- Oppositional Views and Apositional Points:Addressing the Practice of Theory in Marx
Under the sub-heading, "Practical Solution and Theoretical Problem. Why theory?" Louis Althusser addresses the practical problem of situating the distinction between "the Marxist dialectic" and "the Hegelian dialectic":
To say that it is a theoretical problem implies that we are not dealing merely with an imaginary difficulty, but with a really existing difficulty posed us in the form of a problem, that is in a form governed by imperative conditions: definition of the field of (theoretical) knowledges in which the problem is posed (situated), of the exact location of its posing, and of the concepts required to pose it.(For Marx 164–65)
This topological rhetoric, like Althusser's famous description of an "epistemological break" in Karl Marx's thinking, resonates with the language of his contemporary Gaston Bachelard, who speaks of a "topologie du champ épistémologique" to elaborate the relations between the collective practices of experimental and theoretical science in his study from 1949, Le rationnalisme appliqué (18). Such conceptions of theoretical problem areas go a long way to eliminate any strict opposition between theoretical and practical activity, insofar as they situate both in fields that are open to interventions. Yet they also imply that space does not figure as a homogeneous continuum, but divides among multiple, differently structured topologies, where [End Page 1206] the common ground is not to be found anywhere but in the logic or language of topoi. This language, in turn, cannot itself be circumscribed by the spatial orders and limits that it sets. Thus, there is at least one further difficulty that Althusser evokes, although he does not say so directly: namely, the real difficulty of situating space in speech and articulating the transitions between discontinuous areas. This difficulty cannot be resolved, however, without addressing the broader question of the language for such spaces and movements, which insists each time that the "couple" or "opposition" of theory and practice is called upon to intervene "in the problems that surge up between the ensemble of scientific research, determined as a theoretical-technical ensemble, and the field of political practice, political-economical practice," as Jacques Derrida observes in his seminar on Théorie et pratique (18).1
Althusser is sufficiently aware of the problem to speak against the assumption that theory translates in any straightforward way to praxis: "the utilization of Theory is not a matter of applying its formulae (the formulae of the dialectic, of materialism) to a pre-existing content" (170). Theoretical transfer would instead have to transform the knowledge of its content, and thus alter the field in which it would organize praxis.2 But this condition for theoretical intervention turns out, at times, to be impractical; thus, Althusser acknowledges that an imprecise theory with an imprecise relation to other fields of activity may nonetheless "be endowed with a certain practical meaning, serving as a reference point or index … in struggle" (172). Such a premature propagation of theory may even be necessary, if his assertion is also true that "the moment in which a 'theory' feels the need for the Theory of its own practice … always occurs post festum, to help it surmount practical or 'theoretical' difficulties, resolve problems insoluble for the movement of practice immersed in its activities and therefore theoretically blind" (174).
The spaces of theory and practice thus appear to blend into one another in various ways that render the precise description of their relationship itself an insoluble problem, which is perhaps why, when Derrida elaborates what he alternately calls the "couple" and "opposition" of "theory/practice," the conjunction of the two oscillates between coordination and disjunction (18).3 In German, a similar [End Page 1207] ambivalence can be traced through the preposition for opposition itself: "gegen," which may describe tendencies "against" and "towards;" a state of opposition (Gegensatz) or the opposing stance of an object (Gegenstand); an area (Gegend) or its surroundings (in der Gegend von); the direction of a desire or aim (gegen); an interlocutor (Gegenüber) or an opponent (Gegner).4 "Gegen" thus signifies pro and contra and more—which is also why it can characterize the quid pro quo of...