Theory Tuesday IV
Welcome to the fourth installment of Theory Tuesday. Today’s installment opens with an apology for some of the things I left unmentioned in my last Theory Tuesday, the one on structuralism. I know it sounds strange that I should apologize for not making that 3500-word post even longer, but, well, I realized at some point this week that I’d discussed structuralism without saying anything about Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole (here’s a handy intro to such matters). You kind of need to have that distinction on board in order to make sense of a good deal of Roman Jakobson’s work, including his otherwise nearly-opaque claim that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination”; more important for today’s purposes, you need that distinction in order to make sense of a couple of other crucial things: one, structuralism’s disdain for history (for which Ricoeur, among others, faulted it), and two, the very broad claim that language speaks us (a claim often conflated or confused with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that thought is coextensive with language—a hypothesis that drives cognitive neuroscientists up the wall. Or so I am told). Anyway, folks, langue refers to the entire operating system of a language; parole refers to a single person’s speech, an instance of the operating system in use. Saussure and Saussureans are not interested in how lingustic operating systems change over time; for them, it’s all about the synchrony (the structure at a moment in time), not about the diachrony (which has to do with historical development and change). It has not escaped anyone’s notice that the langue/parole distinction maps pretty neatly onto Chomsky’s distinction between linguistic competence and linguistic performance; that neat confluence, combined with the sudden availability of Saussurean/ structuralist theory in the 1960s (thanks to the vagaries of translation), accounts for some of the Theory Boom of the early days.
I offer this preface as a way of broaching the otherwise incomprehensible question of why anyone would think it necessary to devise a “structuralist Marxism.” Structuralism is so antipathetic to all questions of hermeneutics and historicity that one might imagine the desire for a structuralist Marxism to be something like a hankering for really spicy ice cream. And yet, in the work of Louis Althusser, spicy ice cream is exactly what we have. I don’t like it myself. But because it’s an important byway in the history of ice cream—er, I mean the history of Marxist theory—I still find it necessary to tell students about it, partly in order to warn them that it will very likely leave a bad taste in their mouths. In the meantime, a promissory note for a future Theory Tuesday: Mikhail Bakhtin’s account of “sociolects” and “heteroglossia” in “Discourse in the Novel” offers what I consider to be a much more satisfying way to think about the relation between langue and parole, in which the latter sometimes influences the development of the former. In the structuralist world, that never happens. But in a more complex Marxist/formalist world where people rigorously calibrate the relation between diachrony and synchrony and the relation between structural constraints and individual idiosyncrasies, “signs” are understood as a site of social struggle (though not the only site of struggle, by any means), and theorists are called to account for what Bakhtin calls the “internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence.”
But let’s not jump ahead just yet; let’s work to get that bad taste in our mouths first.
In Althusser, the marriage of structuralism and Marxism gives us a reinterpretation of ideology as langue. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” he writes,
I say: the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects.
This is basically a Marxist version of the structuralist dictum that the code speaks us; in other words, it’s an antihumanist Marxism that displaces individuals from the main stage of the historical action and installs ideology at the center of critical analysis. Most Marxisms do likewise, following Marx’s claim (in the Eighteenth Brumaire) that men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing; but Althusser goes a good deal further, arguing that ideology “interpellates” or “hails” individuals as subjects from the get-go.
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. . . .
Thus ideology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects. As ideology is eternal, I must now suppress the temporal form in which I have presented the functioning of ideology, and say: ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects. . . . That an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born, is nevertheless the plain reality, accessible to everyone and not a paradox at all.
Althusser then goes to on write that “Freud shows that individuals are always ‘abstract’ with respect to the subjects they always-already are,” and that if we look at childbirth without illusions, we will see this always-already in operation: “If we agree to drop the ‘sentiments,’ i.e., the forms of family ideology (paternal/ maternal/ conjugal/ fraternal) in which the unborn child is expected: it is certain in advance that it will bear its Father’s Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable. Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific ideological configuration in which it is ‘expected’ once it has been conceived.”
Whew! What a bunch of arrant nonsense Althusser sneaks in there at the end. But let’s back up a bit, before Althusser goes off the rails so thoroughly as to argue that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology insofar children are “expected” and will bear their father’s name.
First, there’s the tension between “always” and “hardly ever.” Experience, Althusser says, shows us that hailings hardly ever miss their man, and that the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. (This is a very strange claim in itself, not only because experience shows us no such thing but also because a structuralist Marxist ordinarily does not make empiricist claims at all, as Stuart Hall will point out in “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.”) A bit further on, Althusser reprises the scene: “There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/ suspecting/ knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing.”
All right, so now we have three hailing frequencies to consider:
1. The hailing hardly ever misses.
2. The hailing is successful ninety percent of the time.
3. The individual is always hailed—indeed, always-already hailed. Ideology recruits us all.
We’re still in the initial scene of interpellation here, being yelled at by a cop on the street, and already you should be asking yourselves, uh, how exactly does this thing work? Folks, you don’t have to wait for a card-carrying deconstructionist to come along and point out that the successful transmission of a message is a subset of all the message’s possible mistransmissions. You can ask a more immediate question: what happens to that tenth person? Can ideology fail to interpellate a subject, and if so, what happens then? Is the subject cast into the outer darkness where there is no language, and no language police hailing people?
Well, now. This, I tell my students, is an influential but deeply problematic, and deeply flawed, account of ideology. It is compounded, not clarified, by Althusser’s famous formula, “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” And just in case I haven’t already pissed off the last few remaining Althusserians in the English-speaking world in the course of this post, let me suggest that both these conceptions of ideology—as interpellation, as imaginary relations to real conditions—are little more than dressed-up versions of “false consciousness.” To be more specific: their dress is Lacanian formal dress, in which the “imaginary” is coextensive with the linguistic unconscious (remember, for Lacanians, the unconscious is structured like a language); “imaginary” in this formula does not simply mean “unreal” or “made up,” so it’s not as if Althusser is saying that people are just delusional dupes or something (undoubtedly some are, but this is hardly a firm basis for a full-blown theory of human subjectivity). He’s saying that we all live in the Imaginary, and that’s why we heard that “hey, you!” in the first place. So think of it this way: people misrecognize their relationship to their real conditions of existence, just as they misrecognize their relation to ideology itself (which is the source of that misrecognition), but then, what would you expect, since misrecognition is the order of the day: “Hey, you!” the officer yells, and when we turn around, he says, “misrecognize your relation to the structures that interpellate you, including this one,” and we say, “okey-doke,” and proceed on our Mister Magooian misrecognizing way.
One wonders just how an ideological interpellation-scheme so rigid and reliable as this ever allowed anyone, let alone Louis Althusser, to grasp its workings.
Nevertheless, as Tony Judt pointed out in a devastating review of Althusser’s career (in the March 7, 1994 issue of The New Republic), Althusserian Marxism was, for a brief period, a lingua franca spoken widely on the Continent:
When I arrived in Paris as a graduate student in the late ‘60s, I was skeptically curious to see and to hear Louis Althusser. In charge of the teaching of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, the French elite academy for future teachers and leaders, Althusser was touted by everyone I met as a man of extraordinary gifts, who was transforming our understanding of Marx and reshaping revolutionary theory. His name, his ideas, his books were everywhere.
But Judt was not impressed with what he found.
Sitting in on his crowded and sycophantic seminar, I was utterly bemused. For Althusser’s account of Marxism, to the extent that I could make any sense of it, bore no relation to anything I had ever heard. It chopped Marx into little bits, selected those texts or parts of texts that suited the master’ s interpretation and then proceeded to construct the most astonishingly abstruse, self-regarding and ahistorical version of Marxist philosophy imaginable. The exercise bore no discernible relationship to Marxism, to philosophy or to pedagogy. After a couple of painful attempts to adapt myself to the experience and to derive some benefit from it, I abandoned the seminar and never went back.
In the past, I’ve directed my students to Judt’s review as well as to various accounts (including Althusser’s) of Althusser’s late “confessions”—that he was poorly read in Marx, that he suffered from lifelong mental illness, that his so-called “symptomatic” readings in Marxism were little more than an elaborate way of making shit up. I’ve done this not merely to complicate the view of Althusser one gets in the Norton, where the headnote tells us that “Althusser’s major concepts—‘ideological state apparatuses,’ ‘interpellation,’ ‘imaginary relations,’ and ‘overdetermination’—permeate the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and his theory of ideology has influenced virtually all subsequent serious work on the topic”—but to pose a pedagogical conundrum for students. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Althusser was speaking the truth about his lack of familiarity with the Marxist canon, and that his mental illness played a large role in his life and work. (Hardcore Althusserians have tried to set aside his “confessions” precisely by appealing to his history of mental illness, but this merely produces a Marxist-theory version of the Cretan liar’s paradox: of course you can’t believe a madman who tells you he’s mad.) Now, having assumed all this, is it possible nonetheless that Althusser might have left us with Marxist concepts worth using, regardless of whether they are well-grounded in actually existing Marxist theory, or should we (as Judt does) just jettison the whole Ideological Althusserian Apparatus, and shake our heads at the fact that such a theory could ever have appealed to so many intelligent people?
I hope my own reply is already implicit in this post: I think it’s vitally important for students to know where the Althusser phenomenon came from, and why anyone would attempt to craft a fully structuralist, antihumanist Marxism in the first place. There is no doubt that Althusser’s work on ideology permeates the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and in order to figure out whether or not that may be a Good Thing, I believe we have to go to the root, like good radicals. (I would say the same thing about the decade between 1975 and 1985 when feminist film theory became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lacan Enterprises Worldwide, and every film journal devoted itself to the subject, “Is the Gaze Male? Find Out the Thrilling Answer in Our Special Issue on the Male Gaze.” It wasn’t just one essay by Laura Mulvey or one issue of m/f or Screen that did it; it was a whole congeries of enabling conditions and fateful decisions, and it’s important to sift through the wreckage if you want to try to determine what’s salvageable and what’s not.) As for whether his concepts are worth retaining, I say, eh. I think we have better versions of them readily available to us. I think the notion of Ideological State Apparatuses is actually far less subtle and useful than the Gramscian corpus from which Althusser derived it: in a curious footnote to “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser writes, “To my knowledge, Gramsci is the only one who went any distance in the road I am taking. He had the ‘remarkable’ idea that the State could not be reduced to the (Repressive) State Apparatus, but included, as he put it, a certain number of institutions from ‘civil society’: the Church, the Schools, the trade unions, etc. Unfortunately, Gramsci did not systematize his institutions, which remained in the state of acute but fragmentary notes.” I would agree with all of this except the “unfortunately,” which I would change to “thankfully.” Althusser’s ISAs are huge, monolithic things: Church and School. They operate to reproduce relations of production, and of course they churn out ideology (and therefore subjects) at an amazing clip. They seem to do nothing else, in fact, and
never very rarely only once in every ten tries do they fail in this enterprise. But Gramsci’s looser and more supple conception of “civil society” (to which Stuart Hall turned in the 1970s and 1980s) is valuable precisely because it is not systematized: it recognizes that the institutions of civil society are many and various, and often work at cross purposes. Compared to Gramsci’s account of political actors exclusive of the State, Althusser’s looks impoverished and reductive.
As for Althusser’s concept of ideology: as I remarked above, it seems to me a complex way of suggesting that people simply don’t know what the hell they’re about—and that they don’t know what they’re about for sound, scientific, structuralist/psychoanalytic reasons. Moreover, such a theory of ideology and interpellation seems to leave no way of accounting for people who might come up with such a theory. In the most general sense, this seems to me to be a subset of a more general recursivity problem with doctrinaire antihumanism—or, to put this in simpler terms, how is it that the code that allegedly speaks us includes the sentence “the code speaks us” and all the sentences with which to contest that one? But its consequences for Marxism—or for any theory of social agency and historical change—seem to me to be quite awful. By rejecting Marxism’s humanist legacy so completely, Althusser not only gives us a vastly simplified account of “structural causality”; he evacuates individuals and social movements from the scene of historical action altogether. To say this is not to call for a return to the Great Man theory of history. It is merely to ask for a more complex vision of social and historical conflict, one in which individuals are never fully interpellated, and perhaps may be hailed by competing, intersecting, and contradictory discourses; in which, furthermore, individuals are more or less conscious of the degree to which they participate in those discourses; and in which, finally, ideological formations, or hegemonies, are striated and cross-cut, fissured and unstable. It is to ask for a somewhat humanist Marxism capable of accounting for uneven social developments and differing rates of social change, in which we can recognize that “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention (this range is not the inventory of some original ‘human nature’ but, on the contrary, is that extraordinary range of variations, both practised and imagined, of which human beings are and have shown themselves to be capable).” That sentence comes from Raymond Williams’s 1973 essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” and that’s where I’ll begin two weeks from now, August 23, when Theory Tuesday V kicks off with a discussion of hegemony and incorporation; the residual, the dominant, and the emergent; and the opposition between the view of the work of art as object and the view of the work of art as practice.
I’ll be back tomorrow with a couple of more personal updates and a pre-vacation signoff. Many thanks to John McGowan for assigning himself the formidable task of parsing the Butler-Nussbaum Impasse. I can’t wait for Thursday!
Woo-hoo! Props to Johnny Mc for parsing Butler-Nussbaum!
Those bastards needed their impasse parsed and I think we all knew they had it coming.Posted by Chris Moore on 08/09 at 05:47 PM
As someone who accidently did once ingest Masala Ice Cream, I can safely say “Spicy Ice Cream” tastes just as bad as it sounds.
After one spoonful of what was supposed to be some tasty pistachio my friend and I gave ours to some street kids. They promptly junked it in the gutter and ran off with the plastic cups.Posted by talboito on 08/09 at 06:55 PM
What, nothing on the whole wife-strangling? Surely that’s not too far dehors texte?Posted by Josh on 08/09 at 06:59 PM
Thompson’s “Poverty of Theory” makes Althusser look just awful, and is a lot more fun to read than Althusser would be. Save yourself the grief.
Only humorless feminists make a big deal about the thing with the wife. (File under biographical fallacy.)Posted by Stalin on 08/09 at 07:36 PM
I shudder at the amount of street cred it must take to be able to write a sentence like “What a bunch of arrant nonsense Althusser sneaks in there at the end.” If anyone but a professor of literature and cultural studies who was generally sympathetic to Theory wrote it, the engines would immediately start revving to see who could be first to the finish line with accusations of reactionary know-nothing anti-intellectualism.
I never felt that using his mental illness against him was a valid criticism of Althusser. He only wrote about how bad his work was after he had been confined to an instutution, and his judgement of his work’s worth was not reliable. You have to judge it on its own terms, not by his own late-in-life opinion of it. Of course this opinion may be influenced by my own reflexive dislike of all things Hitchens.
“Thanks for doing this series” has been overused, so I’ll write “thanks for helping to popularize literary theory, which has far too few readable popularizations.”Posted by on 08/09 at 07:50 PM
Huh, another Josh. I’ll have to change my online tag.
Sad to say, at a graduate conference I attended about five years ago, a guy responded to a friendly “How are you holding up?” with a “Gawd, I feel discursively interpellated today,” and people around him nodded sympathetically with “I know what you mean” looks. Scott Eric Kaufman argues, convincingly to my mind, that you can’t do that -that the system from which we get “interpellation” and the one from which we get “discursive” (as it’s used in that context) are incompatible. I still think “interpellation” gives us a very useful concept that can be adapted to other schemata, but agree that it presupposes some things that don’t quite work in a Foucaultian scheme.Posted by on 08/09 at 07:51 PM
I’m not sure it has “far too few readable popularizations” but thanks very much, for doing this series, yes.Posted by Matt on 08/09 at 08:28 PM
That august picture with the silver maple was street cred enough for me.Posted by Matt on 08/09 at 08:32 PM
Heady stuff for a hot day. Thanks for writing these!
There’s another problem to Althusser’s theory of ideology to which you allude in your critique, but which deserves more discussion. Althusser begs the question, with serious consequences that haven’t been criticized forcefully enough. Does public discourse (the Real Conditions of Existence) need to be understood as personal? My point about Althusser begging the question and my own question are inspired by Michael Warner’s discussion of Althusser in his Publics and Counterpublics (Zone 2002, 76-87). Warner suggests Althusser’s whole theory begs the question about the personal character of public discourse.
Here’s my account of the question begging. The Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) essay asks, How do subjects come to have an imaginary relationship to their Real Conditions of Existence? The response is an intricate explanation of how impersonal social life comes to comprise subjective consciousness. Althusser does this by boiling Marx’s ideology down to the pronoun “you,” which you recognize as yourself when barked at by a cop, representative of the state and the public. But: Does public discourse really work this way? You imply, “no.” I would say it almost never works this way. How many interactions do people have with the police? For some, no doubt too many, too--although in my experience those people are often highly skilled at resisting police hailings—at least in my neighborhood. Most people’s experience of public discourse is reading newspapers, reading books, watching television, fulfilling a role in an institution, and these are all roles often distant from one’s self-understanding. But by equating the impersonal with the personal, as you note in your aside about Feminist film theory, you get all these accounts that begin from an equation of impersonal public discourse and subjective interiority. It’s a counterintuitive and hence powerful critique in a culture of “live your dreams,” but the consequences are nasty. No agency: as you write, “such a theory of ideology and interpellation seems to leave no way of accounting for people who might come up with such a theory.” No struggle: how do you fight daily fights over resources with a theory like this? And without agency or struggle, little purchase for a view of culture as incremental struggle.
We’d all be better off if we left Althusser behind. Bakhtin is a richer field, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say about him.Posted by on 08/09 at 09:15 PM
This is off-topic, but have you seen the latest bit of wingnuttery from your pat Gelernter?
Equality doesn’t mean you get a pass or special privileges just because your skin is dark or you appear Middle Eastern.
You might argue that dark-skinned people are a special case, given the way the United States has treated them. I agree—we have treated them so solicitously, and worked so hard to suppress racial prejudice, that dark- skinned people owe their country the benefit of the doubt.
He’s even nuttier than David Horowitz!Posted by overheardinphilly on 08/09 at 09:56 PM
I shudder at the amount of street cred it must take to be able to write a sentence like “What a bunch of arrant nonsense Althusser sneaks in there at the end.”
Shudder not, Rich! I have no street cred on Althusser Boulevard. Even worse, it took me more than ten years to understand why. Not until I taught a seminar on cultural studies and assigned the mostly wonderful David Morley/ Kuan-Hsing Chen compilation, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies did I realize just how virulent the Althusserian response to cultural studies really was/is.
And I would never use Althusser’s mental illness (or that allegedly involuntary strangulation of his wife) as a key to reading his work. This Blog Does Not Go There, any more than it endorses Terry Eagleton’s cartoon portrait of Heidegger as someone who advocates a “cringing” before Being that is analogous to Heidegger’s relation to the Führer before 1945. When this blog teaches students ("blog" being, of course, a metonym for the subject interpellated by its proper name), it asks them, so what if X is purported to be mad? The question remains, does this purportedly mad X have anything to teach us? What if X = Ezra Pound, or Nietzsche, or H.D., or Edgar Allen Poe?
If anyone but a professor of literature and cultural studies who was generally sympathetic to Theory wrote it, the engines would immediately start revving to see who could be first to the finish line with accusations of reactionary know-nothing anti-intellectualism.
Ah, but as Empson once said, the valve alone knows the worst truth about the revving engines.
AN, thanks so much for the Warner-inspired commentary, most of which I agree with. I want to suggest in return, though, that we shouldn’t read Althusser’s literalism too literally. In other words, forget those cops, even if Louis was obsessed with them. Let’s take your examples of public discourse—“reading newspapers, reading books, watching television, fulfilling a role in an institution.” Might one not be “interpellated” by such experiences? Haven’t we ever had the feeling of reading or watching or experiencing something that seemed to crystallize something that we didn’t quite know we already believed? Alternatively—and I think this is much more important, and completely unaccounted for by Althusser—haven’t we ever had the experience of being hailed by a form of public discourse that led us to change our minds about something? Not along the lines of Saul on the road to Damascus (that one doesn’t involve “public” discourse at all), but along the lines Hall describes, working from Gramsci and Volosinov? (I suppose I will never know why Hall and Hebdige don’t give Bakhtin the props he deserves on this count.)Posted by Michael on 08/09 at 10:08 PM
Likewise, overheardinphilly, I would never use Gelernter’s manifest mental illness against him. I hear, however, that dark-skinned people love his work.Posted by Michael on 08/09 at 10:19 PM
Was H.D. purportedly mad? I had never heard so. I know that she had a mental breakdown and a lot of psychoanalysis, but I wouldn’t think that would count as purported madness.Posted by on 08/10 at 12:02 AM
To say this is not to call for a return to the Great Man theory of history. It is merely to ask for a more complex vision of social and historical conflict, one in which individuals are never fully interpellated, and perhaps may be hailed by competing, intersecting, and contradictory discourses; in which, furthermore, individuals are more or less conscious of the degree to which they participate in those discourses; and in which, finally, ideological formations, or hegemonies, are striated and cross-cut, fissured and unstable.
Couldn’t one situate such a ‘call’ historically as a contemporary re-reading, a transformative interpretation of Althusser though? If not, why not? The point about not allowing for the possibility of his own theory seems important, and I’m not disputing his unnecessary dressing up (or his madness), but isn’t part of situating him historically also to appreciate what was made possible in his wake? Or was he just a sideshow on the way to poststructuralism? I’m trying to calibrate my enthusiasm for people like Eagleton precisely here. Thanks.Posted by Matt on 08/10 at 12:32 AM
Thanks for your response. Forgive the length of my response.
You point to an intriguing problem with the argument I made. I wrote that that Althusser collapses impersonal and personal (public and private) and that’s a problem, implying that the private is somehow not nearly so determined by the impersonal or public as Althusser would have it. Your counter is that interpellation into ideological consciousness works at the microlevel, as language. The personal/private (parole) is determined by language (the Real Conditions of Existence/langue). As an alternative to Althusser, you note Voloshinov’s argument in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, where he argues that language comes from others and is hence a social institution. Even in carrying on a conversation in my own head, I’m really only mimicking the social use of language. So, says Voloshinov, interiority is really others within me. My subjectivity is a social institution. Voloshinov’s is a masterful yet concise critique of subjectivist philosophies, and I’m glad you pointed it out. I take your reference to Hall to note the way he argues that we can take a point like Voloshinov’s and patiently build political alliances around interpellated positions, even though they’re entangled in the effects of ideology (inherent in language). Laclau and Mouffe’s argument about hegemony offers another version of this argument. I take your point to be that the personal, on these accounts, is ideological, for language is a social insitution that in our use of it makes us political agents.
The problem I have with these arguments, and psychoanalytical political theory in general, is the way the social-political order is understood as a function of psychic apparatuses, that take form through language. What’s not political then? What do we mean by political when we blow it up to equate the political with language inside the mind? This is a typical way of thinking about things among people who do cultural studies, I know. An interesting debate about this position, and a critique of it, transpired around the essays that laid the foundation for Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Child (Duke 2004). John Brenkman attacked him for the breadth of the political in his argument (essays pub. in Narrative 2002).
Brenkman makes a good, if unpopular point. The cost of an Althusserian-like theory of interpellation is a notion of the political as the symbolic order, or as he puts it, the totalitarian state. Brenkman argues that politics, by contrast, is always a struggle over signification between different levels. (He explains this by noting the gap between Lacan’s symbolic and real, and arguing that the political inheres in the struggle in the symbolic to signify the real. It’s an abstract argument, but one that tries to dispel Edelman’s argument in Edelman’s own terms.) But the larger point is that leaving behind psychoanalysis and Althusser helps us see the political as one sphere among others (economic, civil society, private). Might more careful, less deterministic, discussions about the limits of the political and the ideological than Althusser’s be beneficial?
The Gramsci/Laclau & Mouffe/Hall wing of the party’s theory of hegemony suggests one answer. Brenkman writes about Cladue Lefort. Lefort’s work with Cornelius Castoriadis on social imaginaries is the inspiration for Warner and company. He and Appadurai/Taylor’s have begun publishing helpful accounts of civil society and globalized public culture are another attempt to get away from Althusser and the rest. I find a book like Taylor’s admittedly brief Modern Social Imaginaries a step in the right direction.
Appreciate your critical discussion of Althusser. (I hope you’re writing notes toward a forthcoming, influential book!)Posted by on 08/10 at 03:23 AM
When I actually left the apartment and would go a-walking down the streets, I was once interpellated by someone and I turned around only to find out they were hailing another Hanna.
I turned back and continued on my way.
Alas, I don’t understand a word you write when you write about Theory or theory or sawing up trees.
Even though I have operated a chain saw. I just never saw it as a calling in life. I feel the same way about chain saws as I do about guns. I’m okay with trained people having them, as long as they promise not to use them on people without a damn good reason. And my idea of a damn good reason is pretty idealistic.
Still, I am interested and afraid of what is going to happen on Thursday. I don’t know this “Queer Theory” people keep talking about. I just live it. And most days it’s just no fun, no fun at all. Anything that doesn’t take that into account isn’t valid, no matter how structurally valid it might be. “Queer Theory” used to be fightin’ words for me, because the people who kept mentioning it seemed to have relatively safer places in society than I ever dreamed of having.
I’ll be terribly disappointed if the article on Thursday turns out to be one of “Nussbaum just doesn’t understand Theory and is misreading Butler’s statements, if only Nussbaum knew Theory better, there wouldn’t be all this misunderstanding”.
Instead, my personal views on the reading assignment is that they’re both talking about different things, talking past each other.
I wouldn’t trust either of them to make the world safe for me. Since at this point in my life I’m completely dependent on others for survival. Which is pretty much why I don’t leave my apartment and haven’t for over a year.
Not coming by Seattle on your vacation are you, Michael? It’s okay if you’re not. I can wait for the next one or the next one or preferably some time when you’re paid by someone else to come out here to do something and have some free time after visiting all the wondrous sights to behold in the Pacific Northwest and want to visit with the village idiot. I should email you my phone number so you know I’m serious. Though, I don’t know how we’re going to communicate at all because I don’t understand even what you teach in your most basic classes. Still, I truly believe that’s the very reason I have something to give to Theory. Pardon my megalomania.
HannaPosted by Hanna on 08/10 at 04:45 AM
Though this may be spinning OT (and though the point may be banal), AN’s comments (#16 above) about the inherently “totalitarian” nature of the Althusserian (and other psychoanalytic) accounts of the political suggest to me why, as a reaction to this sort of thing, so many on the left, especially in Europe, have been attracted (somewhat bizarrely, IMO) to the work of Carl Schmitt, whose notion of the political is at least concrete and (potentially) circumscribed.Posted by on 08/10 at 12:20 PM
I think Althusser’s work shows the dangers of over-application of abstraction--when we decide it would be more convenient to look at the one (or two, or three, or nine out of ten) Big Concepts That Will Explain Everything an forget that abstraction (at least for us Aristotelians) is always playing catch-up to the bewildering complexity of numerous individuals negotiating within numerous frameworks, none of which totally capture the sum of the parts.
I’ve always looked to (heavily modified) Bakhtinian thought as a way of thinking about the big picture that doesn’t make us abstract out people (like those weather simulations that are forced to leave out minor features like the islands of Japan when they model climate).
James Scott’s Seeing Like A State is a good study on the relationship between abstraction, power, and totalitarian thinking on both the left and right. It might help explain some of the discomfort with this line of thinking.Posted by on 08/11 at 01:51 PM
True, Althusser’s answers aren’t much good—but the problems are right, and current. I too would hate to see his work thrown away just because the results are close to nonsense. His problem is really still ours—it’s the whole “theory” problem, the status of theory, right? You allude to this with your comment about the recursivity problem in “antihumanist” thought. But this is still a problem we’re in, and is your criticism that Althusser doesn’t know he’s in it? I’m not so sure. Anyway, one of the important lessons of deconstruction is that there is no theory that doesn’t run into recursive problems. This is why Derrida would say things like deconstruction is not a theory: it refuses to commit the error of theory, you could say. But deconstruction really just looks like a more “self-aware” theory than “antihumanist structuralism”. It’s questionable whether that is a real virtue. A strict Althusserian (I met one once! I almost fell in love!) might say—deconstruction is just refusing to play the game whose rules it professes to know better than anyone else. Althusserians then would have the virtue of making the mistake of acting like their theory is a metalanguage or science...A virtuous, enabling error or blindspot. As Lacan used to say—it is the non-duped who err! Short version: Deconstruction says “your blind spot is showing!” and Althusser says…
Well, a lot hinges on how that reply should be phrased, but you get the gist.Posted by on 08/11 at 01:58 PM
Chile ice cream is very good, and shouldn’t be scorned with a bad metaphor. Masala ice cream I can’t speak to, but soon I hope.Posted by on 08/11 at 10:37 PM
That is very correct, a lot does hinge on how that reply should be phrased. Everyone has their own little niche about these things, but in general we all know how things can work. People have their ways of showing things, especially depending on their situation.Posted by Jason on 01/28 at 10:50 AM
Throughout the 1980s, Marxist theorists began to expand structuralism Marxist in state, law, and crime. Structuralist Marxism is the conductor view of the state that can be viewed as the direct servant of the capitalist or ruling class. Marxists tries to put this into the institutions of the state so they must function on to reproduce capitalist society as a whole.Posted by Website Optimization Company on 12/21 at 03:29 AM
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