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persistence of the subject Arrow vol 4 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 4 number 2, 2005



Althusser and the Persistence of the Subject: Caroline Williams
speaks with David McInerney


Caroline Williams is the author of a forthcoming book on Spinoza and Althusser. David McInerney's questions in the following dialogue are the result of his reading Caroline's earlier book Contemporary French Philosophy (2001), which has recently been issued in a second, expanded edition (2005).   Caroline's responses not only provide a sense of the positions worked out in her published and forthcoming books but also expand upon her discussion of Althusser and Lacan.

1.  David McInerney: Your book Contemporary French Philosophy could be considered, at a first glance, to be just another overview of post-structuralism, with the obligatory chapters on Descartes, phenomenology, structuralism, and Marxism functioning merely as a preface to such an overview.   Reading the book, however, one finds that it is a strongly-argued and rather more demanding philosophical intervention that follows a specific thread - that of the problem of the persistence of the subject within the very writings that have rendered the subject most problematic - and brings to the fore two thinkers whose works have, until recently (at least within Anglophone literature), been the subject of much denunciation but little in the way of positive engagement, namely Spinoza and Althusser.   With respect to the question of the relation between 'structuralism' and Althusser's writings, you seem to take a somewhat different approach to that of Warren Montag, who in his account of Althusser's self-criticism after 1965 suggests that, in his later works, the concept of structure loses any 'structuralist' connotation of an underlying structure and instead entails a structure that, understood strictly as the 'limit' of a dispersion of material effects draws mainly on the thesis of the materiality of ideology (from Althusser's ISAs paper and his readings of Spinoza and Machiavelli), whereas you argue much more in terms of a deconstruction of the relation of cause and effect, which seems to me to draw specifically on both early texts such as the chapter on overdetermination and contradiction in For Marx and the later texts on aleatory materialism, such as Machiavelli and Us to argue that the immanence of cause and effect to one another entails that "the subject persists in the questions posed regarding its existence and possibility" (Williams 2001: 196).   Given all of this, I am wondering, how do you understand the shifts in Althusser's writing over time, and the changes in how Althusser has been read, from structural Marxist to aleatory materialist?

Caroline Williams: Yes, the objective of the book was to make a philosophical intervention in a debate about the status and function of the subject in theoretical discourse. I was of the view that discussions around the theme of the 'death of the subject', which was being bandied around in so many texts on 'postmodernism', had largely simplified and reduced the issues at stake in such a debate. These texts took, if you like, Althusser's political and philosophical plea for theoretical anti-humanism as a call to dissolve or abandon the subject rather than an effort to understand its complex conditions of possibility. For Foucault and Derrida, in particular, it was more a question of considering the historical, political and philosophical events that gave birth to the notion of the modern subject - that empirico-transcendental doublet viewed by Foucault to mark the theoretical limit of the human sciences. The series of readings of figures like Althusser (against Lukacs), Lacan, Derrida and Foucault enabled me to observe a paradox at the heart of subjectivity which pulled each thinker into its mire: whilst, on the one hand, the subject is apparently transcended, repositioned, undermined or reconstituted by structure, ideology, power, language, the problematique of the subject (itself quite different in each of these thinkers considered) still persists in all the questions posed about its existence. We find this, to varying degrees, in many structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers, and my book took only a few selected figures: those I thought had most influence within contemporary theory.

My work on Althusser should be viewed in this context, although it was Althusser, in particular, who helped shape the questions posed in the book. I first read Spinoza after studying Reading Capital as I was fascinated by the references to this early modern thinker. Whilst I did not adequately read Spinoza against Hegel in the first chapter of my book (by taking on board Macherey's important interpretation), I nonetheless insisted upon Spinoza's importance, both as a prelude to certain Nietzschean themes in Foucault's work, and to Althusser's reframing of a Marxist science. I further emphasised Spinoza's presence in Althusser's conception of ideology as an imaginary structure, recognising also his debt to Lacan. But as you point out, it is Spinoza's 'deconstruction' of the dominant relation between cause and effect, that is, his distinction between a transitive and an immanent cause that is especially significant. Thus for Spinoza, Substance (God, or Nature) is not strictly prior to what is created, and can no longer be designated as a transitive cause distinct from its effects. Instead we must understand Spinoza's use of the term 'immanent cause' as indicating a kind of indwelling cause, a perpetual generation and production of life that cannot be viewed simply as an effect of God's actions or motives. It was this strategic conception of the immanent causality of Substance (that is, God sive Nature) that would enrich Althusser's own understanding of society as a structural totality where each level or instance of the social whole and its concrete practices may affect and influence the other levels.

We can certainly identify arguments to support this formulation in Althusser's discussion of overdetermination in 'Contradiction and Overdetermination', where this structural complexity is clearly formulated. There he writes that contradiction is '...inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it is radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates' (p.101). In many ways, Althusser recognises that the logic of overdetermination is irreducible to a determining structure, pure origin or uniform (transitive) causality since it indicates the complex, uneven, contingent structuration of the social totality. It is in this sense that Althusser is not a 'structuralist' as such. I don't think my position here is opposed in any way to that of Warren Montag, who has also argued in various places that the notion of structure is very much under erasure - even within Reading Capital\. I have, however, tended to pay greater attention to Althusser and Spinoza's formulations of imaginary and imagination in relation to ideology, since my concern has been with the problematic of the subject, as well as the role of Spinoza's theory of knowledge in Althusser's epistemology.

With regard to this latter point, I argued that Althusser's early efforts to develop an epistemology to account for the transition from ideology to science (the move G eneralities I (brute reality, real objects) to Generalities III (the theoretical field of science that develops objects-in-thought) by way of Generalities II (the problematique , the cluster of concepts that must be worked upon and transformed) corresponded to a certain (arguably one-sided) reading of Spinoza's three forms of knowledge (see chapter 2 of my book). Ultimately, Althusser's reading failed to do justice to the sedimentations and residues that bring about the merging of these related forms of knowledge. Deleuze, for example, has investigated this question in relation to common notions, which are a product of knowledge gleaned through social relationships where body and mind acquire the greatest power and potentia . For Althusser, however, the problem is posed very much in terms of the possible break between science and ideology (knowledge of the first kind). It becomes clear, however, even within Reading Capital that the fluidity of the boundaries between the two was possible, and that science and ideology could become locked into a dualism wholly internal to ideology. In this way, it became difficult to think of a non-ideological, uncontaminated scientific notion of ideology. When one turns to consider Althusser's later writings, his concern is much more with singularities than with generalities of an epistemological form, and the theoretical questions about a scientific knowledge that so many associate with Althusserian Marxism are put to one side.

In Contemporary French Philosophy I argued that Althusser's later writings offer some interesting new reflections on the problem of the subject that may point toward an advancement of some of his earlier incomplete formulations. In his essay on 'Ideology', for example, Althusser's anti-humanist construction of the subject stopped short of exactly how material practices might constitute particular forms of subjectivity and bodily relation (a theme that would be central to Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish). In my view, Althusser's analysis here lacked a developed account of the subject as a complex production of power and ideology that is never fully constituted and hence always disruptive of theories that retrospectively view it as such.

As you point out in your question, I think there is a degree of continuity between Althusser's so-called 'structuralism' (a term we should use with the utmost care) and his later formulations of aleatory materialism, discussed, for example, in Sur la Philosophie and Machiavelli and Us . Aleatory materialism, which, for Althusser, had its roots in Democritus and Epicurus, (and later Marx and Machiavelli), must be contrasted with all notions of mechanical materialism. The former has no ontological fixity, no sense of origin, essence or uniform causality, and cannot be subordinated to any philosophical model or method. Thus Althusser will hereon give significant weight to what he calls 'the spectre of the encounter' where a radical nominalism remains attentive to singular cases and contingencies rather than invariant laws. It is also in his later writings, I would argue, that one may find Althusser broaching once again the question of the subject.

It is important to emphasise that Althusser's theoretical anti-humanism was not simply a displacement of the subject but a self-conscious reframing of its conditions of possibility. Althusser was well aware of the kind of criticisms posed regarding structuralism as a form of Kantianism without the transcendental subject. Endowing some other order or system of rules, like structure, with intentionality could not simply displace humanist philosophy and its anthropological presuppositions. The rejection of humanism, then, was a strategic rejection of a particular model of subjectivity. In its place, Althusser was concerned with how the subject was constituted and how forms of individuality were composed and preserved over time.

This concern becomes most clear in Althusser's autobiographical reflections on Spinoza and Machiavelli. In it he points out that Spinoza's digressions on superstition and the imagination were to reveal for him not only 'the matrix of every possible theory of ideology' but also the resources to think 'the materiality of its very existence.' Here he wrote of Spinoza's concept of imagination as 'the immediate Lebenswelt ', and the imagination as a kind of apparatus that reverses all causes into ends. He also noted Spinoza's crucial distinctions within knowledge, from a lived, imaginary and inadequate knowledge to an adequate knowledge as '...the world of the concept of this imaginary inadequation' or, in other words, as a knowledge of the causes that determine us to act in a particular way. Spinoza's investigation of the horizon of imagination took many different forms in his works, perhaps the most significant of which was the connection between the imagination, the affects and knowledge, made particularly in Part IV of the Ethics. Althusser also recognised in his final writing - although without elaborating upon this vision, or linking it to a Marxist problematic, to acquire a knowledge of the true (and Spinoza, like Nietzsche, speaks nowhere of 'Truth'), thought must pass through the body, and through the composite of the social body. Thus to quote Althusser at his most Spinozist: '' That one can liberate and recompose one's own body, formerly fragmented and dead in the servitude of an imaginary and, therefore, slavelike subjectivity, and take from this the means to think liberation freely and strongly, therefore, to think properly with one's own body, in one's own body, by one's own body, better: that to live within the thought of the conatus of one's own body was quite simply to think within the freedom and the power of thought. ' This reflection no doubt lacked a political framework in Althusser's later writings, but we do find him considering, through a Spinozist lens, the idea of the liberation and recomposition of the subject beyond the servitude of the imaginary.

2. DM: Jacques Lacan has a prominent, though seemingly relatively minor, place within your book.   You refer, in relation to Althusser, specifically to the interventions of the Slovenian Lacanians Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Zizek, who have put forward a 'neo-Hegelian' reading of Lacan that strongly favours Lacan's writings on the 1970s, and which make constant reference to the Lacanian triptych Symbolic-Imaginary-Real.   It seems to me, from what I know of Althusser's self-criticism from 1966 onwards, that his relations to the Lacan were strongest in the period 1963-1965 - Jacques-Alain Miller, after all, started as a student of Althusser's and was a prominent part of Althusser's seminar on structuralism at that time, along with Jacques Rancière, Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, Etienne Balibar, Alain Badiou and others - but his work distanced itself from that of Lacan from 1966 onwards, until it reaches the point when, in 1976, Althusser is openly criticising Lacan's increasing 'formalism' (the problem that, specifically, Althusser identified in his own work of the period 1963-65) as 'a flight forward into theory'.   In this context I see Althusser's use of the categories 'imaginary' and 'real' - specifically excluding the 'symbolic' - as being related not only to his growing Spinozism but also as related to his rejection of Lacan and structuralism in his interventions against his own formalism from 1966 onwards.   Much of the work I have read in cultural studies on Althusser and ideology proceeds as if Althusser's self-criticism after 1966 has no bearing on his attitude towards Lacan, and assumes that the position of Althusser in 'Freud and Lacan' (1964) can be read into Althusser's post-1965 writings on ideology. To my mind, the neo-Hegelian psychoanalysis of Zizek, Dolar and their colleagues is metaphysical, and imposes an order on the text that is entirely foreign to it.   How do you understand the relationship between Althusser and Lacan, and the relation of Lacan to structuralism?   What is the place of Lacan within your argument, and what pertinence might the shifts in Lacan's work - and, indeed, the shifts in Althusser's attitude towards Lacan - have to your thesis of the persistence of the subject?

CW: I think Lacan had a huge influence upon the Anglo-American reception of structuralism, particularly through his adoption and development of structural linguistics, and his conception of the subject as signifier. His more specific influence upon Marxism, charted initially by Coward and Ellis in their Language and Materialism was also significant, sending some radical strands of critical thought (from Castoriadis to Butler, as well as Zizek and the Slovenian school, who each reading the Lacanian problematic in conjunction with a particular philosophical framework, namely Aristotle or Hegel) to explore the complex ties between identification and the unconscious. Althusser's work on ideology and pyschoanalysis must also be considered prominent here, as must his changing position on the use-value of Lacanian theory to Marxism.

The 1970 essay 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses', where this Lacanian 'influence' crystallised, has been a seminal influence on cultural, film and feminist studies. Here, the concept of the imaginary seems to be invested with allusions to both Spinoza and Lacan. From the former, Althusser appears to take the view of the imagination as a source of deception and illusion (but not we might add the more positive sense attributed to it by, amongst others, Antonio Negri), and from Lacan the view of the imaginary as a necessary form of misrecognition that deceives subjects about their material position in society. However, I am presently rethinking the genealogy of concepts informing Althusser's notion of the imaginary (this article will be forthcoming!), which in addition clearly owes something to his 1967 essay 'On Feuerbach'. I regret that this did not come to my attention when completing Contemporary French Philosophy.   Here, Althusser argues that it is Feuerbach who sets forth the speculary structure informing all ideology, particularly its anthropological foundation. Feuerbach's critique of religion (and here I paraphrase Althusser) provides the category of the mirror that defines the relation, internal to ideology, between two categories constitutive of all ideology: subject and object. Furthermore, this specular structure reveals the reciprocity, or reduplication, at the heart of all ideology. Althusser's distinction between 'Subject' and 'subject', as well as the logic of interpellation, developed in the ISA essay are clearly derived from his analysis of the Feuerbachian critique of religion. Thus Althusser writes, 'There is a subject only on condition that the subject is reduplicated by a subject who then becomes the Subject of the subject [God] who thereupon becomes the object of this subject.' Thus the production of the object of ideology is founded upon an anthropological foundation wholly internal to the structure of ideology, whereas what Althusser will associate with the 'real' is something wholly other to ideology. I will leave the development of this argument and its importance to Althusserian (and Spinozist) ideas of the imaginary for another occasion. But I do think it is important to observe that a rather more critical engagement dialogue was taking place vis-à-vis Lacan than many of Althusser's commentators were to assume.   If Althusser utilises concepts like the real and the imaginary, associated primarily with Lacan's writings, he does so only by reworking them according to his own theoretical concerns, and with the aid of Spinoza and Lacan.

Althusser's relation to Lacan and Lacanianism is a complex matter. Althusser clearly recognised a certain affinity between Lacan's own project to read Freud and his own symptomatic reading of Marx, as well as the former's own intellectual marginalization and his own. His published correspondence with Lacan (1963-1966) is certainly indicative of this. Althusser even offered a seminar on Lacan in 1963-4 and was actively involved in Lacan's arrival at the Ecole Normale. He was deeply interested in the latter's work at this time. By 1976, as you note, in Dr Freud's Discovery', as well as in a critical speech to the conference that voted to disband the Lacanian school, Althusser's distance from Lacan is strongly marked. This related primarily to the growing formalization of psychoanalysis (namely, Lacan's preoccupation in his final phase of writings with topography and set theory as a way to explore the 'science of the real'), as well as, I think, the philosophical resources upon which Lacan drew. One wonders what Althusser would have made of Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe's 1973 intervention Le Titre de la lettre. Given Althusser also wrote a second essay 'On Marx and Freud' in place of the first (which was later published without his consent) it is difficult to gauge the extent of Althusser's departure from Lacanian categories and the role they play in the 1970 essay. I think this is topic requiring a close reading of all the published pieces around this period. At the very least, as I have alluded to above, I think one has to consider the Spinozist and Feuerbachian readings that Althusser made at this time.

My own chapter on Lacan was not able to develop this kind of reading. The book was, in the first instance, a philosophical engagement (which is always a political intervention: this much I have learnt from Althusser). Whilst Lacan spoke of his own recourse to philosophical ideas to be of propaedeutic value only, his project was, from the very beginning, deeply immersed in philosophical questions, particular regarding the constitution of the subject and the role of language. His readings of Hegel and Heidegger, his efforts to subvert the Cartesian cogito, were each designed as interventions in the philosophical rather than the psychoanalytic field. I would tend to agree with your view that Zizek et al have imposed a certain order on the text in emphasising its neo-Hegelian character, although when I was writing the book (which was initially my doctorate) I found very little by way of developed interventions with the Lacanian-Althusserian field other than the fairly predictable critiques. I think Zizek's early comment, in The Sublime Object of Ideology , regarding the 'theoretical amnesia' that haunts the eclipse of the Althusserian school was (and is) a significant one - and in spite of the 'resurgence' of interest around a more nuanced Althusserian philosophy (certainly markedly different from the Althusser of the 1970's and 80's).  

Interview completed: 26 October 2005


Caroline Williams is Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary University of London.   Caroline is the author of Contemporary French Philosophy: Modernity and the Persistence of the Subject (2001, 2005) and a forthcoming book on Althusser and Spinoza, Spinoza and Political Critique: Thinking the Political in the Wake of Althusser (2007).

David McInerney is Tutor in Education at the University of Adelaide. He has published an essay on Benedict Anderson's 'print-capitalism' thesis (in Masses, Classes and the Public Sphere, ed. Mike Hill and Warren Montag) and is currently writing several essays and a book proposal on James Mill's philosophical practice in The History of British India. He is the editor of this special borderlands issue.

© borderlands ejournal 2005



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