The patient cannot last long

The patient cannot last long

Stéphane douailler

The presence on our bookshelves of such texts as Louis Althusser’s Reply to John Lewis and Jacques Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson immediately invites the readers who pick them up to ask themselves what might be at play between titles that so readily mix, miss or specify the genres – if there are any – through which a text seeks its readers.

Formally, Althusser gave the impression that he was engaging in a straightforward debate. The debate, essentially about Althusser’s contribution between 1960 and 1972 to the Marxist theory developed by Europe’s communist parties, demanded that he inter‑vene in his capacity as a Party member and a par‑ticipant in its public discussions. But, right away, the opening sentences of his reply to John Lewis describe something else entirely. Althusser, picking up on the title of the article Lewis had devoted to his texts in Marxism Today, improvises a theatrical scene. ‘The whole family, as it were, together with his silent col‑leagues, stood motionless at the bedside, while Dr John Lewis leaned over to examine “the Althusser case”. A long wait. Then he made his diagnosis: the patient is suffering from an attack of severe “dogmatism” – a “mediaeval” variety. The prognosis is grave: the patient cannot last long.’ [1] Undoubtedly, what strikes us as we reread this scene, so unambiguously and traditionally ironic, is the extreme variety of resonances it evokes. Beyond its conventional playfulness, today we also hear Althus‑ser’s long‑lasting and actual illness – which some already knew about, and all eventually came to know – insinuating its voice into what we read. In it, we recognize a certain struggle, one fought to exhaustion on numerous intertwined planes and borne along by metaphors until it reached the final philosophical and political dramaturgies through which Althusser staged and presented his thought.

But we can also note that in availing itself, with the greatest critical simplicity, of the well‑known image of the relation between a doctor and a patient (a rela‑tion wherein the former deprives the latter of speech and excludes him from the community of speakers),

Althusser’s scene appears to treat a crucial point as if it had been decided in advance. You need only linger over it for a moment to recall the real privilege that Althusser enjoyed, at this point, as a result of the growing sense of expectation that had come to anticipate his every word. Everyone was waiting for Althusser. We were waiting for him to speak more, and to speak more directly. Althusser himself had helped to cultivate this mix of expectation and frustration for a long time, from the early 1960s, following the partial retreat of the teacher in favour of his pupils, whose texts started to appear in the Théorie book series he published with François Maspero. In addi‑tion to publishing his students’ works in numerical order, the series, whose titles occupied the central table at the bookstore on rue Saint‑Séverin, offered only a few episodic and parsimonious contributions from the master himself, contributions that surfaced like so many theoretical events drawn from a pool of hypotheses apparently worked out in solitude, followed by the last, dramatic publications, presented as heroic flights out of a grave silence.

That Althusser’s scene should make us hear a voice we have come to anticipate is something that accompa‑nied the political imaginary of an entire period, some‑thing that Étienne Balibar nicely captured with his laconic formula ‘Just keep quiet, Althusser.’ [2] But the various places and multiple strata on which this voice circulated its secret triumph were also its problem, for it clearly failed to unify the many registers within which it could still be thought as separate from the totality of the venues in which it spoke. It lived in discordant spaces: in the hope for new theorizations capable of replacing with the order of their reasons dis‑courses that were deeply rooted in the all‑too‑human; in the search for a solution to the persistent silence inside the Party concerning what could really be thought about what was happening; in the discomfort with promising ‘the moon and the stars’ while always having to ‘trudge along’ (letter to Franca, 19 January 1962). The falsely pathetic scene of the patient Louis Althusser being publicly examined by Dr John Lewis in reality only just managed to represent (barely and a contrario) the staging of a voice that would now finally speak out. It only succeeded in winning our sympathy and sparking expectation for as long we managed to imagine – outside the frame and beyond the circle formed by the ‘immobile members of the family’ and the ‘silent colleagues’ – the real issues at stake: the powerful burgeoning of the masses, the movement of history, the public advancement of knowledges; that is, those realities from which Dr John Lewis, with his knowledge of medieval varieties of medicine, was apparently cut off, and with which the party that hosted the theoretical controversies of Marxism in its journal, Marxism Today, was still actively involved.

But this sense of anticipation, framed by so large and so urgent a horizon, led only to disappointment.

However sharp or speculative the formulation of Althusser’s theses, the whole adventure, according to Rancière, actually never had anything more to offer than the re‑enactment, indifferent to its object or configuration, of his old critique of ‘economism’ and ‘humanism’. Althusser’s critique of Lewis was frozen in a dispositif that had now become plainly political, one that was ripe for reappraisal six years after 1968, at a moment when that dispositif was looking to renew itself through a momentous ‘turn to the left’, to be carried out with the support of coldly conquered university posts. Instead of running headlong into the new mirages represented by ‘class struggle in theory’ or by the introduction of Leninist philosophy to the field of studies approved by the Société française de philosophie, Rancière showed how we could examine the ‘positivity of the functioning’ of Althusserian discourse, how we might examine what its simple and practical gestures were plotting in the name of Marxist philosophy. In a few compressed pages in the Preface to Althusser’s Lesson, Rancière quickly lists the questions and objects of inquiry – between eleven and seventeen in three pages – he later unpacks in the chapters of the book, in order systematically to describe Althusserianism as the thing and the power that it was. Jacques Rancière opts to give it the name ‘lesson’.

The lesson had come to replace the ‘great ambition’ of Althusser’s initial project, namely to seize anew, in Marx’s works and actions, read in their living history, the dialectical weapon that can change the world. It came to busy itself with the ‘autonomy of theory’ necessary to this return and detour, and thereby proceeded (in the name of Marxism) to refer back, in the field of ideas that people have of their condition and of the history they may perhaps claim as theirs, to the relationship of the learned to the ignorant, to the exclusivity of expertise, to the function of the educator, to the room for manoeuvre open to those with institutional authority, to the policing of words and phrases. Disguising the power of the university under the name of ‘theory’ and the power of the Party leadership under the name of ‘the labour movement’, Althusserian discourse actually embraced as its own the project of reducing ideas to theses and words to concepts – so as to claim for itself the right to tell the difference, ‘scientifically’ and ‘politically’, between right and wrong, and thereby to disqualify the over‑blown prattle and disorder of free revolts.

Rereading Rancière’s Althusser’s Lesson today allows us to verify that his meticulous dismantling of this Althusserian dispositif also takes the form of an active demonstration. Reinserting Althusser’s articles and writings into a vibrant environment teeming with texts of social theory, Rancière exposes the opera‑tions and actions of power they perform. He invokes and discusses, among others, the ‘Young Marx’ and Feuerbach, Capital and the classics of the Second and Third Internationals, the intellectuals of La Nouvelle critique, structuralist philosophers, La Grande Révolution culturel e prolétarienne (a collection of texts put out by the Éditions de Pékin), Charles Piaget and the workers at the Lip factory, the utopian and anarchist traditions, the pronouncements of various philanthropic manufacturers confronted by the discourse of typog‑raphers, tailor‑workers and labour lawyers, Jeremy Bentham, Charles Dickens, the Countess of Ségur.

This free but nonetheless studied set of references anticipates the riches and rigour of a new programme.

Turning the rarefied logic of the lesson upside down, it was possible to embrace the proliferation of voices.

May ’68 had begun to stage an unending open‑air performance. Michel Foucault had shown how to bring all of this diversity into philosophy books. Even Althusser – at least, it seemed so at that time – was altering the framework of his understanding of ideol‑ogy by addressing the function of ‘ideological state apparatuses’.

Twenty years later, it will fall to another the text, ‘Althusser, Don Quixote, and the Stage of the Text’ (1993),3 a supplement to Althusser’s Lesson, to put a provisionally final point on the matter. In striking fashion, the text confirms, and strengthens, the earlier diagnosis of the lesson. It opens by returning to one of the key operations of the ‘symptomal’ reading advocated by Reading ‘Capital’, that of the ‘oversight’ (bévue), which invites one to correlate the answers a text supplies and the questions it does not raise, which, by their very absence, hollow the text with a specific lack and determine it. The practice is one that Althusser’s students no doubt indulged to the point of intoxication. Althusser himself relates the following episode, on the eve of Lacan’s first lecture at the École Normale:

Tomorrow, they will intervene when Lacan, having finished his lecture, asks: ‘Are there any questions?’ They explained to me what they plan to do: one of them will stand up and say: ‘We have no questions to ask you. What we want is to answer the ques‑tions you ask without knowing it, the questions you ask yourself, unbeknownst to you, that is to say, the questions you don’t ask, because you haven’t asked them yet. We’ll ask these questions, ask them of ourselves, because we have the answers, and what we are about to say will give both the questions and the answers. So listen, and if afterwards you have questions to ask of us, we’ll listen to you…’ Funny, don’t you think? They’re amazing. (letter to Franca, 21 January 1964) Indeed, the chapter that Rancière himself con‑tributed to the Althusserian adventure at the time of Reading ‘Capital’ (1965) was itself heavily impreg‑nated by it: its goal, as he himself explains in ‘How to Use Lire le Capital’, [4] had been to bring to the fore the ‘break’ between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital by demonstrating in the category of labour mobilized in the first text the operative lack of the category of labour power exposed in the second. It is within this same theoretical matrix that Rancière, in 1993, again finds the mechanism of the lesson. Noting a strange oversight on Althusser’s part, who himself refers to certain blanks and parentheses in his text as ‘dotted lines’, Rancière shows how this substitution confirms that the real task was to transform ‘the ordi‑nary exercise of the pedagogue into an extraordinary exercise of the scholar’, [5] to show, in the words of one group (the students), the lack and the absence of the concepts known by the other (the master), and thereby to include in advance, under the figure of this lack and through the effect of this mastered operation, all of this non‑seeing in the seeing and knowing (the episteme) of a sharply delimited community. In his replies and questions, Althusser was still, as always, trying to substitute the discussion he deemed appropriate for the great disorder and unruly chatter of the world – he was still teaching his lesson. The difference is that now, with this return to the argument, Rancière could risk a remedy. This no longer meant attending to the work made possible through reference to ‘ideologi‑cal state apparatuses’ or to any other concept whose legacy might remain fruitful. Instead, after removing the entire mechanism of the lesson, Rancière finds a way of delivering the letter of the Althusserian text to the opening made by the absence of an audience or addressee – in other words, he finds a way of allowing it to exist, at last, as literature.

Translated by emiliano battistanotes

1. ^ Louis Althusser, Reply to John Lewis, in Essays in SelfCriticism, trans. Grahame Lock, New Left Books, Lon‑don, 1976, p. 35.

2. ^ Étienne Balibar, ‘Tais toi encore, Althusser’, Les Temps Modernes 509, December 1988.

3. ^ Jacques Rancière, ‘Althusser, Don Quichotte et la scène du texte’, in Sylvain Lazarus, ed., Philosophie et politique dans l’œuvre de Louis Althusser, Presses Univer‑sitaires de France, Paris, 1993; ‘Althusser, Don Quixote, and the Stage of the Text’, trans. Charlotte Mandell, in Jacques Rancière, The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2004, pp. 129–45.

4. ^ Jacques Rancière, ‘Mode d’emploi pour une réédition de Lire le Capital’, Les Temps Modernes 328, November 1973, pp. 788–807; ‘How to Use Lire le Capital’, trans.

Tanya Asad, in Ali Rattansi, ed., Ideology, Method and Marx, Routledge, London, 1989, pp. 181–9.

5. ^ Rancière, The Flesh of Words, p. 134.

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