- Reading the Tendencies
Warren Montag has one of the most thankless jobs in contemporary academia. He is the Anglophone world’s best reader of Althusser, which makes him an expert on a philosopher considered at best a vanishing mediator between the oeuvre of Marx and the works of Foucault, Zizek, Badiou, et cetera, and at worst a wife-murdering charlatan. Althusser and His Contemporaries is concerned with transforming the first reading; the second is merely an ad hominem argument best left to gossips and scandal-mongers. As the title of Montag’s book suggests, the reading of Althusser proposed within focuses less on Althusser’s relationship with Marx and the oft-discussed Marxian epistemological break, than on the philosopher’s relation to his contemporaries Deleuze, Lacan, Foucault, and Levi-Strauss, as well as to such twentieth-century intellectual movements as phenomenology and structuralism. Such a reading does more than situate Althusser in his context, alongside those he debated, taught, and read; it also underscores the fact that philosophy was a practice for Althusser—something that one did and within which one intervened, rather than a simple matter of positions held and maintained. For Althusser, philosophy remained first and foremost an intervention in a conjuncture.
Reading Althusser’s philosophy as an intervention is not simply a matter of recounting the positions that he held and maintained, of constructing a sort of play-by-play of what Althusser called the kampfplatz, “the battlefield which is philosophy” (205). The idea of philosophy as an intervention, as a line of demarcation within a philosophical conjuncture, has as its corollary the idea that any philosophical text is necessarily overdetermined and conflictual. As Montag argues, continuing a line of investigation that begins with Spinoza’s reading of scripture and continues through Althusser and Macherey, “even the most rigorously argued philosophical text was necessarily a constellation of oversights, discrepancies, and disparities, requiring a reading attuned to the symptoms of the conflicts that animated it unawares” (18). Reading philosophy as a series of interventions is not just a matter of taking the various positions of philosophers at their word—drawing out the lines of conflict separating materialists from idealists, Marxists from poststructuralists, and so on—but of tracing the boundary that divides a philosopher from him or herself, articulating divisions and disparities that are not even formulated or grasped by the philosopher in question. Every philosopher, every text, is situated in relation to conflicts and tensions that exceed it.
The tension between the terrain of conflict and the text it produces can be apprehended in Althusser’s work on the concept of “structural causality.” Structural causality is one of Althusser’s most well-known concepts; along with overdetermination, interpellation, and conjuncture, it forms part of an “Althusserian” lexicon—a vocabulary adopted, though not necessarily understood, by many writers in the sixties and seventies, only to be dropped later. Moreover, structural, or immanent, causality lies at the intersection between Althusser’s reading of Marx (the source of his reputation in the sixties and seventies) and his introduction of Spinoza into philosophical and theoretical discussions (the basis for much of his reputation in recent years). Althusser wrote very little about Spinoza, whose name appears only a few times in his published works. Despite this fact, two of Althusser’s students, Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, have gone on to produce studies of Spinoza. Althusser has had a profound effect on the revival of Spinoza despite the paucity of his references. This scarcity does not mean that Althusser’s references to Spinoza are insignificant; one could argue that the few mentions of Spinoza, in Althusser’s discussion of ideology and structural causality, are pivotal and constitute central orientations of his thought.
In fact, one such reference is integral to the definition of immanent causality. Althusser differentiates between three concepts of causality: linear, expressive, and immanent. Linear causality is the mechanical causality of billiard balls much beloved by philosophers, but easily dismissed as a way of understanding economic and social relations. The real division is between expressive and immanent causality. Expressive causality...