I am a recovering Althusserian. For decades now I have been Althusser-free, for the most part, but we all have our lapses. The first step to becoming a recovering Althusserian is to recognize that you have no control and are unconsciously always a little bit Althusserian whether you want to be or not.
The thing about being a recovering Althusserian is that one can’t help remembering the good times. Being on Althusser really does feel great. It makes certain problems disappear.
For example, one is no longer trapped in the oppressive reality of Hegelian Marxism, and yet nor does one have to return to the even more oppressively leaden world of ‘vulgar’ or ‘economistic’ Marxism. One can fly free from all that! (Ah, but as in any addiction narrative, there’s a price to pay…)
Let’s look at two famous Althusser essays from the period 1962-1963.
Contradiction and Overdetermination’ builds on Althusser’s ‘On the Young Marx’ essay, in deciding against the various Hegelian readings of Marx. Althusser rejects the metaphors of ‘turning Hegel right side-up’, or ‘restoring the rational kernel of dialectic without the mystical shell.’ Rather, he thinks of Marxism as replacing Hegel’s dialectic with a different one.
The real significance of Althusser is in the transition from a Marxism of the party to a Marxism of the academy. The means via which he got us from one to the other are now moot. It is rather like the fable of Captain Cook’s axe: first the handle was lost and replaced, then the head was lost and replaced, and yet it remains Captain Cook’s axe. The means via which Althusser got us from party to academy has been pretty much lost. And yet here we are.
Some elements of the text ‘On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Uneveness of Origins‘ might help explain this move. It is among other things an ur-text for the notion of a capitalized ‘Theory’. In Althusser this Theory was supposed to be the guarantee of the scientific character of Marxism, of tis break with ideology, and a defense against ideological back-sliding. It was not to be. As Stuart Hall famously said; there are no guarantees.
Indeed: Sartre’s practico-inert, Bataille’s general economy, Bogdanov’s tektology, or what the Marx of Capital vol. 3 called ‘metabolic rift’ seem like better starting points for a critical theory of the Anthropocene. But to be fair: by their results shall we judge them. If the hyper-rationalist theory, late descended from Althusser, proves itself useful in the current conjuncture, far be it for us to judge.
But what strikes me as particularly useful about those examples from Sartre, Bataille, and Bogdanov, or more recent work by Haraway and Barad, is that I find in them that a critical understanding of the Anthropocene is already internally present in their own categories. It does not come as a mystery from without. Hence if one were to perform the Althusserian gesture of a re-orientation of the production of critical knowledge towards the current world-historical situation, I would not start with Althusser. He would rather be one of those well-thumbed tomes to put back in the archive.