“Althusser Today” Conference Summary

by David Rambo, PhD Candidate, Duke Graduate Program in Literature


December 3, 2016

Why Althusser today? For the critique of ideology, as Caren Irr and Jason Read discussed? Or to reflect on the modern trajectory of materialism up to the present day’s “new” materialisms, as with Warren Montag’s talk? Or perhaps, as Fredric Jameson outlined, to consider the link between, on one hand, scientific epistemology’s transition from picture-thinking into mathematically based process thought and, on the other hand, artistic production’s transformation of ideological categories into knowledge? To my mind, the conference title provides an adequate response insofar as it simply presents “Althusser Today.” In other words, the merits of a discussion of Althusser speak for themselves.

The four presentations were disparate in focus, and each summary warrants reading on its own accord. However, I will suggest a common thread by which to begin to appreciate the fact of their shared platform and shared interest in the work of Louis Althusser. That commonality is the reality of the false, or the materiality of the immaterial, which is to say that objective processes outside the body already form the embodied and mental sensations of the individual. (The counter position would of course be the idealist notion of formless sense data requiring formation via the ego’s categories.) “Material,” for Althusser, includes both the embodied enaction of ideology as well as the causal efficacy of an entire social formation. When Althusser writes, in Sur la reproduction [On the Reproduction of Capitalism], that man is an ideological animal, he is taking a position of all or nothing: either man lives and breathes ideologically, or man is not. Ideologies differ qualitatively, not by volume. To delineate degrees of ideology, I think, moves to a propagandistic notion of ideology, one which paints ideology as merely a collection of falsehoods. On the contrary, ideology needs to be recognized for its real, non-imaginary, conditions so that that relation, between ideology’s imaginary representations and its real conditions, can be treated to a scientific conceptualization.

This is how the false and the immaterial receive their reality and materiality: through a commitment to the rigors of science, which renders abstractions concrete by systematically organizing and relating them. It is also also how the critical project of Althusserian Marxism remains positive: the negative analysis of ideology, and of consciousness, provides a positive synthesis of new knowledge. Furthermore, this production, which is a practice in its own right, must also be bound to other practices, namely class war, which is ideology’s bedrock. Accordingly, I note in every presentation an enduring power of the structural relationship of concepts. Although these presentations made a strong case for continuing to be suspicious of ideology’s effects, contra the critique of critique, I contend that the primary affect or watchword of the critic of ideology is not suspicion. It ought to be either generality, reason, or abstraction. Not suspicion, but genuine interest!


Fredric Jameson, “Spectroscopies of Ideology: Althusser & Bachelard”

Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) is an understudied figure in the Anglophone world, and deserves attention in this Althusserian context. His Psychoanalysis of Fire presented a kind of phenomenological analysis of poetics, and seems to have marked a shift away from philosophy of science to an interest in images. Yet there is, Jameson argued, a link between the two: the transition from picture-thinking to rational conceptualization. This transition, of course, finds its parallel in Althusser’s concern with the opposition between ideology and science.

Althusser’s polemical division between idealism and materialism is, unfortunately, too easy, in that it lacks more concrete examples of the effects of materialist knowledge’s production. Bachelard’s account of this production process is both more general and more historical, as indicated by one of his book’s titles: The New Scientific Spirit. Uniquely, Bachelard considered the phenomenological aspect of the mental experience of scientific knowledge. At the same time, Bachelard’s writing itself works on the reader’s ideology in order to transform it into a mindset more appropriate to comprehending the scientific mindset. How then does this scientific spirit operate? In a word, the way out of picture-thinking for Bachelard is mathematics.

Keeping with his century, Bachelard emphasized a shift in contemporary rationalism from substance to process. For instance, microphysics accounts for the electron not in terms of spatial properties and position, but in terms of quantum values: numbers positioned within a conceptual structure. Number thereby sublimates the realist picture-thinking into a non-visual, statistical formula. Accordingly, the problem of whether an electron ought to be thought in the visual terms of either a particle or a wave is a false problem “infected by substantive thinking.” Mathematical “nomination” of the microphysical entity or process precedes the human’s intuitive, realist visualization of spatial forms. What results is a “dematerialization of materialism,” and matter can only be materialized by its attachment to number.

Jameson then shifted to the political implications of this line of thinking for Althusser. In place of physical theory’s particles, here we consider classes: “equally for Althusser, it is inadmissible” to frame classes as substantive things with static properties. “The object of Marxist thinking is not class, but class struggle. […] it is sheer relationality.” “Class struggle” names the process of Althusser’s structuralism, his own realization of what Bachelard called the new scientific spirit.

Now then, the role of the imaginary—and its relationship to representation in Bachelard’s work—in Althusser’s famous definition of ideology: the subject’s imaginary representations of its relationship to its real conditions of existence. Besides the two explicit invocations of Lacan’s registers—Imaginary and Real—Jameson contends that the Symbolic also figures into Althusser’s theory of ideology. Interpellation, what Ben Brewster translates as a “hailing” of the individual, produces the imaginary relation of the subject. (In the Q&A session afterwards, Warren Montag addressed this mistaken translation of Brewster’s. There is no mention in French texts of police “hailing” anyone besides a cab driver. And “interpellation” typically in French newspapers indicates the police making an arrest. In order to understand the subject’s interpellation, it is necessary to have in mind Spinoza’s line in Scholium 2 of Part 3 in Ethics: we do not know what the body can do. It is the most referenced line of Spinoza’s in a 600-page set of notes and manuscripts in the Althusser archive. Connecting it to Althusser highlights how the operation of ideology happens through the relations between bodies, irrespective of what the mind thinks, precisely because the mind does not actually have control over the body.) Althusser tries to avoid the subject-object split by cordoning off the subject from scientific questions. Yet the division between ideology and science does seem to iterate on that metaphysical dualism.

The body thinks. Jameson read a quote from Althusser’s confessions (The Future Lasts a Long Time) wherein Althusser reflects on his pleasure with exercising his muscles and voice. Marxism allowed Althusser to think with his body, to link theoretical desire with physical desire. Thought is not hyper-intellectual, but a physical activity and materialist. Well, not exactly, said Jameson: when materialism draws everything into it, there is no matter with which to oppose such a thing as thought. To borrow Frank Ruda’s phrase, a “materialism without matter” means that both matter and mind lack “bite,” and that we no longer know what idealism means in this framework. Althusser’s is a materialism of the body.

In his writings on art, Althusser surprisingly broaches the topic of an ideology of everyday life. Art produces a knowledge of ideology. The raw materials of a work of art are categories: the ideological categories, the interplay of which is everyday experience. Everything has become the raw material for a knowledge effect.

Bachelard’s study of the elements—water, earth, air, fire—in art likewise addresses the categories of lived experience. It thus also conceives of ideology as so much raw material for the production of science and knowledge effects. Jameson wants to bring to bear on the contemporary interest in Althusser Bachelard’s approach to the production of knowledge, namely the “epistemological spectrum” (cf. The Philosophy of No). Each stage marks a break from and a continuation of the preceding one: naive realism, empiricism, mechanistic rationalism, rationalism of relativity, and discursive rationalism. Across these successive stages, the ideological categories of naive experience are progressively stripped of the material categories of intuitive substance, which categories mathematics replaces. In addition to this being a temporal process of development, Bachelard poses these five levels as a synchronic spectroscopy. The later levels bear some component of the earlier, such as rationalist physics’ reliance on empirical experimentation. Accordingly, Bachelard allows us to conceive of Althusser’s own structuralism both as a temporal split between truth and error as well as as a simultaneity, a synchronic coexistence of stages.


Caren Irr, “Ideology, Image, Information: Using the Althusserian Apparatus”

Irr’s guiding question was the place today of ideology critique. When, three weeks ago (November 14, 2016), Obama characterized President-Elect Trump, he downplayed the latter’s rhetoric by framing it as pragmatic. Classically, this implementation of pragmatic ideology involves a misrecognition of Trump’s thoroughly ideological positions as they manifest in his tweets and speeches. “Trumpism” exhibits the overflow of ideology in the present moment. In this case, it is the naked self-interest and anti-neoliberalism of a billionaire.

Tools for the critique of ideology need to be reformulated, especially in light of the critique of critique. In lieu of ideology critique, recent books might look to affect and subjective feelings, the body and pre-cognitive spontaneity. But Irr claimed that they actually successfully accomplish ideology critique. These critics are tired of suspicion, which is typically taken to be the primary affect of the critic of ideology. However, Irr suggested that the position of superiority and claim to being “unnaive” deserve center stage (Adorno, Minima Moralia, section 152). The critique of ideology critique often misses its mark by attacking a caricature, “a Disney version” that strips out the particularities and brutalities of the original. Althusser himself often counterposed his own mode of critique against the Disney version. Whereas the latter caricature seeks to render the opacity of ideology transparent, the former Althusserian mode seeks to lay bare the apparatuses that produce the ideological relation. Thus Althusserian critique became identified with the object it originally sought to undermine.

A shift in conditions of neoliberal global capitalism requires a like shift in the critique of ideology. First, though, Althusser’s conception of ideology: “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (On the Reproduction of Capitalism, 256). Caroline Williams, as one example among many critics of Althusser, flattens Althusserian subject formation into a one-sided mechanism, namely “interpellation” of the individual into a subject. Left critics also flatten the Althusserian conception, disregarding interpellation altogether. For example, Nicholas Brown claims that interpretation of artworks no longer applies in the present because artworks have become commodities. The artwork’s real subsumption by capital displaces the object’s determination to the market, evacuating sense from the artwork’s creation. This critical framework presents Althusser as having introduced problematic gaps between the real and the ideological. Again, Irr noted that this is not one of Althusser’s actual questions. Both critiques of Althusser have kernels of truth, but their presentations are partial, undialectical.

Irr then looked to cinematic images that anchor the drama of interpellation for consideration. For example, jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, by showing the policeman’s hailing of the criminal so briefly, jumping quickly to a gun being cocked, the officer falling to a gunshot, and a wide shot of the criminal running through a field—these cuts pose a critique of interpellation as outside the typical frame of power and control. Very little is required to set the viewer up to think critically of interpellation. Indeed, very little must be the extent of presentation since the narrative here via jump cuts excludes the possibility of empathizing with the gunned down policeman. Likewise, Althusser’s conception of ideology and the role of interpellation within that conception are not fully fledged theories of the subject, but only a framework within which to consider subjectivity.

In contrast to the cinematic, the digital images of citizen journalism that captures police shootings, for example, or the images involved in fake news, “go all by themselves,” as Althusser says of ideological subjects. A video of people in Ethiopia easily draws misunderstanding from Western viewers. But the response to this misunderstanding should not be to pay more attention, as if the first world’s attention was intrinsically worth more. Althusser’s informed gaze is necessary to interpret such images precisely because they require more information. A change of terrain away from the exhaustively ideological one of the digital video provides the possibility to interrupt or resist habit.

To exemplify the informed gaze’s shift in terrain, Irr turned to Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed: “if the oppressed him [or her]self (and not the artist surrogate) performs the action, this action performed in a theatrical fiction will allow him [or her] to change things in … real life” (TDR Vol. 34, No. 3 [Autumn, 1990]: 42). Boal’s technique intends to produce a terrain conducive to collectively overcoming mental slavery. Information plays a role here in the form of the joker, positioned as a neighbor to the audience and therefore outside the the realist antagonism playing out on stage. The joker might be magical, omniscient, polymorphous, and/or ubiquitous. This retreat from the performance enables the unapparent question at work to be made manifest, but it just as quickly leads back to a sympathetic reading of the performance. The theatre of the oppressed emphasizes the bodily activity of ideology critique as well as critique’s positivity.

Irr helpfully recapitulated her talk in the following four points:

1) ideology is abundant

2) the critique of ideology critique is an ideology

3) the image has changed terrain

4) the ideology critic can be the joker—i.e. the occasion for making of new ideology; critique is a positive project


Warren Montag, “Althusser and the Concepts of Materiality and Materialism”

Warren Montag situated Althusser’s materialism, in particular his usage of the word “materialism,” within a broader historical context. In relation to what can materialism be said to be new? Today, new materialisms and the talk of correlationism are invoked to replace anthropocentrism as well as previous materialisms. Are these latter, like Dialectical Materialism, now to be deemed “old” materialisms? The new materialisms face a difficulty: the so-called old materialisms remain active in the present, they are complex and necessary for the new ones.

Take the model of abstraction operative in analytic philosophy: to treat “language as if it were the epiphenomenon of rational argumentation,” reducible to a more truthful, real basis. New materialisms imitate this analytic philosophical mode when they frame themselves as simply the rational solutions to problems without reference to the history of philosophy. Montag next inquired into the conjuncture at which point “materialism” appeared 250 years ago, so as to see whether it resonates with the current conjuncture of the “new materialisms.”

Leibniz was the first to use the word “materialism” in French. In Ralph Cudworth’s 2000-page The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1671), “materialism” appears with the adjective “atheist.” Cudworth concluded that philosophy’s entire history was a war waged between proponents of the material and corporeal and those of the incorporeal. Philosophy was not, then, a series of rational argumentations within a set of rules; it was reconceived as a combat between these two positions. Cudworth speaks of materialism as a “vizard,” a word for mask but also, at that time, for prostitute. Interestingly, Lenin wrote that idealism often would don the mask of materialism (in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism). Materialism, for Lenin, and in words that could have been taken directly from Cudworth, can only appear in response to its other: idealism.

Accordingly, Althusser exposes how in one tendency (whether the materialist or idealist, the same is the case) some of the issues and positions of the other tendency. The constitutive antagonism between materialism and idealism means that one must internalize parts of the other so as to engage in effective struggle. Of course, for Althusser, this intellectual struggle is always secondary to the class struggle.

Montag wanted to show a connection from the earlier materialist dialectic in Althusser’s work to his work on the materialism of the encounter, or aleatory materialism. Althusser was extremely critical of the dialectical materialism initiated by Engels, pursued by Stalin, and codified by Stalinist philosophers: that matter substitutes for spirit and effectively repeats the same destructive errors in thought of idealism. Yet Althusser did not want to recreate dialectical materialism wholesale, instead relegating philosophy to the secondary position in relation to the history of class struggle. His materialism ceaselessly voids all teleology. Materiality, explains Althusser in an “interview” he conducted with himself, can be matter in the physical sense, but not brute matter [matière nu]. “Materiality” characterizes the multiple modalities of matter. For one, Althusser speaks of a trace of a gesture, which, à la Bachelard’s instrumental or technical materialism, is fully real and irreducible to either matter or spirit.

How about Marxist materialism? The base or economic structure, reading from Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, conditions and requires the social superstructure. The translation as “condition” can ignore how Marx specifically avoided causal language from which one would infer a functional interpretation of the superstructure. Many commentators of course overlook this care of Marx’s language and defend an economist doctrine of the base causing the superstructure. Althusser, for his part, began to think about the superstructural existence of, or support of, “ideas” while reading Lenin’s essay on the cultural revolution. For Althusser, “ideas” are not the ideological notion of ideas as mental images. They are rather the set of practices and bodily behaviors, without which one would not believe (though one may believe that one believes). This shows us why materialism and materiality would feature so centrally to a text about ideology.

The adjective “material” occurs 32 times in the Ideological State Apparatuses essay, and “materiality” 4 times—in an essay on ideology, a word the etymology of which features a definitive antagonism with the material. Repeating it so often causes it to begin to lose its meaning, or rather leads the to recognize that they lack a comprehensive understanding of “material.” A subject’s imaginary representation of their relationship to their real conditions of existence is fully material because it is immanent to the habits, rituals, and practices that realize specific ideologies. Quoting Althusser, both “external verbal discourses” and “internal verbal discourses (consciousness)” take shape outside the subject. At this point, Althusser broaches, but leaves aside further development of, the multiple modalities of materiality characterizing the “material” of different material practices, material discourses, material rituals, material ideological apparatuses, and so on. Suffice it to say, Althusser moves out of an antagonism pitting matter against spirit, and introduces the causality of such a materialism to replace the emanation or expressive causality of a spiritual, idealist teleology. But there is not a materialist theory of causality, nor does Althusser think there could likely be one at that stage. There are only the precursors in Reading Capital and the ideology texts: structural causality, immanent causality, metonymic causality.


Jason Read, “Conscienta Sive Ideologia: The Spontaneity of Ideology in and after Althusser”

Consciousness in Hegel is ideology in Marx: conscienta sive ideologia. It is a fitting phrase in this context given that Althusser was both a Marxist and a Spinozist. Ideology is caught between universality and specificity, between necessity and contingency.

Spinoza receives very few references of his own in Althusser’s work, but the Ethics implicitly structures much of it. Crucially, imagination, or knowledge of the first order in Spinoza, is a reversal of causes and ends; or in Hegel and Marx, the world walks on its head; and so, too, does ideology enact this reversal in Althusser’s account. Human collectivity, per Spinoza, has as its precondition individual finitude and the ignorance of desires and causes. This is provided in Part I of the Ethics in a preemptive manner, prior to its elaboration in Part III. Similarly, Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism in Part I of Capital, Volume I, preempts the development of a theoretical basis for understanding the social perception of the world. Besides their rhetorical strategies, both texts converge on a shared philosophical point: a particular worldview is grounded not in theories and ideas, but in practices (what Althusser means by the ideological apparatus). So Marx argues that knowing theoretically about something does nothing to alter its phenomenal appearance: whether that be the chemical structure of water or the source of value in human labor.

Étienne Balibar suggests that Althusser was less interested in fetishism because it provides an alternative model of the subject than does ideology. His references invoke the appendices of Marx and Spinoza, where the spontaneous ideologies of their respective situations receive their due. Spinoza’s consideration of spontaneous ideology addresses the apparent freedom of the human; Marx’s concerns the capitalist market. Althusser conceives of prejudice and spontaneous ideology in this intersection.

Every scientist, writer, and so on, acts through a spontaneous ideology, a worldview, brought about by their practices. In addition, as Althusser is keen to note, these particular ideologies depend also on the broader, different sense of ideology: the dominant ideology that occurs part and parcel of the real conditions of existence that go on “behind their back” (an allusion to Marx’s discussion of value, which is produced and circulates behind the backs of men). So one question is how to grasp the intersection of a particular ideology’s practical realization with the dominant ideology of a social formation. Specific ideologies are mutually supportive: legal ideology by moral ideology by religious ideology and vice versa, for instance. Later, legal ideology becomes, due to its quotidian ubiquity, the site of intersection between specific spontaneous ideologies and the dominant ideology. In On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Althusser looks at the labor relation, the exchange of wages for work, and delineates multiple ideologies working to make the workers “go all by themselves.” For example, the economist position that the technical division of labor is purely technical, that is to say without influence by the social division of labor, and therefore requires a specific set of types of workers in order for the factory to operate, does more to motivate and drive the workers to accept their positions within the labor process than does repression (the presence of police or factory superintendents). At the same time, a belief in the wage-relation’s fair compensation motivates the worker’s productivity and timeliness as well as the enterprise owner’s expectation of the former’s behavior. Thus the spontaneity of ideology—that it makes people “go” all by themselves—has as its main factors different ideologies depending upon the context and the subject’s position in that context.

How has the conception of ideology changed since Althusser’s work on the ISAs? Pierre Macherey proposes the notion of “infra-ideology” as an ideology that seems to be without attachment to a dominant ideology. Everyone wants to be productive, for instance. Its spontaneity goes on without reference to state, religion, or whatever overarching myth one might ascribe to the productivity imperative. Balibar has focused on the spontaneity of the nation-form in its involvement with so many processes of life and with the ideologies that spontaneously drive and accompany those practices. Balibar thinks of some ideologies as occurring at the spontaneous level without reflection in the dominant. From this separation, the spontaneous ideology of, say, the worker, can be inverted at the level of the dominant: here the worker is seen as a capitalist of their own human capital; an inversion which receives a further inversion in the framing of capitalists as job creators.

The importance of Spinoza’s and Marx’s philosophical contribution to the intervention into ideology is in separating out its spontaneous and dominant levels. And crucially both take as their object not a work of philosophy or another philosopher, but the spontaneity of ideology’s operation.