Editors' Introduction

Volume 31  Issue 3  July 2019

Louis Althusser is a most inspiring if not an inaugural name to which the identity of Rethinking Marxism is intimately bound. The reading of Marx that Althusser and his students and collaborators produced in Reading “Capital” and For Marx and the conceptual structure they developed in those pages along with the concepts they borrowed, forged, and breathed new life into—such as “overdetermination,” “absent cause,” “theoretical practice,” “knowledge effect,” “process without a subject,” and “symptomatic reading”—have profoundly influenced the intellectual history of this journal and the Association for Economic and Social Analysis of which it is a part. Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff took their departure from this reading, in particular producing and coining their own adaptation of “class as a process,” and with their students and collaborators over the span of now more than three decades have developed a veritable brand of nondeterministic Marxian theory of causality, subjectivity, and the methodology of class analysis.

Beyond this pervasive and formative influence, however, RM has also actively fostered and supported the circulation and discussion of various contemporary problematics that branch out from Althusser’s texts. This is readily evident in the considerable attention and labor that the journal has devoted, from its inception, to new interpretations of Althusser’s ideas and writings as well as to translations of his texts. The former have come in the various compositions of editorial introductions, essays, memorials, special issues, and symposia—from two extended editors’ introductions (in vol. 1, no. 1, and vol. 10, no. 1) to the tribute of Althusser’s person and work that was published right after his death in October 1990 (vol. 4, no. 1); and from the 1998 special issue “Rereading Althusser,” which highlights the unique aspects of his oeuvre that keep it both compelling and, in an originative manner, incomplete (vol. 10, no. 3), to the more recent 2017 symposium on “Althusser between Past and Future” (vol. 29, no. 2), which draws out the implications of his writings for rethinking revolutionary, socialist and leftist party politics in the present, putting to question these politics’ unresolved differences from, and relations to the interpellations of the state.

The current special issue, “The Political Encounter with Louis Althusser,” coedited by Banu Bargu and Robyn Marasco, is yet another timely encounter with the work of Althusser. It presents a finely attuned set of essays, many of which were first presented at the 2015 “Reading Althusser” graduate student and faculty symposium that took place at the New School in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Reading “Capital” and For Marx. With some of the initial contributions unable to make it to the final arrangement and a number of new contributions joining along the way (as happens in any collaborative endeavor), the issue has aimed to bring together scholars of different generations and intellectual persuasions, to foreground the question of the political, to take a fresh look at some of the key concepts that are under discussion (such as “void,” “encounter,” “interpellation,” “reading,” and “subject-effect”), and to continue the work of developing new concepts (such as “political interpellation” and “biopolitical state apparatus”) in order to bring into relief new symptomatic tensions and render intelligible the complex formation of the continuities and ruptures in Althusser’s unfinished work.

Among the ideas that are tackled for some length in the issue, it is perhaps “encounter” that comes to the fore as quilting the issue together. As the authors offer their particular interpretations of Althusser’s statements and texts, at the same time they reevaluate his encounters, and stage new ones with the texts of Machiavelli, Gramsci, Hegel, Freud, Lacan, and Foucault, to list the most pronounced. In this particular use, what we understand from “encounter” is a contingent meeting wherein each discourse is moved to respond and reconfigure its stand in relation to the “elusive” intrusion of the other, provoked as it is to address and articulate an internal difficulty, and as a consequence each discourse is transformed in the process one way or another. What the essays try to instigate is thus not a convergence of positions—neither among themselves nor necessarily with Althusser. On the contrary, the collaborative exercise seems to aim at going beyond an imaginary gathering of positions and instead builds and extends “agonistic” relations and ideas from their differences while keeping and reconstructing a certain shared field (in Banu Bargu’s reading, a rendering of “disjunctive synthesis”). And yet each collaborator also seems to arrive at a renewed and differentiated position by way of paying debts (in Robyn Marasco’s reading, taking responsibility for one’s “guilty reading”). This entails taking stock of what has come up from the other side in the encounter and has taken hold of one’s position and effected a displacement. Such a publicly open and personal accounting, acknowledging explicit obligations as much as revealing unconscious slips, was certainly true for Althusser. In fact, his work can be defined as having been composed of the unceasing conversations that he staged, through which he tried to come to grips with his own positions and those of others. But this realization also informs the reading of the authors of this special issue as they make sense of and signify their own present encounter with Althusser’s past and lasting textual encounters.

The special issue starts with G. M. Goshgarian’s tour de force that sets forth from a symptomatic reading of “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter.” Many locate Althusser’s theory of the encounter in this essay, and many interpret it as an idealist rendition of the ontology of nothingness, most emblematically in reference to the idea of the void. Situating this essay—in fact, “the soul of one sentence”—in the context of a comprehensive and maze-like examination of the “work Althusser produced before and after it”—Goshgarian tracks down and demonstrates the materialist premises and effects of the idea of the void. While this idea encircles a dislocation of meanings and gains a density of associations in the multifold texts that Goshgarian masterfully brings to light under the influence of Althusser’s many encounters and interventions, which the essay intricately details, two texts stand out among them. On the one hand, the concept of the void is put into relief in the 1962 text “‘The Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht,” which Goshgarian describes as “the master link between Althusser’s early and late work.” On the other hand, Althusser’s 1973 “Book on Imperialism” is equally important, upholding Althusser’s conceptualization of the void as inextricably linked with the question of the revolutionary transformation to communism (and with the articulation of modes-of-production debates over socialist transition at the imperialist stage). The void enables one to locate and think the condition in which transformation comes from a “temporal nonrelation,” which is in turn related with thinking the conditions for the nonexistence of history (i.e., communism) with/within those for existing history (i.e., capitalism), as the former vacillates between the virtual and the future anterior, on one hand, and the aborted, failed, or repressed on the other.

Vittorio Morfino’s essay carries on the theoretical threads of this special issue with the concepts of reading and the encounter, supplementing them with the important and unsettled question on the relation between the subject-effect of ideology and the psychoanalytical problematic of the unconscious and libido. Starting from Althusser’s point of departure in the famous “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISA) essay, where he puts forward a theory of ideology in general in relation to a parallel he establishes between the atemporal structure of the unconscious and that of ideology, Morfino proposes to read “backward” Althusser’s theory of ideology. Morfino’s thesis is that it was not the ISA essay, albeit it contained gestures, but the 1966 text “Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses” in which Althusser crossed a certain threshold and went beyond contending the structural similarities between the theories of ideology and the unconscious—regarding their shared structure of nonlinear time, of the scientific discourse of decentering, and of conflictual scientific practice—to actually embark on a problematic of their articulation that steers firmly away from fusing Marxism and psychoanalysis in a generalized theory of repression. The implications are significant. In Althusser’s “Three Notes,” Morfino finds “the first formulations of the sets of concepts” that would inform the theory of aleatory materialism and the beginnings of an analysis of “a complex texture of encounters and relations” that might unpack the singularity of subjectification. It is possible to read Morfino’s text as implying the development of a particular theorization of subject-effect that conjoins two sides of interpellation—namely, the external-internal (ideology) and the internal-external (unconscious)—and adds the possibility of a reciprocal change of their places, as if each were comprising one side of a Möbius strip.

In her essay, Banu Bargu approaches the scene of interpellation from another angle, from a symptomatic reading of an ambiguity that characterizes Althusser’s famous binary distinction of Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses and traces the source of this ambiguity to his undertheorization of the police. Bargu’s perspicacious reading zooms in on the interpellative power of “police hailing” in Althusser’s street theater, and especially on this hailing’s dual nature of being both ideological and repressive. While this dual nature allows for acknowledging the violent aspect of every interpellation, it is unable to explain disobedience (and it thus inadvertently brings Althusser’s position, according to Bargu, to converge with that of the “inner cop” slogan of ’68 that he so vehemently opposed). More importantly, it conceals and renders inexplicable the operation of differential subjectivation: that is, the power of the police to allocate social groups of individuals for differential treatment in state apparatuses, and according to the “requisites of capitalist biosovereignty.” What activates Bargu’s new reading into the silence—or excessive announcement—of the police in Althusser’s text is the present conjuncture of “intensified police power.” Equally important is the encounter she stages between Althusser’s theory of ideology and Foucault’s genealogy of the police as an assemblage of governmental and disciplinary power. In fact, from this encounter Bargu produces a new concept, “biopolitical state apparatus,” with which she aims at extending the horizon for analyzing police power and subjection by way of synthesizing the disjuncture of the respective projects of Althusser and Foucault.

An artist/activist’s journey, invoking the situationist practice of dérive, meets the materialism of the encounter in Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner’s captivating chronicle, “Does 68 Minus 18 Equal 50?” In this first part of the chronicle, Larsen and Millner provide a selective archival record of the journey they made, crossing the borders of seventeen U.S. states and six European nation-states, fifty years after the “long global ’68,” while letting themselves be drawn by the “resonances of the events” as they move through the landscape and stage temporal and spatial encounters through interventionist film screenings. The resulting multitextual, multilayered art essay combines images from Larsen and Millner’s Forced Mobility with those of the front pages of the militant newspaper ACTION, from their fortunate collection that runs between May and June ’68 (one of whose headlines carries the polemical slogan “Get Rid of the Cop in Your Head!” referred to in Bargu’s essay). The road diary is also a time tunnel: “Everybody’s ’68 began at a different moment.” This statement, which makes history unreservedly accessible and singular, alludes to the enigmatic title of the essay and opens the rupture of ’68 to the overdetermination of various other latent events and emplacements that are stirred up by the road trip: popular insurgencies, personal rebellions, worker uprisings, civil war confrontations, community art interventions, past and current “border wars.” The artwork excavates the traces of U.S. social formation from within the debris of lived space and demonstrates this formation’s ties to the unyielding history of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. At the same time, it inscribes the unfinished event of ’68 within the acute crisis of the refugee and migrant situation in Europe.

Next, Robyn Marasco stages an encounter between Althusser and Gramsci and brings to bear a third thinker, Machiavelli, as their shared attraction. Marasco situates the encounter in relation to a difference that she elucidates between Althusser’s philosophical reading (the question of “how knowledge produces its theoretical objects”) and Gramsci’s political reading (the question of how knowledge is produced through historical praxis). The objective is not to delink these two readings. On the contrary, before jumping into the evidence of how each reading informs the other, Marasco emphasizes that the point of view (which is at the same time the point of obfuscation and the responsibility taken for a guilty reading) radically changes whether one privileges the philosophical or the political. Marasco’s entry point is the latter. In producing an elaborate argument for this difference, Marasco goes through Althusser’s acknowledged and especially unacknowledged debts to Gramsci while not sparing in this discussion the theoretical effects of their shared blindness on gendered reproduction. Debts to Gramsci are constitutively present, especially in formulations in which Althusser critically distances his position from Gramsci’s while fleshing out his own theories of ideology (“as ‘corrective’ to hegemony”), state apparatuses (building on Gramsci’s expansive state), the separateness of the state, and the aleatory materialism of the conjuncture. But above all, for Marasco it is Gramsci’s reading of Machiavelli that orients us as readers in meting out the stakes of the difference between the two readings. This is because the latter situates the “call of the conjuncture” squarely within the overdetermined historical conditions of the political and thereby averts the looming risk of treating Althusser’s theory of the encounter as a metaphysical problem of the event.

This question of how Gramsci and Althusser read Machiavelli becomes a key concern again in Stefano Pippa’s essay, which nevertheless takes a different turn from Marasco’s. While a new idea of thinking—what Pippa describes as “thinking from the view of politics”—is what both authors describe in various degrees, Marasco lodges this thinking within the historical (over)determinations of politics, whereas Pippa, in a gesture that shares elements with Gosghgarian’s treatment of the void, subtracts from the agency of historicity a locus of the void in order to approach it. The void, as the site of the unmasterable factor that produces the political act, is the “empty place” of the controversial matter of the subject in the Althusserian problematic. Pippa also offers a new concept, “political interpellation,” which he distinguishes from “ideological interpellation,” bringing it forth as he works through Althusser’s longtime revision of his readings of Machiavelli. Pippa astutely discerns a symptomatic tension and possibility in Althusser’s engagement with the void in his readings of Machiavelli, and this leads to the emergence of the concept twice: first, in the “external” objective conjuncture, as the “necessity of contingency,” or as the gap between the “propitious conjuncture” (fortuna) and “a virtuoso individual” (virtue); and second, at the “subjective” level, “as an interpellative void,” a political calling that points to the distance between the people and the Prince. This distance, Pippa argues, points to the necessary “process of subjectivation” (the transformation from an ideological to a political subject). Yet what remains unaddressed in Althusser’s discourse, Pippa offers for consideration, is the constitutive participation of the subjective level in bringing about the objective conjuncture.

In this issue’s final contribution, Erdinç Erdem advances another original thesis. In opening for discussion Althusser’s three moments of encountering Hegel, he brings out Hegel’s profound influence in shaping Althusser’s conceptions of “philosophy as a battleground” and “history as a process without a subject” but does so without binding his “agonistic” relationship to Hegel to any ultimate or overarching conclusion. Erdem explains that, while each time the encounter takes a new design, it also delineates an unflagging commitment on Althusser’s part to demarcate a materialist position within the “battlefield” of philosophy, a position that he “performatively” constructs along with his changing relation to Hegel. The first encounter, mainly taking place in Althusser’s master’s thesis and early writings, corresponds to the moment of his reading Hegel against bourgeois forms of Hegelianism; here, for Erdem, Althusser coordinated a political terrain in which he could then intervene against the interpretations of French Hegelians, or the Hegelianisms of postwar France. In the second, “indirect” encounter of the 1960s and ‘70s, Althusser read Hegel in a scathingly critical manner, to side with Marx against the Hegelian Marxists. Erdem persuasively argues, however, that already Althusser’s own conception of history (and his 1968 reading of “Marx’s relation to Hegel”) was taking shape in a contradictory opposition to Hegel, at once doing away with Hegel’s expressive totality yet borrowing from him the idea of process. Finally, in the third moment, Erdem seems to suggest that Hegel’s own encounter with Machiavelli touched Althusser in such a way that it exerted force in his development of the theory of aleatory materialism.

What touched Althusser, we could infer from his own words, was “a certain manner of thinking, arguing and talking politics,” a philosophical way of formulating the political problem that at the same time “defines a historical task.” For Erdem what links these three domains of philosophy, politics, and history in Althusser is the “constant of class struggle.” It is this imaginative and rigorous understanding of class struggle that we owe to Althusser.

—The Editors



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