Louis Althusser Research Paper

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Born in Algeria, the troubled and reclusive French philosopher Louis Althusser revolutionized Marxist philosophy with his radical theses on Karl Marx’s oeuvre and influenced several generations of students at the École Normale Supérieure, including Michel Foucault, Étienne Balibar, Jacques Ranciere, and Régis Debray. Many of Althusser’s arguments, often theoretical interventions in French Communist Party (of which he was a member) and international Left debates, were published in socialist journals or articulated in public lectures and seminars (and subsequently compiled as volumes) in keeping with his determination to “intervene as much in politics as in philosophy, alone against the world” (Althusser 1993, p. 173).

Arguing that socialism was scientific and humanism ideological, Althusser challenged Hegelian and humanistic readings of Marx’s work as a coherent whole, by marking an “epistemological rupture” between Marx’s early (pre-1845), humanistic writings and his subsequent “mature,” “scientific” works such as Reading Capital. The problématique (theoretical framework that encapsulates both presence and absence of concepts) of Marx’s mature work was described as historical materialism, a “science of history” that provided a revolutionary conceptualization of social formation and change. This “History Continent” discovered by Marx, was original and unprecedented and “induced” the birth of a new, “theoretically and practically revolutionary philosophy”—dialectical materialism—distinct from historical materialism (1970a, p. 14).

Althusser’s “symptomatic” reading performed the dual function of revealing the “unconscious” of Marx’s texts and illuminating their underlying deep structures, while demonstrating the methodology mobilized by Marx himself in reading classical political economy. Contrary to the prevalent economically deterministic readings of Capital, Althusser identified a wider range of pratique (processes of production or transformation) that constituted a social whole or “structure in dominance” that had no essence or center. Each economic, political, ideological structure “existed in its effects,” and was asymmetrically related but autonomous, the economic determining “in the last instance” which element was to be dominant. This dominance was not fixed but varied according to the “overdetermination” of the contradictions in social formation and their uneven development (1970b, p. 188).

While Althusser was influenced by his teachers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Georges Canguilhem, his indebtedness to psychoanalysis was profound and particularly evident in his expositions on ideology. He distinguished between Ideology (eternal, omni-historical and structural, like Freud’s notion of the unconscious) and ideologies (particular, sociohistorical). Ideology is a “representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their lived conditions” and has a material existence in practices and apparatuses. Of these, Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as religion, schools, and family are significant as they interpellate or “hail” subjects to accept their role within the system of production relations by “misrecognizing” their subjecthood as agency. Thus, an individual is simultaneously subject (of) and subject (to) ideology (1971, pp. 160–170).

Althusser consistently refuted accusations that his omni-historical, structuralist formulations disenabled revolutionary practice by insisting that he was never a structuralist but rather a Spinozist; structuralism was an accidental by-product of his antihumanist, theoreticist deviation via Spinoza’s notion of structural causality. Further, his Marxism could never be structuralism because it affirmed the primacy of class struggle and thus “rests on revolutionary class theoretical positions” (1976, p. 130).

Althusser battled unbearable sadness and mental instability for much of his adult life. Althusser’s murder of his wife, Helene Rytman, with whom he shared an extremely intense emotional and intellectual relationship, and his subsequent efforts to “answer charges” in his memoirs, The Future Lasts Forever (1993), are respectively horrific and poignant examples of the fragile balance between madness and reason upon which he constantly teetered while nevertheless always being aware of the powerful role that violent organizations had played in his life.

Bibliography:

PRIMARY WORKS

  1. Althusser, Louis. 1970a. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1969).
  2. Althusser, Louis. 1970b. Reading Capital. With Étienne Balibar. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.
  3. Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.
  4. Althusser, Louis. 1976. Essays in Self-Criticism. Trans. Grahame Locke. London: New Left Books.
  5. Althusser, Louis. 1993. The Future Lasts Forever. Trans. Richard Veasey. Ed. Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang. New York: New Press.

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