existence of the social totality under consideration, an existence in which different structural levels of temporality interfere ... It needs to be said that, just as there is no production in general, there is no history in general, but only specific structures of historicity. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 1089). 61 [I]t cannot be claimed that these contradictions and their fusion are merely the pure phenomena of the general contradiction. The circumstances and currents which achieve it are more than its phenomena pure and simple. They derive from the relations of production, which are, of course, one of the terms of the contradiction, but at the same time its conditions of existence ... [T]he contradiction is inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates; it might be called overdetermined in its principle, (Althusser 1969a, pp. 1001). 62 Althusser 1999, pp. 1920. 63 On the importance of the internalisation of the relation as the crucial aspect of a materialist conception of the contradiction, see Balibar 1997a, pp. 2989. 64 On this, see Althusser 1993a. 65 On this conception of the relation between antagonism and contradiction, see Balibar 1990. 66 It is worth noting that Slavoj iek has suggested that the classical position of freedom as conceived necessity (Hegel 1873, 147; Engels 1987 , p. 129) must be complemented with its reversal: necessity as (ultimately nothing but) conceived freedom (iek 1999, p. 44). 67 On the relation between knowledge and emancipation in Spinoza, see Matheron 1988 and Tosel 1994. 68 The materialist philosopher, in contrast, is a man who always catches a moving train , like the hero of an American Western (Althusser 2006a, p. 177). 69 Negri 1991. 70 Earlier versions of the arguments presented here were put forward in Sotiris 2008 and Sotiris 2009. The discussions at the 2009 Encountering Althusser Conference at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, where the first version of this paper was presented, were more than helpful. Tasos Betzelos also provided valuable comments and suggestions.

An immense aspiration to being: the causality and temporality of the aleatory
Giorgos Fourtounis

n 1962, after the completion of a course on Machiavelli at the cole normale suprieure and a severe episode of depression and hospitalisation, in a personal letter, Louis Althusser gives us a clue as to his life-long interest in this unclassifiable and solitary thinker: Machiavellis central problem from a theoretical point of view could be summed up in the question of the beginning, starting from nothing, of an absolutely indispensable and necessary new state.1 In fact, this very notion of a beginning from nothing, of an absolute beginning, becomes later the pivotal point of his Machiavelli and Us, which is a sort of palimpsest, bearing traces of nearly the whole of Althussers tormented intellectual and personal career.2 In that same letter of 1962, he acknowledges the personal nature of his involvement with Machiavellis problem, which thus proves to be for him much more than a detached theoretical problem; it was also his own problem: the question I dealt with: how to begin from nothing ... was mine.3 According to Gregory Elliot, this reflected, mutatis mutandis, Althussers own relationship to historical Communism.4 But I think that the ambiguity of this possessive (the question ... was mine), allows us to discern here an additional, subjective dimension: how is it possible, in thought as well as in practice, for a singular individual, like a national state, or a revolutionary movement, but also a subject, to begin, to commence or recommence, from nothing?

An infinite regression
This inevitably points to Althussers theory of ideology, which, it should be recalled, was the theory of the absolute beginning of the subject, that is, of the subjects constitution through ideological interpellation, which transforms individuals into subjects.5 Althusser depicts that operation of interpellation by the famous theoretical scene where an individual in the street is hailed by a policeman and turns his head: the individual, simply by this turning, becomes a


Encountering Althusser

subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was really addressed to him.6 This, as Althusser admits, entails that we distinguish for the moment between concrete individuals on the one hand and concrete subjects on the other.7 It is this provisional distinction between subjects and individuals (which are not yet subjects) that allows for the correlation of the subjects ideological constitution with the Machiavellian absolute beginning: it is a constitution from nothing, in the sense that, in the subjects beginning, there is nothing that resembles, prepares or prefigures the subject.8 But there is an obvious problem here: since ideological interpellation involves an instance of recognition, indeed a recognition of the self, which is clearly a subjects faculty, this transformation into a subject seems to presuppose the very subject that will be its outcome. There appears something like an infinite regression here, since the constitution of the subject depends on the constituted subject.9 When and how, then, does the subject really begin? Interpellation acquires thus a paradoxical, aporetic character. We could take as a sort of provisional answer to that paradox Althussers suggestion that the moment of constitutive interpellation is not a simple moment, inscribed in a temporal succession,10 but it is a structured one, to which the temporality of the always-already [toujours-dj] is ascribed: ... [I]ndividuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects. 11 But this hardly resolves the problem: as Althusser himself admits, this proposition might seem paradoxical.12 In short, then, the absolute beginning of the subject involves an ontological oddity: How is it possible that something, which in an obvious sense does not yet exist (since it begins from nothing), to be a necessary condition of the very process that will produce it? This paradox can obviously be rephrased as an aporia of causality: What notion of causality can allow for a process of constitution that presupposes its own effect? Finally, this ontologically and causally intractable circularity is correlative with the equally paradoxical always-already temporality: how is it possible for something sometime to begin to be always-already? And what does alwaysalready mean here? This multifaceted aporia will be an object of this essay.

Structural causality
Moreover, the Althusserian theory of ideological interpellation should be posited in the context of the, certainly idiosyncratic, Althusserian structuralism and, more specifically, of the relevant concept of structural causality. We know that the question Althusser raised and tried to address by elaborating that concept was the causal relation between the structure and the complex social reality that the structure determines, the structured whole. An aporia of causality was also at issue there, an impasse between two dominant notions of causality and the whole: structural causality had to be a way to avoid the dilemma of understanding structure either as transitive-analytical effect or as transcendent-expressive cause of a whole or totality of elements.13 To tackle this problem, Althusser invokes the Spinozist notion of immanence in order to define structural causality.14 Accordingly, the structure of a complex reality neither follows (as a mechanistic effect) nor pre-exists (as a teleological cause) the elements (and their relations) that constitute it; rather, it is their immanent cause: in contrast to the above-mentioned types of causality, where the cause is independent to its effects, structures effects, are not a pre-existing object, element or space in which the structure arrives to imprint its mark: on the

An immense aspiration to being


contrary the structure is a cause immanent in its effects ... [where] the whole existence of the structure consists of its effects ... [The structure] is nothing outside its effects.15 So, neither the structure nor its elements pre-exist independently of each other. As Althusser himself points out, that Spinozist conception of structural causality was a further elaboration of the concept of overdetermined structure, that is, of the ever-pregivenness of a structured complex unity.16 In other words, here structure and its specific causality are also attributed an always-already temporality. Thus, on the one hand, the structure is not a combinatory of pre-determined elements, which as such would be non-structural; the structures elements are always-already its effects, they are always-already structural elements. On the other hand, we cannot think of the structure as an abstract, formal system of relations and relational positions to be occupied by pre-existing and pre-determined entities, in order that the structure be actualised. As an immanent cause, the structure cannot be thought of as determined and fixed independently of its actualisations: the structure exists only in and by its actualisations; the structure is always-already actualised. Ideology, now, is crucially enmeshed in that relation of immanence between the social structure and its actualisation. Althusser, as it is well known,17 theorises ideology as essentially involved in the reproduction of the relations of production, which amounts to the correlation of it with Marxs suggestion that men should be considered as supports or bearers of relations and functions.18 Ideology constantly transforms human individuals so that they occupy the structural positions of the social whole and bear the complex social structure. It is by this transformation, precisely, that individuals become elements of the structure: ideology transforms individuals to structural elements, that is, into effects of the social structure. At the same time, this ideological instance of becoming element-bearer of the structure is, ipso facto, the instance in which the structure of the social practices becomes actual: it is the very actualisation of the social structure. As we have seen, this becoming element-and-effect of the structure, and, ipso facto, the actualisation of the structure, is characterised by that peculiar always-already temporality. And it is here precisely, where ideology is crucially involved in the immanent character of structural causality. The structure is actualised through ideology and, as we just saw, since the structure exists only in and by its actualisations, there is no structure without ideology. Ideology is here the very life of structural causality, it is immanence itself: it intervenes in the vanishing point between the immanent cause and its effects, it is the annulled interface between the structure and the structured social reality. Ideology is the very instance of the always-already, the instance where humans are always-already effects of the social structure, its most necessary elements, through which it is always-already actualised (and thus exists). Now, as Althusser says, the form under which the individuals become bearers of the social structure is the subject-form.19 The subject is the elemental form of the structures effectivity, the elemental effect of the social structure. Ideological interpellation, transforming individuals into subjects, transforms them by the same token into bearers of the complex social structure. Hence the ontological enmeshment, or even identification, of the two always-already that we have encountered so far: the always-already of interpellation and the always-already of structural causality, its immanent character itself. Thus, absolute beginning, and its elusive temporality of always-already, becomes correlated with the concept of structural causality as immanent causality, which would be another aspect of the aporetic object of this essay. Elaborating on this, I will suggest that the constitution


Encountering Althusser

of subjectivity is not just a particular case of absolute beginning; rather, there is an essential reference to subjectivity in the question of the absolute beginning, of the always-already givenness of the structure, even in the question of immanent causality itself.

An absolute beginning
In the main part of this chapter I consider the homology between this notion of the absolute beginning, a beginning from nothing, as it is discussed in Machiavelli and Us, and that of the aleatory encounter, the crucial concept of Althussers late materialism, as it is developed mainly in The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter.20 In the The Underground Current . . ., every complex and structured entity, governed in its subsequent history by the relevant structural causality, begins with the aleatory encounter, in the void, of the atoms that are going to become its structural elements. As is well known, Althusser will discern two distinct instances in that founding moment, two degrees of the aleatory, as it were: first, the aleatory encounter in the strict sense, that is the contingent bringing-together of some independent atoms and, second, after the advent of the encounter proper, the equally aleatory taking hold of the atoms that have met, their mutual articulation in structural relations endowed with a relative stability in short, the constitution of a new structured entity with a tendency to reproduce itself. A crucial distinction is already looming here: that between the elements of the encounter (the atoms) and the elements of the structure that results from it (its structural elements). Only after the encounters taking hold do the elements of the encounter become true elements of the new structure, subjected to its structural causality, its structural effects. Now, the void in which the encounter occurs stands for the radical absence of any structural and historical determination of the encounter: it is an encounter between independent elements which, like Epicurean atoms falling in the void of their radical non-relation, are not destined to encounter and, a fortiori, to take hold.21 Every accomplished encounter could equally not have been accomplished; no necessity, no proclivity favours the encounter over the non-encounter and, given that the encounters taking hold is also aleatory, every constituted singularity could equally not have been constituted. But aleatory is not only a matter of whether a new entity will be; aleatory is also what the entity will be:22 nothing in the elements of the encounter prefigures, before the actual encounter, the contours and determinations of the being that will emerge from it.23 Hence the radical novelty, the essentially unpredictable character of the emergent entity: there is no pre-existing, a priori inferable, essence, into which the new entity can be subsumed; there is no universal law covering the before and the after of the encounter, relating them as premises and conclusion, causes and effect. The structure of the new entity is not given in advance, not even as an abstract possibility. Thus, the radical materialist, anti-teleological and anti-essentialist, position of aleatory materialism is condensed precisely in the notion of the primary void of the encounter, which amounts to the radical disparity and independence of the atoms inhabiting it, namely the fact that the elements of an aleatory encounter are not historically prepared for that encounter nor marked in advance by the structure to which they will mutually adjust. The encounter and the emergent structure are not the outcome of a single, unitary, continuous and oriented history, intending to an end, necessarily allowing for a subject as the inescapable correlate of its

An immense aspiration to being


finality, that is, of a history with a subject and telos; there is a strong discontinuity (a break) between the before and the after of the encounter: the new entity is, precisely, new because it is incommensurable to its pre-histories (in the plural). In short, we could say that the void, as the crucial category of aleatory materialism, seems to posit a sharp distinction between the aleatory and the structural, between the aleatory encounter as a whole (in both of its instances) and the persistence of the structured coherence. The most powerful formulation of this distinction is the famous demarcation line between the logic of the accomplishment of the fact, the logic of the contingent production of any singular entity, on the one hand, and the logic of the accomplished fact, the logic of the law-governed reproduction of the entity, on the other. According to Althussers emphatic insistence, one should not confuse or intermingle those two logics, lest he falls into the one or the other version of philosophical necessity, teleology and essentialism. This seems to be the most uncompromising statement of a pure aleatorism,24 which in a sense homogenises the two instances of the encounter, purifying both of them of any structural determination. Accordingly, just as the encounter proper, so its taking hold is uncontaminated by any structural effectivity and, more significantly, it is beyond the scope of the new structures effectivity and determination; just like the encounter in the strict sense, no cause, no law, no finality or subject, can determine the advent of its taking hold either: the taking hold, too, takes place in the void. Nevertheless, one can trace in that very text the latent presence of another, more nuanced position. I have proposed the term aleatory structuralism for that tendency,25 which, in tension with the one mentioned above, draws a qualitative distinction between the two aleatory instances by implying that the taking hold of the encounter is already determined by the effectivity of the emergent structure;26 in other words, the structure that will result from the encounters taking hold, intervenes decisively in it. Obviously, there is some kind of retroaction involved here: the taking hold of the encounter appears as causally affected by its own effect. Indeed, aleatory structuralism is relevant to the theme of the retroactive character of that instance, which appears sporadically yet persistently in the text, disturbing its manifest logic: No determination of these [structural] elements can be assigned except by working backwards from the result to its becoming, in its retroaction . . . there is nothing which has become except as determined by the result of this becoming this retroaction itself.27 In short, in the context of this aleatory structuralism, the aleatory taking-hold of the encounter is the initial and inaugurating moment of the emergent structures causality, of its retroactive effectivity over the elements and the circumstances of its emergence, the beginning of the emergent entitys structural duration its history. I argue now that these two tendencies determine a crucial antinomy, which traverses The Underground Current . ..: on the one hand, what can be seen as the texts central tenor, that is, the overtly pronounced pure aleatorism, intransigently proclaiming the purity of the aleatory from any structural determination and, thereby, sharply demarcating itself from any teleology and essentialism, tends, by its own logic, to relapse to these constitutive philosophical opponents of it; on the other, the subordinated and somehow suppressed tendency of aleatory structuralism while it seems to compromise the logic of the aleatory, by putting it, at this extraordinary instance of the taking hold, under the sway of the logic of the structural is the only one that does justice to the anti-teleological and anti-essentialist thrust of aleatory materialism.


Encountering Althusser

Let me support my claim. As we have seen, the essential requirement of the aleatory was the disparate character of the encounters elements, and thus their qualitative difference from the structural elements of the subsequent structure. In fact, if the whole process of the encounter is not to be governed by its telos, the involved atoms must converge at the encounter without being motivated by the structure that they will constitute, without being guided by its structural causality, that is, without being in advance its structural elements. But then, the initially independent elements of the encounter have to be transformed into structural elements: they have to be transformed by the new structures effectivity in order to become its effects. And this is precisely the position of aleatory structuralism, the point of its disjunction from pure aleatorism: this indispensable transformation is precisely the taking hold of the encounter, where the structure exerts already its effectivity over its own constitution, transforming the independent and disparate atoms into its structural elements. This retroactive transformation, then, this initial moment of the structural causality, is the conditio sine qua no of the aleatory. By the same token, neither the elements nor the structure itself can any longer be thought of as pre-given: the eventual structure is not prescribed in advance, inscribed in some logical space, waiting for the appropriate elements to come and take their allocated places; it cannot be thought of as an abstract possibility, before and beyond its actualisation.28 On the contrary, the dominant tendency of pure aleatorism, that is, the full purification of the aleatory encounter from any structural determination, lacking precisely this moment of the emergent structures retroactive effectivity, cannot avoid projecting this transformative moment onto the very origin of these atoms, as if they were in advance characterised by their eventual structural affinities, and to implicitly posit the structure as a transcendent cause, pre-existent and in advance determining its elements and their mutual attraction. In other words, the constitutive lack in the whole process of any structural intervention that would transform the atoms into structurally related elements cannot but presuppose the presence of the structure as the guiding telos of the whole story. And this clearly undermines the whole anti-teleological thrust of aleatory materialism. Hence those highly symptomatic passages where Althusser asserts the affinity and complementarity of the elements that come into play in the encounter, their readiness to collide-interlock [accrochabilit], in order that this encounter take hold.29 It is the absence of this retroactive transformation that allows (or rather compels) Althusser to hold that an encounter has to take place between beings with affinities [des affinissables],30 and, in a more severe compromise of his rupture with teleology, that not just anything can produce just anything, but only elements destined [vous] to encounter each other and, by virtue of their affinity, to take hold one upon the other...31 Here, the aleatory encounter lapses into a necessary encounter between an essence-like structure, given in advance as a logical possibility, and its elements, already preformed, teleologically prepared in the context of a total history, elements that seek each other in order to enter their pre-given structural relations. Furthermore, the locus of this antinomy is the notion of the void: on the one hand, the void stands for the absence in the whole process of any structural relation between the encounters elements; on the other, that very absence compels the projection of the elements eventual structural relatedness to their origins, precisely in the primary void. In the following section of this essay, I will turn to Machiavelli and Us in order to find the means for a treatment of that antinomy, connecting it with Warren Montags thesis about an unrecognised conflict at the heart of the text between two incompatible notions of the void.32

An immense aspiration to being


To conclude, then, the retroactive, initial and initiating, moment of structural causality at the encounters taking hold is the inescapable condition of the anti-teleological and anti-essentialist rupture of aleatory materialism: only thus, first, the disparate atoms of the encounter are qualitatively different from the resulting structural elements and, second, the structure itself is a radical novelty, and not an a priori possibility. To put it in a single phrase, neither the emergent structure nor its elements pre-exist the encounter, that is, pre-exist each other. But, as we have seen, this is precisely the core of the earlier Althusserian theorisation of structural causality in terms of Spinozist immanent causality. The emergent structures retroactive effectivity, by which it transforms the originally irrelevant atoms into its own structural elements, is immanent causality itself, where the structures elements are always-already its effects and the structure is always-already actualised. Thus, the retroactive character of a structures emergence can contribute to the understanding of that always-already temporality, essentially involved in the immanent structural causality. According to the above, always-already does not mean any originary accomplishment of the fact, any more than retroaction means here the teleology of a future (but already transcendently present) cause: neither the encounter, nor its taking hold are instances of a history written in future anterior.33 The always-already temporality is that of a break, of a discontinuity, which is itself in break with any notion of genesis, with any understanding of an individuals constitution as either the necessary result of given premises or [as] the provisional anticipation of an End.34 In the light of aleatory structuralism, aleatorism is simply the other name of immanentism,35 in that the emergence of a new, structured singularity cannot be explained by any presumably pre-existent cause, and be thought of by means of any relevant concept of causality; it requires a new cause, which is not included in those present in the encounter, an absent cause,36 a new condition that is not included among the initial conditions of the event: and this can only be the emergent structure and its causality.

The causality of emergent structure

Now, as a transition to Machiavelli and Us, and in order to tackle this antinomy in The Underground Current ..., we could suggest that the predominance of pure aleatorism therein is correlative with its being cast in the form-theory or in what, in Machiavelli and Us, is analysed as the classical theorys modality or dispositive.37 In the latter, Althusser gives two major, strongly interwoven, characteristics of it. First, its universalism, that is, the fact that it is pronounced in universal categories, concepts or laws, under which the particular cases are subsumed. There is no novelty or singularity under the sun of this universalism: everything that exists, or will exist, is possible, allowed and in principle predictable. Second, its objectivity, understood overtly here as a function of universalism.38 Althusser will immediately add that this amounts to a discourse without a subject, and this, in its turn, amounts to its impartiality:39 theorys objectivity would thus mean that such a discourse without subject is necessarily a discourse on objects that are external and independent to it, with which it does not interfere. By virtue of its modality, then, (classical) theory cannot take sides with any of the objects it theorises nor be characterised by essential reference to an active perspective. So, the correlate of theoretical discourses universalism and subjectlessness is its perspectivelessness: it claims to be the view from nowhere 40 a Gods-eye-view, from a transcendent point of radical exteriority.


Encountering Althusser

Indeed, the discourse of The Underground Current . . . assumes such an Archimedean point towards the whole story it narrates,41 encompassing both the accomplishment of the fact and the accomplished fact. Such a unitary point of theorising confers a continuity upon the whole process, otherwise declared as discontinuous: now the before and the after of the encounter become commensurable; both the void (with its atoms) and the emergent thing assume the substantial status of a fact or an object. And given the radical priority assigned to the void, I would argue that, under the predominance of pure aleatorism, The Underground Current ... presents itself as a philosophical theory, which has given itself an object, a peculiar object admittedly, but nonetheless presumed as independently existent, a philosophy that represents an ontological fact, that of the void that pre-exists all things,42 in short, a philosophy of the void, a theory of the radical origin of things.43 Indeed, as Montag points out, the void acquires here the status of the most fundamental object of philosophy, philosophys object par excellence.44 It is an ontological conception of the void, which existed before everything, haunts the existence and governs the inescapable dissolution of everything, and will exist after everything, the origin and destiny of each and every individual thing and of their world.

The aspiration of the Prince

Let me now turn to Machiavelli and Us and its central idea of the absolute beginning. First of all, there is an obvious homology between this idea and that of the aleatory encounter found in The Underground Current ...: in Machiavelli and Us, the beginning of the Italian national state aspired by Machiavelli is given explicitly in terms of an aleatory encounter between fortuna and the New Princes virt.45 But fortuna is already an encounter, which aleatorily assembles and arranges, in certain conditions, in a singular conjuncture, the matter of the encounter the raw materials of the New Principality, which is to unify Italys people as a nation.46 The correlate of the void is here the extreme historical nullity, hence emptiness, or the political vacuum of this conjuncture.47 On the other hand, the New Princes virt is correlated with the form that is to be imposed to that matter, the political structure of the New Principality, which would ensure its coherence and duration.48 Thus, absolute beginning is also an encounter in two degrees, which can be corresponded with the above-mentioned two instances of the aleatory, in The Underground Current . . .: the encounter proper (which assembles the initial elements or the atoms) and the taking hold (which sets the new structure). But now, those two instances are given also in terms of matter and form, as the imposition of a form to a matter. Thus, the initial nothing of fortuna, or the void of the encounter, is now overtly correlated to formless matter:49 in the perennial language of the matter/form couple, the nothing or the void is the absence of a form that is to be imposed on a present matter. But, on the other hand, Machiavelli and Us presents a double, crucial difference from The Underground Current . . .. The first aspect of that difference is that it situates Machiavellis intervention in view of Italys national state in the aleatory space of the accomplishment of the fact. We are in the midst of nothing, in the void of any reason, cause, finality or subject regarding the advent of the fact, where no anticipation, no prediction can grasp its contours; and yet Machiavellis text expresses the quest for, and posits the question of, the emergence of a radically new, though intended and somehow pre-meditated, thing: the absolute beginning of Italy as a national state. The Prince expresses the aspiration for an intervention in this aleatory

An immense aspiration to being


space, in order to influence its logic and become the decisive, causal factor for this accomplishment: the whole issue is how to think the absolute beginning, and what is to be done for bringing it about. This, according to Althusser, affects the theoretical modality of Machiavelli and Us and this is the second aspect of its difference from The Underground Current . . .: Machiavellis discourse takes a stance towards its theme that is not just classical theorys stance towards its object. Absolute beginning is not, and cannot be, just a theorys object; it is also an objective,50 a task or a cause: it is la cosa of Machiavellis discourse, which here means, Althusser says, both the object, the thing in the singular the singularity of its case and the cause, the task, the singular problem to be posed and resolved.51 Theory thus, according to Althusser, makes room for an element utterly heterogeneous to theory,52 which opens up within it an incommensurable space that is, something that cannot be subsumed under theorys universalism and objectivity, something essentially singular and novel: namely practice, political practice and its viewpoint;53 in broader terms, we would say, a perspective in struggle, striving for its cause. Theory thus becomes essentially partisan to that practical viewpoint, it takes sides; it is precisely this partisanship that profoundly affects the classical modality of theory.54 It is not a theoretical relation to an object, but a relation of partisanship to a cause; not a transcendent viewpoint to a reality but a perspective immanent to it. Thus, Althusser establishes a correlation of singularity and perspective, in contrast with classical theorys correlation between universality and objectivity. Let us be clear on this point: it is not an abandonment of cognitive objectivity; rather, with that modified theoretical modality, a new type of objectivity emerges, freed from the compulsory correlation with impartiality. On the contrary: being partial and partisan turns out to be a condition for this objectivity, since it is only this altered theoretical modality that can adequately capture the reality of a singular perspective and its striving. Theory now still yields the actual truth of an objective existence, la verit effettuale de la cosa, [the actual truth , hence objective knowledge,55 Althusser translates and comments], in both of its senses. Now, according to Althusser, this sudden appearance of a perspective occurs in the form of a determinate absence:56 Machiavelli leaves anonymous, unspecified, unknown, the two major protagonists of the relevant encounter, that is, precisely, fortuna and virt (or the matter and the form of the New Principality, respectively). This anonymity, says Althusser, should not be taken as an instance of classical theorys generality and abstraction; on the contrary, it is precisely the way in which the political objective of absolute beginning becomes inscribed in theory.57 Those protagonists are not left undefined like the unknowns of a mathematical relation or a law: they are by definition unknowns, that is, absolute unknowns:58 absolute beginning is an aleatory encounter between absolute unknowns. In short, this anonymity stands for the essential difficulty, in theory as well as in practice, of absolute beginning: we do not know anything in advance, we have nothing to start with. Unknown is not only the form that is to be imposed on a given matter; what this matter will be is also unknown. This, in a positive way, means that it is not between the known protagonists that the encounter will take place. The beginning will occur outside the existing states, political forms and rulers, outside of everything present and known.59 Thus, the nothing of the beginning is correlated with the rejection of all existing political forms;60 the existing is rejected as already old, and this, in its turn, is the condition of the radical novelty of that which begins.


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But, thus the void turns out to be strictly correlative with the perspective of the beginning: it is only through this perspective that the void is, precisely, a void. Let us remember that this void, the emptiness of the beginnings conjuncture, consisted in formless matter, in the absence of form in a matter gathered by the fortuna of an aleatory encounter. It is obviously a very peculiar kind of void, consisting in the assemblage of the raw materials of what is to be a New Principality under a New Prince: the void is the presence of matter, as opposed to the absence of form. But the matter is formless only from the viewpoint of the formed matter, of the thing that begins and of its novel form that is, in the light of the rejection of the existing and known forms; it is from the perspective de la cosa, of that which is (aleatorily) to begin, that the assembled matter is nothing, emptiness, and that the beginning is an absolute one, bringing forth a radically novel thing: if one considers the thing which begins, and is novel because it begins, before it there was something, but nothing of it.61 Outside this perspective, the initial emptiness is just fullness. As far as the before of the beginning is concerned, all the difference between the vacuum and the plenum is made by the perspective of the after, of the novel thing which begins; the beginning starts from nothing, but theres no nothing without the beginning. Because of that, a perspectiveless theory is inadequate for this void. The void can be grasped only by a theoretical discourse affected in its modality by the essential involvement with this perspective, a discourse that does not simply theorise the void, as an object external to it, but contains it, inscribes it in its own texture:62 a discourse that makes room for it, that arranges and contains a certain place, a certain empty place.63 Furthermore, if the void is not an object, so as to be theorised, then, by the same token, it is not just there, pre-existing and given to the theoretical gaze: the void has to be made by the relevant perspective, and this gesture has to be contained, somehow reproduced in advance, by its theory. What Machiavelli does in his discourse is directly homologous to what has to be done in historical reality, in order for a New Principality under a New Prince to begin: namely, once again, the rejection of the existing and the known as already old and obsolete, a clean sweep of the past.64 The void then is made by the perspective of something, in relation to which everything present is old, something that, in a peculiar sense, is absent from the present scene, it does not (yet) exist, is not (yet) present and known; something that, in a peculiar sense, is (already) in the future. Furthermore, the void is made in order for that thing to begin, in order to exist: the place is empty in order to be filled, empty so as to have inserted in it the action of the individual or group who will come and take a stand there.65 So, whatever is to begin, it has not yet its place in the existing field; its place, says Althousser, could not be fixed in the present space, because the thing has not come to take a stand there yet. The place is empty of it; otherwise, the place is full. The place is empty for the future; it is empty, though it is always occupied.66 The place is empty through an active perspective, which empties the full. If the place of the thing to come is not yet occupied and stabilised, it is because it is the place of a thing that is already fighting for its being, unstable in its very existence, since all its effort must tend towards giving itself existence.67 It is this very thing, which is to begin, that makes the void, strives to exist therein and already exists through that striving; it is the thing itself that opens up the place of its own existence in order to exist in it, and by that same opening up, it exists. Thus, absolute beginning acquires the retroactive scheme of aleatory structuralism: a novel formed matter, or a structured entity, retroacts by the efficacy that is essential to it, by its characteristic structural causality over its own structuration, over the very taking hold of its

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constitutive materials, in an instance which is thus the emergence and the first act of its active cohesion.68 It is by that very retroaction that the new thing precariously imposes itself, enforces its existence on an otherwise exhaustively filled field of competing forces.69 By the same token, immanent causality enters the image and absolute beginning acquires its peculiar always-already temporality. The mutual absolute unknownness of form and matter simply means that none of them pre-exists the other; neither can be taken as a given, on which a genesis of the thing may be engendered.70 Once more, the emergence of the thing obeys neither a transitive-efficient, nor a transcendent-teleological causality; once more, the question is neither of the effectivity of a prior cause nor of that of a future cause, but of the immanent effectivity of an absent cause, that is, of a cause that is present through its absence;71 its empty place stands for the break of the beginning: the thing does not originate in its pre-history in a continuous manner hence the essential association of the beginning and the novelty of the thing. And it is now, in the light of absolute beginning, that we can reconsider our initial assertion that, in this issue of the always-already temporality of the structure as immanent cause, an essential reference to subjectivity is involved. First of all, subjectivity is involved in the theoretical or descriptive dimension of Machiavellis discourse, through the peculiar modality of its relation to its object. If Machiavellis cosa opens up, within the space of pure theory (which has no subject), the space of political practice, the latter possesses meaning only via its possible or requisite subject.72 Even though Althusser will immediately express his perplexity towards this sudden appearance, in his discourse, of the ambiguous term subject, which it would be advisable to replace by the term agent,73 the fact remains that the subject (even in quotation marks) re-occurs stubbornly when he tries to make sense of that thing which sets its own beginning as its cause: this thing seems to have inescapably something of a subject, since it aspires to exist and already struggles for that existence; it is an aspiring subject, an aspiring being aspiring to be: its empty place, the retroactive trace of its aleatory existence, this political vacuum is simply an immense aspiration to political being:74 it is empty because it is to be filled and occupied by the subject, or agent, of political practice: Prince or party.75 But, besides the particular relations between the discourse and its object, the specific modality of that discourse also establishes particular relations between the discourse and its subject.76 Thus, in contrast to classical-theoretical discourse without a subject,77 Machiavellis becomes a discourse with a subject. Here there is no question of authorship: here we have to do with a relation completely different to that of the subject of the discourse. Rather, this peculiar relation between this discourse and its subject would have to do with the correlation between objectivity and partisanship, which is essential to it; such a discourse is essentially involved with its own object. Contrary to the impartiality of classical theoretical discourse which, being without a subject, was a discourse without an addressee, such that anyone can make use78 of its objective truth this one is a discourse with a specific addressee: not anyone can make use of such a discourse.79 Thus, Machiavellis discourse is a discourse with a singular, determinate subject, to which it relates not only by speaking of it; it also speaks for, and speaks to that subject, addresses it. Althusser will correlate this complex relation with Gramscis characterisation of The Prince as a revolutionary manifesto. It is beyond the scope of this essay to elaborate further on that; for my purposes, it suffices to say that, if the discourse of the absolute beginning is a discourse


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with a subject, to which it is addressed, this subject is the one announced by the discourses descriptive dimension:80 it is, once again, la cosa, the thing that strives to begin, the subject of the absolute beginning: Italys people unified in the form of a national state. This manifesto, says Althusser, while it seems to have for its sole interlocutor a future individual, an individual who does not exist, is in fact addressed to the mass of the common people.81 More generally, a manifesto is not written for an individual, especially a nonexistent individual: it is always addressed to the masses, in order to organize them into a revolutionary force.82 But the subject of the absolute beginning is not just the common people, nor just the masses; as we know, it is not some gathered matter, but a political structure and a political force, a political subject, precisely: a matter invested in specific political form, that of the people (in the specifically modern sense of the term, the people as an individual, in the singular) or nation, that is, a national unity in a popular state. If the manifestos appeal is towards the people, it is already a popular-national appeal, and, in order to be effective, the people must recognise itself in such an appeal, it must recognise itself as the people or the nation. But, in a sense, such a people is not yet constituted or formed: the masses are yet unformed; or, using Althussers expression, the people is not yet the subject of history.83 Thus, the manifesto is appealing to the people in order to constitute it, and the people would become what it is by responding to that appeal (as the people, precisely). In short, here the always-already temporality of the structural constitution of the structure is once again interwoven with the always-already of the subject, and, by the same token, the relation of the manifestos discourse to its subject, the relation of addressing, acquires the modality of interpellation: the subject is constituted by interpellation but, since it is constituted by responding to interpellation, it is somehow presupposed by it: the people, the subject of the absolute beginning, which in a sense is not-yet, in another sense it already is. Indeed, Althusser, concluding all this discussion, and at the same time putting us in the place of the addressee of Machiavellis discourse, will say that The Prince is gripping because as much as any writing can [it] ... implicates and involves us. He hails us from a place that he summons us to occupy as potential subjects (agents) of a potential political practice. This effect of captivation and interpellation is produced by the shattering of the traditional theoretical text, by the sudden appearance of the political problem as a problem and of the political practice in it as a practice; and by the double reflection of political practice in his text and of his text in political practice.84

Aleatory structuralism
Let us now return to The Underground Current ..., to close our discussion. As we have seen, aleatory structuralism manifests itself there at the point where the atoms are retroactively transformed into the emergent structures elements. Althusser, in several points of the text, implies that the difference between the atoms and the structural elements is not just qualitative, it is also ontological: they are different in their respective degree of reality. The atoms, prior to the encounter, says Althusser, are abstract entities, lacking any consistency, property and even reality, while the elements of the resulting entity are real and concrete, with their relational properties, as determined by their structure. Accordingly, the retroactive

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transformation of the former into the latter has also an ontological impact: it is the encounter (or, more precisely, its taking hold) that transforms the un-real atoms to real elements,85 which is the very process of the new structures actualisation. Thus, on the one hand, the concreteness and reality of the entitys elements are clearly due to their being structural; in contrast, the abstractness and non-reality of the atoms are relative to their being un-structured, that is, to their un-relatedness, to their being in the void. On the other hand, though, atoms and elements are materially identical, the encounter adding nothing in order to accomplish the emerging individual: the atoms are the emergent entitys matter. Thus, a paradox, of an already familiar allure, is involved here: It is clear that the encounter creates nothing of the reality of the world, which is nothing but agglomerated atoms, but that it confers their reality upon the atoms themselves, which, without swerve and encounter, would be nothing but abstract elements, lacking all consistency and existence.86 I argue, now, that, in a manner analogous to Machiavelli and Us, the atoms here are not characterised by lack of structure or form in themselves; what is absent in them is the structure of the emergent singularity. It is from this particular point of view that the atoms are abstract and non-real, that is, to the extent that they are not yet elements of the emergent structure, which thus does not yet exert its determination on them. In themselves, the atoms are not lacking anything, and, a fortiori, they do not lack each other in order to combine in a predetermined structure. Thus, where aleatory structuralism is being manifested, an element utterly heterogeneous and irreducible to classical theorys modality makes its sudden appearance in the discourse of The Underground Current ...: a perspective indeed, the perspective of the novel, emergent singularity and of its emergence. By the same token, as Machiavelli and Us has taught us, a . . perhaps imperceptible alteration of the discursive modality of The Underground Current . occurs: aleatory materialism takes the side of that very individual and its emergence. In this light, the abstractness and non-reality of the atoms, their being un-structured, the void itself, is relative to the perspective of the concrete, structured entity that emerges from the encounter. Outside that perspective, those atoms are concrete, structured individualities on their own right, with their own perspectives, themselves results of previous encounters, and so on ad infinitum which in fact de-substantiates the initial image of the primordial void and the originary atoms, falling in it: strictly speaking, there are neither atoms nor void in themselves, but an irreducible complexity, a universe of individual singularities, each one characterised by its own structure and perspective. The void, with its atoms, can no longer be thought of as a substantial quasi-object or fact. As was the case with Machiavelli and Us, then, it is the emergent structures perspective that makes all the difference between the vacuum and the plenum, between the atoms in the void and the elements in the structures thickness. The relevant transformation, coterminous with the structures emergence, precisely by being relative to the emergent structures perspective, has the modality of an objective, that is, of a cause: the emergent entitys cause. Accordingly, it is also here the case of an active and constitutive perspective, which effects the retroactive transformation of the abstract atoms into concrete structural elements; and to the extent that this transformation is identical with structures actualisation, it is also


Encountering Althusser

characterised by the always-already temporality that is peculiar to it. Let us distinguish the two aspects of this unitary making. First, the perspective in question is indistinguishable from the structural causality, which determines the consistency of the emergent structured entity. As we just said, the existence of the emergent structure is its own cause: it concerns itself. The structure is not indifferent and disinterested towards its own existence: its being structured is its own business. It is the entity itself that sets as its cause its very existence and strives for it. It is the case of an active holding together of the emergent structure and by the emergent structure. Thus, something of a desire and a struggle for persistence into being becomes inscribed to structural causality, and, by the same token, structure and its causality come close to the Spinozist conatus and the singular essence of an entity, the actual essence of a thing, which is nothing more than its striving to persevere in its being: the entity desires and struggles to remain structured, to continue to exist as the entity it is; it resists its disintegration. And this active persistence of the individual and by the individual also includes in its efficacy the individuals primordial constitution, that is, the aleatory taking hold of the encounter. The new entitys emergence cannot be thought of as a quasi-physicalist, purely passive, result. The conatus is not the pure effect of the encounters taking hold; rather, this inaugurating moment is already the first act of its drama, the first struggle for the persistence into being the birth is already a survival. The constitutive perspective encompasses the primordial instance of the emergence. If, as we have seen, the being-structured of the individual is its own cause, we could not afford missing here another etymological meaning of the cosa/cause, besides those exploited by Althusser himself: not only the thing, not only the cause as task, but also the cause as causa: it is the cause of its own structuration. The structure is the retroactive and always-already effective immanent cause of the structured entity, having no separate existence from it.87 Second, the void, as we have seen, is an inseparable aspect of the primary making of the structure, of its actualisation. The void itself is not a pre-existing object or fact; 88 it is part of the cause of the entitys emergence and existence the void is involved with the entitys conatus. If the relevant perspective is indeed irreducible to a cognitive, impartial theorisation, then it does not just find the void, but makes it, in order to find there its place in the world. And this, following Warren Montag, is a completely different notion of the void, not only irreducible to the first but actively antagonistic to it.89 The first one, relevant to what I call pure aleatorism, had the modality of a metaphysical or ontological concept, that of a peculiar object, of philosophys fundamental object: the primordial void, that pre-exists all things; it is the concept of a substance, even if that substance is the negation of substance.90 According to this second one, which pertains rather to aleatory structuralism, the void is made by the thing that emerges from an encounter, as part of the cause (in both senses) of its existence. This second notion of the void, says Montag, compels us to reverse many of the propositions Althusser advances,91 propositions that, according to my reading, are in line with the particular deviation of aleatory structuralism which is pure aleatorism. This reversal touches also the sense of the encounters taking hold; now, it does not lead unidirectionally from the void and its atoms to the structure and its elements, but is marked by the constitutive retroaction of the latter, acquiring thus the temporal structure of the always-already. From this perspective, writes Montag, the void is not the condition of the encounter, rather the encounter is the condition of the void, although understood as a verb, an activity rather than a substance.92

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Thus, instead of being the concept of a theorised object, this notion of the void is a philosophical category, relative to a partial intervention. The void is not the fundamental concept of philosophy in general, but the crucial category of materialist philosophy, which is primarily the materialist understanding of philosophy itself, the self-recognition of philosophy as immanent intervention in reality and not as transcendent contemplation of objects. It is at this precise point where the taking sides of aleatory materialism is manifested, the point of the indissociable simultaneity of thought and action that Althusser once tried to capture in the phrase theoretical practice, as Montag puts it:93 through this category, by which The Underground Current ... hosts and adopts the perspective of the emergent individuals struggle to emerge, aleatory materialism becomes itself, be it in a tendencial and precarious manner, a philosophy [which] does not find the void, but makes it a philosophy that evacuates all the perennial and traditionally venerated philosophical problems (of the origin, the meaning, the end etc.), rejects them, in order for itself to exist. If it is a philosophy of the void, then, in the light of this materialist philosophical category, and in a movement that reproduces that of the emergent entity, whose perspective materially incorporates in its modality, it becomes a philosophy which makes a philosophical void in order to endow itself with existence.94

1 Cited in Elliott 1999, pp. xivv; emphasis modified. 2 Matheron 1999. 3 Cited in Elliott 1999, pp. xivv. 4 Elliott 1999, p. xv. 5 Althusser 1971a, p. 174. 6 Althusser 1971a, p. 174. 7 Althusser 1971a, p. 174. 8 Althussers own phrase on what begins in absolute beginning is: before it there was something else, but nothing of it (Althusser 1999, p. 6, emphasis added). 9 This is already condensed in the ambiguity of the original formulation of Althussers thesis: L ideologie interpelle les individus en sujets, which could mean both that ideology interpellates individuals into subjects and that ideology interpellates individuals as subjects. On this, see Monik 1993, Dolar 1993 and Butler 1997 . 10 ... [F]or the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession...But in reality these things happen without any succession (Althusser 1971a, p. 174). 11 Althusser 1971a, pp. 1756. 12 Althusser 1971a, pp. 1756. . 13 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 1867 14 For a discussion on this issue, see Montag 1988 and Fourtounis 2005. 15 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 189. 16 Althusser 1969a, pp. 199200. The phrase is Ben Brewsters translation of le toujours-dj donn d une unit complexe structure (Althusser 1977a, p. 204). 17 Althusser 1971a.


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18 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 112, compare p. 180. 19 No human, i.e. social individual can be the agent of a practice if he does not have the form of a subject. The subject-form is actually the form of historical existence of every individual, of every agent of social practices (Althusser 1976a, p. 95). 20 Althusser 2006a. 21 It is an encounter between elements that are independent of each other, each resulting from its own specific history, in the absence of any organic, teleological relation between these diverse histories (Althusser 2006a, p. 199). 22 Using traditional metaphysical terminology, we could say that the aleatory character of the encounters taking hold concerns both the existence and the essence of the individual that will result from it. 23 Althusser 2006a, p. 193. 24 Fourtounis 2007 . 25 Fourtounis 2007 . 26 Unlike the encounter proper, which is indeed structurally and historically undetermined. 27 Althusser 2006a, p. 193, emphasis added. 28 For an extensive discussion on the logic of radical novelty and the relevant break, see Baltas 2012. 29 Althusser 2006a, p. 191. 30 Althusser 2006a, p. 1923. 31 Althusser 2006a, p. 192. 32 Montag 2010. 33 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 44. 34 Althusser 2006a, p. 194. 35 That is, contrary to the widespread view, based on the mainstream interpretation of The Underground Current ... as pure aleatorism, according to which Althussers late aleatory materialism represents a more or less radical turn, or even a break, in relation to his earlier work (that is, an overcoming of the Althusser of the conjuncture over the Althusser of the structure, to use Balibars expressions), a continuity with Althusserian structuralism rather than a Kehre is revealed here which is also suggested by the term aleatory structuralism. This continuity can be assessed also by following the thorough genealogy of aleatory materialism in Althussers thought, tracing it already in his work of the 1960s and 1970s, by G. M. Goshgarian (Goshgarian 2006, and in this volume 2012). 36 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 188. 37 Althusser 1999, pp. 1415. 38 It is a discourse that is objective because [it is] universal, stating the laws of its object, the concrete instance of the object affording only a particular case of this universal (Althusser 1999, p. 15). 39 It is a discourse without a subject, and hence without an addressee ... Anyone can make use of [it] (Althusser 1999, p. 15). 40 Nagel 1986. 41 With the exception, as we shall see, of the points where aleatory structuralism makes its implicit appearance. 42 Montag 2010. 43 Or, according to Montag, of an originary non-origin, a theoretical compromise which in no way escapes the implications of the concept of origins (Montag 2010).

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44 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1745. This is a rather strict denial of his earlier, critical position that philosophy has no objects, that is, no objects external and independent to it, objects with which philosophy itself does not interfere, and that the distinctive feature of materialist philosophy is that it recognizes this fact, most and foremost about itself. On this, see Montag 2010. 45 Althusser 1999, pp. 746. 46 Althusser 1999, pp. 746. 47 Althusser 1999, p. 54. 48 The peculiarity of virt is to master fortuna, even when it is favourable, and to transform the instant of fortuna into political duration, the matter of fortuna into political form, and thus to structure the material of the favourable local conjuncture politically ... (Althusser 1999, p. 75). 49 Althusser 1999, p. 54. 50 Althusser 1999, p. 19. 51 Althusser 1999, p. 16. 52 Althusser 1999, p. 80. . 53 Althusser 1999, p. 17 54 Althusser 1999, p. 28. 55 Althusser 1999, p. 7 . 56 Althusser 1999, p. 76. 57 Althusser 1999, p. 76. 58 Althusser 1999, p. 76. 59 Althusser 1999, p. 77 . 60 Althusser 1999, p. 77 , emphasis added. 61 Althusser 1999, p. 6, emphasis added. 62 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 63 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 64 Althusser 1999, p. 79. 65 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 66 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 67 Althusser 1999, p. 21, emphasis added. 68 The beginning is, so to speak, rooted in the essence of a thing, since it is the beginning of this thing. It affects all its determinations, and does not fade with the moment, but endures with the thing itself (Althusser 1999, p. 6). 69 If it has the requisite virt, the capacity to become sufficiently strong to count among [its] forces (Althusser 1999, p. 20). 70 Thus, in particular, neither the nation, nor the form of state that is to establish the nations independent existence pre-exist each-other: a nation can be constituted only by means of a state a national state (Althusser 1999, p. 11); if the nation can be constituted solely by means of a state, the modern state ... can only be national. This implies that national unity cannot be achieved by a non-national state (Althusser 1999, pp. 1213). 71 In Reading Capital, Althusser refers to the Marxist notion of Darstellung, as one of Marxs attempts to think the effectivity of the structure, by which he wants to designate at once both absence and presence, i.e., the existence of the structure to its effects (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 188). 72 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 73 Althusser 1999, p. 20.


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74 Althusser 1999, p. 54. 75 Althusser 1999, p. 21. 76 Althusser 1999, p. 14, emphasis added. 77 Althusser 1999, p. 15. 78 Althusser 1999, p. 15. 79 Its truth would be of a particular kind: in contrast with classical theory, its truth would not be valid for any and every subject (Althusser 1999, p. 20). 80 Here I leave aside Althussers point that, Machiavelli, for all sorts of reasons that would require detailed examination, entrusts to someone else [to a mythical individual: the Prince] the mission of achieving national unity on behalf of a third party: the people. According to Althusser, this hiatus opens up the vacuum of utopia, which validates Gramscis position that The Prince is indeed a kind of revolutionary manifesto, but a utopian one (Althusser 1999, pp. 268). 81 Althusser 1999, p. 25. 82 Althusser 1999, p. 25. 83 Althusser 1999, p. 27 . 84 Althusser 1999, p. 32, emphasis added. 85 The atoms very existence is due to nothing but the swerve and the encounter, prior to which they led only a phantom existence (Althusser 2006a, p. 169). 86 Althusser 2006a, p. 169. 87 Let us recall that this retroactive effectivity is, according to my reading of aleatory structuralism, strictly restricted to the instance of the encounters taking hold, and does not encompass that of the encounter proper, which remains structurally undetermined. Accordingly, the encounter, as such, and a fortiori the deviation which produces it (in the Epicurean imagery of the rain), are not at all the trait of the emerging individual, which would express thus its energetic subjectivity, as Panagiotis Sotiris holds (Sotiris in this volume); on the contrary, it is the passive conditioning of the retro-active efficacy of structural causality. Hence, the emphasis on the energetic character of singularities, as Sotiris puts it, would be unilateral: it should be always kept in mind that the immanent, retroactive character of structural causality is meant to escape out of the dilemma of passivity and activity, pointing rather to the paradoxical possibility of an active passivity , or better, of a beyond passivity by means of passivity itself, as tienne Balibar holds concerning the structuralism of Althusser, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze (Balibar 2007a, p. 7). 88 Hence, as it should be already understood, I take that any interpretation of the void as a precondition or prerequisite for the emergence of novel forms, which thus would emerge ex nihilo, represents a nave understanding of Althussers late materialism, and consequently any criticism of it based on that interpretation would be superfluous. 89 Montag 2010. 90 Montag 2010. 91 Montag 2010. 92 Montag 2010. 93 Montag 2010. 94 Althusser 2006a, p. 174.

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact: Machiavelli in the last Althusser
Vittorio Morfino

Machiavelli and the materialism of the encounter

n Althussers writings that were published when he was alive, we find only brief and ultimately marginal references to Machiavellis thought.1 Nonetheless, the publication of his letters, unpublished work and lecture courses during the last 15 years has demonstrated that if there is any author alongside Marx who Althusser never ceased to interrogate, it was Machiavelli. Althussers works on Machiavelli include:

a course to Machiavelli in 1962, which has recently been published by Franois Matheron;2 another course in 19712, of which there is an earlier version simply entitled Course; a later one with several modifications probably made in 19756 entitled Machiavel et nous3 (the latter is, in fact, a book that Althusser kept in his drawer and never stopped correcting and re-elaborating until the last years of his life); an article, La solitude de Machiavel, written in 1978 and published in the first issue of the journal Futur antrieur in 1990 just before Althussers death;4 the part devoted to Machiavelli in Courant souterrain du matrialisme de la rencontre, written in 1982 and published in 1994;5 the two excerpts of the autobiography on Spinoza and Machiavelli, which later became part of a project of reconstruction, Unique tradition matrialiste, written in 1985 and published in the journal Lignes in 1995;6 a fragment written in 1986, Machiavel philosophe, which I was able to view in the Imec Archives but which has not yet been published.







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It would be interesting in itself to reconstruct the changes in Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli over the years by relating these variations to the different moments of Althussers theoretical production. However, here I prefer to take a short cut and to look directly at his interpretation of Machiavelli in the 1980s, by trying to reconstruct the image and theoretical function that Machiavelli played, particularly in Althussers writings devoted to the underground current of materialism. Within Althussers production of those years, this is certainly the most significant text from the theoretical point of view. It is the only text despite its apparently fragmentary nature that allows us to trace out a project that is sufficiently elaborated on the theoretical level. It is a typescript that Franois Matheron, editor of the crits, presented under the title Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter. These are extremely fascinating pages in which the features of an underground history of a materialism escaping the classical idealism-materialism opposition are provisionally sketched out. Such an opposition is held to be entirely internal to the history of Western metaphysics. This materialism is a materialism of contingency or of the aleatory, not dominated by Leibnizs grand principe nihil est sine ratione. Althusser here proposes that he is discovering a profound tradition that sought its materialist anchorage in a philosophy of the encounter (and, therefore, in a more or less atomistic philosophy, the atom, in its fall , being the simplest figure of individuality). Hence this traditions radical rejection of all philosophies of essence [Ousia, Essentia, Wesen], that is, of Reason [Logos, Ratio, Vernunft], and therefore of Origin and End the Origin being nothing more, here, than the anticipation of the End in Reason or primordial order (that is, the anticipation of Order, whether it be rational, moral, religious or aesthetic) in the interests of a philosophy which, rejecting the Whole and every Order, rejects the Whole and order in favour of dispersion (Derrida would say, in his terminology, dissemination) and disorder.7 Epicurus, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Marx and Heidegger are the main witnesses. Nevertheless, it is precisely the fascination exercised by this text that conceals its greatest risk: as Althusser himself said regarding the Theses on Feuerbach, this is a text that dazzles more than it illuminates; here, one can find flashes of geniality that rip apart perennial philosophical commonplaces, insights that open passages but which, for the most part, are not supported by the patient work of conceptualisation. The main risk is to see here a liquidation of the powerful rationalism of the writings of the 1960s in a philosophy of the event, of chance or, even worse, of freedom. Thus the challenge does not consist so much in denying the ambiguities on which these kinds of interpretations are based, but rather in recognising them and highlighting them, attempting to dissolve them with a theoretical act of force, by putting at the centre of Althussers text a thesis that is not written and yet represents its keystone: the thesis of the primacy of the encounter over form. We will need, then, to understand how this thesis relates to the thesis of the primacy of relations over elements that is at the centre of Althussers texts of the 1960s. What is at stake, of course, is the very possibility of thinking aleatory materialism without abandoning the path of rationalism.

The primacy of relations over elements

As mentioned above, the primacy of relations over elements characterises the works of the first Althusser. Justifiably famous is the position in Rponse John Lewis where Althusser

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact


states that the struggle of the classes must be put first [Il faut mettre la lutte des classes au premier rang].8 The thesis of the primacy of class struggle over the existence of classes may be translated in abstract terms in the thesis of the primacy of relations over elements. We can understand the meaning of primacy in the sense of the first proposition of Spinozas Ethics: A substance is by nature prior to its affection [Substantia prior est natura suis affectionibus].9 It is an ontological primacy to be asserted on an epistemological level against a nave empiricism that considers things appearing in front of a subject as subsistent reality. In the Positivismusstreit in German sociology, Adorno takes a similar position from a methodological point of view, according to which facts are not the last and impenetrable data, as dominant sociology believed. Rather, in order to be understood, they must be related to the totality. He writes: the interpretation of facts leads to totality ... There is not any social fact that does not have its place and meaning in that totality. This is pre-ordinate to every single subject that represents the totality in his own monadological constitution.10 Of course, such a position cannot be taken navely; it is necessary to understand the relation it maintains with the tradition of expressive causality from Leibniz to Hegel.

The Hegel/Marx difference

Althusser dedicated the final paragraph of The Object of Capital in Reading Capital to focusing particularly on the difference between the Marxist and Leibnizian/Hegelian conception.11 Althusser believes that in Capital Marx used neither the mechanistic nor the organicist model of causality, but Spinozas concept of a model of immanent causality. The theoretical problem, however, consists entirely in differentiating in detail the Spinozian model from the Hegelian one. At the end of this paragraph, Althusser uses multiple formulations underlining this difference: structural causality, overdetermination, Darstellung, metonymical causality, and theatre without an author. In order to shed light on this point, we will try to consider the thesis of the primacy of relations in the tradition of expressive causality. Leibniz holds that relations constitute reality insofar as they order the spatio-temporal structure of phenomena. But if these relations structure the world such as it appears, they nevertheless require two foundations: both a spiritual substance not constituted by relations (and therefore beyond all relation) and a divine intellect, without which, according to Leibniz, nothing would be true. Hegel, in turn, dissolves all substantiality into the most radical relationality. But this relationality is not the pure, unqualified play of action and reaction. It is instead conceived of as the presence of an all-pervading time that orders relations, rather than being constituted by them. This presence is understood to be the contemporaneity of a principle that is immanent to the play of relations (the beautiful individuality, the abstract juridical person, and so on), a power that decides in advance the developments to which the play of relations can give rise. The obscurity at the heart of the interaction [Wechselwirkung] necessarily tends toward the light of the concept: this tension and tendency is lodged ab initio in the schema of simultaneity, the great temporal metaphor of Spirit [Geist]. It seems, then, that both Leibniz and Hegel were able to pose the question of relations in the most radical way; and yet they both seem to have fled in the face of the extreme


Encountering Althusser

consequences these positions imply. Leibnizs theory of pre-established harmony, for example, permits substance to enter into the play of relations only on the condition that it maintain the form of a possible essence in the divine intellect. Leibniz therefore reduces relation to the combinatory game of a God cast as both architect and sovereign, a game always already decided in advance by the divine wills tendency towards good. In the same way, Hegels theory of the ruse of reason is said to weave the great tapestry of universal history, a tapestry whose warp and woof is the Idea and whose passions are the individual woven threads. Both pre-established harmony and the ruse of reason make relationality serve the ends of teleology: the primacy of teleology over relationality, we could say, to echo the Althusserian formulation from which we started. In both cases, the conception of time is the secret of this primacy, the theological eternity of Leibniz and its Hegelian secularisation into the synchronicity of the epoch. In Reading Capital, Althusser tries to build a concept of time free from this double claim: the time of totality is neither eternity, nor contemporaneity, but the complex articulation of differential times not harmonised in a simple essence.12 Thus, if the thesis of the primacy of relations, as Althusser himself admits, can be read in the furrow of the idealist theory, it is necessary to find a formula able to express this conception with a force equal and contrary to the tradition of expressive causality. The primacy of chance over relations? In my opinion, the clearest formula is: the primacy of the encounter over form. However, as we have mentioned, this thesis does not appear in The Underground Current.

The primacy of the encounter over form

Theoretically, the most dense pages of the text on the materialism of the encounter are located between the reconstruction of the underground current, from Epicurus to Rousseau, and the interpretation of Marx. Marx certainly does belong to this current; but at the same time, Marx is what is at stake in the entire reconstruction. It is as if Althusser were searching in the history of thought for the conceptual instrument for formulating a new interpretation. It is for this reason that he summarises the results that he has attained just before dealing with Marx:
1 For a being (a body, an animal, a man, state, or Prince) to be, an encounter has to have

taken place (past infinitive). To limit ourselves to Machiavelli, an encounter has to have taken place between beings with affinities [des affinissables]; between such-and-such an individual and such-and-such a conjuncture, or Fortune, for example the conjuncture itself being junction, con-junction congealed (albeit shifting) encounter, since it has already taken place, and refers in its turn to the infinite number of its prior causes, just as (let us add) a determinate [dfini] individual (for instance, Borgia) refers to the infinite sequence [suite] of prior causes of which it is the result.
2 There are encounters only between series [sries] of beings that are the results of

several series of causes at least two, but this two soon proliferates, by virtue of the effect of parallelism or general contagion (as Breton put it, profoundly, elephants are contagious). One also thinks here of Cournot, a great but neglected thinker.

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact 3 Every encounter is aleatory, not only in its origins (nothing ever guarantees an


encounter), but also in its effects. In other words, every encounter might have not taken place, al though it did take place; but its possible nonexistence sheds light on the meaning of its ale atory being. And every encounter is aleatory in its effects, in that nothing in the elements of the encounter prefigures, before the actual encounter, the contours and determinations of the being that will emerge from it.13 To summarise:
1 Every being is the product of an encounter; 2 Every encounter is the effect of other encounters ad infinitum; 3 Every encounter might not have taken place; 4 The being that will emerge from the encounter is not prefigured in its elements.

In exemplifying these theses, Althusser refers to two authors: Machiavelli, who is evoked by means of the figure of Valentino, and Darwin. Darwins name, unlike Machiavellis, is invoked only once in the entire text. Nonetheless, Darwins role does not appear to be a less important one. Althusser uses Darwin against Hegel; what is at stake is clearly Marx, or the possibility of distinguishing between an aleatory and a teleological theory of the mode of production. Darwin is played against Hegel; paradoxically, against the Hegelian reading of Darwin that Marx himself proposed.14 Darwin plays a fundamental role because he provides Althusser with a model for applying the thesis of the primacy of the encounter over form in the treatment of the natural world, of the emergence of any natural form from the complex encounter between a very great number of elements.

Darwin and aleatory materialism

Let us now try to read Darwins Of the Origin of Species in this perspective. A first theoretical element of fundamental importance is the erosion of the concept of form produced by the observation of species variations in their natural state. Darwin remarks that no one definition [of the term species] has satisfied all naturalists,15 and that the term variety is almost equally difficult to define.16 The monstrosities shade into variety and are a deviation of structure, generally injurious, or not useful to the species.17 Species, variety, and monstrosities are, therefore, grades of individual differentiation that are not separated by strong ontological coordinates: which introduces uncertainty and arbitrariness into the naturalists classifications. According to Darwin, we have a sort of progressive scale that goes from individual differences, to a more different and persistent variety, up to the subspecies and finally to the species: The passage from one stage of difference to another may, in many cases, be the simple result of the nature of the organism and of the different physical conditions to which it has long been exposed; but with respect to the more important and adaptive characters, the


Encountering Althusser

passage from one stage of difference to another, may be safely attributed to the cumulative action of Natural Selection . . . A well-marked variety may therefore be called an incipient species.18 A second fundamental theoretical element lies in focusing on the struggle for life as the mechanism for selecting forms. Darwin asks himself how have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organization to another part, and to the condition of life, and of one organics being to another being, been perfected.19 And how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species?20 The well-known answer is that useful variations are conserved in the struggle for life. But the expression struggle for life must be understood in a broad and metaphorical sense: the concept that underpins it is the reciprocal dependence of all individuals; it is a struggle for life between individuals of the same species, of different species, and finally, of all individuals against the conditions of life. In other words, the struggle for life does not ever act as a simple instance, but rather as a network of infinitely complex relations between the plants, animals and climatic conditions of a determined geographical location. Let us take Darwins example: In Staffordshire, on the estate of a relation, where I had ample means of investigation, there was a large and extremely barren heath, which had never been touched by the hand of man; but several hundred acres of exactly the same nature had been enclosed twenty-five years previously and planted with Scotch fir. The change in the native vegetation of the planted part of the heath was most remarkable, more than is generally seen in passing from one quite different soil to another; not only the proportional numbers of the heath-plants were wholly changed, but twelve species of plants (not counting grasses and carices) flourished in the plantations, which could not be found on the heath. The effect on the insects must have been still greater, for six insectivorous birds were very common in the plantations, which were not to be seen on the heath; and the heath was frequented by two or three distinct insectivorous birds. Here we see how potent has been the effect of the introduction of a single tree, nothing whatever else having been done, with the exception of the land having been enclosed, so that cattle could not enter. But how important an element enclosure is, I plainly saw near Farnham, in Surrey. Here there are extensive heaths, with a few clumps of old Scotch firs on the distant hilltops: within the last ten years large spaces have been enclosed, and self-sown firs are now springing up in multitudes, so close together that all cannot live. When I ascertained that these young trees had not been sown or planted, I was so much surprised at their numbers that I went to several points of view, whence I could examine hundreds of acres of the unenclosed heath, and literally I could not see a single Scotch fir, except the old planted clumps. But on looking closely between the stems of the heath, I found a multitude of seedlings and little trees which had been perpetually browsed down by the cattle. In one square yard, at a point some hundred yards distant from one of the old clumps, I counted thirty-two little trees; and one of them, with twenty-six rings of growth, had, during many years tried to raise its head above the stems of the heath, and had failed. No wonder that, as soon as the land was enclosed, it became thickly clothed with vigorously growing young firs. Yet the heath was so extremely barren and so extensive that

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact


no one would ever have imagined that cattle would have so closely and effectually searched it for food. Here we see that cattle absolutely determine the existence of the Scotch fir; but in several parts of the world insects determine the existence of cattle. Perhaps Paraguay offers the most curious instance of this; for here neither cattle nor horses nor dogs have ever run wild, though they swarm southward and northward in a feral state; and Azara and Rengger have shown that this is caused by the greater number in Paraguay of a certain fly, which lays its eggs in the navels of these animals when first born. The increase of these flies, numerous as they are, must be habitually checked by some means, probably by other parasitic insects. Hence, if certain insectivorous bird were to decrease in Paraguay, the parasitic insects would probably increase; and this would lessen the number of the navelfrequenting flies then cattle and horses would became feral, and this would certainly greatly alter (as indeed I have observed in parts of South America) the vegetation: this again would largely affect the insects; and this, as we have just seen in Staffordshire, the insectivorous birds, and so onwards in ever-increasing circles of complexity.21 Darwin adds that relations are not, however, always as simple as this: battle within battle must be continually recurring with varying success.22 Therefore selection is not at all a kind of conscious choice of nature (in fact, nature does not really appear as a whole, but only as a web of complex relations),23 nor does it produce the variations itself. This acts only when weaving the complex relations on individual variations: It may metaphorically be said that Natural Selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, through the world, the slightest variations: rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.24 A third fundamental theoretical element is the Darwinian concept of order and time. Order is nothing other than the temporary balancing of forces in this web of complex relations. It is not some sort of transcendental or immanent nature that leads the action of individuals, but the same complex web of individual actions, the balancing of which can always change: ... in the long-run the forces are so nicely balanced, that the face of nature remains for long periods of time uniform, though assuredly the merest trifle would give the victory to one organic being over another. Nevertheless, so profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption, that we marvel when we hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysm to desolate the world, or invent laws on the duration of the forms of life!25 Time, then, does not have any influence on natural selection, and it should not be thought that all life forms were necessarily undergoing change through some innate law:26 Lapse of time is only so far important, and this importance in this respect is great, that it gives a better chance of beneficial variations arising, and of their being selected, accumulated, and fixed. It likewise tends to increase the direct action of the physical condition of life, in relation to the constitution of each organism.27 Order and time cannot, therefore, be articulated in a theoretical syntax that transforms the theory of natural selection namely, the theory of the complex relations of natural beings into a philosophy of the teleological evolution of forms. Far from being an incidental reference in


Encountering Althusser

The Underground Current, Darwins theory instead seems to be its invisible centre. Its fundamental nucleus is not the thesis of the evolution of forms (as against fixism), but precisely the primacy of the encounter over form, namely the contingency not so much of the world (a term that does not make sense, according to Darwin), but of every form insofar as it is the result of a complex mesh of encounters. In this sense, the given elements are not there for the sake of the form, but each has its own history, its own effect on the mesh of encounters that takes place, but obviously can also fail. In this way, provided that the telos and the project are rejected (and the correlative concept of nature as order), the thesis of the primacy of encounter over form is perfectly compatible with the primacy of relations over elements: the complex web of relations that constitutes the stable face of nature in a given period is not order and a guarantee of stability, but a complex mesh of encounters, the failure or taking-place of one of which can redesign the web; and so the process may continue, as Darwin writes, in everincreasing circles of complexity.

The role of Machiavelli

Although from the margins of the single occurrence of his name, the role played by Darwin in The Underground Current can shed light on Machiavellis function. Here, I want to argue that Machiavelli plays a role with respect to politics and history that is perfectly symmetrical to the one played by Darwin with respect to nature. Not, therefore, Marx, as we might have expected because in reality, as I said, Marx is at stake but Machiavelli, thanks to whom it becomes possible to play off within Marxs work itself the aleatory conception of the mode of production as against the teleological one dominant in his thought. By re-reading this passage, everything becomes clear: For a being (a body, an animal, a man, state, or Prince) to be, an encounter has to have taken place (past infinitive).28 In the field of politics and history, the philosopher of the primacy of the encounter over form is precisely Machiavelli. In The Underground Current, Althusser declares it apertis verbis: in Machiavelli, there is an authentic philosophical thought, the importance of which goes far beyond his stereotypical image as the founder of political science. The true reason for the appeal exercised by Machiavellis figure over the centuries is due, according to Althusser, precisely to his philosophical position, to his materialism of the encounter. Let us see how Althusser presents Machiavellis fundamental problem in the brief exposition that he provides of Machiavellis thought: Machiavelli will be our second witness in the history of this underground current of the materialism of the encounter. His project is well known: to think, in the impossible conditions of fifteenth-century Italy, the conditions for establishing an Italian national state. All the circumstances favourable to imitating France or Spain exist, but without connections between them: a divided and fervent people, the fragmentation of Italy into small obsolete states that have been condemned by history, a generalized but disorderly revolt of an entire world against foreign occupation and pillage, and a profound, latent aspiration of the people towards unity, an aspiration to which all the great works of the period bear witness, including that of Dante, who understood nothing of all this, but was waiting for the arrival

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact


of the great hound. In sum, an atomized country, every atom of which was descending in free fall without en coun tering its neighbour. It was necessary to create the conditions for a swerve, and thus an encounter, if Italian unity was to take hold. How was this to be done? Machiavelli did not be lieve that any of the existing states and, in particular, any of the papal states, the worst of all could play the role of unifier. In The Prince, he lists one after the other, only to reject them as so many decaying components of the prior, feudal mode of production, including the republics that are its alibis and captives. And he poses the problem in all its rigor and bare simplicity. Once all the states and their princes that is, all the places and people have been rejected, Machiavelli, using the example of Cesare Borgia, moves on to the idea that unification will be achieved if there emerges some nameless man who has enough luck and virt to establish himself somewhere, in some nameless corner of Italy, and, starting out from this atomic point, gradually to aggregate the Italians around him in the grand project of founding a national state. This is a completely aleatory line of reasoning, which leaves politically blank both the name of the Federator and that of the region which will serve as starting-point for the constitution of this federation. Thus the dice are tossed on the gaming table, which is itself empty (but filled with men of valour).29 Althusser seems to repeat the Gramscian interpretation of Machiavelli as the thinker of the nation-state. In reality, this repetition has the precise function of wrong-footing its philosophy of history, to break the game of mirrors between the Prince and the party that is at the basis of its teleology. Machiavelli, as Althusser tells us, laisse en blanc the name of the federator and the name of the region starting from which this federation will be possible. The origin is crossed out, to use Heideggers terminology. In this sense, Althusser characterises Machiavellis philosophy as a philosophy of the void. Thus it will have been noticed that this philosophy is, in sum, a philosophy of the void: not only the philosophy which says that the void pre-exists the atoms that fall in it, but a philosophy which creates the philosophical void [fait le vide philosophique] in order to endow itself with existence: a philosophy which, rather than setting out from the famous philosophical problems (why is there something rather than nothing?), begins by evacuating all philosophical problems, hence by refusing to assign itself any object whatever (philosophy has no object) in order to set out from nothing, and from the infinitesimal, aleatory variation of nothing constituted by the swerve of the fall. Is there any more radical critique of all philosophy, with its pretension to utter the truth about things? Is there a more striking way of saying that philosophys object par excellence is nothingness, nothing, or the void? In enteenth century, Pascal repeatedly approached this idea, and the possibility of the sev introducing the void as a philosophical object. He did so, however, in the deplorable context of an apolo getics. Here, too, it was only with Heidegger, after the false words of a Hegel (the labour of the negative) or a Stirner (all things are nothing to me), that the void was given all its decisive philosophical significance again. Yet we already find all this in Epicurus and Machiavelli: in Machiavelli, who evacuated [fit le vide de] all Platos and Aristotles philosophical concepts in order to think the possibility of making Italy a national state.30 Ichida has read this insistence on the void in Althusser in a Schmittian sense, as the void of the decision, therefore as the void that the Schmittian subject is in the very act of the decision


Encountering Althusser

that gives place to the form.31 Who decides, decides the form, and this decision, which constitutes the subject in its void of content, can only be taken starting from nothing: it cannot be founded on anything else.32 Althussers interpretation in reality has nothing to do with this problematic, which is fundamentally a juridical one. Furthermore, Schmitt himself, in his rare references to Machiavelli, seems to think that in Machiavelli there is a thought of the origin of politics, which however does not agree with his own thought on the question of form: absent in Machiavelli, this is instead the horizon in which Schmitts thought of the political is inscribed, which is certainly the non-rational root of politics, but grasped from the point of view of its representative formal composition by means of a decisionist gesture.33 Machiavellis philosophy, Althusser argues, voids the whole philosophical tradition. Yet it is not a void that dissolves or that puts in parentheses the necessity of the real in order to open the space of the freedom of a subject (either when this is thought as the void that originates Schmitts form, or as the fullness of Benjamins messianic Jetztzeit). Rather, it is, on the one hand, the void, the nothing of this subject as an imaginary creator of the form and, on the other hand, the most radical dissolution of all philosophical concepts that mystify this very necessity. In such a perspective, it becomes possible to understand Althussers reading of Machiavellis insistence on the figure of Cesare Borgia: Machiavellis wish is simply that, in an atomized Italy, counter should take place, and he is plainly obsessed with this Cesare, who, starting out the en with nothing, made the Romagna a Kingdom, and, after taking Florence, would have unified all Northern Italy if he had not been stricken with fever in the marshes of Ravenna at the critical moment, when he was heading, despite Julius II, for Rome itself, to strip him of his office. A man of nothing who has started out from nothing starting out from an unassignable place: these are, for Machiavelli, the conditions for regeneration.34 What does Althusser mean when he affirms that Cesare Borgia is a homme de rien, parti de rien, et partant dun lieu inassignable? Valentino is the son of Alessandro VI, protected and counselled by his father and nominated by him as gonfaloniere of the Papal States. Being the son of the Pope is not exactly like starting out from nothing! Yet it was not from him, from a natural son, that the attempt to unify Italy was expected. The void of which Schmitt speaks is the void of the decision which is seen from the point of view of the accomplished fact of the existing juridical and political order.35 The void of which Althusser speaks is the void of the fact still to be accomplished. In this sense, the Schmittian model of secularisation is not applicable to Machiavelli; the God of theology cannot be translated within Machiavellis political theory, as it is within that of Hobbes and Hegel.36 According to Althusser, in Machiavelli there is not a subject of politics and history, but a complex interweaving of encounters, each of which can take hold or not, can be brief or lasting, albeit always provisional: In order for this encounter to take place, however, another encounter must come about: that of fortune and virt in the Prince. Encountering Fortuna, the Prince must have the virt to treat her as he would treat a woman, to welcome her in order to seduce or do violence to her; in short, to use her to realize his destiny. Thanks to this consideration, we owe Machiavelli a whole philosophical theory of the encounter between fortune and virt. The encounter may not take place or may take place. The meeting can be missed. The encounter can be brief or lasting: he needs an encounter that lasts. To make it last, the Prince has to learn to govern fortune by governing men. He has to structure his state by training up its men, commingling them in the army (see Gramsci), and, above all, by endowing this state

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact


with constant laws. He has to win them over by accommodating them, while knowing how to keep his distance. This dual procedure gives rise to the theory of seduction and the theory of fear, as well as the the ory of the ruse. I leave aside the rejection of the demagoguery of love, the idea that fear is preferable to love, and the violent methods designed to inspire fear, in order to go straight to the theory of the ruse. Should the Prince be good or wicked? He has to learn to be wicked, but in all circumstances he has to know how to appear to be good, to possess the moral virtues that will win the people over to his side, even if they earn him the hatred of the mighty, whom he despises, for, from them, nothing else is to be expected. Machiavellis theory is well known: the Prince should be like the centaur of the Ancients, both man and beast. But it has not been sufficiently remarked that the beast divides into two in Machiavelli, becoming both lion and fox, and that, ultimately, it is the fox who governs everything. For it is the fox who obliges the Prince either to appear to be evil or to appear to be good in a word, to fabricate a popular (ideological) image of himself that either does or does not answer to his interests and those of the little man. Consequently, the Prince is governed, internally, by the variations of this other aleatory encounter, that of the fox on the one hand and the lion and man on the other. This encounter may not take place, but it may also take place. It has to last long enough for the figure of the Prince to take hold among the people to take hold, that is, to take form, so that, institutionally, he instils the fear of himself as good; and, if possible, so that he ultimately is good, but on the absolute condition that he never forget how to be evil if need be.37 Thus is Cesare Borgia the natural son, excluded by definition from any form of legitimate power not the metaphor of any political action? Althusser thinks that in Machiavelli there is a theory of politics in its pure state, which far from being able to be thought through the simple models of continuity and discontinuity with respect to history, instead conceives political action within a historicity neither driven by a telos nor waiting for an eschaton. On the contrary, it is the permanent revocation of the accomplished fact; it is fortuna that is never present itself in person and as a simple instance, but as occasion, as a complex web of encounters situated on different levels. The taking hold or not of each of them modifies the quality of the web as a whole. The encounter occurs between a man and a region, between virt and fortuna, between the fox, on the one hand, and the lion and man, on the other hand, and finally between the Prince and the people. It is a web of encounters in which there is not a simple inside and outside, a subject that transforms the world by means of his praxis, moving along an imaginary temporal line that goes from the present to the future. Here, we are faced with a complex and plural temporality in which the events constitute and happen precisely in that between, to which Machiavelli gives the philosophical name of occasione: The reader may object that this is merely political philosophy, overlooking the fact that a philosophy is simultaneously at work here too. A curious philosophy which is a materialism of the encounter thought by way of politics, and which, as such, does not take anything for granted. It is in the political void that the encounter must come about, and that national unity must take hold. But this political void is first a philosophical void. No Cause that precedes its effects is to be found in it, no Principle of morality or theology (as in the whole Aristotelian political tradition: the good and bad forms of government, the degeneration of the good into


Encountering Althusser

the bad). One reasons here not in terms of the Necessity of the accomplished fact, but in terms of the contingency of the fact to be accomplished. As in the Epicurean world, all the elements are both here and beyond, to come raining down later [l et au-del, pleuvoir] (see above, the Italian situation), but they do not exist, are only abstract, as long as the unity of a world has not united them in the Encounter that will endow them with existence. It will have been noticed that, in this philosophy, there reigns an alternative: the encounter may not take place, just as it may take place. Nothing decides the matter, no principle of decision predetermines this alternative, which is of the order of a game of dice. A throw of the dice will never abolish chance. Indeed! A successful encounter, one that is not brief, but lasts, never guarantees that it will continue to last tomorrow rather than come undone. Just as it might have not taken place, it may no longer take place: fortune comes and changes, affirms Borgia, who succeeded at everything until the famous day he was stricken with fever. In other words, nothing guarantees that the reality of the accomplished fact is the guarantee of its durability. Quite the opposite is true: every accomplished fact, even an election, like all the necessity and reason we can derive from it, is only a provisional encounter, and since every encounter is provisional even when it lasts, there is no eternity in the laws of any world or any state. History here is nothing but the permanent revocation of the accomplished fact by another undecipherable fact to be accomplished, without our knowing in advance whether, or when, or how the event that revokes it will come about. Simply, one day new hands will have to be dealt out, and the dice thrown again onto the empty table.38 The encounter may not take place, just as it may take place. Nothing decides the matter, no principle of decision predetermines this alternative. Every decision can encounter or not encounter fortuna, and not only because it is the encounter with fortuna that retrospectively confers to virt the status of founding decision, as Machiavelli recalls in a very famous passage on the great founders of states.39 It is also because virt itself and as such is a web of encounters that cannot be traced back to the simplicity of a subject. Therefore, if the form at the level of history and politics takes the name of subject, Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli affirms the thesis of the primacy of the encounter over the subject. It is not a thesis of the inexistence of the subject, but of its always coming in second place with respect to the encounter, or better, with respect to the web of encounters that are multiple and situated on different levels. While constituting the subject, they at the same time constitute its field of action. This thesis marks Althussers great distance from Gramscis famous interpretation of the party as a modern Prince. In the latters interpretation, indeed, the modern Prince can be translated within the Schmittian scheme of modern politics as secularisation of theology. Gramsci reads the subject-party through the expressive model of Hegels Sittlichkeit, thus constituting an imaginary internal space in which ethicity dominates, in order to confine violence and cunning in the exteriority of the world. 40 Althussers reading of the metaphor of the centaur makes this very subject, its virt that goes towards fortuna, the result of an encounter, the encounter of the fox, on the one hand, and of the lion and the man, on the other hand. A conjunction, a historical fact among others, which is permanently revocable. Translated from the Italian by Sara R. Farris and Peter D. Thomas.

History as permanent revocation of the accomplished fact


1 On Althusser and Machiavelli see Terray 1993, pp. 13760; Negri 1997 , pp. 13958; Lahtinen, 1997; Del Lucchese 2006, pp. 5261. 2 Althusser 2006b. 3 Althusser 19945 Volume 2. 4 Althusser 1990b; also in Althusser 1998a. 5 Althusser 19945 Volume 1, pp. 53976. 6 Althusser 1993b, pp. 71119. 7 Althusser 2006a, p. 188. 8 Althusser 1973, p. 30. 9 Spinoza 1925, p. 47 . 10 Adorno 1969. On this Macherey writes: the totality of which Adorno speaks is not entirely unrelated to substance as defined by Spinoza, substance that conditions all modal determinations insofar as it cannot itself be apprehended modally (Macherey 1992, pp. 22236). 11 Althusser 1996a, pp. 4023. 12 Althusser 1996a, pp. 272309. 13 Althusser 19945 Volume 1, pp. 5656; Althusser 2006a, pp. 1923. 14 Lecourt 1983, pp. 22750. 15 Darwin 1988, p. 34. 16 Darwin 1988, p. 34. 17 Darwin 1988, p. 34. 18 Darwin 1988, p. 43. 19 Darwin 1988, p. 50. 20 Darwin 1988, pp. 501. 21 Darwin 1988, pp. 589. 22 Darwin 1988, p. 59. 23 Darwin 1988, p. 59. 24 Darwin 1988, pp. 689. 25 Darwin 1988, p. 59. 26 Darwin 1988, p. 86. 27 Darwin 1988, p. 86. 28 Althusser 2006a, p. 192. 29 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1712. 30 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1745. 31 Ichida 2005. 32 As Schmitt writes: In a normative sense, the decision arose from nothing (Schmitt 1996). 33 Galli 1998, p. 108. On Schmitts reading of Machiavelli, see Galli 2005, pp. 12340. 34 Althusser 2006a, p. 172. 35 Concerning Schmitt Taubes writes: With the passing of time I have understood that the jurist has a completely different way of seeing the world. He is called to legitimate it just as it is. It is an innate trait of his formation, in the whole conception of the office of the jurist (Taubes 1993).


Encountering Althusser

36 All the most pregnant concepts of the modern doctrine of the State are theological secular concepts (Schmitt 1996, p. 61). 37 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1723. 38 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1734. 39 ... to come to those who, by their own virt and not through fortuna, have become princes, I say that the most excellent are Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and such like ... And examining their actions and lives, it is impossible to observe that they owed anything to fortuna other than opportunity; this gave them the material they could make into the form they saw fit; and without that opportunity the virt of their souls would have been extinguished, and without that virt the opportunity would have been in vain (Machiavelli 1993, p. 264; my emphasis). 40 See the famous passage of the Notebooks, any act is useful or harmful, virtuous or wicked insofar as its concrete point of reference is the modern prince and it augments or fights against his power. He stands in mens consciences in the role of divinity and as the categorical imperative; he is the basis of a modern secularism and of the complete secularisation of all life and all customary relations (Gramsci 1975, p. 953). On Gramscis reading of Machiavelli see Frosini 2003, pp. 1627 .

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy
Katja Kolek

he intention of my chapter is to show the possibility of reading Althussers materialist philosophy and its problematic articulation between the science of historical materialism and politics, through the parallax view of the object par excellence of Althussers philosophy, namely, the void [le vide]. This object is, without doubt, the only object that was present all the way from the earliest to the last of Althussers writings, and has already been discussed a number of times. Nevertheless, I shall use this object to argue against the assertion as to the radical ontologisation of Althussers late philosophy and the consequent complete omission of his earlier materialist dialectic. I shall seek the causes of the so-called turn in Althussers philosophy in a certain kind of contradiction of perspective, the so-called parallax view1 of this object of the void, an indispensable condition for reflecting the true materialist philosophy. It is on these grounds that I shall argue that it is possible to explain the mysterious shift (displacement) from Althussers conception of his materialist philosophy (the concept of overdetermined contradiction in his earlier materialist dialectic) to his conception of philosophy as the class-struggle in theory in his later period, followed by the seemingly ontological concept of the aleatory encounter of the rain of atoms of his later texts. I shall propose that the object-concept of the void cannot be read, on the one hand, merely as a rhetorical figure, as the so-called epistemological nullity, as is the case in Althussers text in For Marx Contradiction and Overdetermination, where it functions as the retroactive effect of the problems of knowledge of the concept of overdetermination; on the other hand, it also cannot be seen as the sheer ontological void of the contingent encounter, which in his late texts on aleatory materialism functioned as the condition of the so-called prise of atoms. Contrary to these two sharply contrasting views, I shall read the void dialectically as the same parallax object of Althussers philosophy, which seems to have changed in the course of development of Althussers philosophy as the result of the gap between two incompatible positions within his attempt to conceive a true materialist philosophy. This object is, indeed, the gap between these two approaches to providing the philosophy for Marx (the earlier epistemological one and the later ontological one). This will disprove Althussers alleged abandonment of his dealing with of materialist dialectics (the question of overdetermination) in favour of the materialism of the encounter, and demonstrate the continuity in his work.


Encountering Althusser

The parallax view, Hegel and Spinoza

In his devoted attempt to break with the so-called rational kernel of Marxs dialectic, which still largely rested on the logic of Hegels dialectic in Marxs earlier work, Althusser relied on the findings of the French epistemological school (such as Gaston Bachelard), in order to provide the scientific method for this new materialist philosophy (to speak of the scientific discourse and not of being).2 The method of this new theory of theoretical practices, according to Althusser, altogether avoids Hegelian dialectics and the philosophy of history, and proceeds in the guise of epistemology (more geometrico).3 The concept of the epistemological break, which Althusser more precisely detected in Marxs work around 1845, as the key indicator of his discovery of the concept of the social relation, indicates a break with his previous historicist and humanist foundations of philosophical idealism. The epistemological break marked the rupture within Marxs work itself, one with which Marxs engagement with ontological questions concerning the problems of the essence of humankind as praxis and the so-called ontology of the production in German Ideology were replaced by scientific (epistemological) problems concerning the constitution of the theoretical object of the science of history.4 The most important task in Althussers reconstitution of Marxs philosophy via the epistemological break was the detection of the strict separation of the theoretical from the real object of its science of history, which would be in utter contrast with empiricist ideology (which appertains to the traditional empiricist philosophies of knowledge), and was, according to Althusser, still largely present in Hegels dialectic. In The Formation of the Scientific Mind, Bachelard started with the complete denunciation of any world which is not a construct of science. The truth of scientific knowledge was no longer to be assured by the object, as perceived directly as the objective reality of our pre-scientific world; and what is more, the constitutive element of scientific knowledge is no longer the positive reality of, but the break with, previous, quotidian knowledge. Science is not the adequate expression of reality, but rather scientific knowledge is the process of objectification. In short, the only legitimate object of science can be that which science constructs itself.5 The consequences of Althussers adaptation of Marxs materialistic dialectic to the propositions of French epistemology was his conception of theoretical practice as production that would break with the possibility of direct analysis of social formations (the so-called coup dessence), since it thinks not the guarantees of knowledge, but the mechanisms of production of knowledge.6 Nevertheless, as is well-known, Althussers epistemological period ended with his self-critical writings, in which he accused himself of so-called theoreticism, since he excluded the moment of politics from his conceptualisation of philosophy as the theory of theoretical practice. On this note, Alain Badiou designated Althussers theoreticism as an example of quilting his materialist philosophy to science, whereas he described Althussers later definition of philosophy as the class struggle in theory as another example of quilting7 [suture] of the political event by philosophy as the instance in which politics as class struggle directly enters into the act of philosophy. He also explicitly stressed that both aforementioned positions mean a dead end for any attempt at constructing Marxist philosophy. However, after the period of self-criticism, Althusser invented a new understanding of materialist philosophy, the so-called effectphilosophy as the transformation into the topology of pure immanence. The model of this new kind of philosophy is the causa sui in which philosophy finally intervenes into the sphere

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy


to which it also immanently belongs. In this second constellation of philosophy, the problem of metaposition disappears, since henceforth Althussers philosophy acts upon the theoretical and other practices in the form of the Badiouian torsion with its exterior practices (the effects of philosophy are strictly immanent).8 Thereby Althussers so-called effect-philosophy enters into the domain of praxis; it ceases to be interpretation and becomes an act of intervention. The categories of effect-philosophy are empty, since they no longer designate reality, and, more radically, philosophy ceases to have an object, since it is no longer the cognitive appropriation of an object. Because this kind of philosophy does not have an object and has no history, it becomes a bare act of demarcation [le vide dune distance prise]. Alain Badiou observes that this is the point of irreversible de-epistemologisation in Althussers philosophy.9 In this respect, in my view Althussers effect-philosophy nevertheless comes very close to Badious own understanding of the so-called philosophy under conditions. However, there is still an irreducible difference between these two attitudes towards materialist philosophy, especially as far as the question of the problem of the objectively necessary condition of the class position in philosophy is concerned. Namely, from the work Being and Event onwards, Alain Badiou omits the epistemological problems of materialist philosophy in favour of the only valuable truth of ontology, as mathematics, whereas Althusser, in a Spinozian vein, advocates knowledge in production itself, albeit without the possibility of tracing its origin. According to Badiou, Althussers effect-philosophy remains deeply linked with science. However, this is with one small but important difference: that science now becomes one of its essential conditions, instead of its object.10 Therefore, the central problem of the effect-philosophy, according to Badiou, is that because of its strict immanent effectiveness, it becomes blind to its effects on ideological and scientific practices and on reality as such that is, the differentiation between science and ideology becomes impossible. In 1968 Althusser broke with the principles of Spinozas philosophy of radical immanence and non-transparency, and introduced the concept of class struggle into theory. From that moment, his philosophy became the representation of class struggle within sciences and the representation of science within politics. From then on, the immanent effects of philosophy as the inner line of demarcation between the Scientific and the Ideological fall under the dependence of class prescription; they form the so-called class position in philosophy. The problem that Badiou sees in this last conception in Althussers philosophy is that politics, as one of the conditions of materialist philosophy, now begins to immanently determine the being of the philosophical act as such.11 With this transformation, not only does Althusser violate the Spinozist principle of the transparency or evidence of the truth, but, according to Franois Matheron, Althussers new turn regarding the nature of Marxs philosophy once more reveals the strange and insoluble ambiguity in Althussers work in reference to the either epistemological or ontological question of the guarantee or foundation of Marxist science: As we know, Althusser struggled throughout his life against the notion of the guarantee, whether epistemological or ontological, justifiably stressing the enim of the Spinozist statement: Habemus enim ideam veram. But this struggle would never have occurred, if it had not been waged against internal demons in the first instance. Precious few thinkers, to use a language that is not Althussers, have imparted such intensity to the idea of science without a foundation; and equally few have been so surrounded by the myriad traps of the foundation and the guarantee.12


Encountering Althusser

The contradictions and difficulties of Althussers attempts to ground a philosophy for Marx on Spinozas thought can also be explained from the point of a specific gap within perspectives called the parallax view. We can argue that the void as the parallax object is precisely the cause of Althussers lifelong oscillation between Hegel and Spinoza.13 Althussers attempt, like that of many others, to read Marxs thought through Spinoza as the attempt to overcome the inner rational kernel of the Hegelian dialectic encountered insurmountable obstacles. There is no concept of inner negativity in Spinozas substance as the whole, and thus there is no place for the contradiction. This excludes Marxs concept of class struggle. Negation and limitation exist only from the point of view of finite understanding, and not from the point of view of substance (infinity). From the point of view of infinity there are only positive determinations according to an inner necessity, thus there is an inherent impossibility of the totalisation of substance (except in the form of the bad infinity) and, therefore, of defining the difference or the rupture between the infinite and finite modes, and of explaining the passage from the absolute to the relative, or from the finite to the infinite. What is more, as Mladen Dolar has pointed out, at that time there was a general trend in French philosophy of an idealistic reading of Hegel, which saw Hegels thought regarding contradiction as the pre-established and teleological plan of its ultimate abolition. Hegels negativity was generally considered only as the means of attaining the absolute positive identity of the absolute spirit. In the Spinozian universe, there is a clear difference between thought and its object. There can be no kind of equivalence or comparison between them. To think of the limit between the attributes of thought and extension is unsurpassable and even impossible, since there is no contact between them namely, because the limit is always already surpassed in God. Conversely, it is precisely this split between the object of thought and the real object that is the central problem of Hegels philosophy, which he overcomes through his conception of the dialectical movement lying precisely in the form of the failure to overcome it.14 The limit is thus transposed into the interiority between thought itself and the object itself. Their constitutive disaccord becomes the inner positive determination of both. Hegels absolute knowledge should not be read as their final settlement in their identity, but only as the reflection of this process. The name of this inner impossibility as positive determination is, according to Slavoj iek, the Hegelian subject. It is this irresolvable disaccord, the minimal difference between the Universal and the Particular, which is actually the parallax object.

The void, overdetermination and the materialism of the encounter

Among various other theorists, Antonio Negri15 claims that in Althussers later work (in texts such as Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter, Machiavelli and Us, and so on) an important turn [Kehre] in opposition to his previous work on materialist dialectics took place, whereby ontological questions completely replaced the epistemological problems of the materialist dialectic.16 Despite the fact that there was an enormous turn in Althussers later understanding of materialism, and despite the fact that he introduced some classical ontological concepts into his conception of materialism of encounter such as the Epicurean and Democritian ontology of the swerve of atoms, the Wittgensteinian der Fall or the analysis

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy


of Heideggers es gibt, Spinozas substance, contingency (ala) against necessity, and so on I understand this radical change to be the effect of the specific phenomenon of perspective the parallax view which is, in fact, the result of Althussers strivings to provide a new concept to materialistic dialectics, most accurately designated by his concept of overdetermination. In my view, this was by no means a betrayal of his previous epistemological point of view of philosophy as Theory, but evidence of the change of his reflection on the question regarding what epistemology in fact is. The nature of true materialist thought is that true materialism means that the reality I see is never whole not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which indicates my inclusion in it.17 A true materialist philosophy, without succumbing to a mirror relationship between materialism and idealism, must pay regard to the fissure in totality, which is the subject. Althussers writings on aleatory materialism are the inclusion of his point of enunciation of the true materialist philosophy in the unresolved epistemological impasse of the concept of overdetermination. This parallax object is neither merely the theoretical object nor merely the real object, but the object-cause, or the split as the object, which causes the two irreconcilable perspectives. Indeed, it is this enigmatic parallax object of Althussers philosophy that lies behind the question of the subject in his philosophy. It appears in his texts as the famous figure of the void, and perfectly corresponds to the Lacanian objet a as the very cause of the parallax gap, that unfathomable X which forever eludes the symbolic grasp, and thus causes the multiplicity of symbolic perspectives.18 The paradox that this object causes is a precise one: . . it is at the very point at which a pure difference emerges a difference which is no . longer a difference between two positively existing objects, but a minimal difference which divides one and the same object from itself that this difference which divides one and the same object from itself that this difference as such immediately coincides with an unfathomable object: in contrast to a mere difference between objects, the pure difference is itself an object: another name for the parallax gap is therefore minimal difference, a pure difference which cannot be grounded in positive properties.19 This object is, therefore, not only the cause of Althussers alleged turn from the epistemological to the ontological perspective in his materialist philosophy, but also the cause of his troubles with the impossible fusion of Marxs science of history and Lenins politics of class struggle in philosophy. I would argue that the productiveness of Althussers philosophy lies precisely in this parallax object and Althussers endurance in the undecidability between these two perspectives. He fruitfully exploits the object of minimal difference between the theoretical and the real object, between an epistemological and an ontological perspective, between Marxist science and politics, and at the same time opens a whole new perspective on the nature of the reality of the class struggle. In my view, this is what Alain Badiou meant by the concept of subjectivity without the subject in Althussers philosophy. Althussers philosophical position of enunciation, or the place from which he is speaking, is the point of enunciation of the parallax object as the minimal difference as such; this is also the only point from which, I argue according to Badiou, the truth of politics (as process without a subject) can be considered as such in Althussers philosophy. And that is not in the realm of objectivity of science, nor within the concept of ideological subject (ideological state-apparatuses), but in the concept of overdetermination.


Encountering Althusser

Overdetermination is in truth the political place. And it must indeed be stressed that overdetermination belongs to the subjective realm (choice, partisanship, militancy), even though it knows no subject-effect (such effects are statist), nor does it verify or construct, any object (such objects only exist in the field of science).20 Yann Moulier Boutang also advances the point that the concept of overdetermination is the one that affords the possibility of understanding the continuity of Althussers mature work in his writings on aleatory materialism. In the text Matrialisme comme politique alatoire,21 he argues that Althussers project of aleatory materialism is nothing less than the completion of the thesis on the overdetermination of the contradiction from his work For Marx, and that the aleatory position in his later work can only be understood in conjunction with his previous problematic of the revolutionary rupture that establishes a break in history. According to Moulier Boutang, Althussers concept of overdetermination should not be read from the point of view of the special understanding of chance in analogy with the incertitude of the position of an atom in the theory of quantum physics (Heisenberg), which goes hand in hand with the understanding of chance as incertitude or risk by economists from Keynes onwards, and which reconciles determinism and the aleatory (chance). On the contrary, Althussers overdetermination should only be thought in terms of the radical discontinuity in history, the event of revolution as the break, since history does not permit several throws of the dice, on the basis of which we would be able to calculate the probability of the revolutionary event. And what is even more important, the concept of overdetermination should, according to Moulier Boutang, be thought only in terms of the science of revolution, which has neither to do with the problem of the instruments of knowledge (the inclusion of an observer within the experience) nor with rational anticipation in the form of retroactive extrapolation from the teleology of the laws of nature.22 The paradox of overdetermination can, in my view, only be understood from the point of view of the parallax object. It is the point from which the concept of overdetermination can be considered scientific and simultaneously thoroughly political. It is in this precise sense that we understand the concept of the void in Althussers text Contradiction and overdetermination, where he explains the difficulties of Engelss argumentation on the logic of determination in the last instance by the economy in a letter Engels wrote to Bloch. There, Althusser criticises Engelss elaboration of the problem of considering the unity of the determination in the last instance by the economy together with the true thesis of the concept of overdetermination as the relative effectiveness of superstructures in history as a kind of tautology on two different levels. When Engels does not find an answer to the first problem of how the relative autonomy of the superstructure goes hand in hand with the thesis of the determination in the last instance by the economy, due to the impossibility of evaluating the impact of all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events) whose inner connection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible, such that economic movement ultimately asserts itself as necessary he passes to another model, the parallelogram of the forces of individual free wills. Althusser disapproves of Engelss use of the metaphor of a parallelogram of forces based on the elements of the individual wills and dismisses Engelss argument as not meeting the critical standards of Marxist science, which is based on the always-already existing and necessary relations, and not on the bourgeois ideological notion of free will. It is significant that, for Althusser,

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy


this kind of logical operation is tautological; thus, from the point of view of epistemology, it is always, as he himself writes, void or null. He later argues that the unfruitfulness of this kind of explanation (either bad infinity, on one side, or a logical vicious circle, on the other) resides in the fact that its model of explanation is based on an individual wills, which are actually the atoms as homo oeconomicus of the bourgeois ideology of Hobbess, Lockes and Rousseaus conatus and general will and Ricardos and Smiths atomistic behaviour. For them, tautology did have a meaning, since they were searching for the basis for their pre-established values.23 Althusser goes on to argue that every scientific discipline is based at a certain level, precisely that level at which its concepts find a content, from the level of a scientific object: otherwise, it falls into the epistemological void, which has philosophical fullness as its counterpart. And that the true contradiction lies in the final resultant is not a matter of economic determination, but a historical event, which is an event of perfectly knowable and definable historical forms. This leads Althusser to his elaboration on Lenins way of thinking politics. The ideology of the perfect harmony between Engelss model and object that he is proposing is only at the immediate level; but beneath this, harmony is postulated, not proved, and in its place we find an indeterminacy that is, from the point of view of knowledge, a void. Hence, this type of explanation does not answer to its object, since it represents at the beginning the very solution that it is supposed to be producing and establishing (the generation of this determination in the last resort). In order to elucidate how the void as the parallax object functions in opposition to the epistemological impasses of Engelss conception of overdetermination, we shall introduce the specific understanding of causality, which is, as Slavoj iek clarifies, at work in Lacanian realm of the Symbolic. By reading the conception of causality in terms of the Lacanian triad of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, Slavoj iek claims that Althussers understanding of the mechanical transitive type of causality could be compared to the senseless collisions of the domain of the Real, whilst his understanding of Hegels expressive causality could be compared to the realm of Imaginary, insofar as the imaginary structure is imprinted in all parts of the structure. Whereas Althussers overdetermined causality could be ascribed to the realm of the Symbolic, since it is a kind of retroactive determination of the foundation with the totality of the founded, as in the case of the overdetermination of the economy by the superstructure. iek continues to say that this kind of dialectic of the relation between the foundation and the totality of the relations of the founded content is actually the nature of the complete foundation as the unity of the formal and the real foundation in Hegels Logic; and thus Hegel developed a moment that is missing in Althussers conception of overdetermination. The basic operation of Hegels determination is, therefore, a certain type of the logic of tautology. Hegels complete foundation is the foundation of the founded, which once again has to be founded in the relation to the founded. However, this time the tautology is not formal (void), since it contains the moment of contradiction as the identity of the whole with its oppositional determination: as the identity of some moment of the Totality the real foundation with this Totality as such. In this sense, Althussers concept of overdetermination lacks the moment of subjectivity, which cannot be reduced to the imaginary recognition as the effect of the interpellation, the Lacanian barred subject.24 On the contrary, I would argue that Althusser was in fact aware of this, since he admits that he is not particularly taken by this term overdetermination (borrowed from other disciplines), but [he] shall use it in the absence of anything better, both as index and as a problem, and also because it enables us to see clearly why we are dealing with something quite different from the Hegelian contradiction.25 If


Encountering Althusser

we acknowledge the structure of the overdetermination as the structure of the Symbolic, with its constitutive tautological act of the quilting point, we can see that the result of the constitution of the symbolic produces a surplus element, which is the object of the Real (objet a). If iek affirms that the empty formal gesture of the tautological act of the Symbolic adds nothing positive to the thing itself, we can reformulate this negative statement, and say that the tautological act in fact adds the nothing as such to the thing itself. This same object of the void reappears in Althussers later texts (see The Underground Current of the Philosophy of Encounter); however, it now changes and exceeds the obstacles of previous epistemological point of view. The negation of the object within the second definition of philosophy, as the representation of class struggle within sciences, becomes the negation as the object in the form of the void. This is Warren Montags point in his text The Late Althusser: Materialism of Encounter or Philosophy of Nothing?. In his discussion of the void in Althussers text Machiavelli and Us, Montag claims that the object of the philosophy now becomes the void as such: In The Underground Current , the act of demarcation, of taking a distance is substantiated: the void is not practiced but possessed or represented in the form of le nant, or le vide.26 This proves our thesis that, in later texts, Althusser takes advantage of this void in such a way that it now functions precisely as the point of Althussers performative enunciation of philosophy for Marx as the main project of his epistemological period. This enigmatic object of the void, which is omnipresent in all of Althussers writings on the materialism of encounter, remains the only possible condition of founding a true materialist philosophy. It is, first of all, a powerful weapon, with which Althusser attempts to free philosophy from the grasps of teleology, of the goal and of the origin. Besides the transcendental abyss of nothingness, which is in his view the number one enemy of all materialist philosophy, Montag draws our attention to yet another conception of the void in the text Underground Current of Philosophy of Encounter: one that directly counters the previous one, since it is now the philosophical act of making the void, and therefore cancels out the first concept of the void. Montag claims that the concept of philosophy that makes the void, with which it releases its heterogeneity, is in fact the void of that philosophy and not the mere affirmation of the reality of the multitude. It is the means of its philosophical liberation of itself (its origins and goals) and becoming the infinite heterogeneity and simultaneity of the thought and act, known as the theory of theoretical practice.27 This concurs with our understanding of the void as the ambiguous point of Althussers enunciation of philosophy for Marx, which is actually a constitutive part of the materiality it wants to intellectually grasp. But even more so, this is Althussers genuine solution of the biggest problem of the relationship between theory and practice (the question of partisanship within theory) as the principal problem within materialist philosophy as such. 28 This is a view of materialist philosophy from the point of view of the minimal difference and a kind of view from within the anamorphosis.29 Anamorphosis is the phenomenon whereby we can either perceive reality seeing one side, excluding the other, or vice versa, or we can only see the other side as a stain on the first; but we cannot possibly see the two sides at once. We can grasp the true materialist philosophy only from within this discrepancy. In the case of Althussers materialist philosophy, the discrepancy between theory and the politics of class struggle is only conceivable from within the point of view of the void, the gap as the parallax object and the minimal difference.

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy


The parallax view in Althussers materialist reading of Machiavelli

To explain how the void as the parallax object functions in Althussers materialist philosophy, we shall take the example of Althussers controversial identification with Machiavelli, namely, his direct re-enactment of Machiavellis philosophy through his own voice. The fact that in his last period, when writing about the underground current of materialism of encounter, Althusser returned to his text Machiavelli and Us and the word dialectical was systematically transformed into aleatory, according to Wal Suchting, attests to certain assumptions that Althussers work on Machiavelli was an anticipation of his aleatory materialism.30 In the text Machiavelli and Us,31 the void functions as the site of Althussers point of enunciation of philosophy for Marx, as the gap between the science of historical materialism as the theory, without the guarantee of the class position, on one hand, and the politics of the proletariat, without the possibility of the voluntary outcome of the historical event of the revolution, on the other hand. This is the point where Marxist theory and Leninist politics paradoxically intersect. I would argue that Althussers philosophy of the void as the materialism of encounter in the text Machiavelli and Us is enunciated from within the void as the gap, the minimal difference between theory and political practice. It is a product of a certain theoretical dispositive. This void can be understood in two different senses. The first sense of void (or the short circuit), which Althusser detects and uses in this text, is precisely the parallax perspective of reading Machiavellis texts. This kind of gap opens the horizon of the undecidability or aleatoriness of the question for whom Machiavellis texts are written: the people or the prince. It enables us to see the interplay of the overlap between Machiavellis theory and his political practice, and vice versa. The second figure of the void in Machiavelli and Us is the void of Machiavellis fourth theoretical thesis on the essence of a government, the void of the class struggle, which opens the horizon of the aleatory outcome of the science of history in its strict immanence, and internally undermines the logic of the usual understanding of Hegelian dialectic. The figure of this void in Machiavelli and Us anticipates the future aleatory materialism, which functions as the point of the immanent reflection of the concrete and singular historical conjunction, from the point of view of the void as the vacuum, which pulls together the aleatory elements of the historical conjunction. This second figure of the void, which operates as the special kind of negation, is, actually Althussers point of enunciation of Machiavellis political practice through the science of history (theory). It is particularly present in Machiavellis discussion of the laws of history: the famous fourth thesis, Machiavellis position, as described in the text Machiavelli and Us. This void is another example of Althussers use of the parallax view between history and the politics of the class struggle in Machiavellis texts. Specifically, the first three of Machiavellis theoretical theses are, according to Althusser, three classical theses on the philosophy of history and are reminiscent of the Hegelian triad. The first thesis affirms the infinite invariability of the forms of government. The second, which is the direct negation of the third, pleads the infinite variability and corruptibility of these same forms of government. The third, a kind of negation of the negation of the previous two, asserts the cyclic nature of governments, the invariability of their corruptibility. Nevertheless, the most important of Machiavellis theses, for Althusser, is the fourth thesis, which represents Machiavelli taking a position [prise de position].32 However, this


Encountering Althusser

does not mean negation of the negation in the Hegelian sense of Aufhebung, but a negation that is not merely negation, but the complete break and transposition with the logic of the previous three theses.33 Yoshihiko Ichida claims that, according to Althusser, through distinguishing between thesis and position Machiavelli stirred the whole theoretical space on which his philosophy was founded.34 According to Althusser, Machiavelli was not interested in the cyclic nature of the government, but the duration of the state. He was not interested in the cycle of the infinite repetition of the revolution, but the desire to break from it, the desire to form a government, which would not be one of the dialectic moments in the cycle of its rise and fall, but would form a lasting state. The fourth thesis does not mean classical negation (non-A), but negation in the sense A plus the void (nothing). This void, or nothing, inserts an interval between the theses: it is a case of positive counterposition, which brings in a new space, new content, brought in through negation.35 In Machiavellis fourth thesis, there appears a certain kind of significant interval, a void, a leap into the theoretical void, an anticipation.36 Machiavelli breaks with the old framework of theoretical writings on history and politics, since he invents the new object of his theory, which to all appearances resembles the parallax object discussed above. The fourth thesis opens up the possibility of reading Machiavellis work as a manifesto. The void of the fourth thesis as the parallax object introduces Machiavellis political action, instills the topos of the subject in his texts, the point of Machiavellis enunciation. The unusual character of Machiavellis texts is the result of the curious phenomena in his texts, where in the end we always encounter a certain kind of deviation with regard to his previous theses, a certain kind of void. In the altogether classical theoretical structure of his texts, there is an opening to the uncertainty of the contingent, the ala, which could perhaps also be read as the introduction of the parallax object between the theory and politics, the minimal difference between the epistemology and the ontology of the object of his enquiry. Machiavellis contradictory assertions in his texts from The Prince to the Discourses, are also, according to Gopal Balakrishnan, a part of strategic theory, which is the reason for the difficulty in appraising the epistemological value of these texts; Machiavellis texts are full of contradictory assertions and aporiai, since their central point is persistently evasive.37 According to Balakrishnan, these aporiai do not paralyse the texts, but promote the readers knowledge of the historical situation: While this effectual truth establishes a threshold of historical plausibility, it never functions in his texts as an absolute limit on thought, bolting it to what merely exists. It is more like a sieve, subjecting the most radical proposals to a rigorous criterion of immanence.38 Machiavellis fourth thesis is, therefore, the parallax object, the gap between his theory and his politics and also his class position. In our view, this point is the point of their contradictory overlapping in the point of the void (nothingness) of the class struggle as the aleatory or contingent void of the future. With this gesture, Machiavelli creates the radically contingent opening of the Real of the historical antagonism (the class struggle). According to Althusser, without this point, the void, Machiavellis texts are inexplicable. The undecidability of Machiavellis position, the openness of the question of for whom his texts are written, or who is the subject of his texts, is the essential characteristic for the Marxist reading of Machiavelli. And what is more, it seems that Althussers reading of Machiavelli presents Machiavelli as the first thinker to have worked on resolving the parallax view between the science of history and the politics of class struggle through his texts, which was actually the political conjuncture of his time. According to Althusser, they are an example of the ambiguous oscillation of theoretical propositions in the traditional philosophical sense, as if some other instance might undermine them through the instance of political practice.39

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy


The figure of the void as Althussers enunciation of philosophy for Marx in Machiavellis texts signifies a certain throwing the dice anew (in keeping with Machiavellis theory), as if Althusser had transposed himself directly into the political conjuncture of Machiavellis concrete historical situation. In the middle of Machiavellis texts, through the void Althusser reopens the abyss of his political practice, adding a certain void (nothingness) to the theoretical-political conjuncture of Machiavellis writings. With this, he once more reopens Machiavellis consideration of his political conjuncture, to the verge of the possible theorisation of it, to the pure aleatoriness of history. Machiavellis concrete analysis of the verit effettuale della cosa thus means political practice through the theoretical view of the parallax between theory and politics. Only from the point of view of the paradox of thinking the unthinkable in the core of the theory is it possible, through the subjective occupation of this excluded and impossible point of the theoretical enterprise, that Machiavellis true political practice took place. This is also one of the possibilities of reading Althussers rendering of Machiavellis thesis and Machiavellis thinking of the conjuncture, in its concept of an aleatory, singular case, as an attempt to undermine the Hegelian logic of sublation as the search for the solution of Althussers previous problematic of materialist overdetermination. If we assume the presence of the void in Althussers text on Machiavelli as the gap between Theory and practice, we can say that this gap, this void, is the place of the practice of class struggle, which is operative immanently in Machiavellis theory of history as the open, aleatory moment of the history as such. The object of Althussers materialist philosophy par excellence is the nothing as the parallax object, the void, which is the minimal difference between thought and object, and that is the reason why there can be simultaneously partisanship and scientificity in Althussers philosophy. On those grounds, I understand aleatory materialism not as the science of revolution (see Moulier Boutang), but as a philosophy of an object, of the gap that neither classical science nor classical politics of class struggle as such can grasp. Finally, if we remain faithful to the tradition of Althussers symptomatic reading of philosophy for Marx, this parallax object of the void as the gap between the object of thought and real object in the texts on aleatory materialism represents the belated concept of Althussers philosophy for Marx, which was first proposed as the semi-concept of overdetermination.

1 I borrow the concept of parallax object from Slavoj ieks The Parallax View, where he rehabilitates Kantian antinomies through Hegelian dialectics via his reading of Kojin Karatani: The standard definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply subjective , due to the fact that the same object which exists out there is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently mediated , so that an epistemological shift in the subjects point of view always reflects an ontological shift in the object itself (iek 2006, p. 17). 2 Descombes 1979, p. 142. 3 Descombes 1979, p. 142. 4 See Balibar 1995.


Encountering Althusser

5 For this point see Riha 2005. 6 Badiou 1993, p. 31. 7 Badious concept of quilting designates the intrusion of one of the conditions of philosophy into its act of seizure and declaration. According to Badiou, quilting always appears as a kind of double loss. On the one hand, philosophy starts to name truths itself, and loses its distance from its conditions (it ceases to exist as an autonomous sphere, where the truth can be inscribed), and, on the other hand, the four conditions lose the possibility of their own thinking of the event of truth. According to Badiou, the only possible relation between philosophy and its constitutive other is through the topological structure of torsion (which has the form of a Mbius strip), where philosophy and its conditions are banded in a single surface, without ever directly intersecting each other. In this sense, philosophy remains connected with its conditions in their immanent inscription and as the conditions think for themselves. See Badiou 2009a. For more on the Badious theory of conditions see Zupani 2004, p. 191201. 8 Badiou 1993, p. 31. 9 Badiou 1993, p. 34. 10 Both Althusser and Badiou see the very condition of the materialist philosophy in the existence of a certain kind of void, which is the only possibility of the identity of thinking and being that lacks the existence of the guarantee. However, Badiou declares himself a Platonist in a very special sense, namely because he conditions the event of truth as philosophy, without the guarantee of knowledge. Any philosophical naming of the void as the event of truth is, for Badiou, inadmissible. The main problem of the immanent relationship of the philosophy towards its exteriority is its blindness for its effects and therefore the impossibility of its assurance of the class position. In contrast, Althusser is an anti-Platonist, who also fights against the idea of guarantee of knowledge, the prototype of which is Platos Idea of the Good, so that according to Balibar we could say that he is doing politics within the cave, which presents itself as a problem of thinking philosophy for Marx. For more on this, see Balibar 1993b, p. 114. 11 See Badiou 1993. 12 Matheron 2008, p. 523. 13 See Macherey 2011. 14 This point is taken from the Slovenian review of Machereys book Hegel ou Spinoza? by Mladen Dolar (see Dolar 1984). 15 In Pour Althusser: notes sur lvolution de la pense du dernier Althusser Antonio Negri claims that Althussers aleatory materialism is actually the beginning of the new ontology of resistance and power through the discovery of the vacuity of the centre of totality (see Negri 1993). 16 See Balibar 1993b. . 17 iek 2006, p. 17 18 iek 2006, p. 18. 19 iek 2006, p. 18. 20 Badiou 2005a, p. 65. 21 See Moulier Boutang 2006. 22 Moulier Boutang further argues: And more precisely, it is about explaining the emergence of a revolution. What is chance, uncertain in the sense of economists, inexplicable and uncontrollable in terms of calculus of risk, is an organisation of the event of the revolution ... In other words, Althusser is interested in the science of revolution, in revolutionary politics (and is completely disinterested in the problems of the philosophy of knowledge, in the debate over the determinism in physics). Is there a science of revolution? Does one have to be a dialectical materialist, a historical materialist to think and organise a revolutionary politics? What

The parallax object of Althussers materialist philosophy


Althusser responds with, to the point of delirium, in his text on aleatory materialism, is more or less the same thing that Pascal does when brushing aside the useless and uncertain from Descartes. He irrevocably removes the two materialisms the historical and the dialectical. Only an aleatory materialist could bear the systematic denial of the facts and approach the art of revolutionary politics. The revolution is an irreducible, unpredictable, overdetermined event. Unequivocal causality and continuity are of no use, here. Aleatory materialism is politics, but not just any kind of politics: it is the politics of revolution, of the foundation of something radically new. The futility of proofs for the necessity of revolutions existence (Moulier Boutang 2006). 23 Once again, either we trust to the infinite (that is, the indeterminate, epistemological void) for the production in the final resultant of the resultant we are hoping to deduce: the one that will coincide with economic determination in the last instance, etc., that is, we trust a void to produce a fullness (for example, within the limits of the purely formal model of the composition of forces, it does not escape Engels that the said forces present might cancel one another out, or oppose one another ... under such conditions, what is there to prove that the global resultant might not be nothing, for example, or at any rate, what is there to prove that it will be what we want, the economic, and not something else, politics, or religion? At this formal level there is no assurance of any kind as to the content of the resultant, of any resultant). Or we surreptitiously substitute the result we expect for the final resultant, and duly rediscover in it, along with other, microscopic determinations, the macroscopic determinations which were secreted in the conditioning of the individual at the outset; this expected result, these macroscopic determinations will be the economy. I am obliged to repeat what I have just said of what was beneath the immediate level: either we stay within the problem Engels poses for his object (individual wills), in which case we fall into the epistemological void of the infinity of parallelograms and their resultants; or else, quite simply, we accept the Marxist solution, but then we have found no basis for it, and it was not worth the trouble of looking for it (Althusser 1969a, p. 118). 24 iek 1992, p. 19. 25 Althusser 1969a, p. 101. 26 See Montag 2010. 27 See Montag 2010. 28 Alenka Zupani similarly explains the proximity between psychoanalysis and Marxism regarding the question of their scientificity, in that they are both situated within the conflict that they theorize; they are themselves part of the very reality that they recognize as conflictual and antagonistic. In such a case the criterion of scientific objectivity is not a supposed neutrality, but the capacity of theory to occupy a singular, specific point of view within the situation. In this sense, the objectivity is linked here to the very capacity of being partial or partisan. Further on, she refers to Althussers words in his work Sur Marx et Freud (see Althusser 1993c) and goes on to paraphrase Althusser: ...when dealing with a conflictual reality (which is the case for both Marxism and psychoanalysis) one cannot see everything from everywhere (on ne peut pas tout voir de partout); some oppositions dissimulate this conflict, and some reveal it. One can thus only discover the essence of this conflictual reality by occupying certain positions, and not others, in this very conflict (Zupani 2008, p. 28). 29 This means that the reality is immanently transversed with this basic either-or, which we can perceive in the case of anamorphosis: either consistent reality, which in many places contains stains, or this stain itself as a kind of being, where the other reality dissolves into stain ... One cant see both at the same time, although it is the same reality (Zupani 2008, p. 28). 30 See Suchting 2004, p. 24n. 48. 31 See Moulier Boutang 2005. The study on Machiavelli was developed from 1972 to 1986. 32 Althusser 19945 Volume 2, p. 88.


Encountering Althusser

33 Althusser 19945 Volume 2, p. 90. 34 See Ichida and Matheron 2005. 35 Althusser 19945 Volume 2, p. 901. 36 Althusser 19945 Volume 2, p. 91. 37 See Balakrishnan 2005. 38 See Balakrishnan 2005. 39 Althusser 19945 Volume 2, p. 63.

The very essence of the object, the soul of Marxism and other singular things: Spinoza in Althusser 195967
G. M. Goshgarian

Man alone is a triumphant error who makes his aberration the law of the world.
Louis Althusser, Man, That Night (1947).1

pinozas logic of the singular begins to shape Althussers philosophy before he discovers it there. It informs a concept of the encounter already active in his 1959 monograph Montesquieu: Politics and History, which opens what we shall call, for the sake of convenience, his early period. Recast as the Marxian topography in For Marx and bent to the service of a general account of the transition between modes of production in Reading Capital, the encounter moves, in 1966, to the centre of what he names the theory of the encounter ... or conjunction.2 Narrowly construed, this theory presents an alternative to geneticist approaches to history; construed broadly, it is nothing less than a sketch of the materialist dialectic, with its historiographical, topographical and epistemological subdivisions. It is organised around the Spinozist singular essence, although that term appears only in texts of Althussers not intended for publication oddly enough, since the related Spinozist idea of a cause immanent in its effects features prominently in Reading Capital.3 Althussers early period closes with an account of the process of knowledge based on the singular essence, the April 1967 publication On Theoretical Work. This was to be the introduction to a planned book, Thorie marxiste et parti communiste, which he wrote and rewrote in 1966 and early 1967 , then put aside to embark on a deconstruction of his previous thought that led him, by 1972, to the materialism of the encounter, as various still unpublished manuscripts show. Here the encounter, identified with class struggle, has a function akin to that of Derridean diffrance, which it retains in the critical Marxism, renamed aleatory materialism in 1982, on which Althusser continued to work until the end of his career. When does Althusser consciously begin conjugating Marx with Spinoza and both with the encounter? One could do an interesting piece of research in the history of philosophy on the


Encountering Althusser

subject, to borrow his 1967 remark about Feuerbachs impact on twentieth-century phenomenology.4 It would most likely show that, by mid-1962 at the very latest, his bid to forge the discourse of Marxs philosophy by writing at his dictation the text of another discourse so as to return to him the speech that is his own has become a conscious attempt to lend him a speech that is Spinozas.5 It would certainly show that, by 1966, he was explicitly elaborating a Marxism of the singular essence, a term he deems, after hesitating, too dangerous for public consumption.6 It might conceivably show that, until 1962, he had only a limited acquaintance with Spinoza. That would only heighten the interest of the chapter of the underground history of philosophys repressed Spinozism which he began writing in the mid-1950s.7 For whether or not his Spinozism initially stemmed from the anonymous encounter of a rediscovery or an influence exercised through intermediaries (such as Feuerbach and Montesquieu himself), Politics and History credits the Marquis de la Brde with a science of the singular bearing an uncanny family resemblance to the one spawned by Marxs only direct ancestor from the philosophical standpoint8 the ancestor whom Marx never acknowledged and Montesquieu disavowed. What Althusser baptises as the theory of the encounter in 1966 is basically an elaboration of arguments he claimed, in 1959, to have found, not in the Ethics, but in The Spirit of Laws.9 The horizon of the following pages is the relationship between Althussers early and late thought. Does the recurrence of elements of the former in the latter attest to a basic continuity? Or are we dealing with an illusion of continuity like the one Marx conjured up when he read surplus-value back into Ricardo, in an immediate substitutional reading that Althusser, like Engels, contests, insisting on the novelty of the non-novelty of a reality which appears in two different discourses?10 That question will not be answered here, because another one must be answered first: that of the internal coherence of Althussers early thinking and, especially, the part that the Spinozist encounter plays in it. We shall broach the problem by considering, first, the science of the singular in Spinoza; second, the status of the concept of Verbindung in a perhaps imaginary Montesquieuanism, a stand-in for a perhaps imaginary Marxism; third, the treatment of the encounter as historical supplement in the 19605 essays collected in For Marx and Reading Capital, both issued in autumn 1965; and, fourth, the theory of the encounter as further developed in On Theoretical Work and other 19667 writings. A postscript dilates on a 1966 note of Althussers which, because it mentions the encounter, Epicurus, and Cournot, has precipitated a furious flurry of immediate substitutional readings.11

Spinoza: rediscoveries
Our concern in this section is with a handful of Spinozist ideas directly related to what the early Althusser holds to be Marxs, or a certain Marxs, science of the singular:
1 Individual things in Marx (such as social formations) are, for Althusser, like individual

things in Spinoza: they are composite bodies composed of other composite bodies.12 According to what might be called, in Althussers terms, Spinozas theory of the encounter and take, when the result of joining bodies is so to unite them in one action that all are simultaneously the cause of one effect, they may be considered one individual, a singular thing.13 In both Spinoza and Althusser, singular things can

The very essence of the object


maintain a constant identity through their transformations. They are, in that sense, transcendent, as Jannots knife is transcendent of its handle and blade: their structure or form ... is retained, although there may be a continuous change of the bodies [comprising them].14
2 Spinoza distinguishes singular things said to exist insofar as they have duration

from abstract-formal (and other) ideas,15 affirming, in Book V of the Ethics in particular, that the most satisfying kind of knowledge of these things that exist in a concrete time and place is knowledge of their essences. Althusser affirms that meaningful scientific knowledge is knowledge of the essences of historically existent singular things, whose mode of existence he distinguishes from that of the abstract-formal ideas needed to produce knowledge of them.
3 To obtain the most potent kind of knowledge of singular things, which, according

to Spinoza, are modes that express Gods attributes in a certain and determinate manner,16 one must rise from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain of Gods attributes to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.17 When Marx says in the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse that one must rise from the abstract to the concrete-in-thought in order to obtain scientific knowledge, he means basically the same thing, according to Althusser.
4 Spinoza notes that Aristotles partisans affirm that God does not have knowledge

of singular things, but only of general, taking this as proof of their ignorance, since general things are naught.18 He proposes a new logic based on the idea that a thing can not only not be considered in the absence of its essence, but that that essence can also not be conceived or be in the absence of the thing of which it is the essence.19 While continuing to hold that a scientific concept is the concept of the limits of the variation of its object, real or virtual, the early Althusser claims that Marx mobilised a comparable anti-Aristotelian logic, said to produce knowledge not of the general, but by the general.20 This new logic, at the heart of Spinozas unprecedented theoretical revolution, is, according to Althusser, the basis for modern scientific thought.21 Before Marx open[ed] up a new continent to knowledge by applying this logic to the hitherto unexplored continent of history, Montesquieu truly discovered the new lands of history by doing the same thing more or less unawares, like Marx. That may be why Montesquieus theoretical revolution, as interpreted by Althusser, so strangely resembles Marxs immense theoretical revolution, as we shall now see.22

Pre-Marxian for-Marxism: Montesquieu sive Marx

A convenient starting-point for an examination of the connections between Politics and History and Althussers other work down to the mid-1960s is provided by the term Verbindung, an everyday German word meaning connection or combination in the sense in which Marx writes, say, that through the combination of atoms, each thing appears to become a unity.23 Marx sometimes also uses Verbindung to name the bond between elements in a mode of


Encountering Althusser

production, a fact highlighted in Reading Capital. There, it is usually rendered combination [combinaison], when it is not left in German. We shall be coming back to this word after a long detour. How is Verbindung translated in Politics and History? It is not translated there at all: the term never appears in Althussers first book (or, for that matter, in For Marx). But the concept looms large, notably in a passage defending Montesquieu against the charge of pluralism.24 When discussing the multiple factors that shape real-concrete historical societies, he may seem, we are told, to lapse into a haphazard, quasi-positivist enumeration of a plurality of causes discovered separately and then heaped together so that the totality is lost in a list. On inspection, however, the plurality turns out to be no such thing. A chain binds Montesquieus apparently different truths to each other.25 How is this chain designated? In Ben Brewsters English translation, it is a conjunction: all these causes, apparently so radically disparate, converge in a determinant instance from [whose] conjunction arises what Montesquieu calls the spirit of a nation.26 The French word is rencontre, now usually rendered as encounter. If the sentence just quoted were retranslated today (Brewsters translation appeared in 1972), it might read: What Montesquieu calls the spirit of a nation derives from an encounter of causes that seem radically disparate. Conjunction, however, is also a faithful equivalent. So are, depending on the context, conjunction-combination, combination-conjunction (Althussers 19667 translations of Verbindung), articulation, fusion, and even conjuncture or union (the union of theory and practice). In a word, rencontre is itself the site of an encounter in Althusser. It begins in Politics and History, where the term names the Althusserian Montesquieus topographical concept, the idea that a social totality is an overdetermined whole in dominance. The Althusserian Montesquieu maintains, at his most profound, that a society comprises autonomous levels. His reduced case social topography includes two: the nature of a societys government, a typological abstraction that might be broadly translated as its constitutional or legal forms, and the concrete of that abstract, its principle, or the disposition of its members to live by them. Together, nature and principle form a totality.27 Despite certain retrospective Hegelian readings (such as Hegels), justified by Montesquieus flirt with the expressive totality and pars totalis, principle is no mere expression of nature, and harmony at this level is simply the ideal-typical case. In practice, Montesquieu never (or hardly ever)... gives any but impure examples of the nature-principle totality. The examples show, better than his theory, that a societys nature and principle almost always form a contradictory unity that precipitates its destruction when the contradiction becomes acute enough.28 The new theoretical category of the totality allows Montesquieu to give an answer to the question of the motor of history. That answer depends on the idea that, of the instances forming the totality, one is determinant: the principle. The proof is that, when a society loses its principle, no modification of its laws can save it; when its principle is sound, it can survive without laws. Yet Montesquieu does not exclude the effectivity of nature on principle ... within certain limits. From this, it can already be seen that the principle is only determinant in the last instance. Hence this type of determination in the last instance by the principle, determination which nevertheless farms out a whole zone of subordinate effectivity to the nature of the government, can be compared with the type of determination that Marx attributes in the last instance to the economy.29 Such, as interpreted by Althusser, is the basic model of Montesquieus materialist dialectic.

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It would, however, be un-Montesquieuan to content ourselves with that, since Montesquieus singularity is due precisely to his complexification of his models. To see how, we have to consider the apparently disparate causes that he introduces in describing the particular cases represented by real-concrete societies: read symptomatically, these descriptions reveal the special kind of causality at work in The Spirit of Laws. A societys principle, ostensibly derived from its nature, is in fact constituted mainly by its manners and morals, that is, the spirit of a nation. This truth is not explicitly affirmed, but appears in [the principles] corruption.30 When it is lost, the spirit of a nation effectively take [its] place and, if sound, can overcome even the effect of bad laws. Thus we see that the spirit of a nation determin[es] laws in the last resort. The principle is, in essence, merely the political form of the spirit of a nation; the spirit of a nation is its ultimate basis.31 The principles ultimate basis is, as we began by noting, the encounter of causes that seemed radically disparate. These causes are material factors. Such material factors do not, however, determine laws directly, as is shown by the fact that they can be partially counteracted by laws. Their effectivity is exercised in a way that is not direct but indirect, by way of their spiritual or ideological expression. That is, they are determinant insofar as they are completely gathered together and concentrated in that expression (or substantial analogy), the spirit of a nation, which enters, via the principle, into the social totality, the contradictory unity of nature and principle.32 Let us leave aside what this implies about the materiality of ideology or the consubstantiality of thought and extension in order to concentrate on what matters most here: factors are determinant insofar as they merge in a combination conjoined with another combination, and they exercise their determination through the complex whole which results from that encounter of encounters. This strange circular causality, the late feudal version of structural causality, enabled Montesquieu to think singularity. That is the key to his theoretical revolution, which sprang from the principle that the necessity of history could only be thought in the unity of its forms and their conditions of existence, and in the dialectic of that unity.33 This unity of forms with their conditions is, in a more succinct but exactly equivalent formulation, the necessity of contingency (accident). Montesquieu could think singularity because he could think the necessity of contingency, the overdetermination of his nature-principle totality by the material factors that enter into what that totality essentially is. The definition of overdetermination in For Marx is not substantially different: the reflection in contradiction itself of its conditions of existence.34 Indeed, it may be said that the conception of the topography put forward in Politics and History remained basically the same from 1959 to 1967 . The significant shifts come with the attempt to think the historical encounter that produces a topography. In 1959, Althusser seemed to think that the problem had already been solved. The law of the unity of nature and principle is not just static, but dynamic: it enables Montesquieu to make intelligible both the concrete totalities in history and the changes and revolutions in them. We are not, however, quite told how. Instead, Althusser offers a list of the errors that would, if Montesquieu made them, prevent him from explaining the revolutions. Just as he does not analyse the essence of society and provide an ideal and abstract model of it, so he does not think history in a category attached in essence to pure atemporal models. Thus he is probably the first person before Marx ... to think history without attributing to it an end. Rejecting the idea that history has an end, he also rejects its geneticist correlative,


Encountering Althusser

the premise that the end of history . . . is inscribed in its origin; for him, the problem of origins is absurd.35 Again, he does not make history an inconceivable interaction between atemporal structures and a historical genesis,36 the way the (unnamed) structuralists do, tracing its impurities to historical accidents that are either regarded as contingent vis--vis the formal necessity of the structure37 or demoted, as in Hegel, to the level of an inessential content that has its truth in an essential necessity.38 Rather, his history is impurity itself.39 As such, it is although Althusser does not quite draw the comparison, but only provides the materials for it like Montesquieuan man, an errant being that does not follow a line from which it does not deviate, but, rather, establishes laws from which it deviates without end. This deviation, however, itself has its laws; and, since Montesquieu distinguishes between his object, the established laws, and the laws of his object (the spirit of laws), he can work out the laws of the violation of laws.40 Thus he disengages laws that can explain the concrete ... diversity of all the institutions observable in human history laws so strict, says Althusser, as to embrace not only bizarre institutions which last, but even the accident that produces victory or defeat in battle and is contained in a momentary encounter. He transforms what had been an infinite space filled with innumerable works of caprice and accident into an intelligible structure governed by laws immanent in the phenomena of history itself in the whole of human history and all its particulars.41 Politics and History closes with a chapter that illustrates, whatever its intentions, the problem that was to plague Althussers attempt, over the next decade, to think historical change with Spinoza: that of explaining the singularity and thus the persistence of a social totality without making it impossible to explain, on internal grounds, its demise. The singularity of his, and perhaps also his Montesquieus,42 social totalities was defined by the limits and structure of the class dictatorships that held those totalities together, and the aim of the chapter is precisely to demonstrate the defects of evolutionist-reformist accounts of their dissolution. Althusser takes French Absolutism as his example. Contesting, from the standpoint of the Montesquieuan Marx, the classical schema and the teleological Marx who made the mercantile bourgeoisie the gravedigger of a capitalist society gestating in a feudal womb, he argues that the whole cycle of its economic activity . . . [was] inscribed in the limits and structures of the feudal State. It follows that the Absolutist state was not a terrain of class struggle between a declining aristocracy and an ascendant proto-capitalist bourgeoisie, the product of an exceptional situation thanks to which the state could stand outside classes and over them. It was, rather, a new political form imposed by changing material factors for Althusser, the demands of the mercantile economy on the nobilitys continuing social domination. That is, it remained an integral part of a social combination whose structures and limits continued to be determined in the last instance by the lords exploitation of the peasantry. Against this account of a singularity that can persist in its being in and through such massive inner variation, Althussers explanation of its dissolution falls rather short. It amounts to a reminder that nothing less than the dynamics of the journes rvolutionnaires could abolish the Ancien Rgime.43 He returns to the problem in For Marx, this time with reference to the ten journes rvolutionnaires that abolished its Russian analogue.

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A philosophical formation turned political

The Encounter in For Marx
Althusser probably had a theory of the encounter in 1959. He certainly had one four years later. Witness a November 1963 letter in which he gleefully has his addressee declare that contingency, chance, or what Machiavelli calls fortuna is the pre-Marxian concept that comes closest to what Lenin calls the encounter of the objective and subjective conditions of any practice whatsoever ... Knowledge, too, is only ever produced by an exceptional encounter ... in other words, it is produced by a historical conjuncture in which several distinct practices . . this point; I can already sense intervene: I can sense, Louis, that you are going to develop . in your essay the imminence and, as it were, ineluctable necessity of this discovery.44 Of the passages in For Marx that announce this coming event, two stand out: the twin illustrations of overdetermination that close the summer 1962 Contradiction and Overdetermination and its spring 1963 sequel, On the Materialist Dialectic. The first is about the Russian Revolution and the necessity of contingency, a theme pursued in an appendix on Engelss letter on determination in the last instance. The second revisits the relation between chance and the Necessity of History, arguing, again with reference to 1917 , that a genuinely materialist dialectic has to explain the necessity of (the contingency of) political struggle, something it cannot do if it treats politics as an epiphenomenon of economic contradiction. One claim in particular, memorably formulated in the first passage, repeatedly restated in both, and evoked in the letter just quoted, sums up For Marxs basic thesis on the history of class societies. We are always, Althusser writes, in exceptional situations.45 An immediate substitutional reading might make this rhetorical flourish proof of the non-novelty of the novelty of aleatory materialisms founding paradox, the originary swerve. In fact, it is proof of the non-novelty of Marxs Montesquieuan idea that history is impurity itself, as For Marx indicates a page or two later, when it points out that historical purity itself would be the exception for Marx.46 The non-exceptionality of the exceptional situation thus means, put prosaically, that no situation ever reflects a theoretical concept in its purity, but only as specified by ... historically concrete forms (For Marx); in other words, that history must be thought in the unity of its forms and their conditions (Politics and History). Even the implication drawn from the idea that these exceptions are really only so-called exceptions47 is non-novel: namely, that the same principles that make the concrete totalities in history intelligible also explain the changes and revolutions in them. To continue to speak the language of Politics and History, this means that the principles which account for the statics of these concrete totalities also account for their dynamics. The only innovation that For Marx introduces on this score resides in the now explicit appropriation of that claim for Marx. Althusser proceeds with the help of a new term, conjuncture, defined as the very existence of the whole in a determinate situation. The fact that the whole comprehends a succession of such situations means that it is a singularity comprehending a succession of other singularities, all of which comprise its very existence. Thus it differs from itself while remaining one and the same singularity. This dynamic stasis is possible, For Marx explains, because the whole in dominance is a structural invariant whose invariance exists in the play of the contradictions making it up. Hence the contradictions that comprise the limits


Encountering Althusser

of the unvarying structure (its necessity) also comprise its inner variations (its contingency). Yet, thanks to play, these conjunctural variations of the structural invariant can combine and fuse to produce a global restructuring of the whole.48 The invariant structure can, in a word, vary to the point of becoming another. Since all its variations are exceptional, none is, not excluding the exceptional encounter whose particular laws give rise to the general laws of the succeeding structure. So conceived, the theory of the encounter is plainly not an aleatory science of abstract possibilities whose realization or non-realization would depend on. . . a throw of the dice.49 It does not reduce diachrony, as structuralism does, to the sequence of events . . . and to the effects of this sequence of events on the structure of the synchronic, making history the unexpected, the accidental, the factually unique, arising or falling in the empty continuum of time, for purely contingent reasons.50 On the contrary, it takes its place in a consubstantialist theory of Theory, inspired by Spinoza, which has it that in general Theory (the dialectic) . . . is theoretically expressed the essence of theoretical practice in general, through it the essence of practice in general, and through it the essence of the transformations, of the development of things in general.51 The science of the encounter is thus a subordinate branch of the science of the transformation of things: it knows that contingency is not accident, because it obeys the laws of the history that it renders impure. The encounter is, in its very contingency, knowable, albeit not necessarily knowable in advance. Reading Capital would show by example that it is not enough to make the exceptional situation truly exceptional in order to overturn this scheme.

Politics and History in Reading Capital

The account of historical change advanced in Reading Capital is based on a theory of the non-homogeneity of historical time that recasts the Montesquieuan-Marxist topography in temporal terms. That each level of the social totality is relatively autonomous, Althusser argues, entails that it develops according to a distinct temporality overdetermined by those of all the others. The time of the whole is thus a time of times that the historian must construct as a combination of distinct, non-contemporaneous histories. This is, in a sense, already a theory of the structure as encounter, inasmuch as it posits the possibility of the simple non-relation of elements, the history of whose relations has to be grasped from the standpoint resulting from the accomplishment of the encounter. What welds these elements together, in other words, is the unprecedented structure produced by their combination, the history of which must therefore be retrospectively constructed. Does the non-necessity of their combining persist in the structure it engenders? Reading Capitals answer is no. Two passages in the book set out to illustrate the kind of historiography that results. One, by Althusser, characterises the process that brought Marx from an ideological to a scientific conception of history as a transition to a new theoretical mode of production. Such a shift the epistemological break was, Althusser believed at the time, analogous to the transition to a new social mode of production.52 The other passage, by Balibar, describes the other term of the analogy, the transition from one mode of social production to another. A new structure (or problematic) arises, Althusser and Balibar argue in their respective registers, out of the unpredictable fusion of distinct elements with distinct histories in a form

The very essence of the object


radically discontinuous with the one that precedes it; the meaning of these elements changes with the new structure, which precisely confers on them their meaning. Althusser sums up his conception of the irruption of the reign of a new logic, which is not the development of the old one, but literally takes its place, in a discussion of Foucault. Foucaults analysis of the sudden emergence of the idea of madness out of the combination of a whole series of . . . practices and ideologies, or of the clinical gaze out of a set of apparently heterogeneous conditions is, Althusser suggests, an exemplary account of an ideology which constitutes the prehistory of a science . . . as the real prehistory whose real confrontation with other . . . . . ideological or scientific acquisitions was capable, in a specific theoretical practices and . conjuncture, of producing the arrival of a science, not as its goal, but as its surprise. This conception of knowledge as only ever produced by an exceptional encounter forces us to abandon every teleology of reason. It makes the historical relation between a result and . . a relation of production, and therefore . . . what we can call, its conditions of existence . . . the necessity of its in a phrase that clashes with the classical system of categories . contingency.53 Balibar, with his eye on the transition to communism, tells a similar story about the transition to capitalism. The precapitalist elements combined by the capitalist structure, he says with reference to Marxs discussions of primitive accumulation, have different and independent origins. To account for the unity of that structure, we need only attend to the meeting of elements identified on the basis of the result of their conjunction. The relative independence and historical variety, he adds, of the constitution processes of capital are gathered together by Marx into a single word: the constitution of the structure is a find (trouvaille); the capitalist mode of production is constituted by finding already there (vorfinden) the elements which its structure combines.54 The meeting of the elements here brings us back to Politics and History, because we have found it already there. The word translated as meeting in Brewsters 1970 version of the abridged edition of Reading Capital rencontre is the one that becomes conjunction in his 1972 version of the Montesquieu. If both translations are modified to bring out the connection, we have, in Reading Capital, an encounter of elements with different and independent origins combining and, in Politics and History, an encounter of radically disparate causes converging. This find, Balibar says, obviously does not imply chance. The same obviously holds for his find of the find and the concept of the encounter, whether he found them already there in Politics and History or (like Foucault, another student of Althussers) derived them from the concept of overdetermination and/or heterogeneous time, likewise traceable to Althussers Montesquieu.55 The borrowing or back-formation, however, matters less than the break it announces, apparent in the novelty of the non-novelty of a conceptual pair also found already there in Politics and History. Shortly after (re)introducing the encounter and find, Balibar points out that the principles governing Marxs totality define both its statics and dynamics. But this, now, is how they differ from the static and dynamic principles that, in the Montesquieuan Marx, render the changes and the revolutions in the concrete totalities of history intelligible. In Balibars view, Marxs static and dynamic principles do not render the revolutions intelligible. They explain only the static dynamics of discrete modes of production (or social formations belonging to a mode of production),56 not the dynamic dynamics that replace one with another. To account for the revolutionary transitions, according to Balibar, Marx has to mobilise a theory of the encounter.


Encountering Althusser

This break with the Marxism of For Marx, if it is one, is not conspicuous in Althussers own discussion of transitions in Reading Capital, probably because the key Althusserian thesis that the Marxian break rang in the reign of a new logic did not have to contend with a developed conception of the new logics gradual emergence out of an already existing theoretical mode. Balibar, however, is explicit. The static and dynamic principles governing the basically invariant structure account for its movement insofar as such movement is the effects of that structure [of production] . . . its existence in time. But that is not its history. There is no explaining its history with reference to the internal connections of the productive structure alone, since that structure cannot be analysed in antagonistic terms; a (re)productive machine whose contradictions are secondary and derived, it is driven even, indeed, especially, by its own crises. The secondary status of contradiction is confirmed precisely where one might expect it to be contested: even the contradictory tendencies of a mode of production are said to constitute the sort of dynamics that are constrained by a limit they are powerless to exceed. Hence analysis of the structures diachrony in effect, its unpredictable beginning and end must consider a different, truly dynamic temporality, dominated by politics and class struggle.57 More exactly, it must supplement static dynamics with diachronics. Balibar thus blesses what Politics and History bans, the Lvi-Straussian marriage of atemporal structures and historical genesis. That once unthinkable msalliance is here made possible by the prior divorce of the (re)productive structure from politics and history, and thus from class struggle. It is intended to pave the way for the more perfect union of politics and the transitional structure, already effected in Contradiction and Overdetermination, which supposedly shows how the economic structure and the class struggle can join together in the unity of a conjuncture.58 Balibar would later reject this scheme on the grounds that it applied to a comparison between modes of production a concept that For Marx had brought to bear on the historical conjuncture alone.59 In fact, as will become clear, this symptomatic misreading of Althusser actually returned to him the speech that was or, at any rate, had soon become his own.

Reading Capital on writing For Marx

The concept of the conjuncture contained in Lenins practice of the conjuncture is, Althusser declares in April 1967 , a theoretical concept of capital importance.60 Its capital importance for Althusser is described in a reading of For Marx at the heart of a celebrated passage in Reading Capital on symptomatic reading. Lenins map of the structure of the conjuncture in which the Soviet Revolution exploded, according to this Althusserian guide to Althusserian method, contained the right answer, albeit couched in far from purely theoretical terms, to an unposed question. Once he had supplied the question and refined the answer, Althusser was able to apply the result to Marxs reading of himself: that is, to Marxs wrong answer to the question of his relation to Hegel.61 Politics and History, as we have seen, rehearses the right answer by drawing a line of demarcation between the Hegelian and anti-Hegelian Montesquieu. For Marx carries out the same operation for Marx, proclaiming that his dialectic is not a version or even an inversion of that invented by the Hegelian Montesquieus main heir. Elaboration of the resulting remedial reading of Montesquieus and Marxs relation to Hegel yields nothing less than the materialist dialectic itself: the one practised by Lenin and written out by Althusser at his dictation. It should

The very essence of the object


be recalled, lest we miss just how strong a claim this short discourse on method makes for revolutionary practice, that the right conception of Marxs relation to Hegel figures no more explicitly in Lenins theory than in Marxs. The opposite is the case, as For Marx discreetly points out: when Lenin poses the right question in theoretical terms, he comes up with the wrong answer. It is impossible completely to understand Marxs Capital, he says, enigmatically , without having understood the whole of Hegels Logic.62 For Marx and Reading Capital contain a crucial unposed question of their own: that of the union of Marxist theory and practice. Does the tribute they pay to Lenins practical discovery of the concept of the conjuncture comprise a plea, in the practical state, for the primacy of practice over theory, as tienne Balibar has suggested?63 Althusser, following the defeat of his and his allies March 1966 bid to initiate a left-wing de-Stalinisation of the PCF ,64 came to the opposite conclusion. In an extensive October 1967 self-criticism partly motivated by that defeat, he argued that he had made what he had already identified, a year earlier, as the theoreticist error of substituting the theoretical question for the political one. He had, in other words, demoted politics to the rank of an extension of theory.65 At the level of theory, the root source of that error lay in the definition of philosophy as the scientific Theory of theoretical practice. Theory had not only been entrusted with the task of discriminating between what did and did not count as science a distinction with obvious political implications in the social sciences, to begin with but had also, as a science distinct from its object, been deemed capable of doing so from a position above the political fray. The science that took politics as its object was, by the same logic, also apolitical, as a January 1964 letter of Althussers spells out: the science of the political is a practice different [than politics]; it is a theoretical practice by nature independent of its application in politics, i.e., of political practice.66 It follows that the primacy of (political) practice over theory, as Althusser conceived it in this period, goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the practice of politics cannot produce theoretical concepts, but only the indispensable raw material for them. The most Machiavellian passages of For Marx, those in which Althusser sings the politicians praises, say nothing else. Observing the first Russian Revolution in his Letters from Afar, Lenin, we are told, affirms that it succeeded so quickly because, in this extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar material factors merged . . . in a strikingly harmonious manner. (As the author of Politics and History is only too happy to point out, Lenin himself stressed certain words in this passage.) Yet it was not the extremely unique situation that produced Lenins sure grasp of it. An extremely general Theory did: the Theory of the development of things in general allowed this incomparable theoretical and philosophical formation turned political (Lenin, as described in Reading Capital) to understand the way the situation developed in 1917 . As for the theoretical thesis or, more exactly, since the politician does not produce theoretical theses, the thesis of relevance to Theory that Lenin defended in this situation, it consisted in an acknowledgement that political practice should be based on Theory, not the other way around, even indeed, especially in the extremely unique situation. Hence it is precisely in the heat of battle, in What Is to be Done?, that we find Lenin reminding Marxist political practice of the necessity for the theory which is its basis [qui la fonde] with the slogan without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary praxis. Having thus made it clear that to distinguish between the two practices ... is the heart of the question, Lenin could go on to concern himself with something else: applying what a tested science had taught and would continue to teach him, even about his own unprecedented practice of the unique.67


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On theoretical work: the theory of the encounter and la verit effettuale della cosa
The 19667 theory of the encounter rewrote the theoreticist Theory of the union of theory and practice a union of Theory with its practice that hardly merited the name. The alternative set out from a concept of the concept as combination. It is sketched out in Reading Capital and brought onto centre stage in On Theoretical Work. It provides further evidence of the capital importance of the Leninist idea of the conjuncture in Althusser, and grounds his reassessment of the status of the theory produced by practice beginning with the theory of the conjuncture itself. Before considering it, let us say a word about the new conception of philosophy that it involves. In spring 1966, Althusser began to retreat from the position that Marxist philosophy is a science, which he last defended in an April 1966 extract from an early version of Thorie marxiste et parti communiste.68 In a June lecture, he affirmed that there was a difference in theoretical status between philosophy and science that he had previously evaded, but declined to go into the long string of related developments which this distinction promised to bring in its wake.69 He sums up the most important of them in an August letter: To the extent that its object is to think the history of the production of knowledge and, therefore, the articulation of theoretical practice with the other practices, and of the other practices with each other an articulation that always constitutes a conjuncture philosophy is a theory of the dependence of theoretical practice on the other practices and, simultaneously, a theory of theoretical practice and the other practices: thus it has the specific function of situating its own reflection in this conjuncture of dependence. Hence it must meet other demands than a science (which has to do with an object that has alwaysalready been defined and situated, not with the conjuncture that situates it). This explains . . in its practical relation to the the practical function of philosophy, a function reflected . concrete conjuncture that it is its object to think. This practical function of philosophy has nothing to do with political pragmatism ... but is a political function nonetheless, justifying . . what Lenin called a partisan position in philosophy and thus, in a very elevated sense . what we can call the primacy of politics in philosophy (not over it). This point merits elucidation. Im working on it.70 Althussers new approach can be illustrated with reference to Lenins conception of the conjuncture itself. It would have been the task of a scientific philosophy to determine, via the science of politics under its tutelage, whether that conception counted as theory. The task of a philosophy aware of the primacy of politics is, rather, on the basis of its assessment of the theoretical conjuncture, to intervene with historical materialism in favour of Lenins idea. No sooner said than done: Lenins concept of the conjuncture, Althusser declared in 1967 , was a theoretical treasure that was there, within reach, and yet remained sterile, because no one discovered it.71 No one, that is, before Althusser, who had long since discovered it and put it at the centre of his enterprise, in a conjuncture in which the concept of the conjuncture and the related science of the singular were vital to the preservation of the Marxist dialectic. Now, with the anti-theoreticist turn we have just described, Marxist philosophy further discovered the real

The very essence of the object


basis for its discovery, and the error of the earlier, theoreticist explanation of it. Diagnosing the inevitable theoretical blindness of the politician groping his way through a history perceived in the opaque, non-scientific modality of a current existence, For Marx had blindly diagnosed its own blindness to the fact that political practice could produce, in that mode, what Althusser no longer hesitates to call important theoretical, even philosophical discoveries.72 In brief, one of the philosophical lessons of the Leninist practice of the political conjuncture was that the political conjuncture thinks. It thinks in an encounter of theory and practice which produces what Althusser conceives of, in this period, as a Verbindung, a term to which we now return, although we have never really left it. It makes its formal debut in Reading Capital. It owes its prominence there to the fact that, as we have briefly noted, Marx uses it to designate two different connections: the one between the elements of the main thing he discusses, the social formation, and the one between the elements of the main idea he invents to discuss it, the mode of production. Althusser and Balibar, with Spinoza in mind, seize on this verbal coincidence, unmarked in Marx himself, in order to suggest that the connection between these empirical connections and the connection between these conceptual connections is one and the same connection. Thus each of the levels of a social formation is said to be a Verbindung of different elements, while the social formation as a whole is a specific combination of its peculiar elements. As we saw a moment ago, the history that produces this static combination is likewise a combination: witness the conjunction that gave rise to Marxs science of capitalist society, a combination of its three sources, other ideological elements, and revolutionary practice; or, again, the diverse historical forms, different in different times and places, which, according to Balibar, combined to produce one and the same result, capitalism. The theory of these combinations, Reading Capital claims, is itself a combination: the Marxist dialectic or topography is a structure which combines, a systematic combination of categories, an articulated and hierarchized combination of concepts.73 The 19667 theory of the encounter focuses on these connections and the connection between them. Proceeding as it did from a continuing interest in Spinoza that had been neither vague nor indeterminate when the Althusserian paradigms central features were elaborated,74 but, on the contrary, had presided over their elaboration, the now explicit identification of the (result of the) Verbindung or encounter with the Spinozist singular essence was by no means a conceptual innovation, not even in the sense that it conferred theoretical existence on ideas hitherto available only in the practical state. The innovations of 19667 sprang, rather, from an attempt to resolve the problem spawned by the already consummated posthumous encounter75 between Spinoza and Marx: to use Althussers own term, a theoreticism that left him unable to explain the transformation of theory by non-theoretical practice or the revolutionary transformation of a social structure that has taken hold and so achieved the dynamic stasis of a singular essence. There follows a summary of the main tenets of the theory of the encounter, based on still unpublished or posthumously published 19667 writings by Althusser as well as On Theoretical Work. However schematic, the summary unmistakably shows that Althusser was attempting to translate the Marxist dialectic into Spinozist terms in this period; the footnotes peg his translations to some of the more obvious source texts in Spinoza, which we evoked in setting out. Since even good readers of Althusser have woefully underestimated his deep engagement with Spinoza in the first half of the 1960s, we highlight, en route, two of the more


Encountering Althusser

striking traces of that engagement in his early work, tokens of the many others that spring to the eye when For Marx and Reading Capital are examined through the lens of the theory of the encounter.
1 The universal exists only in the particular ... and specificity universally appertains to its

essence. Knowledge is a scientifically specified universality.76 This fundamental Spinozist thesis is the fundamental premise of the theory of the encounter. As we have seen, it is attributed in a dozen different ways to Montesquieu in Politics and History. In Reading Capital, Althusser attributes it to Marx and, in its practical formulation, to Lenin. The formulation cited above is drawn from the spring 1963 On the Materialist Dialectic; it is a quotation from Mao. Althusser restates the idea in a note circulated to his collaborators in October 1966 and again in On Theoretical Work, in a form taken directly, the reference to Aristotle included, from Spinoza, who, however, continues to go unnamed: [It is] absolutely necessary to reject the Aristotelian conception of generality, with its categories of inclusion and subsumption. The process by which Marxist knowledge grasps its singular object, Althusser goes on, involves neither deduction from theoretical concepts, nor their reduction to the level of facts [as one reduces data], nor the subsumption of facts under them. It is grounded in a new kind of logic that can be termed a case logic, in view of Althussers examples of the kind of thing that manifestly cannot be accounted for without recourse to it: the individual sessions of a psychoanalytic cure or concrete historical conjunctures.77 Whence the Spinozist epistemology of the theory of the encounter.
2 All materialist theory exists to provide meaningful knowledge, which is knowledge of

things that exist in the strong sense: those endowed, or once endowed, with real, concrete historical existence.78
3 The Marxist science of society exists to provide knowledge of two such real-concrete

things: determinate social formations ... either their individuality (the structure of a social formation) or the modes of this individuality (the successive conjunctures in which this social formation exists).79
4 The individuals comprising the objects of Marxist knowledge are complex

combinations or conjunction-combinations.80
5 The concepts (singular essences) of real-concrete things are, like their objects,

complex combinations or combination-conjunctions. To produce knowledge of them, abstract-formal concepts must be combined with determinations of the singularity of concrete objects which can only be established by practical observation and experiment. Such combinations of concepts and facts yields what Althusser calls, in unpublished jottings, the conceptual singular essences that provide knowledge of real singular essences.81 This is a formalisation, in Spinozist terms, of the conceptual Verbindung or synthesis of many determinations which, according to Reading Capital, Marx forges to account for the essences of singular things (and theorises in the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse, Althussers Spinozist-Marxist source-text). It should be noted that, in Politics and History, essence is connoted negatively, as one might expect: Montesquieu is praised for setting out not from

The very essence of the object


essences but from facts. Thereafter, essence is used positively, the justification being that Marx has a classical predilection for the metaphor of surface phenomenon and inner essence. Thus, For Marx, defending the principle that the soul of Marxism is the concrete analysis of a concrete situation, points out that the concept of the concrete at work here is a theoretical concept with its basis in the very essence of the object, while Reading Capital affirms that what distinguishes a science for Marx is the form of the systematicity of [its] essences (theoretical concepts).82 In a word, For Marx and Reading Capital speak a thinly veiled language of singular essences, codified here. The last major epistemological principle of the theory of the encounter distinguishes Althussers Spinozism from nominalism:
6 Theoretical concepts in the strong sense are necessary but not sufficient to provide

meaningful knowledge, which is knowledge of real-concrete objects. They are necessary because they produce knowledge of forms (the capitalist mode of production is one such essential, formal idea). They are insufficient because they have abstract-formal objects that do not exist in the strong sense, but have a very specific form of existence ... distinct from the form of existence of real-concrete objects.83 Three further propositions of the theory of the encounter bear on the emergence and demise of individual [social] structures:
7 A structure results from an encounter of several distinct, definite, indispensable

elements, engendered ... by different genealogies that are independent of each other and independent (in their co-existence, in the co-existence of their respective results) of the existing structure.84
8 A structure is radically new in relation to all that ... preceded its own irruption and

obeys ... laws entirely different from those of the structure preceding it. It begins to function all of a sudden, when its elements enter into a conjunction that will take hold to form it.85
9 The specific nature of a new structures elements depends on that new structure,

whose effects they become once it takes hold. Then their contents change, and their interrelationship does, too. In other words, the significance they take on as a result of the position conferred upon them in the new structure must be thought with reference to this new structure, not the structure to which they belonged.86

The theory of the encounter: history and politics

How did this further elaboration of the 195967 theory of the encounter serve its immediate ends: providing an alternative to theoreticism and accounting for the possibility of radical historical change?

The Althusserian theory of history developed by its bad side. The three last-named elements of the theory of the encounter, recurrent in Althussers work from Politics and History through


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Reading Capital to The Underground Current, were, in 19667 , part of a structure shaped by the conception of revolutionary social change that Balibar had drawn from his putative misreading of the notion of the historical conjuncture in For Marx. This conception offered a solution to the problem that Politics and History had no doubt unwittingly posed to the Spinozist Marx by demonstrating that the French feudal order had persisted in its being from the Dark Ages to the Sun King and beyond: if a mode of production or social formation87 was a singular essence that retained its form despite or even thanks to the continuous change of the bodies comprising it, how was radical transformation of it possible? Althussers letters and manuscripts make it clear that he posed the problem in these terms in 19667 . The capitalist mode of production irrupts from [an] encounter, he writes in an August 1966 letter to his psychoanalyst; once the new structure has irrupted ... it functions atemporally ... reproduc[ing] itself endlessly. The thesis that a mode of production is eternal is a bit much, he concedes, coming from a man [Marx] who spent his time explaining that the capitalist mode . . mortal! Yet this atemporal synchronic of production was historically limited and thus . reproduction was the absolute condition of its production. How then could Marxists think its dissolution? Balibars un-Althusserian answer was enthusiastically espoused by Althusser. Montesquieu-Marxs static and dynamic principles would have to be supplemented by others to account for revolutionary change. The supplement was, precisely, the theory of the encounter, the theory of genuinely historical time, produced by the conjunctural unity of the economic with a special time of the class struggle.88 It follows that the Marxist science of social formations comprehends two distinct theories: topography, to explain their functioning, and historiography, to account for their irruption. These two theories stand in a hierarchical relation: Marxs fundamental discovery, the Topography defines the structure of the object whose history is to be thought and, as such, is logically prior [pralable] to Historiography. Historiography studies the laws of [the structures] existence, transformation, and non-transformation, revealing new effects or new laws that Topography could not. It does so by taking up the play within the Topography; this by itself makes it dialectical. Althusser presents this relationship between structure, play and history as proof that structure does not abolish history, but forms the condition for thinking it, an idea introduced in For Marx. Down to the composition of Sur la Reproduction (begun early in 1969) or a bit before, this was the structure that lent the theory of the encounter, one of its elements, its place, meaning, and role.89

The most innovative aspect of the 19667 theory of the encounter lies in an attempt to show how the Marxian synthesis produces a scientifically specified universality, while making room for the idea that communist political practice can produce elements of this theoretical Verbindung. The theses that Althusser tentatively advanced here before abandoning the enterprise remain sketchy, but their general outlines can be discerned. Unsurprisingly, they turn on the idea that this synthesis is a combination of combinations. What is the place of facts in a theory such as Althussers, which proclaims that veritas norma sui, et falsi est?90 The parameters of his 19667 answer had been established by For Marx and Reading Capital. First, a fact is, according to Reading Capital, a relation of

The very essence of the object


combination . . . consubstantial with the entire mode of production, a rather forbidding formulation that seems to mean that a fact is one aspect of the overall effect of the complex structure to which it belongs. It follows that, second, in the experimental sciences, at least, facts are theory-laden, to use a terminology that is not Althussers: phenomena are transformed into facts, as he says in For Marx, by the theory of the structure to which they belong not only by a system of theoretical concepts, but also by the realisation of those concepts in a technical apparatus.91 The second idea is manifestly influenced by the epistemology encapsulated in Gaston Bachelards dictum that a phenomenotechnique is a reified theorem.92 Its direct relevance to Marxist theory is already indicated in For Marx by the thesis that all political practice in the history of Socialist and Communist movements constitutes an inexhaustible reservoir of concrete experimental protocols for historical materialism, an idea reinforced by Reading Capitals affirmation that Marxs politics intervened in his theoretical practice in the form of objects of experience or even experiment.93 Building on the analogy between experimental science and historical materialism in a theoretical-political conjuncture that had taught him that political practice could produce important theoretical, even philosophical discoveries, Althusser now argues that, in the political domain, phenomena are transformed into facts by the theoretically informed actions, in a particular conjuncture, of communist parties. The data resulting from such conjunctural interventions are combined with theoretical concepts, brought to bear either directly or by means of the approximate equivalent of a scientific technical apparatus, such as organisational forms, leadership techniques, and slogans. When the political practice in question is correct, it can produce concepts that realise theoretical concepts in the concrete knowledge of concrete objects. Althusser calls them, provisionally, empirical concepts.94 Forged by the conjunctural encounter of theory and practice, they bear on the determinations of the singularity of concrete objects.95 By combining these empirical concepts, in turn, with the right combination of abstract-formal concepts, theory produces a combination-conjunction of the kind that Althusser calls, after Marx, a synthesis of many determinations, and also, after Spinoza, a singular essence. How does the form of the systematicity of the essences of a science accommodate the Spinozist logic of the specificity of the universal? Althussers answer, partially developed in mainly unpublished drafts, sets out from a note in For Marx which observes that a general theory rarely comprises a unified theoretical system in reflected form, but is, rather, made up of regional theories that coexist in a complex and contradictory whole.96 Each such regional theory has an abstract-formal object, which means, in 19667 as in For Marx, that it delimits a field of objective possibilities, some virtual and others real. Since these fields overlap, regional theories effectively compete for control of the same terrain, primarily, it would seem, by classifying their objects in accordance with incompatible regional grammars. The resulting conflicts cannot be settled at the regional level, for no regional theory can legitimately adjudicate relations between regional theories. That function would fall to the higher-level general theories to which regional theories belong. General theories, however, bear the same relation to regional theories as regional theories do to singular essences or groups of them. Hence the same problem arises at the general as at the regional level. On the conception Althusser defended until 1966, it would have fallen to the scientific Theory of general theories, philosophy, to resolve it. For the theory of the encounter, however, the Theory of theories has become the Theory of their encounter at a


Encountering Althusser

particular moment, which means that there can be no Theory of general theories: to say that philosophy is the Theory of the conjuncture of existing Theories is to say that it is not the Theory of existing Theories . . . but only the Theory of their articulation in their current conjuncture . . . of which philosophical Theory is itself an element. The problem of the correct articulation of regional theories can therefore only be settled by a struggle at the level of theory, lending a quasi-military cast to the metaphor of the theory of the encounter. The result, to judge from Althussers examples, can be a new map of the frontiers between regional theories, with a reorganisation of the relations between existing regional theories and a redefinition of their respective objects, or even the emergence of an as yet non-constituted regional theory, an empty place for which is provided by one or another general theory. The outcome of such an encounter is not necessarily the subordination of each regional theory to one particular general theory. A regional theory can fall under the purview of more than one, Althusser pointed out in autumn 1966, adding that this may even be quite common.97 Correspondingly, it must be the case that a singular essence can result from the combination of an empirical concept elaborated on the basis of, and combined with, abstract concepts drawn from different regional theories. A formalisation of the Spinozist logic of the singular as Althusser elaborates it from Politics and History on would presumably proceed along these lines.

The path that led Althusser beyond the theory of the encounter did not pass by way of a nominalism that reduced the real to a random succession of cases or conjunctures; complex combinations to wholes made up of simple, indivisible elements; contradiction to its conditions of existence; or it comes to the same thing structure to a synonym for the effects in which it is immanent. Rather, the first station on the road to aleatory materialism was the idea of the continuing break, the forerunner of the concept of an ongoing encounter that has primacy over its (complex) elements and forms in the same way as the encounter of class struggle has primacy over classes or contradiction has primacy over its terms. Even in the 1980s, which saw Althusser somewhat truculently vaunting the merits of nominalism (not merely the antechamber of materialism, but materialism itself)98 and cultivating a vaguely atomist terminology, it may be doubted whether he himself was an atomist or nominalist. The pivotal element in his thought of the period was, rather, to hazard a term that is not his, an archi-encounter conceived as a (de)structuring force that can only ever engender a whole quite literally constituted by the always only provisional suspension of its dissolution and, in that specific sense, by the retroactively defined void from which, for as long as it manages to subsist, it never ceases to emerge. That said, there is no denying the troubling proximity of nominalism to the science of the . . to resist the singular: Althussers admonition, in On Theoretical Work, that it is not easy . temptations of empiricism (for which only concrete-real objects exist) and formal-abstract objects do not exist, has all the allures of a confession. The claim that the conjuncture represents the last degree of the real, prudently dropped from the published version of the same text, is but a step away from the notion that only conjunctures are real; and one can certainly imagine a vaguely Althusserian theory of the encounter founded on the shifting sands of the idea that the successive conjunctures in which [the] social formation exists are the only

The very essence of the object


modes in which it exists, the more so as Althusser does indeed affirm in the same posttheoreticist period that the Theory of theory, insofar as it exists at all, exists only in conjunctural form.99 Nothing prevents us from supposing that every always exceptional situation, no longer bound by the identity of a formation, could constitute an absolute exception to the rule of its predecessor. The kaleidoscopic whole would then follow a line from which it unceasingly deviates. It might even be supposed that the only theory capable of plotting such a line would be one that each conjuncture would have to produce afresh. Where do we find this line that deviates from itself from one end to the other, if not in the mystery novel, which weaves its mystery even as it unravels it? Edgar Allen Poes The Murders in the Rue Morgue, for instance, arranges to replace its apparently simple line by a direct inversion of it. It thereby points the paradox informing any story and, arguably, any history as well: for a fictional narrative worthy of the name is inevitably elaborated by the contingent and the necessary in such a way as to render the real always arbitrary. In that respect, it resembles one of those trick pictures in which we first see a landscape, and then a hat; once we see the hat, everything else disappears in a new configuration of elements, until the hat unexpectedly becomes the landscape again. The adventure story, for its part, offers a prolonged variation on the same theme. Here, every moment is a thunderclap, a discontinuity, an advent. The adventure story, with its innumerable works of caprice and accident, embodies the happy nominalists dream: a continuous encounter with novelty and surprise. For the theory of this continuously discontinuous encounter, we need only turn back to The Rue Morgue, which discovers or rediscovers it in a new myth of the clinamen. The original of this mini-theory of narrative as the necessity of contingency unbound is to be found in the section of A Theory of Literary Production that Pierre Macherey wrote in the first half of 1966. After taking sharp issue with structuralist literary critics penchant for reducing the literary work to an ideal and abstract model, Macherey outlines the theory put to work in his more practical chapters, analyses of the process of singularisation by which the [literary] text is constructed.100 Althusser closely followed the composition of these chapters in 19645. He took notes on the more theoretical section of the text shortly after the whole was published as a book in June 1966, concentrating on the passages just evoked. The notes, accompanied by a page of more general remarks on the theory of the encounter, read, in part: 1. Theory of the encounter or conjunction (= genesis . . .) (cf. Epicurus, clinamen, Cournot) (theory of the deviation cf. Epicurus) . . . 2. Theory of the conjuncture (= structure) . . . Philosophy as general theory of the conjuncture And, surrounded by curly brackets and underlined four times: Theory of the clinamen[.] First theory of the encounter! These jottings constitute, to date, the only available documentary evidence for the idea that an atomist, nominalist, literally aleatory-materialist current driven deep underground in Althussers early work at last fought its way to the surface in his later writings101 unless, contrary to what we have argued in the preceding pages, his Spinozist-Marxist theory of the singular was only cover for it, hiding it the way the hat hides the landscape.


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1 2 3 Althusser 1997b, p. 170. Diverses notes [1966], Alt2.A1102.05 (Imec archives, Althusser Fond 2, File A11, Dossier 2, Folder 5); Althusser 2012a, On Genesis, p. 1. The term chose singulire makes a single appearance in Balibars contribution to the first French edition of Lire le Capital (Althusser, Balibar et al. 1996, p. 654). It disappears from the second edition. Althusser 2003, p. 90. Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 146, p. 144 (emphasis in the original, as always hereafter except where otherwise noted). Letter of 23 October 1966 to Yves Duroux, Alt2.A801.07; letter of 13 September 1966 to Franca Madonia in Althusser 1998b, p. 712; Althusser 2003, p. 30. Late in June 1966, Althusser chaired a major planning meeting for a seminar on Spinoza that he was to have led the following academic year at the cole normale suprieure. It was cancelled because he was hospitalised from November 1966 to February 1967 . Althusser 1998a, p. 31; see Althusser 1997b, p. 102. Althusser 2003, p. 90; Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 102 (translation modified). In the 1972 Machiavelli and Us, Montesquieu becomes a thinker of things in general, a foil for the master-thinker of the truth of the thing [cosa] in the singular, Machiavelli the equal of Spinoza, says a 1986 addendum to the text (Althusser 1999, pp. 16, 103). Montesquieu is partially rehabilitated in 1982 (Althusser 2006a, p. 187). See also footnote 42.

4 5 6

7 8 9

10 Althusser and Balibar 1970 pp. 149, 168. 11 See, for example, Goshgarian 2006, lxlxi. 12 EII P13, L3, Ax2. . 13 EII P13, Def; EII Def7 14 EII P13, Ax 3, L4. 15 EII P8 Cor. 16 EI P25 Cor. 17 EII P40 Schol2. . 18 Spinoza, Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being, Part I, Chapter 6, Paragraph 7 19 EII Def2. 20 Diverses notes [1966], Alt2.A1102.02 (Althusser Fond 2, File A11, Dossier 2 Folder 2); see Althusser 2003, p. 65. 21 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 102; Althusser 2003, p. 30. 22 Althusser 2003, p. 173; Althusser 1972, p. 107 (see Althusser 1969a, p. 77n.), p. 34; Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 182. 23 Marx and Engels 19752005 Volume 1, p. 39. 24 Communist critics such as Roger Garaudy and Gilbert Mury later attacked Althusser himself for pluralism: see Althusser 1969a, p. 163, n. 2 (see pp. 177 , 201). 25 Althusser 1972, pp. 545. 26 Althusser 1972, p. 56. 27 Althusser 1972, pp. 48, 523; Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 220. 28 Althusser 1972, pp. 456, 49, 523; see Althusser 1969a, p. 103; Althusser 1999, p. 16.

The very essence of the object 29 Althusser 1972, pp. 467 (translation modified), pp. 50, 523.


30 Althusser 1972, p. 56. The key sentence in this passage is misleading in the English version (Of course, Montesquieu does not say in so many words that the manners and morals or spirit of a nation constitute the very essence of the principle of its government. But he does set out from principles as the pure forms of the government: their truth appears in their corruption), because the idiom that introduces the second sentence, il en va de, is mistranslated (a rare slip in an excellent translation). The second sentence should read: But the same holds for principles as the pure forms of the government: their truth appears in their corruption. . 31 Althusser 1972, pp. 567 32 Althusser 1972, pp. 536. 33 Althusser 1972, pp. 31, 589. 34 Althusser 1969a, p. 209. 35 Althusser 1972, pp. 20, 29, 48, 50. 36 Althusser 1972, pp. 445. 37 Althusser, Notes sur Lvi-Strauss: Sur La Pense sauvage [1962?], Alt2.A6004, nos. 9 and 10: Comment larbitraire devient-il ncessaire? (Althusser Fond 2, File A60, Dossier 4). 38 Althusser 1997b, p. 73. 39 Althusser 1972, p. 48. 40 Althusser 1972, pp. 346. 41 Althusser 1972, pp. 21, 34, 43, 47 . 42 In 1959, Althusser presents the last chapter of Politics and History as a historically informed supplement to Montesquieus text, not a symptomatic reading of Montesquieu. In 1962, he affirmed that Montesquieu was a disguised theoretician ... of the subordination of certain human groups to others (Althusser 1998a, p. 38). In 1976, he claims that Montesquieu recognised albeit blindly that the (feudal) state is class violence transformed into law (Althusser 1978a, p. 34). 43 Althusser 1972, pp. 50, 1005. 44 Unposted letter of 24 November 1963 to Lucien Sve, Alt2.C602 (Althusser Fond 2, Correspondence). 45 Althusser 1969a, pp. 104, 215. 46 Althusser 1972, p. 48; Althusser 1969a, p. 106. See Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 192. 47 Althusser 1969a, p. 106; Althusser 1972, p. 59; see Marx 1993, p. 610, cited in Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 192. 48 Althusser 1969a, pp. 21016. 49 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 226. This anti-structuralist phrase was added to the second edition of Reading Capital. The corresponding passage in the first edition says the same thing less emphatically (Althusser, Balibar, et al. 1996, p. 65). 50 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 108. 51 Althusser 1969a, p. 169. 52 Socialisme idologique et socialisme scientifique [19667?], pp. 534; see Althusser 1990a, p. 52. Althusser had dropped the idea of theoretical modes of production by mid-1967 . See Projet dune lettre Voprossy filosofi, Alt2.A903.01, third sheaf (Althusser Fond 2, file 9, Dossier 3, Folder 1). I thank Gregory Elliott for making the version of Socialisme idologique et socialisme scientifique cited here available to me. 53 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 445, 157; Unposted letter of 24 November 1963 to Lucien Sve, Alt2.C602.2 (Althusser Fond 2, Correspondence).


Encountering Althusser

54 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 2803. 55 In a June 1967 interview, Foucault endorsed Althussers prescriptions; see Foucault 1994, pp. 5878. 56 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 42. 57 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 28597 . 58 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 293. 59 Balibar 1973. . 60 Althusser 1990a, pp. 624, 67 61 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 33. 62 Althusser 1969a, p. 200. 63 Althusser 1990a, p. 65; Balibar 1991a, p. 40. 64 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 50. For a brief account, see Goshgarian 2003, pp. xxiixxxix. 65 Letter of 2 September 1966 to Michel Verret; Rectification [19]67, Alt2.A905.01 (Althusser Fond 2, File A9, Dossier 5, Folder 1), pp. 434; Note critique et autocritique pour le lecteur de Pour Marx et Lire le Capital, 16 oct. 1967, Alt2.A905.07 (Althusser Fond 2, File A9, Dossier 5, Folder 1 and File A9, Dossier 5, Folder 7), pp. 34. I thank Michel Verret for making his correspondence with Althusser available to me. 66 Letter of 22 January 1964 to Michel Verret. 67 Althusser 1969a, pp. 1689, 177n., 17980; Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 76n. 68 Althusser 1966a, p. 117 . 69 Althusser 2003, pp. 1112. 70 Letter of 14 August 1966 to Michel Verret. 71 Althusser 1990a, p. 65. 72 Althusser 1969a, pp. 1778, 179; Althusser 1990a, p. 65. 73 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 41, 45, 58, 60, 64, 68, 189, 282. 74 See Thomas 2002, p. 74. Thomas nevertheless takes a certain (insufficient) critical distance from Warren Montags contention that Althussers assertion in Elements of Self-Crtiticism that he, Balibar, and Macherey were Spinozists ... was nothing more than a retrospective construction, the very condition of which was a renaissance in French Spinoza studies that took place at the end of the sixties, Montag 1998b, pp. xixii. 75 Althusser, Introduction la philosophie [1977?], p. 100. I thank Warren Montag for making the version of Introduction la philosophie cited here available to me. 76 Althusser 1969a, p. 183. See EII Def2. 77 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 192, p. 172; Althusser 2003, p. 65; Althusser 1990a, p. 49; Althusser 1998b, p. 712. See Spinoza, Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being, Part I, Chapter 6, Paragraph 7 . 78 Althusser 1990a, p. 50, p. 46. See EII P8 Cor.; EV P25. 79 Althusser 1990a, pp. 467 . See EII P8 Cor.; EII P13 Ax3 Lm4. 80 Althusser 1990a, p. 46. See EII P13, Def; EII P13 L3 Ax. 81 Althusser 1990a, pp. 468; Diverses notes [1966], Alt2.A1102.02. See EII P40 Schol2; EII P25 Cor. 82 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 41; Althusser 1990a, pp. 468; Althusser 1972, p. 20; Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 834; Althusser 1969a, pp. 2067 . It is Mao Zedong who, in On Contradiction, cites Lenin (Lenin 196370 Volume 31, p. 166) to the effect that the very substance, the living soul of Marxism is the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.

The very essence of the object 83 Althusser 1990a, pp. 502; EII P5; EII P 8 Cor. 84 Althusser 2003, p. 296; Althusser 2012a, On Genesis, p. 2. See EII P13, Ax 3, L4. 85 Althusser 1996b, p. 59, p. 61; Althusser 2012a, On Genesis, p. 2; EII P13 Def.


86 Socialisme idologique et socialisme scientifique [19667?], Alt2.A802.02 (Althusser Fond 2, File A8, Dossier 2, Folder 2), p. 87; Althusser 2003, p. 61; EII P13 Ax3 Lm4. 87 A note added to the second edition of Reading Capital blames the confusion caused by the term social formation on Marx, who is said to use it as both an empirical concept designating ... an existence and an abstract concept (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 207n.). 88 Althusser 1996b, pp. 613; EII P45 Schol. 89 Socialisme idologique et socialisme scientifique [19667?], Alt2.A802.02 (Althusser Fond 2, File A8, Dossier 2, Folder 2), pp. 67 , 817; Althusser 1969a, p. 126; Thorie marxiste et parti communiste [19667], Alt2.A801.01 (Althusser Fond 2, File A8, Dossier 1, Folder 1), p. 34. 90 EII P43, Schol. 91 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 181; Althusser 1969a, p. 184n. 92 Bachelard, 1949, p. 103. 93 Althusser 1969a, p. 113 (translation modified); Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 60. 94 Althusser 1990a, pp. 479, 63; Thorie marxiste et parti communiste [19667], Alt2. A702.03 (Althusser Fond 2, File A7 , Dossier 2, Folder 3), pp. 46. In For Marx, curiously, empirical concept is used as a synonym for empiricist concept (Althusser 1969a, p. 207). . See EII P40 Schol2; EV P36 Schol. 95 Althusser 1990a, p. 47 96 Althusser 1969a, pp. 1845n. 97 Diverses notes [1966], Alt2.A1102.02 (Althusser Fond 2, File A11, Dossier 2, Folder 2); Althusser 2003, pp. 645. 98 Althusser 2003, p. 270; Althusser 2006a, p. 265. .0203 (Althusser Fond 2, File A7 , 99 Thorie marxiste et parti communiste [19667], Alt2.A7 Dossier 2, Folder 3), pp. 1920; Althusser 1990a, pp. 47 , 52. 100 Macherey, p. 26, 34, 367 , 43, 57 , 77 . 101 An idea prominent in pola 2007 .

Part two

Althussers non-contemporaries

Althusser, Machiavelli and us: between philosophy and politics
Mikko Lahtinen

he relationship between Marxist theory (philosophy and science) and revolutionary politics (economic and political class struggles) remained a central problem for Louis Althusser through his intellectual life. In the following chapter, I will try to argue that, despite Althussers so-called self-criticism of the theoreticism of his early works, and despite his later emphasis on the primacy of the class struggle over Marxist theory, there remains a tendency towards semi-theoreticism in Althussers Marxism. His most promising attempt to overcome this tendency was his aleatory interpretation of Niccol Machiavellis The Prince. For Althusser, Machiavelli was not only one aleatory materialist among others, but the first theoretician of the political conjuncture, or the first theorist who tried consciously and consistently to think in the conjuncture. Although this represents a novel contribution to the study of Machiavelli, this interpretation has not yet received the recognition that it deserves.

From political philosophy to the primacy of class struggle

Althussers interest over several decades in the history of political philosophy in eighteenthcentury French political thought as well as in Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli was nothing new to those who attended his lectures at the cole normale suprieure in Paris or who had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the widely-circulated copies of his lecturenotes.1 Of Althussers writings on political philosophy, the only ones to be published during his lifetime were his study on Montesquieu and his analysis of discrepancies in Rousseaus theory of the social contract.2 Even on the basis of these two texts alone, however, it becomes clear that Althussers critical objective was to analyse philosophical ideas within the contexts of the social contradictions and class struggles of their time. Althusser encapsulated his objectives in his 1975 Soutenance dAmiens by reference to his own definition of philosophy at that time, according to which philosophy, in the last instance,


Encountering Althusser

is class struggle in theory. According to Althusser, this definition, emphasising the primary nature of the class struggle, implied a reversal of the traditional relation between philosophy and politics. Hence, it was also possible for Machiavelli to be considered a philosopher in a strong sense, even if he says almost nothing about philosophy. Descartes, on the other hand, even if he says almost nothing about politics, can nevertheless be considered a political thinker in a strong sense.3 In his 1959 study of Montesquieu,4 Althusser had been interested not so much in Montesquieus philosophical life as in how he took a stand in contemporary politics both in and with The Spirit of the Law: But I am also thinking of another life. Of the life too often masked by the very same discoveries that we owe to him. Of his preferences, his aversions, in short, of Montesquieus parti pris in the struggles of his age.5 During the next decade, the 1960s, Althusser defined the problem of the relationship between theory and class struggle as the central question in both Marxist theory and the ideological struggle. In the article On the Materialist Dialectic, dated spring 1963, the focal points of Althussers analyses are Lenins thesis that the soul of Marxism is the concrete analysis of a concrete situation and Marxs formulation about dialectics as a revolutionary method rather than the theory of the fait accompli.6 The problematic of the inter-relation between theory and practice is also a central theme in the different stages of Althussers self-criticism (from summer 1966 onwards) as well as in his later views during the 1980s.7 In his last interview, with Fernanda Navarro in 1987 , he characterises the relationship between philosophy and ideological hegemony as follows: Even in its most abstract form, that of the works of the great philosophers, philosophy is situated somewhere in the vicinity of the ideologies, as a kind of theoretical laboratory in which the fundamentally political problem of ideological hegemony that is, of the constitution of the dominant ideology is experimentally put to the test, in abstract.8 Althusser was lecturing on Machiavelli as early as 1962, but the importance of Machiavelli to Althusser has become clear to a wider audience mainly after his death, through the posthumously-published writings Machiavellis Solitude (published in German in 1987 , English in 1988 and French in 1990), his autobiography The Future Lasts a Long Time (published in 1992), the manuscript titled The Only Materialist Tradition (published in 1993), his letters to Franca Madonia (published in 1998) and particularly his lectures titled Machiavelli and Us, published in 1995.9 Finally, with the publication of Machiavelli and Us, it also became indisputable that Althusser had a more appreciative attitude towards Gramscis perspectives as, indeed, his students have also recounted than could be deduced from his influential, but one-sided and philosophically abstract (theoreticist) critique of Gramscis historicism and philosophy of praxis.10 It is also interesting to note that the first version of Machiavelli and Us was written at the same time as the important work Elements of Self-Criticism (written in 1972, published in 1974). As G. M. Goshgarian has shown in his brilliant prefaces to the English translations of the posthumously published texts, the self-criticism did not mean that Althusser retracted the central theoretical views that he had developed in the beginning and middle of the 1960s, encapsulated in his anti-teleological critique of the Leibnizian and Hegelian expressive totalities or emphasis on materialism. The changes above all concerned how Althusser perceived the relationship between Marxist philosophy and the economic-political class struggle of the masses. With his self-criticism, this question was directed more clearly than it had earlier been with regard to his own intellectual role and actions as a communist in philosophy.11

Althusser, Machiavelli and us


As early as the summer of 1966, Althusser self-critically stated that his theories of theoretical practice and the epistemological break had isolated theory from non-theoretical social practices. Goshgarian summarises the basic problem of Althussers conception before the self-criticism as follows: Theory became theory by virtue of a distantiation that ruled out both its internal determination by ideology and its direct intervention in ideology; a theory, by definition, had no practical relation to the ideological practices with which it broke.12 In this context, Althusser started to criticise the theoretical conceptions of theoreticism he had advanced in his earlier study Reading Capital (first published in 1965), which he now saw as an over-reaction against the absolute historicism of Gramscis philosophy of praxis. Althusser had argued that a central problem in Gramscis thinking was that the real philosopher is simply the politician.13 The first stage of his self-criticism had been preceded by a resolution from the Central Committee of the French Communist Party (PCF) to dissociate itself from the Stalinist tradition and to adopt the viewpoint of humanist Marxism. Louis Aragon and Roger Garaudy, intellectuals on the Central Committee, had intellectually central roles when the resolution was being debated in the winter of 1966. Althusser lost the battle, and the resolution-document published in L Humanit on 15 March 1966 was based on the views of Aragon and Garaudy. Althusser wrote a long letter to the Central Committee in which he aimed to show the theoretical problems contained in the resolution. The letter, however, was never sent.14 For Althusser, the defeat was a harsh experience and also a concrete example of the complex relationship between philosophy and politics: in the case of class struggle, theory cannot be simply applied to practice from the outside.15 On the other hand, with his isolated position within the PCF , Althusser understood that he lacked the possibilities for political intervention, and thus the only way to have any influence was by way of pure theory, that is, philosophy.16 Withdrawing into pure theory did not mean, however, a return to the theoreticism of Reading Capital, but rather, a continuation of his self-criticism and further work on the problematic of the relationship between theory and practice. For example, Althusser planned to publish a book on the union between theory and practice; but from the extensive material he drafted, only the long article Matrialisme historique et matrialisme dialectique was submitted for publication, and this was only published in the Cahiers marxistes-lninistes (April 1966). This had been written before the humanist controversy.17 In February 1968, in the year of student- and worker-radicalism, an interview with Althusser titled Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon was published in L Unit. Althusser emphasised the importance of Lenin, who had been rejected by philosophers, to the critique of French academic philosophy. Althusser discussed Lenins importance in a more systematic way in Lenin and Philosophy, published at the same time: [A]cademic philosophy cannot tolerate Lenin (or Marx for that matter) for two reasons, which are really one and the same. On the one hand, it cannot bear the idea that it might have something to learn from politics and from a politician. And on the other hand, it cannot bear the idea that philosophy might be the object of a theory, i.e. of an objective knowledge.18 Althusser agreed with Lenins statement that the majority of philosophy teachers were pettybourgeois intellectuals functioning in the bourgeois education system as so many ideologists inculcating the mass of student youth with the dogmas however critical or post-critical of


Encountering Althusser

the ideology of the ruling classes.19 In the L Unit interview he also emphasised that left-wing intellectuals had a long, painful and difficult re-education ahead of them if they wanted to become ideologists of the working class (Lenin) or organic intellectuals (Gramsci). The precondition for development was an endless external and internal struggle.20 Althusser presented his self-criticism against theoreticism in a more systematic form in Elements of Self-Criticism, written in 1972 and published two years later. The object of the self-criticism was also now his speculative definition of philosophy from the early 1960s as a theory of theoretical praxis, which represented the highest point in the development of this theoreticist tendency.21 Even now, he emphasised the primacy of the class struggle in relation to philosophy and theoretical praxis, which was encapsulated by his new philosophical definition adopted soon after Reading Capital: philosophy is, in the last instance, class struggle in the field of theory.22 In his theoreticist stage, the juxtaposition had been the opposite, that is, the primacy of theory over practice.23 The question was not, however, about whether philosophy should be seen as a less important activity than previously, but rather, the fact that the ground on which philosophy is based lies outside it, and usually goes unnoticed: all the social practices are there in philosophy . . . in the same way that the stars are in the sky.24 Instead, Althussers own philosophy was to lie within the sphere of the class struggle taking place on the theoretical terrain. Althusser attempted a new philosophical-ideological intervention against the leadership of the PCF after the party suffered a bitter defeat in the French legislative elections in March 1978 and the Socialist Party (PS) led by Franois Mitterrand became the largest left-wing party. A series of four articles was published in Le Monde, in which Althusser strongly criticised the leadership of the PCF for building fortifications between the party and the masses. He defined the relationship between the party and the masses as the decisive issue for the PCF , and proposed that they abandon the fortifications. Here, he was referring to Machiavellis principle according to which the prince must not ensconce himself in the fear of his own subjects, but rather must earn their love and respect.25 Therefore, the Communists would have to bring back to life a theory which will not dodge mass initiatives and social transformations, but which will, on the contrary, openly face them and impregnate and nourish itself with them.26 Now the primacy of the class struggle also meant that the connection to the masses was the condition of life for Marxist theory.

A semi-theoreticist position
Although Althussers self-criticism increasingly emphasised the importance of the union or the interaction between theory and practice, he never put forwards any concrete analyses concerning intellectuals and the masses in relation to questions of organisation as Gramsci had done in his Prison Notebooks. Using Gramscis terminology, we could say that Althusser did not analyse the organisational-political connections between Marxist science and philosophy in relation to the ideologies or senso comune of the masses or the intellectuals and other elites. Thus, the effects of the possible change in this relationship on philosophical-scientific institutions and practices themselves also remained outside the focus of Althussers observations or, at the most, remained critical also self-critical? of the petit-bourgeois position of teachers of philosophy or other intellectuals.

Althusser, Machiavelli and us


The essential questions in Gramscis philosophy of praxis questions about learning from the masses, about philosophy as the critical element of the senso comune of the masses, or about the views of intellectual and moral reform and the analysis of social institutions and practices linked to it as well as their transformation do not have a central role in Althussers thinking, despite the emphasis of the connection to the masses in his 1978 critique of the PCF . Althussers analyses of the political-historical positioning of theory in social reality are, indeed, clearly less substantial and more abstract semitheoreticist than the cultural-materialistic analyses of Gramscis Prison Notebooks. For Gramsci, philosophy also appeared as a concrete social-cultural practice, whereas for Althusser, philosophy as well as his own role as a philosopher remained primarily a theoretical practice in abstracto. When Althusser, for instance, writes about the class struggle in theory he does not reflect very much about what kind of effects this could have on the material practices and institutions of philosophy or the sciences, or about how a revolutionary Marxist science and philosophy would or should be articulated in relation to the economic-political struggles that the working class engages in at a given historical conjuncture, that is, by changing the world. In Althussers analyses, even the intellectual who has adopted a Marxist, anti-humanist theoretical position seems to remain a researcher or philosopher-theoretician who spontaneously reproduces the division between intellectual and material work typical of capitalist class society. The positioning of theoretical work and its subjects in their materialist relationship not only in theory to capitalist social contradictions and class struggles should be a very central theoretical question in Marxist theory, not merely a political or sociological one. Given this positioning and materialist relationship, even Marxist intellectuals can reproduce in their personal practice the dominant division between academic scientific work (or philosophy) and society. In this constellation, a scientist or a philosopher can come spontaneously to understand him- or herself as a solitary individual who is impelled to play the harsh survival games of capitalist society. Compared to this solitary figure of a philosopher or a scientist, Gramscis definition of the democratic philosopher opens up a completely different perspective: He is a philosopher convinced that his personality is not limited to himself as a physical individual but is an active social relationship of modification of the cultural environment. When the thinker is content with his own thought, when he is subjectively, that is abstractly, free, that is when he nowadays becomes a joke. The unity of science and life is precisely an active unity, in which alone liberty of thought can be realised; it is a master-pupil relationship, one between the philosopher and the cultural environment in which he has to work and from which he can draw the necessary problems for formulation and resolution. In other words, it is the relationship between philosophy and history.27 Even though Althusser, after his self-criticism, did not continue to explicitly maintain his earlier abstract theoreticist critique of Gramscis philosophy of praxis, he never really recognised the subversive core of Gramscis concept of philosophy or of the philosopher. The philosopher remained, for Althusser, a solitary figure, not an active social relationship of modification of the cultural environment.


Encountering Althusser

The first theoretician of the conjuncture and Althusser scholarship

As is well-known, Althusser withdrew from public life after his 1978 critique of the PCF , until the tragic events of November 1980 brutally dragged him to the centre of attention. After the posthumous publication of previously unpublished works, it became clear, however, that Althusser had not ceased writing, but rather had developed his views on the underground current of materialist philosophy, real materialism, aleatory materialism or the materialism of the encounter. However, he did not leave Marx behind. On the contrary, by studying the history of the underground current, he also tried to establish a foundation for his proposed analysis of Marxs Capital.28 Between 1982 and 1986, he also reworked the manuscript Machiavelli and Us; among other things, he changed the references from dialectical materialism (as a Marxist philosophy) to aleatory materialism (as a philosophy for Marxism).29 Studies of the posthumously published later writings of Althusser have discussed their contradictions, the shortcomings in his argumentation and reasoning, as well as the conceptual problems and inconsistencies in the fragmentary developments of aleatory materialism.30 There are few studies, however, that systematically analyse the centrality of Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli or consider how Machiavelli and Us can be placed in relation to Althussers overall thinking, particularly his views on philosophy and its relationship with the class struggle undertaken by the masses at different stages of his self-criticism.31 This kind of research can also help us to see Althussers interpretation of Machiavellis The Prince as a promising attempt to place theoretical and political practices in an active relationship. In various writings discussing Althussers posthumously published works, especially his later manuscripts and notes, Machiavelli has appeared as only one materialist of the underground tradition among others from Epicurus to Heidegger and Derrida. Perhaps the neglect of Machiavelli has been aided by the fact that, according to the spontaneous-academic concept of philosophy, Machiavelli has not been considered despite Althussers remarks as a philosophically important figure. It should be kept in mind, however, that of all the thinkers of the underground current, Machiavelli is the only one to receive a detailed and systematic analysis in Althussers later writings. Also, for this very same reason, the interpretation of Machiavelli in the aleatory texts of the later Althusser should have a considerably more central position than it does in the existing Althusser scholarship. In the Althusser scholarship, only Franois Matheron, Emmanuel Terray and Antonio Negri have focused on Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli and its culmination in Machiavelli and Us.32 In the philosophically-focused writings of Vittorio Morfino who has worked more systematically with the later writings of Althusser Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli is introduced as an object of analysis, and briefly so in Federico Dinuccis and in Andr Tosels interpretations of aleatory materialism, in Yoshiyuki Satos book on power and resistance in Althusser, Deleuze and Derrida, and in Filippo Del Luccheses substantial analyses of the concept of occasione in Machiavelli.33 In the writings of Jean-Claude Bourdin, Yann Moulier Boutang and Wallis A. Suchting on aleatory materialism, Machiavelli is only mentioned as one aleatory materialist among others.34 In the introduction written for the original French-language edition of Machiavelli and Us, Matheron only provides the background to the manuscript and does not present a more detailed analysis of it. Gregory Elliotts introduction to the English

Althusser, Machiavelli and us


edition is also rather cursory, given its brevity.35 Matherons 2001 article Louis Althusser ou limpure puret du concept, on the other hand, contains a discussion of several pages of the central arguments in Machiavelli and Us (for instance the book The Prince as a manifesto, and Machiavelli as a theoretician of the conjuncture).36 Apart from Goshgarian, of the above-mentioned interpreters Morfino and Negri are perhaps those who have most highlighted the continuity between the philosophical-theoretical views that Althusser presented at different times.37 Morfino also makes interesting comparisons between the later Althussers aleatory materialism and his earlier views, and, indeed, uncovers ideas in his later writings that had already occurred in his writings from the 1960s (albeit sometimes appearing only in the margins).38 Negri, on the other hand, has argued that, besides the continuity, there is a particular positive turn, die Kehre, in Althussers thinking, realised by his aleatory materialism. In my own research, I have tried to justify the important theoretical continuities.39 An even more important aim in my study has been to highlight the aspiration permeating Althussers thinking, an aspiration to present a theoretically-argued starting-point for the possibility of political intervention. The basis for such argumentation is the unconditional rejection of the Hegelian idea of the expressive totality. Instead of the self-development of the Hegelian historical totality, the question was about a complex social formation and the need to understand it conjuncturally.40 In On Theoretical Work: Difficulties and Resources, an article Althusser wrote in 1967 in the early stage of his self-criticism, it becomes clear that he considered the conjuncture in particular as a substantial concept in terms of Marxist history and political theory: To take only one example, Lenins political texts (analyses of the situation and its variations, decisions taken and analyses of their effects, etc.) give us, with dazzling insistence, in the practical state, a theoretical concept of capital importance: the concept of the present moment or conjuncture . . . Only a little attention is needed to grasp the decisive import of this new theoretical concept. Not only does it retrospectively cast light on the distinctiveness of the Marxist theory of history, on the forms of variation in dominance within the social structure on the basis of determination in the last instance by the economic, and thus on historical periodisation (that cross of the historians); not only does it for the first time permit the enunciation of a theory that is, a genuine conceptualisation of the possibility of political action, detached at last from the false antinomies of freedom and necessity (the play of the variations in dominance in the conjuncture), and of the real conditions of political practice, in designating its object (the balance of class forces engaged in the struggle of the present moment); not only does it allow us to think the articulation of the different instances whose combination of overdetermined effects can be read in the conjuncture but it also allows us to pose, in a concrete manner, the problem of the union of theory and practice that is, one of the most profound questions of dialectical materialism, not only in the domain of political practice but also in the domain of theoretical practice.41 The conjuncture was indeed one of the most central concepts connecting the different stages of Althussers work.42 It already had an important theoretical position in Althussers writings from the beginning of the 1960s, particularly in the articles contained in For Marx, first published in 1965. The conjuncture also played a central role when Althusser attempted to (re-)construct a theory of Marxist history from Marxs Capital, and particularly from Lenins


Encountering Althusser

political writings, that could offer a theoretically appropriate starting-point for the analysis of the conditions of political activity. Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli as the first theoretician of the conjuncture is guided by Gramscis interpretation of The Prince in the Prison Notebooks as a passionate political manifesto: The Prince is not a book of science , understood academically, but of immediate political passion , a party manifesto that is based on a scientific conception of the political art. Furthermore, Machiavellis works are expressions of a personality that wants to intervene into the politics and the history of his country and in that sense they have a democratic origin.43 With Gramscis interpretation as his starting-point, Althusser analyses The Prince both as Machiavellis specific political act in his own conjuncture, and as a unique analysis in the practical state of the conditions of a specific political act. I have characterised this double viewpoint with the terms practice of The Prince and practice of the prince,44 the former referring to the political intervention Machiavelli carries out with his book in his own conjuncture, and the latter to the political practice of the prince that emerges in the book. Emmanuel Terray hits the nail on the head when he says that Althusser himself returns to these affirmations, pointing out that a manifesto of a moment both analyses a conjuncture and proposes an action.45 In his short article, in which he refers only to Solitude of Machiavelli (Machiavelli and Us had not been published at the time when Terray wrote his article), Terray does not, however, systematically analyse Althussers analysis of Machiavelli. Perhaps due to the lack of Machiavelli and Us, Terray also ends up making the excessively polarised conclusion that in the absence of a real Marxist political theory, it is futile to attempt to graft Machiavellis political theory onto Marxism, notwithstanding the undeniable similarities. When we come to the role of the masses who are, after all, as the Reply to John Lewis reminds us, the ones who make history, a far from Machiavellian formula then rejecting this graft becomes inescapable.46 Machiavelli and Us, however, which related to Althussers views as to the possibility of political intervention as well as his theory of the conjuncture, or his comparison between The Prince and The Communist Manifesto, could have shown Terray that there was no basis for such a polarised conclusion. On the contrary, it is important to take seriously Althussers view that Machiavelli went a lot further than Marx on a number of issues, for example in trying to conceive the conditions and kinds of political action in its pure form, that is to say at the conceptual level. What struck me again was the radical manner in which he took account of the chance nature of every conjuncture.47 Despite everything, Terray along with Matheron, Negri and Tosel nevertheless remains one of the few commentators to have noted that, for Althusser, The Prince was, besides Lenins political writings, a rare example of both a theoretical problematic of a political intervention and a political intervention in and with a text. All this points to the fact that Machiavelli should not be reduced to a single thread in Althussers fragmentary and, in many places, contradictory aleatory materialism.48 Althussers interpretation of Machiavelli is an important achievement, which (together with Gramscis interpretation) deserves much greater recognition than it has received so far.49 Such recognition should be strived after not simply for academic reasons, but also because Althussers philosophy of the conjuncture and aleatory interpretation of Machiavelli could help us to enact a definitive break with the semi-theoreticist positions that continued to plague Althussers ongoing self-criticism.

Althusser, Machiavelli and us


Althussers thesis in Machiavelli and Us, that Machiavelli was the first thinker who tried consciously and consistently to think in the conjuncture is a highly important contribution to and in the Marxist theory of politics. Althusser learned from Machiavelli that the Marxist theory of politics should not be only a general explanation of political struggles and contradictions, but rather should both be an active and conscious intervention into the political-intellectual struggles in an existing conjuncture and also include a theoretical reflection of that intervention. Although Althusser himself never made a systematic analysis of the concrete social-cultural practices of Marxist political theory unlike Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks in Machiavelli and Us he offers a brilliant non-theoreticist analysis of how Machiavelli undertook his intervention in and by The Prince in his own aleatory Italian conjuncture. The theoretical and practical problems and challenges in Machiavellis historical conjuncture (early merchant capitalism) or the problems and challenges in Althussers own conjuncture (capitalism in the era of the Cold War) were clearly different from the problems and challenges that confront contemporary radical thinkers in twenty-first century capitalist societies and the era of neo-liberal globalisation. The Machiavellian-Althusserian problematic of thinking in the conjuncture remains an important resource for contemporary struggles, however, because it emphasises that we need not only radical theory, but also radical intellectual practices and theoretical reflections on these practices, if our thoughts are to become effective truths in our own conjuncture.

1 Althusser 1959; Althusser 1972. See Matheron 2006, p. 19; see also Goshgarian 2003, p. xi. Already in his 1975 Soutenance dAmiens, Althusser discussed Machiavelli, Hegel, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Kant as individual objects of study (Althusser 1976a, pp. 1667). The lectures contained in the collection Politique, histoire de Machiavel Marx, published in 2006, dealing with Montesquieu and other eighteenth-century French philosophers, date from the 19556 academic year, the Rousseau lectures from 19656 and the Hobbes lectures from 19712 (Althusser 2006b, Summary). It was in the 19723 academic year that Althusser first gave his lectures on Machiavelli based on the Machiavelli and Us manuscript. 2 Althusser 1972, pp. 9109; Althusser 1972, pp. 11160. 3 Althusser 1976a, pp. 1667 . 4 Althusser 1959. 5 Althusser 1972, p. 14. 6 Althusser 1969a, p. 180, 206. 7 It is important to note that Althusser analysed the relationship between philosophy and the class struggle already in his writings from the early 1960s, even though later he indeed described his objectives at the time as being limited by a theoreticist tendency. With this he referred, above all, to his definition at that time of philosophy as a theory of theoretical practice, which he used in particular in Reading Capital. It is more difficult, however, to discern the tendency towards theoreticism in Althussers articles from the early 1960s, collected together in For Marx, particularly those in which the object of his analysis is the revolutionary leader Lenin. . 8 Althusser 2006a, p. 287


Encountering Althusser

9 See Althusser 2006b. Only the first part of Althussers manuscript The Only Materialist Tradition, which focuses on Spinoza, has been published in English (Althusser 1997a). The latter part, which focuses on Machiavelli, is presently only available in French (Althusser 1994a, pp. 488507). 10 Althusser and Balibar 1970, especially pp. 12637 . On the problematical aspects of Althussers critique, see Thomas 2009; and Sotiris 2008 on the political background of Althussers critique of Gramscis Marxism. 11 Goshgarian 2003, especially pp. xiiixxii; Goshgarian 2006, especially pp. xivxvi and xxxixxlvii. 12 Goshgarian 2003, pp. xiiixiv. 13 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 128; see Goshgarian 2003, p. xv. , pp. 13351; for Althussers letter, see Althusser 2007; see also Goshgarian 14 See Lewis 2007 2003, pp. xixv; and Matheron 2000, pp. 1705. 15 See Goshgarian 2003, p. xx. 16 Althusser 2006a, p. 253; see also Suchting 2004, p. 4. 17 Goshgarian 2003, p. xi. 18 Althusser 1971a, p. 37 . . 19 Althusser 1971a, pp. 378, 67 20 Althusser 1971a, p. 16. 21 Althusser 1976a, p. 124. . 22 Althusser 1976a, p. 124; see an early formulation (from 1967) in Althusser 2003, p. 217 23 Althusser 1976a, p. 124n. 19. 24 Althusser 1990a, p. 249; see also Koivisto 1993, p. 63. 25 Machiavelli 1994, Chapter 20. 26 Althusser 1978, pp. 39 and 45. 27 Gramsci 1971, pp. 3501. 28 Althusser 2006a, pp. 188, 260. 29 Althusser 2006a, pp. 244, 258; see Matheron 1995, pp. 41, 163. 30 Suchting 2004 has systematically mapped the inconsistencies; see also Tosel 2005, pp. 1905. 31 See Lahtinen 2009. The second edition of Elliotts Althusser. The Detour of Theory (Elliott 2006) contains a useful, long Postscript and a bibliography of the Althusser scholarship undertaken since his death, as well as a bibliography of Althussers published writings. 32 Matheron 2001; Terray 1996; Negri 1996a; and Negri 1997 . Negri and Hardts Empire discuss the Gramscian viewpoint on Machiavellis The Prince as a political manifesto, as developed by Althusser in Machiavelli and Us (Hardt and Negri 2000, pp. 636). 33 See Morfino 2002, pp. 901, 94, 97 1023; Morfino 2006a, p. 21; Morfino and Pinzola 2005, pp. 1525; Dinucci 1998, pp. 1112; Tosel 2005, pp. 1736; Sato 2007 , pp. 198201; Del Lucchese 2002, p. 62n. 61, where he refers to Althussers view on Machiavelli as the first theoretician of the conjuncture. 34 Rather strangely, I would argue, in two of the most recently published general introductions to Althussers work (Montag 2003; Ferretter 2006) little space is given to Althussers later thinking, and his interpretation of Machiavelli is completely ignored. 35 Bourdin 2005, pp. 1402; Moulier Boutang 2005, pp. 1634; Suchting 2004, pp. 24, 2831, 345, 40, 66; Matheron 1995, pp. 1014, 21, 3941; Elliott 1999, pp. xixxii. 36 Matheron 2001, pp. 3804. 37 On the interpretations of the possible Kehre in later Althussers thinking, see Sotiris 2008.

Althusser, Machiavelli and us 38 Morfino 2002, especially p. 87; see also Morfino 2006a, where he emphasises anti-essentialism as a thread permeating Althussers thinking. 39 Lahtinen 2009. 40 See also Koivisto and Lahtinen 2010. 41 Cited in Althusser 1990a, pp. 645. 42 Koivisto and Lahtinen 2010, pp. 150912. 43 Gramsci 1975, pp. 19289. 44 See Lahtinen 2009, Chapters 4.3 and 4.4. 45 Terray 1996, p. 262. 46 Terray 1996, p. 273; French original published in 1993. 47 Althusser 1993d, p. 220. 48 Lahtinen 2009, Chapter 4.


49 Machiavelli and Us has also been almost completely bypassed in Machiavelli scholarship, which in recent decades, at least in the English-speaking academic world, has been one-sidedly dominated by the republicanistic interpretation of Skinner and his students. After the publication of Machiavelli and Us, it is clear that the effective truth is not the whole truth about the nature of Machiavellis thinking and its possible importance. In my book (Lahtinen 2009), I pay attention to the most central problems of Skinners interpretation, which unfolds against the background of the interpretations by Althusser (and Gramsci).

Conjuncture, conflict, war: Machiavelli between Althusser and Foucault (19756)
Warren Montag

t is surely not a matter of chance, that is, of underdetermination, that the very possibility of a philosophy of the conjuncture or even a concept of conjuncture, giving theoretical status to a notion that had hitherto existed almost exclusively in a practical state, was itself conjunctural, posed as a problem and as a question only under very specific conditions. In fact, it is tempting to say that this moment was more an interval between conjunctures than a conjuncture, the moment that the revolutionary tide of 1968 had not only reached its highest point, but had begun to recede. If there is a commonplace lag between practice and the theory that never quite catches up with it, the lag was of short duration. Marxism and the organisations in which it was incarnated had, with few exceptions, begun a long period of decline and eventual collapse. A long wave of revolutionary challenge had given way to a period of reaction from which we have not yet begun to emerge, and mobilisation had given way to demobilisation, to the inevitable theoretical disorientation, and not simply retreat, but what we might call philosophical panic and flight into the most imbecilic forms of economic and political liberalism. But the very idea of an interval between conjunctures, as if conjuncture were another word for historical period, would correspond precisely to the notion of history that Althusser severely criticised as early as Reading Capital: the entire problematic of periodisation, consisting of dividing time, understood as a continuum, into a succession of one dialectical totality after another.4 The phrase dialectical totality refers not only to the contemporaneity of time, in which all the elements of the whole coexist in one and the same time, and each expressing the others and each expressing the social totality that contains them, but even to the very idea, apparently so central to structuralism, of the synchronic, a system whose elements are not only entirely contemporaneous to each other, but conspire together, not only as elements but as functions of the totality that defines them.5 Althussers critique of the dominant notion of historical time, while noted by many commentators, failed even to raise significant doubts about this notion, and we cannot begin to count the number of critics who, by way either of explanation or attack, insisted that Althusser took


Encountering Althusser

the side of synchrony against diachrony and therefore of structure against history. In part, this can be explained as theoretical resistance to a threat that activated the defenses of philosophy and social thought. At stake was not only the seemingly inescapable, and therefore necessary, idea of the linear continuity of time, but more strikingly and provocatively, the very notion of the present and, therefore, also of presence as the absolute horizon6 beyond which nothing can be thought or known. The consequences, not only theoretical but practical and political, of the conception of what we might call the presence of the present or the present understood as presence or, to use Althussers phrase, the co-presence of its elements were serious. Such postulates as nothing runs ahead of its time or humanity only poses those problems for which solutions already exist, guided generations of revolutionaries to failure after failure in which teleological gradualism alternated with an eschatological or messianic perspective in which faith replaced analysis. In fact, Althussers detour through Machiavelli stops just short of a reversal of Marxs dictum, suggesting that humankind regularly if not necessarily poses those problems to itself for which there exist no solutions: the absent Prince who is not even potentially or possibly (but not actually) present, that is, an impossible Prince, an impossible solution. It is around this precise point that Althussers detour though Machiavelli allows him to return to the question of historical time posed in Reading Capital. The present can no longer be described by the term presence, or even as the temporally distant presence of possibility, which then poses the problem of the transition from the possible to the actual. Instead, the conjuncture, according to Althussers reading of Machiavelli, is a specific relation not between the actual and the possible, but a relation within an actuality without residue or remainder between the antagonistic forces that constitute it. Significantly, both Althusser and Foucault produced works major works in the wake of 1968 (I say the wake as if a ship had sailed off, abandoning them and us) that were read in that conjuncture as precisely a denial of conjuncturality, theories of ideological apparatuses or the disciplines that were driven to ever more efficient forms of subjection by the very resistances that sought to overthrow them, but which only succeeded in consolidating their power with a dialectical cunning. These works appeared to many readers to offer a perverse guarantee of the submission of bodies and forces. One could object, as I have elsewhere, that such interpretations can arise only from the most selective of readings. As Althusser himself said of Marxs Capital, however, we read only those fragments which the conjuncture had selected for us7 and it is as if the conjuncture had selected those fragments of Althussers and Foucaults texts that tended to suppress or rule out the very idea of conjuncture. Further, we could understand the ideological state-apparatuses essay as a bending of the stick away from the ultra-left voluntarism that flourished immediately after the events of May, and the work on Machiavelli as a correction of this correction, and therefore as a further bending of the stick in the opposite direction, not towards voluntarism, but away from functionalism and defeatism and towards a theory of the conjuncture. In a similar way, Foucaults excursus on power in the section on method in the History of Sexuality was undoubtedly a response to the prevailing readings of Discipline and Punish. He proceeds, indeed, by citing in the form of questions to be answered by him the criticism often aimed at his text: Must it be said that we are necessarily in power, that we do not escape it, that there is no absolute exteriority to it because we would be inescapably submitted to its law? Or that history being the ruse of reason, power itself would be the ruse of history that which always wins?8 It was

Conjuncture, conflict, war


in response to these questions that Foucault would not only underscore the multiplicity of confrontations and sites of resistance that characterise the complex strategic situation in a given society, but would offer a definition of revolution as the strategic codification of these points of resistance, a rare but not unknown radical rupture.9 Althusser would go even further: Machiavelli does not think the problem of national unity in terms of the conjuncture; it is the conjuncture itself that poses negatively, but objectively, the problem of Italian national unity.10 Here, he returns to the question of the laws or logic of history and their exceptions that he had explored in Contradiction and Overdetermination in For Marx, only to conclude that the exceptions the success of the Russian and the failure of the German revolutions cannot be understood in relation to the law or logic whose necessity they have somehow eluded. Instead, Althusser declares that the exception is the rule or the law, a law of the exception. In the case of Machiavelli, as understood by Althusser, there can exist no logic of national development of which a given conjuncture would be an expression or emanation: imperfect, degraded, and so on. In fact, there can no longer be a deeper or structural history outside of or beyond the conjuncture. To search for this other history, this other time, is the functional equivalent of seeking the signs of Gods will in terrestrial matters. It is here, in this element of Machiavellis thought, that Althusser confronts and takes his distance from Gramsci (specifically, in The Modern Prince), that other great theoretician of the conjuncture. For Gramsci, the notion of conjuncture understood as an account of the different levels [gradi] of the relations of force is insufficient,11 above all because all such relations of force depend on the relation between the infrastructure and superstructure. By understanding this primary relation, one can, and indeed must, distinguish organic movements (relatively permanent) from movements that may be termed conjunctural (and which appear as occasional, immediate and almost accidental). The conjunctural is the phenomenal and the ephemeral; its conflicts leave the basic nature of a society untouched, and a strategy oriented to these conflicts is doomed to irrelevance it is, at best, the realm of the tactical.12 For analysis to focus on the conjunctural in place of the organic is a profound error, leading to economism, which takes superficial order as a sign that the great historical contradictions have not yet matured, and voluntarism, which mistakes the ephemeral crisis for a revolutionary situation. In contrast, to grasp the organic level means that one can understand the apparently paradoxical endurance of fully-matured historical contradictions, which, far from ushering in the new epoch, instead give rise to an enormous effort to conserve and defend the very order in which these contradictions took shape, an effort that is not only successful in the short term, but for decades. The obvious question, here, which Gramsci understandably did not pose, a fact that links him to Machiavelli and his unposed questions, is, if the old order is able to persist for decades after the maturation of its essential contradictions, then why not, at an extreme, at least in theory, for centuries, millennia, and so on? To forestall just such a question, the question to which everything in his analysis points, Gramsci retreats to Marxs formula: Mankind only sets for itself such tasks as it can solve, since ... the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist. The Modern Prince is precisely that entity able to transmute the potential into the actual. For Althusser, Machiavellis New Prince or Gramscis Modern Prince are condemned to a merely conjunctural existence: there is no other, organic, realm to which they can appeal or whose knowledge could guide their practice and guarantee the efficacy of their actions or interventions. Their place is in the conjuncture, in its very texture, made of opposing and


Encountering Althusser

intermingled forces; but this place, their place, is an empty place. 13 This empty place [lieu vide] is, however, not a void, nor is it even empty at all. On the contrary: it is always already occupied.14 Further, it is not even a point in space, because the space of politics has no points and is not a space except metaphorically.15 Althusser leaves no empty space or gap in the conjuncture through which an event might arrive like a miracle conjured or simply foreseen by the Prince: even the void itself is voided. And it is here, at this point in Althussers analysis of Machiavelli, the point at which it is suspended, leaving Althussers readers to reach diametrically-opposed conclusions, that Foucault resumes the discussion, as if in continuation of it. He reminds the reader that the analysis of power has remained fascinated by the ideas of sovereignty and law (a fascination that has grown immeasurably stronger since Foucaults death, through such figures as Schmitt and his interpreters), while the field of force relations which might precisely empty sovereign decision of all but a verbal existence has been repressed from the theoretical field of vision. One of the few to escape this blindness was, according to Foucault, Machiavelli, who thought the power of the Prince in terms of relations of force. Now, Foucault declares, it is necessary to go one step further and move beyond the character [le personage] of the Prince and decipher the mechanism of power on the basis of a strategy immanent in the relations of force.16 The term personnage, properly speaking, signifies neither the (objective) person nor the (subjective) personality or character of the Prince, but instead reduces the Prince to nothing more than a (hitherto necessary) fictional character in the drama of political theory. Such a reduction, perhaps better understood as a translation, has the effect of demonstrating that the figure of the Prince has served as an anthropomorphic, individualising and thus inadequate concept of what Foucault calls, very much in the spirit of Althussers reading of Machiavelli, a (and not the) strategy immanent in a conflict of forces. The Prince, however, does not, for all that, disappear: it is the name of that always composite coalition of forces that is, strictly speaking, not the cause but the effect of this strategy, nothing more than its selfreflection or, to use Foucaults expression, its codification. Foucaults brief comment on Machiavelli also sheds considerable light on an idea that might initially appear far not only from Machiavelli or Foucault, for that matter, but also from the notion of conjuncture, and was often taken as its opposite: the idea of structural causality proposed by Althusser in Reading Capital. It was, perhaps, only in speaking of Machiavelli and, therefore, at a safe distance from the themes of revolutions betrayed, deferred and abandoned that Althusser could say openly that historical necessity does not exist prior to or outside the conjuncture, which would then be understood as its imperfect or degraded expression. Rather, historical necessity exists in and only in its conjunctural realisation. The necessity or cause of the conjuncture is structural, the structure of the conjuncture, absent from, as Althusser maintained, or immanent in (to follow Foucault) its effects. Thus, conjuncture is not the name of a random or haphazard list of elements, determinations or circumstances; it is, instead, the codification of multiple relations of force. The system, as fragile and unstable as a system can be, that these forces form in their very antagonisms determines the movements of displacement and condensation that ensure that the solitary hour of the last instance never comes. If Machiavelli served as Althussers privileged interlocutor, he emerges in Foucaults work as something like a catalyst: his theoretical presence (or immanence) produces a transformation and allows something new to be thought and said, while his absence allows the persistence

Conjuncture, conflict, war


of the already thought. It is precisely this presence or absence that explains the important differences that separate the theorisation of power in the History of Sexuality from that which dominates the lectures posthumously published as Society Must be Defended (both written around the same time in 1976). While both texts share a rejection of the model of power grounded in sovereignty and its juridical legitimation, as well as a rejection of the repressionmodel of power, they diverge sharply in their understanding of power as a perpetual battle. In the History of Sexuality, Foucault explains that power must be understood as the multiplicity of relations of force that are immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens or reverses them.17 Further, this model of struggle, not simply of a relation of forces that might result in a homeostasis, but of mobile, unstable confrontations without any possibility of a lasting equilibrium, Foucault argues, may provide a grid of intelligibility of the social order, which is in turn nothing more than the complex strategic situation of which a given society is composed. In such a space, binary and massive divisions occur only occasionally (parfois). But more often, it is a matter of mobile and transitory points of resistance, introducing into a society cleavages that are displaced, fracturing unities and inciting regroupments, passing through individuals themselves, breaking them down and rebuilding them, marking irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds.18 It is predictably at this point, a mere three sentences later, that Foucault invokes Machiavelli, one of few to conceive the power of the Prince, not on the stable foundations of nature or right, but on the ever-shifting terrain of force relations in which the Prince or sovereign is nothing more than the strategy that allows him to rule. It would be easy, and perhaps inevitable, to assume that when in Society Must Be Defended Foucault writes that power is war, and that he regards war as the eventual principle of the analysis of relations of power, he is simply restating the theses cited above and that there exists a fundamental continuity between the methodological statements in History of Sexuality and Society Must be Defended. There is perhaps no better index of the fundamental difference between these texts and their conceptions of power and society than the discrepancy in their treatment of Machiavelli. If in History of Sexuality, he was one of the rare thinkers to conceive sovereign power (the power of the Prince) as nothing more or less than an effect of an unstable field of force relations (always in the plural in History of Sexuality, while this is hardly ever the case in Society Must be Defended) whose very boundary cannot be fixed, he is named (along with Hobbes, with whom Foucault often couples him) in the first lecture in Society Must be Defended only in order to secure his exclusion from the genealogy of the theory of war as the principal of the functioning of power (theirs are false paternities).19 Later, in the third lecture, the audience is again warned that though when we think of the power/war relation, power/ force relations,20 we often think of Machiavelli and Hobbes, we should not do so. Foucault devotes significant attention to Hobbess notion of war as the original condition of humanity: the war of all against all is not just a war, but the war, the war of which all other (subsequent) wars are merely episodes. However, Foucault cautions, this war is not a war in the ordinary sense of the term. There is no violence or bloodshed; it is that general condition, like stormy weather characterised not by the presence of rain and wind, but only by the increased likelihood of their occurrence, in which pre-emptive representations both deter aggression and stimulate renewed hostile representations on the part of the aggressor.21 In an important sense, this play of representations is worse than actual violence, in that nothing


Encountering Althusser

can be settled or resolved and there can be no distinction between aggressor and victim or winner and loser. This is precisely the savage equality that makes civilization impossible: to build is to invite plunder; destitution (or at least the appearance of destitution) becomes the surest guarantee of survival. It is to escape this condition of fear and misery that individuals will freely consent to enter into an agreement with each other to confer their rights of self-government on the sovereign. Whether this original consent is given before or after the establishment of a sovereign state, and whether that state is established through institution or conquest, is irrelevant. By choosing to continue living, one has in effect consented to subjection. Foucault remarks that, while Hobbess words might seem destined to shock his readers, he reassures them with the discourse of rights and contract.22 What, then, is to be said about Machiavelli, who does nothing to reassure his readers, and for whom the discourse of right and law, like the discourse of morality, serve only to obscure la verit effetuale della cosa, the reality of the relations of force that alone determine the meaning of the conjuncture, the singular essence of the present? The answer is simple: according to Society Must Be Defended, Machiavelli (who wrote a book, his favourite book in fact, on war) has nothing to say about war, or at least the war in civil society.23 Machiavelli writes about and from the point of view of the Prince; the partisans of social war regard the Prince as an illusion, an instrument, or, at best, an enemy.24 For Machiavelli, according to the lecture of 18 February 1976, the relation of force [note that relation is in the singular] was essentially described as a political technique that had to be put in the hands of the sovereign.25 One week later, in the lecture of 25 February 1976, Foucault acknowledges the criticism that such a remark might elicit and outlines his response to this criticism: [Y]ou might object that Machiavelli did not just give the Prince advice whether it is serious or ironic is a different question about how to manage and organise power and that the text of The Prince is full of historical allusions. You might say that Machiavelli also wrote the Discourses. But for Machiavelli, history is simply a source of examples, a sort of collection of jurisprudence or of tactical models for the exercise of power.26 What is significant, here, is not the inadequacy of Foucaults reading of Machiavelli, but rather the theoretical effects of the exclusion of Machiavelli from the theorisation of social conflict in Society Must Be Defended, especially in relation to History of Sexuality. What does this exclusion allow or compel Foucault to do, and what does it prevent him from doing? Everything would seem to condense around the question of war, or perhaps the relation of war to power conceived as a field of force relations. We must acknowledge at the outset that the question of war, especially social war, is not simply a historical question, one possible way of analysing power; he announces very clearly in the second lecture that he seeks to investigate the history of the concept of war precisely because he intends to use it as the principle of analysis of the relations of power: can we find in bellicose relations, in the model of war in the schema of struggle or struggles, a principle to help us understand and analyse political power in terms of war, struggles and confrontations.27 Foucault then proposes a five-year plan for his research: for the next five years it will be war, struggle, the army.28 The plan, of course, was never realised, not so much because Foucault reached an impasse but because, at least in Society Must Be Defended, by virtue of his line of inquiry he produced the very theoretical obstacle that prevented him from moving forwards in the direction outlined in Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality.

Conjuncture, conflict, war


Let us begin by noting that the word war occurs exactly three times, and even then only in a single paragraph (once with quotation marks) in the entire section on Method in History of Sexuality. And although the paragraph is similar in certain respects to several passages found in Society Must Be Defended, Foucault quite strikingly takes his distance from Clausewitz (whose name does not appear in History of Sexuality) and his theory of war: Should we turn the expression around, then, and say that politics is war pursued by other means? If we still wish to maintain a separation between war and politics, perhaps we should postulate rather that this multiplicity of force relations can be coded in part, but never totally either in the form of war or in the form of politics; this would imply two different strategies (but the one always liable to switch into the other) for integrating these unbalanced, heterogeneous, unstable and tense force relations.29 The question with which Foucault begins the passage in fact represents an interrogation of what was advanced as a proposition in Society Must Be Defended: At this point, we can invert Clausewitzs proposition and say that politics is the continuation of war by other means.30 The inverted proposition leads to some surprising conclusions: power relations, as they function in a society like ours, are essentially anchored in a certain relationship of force [rapport de force] that was established in and through war at a given historical moment that can be historically specified.31 Here, power relations (in the plural), even if they are not reducible to, are nevertheless anchored in [ont essentialment pour point dancrage] a single relationship of force established by war. And there is no question about the nature of war in Society Must Be Defended. Foucault repeats the formulation throughout the lectures: the binary schema of war. We cannot miss the functional resemblance between Foucaults proposals and the mechanistic Marxism that he so vehemently rejects. Here, a political superstructure is anchored in a base, itself characterised by the struggle between two antagonistic forces, locked in a single combat that determines the plurality of lesser struggles floating above its anchorage. He goes as far as to entertain the following (Machiavellian) objection: You will say to me that we cannot from the outset confuse power relations with relations of war. Of course not. I am simply taking it as an extreme case to the extent that war can be regarded as the point of maximum tension, or as force relations laid bare [la nudit mme des rapports de force].32 Thus war, far from being the intensely overdetermined result of a singular concatenation of force relations, becomes the hidden truth of what would appear to be irreducibly diverse and unequal, the binary organisation that lies concealed under the appearance of heterogeneous dispersion. No longer the merely contingent outcome of a multiplicity of unstable relations (in the plural) of forces (also in the plural), the binary opposition is constitutive of the theory of war in civil society: the war that is going on beneath order and peace, the war that undermines our society and divides it in a binary mode, is basically a race war.33 If Foucault is right, Machiavelli, the thinker of both war and politics as strategies for integrating these unbalanced, heterogeneous, unstable and tense force relations,34 has no place in such an exposition. While one could imagine and in fact find in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries discourses on race and race struggle that do not correspond to any simply binary division (early modern Spain, totally absent from the account of the discourse on race war, provides a telling example), Foucault insists that: [The] social body is basically articulated around two races. It is this idea that this clash between two races runs through society from top to bottom that we see being formulated as early as the seventeenth century. And it forms


Encountering Althusser

the matrix for all the forms beneath which we can we can find the face and mechanisms of social warfare.35 Social warfare, by the nineteenth century race war, is re-written as class war and the irreducible struggle inscribed in the physical (if not biological in the modern sense) differences that defined the contending races, whose conflict could never reach resolution, but only the alternation of conquest and submission becomes a struggle between social classes, whose antagonism was purely historical and as such susceptible to the resolution (which Foucault calls dialectical) represented by classless society. It is precisely the notion of race wars antagonism without any possibility of reconciliation, in which the brute fact of conquest and occupation established a relation of force that had to be maintained by the victors and could never be forgotten by the vanquished, that for Foucault rendered it superior theoretically to its degradation into class war, with its dialectical pretensions. For Foucault, race war must of course be carefully distinguished from what he calls modern biologico-social racism, which, far from imagining two originally distinct races, has its origin in the splitting of a single race into a super-race and a sub-race,36 even if modern racism will reinscribe the discourse of race war in the campaign to exterminate its vital enemies. For the next five years it will be war, struggle, the army.37 We know that such a programme was never realised and that even as he explored the theory of social war, he admitted to finding it boring or troubling. The idea of the binary structure of social war expressed in a perpetual or nearly perpetual relation of force that defined society as such renders the idea of conjuncture, as it emerges in the encounter between Althusser, Machiavelli and the Foucault of History of Sexuality, unthinkable. In fact, it confers a certain continuity on the society in which it reigns: all its phenomena can be referred back to this essential binary opposition. We are left, then, with a paradox: the conjuncture that made it possible to think conjuncturality no longer simply as a concatenation of events, but as a multiplicity of force relations, the conjuncture that Foucault would refer to in his opening lecture in Society Must Be Defended as the period from 1956 or 1966 to 1976, a period characterised by the criticability of things and the friability of the terrain, suffered its own shift in the balance of forces. There is something extraordinary in these few passages: Foucault does not say, or does not only say, that what he had written previously (on power) was wrong and, therefore, could not or should not be continued; he refuses the gesture of renunciation so common in that year of 1976 (when ex-revolutionaries became new philosophers). Instead, he says, in so many words, with greater courage and lucidity, speaking from a point that is not a point, on a line that is not a line, a non-line of demarcation that cuts across present and future, that it is not or will no longer be possible to think what we have thought, as if the theoretical ground, once so fertile and pliable, was turning to stone beneath his feet and things once open to our gaze were closing in on themselves in muteness and opacity.

1 Analysis of Situations. Relations of Force (Gramsci 1971, p. 180). 2 Balibar 2009, p. 14. 3 Foucault 1978, p. 93.

Conjuncture, conflict, war 4 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 94. 5 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 96. 6 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 95. 7 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 13. 8 Foucault 1978, p. 95. 9 Foucault 1978, p. 96. 10 Althusser 1999, p. 18. 11 Gramsci 1971, p. 175. 12 Gramsci 1971, p. 178. 13 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 14 Althusser 1999, p. 20. 15 Althusser 1999, p. 21. . 16 Foucault 1978, p. 97 17 Foucault 1978, p. 97 . 18 Foucault 1978, p. 96. 19 Foucault 1997 , p. 19. 20 Foucault 1997 , p. 19. , p. 19. 21 Foucault 1997 22 Foucault 1997 , p. 98. , p. 19. 23 Foucault 1997 24 Foucault 1997 , p. 59. 25 Foucault 1997 , p. 164. , p. 169. 26 Foucault 1997 27 Foucault 1997 , p. 23. , p. 23. 28 Foucault 1997 29 Foucault 1978, p. 93. 30 Foucault 1997 , p. 15. , p. 15. 31 Foucault 1997 32 Foucault 1997 , p. 46. , pp. 5960. 33 Foucault 1997 34 Foucault 1978, p. 93. 35 Foucault 1997 , p. 60. , p. 61. 36 Foucault 1997 37 Foucault 1997 , p. 18.


Althussers last encounter: Gramsci
Peter D. Thomas

A subterranean current
n his final texts, Louis Althusser nominated a repressed and almost completely unknown materialist tradition in the history of philosophy to which he signalled his intention to affiliate his final philosophical thoughts.1 He described this tradition as the underground current of the materialism of the encounter: it included, among others, Epicurus, Machiavelli, Spinoza and Hobbes, the Rousseau of the second discourse, Marx, Heidegger and Derrida.2 It is in relation to these thinkers that the so-called late Althussers philosophy has often been discussed in the years of its initial reception, as commentators have sought to reconstruct a coherent tendency, if not system, from largely posthumously published texts.3 Yet there is a strong case to be made that these philosophical passions were, in the last instance, overdetermined by another more directly political problematic, not always visible in the letter of Althussers texts but discernable everywhere in its effects upon them: namely, Althussers encounter with Gramsci. More than any other figure in the Marxist tradition except for its founders (and arguably, even more than Engels), Gramsci was Althussers persistent agonist, the other major interlocutor of Marx with whom, above all others, he repeatedly felt the need to settle accounts.4 On numerous occasions in different phases of his development, Althusser returned to Gramsci in order to gain new resources and perspectives in changed conjunctures. Thus, his famous reflections on the wake of May 1968, partially published in English as Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, offered an Althusserian translation of the Gramscian notion of a hegemonic apparatus;5 during the debates in the PCF in the mid to late 1970s on the thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat and in the later Crisis of Marxism announced by Althusser himself, Gramsci, and a particular Eurocommunist interpretation of Gramscis concept of hegemony, were continually interrogated in a series of texts; the remarkable Marx in his limits, which may be regarded as Althussers last political will and testament, tellingly breaks off in the middle of a discussion of Gramscis theory of the state and the autonomy of politics.6 At the foundation of this encounter, or at least one of its first significant, textually explicit traces, lies the chapter Marxism is not an historicism of Reading Capital. The central theoretical propositions of this chapter defined what came to be known as classical Althusserianism. Given the importance accorded to the critique of Gramsci here, as representative of a theoretical


Encountering Althusser

problematic that went far beyond him to include most initiatives in Western Marxism, it would not be inaccurate to regard Reading Capital, viewed from a certain perspective, as an attempt at an Anti-Gramsci, or at least as the conscious negation of the theoretical and political consequences of certain supposedly Gramscian theses. Above all, Althusser attacked Gramscis proposal that the philosophy of praxis was the absolute historicism (read by Althusser with the indefinite rather than definite article).7 Fundamentally, Althusser argued, the philosophy of praxis involved a relapse into a pre-Marxist, expressivist notion of the social totality, founded upon a conception of the temporal present as an essentially unified and coherent presence of Geist, expressed and omnipresent in all of its component parts. The temporal present itself was grasped as merely an essential section [coupe dessence], [a] vertical break in historical time . . . such that all the elements of the whole revealed by this section are in an immediate relationship with one another, a relationship that immediately expresses their internal essence ... which thus become immediately legible in them.8 Given its fame and influence, there is little need to rehearse Althussers full argument here. What is particularly interesting for the purposes of this study is the nature of the relation that Althusser argues links Gramscis absolute historicism to Hegels absolute knowledge. For the Althusser of Reading Capital, both Gramsci and Hegel posit an integral and expressive relationship between temporality and philosophy, whereas a properly Marxist concept of philosophy should rigorously refuse its reduction to mere temporal trace. He argued that If Marxism is an absolute historicism, it is because it historicizes even what was peculiarly the theoretical and practical negation of history for Hegelian historicism: the end of history, the unsurpassable present of Absolute Knowledge . . . There is no longer any privileged present in which the totality becomes visible and legible in an essential section, in which consciousness and science coincide. The fact that there is no Absolute Knowledge which is what makes the historicism absolute means that Absolute Knowledge itself is historicized. If there is no longer any privileged present, all presents are privileged to the same degree. It follows that historical time possesses in each of its presents a structure which . . Hence the project of allows each present the essential section of contemporaneity . thinking Marxism as an (absolute) historicism automatically unleashes a logically necessary chain reaction which tends to reduce and flatten out the Marxist totality into a variation of the Hegelian totality.9 Most damagingly, it also tended to reduce the distinction between Marxism, in its scientific dimensions, and other conceptions of the world. According to Althusser, Gramsci had not understood the importance of the early Althusserian distinction between science and ideology for the constitution of a genuinely Marxist philosophy. Emerging from an epistemological rupture with a previous ideological problematic, the qualitatively new science of historical materialism laid the foundation for the elaboration of a qualitatively new philosophy (dialectical materialism), which would be capable of defending the scientific from the (ever-present) threat of the return of the (superannuated but still effective) ideological.10 Gramsci, having failed to acknowledge this distinction, and having furthermore reduced science to a mere superstructure or a historical category which ultimately [reduced] science to history as its essence,11 could not do more than think the relationship between Marxist scientific theory and real history according to the model of a relationship of direct expression.12 Marxist theory

Althussers last encounter


was thus unable to be distinguished from the history from which it organically emerged.13 The specificity of Marxism its unique triangular articulation of politics, philosophy and science was annulled. The theory of history was collapsed into real history, the object of knowledge was confused with the real object, and dialectical materialism disappeared into historical materialism.14 Unwittingly, Gramsci had thus reduced Marxist philosophy to a mere reflection of its time, structurally homologous with any other organic ideology, according to the proposition that nothing can run ahead of its time,15 Althussers not entirely accurate gloss on Hegels oft-misquoted proposition that philosophy is its own time comprehended in thoughts [Gedanken].16 The present, Althusser argued, in both Hegel and, following him, in Gramsci, constitutes the absolute horizon of all knowing.17

An almost completely unknown materialist tradition

This critique stimulated a wide-ranging debate, not least of all in the Italian and French Communist Parties.18 In its turn, it gave rise to a more detailed philological engagement with the Prison Notebooks, resulting in the revision (for example, Christine Buci-Glucksmann) or substantial correction (for example, Andr Tosel and Wolfgang Fritz Haug, among others) of Althussers theses and judgments.19 Nevertheless, the image of Gramsci presented in Reading Capital won, and continues to enjoy, wide assent, to different extents in the different national Marxist theoretical cultures. Its success does not consist primarily in the continuing authority of specific classical Althusserian theses (many of which were soon amended, substantially modified or even abandoned by Althusser himself). Rather, it can be viewed in a widespread acceptance of Althussers characterisation and assessment of Gramscis position as a strong form of a weak historicism, and its concomitant marginalisation in contemporary philosophical debates. Given Gramscis prominent presence in so many other fields of scholarly enquiry, from cultural and literary studies, linguistics and anthropology to sociology, political science and history, the minor role played by the Prison Notebooks in both Marxist and non-Marxist philosophical discussions today is particularly conspicuous. In this sense, Althussers offensive achieved its primary objective. Despite the sophistication and influence of Althussers critique, however, recent philological work founded on Gerratanas 1975 critical edition of the Prison Notebooks has demonstrated the extent to which it ascribes positions to Gramsci that are not to be found in his texts.20 In particular, Gramscis notion of the philosophy of praxis as the absolute historicism does not reduce Marxism to a mere expression of the Hegelian matrix from which, in part, it emerged. On the contrary, with this critical appropriation of this central Crocean term, Gramsci aimed to indicate precisely the historical and theoretical distance that separated Marxs thought both from Hegels and from that of his latter-day imitators. This characterisation was founded upon an historical analysis of historicism as both philosophical doctrine and political current in the long nineteenth century; Marxism was posited as the absolute form of this tradition not according to a model of absolute knowledge, in which it would function as a finally attained consciousness of history which, qua consciousness, allows the present to be fully contemporaneous with and transparent to itself, but rather in the sense that it represented a possible resolution of the contradictions of the previous historicist tradition. Rather than the


Encountering Althusser

Hegelianising, emanationist model of the social totality presented by Althusser, Gramscis complex identification of philosophy and history, under the aegis of politics, instead presupposes an anti-essentialist theory of translatability and the necessary non-contemporaneity of the present. In turn, this gives rise to a definition of philosophy not as the expression of an essence (the temporal and logical priority of which would guarantee the unity of the presents manifold expressions, including pre-eminently its philosophical realisation), but as a particularly intense form of organisation and potentially, transformation of this constitutive heterogeneity. Influenced by his university studies in historical linguistics, and stimulated above all by Lenins reflections on the difficulty of translating the language of the Russian Revolution into the languages of Western Europe,21 Gramsci expands the concept of translation beyond strictly linguistic phenomena to embrace a much wider range of social practices. The famous couplets of the Prison Notebooks East and West, civil society and political society, the national and international, war of position and war of manoeuvre are all thought in terms of productive mutual transposition between different registers. Translatability also gradually comes to assume the status of a central organising perspective of Gramscis philosophical reflections in the Prison Notebooks, indicating a relational and thus anti-essentialist methodology of philosophical research.22 For Gramsci, the relationship between philosophy, politics and history was not to be thought in terms of a hierarchy of casual relations, but in terms of their dialectical interpenetration, each comprehending the others in their own particular modes. Above all, the notion of translatability is central to Gramscis notion of the relationship of theory and practice, which he posits not as a simple unity of theory and practice (such a unity being premised upon their prior and continuing distinction), but as the process of their active identification through the intensification of relations of translation. Theory and practice thus come to be immanent to each other through a process of progressive experimentation, as the practical dimensions of theory, as a form of highly mediated organisation, encounter the theoretical dimensions of emergent practices, conceived as new forms of organisation in nuce. This perspective also provided Gramsci with the outlines of a decentred conception of social formations that can legitimately be regarded as both a precursor and alternative formulation of the key Althusserian concept of overdetermination. Translation, in this perspective, is an eminently political practice, in the sense of a transformative instance of constitutive relationality that cannot be reduced to a process of originary or retrospective unification. Grasped in its fullest sense, it involves the construction of lines of communication between different practices whose relations are not premised either on interiority, in the sense of an identical essence or an Ursprache immanently present in all, or on exteriority, in which discrete essences confront each other in subject-object relations. For all of their similarity, however, there remains a significant difference between the Gramscian and Althusserian formulations: while the economic continued to occupy a central position in the early Althussers conception of regions of a social formation (and thus provided a functional, if not essential, founding instance), Gramsci instead emphasises the transformative relationality of politics as the decisive point of mediation of practices that are comprehended, not in spatial terms, but in their historical movement, without origin or goal, as intensifications of relations of domination and subalternity. Due in large part to this emphasis upon the primacy of difference, nothing could be further from the native temper of Gramscis thought than the notion of an essential section, an

Althussers last encounter


expressivist totality, or an homogenous present contemporaneous with itself. Althussers mistake here may have been to have lazily assumed, perhaps prompted by the hearsay he later admitted had overdetermined his reading of Gramsci, that the Prison Notebooks had uncritically taken over precisely this element of Croces thought that they are at such pains to refute.23 For Croce, the present is truly and necessarily identical with itself, contemporaneous in all the component parts of an omnipresent Spirito that contains (synchronic) distinctions but not (diachronic) real differences. Croces Spirito unlike at least one version of Hegels Geist, which depends upon precisely that which it is not can tolerate nothing exterior to itself.24 Croces thought, unlike Gramscis, presupposes a conception of the present as an essential section; indeed, the Althusserian concept of an essential section seems almost designed to capture precisely the difference between Croces ostensibly immanentist reform of Hegelianism, and Gramscis emphasis upon the dimensions of Hegelianism (especially for its attempt to overcome the traditional conceptions of idealism and materialism) that could be re-proposed in a more strongly non-metaphysical and political register.25 In reality, Gramsci conducted an unrelenting struggle against Croces diluted absolute historicism, arguing that its metaphysical residues were not incidental or contingent but constituted the metaphysical hard core of his research programme.26 Gramsci pursued this critique on two fronts: on the one hand, he argued that Croces history of freedom was a tendentious history of the present written from the standpoint of the victors, a history according to plan [storia a disegno], ably disguised;27 on the other hand, he pointed to the unbridgeable abyss between Croces categories and the history they claimed to comprehend. His thought remained speculative, and in this sense Gramsci could argue that the speculative residue of theology and metaphysics in Croces thought is not a residue, it is a whole , it is the entire method of philosophising, and for it any affirmation of historicism is vain, because it is a case of speculative historicism , of the concept of history and not of history.28 In Gramscis positive alternative to this neo-idealist conception, however, the present is necessarily non-identical with itself, composed of numerous times that do not coincide but are constituted by their relational difference. Rather than expressive of an essence equally present in all practices, the present for Gramsci is precisely an ensemble of those practices in their different temporalities, struggling to assert their primacy and thus to articulate the present as an achieved rather than originary unity. This notion of the constitutive non-contemporaneity of the present is one of the fundamental themes of the Prison Notebooks. It is explored in a variety of forms, ranging from the complexity of composite bodies on a mass scale to the molecular composition of personal identity and individuality. One of the central forms in which this dislocation is played out occurs at the level of the constitution of the person [la persona] trapped in a condition of subalternity to statal forms of organisation, stability and regulation the Gramscian alternative to a theory of the subject, whether derived from a philosophy of consciousness or regarded as the necessary foundation for political agency. Such a bizarrely composed personality contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over.29 Compiling an inventory of the infinity of traces of the historical process that constitute such an incoherent present is the starting point for elaborating a critical knowledge that would be capable, not of mastering these contradictions in an act of self-consciousness,30 but of positing itself as an element of contradiction.31


Encountering Althusser

For Gramsci, language itself gives ample evidence of the fractured nature of historical time, insofar as its constitutively metaphorical nature reveals layers or sediments of different historical experiences sitting together in an uncomfortable modus vivendi: current language is metaphorical with respect to the meanings and ideological content that words have had in previous periods of civilisation ... Language changes with the transformation of the entire civilisation, through the emergence of new classes in the culture, through the hegemony exercised by one national language on others etc, and takes up precisely metaphorical words of previous civilisations and cultures.32 Similarly, dialects and national languages confront each other not in hierarchical relations of degeneration or purity but as performative indices of different tempos of historical development, ultimately linked to the conditions of political subalternity or hegemonic direction that shape the communities of their practitioners.33 The present of individual nation-states is similarly fractured, in the relations between urban centres and rural peripheries (one role of which is to provide the metropolitan present with an image of its past, giving rise to and being played out in the temporal dislocations of national presents of internal migration). On an international level, the hegemonic relationships between different national formations consign some social formations to the past times of others. Gramscis most famous characterisation of the underdeveloped East in comparison to the advanced West, which he derived from Lenin and Trotskys reflections on the success of the Russian Revolution and the failures of revolutions in the West, has sometimes been read as presupposing a normative and progressivist notion of capitalist development, or even an ideal type of the modern state absent in an exceptional Orient.34 In reality, however, the distinction here between East and West, and their unification within a world system, is analytic rather than substantive; it allows us to grasp the fact that the tempo and efficacy of imperialist expansion itself progressively imposes an essential unity on the disparity of different national historical experiences. Above all, the non-contemporaneity of the present in Gramsci is a function and symptomatic index of the struggle between classes. The present, as the time of class struggle, is necessarily and essentially out of joint, fractured by the differential times of different class projects. Once again, in this conception, difference rather than unity is primary. Far from presupposing it, Gramsci demonstrates that the notion of a unified present is not objectively nor immediately given, but rather, is a function of the social and political hegemony of one social group seeking to impose its own present as an insurpassable horizon for all other social groups. Concretised via the hegemonic apparatuses that organise, ratify and stabilise the social relations of the established order, this present does indeed come to constitute an absolute horizon, not simply of knowing, but also, and more decisively, of the possibilities of action. Insofar as we can talk of a unified present or contemporaneity in Gramsci, it only emerges tendentially, as the function of a classs hegemonic project that has progressed to the constitution of its own form of political society, as the organising instance of the associations of civil society that it interpellates or more precisely, subjugates as its subaltern raw material. There is thus an ongoing and always incomplete struggle to unify any present, to produce a contemporaneity or coincidence of times that aims to efface its reality as a Kampfplatz of contradictions that are not simply conceptual, but realised in the form of opposed interests of social groups. A unified present is inessential appearance, the contingent image the ruling class crafts of its own project embodied in statal institutions, viewed from the perspective of the eternity it claims to embody.

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Yet there is a struggle between two hegemonies, always, Gramsci famously wrote.35 There are always (at least) two class projects that attempt to mobilise, in the case of the subaltern strata, or (dis)organise, in the case of the ruling group, disparate class forces on the terrain of the civil society of the (bourgeois) integral State, in order to secure their ratification in the institutions of political society. The time of the one denies the full presence of the other. To adopt an opposition proposed by Alberto Burgio, the time of already constituted political power for Gramsci is the time of duration, the development of an inert time, mere quantity adequately measured in chronological terms . . . an empty time. The time of the subaltern classes, on the other hand, initially condemned to endure such duration, is fractured by the possibility of another present. Gramsci is here not very far from the Jetztzeit of Benjamins Theses on the Philosophy of History. When the subaltern classes set out to make history or to constitute [their own] epoch, they rupture this continuum, shattering its linearity and filling up this empty time with an event (an ensemble of events) that modifies the rhythm, the intensity, the meaning itself of historical movement, imparting to it an acceleration and determining its progress.36 In this possible present and this possible future we encounter the possibility not of a supposedly genuine contemporaneity, understood as a synchronisation of different times, but of an interweaving of an ensemble of temporalities in non-hierarchical relations of translation in a regulated society, Gramscis version of the notion of a non-state state.37 Far from comprehending philosophy as the spiritualist expression of an essence that is also legible in other practices, Gramsci defines it in similarly political terms, as an instance of organisation or transformation.38 Unlike Croces qualitative distinction between philosophy and ideology, and unlike the early Althussers assertion of the incommensurability of the scientific, proper to Marxist philosophy, and the ideological, the organic expression of its time, Gramsci argues that the distinction is quantitative, rather than qualitative. In one of the richest passages in the Prison Notebooks, he argues that philosophy is the conception of the world that represents the intellectual and moral life (catharsis of a determinate practical life) of an entire social group conceived in movement and thus seen not only in its current and immediate interests, but also in its future and mediated interests. On the other hand, Gramsci here defines ideology as any particular conception of groups inside the class that propose to help in the resolution of immediate and circumscribed problems.39 Neither of these formulations can be interpreted as positing a direct expression of an unified, self-present essence, since both are mediated by the organisation of interests of classes and class fractions. Ideology is not conceived, as the early and arguably even later Althusser would have it, as organic to its age, as emerging from it in a direct and immediate fashion.40 Rather, it represents a particular partial aspect of it (instrumental resolution of immediate problems of a class, as they are understood by a limited strata of its leadership). In this perspective, philosophy is an even more artificial moment of any particular present in comparison to ideology, because it is only achieved through complex processes of mediation of both present and absent elements, ranging from historical assessment, to analysis of the concrete conjuncture, to prevision of the future in the form of a project and programme.41 Rather than anchored in the strictly a-historical realm of the scientific, philosophy in this Gramscian perspective is distinguished from ideology insofar as it is fully elaborated in the dialectical relations of organisation (political society) and association (civil society) in the integral State. One of the roles of all philosophy hitherto has been not only to ratify and reflect such a violently unified present, functioning as its ideal complement, but also actively to organise it, albeit at a high level of institutional and conceptual mediation,


Encountering Althusser

as a conception of the world. As Gramsci formulated in an early phase of his carceral project, what is politics for the productive class becomes rationality for the intellectual class;42 or to use the remarkably Gramscian words of the later Althusser, philosophy functions as a form of unification of the dominant ideology.43

Hidden and minor structures

Was Althussers misguided critique therefore merely a case of overweening pride going before a fall, of polemical excess? Althusser himself admitted to being unsure of the fairness of his critique (albeit only privately, in a letter to his Italian translator Franca Madonia, from the period when he was completing Reading Capital), suggesting a fundamental theoretical uncertainty hiding behind the rhetorical bravura of his adopted public persona.44 Was it thus merely a case of bad philology, perhaps necessarily but no less culpably in a period before the publication of Gerratanas critical edition of the Prison Notebooks (1975)? Or were there reasons internal to the early Althussers own project, even and especially in its polemical excess, that led him to focus on the theme of contemporaneity and to assert that Gramscis philosophy of praxis was haunted by essentialist reductions? In this case, it would almost be as if one Althusser was acting out a (self-)critique of another Althusser, one Althusser projecting the positions of another Althusser onto his most significant Marxist other: an esoteric against an exoteric Althusser, to adopt a Straussian distinction; the Althusser who had entered the party as a militant intent upon reforming it, versus the public persona of the theoretician he adopted to pursue his Spinozist strategy of occupying the partys theoretical strongholds from within in order to destroy them;45 For Marx versus Reading Capital, or even, within the former work, the author of Contradiction and Overdetermination versus On the Materialist Dialectic; the time of political intervention, versus the duration of the mode of production; in short, as Balibar has suggested (and problematised), Althusser the practitioner of an intervention into the (philosophical, political) conjuncture versus Althusser the Theorist of structure.46 In other words, would the early Althussers critique of Gramsci amount to a case of a bad conscience expunged through transference? Such an explanation would be in accord with an influential tendency in recent Althusser scholarship, which emphasises the constitutive tensions, if not contradictions, of the original Althusserian synthesis. According to this perspective, one of the consequences of the early Althussers and colleagues flirtation with structuralist terminology had been the subordination of conjuncture to structure, or the transformation of the open terrain of class struggle into a stable, self-affirming system. Structure, following this reading, would be understood as an essential section in which all of the elements of the whole are immediately present. In its turn, overdetermination would then become the mere influence of all elements upon each other, or in the terms Gramsci adopted from Gentilian terminology to describe Croces system, a mere constellation of distinctions, producing the pluralism Althusser elsewhere explicitly repudiated.47 Structure would thus signify the closing in upon and within itself of a selfreferential articulation of elements, posited in a synchronic contemporaneity. It would become unable to accommodate the political moment that is, the conjuncture as the distinctive dimension in which a given empty time of the state is ruptured by the epoch-making intervention of the popular classes which alone could open it. In other words, conjuncture, a

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central concept of Althussers early project, threatened to turn into a minor structure or, in the terms Gramsci expropriated from Croce and turned against the Neapolitan philosopher himself, a hidden-structure God.48 These risks remained ambivalent in the early work of Althusser and his colleagues, constituted as it was by a tension between the (at least) two Althussers, between the two tendencies or temporalities that had crystallised in the Althusserian Moment.49 Arguably, it was only in later self-styled Althusserianisms and the stereotypes fashioned by their critics that the most damaging (and metaphysical) of their consequences were realised, in a caricature of the much richer conception of the social whole that lay behind Althussers admittedly potentially misleading theoreticist rhetoric.50 Nevertheless, a series of critical remarks and caveats in For Marx and Reading Capital show that Althusser was well aware of these temptations and attempted to work against them, without for all of that being able to eliminate them entirely.

From the class struggle in theory to a new practice of philosophy

It was only with Althussers self-critiques of the late 1960s and early 1970s that a potential alternative to this theoreticist deviation began to take concrete shape. According to some commentators, in the course of these self-critiques, Althusser progressively destroyed the theses he had constructed,51 eventually dismantling the conceptual scaffolding on which his earlier project had been built. In particular, Marxist philosophy is no longer conceived in Althussers later texts as the guardian of scientificity, at a remove from politics itself; on the contrary, it is now characterised in directly political terms, as class struggle in the field of theory. Significantly, however, while developing this self-critique, Althusser does not explicitly revisit or retract the critique of Gramsci in which those theoreticist positions had first been worked out; rather, revealingly, he largely implicitly shifts his objections from the directly philosophical (historicism) to the political terrain (the theory of the state presented as Gramscian by Italian Eurocommunists in this period in particular). Althussers political or even politicist orientation intensified throughout the 1970s; by the time of Marx in his limits in 1978, and arguably even more so in his attempted systematisation in the 1980s of earlier meditations on a materialism of the rain, the swerve, the encounter, the take [prise],52 it crystallised into what is arguably an entirely new project. Those elements that remained, such as the negation of all forms of teleology, the attempt to destabilise the traditional conception of the relationship of contingency and necessity, or the central concept of overdetermination, have led one significant contemporary reading to stress the substantive continuities in Althussers development.53 This interpretation has reacted against an earlier interpretation that arose immediately following the posthumous publication of the writings of Althussers solitude, which suggested that aleatory materialism (only one of the late Althussers designations for his thought, and perhaps the least accurate)54 represented a Kehre in Althussers thinking.55 This potentially productive perspective, albeit partisan and philologically questionable, was then soon banalised in the assertion that it perhaps even constitutes a departure from the Marxist tradition tout court.56 Insofar as the more recent readings emphasis upon the continuities with Althussers earlier project allow us to read these


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late writings as resources for the renewal of the Marxist tradition rather than its abandonment, it constitutes a welcome corrective. Nevertheless, the general direction of the most sophisticated contemporary Althusser scholarship can have the unintended consequence of downplaying the significant differences between the later and the earlier writings that are found alongside and sometimes, precisely within such continuities. This is to say that it is not merely a question of two Althussers, or an early versus late Althusser, to adopt the common caricature of the terms of his influential reading of Marx. Rather, it is much more a case of the emptiness of a distance taken within Althussers thought itself,57 of his ongoing break with and return to himself, within and across the different moments of his projects enunciation. This distance is intensified rather than reduced in the final phases of his thought, without finding any stable or definitive resolution. It gives rise to an internal tension between the substantive and formal dimensions of his project. While the former open up a new dynamic that potentially goes beyond the determining perspectives of Althussers earlier work, the latter remain tied to them, in a moment of negative critique, which ultimately threatens to overpower his new substantive orientation. Substantively, the materialism of the encounter consolidates lines of research that, at least in potential, overcome the theoreticist limitations of the approach of the early 1960s and even, arguably, its residues in the works of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Althusser declares in The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter that all reality, all necessity, all Meaning and all reason emerge from the lasting encounter, or the accomplished fact in which, once the fact has been accomplished, is established the reign of Reason, Meaning, Necessity and End, he has definitively abandoned any claim either to a scientificity or to a philosophy that is not organic to its time.58 Indeed, Althusser goes so far as to argue that the thesis that there exist only cases, i.e. singular individuals wholly distinct from one another, is the basic thesis of nominalism, and, following this, that nominalism is not merely the antechamber of materialism, but materialism itself.59 The distance taken from the earlier attempt rigorously to distinguish between the real object and the object of knowledge could not be greater; now, Althusser claims that knowledge can only be produced by working on the real object itself, which is redefined as the encounter, constituted in its contingency and fragility. The real object is here grasped as a conjuncture of conjunctures, or an unstable constellation of encounters that continually threaten to give way to other encounters, decomposing themselves, as it were, from within. The encounter has always-already achieved its constitutive incompletion, conceived as a process in continual renewal, rather than a fixed state. The encounter may not take place, Althusser notes, or it may no longer take place.60 The Meaning and reason that arise from it and which exist only within it thus also may not take hold, or may no longer take hold. They are entirely dependent upon the articulation of the encounter or conjuncture they attempt to grasp in thought, determined and defined by no structure that precedes or goes beyond them. This is the present that, for the late Althusser, constitutes the absolute horizon of all knowing.61 Can we therefore say that in these final texts, conjuncture has finally dispensed with its metaphysical corruption in the concept of structure that haunted the project of For Marx and Reading Capital? Certainly, Althusser now strives to find a mode of thought adequate to thinking the specificity of each conjunctural encounter on its own terms, rather than subsuming them as variations on an enduring structural theme. Implicitly dispensing with his previous qualitative distinctions between ideology, science and philosophy and thinking their

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dialectical implication, he now posits thought as a constitutive and active element of each such conjuncture, a theoretical moment internal to and determined by it. Althusser would here appear to be very close to Gramscis equation of history-politics-philosophy, as the various attributes, in a Spinozist sense, according to which a constitutively non-contemporaneous present can be immanently comprehended, in relations of continual reciprocal translation. It may thus seem that the late Althusser finally returned to the troubling intuition that had originally prompted him to set out on his long adventure, or detour, advancing masked through the strongholds of a degenerating Diamat and its derivatives, which he had acted out in negative and polemical terms in Reading Capitals critique of Gramsci. That is, at least one dimension of the materialism of the encounter would seem no longer to hide politics behind appeals for the autonomy of philosophy; rather, here Althusser boldly steps forward and attempts to politicise the notion of philosophy itself. No longer the guarantee of the veracity of revolutionary politics, philosophy is now identified as the property, in all senses of the term, of the party of the state. For this perspective, a possible future proletarian non-state state will have the need not of a philosophy, whether Marxist or not, but of a non-philosophy.62 Althussers attempt to theorise the simultaneously theoretical and political preconditions for its emergence undoubtedly constitutes one of the primary reasons that the publication of his late writings has been greeted with such enthusiasm.63 In a period that has witnessed other powerful attempts to inherit the dynamic of the original Althusserian paradigm in terms of a return of and perhaps to philosophy itself, this dimension of the late Althussers project has seemed to offer the outlines of a possible Marxist non-philosophy-to-come.64 At the same time, however, the late Althusser continues themes from his earlier work that reduce the potentially explosive force of this new orientation. Formally, the philosophy of the encounter seems to be distinguished by the way in which it treats the question of Marxist philosophy. While this treatment is indeed different from central formulations in Althussers early work, it is nevertheless also remarkably similar in certain decisive respects; in the intertwining of elements of continuity and innovation, it is, pace Negri, ultimately the former and not the latter that acquire hegemony.65 For Marx and Reading Capital had attempted to explicate a philosophy of Marxism, the philosophy buried in Marxs work in a practical state. In the period of his self-critiques, Althusser had argued that its successful excavation would reveal not a (new) philosophy, but rather, a (new) practice of philosophy.66 The novelty of this practice of philosophy was indicated precisely by its status as a properly Marxist philosophy, or as a philosophy adequate to the immense theoretical revolution introduced by Marx into the history of Western Philosophy. The philosophy of the encounter, on the other hand, strives to be, at the most, not a philosophy of Marxism, but a (non-)philosophy for Marxism. The earlier ambition of replacing Diamat as the true philosophy of Marxism is entirely abandoned, as Althusser adopts what seem to be more modest activist postures. This non-philosophy will merely attempt to account for what Marx thought in Capital, to be capable of comprehending the conceptual discoveries that he put to work there.67 It is notable, however, that while the claims of Marxist philosophy have been downgraded, those of philosophy itself have not. Arguably, philosophy remains the absolute horizon of knowing for the late Althusser, even and especially in its negation. As Matheron not entirely unfairly notes, the primacy of science in the 1960s, which is already a primacy of philosophy, was succeeded by the absolute primacy of philosophy in the enigmatic texts of the 1980s.68 This primacy is maintained in a transformed and negative mode; as a non-philosophy for


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Marxism, the philosophy of the encounter takes its distance from all philosophy hitherto and thereby leaves it intact. Philosophy, that is, remains the positive figure that defines this non-philosophy, in its negative and structurally subaltern relation, as that which it is not, or more precisely, that which it fails to become.69 This formulation of the philosophy of the encounter remains, despite Althussers intentions, merely a (new) philosophy, assimilable to a notion of philosophy as an instance of organisation and domination to the precise extent that it does not formulate a coherent alternative to it. It is unable to produce that transformation within the practice of philosophy that Althusser had indicated in 1976 as necessary in order to break the persistent capacity of philosophical form to subordinate other social practices and reshape them within itself,70 as a laboratory for the theoretical unification and foundation of the dominant ideology.71 It was Gramsci who, foremost among all of Althussers interlocutors, had insisted that the historical epoch opened by Marxs thought consisted, among other things, in the possibility of practising philosophy in such a way that it would not only oppose the existing philosophy of the party of the state, but would also lead to the transformation of the very nature of philosophy: a new form of philosophy that would be both a laboratory for and an enactment of the self-regulating society it aimed to bring into existence. As Gramsci argued, the originality [of Marxs thought] lies not only in its transcending of previous philosophies but also and above all in that it opens up a completely new road, renewing from head to toe the whole way of conceiving philosophy itself.72 No longer practiced as a speculative command or an instance of exterior ordering, Gramscis reformulation of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis aimed to be immanent to the social and political relations in which it is elaborated, functioning as the critical dimension of those practices and reconfiguring them as self-organisation from below. Crucially, Gramscis proposal was not content to cede philosophy to the existing dominant order, but struggled to redefine it as the theory of the elaboration of such forms of association of the irreducibly diverse. In this sense, we might say that Louis Althussers first and most enduring encounter remains waiting for his last reflections, both as their immanent critique and as their necessary supplement.

1 Althusser 2006a, p. 168. 2 Althusser 2006a, p. 168. 3 See Morfino 2005 for an important reckoning of accounts with Althussers frequently elliptic references in these texts. 4 Franois Matheron, seemingly eager to distance Althussers thought, in any of its phases, from a Marxist matrix, has claimed that aside from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and occasionally Gramsci, Marxist references in Althussers texts are fairly rare and most of the time pretty imprecise (Matheron 2008, pp. 51819). If we leave aside the obvious performative contradiction of Matherons qualification, his assertion still remains, in strictly philological terms, incorrect. In particular, references to Gramsci, both implicit and explicit, abound throughout all of Althussers text. 5 For a critical discussion of the relation between these concepts, see Bollinger and Koivisto 2001. 6 Althusser 2006a, p. 150.

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7 For Gramscis original formulation, see Q11, 27 . References throughout this chapter are to the critical edition of the Quaderni del carcere, edited by Valentino Gerratana (Gramsci 1975). The numbers that follow the letter Q [Quaderno] indicate the notebook, while numbers following indicate a note. The English critical edition of The Prison Notebooks, edited by Joseph A. Buttigieg, now comprises three volumes (Gramsci 1992; 1996; 2007), containing Notebooks 18; notes included in those volumes can also be located according to the notebook and number of the note. 8 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 94. 9 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 132. 10 On the theme of the scientific foundations of (Marxist) philosophy for the Althusser of For Marx and Reading Capital, see Goshgarian 2003, p. xii et sqq. 11 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 133. 12 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 131. 13 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 132. 14 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 137 . 15 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 95. 16 Hegel 1991, p. 21. 17 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 95. 18 Tosel 1995a and 1995b provide comprehensive overviews of the ensuing debate in France, while Liguori 1996, particularly pp. 13252, reconstructs the Italian discussion. Lo Iacono 2012 provides an extensive overview of the reception of Althussers thought in Italian Marxism. For recent reflections on both the historical and contemporary significance of Althussers critique and concept of historical time, see Hindess 2007 and Macherey 2005. 19 See Buci-Glucksmann, 1980; Tosel 1995a, in particular pp. 5-26; Haug 2006. 20 I have previously attempted to analyse the philological errors of Althussers critique in Thomas 2004 and 2009, particularly pp. 243306. 21 See Q11, 46. 22 The theme of translatability in The Prison Notebooks constitutes the focus of Boothman 2004. Ives 2004 examines the concept both in relation to other Marxist thinkers and significant currents in twentieth century linguistics. Frosini 2011 emphasises the importance of the concept of translatability for the elaboration of Gramscis philosophy of praxis; see in particular pp. 313. 23 Now, I must confess that the best studies that I have been able to read on the thought of Gramsci have not really dissipated the theoretical doubt to which I refer. Althusser 1971b, pp. 3412. 24 On this theme, see Frosini 2003, in particular pp. 126-7 . See also the interesting if partial reading of Hegel developed in Coassin-Spiegel 1997 , in particular pp. 3953. For a novel reading of Hegel as a theorist of irreducible alterity, see Finelli 2004. 25 Q4, 11. 26 See, for example, Q8, 224. 27 Q10II, 41xvi. 28 Q8, 224. A particularly acute analysis of Gramscis critique of the a-historicity of Croces categories can be found in Roth 1972, p. 68 et sqq. 29 Q11, 12. 30 Q11, 12. See the delicate analysis of this theme in Gerratana 1997 . 31 Q11, 62.


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32 Q11, 24. 33 Gramsci explores the political implications of this insight of historical linguistics in his final notebook (Q29), particularly with the elaboration of a critique of normative grammar a veritable materialist grammatology avant la lettre. 34 In the East, the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society (Q7 , 16). 35 Q8, 227 , p. 1084. 36 Burgio 2003, pp. 1920. 37 On the notion of a (self-)regulated society in Gramsci, see Q6, 65; Q6, 88; Q7 , 33. Morfino 2009 explores the Spinozian (and Machiavellian) dimensions of a notion of non-contemporaneity as ensemble of durations. 38 See Q7 , 35, where Gramsci argues that everything is politics, even philosophy or the philosophies ... and the only philosophy is history in act. Rather than a politicism, this line of reasoning gives rise to a theory of the primacy of politics as transformation. 39 Q10I, 10. These are not Gramscis only definitions of philosophy and ideology in the Prison Notebooks, which include a range of critical, neutral and positive definitions of each term. For alternative and more extensive treatments of Gramscis notions of ideology, see Jan Rehmann 2008, particularly pp. 82101, and Liguori 2004. Gramscis discussion here of the distinction between the two thought-forms is particularly significant, however, when considered in relation to the early Althussers alternative attempt to theorise the passage from ideology to philosophy: Althusser conceived the passage as an epistemological one, whereas Gramsci insisted that this question of (the form of) knowledge was overdetermined by augmentation or diminution of the capacity to act. In this sense, it is Gramsci and not Althusser who comes closest to reproposing Spinozas critique of the limitations of Cartesian epistemology within the Marxist Weltanschauung. 40 See the nomination of ideology in Marxism and Humanism as the very element and atmosphere indispensable to [the] historical respiration and life of human societies. Althusser 1969a, p. 232. While Althusser later produced more sophisticated accounts of the notion of ideology, the notion of the organic and necessary character of ideology arguably remains a constant in his theoretical evolution. Cf. the discussion of ideology in Philosophy and Marxism in Althusser 2006a. 41 On the political status of the concept of prevision for Gramsci, see Badaloni 1981. 42 Q1, 151. 43 Althusser 2006a, p. 259. 44 See the letter of 2 July 1965, in Althusser 1998b, pp. 6234. 45 See Althusser 1997a, pp. 1011. 46 See Balibar 1994. See also Ichida and Matheron 2005. 47 Althusser 1969a, pp. 2012. 48 Q10II, 41i. G.M. Goshgarian 2006 contains an important discussion of the relation of conjuncture and structure in Althussers development, as does Lahtinen 2009. 49 Gregory Elliott 2006 provides a sophisticated delineation of the moment of Althusser, born from the events of 1956 (Khrushchevs secret speech, crisis in the international Communist movement) but crystallising in definite and irrevocable ways in the changed conjuncture of the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s the self non-contemporaneity of a distinctive intellectualpolitical project. 50 Montag 1998a and Fourtounis 2005 in particular have provided a more complex reading of the Spinozist dimensions of the project of For Marx and Reading Capital. Read 2007 points to the unfinished nature of the early Althusserian notion of theoretical practice and suggests how

Althussers last encounter a deepening of its Spinozist dimensions, particularly in Machereys work with the concept of philosophy as an operation, helps to overcome some of it contradictions. 51 Matheron 2008, p. 504. 52 Althusser 2006a, p. 167 . 53 See for example Morfino 2005, Goshgarian 2006, Turchetto 2009 and Lahtinen 2009.


54 On Althussers different terminology, and relatively late emergence of aleatory materialism, see Goshgarian 2006. 55 For the most influential formulation of the Kehre thesis, see Negri 1996a. 56 Representative of a more general post-Marxist interpretation is Vatter 2004. For a salutary critique of the politically overdetermined errors of this reading, see Montag 2004. 57 Althusser 1971a, p. 62. 58 Althusser 2006a, p. 169. 59 Althusser 2006a, p. 265. See also Althusser 1997a, p. 11; and, for an exploration of the consequences of this claim, Suchting 2004. 60 Althusser 2006a, p. 172. On the theme of the always incomplete and thus ongoing taking hold of the encounter, see Morfino 2005 and Suchting 2004, particularly p. 30. 61 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 95. 62 Althusser 2006a, p. 259. 63 For representative examples, see McInerney 2005 and Read 2005. 64 Among a number of recent attempts to argue for Badious inheritance of significant dimensions of Althussers project, see the different approaches and emphases of Feltham 2008, pp. 131 and Bosteels 2011, pp. 5076. 65 Negri 1996a, p. 58. 66 Althusser 1971a, p. 68. 67 Althusser 2006a, p. 2589. 68 Matheron 2008, p. 514. Althusser: Subjectivity without a Subject in Badiou 2005a would seem to concur with the notion of such a continuing priority of the philosophical in Althussers development. 69 In a maudlin spirit, Althusser will even argue, in the mock interview Philosophy and Marxism, that it would be possible simply to translate and update existing philosophies for the analysis of our own historical period. See Althusser 2006a, p. 260. A similar implicit perspective is present in Balibars proposition that there is no Marxist philosophy and there never will be (Balibar 1995, p. 1). Philosophy here comes to function as an absent centre around which Marxs interventions are forced to revolve, in their excess or destitution extremes that are only defined as such due to a prior ordering of discourses in which philosophy continues to occupy a privileged position of reference, prior to and independent of attempts to transform the forms of its constitution and practice. 70 Althusser 1990a, p. 245. 71 Althusser 1990a, p. 260. 72 Q11, 27 .

Althusser and Spinoza: the enigma of the subject
Caroline Williams

In the broad sense, every philosophy is practical and political: an Ethics.1

here is an abiding presence of Spinoza throughout the corpus of Louis Althusser. This chapter is devoted to an exploration of this most nuanced and diverse presence of Spinoza, ranging from Althussers epistemology in Reading Capital to discussions of the subject and ideology in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter. By tracing these diverse readings of Spinoza, the discussion hopes to shed light upon some of the ruptures and continuities in Althussers oeuvre. I argue here that there are several readings of Spinoza, and that we should pose not only the question of why Althusser reads Spinoza, but also which Spinoza is most useful to his political project. My aim is not to prioritise Spinoza over other thinkers close to Althusser and considered in this volume of essays (such as Machiavelli), but I am nonetheless proposing to make a case for the persistence of Spinozas thought throughout Althussers oeuvre, and I extend this persistence to thinkers who work and think in his wake, from Pierre Macherey and tienne Balibar to Alain Badiou, among others. Indeed, a more specific aim of the present discussion is to consider the precise theoretical shape of Althussers theoretical anti-humanism, and the mutual imbrication of philosophy and politics implied by this formulation. In his Metapolitics, Alain Badiou credits Althusser with the opening up of the enigma of subjectivity without a subject as the intra-philosophical mark of politics.2 How might Althussers own reflections assist in the intellectual task of thinking subjectivity without the subject, and hence outside all political idealisms? What might we understand by the notion of philosophical rupture, and how might we approach the idea of dis/continuity in Althussers thought? When we think about the notion of philosophical rupture, we may be led to reflect upon a whole host of theoretical


Encountering Althusser

constellations (from the early epistemological break as a separating or ruptural activity, a transition between ideology and knowledge, a distinction or shift, marking the rational partition/demarcation between the different sites of science and ideology; to a later conception of philosophy itself as a ruptural exercise: a continuous rupture without end). It is in this latter sense that Althusser writes of philosophy as its own proper object (or without a real object, without conditions, as he would say), or as a laboratory where thought is practiced as the taking-up of a position or thesis.3 Thus, Althusser writes of the need for ... every philosophy to make a detour via other philosophies in order to define itself and grasp itself in terms of its difference: its division [its rupture, we might say].4 It is through the paradox of incessant rupture that philosophy is able to occupy a position, develop a strategy, a thought of practice, to think practice via that thought, and through this process to create political (that is, ideological and material) effects. It is in this primarily strategic sense, I wish to suggest, that Althusser occupies the terrain of Spinozas philosophy: in order to utilise it somewhat creatively for his own ends, by developing theses that Spinoza would likely never have acknowledged but that did not contradict his thought.5 And it is in this strategic sense, deepened over time and inevitably unfinished, that the appeal to Spinoza persists throughout his writings, from Reading Capital to The Philosophy of the Encounter. As related in his autobiography, Althusser was also fascinated by Spinozas own philosophical strategy. In the Ethics, Spinoza had transformed the conception of a transcendental God (Substance) as the transitive cause of all things, prior to the world he creates. By understanding God as identical with Nature, as well as being self-caused [causa sui], Substance itself became the continuous production and differentiation, composition and decomposition, of the many diverse (infinite) forms of its being. It is this move that constitutes, for Althusser, Spinozas unparalleled audacity, and the unprecedented theoretical revolution produced by his thought. Not only did Spinoza take over the theoretical places fortified and occupied by . . he [his] adversaries (namely, the theological problem of Gods power and existence), . established himself there as if he were his own adversary ... and redisposed the theoretical fortress in such a way as to turn it completely around, as one turns around cannons against the fortresss own occupants.6

Althusser reads Spinoza

Thus I will not begin my discussion by attempting to compartmentalise and delineate the multifaceted and often performative oeuvre of Louis Althusser. Indeed, research by tienne Balibar (who claims that his legacy is nothing but the unpredictable succession of conjunctures), Gregory Elliott, Warren Montag, Antonio Negri, and other contributions to this volume, already caution against such a move, or have presented in nuanced textual studies the complex genesis of its development.7 Certainly, we can no longer speak simply of an early or a late Althusser. My argument here also warns against such drawing of boundaries, since I suggest the persistence of Spinozas philosophy throughout his thought. Indeed, and complicating matters somewhat, Geoffrey Goshgarian has argued in his brief and incisive discussion of the utilisation of Spinoza that Althusser sometimes mobilises a reading of Spinoza against an earlier Spinoza-inflected position, thus implying, perhaps, that Althussers reading of Spinoza may at best have some quite different (competing/contradictory?) emphases, and at worst

Althusser and Spinoza


lack rigour and consistency.8 In Reading Capital there is certainly a sense in which Althussers usage of Spinoza, to the extent that it veers towards an epistemological opposition between science and ideology, presents only a partial rendering of the latters account of knowledge in the Ethics, and hence reduces the materialist effects of his philosophy. At a cursory glance, one might suggest that the overly rationalist or formalist reading of Spinoza that marks the epistemology of Reading Capital is later supplemented by a more finely drawn ontological and political reading in later pieces such as the Ideology essay. Yet, at other times still, a metaphoric and sometimes imprecise or underexplored reading of Spinozist concepts emerge (for instance in relation to bodies, conatus, and individuals, of which Althusser occasionally speaks but without much qualification).9 This only complicates the interpretive framework. If we were to trace the genealogy of a number of key concepts in Althussers philosophy from Science, Subject, Object, Imaginary, to Practice, Production, Materialism (of an aleatory kind) we would find the imprint of Spinozas philosophy. I will focus in particular on the Spinozist dimensions of two problematics in Althussers theory, namely those governing his concepts of knowledge and the subject. I will argue, in short, that there are several readings of Spinoza present in Althussers corpus, such that we should ask not only the question why Spinoza? but also which Spinoza? In order to approach the first question, we must briefly draw attention to the veritable renaissance of Spinoza scholarship in France in the 1960s that made Spinoza a constant source of reference and discussion within Althussers intellectual circle, preceded also by Cavailles, Canguilhem and Desanti.10 Aside from Deleuze, a known scholar of Spinoza who had at least some dialogue with the Theoretical Working Group established by Althusser in the mid-1960s (to whom he gave his article on structuralism for comments), and Badiou, whose utilisation of Spinoza was rather, and continues to be, one of critical tension both Balibar and Macherey had, and continue to have a productive interest in Spinoza and became well-known Spinoza scholars, the latter producing the highly influential Althusserian monograph of 1979, Hegel ou Spinoza.11 As its title suggests, the encounter of the two philosophers produces no synthesis, but instead a line of divergence, a limit-position that produces something wholly new. Spinoza haunts Hegels philosophy, and it is only in the search for singular points of intersection and interaction between the two that a truly Spinozist discourse may develop. In this way, for Macherey, Spinozas philosophy has a strange actuality, and it is, I quote, living or present . . .because its problems and some of its concepts, independently of every explicit citation, nonetheless in the absence of their author continue to accompany other forms of thought ...12 Indeed, in Reading Capital Althusser had already drawn attention to the absence of this author in the history of philosophy, where a repressed Spinozism unfolded as a subterranean history acting at other sites in political and religious ideology and in the sciences, but not on the illuminated stage of visible philosophy.13 As for the rationale of his own Spinozism, Althusser records this in his Essays in Self-Criticism such that no reader could now call him a structuralist. The necessary detour taken via Spinoza was made to elucidate Marxs own detour via Hegel: In Spinozas anticipation of Hegel, he writes, we tried to see, and thought we had succeeded in finding out, under what conditions a philosophy might, in what it said or did not say, and in spite of its form or on the contrary, just because of its form, ... because of its positions produce effects useful to materialism.14 The position occupied by this engagement with the philosophy of Spinoza was to have a ruptural effect, marking out a distinctive (Spinozist) topography of Marxist science outside the infected


Encountering Althusser

ideological space of bourgeois socialist humanism (located in, for example, John Lewis, Jorge Semprun), existential phenomenology (Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), historicist Marxism (primarily Lukcs) and, of course, in the forms of knowledge supporting these (variously: humanist or subjectivist, historicist, empiricist and positivist). Famously, Spinoza had claimed that truth (in a nominalist sense) contained its own sign.15 It requires no external referent to support its concept since, as Althusser recalls, the object of knowledge or essence was in itself absolutely distinct and different from the real object ... the two objects must not be confused: the idea of the circle, which is the object of knowledge must not be confused with the circle, which is the real object.16 Truth is immanent to the idea (or the object-in-thought) such that it requires very little stake in the everyday world of real objects from which empiricism develops its truth. Empiricist forms of knowledge require no separation from, or dislocation with, the ideological impurities of the object, because the real essence, the kernel of the object, is merely hidden within it. Rejecting the dualisms in which ideological forms of knowledge always invest, (for instance dualisms between purity and impurity of the object, the subject of perception and the world to be discovered, essence and appearance, the visible and the invisible), Althussers topography of knowledge (at this stage) had three levels that broadly echoed Spinozas own account of the gradations of knowledge. To very briefly recall, these were Generalities I the raw material, real objects, never pure and always contaminated by ideological residues; Generalities II the problematic or cluster of concepts that must be worked upon and transformed by science; and finally Generalities III the theoretical field where science produces, via immanent reflection, its own theoretical objects and new concepts, and practices a rational conception of knowledge with its own conditions of truth and consistency. In this way, not only was the form of the concept produced by science Spinozist in shape giving rise to the concept of the effectivity of the structure upon its elements, namely the Spinozist idea of structural causality but the method itself claimed to mirror Spinozas account of the transition from the inadequate and fragmentary knowledge of the first kind, to the derivation of common notions or generalities that are not directly found in the immediate experience of the body or imagination, to the third kind of knowledge, variously interpreted by scholars as an intuitive knowledge of singular essences, the movement of causation, and an intellectual love of God under the form of eternity. I will here leave to one side the open question of Spinozas own rationalism, which may be called into question when we place the Ethics in the frame of his political writings, and when we give due recognition to the role in both Althussers and Spinozas systems of the dynamic operation of the imaginary and imagination (as that which both destroys and reconstructs, to use one of Althussers later formulations) and its relation to the composition of the political body.17 In the case of Spinozas conception of knowledge (which is never extrinsic to the conditions of its production, found in its attributes), as Macherey observes, the real of thought is not the real considered from another viewpoint but is the real transformed.18 If, as Althusser later claimed of Spinoza, he ... refused to treat ideology as a simple error, or as naked ignorance, because it based the system of this imaginary phenomenon on the relation of men to the world expressed by the state of their bodies, then it might be argued that the third kind of knowledge may very well need the imaginary knowledge of the first kind.19 To suggest that nothing precedes science, that knowledge, like Substance or Nature, is its own species of production which establishes its own limits, implies further that, from a Spinozist point of view, the production of science may nonetheless be bound up with the process or practice of its production into which spontaneous

Althusser and Spinoza


ideology may seep and spill. The constitution of knowledge, then, is resolutely materialist. In the practice of politics, too, Althusser was well aware that ideology could strengthen its hold by swallowing up its adversary, or that the two could become locked into a battle wholly internal to ideology. This was Althussers political worry, as well as one that beset his epistemology; and yet at this point in Reading Capital he endeavoured to stay within the limits of both fields, rather than entering the void outside of them.20 Did Althussers theory (at this point) remain outside the more dynamic formulation of knowledge presented by Spinozas philosophy? It would be one-sided to view Reading Capital merely as a statement of Althussers theoreticism (even if he retrospectively saw it as such), as if structural necessity bore no brook with contingency, and as if a timeless structure of knowledge presented no symptoms and effects produced in turn by the conjunction of the material, technical, social, political and ideological conditions which determine it.21 Later, Althusser wrote of the eternity of ideology as to mark out a similar claim of invariance, but he continued, nonetheless, to focus upon the historical singularity of ideologies. Before turning to consider the second problematic of my discussion, that of the subject, and specifically Althussers anti-humanism, let me briefly supplement the discussion with reference to Althussers 1965 research-paper Three Notes on the Order of Discourse.22 This text is instructive on a number of levels, not least through its status as a work-in-process, where the process of its production bears its mark upon the final draft. As noted by Althusser in a letter to Balibar, he had initially planned that this piece, originally designed for circulation within the Theoretical Working Group established at the time, would be part of a true work of philosophy [Elements of Dialectical Materialism] able to stand as our Ethics.23 For my purposes here, the text stands as a useful bridge between Reading Capital and the Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses essay, underscoring the importance of the singularity of the human sciences rather than their subsumption by structuralism, and initiating a new theoretical object: the unconscious and its relation to ideology, which, sadly would remain underdeveloped in Althussers later well-known reflection on the structural function of ideology and its constitution of the subject (both of which are anticipated in the latter sections of Three Notes). The thrust of the essay concerns the respective roles of general and regional theories, where regional theories are theories of theoretical objects (the unconscious, the capitalist mode of production, language, aesthetic objects, madness, and so on) and general theory (there can be more than one, and they must be differentially articulated) serves to frame and conceptualise . . is real objects (which I the objects investigated. As Althusser writes, That which exists . today call, using a concept of Spinozas, singular essences): the knowledge of real objects presupposes the intervention of the concepts of the general theory and the regional theories involved, plus the (empirical) knowledge of the determinate forms of existence that make for the singularity of these essences.24 The core of the working-paper (one that Badiou was to respond to in his Theory of the Subject), was a discussion at times highly critical of Lacanian psychoanalysis which, lacking a general theory, falls prey to ideological forms of structuralism (specifically that linked to Levi-Strauss, from whom Althusser establishes his own distance).25 Indeed, it is to a general theory of the Sign that psychoanalysis must adjust/address its object, as well as to that of historical materialism. According to Althusser, these two attributes must be differentially articulated (just as Spinoza, [tempers and corrects] the parallelism of . . by the concept of substance . . .which plays the role of the concept of the the attributes . 26 articulation of the attributes. I will not begin to deconstruct the strange, metaphoric usage


Encountering Althusser

of Spinoza, here, but instead unpack some of the rich content behind it. Within the discussion of the unconscious and ideology, Althusser starts to lay the groundwork and more for an engagement between psychoanalysis and historical materialism, and for the psychoanalytic aspect of ideology, particularly via the troublesome notion of interpellation. Here, we receive a useful supplement of that: I propose the following idea: that the subject-function which is the characteristic effect of ideological discourse in turn requires, produces or induces . . . a characteristic effect, the unconscious-effect or the effect subject-of-theunconscious, that is, the peculiar structure which makes the discourse of the unconscious possible.27 Thus, it is not just a subject-effect but an unconscious effect too, that is produced by ideology. Althusser takes some time setting out the properties and characteristics of a theory of the unconscious, framed by a theory of the signifier but also by the discourse of ideology via a second general theory), drawing attention to the circularity and duplicity present in this redoubling-process of ideology and the subject (which are, we must recall, both author and subject of their own ideological submission), which require each other as if by a principle of necessity. Hence, there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.28 Remarkably, in some open questions at the end of Three Notes we also find Althusser suggesting that the theoretical utility of the concepts of the unconscious and the subject of the unconscious have perhaps come to an end, or cannot be employed unequivocally, or at least are appropriate only in a qualified sense.29 For Althusser, the Spaltung, lack or absence of the subject (in the field of signification) theorised by Lacan, actually opens up alongside a subject . . . it is not a subject, but something altogether 30 different. This comment offers me the opportunity to return to some of Althussers most interesting and penetrating anti-subjectivist reflections, the form of which recur throughout his corpus in the idea of the process without a subject or goal. Framed by his Spinozism, this formulation may still offer the seeds for considering the subject in another way as something altogether different.

Althusser with Spinoza: subjectivity without the subject

I would like to preface this second part of this chapter with a reference to Badious discussion of Althusser in Metapolitics, where he credits Althusser with the opening-up of an enigma of subjectivity without a subject as the intra-philosophical mark of politics.31 Badious claim, here, is a complex one, since his position is one of an inescapable proximity and debt to Althussers philosophy and simultaneously a clear distance from it. For example, Badiou makes clear his dissatisfaction with the statist configuration of Althussers theory of ideology, and its failure to recognise the autonomy of (non-state) situations, those historical irruptions and events that escape the logical function of ideology. Yet Badiou nonetheless recognises the efficacy of the concept of overdetermination as an indicator of historical novelty, of what he will later call a logic of emergence, and his work bears many stamps of a reflection upon a process of subjectivisation that is no longer tied to the ideological structure imparted upon it by Althusser but still shares the rejection of phenomenological philosophical motifs framing theories of the subject.32 Now, in a quite general, qualified sense, one might suggest that the concept of the process without a subject or goal functions as a helpful shorthand for the philosophical form of the Althusserian project. Its central motif is to be found in the Reply to John Lewis where history,

Althusser and Spinoza


against all historicisms and philosophies of praxis, is presented in this quasi-anonymous form.33 But it is also the characteristic form of science where there can be no subject, and likewise of psychoanalysis where the subject is displaced by a signifier. And it even finds its place in the Philosophy of the Encounter, which is presented as the materialism not of the subject (be it God or the proletariat) . . . but of a process, a process that has no subject, yet imposes on the subjects (individuals or others) which it dominates the order of its development, with no assignable end.34 Without imposing any logic of continuity upon the different inflections of these texts, I wish only to highlight the sense in which each of these formulations presuppose not an evacuation of the problematic of the subject, but an insistence upon a careful account of its conditionality and its singularity. There is, perhaps, no need to underline to his readers that Althussers rejection of humanism, like Spinozas, was a strategic rejection, and must be attributed to the latters radical monism and anti-Cartesianism. Indeed, years before critics had pronounced structuralisms death of subject, or its reduction to an inert, passive determinant, Althusser had articulated a vehement attack on Levi-Strauss. He argued that, whilst his form of structuralism demystified all philosophies of consciousness by subverting the subject, it did so only by positing a system or structure of which the subject was a mere function. If theoretical humanism was displaced, then, it was by endowing some other order or system of rules with intentionality and unity.35 Althusser was famously misunderstood and certainly held guilty by Perry Anderson and others for his assertion of the Spinozist basis of his philosophical project. Althussers turn to Spinoza clearly did not constitute a departure from Marx, but rather a necessary detour designed to enrich the latters materialist speculations, particularly about ideology.36 It is in this context that we must view Althussers theoretical anti-humanism.37 This was not simply a displacement of the subject, but a self-conscious reframing of its conditions of possibility. No longer to be viewed as a sovereign, intentional being, and the constituent ground of meaning, Althusser and Spinoza were concerned precisely with the production and reproduction of the subject; how the subject was constituted and how forms of individuality were composed and preserved over time.38 It was in Spinozas radical understanding of this imaginary constitution (supplemented, of course, by Lacan) that Althusser would later claim to rediscover the matrix of every possible theory of ideology,39 and also find the resources for his novel conception of ideology: Spinozas theory rejected every illusion about ideology, and especially about the number one ideology of that time, religion, by identifying it as imaginary. But at the same time it refused to treat ideology as a simple error, or as naked ignorance, because it based the system of this imaginary phenomenon on the relation of men to the world expressed by the state of their bodies.40 In this way, Althussers materialist rendering of ideology dispensed with every idealist philosophical tendency, as all references to the subject, belief, actions and ideas were inserted into the materialist practices through which all modalities of interpellation occurred. Such practices and rituals, he argued, worked to tame and discipline, normalising and subjecting the body to certain rgimes of thought and action. Whilst critics have sometimes argued that what is missing from Althussers Spinozist account of voluntary servitude or subjection is an account of how the subject itself may work retroactively upon the ideological structure that determines it (that which Deleuze has named folded force), Althusser celebrated Spinozas attempt to understand the imagination as the fulcrum upon which the lived world respires.41 In Spinozas Ethics we find an account of how the imaginary works on an affective level via specific modes


Encountering Althusser

of identification and imitation, as well as, perhaps more significantly, a penetrating theorisation of the ambivalence and vacillation at the centre of these imaginary identifications that force the boundaries of its capture of consciousness. If, as we have indicated above, Althusser began to probe the psychoanalytic aspects of this problem in Three Notes, he perhaps considered it a problem without a solution. In relation to his project, it was, as he wrote to a friend in 1977 , a limit that had not yet been crossed.42 Might Althusser have found further resources in Spinozas own elaboration of the production of individuality, that which Balibar, utilising Simondon, has named via the concept of transindividuality?43 In a classic textual analysis of Spinozas concepts of consciousness and conscience, Balibar also makes a general observation relevant to the question that I have opened up here. He states, quite correctly, that one of the reasons why certain currents in modern philosophy, in spite of their divergences (logicists, structuralists, vitalists. . .) are specifically interested in Spinoza is precisely that they view him as an adversary of subjectivity.44 This has been, he adds, the main focus of debate around the objectivist interpretation of Spinoza. Balibars analysis of the text finds in Spinoza not a subjectivist reading to correct the former one, but rather a process of consciousness without a subject.45 Indeed, it is this concept that makes it impossible to speak of the subject in Spinoza. In the Ethics, Balibar concludes, we find something very odd in classical philosophy: an anthropology of consciousness without a subject.46 What does Balibar mean by this curious expression? A full response to this question would take us too far from our immediate subject-matter. However, Balibars observation, here, resonates with that of Badiou noted above, and intensifies the anti-idealist formulation of the subject shorn of all reference to interiority and reflection. In Badious case, in both Theory of the Subject and more recently Logic of Worlds, the subject becomes a formal process, a sequence of continuities and discontinuities, a truth-event that allows the creation or emergence of figures, forms, bodies of all kinds in the world. In this sense, it is a kind of ensemble, a locus of truth and meaning produced by a given situation. This is far from the fictional status of the subject of ideology proposed by Althusser, but Badious formulation also recognises and in a quite Spinozist way the degree to which this composite existent can be a body of very different kinds: a poem, an army, an ecosystem, in short a configuration or incarnation of a certain sequence of events. In short, a strange formalisation of subjectivity without the metaphysical baggage of the modern concept of the subject. In many senses, Althussers own later writings were moving in a similar direction to Badiou, for whom a certain attentiveness to the aleatory emergence of the subject of truth, to the events that philosophy and ideology do not, and perhaps cannot produce or explain, in short, an interest in the throw of the dice and the singular instance of historical truth, were common themes.47 Indeed, in the Philosophy of the Encounter Althusser writes of the figure of the aleatory as the very absence of beginning. We earlier described philosophy, with Althusser, as a ruptural exercise without a real object. Here, the emphasis is the same: philosophy has no object; it sets out from nothing in order to endow itself with existence, in order that an aleatory encounter may take hold and give birth to new figures.48 History with neither telos nor cause, ... where the dice are thrown back on the table unexpectedly ... or the elements are unloosed in a fit of madness that frees them up for new, surprising ways of taking-hold [de nouvelles prises surprenantes].49 In Althussers text, there is also a strong line of argument linking Spinoza to Democritus, Lucretius, and Epicurus, to Machiavelli, Hobbes and onwards to the others who form the

Althusser and Spinoza


subterranean current mentioned earlier in Reading Capital. We know, from one of Spinozas Letters, of his affinity with these thinkers (rather than with Plato and Aristotle).50 Indeed, we might qualify further and defend Spinozas philosophy as a materialism of the encounter where, as Althusser notes, the parallelism of the attributes is already the product of an encounter which creates (or crystallises, to use Althussers Simondonian phrase), figures of individuality or relations between elements from the simplest to the most complex: an atom, a body, a man, a state, a prince, to use Althussers examples, here; all raining down: an infinity of possibilities.51 A large part of Spinozas ontology and his politics is devoted to an understanding of the variety of modes of affective composition of bodies, where imagination acts as an anonymous conductor of affects.52 I will conclude with Althussers comments on this, likely written with disenchantment towards his earlier objectivist reading of Spinoza and with a strong regard for many of the themes raised above. I will quote only part of this long extract: A strange theory, which people tend to present as a theory of knowledge (the first of the three kinds), whereas the imagination is not by any means a faculty, but, fundamentally, . . . only the world in its givenness. With this slide [glissement], Spinoza not only turns his back on all theories of knowledge, but also clears a path for the recognition of the world as that-beyond-which-there-is-nothing, not even a theory of nature for the recognition of the world as a unique totality that is not totalized, but experienced in its dispersion, and experienced as the given into which we are thrown and on the basis of which we forge all our illusions [fabricae] ... For Spinoza, politics is then grafted on to the worlds imaginary . . But the theory of the imaginary as a world allows Spinoza to and its necessary myths . think the singular essence of the third kind which finds its representation par excellence in the history of an individual or a people, such as Moses or the Jewish people. The fact that it is necessary means simply that it has been accomplished, but everything in it could have swung the other way, depending on the encounter or non-encounter of Moses and God, or the encounter of the comprehension or non-comprehension of the prophets.53 In this passage, one of his final reflections upon Spinozas philosophy and politics, we see clearly the figure of the imaginary as an anonymous process, as well as its critical relation to the notion of subjectivity without a subject. These remain creative concepts, whose development in the context of the kind of materialist position suggested by both Althusser and Badiou offers up interesting paths for future research.

1 Quoted from Althussers 1966 notes cited in Gosgarian 2003, p. lvii. 2 Badiou 2005a, p. 64. 3 Althusser 2006a, p. 279. 4 Althusser 1976a, p. 133. 5 Althusser 1976a, p. 132. 6 Althusser 1997a, pp. 1011. 7 Elliott 1998; Montag 1998a; Negri 1996a.


Encountering Althusser

8 See Goshgarian 2003, pp. xvxviii. 9 See, for example, the discussion in Althusser 1997a, pp. 1213. 10 For an excellent critical exegesis of the role of Spinoza in relation to these thinkers, see Peden 2011. 11 See Macherey 1979, and the recent translation with an excellent historical introduction by Sue Ruddick: Macherey 2011. 12 Macherey 1998, p. 126. 13 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 102. 14 Althusser 1976a, pp. 1345. 15 Althusser 2006a, pp. 2734. 16 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 40. 17 Althusser 2006a, p. 178. For further discussion of these Spinozist themes see Williams 2007; 2010. 18 Macherey 2009, p. 25. 19 Althusser 1976a, p. 136. 20 For a discussion of the function of the concept of the void in Althussers thought, see Matheron 1998. 21 Althusser 1976a, pp. 1489. 22 Althusser 2003, pp. 3384. 23 Althusser, 2003, p. 34. Bruno Bosteels suggests that the four discourses distinguished by Althusser in Three Notes anticipate Badious own discussion of the four procedures of truth that define the conditions of philosophy. This is also the case for Logics of World, where Badiou develops a theorisation not only of the affective structure of the subject within a given truthprocedure, but also of the type of truth-procedure in which such figures of the subject appear. See Bosteels 2011, pp. 49, 627 . See also Badious own discussion of Althussers politics and epistemology in Badiou (2012). 24 Althusser 2003, pp. 356. 25 See the discussion in Althusser 2003, pp. 1932. 26 Althusser 2003, p. 65. 27 Althusser 2003, p. 53. 28 Althusser 1984, p. 44. 29 Althusser 2003, p. 77 . 30 Althusser 2003, p. 78. 31 Badiou 2005a, p. 64. 32 See Badiou 2005a; 2009b; 2009c. 33 See Althusser 1984, pp. 61139. 34 Althusser 2006a, p. 189. 35 For a discussion see Althusser 2003, pp. 1932. 36 See Althusser 1976a, Chapter Four; and Thomas 2002. 37 It is important to point out that Althussers anti-humanism has political as well as philosophical ends. It was directed against the PCFs endorsement of Khrushchevs reforms in the USSR, whose creed of the whole man and the overcoming of alienation was supported in France by an opening of a dialogue between Christianity and Marxism, as well as the advocacy of a peaceful road to socialism. It was thus against this humanist politics, as well as against what was perceived as the idealist and spiritualist strands of contemporary philosophy, that the anti-humanist argument was directed.

Althusser and Spinoza 38 Warren Montag has argued that it was, indeed. for tactical, political reasons that Althusser removed all reference to the ideological state-apparatuses as sites of struggle and instead presented the theory of interpellation in a functionalist way. It is useful, therefore, to consult Althusser 1995a for a more interventionist account of ideology. 39 Althusser 1997a, p. 7 . 40 Althusser 1976a, p. 136. 41 For Deleuzes discussion, see Deleuze 1988. 42 Althusser 1996b, pp. 45. 43 Balibar 1997b. . 44 Balibar 1992, p. 37 45 For a development of this anti-humanist argument in a Althusserian-Spinozist frame, see Williams 2010. 46 Balibar 1992, p. 50.


47 See for example, Brassier and Toscano 2004. Any future research-project developing this theme would have to take as its point of departure Bosteelss important recent study Badiou and Politics, which was published after the main body of this chapter was written. The central value of Bosteelss book lies in its rearticulation of the theoretico-political field of Althusser through Badiou. Indeed, the argument developed here reinforces Bosteelss observation that the importance of Althussers legacy for Badious own philosophical project remains unsurpassed perhaps even by the influence of Sartre, Lacan, or Heidegger (Bosteels 2011, p. 50). 48 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1912. 49 Althusser 2006a, p. 196. See also the discussion by Fourtounis in this volume. 50 Spinoza 1985, Letter 56. 51 See Morfino 2006b. . 52 I develop this reading in Williams 2007 53 Althusser 2006a, p. 179.

Althusser with Deleuze: how to think Spinozas immanent cause
Katja Diefenbach

God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things.1

Baruch de Spinoza, Ethics.

Althussers symptom
n a reading that announces reading itself as one of its first problems, in the 1960s Althusser pursued the question of how to render Marxs thought philosophically precise, and to separate it from its evolutionistic, anthropocentric and speculative elements while still remaining in the field of Marxism. This occurs in a double sense: he pursues this question and is pursued by it. The stake of the question lies in what Althusser calls his detour via the path of philosophy to intervene in the politics of the French Communist Party (PCF).2 As a result, the question of how to render Marx philosophically precise becomes the symptom of Althussers writing. It indicates the status that Althusser attributed to Marxs name. This name testifies that philosophy is subject to the primacy of revolutionary politics. It obliges a clarification of how a thought that advocates the precedence of non-theoretical over theoretical praxis can become politically effective without relapsing into an interpretation of praxis that is its pure and simple digestion or, if one prefers, internalisation.3 A comparison with Blanchots reading of Marx suggests that Althusser aims to translate the distance separating philosophy and politics within philosophy itself. While Blanchot lets the three voices of Marx (the philosophical, political and scientific) stand beside one another without connection separate, disparate, as if they were juxtaposed4 and in their untranslatable distance unsettle the determinations of theory and praxis, Althussers concern is to define the distance between these categories, which is to say, to find the language of their translation, and to spell out the politics inherent to philosophy. The first formula of this politics was to identify Marxs epistemological break, the points at which he separates himself from his idealisations; the second was to establish partisanship in philosophy, that is, to effect


Encountering Althusser

interventions, to force contention with other positions, and to think ones own conflictual difference.5 For Blanchot, however, philosophys stepping-forth to an outside into which it is enfolded also implies another passage: an intervention in the imaginary self-relation of philosophy. He rejects the claim of being able to determine within philosophy the threshold between politics, science and philosophy, and pushes Marxs different modes of writing to the point at which they experience the senseless play of writing6 itself. It is only in his late manuscripts that Althusser comes to speak of such a deconstructive politics of philosophy, one that discusses the inappropriability of the political and the encounter with non-sense.7 Previously, he had not been interested in such a deconstructive approach, but in the immanent determination of the relation between philosophy, science and politics. The self-inscription of theory in the social topology that theory develops is his formula for the determination of this relationship. Althusser asks: at what point in a topology, in which the displacement of the positions of effectivity between social instances is defined, does theory situate itself? Where in the course of the re-inscription of theory into theory is the site of its political effectivity? From where, in its distance to non-theoretical praxis, does it yield political effects?8 My text starts with the hypothesis that Althusser locates the political effectivity of Marxist philosophy in the dispute over the problem of immanent causality. Althusser relentlessly repeats the question of how Marxs topological analysis of the capitalist mode of production can be translated philosophically into the idea of an immanent or structural causality that invalidates Hegels immanence model. In the process, he crosses out, one after the other, his previous formulations of this question, to set in motion new formulations in the wake of these crossings-out a rare and harsh self-deconstruction, in which Althusser, in search of the threshold that would link, through their distance, philosophy and class struggle, does not stop thinking differently, speaking differently, developing another conception of history.9 The question of immanent causality, with which, according to Althusser, Marxist philosophy is rendered precise, is thus shown to be a site of fracture in his thought, one marked by unstable and changing terminology. In the sense of a symptomatic reading, it is precisely here that the pivotal problem that moves Althussers thought is found, without it being possible for him to pose it unequivocally.

Immanence is only immanent to itself

My text undertakes only one intervention. It sets up a series of encounters between Althusser and Deleuze to show the theoretical instabilities distinguishing the idea of immanent causality in the early and late Althusser. In the first encounter between Deleuze and Althusser, it is a matter of discussing the references to Lacans idea of the absent cause and the quasi-Hegelianisms that persist in the concepts of the complex structured whole, the overdetermined contradiction, and the determination by the economic in the last instance. In the second encounter, the theoretical indecision in Althussers aleatory materialism is at stake, which refers back to his considerations on Lacans causality of the impossible in the 1960s, and the influence of the Cercle dpistmologie and its journal Cahiers pour lanalyse.10 In Althussers late materialism of the encounter, without a word of explanation, an existential-ontological concept of the event collides with a Deleuzian concept of the event. In the first case, the event represents an exception from the laws of becoming, a suspension in ontological groundlessness and quasi-transcendental discontinuity. In the second, the event expresses torsions

Althusser with Deleuze


or critical points in becoming.11 The principle of causality is not discarded, but supplemented with the principle of expression.12 Accordingly, the event does not simply take place on one plane as a kind of original deviation, but on two planes: on the plane of a differential field, which Deleuze calls the virtual, and on which ideal and non-localisable relations vary; and on the plane of individuation, on which these relations, while embodying and positioning themselves, are actualised in singular ways. An event is not followed by its subsequent stabilisation or solidification, like mayonnaise when it emulsifies,13 but a non-representative, dissimilar explication, a becom[ing] expressive.14 One event is articulated by another: a double series of events which develop on two planes, echoing without resembling each other.15 By reading Althusser with Deleuze one sees, in the final analysis, that the late Althusser aims to free materialist thought from the principle of sufficient reason, while Deleuze writes a materialist metaphysics that wrests from this principle an anomalous turn. Let us put it this way: if to ground means to determine the indeterminate, Deleuze searches for a type of determination which is not opposed to the indeterminate and does not limit it.16 The theoretical site in which the encounter between Althusser and Deleuze takes place in the present text is centred around their Spinoza-inspired conceptions of immanent causality. The extreme asymmetry of this site should not be forgotten. Compared with Deleuzes reading of Spinoza, Althusser remains elliptic and superficial. In his few references, he concentrates above all on the first two ontological and epistemological books of the Ethics, a reading that, as Tosel points out, removes from Spinoza every ethical-political dimension.17 Nevertheless, what links Althusser and Deleuze is the thesis that the thought of immanence cannot be obtained by simply opposing it to transcendence; rather, the problem consists in how quasi-transcendent questions about the event, the excess of being, the difference between reproductive and productive repetition, in a word, about the new can be thought immanently. It is a matter of grasping a kind of trans-immanence in immanent terms. In the process, Althusser and Deleuze attempt to exclude four operations: to think immanence as something or the One (substantialisation); to make it immanent to a thing or a subject (deification of human, labour or revolution); to let it become absolutely reflexive (interiorising movement of a self-unfolding whole); or as in left-Heideggerianism to retain transcendence in the form of a void or a space left vacant after the retreat of all first principles, to which immanence is exposed in the form of the inappropriable or inaccessible. Unlike left-Heideggerianism, Althusser and Deleuze grasp immanence not as the enclosing or including of a being subsisting in itself, which is to say, as a prison that needs to be forced open through transcendence and ecstasy.18 What Nancy calls Marxist immanentism the idea that human beings find their essence in their labour and their works, an idea that, according to Nancy, also destroys the communist idea of community by linking it to the self-appropriation of man-as-producer19 represents for Althusser and Deleuze a reduction of immanence to human praxis, its enclosure in the anthropological. For both authors, the significance of Spinoza is based on the radical rigour with which the latter made clear that immanence is only immanent to itself.20 In the 1960s Althusser summarised these thoughts in the theoretical figure of structural complexity, which makes it necessary to think a distance and an internal dislocation (dcalage) in the real, inscribed in its structure.21 This distance demands that social formations are grasped topologically, that is, through the arrangement of their different instances (economic, ideological, political, and so on) and the logic in which these instances in their relations of relative effectivity22 displace one another. The critique of the political economy is thereby freed of the myth of a community of labouring men


Encountering Althusser

that allows one to imagine history ending in the self-transparency of a community consisting of nothing more than the combination of its constitutive activities a trans-individuality without conflict, excess or expression in other words, a mode of production without relations of production.23 Althusser and Deleuze agree on rejecting Marxs early idea of an absolute human self-activity, in which self- and world-transformation coincide. Trans-individuality never amounts to transparent reciprocity. There is always a distance and an expression of this distance that prevent an immanentist closure of being. This hypothesis separates Althusser and Deleuzes readings of Spinoza from Negris perspective, at the centre of which is the multiplicity of constitutive activities that singularise to the extent that they agree, so that a great crystal of reciprocal acts comes about: the common in its most expansive figure.24

Impossible or immanent causality?

Althussers encounter with Deleuze confronts us with the question of how the distance immanent to the structure is thought. In both authors, the problem of determination is focused on the question of what occurs in this distance. This question acquires particular incisiveness in view of the fact that for Spinoza there is no gap, no empty space in extension, so the thought of distance implies a certain disassociation from Spinoza, or a clarification of what is understood by this distance inscribed in the structure, of its status or activity.25 Althusser discusses the theme of immanent causality, which effects the differentiation of a structure, by combining two divergent arguments: first, the cause is present in its absence; second, the cause is immanent in its effects: The absence of the cause, Althusser writes, is the very form of the interiority of the structure ... in its effects.26 These two arguments come from different models of causality. That Althusser, in the section on structural causality in Reading Capital, refers to Lacans impossible cause and Jacques-Alain Millers metonymic causality27 shows that, in the attempt to detach the relation between cause and effect from mechanical and teleological models, he cannot decide between the Lacanian idea of a withdrawn cause and the Spinozian idea of an immanent cause. What is the difference? For Lacan, the distance in being can be traced back to a constitutive lack, a gap or hole, which is torn open by a cause that remains in retreat. It does not represent a simple non-being, but a function of the impossible.28 The absent cause thus becomes the counter-concept to the law. Laws describe how mechanisms act on each other and are displaced in their effects. However, the cause refers to the lack or the non-functionality which is to say, the impossible through which mechanisms of being, the psyche and reproduction are first installed. This ontological and existential primacy of a retreat within being, which brings about a missing or gaping, is translated by Lacan into the category of truth. There is only truth concerning the impossible. As Jacques-Alain Miller remarks in 1964 in Action of Structure, this impossible cause calls forth the function of a misrecognising subject that relentlessly attempts to fill and suture the lack in being. That Althusser, strengthened by the influence of the Cercle dpistmologie, refers to theories that see the structure as organised by the function of an absence that acts reflexively on the elements of the structure as internal negativity (the whole is there insofar as it is excluded, sublated; it is there because it is lacking,29 as Hyppolite summarised this theme in Hegel), raises the question of the extent to which Althussers use of categories of Lacanian-Hegelian origin, such as nothingness, the void, the absent whole, can

Althusser with Deleuze


be reconciled with a Spinozian model of causality. Here, Deleuzes reading of Spinoza provides a theoretical alternative. Of decisive importance is that Deleuze reads Spinoza through the short-circuiting of two major axioms: a speculative axiom and an individuation-theoretical axiom. The first deals with the differentiality of the One (translated by Deleuze into the concepts of the plane of immanence or the chaosmos). A univocal substance constituted of infinite attributes ([b]efore all production there is thus a distinction30) is expressed in modifications producing correspondences without resemblance.31 For Deleuze Spinozas ontology of difference therefore begins with an original theory of the distinction in the infinite. The attributes are not parts of the substance, which are distinguished among each other as x from y; they cannot be counted, but represent dynamic or genetic elements32 that are only formally distinguished in the substance. They are the indeterminate being, which Deleuze attempts to think with Spinoza, and which does not represent something undifferentiated, but what he calls the differential 33 potentialities [potentialits]34 that are to be expressed, articulated, embodied, and will thereby make themselves. In order to develop this idea of a differential being, Deleuze introduces into Spinozas ontology Duns Scotuss idea of a non-numerical, formal distinction.35 Being is not divided into parts, into species and genera, but is difference in itself: a single materiality in differential expressions, which are articulated in and by intensive degrees. This multiple substance, which for Spinoza represents the immanent cause of all things, and suspends the classical opposition between one and many in favour of the differentiality of the One, does not therefore represent anything withdrawn or absent. That refers directly to the second major axiom of Deleuzes reading of Spinoza: that of an individuating expression. With this second axiom, he takes up Spinozas theory of the mode, in order to think the movement in which the differential individuates non-representatively in dissimilar explications.36 For Spinoza a mode individuates the absolute potentiality (potentia) of nature (God), which is immanent to it, since [f]rom the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes.37 Spinoza passes here from the what? to the how?, from the primacy of essence to the primacy of its expression. That is to say, the singular essence of the mode is not a fixed quality, but a quantitative degree in which the productivity of nature expresses itself and is expressed. Even if Deleuze thinks the self-expression of differential being as life, and never stopped presenting himself as a vitalist, he pushes, in certain parts of his writings, the manner in which immanence is lived, made or practiced by modal things to negative and subtractive limits in order to establish the notion of a negativism beyond all negation.38 This idea of a positive constitution of the negative presents an alternative to the quasi-transcendental status of the void or nothingness in the late Althusser that ungrounds (entgrndet) everything that is. To sum up, one can say that Deleuze and Althusser converge at the question of how a structure differentiates through its distances, while they diverge at the question of absence. To increase their convergence Deleuze attempts, especially in Difference and Repetition and How Do We Recognize Structuralism?, to align the dual terms virtuality/actuality with Althussers dual terms structure/conjuncture. He identifies the virtual, which he understands as a system of non-localisable relations and singular points, with the structural.39 With reference to Althusser, Deleuze conceives structure as a pre-extensive, topological space, in which positions are distributed for example, relations of production and property relations which are established not between concrete individuals but between atomic bearers of labourpower or representatives of property.40 Even if the object of their study is fundamentally


Encountering Althusser

different (Althusser thinks the problem of the capitalist mode of production, Deleuze that of ontogenesis), they share the question of the structures time of actualisation. For both Deleuze and Althusser time cannot be understood by simply observing how one actualised form follows another; rather, one comprehends the function of time by investigating how it passes from the virtual to the actual, that is, from the structure to its actualizations.41 Or, as Althusser explains, the first subject of Marxism is not the historical development of the modes of production, but the question of the society effect,42 hence the problem of how a mode of production (defined as one structure in a complex structure) reproduces itself in differential effects throughout the whole of society. The thought of virtual structures is not atemporal, but distinguishes history from becoming (Deleuze), or result from effect (Althusser).43 What separates both authors, however, is that for Deleuze the effects of the structure do not represent functions of the impossible, they do not proceed from an absent cause. Deleuze never tires of showing that Spinozas thought destroys the category of the im/possible or the in/compossible, as Leibniz would say. That means that the virtual being of the substance (in its infinite attributes) does not lack reality. For Deleuze, it is misleading to say that the substance, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects,44 as does Althusser. The virtual, Deleuze writes, is fully real in so far as it is virtual ... [It] must be defined as strictly a part of the real object as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension.45 The self-evidence with which, in the context of Althusserianism, Lacans causa ablata is analogised with Spinozas immanent cause (when for example Miller takes Spinozas reading of the Bible as an example of a reading procedure that seeks, across its taking-place, the specific lack that supports the structuring function46), is from Deleuzes perspective untenable. The divergence that appears with this question is best shown at the point at which Deleuze himself comes closest to the causality of the impossible. In How Do We Recognize Structuralism?, a text that, as Kerslake and Stolze have shown, testifies to the attention with which Deleuze, in the second half of the 1960s, followed the Cercle dpistmologie and the Lacanian-Althusserian scene at the cole normale suprieure, Deleuze comes back to the figure of a missing object = x that he introduced in Difference and Repetition.47 With reference to Lacan and Miller he declares this object to be an empty or perforated site48 of the structure, which organises its displacements, but which itself remains withdrawn. He considers the idea of a negative distance through which an absent structure refers back to itself. Finally, however, he overwrites this with the idea of a disjunctive synthesis. Onto the concepts of the void, the lack and the gaping hole, he grafts the idea of a positive distance,49 with which the intervals or interstices immanent to a structure are conceived to be affirmed by being expressed. It is a matter of another form of oscillation. Where Lacan says, there is a hole, and something that oscillates in the interval. In short, there is cause only in something that doesnt work,50 Deleuze says, there is a distance and something that oscillates in the interval. In short, there is cause only in something that works: the individuation of an intensity (also when it is anomal and dysfunctional).

Hyppolites lesson
One can thus see that Althusser and Deleuze share the attempt to think immanent causality with Spinoza, albeit in divergent ways. Their common starting point is the dissociation from

Althusser with Deleuze


Hegels model of causality aimed at the self-mediation of the absolute. On a number of occasions, Deleuze refers to Althussers critique of this movement of self-mediation as a monocentring of circles, whereby Hegel, in the attempt to think the movement of the infinite through the finite, would remain in the element of representation.51 For Hegel, the different moments of the process of being and thought describe the path on which the absolute, due to the power of negativity, is developed through the different. In comparison, Althusser and Deleuze insist on thinking the different other than as a negative distance through which being refers to itself. They come together in the intention to investigate with Spinoza the positive, distributive and displacing causality of the differential. At the same time, however, especially Althusser, on the basis of his reference to Lacans causality of the impossible, and the use of the category of the complex structured whole, is confronted with the question of what is still Hegelian in that which allows us to think against Hegel.52 For Hegel himself is one of the most radical thinkers of immanence, for whom, particularly in the Science of Logic, there is neither beginning nor end, but only the actuality of the infinite, which drives the finite things out beyond themselves and mediates them. One could say that Althusser and Deleuze detach themselves from Hegel at precisely the point at which the latter idealises the immanent movement of the infinite by confining the differences, through the negation of negation, in a self-referential process, thus leading to the unity of the relationship of self and other, that is, to the self-representation of the absolute. Althusser and Deleuze intervene at the point at which Hegel constructs a unity of mediations, which he raises to the subject of mediation itself. What are the characteristics of this intervention? For both Althusser and Deleuze, Hyppolites reading of Hegel, especially his book Logic and Existence,53 is of a significance that should not be underestimated. Both find in this reading a refined, non-anthropological interpretation of Hegel, one also aimed against Kojves reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hyppolite formulates a precise and productive point at which Deleuze and Althusser can distinguish themselves from Hegel. In Deleuzes review of Logic and Existence, written in 1956, Deleuze adopts fundamental hypotheses from Hyppolites interpretation of the Science of Logic for his own thought. These include the determination of philosophy as an ontology of difference, the absolute exclusion of any anthropology, the substitution of the question of essence by the question of sense (expression), and the emphasis that there is no second world beyond appearances.54 The point at which Deleuze raises an objection against Hyppolites Hegelian ontology is the thesis that being can only be difference to the extent that difference is pushed to the absolute, which is to say, to contradiction: Speculative difference is the Being which contradicts itself. Deviating from this formula, Deleuze develops his theoretical programme of writing an ontology of difference in which difference does not go as far as contradiction, because contradiction would be less than difference and not more.55 This programme attempts to think difference in itself. Difference is no longer grasped as a determined distinction of something from something else in the interior of the concept, but as the differential that is actualised in differences: instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it ... We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression make the difference.56 As I have shown, Deleuze grasps this making of difference as an intensive individuation of thought and being. What is at stake is to get rid of all representative determinations of difference: identity in the concept; opposition in the predicate; similarity in perception; and analogy in judgement.57


Encountering Althusser

Spinozas model of causality is one of the most important paths via which Deleuze attempts to think the intensive genesis of difference in this sense. Althusser also incorporates Hyppolites interpretation of Hegels thought into his rigorous anti-Hegelian stance. He takes up the closing remarks of Logic and Existence, where Hyppolite notes that the young Marx destroys Hegels radicalism by projecting Feuerbachs speculative anthropology into the Phenomenology of the Spirit, making from each objectification an alienation, from each alienation a human alienation, and from the whole history of the alienation of the spirit the history of the alienation of the human subject: Now, as M. Hyppolite has very well noted, Althusser writes, nothing is more foreign to Hegels thought than this anthropological conception of history.58 Spinozas idea of immanent causality is precisely the distance that Althusser introduces into Marx to separate him from the reference to Feuerbachs critique of Hegel, that is, from the whole theme of emancipatory sensibility and human alienation. This explains Spinozas prominent position in Althussers reading of Marx. Spinozas name designates the epistemological break that Althusser discerns in Marxs works, or what Althusser later calls class struggle in theory, that is, the work of theoretical delineation, thoughts activity of separation.59 When in Althussers philosophy for Marx the struggle for the concept of immanent causality is at stake, the reading of Spinoza is the detour that Althusser takes to destroy another detour the one made by Marx via Hegel.60 In a lecture held in Hyppolites seminar in 1968, titled Marxs Relation to Hegel, Althusser puts aside for a moment the theme of his critique of Hegel (the reduction of history to the cumulative internalisation of a principle) to discuss Hegels positive influence.61 He points out that Marx finds in Hegel the decisive category of his method of presentation the category of the process without a subject: Marx was close to Hegel in his insistence on rejecting every philosophy of the Origin and the Subject.62 In the Science of Logic, by equating being directly with non-being, Hegel declares that everything has already begun, and the continuity of the process consists in its discontinuity and extension or, as Nancy writes, the infinite or the absolute will be presented in no determined figure. There will be other figures, but they will now be known for what they are: successive forms in passage, forms of passage itself.63 For Althusser, Hegels rejection of the origin as a philosophical issuing bank64 makes his thought into the theoretical premise of materialism. Through the absence of the beginning and the end, the foundation and the completion, Hegel in the Science of Logic is thus an irreducible differential thinker. At the same time, however, Althusser shows that Hegel created new ways of thinking the delegations of origin and subject: Hegels subject, Althusser writes, is the process itself in its teleology.65 Correspondingly, for Hegel truth is total and totalising; there is only truth concerning the whole. Even if this whole is never globally present, it inserts the differences in the anamnestic interiority66 and self-referentiality of the spirit. In other words, the whole fulfils itself in the immanent arrival of its own concept. With reference to Derridas (thus actually Heideggers) idea of the crossing out (rature) with which a metaphysical category is effaced while still remaining legible,67 Althusser shows how Hegel subsequently reintroduces the origin by way of the reflexivity of the process. What we find in the Science of Logic, Althusser writes, is the theory of the non-primordial nature of the origin.68 As with Deleuze, the crux of Althussers reception of Hyppolite lies in introducing Spinozas model of immanent causality as a radical critique avant la lettre of Hegels subjectivisation of the whole and the related teleologisation of dialectic. Hence, after Epicurus, Spinoza is made the actual and most radical thinker of a process without a subject or goal which inscribes a

Althusser with Deleuze


forgotten trace into a materialist dialectic in which the elements of a structure do not express a movement of cumulative internalisation, but of decentring overdetermination.69 Unlike Deleuze, for Althusser the detour via Spinoza comes at a price, [f]or the adventure is perilous, and whatever you do, you cannot find in Spinoza what Hegel gave to Marx: contradiction.70 As against this verdict, Macherey attempted to show that one could trace in Spinoza a new concept of contradiction that has to be understood as a struggle of tendencies that do not carry within themselves the promise of their resolution.71 Instead of suggesting that Spinoza simply subtracts the negation of negation from the movement of contradictions, as Macherey does, readers of Spinoza such as Del Lucchese hold that Spinoza has replaced the concept of contradiction with that of conflict, thus making Spinoza a thinker of the themes of limitation, crisis, and destruction.72

Structural causality
But how does Althusser conceive the category of a process without a subject or goal in a Spinozian sense? What happens in this process? In Reading Capital, in which he introduces the concept of structural causality,73 Althusser basically gives the same answer as in For Marx, only now it is not oriented to the problem of the political break (condensation, displacement or fusion of contradictions, dislocation of their internal aspects), but to that of the reproduction of social formation. His answer is that the reproduction process has to be pinpointed in the mechanism by which social elements in their degrees of effectivity are displaced on the basis of their relational positioning in the structure. With this topological model, Althusser particularly wants to remove Hegels model of causality from Marxism although he does not endeavour to examine more precisely the Hegelian-Marxist or value-theoretical positions in the new readings of Marx in the 1960s and 70s.74 Relatively schematically, he attempts to replace what he calls the expressive model of causality in the LeibnizHegel line, in which the whole is conceived as harbouring an inner principle that is articulated by phenomenal forms of expression.75 In doing so, Althusser works with three arguments, by which he subverts his strategy to separate Marxs model of causality from Hegel:76 the assumption of a determination by the economic in the last instance; the idea that the structure forms a complex whole composed of a series of elements that, in their topological relations, are supposed to partially internalise each other, since they are conceived as mutually conditioning each other. With the hypothesis that the structure expresses itself in the displacement of degrees of effectivity between relatively autonomous elements, Althusser takes up Marx and Engelss idea of a totality of social relations that reaches far beyond the economic, and consists in the interaction of really distinguished elements, which are only determined in the last instance77 through the realisation of surplus value. So as not to withdraw to a relativist position of infinitely mutating interactions, Althusser claims it would be necessary to take up the idea of a primacy of determination by the economic that unifies the play of differences between social elements by determining the displacements of their degrees of effectivity.78 That means the relations of production do not affect other social relations directly, but only via the displacement of the degrees of effectivity in and between the relations of production, the juridico-political and ideological instances. In other words, the economic determines nothing but the relation which becomes prevalent in the overall structure; it determines the relational logic in which


Encountering Althusser

the degrees of effectivity vary in the structure. Thus, in the first place, it becomes necessary for Althusser to clarify the position of the economic in the topology into which he translated Marxs base-superstructure schema. The key task is to reveal the site occupied in the structure of the whole by the region of the economic, therefore to reveal the articulation of this region with other regions (legal-political and ideological superstructure), and the degree of presence (or effectivity) of the other regions in the economic region itself.79 As already in For Marx, Althusser explains this dislocation of degrees of effectivity through a complex movement of partial reflection. By assuming that the social instances mutually condition one another in their existence, Althusser infers that they internalise the position that they occupy in the structure. Hence relations are not thought, as in Spinoza, through the intervals that they articulate, but through their terms, which form a kind of higher individuality by reflecting and interiorising their relational position in the complex structured whole.80 According to Balibar, the difference between Marxs and Foucaults idea of the structure of social conflict can be located precisely in this Hegelianising figure of complex reflection. In Foucault there is no, at least no strong or stable, interiorising mechanism from which, retroactively, the logic arises that determines the metonymic mode in which the complex whole reproduces itself (by dislocating degrees of effectivity). In other words, the relationships in which social mechanisms displace themselves in their effects do not form a superior unity or individuality. Their terms do not become, through the partial internalisation of the relationship itself, the functions or the bearers of the relationship.81 This means that the process does not subjectivise itself. Here it should be added that although Foucault does not think the category of struggle through a sort of complex dialectic in which the terms of a relationship partially internalise the relationship itself, he conceives the transformation of modes of regulation in this way. In Security, Territory, Population Foucault explains (clearly adopting an Althusserian figure of argumentation) that the dispositif of discipline has not been replaced by the dispositif of security; what has changed from one to the next is only the system of correlation between social mechanisms ordered in complex edifices in which nothing but the dominant characteristic is displaced.82 None other than Deleuze attempts to push Foucault to the point of not primarily thinking reflexive and overdetermined relationships between stratified social elements, but the expressive becoming of unformed functions.83 Already in 1969 Hyppolite pointed out to Althusser that it would not be easy to separate Marxs from Hegels idea of determination by attributing to one the complexity of an effective overdetermination, and to the other the complexity of a cumulative internalization.84 The partial reflexivity through which Althusser still defines overdetermination relates, for Hyppolite, to precisely the idea of structures that Hegel develops in the Science of Logic, especially in The Doctrine of Essence: There he describes structures in which the essential and unessential are reflected in one another, in which the existential condition of a dominant contradiction are an element in the contradiction itself.85 However, Althussers achievement in rendering inoperative a series of simplified ideas of determination in Marxism should not be underestimated, above all: the direct and mechanical determination of the superstructure through the base; the reduction of the relations of production to intersubjective relations, or to one of their basic patterns (the struggle for recognition); the evolutionistic periodisation of modes of production through one single principle that drives the universalisation of the particular (division of labour); and the essentialist understanding of the value-form as a principle of abstraction that determines all concrete historical forms in their passage and movement. In doing so, however, he overlooks that in the Ethics

Althusser with Deleuze


Spinoza develops the idea of a creative determination and an intensive relation that is relatively independent of its terms. On a number of occasions, Warren Montag has drawn attention to correspondence from 1965 in which Macherey sets out for Althusser how Spinozas model of immanent causality is characterised above all by the idea of the intensive infinite. The logic of an absent whole that totalises the interrelation of its parts is, according to Macherey, even in Althussers complex variant of totalisation via differential dislocations, rejected in Spinozas thought. With reference to Deleuzes Lucretius commentary, Macherey declares that the immanent expression of the infinite that traverses the finite, which Spinoza wants to theorise, cannot be grasped in the metonymic effects of a complex whole: Nature as the production of the diverse can only be an infinite sum, that is, a sum which does not totalize its own elements. There is no combination capable of encompassing all the elements of Nature at once, there is no unique world or total universe.86

Pars intensiva
When in the first half of the 1960s Althusser attempted to render Marx philosophically precise via Spinoza, he integrated into this operation a series of Bachelardian theorems. As against the myth of a continual progress of thought, the French epistemological school Bachelard, Cavaills, Koyr, Canguilhem holds that science proceeds in a discontinuous way in the course of breaks and unforeseeable leaps. Bachelard, in particular, points out that a new science does not simply assert itself in an area in which there had previously been an absence of knowledge, but has to establish itself against prescientific positions, against a tissue of positive, tenacious, interdependent errors.87 Althusser takes up Bachelards thesis that a new set of problems spans a theoretical field at whose edges earlier positions are localised, which represent variants of wrongly posed questions and often form an epistemological pair, a bipolarity of error.88 Accordingly, Althusser sees Marx and Spinozas thought of causality as being framed by two major epistemological obstacles,89 by Descartess model of mechanical, and Leibnizs model of expressive causality, which was taken up by Hegel, and in which each part represents a pars totalis articulating the principle of the whole.90 With the schematic framing between two erroneous variants, Althusser misses the manifold references that entered into Spinozas concept of the immanent cause, especially the idea of creative determination that characterises the emanative cause in Neoplatonism. While Althusser simplifies the problem of causality through polar schematisation, Deleuze, in a reverse operation, makes it more complex by showing how Spinoza integrated into his ontology Neoplatonist, scholastic and Renaissance philosophical elements. In a sort of secret history of a philosophy of immanence, Deleuze reconstructs how Spinoza grafted an expressive immanence of Being onto the emanative transcendence of the One.91 He starts by arguing that Plotinuss emanative and Spinozas immanent cause both remain in themselves. The emanative cause, however, stands over being, and its effects leave the cause that remains in itself. They are nothing but the things that follow, the descending things, emanations representing the degradations of a being that flows out of and down from an eminent One. For Deleuze, Spinozas radicalism lies in the hypothesis that the effects remain in the cause just as the cause remains in itself: From this point of view the distinction of essence between cause and effect can in no way be understood as a degradation. From the viewpoint of immanence the distinction


Encountering Althusser

of essence does not exclude, but rather implies, an equality of being; it is the same being that remains in itself in the cause, and in which the effect remains as in another thing.92 For Deleuze, due to the equality and univocity of being, immanence is not to be separated from the idea of expression; the substance expresses itself in its effects, while on a second level the effects express themselves in the substance as dissimilar modifications. This second level is that of the very production of particular things,93 the ontogenetic level, which Althusser does not discuss in Spinoza. This omission leads him to miss the two fundamental characteristics of Spinozas model of causality: first, that determination is affirmative and positive; second, and directly related to this, that the cause is not absent but explicated through its effects in a non-representative, non-resembling expression. Althusser described the activity of the immanent cause only through the displacements of indices of effectivity, which are determined by the positions that social relations occupy in the mechanism of the whole.94 However, in Spinoza, expression primarily has nothing to do with the interaction between the parts of a whole, but with the activity of what medieval scholasticism calls a pars intensiva, an intensive part or intrinsic degree. While for Deleuze it is the individuation of such a degree that occurs in the structures internal distances, Althusser restricts himself to saying that its dislocation takes place in this distance, without analysing the type of activity characteristic of the degree itself. Deleuze turns to Spinoza because the latters philosophy of expression makes it possible to think this degree in terms of the individuation of the intensive or the indeterminate (both assumed to be differential in themselves), and thus to reject Hegels basic alternative, which Hegel himself so often attributed to Spinoza: either the indeterminate, the indifferent, the undifferenciated or a difference already determined as negation, implying and enveloping the negative.95 As against Hegels idea that each determination is a negation, Deleuze refers to Spinoza in order to think determination as affirmation or in Spinozas own words: That through which things are said to be determined to produce an effect must be something positive.96 The following theses are therefore linked: the cause affirms itself in its modifications; the modifications express intensive degrees of the cause; the indeterminate is not an indifferent abyss, but the internal differentiation of the cause itself. Here, everything depends on thinking difference not as distinction, but as that by which distinction makes itself (as the differential). Analogous to the planes of the virtual and the actual, Deleuze shows that there are two planes of intensive quantity in Spinoza: that of the essences and that of the existences. As singular essences the modes constitute an (eternal) degree of natures intensity or potentiality; as embodied existences they articulate this degree affectively in fluctuating transitions between minimal and maximal thresholds. This distinction refers to a major difficulty in Spinozas thought, which is discussed by both Macherey and Deleuze namely, how the physics of bodies and the theory of essences relate.97 Here, we are confronted with two different concepts of parts. As extensive part, the mode builds a whole made up of an infinite quantity of parts, which in turn are formed from an infinite quantity of most simple bodies. An extensive thing an individual, as Spinoza says is always a composite thing that exists as soon as it subsumes a certain quantity of infinite parts within itself and organises them within a specific correlation of movement and rest. This bodily existence of things is transitory. The bodies compose themselves in encounters and then decompose themselves, enter into larger connections or are destroyed. Here, causality and determination are transitive and mechanical: A mode comes into existence, not by virtue of its essence, but by virtue of purely mechanical

Althusser with Deleuze


laws which determine an infinity of some extensive parts or other to enter into a precise given relation, in which its essence expresses itself.98 While the extensive parts act on one another mechanically, and are displaced within their compositions, the intensive parts express the potentiality of the substance in a singular degree. When a metastable composition emerges from the interactions of extensive parts, and corresponds to a singular essence, extensive and intensive parts come together to constitute a thing that strives to persevere in its being.99 This function of perseverance that Spinoza calls striving (conatus) has nothing conservative about it; it is the process by which an essence affirms its singularity, and thus difference itself. In the final analysis Spinoza does not focus on the essence of things, but on the expressive act through which it is articulated and tested, not by imitating the essence but articulating its potential between minimal and maximal thresholds. That the thing strives in its differenciation makes out of the conatus a kind of springboard of existence. Here, extension and intension accompany one another in Spinoza. The interactions between bodies refer to variations of affect. In a good encounter between bodies, which brings about a supplementing or linking of parts, the body experiences joy, which is expressed in an increase in the potentiality to act; in a bad encounter it experiences sadness and a reduction of its potentiality to act. Thus extensive bodily states (affections) correspond to intensive variations of potentiality (affects). This path is discontinuous, but it makes possible radical torsions in becoming. For Spinoza it arises from the middle of imaginary and affective fluctuations, and might pass from the maximisation of the joyful passions to active affects (thought) and to happiness. In other words, the linking of extensive affections and intensive affects can trigger rational ideas; thinking commences from below, locally, within the imaginary. Starting from a little joy one reaches the first cause-ideas (common notions), and can potentiate and activate oneself further. As also Althusser takes up in his theory of ideology, the imaginary ideas and passions, however, will never disappear; one cannot eliminate the imaginary relations one establishes to the problematic conditions of ones existence, one can only radically change them. The constitution of freedom is for Spinoza a path that proceeds from social and psychic conflict and must traverse it again and again: Such is the difficult path of salvation. Most men remain, most of the time, fixated by sad passions which cut them off from their essence ... The path of salvation is the path of expression itself: to become expressive that is, to become active; to express Gods essence, to be oneself an idea through which the essence of God explicates itself, to have affections that are explained by our own essence and express Gods essence.100

Destructured and unbound

In his book Hegel or Spinoza, published in 1979, Macherey undertakes what Althusser announced with his reading of Marx, but blocked through terminological instabilities and Hegelianising references. Macherey supplements Althussers operation; he does what Althusser demanded, developing out of Spinozas model of causality the theoretical figure of a process without a subject or goal. In doing so, he too takes a detour. He follows Hegels reception of Spinoza to uncover the strategy with which Hegel introduces himself as the true thinker of the absolute, who grasps the substance in the form of a negative unity of the self.101 What Macherey shows is Hegels misreading, in which the acuity of Spinozas ontology of difference remains misunderstood up to the moments in which Hegels and Spinozas thought


Encountering Althusser

converge. Macherey pinpoints the way in which Hegel systematically misrecognised Spinozas anticipation, through his critique of Cartesianism, of the theoretical reasons why Hegel himself broke with Kantian anthropology and rejected the external difference between being and cognition, turning it into the internal difference of being itself. Compared to Hegels conception of being as identical to difference (i.e. as mediation), Macherey claims Spinozas ontology of difference to be more radical, as it cancels the internal teleologisation of the process of the absolute.102 In Spinoza there is no unity of mediations that becomes the subject of mediation itself. The book ends with the hypothesis that in Spinoza, due to the doctrine of attributes, the idea of an intensive infinite, a positive determination, and a non-finalistic causality, there is a sketch of a materialist dialectic that function[s] in the absence of all guarantees, in an absolutely causal manner.103 Although, with these ideas, Macherey draws on central elements of Deleuzes reading of Spinoza, he avoids every individuation-theoretical interpretation of Spinozas model of causality. As in Althusser the dimension that makes the Ethics into a book of practical liberation is not discussed by Macherey in 1979. He discards the hypothesis of a selective life, in which, in a process of internal differentiation, a thing maximises the joyful passions to leap into active affects,104 and remains committed to Althussers reading strategy to deploy Spinozas thought as a distance separating materialist and idealist dialectics. Despite his enthusiasm for Machereys precise reading, Stanislas Breton emphasises that this strategy not only introduces an unacknowledged teleology the materialist dialectic as last horizon of thought but also ignores the sutures between materialism and idealism. According to Breton one of these sutures runs along the idea shared by Spinoza and Hegel of absolute causality (causa sui), which for Breton here following Heidegger refers to the fact that materialism and idealism are linked in the principle of (sufficient) reason.105 In his late texts, Althusser takes up this argument and declares, with reference to Heidegger, that materialism and idealism meet where they obey the principle according to which everything that exists, whether ideal or material, is subject to the question of the reason for its existence.106 Althusser counters this principle with an alternative principle that as Andr Tosel explains in this volume represents a non-principle: the aleatory or the deviation, the atoms swerve. Althussers late materialism of the encounter culminates in the thesis that an event expresses a deviation that is groundless and lawless. Nothing precedes it. It renders all transitory laws inoperative. Once again, the question of the ground shows the divergence between Althusser and Deleuze, which is due not only to different readings of Heidegger, but also to a different idea of immanence and causality. In The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter Althusser vacillates between, on the one hand, the idea that an event expresses an individuation, the process of an interlocking of atoms, of a grasping or a varying of relations between heterogeneous series, and, on the other, the idea that an event absolutely precedes its grasping or take [prise], that it constitutes an exception, a cut, over which no law presides.107 The interpretation of the encounter inspired by Deleuze is reduced to a few sentences: after the brief reference to a primacy of positivity over negativity (Deleuze),108 Althusser describes the encounter as something that occurs between series (sries) of beings that are the results of several series of causes.109 Here, Althusser draws on Deleuzes concept of the virtual as varieties of relations and singular points that are distributed along at least two rows of elements. A synthesising event, which takes place in this field of pre-extensive, ideal connections, is not a pure contingency, a lawless act, arising without reason, and destructuring and unbinding the embodied

Althusser with Deleuze


and instituted relations, but the affirmation of differences, or what Deleuze calls a disjunctive synthesis. The ancient atomism, from which Althusser takes the model of the encounter, has, according to Deleuze, conceded too much independence110 to the atom, and reduced the thought of the swerve [clinamen] to spatiotemporal relations. What is lost thereby is the intensive character of the expression that Deleuze ascribes to a virtual encounter: the change of a differential relation or a potentiality. Put very schematically, at stake are different ways of thinking Heideggers idea of being as difference. [I]t was only with Heidegger, Althusser writes, that the void was given all its decisive philosophical significance again.111 For Althusser, the void is thus that which ungrounds and unbinds the factual; it testifies to transcendental contingency,112 that is, it revokes all provisional laws, everything that has stabilised in the form of sense, purpose or principle. Hence, for Althusser, an encounter is not the individuation of the differential, but something transcendent in the Heideggerian sense, a stepping out in itself of the existing, with which it deactivates its juridical-factual bonds: Transcendere means to step over; the transcendens, the transcendent, is that which oversteps as such . . . Dasein itself oversteps in its being and thus is exactly not immanent.113 Although in Difference and Repetition Deleuze draws on Heideggers idea that the distance between Being and beings is nothing negative, but difference, fold, question,114 he criticises Heidegger to the extent that the activity of difference is thought as a retreat, as a withdrawal in the very act of presentation. That is opposed to Deleuzes idea of immanent causality, to determine the indeterminate without limiting or negating it. Difference does not retreat; it expresses itself. Unlike Althusser, Deleuze does not therefore open the principle of the ground to Heideggers abyss, in which the indeterminate conceals itself in the act of presentation or manifestation as the non-given in givenness,115 but to the virtual, which is neither withdrawn nor undifferentiated, but in which the indeterminate exists as the intensive. In the materialism of the encounter Althusser understands structure not in this sense of the virtual in Deleuze a non-totalisable multiplicity of causes but as a process that starts after the event: the stabilisation of a set of laws as soon as the elements of an encounter take hold, interlock and co-stabilise one another. Structure is here replaced and cancelled-out by the concept of conjuncture, to which Althusser ascribes an internal character of process and differentiation. It is a becoming-necessary and becoming-form, just as water takes hold when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles.116 By losing the concept of structure (understood in the sense of the virtual), one loses the possibility to think an immanent and affirmative differentiation of difference in the Spinozian tradition. In some respects, Althussers late concept of the encounter seems to be comparable to Badious thought. When at the beginning of the 1980s Badiou passes from a dialectic of destruction to a meta-ontology of the event, he discusses the event as what escapes the facts, and from where the truth of these facts can be assigned.117 This corresponds to the quasi-transcendental status of the void in the late Althusser, which makes it difficult to think this void as a subtractive effect of the encounter or conatus, as Warren Montag and Giorgos Fourtounis attempt in a radical limit-reading.118 They have to push the late Althusser to his most extreme margins to be able to graft onto the idea of the clinamen as a principle of pure contingency the Deleuzian idea of the clinamen as conatus, which does not manifest contingency but, on the contrary, the plurality of causal series which cannot be brought together into a whole.119 However, Althussers idea that a purely contingent encounter subsequently becomes necessary by becoming stable, by making itself consistent thus curdles or solidifies


Encountering Althusser

recalls the procedure of fidelity that Badiou defines at the beginning of the 1980s as what subsequently gives an impossible event political consistence.120 To return to the opening question, the political effects that the late Althusser attempts, in the contention over the concept of causality, to generate through philosophy (if such a thing is possible at all) point in a different direction from Deleuzes effects. While Althusser tends to think politics in the function of the impossible to seize a situation when all conditions for such a seizure are missing the late Deleuze pushes his idea of individuation to ever more subtractive versions, to think a political existence of the negative beyond negation an expressing that subtracts or voids: it undoes individuality, it eliminates the perceptible, it gives preference to the not.121 If, for Deleuze, the event is a torsion in becoming that yields neutralising and subtractive effects, for the late Althusser it is a radical interruption in becoming. That is the site at which Spinoza leaves him. Henceforth, reading Althusser with Deleuze will help to register the problems characterising their respective thinking of politics. During times of radical political renewal new forms of social struggles, anti-colonial liberation movements, and the spreading uprisings of an anti-capitalist student and working-class youth the fidelity to the PCF and the assumed necessity of party organisation drove Althusser, step by step, to ever sharper criticism of the party, particularly following its Eurocommunist turn, as well as to a continual reformulation of a Leninist or Machiavellian idea of the political act; at the same time, he proved himself to be almost incapable of thinking the multiplicity of radical struggles and inventing new modes of non-authoritarian organisation. Starting from the opposite position, and recognising something that Althusser had difficulty acknowledging, and thus drawing the consequences (the fact that the party normalised the proletarian struggles), Deleuze claimed that the distance between the idea of political organisation and ethical individuation could be short-circuited by way of one single philosopheme: the intensive different/ciation of being. In his thinking of minoritarian politics he thus omitted that the act of political organisation and ethical singularisation are not one and the same praxis. Translated from the German by Benjamin Carter.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Spinoza 1985, EIP18, p. 428. See Philosophy and Marxism in Althusser 2006a, p. 253. Althusser 1994b, p. 41. Marxs Three Voices in Blanchot 1997 , p. 98. See Is it Simple to Be a Marxist in Philosophy? in Althusser 1976a, pp. 1656. Marxs Three Voices in Blanchot 1997 , p. 100. [... der aleatorischen und provisorischen Beschaffenheit des Seins entsprechen ...] in Althusser 2010a, p. 72: Which word to use to think the consistency of this subversion, ... which in the interior of philosophy ... will hold a discourse on philosophy that scatters and destroys its being, that is, its effects, without leaving it?. The chapter is included neither in the crits philosophiques et politiques nor in Philosophy of the Encounter. It corresponds to the tenth chapter of the manuscript from which The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter was decoupled.

Althusser with Deleuze 8 9 See Althusser 1994b, p. 42.


[... der Anspruch, anders zu denken ...] in Althusser 2010a, p. 19. This paragraph directly precedes the chapters that have been edited under the title The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter.

10 The Cahiers pour lanalyse were issued between 1966 and 1969 by the Cercle dpistmologie at the cole normale suprieure (ENS). Among the editors were JacquesAlain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, Franois Regnault and Alain Badiou. See the translation and contextualisation of the Cahiers by Peter Hallward, Christian Kerslake, Ray Brassier and Knox Peden, http://cahiers.kingston.ac.uk/. Accessed March 2012. 11 Deleuze 2001, p. 189. 12 Here, Deleuze writes a genealogy of expressive causality that is radically different from that of Althusser. The latter links Hegel and Leibniz, arguing that both think a totality whose parts contain, in the immediate form of their expression, the essence of the totality itself. Deleuze, however, links Spinoza and Leibniz. At the end of Expressionism in Philosophy he explains how, by defining expression as dissimilar explication of an univocal substance, Spinoza is more radical in his thinking of expression than Leibniz (see Deleuze 1990a, pp. 32135). 13 The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter in Althusser 2006a, p. 192. 14 Deleuze 1990a, p. 320. 15 Deleuze 2001, p. 189. 16 Deleuze 2001, p. 275. On the deconstruction of the formula omnis determinatio est negatio, which Hegel ascribes to Spinoza, see Macherey 2011, pp. 11322. 17 Tosel 1994, p. 209. In Althusser 1995b and 2006a we find a couple of remarks on the status of affections and affects in Spinoza, although they are not really integrated into the idea of the encounter. On this marginal position of Spinoza in the late writings, see Tosel in this volume. 18 See Deleuze and Guattari 2003, p. 47: The reversal of values had to go so far making us think that immanence is a prison (solipsism) from which the Transcendent will save us. 19 See Nancy 1991, pp. 119, 5860. 20 See Deleuze and Guattari 2003, p. 48: Spinoza was the philosopher who knew full well that immanence was only immanent to itself and therefore that it was a plane traversed by movements of the infinite, filled with intensive ordinates. Compare Nancy 2004, pp. 112. 21 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 17 . 22 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 100. 23 Marx in his Limits in Althusser 2006a, pp. 367 . 24 Hardt and Negri 2009, p. 181. 25 See Spinoza 1985, EIP15Sch, pp. 4214; Letter 13 to Oldenburg in Spinoza 1985, pp. 20712. 26 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 188. 27 See Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 188; Miller 2009. For causa ablata see Lacan 1977, pp. 203, 1259. 28 Lacan 1977 , p. 129. , p. 162. 29 Hyppolite 1997 30 Deleuze 1990a, p. 182. 31 Deleuze 2001, p. 184. 32 Deleuze 1990a, p. 80. 33 See Deleuze 2001, pp. 21421.


Encountering Althusser

34 Both Spinozas Latin concept of potentia and Deleuzes French concepts of potentialit and puissance are translated as potentiality in the present text. This should not to be understood in the sense of the Aristotelian dynamis, a potentiality that has to be realised, but in the strict anti-Aristotelian sense of a pure differential or an intensive degree, as is argued below. 35 See Deleuze 1990a, pp. 647 . 36 Deleuze distinguishes the plane of virtual differentiation from that of actualising differenciation. He calls their relation diffrent/ciation; see Deleuze 2001, pp. 2448, 27981. 37 Spinoza 1985, EIP16, p. 424. 38 Deleuze 1997 , p. 71. 39 See Deleuze 2001, p. 183. 40 Deleuze 2001, p. 186. 41 How Do We Recognize Structuralism? in Deleuze 2004, p. 180. 42 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 65. 43 See Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 656, and Deleuze 1995, pp. 16976. 44 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 189. 45 Deleuze 2001, pp. 2089. 46 Miller 2009 and, in the French original, Miller 1968, p. 101. 47 See How Do We Recognize Structuralism? in Deleuze 2004, pp. 18491; Deleuze 2001, pp. 1035, 109, 12024; Stolze 1998, pp. 5163; Kerslake 2009. 48 How Do We Recognize Structuralism? in Deleuze 2004, p. 188. 49 Deleuze 1990b, pp. 172, 173, 175. 50 Lacan 1977 , p. 22. 51 See Deleuze 2001, pp. 31011; Deleuze 1990b, p. 361. 52 Foucault 1981, p. 74. 53 See Hyppolite 1997 . 54 See Jean Hyppolites Logic and Existence in Deleuze 2004, p. 1516. 55 Jean Hyppolites Logic and Existence in Deleuze 2004, p. 18. 56 Deleuze 2001, pp. 289. 57 See Deleuze 2001, p. 262. 58 Marxs Relation to Hegel in Althusser 1972, p. 182. 59 See Althusser 1976a, pp. 589, 16575. 60 See 1976, pp. 134, 141, 178. 61 See Althusser 1972, pp. 1816. 62 Is it Simple to Be a Marxist in Philosophy? in Althusser 1976a, p. 178. 63 Nancy 2002, p. 8. 64 Is it Simple to Be a Marxist in Philosophy? in Althusser 1976a, p. 179. 65 Marxs Relation to Hegel in Althusser 1972, p. 183. 66 Derrida 1982, p. 43. 67 Derrida 1997 , p. 23. 68 Marxs Relation to Hegel in Althusser 1972, p. 184. 69 See Althusser 1969a, p. 101. 70 Elements of Self-Criticism in Althusser 1976a, p. 140.

Althusser with Deleuze 71 Macherey 2011, p. 212. 72 Del Lucchese 2009, p. 1; see also Tosel 1994, pp. 2831.


73 See above all the chapters Marxs Critique and Marxs Immense Theoretical Revolution in Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 16593. 74 For Germany, see for example the works of Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt. 75 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 186. 76 On this discussion see Montag 1998a, pp. 6473; Fourtounis 2005, pp. 10118. 77 Engels 1934, pp. 815. 78 See Is it Simple to Be a Marxist in Philosophy? in Althusser 1976a, p. 183. 79 Althusser and Balibar, 1970, p. 179. 80 See Althusser 1969a, p. 206. 81 Balibar 1991b, p. 52. 82 Foucault 2007 , p. 8. 83 See Deleuze 1988, pp. 5978. 84 Althusser 1969a, p. 101. 85 Hyppolite 1973, p. ix. 86 Deleuze 1990b, p. 267; see Montag 1998a, pp. 713. 87 Bachelard 1968, p. 8. 88 Bachelard 2002, p. 30. 89 On the idea of the epistemological obstacle see Bachelard 2002, pp. 2432; Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 1867 . 90 See Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 17 , 96, 187 . 91 Deleuze 1990a, p. 176 92 Deleuze 1990a, p. 172. 93 Deleuze 1990a, p. 14. . 94 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 1067 95 Deleuze 2001, p. 52. 96 Spinoza 1985, EIP26Def, p. 431. 97 See Deleuze 1990a, pp. 20115; Macherey 2011, pp. 14662. 98 Deleuze 1990a, pp. 20910. 99 Spinoza 1985, EIIIP6, p. 499. 100 Deleuze 1990a, p. 320. 101 Hegel 2010, p. 212. 102 See Macherey 2011, pp. 856. 103 Macherey 2011, p. 213. 104 In The Encounter with Spinoza Macherey argues that Deleuze elides all traces of ambivalence from Spinoza in not recognising, for example, that the passions in Spinoza, even the joyful ones, due to their oscillating nature, could never accumulate in such a stable and consistent way that they would build a path to the common notions and active affects. See Macherey 1996, pp. 1527 . 105 Breton 1983, pp. 63, 856. On the principle of sufficient reason compare the LeibnizClark correspondence in Leibniz 1989, p. 321; Spinoza 1985, EIP11Def, p. 417: For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, as much for its existence as for its nonexistence.


Encountering Althusser

106 Philosophy and Marxism in Althusser 2006a, p. 272. 107 Althusser 2006a, p. 194. 108 Althusser 2006a, p. 189. 109 Althusser 2006a, p. 193. 110 Deleuze 2001, p. 184. 111 Althusser 2006a, p. 175. 112 Althusser 2006a, p. 170. 113 Heidegger 1982, p. 299. 114 See Deleuze 2001, p. 65. 115 Kukuljevic 2011, to whom I owe the motivation to consider Deleuzes notion of indetermination in comparison to Althussers notion of overdetermination. 116 Althusser 2006a, p. 192. 117 Badiou 1985, p. 69. 118 See Fourtounis 2007; Montag 2010, pp. 1689. 119 See Deleuze 1990b, pp. 26970; Deleuze 2001, p. 184; Montag 2010, p. 168. 120 See Badiou 1985, p. 77 . 121 See Deleuze 2007 , p. 391; Deleuze and Guattari 1987 , p. 279; Deleuze 1997 , p. 71.

Althusser and Tronti: the primacy of politics versus the autonomy of the political
Sara R. Farris

eginning with Norberto Bobbios provocative declaration in 1975 that there is not a theory of the state in Marx,1 the problem of the relation that communist parties should have with the state, and of the adequacy of Marxist analysis on this matter, were at the centre of an animated debate involving Italian and French Marxist intellectuals in particular.2 Although reflections on the status of Marxist theory regarding politics and the state had a longer tradition, the specific historical and political circumstances in which this debate took place, especially in France and Italy, greatly influenced its articulation and scope. On the one hand, in both countries the events of 19689 had profound consequences on the redefinition of the far-left political landscape in the following decade; on the other hand, both the PCF and the PCI began the 1970s with a popularfrontist agenda seeking to make wider alliances in the electoral arena in order to increase their vote. In this context, the problem of updating Communist political practice vis--vis bourgeois institutions had an immediate theoretical and political urgency. The years between 1976 and 1978 in particular were crucial, both in Italy and France. Marking an unprecedented success for the PCI and a bitter defeat for the PCF , the 19768 triennio coincided with important turning-points in the electoral strategies and politicaltheoretical elaboration of the left in general, and of these parties in particular. Louis Althusser played a key role in this, not only in France, where he intervened critically in the 1976 PCF congress-debate, but also in Italy. At a 1977 conference in Venice he stimulated a lively discussion after openly announcing Marxisms crisis-situation and the absence of a Marxist theory of the state. His provocative exploit in Venice was followed by numerous interventions and publications involving the whole spectrum of Marxist intellectuals on both sides of the Alps; amongst them, the former workerist Mario Tronti.3 Although Tronti did not participate in the Venice conference, was not in direct dialogue with Althusser and did not refer directly


Encountering Althusser

to the latters positions, his diagnosis of the absence of a Marxist theory of politics and the state came very close to that of the French philosopher. However, Trontis therapy was rather different, and it became the target of numerous critical reactions from both former workerists and other Italian Marxists. Whereas Althussers emphasis upon the important lacuna in the Marxist theoretical apparatus on the issue of the state arguably had the aim of defending a certain Marxist orthodoxy against reformist political inclinations and theoretical elaborations, Trontis proposed remedy was, rather, heterodoxy and hetero-integration.4 Without any claim to compare their respective positions overall, my aim in this chapter is to read the two authors in parallel,5 in order to reconstruct the main lines along which both Althussers and Trontis positions in this debate unfolded. In particular, I will show, first, how they both declared a crisis of Marxism and the insufficiency of Marxs theory of politics and the state; second, how both Trontis and Althussers criticisms were directed at a certain determinism of the base-superstructure formula that established a direct continuity between the economic and the political; third, how both Tronti and Althusser regarded Lenins elaboration in relation to the state to be superior to Marxs, and strove to interpret Lenins hermetic passages on these issues as the key to a renewal of Marxist politics. Nevertheless, despite their common initial premises regarding the question of a Marxist theory of the state, Tronti and Althusser arrived at rather opposite conclusions: on the one hand, the theory of the autonomy of the political in the case of Tronti, and, on the other hand, the theory of reproduction as the states key function and the primacy of politics in the case of Althusser. Ultimately, this chapter argues that the opposition between the two perspectives should be read as symptomatic of a fundamental theoretical/political antithesis between a politicist position that assigns primacy to what I call the political forces, in the case of Tronti, and a position that attempts to translate the anti-economicist stance of the primacy of the relations of production into terms of the primacy of class struggle, in the case of Althusser.

Tronti: the autonomy of the political

After the social eruptions of the years 19679, the situation of the Italian left at the beginning of the 1970s was far from rosy; rather, it was one of extreme difficulty and even isolation. On the one hand, the political climate at the beginning of the 1970s had unquestionably shifted to the right with a revamped centre-right coalition run by Andreotti and Malagodi replacing the previous centre-left formula. On the other hand, the strategy of the PCI after 1973, strongly influenced by the coup in Chile, was recast under the umbrella of the historic compromise with the DC (Christian Democracy). In Berlinguers presentation, the historic compromise was not only the way to avoid an authoritarian solution in the country, but also the Via Regia to pull Communists out of their political isolation by attracting popular forces to the PCI project of building a new historic bloc to a higher level.6 According to Gundle, the PCIs confidence in its capacity to exercise its hegemony in Italian society in this way was founded upon two presuppositions, both of which seemed credible in the climate of the mid seventies.7 First, it was felt that the break-up of the old equilibria of the pre 196869 period had not merely shaken the confidence of the ruling classes but deprived them of the consensus

Althusser and Tronti


on which their authority ultimately rested. Thus the labour movement and its chief political representative were presented with a unique, it not altogether clear-cut, opportunity to inherit the leadership of the popular components of the old bloc and force the more conservative ones to concede an increasing measure of their power. Second, there was a firm belief on the left that Italian capitalism had reached a point of no return. The oil crisis, galloping inflation and a general breakdown in the pattern of monopoly-led development initiated in the years prior to the economic miracle provided the left with a real chance to intervene and advance an alternative, more socially-oriented model of development in which the market for private consumer goods, whose expansion had constituted the cornerstone of the previous twenty years of growth, would also be subject to question. The crisis, it was felt, made the transition to some form of socialized economic system objectively necessary.8 It is particularly this second presupposition that one should bear in mind when reading Mario Trontis interventions on the state and Marxist theory of politics in the 1970s. Closely linked to the specific nature of Italian politics in the early 1970s, which saw a decreasing autonomy of the social, namely, a weakening of the workers and students movement in comparison to the 1960s, Tronti introduced the thesis of the autonomy of the political in 1972 at a conference in Turin chaired by Norberto Bobbio. Trontis main argument on the autonomy of the political is outlined in two texts: the 1971 Postscript to Operai e Capitale [Workers and Capital] and the 1977 pamphlet entitled Sullautonomia del politico (On the autonomy of the political) which includes the intervention at the 1972 Turin conference and the transcription of a seminar organised by Salvatore Veca in Milan in 1976. Trontis position in these texts can be briefly summarised as follows: the political (to be understood as the institutions of power and the practice of taking and keeping power) cannot be analysed as a super-structural level, as had been the case, according to him, in vulgar Marxism. Rather, in Trontis words, The very term political, the political, is just as strange in the Marxist tradition as the term autonomy. This is because we are introducing not only a new name, but also, I would say, . . The a new category into our discourse. What does this category contain within itself? . political holds together two things, the state plus the political class.9

The inadequacy of Marxism

As the political was the combination of very concrete institutions the state and the political class an understanding of its autonomy required a rethinking of the Marxist toolbox, which Tronti considered to be outdated. First of all, according to him, the deterministic reading of the base-superstructure relation, according to which everything that happens . . . at the so-called above level is moved by what is below, was a simplification.10 Marxs supposed scheme of continuity between the development of capital and of the political had thus been historically demonstrated to be incorrect. The failure of this model, in terms of both its explanatory and predictive power, was due to the lack, if not complete absence, of a theory of politics and the state in Marx, insofar as for Tronti, Marx does not effectively advance a critique of politics, but of ideology.11 As he put it:


Encountering Althusser

it must be said that in the critique of politics if we put aside the critique of political economy for a moment Marx does not manage to go beyond this epoch, which is the epoch of the origins of capitalism. In 1858, as you know, the critique of political economy was supposed to include the famous six books, that is, capital, landed property, wagelabour, the state, international trade, and world market, as outlined in the famous letter to Lassalle of 22 February 1858. This was Marxs work programme. Then, capital alone took up four books. Apart from that, all the rest, from landed property onwards, including the analysis of labour itself, is not deepened enough, as has already been said; among these leftovers, there is also the problem of the state. I would say that on the theme of politics, on the theme of the political, Marxs youthful works perhaps say more than his mature ones. A work like the Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right perhaps says more than all the other little passages, the little phrases that have been taken out of the various contexts and historical works of Marx and put together, thus forming what is, in my view, a political thought spuriously attributed to Marx. I repeat, Marxs discourse on capital seems to me to be entirely projected forwards, that is, entirely looking at the real development, while Marxs discourse on the state looks backwards, that is, at the apparent development this political problem had received. When Marx undertakes a critique of politics, he does not manage, in my view, effectively to conduct a critique of politics. Rather, he provides a critique of ideology ... The thesis that there is first an economic power and then a political power, and these forms of power fundamentally coincide which is Marxs thesis (they coincide in reality and are only formally divided, that is, real coincidence and purely formal distinction) is understandable precisely in the light of early capitalism.12 As the final lines in the above passage suggest, for Tronti the political gap in Marxs thought was due to the fact that historical materialism itself was a product of early capitalism. Later historical developments, however, as a result of the continuous confrontation between workers and capital, led to what he called the necessity of a political elite, and of a professional political elite to which to assign the management of power.13 Such a political elite had to develop, above all, a capacity of mediation between capital and wage-labour. It followed for Tronti that historically, from this necessity of a professional political elite, a mediator, there derives the equally historical necessity, so to speak, of an art of politics, that is, of particular techniques for the conquest and conservation of power, of a science of collective practical activity, divided from the analysis of individuals and groups action. A science of practical collective activity, a science, precisely, of politics.14 The Marxist theory of politics was, for Tronti, inadequate for grasping the developments that had occurred within the state and within the body of knowledge and techniques that were linked to it, for it was embedded in a time prior to such developments. The only exception to this generalised judgement of inadequacy, for Tronti, was represented by Lenin, the figure who gave social democracy a theory of the party.15 Trontis Lenin was the militant who brought Marx to St. Petersburg, that is, the historical figure that had been able to reveal practically the poverty of the social-democratic gradualist theory by achieving a communist revolution where it was assumed to be impossible. However, Lenin had been able to develop what Tronti called the laws of tactics not because of his proximity to workers struggles but, on the contrary, due to his distance from them. Indeed, for Tronti, Lenins logic was based on a concept of political rationality that was absolutely autonomous from anything, independent from the class interest

Althusser and Tronti


itself, common if anything to the two classes.16 In what might be regarded as an attribution to Lenin of a conception of the autonomy of the political avant la lettre, Tronti also invoked Max Weber. True theory, high science, was not within the field of socialism, but outside and against it. And this entirely theoretical science, this scientific theory, had as content, as object, as problem, the fact of politics. And the new theory of a new politics arises both in great bourgeois thought and in subversive working-class praxis. Lenin was closer to Max Webers Politik als Beruf than to the German workers struggles, on which was mounted a colossus with feet of clay classical social democracy.17 As he particularly highlighted in subsequent years, Trontis consideration that Marxists (with the exception of Lenin) did not formulate useful indications for understanding the functioning of politics and the state, and his conviction that the latter became the object of a sophisticated science and theory, particularly in the enemy camp of bourgeois thought, increasingly led him to resort to non-Marxist political thinkers in order to fill this gap in Marxist theory. For Tronti, it was in fact this science, this art of politics, that the Italian communist intelligentsia had to grasp as their autonomous raison dtre, without any thought of merely deducing them from a study of the economic situation.

The political cycle of capital

The conception that the political has its own autonomous dynamics, that is, the idea that it is autonomous from everything that is not power, namely from society, and from what was conceived, in general, to be the foundation [fondamento] of power,18 was founded on the presupposition that there is a different rhythm of development between the political and the social19 due to the existence of a political cycle of capital ... that has its specificity compared to the classical economic cycle of capital.20 In this way, we arrive at what we could call the specifically political [lo specifico politico], namely, the specificity of the political cycle with respect to the economic cycle. There lies the problem of why Marxs scheme of a continuity of development from the economic to the political did not historically work and why, on the contrary, it was the opposite that occurred.21 The specificity of the political cycle with respect to the economic cycle, for Tronti, resulted from a fundamental discontinuity between the economic and the political. This, according to Tronti, was visible in the usual belatedness of the political as compared with the economic. Furthermore, the understanding of the delay was the key road to the codification of Marxs political thought.22 Precisely the delay of the political as compared to the economic, or in other words, the fact that we always have in front of us a so-called new economy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, always have a so-called old politics was, for Tronti, the warning-signal that must make us aware that, in the end, the base-superstructure relation, precisely on this terrain, does not work.23 An example of this was the flaw of rationalisation, the weak efficiency


Encountering Althusser

of the political apparatus that Tronti argued to be discernible in the Italian case in particular, in which the capitalist modernisation and industrialisation of the 1950s and 1960s had not been matched by a comparable modernisation of the state.24 For Tronti, a genealogical approach to this question, that is, a reconstruction of the history of the modern state, would have shown that there is a logic that is internal to the development of capitalist political institutions; a logic that needs to be grasped, in my view, independently of the history of capital.25 Just as Marx uncovered the laws of movement of capital, for Tronti Marxists need to engage in the future discovery of the laws of movement of the modern state.26 Such an engagement would reveal the reality of two parallel histories, the history of capital and the history of the state, which often do not coincide and can be in contradiction. On this basis, Trontis hypothesis was that the distinction or separation between state and civil society is not a purely formal distinction or separation. That is, it is neither to be conceived as an ideological trick of the bourgeoisie, nor is it a case of considering it simply as a function of class domination.27

The autonomy of the political and the autonomy of the party from the class
Descending directly from the conclusion that the history of capital is not in continuity with that of the state, the latter being separate from capital and possessing its own autonomous logic, Trontis notion of the autonomy of the political aimed to have not simply theoretical, but especially practical implications. Above all, on the practical level, Tronti aimed to put politics in command by reconquering workers centrality on the institutional terrain, namely, on the level of the relation of the party with the state. As this so-called state machine, in Trontis words, was above all, the centre of mediation of the various relations between classes, the problem emerged of seeing whether this centre of mediation has to be left completely in the hands of capital or whether, before the problem of breaking this machine, there is not instead first the problem of getting capitals hands off this centre of mediation, entirely or in part.28 The practical implications of the autonomy of the political debate thus increasingly became the question of direct participation of the workers political organisation in the government of the state or, even more so, the direct management by the working class of the state machine in order to carry on the capitalist reform of the state.29 As Tronti would argue in the late 1970s, political force meant demonstrating that the working class or rather, the workers party was able to govern. The working classs capacity to govern is what we are all committed to building.30 This position was subject to numerous criticisms, especially from former workerists and from Antonio Negri in primis. Negri argued that the notion of the autonomy of the political was nothing more than the ideology of the historic compromise,31 and thus ultimately a theoretical position that had the precise political function of supporting Eurocommunism. Although Negri himself seemed to concur regarding the absence of a Marxist theory of the state,32 he argued that the thesis of the autonomy of the political was no solution to this problem, but merely the technocratic reinvention and new edition of the technology of the political.33 As Tronti came to define the thesis of the autonomy of the political in concrete terms, it was increasingly apparent how such a thesis did not amount to a tactically updated analysis of the function of the state that could be integrated with the Marxist traditions strategic vision

Althusser and Tronti


of the necessity of abolishing the bourgeois state. Rather, on the basis of the assertion of the absence of a theory of the state in Marx and on the basis of the supposed historical refutation of a deterministic continuity between the economic and the political, Tronti seemed to have abandoned Marxs thesis of the need to smash the state machine.34 The problem the working class faced in the 1970s was, for Tronti, that of undertaking the historical task of managing the state, and more particularly of accomplishing its rationalisation. This aspect is very clear in the passage below. As Tronti argued, the 1960s in Italy were a form of even pure class struggle, impolitical or pre-political, in the traditional sense of the word; even if it was politics in the profound sense of the same word . . . After that, what was there? There was a capitalist reaction of a particular type that blocked the growth of the movement and blocked it precisely because we werent able to comprehend and to use that shifting of terrain that the capitalist initiatives assumed in that determinate moment. That is, when the relation of forces at the level of the relations of production was modified in favour of the working class, we saw a precise and explicit use, by the capitalist side, of the political state level, in the terms we have been discussing here, that is, the use of the political delay of the institutions of the state apparatus with respect to the rest of society . . [A]t this point, within capital, within the capitalist side, we see that there is a struggle . between advanced parts and backward parts of capital, regarding the nature and the content of their state. And this is the crucial point that they need to resolve now. There really are moments in which capital finds itself having to resolve again, from the beginning, almost from the very beginning, the problem of its state. Now, at this point, I ask myself: does the workers side have to continue to ignore this problem that capital has within itself and continue to undertake its type of particular struggle, independently of what happens within the adversary side? Why worry about this and change the point of attack, why change your own position? I have always thought of a working class political struggle as one that is agile, ready to modify continually its own positions, to leap from one terrain to the other. Never, never let yourself be closed up on one single terrain and continue to make the struggle at the level of production, over wages, over working hours, conditions of work, in the moment in which capital is resolving must resolve in some way, in one way or another the problem of its state. To leave this problem to them because it is their problem: this is a political error!35 Deploying a representation of political antagonism with significant Schmittian reverberations, the passage above clearly shows how for Tronti the need for the working class to engage at the state level was the result of the shift from class struggle at the level of production to political struggle at the level of the institutions of formal politics, namely, the state. In other words, the working class needed to leap from the terrain of the struggle over the relations of production to the terrain of struggle over what could be called the political forces. Arguably, the problem for Tronti became that, if the working class is not agile, ready to modify continually its own positions, the task of engaging at the political level must be undertaken by its most conscious and prepared component, the party. As a consequence, Trontis thesis of the autonomy of the political and his reference to the working class as the main political agent of capitalist rationality, in the 1970s also meant the autonomy of the political from the class organisation, or the autonomy of the party from the class.36 At that time, such a statement was intended to be provocative and scandalous.37


Encountering Althusser

However, as Tronti restated several times throughout his intervention, the autonomy of the political had to be extended right up to the forms of political organisation of the working class in relation to the working class itself. . . . The importance of workers spontaneity is reduced qualitatively when we speak of this project of a different type of conquest of political power. Thus, a further mediation is even more necessary, a mediation which is no longer that of the capitalist political elite, but is that, once again, of the workers party, even in relation to its own class . . . There is this mythical-ideological reference that sometimes becomes an obstacle; we need, instead, a freedom of movement that makes it possible to take all the initiatives that are necessary for putting a certain type of capitalist power into crisis, even without always making the ritual reference to a certain class reality.38 For an author who in the 1960s posed labour, that is, the working class, as the independent variable and the motor of history, before which capital was reduced to a merely reactive reality,39 the passage above might sound paradoxical.40 Yet, if the turn to the thesis of the autonomy of the political marks a certain politicist-abstract departure from the more politicalconjunctural focus of the militant interventions of the 1960s, it is not a coupure. Arguably, Trontis later politicism should be understood within the background of Trontis general tendency to treat economics and politics, relations of production/productive forces and political institutions, as distinct moments of the struggle between classes, rather than as constitutive and necessarily interwoven practices.

Althusser: the crisis of Marxism

The context in which Althusser addresses the issue concerning the status of the theory of politics and the state in Marx and Marxism is, in many respects, very similar to that of Tronti. Like all Western-European communist parties after the beginning of de-Stalinisation, and particularly after the events of 1968, in the 1970s the PCF faced the dilemmas opened up by Eurocommunism. Already in the 1960s, the French Communist Party began to reposition itself in the political-electoral arena under the assumption that the French road to socialism would have to pass through the conquest of the majority of the national vote: to be precise, the new party line was initiated in 1965 when the first steps were made for a pact with the Socialists in order to unseat De Gaulle. A Communist-Socialist agreement was reached in 1972 with the signing of the Programme commun between the PCF , the Socialists and the Radical Party of the Left, and thus the formation of the Union of the Left coalition, within which the PCF was to be the main force. Contrary to their plans, however, the popular-frontist operation was particularly propitious for the Socialist Party, at the expense of the Communists. For this reason, on the eve of the 1978 general elections, which promised to be a victory for the Union of the Left, the PCF leadership decided to boycott the Programme commun, effectively handing the elections to the right. The defeat was a traumatic one, and the accusations of undemocratic practices and Machiavellian machinations cast a shadow on the PCF leadership, resulting in its inexorable decline. In this context, Althusser was theoretically in favour of a Communist-Socialist alliance, and ferociously opposed to paying the price at which he thought it would come: a swift retreat

Althusser and Tronti


from class culminating in Communist rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat.41 It was particularly the latter rejection, which occurred during the 1976 Twenty-Second Congress of the PCF , that prompted Althussers reactions. They came in the form of a detailed consideration of the status of the theory of politics and the state in Marx and Marxism, to be found above all in four texts elaborated during 19778: 22me congrs, the intervention that Althusser delivered at Sorbonne on 16 December 1976 and which was published with the same title in 1977;42 Marx dans ses limits (Marx in his limits), an unpublished 1978 text which appeared in French for the first time in 1994 in the crits philosophiques et politiques edited by Franois Matheron (published in English in 2006);43 La crisi del marxismo (The Crisis of Marxism) based on a speech Althusser gave at a conference organised in Venice in November 1977 by the Italian communist newspaper Il Manifesto; and finally Il Marxismo come teoria finita (Marxism as a finite theory), an intervention published by Il Manifesto in April 1978. By taking a clear stance against both the Eurocommunist route undertaken by most Western-European communist parties in the 1970s and the PCFs abandonment of the formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Althusser proposed an attentive analysis of the state under the capitalist rgime. Furthermore, Marx in his limits in particular also constitutes a polemical reply to both Foucaults theory of disciplinary institutions,44 and Nicos Poulantzass45 and tienne Balibars46 thesis that the political apparatus of the bourgeois state should be the object, not the terrain, of working-class class struggle.47 Opening with the declaration of the crisis of Marxism and based on the assumption that there is no such a thing as a Marxist theory of the state arguably the same premises on which Tronti based his elaboration on the autonomy of the political Althusser nonetheless arrived at very different theoretical and political conclusions.

At last the crisis of Marxism has exploded!

As Althusser unambiguously stated at the 1977 conference in Venice, sparking a lively debate amongst Marxist intellectuals both in Italy and France, one of the theoretical gaps in Marxs and Lenins works lies precisely in the absence of a theory of the state. We have to be frank about it: there does not really exist any Marxist theory of the State. Not that Marx and Lenin tried to dodge the question it lies at the heart of their political thought. But what you find in the classical authors is above all, in the form of the establishment of a relation between class struggle and class rule (decisive indications, but left unanalysed), only a repeated warning to avoid all the bourgeois conceptions of the State.48 As a matter of fact, according to Althusser, the questions of how the state ensures class rule and how the apparatus functions concretely are issues that remain unanswered within the Marxist canon. As a consequence, rather than talking imprudently of a Marxist theory of the state, Althusser suggested the acknowledgement that what we are left with are elements of a theory of the state.49 The problem of the relation there should be between the communist parties and the state, and the specific issue of Marxs indications on this matter, as we have noted, were at the centre of an animated international dispute. Thus in 1977 Althusser was entering into a debate with a


Encountering Althusser

relatively short but much-articulated history. In this scenario, the uncomfortable admission as to the absence of a Marxist theory of politics and the state must have appeared to Althusser as something of a fait accompli. However, he welcomed it as a liberation, commenting at the 1977 Venice conference: At last the crisis of Marxism has exploded! At last it is in full view! At last something vital and alive can be liberated by this crisis and in this crisis!.50 In a quasiFreudian mood, Althusser regarded the recognition of the crisis of Marxism and of the absence of a theory of the state as the salutary emergence of a repressed element, which could open up a process of authentic political-theoretical elaboration. The fact that Marxism presents only elements of a theory of the state and not an accomplished and systematic theory did not mean, for Althusser, that indications could not be found within that same cluster of ideas, for although these were nothing more than the elements of a theory, they at least had a crucial political signification.51 The very limits of Marxs and Lenins reflection on the state were in fact to be taken as signs of the openness and of the non-deterministic nature of their thought. Althusser proposed this line of reasoning in an article that appeared in Il Manifesto on 4 April 1978 where he defined Marxism as a finite theory. It is finite because it is embedded in the time that Marx was writing; therefore, it is a theory that, without assessing any eternal truth about historical developments, can nonetheless project onto the future the discovery of the tendency that is inscribed in capitalist social relations. The finitude of Marxist theory, therefore, does not mean that the theory is closed [chiusa]; rather, precisely because it is finite, it means that it is open to the contradictory tendencies that it discovers in capitalist society and it is open to their aleatory becoming, open to the unpredictable surprises that have not ceased to characterise the history of the workers movement; it is open, therefore, attentive and capable of taking seriously and of measuring in time the uncorrectable imagination of history.52 For Althusser, the diagnosis of a dysfunction, as it were, within the body of Marxist thought did not amount to declaring that it was moribund, or to attempting to ensure its correct functioning by injecting alien concepts the latter arguably being the path undertaken by Tronti. Rather, Althusser uses the opportunity of the emergence of the crisis of Marxism as a way to reflect more in depth on those elements of a theory of the state that Marx and Lenin left on the table.

The discontinuity between the economic and the political, or the knot of reproduction
Particularly in Marx in his limits, Althusser endeavoured to find the key to understanding above all the machinic metaphors of the state, metaphors on which Marx and especially Lenin insisted at length: what does it mean to say that the state is an apparatus, a special machine? In what sense is the state an instrument and why is it separate from civil society? In the attempt to find an answer to these questions, Althusser focused mainly on two texts: Lenins 1919 lecture on the state at Sverdlov University and Marxs section on the Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent at the end of Capital Volume III. According to Althusser, by repeatedly calling the state a special apparatus, a machine, in the Sverdlov lecture, Lenin was not simply hinting at the complexity of the states structure, but was striving to think its precise functioning. As Althusser put it:

Althusser and Tronti


The state is a machine in the full, precise sense of that term, as established in the nineteenth century after the discovery of the steam engine, the electro-magnetic machine, and so on: that is to say, in the sense of a man-made device [dispositif] comprising a motor driven by an energy 1, plus a transmission system, the purpose of the whole being to transform a specific kind of energy (A) into another specific kind of energy (B).53 But if the state is a machine in the full sense of the term, what is the energy it transforms, and what is the final result, namely the type of energy that it produces at the end of the process? For Althusser, the energy that is transformed is that of the force or violence of class struggle, and the final product is power in the form of laws and right [droit]. Class struggle, where one class is powerful and violent only because it is the dominant class, in other words, exercises its force and violence upon another class (which is also a force) that it must, in a never-ending struggle, hold in check if it is to maintain the upper hand over it. The relatively stable resultant (reproduced in its stability by the state) of this confrontation of forces (balance of forces is an accountants notion, because it is static) is that what counts is the dynamic excess of force maintained by the dominant class in the class struggle. It is this excess of conflictual force, real or potential, which constitutes energy A, which is subsequently transformed into power by the state-machine: transformed into right, laws and norms.54 Although force and violence, namely the clash between classes, constitute the essential energy upon which the state is based and that it transforms, the ideological apparatuses of the state operate through the denial of class struggle. The idea that the monopoly of violence held by the state is a necessary measure to maintain a position of neutrality, above class struggle and class interests, is the main ideological device produced by its apparatuses. The separation of the state from civil society, in Althussers reading, needs to be understood in terms of separation from class struggle. Only if the state is separate from class struggle can it function as an apparatus capable of taking measures against the will of a part or even a majority of the bourgeoisie in order to defend the bourgeoisies general interests as the dominant class. And that is why the state must be separate.55 In other words, the separation of the state from class struggle serves the goal of better intervening in it. Further, by framing the problem of the separation of the state in this way, it is possible to grasp in what sense the state is an instrument. As Althusser put it, the state: is separate from class struggle, that is why it is an instrument. The state needs to be separate from class struggle in order to be able to intervene in the class struggle on all fronts not just to intervene in the struggle of the working class in order to maintain the system of exploitation and general oppression of the exploited classes by the bourgeois class, but also to intervene, should the need arise, in the class struggle within the dominant class, with a view to overcoming its divisions, which can seriously jeopardize this class if the struggle of the working class and the masses is powerful.56 The way in which the state is effective in guaranteeing the interests of the dominant classes even by opposing their own struggle thereby saving them from themselves, as it were is


Encountering Althusser

to be found in those relations of a very particular kind imposed from on high by the system that obtains between hierarchical superiors and their subordinates. The principle governing these relations is that of a hierarchical centralization taken to the furthest possible extreme.57 The important and concrete mechanisms deployed by means of hierarchy and discipline within the state, were, for Althusser, areas that Marx and Lenin left unexplored, though they had already [been] quite clearly perceived by certain sociologists and, long ago, Max Weber.58 However, for Althusser it was the whole state ideological and material infrastructure, established through the division of labour and the internalisation of bourgeois-authoritarian discipline especially by the working classes whose members served in the armed forces that prompted Lenin to say that the state is a special apparatus, a special machine. The specialism of the state in fact lay in both the mechanism of the hierarchical relations governing civil servants or state employees and the inevitable presence of a public, armed physical force which has its place at the heart of the state and makes itself felt in all state activities.59 By analysing why the state is a special machine, an instrument in the hands of the dominant classes to ensure exploitation, Althusser was attempting to further the analysis he had previously initiated in his important text Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.60 A number of important developments between that earlier text and Althussers position in the late 1970s should be noted. Firstly, whereas the focus in Marx in his limits is on the metaphor of the state as a machine, in order to provide a more dynamic understanding of it, in the 1969 text Althusser employed almost exclusively the term apparatus. The latter was more statically understood as a complex structure, or system, fundamentally composed of two bodies: the body of institutions which represent the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) on the one hand, and the body of institutions which represent the body of Ideological State Apparatuses on the other.61 Secondly, whereas in that earlier text the RSA had a public status while the ISAs (Ideological and State Apparatuses), had a private status, this perspective seems to be abandoned in the texts of the 1970s. Finally, whereas violence was previously treated as fundamentally the tool of the (repressive) state apparatus and ideology was the preferred tool of the ISAs, the later Althusser refers to violence as the constitutive element of, and energy upon which the state is based and which the state machine transforms to produce the ideological superstructure of law. Thus, violence is the condition of possibility of ideology; at the same time, the most important of the states ideologies is the denial of violence, namely, of class struggle, and the claim of neutrality before class interests. Althussers position in the 1970s thus seems to present a more complex understanding of the state in which some of the previous binary oppositions public versus private, violence versus ideology seem to fade away into a more sophisticated elaboration. In particular, in Marx in his limits Althusser is concerned to link more solidly his discussion regarding the state apparatuses as the loci in which ideologies have their material existence with a concrete understanding of the state machine and its relation to the sphere of production. In his attempt to grasp how ideology is rooted in the state and what role state ideology concretely plays in the maintenance of the capitalist relations of production, Althusser aimed to deepen the comprehension of the theme of reproduction. The failed explanation of the states function of reproduction was, for Althusser, one of the absolute limits which the Marxist theory of the state comes up against, before coming to a dead stop.62 When Marx discusses the state, even in a late text such as the section on Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent in Capital Volume III, he Althusser argues continues speaking the language of production. In this language,

Althusser and Tronti


the secret of the state, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, is to be sought in the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers, hence in the relation of production or exploitation. He insists: the state is the political form taken by every form of dependence and domination, and is itself merely a manifestation of the relation of production. He insists: this secret is hidden beneath and in society.63 However, Althusser believed that it was only by taking the path of reproduction that Marxs and Lenins thought on the state could be pulled out of their absolute limits.64 The discussion regarding the reproduction of the social and material conditions of production was, for Althusser, not simply the means of avoiding a certain economism in Marxs discussion of the state or deepening his understanding of the concrete role of the state apparatuses ideologies. It was also vital in order to avoid falling into a descriptive conception of the state that is content to affirm that the state is separate and above classes,65 a conception that risked falling into the bourgeois theory of the state as the objective arbiter of class conflict.66 At this point, it could be noted that while the recognition of the special status of the state and of its discontinuous relation with the economic level prompted Tronti to declare its autonomy and, as a consequence, the autonomy of the political as the root of deciphering the political cycle of capital, Althusser positioned himself before such discontinuity by bringing to the fore the problem of reproduction. If the state is separate and above classes, if the state is a special machine made of a completely different metal, that is only in order to ensure the reproduction of the conditions of domination by the dominant class. This reproduction does not consist solely in the reproduction of the conditions of social relations and, ultimately, the productive relation; it also includes the reproduction of the material conditions of the relations of production and exploitation.67 Therefore, albeit stemming from similar premises, Althussers conclusion differs from Trontis in important ways. Not only is the state, the political form of class domination, to be understood in its reproductive functions; Althusser also strongly opposed any positions embracing the autonomy of politics, or the political, which he regarded as an aberrant thesis.68 As he put it: To begin with, the State is not autonomous. Did Marx and Lenin mean to say, when they described the state as a machine, that it works all by itself, as some machines do (for example, the steam engine)? But as anyone who lived in the age of the steam engine and Fouriers or Carnots laws knew, no machine works all by itself. Anyone who said so was using a metaphor to insist on the autonomous or automotive nature of the state. We know enough about the state, however, to be able to say that the separation of the state has nothing to do with autonomy. Marx and Lenin never talk about the autonomy of the state.69

Primacy of politics, primacy of the masses

A final element of difference between Althusser and Tronti should be noted. The texts by Althusser that have been analysed in this chapter also have to be read within the context of the phase of self-criticism that he began in the early 1970s. During this phase, Althusser subjected his work of the 1960s to severe criticism. Beginning with his famous reply to the British


Encountering Althusser

communist philosopher John Lewis, in the early 1970s Althusser endeavoured to revise some of the positions he held in For Marx and Reading Capital, including his articulation of Marxs 1845 epistemological break and his idea of philosophy as theory of theoretical praxis.70 The result of this troubled reflection came in the form of his embracing a seemingly anti-theoreticist stance and the declaration of the primacy of politics over philosophy, the primacy of practice over theory and the primacy of class struggle.71 Arguably, the idea of the primacy of politics or primacy of class struggle aimed above all to establish the primacy of the masses over the political apparatuses of Western communist parties in general and over the bureaucratic and top-down practices of the PCF in particular. As Lahtinen argues, these ideas were translated in the form of a new philosophical-ideological intervention against the leadership of the PCF particularly after its defeat in the French legislative elections of March 1978. In a series of articles published in Le Monde in that year, Althusser strongly criticised the leadership of the party for building fortifications between the Party and the masses.72 The theory that Communists should embrace is a theory which will not dodge mass initiatives and social transformations, but which will, on the contrary, openly face them and impregnate and nourish itself with them.73 In this context, the primacy of the class struggle as Lahtinen further argues also meant that the connection to the masses was the condition of life for Marxist theory.74 As Althusser wrote in 22me congrs, in what might be interpreted as a passionate appeal to the party to return to mass politics, Something can rise and develop in the union of the people of France, something that has been destroyed by Stalinist practices but which is at the heart of the Marxist and Leninist tradition: something that concerns the relation between the Party and the masses. Return the word to the masses that make history, be at the service not only of the masses (a slogan that could also sound reactionary), but listen to their voices, to study and comprehend their aspirations and contradictions, their aspirations in their contradictions, be able to pay attention to the imagination and creativity of the masses.75 Thus, unlike Tronti, Althussers emphasis upon the pre-eminent role of politics in the late 1970s aimed to assert the primary role of the masses.

Concluding remarks: primacy of class struggle versus primacy of political forces

Written in the middle of the action-packed turning-point of the 1970s, the texts by Althusser and Tronti examined in this chapter can be regarded as offering alternative models for thinking the status of the political. Departing from similar premises, namely the crisis of Marxism and especially the absence of a Marxist theory of politics, Tronti and Althusser sought to fill this lacuna by rethinking the relationship between politics and economics in light of the role of the state. Following this path, both Tronti and Althusser ended up identifying the specificity of the state in its separation from civil society, a separation to be read in terms of discontinuity between the economic and the political moment. Yet it is here that the two positions are set apart. While Tronti reads the

Althusser and Tronti


separation of the state from society and the discontinuity between what he saw in the Italian case as a modernised economic system and a backward political apparatus as symptomatic of an autonomy of the political, Althusser interprets the state as separate from the class struggle in order to be able better to intervene in it, and elaborates on the discontinuity between state politics and the sphere of economic relations in terms of social reproduction. However, their different readings of the perennial Marxist question regarding the relation between politics and economics were far from representing a theoreticist or purely academic dispute. On the one hand, Trontis thesis of the autonomy of the political resulted in the affirmation of the terrain of state mediation as the only possible level of political confrontation and in support for the historic compromise. On the other hand, Tronti conceived the autonomy of the political as independence of the party from the class itself. Unlike his own warning at the beginning of the 1960s never set about constructing perspective at a distance from the masses76 the turn to the autonomy of the political in the 1970s also meant the autonomy of the political from the class organisation, or the autonomy of the party from the class.77 In this light, the thesis of the autonomy of the political could be regarded as an instantiation of politicism, understood as the mirror image of economism. Though it assigns a position of pre-eminence to the political forces (the party, the state, political skills) as the organising principle of economy and society (rather than to the productive forces, as in the case of economism), politicism functions through the same deterministic register. In other words, the autonomy of the political as the idea of the self-determining functioning of the state, or of the political moment as independent variable, can be read as an embracement of what I propose to call a notion of the primacy of the political forces. As for Althusser, his analysis of the reproduction of capitalist social relations as representing the main role of the state led him to exclude at the outset any considerations of the autonomy of the state. The latter, for Althusser, could only be a class state, a class apparatus: even on those occasions when it seemed to behave independently from the interests of the bourgeois class, in reality the state is safeguarding those same interests from the dangers represented by intra-class disagreements. On this basis, Althusser regarded as purely illusory those positions that claimed that the state could be traversed by class struggle or that it could be democratised. Further, he saw as particularly dangerous the PCFs abandonment of the formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat, something that he regarded as a surrender to the fantasy of the state as a class-neutral, or neutralisable, machine. In this context, Althussers emphasis upon the primacy of politics, or class struggle, which marked what he considered his departure from the theoreticist phase of the 1960s, should be seen in continuity with, rather than in opposition to, the critique of economism and the affirmation of the primacy of the relations of production over productive forces that he upheld already in the 1960s.78 As Althusser maintains in Marx in his limits, the primacy of the relations of production means only one thing: it invites the conclusion that exploitation is class struggle, and that, in the capitalist mode of production, technical and technological questions are questions which form an integral part of, yet are subordinate to class struggle.79 Against economic reductionism and philosophical hypostatisation, Althussers emphasis upon the primacy of politics as the primacy of class struggle represented his attempt to overcome the division between the economic and the political moment. In the end, the point at which the two thinkers paths bifurcate should not be regarded as merely the accidental result of different histories and national/political trajectories. Rather, it is


Encountering Althusser

rooted in the very different theoretical presuppositions by means of which Tronti and Althusser tried to handle the general question of the relation between politics and economics, and thus the very different nature of their understandings of Marxism as a theory of the state.

1 Bobbio 1975. 2 For instance, in these years Italian communist intellectuals like Cesare Luporini were engaged with tienne Balibar and Andr Tosel in a debate concerning the place that politics and its critique had in Marxs work (see Balibar, Tosel and Luporini 1979). We should also remember the work of Nicos Poulantzas during the decade of 196878, which provided a sophisticated analysis of the state and political power. 3 For an overview of Trontis intellectual and political development, see Farris 2011, particularly p. 31. 4 Norberto Bobbio named as hetero-integrationism (Bobbio 1978, pp. 100 et sqq.) the tendency to resort to other theoretical traditions in order to find concepts and systematic theories that could not be found within ones own theoretical paradigm. Specifically, Bobbio recommended that Marxists adopt such a strategy in his critique of those Marxists who, instead of conceding that Marx did not provide a full theory of the state and politics, persisted in trying to find one in Marxs texts or in those of his followers, between the lines. 5 A comparison between the work of Althusser and Tronti in general is beyond the aim of this chapter, particularly in light of the numerous differences between the two contexts and authors. For instance, the difference of age Althusser was thirteen years older than Tronti and especially the difference between the greater intellectual production and international exposure of Althussers oeuvre compared to the more limited number of texts and to the largely Italian intellectual context of Tronti, are all elements that indicate the difficulties of a comparative work. However, there are also a number of similarities between the two that are worth highlighting. As members of the PCF and PCI respectively, both Althusser and Tronti were strongly marked by the events of 1956 in ways that led them critically to rethink the theoretical premises of their respective parties and to oppose their alleged humanism with scientific and anti-Hegelian Marxism. In the 1960s, both initiated a re-reading of Marxs texts, particularly Capital, in order to produce new interpretations that could challenge party orthodoxy. Finally, and most importantly, in the 1970s both Althusser and Tronti declared the crisis of Marxism and located it in the absence in Marxs work of a theory of politics and particularly of the state. Their attempt to understand the political dilemma of the role and nature of the bourgeois state led both to concentrate on the relation between the economic and the political. 6 Gundle 1987 , p. 31. 7 Gundle 1987 , p. 31. , p. 31. 8 Gundle 1987 9 Tronti 1977 , p. 10. , p. 10. 10 Tronti 1977 11 Tronti 1977 , p. 15. Particularly in the 1970s, several Marxists argued about the lack of a theory of politics and the state in Marx. See for instance Anderson 1976; Horkheimer 1978; Hobsbawm 1982. 12 Tronti 1977 , p. 15. 13 Tronti 1977 , p. 17 . , p. 17 . 14 Tronti 1977

Althusser and Tronti 15 Tronti 2006, p. 279. 16 Tronti 2006, p. 279. 17 Tronti 2006, p. 281. 18 Tronti 1977 , p. 9. 19 Tronti 1977 , p. 10. 20 Tronti 1977 , p. 12. 21 Tronti 1977 , p. 12. , p. 16. 22 Tronti, 1977 23 Tronti, 1977 , p. 16. , p. 11. 24 Tronti 1977 25 Tronti 1977 , p. 17 . 26 Tronti 1977 , p. 16. , p. 16. 27 Tronti 1977 28 Tronti 1977 , p. 26. 29 Tronti 1977 p. 19. 30 Tronti 1978, p. 24.


31 In a 1976 essay Negri polemicised against the autonomy of the political as ideology of the historic compromise: the compromise has occurred, with characteristic funeral orations of inevitability , the struggle against the crisis and against the workers who have determined it is, in the autonomy of the political, unanimously conducted (Negri 1976, p. 5). Similarly, Ferrajoli and Zolo 1978, p. 8, defined the autonomy of the political as a form of intellectual apology for the historic compromise. 32 While engaging with Bobbios perennial claim that there is not a theory of the state in Marx (see Bobbio 1975 and 1978), Negri defined it as mere statement of fact [una registrazione], affirming that the official workers movement (and the communist movement for instance) does not possess a doctrine of the state (Negri 1977 , p. 273). 33 Negri 1979, p. 129. 34 See Letter to Dr Kugelmann concerning the Paris Commune, in Marx and Engels 19752005 Volume 44; Lenin 1952. 35 Tronti 1977 , p. 30. , pp. 345. 36 Tronti 1977 37 As Tronti put it: Do we want to say that the party has to acquire autonomy from the class, that the class has to concede to its party the autonomy it needs in order to complete this operation of support for large-scale capital, in this particular moment? Lets say scandalising everybody even this (Tronti 1977 , p. 35). , p. 29. 38 Tronti 1977 39 Bellofiore and Tomba 2008. 40 For an overview of Trontis positions in the 1960s, see Wright 2002. 41 Goshgarian 2006, p. xix. 42 See Althusser 1977b. 43 Marx in his limits, in Althusser 2006a. 44 See Foucault 1995. 45 See Poulantzas 1978; 1980. 46 See Balibar 1977 .


Encountering Althusser

47 Goshgarian 2006, p. xxvii. 48 Althusser 2006a, p. 21. 49 Althusser 2006a, p. 68. 50 Althusser 1978, p. 217 . 51 Althusser 2006a, p. 68. 52 Althusser 1978. 53 Althusser 2006a, p. 104. 54 Althusser 2006a, p. 109. 55 Althusser 2006a, p. 77 . 56 Althusser 2006a, p. 71. 57 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1012. 58 Althusser 2006a, p. 101. Here, it is interesting to note that Althusser, too, regarded Max Weber as a crucial source for Marxists on the question of the functioning of the state. On the importance of Weber for an understanding of the bourgeois state in the work of Mario Tronti, see Farris 2011. 59 Althusser 2006a, p. 104. 60 Althusser 1971a. 61 Althusser 1971a, p. 140. 62 Althusser 2006a, pp. 989. 63 Althusser 2006a, p. 97 . 64 Althusser 2006a, p. 99. 65 Althusser 2006a, p. 120. 66 Althusser 2006a, p. 120. 67 Althusser 2006a, p. 120. 68 Criticising Gramscis concept of hegemony, which Althusser took as reductive politicism and as an instantiation of the autonomy of politics, or the political, he writes: There is a great deal to be said about this thesis of the autonomy of the political or of politics, particularly about the fact that it can be understood neither as the autonomy of the party from the masses in the class struggle, nor as that of political leaders in the life of the Party, and so on. Yet the fact is that this aberrant thesis brings us to the threshold of another absolute limit of Marxist thought: namely, its inability to think politics . It will be objected that this is to court paradox: the work of Marx and Lenin is full of politics . It is indeed full of politics, full of political analyses. But our authors have never given us, except in the form of lists or descriptions, even the rudiments of an analysis responding to the question: just what might politics be? Where is politics to be found? In what forms? What distinguishes it from non-political forms, and how then should we designate these other forms? Unless we broach these questions, we risk remaining, for a long time yet, in the night in which all cows are grey . And, colour for colour, our hands will most assuredly not be white. For to ask what politics might be implies that one state ones views on the Party (Althusser 2006a, p. 150). 69 Althusser 2006a, p. 83. 70 Despite revising precisely some of those positions that arguably constituted his most original, albeit questionable, contributions, Althusser nonetheless maintained his anti-humanism. Particularly in Reply to John Lewis, his critique of bourgeois humanism which he saw as the disease infecting the intelligentsia of the international communist movement is linked to the insistence on the masses, and not man, as the faber of history and therefore as the only subject of an authentic communist politics. For Althusser, humanism which he considered,

Althusser and Tronti


following Marx, as an expression of reactionary socialism was the line that turns the workers away from the class struggle, prevents them from making use of the only power they possess: that of their organization as a class and their class organizations (the trade unions, the party), by which they wage their class struggle (Althusser 1976a, p. 64). 71 Althusser 1976a. 72 Lahtinen in this volume. 73 Althusser 1978, pp. 39, 45. 74 Lathinen in this volume. 75 Althusser, 1977 , pp. 357 . 76 Tronti 2006, p. 22. 77 Tronti 1977 , pp. 345. 78 See Althusser 1969a. 79 Althusser 2006a, p. 59.

Part Three

Thinking production and reproduction

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy
Ceren zseluk

n Metapolitics Alain Badiou calls attention to a thesis initially advanced by Sylvain Lazarus, that there is a tension, an ambivalence in the manner in which the concept of class circulates within Louis Althussers topographical framework.1 On the one hand, class is related to the object of the science of historical materialism, a materialist determination by the economy, which provides a principle of massive stability.2 On the other hand, class belongs to the political, the field of the subjective and overdetermination that by definition rules out any determinate objects, laws or subjects. After incisively bringing into view this oscillation in the meanings of class found in Althussers writings, Badiou gestures towards the political name of class as the proper trajectory for registering the effects of overdetermination and locating the possible. Indeed, it is the idea of overdetermination as a political moment that Badiou affirms and argues for in order to encapsulate what is most fertile in Althussers unfinished project of thinking subjectivity and politics without a subject: Overdetermination puts the possible on the agenda, whereas the economic place (objectivity) is that of well-ordered stability, and the statist place (ideological subjectivity) makes individuals function. Overdetermination is in truth the political place. And it must indeed be said that overdetermination belongs to the subjective realm (choice, partisanship, militancy), even though it knows of no subject-effect (such effects are statist), nor does it verify, or construct, any object (such objects only exist in the field of science).3 I think it would not be too unwarranted to infer from Badious remarks that he does not see in Althussers formulations of economy, which he recognises as the place of well-ordered stability, a genuine openness to overdetermination, or subjective intervention. Insofar as economy is taken as an object of scientific practice, and insofar as scientific practice entails a systematic construction of its object, its specification as well as the description of the methods of its exposition and verification, one can speak of a certain type of stability tied up with scientific investigation. However, Badious descriptions entail something other and more than the conditions of generic scientific procedure. It seems that stability refers, rather, to the


Encountering Althusser

ontology of economy and class in the manner in which Althusser reconstructed them from Marxs Capital. Thus what I want to call into question in this chapter is the idea that Althussers writings ascribe stability and a purpose of social ordering to economy. Badious specific reading of Althusser, and the tensions that characterise his writings, can be interpreted as to give support to a particular trend of reclaiming Althussers legacy, one which, through pitting structural cause (qua economy) against overdetermination, restricts the effective field of contingency to the political, and attributes to Althussers discussions of the mode of production a difficult-toreform economic necessity. In fact, even those scholars that do not see such a polarisation and tension between Althussers analysis of the mode of production and overdetermination, and include relations of production as one of the contradictions overdetermining every conjuncture, go on to present the latter as a special, primary contradiction or some necessary limit, which contains and directs the effects of the interactions between diverse contradictions. In my opinion, a reading that deduces from Althussers analysis of the mode of production an orderly, and ordering, perception of economy which, as if by necessity, holds together runs directly counter to his enterprise. My thesis, along with a series of other scholars, is that Althussers epistemological project, especially in the systematic terms that it is expressed in Reading Capital, has allowed for a conceptualisation of the space upon which economic relations rest as ontologically contingent and unstable. I understand this project in terms of a rigorous confrontation with the ideological closures of political economy, in both its theoreticalhumanist version (and its variant, economism) and historicism. When I say ideological closures, I am referring to the ways in which political economy privilege[s] the historical and the epistemological position of the Subjects self-realization in terms of self knowledge whether this self-realisation takes the humanist form, as in the case of the fulfilment of human needs or the actualisation of socialised labour, or if it expresses itself in structuralist form, as in the case of the law of value (and accumulation) or the historical consciousness of capitalist abstraction.4 Starting with the epistemological assurance of some transparent knowledge, and the postulate of an omniscient subject that this entails, theoretical humanism and historicism then proceed to locate this transparency in some essence that fixes the scope of economy as the homogenous space of the given.5 Diligently exposing such involvements of classical epistemology (what Althusser calls the empiricist problematic) in the deterministic constructions of economy, specifically in the ways in which classical epistemology privileges a notion of the subject as origin and goal, Althusser simultaneously opened up a front separate from representations of economy as a uniform field that is tightly secured and consistently determined by logics of economic necessity. Following the path cleared up by Althussers reading of Marx, a series of evolving Marxian research-projects have produced a different thought of economy as a heterogeneous and overdetermined field, populated by a diversity of institutional forms of value, circulation of capital and economic subjectivity. In the rest of this chapter, as I elaborate the new concept of economy that I read in Althussers writings, I will at the same time draw extensively from the insights of these research-projects. As I will try to show, what these theoretical initiatives have taken from Althusser is not only that the constitution of economy is historically contingent and in perpetual need of reproduction, but, perhaps more importantly, that the condition of possibility for examining historical contingency itself rests on disidentifying with those sovereign attempts that try to pin economy down with a transparent, cohering identity (the most familiar,

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


at least to Marxian ears, being the capitalist economy of abstraction and/or accumulation, to which we can easily add, the market-economy of efficient allocation, the communist economy of socialised labour, and so on).

Class struggle in economic theory

To begin to elucidate the concept of economy that Althussers works give rise to, I want to draw attention to a third and a philosophical meaning of class or rather, class struggle in Althussers writings, in addition to those that Badiou highlights. It is this philosophical sense of class that, in my view, constantly unsettles what is retained from the (last instance) determinism that privileges economic contradiction as the mover of historical process. This philosophical notion is closely tied up with what various scholars have pointed to as a transformation in Althussers definition of philosophy in Essays in Self-Criticism, from the theory of theoretical practice to the practice of intervention in ideological and scientific theories with the aim of tracing lines of demarcation, taking up a position and, in Althussers alternative formulation, waging class struggle in theory.6 So what does class designate in Althussers expression of class struggle in theory? And what kind of a practice of intervention does class struggle in theory entail? At first glance, the idea of theoretical class struggle might conjure up the notion of a structural approach of deriving theoretical attitudes, social interests and political battles from the stratification of classes within relations of production. It might even bring to mind the doctrinaire call for purifying the political field through prescribing some pre-ordained (proletarian) position, such as to eradicate the bourgeois deviations in theoretical practices. One might add to this that Althussers utilisation of the science and ideology distinction which, in the minds of an overwhelming number of critics, has served as the epitome of Althussers conformity to rationalism, if not the clear evidence of his Stalinist coercion in theory has conveniently bolstered this interpretation. Nevertheless, the notion of class struggle in theory could not be any further from the sociological/structural approach of attributing interests to class positions. It is true that Althusser subjected his earlier take on Marxian philosophy, as well as his prior use of the science and ideology distinction, to an unflinching criticism, characterising it as a rationalist explanation ... contrasting truth and error in the forms of the speculative distinction between science and ideology, in the singular and in general. Nevertheless, I think that he carried out this criticism neither for the same reasons, nor with the same consequences, that his many presumptuous critics attributed to him. Althusser unreservedly advocated doing away with his prior definition of philosophy as the theory of theoretical practice, a formulation that appealed to the idea of philosophy as the meta-discourse that adjudicates theoretical practices. For Althusser, not only did this violate his very own preposition that truth was internal to theoretical practice and could not be located in a transcendental subject, but also led to the absence from his previous work of an overdeterminist analysis of Marxs break: rather than explaining the historical conditions of existence and the determinate effects of class struggle in overdetermining Marxs epistemological break, he had reduced the latter almost to a matter of choice, made on the terrain of rationalism, between error and truth. Still, at the same time that he launched this self-criticism, Althusser persisted in defending his science and ideology distinction, even to the point of defining the


Encountering Althusser

task of philosophy as one of tracing the effects of this distinction on the sciences. In his defence, he attempted to release this distinction from the vestiges of a rationalist judgment on truth and error, and instead denoted this distinction with the figure of a battlefield of antagonistic tendencies between materialism and idealism, two contending positions that could never be found in some pure and complete form.7 In this revised formulation, the science and ideology distinction operated as a line of demarcation between a theoretical tendency that was both anti-subject and anti-teleological and an ideological tendency that proceeded from the transparency and unity of a subject.8 One can convincingly argue that with theoretical class struggle, Althusser was not really articulating a completely new idea, but rather bringing to the fore what he had already formulated quite forcefully in the context of his previous interrogations of classical epistemology. If these formulations remained somewhat at the sidelines, it is because they were, in some sense, forced onto the sidelines as a consequence of certain readings of his earlier works that emphasised their rationalism and structuralism. But already in Reading Capital, as Althusser was reconstructing the epistemology and ontology unique to Marx, he was distancing Marx from while excavating the unquestioned and implicit alliances between the essentialisms of seemingly different veins of Marxian and non-Marxian theoretical ideologies. Since some of these essentialist assumptions were implicitly held, and not self-acknowledged, Althussers effort was nothing short of a constitutive intervention to bring into existence a divide, a new front of struggle that persists within the field of social sciences till this day. Studying Reading Capital retrospectively through the aforementioned self-criticism, we can understand how Althussers painstakingly exact analysis in this text marks the struggle between materialism and idealism, or, put differently, between overdetermination and determinism. For Althusser, determinisms within Marxism involved not only the economism of the Second International, which mechanistically reduced historical change to the destiny-determining contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production;9 not only the theoretical humanism of early Marx and socialists of the times, who found in proletarian consciousness the recovery of the alienated origin and unifying core of human consciousness, namely, the labouring subject; but also, the historicism of those fellow Marxists, who, while advancing their own criticisms of the Second International socialism, were erecting their own version of essentialism by presuming a contemporaneity of time that submits the diversity of scientific, philosophical, economic and political practices to what is thinkable in a certain historical period: indeed, periods that they ultimately deem to be isolatable. Simultaneously, Althusser produced a series of precise arguments to substantiate how Marxs philosophy parted ways with the empiricism and theoretical humanism of classical political economy as well as of modern economic theory. Althusser was not a political economist; nonetheless, his interventions in this sphere can be interpreted in the figure of a class struggle in economic theory. A key error of classical political economists that Althusser pointed out was their confusion of surplus-value with so many of its observable forms (such as wages, rents and profits).10 This was not a simple matter of psychological oversight where, looking from the outside, one perceives the existing economic reality incorrectly or incompletely. It was the empiricist problematic in which classical political economists were embedded that was constitutive of the distribution of what was visible and invisible to them. Collapsing the gap between the object of knowledge and the real object, the empiricist problematic confined economic existence to the obviousness of the given.11

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


To this, Althussers response was that the economic is never clearly visible, does not coincide with the given, thus . . . all economic science depends on the construction of the concept of its object.12 Accordingly, Marxs break with the empiricist epistemology was simultaneous with his construction of a new concept of economy, which involved drawing a conceptual distinction between capitalist surplus-value and the forms that its manifold distributions could take, which, in turn, worked together with a series of other conceptual distinctions that he constructed, such as between labour and labour-power, necessary and surplus-labour/ value, abstract and concrete labour, and so on. This new conception of economy enabled Marx to explode the perception of social relations of production in classical political economy in terms of a harmonious division of labour (where each empirically-given class of labourers, capitalists and landlords contributed their share to the total value produced) and to instead conceive of these relations as antagonistic.13 Put in the language of the science versus ideology distinction, Marx, with his newly found concept(s), took a position against the imaginary of classical political economists.14 Marxs concepts opened up a new field of visibility on class which exposed the misrecognition of social unity and transparency that the empiricist problematic effected. We can build on Althussers analysis to claim that Marxs class struggle in theory makes possible a new understanding of economic class struggle conceived as a process without a subject. Althusser indicates such a new conception when he prescribes to go beyond the football match idea of class struggle that invokes two antagonistic and already-formed classes, and to put class struggle before the division of classes into classes.15 So, for instance, he argues that exploitation is not the result of the confrontation of two preconstituted groups of classes, exploitation is already class struggle.16 Conceiving economic class struggle as a process in this way not only rules out any telos based on the intending subject, but also conveys the impossibility of any final closure to class relations. That is, with no ultimate foundation for a perfect arrangement of class, struggles over the division of what is necessary and what is surplus-labour/value, as well as over the distributions of surplus-labour/value, can never be settled for once and all, thus rendering class antagonism irresolvable.17 This offers a perspective on economic class struggle that disengages it from the imputation of stability to economy.

The critique of theoretical humanisms

At this point, I might be running slightly ahead of my argument. For Althusser, Marxs disruption of the notion of a harmonising economy put forwards by classical political economy involved not only the break with the empiricist problematic, but also casting away theoretical-humanist anthropology. As a matter of fact, it was this latent anthropology that set the ground for the empiricist problematic. What aided the homogenising endeavour of the empiricist mode of knowledge, by submitting what were in fact distinct economic practices to a uniform comparison and measurement, and obtaining from them a clearly recognisable knowledge, was the presumption that these practices were all founded and stamped by the same origin. They were the obvious manifestations of a given human intentionality: the purposeful action that humans engage in order to satisfy their needs. . . Classical Economics can only think economic facts as belonging to the homogenous . space of their positivity and measurability on condition that it accepts a nave anthropology


Encountering Althusser

which founds all the acts involved in the production, distribution, reception and consumption of economic objects on the economic subjects and their needs . . . In the concept of the sphere of needs, economic facts are thought as based in their economic essence on human subjects who are prey to need: on the homo oeconomicus, who is a (visible, observable) given, too. The homogenous positivist field of measurable economic facts depends on a world of subjects whose activity as productive subjects in the division of labor has as its aim and effect the production of objects of consumption, destined to satisfy these same subjects of needs. The subjects, as subjects of needs, support the activity of the subjects as producers of use-values, exchangers of commodities and consumers of use-values. The field of economic phenomena is thus, in origin as in aim, founded on the ensemble of human subjects whose needs define them as economic subjects. The peculiar theoretical structure of Political Economy depends on immediately and directly relating together a homogenous space of given phenomena and an ideological anthropology which bases the economic character of the phenomena and its space on man as the subject of needs (the givenness of the homo oeconomicus).18 It is worth expanding on this paragraph in order to elucidate the significance of Althussers intervention for theorising contingency in economy. We can begin by underlining that what Althusser contested in the homogenisation of economy (through the anthropology of needs) was not that economic space was thus rendered measurable, or subjected to abstraction. Althussers disagreement was neither with the practice of measurement, nor with abstraction in general (indeed, he regarded abstraction to be a constitutive part of scientific production, once he distinguished it from empiricist abstraction). He explicitly argued that Marxs theoretical discourse by no means excludes from economics the possibility of measurement or of the intervention of the instruments of mathematics. What it did, however, was to subordinate measurement to conceptual formalization.19 The homogenisation of the economy as an infinite plane in classical political economy was not the consequence of its property of being measurable per se. It stemmed both from a realist (empiricist) epistemology, which removed the distinction between conceptual objects and real objects and made real objects the referent of a foundational knowledge, and a theoretical humanism that secured that foundation upon deliberate human intention. This contention is the same one behind Althussers equally strong objection to modern economists who attacked Marx for producing concepts, such as value and surplus-value, that they declared to be non-operational.20 This is because, their argument proceeded, these concepts were non-measurable and unquantifiable.21 Mired in the empiricist problematic, just like their classical predecessors, modern economists similarly conflated the conceptual structure that Marx produced (which provides Marxs object) with the givenness of the real object.22 When modern economists claimed that value and surplus-value were not immediately visible and quantifiable, what they were unable to conceive was that these were not given things, directly measurable, but (conceptual) sites of overdetermined relationships, meaning that their quantification was contingent on the interactions within that relational structure. In Althussers words, surplus-value was not directly quantifiable, because it was a concept of a relationship ... of an existence visible and measurable only in its effects.23 Althussers appraisal of the empiricist problematic of measurement in Reading Capital has terrain-shifting implications for the issue of the determination of value within Marxian political

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


economy. What was and continues to be a major question in the debates on value is the scientific validity of Marxs labour theory of value. Various Marxian economists have built upon Althussers intervention to challenge the positivist conception of science and the empiricist position assumed in these debates.24 For example, Bruce Roberts eloquently explains that the positions that critically disparage value-theory for its analytical shortcomings, and specifically for the intractable analytical inconsistencies encountered when deriving capitalist prices (profits) from labour-time values (surplus-values) in production and still others that attempt to salvage it, are misguided insofar as they force value and surplus-value to serve as invariant labour essences, only to then run into problems when they try to derive capitalist prices and profits from these essences in a linear relation of causality.25 However, Roberts argues that if, in line with what Althusser advanced, value and surplus-value were instead conceived as concepts of relationships, then there is no reason to treat them as referents for fixed quantities of labour-time embodied in production. In fact, in such a case, there will be no predetermined substance of value and surplus-value, independent of the specific social and historical conditions of consumption and distribution that overdetermine their changing forms. There will be no determination of surplus-value, for instance, prior to the specification of whether it is circulated subject to average profit, or monopoly profit, or of whether it is distributed through payments of merchant profit or groundrent.26 Distributions of debt, rent, taxes, salaries of non-productive employees, and so on all bear a constitutive imprint on surplus-value, even if actual payments in these forms occur only subsequent to the realization of revenue.27 To put it differently, there is no pre-formed value and surplus-value prior to the value-form. Value-form, as distinguished from value in Marx, retroactively constructs value and renders it, not as some fully present essence of determination, but as an absent cause existing only in its effects. It opens a conceptual space for exploring the contingent constitution of the magnitude of the ongoing redistributions of unpaid/surplus-value as an effect of changing economic institutions and struggles, both class and non-class.28 Althusser was right in claiming that [i]f surplus value is not measurable, that is precisely because it is the concept of its forms, which are measurable.29 Now, in order to tie the discussion so far developed back to where we started, I want to raise the question of whether Marxs concept of value-form plays a role sufficient to displacing the unity and stability imposed on economy through theoretical-humanist anthropology. My answer to this is that one should simultaneously lay on the table the anthropology, this time, not of a satisfying subject, but of a labouring subject, which seems to underpin classical Marxisms commitment to treating labour embodied in production as the origin of value-determination. In fact, even in classical political economy and this is also implicit in Althussers discussions the anthropology of needs coexisted with that of labour, which served as another centre, totalising production, consumption, exchange and distribution.30 Once labour is assigned an ontological status in classical Marxism, the reproduction of society is then grounded on the objective of economy as a well-structured allocation of labour. This type of reproductionism was crystallised, for instance, in the notion of the law of value, which presented capitalist economy as a self-regulating mechanism that had to solve the problem of distributing abstract social labour-time in such a way that would secure the existence and maintenance of society. Marxs critical answer to the anthropology of labour, and to the ontological solidity that this anthropology ascribes to economy and in fact, if we adhere to Althussers reading of Marx, to any possible form of theoretical humanism regarding needs, wants, labour, appropriation,


Encountering Althusser

and so on is the concept of the mode of production. Althusser argued that in Grundrisse, and more prominently in Capital, Marx brought to maturity the concept of the mode of production in order to think a complexly articulated whole and banish from his discourse the idea of a simple expressive unity applied by theoretical humanism: To think the concept of production is to think the concept of the unity of its conditions: the mode of production. To think the mode of production is to think not only the material conditions but also the social conditions of production.31 The complex unity of the mode of production referred to the combination of the particular material conditions (which we can read as economic conditions in the above paragraph),32 namely, conditions of consumption, circulation, and distribution, with social conditions, which we can interpret as introducing non-economic elements, referring to the political and ideological conditions of existence. This formulation of the mode of production as the unity of its conditions displaces the idea of unity as grounded on an anthropological foundation and makes unity, or rather the effect of unity, a problem to be explained. That is, it recasts the mode of production in terms of the problem of reproduction, which is indispensable for the reconceptualisation of capitalist economic relations as contingently constituted. Before I elaborate this point further, however, I want to make a detour and confront head-on Althussers reference to the determination in the last instance by economic structure, an idea which he closely related to the concept of the complexly articulated whole.33 This diversion is called for since many critiques have seized on this reference to the last instance as a clear indication of how the contingency of reproduction in Althussers analysis is very much compromised by the necessity of the economic regulation of the social.34

The status of the last instance

How shall we understand Althussers enigmatic insistence on the notion of the last instance, even when he immediately qualifies it with saying that its lonely hour . . . never comes?35 As already mentioned, quite a number of scholars have read this insistence as a clear sign of Althussers failure, despite his rigorous efforts, to extract himself from the rationalist grip of the base-superstructure model of Marxism. In this interpretation, the meaning of the last instance is irretrievably, and in my view improperly, stained with economic determinism. Certainly, this is not all that is said about the last instance. An equally vocal, contrary position lists the idea of the last instance among those things that should be reclaimed from Althusser, as an indispensable element that affirms Marxs materialist method of privileging economy and class in explaining historical transformation, as the epitome of Althussers rebuttal of idealism. However, this interpretation is also untenable once we conceive of Althussers materialist philosophy not in the sense of prioritising the economy, but as persevering in the direction of a critique of any positivist conception of science and any deterministic understanding of causation. Borrowing an already existing notion of economy, this position fails to go through how the structure of economy is thoroughly transformed by Althussers reading of Marx. It seems to me that what these opposing views collectively do is to channel the debate on the last instance in a particular way. Reacting to one anothers position, they drive the struggle over the meaning of last instance not so much in terms of the question of the role that this concept performs in relation to Althussers epistemological project, as through the desire to establish

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


and regulate the proper border between Marxism and post-Marxism in the post-Althusserian context (thus ordering the various degrees of allegiances to Marxism according to who adheres to the last instance and who abandons it). I think, rather, that last instance should be thought as an emplacement in Althussers class struggle in economic theory, which admittedly fires out contradictory messages at times. A number of Althussers well-known remarks on the last instance appear in the text Contradiction and Overdetermination, in the course of his close reading of Marxs afterword to the second edition of Capital and Engelss letter to Joseph Bloch. Althussers meticulous reading of these texts, in which he cites Marx and Engels quite extensively, aims at rendering visible the philosophical novelty of Marxs dialectic in its break with the Hegelian structure. To Althusser, it is not only the case that determination by the economic in the last instance must be sharply distinguished from the Hegelian expressive causality that reduces all phenomena back to an economic essence. It is precisely the term that differentiates Marxs dialectic from the Hegelian one. Last instance embodies the metaphor of a structure, which, far from depicting a simple inversion of the Hegelian dialectic, establishes a new relationship between new terms.36 To probe into this statement, let us turn to Essays in Self-Criticism, where Althusser revisits the notion of the last instance and devotes a significant discussion to it.37 Here, unlike some of his previous arguments which he subjects to self-criticism, Althusser affirms the significance of this little phrase once again in enacting a shift of topography of the social: last instance names the abandonment of the metaphor of the Hegelian circle for that of edifice.38 It signifies a differentiated, therefore, complex and articulated whole, separating Marx sharply off from the expressive unity that the Hegelian configuration represents in the image of a circle within circles.39 If last instance, is the last one, Althusser says, it is because there are others. . . each with their different histories.40 Contrary to what the critics see the last instance as doing that is, introducing a telos of structural determination it is, as a key ingredient of Althussers conceptual reworking of Marxs texts, foremost an attempt to remove any encroachment of telos on Marxs dialectic. The last instance conveys the idea that the differences are real, and they are not only differences in the spheres of activity, practices and objects: they are differences in efficacy. The last instance operates here in such a way that it explodes the peaceful fiction of the circle or the sphere.41 Althusser emphasises more than once that last instance should be regarded as the metaphor of a radical topographical shift, a claim that, I think, detaches it from serving as some sort of concrete, ultimate cause of determination. Still, there is an element in Althussers use of the last instance that gives some justification to critics thesis that he deploys this notion as a regulator of a hierarchy of effects, as the index of structural causality whereby economy (class contradiction) ascribes different effectivities to different social instances and historical conditions. The status of the last instance, which I try to magnify and which departs from such a mediated determination by economy, might take on a more convincing meaning if we note how it is placed conceptually next to other related ideas that Althusser utilises, in particular, the determinant structure (and determinate) and the limit, both of which also circulate in the same texts. The combined effect of these concepts situated in a shared field of discourse communicates that when Althusser argues for the last instance as to dislocate the Hegelian totality, his objective is not the substitution of this totality by another one, this time with an assemblage of isolated elements that relate to one another arbitrarily and externally, with no specific and constitutive relation of articulation. That would be to fill the theoretical void


Encountering Althusser

left by the displacement of Hegelian totality with the spontaneous ideology of a mechanistic Cartesian totality, replacing the determinism of the whole with the determinism of the parts.42 There is, then, a certain strategic import to Althussers deployment of the determinate and the limit (and the last instance): to avoid the dual dangers of Hegelian and Cartesian preoccupations. Seen in this way, all these ideas are very much akin to the concept of overdetermination. Every mode of production is determinate in the sense that the constitutive effects of each element of the social totality play themselves out in and through the complex interactions with the effects of other particular elements.43 Determinate, interpreted this way, does not mean determinism; it does not suggest a system of relationships structured by a governing essence, but rather refers to the limited and differential effectivity of each and every element. Limited, because structure or its elements are not subjects, in that they do not control and dictate their own effects and secure their own conditions of existence; rather, they are overdetermined (and underdetermined44) by their specific conditions and histories. One can, then, interpret determinate structure as designating the limited-because-overdetermined structure, as announcing the impossibility of the self-sufficiency of structure or of particular elements. The last instance, rethought in this way, in conjunction with the notions of the determinate and the limit, symbolises a topography of articulated instances and implies a materialist orientation that rules out any explanation in terms of the consciousness of self or history: when he [Marx] inscribes the dialectic within the functioning of the instances of a topography, he effectively protects himself from the illusion of a dialectic capable of producing its own material content in the spontaneous movement of its self-development. In submitting the dialectic to the constraints of the topography, Marx is submitting it to the real conditions of its operation, he is protecting it from speculative folly, he is forcing it into a materialist mold, forcing it to recognize that its own figures are prescribed by the material character of its own conditions.45 This is the sense in which I regard the concept of the last instance as a tool of separation, separating Marxs ontological project from the ideologies of social harmony resolved through different types of theoretical humanisms. No longer standing for the cause that pulls the strings behind the scenes, last instance is thus situated as one of the concepts, along with the determinate and the limit, within Althussers theoretical movement that enables us to think the necessity of conjuncture, to count and distinguish between all other instances, to weigh up their different and distinct efficacies, and to take full account of the way the conditions present themselves.46

The contingency of reproduction

I can now return to the significance of Althusser bringing reproduction to the fore as an indispensable element of any theory of production.47 Viewing the capitalist mode of production from the angle of reproduction detaches the analysis of the movement of capital from the regulative fiction of the law of value (or, for that matter, from the law of accumulation, which adds yet another layer of necessity to the operation of the law of value in the context of expanded reproduction). Creation of value can then be posed as a question in its historical and institutional becoming. For instance, Marxs circuit of capital (M-C...P ...C-M) can be conceived, not as the prescription of an invariant, unmediated, self-constituted logic, a law of motion, but

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


as a framework for interrogating the historically changing social technologies that sustain the metamorphoses of capital as it is transformed from its money-form to commodity-form and then, once the new commodities are produced, back into money-form in order for the surplusvalue performed by the living labour to be realised.48 The historical constitution of labour-power as a commodity, as espoused in Marxs analysis in the chapters on so-called primitive accumulation, has received the most attention in discussions on the social constitution of the circuit of capital. One might even claim that the overemphasis on the contingency of this particular moment of the circuit has unwittingly overshadowed the question of the reproduction of other moments. However, there is no reason why one cannot carry the logic of contingency over to the entirety of the process of capital. Althusser also returned to the theory of primitive accumulation in 1982, as part of a book-manuscript that was never published due to his death.49 Revisiting the arguments that he, together with Balibar, developed in Reading Capital, he reiterates the way in which the mode of production allows for a conceptualisation of the emergence of the historical phenomenon of capitalism relieved from the telos of any unifying cause, where each of its constitutive elements (for example, accumulation of money, accumulation of technical means of production, accumulation of the raw materials of production, accumulation of producers) can be treated as the product of its own history, and none being the teleological product of the others or their history ...50 More importantly, for Althusser, the theory of primitive accumulation does not only expose the contingency of the origins of capitalism. As a steadily-recurring process, primitive accumulation also offers a conceptual framework for studying the ways in which the process of capital depends on the continuous reproduction of its conditions of existence (for instance, the maintenance of the flows of new money capital and credit, new sources of labour-power, reproduction of the old labour-power, and so on), a process for which there is no guarantee. At least in part influenced by Althussers (as well as Balibars51) rethinking of the theory of primitive accumulation, a growing number of scholars today deny the past-ness of primitive accumulation and see its value for understanding the conditions of expropriation, violence and abstraction that contemporary capitalist relations continually depend on for their ongoing sustenance.52 Without downplaying the differences among the theoretical persuasions of these scholars, one can say that they also share a common interest in investigating the relationship between subjectivity and capitalist economic relations. They take subjectivity as the constitutive register for the forced creation of an economy whose principle of existence is based upon a negation of social heterogeneity, on a suppression of singular needs, identifications and desires. And they regard the peculiar subjectivity of capitalist economic relations to be a material consequence of subjection to abstraction, more specifically, to the abstract conceptions of labour. Often, this process of abstraction is traced to the practice and implications of the agents in commodity-exchange, through which their labouring activity is reduced to abstract quantities.53 These perspectives have not only forcefully demonstrated how the idea of a recurrent primitive accumulation goes against the teleological narrative of class transition from capitalism as the necessary stage on the way to socialism, but also introduced the essential support of a peculiar subjectivity for the reproduction of capital. Even when telos is cut from these accounts, however, I would argue that it does still seem to leave traces if no longer as that which guarantees the transition to socialism, then as a historically specific capitalist dynamic that promotes a comprehensive and conclusive mentality, comprising the whole field of social relations. For instance, when primitive accumulation is related to the constitution of subjectivity,


Encountering Althusser

the type of subjectivity in mind is often a uniform one that is tied up with the consciousness and experience of being subjected to abstract labour. So even when abstraction is embedded in practice, even when it is taken to be an effect of social conditions and class struggle, and not deduced from the integrity of individual rationality, then to the extent that the experiential effect of abstraction is assumed to entail a cohering subjectivity, it becomes just another step to suspect some unifying source behind this uniform effect, namely some historical reality of capital that is able to penetrate and grip on subjectivity such as to stamp on it its own homogenising self-consciousness. Thus, a certain intention and necessity is retained on the side of economy qua capitalism/commodification as a historical structure. I think that as a remedy to this residual anthropomorphisation of capital, another notion of contingency can be drawn from Althussers writings, one that disrupts the tight correspondence between a uniform cognitive effect and reproduction of capitalism. For this, we need to bring in Althussers particular critique of contemporaneity and historicism.

Non-contemporaneity and economic difference

Let me begin by summarising what I take to be the salient aspects of Althussers critique of historicism. In the chapters The Errors of Classical Economics and Marxism is not a Historicism, Althusser mounted a careful analysis in order to distinguish Marxs novel theory of history in Capital, which, he claimed, was indispensable for any understanding of the theory of the economy.54 According to Althusser, even though Marx did not elaborate his new theory of history in readily identifiable ways, the fact that it remained buried out of sight was, rather, due to the fact that it was promptly folded under a radical historicist position. For this widespread Marxian interpretation misconstrued Marxs critique of classical political economy by way of diminishing it to a demonstration of the inability of classical political economists to historicise their concepts and see them as the specific theoretical products of the capitalist mode of production. Departing from this interpretation, Althusser maintained not only that Marx did not see concepts as the manifest expressions of what is thinkable (or possible to experience) in a historical period, but also that his contribution went beyond showing the historical specificity of concepts: Marx produced new concepts. Thus, for instance, abstract labour, as a scientific concept, did not exist in the form of a direct experience of commodityrelations that Marx was then simply able to read off from the state of empirical reality; it was a new concept that he actively produced.55 However, because the historicist position simply imported and borrowed one particular and obvious idea of history without interrogating the content of history imposed by Marxs theoretical problematic, it obfuscated both Marxs new conceptual structure as well as the new understanding of history simultaneously made possible by this new conceptual structure. So what did the historicist position consist of? When Althusser presented the intimate connection of historicism with Hegelian historical time, he disaggregated the latter into two inter-related aspects of homogeneous continuity of time and contemporaneity of time.56 If the homogeneous continuity of time made reference to a uniform unfolding of historical time towards a pre-established goal, then the contemporaneity of time is what, in effect, held this deterministic schema together. That is because contemporaneity, as a category that defines historically and defines as historical the conditions for all knowledge concerning

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


a historical object, unifies all that exists under historical consciousness. Contemporaneity fills up presence without any unevenness (all conditions and practices work in some way towards explaining historical existence) or void (historical is when nothing escapes the shared presence). Once the historicist position starts with an origin of historical consciousness mirrored in all aspects (scientific, philosophical, economic, political, and so on) of history, the positing of a self-directed goal, keeping a tight rein on the temporal correspondence of these aspects, conveniently follows. Refusing to reduce the meaning of history to a direct and immediately-experienced consciousness of a mode of production, Althussers critique of contemporaneity helps us to diversify subjectivity in relation to economy. That is, we can use this critique to posit a new way of thinking about subjectivity in relation to economy, where we can explore the conditions of the uneven co-existence of different subjectivities, without prejudging any one of them as retrograde, deficient, or simply the expression of a dominant (capitalist) form that is assumed to be self-present. This is the path that scholars such as Gayatri Spivak57 and Charusheela58 take in their exploration of economic difference under the sign of the subaltern. First, however, they provide a supplement to Althussers critique of contemporaneity by showing how the historicist attribution of a uniform subjectivity to a given mode is conditioned by an imaginary of capitalist progress that suspends subjective experience in a modernist/ non-modernist binary. More specifically, Charusheela stresses how the very construction of the self-imagination of abstract wage-labour (of equality and abstract individuation) relies on an internal ordering of this abstract modern subjectivity and the pre-capitalist/non-capitalist others. In this internal ordering, the self-sufficiency of abstract wage-labour is constituted through the relegation of its temporal-spatial outside to a cultural and traditional sameness under the place-holder categories such as the tribal, the traditional, the nonmodern, the feudal, the Asiatic, the primitive communist, and so on.59 This critique of the historicist telos of the capitalist dynamic, and the concomitant deconstruction of the dominant imaginary of abstract wagelabour, open up a space to engage with differentiation from bourgeois equality and abstract individuation and to study, for instance, the ethico-political logics of parity, reciprocity, interdependence and dignity that constitute economic relations.60 Rather than looking for some pre-formed capitalist or non-capitalist subjectivity within a given historical reality, the critique of historicism pushes us to interrogate difference in economic subjectivities as the constituent of historical reality.

Economy and the possible

In this chapter, I have attempted to destabilise a particular reading of Althusser that sutures his discussions of the mode of production with a certain necessity, specifically one that charges the economy with an overarching function of ordering the social. In doing this, I have also tried to argue against a particular interpretation of the tensions in Althussers work within a binary frame, as an ongoing and irreconcilable conflict between economic necessity and political contingency. While there are tensions in Althussers writings, I have tried to argue that they do not play themselves out in an uncompromising divide between economic ordering and political overdetermination, or between economic and political notions of class. The tension is,


Encountering Althusser

rather, within Althussers theorisations of economy, at those peripheral moments where some remainder of economic ordering interrupts what is otherwise a consistent orientation that, put to the service of conceptualising the space of economy, renders the latter as contingent and unevenly structured. The direction received from Althussers analysis allows us to pose questions that are very different than those circumscribed by the presumption of a stable (capitalist) economy. It is true that this direction provides no clear prescription to link the contingency and unevenness in economy to a politics of subjective transformation. In any case, the positing of such a simple determination, running from a philosophical practice of de-centering economy to a political practice of subjectivation, would be diametrically opposed to Althussers materialism, which stresses the irreducibility of diverse practices. Nonetheless, Althussers particular philosophy of materialism, tied up with his notion of class struggle in theory, sheds some very significant insights on the relation between political possibility and the ways that we conceptualise the economy. First, it leads us to realise that any real chance of transformation has to overcome the fantasies that obfuscate the potential of politics by anthropomorphising the economy and imposing on it an intention (for social good, for social corruption, or simply for social ordering). Second, it provides us with some notion of the contingency, unevenness and void that is needed if we are to go beyond the reductionism of reading-off a uniform economic subjectivity from historical relations.61

1 Badiou 2005a, p. 64. 2 Badiou 2005a, p. 65. 3 Badiou 2005a, p. 65. 4 Amariglio 1987 , p. 162. 5 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 182. 6 See Althusser 1976a, pp. 14250; Balibar 1994; Badiou 2005a, p. 61; Macherey 2009, p. 14. 7 Althusser 1976a, p. 142. 8 Montag 1998c, p. 5. See the perspicuous essay by Jack Amariglio on the significance of Althussers science and ideology distinction for the critique of classical epistemology as this critique pertains to the field of economic science (Amariglio 1987). 9 For a penetrating critique of the discourse of the Second International, influenced by Althussers work, see Diskin 1990. 10 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 181. To which Althusser added their other error, similar in kind, of conflating labour with labour-power. 11 Althusser used empiricism in a wider sense of the term, including the meanings of both empiricism and rationalism as commonly understood. In this broader sense, empiricism includes all epistemologies that counterpose a preconstituted subject to an independently existing object with a presumed essence that gives expression to its different aspects. Empiricist knowledge is the abstraction of this essence by the subject (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 313). 12 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 183. 13 Elsewhere Althusser argues ... Marxist science and the Marxist investigator are obliged to

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy


take a position in the conflict whose object is Marxist theory, are obliged to occupy (proletarian) class theoretical positions ... They are materialist and dialectical philosophical positions allowing one to see what bourgeois ideology necessarily conceals: the class structure and class exploitation of a social formation (Althusser 1996b, pp. 11011). 14 I borrow this idea from tienne Balibars reformulation of class struggle in theory as a struggle between concept and imaginary in a lecture he delivered on Structure. See http:// backdoorbroadcasting.net/tag/balibar-etienne/page/2/. Accessed March 2012. 15 Althusser 1976a, pp. 4951. 16 Althusser 1976a, p. 50. Resnick and Wolff 1987 resituated Althussers idea of class struggle, no longer attached to the subjects doing the struggle, to refer to the object of struggle, which they define as the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus-labour/value. From their perspective, whenever individuals or collectivities are mobilised around and act on the forms (exploitative or non-exploitative) and the magnitude of the performance, appropriation and distribution of surplus-labour/value, there is a place for the articulation of class struggle, quite independently of the forms of its ideological articulation. More properly, one should really talk about struggles over class, rather than class struggle. 17 zseluk and Madra 2005. 18 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 162. 19 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 183. 20 While Althusser does not mention any names, Paul Samuelson comes to mind. Samuelsons operationalist program demanded that the scientificity of an economic theory (or any theory) should be assessed on the basis of its intersubjectively observable, empirical consequences. Empirically invalid or untestable portions of a given theory should be discarded. Hence the strong desire to discard the introspective aspects of the theory of choice. For further discussion, see Mirowski and Hands 1998, p. 282. 21 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 161. 22 Maria Turchetto succinctly draws attention to how Althusser almost never uses the term object alone but always speaks of the object-discourse relation (Turchetto 1993, p. 76). Object thus cannot be thought independent of a conceptual structure. For Turchetto, Althussers definition of philosophical investigation is a research and a reconstruction of the conceptual structure that provides the object of a science (p. 74). 23 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 180. 24 See Roberts 1996; Biewener 1998; Kristjansen-Gural 2005. 25 Roberts 1996, p. 206. 26 Roberts 1996, p. 207 . 27 Roberts 1996, p. 208. 28 That is why, for Althusser, value-form was a fundamental conceptual discovery of Marx, distinguishing his value-theory from that which could be found in Adam Smith and that sacrificed the analysis of the value-form to a consideration of the quantity of value only (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 161). 29 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 161. 30 See Amariglio and Ruccio 2002. They provide an argument parallel to Michel Foucaults analysis of the neoliberal transformation of the status of homo oeconomicus within modern economics from a rational intention that seeks the satisfaction of individual needs to a machine-like behaviour that responds systematically to modifications in economic environment (Foucault 2008, p. 270). For an incisive related study that builds on the works of Althusser and Foucault and demonstrates how the ostensibly different approaches of late neoclassical economics in fact converge around new forms of theoretical humanism, see Madra 2007 .


Encountering Althusser

31 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 180. 32 Juxtaposing the material to the social in this manner, Althusser in this instance appears to revoke the old idea of economy as the strictly materialist site of historical transformation. I insist on reading such instances in tension with Althussers philosophy of materiality that affirms diverse materialities, in the plural. One clear example where Althusser acknowledges different forms of materialities is his essay on ideological state-apparatuses: Of course, the material existence of the ideology in an apparatus and its practice does not have the same modality as the material existence of a paving stone or a rifle (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. (Notes towards an Investigation) in Althusser 1971a, p. 166). The idea that there are different materialities is closely related to the concept of overdetermination. 33 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 99. 34 See, for instance, Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 98 for a challenging formulation of this critique. 35 Contradiction and Overdetermination in Althusser 1969a, p. 113. 36 Althusser 1969a, p. 111. . 37 Althusser 1976a, particularly pp. 17587 38 Althusser 1976a, p. 182. 39 Althusser 1976a, p. 176. . 40 Althusser 1976a, pp. 1767 41 Althusser 1976a. 42 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 1867; Cullenberg 1996. 43 This claim is similar to what Morfino 2005 describes by way of Althussers phrase, necessity of the positive facts, which, as Morfino subtly argues, rather than being opposed to contingency, precisely conveys contingency, because the necessity of the facts is not ordered by any overarching power, being instead nothing more than the play of referrals and interactions among facts themselves. 44 There are different ways of approaching the meaning of underdetermination as Althusser used it. First is to approach it not as some opposite definition of overdetermination, but rather as a different perspective on it. Mikko Lahtinens work offers such an interpretation when he argues that if, in any conjuncture, say, contradiction y is overdetermined by contradictions x1-xn, then looked from the other angle, this is to say that any one of the contradictions x1-xn is not sufficient on its own to produce contradiction y, thus, [c]ontradiction y is underdetermined in relation to any sub-group of x1-xn (Lahtinen 2009, p. 37). This is perhaps the sense Balibar conveys when he regards underdetermination as inseparable from overdetermination (Balibar 1996, p. 115). A second meaning of underdetermination seems to characterise the nature of a change in conjuctures. This appears to be the meaning, for instance, when Althusser compares the term to a threshold of determination which, if it is not crossed, causes revolutions to miscarry, revolutionary movements to stagnate or disappear, and imperialism to rot while still developing, etc. (Althusser 1976a, p. 187). If, in this usage, underdetermination is not to be gauged in reference to some objectively adequate determination, which is not Althussers aim, then can we think of underdetermination as saying something about the nature of the condensation of different contradictions in a specific conjuncture? Could Ernesto Laclaus conceptual distinction between floating signifiers and empty signifiers prove useful, here? Laclau 2005 uses the term floating signifier to designate the way in which the meaning of social demands in a particular conjuncture becomes indeterminate between alternative frontiers of equivalential articulations (p. 131), whereas empty signifier takes its symbolic force from incorporating the condensation of different social demands, embodying their unachievable fullness (p. 71). What I am suggesting is a path of inquiry between Althussers concept of underdetermination and floating signifiers. 45 Althusser 1976a, p. 177 .

Louis Althusser and the concept of economy 46 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1867 . 47 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 171. 48 Norton 2001; zseluk and Madra 2007 , p. 84. 49 Althusser 2006a. 50 Althusser 2006a, pp. 1989.


51 In Reading Capital, Balibar worked out in detail the point that not only were the elements of free labor and money-capital independent and free of any premedidated effect and disposition, but also that each element had an internal multiplicity, each of them constituted through a plurality of historical trajectories. A case in point was the three different and distinct histories of the emergence of free labor, the separation of the direct feudal producers from all means of production as discussed by Marx in Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Another example was Marxs discussion in Capital of the three distinct forms of the pre-capitalist accumulation of money-capital, which in turn conditioned different paths of transition, and which Balibar stressed [had] no one-to-one correspondence with the three forms of the constitution of the free-laborer (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 283). 52 Callari and Ruccio 1996; Read 2003; Harvey 2003; Mezzadra 2011. 53 To note, there are other accounts that, critical of reducing the emergence of market-subjectivity to an effect of the economic practice of exchange, attempt to explain the reification of subjectivity in capitalism as an overdetermined outcome of the interactions of the economic practice of exchange with cultural, legal and political practices. Amariglio and Callari 1993, for instance, discusses the effects of a historical condensation of the processes of economic rationality, equality and private ownership in the social practice of individuals that constitute capitalist market-relations. Althusser himself makes a similar argument when he says that it is the law, the state and the ideologies that reproduce commodity-relations. That is, he says, unless we are to endorse the notion of a providential self-regulation of these commodity relations, we cannot understand how they could function without money minted by the state, transactions registered by state agencies, and courts capable of settling possible disputes (Althusser 2006a, p. 132). 54 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 118. 55 Althusser and Balibar 1970, pp. 1245. 56 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 94. 57 Spivak 1999. 58 Charusheela 2011. 59 Charusheela 2011, p. 325. 60 Recent work regarding community-economies (Gibson-Graham 2006) and feudal subjectivity (Kayatekin and Charusheela 2004) explores such ethico-political dimensions of difference in economic subjectivity. 61 I want to express my gratitude to Sara Farris for inviting me to contribute to this volume. I thank her and Peter Thomas for their patience and encouragement all through the long duration of writing this chapter. I also thank Yahya Madra for his helpful feedback on a previous draft and the editors for their careful reading, editing and guiding comments.

Althusser and the critique of political economy
Michele Cangiani

ouis Althusser builds his own critique of Political Economy on a reading of Marx. His position remains contemporary and penetrating even today: unfortunately, it might be said, since this means that the dominant ideology the expression of current social organisation has managed for almost fifty years (one hundred and fifty, with regard to Marx) to keep the alternative paradigm out, marginalising the sceptical view that fixes its gaze on what the dominant ideology cannot see. Pointing out that the stakes are political, Althusser reminds us that [t]he sciences of society do not have the serenity of the mathematical sciences.1 What is it, then, that we cannot see, that we cannot say about our society, one that has always made so much of its own self-examination? In his essay The Object of Capital Althusser seeks among other things to answer this question. What does Political Economy have to say and what does its critique say in return? To criticize Political Economy , Althusser writes, means to confront it with a new problematic and a new object, which must therefore be constructed.2 At the highest level of abstraction, Althussers analysis and criticism concern not only the entire history of the science of economics, but also the historical and social sciences as a whole. At that level it may not be reductive to say that the same basic theoretical categories have characterised economics from classical times down to our own.3 The theory of economics, Althusser goes on to say, presents itself as a subordinate region of the theory of history.4 This is implicit in the fact that the new object involves the theoretical reconstruction of the fundamental characteristics of capitalist society and therefore the definition of its historical particularity as distinct from that of other societies. The neoliberal restructuring of capitalism that began at the end of the 1970s has resulted in a serious crisis. Naturally enough, the crisis on one hand increases the need to question our most basic social structures and dynamics in order substantially to change them, and on the other fuels the political and ideological reaction to this need. This opposition is a fundamental theme in Althussers writings and represents the meaning of his investigation of the opening of the Continent of History to scientific knowledge undertaken by Marx.5


Encountering Althusser

Since I consider this investigation to be the most original, fruitful and lasting of Althussers works, I intend to concentrate on the essay The object of Capital, published in 1965 in Lire le Capital. In the sections that follow (II-IV), I will consider some of the aspects of the new horizon opened up by Althusser that are relevant in different areas of the social sciences. Starting with a criticism (theoretical and philosophical, but rooted in politics) of economic ideology, and including the Marxist tradition as well, he suggests a change in the actual problematic itself of historicalsocial science. I will also try to indicate the limits of Althussers thought. What he understands or doesnt understand about the theory of value, for example, continues to be discussed. In Capital, it is with this theory that Marx begins both his analysis of the capitalist mode of production as a specific social form and his critique of Political Economy itself (infra VII). Thus it is precisely here contrary to Althussers reading that we find the kernel of the new science of history, and therefore also the break [la coupure pistmologique] with previous thinking. The first period of Althussers work, concluding with Lire le Capital, led to interesting developments in the historical-social sciences, of course not without some dissension.6 The following phase, however, in which he was self-critical of his own thoricisme, seemed to many to be in contrast with what had gone before in any case, this phase has had less theoretical and political impact, perhaps due to the altered historical situation, but perhaps also, in my view, because it is simply less stimulating. But I do not want to dwell on that question here.7

The object of Political Economy and Marxian critique

The structure of the object of Political Economy, according to Althusser, first of all, ... implies the existence of economic facts and phenomena, that make up a homogeneous field and are a given that is, observable and quantifiable. Like these facts, people, who generically produce, distribute, receive and consume are a given as well.8 They are given along with their needs, which in fact give rise to the economy. The result is what Althusser calls nave anthropology: The peculiar theoretical structure of Political Economy depends on immediately and directly relating together a homogeneous space of given phenomena and an ideological anthropology which bases the economic character of the phenomena and its space on man as the subject of needs (the givenness of homo conomicus). . . . As all the subjects are equally subjects of needs ... their universality is then reflected in the universality of the laws of the effects of their needs.9 This is the origin of the pretension of Political Economy to deal with economic phenomena in the absolute, in all forms of society, past, present and future. Althusser perceives in this claim, beyond a wish to make the bourgeois mode of production everlasting, a more remote cause which is not political but theoretical: the silent anthropology that ratifies the structure of the object of Political Economy.10 Moving on to Marxs critique, Althusser first of all observes, concerning consumption, that needs are defined by Marx as historical; in our society their economic function depends on the

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ability to pay and on the nature of the products available, which are, at a given moment, the result of the technical capacities of production.11 Consumption is only apparently an immediate relation between use-value and needs; in reality, it refers us to the technical capacities of production (the level of the forces of production) on the one hand, and on the other to the social relations of production, which fix the distribution of income.12 According to Althusser, needs are subject to a double structural, i.e., no longer anthropological, determination: the division of the products between Departments I and II (means of production and consumer goods), and the structure of the relation between the productive forces and the relations of production. Behind the distribution of use-values, what is crucial for Marx is the distribution of people into classes, which is related to their function in the process of production. Consumption and distribution thus lead back, continues Althusser, to the site of the true determination of the economic: production. The field of economic phenomena is thus transformed: the homogeneous planar space has been replaced by a new pattern in which economic phenomena are thought of as under the domination of the relations of production which define them.13 It might appear that the Physiocrats and Ricardo were moving in this direction; Ricardo speaks of product distribution in relation to income, broken down into categories. But the problem, according to Marx, is precisely that economists like Ricardo have regarded distribution as the exclusive subject of economics.14 Marx, on the other hand, writes Althusser,15 not only affirms and demonstrates the primacy of production, but transforms the concept of production by assigning to it a radically different object: he produces the concept of surplus-value which entails the idea of relations of production, and in the process revolutionises the object of classical economics. Thus we approach the nub of the question. According to Althusser, the two inseparable elements that, for Marx, always characterise production are the labour process and the social relations of production. The two essential aspects of the labour process are the material nature of its conditions and the dominant role of the means of production, which determine the mode of production, the basic category of Marxist analysis (in economics and history); at the same time, they establish the level of productivity of productive labour.16 Althusser considers the concept of mode of production to be fundamental: with its peculiar aspects and dynamics, which are to be defined, it substantially coincides with Marxs theoretical object. Considered from the point of view of labour process, the concept of mode of production makes possible not only the periodization of history, but above all the construction of the concept of history, basing it in the qualitative differences between different means of labour, i.e., in their productivities. But this is not all. Concerning the differential degree of material attack on nature, and the differential mode of unity existing between man and nature,17 there is another determining reality: the relations of production that is, the social conditions of the production process. The relations of production must in any case be considered in relation to the means of production; they unquestionably consist of the relations, sometimes specific, between the agents of production, but always as a function of the relations between these agents on the one hand and the material means of production on the other. In this sense, Althusser states, they are on no account reducible to mere relations between men, to relations which only involve men.18 We are now in a better position to understand what is meant by mode of production; it has a double aspect that stems from the interconnection between the material and technical conditions of the labour process and its attendant social conditions. Not only that, but we have


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a criterion for the theory of history; as Marx says, what distinguishes the different economic epochs of the structure of society from one another is the manner in which the union between workers and means of production is accomplished.19

Structural causality
The epistemology representing the basic core of Althussers thought the standard it seeks is not, as such, the subject of this contribution. On the other hand it is impossible to avoid mentioning it; as Althusser himself would say, the new object, to which the critique of Political Economy gives rise, entails a new epistemology. In the first place, it should be emphasised that the economic cannot have the qualities of a given (of the immediately visible and observable, etc.): the concept of the economic must be constructed for each mode of production.20 Thus not only must the economic be conceptually defined, but this can only happen through the determination of the (global) structure of the mode of production, insofar as it determines the (regional) structure which constitutes and determines as economic objects the phenomena of this defined region.21 We do not have, that is, an empiricist average of data and measurable facts, or a model (of general equilibrium, for example), to which single phenomena can be compared and the resulting gap measured. The criticism of ideological anthropology implies moreover that neither is there an essence (human, natural or divine) of economics that might explain empirical phenomena. The concept that we need to reach is in short that of the specific difference of the mode of production concerned,22 of capitalism itself. This new definition of the object of economic theory involves a new form of causality, definable as the determination by a structure.23 In this regard I will mention only a few issues.
1 For Althusser, the concept of structural causality clearly and completely marks the

defeat of ideological anthropology. The structure, to be determined for each mode of production, takes the place of a generally definable economic as such. At the same time, the structure as theoretical object excludes the possibility of analysing economic activity in inter-subjective terms that is, starting from rational and interactive human individuals. In Althussers terms, the relations of production are irreducible to any anthropological inter-subjectivity.24
2 The determinant is not visible as such, but only in its effects. Surplus-value, for

example, which, as an essential concept of the social structure, determines the entire economic reality, down to the visible detail of the empirical phenomena,25 is constructed as a concept beginning with the forms and phenomena in which it manifests itself. This does not mean that because the determining factor cannot be seen, importance is taken away from phenomenal reality. On the contrary, phenomena acquire importance in their own right as the effects of the structure, its form of existence, its way of (re)presenting itself, of appearing on the scene its Darstellung.
3 The distinction between the object of knowledge and the real object, which Marx

speaks of and Althusser strongly reiterates, means that the structure is a theoretical

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product, a concept the interiority [of the phenomenon] is nothing but the concept and that it indeed exists in its effects, but only to the extent that these are the specification of the concept.26 Our knowledge does not move from the abstract to the real-concrete; there is no escape from the concept. We simply pass from the concept of the structure and of its most general effects, to the concepts of the structures particular effects.27 This is evident in the way Marx constructs Capital, in line with the considerations on the method of political economy set out in the Introduction of 1857 . The real and the concrete in other words, the precondition of the learning process, Marx writes appears at first as a chaotic conception, a generic abstraction, an imagined concrete. But after having moved toward ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations, it is possible to return to the concrete, but this time not as the chaotic idea of a whole, but rather as a rich totality with many determinations and relations.28 The point of arrival is the concret de pense, writes Althusser, citing Marx in confirmation of his own radical anti-empiricism. In Capital, Marx moves from the abstract analysis of value to that of money and capital; it is having thus defined the general characteristics of the mode of production that allows him to analyse concretely that is, more closely the concrete-historical developments of production and of society as a whole. Abstracting, for example, from the work process that is, from the use-value of means of production, labour and products allows the formulation of the concepts necessary (from value to surplusvalue, and so on) to then determine the transformations of use-value, to make them meaningful beginning with those of the labour process.
4 If the economic pertains to the structure, to the mode of production, and therefore

to the system of relations that make up the social system as a whole, and if the concept of the economic is constructed for every mode of production, this means, among other things, that the theory of economics is a subordinate region of the theory of history.29 The object of the theory is the specific modes of production and the particular complexity that characterises them. The economy is thus a regional structure, whose organisation is determined, and determining, at the global level of organisation.

Homo conomicus
Althussers critique captures a basic and common feature of economic science. In the Introduction of 1857 , Marx speaks about the wisdom of . . . modern economists, who submerge the essential dissimilarity [die vesentliche Verschiedenheit], the distinctive characteristics of different modes of production, in the fact that the subject, mankind, and the object, nature, are the same.30 Closer to our own time, in neoclassical theories, the issue remains the same. A landmark was the formalism of Lionel Robbins,31 who makes no bones about referring to the Crusoe economy Robinsonades, Marx would have said. The virtue of Robbins is to make clear that economic science tends simply to get rid of the problem of the social and historical organisation of the economy. This result is achieved by defining the economy in general as the economising behaviour of individuals in consumption and


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production. In this regard, Althussers critique his reading of Marx hits the mark, contrasting the need to determine the quality of social organisation the historically specific structure of modes of production with ideological anthropology, which avoids that issue. It may be added that the criticism is not only directed at the formalism codified by Robbins or the mathematical games of mainstream economists, but also at spurious economic institutionalism. An indicative example is the economic history of Douglass North,32 for whom the object is not the different social forms of economic organisation as such, but rather the different institutional contexts of economic activity and rationality in general. These are assumed to be constants of human nature when in reality they have been uncritically taken from a particular society, the market-capitalist one. Althusser thus poses the essential problem. The terms of his critique, however, require further examination, especially including a detailed look at the history of economic theories with a view of explaining economic ideology on the basis of historical reality. It is true, as Althusser maintains, that ideological anthropology has both as basis and output the ideology of homo conomicus but this is precisely why it is important to understand how and why the ideology of homo conomicus is a cultural trait historically produced by the capitalist system. In fact, the operation of this system implies, as Max Weber says, that hunger and profit become the motivations for economic activity,33 that scarcity therefore becomes systematic and systemic that is, inherent in the social organisation itself, and that along with this the economising mentality becomes normal. The behaviour of individuals is no longer regulated by a traditional system of rights and obligations within which their economic activity and subsistence are preordained. Everyone now has to economise to maximise profits or provide for their own needs, which are no longer consistently defined and satisfied within a given socio-cultural order. In addition, the problem of the origin (needs) and the purpose of the economy in general is not in itself ideological anthropology. Marx writes, for example, that all production is appropriation of nature by an individual within and through a specific form of society.34 And we have seen how Althusser himself defines the general concept of mode of production. It is precisely the new object that he delineates, basing it on the mode of production concept and thus on the determination of modes of production in their particularity, that implies a definition of the economy that is truly general and that serves as a definition of the set whose elements are the diverse modes of production. The mechanism of ideology instead involves squashing together two different levels of abstraction: the economy in general and some specific institutional connotations of a given mode of production. As a consequence, on one hand, the essential dissimilarity of the latter is done away with. Capitalism is not understood as a particular social organisation, as a complex historical whole, and thus basic traits of its dynamics are inevitably overlooked. On the other hand, its specific features, acquiring a reductive-generic meaning, can be attributed to the economy in general and projected onto other modes of production. Such ideological construction then branches into various manifestations; in this sense Althusser himself complains of the current use of concepts as ambiguous as economic rationality , optimum , full employment or welfare economics, humane economics, etc.35 Besides, the very theoretical revolution wrought by Marx and highlighted by Althusser poses an additional problem. The discovery of society as an organisation that is always specific and therefore historical as a mode of production throws us into a disenchanted world. It

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prevents us from continuing to interpret that is, to attribute to immutable, eternal principles a world that we now know to be produced and transformed by ourselves.36 The concept of mode of production implies the mode in which the economic system is socially organised and controlled. This question is posed in a new way in modern society. Max Weber touched on something of the kind when he referred to the desperate need to give meaning to the world after its disenchantment [Entzauberung]. And it is not just giving new meaning, but giving it in a new way, not falling back on more or less mythological interpretations. In the modern situation, Weber writes, it becomes evident that every problem has a politico-social character: the solution is never already given nor merely technical, and therefore we can and must argue over the regulatory criteria of value themselves.37 Even from this very general point of view economic ideology appears inadequate or even maladaptive with respect to the survival of the human species. This ideology considers the economy to be a closed system with respect to relevant information from its environment, even from its socio-political environment, since it is assumed that in general it functions according to economic rules per se. There is then very little left to argue about, as we are daily invited to believe by the proponents of the logic of the market, correct by definition. All this points to the need to maximise our scrutiny of historical features specific to our society, not shrinking away from issues that Althusser tends to see as in themselves smacking of humanism, anthropological ideology or idealistic historicism. One question is the peculiar modern social relation between individuals and social production determined by the correlated development of capitalism and the market. In this society of free competition, writes Marx, the individual seems detached from natural ties, seeing himself as autonomous and society as the means for his private ends, as an external necessity.38 Another question is the relation not only between ideology and reality, but also between reality and theory between the historical situation and the conceptual processing that produces, as Althusser says, the new theoretical object. Exemplary in this regard is Marxs reflection on the general-abstract concept of labour. The theoretical definition of the possibility, the necessity, of this concept in a society in which work has really become a means to create wealth in general39 enlarges our knowledge without infringing the distinction between the real-concrete and the thought-concrete. These questions have to do with the objective features of the capitalist mode of production, and determining them is in effect the true antidote against ideological anthropology. Althusser, however, in his reading of Marx, neglects or distorts the first chapter of Capital, which is indispensable concerning the first question.40 As for the second, the relationship between theory and history, he is at pains to distance himself from Marx in the fifth section of the essay The Object of Capital, but instead of raising considerations as analytical and refutable as those produced by Marx, chiefly in the Einleitung of 1857 , he limits himself to accusing Marx of idealistic deviation in a manner as insistent as it is vacuous.41

Economic theories
As I mentioned at the outset, the merit of Althussers critique is to get to the essentials, so that he can address Political Economy as a whole. This does not mean, however, that it is acceptable to avoid distinguishing periods and tendencies in the history of economic theory, including their relationship to different phases of capitalist development. It is not only his


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adherence to the most abstract levels of theory and epistemology, but also the absoluteness of the break that Althusser sees, which distance him from the historical reconstruction of economic science as an ideological apparatus. Furthermore, can we continue to ignore large areas of Marxism for example, diverse socialist and communist tendencies that flourished in the revolutionary period of the first decades of the twentieth century, only to be condemned to civil death and more by the prevailing forces of the Third International and the reaction of the bourgeoisie? Finally, why neglect the existing traces of critique in some tendencies of economic thought which, though not overtly Marxist, are not conformist either? On this last point, in fact, it is clear that the classical institutionalist tendency, whose fundamental reference point is Thorstein Veblen, goes even beyond Althussers allusion to the influence on consumption of income distribution, itself determined by the relations of production. For these authors, but also for Max Weber or even for Friedrich Wieser,42 one of the founders of the Austrian School of economics, the system of prices and resource allocation depends not only on the unequal distribution of buying power, but on the profit motive in general, which orients the choices of producers. According to Weber, the entire system of use-values of the products as much as of the means of production and the labour force is conditioned by the goal of profitability: needs are oriented and stimulated by businesses. All that is left of the utopia of competition as a method of optimising resource allocation is the struggle of man against man on the market.43 Since Webers time, past and present experience has more than borne out his intuition that the purpose of profitability does imply rational calculation, but the power wielded by the entrepreneur not only inside the firm, but also in the marketplace stands as the principal factor: a paradox for normal economists. The general tendency of capitalism to address production decisions on the basis of what Weber calls the calculation of capital in a market situation is theorised by Veblen as a growing divergence between serviceability for society at large (utility; capacity to satisfy social needs) and vendibility. This tendency, according to Veblen, becomes critical with the transformation of capitalism something he considers inevitable and linked to the development of productive forces in the direction of the dominance of large industrial-financial business interests. Here we find what is undoubtedly a reference to the structural characteristics of capitalism along with an ability to analyse and predict historical developments, particularly those that lead from individual enterprise to diverse forms of capital concentration.44 To be sure, Veblen belongs to the meagre ranks of the non-conformists. But even at the origins of neoclassical economics, in Wieser or even in Carl Menger, there is an attempt, denied and made unthinkable by subsequent developments in the Austrian School, to distinguish the theory of economy in general from the analysis of the objective, structural characteristics of capitalist society. The existence of such an attempt like many others, rare, partial and ambiguous though they may be is a symptom worthy of note in the pursuit of a critical reconstruction of the history of economic thought. It is true, as Althusser says, that every theoretical system is different from every other, and that the meaning of each element depends on the system it belongs to. But this does not exempt us from the task of reconstructing the history of economic science without limiting ourselves to contrasting anthropological ideology with Marxs great epistemological break, finally discovered by Althusser. The point is rather to understand the history of economic thought, with its twists and alternatives, its irreversibility and its regressions; a story that obviously is meaningful in its relationship with the history of capitalist society as a whole. But do we exit at this point from the Althusserian problematic;

Althusser and the critique of political economy


do we call it into question? Is it falling into historicism, for example, to connect the new battle over method between institutionalists and neoclassicists with the historical crisis of Victorian liberal capitalism and the turning point marked in the first decades of the twentieth century by the transformations in work processes, the structure of the market, and capitalist governance, not to mention the tremendous political clout won by the working class? An Althusserian school of economic historians and critics could and should come to the fore, perhaps sacrificing certain of the masters dogmatic attitudes. There is a great need for them today, in a situation quite different from that of the 1960s, when the power acquired by the world labour movement threatened the established order both in the East and the West. It was then that the first phase of Althussers thought came to maturity. Beginning in the following decade, the reaction of the dominant class led, in the field of ideology, to the spread of the pense unique45 that is, conformity with the neoliberal, imperial consensus. Even hints at general questions concerning capitalism as such as a whole and as a specific historical mode of production tended to disappear from social and economic thinking. Institutionalism of the classic or radical sort to return to the same example did not turn away from such questions, but doubt had by then been cast on its theoretical consistency, and the very existence of a theoretical approach of its own tended to be denied.46 Is it not Althusser who says that economic science is the arena and the prize of historys great political battles?47 Let us take, for example, his methodological considerations, cited above (III, point 3), concerning the fact that within the abstraction of knowledge the point is to determine the structure of the mode of production and then move from the concept of the structure and of its most general effects, to the concepts of the structures particular effects.48 These considerations allow us to understand the method of neoclassical economics as well as to criticise it. In effect, it has an abstract model in the place of the missing structure, and this model is supposed to reflect the pure laws of economics in the same way that mechanics represents the laws of the motion of bodies. Such a model, however, is no more than the anthropological representation, as Althusser has it, that emanates directly from reality in the absence of the concept of the structure. Neoclassical economics tries then to explain the lack of correspondence between the model and empirical economic facts, behaviour and relations in terms of imperfection of the market, bounded rationality, the inadequacy and asymmetry of information, opportunism and so on. In other words Althusser observes the lack of correspondence is supposedly explained by what is deemed to be the subjective, impure and inessential with respect to the hypothetical essence.49 Even so-called neo-institutionalist economics limits itself to worrying about such deviations, implicitly accepting the model and its laws. In fact, this tendency of contemporary socio-economic thought does not abandon methodological individualism, but rather continues to adopt the logic of business, possibly extending it to public choice, and in the end proposing market remedies for market failures.

Historical materialism
By combining or interrelating these different elements labour power, direct labourers, masters who are not direct labourers, object of production, instruments of production, etc., we come to define, Althusser writes, the different modes of production that have existed and can


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exist in human history. We are therefore talking about modes of combination, about specific Verbindungen. This is precisely why Marxism is not a historicism: since the Marxist concept of history depends on the principle of the variation of the forms of this combination. 50 Evidently, what is meaningful and distinguishes the different combinations is their social form. We have seen (above, III) how Althusser poses and resolves the question of the concept of the economic: it must be constructed for every mode of production and it depends on the (historical, specific) social organisation of economic activity. In this way, Althusserian structuralism constitutes a radical critique not only of current economic theory, but also of evolutionary and economicist historical materialism. It is necessary to verify, however, whether the generalisation of this structuralism carries the risk of remaining generic and of little meaning when the goal is to understand the specific organisation of given societies. There also exists the danger that in the definition itself of some of the elements of the combination specific connotations of capitalist society should creep in and be unduly generalised: as indicated, for example, by the use of the term labour power in Althussers definition cited at the beginning of this section. Undoubtedly, moreover, the relations between the agents of production are then the result of the typical relations they maintain with the means of production (object, instruments) and of their distribution into groups defined and localized functionally in their relations with the means of production by the structure of production.51 It is essential, however, to understand the meaning of the expression are then the result of and of Althussers insistence with respect to the means and structure of production: even while emphasising that the key is the organisation, the complex articulation of the social system as a whole and in its specificity, he then insists more on the determination in the last instance of the non-economic structures by the economy than on the inevitably social, cultural and historical nature of the organisation of the system. Given the specificity in every system and mode of production of both the meaning of the elements of the combination and their reciprocal relationship, a general combining cannot be anything but trivial and ideological, and the same goes for the determination in the last instance by the economy. One possible way out is indicated by the reformulation of historical materialism proposed by Maurice Godelier, who takes into account both Althussers criticism and the debate that developed in the field of economic anthropology following the publication of the book Trade and Market in the Early Empires.52 For Godelier, Marx is still an essential point of reference Capital above all, and the section of the Grundrisse on Forms which precede capitalist production; but he was also influenced by Karl Polanyi. To sum up very briefly: only in capitalist society, according to Godelier, is social organisation essentially and typically economic. The economic function was instead organised through relations of kinship or politics or religion in societies in which these institutions or structures were dominant, though they could not in any case be dominant if they didnt also perform the economic function, since, as every child knows (as Marx puts it in a letter to Kuglemann in 1868), this function is primary and inescapable.53 Godelier helps us understand how the new object and the new problematic that Althusser perceives in Marx are in contrast with Political Economy as much as with evolutionary historical materialism. Here is Althussers strength, his epistemological break, and his interest for us. But then he seems to go back to imposing a general model onto history, backing away from

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the concept of social form, which he himself helps us to see as Marxs momentous discovery the ever controversial, eternal scandal. Marx has a conception of the difference between various organisations of production and above all of the peculiarity of capitalist society which goes beyond Althussers combinations. The weakness of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, is denounced by Marx, who proposes that historical organisations of social life should be considered in their specificity and as wholes (the actual, given relations of life in each particular historical moment [jedesmaligen]).54 Certainly Marx says in the same note the material basis, technology itself, constitutes a fundamental constraint and a necessary starting point for analysis, but what matters is to be able to define the meaning of every social organisation, in its specific articulation (as Althusser recommends), misty creations of religion included. Looking more closely at the question, it is true, as Althusser writes, that what we have are Verbindungen which constitute the modes of liaison between the agents of production and the means of production, at the level of the relations of property, possession, disposition, etc.: it is not possible, however, to reduce the problem to the relations between wage-workers and owners, and to the distinction between class societies and classless societies in which political organisation would be superfluous.55 In reality there is political organisation in classless societies. According to Pierre Clastres critical, at the time, of the aspects of traditional Marxism he saw in ethnographic studies of Althusserian inspiration such societies, far from being stateless, are politically organised against the state for the purpose of keeping the society unstratified.56 Sometimes, in societies in which divisions exist, the social hierarchy remains independent of both the economic powers and the dynamics of local political power.57 Both Weber58 and the evolutionist anthropologist Leslie White suggest reserving the concept of class exclusively for capitalist societies, where social division is directly determined by the respective positions of the subjects in productive activities. The meaning of Althussers statement that the relations of production also establish the degree of effectivity delegated to a certain level of the social totality59 is not entirely clear. So as not to risk projecting onto very different societies what may be inferred from observing our own, it is perhaps advisable to concentrate on what he says immediately following: if the structure of the relations of production defines the economic as such, a definition of the concept of the relations of production in a determinate mode of production is necessarily reached via the definition of the concept of the totality of the distinct levels of society and their peculiar type of articulation (i.e. effectivity).60 This is precisely why we need to go a bit further than Althusser and doubt that it is possible to talk about superstructure and distinct levels with respect to societies different from our own, instead of functions and features that are distinguishable only for the purposes of the investigation and exposition. Althusser himself also writes that in earlier societies, the economic is not directly and clearly visible, and nor is the degree of effectivity of the different levels of the social structure.61 The economic must be tracked down; sought after in kinship relations, politics and religion. In effect we cannot know what is economic in the facts and practices of primitive societies without first having constructed the concept of the differentiation of the structure of the social whole into these different practices or levels, without having discovered their peculiar


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meaning in the structure of the whole, without having identified in the disconcerting diversity of these practices the region of economic practice, its configuration and its modalities.62 In short: To construct the concept of the economic is to define it rigorously as a level, instance or region of the structure of a mode of production, defining its peculiar site, its extension, and its limits within that structure.63 Beyond the spatial metaphor of the economy as a regional structure etc., the problem is therefore the nature of the complexity: it is through this concept that economic phenomena must be defined. Althusser teaches us that the point is to reconstruct the structures and relations conceptually, and the ethnologists teach us that the different aspects of social life may not be differentiated in reality and may therefore be distinguishable only theoretically. Gregory Bateson sees the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in the ethnologists claim to find distinctions in the reality of the societies they study between economy, politics, religion etc., which only exist in their own theoretical reconstruction.64 In this regard, two issues need to be identified. Althusser captures the first of these perfectly: anthropologists should not approach the facts , the givens of (descriptive) ethnography, without taking the theoretical precaution of constructing the concept of their object.65 As a consequence of this omission, they find themselves projecting on to reality the categories which define the economic for them in practice, i.e., the categories of the economics of contemporary society, which to make matters worse, are often themselves empiricist ... [In effect,] the economic is never clearly visible, does not coincide with the given in [primitive societies] any more than in any other reality (political, ideological, etc.).66 This is true in general, even with respect to the capitalist mode of production; indeed, Marx considers fetishism inherent in it, precisely because of the way it is organised. Althusser in fact observes: Despite the massive obviousness of the economic given in the capitalist mode of production, and precisely because of the massive character of this fetishised obviousness, the only way to the essence of the economic is to construct its concept, i.e. to reveal the site occupied in the structure of the whole by the region of the economic, therefore to reveal the articulation of this region with other regions (legal-political and ideological superstructure), and the degree of presence (or effectivity) of the other regions in the economic region itself.67 So Althusser does get the point, even though he persists with the spatial metaphor and a distinction in general between structure and superstructure, which incongruously refers back to the old materialism. In this way he risks slipping into the omission that he takes the anthropologists to task for. So we come to the second question, which Althusser does not deal with. It is always true, as he maintains, that the concept of the economic and of the place it occupies in the structure of the whole must be constructed. But this method leads to the identification of a

Althusser and the critique of political economy


characteristic that distinguishes capitalist society from all others the real differentiation of diverse aspects or instances in society. Differentiation, analysed by Weber as rationalisation, had its primary impact on the economy, and this was crucial for the overall evolution of the social system and particularly of the type of combination or articulation of elements and functions that characterise it. In Godeliers terms, the economic structure under capitalism is not only determining in the last instance, but dominant as well; it contains in itself its own rules and constitutes the constraint that social articulation as a dynamic whole is subjected to. The economy has become autonomous here, and only here, do we find the concepts that allow us to define the most general and permanent features of this mode of production, beginning with the concept of surplus value. The question raised by Polanyi of the place of the economy in society also influenced Godelier and his reinterpretation of historical materialism. Not only, as Althusser says, must the concept of the economic be constructed; not only, as Godelier says, can different structures be dominant in different societies and serve the function of organising economic activity. But the fact of the economic structures becoming dominant tends to make it autonomous, a law and an end in itself an economy, as Polanyi says, no longer embedded in society. This has a series of consequences that concern the specificity of capitalist society and its radical discontinuity a violent break68 with pre-modern societies. Althusser, as evident in the passage cited above, notes the problem of the site occupied in the structure of the whole by the region of the economic, but he tends not to see the additional problems this implies. First of all, the levels and regions of the social whole are theoretically distinguishable, but how and in what measure they are distinguished in reality is another theoretical problem which in the end leads us back to the question of the specificity of capitalism. A fundamental theme of Polanyis reflection is that, in the capitalist mode of production, unlike those that preceded it, the economy is dis-embedded, autonomous and self-reflexively oriented to valorisation. Thus the economy inevitably becomes the dominant social structure. Society as a whole tends to be, so to speak, economically organised. In their turn, the other social instances, rationalised and differentiated as well, undergo relatively autonomous developments, which are nevertheless constrained (generally not determined) by the economic structure. For this reason, the structural articulation is in our society always to be considered and reconsidered in the various conjunctures, as Althusser advises: instances can evolve at different speeds and the reciprocal relation of determination can vary (within the limits allowed by the economic structure, which constitutes the basic constraint and dynamic). Clearly, then, the Althusserian concepts of structural causality and overdetermination take on a particular relevance in the capitalist mode of production. Previous societies were characterised by a much closer and more stable correspondence between various instances, structures and institutions. In this sense we can speak properly of totality (Marcel Mauss) or of a symbolic whole in which every element is integrated and meaningful.69 It is not possible here to go beyond this brief reference except to mention Marx, who poses problems such as the social subject becoming an individual, the breaking of traditional bonds and the continual crossing of limits inherent in the dynamic of capitalist production. But even Claude Lvi-Strauss distinguishes between our hot society, bound to change, and the cold societies of the past. It seems somewhat paradoxical that Althusser should fail to accept this distinction, since he criticises Lvi-Strausss theory as a structuralist combinatory unable to account for the specificity and complexity of modes of production.70


Encountering Althusser

As Althusser explains, historicism means confusing reality with theory and not knowing how to escape from seeing all history from the perspective of ones own historical situation. To avoid this requires defining the specific historical shape of our society as thoroughly as possible, so as then to be able to define that of other societies. It should not be overlooked that in capitalist society the economy is organised economically, so to speak, and therefore constrains the development of society as a whole, the different instances of which may remain relatively free as regards their nature and rate of change. This is essential, in short, to an understanding of the specificity of capitalist society, even from the standpoint of the type of articulation among the various structures, instances and dynamics.

The first chapter

Why does Althusser tend to leave aside or misunderstand the first chapter of Capital even though, as I will try to show, it can be interpreted in a way that does not conflict with his methodological requirements? If knowledge is conceived as a structure, how is it possible to amputate Marxian theoretical structure from its starting point, its basis, its most abstract determinations? More generally, what does this position of Althussers indicate about the limits of his critique? In the first chapter, the critique of Political Economy is put in place and explicitly defined. Political Economy, Marx observes, has analysed, albeit incompletely, value and its magnitude as forms whose content is labour, but has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value.71 In fact, [t]he value-form of the product of labour is the most abstract, but also the most general form of the bourgeois mode of production. It characterises this mode of production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special historical character.72 After setting out the law of value, Marx undertakes in the third section to analyse the form of value or exchange value. In this way he builds his understanding of social organisation and thus the new science of society and history. This is his objective his theoretical object, if you will: not merely a demonstration of the law of value or a formulation of the concept of money as a general form of the manifestation of value.73 We need, Marx says, to arrive at the abstraction value.74 Certainly this abstraction is a concept; it is not, however, an extrinsically developed model intended as an approximate reproduction of reality that smoothes over deviations: it is instead the meaning of the phenomenal reality its organisation, we might say that the theory reconstructs. This is why Marx lingers in his analysis of value-form and especially the polarity between relative and equivalent forms. And we might add this reconstruction of the meaning of phenomenal reality coincides with the epistemology of Althusser, who then helps us to understand it in these terms. Exchange value and abstract labour are represented in the equivalent form, and in this form they can be displayed, beginning from the simple form of exchange involving two commodities, right up to the expanded relative form of value in which value is truly shown for the first time as a congealed quantity of undifferentiated human labour labour which counts as the equal of every other sort of human labour.75 The analysis of the value-form, of exchange as a form of manifestation of value, is therefore necessary to an explanation of value: but what needs examining is this form itself, the relation that occurs in the exchange,

Althusser and the critique of political economy


since the natural form of the commodity becomes the value-form ... only within the valuerelation to it.76 When exchange takes place, the polarity between relative and equivalent forms exposes the twofold character of labour: concrete and abstract. Abstract labour is revealed as the origin of value; values of different commodities become comparable in quantitative terms when they have been reduced to the same unit.77 But this is not the end of the matter. Abstract labour is a measure of value only in a society in which the generalised exchange of the products of individual labour is the sole foundation of social organisation, or at least the only essential, general and permanent foundation. This shows quite clearly that the object of knowledge is not only the value of the commodity the explanation of its exchangeability and value on the basis of the abstract labour it incorporates but also the historical possibility of value the social organisation in which it is meaningful. The same theoretical and conceptual work that leads to the explanation of the comparability of commodities and the possibility of measuring their value reveals the structure as the meaning of the phenomena: the world of commodities is thus deciphered as social organisation. The value-form of commodities appears as the expression of a social form (structure, organisation) (Gessellschaftsform, Marx says), and the exchange value and abstract labour serve as concepts essential to the definition of a given system of social relations, a state of society, a mode of production. In his Letter to Kugelmann of 11 July 1868, Marx writes: the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself in a state of society in which the interconnection of social labour expresses itself as the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products.78 Marx explicitly presents this result of his work as the theoretical heart of the critique of Political Economy. The commodity that plays the role of equivalent figures as the embodiment of value relative to other commodities; even the concrete labour contained in it, then, counts as labour considered abstractly equal in this form to any other labour, and thus as social labour.79 With this explanation of the exchangeability of commodities, we realise that it is in this way that the social nexus of private labour and its social organisation comes about: through exchange, as the exchange of commodities. This is Marxs discovery the science he inaugurated of the historically determined social organisation: of the mode of production. The road that leads there is the analysis of valueform, the first step in the analysis of a historically given social organisation. The next step leads to the theory of capital, by way of the theory of money. Only at this point is the capitalist mode of production fully defined the first level, the first chapter, being in any case indispensable. This is where we find the break with bourgeois economics, which, as Marx states, never even attempted an analysis of value-form exchange value from the simplest expression of the value relation between two commodities to the general form and the money-form.80 This is thus not a mere expedient meant to demonstrate the theory of value; it is rather the construction of the true theoretical object of Marx, social organisation. Let us note once again that the theory of Althusser is not in conflict with this understanding of the theory of value that on the contrary it makes it plausible. At the beginning of the third and fundamental section of the first chapter, Marx in effect writes that [w]e must now return to this form of appearance of value that is, to an analysis of exchange-value. Commodities, in fact, possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expression of an identical social substance. From the fact that they possess a


Encountering Althusser

purely social objective character it follows self-evidently that [this character] can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity.81 And this must be analysed. The product of private labour hence only has social form insofar as it has value-form and hence the form of exchangeability with other products of labour. . . . But that is only possible in a society in which the commodity-form is the general form of the product of labour and thus also the relation of people to one another as possessors of commodities is the ruling social relation. ... It is a definite social relation of producers in which they equate (gleichsetzen) their different types of labour. It is no less a definite social relation of producers in which they measure the magnitude of their labours by the duration of expenditure of human labour-power.82 Commodities are thus social things. A single commodity becomes a citizen of the world of commodities, standing in a social relation with it.83 The value-relation to another thing can only be the form of appearance of a social relation,84 of a historically specific way of dividing and coordinating social labour, of classifying as social the labour of individuals. In the general value-form, from which the next step is to the money form, all commodities present their values in the same commodity. As Marx comments: [i]t thus becomes evident that because the objectivity of commodities as values is the purely social existence of these things, it can only be expressed through the whole range of their social relations; consequently the form of their value must possess social validity.85 The concrete labour that produces the commodity that serves as the general equivalent acquires as a result a general social form, the form of equality with all other kinds of labour.86 The answer to the riddle has emerged from the analysis of the way value presents itself in reality of how reality actually functions. Marx reiterates what he has discovered: The general value form, in which all the products of labour are presented as mere congealed quantities of undifferentiated human labour, shows by its very structure that it is the social expression of the world of commodities. In this way it is made plain that within this world the general human character of labour forms its specific social character.87 Marx would not have persisted for decades with his analysis of the value-form, leaving behind different versions of it, if this hadnt been for him the first, essential step of a theory of the capitalist mode of production, in its differentia specifica. In earlier societies as well, different occupations obviously had the general quality of being human labour, manifestations of the human capacity to work. It was not this abstract quality, however, that made them social and determined their social value, but rather the fact of being variously determined, in their concreteness, within different cultures. Instead in capitalist society, as the equivalent form particularly makes clear, the social quality of a commodity what makes it a part of social production through exchange is precisely its general quality of being human labour, its exchange value. Its use value counts only in support of exchange value and therefore of the abstract labour embodied in it. This is the idea behind Marxs assertion that the expression of value is characterised by the inversion [Verkehrung] by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete.88

Althusser and the critique of political economy


The first term in this opposition concerns capitalist-market society; the second, as we have just seen, concerns earlier societies in which the social quality of labour the way it was integrated socially did not consist of the abstract quality of its being human labour. The inversion characterising capitalist society with respect to previous societies is a fundamental concept in the comparative analysis of forms of economic and social organisation. If this significance is not taken into account, there is a tendency to give the inversion the meaning of a contrast between a situation of alienation and what would be considered human or natural for man. Following in Althussers footsteps, Jacques Rancire adopts this meaning; thus he includes the inversion in the youthful sins of Marx to be amended, be they anthropological or Hegelian.89 The first level of analysis is obviously not enough. Having proved incomplete and posing further problems, it requires a transition to the next levels, but without the loss of the general concepts thus far produced. The fertility of the analysis in the first chapter of Capital, as indicated above, lies not only in the groundwork it sets out for the following analysis of capitalist relations of production, but also in the issues it raises and the wealth of distinctions it allows with respect to capitalism in general and the concrete reality of its development. In the first place, capitalist production and a market system are interdependent. Capital does not exist except as a multiplicity of capitals in what Weber calls a market situation. Capital produces only surplus-value and reproduces itself only in its capacity as the producer of commodities.90 Beginning with this statement, Marx shortly raises the possibility, typically spotted by the institutionalist economists mentioned above (V), that producing exchange-value for the market and for profit is not what is most useful for society and for individuals. The commodity, he writes, is necessarily the form a product takes in capitalist society. The product becomes increasingly one-sided and massive in nature. This imposes upon it a social character, one which is closely bound up with existing social relations, while its immediate use-value for the gratification of the needs of its producer appears wholly adventitious, immaterial and inessential.91 Weber also speaks about limits in principle due to the formal rationality of capital accounting in a market situation: this rationality tends to be indifferent toward all substantive postulates92 that is, toward the use-values that should in fact always be the purpose of production. With respect to the definition of capitalism in general, the first chapter of course tells us more than I have set out to summarise here. There is for example the problem mentioned above (at the end of IV), of the modern relation between individuals and social production. Then there is the issue of capitalist societys particular kind of complexity. As we have seen above (VI), Althusser on one hand affirms that a definition of the concept of the totality of the distinct levels of society and their peculiar type of articulation (i.e. effectivity)93 is needed to reach the concept of a given mode of production. On the other hand, he neglects the specific characteristic of the structural articulation of the capitalist mode of production. The differentiation and the relative freedom limited, that is that characterise the dynamics and the interaction of the different instances of the capitalist mode of production can be traced, certainly, to the concept of surplus value, but also to the fact that the economy has become autonomous and the social structure economic, and to the abstraction of the social nexus, whose detection the analysis of the value-form has made possible.


Encountering Althusser

To conclude, what we might call Althussers disdain for the first chapter of Capital94 appears unjustified, in the first place because the chapter can be interpreted as the basis of the critique of Political Economy in a way that actually fits with Althussers theoretical and epistemological intent: the historically specific social organisation of production becomes the new object of the theory. A correspondence may be found even regarding the theory of fetishism, to which Marx dedicates the last paragraph of the first chapter. Althusser writes that capitalism is the mode of production in which fetishism affects the economic region par excellence: the massive obviousness of the economic given in this mode of production tends to impede the construction of the concept of the economic, which should take place through a definition of the place it occupies in the structure of the whole.95 Even though this is precisely what Marxs concept of fetishism substantially consists of, we know how little Althusser nonetheless normally thinks of it, since fetishism seems to him to be a concentration of everything his theory is meant to oppose (humanism, anthropology, ideology, Hegelian idealism, the youthful Marx...).96 Moreover, as I have tried little by little to bring out, it is possible to extend the horizon of the visible, to use Althussers expression, beyond what his discoveries and idiosyncrasies would allow. It is possible, that is, to pose additional problems concerning capitalist society and its specificity, leading to the comparative historical analysis of modes of production, on the basis of Marxian thought and of course beginning with the first chapter. To the extent that this will lead us to concepts that broaden our knowledge of capitalism and, more generally, our theory of history, it is not in the least anthropological ideology or humanistic nonsense, but rather their antidote.

1 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 185. 2 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 158. 3 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 160. 4 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 183. 5 Althusser 1976a, p. 56. 6 In addition to the other authors of Lire le Capital (Balibar, Establet, Macherey and Rancire) and limited to the literature in French see for example Poulantzas 1968; Bettleheim 1970; and Terray 1969. Maurice Godelier is mentioned below, VI. For Althussers influence on the cole de la rgulation, see Lipietz 1988. 7 About this, see for example Balibar 1991a; Callari and Ruccio (eds) 1996; Ichida 1997; Levine 2003; Ichida and Matheron 2005; Matheron 2008. 8 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 161. 9 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 162. 10 Althusser and Balibar 1970, p