Monday, March 9, 2009
Louis Althusser: Philosophy of the Encounter (1978-87)
"Every encounter is aleatory, not only in its origins (nothing ever guarantees an encounter), but also in its effects. In other words, every encounter might not have taken place, although it did take place; but its possible nonexistence sheds light on the meaning of its aleatory being. And every encounter is aleatory in its effects, in that nothing in the elements of the encounter prefigures, before the actual encounter, the contours and determinations of the being that will emerge from it. . . . This means that no determination of the being which issues from the 'taking-hold' of the encounter is prefigured, even in outline, in the being of the elements that converge in the encounter. Quite the contrary: no determination of these elements can be assigned except by working backwards from the result to its becoming, in its retroaction. . . . That is, instead of thinking contingency as a modality of necessity, or an exception to it, we must think necessity as the becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies." This collection of Althusser's late writings, some composed after he murdered his wife, contains some of Althusser's finest and most original writing, and is arguably more relevant today than his better known earlier work. In one of the letters included at the volume's end, Althusser clarifies his theory of ideology, casting it in a less pessimistic or totalizing image. He argues although there is no "outside" to ideology, individuals are always interpellated by "several ideologies at once," so that "the individual has at his disposal a 'play of manoeuvre' between several positions, between which he can 'develop,' or even, if you insist, 'choose', determine his course although this determination is itself determined, but in the play of the plurality of interpellations." This description of interstitial play remains completely undeveloped, but clearly makes Althusser's theory amenable to a wide range of cultural and performance studies. The unfinished manuscript for Marx in his Limits, written in 1978, is the least original work here, taking as it does one more run through Althusser's intervention in the French interpretation of Marx. Because the work is aimed at criticizing the PCF's abandonment of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Althusser presents his most thorough analysis of the state and a critique of Gramsci's concept of hegemony. There is a slight hint of the later philosophy of the encounter when Althusser argues that the famous identification of the "three sources" of Marxism - German philosophy, English political economy, and French socialism - does little to explain how the "encounter" of these three currents was transformed into "a 'revolutionary critique' of its own constituent elements." The debate over the dictatorship of the proletariat has always been hindered by the notable lack of a substantial theory of the state in Marx's works. Althusser begins by taking up Marx's portrayal of the state as a "machine." Althusser claims that Marx's description of the state as a machine was not a casual metaphor but intended in the full nineteenth century sense of the term (i.e., the steam engine). The state is a "power machine" that "serves to transform class Force or Violence into Power, and to transform this Power into right, laws, and norms." The state conceals class conflict and the dominant class's excess of force through mystification. If the proletariat takes control of the state without changing the "body" of the state, the state as a "power machine" will continue to transform the dominant class's Force into Power and law and work against the proletariat's revolutionary goals. Althusser's attack on Gramsci stems from this materialist conception of the state as a machine. Althusser accuses Gramsci's use of hegemony of idealism, in which the term hegemony collapses different layers of class struggle, ideology, and state apparatuses into nothing more than "culture" (this seems true for the term's deployment in literary studies). This is to elide "the terribly material nature of production and exploitation . . . and the terribly material nature of the constraints and practices of the law," and therefore to misdirect criticism away from how the state creates power in ways that cannot be reduced to hegemony. The major work in this collection is The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter, composed after 1982. The piece clearly resonates with Badiou's theory of the event and Meillassoux's idea of absolute contingency. Althusser posits "the existence of an almost completely unknown materialist tradition in the history of philosophy," which he terms "a materialism of the encounter, and therefore of the aleatory and of contingency." Althusser traces this materialist tradition through Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and finally to Marx. To dig up this tradition, Althusser begins with Epicurus' theory that before there was a world there was "an infinity of atoms . . . falling parallel to each other in the void." An infinitesimal "swerve" caused the atoms to collide, and this encounter gave birth to the world. In this materialist philosophy, there is no reason or origin that can explain the world and there is no teleology as well, only the contingency of the encounter. As Althusser had said long before, history is therefore a process without subject or end (though he perhaps goes further here, not even allowing class conflict to be determinant in the last instance). The "form of beings" is induced by the encounter, so that there is a "primacy of the structure over its elements" (this may resemble structuralism, but it is quite different, since it is temporally asymmetric). Through the encounter, there is a "becoming-necessary of the encounter of contingencies," but this necessity can only be positied after the fact. As an example, Althusser expands his earlier attacks on Hegelian Marxism. Althusser claims that capitalism did not have to occur, but was produced by the contingent encounter of the "owners of money" and "the proletariat stripped of everything but his labour-power." These elements may have encountered each other numerous times before they "took hold" and gave birth to our capitalist world. Once this had happened, history developed in an aleatory way that would have been unforeseeable before the encounter. Eventually stable relationships and laws could appear to give capitalism the image of necessity, though it remains haunted by a "radical instability" due to the fact that its laws might change at any time, that there is always the "openness of the world towards the event" (Badiou anyone?).