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Letters on Strawbridge and Althusser


Dear Radical Philosophy,
Sheelagh Strawbridge’s article ‘From “Over determination”
to “Structural Causality”: Some Unresolved Problems in
Althusser’s Treatment of Causality’ (RP 38) was informative
and served to help me get to grips with this widely quoted
contemporary thinker. However, I’m still not entirely clear
about various matters pertaining to the concept of contradiction and its use as a bullding block of analysis. Perhaps
I’ve missed a vital piece of debate or argument at some
stage, or perhaps the unfamlliar style of Althusser’s writings
has thrown me off course.

Contradiction and overdetermination are often spoken of
in the same breath. Indeed, on page 106 of For Marx
Althusser seems to argue that contradictions are ‘always
overdetermined’. We are shown the meaning of contradiction
through the use of the term in Althusser’s discussion of the
Russian Revolution, describing the antagon1sms between different groups of people, their purposes at loggerheads;
social forces pulling in different directions. Whereas Hegel
characterised the essence of any h1storical period by a
single internal principle, Althusser (llke Marx) does not see
the contradiction characteris1ng society as a simple un1tary
one. Nor can it actively precipitate revolut1on unless ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ conspire with 1t to form a ‘ruptural un1ty’.

The general contrad1ct1on assumed to dom1nate a per10d
(e.g. the forces and relations of production embod1ed 1n the
antagon1sm between two classes) is active in a variety of
subordinate contradictions which may all come ‘to play in
the same court’. These may have different or1g1ns, different
senses, different levels and po1nts of appllcat1on. The
circumstances and currents which constitute a contradiction
are more than its phenomena pure and simple. Whereas they
derive from the relat10ns of production they are at the same
time its conditions of existence:

… the contradictions are not seen as separate from
or in any sense external effectivities upon the whole.

They have their existence, and can only be thought
of as part of an articulated structure in which they
are defined and determined, and in turn defining and

(Strawbridge, 1984, p. 10)
On the other hand we must be careful not to think of all
these specific instances of contradiction as ‘pure phenomena’ of a ‘general contradiction’. While the ‘general contradiction’ animates all the subordinate contradictions they
have suffic1ent individual integrity (due to their constitution
in concrete historical circumstances) not to be dissipated in
the internal unity of a simple contradiction.

The unity they constitute in this fusion into a revolutionary rupture is constituted by their own essence
and effect1vity, by what they are and by the specific
modalities of their action.

(Althusser, 1977, p. 100)
Thus, a contradiction seems to comprise a dialectical process between two moieties – the circumstances of its genesis
and a general contradiction. It is the nature of this process
which appears under-explained in Althusser’s discussion.

The second part of my confusion concerns the ontological status of contradictions. I’m inclined to suppose that
rather than enjoying the same kind of existence as the concrete circumstances with which they putatively interact,
contradictions are hypothetical constructs, entities inferred,

presumed to underlle the body of historical events which we
experience. For example:

… the capital-labour contradiction is never simple
but ai-ways specified by the historically concrete
forms and c1rcumstances in which it is exerc1sed.

(Althusser, 1977, p. 106)
In other words you’ve got to spot It lurk1ng somewhere behind an ongoing stream of events: How might one rel1ably
detect it?

Contradiction refers to antagonisms, tens1ons, forces
acting in different directions, different bodies of people
attempting to assert their rights to limited resources. Suffic1ent commonality is assumed to underlie all these situations for them all to embody the essence of contradiction.

The task of making us believe that they all come together in
a ruptural unity is thus much easier – It 1s somehow ‘natural’

that contradictions should come together to act in concert
slnce they all have the property of contradiction. The extent to which this property is an imputation by an observer
is obscure.

Contradiction 1s used in a metaphor1cal sense too, to
conjure up the mass of historically concrete events which it

… I should llke to suggest that an overdetermined
contradiction may either be overdetermined 1n the
direction of historical inhibition, a real block for the
contradiction (for example, Wllhelmine Germany), or
in the direction of revolutionary rupture (Russia in
1917) but in neither condition is it ever found in a
pure state.

(Althusser, 1977, p. 106)
Here, contradiction refers to the gamut of events, praxen,
currents arid forces which may evolve towards revolution or
away from It. Whereas the contradiction is realised through
the ‘concrete’, for the purposes of analysis these concrete
matters are collapsed into a contradiction .

Given that contradiction is pivotal, It seems that we are
allowed confidently to zero in on it as the important nexus
among the plethora of experience which must presumably
constitute a concrete historical circumstance. We dissect it,
reify it and suppose that it is in some way an explanation of
the circumstances from which it was excised.

But as
Barr1ngton Moore (Social Or1g1ns of Dictatorsh1p and Democracy, 1967) remarked, to derive a hypothetical construct
from a body of events, and then use It to explain those
events is to indulge in circular reason1ng. If the contradiction is then given privlleged status – being used in analysis in preference to the events themselves – then the confusion is compounded.

It may be that I’ve got it wrong. Contradictions may not
be logical entities. Contradictions might be metaphors,
mythopoeic categories, and trying to elaborate the meaning
of the concept strips It of Its metaphorical power. Its key
role in Vlarxist and post-Marxist thought seems to have
resulted in a deepen1ng of the term as it is used in everyday
language. It’s scarcely possible to speak of ‘common sense’,
say, as contradictory without bringing in overtones of dialectical necessity. I conclude from the foregoing ruminations
that a contradiction 1s not a self-ev1dent motif of social relations, but an accomplishment of deduction; far more the
creature of our minds than the circumstances of its putative




Dear Editors,
As I continue to find Althusser’s writmgs somewhat cryptic
can appreciate Brian Brown’s difficulties. In pondering his
comments I have spent some time considering Althusser’s
discussion of historical time (largely Reading Capital, Ch.

4), and I think that at least some l1lumination is to be found

A departure from the Hegelian conception of the whole
as a unified or ‘spiritual’ totality, in which the parts merely
express an inner essence, towards a conception of a complex
hierarchically structured totality of relatively autonomous
levels, requires a departure from any notion of homogeneous
continui ty in time.

Each level of the social formation has its own pecular
time. The processes of development of the various levels relations of production, political superstructures, aesthetic
productions, scientific formations and so on – are all relatively autonomous from each other. Each level is subject to
its own internal contradictions and each has its own specific
time and history. Consequently it is not possible to make an
‘essential section’ through a unified historical time and
there is no ‘base-time’ in relation to which the backwardness or fowardness of a level can be thought.

Nevertheless, all the levels are articulated one with
another to form an organic whole. They exert reciprocal
determinations upon each other and their specific characters

and interrelationships are given by the character of the
totality. The structure of the whole determines the character of the elements – each level is defined in terms of its
place in the totality.

Hence a conception of the ‘synchronic’ (the complex
unity of the totality – the modes of articulation of the
various elements and levels) is required, both for the conceptualisation of the real historical present, the ‘conjuncture’, and for the adequate conceptualisation of any of the
levels, i.e., in order to define the economic, the polltical,
the philosophical and so on, a theory of the totality is prerequisite.

Contradictions refer to real relationships between elements within levels and between levels. They are not hypothetical constructs but can only be theoretically derived
from the conception of the totality. The ‘general contradiction’, the economy, being ‘determinant in the last instance’,
defines the overall character of the social formation – the
specific hierarchical ordering of levels and their modes of
articulation. It thus defines the ‘situation when revolution is
the task of the day’. However, an actual revolutionary rupture of the totality would require the coincidence of ruptural moments in the histories of multiple elements and levels
fusing into a ‘ruptural unity’.

Yours sincerely,
Sheelagh Strawbridge

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