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Althusser's Legacy

Lecturer: Daniel Fairfax

Originally Taught: Winter School 2015

This course will offer an overview of the work of 20th-century French philosopher Louis Althusser, and the theoretical legacy he has bequeathed since his death in 1990 – notably among his former pupils such as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou and Étienne Balibar. From the early 1960s onwards, Althusser played a key role in revitalising French Marxism and resuscitating it from the deadening effects of Stalinist orthodoxy. Notably, this involved – in key collections of texts from this period such as For Marx and Lenin and Philosophy – an attempted rapprochement between Marxist political economy and strands of structuralist and psychoanalytic thinking that were in the ascendancy in the 1960s.

At the same time, Althusser's teaching at the elite École normale supérieure served to ground a generation of radicalising students in Marxist theory, a project culminating in the Reading Capital project (co-authored with Balibar, Rancière, Pierre Macherey and Roger Establet), which sought to give a "symptomatic" reading of Marx's foundational text, using the Freudian notion of overdetermination to explore both its "insights and oversights". Even after the tumultuous events of May 1968, however, Althusser continued to advocate for a strategy of reforming the French Communist Party from within (despite its hostility towards the student protests), and his influential recasting of the concept of ideology in a 1970 article for the communist journal La Pensée was notably interpreted by Rancière as a theoretical justification of this political approach. Continued strained relations with the PCF leadership eventually led to Althusser publicly repudiating the party after the 1978 legislative elections, at the same time as his philosophical writings came to focus on what he would term a "materialism of the encounter" (or "aleatory materialism"). Althusser's public life, however, would come to a scandalous end when in 1980 he strangled his wife Hélène and was confined by the French state to an asylum, an act which functioned as a symbolic point of closure for the period of French militancy with which his thinking was closely associated.

Beginning, in the first session, with an overview of Althusser's life and works, which were controversially discussed by the philosopher himself in the idiosyncratic autobiography The Future Lasts A Long Time, this course will map the contours of his theoretical evolution throughout the 1960s and 1970s. From an exploration of the project to read Marx's Capital, and the concomitant positing of an "epistemological break" between Marx's early and mature writings, the course will shift focus to Althusser's writings on ideology – which, in seeking to distance Marxist theory from an overly mechanical form of economic determinism, devised concepts such as the "Ideological State Apparatus" and "interpellation" – before discussing his work from the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which Machiavelli and Spinoza come to take pre-eminence over Marx and Lenin in the attempt to give shape to his more radically anti-teleological "materialism of the encounter". Finally, the concluding session in the course will focus on Althusser's influence on subsequent generations of French theorists, including Rancière, Jacques Derrida and Badiou, all of whom studied at the ENS. After a long period of repudiation and neglect, stretching from the 1970s to the 2000s, a resuscitation of Althusser's philosophical fortunes in recent years can be detected, which sees his ideas as central to the pressing need to provide theoretical support for the development of radical alternatives to the ideological hegemony of global capitalism.

Course Schedule

Session 1: Biographical Overview

  • Althusser – The Future Lasts A Long Time (extracts)

Session 2: Re-Reading Marx's Capital

  • Althusser et al. – Reading Capital (extracts)
  • Althusser – "On the Young Marx" (in For Marx)
  • Althusser – "Contradiction and Overdetermination: Notes for an Investigation" (in For Marx).

Session 3: Theories of Ideology

  • Althusser – "Marxism and Humanism" (in For Marx, extract)
  • Althusser – "A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre (in Lenin and Philosophy)
  • Althusser – "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" (in On Ideology)
  • Althusser – "Response to John Lewis" (in On Ideology, extracts)

Session 4: A Materialism of the Encounter

  • Althusser – "The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter" (in Philosophy of the Encounter)
  • Althusser – "Marx in his Limits" (in Philosophy of the Encounter, extracts)

Session 5: Althusser after Althusser

  • Rancière – Althusser's Lesson (extracts)
  • Derrida – "Politics and Friendship" (in The Althusserian Legacy, ed. A Kaplan and M. Sprinkler)
  • Badiou – "The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism" (in The Adventure of French Philosophy)

Course level: Intermediate