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Althusser and Spinoza

Althusser and Spinoza

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Peter Thomas
Philosophical Strategies:Althusser and Spinoza
Introduction
1
Louis Althusser is chiey remembered today, whenhe is remembered at all, as the progenitor andleading exponent of structuralist Marxism, a curioushybrid which ourished on the left bank of theSeine in the 1960s and later enjoyed the status of anexotic import in the left-wing Anglophone academyin the late 1960s and early 1970s. StructuralistMarxism was regarded as the convergence of twoindependent ‘conjunctures’: on the one hand, the‘structuralist’ movement, whose emergence in post-Resistance French intellectual life seemed tooffer the possibility of a powerfully unifying dis-course across the ossied boundaries of the humanand social sciences; and on the other, those currentswithin Western Marxism which were attempting torenew Marxist theory in the space opened up by thepartial thaw of Stalinism following Khrushchev’s
 Historical Materialism
, volume 10:3 (71–113)©Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2002Also available online –www.brill.nl
1
I would like to thank Gary Maclennan, Paul Jones, Dan O’Neill, Martin Thomas,Murray Kane, Melissa White, Ben Jones, Daniel Bensaïd, John Game and SebastianBudgen for encouraging remarks and suggestions on a previous version of this paper.Ted Stolze, Gregory Elliott, Geoff Goshgarian, André Tosel and Warren Montag didnot allow positive references to their own work to blind them to the decienciesof mine.
 
‘secret speech’ of 1956. Structuralism had been hailed initially as a decisiveintellectual advance of potentially epochal dimensions (witness the famousclosing lines of Foucault’s
The Order of Things
). But it was almost as quicklyrelegated to the dustbin of history, granted a lingering half-life as a pedagogicalprop used in introducing students to post-structuralism. Asimilar fate awaitedthe work of Louis Althusser. The advent of Althusser’s ‘structuralist’ readingof Marx and of some of the central categories of Marxist theory seemed, forsome at least, the necessary correlate at the level of high theory of the moregeneral structure of feeling and revolutionary optimism now referred to bythe title of ‘The Sixties’. But the Althusserian moment was soon eclipsed bya combination of international political events, tragedy in the personal life ofits protagonist, and most importantly, a radical change in intellectual fashion.As Gregory Elliott notes,
The alliance Althusser had sought in the early 1960s between Marxism andavant-garde French theory unravelled after 1968 as the philosophies of desireand power tributary to May drove high structuralism from the seminarroom. Althusserianism was thus doubly compromised – as a Marxism andas a structuralism.
2
Having ‘hitched [his] Marxism to structuralism’s rising star’, it seemed thatAlthusser’s thought was condemned to follow it into the archive of failedprojects.
3
Althusserianism passed into the memories (sometimes with fond-ness, more often, perhaps, with regret) of those Communists and New-Leftistintellectuals who had ocked to its banner in its heyday, while some ofAlthusser’s central texts, particularly the celebrated ‘Ideology and IdeologicalState Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation’, subsequently becamefoundational texts in the post-1960s reformulation of the social sciences andcultural studies.
4
There was at least one Marxist theorist, however, for whom the equationof the Althusserian tendency with structuralism was far from self-evident:Louis Althusser himself. In his
Éléments d’Autocritique
of 1974 (published inEnglish in 1976 in the volume
Essays in Self-Criticism
), Althusser explicitly
72Peter Thomas
2
Elliott 1987, p. 282.
3
Elliott 1987, p. 283.
4
The most comprehensive accounts of the fate of Althusser’s work can be foundin Kaplan and Sprinker 1993 and Elliott 1994.
 
denied that he and his co-workers had been structuralists, and, in their defence,offered an alternative intellectual afliation. He argued:
If we never were structuralists, we can now explain why: why we seemedto be, even though we were not, why there came about this strange mis-understanding on the basis of which books were written. We were guiltyof an equally powerful and compromising passion:
we were Spinozists
...withvery few exceptions our blessed critics, imbued with conviction and swayed by fashion, never suspected any of this. They took the easy road: it was sosimple to join the crowd and shout ‘structuralism’! Structuralism was allthe rage, and you did not have to read about it in books to be able to talkabout it. But you have to read Spinoza and know that he exists: that he stillexists today. To recognize him, you must at least have heard of him.
5
Gregory Elliott has voiced an obvious objection to this line of defence:‘Admission of Spinozism does not automatically compel acquittal on thecount of structuralism, and it had been apparent some time before Althusser’sconfession’.
6
Some critics, already enraged by the theoretical anti-humanismof Althusser’s structuralist Marxism, in which human agency was reducedto mere
Träger
of the relations of production, seemed to regard Althusser’sdeclared admiration for one of the most rigorous determinists of the modernphilosophical tradition as merely adding insult to injury. So rather thanclosing the case against Louis Althusser, his confession of Spinozism insteadresulted in his Marxism becoming doubly condemned – as both a struc-turalism and as a Spinozism.Yet, as Montag has noted, it is questionable whether this pronouncementwas an accurate remembrance of the forces which shaped the early Althusserianproject (specically, the texts
For Marx
and
Reading Capital
), or was rather,‘nothing more than a retrospective construction, the very condition of whichwas a renaissance in French Spinoza studies that took place at the end of thesixties’.
7
Montag points to the lack of any systematic and textually explicitstudies of Spinoza by Althusser and his colleagues in this period, arguingthat, even if it is true that the Althusserian school developed in a Spinozisticenvironment, ‘they nevertheless did not produce any sustained work on
Philosophical Strategies:Althusser and Spinoza73
5
Althusser 1976, p. 132.
6
Elliott 1987, p. 183.
7
Montag 1998, pp. xi–xii.

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