Monday, March 30, 2009
“[N]eo-liberal governmental intervention is no less dense, frequent, active, and continuous than in any other system. But what is important is to see what the point of application of these governmental interventions is now. Since this is a liberal regime, it is understood that government must not intervene on effects of the market. Nor must neo-liberalism, or neo-liberal government, correct the destructive effects of the market on society. . . . Government must not form a counterpoint or a screen, as it were, between society and economic processes. It has to intervene on society as such, in its fabric and depth.” Foucault's 1979 lectures at the College de France promise to investigate the "birth of biopolitics," "the attempt, starting from the eighteenth century, to rationalize the problems posed to governmental practice by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a population: health, hygiene, birthrate, life expectancy, race.” But Foucault decides that he first needs to consider the "political rationality" within which biopolitics appeared: liberalism. His lectures never reach their destination of biopolitics, but they do present a theoretically acute account of liberalism and neoliberalism. These lectures are the closest Foucault ever got to discussing the present and they are his most topical work, especially given neoliberalism's role in the current economic crisis. Foucault begins by discussing the Raison d’Etat, a governmental rationality that emerged in the 16th century that saw the state as an end itself. Raison d’Etat produced an immense extension of state power, often resulting in a police state or despotism, and that power was only limited by the external opposition of rights (that is to say, Raison d’Etat did not limit its power itself). When liberalism first appears (Foucault does not explain its cause but tries to make its emergence "intelligible"), a new governmental rationality begins to take hold, generating a state that continuously regulates and sets limits for itself. Frugality of government becomes the ideal. With liberalism, the market becomes a "principle of veridiction." That is, the market comes to “constitute a standard of truth which enables us to discern which governmental practices are correct and which are erroneous.” The legitimacy of the state's expansion no longer comes from the state itself, but from the market. Throughout the book, Foucault does not take a stance on liberalism, but he does warn that we should not associate liberalism with a beneficial increase in freedom. He argues “we should not think of freedom as a universal which is gradually realized over time, or which undergoes quantitative variations, greater or less drastic reductions, or more or less important periods of eclipse. . . . Freedom is never anything other – but this is already a great deal – than an actual relation between governors and governed, a relation in which the measure of the ‘too little’ existing freedom is given by the ‘even more’ freedom demanded." So with liberalism, freedom isn't liberated from the shackles of the police state. Rather, with liberalism, “Freedom is something which is constantly produced.” Yet the production of freedom must be balanced by the production of security: in liberalism there is a continuous play of freedom and security. Foucault claims, "Economic freedom, liberalism in the sense I have just been talking about, and disciplinary techniques are completely bound up with each other." Having discussed historical liberalism, Foucault jumps forward to recent German neoliberalism (known as ordoliberalism, which I will use here to distinguish it from American neoliberalism). The ordoliberals used the market to legitimize the new (postwar) German state, which history (i.e. Nazism) had discredited. Postwar Germany was truly an "economic state" because it was the growth and success of the market that legitimized the state (it was a "good" government because it allowed the market to work). The ordoliberals of course were adamantly opposed to Keynesian economics. They tried to identify an anti-liberal economic invariant, a governmental rationality characterized by a tendency towards unlimited growth. This invariant covered the Nazis, the Soviet Union, and the American New Deal (and potentially any large or bureaucratized government). In this section, Foucault takes a rare critical stance and unleashes a devastating attack on this neoliberal argument. He shows how this anti-liberal invariant destroys specificity, so that social security programs become equivalent to concentration camps. The invariant also works through "general disqualification by the worst," in which the weakest sign of the invariant becomes proof of the existence of its worst form: every minor act of state, even a parking ticket, becomes proof of total fascism, or at least the state's movement in that direction. The German ordoliberals were opposed to the state directly intervening in the market, but they believed the state still had an important role to play in the economy. They argued that competition in the market has an impeccable and ideal formal structure, but that the existence of competition is historically tenuous. Although the state should not interfere in the market, it should create the conditions for that market to function, for competition to exist in its ideal form. So for the ordoliberals, neoliberalism was not laissez-faire. Neoliberalism required continuous government activity. In other words, the ordoliberals had faith in the logic of Capital (as market competition) but not in the development of the economic institutions of capitalist society. Foucault compares the ordoliberals to Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter also did not find the logic of capital to be contradictory, yet he believed that the development of that logic in society throughout history inevitably led to monopolies, stagnation, and finally socialism. The ordoliberals believed that state intervention on the base of society could alter that historical trajectory of capitalist society, in effect inventing a new capitalism, one that did not need to lead to crisis or socialism. Turning to American neoliberalism, Foucault points out it was a response to Keynesian New Deal policies, war-time pacts (such as the exchange of military duty for certain social guarantees), and the growth of various federal social programs. American neoliberalism found support from across the political spectrum, with the right being afraid of anything resembling socialism and the left being wary of the development of an imperialist state. The American neoliberals argued that economics had failed to analyze the nature of labor. Economics had considered labor only in quantitative terms (numbers of workers and hours worked). As a result, it had failed to recognize that labor power is actually "capital-ability," which the individual worker, acting as an entrepreneur, can develop. The neoliberals generalize the category of the entrepreneur. For them, “the basic element to be deciphered by economic analysis is not so much the individual, or processes and mechanisms, but enterprises. An economy made up of enterprise-units, a society made up of enterprise-units, is at once the principle of decipherment linked to liberalism and its programming for the rationalization of a society and an economy.” Foucault criticizes Baudrillard, Debord and others who see neoliberalism as the extension of the market and the commodity form, the creation of a "society of the market and spectacle". He argues that neoliberalism is not the universalizing of the commodity form, but rather of the entrepreneur. With neoliberalism, investment in human capital (through education, genetics, and other forms of biopower) is aimed at increasing the entrepreneurial capabilities of individuals. Neoliberals proceed to analyze "non-economic behavior through a grid of economic intelligibility." In fact, the state now "interfaces" with individuals only through such an economic grid. Foucault adds that even the penal system can be understood this way: one neoliberal argues that applying "negative demand" on "surplus crime" will reduce legal troubles. Because a society of entrepreneurs requires “an optimization of systems of difference” in order to produce innovation, there is “a massive withdrawal with regard to the normative-disciplinary system." This is the point at which the increased production and play of freedom and security results in the transition from the disciplinary society to Deleuze's control society.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
This relatively obscure collection of Althusser's essays is one of his most difficult as well as one of his most important works. The title essay is Althusser's contribution to the lecture series "Philosophy Course for Scientists" held at the ENS in 1968. This is the same series in which Badiou's presentation of The Concept of Model was, as Althusser put it, "happily interrupted" by the events of May '68. Althusser's lectures present many of the theses found in his more well-known essay "Lenin and Philosophy" (also included in this collection). Yet these lectures, addressed to scientists (though the series was attended by a large and varied group of intellectuals) and using scientific examples, are singular in style and form in his work (let's be honest, Althusser's work taken as a whole is very repetitive - the other essays included here demonstrate important shifts in his ideas, but these shifts tend to get lost in long retreads of Althusser's earlier arguments about Marx's epistemological break, theoretical anti-humanism, and the materialist dialectic). As a philosopher speaking to scientists, Althusser reflexively begins by analyzing the ideology of interdisciplinarity and asking whether philosophy might be capable of a non-exploitative relation to science. The first lecture investigates the relations between different disciplines, including the sciences, human sciences, and literary disciplines. Philosophy might be seen as the ideal facilitator of such interdisciplinary relations, but Althusser flatly rejects such a notion. The problem of interdisciplinarity will not be an excuse to extend the domain of philosophy but rather evidence of the need to narrowly delimit philosophy's terrain. In the sciences, prior to any explicit interdisciplinary effort there are relations of application (largely inorganic, technical applications of one science to another) and relations of constitution (organic, reciprocal interventions of each science in the other). However, when the human sciences "apply" a science (say, sociology and mathematics), the relation is blatantly one of exteriority. The human sciences therefore call upon philosophy to provide the "theoretical base they lack," though this merely hides their lack of scientificity. Turning to the literary disciplines, Althusser aggressively labels them "ideological techniques of social adaptation and readaptation." The literary disciplines teach "know-how" more than knowledge: they train students in the rules and practices needed to display the appropriate relation to cultural objects (I must presume Bourdieu closely studied this text). Yet Althusser admits all of the disciplines teach ideological "know-how" along with their specific disciplinary knowledge. Though literary disciplines have recently attempted to become human sciences and advertise their scientific credentials, Althusser claims this is mere "wish-fulfillment." Their apparent scientificity merely makes them more serviceable as instruments for human relations management and the mass media. Althusser's survey of the different disciplinary relations covered by the generic notion of interdisciplinarity demonstrates the notion is "massively ideological in character": "Very concretely, interdisciplinarity is usually the slogan and the practice of the spontaneous ideology of specialists: oscillating between a vague spiritualism and technocratic positivism." (This was shown long ago in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities). Althusser moves on to articulate a new definition of philosophy, one that constitutes philosophy in relation to other disciplines without making philosophy a servant of the ideology of interdisciplinarity. Althusser argues "philosophy has no object." Indeed, "Philosophy consists [only] of words organized into dogmatic propositions called Theses." As a result, "there is no possibility of achieving a science of philosophy or a 'meta-philosophy.'" Philosophy has the sole function of "drawing a line of demarcation" between the ideological and the scientific (previously demonstrated in Althusser's analysis of interdisciplinarity). Philosophy is practical without being pragmatic or speculative: it is neither direct action on reality nor detached contemplation. Althusser compares philosophy to Lenin's idea of political practice, which does not formulate plans prior to political action but inflects a struggle it is caught within. "Philosophy functions by intervening not in matter . . . or on a living body . . . or in the class struggle . . . but in theory. . . . This intervention in theory provokes theoretical effects: the positions of new philosophical inventions, etc., and practical effects on the balance of power between the 'ideas' in question" (in later pieces with a more explicitly Marxist framework than these lectures this will be: "philosophy is class-struggle at the level of theory"). By producing the distinction between the ideological and the scientific, philosophy "acts outside of itself through the result that it produces within itself." Althusser reductively divides all philosophy into materialist and idealist camps, and argues that philosophy (unlike sciences) has no history because it is the endless struggle between idealism and materialism for domination, with neither one ever being able to completely win and eliminate the other. According to Althusser, all scientific practice automatically produces a kind of philosophy, what he calls the "spontaneous philosophy of the scientists" (SPS). The SPS is not a general world-view but "the ideas (conscious or unconscious) that scientists have of the scientific practice of the sciences and of 'Science.'" The SPS is contradictory and composed of two different elements. The first element is a materialism generated from within scientific practice, a belief in the real existence of scientific objects, the objectivity of scientific knowledge, and the correctness of scientific method. The second element is an externally generated idealism that draws from religious, spiritual, and critical traditions. Both elements co-exist, with the idealist element tending to dominate the materialist one. For example, Enlightenment scientists, "however materialist they may have been in their struggle against religion, were no less idealist in their conception of history. And their idealist conception of the omnipotence of scientific truth derives, in the last instance, from their historical (juridical, moral, political) idealism." In order to reverse this idealist domination of materialism (which served a purpose in its time but today is a problem), science needs philosophers to bring "counterforces" that will reinforce their materialist elements (internal criticism is rarely sufficient, especially since science remains caught up in a powerful idealist ideology of progress). In this alliance, philosophy should not subject or enslave science (the point is not to make philosophy the spokesman of scientific truth or make science evidence of philosophy's superior wisdom) but assist it in a historically-specific context. Yet philosophy intervenes "in the SPS and only in the SPS," it is not authorized to intervene in scientific practice itself. Again, taking the SPS as its target, there is only "an intervention by philosophy in philosophy." Althusser concludes his lectures by pointing towards the political focus of "Lenin and Philosophy," noting that philosophy treats itself as it treats science, seeking out "positions that enable us to combat idealism" (and especially those forms of idealism that are positioned against Marxist materialism).
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
“There are always businesses on the down-cycle of success and, in those days, the number was swelled by factories staggering under the problems of reconversion, others drained to weakness by high taxes, still more that were family owned companies facing estate settling problems. Nor was there a shortage of potential buyers. All that had to be done was to locate another company that, through a combination of merged asset and earning figures, could effect a favorable change in its base for the calculation of taxes. . . . The ‘special situations’ were almost endless, limited only by the ingenuity of the operators at finding companies that could be fitted to some fine-print crack that they had discovered in the tax regulations. Most profitable of all – although it took a special skill to pull them off successfully – were the ‘liquidations’ in which a company was sentences to a slow death, gradually dismembered, and then sold piecemeal as a ‘distribution of assets.’ The end results was usually an empty factory building, often in a small community prostrated by the loss of the company payroll, but the operators didn’t worry too much about that. By then they had collected their profit and stored it away, safe from the ravages of the tax collector.” Sloan Wilson's novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) is typically held up as representative of the corporate culture composed of "organization men" of the 1950s. Yet Wilson's protagonist Tom Rath never fully embraces the corporate life, and he eventually returns to the non-profit sector. The forgotten novels of Cameron Hawley, however, make the incorporation of America their constitutive principle. Each of Hawley's corporate fictions has no plot other than the restructuring of a corporation, to which more traditional subplots (such as a romance) are merely appended. In Hawley's novels, corporate history becomes corporate narrative. Hawley transforms literary realism into corporate realism: his novels represent corporate activites in quasi-"real time," devoting usually 400+ pages to what is often only one week of business deals by describing endless executive negotiations, tax calculations, and board meetings. In Cash McCall, Grant Austin, owner/executive of Suffolk Moulding Company, has grown weary of single-handedly running his business. When faced with pressures from one of his corporate customers to upgrade his production facilities - which would require an injection of finance capital to be accomplished - Austin sells his company to Cash McCall. Cash is an "operator," a businessman who buys other companies and improves their business and re-sells them for a profit or dismantles and liquidates them. As Cash says, “I don’t buy companies to operate. I buy them to sell.” Through various holding companies, Cash owns numerous corporations, many of them secretly. Cash is a superman who flies his own B-26 around the Philadelphia area, arranging to buy and sell other corporations. He buys Suffolk Moulding Company and then gambles everything he has by attempting to acquire an electronics corporation in the hopes of merging the two into a new research-based computing component firm. His efforts, however, risk being defeated by widespread suspicions that he is greedily exploiting everyone involved. The novel blatantly plays the game of ideological containment by having characters voice criticisms of operators such as Cash, only to "prove" such criticisms wrong by showing the morality of Cash's actions (novels have always been cheaply produced "evidence" for ideology). Cash is shown to be a "gentleman" who does not equate morality with legality - that is, he does what is good, not just what is legally possible. The novel frames Cash's deals as beneficial for everyone, since he always pays a fair price and finds a way to improve the productivity of the businesses he acquires, therefore aiding even the working man. Cash openly espouses the virtue of Free Enterprise and the right to make money, echoing Ayn Rand's pseudo-philosophy of "the virtue of selfishness." Hawley's novel differs from one of Rand's since Hawley situates such arguments within the corporate complexities of the postwar period (Rand's possessive individualism, though supposedly the ideal of capitalism, in many ways grinds against the legal, financial, and corporate realities of modern capitalism). True to his name, Cash figures finance itself, which is here worshiped as allowing the growth of corporate capitalism (Suffolk Moulding Company cannot grow, or even survive, without an influx of capital) and as forcing corporations to be dynamic or more entrepreneurial (Cash hopes to change the ineffective management of the electronic corporation he buys). Without Cash, that is, finance, there would be no narrative in the novel, since the corporations that are its real protagonists would remain stuck in their rigid routines.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
"On the subject of politics, I'm not saying that we should involve ourselves in the rigid political habits of current events. And the SI does not presume to have a clear concept of revolutionary politics. I'm saying that between a new point of departure for the revolutionary movement (which is feeling its way in Europe right now, after the death throes of Stalinism) and our 'artistic' action, there is no direct dependence, but an interaction. Because authentic revolution will make our perspective more realistic, but our perspectives as such are, I think, a means of struggle for the thought of an authentic revolution." This collection of Debord's letters focuses on the early years of the Situationist International (SI), from its founding in 1957 to the expulsion/resignation of some important original members in 1960. There won't be too many revelations in the volume for those who have read Debord's books (and seen his films, available online on the ubuweb) and surveyed the anthologies of the SI's journals. The collection clarifies the particular roles, characters, and geographical positions of different members of the SI, and allows one to situate many of the SI's major early articles in different debates or periods of the group. Politics (or at least explicit political debate) is marginal during this period, though there are attacks on the Algerian War as well as a keen sense of the changing political climate of France in the late 1950s. Debord presents the SI's activities as anticipating post-revolutionary life and as experimental instruments for bringing about a revolution; the SI aims to show, "through the practical activity of a cultural revolution, a new point of departure for revolutionary praxis." From the outset, Debord works to prevent the SI from being seen as a "neo" version of recent artistic avant-gardes such as the Lettrists or CoBrA (the latter being a common point of comparison because of Asgar Jorn's prominent role in CoBrA and the SI). Debord continually has to battle against those artists (in particular the painters) whose professional allegiances distort their fidelity to the SI. But Debord admits the difficulty is not in rejecting what painting might offer, but in creating the conditions for moving beyond it: "I do not have the least desire - to try to impose directives and values on painters . . . except in the name of a real movement that is more advanced than their work, a movement in which they can choose to participate. For want of a real work from such a movement, I have nothing to say to painters - neither for nor against - because I don't want to be an art critic." Debord's incisive style is most evident in the occasional insults he slings out, though he shows far more diplomacy and restraint than he is usually given credit for. My favorite is: "I obviously do not reproach you, in a general way, for submitting to influences or accepting the ideas of someone else. I reproach you for having accepted, in this particular circumstance, several ideas that are stupid." McKenzie Wark describes Debord's role in these letters as "secretary" of the SI, and it is true that theoretical discussions are relatively sparse while practical arrangements of meetings, exhibitions, and publications are abundant. The most extended theoretical arguments are found in the letters addressed to the Dutch architect Constant. Since the concept of "spectacle" only begins to appear in a few of the final letters, these discussion focus principally on "unitary urbanism" and ambiances. Constant's sympathy for a pair of fellow Dutch architects expunged from the SI for work on a church leads to his own resignation from the SI in 1960, surely one of the most unfortunate turns in the history of the group (in one letter Debord admits Constant's immense contribution to Situationism). In his letters following Constant's resignation, Debord attempts to maintain friendly relations with Constant that would allow the continued exchange of information and publications, indicating that a break with the SI did not have to be absolute. Another major "narrative" running through the correspondence is found in Debord's letters to Pinot Gallizio concerning an exhibition of his "industrial painting." The convoluted negotiations with gallery owners and difficulties with customs are eventually overcome and Gallizio's exhibition is a success, but perhaps too much of one, as he begins to cater too much to the art world and take an individualist path away from the SI, leading to his eventual expulsion (which he calmly accepted). Debord also sends numerous letters to Asgar Jorn, who remains rather elusive as an imaginary addressee, bouncing constantly across Europe because of the success of his paintings (whose sales assisted many SI activities). This volume of Debord's correspondence (more translations apparently are in the works) covers the same period as Michele Bernstein's semi-autobiographical novel All the King's Horses, but Bernstein, Debord's first wife, is almost totally absent, with none of her letters included. (would it be tactless to point out here that Debord's second wife, Alice Becker-Ho, was one of the editors of the french edition?) As a result, there is, perhaps appropriately, little sense of Debord's private or emotional life in the correspondence. The overall effect of this collection of letters is to counter the image of the SI and Debord in particular as being "purists" who refused any "contaminating" contact with the institutions of the art world, other artistic movements, or competing theories. Debord at one point argues "there is no doubt that solitude is preferable to a compromised collective action," especially when that action is compromised by "economic prospects." Debord's willingness to disband the group if it becomes one more element of the status quo is a rare and admirable quality. Yet he is equally sensitive to the primacy of praxis and the impotence of utopian schemes that deny the present. The polemics and expulsions the SI became infamous for appear here as the result of a careful consideration of the contemporary conjuncture and proof of how hard it is to escape mere culture not by rejecting it but by exceeding it.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
"If Machiavelli evokes the theme of novelty and beginnings with such insistence, if he speaks of a New Prince in a New Principality, it is because he rejects all existing states and rulers as old - that is to say, feudal, oriented toward the past, outmoded, incapable of this task for the future. . . . But at the same time he puts in place the protocols and forms for the encounter between a propitious conjuncture and a virtuoso individual: an encounter that is possible and necessary. He does not, however, supply any name, or place, or man. This silence possesses a positive political sense. It means that this encounter will occur, but outside existing states and rulers." In this late work, Althusser begins by admitting that Machiavelli's texts are "gripping" but remain "elusive." Machiavelli avoids political ideology that outlines an ideal government and his historical examples are too contradictory and undeveloped to serve as the basis for a comparative argument about the timeless "laws" of politics. Althusser argues that Machiavelli's goal is the clarification of a "singular concrete case": his specific historical conjuncture. In particular, Machiavelli aims to think how a divided and corrupt Italy, in which change is blocked on every front, could be transformed into a unified state. That is to say, how could the politically impossible become possible? Because of the primacy of this political aim, Machiavelli's writing does not exist in a theoretical space detached from politics. He generates theoretical fragments that are always affected by and returned to the "singular conjuncture" facing him. As a result, the theoretical tendencies of his texts are always being undermined by the political problem to which they are subjected. Althusser claims "Machiavelli is the first theorist of the conjuncture" not because the latter generates a concept of the conjuncture, but rather because he thinks "in the conjuncture." Machiavelli even treats his writings as one means for accomplishing his political goal: his books function as political acts, not theoretical abstractions, by situating themselves within what they describe: "Machiavelli's text delineates a topological space and assigns the place . . . that it must occupy in this space for it to become active therein, for it to constitute a political act - an element in the practical transformation of this space." Althusser's theory of aleatory materialism is integrated into this argument (or perhaps it was inserted through his many late revisions of the text), so the book should be read next to Philosophy of the Encounter. For Machiavelli, the creation of a new state cannot be simply decreed. The state must be made from actual existing elements into a form that does not yet exist: "To put it another way, the possibilities and limits of the nation's realization depend upon a whole series of factors - not only the economy, but also pre-existing geographical, historical, linguistic and cultural factors - which in some sense prestructure the aleatory space in which the nation will be able to take shape." Machiavelli sees in what he calls the "New Prince" "a specific political form charged with executing the historical demands 'on the agenda': the constitution of a nation." Machiavelli therefore does not idolize princes or the monarchy. The concept of the New Prince as a "political form" of revolutionary potential makes Machiavelli's argument compatible with more recent radical thought. Indeed, Althusser notes that in Gramsci's reading of Machiavelli the Prince "is the Marxist-Leninist proletarian party." The location and identity of the Prince cannot be known beforehand, and he especially should not be identified with the existing power structure. By identifying the Prince, Machiavelli would locate him within the known and the possible, and therefore foreclose the impossible from occurring: "Being uniquely and exclusively defined by the function he must perform - that is to say, by the historical vacuum he must fill - the Prince is a pure aleatory possibility-impossibility" (26). Through the Prince, Machiavelli "is condemned to thinking the possible at the boundary of the impossible." Machiavelli did see the political adventure of Cesare Borgia, who a few years before Machiavelli's writing had made a quick rush to power from the marginal regions of Italy, as an example (that ultimately failed) of how a Prince might unexpectedly emerge. "What the example of Cesare proves is that the New Prince can start from anywhere, and be anyone: ultimately start from nothing, and be nothing to start with. Once again, nothingness - or, rather, the aleatory void." Machiavelli's writing is torn between abstraction and concreteness because he must leave the site and identity of the Prince "undefined" while "defining with extreme precision the forms of the encounter between the conjuncture and the exceptional individual, as well as the political practice through which this individual is going to constitute himself as Prince." Althusser concludes by showing how Machiavelli's New Prince, once he sas appeared and begun to acquire power, must hegemonically achieve the "people's friendship" in order to produce a state that endures. (See Antonio Negri's essay “Notes on the Evolution of the Thought of the Later Althusser” in Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory for more on Machiavelli, Althusser and ideology, as well as a brief explanation of how Althusser's ISA's can be related to biopower)
Friday, March 20, 2009
"Each time I returned [to the farm] I more strongly resented how much of myself was already here. Pictures of me - of me graduating (three times), one of me getting married (the first time), of me clowning in the sun with my children, of me staring mummified from the head of a yellowed news clipping 'permanized' in plastic - were propped and hung throughout the living room, along with various medals and certificates I had won as a schoolboy. I was so abundantly memorialized it seemed I must be dead. Whereas my father, who hated to have his picture taken (for thirty years the yearbooks of the high school where he taught had printed the same unflattering photograph of him), was nowhere in sight, which gave his absence vitality." Updike's short novel demonstrates the risks of a kind of Jamesian aesthetic, being so restrained in action and refined in perception as to hardly impact the reader. The prose is impressive but put to no use, and I would have to disagree with David Foster Wallace (who had plenty of reservations about Updike) and his claim that the novel is one of Updike's "great books." In the novel, Manhattanite Joey Robinson spends a weekend visiting his widowed mother on the family "farm." He has come in order to introduce his second wife and step-child to his mother as well as to use a tractor to cut down the overgrowth of vegetation on the estate. The contrast between country and city is muddied from the outset because Joey's parents were not simply "country folk," but rather former middle-class city dwellers with conflicting opinions/ideologies about the value of working the land. Joey's mother acts unreasonable with his new wife, who also manages to repeatedly say and do the wrong thing. The novel mostly consists of the three of them trying to avoid complete disaster in the tense conversations they have. The novel's conclusion sees Joey and his mother implicitly coming to terms with the antagonistic or dissonant relationship that exists between them, though there is no explicit reconciliation or dramatic resolution. Joey sees his return to the farm as a return to nature, and Updike thrives on describing Joey's synaesthetic immersion in the environment of the farm. Frankly, I've always been baffled by how realist fiction takes great pleasure in not just describing plants but listing off their names, and the reader may feel Updike's novel is like the botany book that Joey's son borrows from his mother. Updike at least acknowledges that Joey's hyper-sensitivity to nature is a function of his removal from it and of his dubious idealization of the family farm, though this doesn't lead Updike to dismiss Joey's perceptions. Joey works in New York as a corporate consultant who specializes in "advertising dollar distribution, which is to say, broadly, corporate image presentation." Late in the novel Joey thinks to himself that flowers were "the first advertisement" (to passing bees). This offhand thought clues the reader in to how the novel's nature imagery participates in the same spectacular economy as corporate brands and ads. Joey originally wanted to be a poet, and claims "I do not know when, if ever, I gave up my poetic ambitions." The qualification "if ever" hints that his work in advertising is a kind of poetry, or at least draws from the same creative wells. It is as if Updike confesses that his lush style, focused here on nature, offers up the same kinds of pleasures as Madison Avenue.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
“[I]t occurred to him that a really good science-fiction book had never been written about money. ‘Just think of the wild ways money is passed around on Earth!’ he said. ‘You don’t have to go to the Planet Tralfamadore in Anti-Matter Galaxy 508 G to find weird creatures with unbelievable powers. Look at the powers of an Earthling millionaire!'” Vonnegut's satire of wealth and philanthropy resembles Terry Southern's 1959 novel The Magic Christian by focusing on a millionaire's idiosyncrasies that shock society. I'm not sure either Vonnegut or Southern really understands how money works in the capitalist economy, so their satires always run the risk of merely moralizing about greed and social inequality. In Vonnegut's novel, Eliot Rosewater, heir (in a way) to the Rosewater fortune, decides "to love people who have no use." He sets up an office in his small hometown and offers money, advice, and pretty much anything else that people ask of him, all without reservation or judgment. Needless to say, his office soon becomes popular among the town's drunks, criminals, and single women. Expanding upon the theme of automation that is central to Player Piano, Vonnegut uses Eliot to question whether the American work ethic will become obsolete along with production? Eliot is prepared to love and assist everyone who cannot or does not wish to work. Vonnegut seems completely blind to the rise of a service economy (lets not even mention immaterial labor), yet Eliot's office often seems to provide services more than money or goods, and therefore anticipates that economy in which people useless to immediate production would still find themselves useful. I would consider Vonnegut's book yet another example of corporate fiction, in which the peculiarities of the corporate form affect literary aesthetics. Eliot Rosewater's father wished to avoid having his fortune taxed when passed on to his son, so he created the Rosewater Corporation to manage and expand that wealth and made his heirs officers of the Rosewater Foundation, which receives the profits from the corporation. "No member of the Rosewater Foundation could tell the Corporation what to do with the capital. Conversely, the Corporation was powerless to tell the Foundation what to do with the copious profits the Corporation made." Eliot's generosity doesn't involve giving away his own wealth, but in distributing what might be considered the "dividends" of the corporation, which others run for him. The novel concludes with Eliot adopting a large number of the children of his hometown, who will therefore be made officers in the foundation and further extend the distribution of corporate profits. But the Rosewater Corporation fulfills its function largely by trading the stocks of other corporations (Eliot's ancestor also specialized in "paper money" like bonds and stocks). This fact makes Vonnegut's concern with automation seem misguided. The profits from the corporation can be distributed to ever greater numbers of "useless" people not because of automation that increases productivity while decreasing the need for labor, but because the corporation thrives off of the stock market's belief in capital as what Marx once termed "self-valorizing value," the belief that money can generate more money without circulating through the sphere of production.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
“These marvelously masked eyes force upon her pale mouth all expressiveness; each fractional smile, sardonic crimping, attentive pout, and abrupt broad laugh follows its predecessor so swiftly Harry imagines a coded tape is being fed into her head and producing, rapid as electronic images, this alphabet of expressions.” Updike's sequel to Rabbit, Run picks up the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom 10 years after the first novel finished. Whereas in the earlier novel Rabbit is the one who runs out of the marriage (and into the arms of a prostitute), this time around it is Rabbit's wife Janice who leaves him and their teenage son for another lover. Now in his mid-30s, Rabbit has openly become a racist conservative who praises the Vietnam War and hates the growing presence of African Americans in his city. Set in 1969, Rabbit's conservatism aggravates many of the people around him (it is one reason his wife leaves him), though not his father, with whom he trades racist slurs. Each night he anxiously watches the television news reports about race riots occurring throughout the nation, which, along with the hippies and the anti-war movement, reinforce his belief that the nation is decaying. Adding history into the narrative through television reports is a rather superficial ploy for relevance (no wonder Hollywood films love to do it), but Updike also quite literally brings these national concerns home to Rabbit. After his wife is gone, Rabbit takes in a rich, young, and drug-addicted hippie, Jill, who exchanges sex for a place to stay. She later brings home a black Vietnam veteran named Skeeter, who gives Rabbit an education in radical black politics as well as drug abuse. At night, Rabbit, his son, Jill, and Skeeter read classic African American texts while Skeeter verbally assaults Rabbit, and then turn on the television and form a community watching Laugh-In. This could be a preachy, feel-good set-up except that Skeeter remains violently contradictory (Updike's representation of him is problematic, though defensible), Rabbit only becomes a milder conservative, and Rabbit's son becomes witness to a number of drug and sexual excesses. The local community, however, is scandalized by Rabbit's new interracial, sexually-open family, and they burn down his house one night, killing Jill and forcing Skeeter to flee from the law. With his home literally and metaphorically destroyed, Rabbit at the end of the novel gets back together with his wife, though both are ambivalent in their feelings for each other. By turning Rabbit, Run into the first novel of a series, Updike opened the door to exploring how his working class Everyman is affected by History. However, I'm not convinced arbitrarily introducing characters and plot developments dragged from the headlines does more than add a token amount of political relevance to Updike's stylish realism. More interesting for my own work is the fact that at the end of the novel Rabbit loses his job when the printing company he works for becomes computerized. A number of passages make it clear that Rabbit's difficult and messy job of imprinting black ink on white paper reflexively describes Updike's integration of racial concerns into his novel. But the new computerized "offset" process uses a cathode ray tube to cleanly integrate black and white, hinting either at a future when racial conflicts will be resolved or the "automation" of writing will prevent literature from addressing those conflicts.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
"Haven't you noticed," Carole interrupted, "how we all have names like characters in a novel: Gilles and Bertrand; Renaud, Carole, Genevieve? It's really funny. Heroes have names like those." "That's right," said Gilles. "We're all characters in a novel, haven't you noticed? You and I speak in dry little sentences. There's even something unfinished about us. And that's how novels are. They don't give you everything. It's the rules of the game. And our lives are as predictable as a novel, too." "I don't find you predictable," Carole answered him. "Maybe I'm unpredictable for you," said Gilles, "but hardly for the spectator on the outside. We're very easy to read, my poor love." This short novel by Michele Bernstein, Guy Debord's first wife, transforms the sex life of the Situationists into pulpy romance. As the editors point out, the book combines Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse and Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons, offering a glamorized and decadent image of Debord and Bernstein's drunken and impoverished existence. The tone, characters, and setting even loosely resemble Eric Rohmer's 1967 film La Collectioneuse. Though the details are largely autobiographical, they are transformed by Bernstein's adherence to popular genre and narrative conventions. In fact, Greil Marcus claims the novel was cynically written just to raise funds for the Situationists (it did well enough that Bernstein was able to publish a follow-up novel). Marcus reports the following conversation: "Michele must write a novel," Debord said. "I cannot write a novel," she said. "I have no imagination." "Anyone can write art," Debord said. "But Situationists cannot practice a dead art," Bernstein said, "and the novel is dead if anything is." "There is always detournement," Debord said. In the book, Debord and Bernstein are thinly disguised as Gilles and Genevieve, a married couple who openly fall in love and have sex with whomever they desire. At the novel's beginning, Gilles, with the approval of Genevieve, begins an affair with Carole, a twenty year old Parisian girl with fashionably short-cropped hair and a guitar she loves to play. In response, Genevieve picks up a young poet named Bertrand, whose beautiful looks make up for his mediocre verse. The four, along with a lesbian friend, take their vacation at the Cote d'Azur, where the strength of Gilles' desire for Carole threatens the open relationship of Gilles and Genevieve. Not much happens before Gilles and Genevieve cast off their secondary lovers and laugh to themselves about the immaturity of the entire "adventure." The novel describes Gilles' all-night walks through Paris (which he claims are research into reification), Gilles and Genevieve's hypersensitivity and aversion to tourist phenomena and the more mainstream corners of the Latin Quarter, and their total condemnation of all contemporary art and artists. Gilles also leaves the south of France before Genevieve because he must go to Amsterdam in order to organize a "scandal." But such Situationist details are rare in the novel, lost as it is in the web of sexual intrigue. The novel is willfully as insubstantial as possible without forsaking the very real pleasures the genre offers (Bernstein reportedly once claimed the book was a joke). To explain that the novel simply "detourns" a dead art form is not to argue that the book aims just to reproduce or dismantle in a detached manner an existing cultural form. As the recent redistribution of Debord's films has made clear, Situationist detournement often activates to the fullest extent the affective and conceptual potencies of the generic images and narratives it steals. It should be no surprise, then, that throughout the book Genevieve's greatest cultural interest is in the detective novels she reads.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
"[T]he word 'hack' had long been used to describe the elaborate college pranks that MIT students would regularly devise, such as covering the dome that overlooked the campus with reflecting foil. But as [The Model Railroad Club] people used the word, there was serious respect implied. While someone might call a clever connection between relays a 'mere hack,' it would be understood that, to qualify as a hack, the feat must be imbued with innovation, style, and technical virtuosity. Even though one might self-deprecatingly say he was 'hacking away at The System' (much as an axe-wielder hacks at logs), the artistry with which one hacked was recognized to be considerable." This journalistic history focuses not on hackers as "digital trespassers" (this definition would only become dominant after Levy's book was published) but on hackers as the individuals who gave birth to interactive and personal computing. Levy begins at MIT in the 1950s and 1960s and Marvin Minsky's Department of Defense-funded Artificial Intelligence lab. During that period, The Model Railroad Club gained access to a computer at night to analyze its miniature rail system and quickly grew into a cultish group of brilliant computer-obsessives in love with the game Spacewar. Levy then jumps to the West Coast and Silicon Valley of the 1960s and 1970s and tells the story of the Homebrew Computing Club and the first wave of amateur fascination with the Altair computer. The section of course focuses heavily on Stephen Wozniak and Steve Jobs (the "two Steves") and the rise of Apple Computers. Levy finishes by discussing the video game company Sierra online and the eventual commercialization of personal computing (this section is the weakest, limited as it is by Levy's proximity to the period). According to Levy, a hacker is an individual who wants to get as close as possible to the computer and to manipulate its hardware and/or software not for any practical reasons but out of curiosity or pleasure. All of the hackers in the book are nerdy young (and mostly white) males who become addicted to the feeling of godlike control that using the computer gives them (as Wendy Chun has pointed out, the creation of modern programming and computers that blindly submit to programmed commands should be recognized as a quest for a kind of masculine power). From the start, hackers demonstrated a hatred for the bureaucratic restrictions that limited access to mainframe computers (despite the fact that most hackers worked for and gained their first access to computers through such institutions) and for the "hands-off" batch-processing style of programming, which prevented them from achieving "intimacy" with the machine. Levy outlines a "Hacker Ethic" that is based on the belief that individuals should have access to computers, hacking should not be too strongly determined by functional or commercial interests, and information/programming/hacks should be distributed freely. In other words, Levy finds the key elements of cyberlibertarianism present in hacking from the start. Levy represents hacking as an art form, a virtuosic display of technique. The hacker resistance to commercialization and functionalist priorities is similar to aestheticism's art-for-art's-sake. Hacking-for-hacking's-sake aims to produce beautiful pieces of code or programming. But by comparing hacking to art, Levy ends up reproducing the standard cliches about a fall from hacking/artistic purity and naivety into commercialization and calculation. Hacking becomes one more culture or art form that has sold out and forgotten its roots, as its founders become morally corrupted by society/business. This narrative would look quite different if Levy paid more attention to the economic, institutional, and technical factors always at work in the creation of the personal computer industry. Instead of the penetration of hackerdom by capitalist greed, he could have shown how hackers were in many ways the logical extension of the mainframe computing industry's dissemination of computing knowledge and experience as well as that industry's expansion of the computing market and creation of an infrastructure of suppliers of low-cost computing components. This would not be to deny the important intervention hackers made in the trajectory of computing, but to portray it as the translation of existing tendencies rather than the spontaneous generation of new ones.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
"[T]he intensity of technological innovation during the Cold War years resulted neither from military foresight nor from academic influence, but rather from a fundamental pluralism in the demands that were placed upon research. The different aims and objectives of military, academic, and commercial institutions not only drew researchers in these three directions but also created a language of needs, interests, opportunities, and priorities that opened up many avenues of research." Akera's book surveys the early decades of electronic computing from the perspective of constructivist sociology and actor-network theory. Avoiding functionalist explanations and grand narratives, Akera pulls apart the concept of a Cold War military-industrial complex by immersing himself in the contingent details of early research into electronic computing. Contrary to those who claim the military was the "origin" of the computer (and hence its essence), Akera demonstrates the fundamental plurality of institutions, goals, and backgrounds present at the birth of the computer and throughout the Cold War. While military funding may have been decisive in the last instance in getting the computer built, the practices, management pressures, and goals of research varied widely in each institutional context. Because computing was not initially a unifed field, individuals from different educational backgrounds, professional occupations, and Cold War institutions also all left their mark on the history of the computer. One of Akera's goals is to trace the creation of stable professions, networks of information, and disciplines for computing from within this pluralistic institutional chaos. Burdened by the need to prove the strength of constructivist history, Akera deliberately attempts to make the book as eclectic in method and focus as possible, devoting chapters to examining how everything from institutions, individual biographies, changing professions, academic disciplines, and technical difficulties all contingently affected the development of mainframe computers. In the levelled ontology of the actor-network theory he deploys, everything is potentially of equal value for explaining the history of computing (which may explain why the chapters get too bogged down in a glut of information, since any principle of exclusion is made difficult to uphold by ANT). Akera begins by examining the "ecology of knowledge" that existed in pre-war research, interprets how the biography of John Mauchly helps us think about the ENIAC, and describes how John von Neumann eventually became the center of postwar knowledge or ideas about computing. He goes on to examine how the National Bureau of Standards (which acquired machines for other government agencies such as the Census) was a major player in early computing and analyze the management difficulties Jay Forrester faced in developing the Whirlwind computer at MIT. Akera describes how IBM's Applied Science men attempted to sell computers to scientists through informal networking, as well as how the IBM Users' Group Share distributed the cost of early programming throughout a voluntary group and assisted in the professionalization of programming and systems experts. Akera concludes by comparing the development of computing center as MIT and the University of Michigan, the elite science institution and the state educational one, contrasting the divergent paths research into computing took at each.
Monday, March 9, 2009
"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?).
Sunday, March 8, 2009
"I only read Capital in 1964-65 for the seminar which was to lead to Livre 'Le Capital'. If I remember correctly three individuals, Pierre Macherey, Etienne Balibar, and Francois Regnault, came to see me in my office in January 1965 to ask if I would help them read Marx's early works. So it was not my initiative which led me to talk about Marx at the Ecole but rather a request on the part of a few students. This initial collaboration gave rise to the Seminar of 1964-65. . . . Balibar, Macherey, Regnault, Miller, and Ranciere, etc., were there. . . . We worked on the text of Capital during the entire summer of 1965. At the start of the new academic year, it was Ranciere, to our great relief, who agreed to sort out the difficulties. He spoke for two hours on three occasions with extreme precision and rigour. I still say that without him nothing would have been possible. . . . When the first person speaks at such length and in such detail, the others take advantage of it for their own work. This is certainly what I did, and I admit quite openly that on this occasion I owed a great deal to Ranciere." Althusser's memoir, published posthumously, begins by graphically describing how on Nov. 16th, 1980, he awoke from his sleep to find himself massaging his wife's neck and then suddenly realized he had strangled her. Althusser's flat was within the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) where he taught, so he ran down to the courtyard of the school and shocked the students and his fellow teachers by screaming he had murdered his wife. Althusser was immediately sent to a mental hospital and later declared unfit to stand trial. After a few years at different hospitals, he eventually returned and lived on the outskirts of Paris until his death in 1990. Because he was not able to publicly testify at a trial, Althusser uses his memoir to explain his case. He claims he is "simply recording the various emotional experiences which marked [him] for life" and not indulging in self-analysis, but there is reason to doubt him. The first half of the book, which describes Althusser's youth and his troubled relationship with his parents, does seem as if Althusser, feeling fragile and oppressed, has grabbed onto a single psychoanalytical framework/explanation and then projected it back onto the rest of his life. Even if that is not the case, Althusser definitely had serious troubles developing his subjectivity and sexuality throughout much of his life. When his mother's first lover died during WWI, she married her lover's brother and named Althusser after her deceased beloved. As a result, Althusser felt he didn't exist, that he was a substitute for his mother's dead lover: "I always had the overwhelming feeling that I did not exist in or for myself." His father also was indifferent to him, so Althusser felt like he had to play the role of the father's father. Due to the influence of both of his parents, Althusser did not feel himself to be a full person who might be capable of truly loving another. Throughout his life, Althusser suffered from a kind of bipolar disorder, for which he had been sent to mental hospitals dozens of times, regularly took strong drugs, and received at one point electro-shock therapy. While he taught at the ENS he regularly took brief leaves of absence and entered himself into a mental hospital. Althusser met his wife Helene Rytman shortly after WWII ended. She was 10 years older and much more politically radical than Althusser. She had long been a communist and had been active in the Resistance, but had been cut off from the party in 1939 because of (perhaps unfounded) accusations of wartime betrayal. The party strongly pressured Althusser not to associate with her, and she often was blamed for Althusser's own criticisms of the PCF. Althusser and Helene's relationship bordered on sadomasochism, which Althusser claims was generated by the troubled psychologies of both parties. For example, Althusser would take his mistresses to meet Helene, who of course would explode with anger, but not leave him. When the book gets around to Althusser's philosophical activities, there are intriguing cameos by Foucault, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Hyppolite, Desanti, Canguilhem, and Debray, as well as clarifications about Althusser's relationships with or intellectual debts to them (Balibar is mentioned but hardly discussed, and Badiou is only briefly referred to). He describes his encounters with Lacan and getting Lacan a lecture space at the ENS, which was eventually taken back due to a combination of institutional politics and the heavy smoking of Lacan's audience. Althusser does admit he was not that well read in philosophy, but also admits he had the talent to take brief passages or concepts from philosophers and intuit their entire system and an insightful commentary on them. Althusser devotes considerable space to responding to Ranicere's The Lesson of Althusser, which, as far as Althusser frames it, attacked Althusser for not rejecting the communist party, though that would have been the only action consistent with Althusser's own arguments. When the memoir finally works its way back to the moment of the murder, Althusser turns to the problematic of his late philosophy to think through and account for his actions. The philosophy of the encounter / aleatory materialism presents a way of thinking how Althusser caused the murder, but caused it "only in the last instance." Althusser argues (via a strange medical letter that appears) that violent unconscious desires are common, but not usually acted upon. Even if he unconsciously desired to murder his wife, that desire only became a reality because of the chance encounter of a number of contingent factors (there was a delayed letter, a mis-timed entrance into the mental hospital, etc.). Althusser aims to defend himself against any reductive "causal" explanations of his actions by utilizing the final form of his arguments about overdetermination and causation "in the last instance" (which it should be noted were borrowed from psychoanalysis and here returned to it). Just as he argues that capitalism was not a necessary development but the product of the chance encounter of a number of factors that may have collided many times until they finally took hold (a point he argues in his late work, The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter), Althusser frames his murder of his wife as an encounter of a number of different factors that did not have to have occurred (or that had occurred many times, yet never "taken hold"). Even if one finds this self-justification suspect, Althusser's argument about the blind encounter of psychological causation and material contingency goes impressively far in addressing the complexity of any personal or historical event.