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Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory

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Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory

    Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory Robert Paul Resch

    UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

    Berkeley ? Los Angeles ? Oxford

    ? 1992 The Regents of the University of California

Beyond Hermeneutics: A " Symptomatic" Reading of Capital

    Of more interest is the peculiar "hermeneutic" method Althusser develops to interrogate Marx's text and the general applicability of this method for the history of symbolic structures and practices. Althusser begins by addressing the question of

    reading a text. How does one read Marx in order to discover the general structure of the science of history of which Capital is a concrete effect? The question of a

    "reading" is already a loaded one, of course, because Althusser rejects any theory of reading that requires only a "properly informed gaze" in order to reconcile the intentions of the author, the essence of the text, and the understanding of the reader. In an impeccably Derridean formulation, Althusser refuses a reading that stops at the level of the manifest content of the text, an "idea of reading which makes a written discourse the immediate transparency of the true and the real discourse of a voice" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 16). Althusser's rejection of a manifest reading, however, not only advances beyond theoretical humanism, the subject-subject model of interpretation (communication or empathy) characteristic of hermeneutics, but also expresses Althusser's opposition to the interpretive nihilism characteristic of the bastard children of hermeneutics, poststructuralism and postmodernism. What Althusser proposes is a scientific or " symptomatic" reading of the text, a reading

    premised first on a dialectic between the problematic whose structural principles

    govern the reading and the structural principles that constitute the unconscious

    structure of the text and second on the objective reality of the text as a

    social-historical production and the objective validity of the problematic for which

    the text is a theoretical objectconditions that permit Althusser to defend the results

    of such a reading as something more than an imaginative exercise.

    For practitioners of traditional hermeneutic methodology, the social world is not simply produced by social agents but is also explicable only in terms of the meanings attached to their activities by the agents themselves. Accepting essentially the same definition of scientific practice as positivists do, advocates of hermeneutics go on to argue that

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    given the unique and autonomous nature of human practice, there can be no scientific understanding of society. Because any scientific analysis of social phenomena is itself a social practice, that is, of the same nature as its theoretical object, such analysis can have no objective purchase on social phenomena. Althusser accepts the

    epistemological relativism implied by the hermeneutic position but rejects the

    ontological relativism implied by the hermeneutic claim that social reality is nothing more than what agents think it is. Social phenomena, like natural phenomena, are ontologically real for Althusser, and because they are real, they can be the object of scientific knowledge and explanation. Epistemological relativism, in other words, does not imply judgmental relativism, a nihilistic position that Althusser rejects as absurd. For any social practice to occur, there must be reasons by which social agents act (consciously or unconsciously); furthermore, if these reasons (and the structured habitus that produces them) were totally inadequate, totally at variance with objective reality, society could not exist.

    For Althusser, there can be no "innocent reading," no reading that does not involve, at

    least implicitly, a theory that determines the character of the reading, nor can there be a final or definitive reading (corresponding to epistemological absolutism in

    philosophy). Howeverand this is what separates Althusser decisively from

    hermeneutic tradition generally and postmodernism specificallythe range of

    possible readings is not infinite but is limited by the problematic of the reading (with its relative degree of explanatory power) as well as the structure of the text itself (with its real existence as a product of a specific historical-social conjuncture). As Derrida says, there is no "outside" of the text, because we are always inside a realm of meaning that makes the text accessible to us in some manner or other. However, given Althusser's materialist coupling of epistemological relativism and ontological realism, not all realms of meaning have the same explanatory power. For Althusser, the process of reading necessarily entails a hermeneutic moment, but it is not therefore limited to a hermeneutic level of adequacy. At the most superficial level, we read a text as if it were written by ourselves; at a more sophisticated level, we comprehend it dialogically, learning its language and discovering the indigenous structure of its meanings. This latter reading is no doubt "thicker" than its descriptive predecessor, but, from Althusser's perspective, it is not any "deeper." Reading becomes deeper, what Althusser calls a symptomatic reading , to the

    extent that it is governed by a problematic grounded not in the experiential world of a subject but in the explana-

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    tory world of a science. Given the fact that it is a material product of an objectively real historical conjuncture, a text may become the object of a scientific level of understanding that sublates the hermeneutic reading and produces an objective interpretation and a causal explanation of the text. Reading depth is achieved, Althusser insists, only when the text is treated as a product, not a cause. Of course, the meaning in the text adds its own specific effectivity to the reading of

    the text. Even a symptomatic reading may be

    affected, sometimes dramatically, by its hermeneutical moment, particularly when the problematic in the text possesses greater explanatory power (with respect to the same theoretical object) than does the problematic of the reading. The reading of Capital

    that resulted in For Marx and Reading Capital is of this latter type. It is a reading

    governed by a theoretical framework that is, Althusser acknowledges, still relatively underdevelopedtheoretically informed by Marxism but also, as we have seen, by the rationalist philosophy of Spinoza and the historical epistemology of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, to which we will return momentarily. While the ideological effects of this theoretical framework are manifested in certain strongly held philosophical positions (the objectivity and intelligibility of scientific knowledge, the scientific nature of Marxism, and so on), the problematic itself lacks a firm structure and internal consistency. As a result, the hermeneutic moment predominates, a moment described in the rationalist terminology of Althusser's early works as "philosophical": "We read Capital as philosophers. . . . We posed it the question of its relation to its object , hence both the question of the specificity of its object , and the

    question of the specificity of its relation to that object, i.e., the question of the nature

    of the type of discourse set to work to handle this object, the question of scientific discourse. And since there can never be a definition without a difference, we posed Capital the question of the specific difference both of its object and of its discourse" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 14).

    The fact that Althusser's "philosophical" reading is couched in psychoanalytic terminology need not concern us greatly: Althusser seeks to emulate Freud's capacity

    to explain phenomena and events in terms of the structural mechanisms that generate them, a characteristic of any science and not particular to psychoanalysis. The important point is that the object of reading is knowledge of the structural mechanisms that make the text possible. Althusser's reading is

    " symptomatic " in the sense that "it divulges the undivulged event in

    the text it reads, and in the same moment relates it to a different text, present as the necessary

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    absence in the first" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 28). The identity of the "latent" structure of the text, its problematic, is not constituted by its "manifest" content, the specific propositions that the text asserts, or even by the intentions of its author; it is constituted, Althusser argues, by the principles of meaning that condition the production of text and the problems that it is the function of the text to resolve. What a problematic makes visible, however, it also makes invisible by a system of exclusions perpetuated and sanctioned by the existence and peculiar structure of the latent structure itself. Thus a symptomatic reading

    reveals the unconscious infrastructure of a text by investigating what it does not, or rather cannot, say as well as what it actually does say. Both presence and absence are

    interpreted by Althusser as overdetermined and unevenly developed effects of contradictions articulated on each other within the infrastructure of the text.

Although a symptomatic reading is neither innocent

    nor definitive, Althusser rejects pedestrian forms of deconstruction that find in the nature of writing only the differential, and ultimately equal, nature of all structures of meaning. If no reading is correct in an absolute sense, it does not follow that one reading is as good as another or that any reading will do. The

     symptomatic reading of British political economy

    conducted by Marx and the symptomatic reading of

    Capital conducted by Althusser himself are grounded in a body of concepts that is historical but not arbitrary. Furthermore, this body of concepts emerges with Marx, but often not explicitly and certainly not in any final form. As a result, Althusser's

     symptomatic reading of Marx is both interpretive

    and productive, seeking not only to reveal but also to develop the problematic of Marx's text. The open-ended, unfinished character of both Marx's work and

    Althusser's reading of Marx explains the apparent paradox behind Althusser's insistence "that the precondition of a reading of Marx is a Marxist theory of the differential nature of theoretical formations and their history . . . an indispensable circle in which the application of Marxist theory to Marx himself appears to be the absolute precondition of an understanding of Marx" (Althusser 1969, 38). The paradox is only apparent because it is never a matter of a single reading of Capital but of successive readings involving considerable theoretical labor and the application of concepts explicitly given by Marx (as well as those that can be disengaged from his works). "This critical reading seems to constitute a circle, since we appear to be expecting to obtain Marxist philosophy from its own application. . . . This apparent circle should not surprise us: all 'production' of knowledge implies it in its process. . . . [W]e expect, from the theoretical work

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    of these principles applied to Capital , their development and enrichment as well as

    refinements in their rigor" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 74). However, unlike the hermeneutic circle that it otherwise resembles, the scientific circle described by Althusser is open at any moment to a critical evaluation of its results, an evaluation whose possibility is conditional on the objective existence of the text as a social product and historical materialism as a scientific problematic. Althusser's

     symptomatic reading is circular but not vicious: "the

    circle implied by this operation . . . is the dialectical circle of the question asked of an object as to its nature, on the basis of a theoretical problematic which in putting its object to the test puts itself to the test of the object" (Althusser 1969, 38).

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