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Althusser’s Perpetual War

Review | RP186

Warren Montag, Althusser and His Contemporaries: Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2013. 246 pp., £62.00 hb., £15.99 pb., 978 0 82235 386 7 hb., 978 0 82235 400 0 pb.

The result of more than twenty years of engagement with Althusser’s philosophy, Montag’s book proposes a wide-ranging reading that engages both with the most famous works published in Althusser’s lifetime and with the enormous amount of writings that have emerged since his death in 1990. Montag’s explicit purpose is to call into question, on the basis of newly available materials, some of the most common interpretative stereotypes, specifically the reading of Althusser as a structuralist and ‘philosopher of order’ and as a theorist of the ‘death of the subject’. The originality of Montag’s approach lies in the fact that it raises to the status of a methodological principle the Althusserian definition of philosophy as a Kampfplatz: the site of a struggle about and for positions (concepts) that have to be won by means of confrontation with, and criticism of, those positions already occupied by others. Consequently, Montag locates Althusser in his ‘theoretical conjuncture’ in order to show the making of a philosophy conceived less as an abstract meditation than as a constant dialogue with his contemporaries – from Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Canguilhem, Cavaillès and Bachelard, to other less fashionable figures such as Malraux and Camus – in search of a truly materialist position from which to attempt to provide Marxism with new foundations.

Althusser webTo be clear, this reading ‘in conjuncture’ is in no way historicist. Premissed upon Althusser’s agonistic conception of philosophy, it does not pursue a ‘reduction’ to an alleged zeitgeist conceived of as a unity or ‘truth’ of the times; on the contrary, as Montag points out, a historicist reading would label Althusser’s work ‘structuralist’, thus reducing both his ‘work’ and his ‘structuralism’ to the fictitious unity of an imaginary entity supposedly immune from fractures, gaps and points of tension. In keeping with the Althusserian definition of philosophy as a struggle, Montag instead organizes his rereading around three ‘theoretical objects’ that are so many ‘stakes’ in Althusser’s attempt to provide Marxism with new foundations: structure, subject and the couple ‘origin/end’. The first part of the book (chapters 1–5) focuses on Althusser’s relationship with the concept of structure. Montag’s underlying thesis is that Althusser, even in the moment of his deepest involvement with the (uneven and non-homogeneous) structuralist front, cannot be classified as a ‘philosopher of order’ or of ‘structures’ (here, the polemical reference is to the critiques of Jacques Rancière and E.P. Thompson). Rather, Althusser examines the concept of structure as a way to conceptualize ‘a determinate disorder’ of history. The specificity of his concept of structure is to be found in the Spinoza-inspired idea of the structure as a ‘structure of singularities and as a form of causality entirely immanent in its effects’. Montag divides Althusser’s involvement with structuralism into two moments: a first phase (1961–62) of initial enthusiasm and fascination, testified to by his reading of Foucault and Barthes, among others, and by a definite sense of being part of a moment capable, potentially, of bringing about a deep renewal in the field of the human sciences; and a second phase that begins with the seminar on structuralism that Althusser organized at the École Normale Supérieure in 1962–63, during which – tracing an ‘unfamiliar’ genealogy of structuralism back to Montesquieu, Hegel and Dilthey – he first endorsed some aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s conception of structure before going on to criticize it as irredeemably flawed by formalism and functionalism.

Montag shows how Althusser, in spite of his criticism that the Lévi-Straussian conception of structure remained haunted by the spectre of the (transcendental) order ordinum, does not quite manage to completely avoid the conception of structure as ‘latent order’ in Reading Capital. Here, Montag stresses the importance of Macherey’s Spinozist intervention, soon after the publication of the collective book, on precisely this point. Montag shows that Macherey’s comments and doubts, raised in some letters to Althusser, produce a certain Spinozist twist from structure as ‘latent’ order to structure as ‘absent exteriority’; a rather obscure definition through which, according to Montag, Althusser attempts to think structure as ‘an absent cause of a determinate disorder’ and to bridge the gap between structure and the ‘logic of the diverse’ that he had already explored in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. This dialogue with Macherey was of crucial importance, as it led to a substantial revision of Althusser’s contributions to Reading Capital (it should be noted that the only English translation available today is based on the second abridged edition – i.e. the revised one – so the English reader cannot gain a sense of the importance of these amendments); revisions that Montag analyses in detail and that show the extent to which Althusser was struggling precisely with the aspects that he so firmly criticized in Lévi-Strauss and in Deleuze’s description of structuralism.

The second part of Montag’s book (chapters 6–8) is concerned with the ‘subject’; that is, with Althusser’s quest for a new theory of ideology. The central thesis of this section is that Althusser’s writings on ideology show a progressive ‘shift in perspective’ that leads Althusser from a still idealistic conception of ideology as a ‘system of representation’, in ‘Marxism and Humanism’ (1963), to an increasingly materialist conception: first through the ambiguous and problematic attempt to define ideology from the perspective of a theory of discourses in ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’ (1966), and then by assigning ideology to material apparatuses in the ISAs essay (1970). Unlike many of Althusser’s previous readers, Montag avoids the temptation to read in the first essay only an anticipation of the theory later presented in the 1970 essay. Furthermore, Montag is certainly right when he argues that in the 1963 piece Althusser is still relying on quasi-idealistic presuppositions and that this essay ‘remained haunted by the humanism it sought to criticize’. In this light, Montag discusses Althusser’s crucial – and so far virtually neglected – confrontation with Lacan in an ENS seminar in 1963/4, which he rightly privileges over the essay ‘Freud and Lacan’. Although recognizing the importance of Lacan for Althusser, Montag stresses that in this seminar the confrontation between psychology (and, more generally, the human sciences) and psychoanalysis fades into a more radical confrontation between Descartes and Spinoza, concluding that the crucial step towards a materialistic theory of ideology is taken with the endorsement of the Spinozist (and not Lacanian) concept of the imaginary. This development allows Althusser to move beyond a consciousness-based conception of representation, so as to think it in trans-individual terms.

Montag is surely right to stress the importance of Spinoza for Althusser’s theory of ideology, but he tends to underestimate the relevance of the problem of the unconscious – that is, of psychoanalysis. It is not by chance that, when discussing the theory of ideology put forth in the famous ISAs essay, Montag reduces what is ‘really innovative’ in it to the ‘most Spinozist part of a very Spinozist essay’ – that is, the final section, ‘On Ideology’. The emphasis on the Spinozist and materialist point of view that Althusser eventually reaches risks obscuring the main tension of the essay (and the main problem to be found in the ‘Three Notes’): the problem of the articulation of ideology and the unconscious. Montag is aware of this tension, as well as of the question of how to reconcile the ‘central thesis’ of the essay, concerning the interpellation of individuals as subjects, with the thesis of the materiality of ideology. He attempts to circumvent this tension by means of a new (Foucauldian) redefinition of interpellation as ‘the permanent production of a hold over the body’. The fact remains, however, not only that the notion of interpellation originates, as Montag recognizes, within Althusser’s reflection on the theory of discourses, but also that Althusser, for all his Spinozism, situated the problem of ideology in between the space of the materiality of the apparatuses and the space of the unconscious (and did so until the very end, as some notes on the ISAs, dating from the 1980s, which Montag does not discuss, clearly show).

The third part is organized under the title ‘Origin/ End’. This final section does not measure up to the first two in terms of either length or level of detail. The first chapter is an interpretation of the posthumously published text ‘The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter’ (1982); the second is an analysis of another ‘lost object’, an essay written by a still Catholic Althusser in 1947, ‘The International of Decent Feelings’, which Montag presents as an early corrective of the messianic tension that emerges in the ‘late’ Althusser. In the first chapter, Montag argues that the materialism of the late Althusser moves in the direction of a philosophy of nothingness, positing an ontological conception of the ‘void’ as ‘an original abyss from which all comes and to which all must return’. The positing of an origin, argues Montag, performs the role of a guarantee against the possibility that the actual order (capitalism) might not collapse, that a specific ‘conjunction’ of elements forming a structure might in fact not be ‘haunted by a radical instability’ and may, therefore, last indefinitely. For Montag, Althusser here posits a principle of nothingness in order to endow himself with ‘a principle of hope, of anticipation’; he suggests that the concomitant emphasis on the notion of the event should be read in parallel with the Benjaminian conception of a messianism without Messiah. Montag detects, however, another notion of the void, one that stands in contrast with the first: the idea of the void as something that must be produced by philosophy ‘in order to endow itself with existence’. According to Montag, Althusser here does not pursue to its conclusion this definition of philosophy: if philosophy, in order to exist, must evacuate all the philosophical problems and concepts, even the ontological conception of the void must be evacuated.

The decision to devote the last chapter to an essay written by ‘Althusser before Althusser’ is interesting for the effect of chronological inversion that it produces, as Montag returns to a moment of Althusser’s career scarcely known, let alone studied. Montag analyses here the criticism levelled in 1947 by the young Althusser against post-war apocalyptic tendencies, responsible, with their appeal to the unity of mankind against the evil represented by the Cold War superpowers, for preventing the organization of real class struggle in the ‘here and now’. It appears, Montag concludes, that Althusser had already endowed himself with the means to criticize every messianism and every religious conception of time. Beyond the effect of inversion, however, and beyond the interest of the writings analysed in this third section, this final part appears perhaps too reductive. The theme ‘Origin/End’ can hardly be reduced to two single essays written in 1982 and 1947, ignoring what happens in between – for instance, Althusser’s criticism of idealism, his concept of ‘process’ and the important reflection on the notion of commencement (as opposed to origin) as an attempt to think, with Machiavelli, the reality of political practice.

Beyond the specific points on which one might agree or disagree, this is a much-needed book. It extricates Althusser from the ‘gnawing criticism of mice’ and paves the way for a renewed interest in his work, one that takes into account the unpublished materials that emerged after his death – not only to make possible an analysis of the ‘late’ Althusser (the Althusser of the aleatory materialism explicitly elaborated in the 1980s), but also for a reconsideration of the Althusser of the 1960s and 1970s. As to whether Althusser’s philosophy can still produce effects today, in a very different historical conjuncture, Montag appears hesitant. But if it does, it will be thanks in some degree to his research and to the analysis proposed in his book

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