Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

History and the Traumatic Narrative of Desire and Enjoyment in Althusser

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

History and the Traumatic Narrative of Desire and Enjoyment in Althusser

Article excerpt

According to the common image of Althusser that circulates today, my title names everything that is missing from his work. For decades, he has mainly been known--and dismissed--for his allegedly puritanical and sterile project, principally in For Marx and Reading "Capital," to elaborate a theoretically rigorous Marxist science. Where in such an undertaking to attain correctness is there room for anything as referentially particular as history, as literary as narrative, or as emotionally fraught as trauma, desire, and enjoyment? Yet I contend that while these things are certainly not at the center of his theory, they are nonetheless crucial to it.

Of all these topics, Althusser's relationship to history has received the most attention and generated the most controversy. His pronouncement in Reading Capital that "Marxism Is Not a Historicism" has often been taken to evince a hostility to historical studies as a whole. (1) Yet what Althusser attacks is not the study of history as such or its relevance to Marxism, but the concept of a homogeneous, linear time that underlies many diverse ways of doing history. (2) Indeed, Althusser's critique of historicism in this special sense is also a call for a new historiography that would rethink historical time "explicitly as a function of the structure of the whole" uneven social formation. (3) The importance of history to Althusser can be seen in the fact that he not only credits Marx with founding history as a science, he also insists in the liminal texts of For Marx that his "philosophical essays do not derive from a merely erudite or speculative investigation. They are, simultaneously, interventions in a definite conjuncture"; "Each the result of a special occasion, these pieces are none the less products of the same epoch and the same history." (4) But despite this emphasis on conjunctural pressures, Althusser never delineates them very fully in his theoretical corpus, which lacks the fully elaborated historical case studies that abound in Marx. Even in the autobiographical The Future Lasts Forever, he coyly withholds any "systematic" discussion of such matters, referring the reader instead to his published writings, which he then declares do not treat history inadequately:

   I know you are waiting for me to talk about philosophy, politics,
   my position within the Party, and my books, how they were received;
   to reveal those who liked them and those who were implacably
   opposed to them. But I do not intend to discuss these totally
   objective matters in a systematic manner because the information is
   available to anyone who does not have it already, just by reading
   what I have written (a vast number of books published in many
   different countries.) You can however rest assured that I only ever
   trot out the same old themes which can be counted on the fingers of
   one hand. (5)

To a large extent, Althusser in his own practice replaces history as commonly understood with the history of the production of knowledge, attributing to Marx the claim that it "takes place entirely in knowledge, in the 'head' or in 'thought.'" (6) This claim is at work in a surprising way in the theory of symptomatic reading, where even what is problematic in relation to knowledge is made to serve it, for symptomatic reading poses the inadequate concepts, borrowings from other theories or metaphorical formulations Althusser calls "symptoms," in the texts of Marx and the Marxist tradition as sites for further conceptual work: "a science only progresses, i.e., lives, by the extreme attention it pays to points where it is theoretically fragile." (7) Nor does ideology, which Althusser characterizes as unconscious, escape this extreme epistemological and cognitive fix. What Alex Callinicos wittily dubs the "epistemological blues" that pervade For Marx and Reading "Capital" consist precisely in making ideology a problem of knowledge. Even after Althusser redefines ideology in more material terms as "actions inserted into practices . …

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