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Rethinking Marxism

A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society

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A Marxist Education of the Encounter: Althusser,

Interpellation, and the Seminar

Tyson E. Lewis

To cite this article: Tyson E. Lewis (2017) A Marxist Education of the Encounter:
Althusser, Interpellation, and the Seminar, Rethinking Marxism, 29:2, 303-317, DOI:

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Published online: 25 Sep 2017.

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Vol. 29, No. 2, 303317,

A Marxist Education of the Encounter:

Althusser, Interpellation, and the
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Tyson E. Lewis

This essay traces out a new organization of Louis Althussers work that rests on his
fundamental educational problematic: interpellation. There are three moments where
Althusser discusses education in his writings: in the famous essay on schools as
Ideological State Apparatuses, in his infamous essay on the university and the
pedagogical function, and in a much more obscure reference to trade unions. In all
three, Althusser is dealing with the problem of interpellation, yet none of these essays
enable us to actually theorize what Althussers own practice of the seminar offers as
educational logica practice that resulted in the student-teacher collaboration Reading
Capital. In short, whereas the Institutional State Apparatus interpellates individuals
and the trade union offers a counterinterpellation, the seminar is a form of
disinterpellation that must be thought of as the educational unconscious of Althussers
late writings on the encounter.

Key Words: Louis Althusser, Educational Philosophy, Interpellation, Jacques

Rancire, Seminar

Reexamining the Case against Althussers Theory of Education

Jacques Rancire (2011, 52) once wrote, Fundamentally, Althusserianism is a

theory of education, and every theory of education is committed to preserving
the power it seeks to bring to light. If we take Rancire seriously, then there are
two implications. First, Althusser was fundamentally an educational philosopher.
Thus it would be necessary to read his work with a particular sensitivity to educa-
tional themes, concepts, and symptoms that emerge throughout his body of
writing. Part of this project la Althusser himselfwould be to pinpoint conti-
nuities or breaks between early and late phases. We would also have to discover
how and in what ways Althussers educational thought is situated in particular
conjunctures. Second, Althussers educational philosophy is fundamentally
corrupt because it merely reproduces the very conditions that it is attempting to
overcome. This second claim seems to abruptly halt the rst claim before we
even begin, but only if we read failure here as lacking educational value. It might

2017 Association for Economic and Social Analysis

304 Lewis

very well be the case that Althussers failures are telling or revealing of something
about education that is worthwhile for Marxists. In this sense, while Rancires
critique of Althussers educational despotism could be read as a nal denunciation,
I read it differently: as a project to unpack Althussers fundamental educational
gesture and to read it symptomatically for its internal contradictions and
possibilities. Yet this project has failed, as of today, to interpellate many contempo-
rary subjects despite the current resurgence of interest in Althusser as seen in the
recent launch of the journals Dcalages and Demarcaciones.
In this short essay, I will pick up on this educational project in order to trace out
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a new organization of Althussers work that rests on his fundamental educational

problematic: interpellation. If, as Althusser once wrote, there is a lag time between
science and theory in Marxism, then perhaps there is another lag between the
arrival of a theory and an educational practice. To explore such a thesis, I have pin-
pointed three moments in which Althusser discusses education in his work: in the
famous essay on schools as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), in his infamous
essay on the university and pedagogical function, and in a much more obscure ref-
erence to trade unions. In all three, Althusser is dealing with the problem of inter-
pellation: rst, capitalist interpellation, and second, a Marxist form of
counterinterpellation. Yet what I would like to argue below is that none of these
comments on schools, pedagogic function of the university, or trade-union activ-
ism enables us to actually theorize what Althussers own practice of the seminar
offers as an educational logica practice that resulted in the student-teacher col-
laboration Reading Capital. In short, we can summarize my thesis as follows:
whereas the ISA interpellates individuals and the trade union offers a counterin-
terpellation, the seminar is a form of disinterpellation that must be thought of as
the educational unconscious of Althussers late writings on the encounter.
My use of the terms interpellation, counterinterpellation, and disinterpellation
are inspired by Michel Pcheuxs analysis of identication. For Pcheux (2015),
identication indicates a coincidence of subject and Subject (or individual and
state). Counteridentication, on the other hand, suggests a breakdown of this co-
incidence in the form of refusals and revolts. No longer is the empirically given iden-
tical to the dominant ideology. This breakdown results in an inverse form of
interpellation-identication-subjection through which bourgeois ideology is ap-
propriated and used against itself. For Pcheux, the problem with a political strat-
egy predicated solely on counteridentication is that inversion merely reasserts
bourgeois ideology in a new form thus insuring its dominance over the workers
movement from the inside. Disidentication then is the moment of ideological
rupture, which is an attack on the trajectory of interpellation and counterinterpel-
lation. Because it holds open a possibility to move beyond this cycle, disidentica-
tion offers a fundamental move toward a nonstate. In this essay, I will follow a
similar line of analysis but with a focus on educational problematics. My goal is
to offer a new, Marxist notion of education that does not get caught up in the prob-
lems of counteridentication, as theorized by Pcheux, and instead offers the
Althusser: Between Past and Future 305

possibility of a suspension of the trajectory that leads from interpellation to coun-

terinterpellation and back again.
But before we begin, I would like to ask what kind of practice is education? Edu-
cation is often conated with political or economic practices. This is not to suggest
that there are no overlaps between practices. Indeed, education is always overdeter-
mined in any given historical conjuncture. Rather, by asking the question What is
an educational practice? we can begin to understand what it would mean to have a
Marxist philosophy of education rather than a Marxist analysis of the political
economy of schools, for instance. For Althusser (1969), a practice is a process of trans-
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formation of a raw material into a specic product, a transformation effected by a

determinate human labor. Below, I will outline how schooling, university teaching,
trade-union organizing, and nally, the seminar all offer different understandings of
educational practice and show that the undertheorized seminar offers the real entry
point for a Marxist philosophy of educational practice of the encounter.

Schools as ISAs: Interpellation into the Subject Position

of the Lifelong Learner

The rst place education emerges in Althussers work is perhaps the most famous
and concerns his analysis of schools as Ideological State Apparatuses. As an ISA,
the school for Althusser produces a subject as an effect of ideological interpella-
tion. Quoting Althusser (2001, 89), In other words, the school (but also other
State institutions like the Church, or other apparatuses like the Army) teaches
know-how, but in forms which ensure subjection to the ruling ideology or the
mastery of its practice. All the agents of production, exploitation and repression,
not to speak of the professional of ideology (Marx) must in one way or another be
steeped in this ideology in order to perform their tasks consciously. Production
demands a support function to be occupied by subjects who recognize themselves
as the performers of that function. It is ideological interpellation that subjectivizes
subjects into this support function by granting a reason-to-be-a-subject
(Althusser 2003, 51). The school, in this view, turns students toward a particular
form of life by repeatedly hailing them to the point where they only recognize
themselves in and through such hailing.
In the school, students are interpellated as subjects of capitalist ideology, which
can be summarized in terms of four themes that we will later juxtapose to commu-
nist themes: nationalism, liberalism (the theme of private ownership), economism
(the theme of interest, both individual and national), and humanism (the theme of
individual autonomy, consent, agency, free enterprise, and self-constitution; see
Althusser 2014, 138). Although Althusser was writing within a French context,
such themes are clearly operative in schools in the United States today. Such
themes abound in U.S. history textbooks, in national standards, and in various con-
troversies now raging over the banning of certain un-American literature.
306 Lewis

But such interpellation goes much further than turning students toward these
themes as if such themes were merely mental representations. This would separate
ideas from bodies, discourses, and apparatuses producing a dichotomy between
mind and body, self and world. We cannot abstract themes from their concrete
manifestations in practices of the scholastic apparatus. Here is where I would
like to add something to Althussers initial description: interpellation as an educa-
tional problematic has its own form, not simply its own content (the four themes). In
this sense, we need to dwell on the practices that dene the educational form of the
scholastic apparatus. This form is learning. In this sense, I agree with many of the
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emerging critics of the discourses and practices of learning, which in all cases is
seen as a particular educational logic of neoliberal governmentality (Masschelein
et al. 2007; Biesta 2006). Instead of dwelling on the ideology of content, we can
choose instead to pay attention to the ideological form of educationlearning
as content. On this reading, learning interpellates individuals as lifelong learners
through the embodiment of our four themesnationalism, liberalism, econo-
mism, and humanism. The laborer must be a learner for life in order to keep
pace with a exible economy fueled by planned obsolescence. The subject position
of the learner is therefore not bound to the schoolhouse but is a subjectivity nec-
essary for the reproduction of the social and economic relations underlying biopo-
litical knowledge production. The learner is a laborer, and the laborer is a learner,
thus actualizing Althussers fundamental thesis that the school is now the most
dominant ISA in society but with a twist: society as such is the new schoolhouse.
As stated in the introduction, schooling as an ideological practice (carried out by
ISAs) is characterized by working over a particular raw material (forms of ideolog-
ical representation, including literature, virtues of hard work, scientic humanism,
and nationalism) to create a subject of the state (a productive, lifelong learner)
through the labor of learning (as an interpellative turn). Yet there are problems
here that are well documented in the critical reception of Althussers work. In par-
ticular, there is always already violence in any given interpellation.1 Interpellation
is multiple, unnished, and continuous. It inevitably fails to hit its mark, and there
are always subjects who revolt, refuse, quarrel. As such, the school is shot through
with potential for transformation (not simply reproduction). In this sense, the prac-
tice of education and the labor of learning can never produce the lifelong learner as
anything other than an incomplete subject position. Although these are important
observations that poke holes in any reductive reading of the ISAs, at the same time
we are reminded of Pcheuxs observation that such moments of revolt all too
easily fall back into the trajectory of interpellation-identication-subjection. In
this sense, we might nd an opening toward a Marxist theory of the politics of ed-
ucational practice within the ISA essay, but only in an underdeveloped and highly
marginalized form.

1. Interpellation is, from the beginning, violent (see Lewis and Kahn 2010) and it is never com-
plete, always missing the mark (see Lecercle 1991; Dolar 1993; Martel 2017).
Althusser: Between Past and Future 307

The University as Ideological Revolutionary Apparatus:

Pedagogical Function and Counterinterpellation into the
Subject Position of the Intellectual

While one might lump the university into Althussers theory of the ISA as another
institution within an overarching scholastic apparatus, Althussers most sustained
commentary on the university seems to give it an unprecedented autonomy. Stated
differently, whereas interpellative reproduction dominates in the school (granted
there are always gaps and ssures that make this process incomplete), the univer-
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sity is a site where transformation/resistance is more strongly emphasized. For this

reason, I will refer to the university as an Ideological Revolutionary Apparatus
(IRA). This term is meant to signify the inverse proportionality between reproduc-
tion and transformation that exists within the school and the university as
Althusser sees it. Whereas counterinterpellation is something that happens occa-
sionally within the schoolhouse, Althusser argues that it takes center stage in
the university. The role of the university is thus to offer a counterinterpellative ed-
ucational practice that replaces the four capitalist themes outlined above with
decisively communist themes.
Althusser (2011) begins the essay titled Student Problems by arguing that the key
Marxist concepts through which we can analyze the university are the technical
division of labor and the social division of labor. The technical division of labor is
essentially rational and necessary for the organization, control, and management
of large-scale and complex institutions. It is thus scientic rather than ideological.
The social division of labor on the other hand reproduces class domination in the
form of control and repression. Whereas the former is rational, the latter is irrational
and based on class interests. In Althussers conceptualization of the ISA, the school is
certainly overdetermined by the social division of labor. Schools are largely ideolog-
ical in nature and thus support an irrational division of labor that only serves to
reestablish and support class divisions. The university as a possible IRA is the oppo-
site. Althusser (2011, 12) argues: A long struggle of resistance to power, over centu-
ries, has given the university this special situation which shelters it to some extent
from government enterprisesthat is, from the class politics of the bourgeoisie.
While the ISA is semiautonomous from the state, the universityin Althussers
modelhas autonomy, and thus it does not function primarily as a form of
control and repression over and against the working class. The universitys particular
form of liberalism is to be separated from capitalist liberalism in that the university
stands as the place in the social relations of production for a critical spirit, freedom
of scientic research and discussion (12), and so forth. Here the university as IRA is
more or less scientic and thus rational, opening up the possibility of an organized,
theoretically informed investigation into and against the ideology of the bourgeoisie.
Althusser warns that education can remain in the hands of state ideology even
when the forms of teaching are themselves modern. Here we might think of a case
308 Lewis

in which progressive educators who believe strongly in democracy can neverthe-

less perpetuate the four themes of capitalist ideology through their supposedly
radical pedagogical intervention. As such, Althusser (2011, 145) concentrates on
what he calls the pedagogic function of the university, which is the transmission
of a determinate knowledge to subjects who do not possess it. He continues,
Therefore the pedagogic situation is based on the absolute condition of an inequal-
ity between a knowledge and a lack of knowledge. Indeed, he explicitly warns that no
pedagogic question can be settled on the basis of pedagogic equality between
teachers and students. He summarizes: Determined collective work only has a
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meaning and direction if it is led by teachers or their assistants, teachers who

have exactly that knowledge which the students need to acquire, and who have
the scientic technique for transmitting that knowledge. If students are left to
teach themselves, much time and much effort will be wasted as they are laboring
under a bourgeois ideological illusion of freedom and personal interest rather than
by the sound scientic understanding that the teacher has acquired through much
practice and research. Althusser goes so far as to claim that capitalism thrives on
half-knowledge that is vague, is uninformed by clear scientic concepts, and is
the result of haphazard self-directed teaching.
Here we see a model of education not as ideological interpellation through
learning so much as ideological counterinterpellation through teaching. Certainly,
learning and teaching are related, but in these two essays we see a difference of
focus. The teacher as the scientically grounded and critically trained intellectual
of the IRA hails the students to turn in a different direction: away from the reac-
tionary bourgeoisie toward a revolutionary horizon of possibilities. The teacher
has authority in the pedagogic eld precisely because he or she possesses a scien-
tically grounded counterideology composed of an alternative set of themes such
as universalism (as opposed to the particulars of national heritage, blood, and so
forth), communism (as opposed to ownership of private property), class struggle
(instead of economic functionalism), and antihumanism (instead of ideological dis-
courses of freedom of choice, individual autonomy, and so on) that are based on
Marxist science. Whereas focus in schools is placed on learning, Althusser shifts
focus in his analysis of the university toward teaching and the irreplaceable role
of the teacher as expert.
Hence, Althusser insists on a fundamental inequality between students who do
not know and teachers who do know. In this model, the teacher organizes the raw
materials of ideology in order to produce a counterinterpellative/critical turn, re-
sulting in a Marxist intellectual class that can then go out and train cadres of
other revolutionaries: workers, teachers, or activists. If interpellation turns the
subject to the right, then counterinterpellation turns the subject to the left. The
former turn is irrational whereas the latter is scientic and thus revolutionary.
The result of the former is the lifelong learner whereas the result of the latter is
the scholar/intellectual.
Althusser: Between Past and Future 309

In this sense, the question of teaching in the IRA is reduced to simple transmis-
sion of content from the expert subject to the ignorant subject. I would suggest that
there are two major problems here. First, education remains attached to the bour-
geois concept of subjects and subject positions like student and teacher. These
are not problematized nor are they situated in the history of capitalist economic
relations. Second, because ideological knowledge has to be transmitted from
subject A, who is supposed to know, to subject B, who is supposed to be lacking,
it involves a fundamental inequality. Here we might recall the criticisms of Althuss-
ers student Rancire (1991), who argued that liberatory education produces the
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very conditions of stultifying inequality that it is meant to overcome. Such inequal-

ity is fundamental to the capitalist mode of production, which demands submis-
sion to a chain of command leading downward from owners of the means of
production to laborers. In short, Althussers model of the universitys pedagogic
function is shot through with bourgeois concepts that corrupt his scientic
model of the pedagogic function as a purely technical division of labor and thus
above or outside class struggle. It is also mired in the naturalization of inequal-
itya condition that adheres to the very heart of bourgeois ideology. The lifelong
learner is displaced by the intellectual, yet this displacement remains within the
trajectory of the subject and thus of ideological interpellation toward a predeter-
mined end, this time based less on capitalist repression and more on scientic rev-
olution. In short, the origin of the problem here is similar to the problem with
Althussers diagnosis of the ISAs, only this time in reverse. As outlined above,
there is little room in the ISA model for thinking through the failure of interpella-
tion. In his discussion of what I call the IRA, he fails to see how the resistance of
counterinterpellation is always already contaminated with bourgeois humanist
forms of subjectivity and capitalist educational relationships. Perhaps these condi-
tions have only worsened since the neoliberalization of the university, thus making
it even more difcult for contemporary audiences to understand Althussers faith
in the university as an IRA (see Schrecker 2010; Giroux 2007; Giroux and Giroux
2006; Aronowitz 2001; Backer and Lewis 2015). Nevertheless, in both cases, what
this comes down to is a missed opportunity to think through the gap in the educa-
tional function of interpellation, and how this gap might in some way provide
the foundation for a Marxist philosophy of educational practice that is not the
reproduction of capitalist ideologies.

The Trade Union: Counterinterpellation

into the Subject Position of the Activist

While it is certainly true that Althusser locates the trade union within the form of
an ISA, an important citation from Lenin in Althussers book On the Reproduction of
Capitalism indicates that the educational practice of the trade union is not reducible
to the practice of the school or the university. Agreeing with Lenin, Althusser
310 Lewis

argues that the trade unions major function in class struggle is not political or eco-
nomic as much as educational. He afrmatively cites Lenin (quoted in Althusser
2014, 105) as writing, it [the trade union] is not a state organization; nor is it one de-
signed for coercion, but for education. It is an organization designed to draw in and to
train; it is, in fact, a school: a school of administration, a school of economic man-
agement, a school of communism. It is a very unusual type of school, because there
are not teachers or pupils; this is an extremely unusual combination of what has
necessarily come down to us from capitalism, and what comes from the ranks of
the advanced revolutionary detachments, which you might call the revolutionary
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vanguard of the proletariat.

There are several important points to be made about this passage. As I examine
it, I want to highlight that I am undertaking a theoretical elaboration that draws
forth educational implications that may not necessarily have been witnessed in his-
torical accounts of trade unionism. My goal is thus to help develop the possibility
for conceptualizing a counterinterpellative educational practice that need not be
anchored in any given historical example offered by Lenin or Althusser.
First, counterinterpellation hails individuals not as learners but as intellectuals
(when it is in the university apparatus) or activists (when it is in the trade union
apparatus). The key difference between the university and the union is that the
latter interrupts learning relationships between learners and teachers. Note that for
Lenin the trade-union school is a very unusual type of school in that it lacks
teachers and students. As such, there is no fundamental inequality at the heart
of either the school or the university but rather a fundamental equality in which
everyone can think and speak. This fundamentally disrupts the ritualized forms
of learning and teaching found in scholastic apparatuses of any shape or size.
Second, this school is not a place so much as an action or event or struggle. The
trade unions own struggle is the site of such a school. The school is therefore not
an institutional form so much as a form of organized activity. This is a school that
exists not just because of struggle but that rather is struggle. Counter to Althussers
own analysis, if we follow through on the logic, the trade union does not emerge as
an institutional apparatus at all but rather as a movement. Stated differently, the
implications of Lenins statement suggest that the trade-union school is embodied
in a dynamic practice that appears because of an antagonistic conjunction between
differing classes and their linguistic appropriation of discursive tools such as the
language of rights.
Third, the trade-union school is a school of administration, a school of econom-
ic management, a school of communism. It is a school that does not merely repro-
duce the ideology of the dominant class but rather a counterideology that is
fundamentally communist and that exists in the practice of struggle. Remember,
according to Althusser, capitalist ideology is composed of the following themes: na-
tionalism, liberalism, economism, and humanism. These themes guarantee the
learner, as the subject of the global information economy, that the world is the
way it is because of a spontaneous accord between thinking and acting, reason
Althusser: Between Past and Future 311

and reality. Like the university as IRA, the trade union produces an ideological
turn; however, this time it is not through correct theoretical conceptualization
but rather through action, through praxis. The themes are thus lived through
struggle and emerge out of struggle rather than being predetermined by intellec-
tual labor in advance and then applied.
Althusser (2014, 230) is clear: The working class can win its autonomy only on
condition that it free itself from the dominant ideology, that it demarcate itself
from it, in order to endow itself with forms of organization and action that
realize its own ideology, proletarian ideology. This means that proletarian or com-
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munist ideology is not merely the negation of bourgeois or capitalist ideology so

much as the instantiation of a completely new ideology informed by the science
of historical materialism, a counterideology.
To recap, ideological practice as carried out by ISAs is characterized by working
over a particular raw materialforms of representationto create a subject of the
state, through the labor of learning. The pedagogic function of the IRA is charac-
terized by working over a particular raw materialforms of representation (but of
a Marxist variety), conceptual development, critical consciousness, and so forth
to create the intellectual through the labor of teaching. Note that the ideological
hailing, whether interpellative or counterinterpellative, is about giving the
subject an orientation according to a predened set of ideological themes.
Opposed to this, political practice is characterized by creating a new set of social
relations through revolutionary action. Here, counterinterpellation remains the
goal, but the labor is not teaching per se but rather activism, and the subject posi-
tion offered up is not one that divides labor among teachers and students but is
collectively shared and lived through a certain form of struggle. The transfer of
knowledge so important for both ISAs and IRAs is absent here, as are any intellec-
tual inequalities. Knowledge is not transferred but rather is enacted in struggle, on
the ground and in the trenches. One produces a citizen subject; one produces the
intellectual; and one produces an activist subject.
My question here is not with this model of political education. Indeed, politics
demands an orientation, a direction. And the form of the trade union as a nonhi-
erarchical form of education through activism is a powerful reminder that educa-
tion does not only happen in institutional settings but is part of political life as
such. Yet what I want to suggest is that, while politics demands an orientation, a
counterinterpellation through which subjects come to recognize themselves as rev-
olutionary, there is something educationally missing here. Indeed, it would appear
that with the negation of learning and teaching there is a total collapse of education
into political activism. As such, education evaporates as a theoretical problem
needing philosophical development. Can we retain education as an important
theme for Marxist philosophy without losing the political insights offered by the
trade-union school? My hypothesis is that education is political not because of
the direction of the interpellation that is offered so much as the politics internal
to the moment of encountering something beyond the limits set by any given
312 Lewis

subject position/interpellative trajectory: education as exposure to an outside and

to the contingent effects of this outside on the subject. In this sense, if politics needs
a counterinterpellative turn, then what makes this turn revolutionary is a repressed
moment of disinterpellation wherein the subject is temporarily suspended and
thus goes unrecognized and remains disoriented. In short, what is missing in the
ISA, IRA, and trade-union models is precisely how the gap in the interpellative
turn, which separates the turning from ever reaching its aim, is an opportunity to
think through a different kind of educationone that takes up the moment of hes-
itation, failure, and lack of closure as a possibility for rethinking what education as
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Marxist practice can be.

The Seminar: Educational Disinterpellation

Although Althusser never wrote about his educational notion of the seminar, the
format was the genesis of his book Reading Capital, which was coauthored with
several of his students (Althusser and Balibar 1979). My question in this section
of the essay is largely speculative: what if our starting point for a Marxist educa-
tional philosophy did not come from what Althusser wrote about educational
logic and instead focused on what he might have done with the formal structure
of the seminar? To answer this question, we have to betray Althusser somewhat
and read into his late work the missing problematic of educational philosophy.
A symptomatic reading of his theory of the encounter will provide a way for us
to tease out the concept of the pedagogic encounter rather than the pedagogic
function and of the aleatory teacher rather than the teacher as expert. This
move will take the gap that was a marginal concern in Althussers work on the
ISA and IRA and that was seemingly negated in his analysis of the educational
function of the trade union and turn it into the key to unlocking a materialist foun-
dation for a Marxist philosophy of education.
We can nd new resources for this in Althussers (2006, 167) later philosophy of
the encounter. The essay begins with a simple observation: It is raining. Rain
falling unpredictably from the heavens is in constant motion, moving at different
speeds, subject to different forces; its trajectories are largely unexpected. Rain as it
falls becomes the principle example of what Althusser calls a materialism of the en-
counter, and therefore of the aleatory and of contingency (167). Here Althusser
turns to Epicuruss metaphysics. At the origin of the world, there existed only
atoms falling parallel to one another inside of a void. Then, unexpectedly a clina-
men intervenes, producing an innitesimal swerve (169) that ruptures the orderly
parallel distribution of atoms. A series of encounters akin to a chain reaction occur
because of this swerve effect, leading to the birth of the world. What is important to
note in this reading of Epicurus is that the swerve is not created by reason or by the
agency of a subjectit cannot be predicted in advance by any knowledge system,
and the product is not a subject but rather a world, which is the precondition for
Althusser: Between Past and Future 313

new subjectivities. There is no intentionality behind the swerve, nor any line of
inquiry that can trace back to its ultimate cause. And the appearance of the
swerve cannot be predicted by any agencyany trajectory leading from x to y is
inherently unstable and given over to chance. No explanation can be given for
any arrival, no formula can be devised for an increasingly complex set of overde-
termined effects, nor can any formula be generated to predict when and where an
appearance might occur.
What is the role of philosophy in this materialism of the encounter? Simply put,
it is to verify the existence of contingency, of aleatory encounters as such. Here
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Althusser (2006, 172) points to Machiavelli as an exemplar. Machiavellis thought

concerns the conditions for inducing a certain swerve effect to unify Italy. Yet
his conclusions are shocking: Unication will be achieved if there emerges
some nameless man who has enough luck and virt to establish himself some-
where, in some nameless corner of Italy, and, starting out from this atomic point,
gradually aggregate the Italians around him in the grand project of founding a na-
tional state. As Althusser summarizes, This is a completely aleatory line of rea-
soning, which leaves politically blank both the name of the Federator and that of
the region which will serve as starting point for the constitution of this federation.
In other words, a void is posited, but this void is not xed to this or that location in
the order of things and will only appear in a nameless and contingent place. The
answer given by Machiavelli is not an answer that presupposes the mastery of the
teacher who is supposed to know, but it rather assumes a philosopher who is igno-
rant but attentive to the sudden appearance of an unknown man (someone without
a name, and thus without a position within the order of things) in an unassignable
place (outside any ideologically bound territories) and thus awaits an encounter
that may or may not happen given the contingency of elements necessary to
produce the swerve effect, the result of which is a gigantic pile-up of atoms con-
stituting the world (191). In a sweeping gesture that stakes out a new materialist
horizon for understanding contemporary thought, Althusser (18990) summarizes,
We shall say, then, that the materialism of the encounter is contained in the thesis
of the primacy of positivity over negativity (Deleuze), the thesis of the primacy of
the swerve over the rectilinearity of the straight trajectory (the Origin is a swerve
from it, not the reason for it), the thesis of the primacy of dissemination over the
postulate that every signier has a meaning (Derrida), and in the welling up of
order from the very heart of disorder to produce a world. The philosopher is
the one who is sensitive to the situation in which contingent elementsatoms in-
dependent of one anothercollide with one another through the induction of a
nonteleological swerve effect to produce a certain world, a world that has no ne-
cessity and thus could have been different. In other words, the aleatory encounter
is precisely an encounter between nameless atoms, a eld of force relations rather
than knowledge relations, a radical equality of all elements, any one of which can
set off a swerve effect at any given time, and it presupposes divergence and
314 Lewis

disorientation rather than convergence and orientation. It is my argument that

Marxist education is a practice of encountering.
In conclusion, I would argue that Marxist education is a practice in which the
raw materials are the constituent elements of the subject (imaginary, affective,
and symbolic), in which the practice is the encounter (a clash between such ele-
ments that causes a swerve effect in the subject), and in which the product is a
subject without a subject (a subject estranged from itself, a desubjectivized
subject). Education is not simply an educational interpellation or counterinterpel-
lation because it does not concern itself with mirror recognition (Yes, that is the
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kind of subject I am!) but rather with the possibility of disinterpellation that
makes the subject unfamiliar to itself and thus open to its own dissolution
through the encounter with an outside. Since the swerve of the encounter is
never predictable and never reducible to the logic of learning a specic lesson
or the reason of the teacher, it is something that emerges from the clash of atoms
students, teachers, curricula, various historical contingencies, and so on. It is
the contradictory and uncertain elements of education that Althusser either min-
imizes or marginalizes in all three of the models proposed above, yet it is my argu-
ment that these are absolutely essential for understanding a materialist encounter
as educational. It is an unpredictable eruption wherein a fundamental equality is
enacted in the sense that no one controls it, no one has particular rights over in-
terpreting it, and no one can predict its outcomes.
For this reason, learning cannot be easily reduced to a specic trajectory, and the
teacher cannot orient the student toward proper knowledge. The swerve and en-
counter cannot be predicted or planned. They are not brought about by learning
theory or the expertise of the teacher, but they rather happen when a certain con-
guration of institutional and extrainstitutional forces come into play. In other
words, the role of the aleatory teacher is to open a space for an encounter by
setting up the possibilities for a clash and then to bear witness to the marks of
subjective dissolution. Instead of repressing such moments of disorientation, an
aleatory teacher holds onto them. It is only through this gesture that a new kind
of educational world opens as a precondition for a new kind of educational
subjectone that can only be properly hailed after the fact of the swerve. Such
a teacher does not have knowledge in advance or technical expertise that will
help eliminate the contingencies of self-directed learning as Althusser desired.
Rather, such a teacher merely has luck to be in the right place at the right time
with the right elements in order to witness a collision, and subsequently to help
students to be attentive to this collision by pointing and saying, Hey, did you
see that? In this sense, whatever knowledge the teacher has is a result of the
conjuncture of atoms. The teacher is neither the schoolmaster nor the university
professor nor the activist; he or she is simply the teacher, ignorant yet attentive
to the conjuncture, its possibilities, and the educational moment of encountering
it in whatever form it might take.
Althusser: Between Past and Future 315

Whereas most Marxist educators are theorists of the school or the university
or the trade union and thus are concerned with the production of subjects to
support a particular ideological imaginary, I am arguing for a different kind of
Marxist educational practice that is aleatory, that is open to the unpredictable
and destabilizing contingencies of the historical conjuncture of atoms, and that
thus concerns forces rather than subjects and equality rather than inequality;
it is decisively antihumanist, open-ended, and materialist through and
But how is this Marxist? It is important at this point to end with a reminder
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that for Althusser, there is no subject of history. History is a process without a

subject (Althusser 2001, 81). The proletarian class is not a subject expressing the
essence of the humanalienation and so forthbut a force that clashes and
swerves into and through the social relations of production under capitalism.
The revolutionary rupture in the overdetermined structure of social relations
is, at best, only seen in retrospect (Althusser 1969, 100). If the proletarian class
is not a subject, that is precisely because it does not provide a support function
for the social relations of production. Rather, it explodes such a function. As
such, an education through desubjectication is part of a broader Marxist
agenda because it is only in the abrupt collapse of the humanist subject that
one can touch a communist horizonnot as a subjective disposition or even a
desire but rather as a force that emerges from a clash and pileup of atoms.
Without desubjectication as an educational moment, it would be all too easy
to reinscribe humanist notions of the subject back into the class struggle, as is
often the case with Marxist humanists such as Peter McLaren (2015). The
problem here is how ideological orientation wins out over and against materialist
disorientation and how subjective interpellation wins out over and against mate-
rialist disinterpellation.
For Althusser (1969, 235), ideology is rst and foremost a structure rather than a
set of conscious beliefs or ideas. It is indispensable in any society if men are to be
formed, transformed and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of exis-
tence. Important here is that ideology is necessary in order to respond to the
demands of the conditions of existence. Ideology is a constituting structure of
all societies and as such is inescapable. But what interests me here is how ideo-
logical structures shift. Such a shift is a kind of disorientation that suspends the
process of subjectivization. This suspension is paramount in order for a real
event to happen that does not merely reproduce what already exists. This is a
moment of materialist encountering wherein subjectivity opens up to a force of
being-in-common-in-conjuncture. It is a moment when ideology is suspended
and thus the imaginary threads binding the subject to subjectivity are loosened
and the trajectory of (counter)interpellation-identication-subjection is interrupt-
ed. Whereas ideology expresses the relation between men and their world
(Althusser 1969, 233) and there will need to be a communist ideology to replace
capitalist ideology, what is important is that in the moment of disinterpellation,
316 Lewis

the relationship between actors and the world is not xed or determined in
advance. Instead, the very conditions for a different world open up, as in Althuss-
ers reading of Machiavelli wherein an unknown man in an unknown place
creates the preconditions for Italy to appear as a place in the world. Ideology
can only provide a subject position in a world as a support function for that
world if the world exists as a kind of common sense. Yet a materialist encounter
produces the potentiality of a world as such and therefore is a kind of swerve in
the ideology/world support structure. In my reading, education as materialist
practice exposes the student to the clash of atoms, which destabilizes and sus-
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pends any and every interpellative process in order to open the subject to that
which is beyond subjectivity: a revolutionary being-in-common that is a precon-
dition for a different kind of world.
It is my contention that the seminar is a form of encountering. I propose that
an interruption of the scholastic apparatuses of the school and the university are
possible if and only if we conceptualize the seminar as providing a moment of
disinterpellation through which students, materials (books, essays, lms, and so
forth), and the teacher enter into a constellation of forces that destabilize and
thus open up a space and a time wherein a new kind of educational life
beyond the subject temporarily forms. The seminar is a collective form of educa-
tional life that produces a thought that works on and over the raw materials of
subjectivity in order to produce a moment that opens a void in subjects so as
to expose them to a collective form of educational life that does not have a
proper name or destination. Paradoxically, in the seminar nothing is learned and
nothing is taught. Perhaps we might call the seminar the space and time of
what Derek Ford (2016) refers to as communist study, which for him is a
unique educational logic beyond learning and teaching as we have outlined
them above. Hence, the centrality of producing new interventions over and
against dogmatic interpretations of texts during the seminar: something
happens; some comments, gestures, discussions cause a swerve effect that
cannot be predicted but that nevertheless alters the direction of the seminar.
Such happenings are not controlled by anyone, nor are they perfectly planned,
but they erupt and destabilize what is, in the name of a common exposure.
In short, aleatory teachers are those who are exposed to an opening for a
swerve and thus have luck on their side, bearing witness and maintaining the
clash of atoms when the swerve occurs (Go with that!). The aleatory student
is the one who suffers the effects of the swerve on subjectivity (I dont know
where this is going; I dont know if this is the right answer. Or, This might
sound crazy, but ). It is in this way that the Marxist educational subject is a
subject without a subject, a no one, an anonymous and unknown person
without a name, a force that is open to a new kind of world, a communist
world. And for this reason, Althussers fundamental educational gesture is still
relevant, urgent, and in need of theoretical elaboration and practical
Althusser: Between Past and Future 317


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