Re: a bit more on bourdieu, foucault, and althusser

Dear Hiro,

In response to your email, some more on Althusser. Althusser suffered from
repeated bouts of mental illness, and during those periods (which became
more frequent and more intense) he was unable to write essays. This had the
effect that much of what he produced was short essays or compilations of
essays (e.g., _For Marx_) rather than books. Generally those books that did
appear later were revisions of lecture series, such as _Philosophy and the
Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists_ (1974, but based on 1967 lectures)
and _Machiavelli and Us_ (published posthumously, but from 1972). This
contrasts with the works of many of his students, such as Pecheux, Lecourt,
or Macherey, who, not suffering from Althusser's affliction, were able to
produce lengthy books.

Poulantzas committed suicide in 1980, and Althusser killed Helene in the
same year. It is not clear how these are related. There was a crisis in the
French Left at the time though, that induced a certain melancholia amongst
sections of the French Left and has been speculated to have caused the
suicide of Poulantzas (and later, in 1983, the suicide of Pecheux). It is
not clear though how strong an influence political events had on these
events. It does make for juicy reading for those addicted to biographies.
Althusser's autobiography is an interesting document but misleading if
taken, against his own protocols of symptomatic reading, as a literal
statement of Althusser's intentions, life, etc. Warren Montag has written
an excellent piece on the autobiography that was published in a collection
entitled _Marxism in the Postmodern Age_ (edited by Antonio Callari, David
Ruccio and Carole Biewener) and another essay by Gabriel Albiac on the
autobiography is also excellent, appearing in a special issue of _Rethinking
Marxism_ (Vol. 10, No. 3) that is dedicated to analyses of Althusser's
posthumous publications.

The article that I recommended in the previous email by Warren Montag has a
companion essay on Althusser's displacement of the force/consent binary in
_Sur la reproduction_ and the ISAs paper, which can be found in the
collection edited by Callari and Ruccio called _Postmodern Materialism and
the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Tradition_
(Wesleyan University Press, 1996). Together these, with Montag's book on
Spinoza, provide the most lucid analysis of Althusser's work on ideology
available in English (in my view).

These essays suggest that the question of why actors might submit willingly
to their subjection is an unfortunate one, in that there is no "actor" prior
to its constitution in subjection. This problem arises, however, out of the
limitations of the theory of interpellation, which presupposes a process of
recognition/misrecognition. Montag argues that Foucault's treatment of the
disciplines avoids this problem.

This problem perhaps arises from another issue which the ISAs paper grapples
with, namely the relation of ideology -- and the "superstructure" more
generally -- to the economic "infrastructure". While the topographical
metaphor does have some merits, in decentring some more simple forms of
historicist explanation found in the Marxist tradition, Althusser's pursuit
of this problem in terms of "the determination in the last instance by the
economy" from "the viewpoint of reproduction" leads him into the cul-de-sac
of (mis)recognition and the presumption of a pre-discursive self subjected
to the requirements of the social structure. Montag discusses this but
finds the most productive aspect of Althusser's discussion to be in the
concept of the materiality of ideology -- or discourse in Foucault's
formulation -- and the relation between ideology and the economy becomes
thinkable for Althusser in these terms only from the viewpoint of
reproduction, which enables him to assert that ideology is both completely
material -- and thus dependent, in the last instance, on the reproduction of
its materiality, which presumes economic production -- and that "the last
instance never comes" -- i.e., that the efficacy of the non-economic, as in
some respects the necessary conditions of existence of the economic, might
in any/every instance actually be decisive.

The problem with the latter position is that, despite its merits, it doesn't
actually establish *any* priority for the economic in any given
circumstance, and thus the notion that the economic instance "selects" which
instance -- economic, ideological, or political -- will be "dominant" is
just an unsupported piece of structuralist mythology that might best be
explained as necessary to Althusser's imaginary relation to his own
political conditions of existence, as a Communist and Marxist. The
viewpoint of reproduction might be retained as an aspect of the thesis of
the materiality of discourse -- in that it is a necessary presumption that a
given discourse will continue to exist only so long as the conditions of its
existence -- including the economic conditions -- are reproduced, but it
must be admitted that the more abstract these become the wider the scope for
their reproduction.

Once the structuralist aspect -- which Poulantzas fixated on in works such
as _Fascism and Dictatorship_ -- is discarded then Althusser's theory of the
materiality of ideology/discourse might be assimilated to Foucault's work in
_Discipline and Punish_, and might gainfully be deployed against idealist
tendencies in our readings of Foucault's work.

Given that power always exists in material apparatuses/devices/practices and
that "power" in the abstract is imaginary and only exists in its material
effects in those apparatuses/devices/practices, such as our writings on
"power" and their effects in our actions -- and the same might be said for
"habitus" -- then the abstract proposition that power is always reversible
should be seen as a statement of principle, rather than of fact. In any
given instance there will be conditions determining which individuals can
act in a certain way, which must act in another way, the relations between
them, etc -- including the conditions under which these might be reversed.
The panopticon, for example, structures these relations in a very
assymetrical way, as Foucault argues, even though resistance is always
formerly possible, even if it is suicidal, given that power is always
exercised through acting on the actions of others. It might be the case,
however, that in other instances the possibilities for reversal are
considerably greater, and this entails moving towards a concrete analysis
rather than an abstract statement of principle.

I hope this clarifies the issues somewhat. Althusser's texts are
notoriously difficult and entwined in Communist debates that seem strange to
us now. I would recommend digging out the texts by Montag that I have
mentioned as they place Althusser's texts in their context as well as our
own, and thus make A's work much more intelligible for us, as 21st century

best wishes

P.S. An excellent review article by Mark Cousins, entitled "Jokes and their
relation to the unconscious" appeared in _Economy and Society_ in 1985 or
so. It is a review of Pecheux's _Language, Semantics and Ideology_ (1982).
I have gained much critical distance from the structuralist aspect of A's
work on ideology from reading that article. On the question of
"reductionism" in social analysis I would also recommend reading the works
of Barry Hindess, especially _Politics and Class-Analysis" (1987).

----- Original Message -----
From: "Hiro Saito" <hirosophy@xxxxxxxxxxx>
To: <foucault@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Sent: Monday, June 02, 2003 11:29 AM
Subject: a bit more on bourdieu, foucault, and althusser

> Thank you for your suggestions, Franois and David.
> Somebody once told me that Althusser went mad after his favorite "student"
> Poulantzas committed suicide.... I must have misheard that story.
> Yes, I agree that Foucault's theoretical framework problematizes a concept
> of "domination" deployed by thinkers like Bourdieu, albeit domination is
> non-existent for Foucault, as Franois pointed out. Foucault admits the
> empirical possibility that power relations that are changeable,
> and unstable can harden into states of domination where a certain group
> blocks a field of power relations and make them irreversible (in his essay
> "The ethic of care for the self as a practice for freedom" in _The Last
> Foucault_). And I think that we can see this in _Discipline and Punish_ as
> well when he intimates "the non-reversible subordination of one group of
> people by another, the 'surplus' power that is always fixed on the same
> side, the inequality of positions of the different 'partners' in relation
> the common regulation" (1995 [1975]:223), unless I am misunderstanding his
> statement.
> Hiro
> _________________________________________________________________
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