The recent death of Louis Althusser revived the sharp but usually
unproductive exchanges over the value and nature of his intellectual
legacy. Andrew Collier’s piece should enliven the controversy.
He situates his ideas about the way the social and natural environment provides an extension of individual human agency
within an Althusserian framework. His stance acknowledges the
efficacy of subjectivity in a manner which moves beyond the
conventional categories of subject and object, leaving behind the
terrain engendered by the constellations of Structural Marxism
and Critical Theory.
Collier’s strategy is to assimilate Heidegger’s notion of Being-in-the-world to a Spinozist perspective in which the individual exists as an element of wider totalities which provide a
means of empowerment when the individual acts in concert with
its environment. This idea of (‘ gathered’) freedom is used to
critique the ‘dispersed’ freedoms offered by commodity relations. Here the human body circumscribes the limits of freedom
through the right, ceteris paribus, not to be imposed upon by
agents in the form of other such bodies. One corollary of this is
that human and social damage done by actions directly against the
natural environment tends to be overlooked within the liberal
bourgeois purview. Collier therefore argues that the physical
proximity of actions to a person’s ‘body actual’ should not be a
criterion of its relevance to their needs. Rather, it is the extended
or totalised subject that decision makers should be cognisant of
This is the Spinozist composite subject, the body actual as an
element of a ‘relatively stable equilibriating system’.
This discussion takes Marx as its point of departure, and it is
interesting to note that writers as diverse as Kolakowski and
Il yankov have identified Spinozist resonances in Marx’ s work.
(And quite independently, Collier’s maftre cl penser recognises a
debt from that direction!).
The ecological arguments ofBures share the anthropocentricity
of Collier’s theorisation of the relation of the human body to its
environment. Bures dismisses the view that nature has intrinsic
worth – a position which can be seen as one articulation of the
mechanistic subject-object duality – because nature is always
inextricably bound up with human activity, always a socialised
nature. He too understands human dependency on the environment
in terms of balanced systems in which the human being is a
specific element. Different stages of history have seen different
balances and, he argues, it is now crucial that human beings are
aware of themselves as a part of such equilibria, if they are to
survive. Hence the need for an ethical attitude towards nature.
Bures notes the historical evolution of value systems and argues
for the possibility of an environmental ethics where nature is seen
as a mediation of human relations; that is, human actions on nature
should be guided by a sense of responsibility to others, rather than
to nature itself. He therefore comes out against ‘anti-industrial’
ecological utopianism. His views also offer a counterweight to the
‘statism’ of some forms of left-environmentalism in the West.
Bures argues that an ethical attitude can only stem from a broad
popular sense of responsibility to the environment, that ecological
Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991
awareness needs to become part of the’ common sense’ of the day.
This can only occur under conditions of open debate where the
public has access to scientific information and is able to contest
class and technocratic one-sidedness and unravel the complexity
of positions involved in the representation of ‘the environment’ .
Miranda Fricker’ s ‘Reason and Emotion’ looks at the issue of
representation in the sphere of emotional life. Emotions have an
expressive character, they are about something, even when they
are not associated with a judgemental context, where they are
consideredly purely in relation to cognition, she argues. The
symbolisation of emotions and of reason in relation to gendered
subjects emerge as key problem areas within a patriarchal culture.
Many feminists have argued that women should trust their feelings as opposed to the snares of a male-dominated theoretical
sphere. On the other hand, authentic expression of feelings
remains problematic where modes of self-expression are permeated by patriarchal influences, it would seem. Fricker argues that
an identification of women’s awareness of unease as a feature of
gender power relations can avoid the closure indicated by a male
symbolic universe. An autonomous awareness can be generated
which subvelts the dominant gender ideology. The narrative (and
reflexive) awareness which flows from group interaction serves
this purpose. The expressive mode of telling one’s story can
identify what previously had no name – sexual harrassment, for
example – as against the dominant symbolisation (‘ a bit of fun’ ?).
On these grounds, and in this sense, Fricker argues, the emotions
can be privileged over reason in a feminist strategy.
The subversion of dominant discursive tropes with the aim of
eliciting an authentic content is a concern shared by John Mepham.
His discussion of popular television subordinates the currently
well-rehearsed issues of power and representation to the medium’s
potentiality for truth-telling. Mepham shifts the focus away from
the conventional association between truth-telling and ‘high’ art
towards the arena of popular culture. He is concerned to situate the
idea of ‘quality’ in a way that avoids assimilation to dominant
populist or aesthetic notions of quality. Quality resides in a
content which makes a connection with the context of the viewer
and does so in a way which avoids the patrician/populist polarity.
It makes a connection by recognising diversity as a necessary
condition of truth-telling. This involves grasping the narrative as
a complexity: characters and stories may be both central and
marginal to a plot. The dynamics of TV soap opera, for example,
facilitate this narrative flux and hence provide a structure within
which diversity can develop. In this way critical distancing is
promoted; characters appear as many-sided. Mepham suggests
that an ethic of truth-telling can ensure that these features of TV
narrative remain a living formative influence and so serve to
reinforce our critical awareness.
Finally, we publish Gregory Elliott’s obituary of Louis